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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 34 ~ Counsel

The shadow of Mirkwood rolled over Greenwood remarkably quickly.  Within a few years four centuries of restoration had been ruined, tens of thousands of trees meticulously cleansed were sickened again, and the wide halls and aisles of Thranduil’s realm became once again the haunt of dark and unnatural beasts.  Thranduil turned those few years to best advantage, strengthening the conservative borders he had chosen so thoroughly that the shadow’s seemingly inexorable advance was abruptly halted at the mountains.  Even so, it was not a border that was easily held against the fury of Dol Guldur.  Consequently, the King was not an infrequent visitor to the healers’ chambers.

Thranduil reported there again after breakfast as instructed to have his most recent dressings changed.  He had caught a Warg’s bite on his forearm and, although his armor had foiled the worst damage, he had several nasty punctures in need of care.  Noruvion was prepared for him and set about his work at once, removing the bandage and rinsing the wounds in a pale liquid which had a robust floral scent.

“I see nothing which concerns me,” Noruvion said after some careful examination, gently dabbing the skin dry.  “Another day and there will be no danger of poisoning.  Then you may allow it to heal fully.  Tauriel,” he called over his shoulder, “bring me the drawing salve, please.  Yes, the black one.”

Little Tauriel, just three years old, busied herself day by day helping her guardian at his work.  She got up now from her study of illustrations of medicinal herbs and fetched the small pot of drawing salve. 

It was Thranduil’s wish that she be educated and trained as a healer.  It was a good and necessary profession, and she seemed to have affinity enough for it.  It would be difficult to find a more proficient instructor than Lord Noruvion.  They went foraging in the wood, prepared tinctures and salves together, and occasionally he even allowed her to practice her burgeoning skills on his patients. 

“Now, child,” Norvuion said, stepping back, “the King would be very much obliged if you would dress his wounds.”

Tauriel smiled and eagerly dipped her fingers into the pot.  "You must leave this on until morning, my lord," she said with a professional self-importance which belied her age, generously applying the salve. 

“Just as you say,” Thranduil agreed, amused by her pluck.  “How are your studies progressing, Tauriel?”

“Father says he has never had an apprentice who learned to forage as quickly as I have,” she boasted.

“She has very sharp eyes,” Noruvion said, “and is much nearer the ground than most of them have been.”

“I see you have learned more than the virtues of various plants,” Thranduil observed as she wrapped his arm in a linen bandage and finished it with an elegant knot.  “I gather I am not your first patient.”

“Not quite the first,” Noruvion confirmed with a wry smile which could not conceal his pride, “but she is quite pleased to now be wrapping more than the arms of chairs and the legs of tables.”

“It is impressive work for one so young,” Thranduil commended her.  “Persevere in your studies and I expect in time you will be extraordinarily accomplished.”

She beamed at him but quickly pulled herself together into the most adult manner she could manage.  “Yes, my lord.”

Thranduil left them to their work and walked outside to the stables for his next item of business.  His favorite warhorse had been killed in the last skirmish, and a few new candidates had been recommended to him.  Bronruin, the stablemaster, was waiting for him with all three horses standing ready for inspection on the lawn.

“These are some of the best to be found, my lord,” Bronruin assured him, “all with steady but energetic temperaments.”

“I have always been partial to the gray ones,” Thranduil admitted, stroking the one with silvery dapples.  “But, as they say, any good horse is a good color.”

He was putting each of the beasts methodically through its paces when he saw the two wizards approaching with a Guardsman.  Their appearance was not wholly unexpected; Radagast came and went as he pleased in those days, and Mithrandir always seemed to turn up when matters took a turn for the worse.  Thranduil slowed his horse to a halt and sat waiting to receive them.

“The wizards Mithrandir and Radagast have come to seek an audience with the King,” the Guardsman announced.

“Yes, I can see that, Neldorín,” Thranduil said.  "You may return to your post."

“We beg a moment of your time, my lord,” Mithrandir said with a grand bow.  “I fear we have grave matters to discuss with you.”

No doubt they did.  Thranduil, already well-acquainted with the gravity of his own situation, shrugged imperiously.  “I am occupied at present,” he said, turning his mount to resume riding laps around the clearing, “but if you will avail yourselves of the other horses, you may favor me with your company.”

Once again, Mithrandir could not conceal his flash of irritation, but Radagast seemed perfectly willing to accept the invitation.  They mounted the two ready horses, and Thranduil turned and led them at a brisk pace along the northern road.  It was some time and a considerable distance before he slowed and bid them ride alongside him.

“Now,” he said as the horses caught their breath, “tell me your errand, Mithrandir.”

“As you well know, our errand concerns the alarming resurgence of Dol Guldur,” the wizard explained impatiently.  “Lady Galadriel observed the Necromancer’s return, and at her insistence a council of the Wise has been formed to counterbalance his growing power.  Its affairs will necessarily be intertwined with your own.”

