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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 45 - The Affairs of Wizards VI

The Dwarves made no move to seek further communication with the besieging army the following day, nor the next, nor the next.  The soldiers ate very well in turns as they continued to weaponize the aroma of roasting venison, attempting to inspire some sedition inside the halls of Erebor.  Thranduil would not admit to being anxious, but he did resent the wasted time, and he did not want to spend the winter in the elements any more than did the Master of Lake-town.  He began to wonder if Thorin was capable of starving himself to death out of spite.   

A fourth day passed with no progress, but the fifth day brought at least one welcome change.  A column of formidable archers three hundred strong appeared in the valley as the sunrise cleared the morning mist.  Prince Legolas led them astride a proud gray horse, and with him rode his chosen lieutenants, his cousin Calenmir and Tauriel.  

There was one other riding with them whom Thranduil would have been surprised to see had he not already suspected his involvement.  “Mae govannen, Mithrandir,” he greeted him with a wry smile as the archers dispersed into the camp and the commanders dismounted.  “I believe we came by some parcels of yours which had gone astray.  They have been making quite a nuisance of themselves.”

“Yes, Thranduil,” Gandalf said wearily as he swung down from his horse.  “Legolas has told me of Thorin’s escapades in Mirkwood.  If they had followed my instructions, they would not have made such a hash of things.”

“I would have appreciated some warning of their coming,” Thranduil said pointedly, “even if you were not inclined to escort them.”

Gandalf scowled.  “You speak as though I sent them,” he said.  “This is very much their own quest, and they are driven by their own purposes, although I will admit that I encouraged them in the endeavor.  But I have no time to play nursemaid to a pack of Dwarves.  They must find their own way in the world.  If neighbors so near as the Ereborrim and the Galennath cannot converse peaceably, that is your own affair.”

Thranduil darkened as Gandalf pushed past him and ambled away with his pipe, but he could not be irritated for long in the welcome company of his family.

“We came with all haste, my lord,” Legolas said.  “I trust we have not kept you waiting.”

“You have not,” Thranduil assured him, indicating that Tauriel and Calenmir should join them.  “Thorin and his company somehow survived their confrontation with Smaug, and they have fortified the gates of Erebor against us.  The dragon-slayer is a Man called Bard, by right the heir of Girion of Dale.  We have presented his claim and that of the beggared Lake-men to the Dwarves, but they have rejected all terms.  Thorin insists that we first depart, but we insist that he first pay his debts, and that is why you find us standing in the cold, laying siege to the Mountain.”

“Fourteen defenders against an army of two thousand?” Tauriel asked, incredulous.  “Why did you call us, my lord?  Do you suspect some trickery?”

“I still hope for a peaceable resolution,” Thranduil said, “but while there is even the possibility of battle, I would not be wrongfooted from the start.  Go refresh yourselves and be ready.  There is little else to be done until Thorin comes to his senses.”

When they had gone, Thranduil went after Gandalf.  He had many questions he was determined to have answered.  He found him hunched against the cold, considering the silent face of the Mountain and drawing furiously on his pipe.  

“Tell me what I have landed in, Mithrandir,” Thranduil said, coming to stand beside him.  “I suspect there is a great deal moving just now which I cannot see.”

“There is no need to be so morose,” Gandalf chided him.  “Considering the circumstances, I would say it is all coming along remarkably well.  Not only has the dragon been dispatched and the Mountain reclaimed, but Sauron has fled from Dol Guldur.”

Thranduil turned sharply, broadsided by the comment, so momentous and yet so casually spoken.

Gandalf eyed him from beneath the brim of his great hat with sly satisfaction.  “You see, I have not been idle.  While you steadied affairs in the north, the White Council at last made their assault against our enemy in the south.  Neither of our foes could aid the other, and both have been routed.  You were right to suspect a larger scheme, and thus far you have played your part beautifully.”

“I would prefer to be treated as an ally rather than a pawn,” Thranduil complained, though greatly cheered by the news.

“Too much knowledge can be a burden, Oropherion,” Gandalf warned him.  “Do not seek more than you can bear.  Sauron’s flight from Mirkwood may be fortunate for you, but I fear it bodes ill for the rest of the world.  HIs power is increased, and I believe he fled with the intention of taking up his seat in Mordor once more.  It may be many years yet before we understand his purpose, but I fear war may be gathering again.”

