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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Six days passed before a new fleet of Elvish boats appeared out of the morning mist.  With their arrival, the work began in earnest.  The army collected their new provisions and prepared to march once more.  Many of the fittest Men from Esgaroth were eager to march with them, and they rallied around Bard.  Skilled builders and those who were little use as soldiers would remain behind with the Master to begin the construction of a stout winter camp.  The winds sweeping down from the north encouraged them to hurry. 

With the organization of the camp well in hand, and improvements underway, Thranduil was anxious to be gone.  It had already been ten days since Smaug had fallen, and the thought of the dragon’s hoard lying unguarded chafed him.  The whole state of affairs seemed very tenuously balanced, and the sooner he could steady it the better. 

He summoned both Bard and the Master to his pavilion in council that evening in order to finalize their plans.  It was a very rustic affair, everyone seated cross-legged on cushions on the ground, but there was still no proper furniture to be had in that desolate place.  Thranduil was not bothered, but he noticed that the Master was not adapting well to their deprivations.  He no doubt remembered spending the Fell Winter in a rude hut on the lakeshore thirty years ago, and was not sanguine about reliving the austerity as an old man.  Moreover, he was plainly displeased that the Elvenking conspicuously afforded Bard equal dignity in all their doings, a deliberate consideration for which Thranduil made no apology.  Not only had Bard shown greater courage and competence than the Master in their adversity, but Thranduil already considered him Lord of Dale both by right and by deed, and would include him in his counsel. 

Thranduil glanced narrowly at the Master before they began, imagining he could recognize the storm of discontent swirling in his mind as he was forced to endure the barbarities of the ‘fighting men.’  Thranduil could not be troubled to pity him any more.  They had considerations of greater consequence to occupy them. 

“It is my intention to march for Erebor as soon as possible,” he said.  “I can do no more here.  The remnant of Esgaroth and the building of the winter shelters will be entrusted to the Master.  Are there any concerns you would submit to me before we take our leave?”

“I worry that the provisions you have provided, my lord, while very generous, will not last the winter,” the Master complained.  “What are we to eat, and how are we to live?  The camp will shelter us, but as you can see we have no furnishings, little clothing, and scant means of warmth.”

Thranduil’s expression soured, threatening to crack his impassive facade.  “I pledged to spare your lives, not to spare you hardship,” he said, “or shall I snap my fingers and summon a hundred boats to bring you a crown, a palace, and a menagerie?  I suspect your people know their business better than you expect.”  He turned to Bard.  “Do the Lake-men require any further support?”

“No, my lord,” Bard readily assured him.  “We are fishermen, and we still have boats.  I expect we will have little trouble feeding ourselves as we have been wont to.  The fare may be rather monotonous until spring, but no one will starve.  While we still have firewood, we can begin harvesting peat from the bogs.  Our clothes will last a while yet, and furniture we can do without for now.  Perhaps there will be some timber left for beds when all the shelters are built.”

Thranduil turned back to the Master, hoping he had observed the correct way for a competent ruler to answer the question.  He received only a truculent glare in return. 

“I understand you wish to assist me in securing the Mountain,” Thranduil continued, returning his attention to Bard.  “How many Men do you anticipate will follow you?”

“Two hundred, more or less,” Bard answered.  “The others must stay and help the building.”

“Will they be ready to march at daybreak?”

“I will see to it,” Bard promised, “although I fear we must fall upon your benevolence again, my lord, as we have neither weapons nor supplies to contribute.”

Thranduil waved away his courteous apologies.  “Bring your strength and your courage; we will feed and arm you.”

“And what of the dragon’s treasure?” the Master demanded.  “If it lies forsaken, there are few who have a better claim than we.  Surely you do not mean to idly stand over it while we endure the winter in poverty.”

Both Thranduil and Bard turned on him with much the same expression, but Bard held his peace out of an abundance of deference.  “The treasure did not belong to the dragon,” Thranduil said, condescending to give the ponderous explanation despite his impatience.  “By right, it now falls to the heirs of Thrór, whoever they may be, and however his fathers may have acquired it.  I have not come to challenge that right, but only to maintain order in these lands.  If you wish to plead your case to the Dwarves, as I believe you should, you may do so when they come.  I have no power to compensate you, and I will not tolerate theft.”

