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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 33 ~ In the Bleak Midwinter

Although the Galennath had not forgotten the martial lifestyle of Mirkwood, the restoration of peace allowed them ample opportunity to indulge the merrier side of their nature.  Preparations were well underway for a Midwinter festival to shame all others.  The entire wood had already been blasted by early blizzards and lay blanketed in snow, but the summer had been good and no one would go hungry that year.

In honor of the season, Thranduil had taken it upon himself to personally visit each and every village in his care, especially the newest and most distant ones.  He came in the full festal dress of a warrior king accompanied by a magnificent entourage of lords and celebrated soldiers.  He wanted to meet his people where they lived, to hear their concerns and see their children.  It was proving a very enjoyable duty.

“Where are we bound today?” he asked as they mounted their horses and set out again on another crisp winter’s morning.

“To Beraid Lebethryn,” Legolas said as he rode beside him.  “It and Caras Hedryn are the southernmost settlements at present.  Afterwards we will be returning by the northwest road.”

The ride itself was a festive affair.  Stealth was not their object this time, and there was much singing and glad conversation while the hounds bounded back and forth, all accompanied by the tinkling music of the little silver bells adorning the noblest horses.  The animals of the forest seemed to recognize their peaceful intent and did not flee from them.  Flitting winter birds, leaping stags, hare, ermine, and even a secretive lynx all paused to greet the lords of the wood as they passed.

Late that afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to fade into early evening, they arrived at Beraid Lebethryn.  The towering trees which had given the place its name stood around the village like sentinels, and a small guardhouse had been built into each one.  Between them grew a thick hedgerow of holly bushes into which gates had been cut at intervals.  The guards in the treetops sounded their horns to announce the King’s arrival, eliciting an enthusiastic cheer from inside the enclosure.  The crowd of eager onlookers swung wide the northern gate and spilled out to welcome them.

“My lord!” said one who appeared to be vested with local authority.  “You do our humble home more honor than I fear it will bear!  I am Amathon, your governor here, and it is my very great pleasure to welcome you to Beraid Lebethryn.”

Thranduil recognized the name.  He had approved Amathon’s appointment to the post based on several good reports but had not yet met him in person.  He had many more regional governors now than he once had.  “It will please me to accept your welcome, Master Amathon,” he said, “especially as I see you are not alone in offering it.”

No fewer than nine children of similar age had separated from the crowd and gathered eagerly around the governor, a remarkable number to see in one place.  They were all staring wide-eyed at him, particularly the youngest who had been maneuvered to the front.  She was clutching a beribboned basket in her little hands, and there fell a slightly awkward silence as they waited for her to deliver what must have been a prepared greeting, but the sight of the King astride his great horse seemed to have momentarily stolen her words.  At last she was prodded by the boy behind her and recovered herself.  “We, too, welcome you to Beraid Lebethryn, my lord,” she said as grandly as she could manage.  “May it ever be your home as much as it is ours.”  She thrust the basket up at him, which—judging by the obvious consternation of her peers—was not how the presentation had been rehearsed. 

Dorthaer stepped out of the ranks and gracefully accepted the gift on the King’s behalf, revealing it to be a prickly crown of holly branches and berries.  Thranduil was charmed by it immediately and motioned for Dorthaer to pass it to him.  He removed his crown of woven fir boughs and replaced it with the children’s offering, no doubt crafted from the living walls of their home. 

“Such a gracious invitation cannot be refused,” Thranduil said with a smile, “but if this is to be our home tonight, we must not linger outside.”  He nudged his horse forward and ceremoniously dropped a rein for her.  “Lead us in, dearheart.”

Celebrated on all sides with song and laughter, they were led into the heart of the village where a royal feast had been prepared in the great hall.  Bathed in the golden light of countless lanterns, festooned with evergreen boughs and warmed by the heat of several ovens, it was as merry a place as ever could be, replete with hearty woodland fare, good company, and spirited entertainments. 

Thranduil was thoroughly enjoying himself.  Times like these made him extremely reluctant to leave Greenwood, when it seemed he was exactly where he belonged and all things were as they should be.  Or, rather, almost all things.  He had not changed his mind about going to seek Lindóriel in Valinor, but he had already lingered several years longer than he thought he would have.  It was no easy task to leave after devoting so much of his life to that place and its people.  He had by no means forgotten his history, but it had been a very long time since he had felt like a Mithrin outcast from Beleriand.  The consequences of his office had bound him more intimately to Greenwood than to any other place he had ever known, and there was no longer any distinction between himself and the Galennath.  There was still a part of him which could never imagine leaving them.