It was a sobering possibility, but however they may dread it, that concern belonged to another day.  “War is always gathering somewhere,” Thranduil said, resigned to whatever would come.  “Sauron will keep.  Today we have only a surly Dwarf to contend with.”

Gandalf heaved a great smoky sigh.  “Yes.  I had expected better of Thorin, but a dragon’s influence can be heavy indeed.  I suspect he will not welcome my counsel any more than he did yours, but if he has not come to his senses by tomorrow I may yet intervene.”  He tapped out his spent pipe and prepared to refill it.  “Off with you now.  I have much to think about.”

Were it anyone else, Thranduil would not have tolerated such an abrupt dismissal.  Coming from Gandalf it was strangely reassuring, the brusque manner of an elder spirit come to keep a watchful eye on their troubles.  He obliged him by leaving him to his thoughts.

“Mithrandir commands the field, as always,” Lord Galadhmir commented under his breath, falling into step as Thranduil passed him.  

“He is a force to be reckoned with,” Thranduil agreed.  “I have stopped trying to resist him.  He always seems to be the most farsighted among us, anyway.”

The excitement of the morning soon faded into the familiar tedium which had characterized all the previous days of the siege.  No indication of any kind came from the Mountain, and in the deep silence Thranduil could not shake the impression that Thorin was mocking him.  It was true that he had been outspokenly content to play the long game before, but that had been easily said in the comfort of his own halls, when the obstinance of his prisoners had not occupied his every waking moment.  The Dwarves were again at his mercy, but Thranduil was forced to consider the fact that Thorin now held him prisoner too.  They were trapped in a tremendous duel of wills that would soon become very uncomfortable for all concerned.  Perhaps Gandalf could somehow bring about some resolution in the morning.

As evening fell, Thranduil found Tauriel standing like a sentinel on a large stone, facing the north wind and tasting the air.  He was once again confronted with the reality of his attachment to her.  His intention had been to see her established in life and then release her from his influence, but perhaps that had been a naive expectation.  She had become a very effective commander with a keen mind for strategy.  None of her rank was given unworthily, despite his inclination to favor her.  He did love her in his own way.

“There is some threat upon the air, my lord,” she said, leaning into the wind, “but I cannot understand it.”

“Your instincts serve you well,” Thranduil commended her.  “I also feel it.”

“This land is too unfamiliar to me,” Tauriel complained, “and yet it is the only land I have ever seen outside our Wood.  We live so long and yet so much of this world is still new to us.”

“Some enjoy the freedom to roam,” Thranduil said.  “Some are duty-bound to do so.  Mithrandir, I am sure, has seen more of this world than you or I ever will.  Perhaps when our own duties no longer bind us here, and the world is no longer so perilous, you will be able to indulge your wanderlust.”

Tauriel sighed.  “And when will that be, my lord?” she asked with obvious pessimism.  “I have never known peaceful times, and you were fighting our war for more than a thousand years before my birth.  Do you think Greenwood will ever be restored?”

Thranduil did pity her, child of war that she was.  “None can say,” he admitted, “but we have not lost all cause for hope.  Mithrandir tells me the Wise have finally seen fit to rout Gorthaur from Dol Guldur.  Surely we must find some courage in that.”

That news did seem to lighten her mood.  “Will we have peace in Mirkwood, then?”

“That remains to be seen.  I will have to ascertain how much of his shadow our enemy took with him.  I suppose that is something we may look forward to when we have finished our business here.”

Tauriel darkened again, reminded of their other frustrations.  “Prince Legolas was right to say patience was not chief among my virtues.  I wish there was something that could be done to bring these Dwarves to heel.  Are we to let them hold us here all winter?”

“All that can be done is being done,” Thranduil assured her, “and patience comes with experience.  If things go ill, you may soon find there is entirely too much to be done and then you may regret that we did not resolve our affairs quietly when we had the chance.”

She frowned.  “I still think our army could make short work of them,” she said.  “They would crumble beneath the first assault.”

“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, becoming grim.  “Which of your comrades would you sacrifice in the endeavor?”

Tauriel had no ready answer, and seemed to take his point.