“Surely the Elves of the Wood have earned some share of the spoils after all they have done,” Bard suggested kindly.

Thranduil acknowledged him with a tolerant smile.  “That may be a consideration for another day.  Until then,” he continued, turning severely on the Master, “as I am to bear the burden of rebuilding this city for a third time without compensation, I shall expect a greater degree of cooperation from that quarter in future.  The maintenance of Esgaroth is proving to be very expensive, and my forbearance grows thin.  I trust I make myself clear.”

“Perfectly, my lord,” the Master agreed, “whatever you require.”  He actually seemed somewhat humbled.  Thranduil was not certain whether his contrition was genuine or feigned, but either one served his purposes.  The Master may be uncomfortable, underfed, and dissatisfied, but he still had enough self-interest to understand that it would be very unprofitable to offend his wealthiest patron.  “Whatever you require.  As you may imagine, we are prepared to make any bargain in return for your magnanimity.”

“Yes,” Thranduil agreed with a dubious air.  “I trust you will remember that when next I have cause to remind you.”

There was very little sleep in the camp that night.  As planned, the Elvish soldiers were standing in ranks ready to be gone at the first blush of dawn.  Thranduil stood quietly while Gwaelas armed him by lamplight, his thoughts already wandering toward the Mountain.  His armor was brilliantly clean again, and he could hear Espalass stamping irritably outside.  There were just a few other arrangements to be made, and then they could be on their way.

Commander Dorthaer slipped inside.  “Bard and his Men have been armed out of the army’s stores as you requested, sire,” he said.

“Good.”  Thranduil had arranged that the Lake-men be equipped with bows and swords as he had promised.  It had left his own army rather short on spare arms, but that did not trouble him.  “Who are you leaving here with our builders?”

“Felanthir will stay to represent you, my lord.”

“Very well.  Tell him I require his horse, and summon Bard here.”

Dorthaer ducked out again to do as he was bidden.  Thranduil paused for a moment as Gwaelas lay the cold steel of his military crown on his brow, then he pulled on his armored gloves.  He closed his hand briefly around the hilt of Orcrist at his hip, the remarkable sword briefly quieting the nagging twinge of anxiety he could not yet justify to himself. 

They were not marching to war, yet he felt as though they were.  He wanted to dismiss the feeling, fragments of memory and emotion stirred up by familiarity of his army and the strangeness of their surroundings.  Unfortunately he knew his instincts too well to be satisfied with that excuse.  Away from Greenwood, the extraneous senses he had come to rely upon were more uncertain, darkened to the point that he almost felt blind.  Almost.  It was all the more reason to see their new allies adequately prepared.

Bard entered then.  “You asked for me, my lord?”

“Yes,” Thranduil said, returning to the present.  “I would have you better equipped.  It will not do to have the heir of Girion go forth looking like an impoverished castaway.”  He took up a tunic of armored scales and hung it over his arm.  “Gwaelas has kindly offered you the use of his armor, which should be a better fit than anything of mine.”

Bard seemed surprised, but then his grim features softened into a self-deprecating smile.  “I must admit, my own clothes have seen better days,” he said, shedding his new weapons and his moth-eaten coat.  “Thank you, my lords.”

As Gwaelas assisted Bard into the unfamiliar armor, Thranduil turned to retrieve another of his own cloaks, green and silver-gray, embellished with embroidery fit for royalty.  Gwaelas had spent much of the previous night taking up the bottom hem to better accommodate Bard’s stature.  He gave it to Gwaelas who swept it over Bard’s shoulders and secured it with a jeweled stay before the other could object.  “I am afraid we have nothing more Mannish to dress you in,” Thranduil apologized, “but it should distinguish you well enough until you acquire your own finery.” 

For a moment Bard was lost for words.  “You have shown us nothing but extraordinary kindness, my lord,” he said, “for which I am unable to adequately thank you.  If Dale is to rise again, I swear it will stand in eternal friendship and loyalty to the Elves of the Wood.”

