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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 39 - The Fell Winter

Years passed, seasons came and seasons went, and no further word came of Mithrandir and his intrigues, or of the White Council, or of anything that moved in the world beyond Rhovanion.  Sauron remained unchallenged in his seat upon Dol Guldur despite his discovery, and Thranduil continued in his duty to defy him.  The dragon remained quiet inside Erebor, and made no move to threaten either Esgaroth or Eryn Galen.  Life seemed to have returned to that strange and uncomfortable equilibrium which so often characterized it, the nearest approximation of peace they could hope to enjoy while Mirkwood lasted.  Now winter had come again, just as it had ninety times since Mithrandir’s last departure. 

A bitter freeze struck the region much earlier than anticipated, conjuring up memories of the disastrous Long Winter they had endured two centuries before.  Thranduil tasked his lords and their wives with an urgent assessment of their entire realm—what remained of it—and their readiness to withstand a long and terrible winter if need be.  After a fortnight of inquiry, they were gathered in council to share their observations.

Thranduil sat in the King’s great chair at the head of the table in the council chamber, waiting patiently as the lords and ladies quietly arrived and took their places.  All the remaining Oropherionnath were once again gathered under the same roof, crowded together as their realm shrank.  It was not an unpleasant arrangement despite the circumstances, reminding them of earlier times. 

It had been too long since they had all gathered around the same table, pulled ever in their disparate directions as their duties required.  Now their borders had constricted to such a point that Thranduil no longer required his brothers to serve as regional governors.  Galadhmir’s idyllic city in the northwest had been overrun by the shadow, as had Anárion’s home in the south.  They were together again in a more intimate setting, facing their common purpose as they had in the beginning, as a family.

Thranduil held the silence even after they had all assembled, his thoughts drawn back over centuries.  In many ways it was like glimpsing the days of their youth through the ever-lengthening perspective of time, a moment to appreciate what they had become by remembering who they had been.  Linhir, Anárion and Menelwen, Galadhmir and Gwaelin, Noruvion, with empty chairs to recall Lindóriel and Illuiniel.  None of them was young anymore, and Thranduil had grown so accustomed to the weight of his responsibilities as patriarch that wearing the crown came as naturally as breathing.  More than ever, he wished to have all his family around him as they were slowly pressed toward a final confrontation with the evils of their day.  The Oropherionnath would need each other then, just as they had in the ruin of the Elder Days when they had first bound themselves to one another.

Last to arrive was Brilthor, former chieftain of the silvan Elves, privy as he was to all the doings of their Sindarin lords.  He took the place of honor at the opposite end of the table at Thranduil’s invitation, and they were finally able to proceed.

“I trust your inquiries have been fruitful,” Thranduil said to start.  “Anárion, tell me about our army.”

“Our soldiers are in good spirits, my lord,” Anárion confirmed.  “They are well provided for, and adequately armed.  Casualties continue to be few, which may largely be credited to their greater experience and skill, and to the silken reinforcement behind their armor.  Their numbers should be sufficient to defend the current borders.  The fletchers have been extremely productive, and I believe we have amassed a stockpile of arrows great enough to supply at least two major battles.”

“Excellent,” Thranduil said.  He waited a moment to allow Linhir to finish scribbling out his notes.  “What of the spiders?”

“The spiders continue to be a nuisance, trying the borders and certainly giving the forward ranks ample opportunity to earn their pay, but they have not been permitted to penetrate the interior.”

“Very well.”  Thranduil turned to the other side of the table.  “Galadhmir, tell me about our people beyond the hills.  Will they survive the winter?”

“I believe they will, my lord,” Galadhmir assured him with a cautious smile, “although they may have to consider rationing if the spring thaw does not come when expected.  The summer was quite bountiful, and all families seem well prepared despite how cold it has been already.  If the freeze does not break, however, the river will soon be iced and we will have to renegotiate our trade arrangements with Esgaroth.”

“I dare say we can imagine some alternatives,” Thranduil said.  “The Master of Esgaroth will not long tolerate any diminution of such profitable traffic.  Turning on that consideration, Noruvion, have we gathered adequate stores here?”

“The storerooms are full, my lord,” Noruvion replied.  “Barring disaster or blight, we should have plenty to outlast the winter.  But, as Galadhmir said, it would be prudent to consider rationing well before we exhaust our supplies should the spring be delayed.”