“Gold and jewels can be very good things,” Thranduil said, “often worth fighting for, but bitter experience has taught me they are never worth dying for.  So here we will wait until the claims of the Lake-men are honored.  We will answer violence if we must, but we will not throw ourselves onto their pikes.”

She nodded, silhouetted against the stars.  “Yes, my lord.”

“Now,” Thranduil said, changing the subject, “are you standing watch, or merely satisfying your own curiosity?”  

“I am not on duty, my lord,” Tauriel answered.

“Then come down and get yourself something to eat.  You will drive yourself mad trying to pry answers out of a hostile landscape.”

Tauriel obeyed without question, though Thranduil had the distinct impression that she would have preferred to stay and pass the time with him.  He also felt a tug at his spirit as she left, an impulse to embrace her, caress her, or offer some other kindred endearment that would have been monstrously improper under the circumstances.  He was the King, and she was just another of the soldiers beneath his banner, though perhaps a singular representative of the woodland people he loved so much.  Still, he could not forget those days when she had been no more than a helpless infant lulled to sleep by the sound of his heartbeat.  A connection had been forged then which he had not intended, and which he was still unsure how to acknowledge.  That, like many other things, was a problem for another day.

Thranduil wandered aimlessly through the firelit camp for the next few hours, deep in his own thoughts, making himself visible for the benefit of his army, and available to hear and address their concerns.  The cold was deepening, and no one was pleased by the thought of a long siege, especially as the profligate treatment of their provisions was tightened.  Rations were shorter, and so were tempers everywhere, all universally directed against Thorin and his mulish pride.  

At last Thranduil turned his steps back toward his own pavilion, craving the warmth afforded by a large fire and a deep cup of wine.  Patience did come with experience, as he had said, but that did not mean it came any more naturally to him than it did to Tauriel.  The waste of his time, the unnecessary fuss and bother and expense of it all deeply rankled him when he dwelt upon it.  If Mithrandir vacillated in the morning, Thranduil would have to insist that he make some effort to bring Thorin around.   

It should not have surprised him to find Gwaelas waiting beside the fire, cup in hand.  Thranduil accepted it gratefully.  “The days only seem to grow longer,” he said, “despite the shortening daylight.”

Gwaelas nodded in weary agreement.  “We may only hope Erebor’s defenders are of the same mind,” he said.

Thranduil sighed.  “I doubt there is any inconvenience which would sway Thorin now, but perhaps his companions have clearer heads.”

A commotion at the north side of the camp drew their attention.  A party of advance scouts was returning from the wilds with a strange urgency, a sharp and uneasy contrast to the dreary monotony of the past days.  “Master Gwaelas!” they were calling.  “Where is the King?”

“He is here,” Thranduil said, raising his voice above the confusion.  “What has happened?”

“My lord!”  The scouts approached and bowed before him, parting ranks to reveal a remarkable individual among their company, dripping wet and wrapped in a blanket.  “The halfling has come from Erebor and seeks to parley.”  

Bard was immediately summoned.  The halfling, who very properly introduced himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, had happily accepted a seat beside the fire and some refreshment while they waited.  He was extremely talkative, and had a great deal to say even between mouthfuls.  

Intrigued, Thranduil likewise seated himself on one of the sawn rings of firewood that served as chairs in that place.  Mr. Baggins was unlike anything he had ever seen before.  No bigger than a child, he nonetheless exhibited exemplary manners and was plainly accustomed to the finer things in life.  How he had managed to land himself in his present difficulties was more a mystery than ever.  The brilliant shirt of mithril mail shining beneath his travel-worn coat only added to his curious appearance.  A priceless relic like that must have been forged for the Noldorin princes of the Elder Days, and no doubt came out of Smaug’s hoard.  Thranduil could not help but briefly wonder what other fabulous fragments of legend were hidden in the Mountain.

“I must thank you again, my lords, for supper,” Bilbo was saying, mopping up what remained of his food with a crust of bread.  “We have not enjoyed a proper meal for days, and a life lived on cram is no life at all, I say.  Thorin imagines we could hold out for weeks yet, but provender like that shrinks one’s courage.”

Bard appeared in the firelight, and Thranduil directed him toward the sawn ring beside him.  “Master Baggins, this is Bard the dragon-slayer,” he said, “although I assume he is already known to you.”

