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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 47 - The Affairs of Wizards VIII

The great Eagles of Hithaeglir came stooping out of the sky in staggering numbers, descending on the Mountain with piercing cries, crushing the goblins in their talons and sweeping them off the cliffs to be dashed on the rocks below.  One flew so near that Thranduil and his Elves were almost blown over in the wake of its massive wings, but it plowed through the ranks set against them and nearly cleared the field of living foes.  Those few who survived were easily dispatched by the Elves, and soon the slopes were completely reclaimed.

Unchallenged on the heights, Thranduil turned and saw an army of goblins still in the valley.  Thorin, Dain, and Galadhmir were trapped on a small hill with what remained of their forces, reduced to simply defending themselves against the continuous assault of Bolg and his soldiers.  They would not be friendless for long.

“Galennath!” Thranduil called with new vigor, dragging his fallen banner up from the dirt and holding Orcrist aloft.  “Let us end this!  Spears to the center!  Archers on the wings!”

Lord Galadhmir pulled a mortally wounded spearman back from the first rank, and his fellows shifted to close his place lest the goblins pierce their defenses.  The screeching attackers had thankfully spent their arrows, broken thickets of them embedded in every Elvish shield.  Only the advantage of higher ground prevented Bolg and his minions from engulfing them all.  

The Dwarves at bay beside them were likewise proving their worth.  Their axes and mattocks struck to pieces any goblin who dared to challenge them, but challengers were abundant, thousands of them set against a few hundred.  The arrival of the Eagles had lightened their hearts for a moment, but the great birds were entirely occupied clearing the slopes, and Bolg was pressing his advantage while they were elsewhere.  Wave after wave of goblins charged up the hill in a rising tide, and were beaten back with difficulty.  Oakenshield himself, the celebrated King under the Mountain, was wounded almost beyond all hope, but still his companions defended him.  Galadhmir could not fault them for that.  The Galennath would do the same for their own King.

He was himself reduced to one hand, the other tied in a makeshift bandage.  The incessant noise, the pervasive stench, and the hideous display of death all around him had begun to grate on his nerves, especially after enduring it all day.  He inevitably thought of his wife, her grief if both he and their son failed to return from Erebor.  It conjured memories of their first son, slain before the Black Gate of Mordor.  Galadhmir hated those goblins, those orcs, all those hateful creatures who lived only to destroy the good and fair things of the world.  They may take him now, but not before he made his mark.

“Spears!” he shouted above the din.  “Thrust!”

As one, the weary soldiers advanced two paces, pushing back the attack with spear and shield, then retreated back to their defensive line.  And the so grisy dance continued, a morass of blood and sweat and filth.  

Bolg was shouting at his army from the back of his Warg, waving his jagged scimitar, impatient with the stalemate.  The fear of him whipped the goblins into a greater frenzy, and they rushed at the defenders as one.  Knowing death was the only alternative to victory, Galadhmir and his Elves braced themselves behind their shields as the wall of flesh slammed into them with enough force to push them back several paces.  

Channeling all his anger, grief, frustration, and despair, Galadhmir pushed back against his shield with all the strength he had left, his armored boots tearing into the earth.  His soldiers did likewise, straining against the weight until goblins were being pressed to death between them.  They had nothing left, nothing but their own stubborn pride in the face of defeat.  

The desperate roar of the survivors suddenly became a defiant war cry once again.  Galadhmir looked up, and a tear came to his eye as he saw the King’s formation charging down from the hills.  Thranduil was coming for them, as he always did.  Galadhmir could see him on the flank, distinguished by his fiery blue sword.  

The wedge of spears collided with the rear of Bolg’s army and plowed forward, the archers on the wings defending the charge with their knives, frustrating any attempt to encircle them as they pushed deeper into the crush of goblins, trying to reach their fellows trapped on the hill.  

Bolg turned against them, ordering a charge of his own.  The lesser goblins gave way, leaving the field for him and his bodyguard.  They were thick and well armored, and they broke the Elvish charge against them, determined to prevent the reunification of their foes.  

The deadly light of Orcrist was dancing as Thranduil hacked his way through the horde, a sharp spark in the deepening dark of night.  Galadhmir and his soldiers strained to hold the line even as they felt the others straining toward them on the other side of the field, but the gap could not be closed.  It was not enough.  Bolg’s army still outnumbered them, and his heavy infantry held their ground.  The Elves were inflicting ruinous casualties, but they had neither the time nor the numbers to sustain the battle.  It was not enough.