“After the Long Winter, I am inclined to agree.”  Fortunately, Thranduil knew their stockpiles consisted of more traditional fare than they had been constrained to live upon during the Days of Dearth, but they had indeed taken the precaution of preparing more of that horrid pine bark flour against the possibility of lean times to come.  His baser instinct would have been to dole it out first to any unfortunate alms-guests who might land at his gates during the bitter season, but ultimately he knew he would be among the first to voluntarily subsist on pine bread rather than starve those with weaker constitutions.  With any luck, it would not come to that.  “What of your own preparations?” he continued.  “Do you want for anything?”

“Nothing.  My apprentices and I were quite busy this year resupplying our apothecary.  All in all, I believe we may safely afford to sit back and comfortably shelter from whatever fury the winter may bring.”

Thranduil nodded, satisfied.  “Well and good for us,” he said, “but I will be very surprised if we are not called upon at some point to aid our less robust neighbors.  Let us not be too profligate with our hoarded bounties.”

“Yes, my lord,” they all agreed. 

“Be that as it may,” Anárion ventured to add with a lighthearted smile, “considering the cold, the soldiers have suggested that an increase in their wine ration would not go unappreciated.”

Thranduil laughed with the rest of them.  “That will depend upon those new arrangements we must make with Esgaroth,” he said, “but otherwise it does not seem an unreasonable request.”

The winter did prove to be an extremely cruel one.  Properly clothed and housed, the Elves were little troubled by the bitter cold, but the Woodmen and the Men of Esgaroth were hard pressed by the assault of the elements.  The rivers froze with thick layers of ice, halting the barges and barrels which sustained the commerce between the Wood and the Men on the lake.  Fortunately, though perhaps unfortunate for some, the snows were not long in coming, and a wide path for sledges was carved out of the wild alongside the riverbank.  The transfer of goods was more laborious than before, but still worth the effort.

The cold only continued to worsen.  The Woodmen, benefiting from the raw resources of the forest, were largely able to fend for themselves, but the demand for fuel and furs came more stridently from Esgaroth as the months passed.  Thranduil was not willing to hunt the wild things of his realm to excess, but any beast that was felled for food was skinned, and its thick winter pelt sent on to the Lake-men.  Many teams of lumberers were kept busy satisfying the need for cordwood, thinning the hostile forest beyond the Elvenking’s borders, loading the split timbers onto sledges and sending it east to the lake.  Once again, the misfortunes of their neighbors were proving quite profitable for the Wood, although Thranduil began to lower his price as time wore on.  He was in justice entitled to compensation, and he did not wish to humble the pride of the fishermen with outright charity, but he had begun to wonder if they would be able to survive the winter without it.

By midwinter, the cold had deepened to a shocking degree.  The animals were not prepared for it and largely hid themselves in whatever shelter they could find.  The Elves were able to withstand it with relatively good grace, but it was a perilous time for Men. 

Thranduil could feel the savage bite in the air and had already decided that he would not accept payment for the next shipment of firewood.  He was out in the elements with his guard, their horses thickly blanketed, enduring the icy wind as it swept through the denuded trees and sought out every weakness in their clothing.  It would steal his very breath if he let it.  He was riding back to the caverns after a brief inspection of his soldiers along the southern march, returning with Legolas as his son was rotated off duty for a well-deserved rest. 

Ever since he and his family had been forced to walk unprepared and unprovisioned through the winter after the fall of Doriath, Thranduil had not liked the cold.  He had been born in the spring, he had been named for the spring, and all these ages later he was still primarily a creature of the spring and summer.  The frozen ravages of winter were too harsh for his tastes, and so it was with no small relief that he saw the gates of the royal stables open for him and his companions, allowing them to ride into the warm and pleasantly musty shelter.

Thranduil dismounted and gratefully gave his horse to a groom.  “Welcome home again, Legolas,” he said as his son did the same.  “I would linger here with you and your friends, but I cannot wait to escape this infernal cold.”

“I have no intention of lingering here,” Legolas rebutted.  “I have been looking forward to a night in my own bed for far too long.  I want nothing more than to disappear into it as soon as possible.”

“A sound idea,” Thranduil commended him as they left the pleasant glow of the stable and stepped outside.

The gloom of evening was closing in around them, promising another frigid night.  Thranduil hastened his steps, eager to leave the chill behind him.  Legolas matched his stride and then exceeded it, shooting him a sidelong look which implied some good-natured mockery.  Challenged, Thranduil increased his pace to catch him, and then they were both running in a mad dash for the gates. 