Bilbo jumped to his feet and offered another bow in his exaggerated courtly manner.  “You are both known to me, my lords,” he said, “although the Elvenking may be forgiven for not realizing it.”

Thranduil narrowed his eyes.  There was indeed a familiar air about him that was eerily undeniable, plucking at Thranduil’s memory even as he observed the hobbit for the first time.  He felt he had sat with him before, or rather had unwittingly sat near him for an extended period of time.  Many inconsequential mysteries which had presented themselves in his halls during the Dwarves’ captivity seemed to have found a source, if not an explanation.  Still, the last time he had heard of the halflings of Eriador they had helped Glorfindel defeat the Witchking of Angmar, so perhaps the residents of the Shire were capable of greater enchantments than he suspected.

“All pleasantries aside,” Bilbo continued, resuming his seat and wrapping the blanket closer around him, “I have come to discuss the possibility of lifting the siege, which I am sure would be a welcome prospect to all concerned.”

“Not without satisfaction,” Bard insisted.  “There are debts to be paid, Master Baggins.”

“And I have not forgotten it, I assure you,” Bilbo said.  He shrugged and shook his head.  “The situation is really quite impossible at the moment.  Personally I am tired of the whole affair.  I wish I was back in the West in my own home, where folk are more reasonable.  But I do have an interest in this matter, one fourteenth share, to be precise, according to a letter, which fortunately I have kept.”  He produced a much abused paper from his coat pocket and opened it to reveal what appeared to be a letter signed by Thorin himself.  

“I understand that to be a share of the profits, of course,” the hobbit continued.  “I am only too ready to consider all your claims carefully, and deduct what is right from the total before taking my own.  However you don’t know Thorin Oakenshield as well as I do now.  I promise you, he is quite ready to sit on a heap of gold and starve as long as you stay here.”

“Let him, then!” Bard spat.  “Such a fool deserves to starve.”

“Quite so,” Bilbo allowed.  “I see your point of view.  Still, winter is coming on quickly.  Before long you will be having snow and what not, and supplies will be difficult, perhaps even for Elves.  Also there will be other complications.  Have you not heard of Dain and the Dwarves of the Iron Hills?”

“Not for many years,” Thranduil answered cautiously.  “What of him?”

Bilbo frowned.  “I thought as much.  Dain, I may tell you, is now less than two days’ march off, and at least five hundred Dwarves march with him, many of them veterans of the dreadful Dwarf and Goblin wars, of which you have no doubt heard.  When they arrive there may be serious trouble.”

Thranduil and Bard shared a significant glance.  It was as Thranduil had suspected, and there would be trouble indeed.  The confirmation did much to explain Thorin’s stubborn resistance, his hope to hold by battle what he could not claim by right.  It confirmed all Thranduil’s worst opinions of Dwarves.

Bard turned a narrow glance on the hobbit.  “Why are you telling us this?” he demanded.  “Are you betraying your friends, or do you presume to threaten us?”

“My dear Bard!” Bilbo squeaked, choking on a sneeze as he hastened to explain himself.  “Don’t be so hasty!  I have never met such suspicious folk!  I am simply trying to avoid trouble for everyone.  I would make you an offer!”

“Let us hear it!” Thranduil bid him, and Bard heartily concurred.  Anything to break the odious stalemate.  

“You may see it!” Bilbo declared, producing an object from his pocket with a flourish and throwing off the wrapping.  “It is this!”

Thranduil was on his feet before he knew what had happened.  It was the fabled Arkenstone, Thrór’s most prized possession, gleaming from a thousand shimmering facets like frozen moonlight.  Bard was stricken silent as well, though he perhaps did not yet understand its significance.  

“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain,” Bilbo explained, “the Heart of the Mountain.  It is also the heart of Thorin, and he values it above a river of gold.  I give it to you.  It will aid you in your bargaining.”  He handed the extraordinary stone to Bard, though obviously and understandably reluctant to part with it.  

“But how is it yours to give?” Bard asked when at last he found his voice.  

“Oh!  Well,” Bilbo began, seeming a bit awkward, “it isn’t exactly.  But, well, I am willing to let it stand against all my claim, don’t you know.  I may be a burglar, but I hope I am an honest one, more or less.”  He shrugged again with a sigh, the endearingly innocent expression of one who knows his task is done.  “Anyway, I am going back now, and the Dwarves can do what they like to me.  I hope you will find it useful.”

