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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 49 - Those Who Wander

Affairs in the north gradually settled into a new rhythm after the upheavals associated with the dragon’s fall.  The rebuilding of Esgaroth began in earnest after the spring thaw.  With the help of the Elves and the steady flow of raw materials from the Wood, the Lake-men made rapid progress.  Bard stayed on to assist the building while the Dwarves repaired the damage to their own halls in Erebor.  Once that was finished, Dáin had pledged to the Dragon-slayer whatever assistance he required in rebuilding the stonework of Dale. 

The only disappointing piece of news came a few years into the process when Bard wrote—very apologetically—to inform Thranduil that the Master, driven out of his wits by the treasure and the hardships of life in the camp, had absconded with the gold and fled into the barren lands of Rhûn where he had likely come to an unfortunate end.  It was an irksome turn of events, to be sure.  Thranduil had provided the wood and labor for the project with the understanding that he would be compensated with that gold, but since the Master’s mad flight had defrauded them both, he assured the Lord of Dale that he would forgive the debt on the condition that Bard instruct the people of Esgaroth to bear that in mind when they elected a successor. 

Dol Guldur was not entirely quiet, but its influence had waned significantly in Sauron’s absence.  Orcs still seemed to frequent the area, and Thranduil could sense some dark entities still in residence, perhaps Nazgûl, but they had not their master’s potency.  They could not enforce their will, and Thranduil was free to do as he pleased.  The cautious process of cleansing the Wood began again, and each reclaimed region was strongly garrisoned with soldiers until it could be deemed safe for habitation.  If it was not quite the unfettered freedom of the Watchful Peace, it was at least a very welcome respite. 

That respite was disturbed in an unexpected and bizarre way three years after the battle when the chieftain of the Woodmen appeared on a summer’s evening begging an audience with the Elvenking.  Thranduil, who had been visiting their new southern borderlands, was informed of his neighbor’s arrival, and met him in the clearing in full battle dress. 

“Come, sit,” he said, directing the chieftain and his companions to the circle of sawn tree rings around the smoldering fire pit.  Thranduil sat opposite them, the stiff weight of his bow and quiver against his back.  A sharp motion of his hand brought junior scouts with wine and extra portions of venison and bread in earthen dishes which they set on the coals to warm.  “Tell me what has happened, my friend,” he said, not only because he valued his relationship with the Woodmen, but because he honestly could not recall his name.  His father had been called Bawbuthor.  Or was it Bawbuthan?  There were so many of them.  “I can see something is troubling you.”

“A dread creature has been wandering the Wood, my lord,” the Man said, sleepless shadows around his eyes.  “It comes silently and leaves little trace, a blood-sucking ghost, preying on our birds and beasts, even our babes in their cradles!”

“A ghost?”  Thranduil frowned.  “One of the wraiths?”

“No, my lord,” the Man explained wearily.  “We have never seen its like before, not dreadful and terrible, but cunning and silent, so that we know nothing of its presence until it has sated itself and gone.”

“Belzagar and his people have been at pains to drive the creature away from their homes,” said one of the Elvish scouts who had escorted the Men.  “They have had some success, but no one has yet seen the beast.  Hence the rumor of a ghost.”

Belzagar.  Thranduil made an effort to commit the name to memory.  It certainly did not sound like a Ringwraith, he thought.  Ordinarily a foul beast prowling through the dark of Mirkwood would not have caused much comment, but with the shadows lifting in the region its peculiarities were more conspicuous.  It could be any number of monstrous abominations, but there was at least one possibility of which he was certain.

“Ghosts do not feed, Belzagar,” he said firmly, standing as his guests were served their refreshment.  “Whatever feeds lives, and whatever lives may be tracked.  Has there been any indication that it has entered our dominions?”

“We expect that it passed our borders last night,” the scout answered.

“Very well.”  Thranduil summoned his Guardsmen and his captains, especially Legolas and Tauriel who had accompanied him there.  “We will increase our vigilance.  Avail yourselves of whatever comforts you require before you return.”

They were still thanking him as he turned away.  Legolas and Tauriel presented themselves for duty.

“A ghost, is it?” Legolas asked with a wry tilt of his brow.

“A bloodthirsty one,” Thranduil said with a similar expression.  “It seems it is extraordinarily elusive, so I want both you and Tauriel to devote all your efforts to finding it.  You are relieved of all other duties.  Take the best of the scouts with you, and report often.  I want to know how you are getting on.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Despite the strange creature’s powers of stealth, Thranduil did not expect the chase to be too great a challenge for them.  Legolas and Tauriel working in concert had never yet failed in their objective, whatever it was.  What none of them had counted upon, however, was the torrential summer rain which began falling in sheets that evening, continuing well into the following morning.  It was not an unusual phenomenon, but decidedly inconvenient, even unleashing a bombardment of hailstones before finally slowing into a persistent shower by midday.