The great stone doors opened to admit the King and closed again behind them, barring the worst of the cold, though they could not banish it entirely or the air would grow stale. 

“Impudent boy,” Thranduil complained, shoving Legolas away from him in the corridor, though he was laughing and all his annoyance was feigned. 

Legolas laughed with him.  “For shame, my lord,” he protested.  “Decorum forbids me to respond in kind.”

“Being the King comes with many such privileges,” Thranduil said with a haughty smile, “and I intend to avail myself of several more this evening.  Go feed yourself and get some rest.  We shall have more unpleasant work to do soon enough.”

As they parted ways, Thranduil immediately turned his steps downward toward his opulent bath chamber.  He was dimly aware of the familiar rush of the servants he left in his wake as some ran back to inform Gwaelas of his arrival and others ran ahead to make preparations for him, the guards stiffening smartly as he passed.  He wearily kicked off his boots at the door and then shed his clothes piece by piece in an untidy trail until at last he slipped into the pool of blessedly hot water, somewhere winter could not find him.

The muted sounds of the river as it ran through the cave’s system of sluices was deeply calming, and for a long while he simply let the heat leech away all the stress and tension he had accrued over the last several days.  He lingered there on the edge of sleep until Gwaelas brought him his supper.

“Good evening, my lord,” Gwaelas said, placing the tray on the floor at the edge of the pool without hesitation.  He knew better than to try convincing him to come out.  “Is all well in the wider realm today?”

“For the present, yes, it is,” Thranduil replied.  “The same may be said here, I trust.”

“All continues quiet here, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him.  “It would never do to have you return home to a crisis if it could be helped.”

“Of course, not,” Thranduil agreed with a smile.  “I would never presume to doubt your competence, Gwaelas.”

After his bath, Thranduil excused himself from all other duties and retired at once to bed.  It was not something he often did, but he felt he deserved the indulgence.  Two of the palace wolves and one of the foxes insisted upon going with him.  An extra cup of Dorwinion quieted all his many concerns, Gwaelas bid him good night, and he was already slipping into dream as his head hit the pillow.

There beneath the bedding, in the quiet and the dark and the warmth, with the feral comfort of his dogs at his back, Thranduil enjoyed that simple and unmolested rest he could so seldom afford.  To be insensible for once to anything that moved, to lay down for a moment the burden of his obligations and simply drift in the dark oblivion of sleep was wonderful.

He did not know how long he slept, only that it was not long enough before he was abruptly awakened by the strident squeaking of the fox and Gwaelas’ hand on his shoulder.

“My lord!” Gwaelas insisted, presuming even to shake him.  “My lord, the Dragon Watch!”

Now Thranduil heard it, dimly, the alarm call of the sentries.  He surged out of bed, back into the brisk winter air.  Gwaelas tossed him the tunic he had laid out for the morning, and Thranduil threw it on over his nightclothes.  He quickly tied his hair back, stamped into his boots, and swept into the corridor with the animals and Gwaelas in tow.  As they made for the gates, Gwaelas handed him his sword belt, then a heavy cloak, then his gloves.  Finally adequately assembled, Gwaelas relinquished him into the care of the guards at the gate.  Thranduil continued out into the frozen night and turned onto the steepest and most direct path toward the summit of the hill.

“All Esgaroth is aflame,” his guard informed him.  “The blaze began only moments ago, and already the whole town is engulfed.”

“Was the dragon sighted?” Thranduil demanded.

“Not that I have heard, my lord,” the guard admitted.  “The Watch will know more.”

Every eye of the Watch was indeed trained searchingly on the fire in the east when Thranduil appeared among them.  “Have you seen the dragon?” he demanded again without ceremony, startling many of them.

“We have not,” their captain admitted.  “We have been searching for signs of him, but all we can see is the city burning.”

Thranduil relaxed a bit and looked for himself.  The fire lay near the limit of their Elven sight, but it was just possible to make out the blaze.  “Cities do burn from time to time without a dragon’s help,” he said.  The moonlight illuminated the darkness enough for him to be confident the dragon was not winging about on a nocturnal rampage.  More likely an accident had occurred as the population tried to keep warm above a frozen lake.  The thick ice would prove an unexpected blessing to any fleeing survivors who would otherwise have drowned.  Still, they must be in desperate circumstances.  Exposure to the cold alone could prove deadly for them.  “We must begin preparations to depart for the lake immediately,” he decided.  “See the sledges loaded with shelters, warm clothes, food and cordwood.  I want them on the road within the hour.”