Despair flooded Galadhmir’s heart once again.  They had given their all, and it was not enough.  

Thranduil was enormously frustrated by their inability to advance any farther, and for the moment he abandoned the attempt to reach Galadhmir, turning his wrath to a nearer quarry.  He called his Guardsmen to him, ordered the spearmen to fall back into a defensive position, and struck out directly toward Bolg himself.

The great orcs surrounding him were a daunting obstacle, but there was no time for second thoughts.  Accompanied by the best soldiers the Wood could boast, Thranduil threw himself against their ranks like a wild thing, trying to finish what Thorin had begun.  As they crossed swords and bashed each other bloody, Thranduil’s only objective was to carve his way nearer that dark prince of fiends and drag him down.  The fighting became more bestial, a raw fury of clawing, punching, kicking, and pawing when their blades did not suffice.  He heard his Guardsmen close ranks behind him as they were surrounded, and the spearmen resumed their advance to defend him.  Still Bolg kept out of reach, allowing his guard to bear the brunt of the attack, confident in his victory.  

They could not break free of the vicious tangle of warriors, and once again the combat devolved into a fight for survival in the face of an almost inevitable defeat.  Thranduil struck off an orc’s head with such force that Orcrist bit into the metal breastplate with a shock he could feel into his shoulders.  In a last mad effort, he took up the orc’s fallen scimitar and threw it as one might a knife or an axe.  He failed to land a killing stroke, but the blade struck Bolg hard enough to knock his head back.  

A monstrous roar split the battle, unlike anything they had heard since the death of the dragon.  An enormous black shape smashed through the ranks, apparently impervious to any weapon they possessed.  After a moment Thranduil recognized it to be a bear, the largest bear he had ever seen or imagined, trampling and mauling its way toward the defenders on the hill.  “Beorn,” he breathed, guessing him to be his mercurial neighbor in the south, although they had never met.  He was surpassingly glad to see him then.  

The bear Beorn ravaged his way through the crowd of goblins, as irresistible as a whirlwind.  He took up the limp form of Thorin from behind the Dwarves and bore him away to safety beyond the battle.  Bolg, seeming to understand that the tide had inexplicably turned, stirred up his following to attack again, but new hope had been kindled in the remnant who remained, and they firmed their defense.  

“Hold the line!” Thranduil encouraged them, seeing the Eagles returning from the Mountain to join the assault.  “Do not let them scatter!”  But he was suddenly interrupted by Neldorín falling limp against him.  

Thranduil caught his wounded Guardsman by the arm, immediately concerned, but Neldorín was already passing the threshold of death, kneeling in a pool of his own blood.  “I am sorry,” he gasped with his last breath, unable to fight any more.  

Beorn soon returned in an unbridled rage, destroying those who would not flee.  Thranduil deemed retreat the better part of valor, and scrambled away with his guards to rejoin the spearmen, dragging Neldorín’s body with them.  The bear crashed through what remained of Bolg’s bodyguard, scattering them like so many matchsticks.  He struck Bolg off his Warg with one great clout of his paw, and then crushed him bodily into the dirt.  Even after all the violence of that day, the raw brutality of it was shocking, and Thranduil knew he would remember the sound of the orc’s splintered bones for a long time afterward.  

The dismay which then fell upon the goblins was the ruin of them.  They fled, divided and leaderless, and were utterly routed.  Bard and Dain pursued those who leapt into the river or fled into the west, while the Elves gave chase into the south, even unto the borders of the marshes.  There Thranduil gave up the pursuit.  There were not many goblins left, and those few who may escape the depths of the marshes alive would be little challenge for the Forest Guard.

“Today has been foul enough without wallowing again in this rotting slime,” Galadhmir agreed, stepping back from the mire.  

Thranduil put a weary arm around Galadhmir’s shoulders and pulled him into a rough embrace, heedless of who may see it.  “Still alive,” he said, the strain in his voice betraying his emotion.  It had been a very long day.  Then he shoved his brother away with coarse affection.  

Galadhmir smiled, understanding and agreeing with everything Thranduil left unspoken.  “I think you owe him more than honey this time,” he said.

It was well past midnight when they arrived back at the battlefield.  Legolas received them gladly, grateful to see them both alive and well.  He and the other lightly wounded had been gathering their casualties, preparing the dead and treating the injured.  Thranduil commended their efforts and left them to continue.  He had business with Gandalf burning upon his mind.  He was crusted with gore and could feel several long cuts scabbing across his face, but he would say what he wished to say before all else.

