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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 36 - The Days of Dearth  

Thranduil stood perfectly still in the depths of the wood, his eyes closed, his hand resting against the trunk of a venerable beech tree, allowing himself to simply feel the world moving around him.  He was listening to the trees as they conversed without voices among themselves and with him.  They welcomed him, they submitted to him, and they complained to him of the pollution steadily encroaching again from the south. 

Thranduil reassured them in the mute way he knew how, putting forth his own power to thrust back the shadow.  They echoed that power, magnifying it steadily throughout the region as each tree awakened with recognition, pulsing through the intertwined roots, thrumming through the heartwood, reinforcing him with the raw strength of ancient growing things.  They were a silent army awaiting his command. 

No two were exactly the same.  Some were young and eager, some were sorrowful, but now many were angry, and the force they lent him was especially potent.  They wanted the war, begging him to use them against Dol Guldur.  They poured their vitality into him until his spirit was shining with a physical light his body could not contain.  The ripple grew ever outward, farther and farther, until the life of the forest burned within him like a focused beam of sunlight. 

Still Thranduil held back, allowing it to build until it hurt.  Over the years, he had been learning to bear the greater intensity, sometimes painfully, gradually increasing his capacity to wield it until the trees had made him ten times the king he had once been.  At the blinding height of his power, he was minutely aware of everything that moved, but primarily of his companions nearby, of his people in the north, and of his malignant enemy in the south.  Most gratifying of all was the awareness that Dol Guldur was also aware of him, and this time its lord did not laugh.

Finally, Thranduil released it all—the indignation of the trees, his hatred, their fear, his grief, their outrage, his wounded pride—in a single narrow bolt straight into the heart of that dark fortress upon Amon Lanc.  It would not do the Necromancer any lasting damage, and it was only by the element of surprise that he was able to penetrate Dol Guldur’s defenses, but he felt his enemy recoil in pain, and he was satisfied.  It would be sufficient to remind the Dark Lord that Thranduil was still King in the North and that he was not idle.

The trees sank back into silence, their energy spent for the moment.  Thranduil rubbed his tingling hands together as his preternatural aura slowly began to fade.  He heaved a weary sigh and was surprised to see it frost on the air.  It was unseasonably cold for mid-autumn. 

Legolas, bristling with weaponry as any proper prince of Mirkwood should be that far south, was looking at him with new filial pride.  “That was quite impressive, my lord,” he said, returning the reins of the King’s horse.  “I trust it did not miss the mark.”

“It did not,” Thranduil assured him.  “It may be little more than a symbolic victory, but he has struck me so many times that I feel I am entitled to strike him at least once.  Now, let us see how our prospective captain has acquitted herself.”

Their true purpose that day was to meet the return of the southernmost patrol.  The acting captain was seeking official elevation to that rank, and the King had reserved to himself the final decision.  This was the trial run, and everything hung upon its success.

Despite his anticipation, Thranduil was preoccupied as they walked their horses through the outpost.  A stiff northern wind had begun breaking against his back, and the sky was darkening with thick, gray clouds.  It was much too early in the season for a snow storm, yet that was exactly what the shift in the weather smelled like.

“Here they are,” Legolas said, sighting the patrol returning through the trees.

Brought back to more immediate matters, Thranduil tried not to smile as he watched them approach, but he was not entirely successful.  They had the rough look and buoyant energy of victorious soldiers returning from the field.  Leading them all, Tauriel brandished an enormous spider’s head which she threw to the ground at the King’s feet. 

“Your enemies perish, my lord,” she said as she and the others offered a low bow, “as you ordered.”

Thranduil said nothing, though he could not deny that he was extremely proud of her in a strangely conflicted way.  He would still have rather seen her as a master healer, yet Tauriel had applied herself well to her new duties, chasing excellence with a single-minded determination which reminded him of himself.  She had served for several years under the tutelage of Captain Caladwen, who had taught her how to bend her uniquely feminine traits to her chosen career in the King’s army.  Thranduil looked to Caladwen now for her verdict.

Caladwen had served in the troop to better observe her pupil’s performance.  She nodded to the King with a warm smile.  She clearly had no reservations.  Accepting her recommendation, Thranduil summoned Tauriel before him with a gesture.  She came eagerly, dropping to one knee in the fading grass.

“Who approaches the King?”  Legolas asked imperiously, beginning the ceremony.

