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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 41 - The Affairs of Wizards II

Thranduil forced himself to sleep that night, knowing the rest would make him more congenial if nothing else.  He was eagerly anticipating the return of Legolas and Tauriel with the rest of the Dwarves.  He had no doubt of their eventual success, unless the unfortunates had been taken by the spiders.  That anticipation made it difficult to quiet his mind, but a few cups of Dorwinion helped him find peace enough for a few hours.

“Good morning, sire,” Gwaelas said as he entered the King’s chambers, mildly surprised to see him already awake and dressed.

“What news, Gwaelas?” Thranduil asked, dismissing the wolves.  “Has the Prince returned?”

“Not yet, my lord.”

Thranduil sighed.  “Very well.  I imagine we have a great deal of other business to occupy us in the meantime.”

When Gwaelas had finished making him presentable, Thranduil left his chambers and strode through the caverns toward his throne.  He did feel much better after a night of sleep.  He felt secure in his position, content and serenely confident in the face of all challenges.  So deeply had he entrenched himself into the life of his realm over the centuries that he and the Wood almost breathed as one.  He should sleep more often.

Lord Linhir was waiting for him, as he ever was.  They spent the morning attending all the tedious entries in his book.  Teams of foresters and dredgers were sent to maintain the waterways, a courier was dispatched to Esgaroth explaining Thranduil’s terms to the Master, and it was confirmed that the Dwarf was still sitting in his cell with no intention of improving his behavior.  

“Your scouts have returned,” Linhir told him when they had concluded the most urgent business.

“Send them in,” Thranduil said.  “It is high time I heard what is moving in the wider world.”

Two pairs of Guardsmen approached to make their reports this time.  Bregonsúl and Tavoron had been sent south and west, Neldorín and Ascaron to the north and east, and they had conveniently returned at the same time.  Thranduil gestured to the latter pair first.  “Tell me, how fare our neighbors in Esgaroth?” he said.

“The Lake-men continue to prosper,” Ascaron said.  “The Master salutes you by us, and says he eagerly awaits your reply to his latest communication.”

“I am sure he does,” Thranduil said dryly.  “It is well on its way to him by now, but I suspect he will find little pleasure in it.  What of our other concerns?”

“Erebor continues to be quiet,” Neldorín reported.  “The dragon has not been seen by anyone in the town, confirming the observations of our own watch.  The Dwarves continue to keep to the Iron Hills and have not made any attempt to return to Ered Mithrin.  There is currently peace in Rhûn, though there have been rumors of emissaries from Mordor abroad in the land.”

Thranduil frowned.  “I heartily dislike the sound of that,” he said.  Dol Guldur had been unusually quiet in the past year, making him suspect the Dark Lord had again been laying schemes of greater consequence than his cruel pastimes in Mirkwood.  “Has there been any rumor of their purpose?”

“Nothing for certain, only that they were seeking alliance and pledges of loyalty from the Rhûnnath.”

“Were they satisfied?”

“That we have not heard, my lord,” Ascaron said.  “The broad feeling is that times have been good in Rhûn and that there is little appetite for war.”

“That at least is fortunate.”  Thranduil shifted in his throne, plagued by the uncomfortable feeling that something of great import was moving just out of his sight and beyond his power to correct.  He resolved to strengthen the watch on their borders.  “Is there anything else?”

“Only that there have been reports of greater numbers of Orcs and Goblins in the northeast,” Tavoron said, “and that travel by the northern roads is now more dangerous.”

Thranduil grunted to himself.  That could explain the Dwarves on his road.  

“The same is true in the west,” Bregonsúl said.  “The mountains are infested with ever growing numbers of Goblins, and they have been seen more often in the valleys.  They are allied with Wargs, and together they have been harrying travelers and villages beside the river.”

“We rode as far as Rhosgobel in the south,” Tavoron continued.  “Master Radagast continues his watch and confirms that Dol Guldur has been unusually still.  He suspects the Dark Lord has been turning his thought to other lands.”

“As do I,” Thranduil said.  “Has Beorn anything to say of the Goblins in the valleys?”

