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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 28 ~ Hands of a King

As the interminable winter wore on, conditions in Rhovanion became only more intolerable.  The frozen ground rarely allowed graves to be dug. The most industrious people had combined their efforts to erect crude stone barrows over the first of the dead, but now there were too many and the elements too cruel for them to keep pace.  The corpses of both Men and horses were piled together in great heaps beside the road, quickly frozen and shrouded in snow.

Badutharya struggled with the temptation to despair as he stuffed a rag into a drafty crack in the wall.  His wife and daughter already lay frozen outside, and now his young son had woken with the fever. He would join the dead soon enough if nothing was done.  But nothing could be done.  Could it?

Despite the apathetic malaise which had descended upon his neighbors, Badutharya was determined to act, and quickly.  He had nothing to lose by trying.  He could not despair while there was yet some effort to be made, and he would not sit idly by and watch the plague take his son as well.  The others could ridicule him if they wished.

He carefully wrapped the boy in his bedding and tied it securely around his body.  He fetched their horse and harnessed it to the makeshift sledge that had been used to transport firewood.  Bundling his son in layers of deer pelts, he secured him to the sledge between two sacks of grain and covered his face with a cloth so that he might be warmed by his own breath.  Already dressed in his warmest clothes, Badutharya slung a satchel of dried meat over his shoulder and prepared to leave.  He reflected that he may never return.

“You really mean to go, then,” his neighbor said gruffly, observing his preparations. 

“Sitting here will profit me nothing,” Badutharya said.  “I will risk the journey.”

“You will risk ending your days in a dungeon,” the other retorted.  “What have they to do with us?  You will be punished if you find them at all.”

“Stay and die, then,” Badutharya quipped, tired of the useless speculation.  “I am going.”  He climbed astride his horse and urged it forward, dragging the sledge over the snow toward the dark wood beyond the horizon.


The coldest depths of winter still lay over the land, reluctant to give place to the first thaw of spring, although they knew it could not be long in coming.  Tavoron pulled his cloak closer about him to shelter from the wind as well as he could.  Night was coming and the wind was gaining strength, promising another blast of ice and snow.  It was not the most pleasant weather for standing watch at the border, but such was the fate of the youngest soldiers in the army.  Someday he would have rank enough to pass the time in the guardhouse as Captain Bregonsúl was doing now.  Until then, he must try to make the best of it.

The landscape was a barren waste of white in the growing darkness, as it most often was in those days.  The first flurries began swirling in the wind, obscuring all but the sharpest sight.  Tavoron forced himself to concentrate, continuously searching the darkness for anything that moved.  It was a dull task but an important one, a chance to prove his competence for greater things.  He had to look twice when he actually spotted a dark figure at a distance.

Surprised and now quite curious, Tavoron observed that figure for a moment before making his report.  It certainly did not appear threatening.  It looked like a lone Man struggling through the snow and against the storm, dragging a load behind him.  He could not guess what madness had driven him there.

Tavoron dropped out of the tree and returned to the guardhouse.  “Captain Bregonsúl,” he said, “someone approaches, but I suspect he deserves our assistance more than our shafts.” 

“Very well,” Bregonsúl said, standing.  “Come with me.  Rostáron, relieve him.”

Together they returned into the teeth of the storm, the wind lashing them even more severely when they stepped beyond the shelter of the trees.  Tavoron pointed out their quarry.  The Man seemed to have stumbled and was having some difficulty regaining his feet.

Bregonsúl scoffed.  “What is that fool doing out here?  Come on; he cannot last much longer in this weather.”

They ran across the snow for some distance before they reached him.  His strength was clearly at an end, spent pulling what seemed to be a shrouded body on a sledge by an empty horse harness. 

“Alive or dead?” Bregonsúl demanded as Tavoron investigated the body.


“Make room, then.”

Quickly they shifted the child on the sledge to make room for the man, secured them both, and began dragging them to shelter.


The late blizzard had blown itself out by morning, leaving a frozen world obscured by great gleaming drifts of snow.  The air was clean and crisp, and the wood was completely silent.  Thranduil had come out to see the dawn, enjoying the deep peace while it lasted.  For a moment there was no war, no worry, no grief, no conflict, only cold silence.  It was not unlike the cold silence of death as he had briefly felt it in Mordor, a peace beyond all pain or care.  He wondered if Lindóriel had felt that peace in the end. 