Thranduil frowned thoughtfully, his eyes trained straight ahead.  “And who sits on this council?” he asked, already with suspicions of his own.

“It would be imprudent to name or number them,” Radagast answered, quite candidly.  “Suffice to say, it includes the order of wizards and the great Elven-lords of Middle-earth.”

“All of whom, I am to understand, are greater than I.”  It was salt in an old wound, although it was so old that it barely retained any sting.  He had not expected any different.

Mithrandir glowered at Radagast.  “Not at all, my lord,” he insisted in a more conciliatory tone.  “There is none better placed to observe the doings of Dol Guldur.”

“And yet it has not escaped my notice that no one troubled himself to seek my counsel,” Thranduil said, feeling a bit prickly.  He had initially made up his mind not to be offended by being slighted yet again, but he could not help it.  “Even you have not come to consult, but only to advise.”

“With all due respect, my lord, I believe I already know very well what counsel you would give,” Mithrandir confessed, perhaps a bit harshly.  “You have made your position quite clear before this.”

The gall was rising in his throat now.  “Are my observations truly thought to be worthless?” Thranduil demanded, dropping all pretense of diplomacy.  “Are the Galennath considered of no account in this world?”

“Peace, Thranduil,” Mithrandir snapped.  “You and the Galennath are indispensable where you are, securing the peace in the northeast.  No one doubts your worth.”

“Oh, no?”  Thranduil turned on him, in no mood to be either appeased or lectured.  “The Great Ones appreciate my labors but are content to dismiss my concerns.  I am not blind, deaf, and senseless, yet I cannot make myself heard!”

Neither gave him any answer.  The silence was increasingly uncomfortable and was stirring his accrued frustration into desperation. Thranduil spurred his horse ahead and wheeled it about to stop them all.

“I see him, Mithrandir,” he insisted, angered by how vulnerable he was made to feel.  “I hear him.  I know him.  I was there at Dagorlad, and I was there at Morannon.  Does my word count for nothing?”

Still they did not answer, but the deep sympathy in their looks finally made him despair.  They were truly convinced that his judgment was deranged, and it would be futile to try to persuade them otherwise.  It was just another facet of the Dark Lord’s cruelty that he would never be believed, which was no doubt the reason Gorthaur was bold enough to unmask himself again and again.  It was maddening, but evidently hopeless.

Pulling together what remained of his wounded dignity, Thranduil turned his horse and continued ahead.  “Very well,” he said, steadying his voice.  “Exactly what does this council propose to do?”

“Well, a consensus on that point has not yet been reached,” Radagast admitted hesitantly.  “We will wait and observe until we know best how to proceed.”

Thranduil halted his horse abruptly, the reins clenched in his fist, so violently dissatisfied with that answer that words failed him.  Not only would they not hear him, but neither would they help him until they had interminably argued and reasoned and speculated about the particulars of the situation in some comfortably protected haven while he and his people bled.   The unintentional audacity of it was insufferable.

“Well,” he said at last with what must have been a venomous look, “while the great lords continue to observe and do nothing, I will be about my task.  If any should ever wish to stop squandering their time and join me in arms against our common enemy, I will be keen to hear of it.” 

He turned and galloped back the way they had come, leaving the wizards to return at their leisure.  He bore neither of them any personal ill-will, but at the moment he had no wish to share any more of their company.  Mithrandir acting alone had often proven helpful, and he could occasionally expect valuable assistance from Radagast.  It would not even surprise him to be aided by Galadriel if she independently put her mind to it, but councils were slow and ponderous things no matter how wise and venerable their members.  For a very brief moment he had dared to hope for more allies in his struggle against Dol Guldur, but now he felt as alone as ever. 

He had to remind himself that nothing had changed since that morning, and that he was as prepared as ever to go about their business the hard way.  Despite his disappointment, it was no bad thing to know that someone else was concerned about the state of Mirkwood and was at least contemplating doing something about it.  If matters turned for the worse, perhaps not all hope was lost.

The state of the wood did worsen over the next decades, but so did the state of the world beyond their borders, so no assistance was forthcoming.  Orcs were multiplying at an alarming rate in both the Misty and the Gray Mountains, making travel increasingly dangerous.  Cut off from Eriador and separated from Lothlórien by an ever-widening swath of corrupted forest, Thranduil found himself effectively isolated in the north.  Galadriel’s council was never mentioned again. 

Those were difficult years.  Evil things were on the move everywhere in the world, and the Necromancer seemed intent upon using the strength of his sudden return to finally sweep the Galennath out of the wood.  But, as ever, the Galennath refused to be swept.  The army was deployed more often than not, and the new generations of soldiers had begun to earn that valuable experience which had eluded them before.  Fortunately, their light armor reinforced with spider silk shirts proved effective enough to significantly reduce the number of casualties they suffered.  While most of the serious threats materialized in the southern regions, Thranduil also strengthened the northeastern border guards as a precautionary measure against the growing infestation of Orcs in the mountains, using the assignments there to gently train the rawest of the new soldiers before throwing them into the chaos in the south.