“We called upon Beorn on our return from Rhosgobel,” Bregonsúl explained.  “Not only has he been obliged to cull the Goblins and Wargs, but he sends a particular warning to you, my lord.  He says that Mithrandir has been coming and going through the land, although he did not know him by that name.  When last they parted, the wizard was leading a party of Dwarves into the east.  Beorn counseled them against the old roads and directed them to yours.”

Thranduil straightened where he sat and narrowed his eyes.  He should have suspected that Mithrandir would be behind the bizarre series of events they were still attempting to resolve.  Beorn’s message answered many questions, yet explained very little.  Now Thranduil was more determined than before to discover the Dwarves’ purpose and why they insisted upon barging through his domain with neither gift nor leave.  “Is there anything else?” he asked.

Bregonsúl shrugged.  “We saw no Goblins who still drew breath, but there were many dead and everywhere great bear tracks.  It seems Beorn has the problem well in hand, my lord.”

Thranduil nodded.  “Very well.  You are all dismissed.  Rest, enjoy your reprieve, and report back to Dorthaer in three days.”

When they had gone, Thranduil turned to Linhir.  “Have you anything else?”

“Nothing of any immediate consequence,” Linhir assured him, “but we do have the celebration to plan.”

“Ah, yes.”  Now Thranduil smiled.  It may perhaps have seemed excessive to already be planning an enormous feast the morning after the autumn festival had abruptly ended, but it was to be an occasion of special magnificence, and life in Mirkwood could often be so dark that the only consolation for their hardships was merry comradery.  It was not every day that his son would attain his twentieth year by the long Elvish reckoning, each of which represented one hundred and forty-four years of the sun.  Thranduil was well into his forty-sixth, but no one was counting anymore.  “I will leave that to you.  It is early days yet, and I trust you.  Speak to Legolas about it when he returns.  My expectation is that you will give him whatever he wants and spare no expense.”

Linhir made note of it with a twisted smile.  “You are indeed fortunate your son is blessed with such a good nature,” he said, “or you would have spoiled him long ago.”

“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, “but he has earned the indulgence.”

He was too preoccupied to focus long on any other mundane task that day.  He spoke to Anárion about increasing the number of soldiers posted along their borders, he met and interviewed three prospective additions to the King’s Guard, sat in judgment of  a few trifling legal matters, officially reviewed the youngest ranks of the army and sent them on to their first assignment.

Finally, as night was falling and Thranduil had just made up his mind to arm himself and go out into the forest after them, a trumpet sounded at the gates to announce the return of Prince Legolas and his company.  Grimly satisfied, Thranduil returned to the great hall, took up his great oaken staff and solemnly resumed his throne, knowing where he would be expected. 

Legolas and Tauriel immediately brought their prisoners before the King, twelve wretched Dwarves weakened by starvation and despair, nearly dead on their feet.  They were a pitiful spectacle, but they still had spirit enough to turn bitter glares upon their temporary masters.

“Unbind them,” Thranduil said, choosing to speak the common tongue so that his prisoners would have the pleasure of understanding him.  “They look as though they could hardly put three steps together without falling over, not that they could escape the enchanted gates once they are closed.”

“We found them wandering north of the road, my lord,” Legolas reported as the soldiers unbound the prisoners.  “They gave no resistance.”

“Small wonder, considering their condition,” Thranduil said, then he returned his attention to the prisoners.  “What business brings you into the deep places of Mirkwood, Master Dwarves?  I trust it was worth the peril.”

At first the Dwarves offered only stony silence.  Then an older one with a stark white beard stepped up to speak for his companions.  “Our business is our own, and certainly none of yours,” he said curtly.

Thranduil arched his brow at him.  He was not really offended so much as disappointed that they could not converse with greater civility.  “You have made your business mine by entering my realm and troubling my people,” he said.  “Where were you going?”

“Out of this wretched forest,” the old Dwarf insisted.  “We have not attempted to cross it for pleasure.”

“Then why did you attempt to cross it?”

“Because we could find no better path.”

“No better path to where?”

“To our destination.”

Thranduil paused for a moment to deliberately quell his growing impatience.  Nothing useful would come of an argument.  “Who are you?” he asked.  “Where were you coming from?”

