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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 37 - Fire

Almost as soon as the famine induced by the Long Winter was finally breaking, Dol Guldur redoubled its assault upon the north.  The Necromancer recognized their weakness and pressed them on all fronts, challenging their borders, infesting the wood with spiders and other foul beasts, and darkening Thranduil’s dreams so that he could get no rest.  So determined was the onslaught that within a few years the darkness of Mirkwood had completely overtaken the western border of the wood, leaving the Galennath restricted to the northeastern region beyond the Forest River.  It was at the river that Thranduil stubbornly planted his standard once again, halting the shadow’s rapid advance with a monumental effort.  He spent almost an entire year deployed among his soldiers along that border, strengthening it against further incursions and building a network of defenses. 

The following decade gave them no reprieve, though the border held firm.  The shadows of Mirkwood were deep, but Thranduil was determined to at least maintain their road which reached to the western borderlands.  He may not be able to hold the entire wood, but he had no intention of being stranded in the east without a fight.  Heavily armed patrols were sent regularly to cut back the choking foliage and to remind the encroaching darkness that the road belonged to the King.

It was one of these patrols which was of concern to him now.  He had been urgently called to the river which cut through that region, flowing down from the polluted mountains of Mirkwood before it joined the Forest River in the north.  Its waters had been dark ever since the mountains had been overrun, but now he was given to understand that its condition had dramatically worsened.

Legolas was waiting at the bridge when Thranduil and his guard arrived and dismounted.  He certainly looked very grim.  “There has been an incident, my lord,” he said.

“An incident?” Thranduil repeated dryly.  “I do not like the sound of that.”

Legolas turned and led him into the guardhouse built unobtrusively amid the trees on the near bank.  On the bunks inside lay three shrouded corpses and two other soldiers who, although still alive, seemed utterly insensible to what moved around them.  Immediately apprehending the gravity of the situation, if not the cause, Thranduil turned back to his son.  “Speak to me,” he demanded.

“They were making ready to repair the bridge,” Legolas explained.  “These five leapt into the water to inspect the damage, but were immediately stricken with an enchanted sleep.  Three drowned, but these two were pulled out in time.”

“And what has their condition been since?” Thranduil asked.

Legolas shrugged.  “Just as you see, my lord.  They have not stirred for several days.”

Channeling his anger and dread into a cold resolve, Thranduil lay his hand on the nearest victim.  He could not feel any distress in him, simply a deep and unnatural restfulness.  He discerned even a hint of pleasure, which strangely annoyed him.  He inserted himself into what were obviously pleasant dreams and muddled them up, gradually dragging his soldier back to consciousness.  He did not pay them as well as he did to be forever whiling away the hours, worrying everyone and causing him anxiety he could ill afford.

The soldier stirred in his sleep, eliciting a ripple of relief among his comrades who had gathered at the door.  Then he stretched and frowned.  “Why did you wake me?” he complained bitterly.  “I had no desire to leave such a lovely dream and return to this miserable place.”  Then he opened his eyes and saw the King standing over him with a baleful expression.  He scrambled upright and fought to compose himself.  “Forgive me, my lord,” he said.  “What is your command?”

Thranduil gave him a last critical look before dismissing the matter.  “My command is that you recover yourself as soon as possible,” he said, moving on to the next in need of his attention.  “There is work to be done yet.”

He found the other in much the same condition.  Thranduil disturbed his repose as well, calling him out of the realm of pleasant fantasy and back into the waking world of toil and trouble.  The indignant soldier took a blind swing at him, but Thranduil caught his wrist.  “Leave off, you fools,” he grumbled, trying to shake the King’s grip. 

“Not quite the correct manner of address for your King and Commander,” Thranduil said, startling the life back into him in turn.  “Pull yourself together.” 

While the rest of the patrol rejoiced in the survivors’ recovery, Legolas accompanied Thranduil down to the riverbank.  The water did not seem particularly threatening, perhaps a bit darker and gloomier in the deep places.  Thranduil crouched and put his hand near the surface, careful not to touch it.  “There is certainly some foul enchantment upon it,” he said, standing again, “if not the work of the Necromancer, then certainly by some servant of his.  Perhaps we may blame the wraiths.  They have been abroad spreading their morgul curses of late.”

