Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search

We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 42 - The Affairs of Wizards III

The festive evening in Prince Legolas’ honor was a grand success.  The caverns rang with music and song, and everyone was able for at least once night to partake in luxuries usually reserved for the King’s table.  For one night no one had any worries, no one was without a host of friends, and no one gave any thought to the myriad dangers which lurked in the shadows of Mirkwood.  There would be time enough to remember them in the morning.  

When morning came, however, it seemed very few were willing to face it.  The wine had been flowing freely all night, and many revelers were inclined to retreat into bed before resuming their regular duties.  Some could afford the indulgence, but there was still a household to be run, and indeed a great mess to be cleaned up.  

Gwaelas was not certain what inspired that restless itch in the back of his mind, a nagging doubt that would not be satisfied until he had checked on Galion in the cellars.  Great celebrations were always difficult to manage in the cellars, especially when it came to keeping the ledger up to date, and to top it all a shipment of barrels from Esgaroth had arrived the previous day.  If Galion had managed all the coming and going to his satisfaction, Gwaelas thought he may finally be convinced of his competence.  

The corridors were unusually quiet after all the rampant merriment had been spent, and Gwaelas was not encouraged to find the cellar door standing open again, but perhaps that could be forgiven after such a night.  His forgiving attitude was strained as he entered to find the place in complete disarray, the storerooms pillaged and the spoils trampled.  He saw Galion there speaking with Helegil, but before he could complain about the slovenly conditions he read their faces and recognized sheer panic.  

Gwaelas’ steps faltered for a moment.  “What has happened?” he demanded, dread growing in his own gut.  

“The Dwarves!” Helegil exclaimed, looking as though he might be sick.  “They have vanished!”

“What?”  Now Gwaelas shared their trepidation.  “How?  When?  Did you make your rounds last night?”

Helegil swallowed nervously.  “I must confess I did not,” he said.  “Galion invited me to drink with him while he awaited help with the barrels, but the wine was stronger than I expected and I regret to say I . . . fell asleep.”

Gwaelas was more horrified by each emerging detail.  He turned to Galion with a poisonous look.  “Am I to understand,” he began sternly, “that you plied the keeper of the keys with the King’s best wine while you were both on duty, and that you then became so drunk that you were sleeping at your posts, and now the King’s prisoners have gone?”

“The doors were still locked!” Helegil protested desperately.  “The keys are still on my belt!”

“They must have escaped by some magic contrivance,” Galion said, casting about for any explanation.  He looked positively ill.

“Well, unfortunately, we shall never know!” Gwaelas shouted, furious.  “What a pity there was no one standing guard!”

“Master Gwaelas!”  Guardsman Tavoron had appeared at the door.  “The King summons you.”

Gwaelas felt sick again as the angry flush drained from his face.  “I hope you realize what you have done,” he hissed at Galion before he turned to go.  “I cannot protect you from this.  We must all face the consequences now.”  

Thranduil had not quite decided whether he would sleep away the morning or press on until the close of day.  He was still in an excellent frame of mind, drifting in the echoes of the good humor of the previous evening.  Everything had been perfect, as rarely anything was anymore.  His one complaint, if such it must be called, was that he had heard rumor of the soldiers on duty throughout the palace and even on the Night Watch partaking of the festivities to an irresponsible degree.  As much as he wished to extend the gaiety to everyone, he must insist that the security of his realm not be compromised.  He would speak to Gwaelas about it when he arrived.

When Gwaelas did finally appear at the door, he looked out of sorts.  “You asked for me, my lord,” he said.

Thranduil knew he would eventually have to ask him about his deteriorating disposition as well.  All in good time.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Before I release you, I am afraid something rather serious has occurred which I must bring to your attention.”

“Of course, sire,” Gwaelas agreed, keeping himself at a strange distance.  “It is indeed a most grievous breach of trust, and though I cannot bear the entirety of the blame, I must accept my part and beg your pardon.”

Thranduil frowned.  “You can hardly be faulted for the poor judgment of others,” he said, assuming Gwaelas had heard the same rumors.  

“Perhaps not,” Gwaelas allowed, “but had I not concealed his shortcomings from you in the past, we might have prevented a disaster of this magnitude.”

