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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 38 - To Resist Despair

Gandalf shoved open Durin’s Gate from the inside and stumbled out of Moria into the dazzlingly bright daylight.  He pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes and cursed the physical body he was forced to wander in, not for the first time.  He had sent a sparrow to relay his message to Radagast, an eagle to Saruman, and he had spoken to the sentries on the borders of Lothlórien to summon the Lady before he had passed under the mountains.  The White Council must reconvene immediately.

It was a long and weary march north along the course of the Bruinen, but at last he found the subtle paths which led him into the hidden valley and to Imladris.  News of his arrival quickly came to Lord Elrond, who appeared at the top of the stairs before Gandalf and his escort reached the front door.

“Mithrandir!”  He greeted him warmly, spreading his arms in welcome.  “I had heard that you were returning in haste from some business in the south, and I hoped you would stop by and share the news with us.”

“It is not good news, I fear, my lord,” Gandalf admitted, and Elrond’s smile quickly faded.  “First, we must summon Lord Círdan and the other members of the Council.  I have sent word to Radagast, Saruman, and Lady Galadriel.  We have urgent matters to discuss.”  He grimaced and shifted where he stood.  “And while you are doing that, I would be ever so grateful to put my feet up somewhere and have a bite to eat.  The northern road seems to lengthen each time I walk it.”

“Say no more, my friend,” Elrond assured him.  “I shall leave you in Lindir’s capable hands and personally attend our other business.  We shall not speak of it again until we are all gathered.”

The amenities on offer in Elrond’s House did a great deal to restore his strength, but Gandalf was still greatly troubled in mind.  He was plagued by an urgency he could not satisfy, not until he had laid the facts of the matter before the Council.  He could not succeed alone, not this time.  He found it difficult to rest, though he forced himself to sleep and occasionally to meditate in the gardens.  The thought of what was moving in the wide lands beyond that enchanted valley haunted him, the perils and threats faced by the good people of Middle-earth while he sat in comfort and did nothing.  It seemed he had been doing little better than nothing for many years.  Now he was ready and determined to act, and he was confident his peers would join him.  After all, that was the entire purpose of the White Council. 

The other members gradually began to arrive just as he felt the idleness would drive him mad.  Glorfindel and Gildor were already present.  Lady Galadriel came in company with Radagast, Círdan rode in from the havens, and finally Saruman arrived from his distant home in Gondor.  With a great effort, Gandalf contained his impatience as they all took a formal dinner together and then at last gathered in secrecy.  All the servants and other members of Lord Elrond’s household withdrew for the night lest anything be overheard.

“Well come and well met once again, my friends,” Elrond began in the full moonlight, officially opening the proceedings.  “But, as Mithrandir arrived with great urgency and has been waiting with ever thinning patience, I shall not waste our time with further pleasantries.  Please, Mithrandir, tell us what troubles you.”

“It is once again the Necromancer of Mirkwood who troubles me,” Gandalf said, standing to address the assembly.  “He fled too quickly the first time I challenged him, appearing to fear discovery.  When he returned to Dol Guldur after the peace, his spirit was much more virulent.  I could no longer believe him to be merely a Man, some nameless sorcerer as we formerly supposed.  I have been to Dol Guldur again by stealthier means, to observe rather than to challenge, and at last I have seen the Necromancer as he truly is, stripped of all disguise and semblance.  He is indeed Sauron, our great enemy of old!  I knew him, and he knew me.  I was fortunate to escape his servants and his stronghold with my life.”

“This is ill news, indeed!” Glorfindel said.  “How can we have been so blind to his return?  He must be firmly entrenched by now.”

“Often the incremental growth of a shadow can seem insignificant until it is too large to be ignored,” Gandalf observed, “and he has been at great pains to disguise himself.  But, if we move quickly, there is hope that we may rout him.  The One Ring is still lost, and without it Sauron has not his former strength.  I believe a concentrated assault by this council upon Dol Guldur could throw it down and again cripple its master.” 

“Calm yourself, Gandalf,” Saruman interjected.  “Let us proceed with wisdom and not rash judgment.  Let us consider what may be gained before we rush headlong into the east to destroy Dol Guldur.”

There was something snide about Saruman’s tone which irritated Gandalf, and as he considered past events, he realized it had always been Saruman who had dismissed Dol Guldur as a serious concern.  “Is that not our purpose in gathering here?” Gandalf asked curtly.  “You cannot possibly believe even now that we should do nothing.”