“I suppose we should be thankful that its effects are not so unpleasant or so permanent as we feared,” Legolas said, but then he retreated a step as Thranduil frowned at him.  “That is, if one survives the onset,” he amended.

Thranduil was seething interiorly, his temper worn thin by the strain of the past years.  This was just another addition to the accumulation of unpleasant indignities he and his realm had to endure.  He would have to study the enchantment which had poisoned that stream, and hopefully prevent it from spreading into the Forest River.  It would be truly unfortunate to be deprived of all their most dependable water sources. 

As he returned along the Elven road to his own halls, Thranduil turned aside briefly to inspect Tauriel’s position.  She was clearing the spiders along the southern border of the Forest River, as had become her special obsession.  The Necromancer’s monstrosities were intruding ever nearer, choking the trees with their webs and unsettling the whole region.  Very little seemed to intimidate them, so the best solution was still to simply slaughter them.  There was always a small reprieve in the winter when they could discover and destroy the eggs, but it never seemed to last.

Thranduil found the patrol just as they were gathering several large corpses for burning in a glade offensively near the palace.  “I see you have been about your business, Captain,” he said, slowing his horse but making no move to dismount.  “The creatures apparently know no shame.”

“They have grown very bold, my lord,” Tauriel agreed, cleaning her filthy blade.  “I fear they are spawning much nearer Dol Guldur.  Perhaps if we hunt them near their source, we could finally stem their spread.”

Thranduil arched his brow at her casual audacity.  “It is not the logic of your scheme which is at fault,” he said, “but its practicality.  That dread fortress lies well beyond our borders, and I will not sacrifice my soldiers to antagonize it.  Your task is to keep our own lands clear of these foul creatures, which I am certain will prove challenge enough.”

“But will they not spread to other lands if we fail to cull them?” she demanded.

“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, “but other lands are not my concern.”  He knew he should no longer tolerate such bald questioning from her, but old habits were slow to change.  “You and I may be loath to admit it, Tauriel, but we all have our limitations.  You have seen the ruin in the west which our greatest efforts have only just managed to contain.  Would you have me neglect the defense of our realm to bother about spiders wandering into Wilderland?”

Tauriel sighed, impatient and frustrated.  “No, my lord,” she said.

“No, indeed.”  Thranduil offered her a conciliatory smile.  “If we try to be all things to all people, we are nothing to anyone.  Let the people of Wilderland manage the perils of this world in their own way.  We have troubles of our own.”

Tauriel’s face settled into a sort of resigned scowl, as though she wanted to say more but could not yet find fault with his reasoning.  Before she could give the matter deeper thought, they were interrupted by a shrill flock of birds flying overhead in alarm.  They arrested Thranduil’s attention at once.  Other small flocks followed, streaking into the west with an unsettling urgency.  They spoke of danger, ruin, death, and fire.  Fire, fire, fire.

Not yet certain what to make of it, Thranduil spun his horse around and raced back to the caverns.  If there was anything to be seen, he could see it much more clearly from a higher vantage point.  Their mounts were winded and coughing by the time his party crested the summit of the hill, but Thranduil was immediately gratified to see the wood was not ablaze.  An ominous plume of smoke, however, was rising from Erebor in the distant east.  Dale, it seemed, was also burning. 

“What has happened, my lord?” Garavorn asked, following his line of sight.

Thranduil motioned for silence, watching the disaster unfold, a keen and terrible suspicion growing in his mind.  Then he saw it, sailing out of the choking fume on broad coppery wings, spewing flame on the sides of the Mountain.  He cursed sharply.  “Dragon.”



“Do you intend to send succor to the survivors of the attack?” Linhir asked as he and Thranduil strode purposefully through the caverns.  The place was stricken with a strange kind of slow panic, no one quite knowing what to do or expect.