Thranduil stopped cold, realizing they were having two very different but parallel conversations, and he did not like the tenor of what Gwaelas was describing.  “What disaster?” he asked, very deliberately.  

Gwaelas, apparently coming to the same realization, turned very pale.

All the servants assigned to the cellars stood at attention in ranks amidst the inexcusable disorder of the place, stewing in their own guilt as the King walked slowly through their dysfunction.  The incriminating detritus of the previous night had not yet been cleared away, discarded cheese rinds, empty flagons dripping with wine, plates and trays stacked and pushed aside, doors ajar which should be locked.  

Thranduil observed it all in severe silence, holding back the storm of disbelief and smoldering indignation which blackened his thoughts.  He did not know exactly how to read the ledger, but a cursory glance told him it was out of date and sloppily kept.  

“I was under the impression,” he said at last, dreadfully calm, “that I compensated you all very well for your service, treated you fairly, even indulged you with many favors, and yet you seem to have no compunction about stealing from me.”  He slammed the ledger closed, the first physical manifestation of his displeasure.  “What am I to do with you?” he asked.  “How am I to repay this stunning dereliction of duty which resulted in the unprecedented breach we have discovered this morning?”

No one dared answer him.

“The prisoners may indeed have escaped by magic, as Galion has proposed,” Lord Linhir ventured to suggest.  “Perhaps Mithrandir may yet be involved.”

“Mithrandir would not dare!” Thranduil snarled.  “He may bend me to his will and keep his own counsel, but even he has tact enough to not rob my halls like a common thief.  And I think there was less magic about it than you expect.”  He glanced at the floor to prove his suspicion, and it took him only a moment to pick out the clumsy tread of a crowd of Dwarves through the trampled cakes and spilled wine.  The trail led him directly to the great trapdoor in the floor.  “The barrels were released into the river last night, were they not?” he asked pointedly.  “Did no one feel the weight of them?”

Again, his only answer was an extremely awkward silence.  

Thranduil returned to the shamefaced assembly, snatched the ring of keys off Helegil’s belt and thrust it at Linhir.  “Take them all and secure them in the cells our guests so cleverly vacated until I have determined a suitable punishment,” he said.

No one spoke or even looked up as they filed past him.  Thranduil would be certain to obtain an accurate list of their names and histories from Linhir.  He caught Gwaelas ungently by the arm to stop him following the others.  “Not you,” he growled.  “I would like to hear exactly what you have to say for yourself.”

Gwaelas cringed, but he was man enough to stand and receive whatever was coming to him.  “Sire,” he said, “I am mortified.”

“And rightly so,” Thranduil agreed sharply.  Then he softened.  “Yet the fault was not entirely yours, and I will not punish you.  You spoke no lie, and I was perhaps too ready to attribute your virtues to all your relations.  But you will forgive me if I never accept another of your recommendations on these matters.”

“I doubt I shall ever venture to make another, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him.  

“What of your prisoners, sire?” Guardsman Neldorín asked.  “Shall we go after them?”

“To what purpose?” Thranduil asked.  “They are halfway to Esgaroth by now, and by the time you close the distance they will have arrived there.  Let them go.  We shall see what the Lake-men make of them.”

The initial violence of Thranduil’s anger was soon spent, and before the following dawn he had personally released and sternly counseled the majority of those servants he had imprisoned.  He conditionally restored them to their posts, willing to give them a chance to redeem themselves, and they were all very grateful for the opportunity.  There were only two who had permanently forfeited their privileged positions.  Galion and Helegil would sit in their cells a while longer until he decided what to do with them.  As they had proven themselves unworthy of any greater trust, they may very well spend the next several years shoveling nightsoil in the stables.  

It was only a few days later that Thranduil’s raftsmen returned from Esgaroth in high dudgeon, and burst in upon the King while he was discussing the shifting of troops on the southern border with Linhir and Legolas.  “How is it, my lord, that your prisoners have escaped?” the first of them demanded.  “We have seen them, all fourteen of them, in Esgaroth!”

“Yes,” Thranduil replied dryly, “we assumed that would be their destination the morning after they slipped their bonds, considering the manner of their escape.”

“And what manner was that?” the raftsman sneered.  “Surely someone was treasonously negligent to have lost them all.”