Four decades after the war had begun again, life in the wood had settled into a new rhythm.  Midmorning on an otherwise lovely summer day, Thranduil was reviewing the most recent reports of his military commanders, their movements, their engagements, and their losses.  He was seated behind the King’s great oaken desk now, but he was dressed to join them in a matter of hours.  The defense of their realm had always been a deeply personal task for him, and there was only so much which could be delegated before the spearhead lost its point.  Lord Linhir was once again proving himself indispensable as seneschal, keeping the King’s many affairs meticulously organized and ready for his attention whenever he could spare it.

Now, beneath the stack of military reports, Thranduil found a sealed note from Noruvion.  He frowned, knowing Linhir must have placed it there for a reason. 

“My lord.”  Garavorn, one of his Guardsmen, had appeared at the doorway.  “The horses are ready.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said.  “I shall come momentarily.” 

He opened the letter, read it, and frowned again.  It was about Tauriel.  Noruvion wrote that he was concerned because she had begun neglecting her studies in favor of more martial interests.  All of their people were expected to cultivate reasonable skill with bow and blade as a matter of course, but she seemed to have more than utilitarian purposes in mind, perhaps even a change of career.

Thranduil was still turning the thought over in his mind when the guard at the door stepped inside.

“My lord, Lady Tauriel has come,” he said.  “She wishes to make a request.”

Thranduil folded the letter and slipped it beneath the gathered reports once again.  “Send her in.”

Tauriel entered wearing a smart woodland tunic and a very resolute expression.  She bowed very correctly, as a soldier would, and got right to the point.  “My lord,” she said, “I have come to request an assignment to the forest guard.”

Thranduil let that hang in the air for a moment.  “Noruvion has warned me of your shifting enthusiasms,” he said at last.  “Why?”

“Because there is so great a need,” she answered, obviously prepared to defend her choice.  “I wish to protect our wood and thereby avenge the deaths of my parents.”

It was not an unreasonable instinct, nor an entirely unexpected one, but the voice of hard-won experience warned Thranduil against trusting consequential life choices to the whims of youthful emotion.  Women in the forward ranks were not unheard of, but they were rare and he had hoped for better than a soldier’s life for her.  “Vengeance is a poisonous thing to live for, Tauriel,” he said.  “To be a healer would be a far nobler profession.  Could you not honor your family by restoring life rather than by inflicting death?”

“Is fighting to protect our lands not also a noble profession?” she quipped.  “It is the one you have chosen.”

Thranduil was surprised by her temerity and leveled a severe look upon her.  “Curb your tongue, child.  I am not in the habit of enduring such insolence within my own halls.”

“Forgive me, my lord,” she said, lowering her eyes and seeming genuinely contrite, “I meant no disrespect.  But I cannot be easy as a healer.  I yearn to fight, to defend our realm against the shadow as you do.”

Thranduil sighed.  He still held considerable authority over her, not only as the King but as her childhood guardian.  At forty years old she was still very young, younger even than he had been when Doriath’s fall had suddenly forced him to face the harsher things in life.  But this was Mirkwood, not Doriath, and Tauriel’s trials had begun the day she was born.  He knew her restless energy was indicative of a lack of discipline, but she would find discipline in abundance in the forest guard.  If need be, he could assign her to Legolas’ command and know his eye would be on her.  His son might appreciate a temporary reassignment from the volatile southern border to a quiet post in the north.

“Very well,” he relented.  Her face was lit by a brilliant smile which she immediately tried to suppress.  “Despite what may be my better judgment, I shall grant your request.  You will be assigned to the northeastern border guard under the command of Prince Legolas.  If you prove equal your duties you will be permitted to remain there.  Nevertheless, I would advise you not to abandon all thought of continuing your training as a healer if soldiering does not fulfill your expectations.”

“Thank you, my lord,” she said with another crisp bow, making an admirable effort to contain her excitement.  “I shall endeavor not to disappoint you.”

“Yes, see that you do,” Thranduil said, suppressing a smile of his own.  “Off with you now, I have many other duties to attend.”

She took her leave as gracefully as she could before hurrying away through the corridor, no doubt eager to pack her things and prepare for her new adventure.  Thranduil reached for several clean sheets of paper and quickly penned three notes to put matters in order, the first detailing Tauriel’s first official military assignment, the second explaining the situation to Noruvion, and the third relieving Legolas of his current command and immediately recalling him to the north.  He signed and sealed them and left them on the desk for Linhir to manage.  Then he stood to take himself to the armory.

“Come, Garavorn,” he said, collecting his guard at the door.  “We must not keep our party waiting any longer.” 

Duty called each of them.  Sometimes it called them in surprising ways and to surprising places, but there was nothing to do but answer.

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