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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 31 ~ Lifting the Shadow

Harthamaur stoked the flames beneath the great stone cistern with his rake, keeping them from blazing up too high or ebbing too low.  It was hot work, but certainly well-compensated and not without some prestige.  His apprentice appeared behind him bearing another load of wood.

“Mind the fire,” Harthamaur said, giving him the rake.  He turned and climbed the ladder on the far side, mindful of the hot stone, and stirred the waters with his hand.  Much hotter than blood warmth but not yet scalding.  Perfect. 

He descended to find his apprentice throwing a very liberal amount of wood on the flames.  “Not so much!” he complained, seizing the rake and scraping some out again in a shower of sparks.  “Burn him, and it will be both our heads.” 

He opened the sluice to allow some of the prepared water to flow into the bath chamber beyond the wall, then instructed his apprentice to open the one on the opposite side to admit more cold water from the river into the cistern.  If they did their job properly the temperature of the bath would remain effectively constant.  Failure to do so would result in a gentle complaint from the other side of the wall in the form of a ringing bell indicating a desire for more heat or less.  Harthamaur prided himself on how seldom it rang on his watch.

With any luck, he would train this hopeful young bathmaster to be equally exacting.


Thranduil sat submerged up to his chin in his subterranean bath, letting the hot water soothe some of the stiffness out of his shoulder.  It was still mending after being badly wrenched out of place in the last skirmish at the border.  He suspected he had torn something that really ought never be torn, but he was gradually regaining the use of it.  Meanwhile, lest any of their valuable time be wasted, Linhir had come down to give him the bulletins of the day.

“Our overtures to Erebor have only just been returned,” he was saying, looking over his notes.  “They were decidedly cool, but not quite impolite.”

“Fair enough,” Thranduil said dryly, “considering our tone was much the same.”  The King Under the Mountain had only just taken up residence at Erebor sixty years before, elevating that colony as the new seat of the entire Dwarvish realm in the north.  Without neglecting the formal niceties between kings, Thranduil was determined to keep official correspondence between their two realms to a minimum to avoid any unnecessary misunderstandings or conflicts.  Fortunately, the Dwarves seemed to be of the same mind.  “Say on.”

“King Fram of the Éothéod died some time ago, and his heirs have not deigned to inform us,” Linhir continued. 

“Hmm,” Thranduil grunted.  “We must remind them that we continue to take an interest in our neighbors.  How did he meet his end?”

“It seems he was quite a formidable Man.  He hunted and slew the dragon Scatha in the mountains and thereby won the beast’s hoard.  The Dwarves, however, contested his possession of the treasure, advancing what they considered to be their prior claim.”

Of course, they did.  Grasping vultures.

“Fram denied them and sent instead the dragon’s teeth, naming them rarer jewels than any others in their treasuries.”

Now Thranduil laughed heartily.  “A formidable Man indeed!” he agreed.  Then he remembered that Fram was dead and his face fell.  “Do not say that they killed him.”

Linhir shrugged grimly.  “A large delegation of Dwarves came to contest Fram’s right to the treasure, words were exchanged which led to blows, and he and many others were slain.”

Thranduil frowned, so deeply disgusted that words failed him.  He had not thought it possible that he could think any less of Dwarves.  They were a thick-headed, coldblooded, rapacious people who would steal anything they could not claim, content to become murderers in the attempt.  It was repugnantly similar to the fate of King Thingol.  “Had I known of this ten years ago, I may have reconsidered my words to Thráin,” he said icily.

“Needless to say, relations between the Dwarves and the Éothéod remain hostile.  The Horsemen have not declared open war, but they have banned all Dwarves within their territory on pain of death.”  Linhir paused as he consulted his notes again.  “The latest report from the south is that Mirkwood continues to darken, that the spiders have become more numerous, and that the shadow is slowly but steadily encroaching north.”

Thranduil nodded.  He had already surmised as much, but it was important to have confirmation nonetheless.  Dol Guldur had been oppressing him mercilessly of late, which was partly why it was taking so long to heal himself.  It was that passive but malevolent pressure on his mind that was so draining.  It waxed and waned at times depending on where the dark lord chose to direct his attention, but it rarely relented completely.