Saruman leveled a dark look upon him.  “You have ever been inclined to impetuous action, Gandalf,” he said, “forever meddling here and there in distant lands, stirring up trouble where there need be none.  You tell us the Necromancer is Sauron, but you also confirm that he is but a shadow of his former self.  He will never fully recover without the One Ring, and yet while the Ring exists he cannot be destroyed.  It was almost certainly lost in the Anduin at the dawn of the age, and has since been taken to the Sea.  Let him sit in Dol Guldur and pursue his fruitless search.  Why should we unnecessarily stir him from his hold only to lose him in the vast wastes of Middle-earth?  Better to leave our defeated enemy where he can be easily contained, where we can observe him.”

“But is he contained?”  A thousand objections rose at once in Gandalf’s mind, a thousand voices of aggrieved people who were suffering and dying beneath Dol Guldur’s tyranny day by day.  “Is he defeated?  I believe the Elves of Mirkwood would object strenuously to that assumption.  King Thranduil has been spending all his strength year upon year against that darkness with precious little thanks or assistance from any of us.  I hardly think he would consider our action against Dol Guldur to be unnecessary.”

“Thranduil chose his part long ago,” Saruman insisted, “and by now he surely knows best how to go about it.  Were we to overthrow Dol Guldur on his account, Sauron would only flee to some other land inhabited by people much less capable of opposing him.”

The words burned in Gandalf’s ears.  He had seen the toll the long defeat was taking on the woodland king, and he did not appreciate Saruman’s flippant tone.  He had seen the proud tears glinting in Thranduil’s eyes as he had embraced the unspeakable relief of the Watchful Peace.  He had seen him not two months ago, worn by the effort of defending their ever-shrinking realm against the spread of Sauron’s corruption.  Radagast had seen how the Dark Lord would often ensnare the mind of the weary king in brutally intimate battles of will which Thranduil was ill-qualified to fight, but which he endured with a desolate and hopeless courage which might inspire sympathy in even the hardest heart.  Saruman had seen none of that.  Saruman had seen Thranduil only once more than a thousand years ago and had dismissed him out of hand, a lesser son of greater sires, a foregone casualty of war.

Many bitter words rose to Gandalf’s tongue, accusations, suspicions, even blunt insults, but he clenched his teeth rather than release such bile against a superior in mixed company.  The other members of the council had not yet had a chance to speak, enthralled by the growing confrontation they were witnessing.  Rather than escalate the hostilities, Gandalf turned away and stalked to the shadowy edge of the patio, whipped out his pipe and set it alight.  He sat there for the remainder of the meeting, smoking furiously but saying nothing as his proposal was argued back and forth for several hours.  Galadriel, Glorfindel, and Radagast were of his mind and debated the point at length, but Saruman would not be swayed.  As usual, the elder wizard’s position seemed measured and reasonable, cold and utterly heartless though it seemed to Gandalf. 

When at last the council was dismissed, not long before dawn, it had been decided that they should once again observe and do nothing, at least for the moment.  Half of them were keenly dissatisfied with that outcome, but the possibility remained to reconsider the issue at a later date. 

Saruman approached him in the dark as the others dispersed.  “Why did you not join in the discussion?” he demanded.  “How are we to have fruitful debate if you insist upon sitting in the dark and choking us all in your infernal smoke?”

Gandalf indulged in a few more enormous puffs of pipesmoke, not displeased to see that it was irritating Saruman.  “The Halfling’s leaf gives me patience,” he said stiffly, “something I seem to need a great deal of at present.”  He stood and lowered his voice severely.  “We were sent here to oppose Sauron.  Not to tolerate him, not to observe him, but to help the valiant people of Middle-earth to conquer him.  I accepted your reluctance to move against Dol Guldur before, but now one might begin to suspect you of unseemly motivations.” 

“A fool’s assumption,” Saruman said contemptuously.  “Your impulsive haste has clearly deranged your judgment.  You forget your place.”

“I know my place very well,” Gandalf insisted.  “It is beside the brave of this world who are willing to fight evil when they see it.  Perhaps it is you who have forgotten.  Is it your intention to leave Sauron unchallenged until he has succeeded in gathering all the great rings?”

“He will never succeed in gathering them all,” Saruman insisted.  “Several are lost beyond hope, and none of them will matter if he cannot regain the One.  Set your mind at rest and stop clouding it with this noxious fume.”

Recognizing the futility of the conversation, Gandalf blew a series of defiant smoke rings and seized them in his fist before Saruman’s face, a mute accusation of a half-formed suspicion.  Whether Saruman interpreted it as such or not, he sneered and took his leave.  Was he, Saruman the White, first among the Istari, forming his own designs upon the One Ring?  The idea was absurd, yet there it was. 

Gandalf sat alone, absorbed in thought, oblivious to the passing time.  The jagged ridge of the eastern horizon had just begun to take on a rosy glow when he looked up to see Lady Galadriel beside him.  A glance in the opposite direction confirmed that Lord Elrond had come as well.  It was to be a meeting of the secret council within the council, so intimate that only a handful of individuals in all Middle-earth knew of its existence, a meeting of the Ringbearers.