“It is I, Tauriel Dagoriel,” she answered, knowing her part.

“What do you seek?”

“I ask for the King’s trust,” Tauriel said, “to command his soldiers against his foes.”

Thranduil drew his sword and lay the blade firmly on her shoulder, not sparing the force he used on his other captains.  “You have asked for the King’s trust,” he said, looking her squarely in the eye.  “In doing so you are accepting the responsibility to defend his lands, to bear in some measure his burden of trust to the people who dwell therein, to live and die against all manner of foes.  Do you understand what you are undertaking?”

Tauriel met his gaze without flinching.  After two centuries in the field, she knew very well what the King’s service entailed.  “I do.”

“Swear it.”

“I, Tauriel Dagoriel, swear everlasting fealty to the King of Eryn Galen,” she began, a passionate tremor in her voice, “in joy and in sorrow, in peace and in war, to honor and to obey as my liege lord until he may release me, to live and perhaps to die in defense of Eryn Galen as he himself has sworn.  His foes are my foes, his peril is my peril, so long as his realm endures.”

“So you have sworn,” Thranduil said solemnly, pressing his sword down harder for a moment.  “So you will live.”  He sheathed his blade and bid her rise, that irrepressible smile tugging again at the corners of his mouth.  “Today I bestow upon you the rank of a captain in my service,” he said, affixing a silver badge to her collar.  “Bear it well.”

Tauriel did not compromise her military bearing, though she was obviously radiantly happy.  In a moment it did not matter, as her fellows broke ranks and enthusiastically cheered her success.  In a few moments they had dragged together a rough celebration out of their rations of wine and waybread. 

Legolas smiled.  “She has wanted this for a long time,” he said.

“She earned it exactly as you did,” Thranduil insisted.  “Flattery in the army profits no one.”  Then he frowned.  “Have you noticed the cold?” he asked his son, shifting his shoulders beneath the constriction of his quiver harness.  He felt an ominous restlessness he could not shake off.  “I feel it is much colder than it should be.”

Legolas sniffed the crisp air and frowned as well.  “I had noticed, yes.  But now that it is clearly bothering you, I am inclined to give it greater consideration.”

Thranduil turned and looked at the sky.  The clouds were low and deep and he could sense an oppressive weight about them, as if they were prepared to drop a prodigious amount of snow very soon.  “The leaves have not finished turning yet,” he protested.  The wind was strengthening and it smelled like ice. 

The trees were not yet dormant and a hard freeze so early in the season would devastate them.  Their yields would suffer and famine would follow.  There was very little Thranduil believed he could do about the weather, but he was not prepared to do nothing.  He turned abruptly to Legolas.  “Bed the horses in the stables and prepare to take shelter with the others.  If my instincts are worth anything, we shall soon be snowed in.”

“And you?” Legolas demanded.

Thranduil retrieved a coil of rope from his saddle.  “I have work to do.  Do not come after me.  It may take some time.”

Legolas scowled, but obeyed without question.  As everyone else quickly organized the camp and secured anything of value, Thranduil tied one end of his rope to the door of the barracks building and the other to his belt.  He was not going to risk losing himself in a blizzard.  The first flurries were falling by the time he leapt into the branches of an enormous oak and braced himself against the trunk.

The trees were sluggish in the cold, especially after expending themselves so recently, but they slowly answered as he called them.  He reached out with all the urgency he could manage, not with a plea for assistance, but with a warning and a command.  Sleep.  Winter is upon us.  Sleep now.  Abandon your leaves.  Be still and wait.   Over and over again for several hours until finally the white winds of the storm were howling through the wood and trying to buffet him off his perch, he repeated the same command.  Sleep.  Winter is upon us.  Withdraw.  Be still and wait.   They heard him.  They were confused, but they would obey the King as best they could. 

When at last Thranduil deemed the word had spread widely enough, he stopped the grueling work and paused to gather himself.  There was not much of himself left.  He had not asked for any support this time, so the effort had left him depleted and weak, consumed from the inside out like a candle with too tall a flame.  The bitter cold, to which he would ordinarily have been indifferent, chilled him to the bone. 

Clumsily descending from the tree, Thranduil discovered that the storm had already deposited several feet of snow.  He fought his way through the driving wind along the rope, but found the door blocked by huge drifts.  With the last of his strength, he pounded on the window, and was greatly relieved when his soldiers opened it and helped him to drag himself inside.