There was a discreet disturbance at the entrance of the chamber, and the Guardsman on duty approached to relay a message to Lord Linhir, who seemed intrigued.  He closed his book.  “Mithrandir has come,” he said with a shadow of a familiar cheeky smile of years long gone.  “Shall I show him in, or would you have him wait?”

Thranduil replied with a withering glare in similar good humor.  “Let him wait,” he said.  “I have little enough privacy where that wizard is concerned.”

“Very well.  I shall leave you to make yourself decent.”

Thranduil lingered pensively in the steaming water for a while.  Mithrandir’s arrival always betokened some development of interest, but under the circumstances he was not certain whether to expect good news or bad.  The latter possibility left him tempted to hide there indefinitely.  But, of course, he could not. 

When he finally mustered the will to climb out Gwaelas was ready to attend him, quietly helping him dress, ever mindful of his injury, as constant as a shadow.  It was a very different sort of intimacy than that of a spouse, different even than the friendship he shared with his peers, but as steadfast as any of them.  “Who ever looks after you, Gwaelas?” he asked.  “You really should find yourself a wife.”

“Oh, my lord,” Gwaelas laughed, handing him a ready cup of wine, “I would never have the time.”

Steeling himself for whatever may be awaiting him, Thranduil finally emerged from the bath chamber and went in search of his guest.  He had not far to go, as Mithrandir was waiting in the corridor to pounce upon him.

“Well met again, my lord,” the wizard said with a bow before falling into step beside him.  “I am pleased to see you are well.  I bring word of some developments of which I thought you should be made aware.  Is there somewhere we may speak privately?”

Thranduil stopped abruptly in the passage and snapped his fingers at his Guardsmen who obediently fell back out of earshot.  “Say on,” he said.  “Few frequent this place.”

The whisper of a scowl darkened Mithrandir’s features as though he had expected a bit more ceremony, but it passed.  “Very well.  The Wise have been meeting in council and have become quite concerned about the growing power and influence of Dol Guldur.  Many now fear that the Necromancer may be none other than Sauron himself taking shape again.”

Thranduil blinked, torn between triumph and indignation.  “Indeed?” he said at last, his voice thick with irony.  “How shocking.”

Now the scowl returned.  “There is no need to be petulant, Oropherion,” Mithrandir quipped.  “If you will recall, I was willing to entertain your suspicions from the beginning, but the dark powers of this world may reveal themselves to one and hide from another.  It is precisely for that reason that I have been sent, to confront him at Dol Guldur and discover his identity if I can.”

“Well, I certainly wish you every success in that endeavor,” Thranduil said, softening a bit.  “It is a task beyond any of us here, though I would offer whatever assistance you may require.”

“I shall require little enough,” Mithrandir assured him.  “I suspect you are quite preoccupied in these darkening days.  A night of your hospitality, some provisions, and perhaps a fresh horse.  I trust that is not too much to ask?”

“Done,” Thranduil agreed readily.  “You may have your pick of the stables.”

Mithrandir departed the next morning as abruptly as he had come.  Thranduil suspected he never kept still for long.  In any case, the wizard had been quite right about the state of Thranduil’s own affairs.  He scarcely had time to give the solitary quest to Dol Guldur another thought.

The Necromancer was bearing down with considerable force, harrying them now by many different means at once.  Pleas for assistance came to Thranduil from the Woodmen necessitating aggressive rides through the forest to reestablish order, hunting and expelling bandits, culling beasts, all while trying to hold his borders against the insidious encroachment of the shadow of Mirkwood.  Even the Nazgûl had been reported terrorizing the population.  The King’s presence was invaluable, especially in securing the more numinous defenses of his dominion in the region, but the physical and mental demands of the endeavor denied him any opportunity to sleep.  He wore out several horses in a row before he was able to dismount long enough to have a decent meal.  He was unable to do much actual fighting due to his lingering injury which did end up worse through premature exertion.  If only he had time to sleep he might finally be able to mend it, but it seemed he was needed everywhere.  He felt his temper growing shorter by the day.