“We are but unfortunate and nameless travelers of no consequence to great lords like yourself,” the white Dwarf answered scornfully.  “Our poor homes are of no importance.”

“Perhaps great lords would take a greater interest were you not so disagreeable,” Thranduil suggested dryly.  “I ask again, where were you coming from?”

“From the west,” was the gruff answer.

Thranduil rolled his eyes in spite of himself, keenly frustrated by their insistence upon making a farce of an otherwise perfectly reasonable interrogation.  “And where were you going?” he tried again.

“To the east.”

There was an audible grumble from the soldiers, but a narrow look from Legolas silenced them.

“You are very ungracious for people who owe such a debt of gratitude,” Thranduil observed, a sneer creeping into his voice.  “Have we not been put to a great deal of trouble on your account?  Have we not rescued you from misfortunes of your own making?  Considering everything you have done, I believe the very least I might expect would be some civility.”

“And what have we done, O king?” the old Dwarf demanded.  “Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be attacked by spiders?  Are the spiders your pets then, if killing them angers you so?”

“It is a crime to wander in my realm without leave!” Thranduil reminded them in a similar tone.  “Do you forget that you were in my kingdom, using the road that my people made?  Did you not three times importune and harass my people in the forest and provoke the spiders with your heedless clamor?  After all the disruption you have caused I am entitled to know what brings you here, and if you refuse to tell me now, I will imprison you all until you have learned a modicum of courtesy!”  He turned to Legolas.  “Take them away and secure them, each to his own cell, wherever you can.  Give them food and drink, but on no account are they to pass the doors of their cells again until at least one of them is willing to answer me.”

“Yes, my lord.”

As their prisoners were marched away into the deeps of the caverns, Lord Linhir approached him.  “Do you think it wise to so frustrate their progress, especially if Mithrandir is orchestrating their errand?”

“If their errand is so urgent, they can explain themselves and be on their way,” Thranduil insisted.  “Or Mithrandir himself may come to ransom them.  I will not be made a mockery in my own house.”

Despite their pride and legendary stubbornness, Thranduil expected the Dwarvish matter would be resolved within a few days.  Time passed especially tediously while one sat alone in the dark, but they surprised him with their determination.  Perhaps their errand was not so urgent after all.  When they tired of their captivity, he would be ready to hear them.

As expected, the Master of Esgaroth was not pleased with Thranduil’s new stipulation regarding the fair use of the waterways.  The next barge came blithely up the river, the newly dredged and beautifully maintained river, and feigned ignorance of the Elvenking’s new toll.  Perhaps they thought it a trifling matter that would not be seriously enforced, especially considering the fabulous expense of the cargo, all ordered expressly for the prince’s celebration.  But Thranduil’s instructions to his marchwardens had been firm; the barge and all its goods were refused and turned back downstream.  The Elvenking’s informants within the town provided very satisfying accounts of the furor which erupted among the tradesmen, baying for blood at the Master’s door.  The negotiations must have ended in their favor, because the barge returned in short order with the correct coinage.

The great autumn gathering had begun in preparation for winter.  There was a great deal of hunting to be done while the beasts were still fat on acorns.  Eventually it seemed the whole forest smelled pleasantly of woodsmoke and curing meat.  The one persistent frustration was that so many of their storerooms were occupied by obstinate Dwarves.  Necessity demanded that creative solutions be found, and eventually even the King had to endure the eyesore that was a great heap of grain sacks piled in the corner of his chambers.

Preparations for the great celebration continued as the date drew nearer.  The King had little time to spare fussing over details, but those tasked with such things kept him well informed.  He was seated at his table looking over a hastily scrawled summary of the completed arrangements when Gwaelas arrived bearing his supper on a tray.

“Good evening, my lord,” he said, setting it down in the space Thranduil cleared for the purpose.  “Is all progressing well?”

“Quite well,” Thranduil assured him.  “Have you anything of note for me before you go?”

Gwaelas frowned.  “Only that there have been many complaints about the dogs in the last fortnight,” he said.  “Apparently they have been stealing food more often.”

Thranduil frowned as well, and glanced at the wolves in the corner.  “Surely they know better,” he said.  “I have never seen such brazen behavior.”