In addition to the laden sledges, Thranduil led a swifter party on horseback ahead of the main company bearing what necessary relief they could carry.  The cruel cold once again proved an unexpected help, as it had frozen the Long Marshes beside the river and blanketed them with just enough snow to allow the horses sure footing.  They went carefully but as quickly as they could manage in the dark and the inclement weather, and the thin light of dawn was just breaking as they arrived beside the shores of the Long Lake.

The condition of the survivors did not look encouraging.  After a moment’s hesitation, all who could find their feet came swarming toward the Elves to beg assistance.  Each of Thranduil’s companions had his instructions and they set to work immediately, distributing food and woolen blankets, gathering brushwood and kindling fires.  Thranduil spied an old Man of some consequence with what might pass for an entourage of attendants under the circumstances.  The Man was leaning on his cane, trying to approach him, but Thranduil waved him down for the moment.  They would speak later when the initial work was done.

Meanwhile, the Elvenking and his guards began unpacking and unrolling the different pieces of an enormous pavilion, quickly laying them out in the proper order and lashing the eyelets together with cords.  The supporting poles were lifted and anchored into the frozen ground, the outer walls secured with stakes against the wind.  It would not be enough to shelter everyone, but the youngest and the weakest were at least able to escape the worst of the elements.  A fire was kindled near the door with a wall of stones hastily built up behind it to channel the heat inside.

With no more to be done before the sledges arrived, Thranduil at last turned to address the Master of Esgaroth.  The old man was waiting patiently, seated on a stone near the frozen shore watching the charred remains of the town smoke and smolder.  Thranduil approached rather than summon him as a mercy to the other’s obvious infirmity, but the Master insisted upon struggling to his feet in the presence of the Elvenking.

“My lord!” he said, bowing as low as his stiffening body would allow, “you have saved us in our darkest hour and proven generous beyond measure!  I fear in our ruin we shall not have the means of repaying your magnanimity.”

“I do not seek repayment,” Thranduil insisted, dismissing the suggestion.  “Esgaroth is valuable enough to me in its own right to justify my continued investment in its wellbeing.”

“I rejoice to hear it, my lord,” the Master replied with another less ambitious bow.  He was leaning heavily on the arm of his nearest companion, a graying man who seemed less interested in the formalities than he was in the possibility of escaping into the warmth of the pavilion with his lord.

“There are more provisions on the road behind us,” Thranduil explained.  “When the sledges arrive and are unburdened, they will be prepared to bear back to Eryn Galen any who wish to shelter with us while we look to the rebuilding of your city.”

A quavering sigh of relief escaped the Master as he summoned up what remained of his strength.  “Your kindness to our people will be ever remembered, King Thranduil,” he said.  “I have been very concerned for the children in this cold.  We have lost too many already.”

“Indeed, we have, my lord,” the Master’s companion agreed, finally daring to speak, “and we have no wish to lose you as well.  Come away from here and avail yourself of the shelter the Elvenking has so graciously provided.”

“No, no, nephew,” the Master dismissed the suggestion immediately.  “Leave it for the young ones.  Bring me another of those cloaks and I shall be content.”

Impressed by Man’s mettle, Thranduil snapped his fingers at a passing Elf, who immediately turned to retrieve the King’s horse.  When he had brought it, Thranduil unpacked a magnificent fur-lined cloak of his own and presented it to the Master.  “Your people must not be deprived of your leadership during these desperate times,” he said.  “Keep yourself well.  There is work to do yet.”

The sledges arrived three days later, hampered by the terrain and their own weight.  Thranduil and the advance party had not been idle, and together with those Lake-men who had sufficiently recovered their strength they had built a series of rough shelters of brush, loose stone, and earth to accommodate those who would remain and assist in the building of stronger temporary homes on the lakeshore while the new city was planned.  The fresh supplies cheered them a great deal, as did the better food.  The women, children, and the old were loaded onto the empty sledges the following day, and after many tearful farewells they were ready to depart with the Elvenking to outlast the winter in his halls.

The Master, however, refused to go.  “My place is here among my people,” he insisted.  “I would see Lake-town rise again with my own eyes.”