“So,” Galadriel began grimly, “it seems Sauron crept back into the world almost two thousand years ago, quietly, subtlety, as he is wont, unbeknownst to any of us.”

“Someone knew,” Elrond reminded them with a regretful frown. 

“Yes,” Gandalf agreed darkly, “and now it seems we owe him much more than an apology, though the fault is not entirely ours.  It was exceptionally cruel to show himself to Oropherion while dissembling to the rest of us.  What was Thranduil to do?”

“A predator will seek first the weakest prey,” Elrond said. 

“Yes, but this prey has proven difficult to swallow,” Gandalf observed.  “In fact, I believe he has choked on it.  Thranduil may not have any of the great rings to aid him, but he has found a strength in him that sometimes beggars belief.” 

“It must have been a bitterly lonely task,” Galadriel said with keen sympathy, “standing alone all those years, unable to turn to any of us.  We assumed he was still haunted by his fears and memories of Mordor, until at last he stopped asking to be believed.”

Gandalf sighed.  “What is done is done, regrettable though it may be.  I will not defy the will of the council, but I have not spoken my last of assaulting Dol Guldur.  I must find some way to turn the delay to our advantage, and to aid the good King of Greenwood in whatever way I can.”

Galadriel smiled warmly.  “Go to him, Mithrandir,” she agreed.  “The Three may not reveal themselves, but Thranduil may yet benefit from them.  It was with extraordinary foresight that Círdan gave the Ring of Fire into your keeping with its power to resist despair and rekindle courage.  I would be very surprised if you have not already exercised its virtues upon the Woodland King in the past.”

Gandalf declined to answer directly, though he gave her a wan smile in return.  “I may have done, my lady,” he confessed.

“There you go, meddling again,” Elrond said in jest, finally smiling himself.  “Yes, go, Mithrandir, with the blessing of all the Three, and impart to Thranduil whatever strength Narya may bestow.”

“And by all means tell him he is vindicated,” Galadriel insisted.  “If such a festering injustice may not be wholly righted, at least it can be acknowledged.”

“I will tell him,” Gandalf promised.  “Such vindication may in fact do him more good than all the rings in this world.”



It had been more than eighty years since the dragon had descended upon Erebor, but after the first few decades he had stopped appearing as often in the open air, and his occasional raids on the ruin of Dale had all but ceased.  The Dragon Watch had not had anything to report for quite some time, which was all to the good because the evils of Mirkwood had not allowed the King sufficient time to concern himself with the dragon and his doings. 

The border at the river was holding, but not for lack of challenges.  Unwilling to surrender another foot of ground, Thranduil defended it as though each battle were his last stand.  It was a demanding task, and it had not failed to cross his mind that his enemy might be taking advantage of his jealous fervor to deliberately prod him into exhaustion.  The alternative, however, was to simply allow Sauron to take what he wanted, and so was no alternative at all. 

He had returned to the caverns only twice in the past three seasons, and had been on continuous campaign for longer than he cared to remember.  The spiders were multiplying out of all control, and roving bands of Orcs and Warg riders had been probing the marches for weaknesses.  The western road through Mirkwood was proving difficult to maintain, and Thranduil had made a point of riding the length of it himself at least once each month to maintain his hold on it.  His soldiers and woodland scouts were performing extremely well, but there was something especially efficacious about the King’s personal presence which no amount of bravery on their part could replicate. 

They had just succeeded in killing a large number of spiders who had dared attempt to cross the river.  As the carcasses were gathered for burning, Thranduil sat down against the trunk of a weathered beech tree and closed his eyes for the first time in far too long.  He could not continue at this pace.  He was hungry, he had scarcely slept for several months, and it seemed he lived in his armor.  He thought what a relief it would be to finally shed it.

And then, just as he imagined it, he felt his armor was gone, but not pleasantly so.  Now his spirit was naked beneath the harsh scrutiny of the Lord of Dol Guldur.  It was the same sickening presence he endured each day, but now he could see it.  He knew he was dreaming, but even in sleep he could have no rest, forced to stand in the malevolent glare of Sauron’s hatred and impatience.  Unable to avoid it, Thranduil turned the situation as well as he could, adopting a defiant air which further irritated his enemy.  As if in answer, a vision unfolded before his eyes, a vision of the foul breath of Dol Guldur sweeping into the north and leaving in its wake a bloody ruin of slain soldiers pierced with cruel arrows.  Thranduil recognized the tortured bodies of Legolas and Tauriel among them.

That shocked him awake, and once again Thranduil found himself sitting beneath the tree in full armor while a heap of dead spiders burned behind him.  He did not know how to interpret that brief dream.  Was it a spiteful fantasy, or had he glimpsed his enemy’s mind?  It was not a threat he was prepared to tolerate.  He was on his feet again immediately. 