The children who had met them at the gate were now gathered at the center of the hall enthusiastically performing a ballad they had composed for the occasion.  It was the traditional sort featuring an oft-told tale, the flight of the Necromancer and the restoration of Greenwood.  Those events must have seemed very distant to such young minds, blessed to have been born into the peaceful years.  Their innocence was endearing.

Thranduil glanced aside at Legolas, seated on his right.  His son had also been born in times of peace, yet he had been obliged to exchange his innocence for hard-won experience, forged by the adversities of Mirkwood into a seasoned warrior who knew hardship and yet retained his resilience.  He had been strengthened rather than discouraged, and the beginnings of that ageless wisdom expected of all great Elven lords was growing in his eyes.  If it was to be Legolas’ fate to wear the crown of Greenwood in his turn, Thranduil had no doubt he would prove equal the task. 

There were dancers and acrobats, choirs and musicians to entertain the gathered company until the feast ended.  Then the tables were removed and set against the far walls, opening a wide space for the dancing and merriment to continue long into the night.  Thranduil, however, remained in his elaborately decorated throne to receive those who were gathering in a rapidly lengthening queue to speak with him.  He could only spare a few moments for each, but he did try to give them the courtesy of his undivided attention.  He met parents with their children, young soldiers who were just beginning their service in that region, a few old acquaintances who had resettled on the realm’s frontier, veterans of the darker years who had begun new lives there, some who needed reassurance that the King remained well-informed of what passed there so far from his seat in the north, and many others who simply wished to express their appreciation and loyalty.

Hours later, when the ceremonies were concluded and the music had calmed, Thranduil took the governor outside to speak with him privately.  It was a bitterly cold night, and perfectly formed snowflakes were gently swirling through the air.  All was quiet, crisp and clean, exactly the refreshing contrast one wanted before retiring to a warm bed. 

“We have been remiss in not meeting with you sooner, Amathon,” Thranduil said.  He saw that Legolas had noticed them leaving, and he beckoned to him.  “I have heard only good reports of you and of Beraid Lebethryn, and I see the praise was well-deserved.”

“I dare then to hope this honor will be soon repeated, my lord,” Amathon ventured with a gratified smile.  “My lord the prince has looked in on us from time to time while about his duties,” he said, nodding at Legolas, “but we have all been quite eager to entertain the King at last.”

“You have managed that task remarkably well,” Thranduil assured him.  “I do intend to spend a larger portion of my time in the south in the coming year to see our borders strengthened.  It has been decided that we will be content with the reconquest of the wood as it stands lest we overextend ourselves.  I trust you and your neighbors in Caras Hedryn are prepared to spearhead the southern defense.”

“We are, my lord,” Amathon confirmed, “although I suppose that is easily said when there are no enemies at the gates.  But we who remember Mirkwood have not forgotten how to fight, and we do our utmost to teach the younger generations.”

“We have occasionally borrowed some of their young archers while on our patrols,” Legolas said.  “The standards are high, and their deficiencies amount to no more than a lack of experience.”

“In these days, I consider a lack of that sort of experience to be a blessing rather than a deficiency,” Thranduil decided.  “I would be glad to see your young soldiers in their ranks before we take our leave in the morning.”

The military instinct in Amathon made him straighten briskly where he stood.  “They will be turned out at first light, my lord,” he promised.

Thranduil nodded approvingly.  The long age of Mirkwood had ingrained that military instinct so deeply in the Galennath that it seemed to have become permanently fixed in their nature, but the endless drills and patrols which had been so vital centuries ago had now assumed an air of traditional pageantry.  He knew perfectly well that evil was never conquered forever and that it would be folly to forget their old cautious habits, but he was content to enjoy the gallant superfluity of it all while it lasted.

But suddenly a terrible chill pierced the depths of his heart without warning, freezing the breath in his chest.  It was the chill of hatred, of ruin, and of death.  He recognized that malicious touch at once, and the immediate torrent of horror and dread and despair was so violent that he doubled over and vomited into the snow.

“Ai, Belain!” Legolas gasped, recoiling with Amathon before they both recovered themselves.  “My lord, are you unwell?  What is wrong?”

Thranduil said nothing, bracing himself against the railing lest his hands shake.  He could not bring himself to say what he knew to be true.  The peace was broken, their reprieve had ended.  So many plans and dreams and expectations were destroyed in that bleak moment because now everything had changed.