Thranduil smiled.  “I am not trying to buy your friendship,” he assured him.  “At heart I am simply a romantic who finds great satisfaction in the return of dispossessed princes.  Your good fortune is an inspiration amidst all this upheaval, and it will give your people courage.  Now come,” he said, as Gwaelas quickly strapped Bard back into his quiver harness with practiced ease.  “Let us go see what remains of your patrimony.”

Lord Galadhmir was waiting beside his horse when they emerged into the twilight before dawn.  “Your army stands ready, sire,” he said. 

Thranduil nodded, taking Espalass’ reins from Guardsman Neldorín.  Guardsman Felanthir also stood by with his own horse, and he offered it to the King as requested.  Thranduil accepted it and handed the reins to Bard.  “Gather your men, Master Bowman.”

Bard looked at Thranduil with a twisted smile, as though he appreciated his continued generosity but knew any further effusions of gratitude would be superfluous.  Instead he drew himself up and offered the Elvenking a deep bow.  “As you wish, my lord,” he said.  “Lead us out.”

As the order to march was finally given, and the vanguard of the army passed through the camp, all the surviving citizens of Esgaroth stopped their work and stood outside their crude shelters in silent salute.  Thranduil accepted their stoic tribute, recognizing in them the seeds of a new realm of Men, diminished in number but strengthened by adversity.  After some time, he heard a cheer go up behind them, and he smiled to himself knowing Bard must be passing through.  The future surely held great things for him.

“How long before we arrive in Dale?” Lord Galadhmir asked casually as they rode.

“If we maintain this pace and if the weather holds in our favor, no more than three days,” Thranduil said.  “I expect we will camp there.  No doubt even a ruin like that will be more pleasant than a filthy dragon’s lair.”



The army arrived at the ruins of Dale on the evening of the third day.  Their camp was erected as soon as possible, glowing with torchlight.  As the soldiers took some rest and refreshment, Thranduil stood on what remained of an old stone wall and considered the vast shape of the Mountain in the waning moonlight.  The lingering suspicion of danger still haunted him, shadowed and indistinct but undeniable. 

The desolate landscape, blasted by the dragon’s fume, told him nothing.  There were birds settling themselves for the night, mainly ravens and thrushes, but Thranduil had the distinct impression that they still regarded the newcomers with mistrust rather than welcome.  They quieted around him, as though they suspected he understood their speech.  There was an air of intrigue about the whole place that was unsettling. 

Lord Galadhmir approached with Bard beside him.  “You seem very restless, my lord,” Galadhmir observed.  “Will you not come and eat?  What is needling you?”

“The air is too still,” Thranduil said.  “The birds are too quiet.  The mountain seems too . . . alive.  I feel our coming was anticipated, that we are walking into dangers we have not accounted for.”

“Why?” Bard asked warily.  “What do you know?”

“Nothing for certain,” Thranduil confessed.  “My powers of perception are limited in these lands, but I cannot shake the impression that every living thing in the valley is watching our approach and waiting for the ax to fall.”

Both Galadhmir and Bard shifted nervously where they stood.  “Shall I post extra sentries, then?” Galadhmir asked.

“Yes,” Thranduil agreed, descending from the wall to join them.  “I doubt I will sleep tonight, but do not dissuade the others from doing so.  I want our men to maintain their strength as much as possible.  In the morning we will send a party of scouts to have a closer look at the mountain.  We cannot decide anything in darkness.”

The soldiers were weary after the long march, especially the Lake-men, and they appreciated a long night’s sleep.  The Elves kept watch, and Thranduil stood among them, trying to clear his mind so that he may attune it to the country around him.  The feeling of unwelcome only intensified.  Some power was already set against them, but he could discover no more about it.  He began debating within himself whether he should summon reinforcements.  Perhaps he would know in the morning. 

When morning came, Thranduil had already chosen six of his Guardsmen to serve as advance scouts, and Bard had chosen six of the Lake-men.  They set out on foot toward the mountain at first light. 