“Galadhmir!” he called urgently, striding through the foul smoke.  “What news have we had of the Prince and Captain Tauriel?”

Lord Galadhmir looked up from his place beside the pyre and frowned.  “None, my lord,” he said.  “I thought you were finally sleeping.”

“What was their last position?” Thranduil demanded, ignoring the rest.

Galadhmir seemed reluctant to answer, and the dubious look on his face told Thranduil a great deal about how haggard he must appear.  “They were south of the river’s fork,” he said at last.  “Why?”

Thranduil turned to collect his horse, but Galadhmir hurried after him.  “My lord, wait!” he called, catching up to him.  “Thranduil, stop this,” he growled in a more familiar voice.  “You need to rest, eat.  Legolas knows his business.  You are no good to us half alive.”

Thranduil obliged him only by snatching the waybread out of his hand and tearing off a piece with his teeth.  He untied his horse from the picket line as his Guardsmen appeared beside him and did the same.  “I will take our forces east to the fork,” Thranduil told Galadhmir, “leaving you a third of their number to secure this place.”  Behind them, Commander Dorthaer called the soldiers to muster again.  “If my fears prove unfounded, I promise I shall return home for as long as I may.”

Galadhmir sighed curtly.  “I shall hold you to that, brother.”

Thranduil mounted and his guard formed around him.  When the soldiers were ready, he turned his horse and led them eastward along the course of the river. 

In a matter of hours they had reached the fork where the enchanted waters of the cursed stream flowed into the Forest River.  As he rode, Thranduil tried to understand what the trees were attempting to tell him.  The wood was calling to him as it often did when there was danger afoot, but the intention was confused.  He listened as closely as he could and finally discerned that the younger trees were calling for him, but it was the older ones that were conflicted, some even seeming to warn him away.  Birds flew overhead, calling in alarm, complaining of intruders.  That was always a bad sign.

Thranduil led his soldiers south at a cautious pace, not certain what they would meet.  He could feel Legolas was somewhere near, and they soon encountered his sentries.  “My King,” the first among them said as they all bowed low over their weapons, “we did not expect to receive you here.” 

“Circumstances have obliged me to change my course,” Thranduil explained.  “Where is Prince Legolas?”

“My lord the Prince is even now preparing to send a rider to you, my lord,” the sentry answered.  “You will find him in the guardhouse.”

They entered the camp and dismounted in the clearing.  As half the royal guard secured the horses, Dorthaer opened the guardhouse door to announce the King’s arrival and nearly collided with both Legolas and a ready courier.  Not unpleasantly surprised, Legolas relieved the courier of the letter and instructed him to return to his regular post. 

“I was just prepared to send word to you, my lord,” Legolas explained, greeting his father with a proper bow before turning aside for a moment to toss the sealed paper into the campfire.  “What turn of good fortune has brought you to us now?”

“I am not so certain it is good fortune at all,” Thranduil admitted, “but I am gratified to see you well.”  He waved to his guard to follow at a distance.  “Walk with me.”

“I was going to tell you that I suspect something is brewing near us,” Legolas explained, walking alongside him toward the forward positions.  “Somewhere to the southeast, if I had to hazard a guess.  The animals have been disturbed, and the birds have fled.”

“Yes, we saw them on the way,” Thranduil said.  “I have my own reasons for thinking you are quite correct.  Recall your scouts, all but the first rank, and prepare them for battle.  These Orc raids are becoming quite tiresome, but should not be anything we cannot handle.”  Still the silent dread was growing on his mind, an urgent warning he did not entirely understand.  “Where is Tauriel?” he asked.

“She is commanding the first rank of scouts,” Legolas told him, a look in his eye which expected his father would not be pleased by that answer.

He was right, but it would be extremely improper for the King to show blatant favoritism among his soldiers.  Tauriel had chosen her part and earned the right to face her peril with the rest of them.  Still, there was something about it all which made Thranduil especially uneasy.  He was certain that some malicious enemy was approaching, but it did not feel like an entire army or anything like the magnitude of those threats they had repulsed in the past.  What could be so deeply unsettling about a roving band of Orcs?  He shook it off, tempted to attribute the confusion to his fatigue and general disquiet.  “Alert your troop,” he said, dismissing Legolas to his duties.  “Form the line here.”

Legolas obeyed at once, leaving Thranduil alone in the disarray of his thoughts.  Seeking to clear his mind, Thranduil closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, searching for a moment of calm before the next storm broke. 

He felt it before he saw it, an irresistible spasm of instinct, premonition, and memory.  He opened his eyes, drew his sword, and stepped aside all in the same moment, and a vicious downward stroke ended both the Warg and its rider as they leapt at him, their broken bodies tumbling in pieces into the camp.