“Well and good, uncle,” his nephew commended him with thinly-veiled impatience, “but surely your venerable years entitle you to some measure of accommodation.  Would it not be better to recover your strength in the Wood rather than waste it here in this dreadful cold?  Our people will understand.”

The Master stamped his cane upon the ground testily.  He had clearly been deflecting similar entreaties for some time.  “I will not hide from this adversity in royal comfort, no matter how gracious the hospitality,” he said with a nod to Thranduil, who stood ready to mount his horse.  “The people must see us among them and know we share their trials.  You must learn this if you are to be elected Master after me.”

Now that he better understood the societal pressures riding upon the nephew, Thranduil found he could muster a bit of pity for him, though he had discipline enough not to smile.  The younger Man may have a keen enough mind for the Mastership, but he did not seem to be cut from quite the same hard-wearing cloth as his uncle. 

“My lord the Elvenking would not flee to a place of solace and comfort if his people were suffering,” the Master continued, illustrating his point with a ready example.

“No, I would not,” Thranduil answered candidly as many eyes were trained on him, almost sorry to finally crush the nephew’s hopes of escape.  He did not envy them the cold months ahead spent in a crude hut on the lakeshore, but such was the harsh reality.  At any rate, he would make certain they did not starve.



When he returned home, Thranduil had more mundane considerations to address in his own household.  It seemed that during his absence his cellarer had met with a tragic accident.  The details were not entirely known, except that he had gone boar hunting in the wood and had failed to return.  The condition of his body, when they had recovered it, suggested that he had been severely wounded by his quarry and, thus weakened, had fallen prey to the giant spiders.  It was not often that those beasts were able to take Elvish victims, and Captain Tauriel had been quite shaken by the grisly discovery, but had recovered herself admirably.  The problem remained of who should be appointed to his position.

“It is an awkward time to be changing the guard down there,” Thranduil said, not insensible to the callous impropriety of discussing the cellarer’s forsaken duties so soon after his demise.  He was seated at his desk attending the unfortunately large volume of tedious tasks which had accumulated over the last several days.  “Now that our trade with Esgaroth is completely disrupted, we shall have to husband our resources carefully.”

“Taking into account the many extra mouths we are committed to feed,” Linhir reminded him.  “The children in particular have prodigious appetites.”

Gwaelas said nothing, standing at the King’s elbow, yet his silence was unusually heavy. 

“Speak, Gwaelas,” Thranduil commanded him as he signed his approval on the latest troop assignments, trying not to be too brusque.  “I can feel your thoughts looming over me.”

“Yes, my lord,” Gwaelas answered, though with obvious reluctance.  “I am obliged by my family to mention my cousin, Galion, who has expressed an interest in the position.”

Thranduil set down his quill and turned to face him directly.  “Are you recommending him?” he asked.

“Not with a whole heart, my lord,” Gwaelas admitted with a wry expression.  “Galion is still young and has not in my view attained the necessary maturity required of the King’s cellarer.  Still, he may yet grow into the position.”

It was not a ringing endorsement by any means, and was clearly wrung from Gwaelas by his relations, but Thranduil considered it quickly and severely.  “I am disposed to think well of your family,” he said at last, “considering your long and exemplary service, and that of your brother.  You so seldom make requests of me that I am inclined to honor this one.  Tell Galion to report to the cellars tomorrow and the keeper of the keys will show him his duties.”



As it happened, the Fell Winter, as it was already being called, did not linger an abnormally long time despite the deep freeze.  Spring came when it was expected, the frozen land began to thaw, and it seemed all would be well. 

The new Esgaroth which rose beside the ruin of the old city was smaller and more modest, but perfectly adequate for the surviving population.  Thranduil regretted now that he had failed to visit the original city, and so he made the effort to journey back down the river to attend the new construction’s dedication on the first day of summer. 

A great feast was provided for the people on the shore while the guests of greater consequence were entertained by the Master in his great hall.  A place of special honor was provided for Thranduil, who had many times proven their benefactor. 

“It is said that my predecessor, the first Master of Lake-town, promised there would ever be a seat for you in his hall, my lord,” the old Master greeted him grandly. Some of his vigor seemed to have returned now that the cruel winter had passed and their fortunes had improved.  “It is with great pleasure that I will continue to honor that promise.  As we live, sheltered by the heartwood of your realm, we will ever remember the generosity of the Elvenking.”