“I fear this will frustrate the efforts of my lord the Prince,” Dorthaer observed, watching the stubborn rain with steely eyes from the window of the field barracks. 

“I imagine it will frustrate more than just his efforts, Commander,” Thranduil agreed wryly from his place at the door, sipping his wine and imagining Legolas and Tauriel drenched to the skin with all their patrol.  It could not be helped.  If conditions did not improve, he and his companions would soon share their fate.  He was too busy to remain trapped at an outpost awaiting the whims of the weather. 

The rain did not oblige them by dissipating, and instead redoubled its efforts by the evening.  When the wet morning dawned, almost indistinguishable beneath the looming clouds, Thranduil had endured all the idle waste of time he was prepared to tolerate, and decided to return home despite the storm.  It was a wet and weary ride, but not entirely unpleasant if one embraced the circumstances for what they were.  Still, it would be a welcome relief to return to his own chambers and a dry change of clothes. 

They entered through the less conspicuous back gate just as another storm rolled overhead in succession, lashing the forest with fresh thunderous fury.  Thranduil was not sorry to leave it outside, but even as he and his escort shed their weapons and peeled off their sodden cloaks, he was not so certain he had escaped it after all.  All through the halls ahead of them were Elves toiling like ants, carrying sacks of grain, wheels of cheese, casks of wine, and all manner of other stores to temporary homes.

“What am I seeing?” Thranduil asked the room, almost rhetorically.  He was afraid he already knew the answer.

“The cellars are flooded, my lord,” his attendants answered.  “Lord Linhir has ordered all the unspoiled stores be brought to higher ground until the water subsides.”

“What of the drainage channels?” Thranduil demanded.  They had built outlets upstream for just such occasions.

“They have also flooded, my lord, and the retaining walls have failed.” 

Thranduil glowered and sighed heavily, dredging the necessary patience from the depths of his soul as he imagined the mess and the waste in the chambers below.  Like so many other things, it could not be helped.  “Very well,” he said.  “Carry on.”

He dismissed his Guardsmen to seek their own comfort and returned to his chambers alone.  Gwaelas was waiting to attend him, but unfortunately so was Linhir.  “Is it so urgent that you cannot allow me a moment’s peace?” Thranduil complained, stripping off his wet clothes without compunction. 

“You know about the flood in the cellars?” Linhir asked, ignoring him.

“I was told, yes.  The ubiquitous procession of goods through the place is difficult to overlook.”

“The bridge before the front gate collapsed and was washed away only moments ago.”

“Of course it did.”  Thranduil was increasingly numb to the cascading damage all around him.  Soon he would not be surprised if a mudslide blocked all the gates and trapped them all inside.

“The continuing storms have delayed the latest shipment of timber to Esgaroth.”

“Reclaim it, then,” Thranduil decided, rubbing a towel through his hair.  “Direct it and all the intended labor toward the maintenance and repair of our own waterways.  Esgaroth will have to do without our benevolence while we address our own troubles, especially since they cannot pay for it.”  He was no longer making any effort to conceal his irritation. 

Linhir shot a sidelong look at Gwaelas.  “As you wish, my lord,” he said, his voice terse.  “On that score, since you mention it, Bard has written to inform you that the Master has officially been given up for lost, and that a new election will be going ahead within the month.”

“Splendid.”  Thranduil pulled on a fresh tunic and drew a deep breath, dampening his temper.  “Considering the diminished population and the quality of the Men who remain, I dare to hope for an acceptable successor.”

The rain finally exhausted itself the following day, but the river remained forbiddingly high.  When at last the flood waters receded, the extent of the damage was revealed.  The forest was full of debris, and the cellars were full of mud and filth.  The riverbanks in front of the main gates were seriously eroded, and even the foundations of the former bridge had been swept away.  Resources which had been intended for Esgaroth were repurposed as Thranduil had ordered, and serious restoration work was scheduled to begin as soon as the earth had dried out a bit. 

It was a few days into that chaotic juncture that Gandalf appeared again.  Thranduil was aware of him sooner and more distinctly than he usually was, which may have been attributable to the fact that his powers within his own sphere seemed to be growing, unhindered by Sauron’s suffocating shadow.  Alternatively, it could have been a consequence of how unusually unsettled the wizard seemed to be.

“The courtesy of your halls is somewhat lessened, my lord,” he grumbled the moment he was admitted into Thranduil’s presence.  “I had not expected to be required to walk a tightrope to gain entry.”

Clearly he had not enjoyed the temporary passage which had been hastily strung across the torrent until a proper bridge could be built.

“I apologize if you were inconvenienced by our misfortunes, Mithrandir,” Thranduil answered, his tone abrasively dry, “but I do not recall inviting you into the midst of them.”

Gandalf twisted his lip behind his beard in grudging appreciation of the rejoinder.  “No, you did not,” he agreed, “but I fear you must endure me for some time yet.  There are strange doings afoot.  I trust that will not try your hospitality too far?”