It took a single breath for the bystanders to realize what was happening, and by then the King was already forced to give ground, slashing apart the vanguard as they boiled out of the darkness.  Thranduil pivoted sharply to meet the next attack, but now they were too many and a Warg slammed him to the ground even as he stabbed it to death.  Others swarmed on top of him with their riders in a horrific tangle, all howling for his blood, daggers and teeth glancing off his armor, but Thranduil bucked them off.  His guard threw themselves into the fray and a furious battle was joined.  The Elves tried to form a circle, but there were too many Orcs rushing at them at once.  Other soldiers came running from their posts, but they were still outnumbered, thrust aside and ensnared in close combat of their own while greater numbers of the enemy bore down on their King.

Thranduil fought desperately, beginning to realize that his death or capture was the sole objective of the attack.  He had been very effectively separated from his guard and the noose was tightening.  Locked in battle with the Orcs in front of him, he could do nothing as another threw a weighted rope around his leg and tried to pull him off his feet.  He severed the rope, but still more were thrown about him as he was hemmed in on all sides, and he was finally dragged to the ground like a baited bear.  Thranduil clawed away, pulling several of his captors with him, slashing at the tangle of ropes with his dagger. 

An enormous Orc seized him by the arm, and Thranduil plunged his blade into its neck just as the Orc slammed their heads together.  Stunned, Thranduil felt his body hit the ground, and he was immediately swarmed.  An iron shackle closed around his wrist before he returned to his senses.  The thought of being dragged alive to Dol Guldur drove him mad with fear, and he thrashed and kicked and punched with all his might. 

A blessedly familiar horn sounded in the trees, and dozens of long arrows began slamming into the Orcs from all sides. 



Legolas and Tauriel ran back with as many archers as they had been able to recall, and they immediately fanned out and rained a hail of shafts on the beasts who were assaulting the King.  Now the Orcs were yowling in pain and confusion as the tide was turned, but everyone’s blood froze as a hideous shrieking split the night.  The deafening sound seemed to halt time itself in a single excruciating moment.

Three wraiths, cowled in black, emerged from the trees brandishing dark swords.  The archers hesitated, and Legolas signaled them to hold.  He was not certain whether it would be wise to try shooting at them, and so he waited for some direction from his father.  Another jarring scream cowed the entire field for another drawn moment.

“King Oropherion,” the first of them rasped in its thin, undead voice, “our master bids thee come.” 

Thranduil hauled himself up on one knee amid the wreck of the dead.  He was beaten and disheveled, black and red with blood, with even half a pair of shackles and a chain hanging off his arm, but he was not yet defeated.  “Your master has no power over me,” he said contemptuously.

Legolas and the archers were ready, though unsure.  The King was wounded and unarmed, and the wraiths continued to advance.  Seeming to realize the folly of attempting to take him alive, they screamed again and rushed at him with their swords.

Scores of arrows were released at the same moment, but the archers would never know whether they found their mark.  There was a blinding flash and a tremendous clap like a thunderbolt, and everyone was thrown to the ground by the force of it.  When they all scrambled upright again, they saw everything as it was before, except that the black cowls were lying empty.  Thranduil had both hands planted firmly on the ground, still glowing with fading light, exhausted after the effort such a release of power had required.

Legolas went immediately to his father’s side while the others began the grim task of recovering the other wounded.  Tauriel joined him there, her concern evident on her face.  “Can you stand, my lord?” she asked.

In answer, Thranduil grasped the hand Legolas offered and fought his way onto his feet, though he was obviously in a great deal of pain.  A glance around the glade confirmed that all six of his guards were either severely wounded or dead, a realization which seemed to grieve him more than his own wounds.  He gently pushed Legolas and Tauriel aside and limped toward the fallen figure of Garavorn.

Garavorn, Legolas knew, was one of Oropher’s veterans who had lived his whole life in service to the Kings of Greenwood.  He reached up to his King now with his good hand, the other mangled and broken.  His face was ashen, but still he managed to smile.  “Farewell, my lord,” he said with his last breath.  “I shall bear your love to the Queen.” 

Legolas looked away, turning Tauriel with him, allowing the bitter moment to pass in some modicum of privacy.  It seemed to him that death came too near his father too often, and when it failed to take him it took those near him.  Legolas’ own grief again mingled with a dark hatred of the Necromancer who inflicted all this needless misery upon them.  How much longer must they endure it?  He was justifiably proud of his father, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to watch as Thranduil was left to struggle on alone.  Where were the wise and powerful ones of the world who might throw down Dol Guldur if only they tried?  Tauriel began to put her arm around him, but then seemed to think better of it.  Instead, they turned back to take the King in hand.