There were very few people who had so completely earned Thranduil’s trust and regard at their first meeting.  “Bilbo Baggins!” he said.  “You are more worthy to wear the armor of Elven-princes than many who have looked more comely in it.  But I doubt Thorin Oakenshield will see it so.  I have more knowledge of Dwarves in general than you have perhaps, and I fear what may befall you when your companions discover what you have done.  I would advise you to remain with us, and here you will be honored and thrice welcome.”

“Thank you very much, I am sure,” Bilbo said with a gracious bow, “but I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.  And I promised to wake old Bombur at midnight, too!  Really I must be going, and quickly.”

“We will not hold you against your will,” Thranduil assured him, “even if we think it for the best.  Keep your wits about you and do not trust too much to Thorin’s mercy.  We will approach the gates again tomorrow.  If your friends turn against you, know that you may expect safe haven with us.”

“I expect they will be quite cross with me,” Bilbo allowed, “but I don’t expect they will hurt me.  They are good people at heart, beneath all their bluff and bluster, though it may be difficult for others to see it.”

“I regret the Dwarves have never shown me that side of their nature,” Thranduil said.  “More often they have shown me the blades of their axes, politer in word than in deed.  Keep yourself well, Master Baggins, until we meet again.  I shall be most displeased if you come to harm.”

“Good of you to say so, my lord,” Bilbo said with a melancholy smile.  “I would have preferred that we had met under more amiable circumstances.  Perhaps we may hope for a resolution soon.”

“I hope we may,” Thranduil agreed.  “My soldiers will escort you as far as the river.”

“Expect us by midday, Master Baggins,” Bard promised, wrapping the stone again, veiling its beguiling light.  “Whatever tomorrow brings, you have done a great service both for us and for your friends.  Farewell!”

Bilbo bowed once more.  Thranduil and Bard stood together to salute him as his escort led him away into the darkness.  

“I dared not expect such a boon as this!” Bard said when the hobbit had gone, cradling the stone in his hands.  

“He has as true a heart as I have ever seen,” Thranduil marveled, “to have come so far and endured so much only to forfeit all his reward to secure peace for three races of people so wholly unconcerned with him.  And to then return to put himself at Thorin’s mercy . . .”  He frowned.  “I pray his loyalty is not misplaced.  Bilbo Baggins’ safety is suddenly quite dear to me.”

The whole camp was unsettled that night as word of the change in circumstances spread.  Despite their hope of an auspicious parley the next day, Thranduil was ever mindful of Dain’s imminent arrival, and prepared his army for battle regardless.  He knew Thorin would be mindful of it, and may yet try to frustrate their attempts to reconcile in the hope of prevailing by slaughter.  It was behavior more befitting a brigand than a king.  There was some small hope that Dain might be prevailed upon to see reason, but blood bonds and kindred pride were formidable forces to contend with.  

In the early morning, Thranduil confirmed that the ranks were gathered in loose order, ready to stand at a moment’s notice.  Lord Galadhmir commanded the spearmen, while Legolas, Tauriel, and Calenmir commanded the three companies of archers.  Bard selected a commander from among his Lake-men.  Thranduil sent Neldorín back to Erebor alone to herald their coming and ask if Thorin would receive them to discuss a change in circumstances.

He returned before long, and made his report to Thranduil, Bard, and Gandalf.  “Thorin will listen,” he said, “but he bids the delegation be few in number and weaponless.”

Bard made a sour face.  “He continues to call the tune, does he?”

“Let him have his small victory,” Thranduil said in a deceptively even tone.  “The surprise we have in store will provoke him quite enough.  To that end, Bard, I believe you should lead the parley.  I will stand with you, as will my soldiers, but it will only spark a needless quarrel if I should presume to speak.”

“As you say,” Bard agreed.  

“Mithrandir should certainly come as well,” Thranduil insisted, though Gandalf had not intimated otherwise.  “Whatever he may say to the contrary, I still believe he had some hand in instigating this absurd adventure, and now he must help us to finish it.”

Gandalf looked indignant.  “Steady now, Oropherion,” he grumbled.  “Of course I will come.  I have a few things to say to Thorin about how he has been conducting himself.” 