There was little to be done until the storm blew itself out, and it seemed content to rage all night.  Perhaps it would have been prudent to sleep while they could, but somehow they were all too restless to close their eyes.  Perhaps it was because they were each nagged by a soldier’s instinct to stand watch, because the only one sleeping was the King.

In the flickering firelight, Tauriel watched him as he slept, distressed by the sudden change in him.  When Thranduil had returned, he had barely been able to stand, enervated and shivering uncontrollably.  He had accepted some food, and then immediately collapsed into bed.  Only hours ago, he had been a figure of legend, a brilliant remnant of the Elder Days with strength beyond any of them.  Now he had spent himself to within an inch of his life to save the wood from ruin.  It forced her to contemplate the oath she had just taken, essentially the same by which Thranduil had bound himself.  This was what it meant to be the King.  His life was no longer his own, and it may be required of him at any time.

She felt torn between her strongest instincts.  Tauriel knew her place as a soldier, yet at heart she was deeply devoted to Thranduil, and her feminine nature abhorred sitting idly by while he suffered.  She wanted to care for him, fuss over him, bring him another blanket or prepare a hot drink.  But she was no longer young Lady Tauriel, foster-daughter of Lord Noruvion, apprentice healer and ward of the King.  Now she was a captain in the King’s army, and that was not how they were expected to behave.

Even if she was tempted to forget herself, Legolas was sitting on the floor at the foot of his father’s bed, and he leveled a sidelong look at her as if he knew or guessed her thoughts.  It was not a jealous look, but rather one that implied that he could appreciate her inner conflict and would hold her to her duty.  “He will mend,” he said simply.  “He needs only time.”

Tauriel allowed herself a frustrated sigh.  “That, at least, we seem to have in abundance.”  She stood and resumed her restless pacing, feeling like a caged animal.  “This storm is very strange.  Could it be the work of the Necromancer?”

Legolas shrugged.  “I do not know,” he said.  “The King may know.”

“Dol Guldur has harried us with foul weather before,” Caladwen reminded them.

“And yet there are many forces at work in the world besides the Necromancer,” Legolas said firmly, putting a stop to all useless speculation.  “Sometimes a storm is just a storm, however unfortunate.”

They all fell into pensive silence again, and someone threw another log onto the fire.  The wind moaned fiercely outside, searching out every chink in the walls and darkening the windows with snow, seemingly intent upon burying them.  It made the small barracks seem very oppressive, especially with sixteen of them in a room built for twelve.

The King would know best what to do, but to simply wait while he lay insensible was unbearable.  They would be lost without him.  “Surely there is something we can do to aid his recovery, my lord,” Tauriel said, casting about for a plan.  “Did not Lord Galadhmir lend him the strength to live when he was sorely wounded in Mordor?  And did he not keep the Queen alive by his own power for several years?”

Legolas looked at her incredulously.  “That power is beyond any of us here,” he said.  “Patience never was your most robust virtue, Tauriel.  Do not touch him,” he insisted sharply as she took a step forward.  It was not a rebuke, but a warning.  “The King is trying to gather this strength again, and he might unintentionally draw upon yours.”

Tauriel threw her arms wide at what seemed an obvious solution.  “I say, let him!  If we cannot give him our strength, why not let him take it?”

Legolas narrowed his eyes.  “That would be unwise, perhaps dangerous, and certainly not something the King would condone,” he said.  “We have seen how deeply he draws upon the wood.  He may take more than you can safely give.”

“Surely there are enough of us here to at least see him on his feet again,” Tauriel persisted. 

“I agree with Captain Tauriel, my lord,” said Tavoron, one of the King’s Guardsmen, climbing to his feet.  “I cannot bear this hateful idleness any longer, not while he suffers.”

Legolas turned to him with all the stern authority his rank commanded.  “You will bear what your King asks you to bear, Guardsman, be it hateful or not,” he said. 

But now Guardsman Garavorn had come to stand with his comrade, and Captain Caladwen, and one by one all the other soldiers of the border patrol.  “We swore to bear his burdens, my lord,” Caladwen reminded him, “to live and die in his service.  Whatever he may say when he wakes, I do not think he could charge us with faithlessness.”