The wizard was sitting on a rock outside the camp which had sprung up again in Dale, away from the worst carnage.  Gandalf’s arm was bandaged in a sling, but despite that handicap he was valiantly endeavoring to fill his pipe.  “Ah, Thranduil!” he said, marking his approach.  “Come help me with this.”

Thranduil found himself complying without question, holding the pipe and the pouch of dried leaf as Gandalf arranged it to his satisfaction.  It did not improve his disposition.  “Mithrandir,” he began, waving away the smoke as Gandalf set the contents alight and extinguished the match, “perhaps I did not have the pleasure of understanding you, but did you say this morning that Bolg and his army came sooner than you guessed?”  His tone became much sharper, betraying his irritation.  “You knew an army of goblins was moving against us, and you said nothing?”

None of his amazement was feigned.  He was genuinely astounded by the omission, and possibly outraged, but he was still trying to make sense of his own feelings in the wake of what had happened.  The way Gandalf continued to placidly stare at him from behind a veil of pipesmoke was not helping him to remain calm.

“When were you going to mention it?” Thranduil demanded, becoming more agitated.  “You let me walk blithely into the wild to be ambushed!  Would it have spoiled some vast, inscrutable plan to say, ‘Be on your guard, Thranduil; orcs are marching from Gundabad?’  Would you have allowed my army and Dain’s to waste themselves in pointless combat with a host on the march to finish us?”

“Did I allow it?” Gandalf asked simply, apparently unimpressed by Thranduil’s hysterics.  “It is not my task to preserve you from all dangers, but to assist only.  The battle was inevitable; only the time and place were in question.  You were here and played your part admirably.  The battle is won, the goblins are destroyed, the dragon is dead, and Dol Guldur is vacant.  All has ended well, so I fail to see why you should be so snappish.  Surely you do not mean to imply that my confidence in you was misplaced.”

Thranduil scoffed indignantly, realizing he was not to be honored with an answer.  Once again, he had been deployed like a pawn in a larger game.  It was enormously frustrating.  “You use me,” he said at last.  It was a baldfaced accusation, but not without some grudging respect for how well the wizard played the game.  

Gandalf was unfazed.  “Yes,” he admitted with no shame whatsoever, “and so long as you are here to defend the good of this world, I will continue to use you.  When you have come again to your senses, perhaps you will be able to see flattery in that.  In the meantime, go attend your hurts and gather your people, Oropherion.  We have a great many things to resolve before we leave this place.”

Thranduil left him as he was bidden, not because he was satisfied, but because he knew further argument was useless.  Mithrandir would have his way despite him, as usual, and even as Thranduil resented the liberties taken at his expense, he could not deny that he was still deeply reassured by the wizard’s presence.  No doubt it was the stirring of some primal instinct even his stubborn pride could not smother.  

The camp was a somber place.  The multitude of dead were being organized in the field, but the wounded had been gathered into tents.  Rumor of the King’s return had spread, and Gwaelas had come out to receive him.  There was nowhere to bathe in that place, but Gwaelas had already seen Thranduil’s pavilion erected and furnished as well as could be expected.  A bucket of icy water must suffice.  He relieved the King of his filthy armor, provided him with clean clothes, then wet a cloth and began to gently clean the wounds on his face.  

As he submitted to Gwaelas’ attentions, Thranduil consciously cleared his mind, purging the frustration, anxiety, grief, and nervous tension of the battle.  It so completely drained him that his hands almost began to shake.  Only the grief remained; he had not yet been able to mourn their fallen.  He was not yet entirely certain who they had lost, and he dreaded the cold list of names which would inevitably be presented to him.  

Thranduil opened his eyes again when Gwaelas had finished.  The water in the bucket had turned a rusty red, and the left side of his face felt stiff and painful.  He would have to take care not to worsen it before he could heal, though he was certain he would not be much tempted to smile that night.  

Legolas entered the pavilion, and Thranduil quietly dismissed Gwaelas.  “What is the damage?” the King asked.

Legolas could not hide a brief grimace as he noted his father’s injuries.  “We are less than half the host we were before,” he said, “although I suppose it might have been worse.”

Thranduil was too tired to entertain hypothetical optimism.  “Legolas,” he said, lowering his voice and coming directly to the point, “where is Tauriel?”