Desperate horn calls from the south came to them on the wind, and then the same dreadful understanding seemed to strike both Legolas and Amathon.  “Caras Hedryn!”

Thranduil recovered himself, cursing Gorthaur bitterly in his heart.  As before, there was no time to mourn the future they had expected to enjoy.  There was time only to meet the challenge thrust upon them.  “Sound the alarm and turn out your men at once,” he commanded Amathon.  “Legolas, see our party mounted and bring me my horse.  We ride for Caras Hedryn immediately!”

In a few moments the entire village was seething with frantic activity bordering on panic.  Thranduil rode into the courtyard and merged the soldiers of his entourage with the horsemen who had mustered there, quickly organized them into coherent ranks and led them out at a gallop ahead of the infantry. 

They sped along the path in a churning flurry of disturbed snow.  Thranduil was by no means dressed for battle and was not even wearing his sword, but thankfully it was ceremoniously strapped to his saddle.  He feared it may already be too late to avert disaster, but he would not abandon his people to the mercies of Gorthaur’s servants if it lay within his power to do otherwise.  He urged them to still greater speed, plunging headlong into the dark. 

As he had feared, Caras Hedryn was in flames when they arrived, but their mad charge through the burning husk of the village was enough to repulse the last of Dol Guldur’s raiders, both Men and Orcs.  There was a great deal of confusion as they rode down and killed the few who failed to make good their escape. 

“Legolas!”  Thranduil called, drawing up his horse amid the ruin.  “Take the first three ranks and pursue them to the death, but go no farther than our border.”

“Yes, my lord!”  Legolas gave a shrill whistle to command the attention of their riders, summoned the first three ranks as ordered and led them south into the night.

As the wild hoofbeats faded into the snowy darkness, the rest of them were left in a horrible calm with the crackling of the fires, the cries of the wounded, and the weeping of the survivors.  Thranduil felt sick again as the intensity of the moment faded.  He rode slowly through the wreck with a heavy heart as Commander Dorthaer, with his usual grim composure, took charge of the recovery efforts. 

Snow was thrown onto the flames wherever it seemed it would do some good.  The bodies of the slain Galennath were carefully gathered and laid in rows while the corpses of the raiders were thrown into piles.  The wounded were given whatever care could be offered at that moment.  The footsoldiers from Beraid Lebethryn would arrive before long, and they would be able to help bear them away. 

There had clearly been no warning before the attack.  Thranduil reflected that the peace had brought some measure of fatal complacency with it, as peace always did.  The smell of smoke and blood, the cold, the snow, and even his own incongruously festive clothing evoked the very old but still very raw memories of the ruin of Menegroth.  He knew several of his own people were enduring that same desolation now, and his heart ached for them.  The one important difference was that their king was not dead, and he would see that they were not left desolate for long.

As he continued to ride through the destruction, some movement caught Thranduil’s eye in a far corner beside the western wall.  It was a wounded Elf crawling painfully out of her house in search of help.  He quickly dismounted and knelt beside her to assess her injuries.  “Be still,” he said gently, fearing she might injure herself further.  “Be still.”

Her throat had been partially cut and she could not speak, but her eyes implored him to help her.  Yet even as Thranduil began opening her tunic to reveal her wounds he could see she was already beyond all help.  She had been brutally stabbed many times, her feet had been cut off, and her breath was failing.  Tragically, she had clearly been expecting a child very soon.  The bodies of several Orcs testified to the bravery with which she and her husband had defended their home, but it had not been enough to save them.

She died a moment later, her agony ended.  It was deeply saddening, and Thranduil had to pause a moment to steady himself.  The senseless cruelty of it was hard to bear.  Worse was the irrational conviction that it was somehow his fault.  These people were his responsibility and they had trusted him, yet he had been powerless to protect this young family. 

“I am truly sorry,” he whispered, laying her lifeless hand upon her chest. 

Then the unborn child moved.

Thranduil hissed sharply, leapt up and retrieved a knife from his saddle.  He hardly knew what he was doing, but there was no time for self-doubt, and he had certainly bred enough animals to know his way around a newborn.  Carefully but very quickly he cut through skin and muscle until he reached the womb.  It opened with a gush of fluid, and he reached inside and scooped out the child, brusquely wiping its face clean in a desperate attempt to help it draw breath.  He was rewarded with a pitiful but miraculous cry which grew only stronger as he finished separating the infant from its mother.