Legolas sighed, confronted with a benevolent mutiny.  Finally, he stood as well.  “None of you need feel compelled to do this,” he said, “but if you are determined to try, let it be through me.  I may be able to lessen the risk to the rest of you.”

They all agreed.  As Thranduil’s son, Legolas was the most like him and the strongest among them.  They joined hands to form a chain, a living conduit for the King to draw upon, reinforcing one another so none had to bear the brunt alone.  Tauriel took hold of Tavoron on her left, Legolas on her right, and nodded briskly.  “We are ready, my lord,” she said.

Legolas looked back at them with a last glance of grim apprehension, and then gently took his father’s hand.

Tauriel heard him grunt and saw him tense, and in a moment she felt it tear through her as well, a desperate yawning void seeking to be satisfied.  It was like standing too near a whirlwind that reached into the very core of her being, dragging the life out of her with a speed and force that took her breath away.  After only a few agonizing moments, and long before the ravenous demand lessened, Legolas let go.

Tauriel steadied herself against the bunk beside her.  She was cold and unbalanced, and she felt she might be sick.  Her wilting companions-in-arms seemed to have fared no better, and somewhere in the shadows she heard someone vomit.  Legolas wearily sank down to his previous position beside the King’s bed and closed his eyes.  Thranduil drew a deep breath and stirred in his sleep, but did not yet wake.  Despite that, he did seem improved.

Tauriel lay down on the bunk to rest, satisfied but sobered by the experience.  She did not regret it, but now she understood Legolas’ caution.  She did not like to think what might have happened had she attempted it alone.  Her zeal would get her into trouble someday if she could not learn to temper it.  That must be why the elder lords always seemed so grim, forever weighing a thousand different concerns and circumstances before taking any action. 

It would be a difficult habit to learn, but no doubt a very important one.



When Thranduil opened his eyes, he was very disoriented.  He assumed it was morning, it must be morning, yet there was no sign of it.  The last embers were dying on the hearth, the windows were dark, and everyone else was dead asleep.  That last was the most unusual.  Even amid a blizzard, it was customary to post a sentry.

He sat up and carefully stretched, first one way and then the other, feeling his spine crack back into alignment after a night on the field bunk.  Every muscle ached after yesterday’s ordeal, but it was not unbearable.  He continued to wonder at the lamentable state of his soldiers, but then, out of the mess of dream and emotion and half-formed memory that was the previous night, he began to suspect. 

He prodded Legolas with the toe of his boot.  “A weary night’s work, was it?” he asked.

Legolas blinked and shook himself awake with an effort.  He seemed unsure how to answer, so he changed the subject.  “I am relieved to see you looking so well this morning, my lord.”

“Am I correct in assuming I have more than my own powers of convalescence to thank for that?”

Legolas looked rather sheepish.  “Tauriel began it, but they all insisted on making the effort,” he said.  “There was no dissuading them.  I stood between lest they injure themselves.”

“An extremely generous sacrifice on their part, to be sure,” Thranduil said, “and extremely reckless.  I am not ungrateful, but I trust their sorry condition this morning will dissuade them from taking such risks in the future.”

Legolas looked at him with a wry smile.  “They may think twice the next time,” he agreed, “but I doubt any one of them has thought better of it.  You know them too well for that.”

Thranduil returned the expression.  “Yes, I do.”  He would not change them for anything.  “But, sick or not, we have many duties to attend.  Get them up.  We must see if we can find the sun.”

As Legolas stirred the rest of them, Thranduil opened the door.  He was met by a frozen wall of snow.  Borrowing a broom from the hearth, he thrust the handle as high into the drift as he could and stirred it, looking for the top.  It was just within reach, and the blinding glint of sunlight confirmed that it was indeed morning.  Digging and compacting a path to the top, Thranduil eventually broke the surface and thrust his way out into the free air. 

The view was equally beautiful and awful.  The structures of the outpost were barely visible above the suffocating blanket of snow, and the forest for miles in every direction was drowned in the silent frozen flood.  He climbed out of the hole he had made and stepped lightly out onto the surface, enjoying for a moment the utter quiet and stillness a new snow always brought.  The freak storm was not the work of the Necromancer, he was certain.  It felt too clean, too natural.  But, whatever its origins, it would still cause a great deal of grief.  Thranduil hoped his efforts had not been in vain, that the trees had been able to protect themselves against the worst damage, but that would not be apparent until winter broke.  In the meantime, the autumn harvest was unfinished, and the wild beasts would certainly suffer.  There were lean times ahead.