"She is injured, but is in no danger of death," Legolas told him.  "Broken bones and bruises.  She has been well attended and is resting with the others."

Thranduil nodded.  “Take me there.”

The wounded had been gathered into a cluster of tents near the river, Men, Dwarves, and Elves alike.  There were so many that it was like a small city of its own.  The Elvish healers staying in the encampment beside Lake-town had hurried up the river when they had perceived the battle, but there were still too few of them, and they rushed among the tents giving terse directions to those ambulatory casualties who had been pressed into service as their assistants.  They all quieted and bowed to acknowledge the King as he passed, but immediately resumed their frenetic activity behind him.  Field hospitals were no novelty in Mirkwood.

Legolas did not stay, but left to attend his duties elsewhere.  Thranduil wandered the aisles for another few hours, giving a moment of his time and a word of encouragement to whomever seemed in need of it.  Finally, as the first glow of dawn touched the sky, he found her.  Tauriel lay on a folded piece of canvas as one dead, but her color was good, and her spirit was not unduly anxious. 

“It looks worse than it is, my lord,” a passing healer assured him, noting his concern.  “She needs only time, and should mend well.”

Thranduil nodded, and the healer returned to his work.  After a surreptitious sideways glance to confirm that he was unobserved, Thranduil chose to indulge his own sentiments for once, and slipped inside the tent.  

Tauriel lay quiet, deep in a recuperative sleep induced by the healers.  It had been a very cold night, but there were not enough blankets for everyone.  Her sleeve and the right side of her leggings had been cut to accommodate splints, and Thranduil could see that her ribs were heavily bandaged as well.  He sat down beside her, sorry to see her suffer, but very grateful she had survived.  He could not pretend she was nothing to him.

Finally he dared to gently stroke her face, to touch her mind as he had not for many years.  There she was, just as he remembered her as a child, a warm glow of innocence unconsciously reassured by his presence.  She was a bright point in a dark world, her ambition unsullied by vainglory, her aggression motivated only by devotion.  

Although it was certainly an unjustified act of favoritism, Thranduil leaned into their connection rather than break it, strengthening it until he could feel her weariness, her relief in their victory, and her pain.  He was aware of the strong beat of her heart, the life coursing through her veins, and every hurt and injury she endured.  Simply because he could, Thranduil began knitting her broken bones together with greater urgency.  He did not heal her completely lest his favor be too obvious, but he made certain she had a good start.  He would not have her suffer too much or too long if he could help it, and the return journey would be a challenge if she could not pull herself together soon.  

Before he left, he removed his cloak and lay it over her against the cold.  He no longer cared who noticed it.  

As he stepped back into the pale dawn, Thranduil was again accosted by Mithrandir.  “My lord,” he began solemnly, “the King under the Mountain is gravely wounded and will not long survive.  Do you wish to be reconciled before he dies?”

“I am willing, if Thorin will allow it,” Thranduil said.  “I never sought a quarrel with him.”

“Then let us try.  There is little time.”

They wound their way through the maze of tents until they arrived at one with an honor guard of Dwarves standing outside in full armor.  Gandalf bid Thranduil wait as he approached and sought entry.  The guards allowed it, but crossed their mattocks again behind him.  Thranduil was obviously not meant to hear the exchange within, but he could.

“Gandalf,” a Dwarf greeted him anxiously, “has the hobbit been found?”

Thranduil frowned.  He had not realized Bilbo was still missing.

“Not yet,” Gandalf admitted, and he also sounded anxious on that score.  “But the Elvenking has come with me, and he would make his peace with the King under the Mountain, if he may.”

“He would do better to keep to his own and give our king no further trouble in his final hours,” another Dwarf complained.  “Considering our grievances, we want no part with him.”

“Even now, after all that has transpired, you are content to nurse your grievances?” Gandalf protested in a harsh whisper.  “Was he cruel to you?  Did he not feed you and keep you safe even after you treated him with contempt?  Now he has helped you to reclaim the Mountain and make peace with your neighbors.  Is that not enough?”

“It is a strange justice which allows him who has not been wronged to name the price of reconciliation.”

“Not wronged by any of you, perhaps,” Gandalf said, “but wronged he was, and grievously, in the deep years long past, though he has been gracious enough to make no mention of it.  If he is wary of Dwarves, he has good cause.  Who was compelled to answer for the blood of Thranduil’s grandfathers and of his mother’s brothers?  Remember the rape of Menegroth by the Broadbeams of Nogrod.  That will have to be considered if we are going to weigh personal grievances.  Can we not part as allies in war?”