“As I will remember the gratitude and courtesy of the Men of the Lake,” Thranduil said.  “We are glad to have friends on our borders, and I will not relinquish them lightly.”

It was an impressive feast, replete with fine wine and exotic seasonings as trade began again in earnest and the goods which had been choked in Rhûn flooded back into the western market at bargain prices.  After living so long, it was an unexpected pleasure to discover new flavors, and when the dinner and the ceremonies had ended Thranduil discreetly inquired about the spices the Master provided to his kitchens. 

“Of course, my lord!” the Master said, brightening as only a merchant does when one expresses an interest in their most expensive wares.  “It would be our pleasure to share these new acquisitions.  Jarl,” he said, turning to his nephew, “please acquaint the Elvenking with the newest spices.”

Jarl obligingly rose and went to retrieve them.  When he returned with a large locked coffer, the Master and his household bid the Elvenking good night and took their leave.  Finally alone with the Master’s presumptive successor, Thranduil took advantage of the opportunity to scrutinize him more carefully. 

“These are the spices most favored in the Master’s household, my lord,” Jarl explained, unlocking the coffer and revealing the carefully organized contents for Thranduil’s perusal.  “Many have only recently been seen in Rhovanion.  They are all very versatile, pleasant in sweet as well as savory foods.”

Paying greater attention to the man than to the presentation, Thranduil nodded.  “And how have you made your fortune, sir?” he asked casually, rolling some colorful peppercorns in his fingers and testing their aroma.  “Was it by trade in these curiosities?”

“Partly, my lord.  We dabble in other ventures as well.”

“Such as?”

“We have traded primarily in fine wines and raw textiles, wool, silk, cotton, and the like.”

Thranduil turned a knowing look upon him, recognizing several of the most lucrative and dependable exports into Greenwood.  Whatever his other virtues, the man clearly knew his business.  “I understand that your uncle is positioning you to succeed him as Master,” he said, changing the subject as he continued to browse through the spices.

“Nothing is certain,” Jarl insisted.  “As you know, the Mastership is an elected position.”

“Of course.”  Thranduil subtly changed his tone to be a bit less amicable and a bit more serious.  “But, in the event of your accession, it would please me to know the city was in the hands of someone upon whom I could thoroughly rely.  I have invested the labor of my people, much time, and a great deal of money in the building and rebuilding of Esgaroth and the preservation of the Dale-men, all of which I believe places this city rather deeply in my debt.”

Jarl became noticeably pale at the thought.  “But, my lord, you said you did not expect repayment,” he protested.

“I do not expect gold,” Thranduil clarified.  “I expect loyalty.”  Jarl continued to stare without any firm comprehension of his meaning, so Thranduil continued.  “I have made the concerns and the perils of Esgaroth my own insofar as lies within my power, and I wish to be compensated in kind.  I would have a staunch ally at my back to defend the gateway to the north, even as I guard the approaches from the south.” 

“But we have no army, my lord,” the man went on, apparently full of tiresome excuses, “no soldiers that can be of any use to you.”

“I do not intend to call you to war,” Thranduil said, becoming rather irritated.  He had not needed to speak so explicitly to the previous Masters, but the longer they spoke the more he was confirmed in his initial opinion that Jarl was a calculating man with a cold heart and a weak spine who may require some extra encouragement to honor his obligations should any uncomfortable situations arise.  “I would have you acquit yourselves bravely should the north be attacked.  Your defense is my defense.  Inform me of what moves in your lands.  Hinder my foes and succor my allies.  Be my eyes and ears in the wilds beyond the marshes.  I trust that is not too much to ask, considering the liberality you have enjoyed.”

Now that Thranduil’s terms were clear, it seemed Jarl was bold enough to resent them.  “The graciousness of the Elves seems somewhat lessened of late,” he grumbled.

Rather than become angry, Thranduil became cold.  He narrowed his eyes, leaned in and planted his elbows on the table, prepared to speak as he might to an insubordinate soldier.  “It seems to me that I have been exceptionally gracious to aid your people in the rebuilding of your city for the second time in its brief history,” he said, very deliberately.  “I will continue to graciously accept whatever service the Lake-men may offer, but I will expect it because it is owed to me.  Failure to honor this duty will be seen as a grave betrayal.  Anyone who would be Master must understand this.  Otherwise, we may be content to do without your grand spices and fine fabrics for a generation.”

Jarl wet his lips and swallowed visibly.  Thranduil allowed the heavy silence to linger for a while before he finally arched his brow, demanding an answer.