An especially good breakfast was provided for the army, exhausting the finer and more perishable provisions in anticipation of resolution or battle.  When all other preparations had been made, Bard, Thranduil, Gandalf, and Thranduil’s Guardsmen gathered on horseback in full regalia to deliver their final terms to the King under the Mountain.  

As the banner-bearers joined them, Gandalf nudged his mount toward Thranduil.  “How did you find Mr. Baggins, my lord?” he asked.

Thranduil could not help but smile, though the expression had a sly edge.  “He was unlike anything I expected,” he said, quite truthfully.  “Am I correct to suppose his inclusion in the company was your doing?”

Gandalf shrugged and muttered equivocally.  “He came of his own will,” he said at last.  “That is the important thing.”

“Perhaps it was,” Thranduil allowed, “but now I believe the important thing is that you see him home again in one piece.  It was quite a risk, sending a gentle soul like that into the wilds.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Gandalf insisted, bristling and drawing himself up like an affronted owl.  “Mr. Baggins has a great deal more pluck and sense than many suppose.  I gather he circumvented your defenses as though they were made of cheesecloth, and he had wit enough to bring us this.”  He indicated the wooden coffer which concealed the Arkenstone.  “He may pine for hearth and home, but he has proven himself an artful adventurer.”

“Whatever he is,” Thranduil persisted, “do not allow Thorin to injure him.  If you threw him into that company, you owe him that much.  I fear his good sense and loyalty are at cross-purposes in this case, and have landed him in a vulnerable position.”

“Peace, Thranduil,” Gandalf admonished him.  “I will look after Bilbo as well as I might.”

“Are we ready, my lords?” Bard asked, seeing that properly assembled.

“Indeed we are,” Gandalf assured him impatiently, taking the words from Thranduil’s mouth, turning up the hood of his cloak against the cold.  “Lead on.”

They rode as far as the edge of the valley.  There they left the horses under guard and continued on foot, climbing the tumbled stones beside the waterfall until they reached the shores of the pool on the plateau above.  As they approached the narrow way toward the barricaded gate, they stopped to leave aside their weapons in full view of the defenders.  

“Hail, Thorin!” Bard called up to them as they stood beneath the wall.  “Are you still of the same mind?”

“My mind does not change with the rising and setting of a few suns,” came the gruff answer from the battlements above.  “Have you come only to ask foolish questions?  The Elvish host has not yet departed as I bade!  Until then you come in vain to bargain with me.”

“As we see the demands of honor cannot sway you,” Bard continued, “is there nothing else for which you would yield any of your gold?”

“Nothing you or your friends have to offer.”

“Not even the Arkenstone of Thrain?”

Gandalf, still hooded and cloaked, produced the Arkenstone from its box and held it high.  Its wondrous light was unmistakable, even at midday.

A heavy silence fell on the whole assembly while they awaited a response.  It was a dangerous silence, Thranduil felt, even as he recognized their triumph. 

“That stone was my father’s, and is mine,” Thorin protested at last, brimming with wrath.  “Why should I purchase my own?  How came you by the heirloom of my house, if there is need to ask such a question of thieves?”

“We are not thieves,” Bard insisted grimly.  “Your own we will restore in return for our own.”

“How came you by it?” Thorin roared, deaf to all else.

“I gave it to them!

Bilbo’s voice came faintly to them at that distance, and both Thranduil and Bard were immediately concerned for his safety.  They had not been certain of his presence behind the wall, but Thranduil glimpsed his face above the stones.

“You!  You!”  Thorin was in a rage, forgetting the delegation at his gates as he turned on his companion.  Bilbo disappeared as he was torn from his perch.  “You miserable hobbit!  You undersized—burglar!”

Thranduil started forward, but Gandalf restrained him.  “He will kill him,” Thranduil insisted, cuffing away the wizard’s hand, plagued by all his blackest memories of Dwarvish brutality.  “Do something, or I will!” 

“By the beard of Durin!” Thorin was bellowing.  “I wish I had Gandalf here!  Curse him for his choice of you!  May his beard wither!  As for you, I will throw you to the rocks!”  He actually lifted the hobbit bodily and moved to throw him from the wall.