While they were gone, Thranduil took counsel with Bard and Galadhmir.  “Provided all is well at the Mountain,” he said, “I anticipate sending companies of soldiers to guard the gate in rotations.  Official word should then be sent to the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, lest they assume we have come to hold Erebor against them.”

“I have not often dealt with Dwarves,” Bard admitted, “but I imagine it would be best to avoid any misunderstandings.”

“It has been my experience that Dwarves often resolve misunderstandings in blood,” Thranduil said dryly, “and I am not keen to waste any of mine.”

They were interrupted by the approach of one of the Lake-men who had been acting as sentry.  “Your pardon, my lords,” he said, “but your scouts return.”

“Already?” Thranduil asked, incredulous.  “It has only been a few hours.”

“They are coming in haste,” the sentry added.  “I fear they have encountered some difficulty.”

Thranduil sighed and stood up.  “They will tell their tale soon enough,” he said, “and speculation will profit us nothing.  Come, Master Bowman.”

The scouts came storming back into the camp, the winded Men trailing behind the agitated Elves.  “My lords!” Guardsman Neldorín said, approaching Thranduil immediately.  “Thorin Oakenshield and his company live!  They have built a wall over the gate and barricaded themselves inside.”

It was a surprise to everyone to hear the Dwarves had survived the dragon’s wrath, but soon the Lake-men remembered their grievances, and Thranduil reflected darkly that they all had just cause against them.  “It seems Smaug did not clean his house as thoroughly as we supposed,” he said.  “How many of the company still stand against us?”

“We were not able to make an accurate count,” Neldorín explained.  “Thorin hailed us with no welcome, and demanded to know our purpose.  We gave him no answer, and instead returned to you.”

“As I suspected,” Thranduil sneered, “they were unable to defeat the dragon themselves, and succeeded only in stirring him against us.  Now they sit upon the spoils as though they had earned them.”

“This injustice must not stand!” Bard insisted.  “The citizens of Lake-town, including many who live no longer, welcomed them when they had nothing.  Oakenshield has brought us only ruin and death, yet he would deny us recompense!”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” Thranduil said, finding his own equilibrium again before Bard did.  “Let us ask him, but not yet.  Not yet.  Let him sit among his riches for a time and consider his position.”

“What would you have us do in the meantime, my lord?” Bard asked, still keenly dissatisfied.

“I would move our camp much nearer Thorin’s gates,” Thranduil suggested.  “That alone should occupy us until nightfall.  I imagine they have little desire to be reminded of the debt they owe to Esgaroth, and my very presence will be offensive to them.  Still, we might lure them into a parley with merriment and comfort, two things I imagine they lack in their present circumstances.”

“They cannot be well-supplied in this barren waste,” Bard agreed, “even if they have not lost any of the provisions the Master provided.  They can be no more than fourteen, perhaps fewer, little defense against a force such as ours.”

“I would not instigate bloodshed unless at the last need,” Thranduil cautioned him.  “Dead men have no use for gold.  Let us show him our goodwill before we put any demands to him.”

Bard agreed, and Thranduil gave the order to disband the camp.  Pavilions were pulled down, supplies gathered and reloaded, the ranks reformed.  In a matter of hours they were all marching in a column into the foothills of Erebor.  The new camp was set as near the gate as it could be, well out of bowshot but near enough to tempt the defenders with the sounds and aromas of good food and fellowship.

The soldiers were more than happy to play their part that night, feasting, drinking, singing, and playing music.  The valley smelled of roast venison, courtesy of Thranduil’s huntsmen, and everyone was thoroughly enjoying himself in the dancing firelight.  No answer came from the mountain, though the watch there could hardly have failed to observe the spectacle. 

In the cold light of morning, Bard himself went to hail Thorin with a party of Men and Elves, this time armed with spears and declaring their loyalties with the green banner of the Wood and the blue of the Lake.  He went to broach the matter of recompense to the Master and the Lake-men for the damage done by the dragon, as well as the inconvenient fact that Bard himself may be entitled to some of the gathered riches as heir to Girion and the plundered realm of Dale.  Thranduil had small hope of success, but perhaps the new King under the Mountain might be disposed to wear his crown with grace and nobility.