Thranduil was by no means mortally wounded, but he looked and clearly felt wretched.  Tauriel took charge of his care and of all the wounded.  His brow was split to the bone, and his hair was matted thick with blood.  They carefully removed his armor to reveal several glancing stab wounds at the weak points, and two particularly deep ones in his leg.  He had been savagely bitten and clawed, though the ugly scars on his armor spoke to many worse wounds he had been spared.  The offensive chain on his wrist could not be removed right away, and he was obliged to suffer it until they could acquire the necessary tools. 

More worrying than the King’s physical injuries was his state of mind.  He did not seem entirely present, and his eyes were distant.  Radagast came racing north, too late to warn them or to be of any assistance, but he did offer to secure the borders himself for a time to give the King an opportunity to unburden his mind, an offer Thranduil curtly accepted.  As soon as he was rested enough to ride, the King returned to the caverns where Legolas suspected he would disappear into his chambers for a very long time. 

Legolas remained with his uncle, Lord Galadhmir, and together they held the area and oversaw the burying of the dead.  They were both of the opinion that the King was sorely overworked and overtaxed, and that this most recent outrage had nearly tried him too far.  The solitude may do him a great deal of good, but they must see that it did not run too deep nor go on too long.



On the way back to the palace, Thranduil and his escort discreetly stopped at the home of one of the more renowned smiths in the forest to have the stubborn shackle removed from his wrist.  He was quick to oblige the King, and began the laborious process of sawing through the heavy pin which held it together. 

Thranduil tried not to tremble, but the iron’s touch was abhorrent and he wanted it off him immediately.  He did not feel like himself, as though something deep within him would finally break if he could not have a moment’s peace without someone threatening to hurt him, haunt him, bereave or kill him.  His patience was spent.  He was spent.  He swallowed the urge to demand the smith work faster, but it was all he could do to endure the interminable sawing until at last the pin snapped and he could pull his hand free.

Returning to the caverns in joyless triumph, Thranduil retired at once to the depths of his chambers and would suffer none to enter but Gwaelas and Noruvion.  Between the two of them, he had his wounds tended and his other needs addressed. 

Food, peace, and copious amounts of wine could only do so much to restore his spirit.  Even the Dorwinion could not quite blunt his agitation.  After so long, he felt he had nothing left to give.  He resented the hopeless war, he resented his solitude, he resented being made to hate the life he had once loved so much.  If he must wake each day to a world of loneliness, abuse, and torment, he began to wonder why he should want to wake at all. 

He did not know how long he stayed there, hiding from his duties, his enemies, even his family and friends.  He spent much of his time lying in bed in the dark, attempting to sleep but more often brooding miserably.  He was not making a concerted effort to heal himself, because that, of course, required effort.  He did not truly want to die, but neither was he entirely ready to begin living again.  He might have been dourly content to linger in that shadow on the edge of madness for quite some time had he not been rudely interrupted.

He knew who it was before the knock sounded on his door.  “I recall making it very clear that I did not wish to be disturbed,” Thranduil said darkly as the door egregiously opened without his leave.  He had only just managed to drown his woes in Dorwinion, and now they had come to dredge them up again.

“Forgive me, my lord,” Gwaelas said, seeming to realize he was caught between two titanic forces he could not contain.  “He would not be dissuaded.”

“Thranduil!”  Mithrandir stormed into the dark chamber and immediately slammed his staff on the floor, flooding the place with thin blue light.  “I hear you have been indulging in this absurd behavior quite long enough.  Pull yourself together!”

Thranduil continued to sit petulantly over his wine for a long moment before finally obliging the wizard by allowing the lamps to gently flare up again.  Gwaelas quietly took his leave.

Momentarily satisfied, Mithrandir extinguished his staff.  He unabashedly looked Thranduil up and down with a critical eye, then helped himself to a seat at the table opposite the King.  “Now,” he grumbled, also presumptuously decanting another portion of wine, “what have you been doing to yourself?”

Thranduil nearly choked.  “What have I been doing?” he demanded, offended by the question.  “I have been enduring a great deal of punishment trying to keep myself and my people alive.  What have you been doing?”

Mithrandir sighed wearily, seeming not to resent the accusation as much as Thranduil had expected.  “I have been very busy but have not accomplished very much,” he admitted.  “I have been again to Dol Guldur.”

Thranduil sat up with grim new interest.  “Yes?”

Mithrandir met his gaze with a deep look of sympathy, remorse, and even humbled pride.  “I saw him, too,” he said simply.  “I saw Sauron.”

Thranduil’s own pride notwithstanding, he felt himself wilt a bit as the lonely burden of that knowledge was lifted.  It was an ineffable relief to know that he would no longer be obliged to humor that farce the “Necromancer” had woven around himself.