The others were beginning to join him on the vast field of snow.  Thranduil waited a moment until they had all presented themselves and then turned to face them.  They still looked a bit ragged, but they stood in their ranks to receive their orders.

Thranduil considered his words carefully, looking them over with a critical eye.  “I gather you have all been taking risks beyond your station,” he said severely, “even after you had been advised against it.”  None dared to meet his gaze, looking discreetly at their feet or blindly into the distance.  “Any one of you might have been severely injured.  It was unnecessary and foolhardy . . . and deeply appreciated.” 

Now they did look up, sharing sidelong smiles with one another.  Thranduil arched his brow and they immediately straightened again, allowing him to continue.

“I will say that I am greatly honored by your sacrifice, that I could not wish for braver or more loyal soldiers, but also,” he qualified, “that I hope you will be more willing to heed the counsel of your superiors in future.”

“Yes, my lord,” they all said in crisp unison.

“Very well.” Thranduil smiled.  “I hope you all conserved strength enough for our work this morning, for we have not another moment to lose.  We must dig out the horses.”

As it happened, that was the beginning of an extraordinarily harsh winter.  The freeze was deep, and the snows never relented.  For five months the north was buried in a frozen sea.  Roads had to be excavated and continually cleared to be of any use.  Rations were short, but no one starved.  Many animals had to be culled to protect the wellbeing of the larger population, and the meat was not wasted.

The thaw finally came in the spring, but the absurd masses of melting snow soon saturated the ground and caused persistent flooding.  The rivers swelled and the rest of the wood was ankle-deep in cold water and mud for more than a month.  The floodwaters did not much trouble the dormant trees, but the small shrubs and undergrowth were suffocated and died off.  The berry yeilds would be poor that year.  Fortunately, Thranduil’s efforts to preserve the wood had done just that.  The broadleaf trees within his borders had suffered very little damage and rebounded quickly.  The evergreens were marked by winterburn in their extremities, but soon recovered. 

The worst effects of the long winter would not be apparent until the summer and autumn, but Thranduil suspected it would be grim.  Spring planting in all the surrounding lands would be delayed by the flood, and crop yields would be dismal.  Famine seemed unavoidable.  There would probably be nothing available to import that year at any price.

That would change things.  Not only would they have to adjust to life without the supplies of grain, fruit, and other staples to which they had become accustomed, but other realms would be suffering as well.  The situation presented a strange amalgamation of hardship and opportunity, and Thranduil was determined to make the best of both.

By order of the King, the spring foraging began on an unprecedented scale, anticipating the needs of the neighboring populations.  Spruce tips, pine shoots, and young bulrushes were collected and fermented.  Healthy maple and birch trees were tapped for sap.  Mushrooms were gathered and dried.  Pollen from the same pine trees and bulrushes was gathered for use as a spice or to be made into bread.  During the summer they gathered every flowering weed with seeds enough to be worthwhile as alternative grain.  They ventured beyond the edge of the wood to cut the grasses in the empty lands and dry it into winter fodder for the horses and the few other animals they kept.

The famine struck the north with sudden brutality in the autumn.  Thranduil’s scouts confirmed that many crops had failed in Rhovanion and that people were beginning to starve.  Representatives of Esgaroth and Dale were the first to approach him to negotiate for his gathered stores.  Thranduil had already given the situation a great deal of thought, and he pulled aside the emissary from the Lord of Dale to speak to him particularly. 

“Walk with me,” he said, inviting the Man to accompany him deep into the storerooms.  “We have anticipated your needs and are prepared to provide the provisions you require.  There is one point, however, upon which I would have your lord’s cooperation.”

“Name it, my lord.  The Men of Dale have always honored their friendship with the Wood.”

“Erebor has not yet approached me,” Thranduil explained, “yet I imagine they must be suffering as well.”

“Undoubtedly,” the emissary agreed.  “They purchase large winter stores from us each year at this time, but now there are none to spare.”

“I am not insensitive to the plight of Thrór’s people,” Thranduil continued, accepting the keys from the cellarer, “and I would not wish starvation upon anyone, but in this case, I have decided not to deal with them directly.  This famine may endure for some time, and I will expect to be well compensated for stripping the Wood of its resources on your behalf.  The expense may well ruin Dale unless other arrangements are made.”