“Yes, my lord,” Jarl said, gathering his wits.  “I understand.”

“Very well.”  Thranduil relaxed his menacing posture and returned his attention to the spices.  “In the meantime, I expect you will find my patronage extremely profitable, even considering the preferential arrangement the Galennath still enjoy here.  I am not difficult to please if you do your duty well.  While Erebor lies derelict, there are only we two wedged between the evil of Mirkwood and the menace of the dragon.  Let us not become inimical to one another.”



When Thranduil returned to his own halls once again, he found a patrol of soldiers eagerly awaiting him with wondrous news from beyond the western marches.  In such times when ill news was more common than any other kind, Thranduil was keen to hear their report and received them at once.

“Say on,” he bid them, sinking into the comfortable familiarity of his throne once again.  “I am told you made an unexpected acquaintance at the western border.”

“Yes, my lord,” their captain began.  “We were tasked with riding the length of the western road, to clear the path and maintain the crossings.  We did so, but when we emerged into the valleys beyond the wood, we found a Man awaiting us there.  He was a giant, dark and bearded, and immensely strong.  He greeted us courteously, and said he had recently made his home in those valleys east of the Anduin, and that he had been waiting for any emissaries of the Elvenking to whom he could make himself known.”

“And did he?” Thranduil asked, intrigued.  “He has a name, I trust.”

“The name he gave us is Beorn,” the captain continued.  “Forgive us, my lord, but we judged it best that four of us accompany him to his home as he bid us rather than return at once as we were ordered.  Two remained at the west gate to keep the road and await the safe return of the rest of our party.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, “you are forgiven.  What did you discover of our new enigmatic neighbor?”

An expression of grim amazement passed the captain’s features.  “There is some powerful magic upon him, my lord,” he said.  “His home is a sanctuary for tame beasts, with vast gardens for their use and pleasure, and he himself is a skin-changer who may at will assume the form of an enormous black bear.”

Now Thranduil felt the same expression on his own face.  This was not the first he had heard of such skin-changers, but they had fallen out of legend long ago.  “Do we know where he comes from?” he asked.

“He would only say that his people were severely harried by the Orcs and Goblins of the Misty Mountains, and that he may be among the last of his kind.  He says it is his intention to live a solitary and quiet life among his companion animals, bothering little about the doings of the wider world, but that you, the Elvenking, may consider him an ally against any Wargs or Goblins which may venture east of the river.”

Thranduil considered this remarkable development for a moment.  “Well,” he said at last, “I shall not presume to call upon him, since he so values his solitude, but it is still no bad thing to have an irritable shape-shifting bear living in the valley if he intends to make war on the Goblins.  Did he mention whether he was known to Radagast?”

“It was Radagast who impelled him to make himself known to you, my lord,” the captain explained.  “He sends you a greeting and some small tribute.”

Another of the soldiers stepped out from behind his fellows and approached the King bearing a long shrouded object.  He sank to one knee and offered it to Thranduil.  “These are the words of Beorn,” he began, very properly.  “Hail, Thranduil Thalion, Elvenking Orc-bane.  Allies we may be in perils yet to come; now I am but a wanderer who seeks his peace in the valley.  I am friend to all good folk but servant to none.  I swear no fealty, but promise only that our common foes will find no safe passage across the Anduin if Beorn hears of them.”

Abrupt and yet not discourteous, it was more or less the greeting Thranduil expected he would receive from a bear if ever he was to be honored with one.  He carefully lifted the wrapping off Beorn’s gift, revealing it to be a noble staff of oak wood, intricately carven with a riot of leaves, acorns, and the occasional bear.  The details were minutely finished, and clearly the result of long and diligent labor.  At first glance it seemed to belie Beorn’s apparent disinterest in the realms surrounding his home, but more likely it only confirmed his own protestations that he could be an extremely valuable ally when it served his purposes. 

“I feel it would be appropriate to importune good Beorn with a message of thanks, and perhaps a token of our goodwill in return, one lord to another,” Thranduil said, taking the staff in hand, testing its weight and balance.  “What might we have to offer a bear?”

“He cares not for gold or jewels,” the captain said, “nor does he hunt or slay any beast besides the evil creatures who threaten his land.  While we were his guests, it seemed he lived quite happily on little besides cream and honey.”