After a fortnight on campaign, they returned to the caverns for a brief respite.  Thranduil found himself presiding over an informal supper with Legolas and Galadhmir, trying valiantly to follow their conversation.  The Necromancer was hounding him again, an unwanted presence apparently intent upon driving him mad.  The weight of it was actually becoming painful.  Thranduil glanced at the wine in the decanter, considering deliberately silencing the fiend by drinking himself insensible.  He had already made a good start.

“Father?”  Legolas was looking at him with obvious concern.  “Perhaps you should rest.”

Thranduil sighed and shook his head.  “Later,” he promised.  He could not sleep now, however badly he wanted to.  To attempt it before he had shaken off this invisible assault would be to leave himself vulnerable to a world of torment.

“No, Thranduil, he is right,” Galadhmir insisted.  “You have barely eaten and you look dreadful.  Go lie down.”

Thranduil leveled what must have been a very haggard glare at him.  “Later,” he insisted.

He was tired.  He did not want a petty duel of wills with Dol Guldur just now, but there seemed to be no avoiding it.  Holding it back required ever greater effort.  Suddenly the malicious pressure both strengthened and sharpened as though sensing his weakness, causing him to grimace.  He slammed his fist on the table as the sickly chill slipped past his defenses and pierced the deep places of his mind. 

Then, just as suddenly, it vanished.  It was not just lessened, but gone as if it had never been.

Both Legolas and Galadhmir were looking at him as though each were on the point of calling the guards, but Thranduil simply straightened in his chair, bemused, trying to make sense of what he was feeling.  He felt that an oppressive weight had been lifted, an incessant noise had been silenced, that he was no longer obliged to shield his every thought.  The relief was indescribable.  It was then that he remembered Mithrandir and his mysterious errand.  Clearly something quite remarkable had transpired.  He would be very interested to know the details.

In the meantime, he gathered himself and took up his fork again.  “If and when Mithrandir returns,” he said, “do not let him slip away unrewarded.  I suspect we may find that we all owe him an extraordinary debt of gratitude.”



Mithrandir did eventually return the following month, quietly, without fanfare or ceremony.  Thranduil would happily have provided both, but he managed to restrain his enthusiasm and wait for the wizard to approach him.  They met atop the great hill as Thranduil was observing the distant horizon. 

“As you may have already ascertained, my lord,” the wizard said with a warm smile, leaning on his staff, “I can report some success in my endeavor.”

“I did suspect as much,” Thranduil confirmed.  A gentle breeze broke upon them from the south, clean and untainted.  “What sort of battle did he give you?”

“There was no battle,” Mithrandir said.  “I observed his stronghold for many days, but when I finally challenged him, the Necromancer fled without resistance.  I had the distinct impression that I caught him unawares.  It seems his will was entirely trained elsewhere at the time.”

Thranduil felt the wizard’s keen eyes upon him.  He was not eager to share his own experiences, though Mithrandir had probably already surmised quite enough.  “Were you able to discover his identity before he fled?” he asked.

“Alas, I was not.  I imagine it was fear of discovery that forced him to retreat so hastily.  But,” he concluded with a gentle smile, “whatever his name, he is gone and Dol Guldur is stripped of its power.  I cannot say how long it will last, but I am pleased that the good people of Mirkwood will again enjoy some peace.  I dare say they have earned it, you certainly not least of all.”

“We are most sincerely grateful for whatever you did,” Thranduil admitted, dropping his guarded manner.  “I have breathed more freely these past weeks than in all the last thousand years.”  He might well have wept for gratitude had his pride allowed it.  “We had all but despaired of any assistance.”

“No good done is ever completely unappreciated, my lord,” the wizard assured him, “little though it may seem to be noticed.  Providence has at last seen fit to succor you in your need, so use the time wisely.  Rest, recover your strength, and be at peace while you may.”

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