“Enough.”  The voice was weak, but formidable.  It must be Thorin himself.  “I will have no more of this bickering.  I will see him.”

The white-bearded Dwarf opened the tent and spoke to the guards, then grudgingly held it open to Thranduil.

It was still not a very welcoming assembly inside, eleven Dwarves dimly lit by a single lantern, all staring at him with some degree of resentment and suspicion.  Truthfully, Thranduil would not have braved the encounter without Gandalf.  Thorin was heavily bandaged, lying on as regal a bed as could be fashioned for him out of their scant resources.  He was pale and weak, and had that deep and distant look of one who sees his own end.  “I cannot say that I ever wished to meet you again, Elvenking,” he said curtly, “but it seems we cannot avoid one another.”

Thranduil nodded graciously.  The greeting may have seemed discourteous on its face, but he thought he could detect instead a kind of brutal candor intended to spare the pride of both.  “I suspect we were never destined to be great friends,” he agreed, “but if the Wood and the Mountain are both to thrive, we must at least come to terms.”

“The cruel lot of kings,” Thorin observed with a mirthless smile, “forced to abase ourselves before our foes for the good of all.  Very well, then.  Lest you have any more cause to triumph over me, I will speak first.”  He paused for a moment to catch his breath, his brow creased with pain.  “I have reflected on my reign with some dissatisfaction.  I will confess that I regret the manner in which I spoke to you at our first meeting.  I was proud and zealous to defend the honor and treasures of my house, sentiments which are surely not strange to you if you have come honestly by your reputation.”

“Certain proclivities of mine have been remarked upon,” Thranduil allowed.  

“Moreover, I regret my conduct at the Gate.  I can offer no excuse except to assume the madness of the dragon was upon me.  I will not beg your pardon, because we have some pride still, but had we to begin again I would receive your delegation with greater courtesy.”

“I will give you my pardon, King under the Mountain,” Thranduil said, “whether you ask it or not.  For my part, I will say that I also regret the hostility of our first meeting, but you may not have been mistaken in your suspicion that I would have hindered your quest had I known your purpose.  Even now I cannot see how it could have been avoided.  I am afraid we could only do, absurdly, what it had been given to us to do, and I cannot fault you for that.”

“No,” Thorin agreed wearily.  “Nor I you.  Such are the perils of meddling in the affairs of wizards.  You are never quite certain where you stand.”

They both looked briefly at Gandalf, who armed himself with an incredulous scowl.  

Thranduil saw that Thorin was weakening, fighting for each labored breath.  “I will not importune you further,” he said, “except to pledge my goodwill to your heirs if they will have it.  The Mountain and the Wood need not live in enmity with one another.  But, however that may be, we will part now as Gandalf has said, as allies in war, and that will suffice for today.”

Thorin nodded, his eyes closed, his face ashen, his life ebbing slowly away.  

Thranduil turned and left him in peace, leaving the close atmosphere of the tent for the biting cold of the new morning.  He was beginning to realize how many days it had been since he had slept properly, and the lingering aura of death and grief which hung over their victory did not make the deprivation any easier to bear.  Then he remembered that he had not eaten at all the previous day.  He was spent, dispirited, and ravenously hungry.  

There was a great deal yet to resolve, as Gandalf had observed.  They must clear the field, bury the dead, reopen the Mountain, and settle all claims on the treasure before any of them could consider returning home.  Someone must find the hobbit.  It would be another very long day, although of a very different sort.  

Thranduil looked up to see Espalass wandering through the battlefield, guiding his modest herd of warhorses in search of their masters.  He neighed mightily, tasting the air for familiar scents.  It was all well and good to graze in the empty valleys, but after an uncomfortable night he no doubt wanted his saddle removed and a ration of grain.  Thranduil whistled for him, a sound which immediately pricked all their ears, and they came running.  

Their simple familiarity was a comfort after the chaos of the previous day, and Thranduil spared himself a moment to appreciate the velvet nose, the warm blast of air from the beast’s nostrils as Espalass greeted him.  The violence of war never ceased to impress upon him the shocking fragility of life and how much it deserved to be cherished.  

Thranduil gathered the reins and swung astride, leading the troop of horses back toward the camp.  With any luck, they could all find something to eat.  

Bonus points to those who caught the homage to Ian McKellen’s performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1982, one of my favorite movies.  Go watch it!  (Timestamp 34:50)

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