He did not know what was wrong with him.  He had been unusually melancholy most of the winter.  Seasons did not affect him that way.  This time it did not feel like an obsession of the Necromancer, although the shadows were most certainly strengthening in the south.  His most likely suspicion was that these were not his own emotions at all.  There were disadvantages in being so attuned to the spirit of the land.  They had heard some report of the plague in Rhovanion, but it must be grim indeed if the collective grief of a completely foreign people was acute enough to touch him here.

He heaved a frosty breath and watched it dissipate like smoke.  He did not begrudge Men their infirmities.  Life was cruel enough without being wasted by disease. 

The vicarious gloom had stirred up a fog of latent desires in his own heart.  He desperately wanted his wife.  He wanted more children.  He wanted grandchildren.  He wanted to wake from this dismal reality and find himself in Eryn Galen a thousand years ago when everything had been perfect.  He knew it was a vain and self-indulgent complaint, but there it was.  He shook it off in the next moment, determined not to be completely victimized by circumstances beyond his control.  He still had his duties.

People had begun to stir, and the fragile peace was broken.  Smothering his unruly sentiments, Thranduil turned his back on the landscape and returned into the caverns, prepared to face the day.  Surely Linhir was ready with the morning’s business by now.

Linhir was indeed ready, waiting beside the vacant throne with dispassionate patience.  “Your Guardsmen have returned from the north,” he said as Thranduil resumed his seat.  “They are prepared to give their report, if you wish to hear it.”

“I do,” Thranduil confirmed.  Occasionally the most adventurous Guardsmen would be sent in pairs to scout the surrounding lands if news of them came too infrequently. 

Garavorn and Ascaron, who had been waiting in the wings, presented themselves immediately.  “We first visited the people at the Long Lake, my lord,” Garavorn said. “They continue to prosper, and thus far the plague in the south has not reached them.” 

Thranduil nodded.

“More concerning is our report from Ered Mithrin,” Ascaron continued.  “The Dwarves who venture there say the Orcs remain, and that the dragons are breeding in the Withered Heath.”

Now Thranduil frowned.  “That is concerning,” he agreed.  “Fire-drakes or cold?  Have they been able to cull the beasts?”

“Not as yet, at least not with much success.  They are elusive, but have been sighted numerous times.  Rumor is chiefly of cold-drakes, but there has been mention of at least one fire-breather.”

“I do not relish the idea of living so near a den of dragons, whatever their kind,” Thranduil said.  "I wish to be kept informed of this.  Remind me to send you back in two years’ time.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Is that all?”

Neither of them had a chance to answer as a commotion at the other end of the chamber drew everyone’s attention.  The guards at the door stopped some of the new arrivals, but permitted a young soldier to enter.  He marched immediately toward the dais and offered a crisp military bow.

“My King,” he said, “I am Tavoron of the southeast watch, and we rescued these Men of Rhovanion last night in the storm.  They urgently desire an audience with you.”

“For what purpose?” Thranduil asked guardedly.

“Mercy, my lord, mercy!” the Man at the door began shouting in rough Sindarin.  “Hear me, I beg you!”

It was as if the mute anguish lying heavily on Thranduil’s heart had found a voice.  It was extremely discomfiting to hear.  He motioned to the guards.  “Let them in.”

The Man approached with weary but determined steps, bearing in his arms the limp figure of a boy obviously riddled with the plague.  Tavoron stepped back, ready to steady him from behind, but despite his distress, the Man was obviously quite proud and determined to stand on his own feet.

“You may speak in your own tongue, sir,” Thranduil said.  “I know it well enough.  What do you wish of me?”

“We are dying, my lord,” he said, exhausted.  “We are all dying.  My son is even now at the point of death.  They say the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.  Our king is dead.  I was mocked for my hope, yet I could not rest until I had brought him to the only other king in this land.  I beg your forgiveness and your pity, my lord.”