“Stay!  Your wish is granted!”  Gandalf’s voice boomed among the stones, and he threw off his cloak.  “Here is Gandalf, and none too soon it seems!  If you don’t like my Burglar, please don’t damage him.  Put him down, and listen to what he has to say!”

“You all seem to be in league!” Thorin snarled, though he did release Bilbo atop the wall for the moment.  “Never again will I have dealings with any wizard or his friends.  What have you to say, you descendant of rats?”

“Dear me!  Dear me!” Bilbo said, obviously quite shaken, straightening his rumpled clothes and eyeing Thorin with new trepidation.  “I am sure this is all very uncomfortable.  You may remember saying that I might choose my own fourteenth share?  Perhaps I took your words too literally.  I have been told that Dwarves are sometimes politer in word than in deed.  Still, there was a time when you seemed to think my service worthwhile.  Descendant of rats, indeed!  Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin?  Let us say that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!”

“I will,” Thorin assured him in a dreadful voice, “and I will let you go at that, and may we never meet again!”  Then he turned his ire back to the waiting delegation.  “I am betrayed,” he declared.  “It was rightly guessed that I could not forbear to redeem the Arkenstone, the treasure of my house.  For it I will give one fourteenth share of the hoard in silver and gold, setting aside the gems.  That will be accounted the promised share of this traitor, and with that reward he shall depart, and you can divide it as you will.  He will get little enough.  Take him, if you wish him to live, and no friendship of mine goes with him.”

Thranduil scoffed angrily.  “He would still deny the claims of Dale and the Lake, and allow his only decent companion to bear the entirety of the expense,” he complained.

“What of the gold and silver?” Bilbo was asking Thorin before he made good his escape, showing remarkable courage even then.

“That shall follow after, as can be arranged,” Thorin replied evasively.  “Get down!”

“Until then we keep the stone,” Bard called to him, not entirely convinced of Thorin’s sincerity.

“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” Gandalf said at last with harsh honesty.  “But things may change yet.”

“They may indeed,” Thorin agreed.

Thranduil did not like his tone, both angry and devious, and he knew he must be thinking of Dain’s approach.  With such rancor, their chances of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed were growing thin.

Bilbo was swung down from the wall on a rope, a forlorn outcast with little to show for all his exploits.  “Farewell!” he cried up to the rest of them.  “We may meet again as friends.”

“Be off!” Thorin shouted at him.  “You have mail upon you, which was made by my people, and is too good for you!  It cannot be pierced by arrows, but if you do not hasten I will sting your miserable feet.  So be swift!”

Thranduil advanced a step, and Bilbo scurried behind him.

“Not so hasty!” Bard admonished Thorin.  “We will give you until tomorrow.  At noon we will return to see if you have brought from the hoard the portion that is to be set against the stone.  If that is done without deceit, we will depart, and the Elves will return to the Forest.  Until then, farewell!”

They turned and left at once.  Thranduil maneuvered Bilbo in front of him to shield the hobbit from any parting shots Thorin might care to loose in his madness.  He was quite happy to take up Orcrist again after the indignity of leaving it behind.  The others were also glad to arm themselves once more, and one by one they picked their way back down the precipice to the horses.

“Tell me, Master Baggins,” Thranduil said as he set Bilbo astride Espalass and mounted behind him, “now that Thorin has cast you out to his own detriment, how is he communicating with Dain?”

“The ravens,” Bilbo answered, still rather flustered by the whole affair.  “There are still a few of the old ravens of Thrór’s day who are able to speak the tongues of Men.  They have been bearing messages between them.”

No sooner had he said it than a pair of ravens flew above them in haste toward the east.  Thranduil frowned, imagining the bitter messages Thorin might be sending to his cousin now.  

“Dain must not reach the Mountain before Thorin redeems the stone,” Bard said, clearly suspecting the same.  “If the defenders gain reinforcements and supplies, we may quickly lose our advantage.”

“Agreed,” Thranduil said.  “In this temper they will avoid all payment if they can, and I have no wish to empty my own realm to besiege every gate in this cursed mountain.”  He put an arm around Bilbo and set his heels to his horse, and Espalass surged ahead toward the camp.  

He would avoid it as long as he could, but Thranduil could smell war brewing.  Unfortunately, the point of a sword was frequently the only argument a pugnacious Dwarf could understand.


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