“Absolutely not,” Thranduil said.  “No one is to venture beyond the trees until we are certain the beast is settled in the Mountain.  I will not provoke it nor risk luring it here.”

“Understood,” Linhir agreed, though his brow furrowed.  “But it seems rather cruel to simply leave them to their fate.”

“They brought this calamity upon themselves, and I have other obligations,” Thranduil growled.  He sighed and paused for a moment in the passage.  “I will not risk our own people,” he said, “but any who seek shelter in the Wood are free to do so, Man and Dwarf alike.”

Linhir nodded.  “The marchwardens will be informed,” he said. 

“And tell Master Noruvion to be prepared to treat a great many burns,” Thranduil added, dismissing him.

He had learned to brave many adversaries in his time—Orcs, Trolls, Wargs, monstrous spiders, Ringwraiths, evil Men, corrupted Elves, and even Sauron himself—but there were still other foes in Middle-earth of whom Thranduil wanted no part, and dragons were among them.  The fire-drakes especially haunted his dreams after they had briefly encountered them during the War of Wrath. 

His strongest instinct was to be silent and hide until the beast claimed his spoils of war and disappeared.  Its armored scales would be nigh impenetrable and its capacity for wanton destruction immense.  Armies would be useless against it, charred and scattered like so much kindling.  Only stealth or an impossibly accurate frontal assault by a single champion would stand any chance at all, and Thranduil would have the advantage of neither at the head of a large force. 

After a day or two, the watch on the summit of the hill reported that the dragon was no longer seen outside the ruined halls of Erebor.  Some of the people of Dale had fled to the temporary shelter of Esgaroth, others had stubbornly determined to stay in the smoldering wreck of the city, and others had begun the weary march to Mirkwood.

As the King had promised, all were granted leave to shelter in the wood until they could determine whether they would seek homes elsewhere or return to rebuild.  They mostly kept to themselves, grateful for the Elvenking’s generosity, but in no mood to be sociable.  It was rare that he was obliged to grant audiences to any of their alms-guests, but before many days had passed Thranduil was approached by an impressive delegation whom he could not ignore.  They were announced, as proudly as may be considering recent events, as he sat on his throne attending the business of the morning.

“Thrór, King Under the Mountain, Thráin, son of Thrór, Thorin, son of Thráin, and their companions seek audience with Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm.”

The lynx at his feet, whom Tauriel had given him as an orphaned kit, rose with a rasping growl, sensing the sudden tension in the court.  Thranduil rebuked her, and she leapt up to sprawl in his lap.  “I shall hear them,” he said, and though it would have been unseemly to admit it, he could not help feeling a twinge of deep satisfaction as the circumstances of their first meeting were reversed. 

The Dwarves approached him stiffly, clearly uncomfortable with the new humility required of them.  “My lord,” Thrór began, “you have surely heard of the misfortune which has befallen us.  Smaug, the greatest of the last fire-drakes, has come upon us suddenly and driven us from the Mountain.  Our armies are destroyed, and our people are scattered.  Our brethren in the Iron Hills will march to aid us, yet I fear their forces will prove insufficient without reinforcement.  We must beg your assistance in routing the dragon from his hold.”

Thranduil said nothing, the silence disturbed only by the rumbling purr of the cat as he pensively kneaded her scruff in his fingers.  He was not savoring the moment at the Dwarves’ expense, but rather considering his reply.  His mind was already decided, yet he knew his answer would fall hard upon them after they had so abased themselves.

“As you yourself observed many years ago,” Thrór continued, filling the awkward silence, “it is in your own interest as well as ours to see the dragon removed.  For any service you and your armies render in our cause, my lord, we shall place ourselves in your debt.”  The entire party of them bowed low over their belts so that their beards touched the floor.

Thranduil recognized the solemnity of the gesture, and he chose his words carefully.  “I am deeply sensible of the honor of your proposition, my lords,” he began.  “There are none who do not know the value and the fearsome reputation of Dwarvish soldiers.  However,” he said, coming to the grim point, “the ease with which the dragon worsted such doughty warriors does not encourage me to commit my own.”