Thranduil frowned thoughtfully.  “It is difficult to send gifts to one who wants for nothing,” he said.  “Still, such tribute deserves an answer.  Rest and prepare yourselves to return to Beorn’s house with our thanks.”



Gwaelas turned his steps down toward the cellars to collect the gifts the King had selected for Beorn.  Not knowing what else could tempt him, Thranduil had elected to send several pots from their own honey reserves, the special preparations infused with summer’s lilac blossoms, the autumnal spices from Esgaroth, or the striking crimson essence of woodland berries.  Gwaelas reflected on how very appropriate a gift it was given the circumstances, pleasantly useful and implying the thoughtful regard of the giver, yet not so grand as to oblige the recipient to respond.  It was very diplomatic.

He was roused out of his thoughts, however, as he approached the cellar doors and found them sloppily ajar.  The raucous noise coming from inside was even more concerning.  Gwaelas entered cautiously, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach alongside a smoldering indignation as he surveyed the scene. 

The whole place was in a state of slight disarray, not so confused that it could truly be called messy, but just unkempt enough to betray a lack of care on the part of its keeper.  The party of Elves who had been sent down to help prepare and return the empty barrels to the river’s course were lingering overlong, neglecting their duties upstairs while at the same time making merry with the cellar’s stores of wine and cheese.  Storeroom doors which should have been locked stood open to admit all comers.  A cursory glance at the cellarer’s ledger told Gwaelas that the last shipment had not yet been completely tallied, and that certainly no mention had been made of withdrawing any of the fine refreshments being consumed before his very eyes.

Gwaelas snatched the flute from the piper, abruptly ending the music and causing the lively song to die away.  “I believe you all have duties to attend elsewhere,” he said sternly, dismissing them at once.  They obeyed, albeit rather grudgingly.  None of them was bold enough to gainsay Thranduil’s most intimate representative. 

“Good evening to you as well, cousin,” Galion said with a wry expression.  He drained his cup and finally rose out of his chair.  “Has the King’s service robbed you of all cheer?”

Gwaelas just stared at him, aghast.  “What are you doing?” he finally asked, discreetly lowering his voice.  “The King has entrusted you with one of the most vital services in his household.”

“And I will perform it,” Galion protested, resentful of the lecture he knew was coming.  “I have put in a great deal of work these past months and the ship is still sailing.  Surely the King would not begrudge his most diligent servants some small indulgence to aid the labor.”

Angrily, Gwaelas took up a discarded cheese rind with a very distinctive stamp.  “This alone cost more than what you earn in a fortnight,” he insisted, throwing it at him, “which you would know if you kept the ledger as closely as you ought.  Why are the stores not secured?  How often have you been distributing the King’s property among your friends?”

Galion scowled.  “At least I have friends,” he said.  “Perhaps you would, too, if you occasionally condescended to share the fruits of your good fortune.” 

He reached for his wine, but Gwaelas grabbed it first.  Testing the smell of it, he was horrified to recognize the King’s private reserve from Dorwinion.  He threw the cup away, seized his cousin by the collar, dragged him into the shadows of an open granary and slammed him into the wall. 

“Already I curse the day I gave the King your name,” he growled, pinning Galion against the rock with his arm.  The outrage was bringing out a violence in him that seldom stirred.  “Six thousand years we have served the Kings of Eryn Galen, yet in three short months your heedless attitude has completely corrupted the discipline in these halls.  Only our kinship and my misplaced concern for your mother keeps me from throwing you immediately upon Thranduil’s mercy.”

Galion did seem surprised and even somewhat chastened by the rough treatment.  Seeing the change, Gwaelas released him with one final shove against the wall.  “I will be having a word with the keeper of the keys,” he promised ominously, “whom you have so successfully bent to your will.  The King put you here because he expects great things from you, not so that you could amuse yourself at his expense!  Do you really imagine he will be content to let you plunder his goods unpunished?”

Finally seeming to consider the possible consequences, Galion paled.  “What are you going to tell him?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Gwaelas snapped, “though it galls me to admit it.  But understand, I will not defend you again.  I have no time to coddle you, and I expect you to find it in yourself to prove equal the King’s expectations.  You asked to be here,” he reminded him with a last disdainful glance.  “Do not squander the opportunity, or we may both find ourselves on the wrong side of him.”  Gwaelas heaved a terse sigh, trying to regain his flustered composure before he returned to the halls upstairs.  “Now, before I forget why I came, show me where we keep the honey reserves.”

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