“Neither have I, truth be told.  But the food is missing nonetheless.”

“Perhaps there are one or two ill-mannered culprits among them,” Thranduil allowed.  “See that everyone knows to watch them closely and bring the offenders to me.  I would not have the discipline in my household deteriorate.”

Gwaelas twitched strangely, as though the comment struck him in an odd way.  “Yes, my lord.”

Thranduil noted his reaction, but was unable to account for it.  Gwaelas had seemed unusually anxious recently, but Thranduil was not yet inclined to pry into the cause.  Gwaelas would confide in him when the time was right.  “Very well,” he said simply.  “Go feed yourself.”

Gwaelas took his leave of the King and returned to the kitchens.  He had still said nothing to Thranduil about Galion and his shortcomings, and the omission haunted him.  The off-hand comment about the deteriorating discipline in the household struck too near.  He had been keeping a loose watch on his cousin as often as his duties would allow, probably not often enough, and now he urgently needed to see that all was well in the cellars for his own peace of mind.

The kitchens were alive with noise and firelight and lively singing.  “Ho, Gwaelas!” Halagos called to him over the din, arranging generous cuts of venison on laden trays for the other noble members of the household.  “Back so soon!  The King is not dissatisfied, I trust?”

“Not at all,” Gwaelas assured him.  “What do you have for me tonight?”

“Ah!” Halagos smiled and produced another tray set apart from the others.  “Just as you like it,” he said, nodding at the generous portions of cheese beside a fresh bread roll with slices of smoked boar stuffed inside.

“Excellent,” Gwaelas said with genuine appreciation.  “Could you put it aside for a moment?  I must first visit the cellars.”

Halagos shrugged.  “As you wish,” he said.  “It will be there by the door.  We have no room for it back here.”

“Thank you.”

Gwaelas hurried down the corridor, anxious to complete his errand and return for his supper.  The cellar doors were closed when he reached them, and nothing seemed obviously out of place.  Galion sat over his own rations at the table and scowled as Gwaelas entered.

“Good evening, cousin,” he said with none of the welcome the greeting implied.  “What brings you down here so late?  Surely something of greater consequence than concern about me.”

“You know very well why I trouble myself to come,” Gwaelas replied in much the same tone.  He glanced over the open ledger, noting that the entries were complete though the ink was fresh and wet.  All the storeroom doors were secured, and the floor was swept.  If Galion was still abusing his station, he was better about hiding it now.

“It has been thirty years,” Galion complained.  “I begin to suspect you have no wish to trust me.”

“Oh, I wish I could,” Gwaelas countered sharply.  “Do you imagine I enjoy the extra work and worry of looking after you?”  He scrutinized Galion’s plate and did not see anything he was not entitled to.  “Continue to perform as you should, and eventually I will trust you.  Mind the details, especially with an event of such significance upon us.” 

Galion turned to him with a withering glare.  “Rest assured, I will not shame you by ruining the Prince’s celebration.”

Gwaelas turned a narrow glance on him in return, and then took his leave.  On the way out, he crossed paths with Helegil, the keeper of the keys, and stopped him with a gesture.  “How fare our reluctant guests?” he asked.  

Helegil sighed and rolled his eyes.  “They are all alive and well enough, fed and watered, and none of them have offered so much of a word to any of us.  I ask them every night if they have anything to offer the King, to no avail.  They might as well be made of stone.”  

Gwaelas nodded.  “Keep at them,” he said.  “We must prove at least as stubborn as they are.”

He returned to the kitchens, satisfied that Galion was behaving himself, and by now quite hungry.  When he went to collect his tray, however, the bread and meat was missing along with half the cheese.  Immediately suspicious, Gwaelas looked into the corridor and indeed found one of the hounds skulking there.  He hissed at her, and she flattened her ears in a sheepish expression.  He had not caught her in the act, and so could not definitively accuse her of the theft, however incriminating the circumstances.   

“I have my eye on you,” he said sternly as she tucked tail and trotted away.  

It seemed everything in the Elvenking’s halls had been knocked slightly off-kilter lately.  The chaos unsettled him.  The sooner they could put things right the better.  

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