The Man’s face had become very grim.  He was not in a position to object, and he knew it.  “I am listening, my lord.”

Thranduil paused for a moment to unlock a storeroom door.  He opened it to show his guest an enormous collection of wild seeds in sacks.  He then closed and locked it again and continued walking.  “King Thrór sits upon a vast hoard of treasure in the depths of the Mountain,” he said.  “I know because he had the courtesy to show it to me.”  He unlocked the next door, displaying casks upon casks of tree syrup and honey, then secured it again.  “I am willing to accept a modest price for our first shipment to Dale if your lord will consider purchasing a surplus.  It will be his responsibility to sell that at a dearer price to the Dwarves in order to meet my requirements in future.”

An understanding dawned on the Man’s features as Thranduil opened the next door upon an extremely precious collection of smoked meats.  “I see the wisdom in your scheme, my lord,” he said.  “Thus, the wealth of Erebor may both recompense the Wood and support our city through our hardships.” 

Thranduil allowed himself to share a cunning smile with him.  “Such are the perils of flaunting your treasures.  Had Thrór the benefit of greater experience and shrewder kingcraft two hundred years ago, he may have thought better of it.” 

The Dwarves had bled him dry when once he had sought their assistance, and he was quite happy to return the favor.

The autumn foraging continued with new purpose now that the cruel circumstances of the surrounding lands were known.  Fortunately for everyone, the oaks had determined it to be a mast year and dropped acorns in special abundance.  Beechnuts and chestnuts were also gathered, though with care to not deprive the animals of their sustenance.  The berry bushes had been replanted but were too young to yield any fruit.  The Queen’s rose petals were harvested and dried, and later the ripened rose hips.  Many plants produced another crop of seeds which were carefully collected before the plants themselves were harvested, leaf, stalk, and root, in the face of the oncoming winter.  The last mushrooms were cut.  As the season grew late and the cold was coming upon them again, whole birch and pine trees were felled not only for fuel but so that both the outer and the tender inner bark could be shaved off and made into rough flour.  Then the hunting began in earnest, gathering the meat of deer, boar, and even bear before the beasts could be emaciated by the winter.

Then the snows were upon them again.  It did not seem as though it would be as long or as cold as the previous winter, but winter was winter, and it always brought its own challenges.  While the Wood had been spared the scarcity inflicted on the world all around them, it was no easy feat to support themselves and all the realms of Men and Dwarves into the bargain, no matter how lucrative the effort may be.  Thranduil’s treasuries were full, but his cellars were rapidly emptying.  The demand from Rhovanion had not lessened, and yet he was reluctant to bleed his own people any further.  He took counsel with his lords and governors and it was decided that they could afford to continue supplying their neighbors with the barest necessities if they all agreed to live on strict rations themselves.  Unable to conscience setting adrift even the Dwarves in the dead of winter, Thranduil agreed. 

It became a slow race to see whether their stores would hold until the thaw.  Thranduil attempted to lead by example, as miserable as he found the task.  Pine was admittedly not his favorite flavor, yet now he found himself and his guard deep in the wood with nothing to eat but wretched pine bark waybread and the dregs of a supply of pine needle tea.  An ice storm had delayed them unexpectedly and they had exhausted their provisions, particularly for their horses.  Thankfully, they were nearing a village of Woodmen.

Dorthaer hailed the inhabitants as they approached, and several people piled out of their doors as the Elves dismounted in front of the largest hall.  “King Thranduil!” the chief among the elders stammered, bowing awkwardly.  “We did not expect you!”

“And I did not expect to be here,” Thranduil said, quite honestly.  “My companions and I can bear the deprivation a bit longer, but we must have something for our horses.”

“Forgive us, my lord,” they said, “but we have nothing to spare.”

“What have you been feeding your own animals?” Thranduil asked.

“We ate our animals some time ago, my lord.”

“I see.  Bread, then.  You will be greatly rewarded.”

“A gracious offer, my lord, but I fear it would do us little good.  We cannot eat your gold.”

Thranduil sighed tersely.  He could not fault them for their poverty.  “Do you have anything at all?” he asked.

“What bread we have is the last of our stores,” the chief admitted.  “There is not enough even for us.”