Pity Thranduil had in abundance, but the request caught him off guard.  He was not unfamiliar with the lore surrounding the supposed healing charism of kings, but it had never been of great concern in Greenwood.  He had served in many roles in his life but never specifically as a healer.  More often than not, he was called upon to play a more violent and destructive part.

The Man’s strength faltered and he would have fallen, but Tavoron caught him.  Thranduil sighed sharply; there was much he could have said, but what was needed now was action, not explanations.  “You two,” he said to Garavorn and Ascaron, “take them to Lord Noruvion.  I will follow.”  To the Man he said simply, “Peace.  You will be attended.  Go with them.”

Tavoron took the boy while the others supported the father and led him deeper into the caverns.  Linhir turned to Thranduil when they had gone.  “That was unexpected,” he said dryly, making a note in his record.  “What will you do?”

“Whatever we can,” Thranduil said.  “If they must die, it will not be alone and in the cold.  Beyond that I can promise nothing.”

When he did follow them to the healers’ chambers, Thranduil observed that Noruvion and his fellows had already settled the two of them in clean beds.  They had been stripped of their soiled clothes and bathed, and now both seemed to be resting peacefully.

“What do you make of them?” Thranduil asked in a low voice, unsure how much Sindarin their unexpected guests understood.  “Is it bad?”

“It is very bad,” Noruvion confirmed with a grim look.  “I have made some study of the Woodmen and their ills, but I am no master, and this contagion is virulent.  It is well advanced in the boy, and I fear the father is now succumbing to the first effects.  I gave them sleeping draughts while we debate our next course of treatment.  It seemed the most merciful thing to do.”

The father seemed well asleep, but the boy had begun to move fitfully.  His attendants surrounded him once again but he suddenly vomited blood on them and the bed linens.  Immediately they set about cleaning up the mess.

Noruvion frowned and looked to Thranduil again.  “I was told why they came,” he said.  “I will do what I can, but if the King is able to do anything for them, he had best do it quickly.”

“He will try,” Thranduil promised.

Resolved to face this challenge like any other, he exchanged his elaborate tunic for the simple one all the healers wore on duty, appropriated a stool, and seated himself between the two beds. 

Thranduil turned his attention to the boy first.  He was drifting in and out of the sleep induced by Noruvion’s decoction.  They regarded one another in silence for a few moments, he too ill to speak and Thranduil disinclined to agitate him with words.  He was burning with fever, and his thin body was mottled with bruises.  It was painful just to look at him.  Thranduil imagined entire realms of Men suffering like this and knew it was no wonder he had been able to feel the echo.

Unsure how to proceed against this illness, Thranduil gently lay a hand on the boy’s chest to see what if anything he could learn about it.  In the quiet of his mind, he perceived it as a darkness, a pernicious rot, not unlike what he daily contended with in Mirkwood.  That sort of foe he could understand, and he determined to counter it accordingly.


Legolas rode back to the palace with his guard at dusk after completing his rounds.  It had been a fortnight of travel, but he had visited and inspected every contingent of soldiers posted in the southeast, and now he had a great deal to report to the King.  Erelas met him as he strode through the halls, receiving his cloak and weapons as he shed them.

“Erelas, where is the King?” he asked.

“He is with the healers, my lord.”

Legolas stopped and rounded on him.  “What?”

“The King is well,” Erelas assured him quickly, recognizing his concern, “but he has received some guests who are not.”

“I see,” Legolas said flatly, though he did not see, not yet.  “I will find him there, then.  Thank you.”

As soon as he was dressed in fresh clothes, Legolas took himself to the healers’ chambers.  He intercepted a royal tray of food at the door and dismissed the servants to return to their other duties.  Inside, he immediately saw his father seated beside a bed, garbed as all the healers were, dutifully catching vomit in a towel.

“They told me I would find you here,” Legolas said, bemused, “although no one has yet explained why.”

“Ah, Legolas!” Thranduil stood, snapped his fingers and gestured toward his charge, summoning the other healers to relieve him.  They came at once.  “How are our people in the south?”

Legolas did not answer at once.  “Ai, Father, you look like you have been in battle.”