He was not surprised, however, when Bard returned in a foul temper.  “The folly of pride is upon them!” he complained.  “They refuse all reason, and did not even trouble themselves to be courteous, insisting that we comply with their terms or risk receiving no repayment at all.”

A wry expression passed Thranduil’s face.  He had not expected much better, but it was a disappointment nonetheless.  “And what are Thorin’s terms?” he asked.

“He demands that our forces disperse, that you and your Elves return to the Wood, and that the Lake-men lay down their arms and crawl to the gate on bended knee before pleading our cause.”  Bard was pacing angrily back and forth, too indignant to be still.  “The audacity beggars belief, that they would presume to dictate to us when it is they who owe us redress!”

“And what would you ask of the Elves, Master Bowman?” Thranduil asked, grimly amused by the absurdity of it all.  “Would you have us retreat as Thorin demands?”

“By no means, my lord!”  Bard stopped in his tracks, offended by the suggestion.  “I told that pompous fool that the Elvenking has proven a better friend to the Men of Lake-town than any of the Longbeards, and that he should not speak ill of you.  In any case, I have not the strength in numbers to force them from their keep, or to hold them by siege without your help.  In this temper, I fear Thorin will find abundant reason to avoid his obligations if he is not faced with threat of force.”

“I suspect you are right,” Thranduil agreed.  “I am pleased to see we are of the same mind, because I am not inclined to quit the field, whatever Thorin may say.  If he is to reign in Erebor, he will have to deal with me sooner or later, and it would not behoove us to begin our association by capitulating to his unreasonable demands.  He is not the only king in Rhovanion, and he would do well to remember it.”

“Quite so, my lord,” Bard said.  “Lest he forget, I would urge that we give him answer before the day wanes.  I would not have him think us cowed by his terms.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, stiffening.  “I, then, have terms of my own.  Guardsman Neldorín, by the Bowman’s leave, you will relay this to Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, calling himself King under the Mountain.  We bid him consider well the claims that have been urged, or be declared our foe.  At the least he shall deliver one twelfth portion of the treasure unto Bard, as the dragon-slayer, and as the heir of Girion.  From that portion Bard will himself contribute to the aid of Esgaroth; but if Thorin would have the friendship and honor of the surrounding lands, as his sires had of old, then he will give also something of his own for the comfort of the Men of the Lake.”  He turned back to Bard.  “Is that satisfactory?”

“But what of you, my lord?” Bard protested. 

“I have no claim upon the treasure of Erebor,” Thranduil maintained, “excepting, perhaps, a few singular items I may seek to redeem at a later time.  Thorin owes me nothing, but if either you or the Master should wish to make some offer of recompense for my efforts on your behalf, that will be quite another matter.”  He turned back to Neldorín with a final instruction.  “If the Dwarves refuse our conditions, you will declare the Mountain besieged.  If they wish to parley, they must call for it.  We will bear no weapons against them, but simply leave them to their gold.  Perhaps they may eat that.”

Neldorín nodded, then turned to lead the company of heralds and spearmen back toward Erebor. 

“How do you expect they will receive your conditions?” Bard asked as they watched the company go.  “Do you think they will comply?”

“If they have any sense, they will,” Thranduil said, “though it will give them no pleasure.  Thorin will not be in any temper to tolerate demands from me, however just they may be.  It is a bitter lesson he must accept for his own good.  We must hope that his companions are more practical.”  He heaved a weary sigh.  Negotiations were very tedious things.  “Come, ride with me.  The horses need exercise.”

They rode together around the perimeter of the camp.  They did not speak, but Thranduil recognized the wistful look in Bard’s eyes as he considered the distant sight of Dale, the flinty determination to right the wrongs of the past.  He would make a fine lord, a king perhaps, even if at present he looked like a disgruntled fisherman clad in Elvish castoffs.  He would grow into his role in time, and Thranduil would be keen to hear of his progress.

They had only completed a few circuits around the camp when they spied the heralds returning.  Thranduil glanced at Bard, and then spurred Espalass on to meet them in the valley.  As they drew nearer, they could see that Neldorín had an arrow embedded in the face of his shield. 