The Dwarves straightened and their faces darkened.  It was not the answer they desired.

“While you are correct in assuming that I greatly desire to see the dragon removed,” Thranduil continued, “I cannot see how it may be done, certainly not by sacrificing my entire army to the flames as you did.”

Thrór was livid, and the rest of his companions with him.  “You would leave us to rot in the wilds?” he demanded, incredulous.  “Do you lack all honor?”

“There is no honor in this world which will oblige me to waste the lives of my people in another’s folly,” Thranduil insisted, finally raising his voice.  “I warned you of what your greed would summon, but you would not listen.  There is nothing to be done.  Erebor is lost.  That is no fault of mine.”

“Certainly it is lost if neighbors and allies are content to do nothing!” Thrór raged, hot with despair.  “Mighty Thranduil, the great and generous King of the Wood, now refuses to honor his word!  He would turn his back on the suffering of my people, using his duty as a cloak for his craven avarice!”

“I have reigned far too long to be swayed by cheap accusations of cowardice!” Thranduil sneered.  “I am sworn to none but my own people.  To march against the dragon is out of the question.  I will not consider it.  The slaughter would be unconscionable and likely fruitless.”

The indignant Dwarves moved to storm out of the hall, but the guards closed ranks around them at a gesture from the King.

“Be that as it may,” Thranduil continued icily, not finished speaking yet, “since you have impugned my generosity, I must see that slander plainly contradicted.  You may enjoy my hospitality as long as you can stomach it.  Afterward, you will be well supplied and granted safe conduct to pass through my dominion and go where you will.  I advise you to be satisfied with that.”

The final looks they exchanged were poisonous, but Thranduil was unconcerned.  He doubted he would see any of them again.

He was as good as his word.  Thrór and his companions were too aggrieved to linger more than a few days, and when they announced their intention to leave, they were warned of the various dangers along the route, furnished with letters of safe conduct, stout woodland ponies, supplies, food, even some small weapons and a little money.  In their present state, the Dwarves seemed so discomfited as to be offended by Thranduil’s liberality, but that was their affair.  They were still quite proud, but none were so foolish as to refuse his gifts. 

Many of the displaced inhabitants of Dale overwintered in the Wood.  Thranduil was still wary of the dragon, and the longer it remained unseen and unheard inside the Mountain the better he liked it.  When spring came again and still the beast did not emerge, he was finally willing to allow his people to risk the open road.

His messengers returned with representatives from Esgaroth, the village on the lakeshore.  The Men had conceived a plan to expand the place into a proper town to accommodate all those who did not care to return to the half-ruined city of Dale.  They showed him a plan they had drawn of a thriving city upon the lake mounted on great pylons.  The difficulty lay in acquiring the lumber necessary for such an undertaking. 

Impressed, Thranduil agreed to provide all the wood they may require, and in return he accepted preferential treatment in all future trade the Woodland Realm would conduct through that city.  Large swaths of the recently corrupted forest were cleared, places where the trees were not yet so sickened as to be useless.  At the same time, the effort thinned the forest on the hostile border, making any attack easier to observe. 

Great barges piled high with logs seemed to crowd the waterways for quite some time.  Those Elves who wished to volunteer their labor and their time were permitted to accompany the barges and help with the building.  Thus, the new city on the lake was completed more quickly than the architects had anticipated, and was ready to house its citizens by the time the first snows fell.  King Thranduil was informed by the grateful Master of Esgaroth that there would be a place of honor ever ready for him in the great hall should he choose to visit.

Thranduil was genuinely pleased by the success of the endeavor, and he appreciated the mettle of those Men who were determined to live their lives in the dragon’s shadow.  He was glad to see them stay.  The Dwarvish kingdom and all its riches may be lost, but it was no bad thing to still have a privileged relationship with the most influential center of trade in the region.

Perhaps he would visit Esgaroth one day, but now he was sorely needed on his own borders.  The dark things of Mirkwood seemed emboldened by the presence of the dragon and were pressing their advantage.  He had a great deal of grim work to do before he could risk another pleasure cruise downriver. 

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