Thranduil glanced down at the blood spattered across his chest.  “It is a battle of a different sort,” he said, “but a battle nonetheless.  It has been an unusual day.”  He eyed the tray.  “Put that down.  I will be with you in a moment.”

Legolas obeyed, setting the tray down on a table and waiting while Thranduil quickly washed his hands, pulled off his soiled outer tunic and replaced it with a fresh one.  It was perhaps no surprise that when he sat down he reached for the wine first.

“They are from Rhovanion,” he explained, seating himself beside Legolas at the table but maintaining a clear view of his two invalids as the others hovered over them.  “The father brought his son here so that the King might heal him.”

Legolas frowned.  “Do you know how to cure this plague?”

“I have not the vaguest idea,” Thranduil admitted, “but it seems they have more faith in me than I do.  Perhaps I have something yet to learn about myself.”

Legolas shrugged.  “Our people are well enough,” he said, finally answering the question, “but the shadow of Dol Guldur is unquestionably growing on our borders, and I have learned more about the extent of the plague while in the south.  We have heard that it is ravaging Gondor.  Some sought to flee into the north only to find it here as well.”

Thranduil was quiet.  Legolas could see him thinking.  “I do not like it,” he said at last, his gaze distant.  “Dol Guldur is strengthening, dragons are multiplying in Ered Mithrin, and now this plague is bleeding Gondor.  I suspect none of these are unrelated.”

Legolas’ eyes narrowed.  “What has the Necromancer to do with Gondor?”

Thranduil sighed heavily and drained his wine.  “The Gondorrim are the guardians of Mordor,” he said at last, lowering his voice.  “It is probably high time I confess to you that I no longer have any doubt about who haunts Dol Guldur.  He has shown himself to me many times.”

Legolas suddenly felt cold.  He had known from the beginning that his father suspected Sauron, but to have it confirmed was still a chilling thought.  The weary shadows that had been growing behind Thranduil’s eyes for the past decades now made sense.  “Who else knows?” he asked.

“Gwaelas,” Thranduil said, “and now you.  I cannot name anyone else of consequence who would believe me, although I voiced my suspicions quite explicitly in Imladris centuries ago.  They all know what I think, yet Gorthaur torments me so brazenly precisely because he knows they will not believe me.  Thranduil is not the Wise one, not the Learned one, not the Discerning one; he is the anxious one, the damaged one.”  He stopped and bit back whatever remained of his personal grievances.  “I should have confided in you sooner.  You are not a child in need of protection.”

Legolas smiled gently.  “I forgive you,” he said.  “Do you intend to tell the others?  Linhir, Galadhmir, and the rest?”

“I am undecided yet.  The knowledge would change nothing about our strategy and yet may incite unnecessary panic.  I do not want to be dishonest with our people, but neither do I want to cripple their courage.”

“I think they would overcome it,” Legolas said.  “I obviously have no memory of the Last Alliance, but I suspect even those who do would be willing to defend their own wood even against Sauron.  You are not asking them to march into Mordor.”

Thranduil twitched violently, as though he only just stopped himself from saying something visceral and ill-advised.  “I would say ‘never again,’ but who else is there?” he asked, exasperated.  “Númenor is gone.  Elrond has no army to speak of.  Arnor is all but broken.  Amroth has the Galadhrim in Lórinand but they are fewer than we are.  And now Gondor is dying of plague.  I fear that if Sauron ever regains a foothold in Mordor, someone from Greenwood may have to set foot in that blasted land again.  I pray it is not you.”

“You are protecting me again.”

Now it was Thranduil who smiled, though it was a brittle one.  He threw up his hands.  “I cannot help it,” he said.  “I wanted a better life for you, Legolas, at least better than mine.  I may have failed to hold the peace for you, I may have failed to keep your mother alive, but I would at least like to spare you the horror of Mordor.”

That brief glimpse into the pain and regret Thranduil harbored in the deep places of his heart stung Legolas unexpectedly, and protest immediately rose within him.  He leaned in and looked his King directly in the eye.  “You have never failed me, Father,” he insisted.

Thranduil closed his eyes and set his jaw the way he did when struggling with strong emotion, and Legolas knew his words had hit the mark.  It was enough.