Thranduil frowned.  He felt all of them watching him, felt the cold sadness of despair that came with hopeless hunger.  They may be delayed there much longer than he had planned.  “Put the horses in your stable and feed them,” he said.  “Wait for me.  I will return as soon as I may.”  He bid his guard stand down and stalked away into the frozen forest alone.

The storm the previous night had covered the whole landscape in a thick coat of ice, and the only sound was the creaking and crackling of the trees in the breeze.  Thranduil took his bow in hand and fitted an arrow to the string, though he did not trouble to disguise his movements.  He was loath to use his influence in this way, but he did not have time to conduct a proper hunt.  Cruel circumstances pressed them all.

Standing alone in a snowy clearing, Thranduil cleared his mind and put forth his call. 

It was a long and weary wait, but the wood once again answered to the King.  An old stag presented himself, gliding slowly into the clearing, still proud through weak and thin.  Rather than starve to death, he in his mute animal way consented to submit to the King’s necessity.

Thranduil put away his bow and reached out to stroke him, reluctant now to do what he must.  He was a magnificent beast, scarred by many seasons, crowned with a regal pair of antlers which he had retained very late into the winter.  It was as if he understood he would not live to see the spring and wished to die with his dignity intact.  He would not suffer much longer.

Thranduil put his hand on the stag’s shoulder and gently let him back through the frozen stillness.  It was a somber procession, and even the winter birds kept silent.  The village seemed deserted except for the plumes of smoke as the Woodmen sheltered from the cold.  Only the King’s Guard stood watch, and they quietly mobilized to assist him.

At last, the stag folded his legs beneath him with a groan and lay in the snow.  Thranduil sat with him for several long moments, resting the great shaggy head on his shoulder.  Word had spread and the Woodmen began to reappear, but none dared disturb the silence.  Dorthaer approached with a basin, and Thranduil gently indicated the hind leg.  Understanding immediately, Dorthaer positioned the basin and drew his knife.  One shallow but decisive cut released a copious flow of blood driven by the beating heart.  The noble beast would be allowed to bleed out quietly in the arms of the King.

Finally the stag slumped heavily against him, and Thranduil knew it was dead.  It took him another moment to put aside the melancholy emotion of the experience and turn to the grislier business at hand, but a moment was all that could be spared.

Dorthaer carried away the collected blood as Thranduil and Tavoron tied a long rope around the stag’s neck, dragged it away to a nearby tree and hoisted the carcass into the air.  Shedding his vambraces, Thranduil grimly rolled up his sleeves and tied back his hair, drew his knife, and opened the carcass from top to bottom.  His guards appeared beside him in turns with borrowed bowls and trays to receive the heart, lungs, liver, and tongue as he cut them free.  Everything else that required additional preparation was set aside for the Woodmen to cache. 

Finally, the cavity empty, Thranduil propped it open with a stick and left it to hang until the rigor of death subsided.  He turned, bloody up to the elbows, back toward the center of the village where his soldiers had thrown together a hurried blood soup with the offal in the great cauldron above the fire pit.  Some of the women thoughtfully brought him a pail of icy water to wash in, which he accepted graciously.

He had fed them for a day, perhaps even for two, but it would not suffice for long.  When he returned home, he must see if there was anything he could send them.  When he had reassembled himself, Thranduil came to stand with Dorthaer as the other supervised the proceedings.  A weary line of villagers had formed with bowls in hand to receive their portions.  Thranduil’s own empty stomach churned, but he chose to ignore it.  He knew where his next meal would come from, which was more than these people could say.

A small child kept looking at him as she and her mother approached the fire.  Thranduil thought nothing of it; he was well-accustomed to being an object of curiosity.  They were served their meals and the mother tried to steer the child away, but the young one hesitated, her small brows furrowed beneath her heavy woolen cap.  Then she turned and marched over the snow toward the Elvenking.

She was little more than a bundle of coats and scarves with legs, carrying her steaming bowl very carefully.  She stopped in front of Thranduil and wordlessly held it up to him. 

“Thank you, dearheart,” Thranduil said, gently accepting the bowl from her.  She stared up at him unabashedly for several long moments before simply turning and marching back to her mother. 

Thranduil turned to see Dorthaer smiling broadly, a rare occurrence.  “She would not have you feel unappreciated, my lord,” he said.

“No, indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  He knew very well that he was appreciated, but it was a comfort to be reminded from time to time, to have someone see through him so completely and acknowledge his needs. 

It made the hardship worthwhile.

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