“Yes, Oropherion, we must all now admit that your intuition was quite correct,” Mithrandir continued.  “Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond especially wished that I convey their regrets to you.  Of course, I immediately went to Imladris to share my discovery with the rest of the White Council, and it was my considered opinion that if we moved as one, we could force Sauron from his hold.”

“And what was decided?”  An unexpected glimmer of hope was growing in Thranduil’s heart where a moment ago there had been only black melancholy.  To be vindicated before the rest of Elvendom was indeed very satisfying, but to finally be relieved of the curse of Dol Guldur would be the greatest happiness they could imagine east of the Sea.  “Will they come?”

Mithrandir’s downcast expression smothered that hope before it had a chance to truly live.  “They will not,” he said flatly.  “Many were in favor, but Saruman believes it would be better to leave Sauron where he is for the present, and that you with all your experience are best qualified to contain him.”

Thranduil simply stared at him in stunned disbelief, unable to coalesce his inner maelstrom of exasperation, outrage, and despair into a coherent reply.  Instead, he seized his wine glass and drank its entire contents at once.

The wizard’s empathetic manner hardened somewhat, and he narrowed his eyes.  “Yes, I have heard that is the best way to savor fine wine,” he said dryly.  “Past the tongue and straight to the gullet.”

Thranduil glared at him.  “The Wise have abandoned me here to die, and in the same breath they would criticize my drinking habits?”

Considering his reply, Mithrandir unexpectedly shrugged and finally partook from his own glass.  He spat it out again unceremoniously.  “Ai, that is vile,” he said.  “Far too sweet.”

“It was imported at great expense from the Sea of Rhûn,” Thranduil observed severely, daring the wizard to waste it.

Resigned, Mithrandir took another tactful sip out of deference to his host, though he clearly thought no better of it. 

Thranduil sighed and poured himself another glass, knowing he should stop soon but not certain that he would.  “I suppose I should appreciate Saruman’s confidence in my abilities,” he said wryly, “not that there is anything in our history to inspire it.”

“That seems unjustly harsh,” Mithrandir protested.

“Oh, yes?”  Thranduil frowned.  “Perhaps you can name for me a single war the house of Oropher has undertaken and won.”

The wizard glowered at him.  “Enough of that, now,” he admonished.  “Self-pity never profits anyone.  Put that down,” he continued, boldly snatching the glass out of Thranduil’s hand, “have your wounds attended, and heal yourself.  I shall enjoy your hospitality until I can see you on your feet again, and then I wish to speak at length.  I have a great many things to explain to you before I go, and I would like to be certain you will remember them in the morning.”

Over the next few days, Thranduil endeavored to take Mithrandir’s advice.  He had been roused from his crippling wretchedness against his will, but he was not entirely sorry.  His wounds healed quickly now that he bothered to address them, and he was soon fit to resume his duties.  The future seemed no brighter, but somehow he was again prepared to face it.

On the third day, Mithrandir requested that the King ride with him past the hills and along the river into the eastern meadowlands.  It seemed a strange request, but such a ride was not an unpleasant prospect after spending so long underground, so Thranduil agreed. 

Mithrandir largely kept his thoughts to himself as they rode the rambling trail toward the edge of the forest.  Thranduil was surprised by how beneficial the exercise seemed despite having no conversation.  It was refreshing to be on horseback again, and just being in the wizard’s presence was profoundly calming.  Thranduil’s guard followed at a decorous distance, unwilling to let him wander without them considering recent events, wizard or no wizard. 

When they emerged into the sunlight and beheld the rippling waves of meadow grass, it was indeed a beautiful sight.  Thranduil was content to sit his horse and enjoy the view, but Mithrandir slipped him a sly look and spurred his mount to greater speed.  Thranduil moved to keep pace, but Mithrandir pulled away again until they were both flying over the vast green expanse at a truly unjustifiable speed, racing headlong toward no place in particular.  It was so simple, and yet it was the most deeply cathartic thing Thranduil had done in a very long time.

At last, Mithrandir turned them back toward the west in a wide circle and gradually slowed to a walk.  Both horses were heaving and snorting and glad of the respite.  The Wood filled the horizon, the stark border of Mirkwood clearly demarcated against the greener reaches of Thranduil’s domain in the north. 

“Surely that is an inspiring sight,” Mithrandir ventured with a gentle smile.

“I suppose that depends upon your point of view,” Thranduil answered despondently.  “Perhaps you see an enduring sanctuary of Elvendom in a darkening world, but I see a vast ruined waste that once was ours.”

Mithrandir frowned.  “That is a very severe way of looking at it,” he said.  “The corruption of Mirkwood cannot be blamed on any failure of yours.”