Thranduil glowered at him from his throne.  “Do not be so quick to condemn your fellows,” he said.  “Or did you not notice any barrels riding suspiciously low in the water?”

“We did, but—”  Suddenly realizing the implications of the statement, the raftsmen shut their mouths, and their indignation became keen regret.

Thranduil saw the truth chasten them.  “Do not imagine you are blameless in this sad drama of neglected opportunities,” he said, “but I have no wish to imprison any more of my household, so you will all oblige me by taking a lesson or two from the experience.”

They bit their tongues lest they say anything more than what was required of them.  “Yes, my lord.”

“Now,” Thranduil said, leaning into the conversation rather than dismissing them, “we have all been quite curious.  How did the Lake-men receive our vagrant Dwarves?  Did they have names after all?” 

“They claimed to be Ereborrim, no less than Thorin son of Thrain, King Under the Mountain, come to reclaim his realm.”

“Oh, yes?”  Thranduil was piqued with new interest.  The revelation was not wholly unexpected, if indeed he had troubled himself to entertain the possibility.  He had only seen Thorin once before, and had not given him a great deal of consideration.  Their origin explained the Dwarves’ vehement hostility towards him, even if he still considered it unjustified.  “But I notice you mentioned fourteen.  The small one was still with them?”

“Yes, my lord.  He is not a Dwarf at all, but a Halfling from Eriador.  By all accounts his kind never leave their own country, so I wonder that he finds himself so far east.”

“So does he, I imagine,” Thranduil said with a wry expression.  The more he learned about the rag-tag quest, the more he recognized the stamp of Mithrandir’s chaotic logic.  Those caught in its trawl were often not entirely sure how it happened.  “What of the Master?  How did he receive my escaped prisoners?”

“The Master seemed reluctant to believe their claims, both of their blood and their purpose, but his misgivings were overcome by the clamor of the people who believe the old songs are coming true, that prosperity will follow the mountain king’s return.”

Thranduil felt much less optimistic.  In his experience, romantic ballads were not reliable sources of prophecy, especially not ones which failed to mention a complication so consequential as a dragon.  “I fear what comes of this fool’s errand will fall far short of their expectations,” he said.  “You may return to your posts.”

When they had gone, he spoke more candidly to his companions.  “I want the Dragon Watch strengthened at once,” he told Legolas.  “Whatever Thorin and his companions intend to do, any misstep will likely stir Smaug from his hold.”

“Do you believe they truly intend to challenge the dragon for possession of the mountain?” Legolas asked.

“I doubt it,” Thranduil scoffed.  “What are thirteen Dwarves to Smaug?  At best, I suspect they intend to recover whatever treasure they can by stealth.  At worst, they have indeed come with some ludicrous hope of slaying the beast and will succeed only in loosing him upon the rest of us.”

“What are we to do in that event?” Linhir asked grimly.

“There is not much that can be done,” Thranduil admitted, “except to flee the flames and take as many into the caverns as we can.  But perhaps I am being too hasty.  Perhaps Mithrandir has orchestrated this whole endeavor, and has entrusted to them some master plan.”  He sighed, unable to believe it however badly he wanted it to be true.  “If not, I would much prefer they leave well enough alone.  The dragon has lain quiet for years; what good can come of waking it?”

“They must understand the danger better than anyone,” Linhir reasoned.  “Surely they would not attempt to reenter the mountain without some reasonable hope of success.”

“We can only pray that is the case,” Thranduil said.  “We shall see soon enough, whatever happens.  No treasure will come back through the wood without my having something to say about it, not after all the trouble they put us to.  More likely Erebor will be their tomb, condemned by their own avarice.  That gold already has a great deal of blood on it.”  He stood and summoned his guard.  “Felanthir!”

The Guardsman came and presented himself to the King.  “What is your command, my lord?”

“Inform Commander Dorthaer that I wish three pairs of you to be sent north as soon as possible,” Thranduil said, “to the shores of the lake and farther if they dare.  I want to know what becomes of Thorin and his quest.”

“What of the rest of us?” Legolas asked when Felanthir had gone.  “What are we to do?”

“We shall do what we do best,” Thranduil said.  “We shall wait, and we shall be ready.  Stand the army.”

<< Back

Next >>

Leave Review
Home     Search     Chapter List