“This is their answer, my lord,” Neldorín said angrily, indicating the offensive shaft.  “They returned no other.  I declared the terms of the siege as you ordered.  They are determined to rot in their riches.”

Many ominous thoughts crowded Thranduil’s mind as he considered the implications.  “Very well, then,” he said.  “As our communication seems to be at an end, you are dismissed.  Galennath, report to Commander Dorthaer for your new assignments.”

Bard instructed the Men to return to the camp and await further orders, but he remained with Thranduil.  The two of them were left alone astride their horses to consider the vast and implacable shape of the Mountain looming before them.

“I had not anticipated laying siege to the place,” Thranduil said darkly, “especially with winter coming on.  Still, you are right to say this injustice cannot stand.  If we leave Thorin to his spoils now, he will never honor his debt to you, not after the rash words he has spoken today.”

“Then let them starve,” Bard sneered.  “Let them taste the misery they have chosen.  They cannot last long before it begins to bite.”

“Perhaps not,” Thranduil agreed, though still uncertain.  “Yet I suspect even the proudest Dwarf would think twice before condemning himself and his companions to death by hunger amidst a sea of wealth unless they were emboldened by some other consideration.”

“What do you mean?”

“Perhaps other forces are already moving,” Thranduil explained.  “I have not sent word to the Iron Hills, but I would be surprised if they have not already heard of Smaug’s demise by other means.  I do not fancy wasting my time here in the cold only to be flanked by angry Dwarves, and if it is Thorin who has contrived to summon them, you can be sure they will arrive as proud and as ill-tempered as he.”

“Perhaps we assume too much,” Bard reasoned.  “Perhaps in a day or two the king and his companions may think better of their words, and seek to parley.”

“I would welcome it,” Thranduil said, “but I will not count on it.  I will send immediately for reinforcements from the Wood, and if a horde of Thorin’s kinsmen appears in the east, we will be here to counter them.  They will not escape their obligations so easily.”

Thranduil wheeled his horse around and returned to his pavilion at once.  He requested a piece of paper and a quill from Gwaelas, and wrote out a 
brief request that Legolas march to join them at once with whatever archers could be spared from their home defenses.  When the ink had dried, he folded the paper upon itself twice, rolled it into a tight bundle and tied the end of a piece of twine around it.  They had horsemen aplenty, but he had a swifter courier in mind.

He returned into the camp and acquired a few strips of raw rabbit from the hunters who were preparing the day’s game.  He remounted with two of his guardsmen and galloped away south to the edge of the grassland beyond the desolation of Smaug. 

Thranduil dismounted, left his horse with his guards, and walked quietly into the undisturbed landscape.  The sun was bright, but gave little warmth.  The dry stalks of grass bent and rustled in the wind.  There was no creature visible in all that wild country except for the one he had expected to find, a lone kestrel hovering over the grass in search of prey.

He whistled a sharp call, as Radagast had taught him.  Distracted, the bird nimbly changed direction and flew towards him, alighting on his wrist as invited.  Thranduil stroked the magnificent speckled plumage, appreciating the strength of its grip on his arm.  He fed the bird the strips of rabbit so that it might not tire too soon, tied the twine to its leg and put the roll of paper in its talons.  In a few moments he was able to communicate his need, and the bird gave its consent.  Then he loosed it back into the air, and it sped south toward the forest.

The bird would arrive at the caverns by nightfall.  If the soldiers were ready to march immediately, as they should be, they would join them in Dale in a few days.  Despite all his misgivings, Thranduil still harbored a slight hope that all his preparations would be wasted, that Thorin would see sense and the matter would be resolved without unnecessary violence as between civilized sovereigns; but if not, his army would stand ready to see all debts paid.  He heartily disliked the thought of placing himself between two factions of hostile Dwarves, but he could not leave Bard and his people at their mercy.  Their only hope to maintain the peace and secure a favorable outcome was to present as impressive a show of force as possible. 

Once again, there was nothing for them to do except exactly what the Galennath had excelled at during the long years in Mirkwood.  They would wait, and they would be ready.

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