Neither of them said anything for a time.  While they had been talking, Noruvion had been busy dosing their guests to keep them insensible, taking first the boy and then the father for a brief soak in one of his experimental herbal baths, and then returning them to freshly made beds.  Job done, he approached them now.  “Whatever you are doing must have some merit, my lord,” he said to Thranduil.  “The boy is not much better, but he is certainly no worse, which is better than I expected.  Please continue.”  He left them as abruptly as he had come, no doubt to go brew more medicines.

Legolas turned to his father again.  “You let your food get cold,” he chided him.

Now when Thranduil smiled it was a warmer and less haunted expression.  “Your news did not leave me with much of an appetite,” he said, “but I will make an effort if you insist.”


Over the next days the condition of the plague victims began to slowly improve.  They were surely benefiting from the rest, and Thranduil was certain all Noruvion’s treatments were far from useless.  He continued to play his part as best he was able, strengthening their slumbering wills and their exhausted bodies for the fight back to health.

The father woke first.  He was still weak, but all trace of the sickness seemed to have left him.  Noruvion allowed him to remain awake to eat properly and focus on regaining his strength.  He was permitted to walk freely throughout the chamber, but more often preferred to remain in his bed to better keep watch over his son.  He seemed rather awed by the boy’s improvement.  All the bruising had gone, and his face was a much healthier color.  It seemed they might even dare to hope he would make a full recovery. 

“I still do not know your name,” Thranduil said at last.

“I am Badutharya,” he said.  “My son is Bargavia.”

“It must have required much courage, Badutharya, to come so far on little more than a rumor of hope.”

“I did not feel very courageous,” Badutharya insisted.  “There was nothing else I could do.  Some said the Elvenking was proud and cold, that he would send me away or punish me for my audacity, but I did not believe them.  Those of our fathers’ fathers who had encountered the Elvenking esteemed him highly.   It is my experience that the opinions of Men change while Elves do not.”

Thranduil nodded graciously.  “I do not know how much of it we may credit to any virtue of mine,” he said, “but I am told we may expect your son to be himself again very soon.  Have you anyone awaiting your return in Rhovanion?”

“No one,” Badutharya said bitterly.  “They were all buried beneath the snow before this.”

“Then, for your good faith, I grant you leave to remain among us with your son for as long as you wish,” Thranduil decided, “perhaps until the plague has passed.  It seems to me that you have both suffered enough.”

As it happened, they had only another day to wait until Noruvion deemed the boy strong enough to wake.  He remained in the master healer’s care for several days more, but his recovery was widely celebrated by the Elves who had been charmed by the story of Badutharya’s devotion and the happy outcome of his appeal to their King’s mercy.

Outside of Mirkwood, however, there was nothing to celebrate.  The plague continued to devastate the mortal races in Rhovanion, in Gondor, and even in Eriador and Arnor, as Thranduil learned after sending a courier to Elrond in Imladris that summer.  Not until the following year did it begin to dissipate, and by then the death toll was catastrophic.  Entire cities stood vacant and abandoned.  And all the while the dark places in Mirkwood grew ever darker.

Thranduil became increasingly vigilant as the year wore on.  Dol Guldur was biding its time, not challenging them directly but gathering itself for what he imagined would be a brutal assault later.  Determined that they should not be caught unawares, he reinforced and reequipped the army, turned out greater numbers of soldiers for longer periods of time, and fortified their borders as well as could be done.

His suspicion that the plague was but a part of a larger scheme seemed justified when Mithrandir presented himself in Mirkwood.  As usual, he was not an overwhelming source of information, but said he had felt compelled in the wake of the plague to confirm the readiness of the Elven realms to defend themselves.  Thranduil showed him everything, knowing Mithrandir at least appreciated his position.  The wizard was gone again as abruptly as he had arrived, ostensibly to confer with Radagast and inquire next of Amroth in Lórinand. 

Thranduil could not help feeling like a pawn in a very large game—an important pawn, but a pawn nonetheless—and it made him restless.  Part of him was desperate to strike an offensive blow for once, weary of always waiting to be attacked.  But, alas, that was not the nature of this war.  This was a war of endurance, as unpleasant as that was, and if the events of his long life had taught him anything it was that he could endure a great deal.

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