“Nonetheless, it is difficult to not feel like a failure when I seem foredoomed to a slow and agonizing defeat,” Thranduil admitted, brutally honest.  His guard had drawn up to await them beside the river, and they moved to fall into line once again behind them.  “My people are diminished, my realm is withered to a fraction of the legacy my father left me, and my reign seems fated to end exactly as it began, in shame and ruin.”  He sighed deeply, feeling the melancholy creeping back.  “Everything my house has ever attempted ends in shame and ruin.  It is the common refrain of our lives, and Sauron was not wrong to have observed it.”

“Oh, stop talking such rot,” Mithrandir protested, a note of genuine emotion beneath his irritable tone.  “I absolutely forbid you to despair.  Great deeds are rarely comfortable ones, Oropherion.  Yes, you will be sorely tried, abused without consideration, tormented without mercy, made to shoulder burdens enough to crush a lesser man.”  He paused and turned to him with a softer look that seemed almost paternal.  “But you are strong, Thranduil,” he insisted gently, “and your reign is glorious.”

That statement struck Thranduil in a surprisingly vulnerable place, and he felt long dormant emotions seeping back into the jaded places of his heart like a spring thaw.

“Do not dwell any longer on the humiliations of your house,” Mithrandir admonished him.  “Can you not see that your valor has redeemed them?  How many others can claim to have challenged the immortal powers in single combat?  Fëanor, Fingolfin, Fingon, Finrod, Beren and Lúthien, Ecthelion and Glorfindel, Gil-galad and Elendil?  Thranduil has earned his place among them.”  Then he smiled.  “Being defeated is no shame,” he assured him.  “Indeed, you are the only one who has not yet been killed by the endeavor.”

Thranduil scoffed quietly and returned the weary smile, appreciating his grim humor. 

“Suffering is like a fire,” Mithrandir continued brusquely, turning back to look ahead.  “We can either allow it to consume us, or we can let it forge us into heroes.  This world will need many heroes if it is to overcome the darkness, but at this moment it especially needs one exactly where you are now.  I am not surprised that Sauron is more determined than ever to be rid of you.  If he could seduce Smaug the dragon into his service, they would be a formidable force, indeed.  With Dale and Erebor overthrown, the only obstacles to his complete dominion in Rhovanion are Thranduil and the Men of Laketown.”  He glanced aside again with a knowing expression.  “Meaning no slight to those fine fishermen, I imagine you can appreciate your importance in that consideration.  So, you will oblige me very much by staying alive.”

A wry expression passed across Thranduil’s features, though his mood was improving too much for him to be truly irritated.  It still amazed him how completely the balance of power shifted in Mithrandir’s presence, as though his years and his crown were of no more consequence than a schoolboy’s accolades.  It only confirmed his old suspicion that the wizard was truly more than he would seem, with an authority rooted beyond their world.  If this was the subtle way in which the Powers had chosen to exercise their custodianship of Middle-earth, he would respect it.  “I shall endeavor not to disappoint you on that score,” he said at last.

“Yes, see that you do.  And buck up, Thranduil,” Mithrandir said, unexpectedly prodding him in the shoulder with the tip of his staff.  “The fate of the world is turning, and this is your moment.  You have not lingered on through all these ages to falter in the last hour.  The blood of Oropher may yet have a great part to play in the downfall of Sauron.  At any rate, you have proven his irreverent tenacity and mulish pride to be assets after all.”

“I am certain he would appreciate the compliment,” Thranduil said with a twisted smile, “once he overlooked the indignity of it.”

“And so he should,” Mithrandir agreed haughtily.  He drew his horse to a halt in the windblown grass and smiled again, though the pleasant expression had a hard edge.  “Your task is simple, my lord, though by no means easy.  Hold what is yours, frustrate the contrivances of evil in whatever way you can, keep order in the north, and be ready.  I believe the greatest clash is yet to come, and I need to know that Thranduil’s realm will hold.”

Thranduil nodded gravely.  “It will hold,” he said.  “Although, any assistance in that endeavor will not go unappreciated.”

“We shall see about that,” Mithrandir said charily, urging his horse on again.  “I have not abandoned my designs against Dol Guldur, but there are many things I must see to before I bring it before the Council again.  That dragon is a worry.  We must be certain Sauron cannot call upon him at need.”

Thranduil turned a narrow look at him as the wizard quieted into the depths of his own thoughts.  “I sincerely hope you are not counting upon me to remove Smaug.  I will endure many things, but I have no desire to be roasted alive.”

“No, no, no,” the wizard assured him.  “That task will require more subtlety than any army can manage, however valiant.  No, that will be my quandary to solve.”

“I will not trouble you with my poor counsel,” Thranduil said, “if indeed I had any to give.  The sooner you work out how to remove him, the better I will like it.”

“No doubt, Oropherion.  You attend your obligations and I shall attend mine.”

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