It was a daughter, and he quickly wrapped her in his cloak against the cold.  Her cries struck a startling contrast amid the destruction of the home she had never known, hope mingled with grief, life sprung unexpectedly from death, a bright point which shone indomitably in Mirkwood’s shadow.  In many ways she perfectly embodied the spirit of the Galennath and their wood.  It was only fitting she should bear a name which honored that.

“Peace, child,” he said, holding her close and shielding her from the wind.  “Peace, Tauriel.”


In the wake of the attack, it was decided that Caras Hedryn would be abandoned and not rebuilt.  The survivors retreated to Beraid Lebethryn until the fate of all the southern villages would be determined.  Remembering how heavy the hand of Dol Guldur had been in the past, Thranduil was not sanguine about their ability to defend the far-flung borders as they had established during the peace.  It was bitterly disappointing, but such were the realities of war.  Moreover, it seemed to Thranduil that the Necromancer had likewise been refreshed during his long absence, his malice stronger and his shadow darker.  He was not inclined to doom their cause by overestimating his own abilities in the face of that.  The army was sent to fortify the border, but they were strictly instructed to fall back and protect the retreat of their people if the need arose rather than waste themselves in an insupportable battle.

The King returned to the north after satisfying himself that the southern regions were secure in Lord Anárion’s capable hands.  He took the infant Tauriel with him.  She had been fostered and cared for in Beraid Lebethryn, but all her family had been killed and Thranduil found he was unwilling to be parted from her.  She had keenly reminded him of Legolas’ birth, and he certainly had no wish to leave her in the south to possibly suffer the same fate as her parents.  Many families with young children had already decided to move farther north before the evils of Mirkwood could overtake them. 

Back in the palatial caverns, the young royal ward was afforded the luxuries of a princess in all but name.  Thranduil was becoming more attached to her than he had intended to become, but he was not prepared to name her one of his own heirs on the same footing as Legolas, not least of all because he did not intend to overshadow the legacy of the parents who had died defending her.  He considered himself no more than her guardian and benefactor even if he was behaving more like a father at present.  Master Noruvion and his wife had consented to adopt her, yet Thranduil looked in on her many times each day and often shared in her care, wearing her wrapped against his chest while he conducted his affairs.  He knew it was unnecessary, but it touched something deep inside him which needed the comfort.

Legolas found them together when at last he returned from the south.  There was a deep uneasiness in his eyes, but it was briefly hidden by a smile.  “She is a pretty thing,” he said, coming nearer to stroke her downy hair, “with an enviable lust for life.”

“Let us hope we all prove equally resolute,” Thranduil said.  “I gather you bring me no good news.”

“Indeed not,” Legolas confessed.  “We are rapidly losing the entire southern region.  The darkness is especially virulent and is advancing by the day.  Our poor efforts to hold the border ourselves have proven futile.  We suspect only your continued presence there would be strong enough to impede the spread.”

“Alas, I cannot be in all places at once,” Thranduil sighed, confronted with his limitations yet again.  It was always galling to admit defeat, but it would be foolish to compound the damage with denial.  “Give the order,” he said.  “Withdraw all our people in the south and settle them north of the mountains.  We will make our stand there.”

Despite the gravity of his report, Legolas seemed momentarily taken aback.  They would be abandoning fully half of their territory without a fight.  It was a stunning concession. 

“Trust me,” Thranduil said, “we must not choke ourselves biting off more than we can manage.  We will withdraw in order to withstand the long siege.”  He smiled ruefully.  “I suppose I will have a great deal of work to do for many years hence.  Truth be told, I had been contemplating leaving the realm to you and taking my leave of Middle-earth.”

Legolas did seem initially surprised, but then both sympathetic and relieved.  “Please do nothing of the kind, my lord,” he said.  “She is not the only one who feels safer with you.”

Tauriel whimpered and grunted in her sleep, then settled herself against his chest.  Once again, she was a stark reminder of everything that was worth defending in Greenwood.  Leaving her and all the rest of their people to face the Necromancer alone would be unconscionable. 

It seemed he was not fated to relinquish the crown just yet.  The more Gorthaur tried to wrest it from him, the more determined he was to hold it.  The Dark Lord had taunted him with his family’s unfortunate history of flight, but here he would stand to the death if need be.  He would not be moved, whatever the oppression.  He would not be intimidated, whatever the threat.  He would not be broken, whatever the grief.

His Queen would expect no less.

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