Thranduil arched his brow with an imperious air.  “We should be able to accommodate you tolerably well,” he agreed after a moment.  In the end, the prickly conversation was little more than sparring between friends, and he could not quite suppress a smile.  He snapped his fingers and nodded at his attendants, who obligingly cleared the room.  “Why have you come this time, my friend?” he asked, indicating that Gandalf should make himself comfortable.  “It must have been a matter of some consequence to compel you to brave the mud.  Will you tell me about these strange doings, or must I stumble into them myself?”

“I believe you have already stumbled into it, as you say,” Gandalf said, gratefully taking a seat and helping himself to a honey cake.  “I am told the Woodmen came to you some days ago complaining of a bloodsucking ghost, and seeking your help in dispatching it.”

“They did,” Thranduil confirmed.  “I charged my son with the task of hunting it down.  The storms have complicated matters, but they rediscovered its trail yesterday.”

“Excellent,” Gandalf said.  “Excellent.  But, if I may be so bold, be certain Legolas understands he is not to kill the creature, not yet.  Let us observe it first, and capture it if we may.”

Thranduil’s brow furrowed.  “Why?” he asked.  “Is the odious brute of some importance to you?”

Gandalf’s cryptic expression betrayed none of his many secrets.  “That may be a conversation for another day,” he said, settling himself deeper into the chair with another cake.  “Do keep me informed of their progress.  I would very much like to know where our quarry is heading.”

Thranduil still had many questions about the whole affair, but Gandalf was dozing in the chair before he could ask anything more.  As exasperating as ever, Mithrandir always managed to provoke more questions than he answered.  No matter; he had threatened to stay for some time, so there would doubtless be other opportunities to pin him down.  For the time being, Thranduil gathered his dispatches and his wine and ceded his study to the wizard and his thunderous snoring. 

“See that Mithrandir has all he requires when he wakes,” he instructed the guard at the door.  “I will inform Lord Linhir.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Many days passed during which no news was heard from Legolas or Tauriel.  Their last message had informed the King that the creature, still unseen, had escaped the Wood and was following the river toward Esgaroth.  They asked if it was his wish that they continue the pursuit, but Thranduil forbade it.  He did, however, send a warning by way of the raftsmen to Esgaroth and Dale.  It seemed the elusive predator did prefer to stay near waterways when there were no eggs or infants to steal.  He instructed his scouts to remain secreted on the borders of the wood, guarding the banks of the river.  If their quarry intended to return west, there was a good chance they could intercept him there. 

Gandalf’s patience soured as time wore on.  Trapped inside the caverns by inclement weather, he paced about grumbling under his breath, and finally—after much forbearance—produced his pipe and began filling the halls with his distinctive aroma.  Thranduil said nothing, not unsympathetic to the wizard’s functional dependencies, well aware that he had a few of his own.  He was consoled by the thought that Gandalf’s supply of pipeweed must be extremely limited.  He would gladly open the wine reserves to him if it meant clearer air.  Unfortunately, as Gandalf’s agitation increased and his smoking intensified, he seemed more drawn than ever to Thranduil and his affairs, lingering in desperate hope for any word from Legolas and the scouts. 

Finally, Thranduil lay down his correspondence and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to smooth away the piercing headache the acrid smoke had lodged directly between his eyes.  “Mithrandir,” he said, interrupting the other’s roiling thoughts, “if I am to be subjected to your disquiet any longer, I must understand the reason.”

It was a quiet but firm ultimatum, and Gandalf seemed to recognize that.  He stopped pacing and coughed moodily into his beard, hesitating.  “I suppose I owe you a confidence after the Battle,” he allowed. 

It was a concession Thranduil deeply appreciated, and it piqued his interest.  He rose from his chair and dismissed his guards as a courtesy.  Mithrandir’s confidences were not given lightly.  “Come with me,” he said, “but leave that, if you please.”  He indicated a table where Gandalf could leave his pipe.  “I will compensate you.”

Gandalf obliged with a half-hearted scowl and followed him into the corridor. 

Thranduil led the way to his private chambers, and instructed Gwaelas to see that they were not disturbed.  The clear air was already quite refreshing, and there should be no one about to overhear whatever Gandalf deemed so important.  He decanted a cup of wine for himself and his guest in lieu of the pipe.  “Here,” he said.  “I recall you had decidedly robust opinions regarding some of the vintages we keep, but you should find this one acceptable.  Now, tell me what is weighing on you.”

Gandalf nodded and drank his wine.  “Where to begin?” he asked himself, looking pensively into the distance.  “The creature we are pursuing is called Gollum, but I can see the name means nothing to you.”

Thranduil shrugged impatiently.  “Should it?” he asked.

“Not before today.  Even I am still puzzling out exactly what he is and where he comes from.  Until recently he lived beneath the goblin caves of the Misty Mountains, but I would not be surprised to learn that he is very old and far removed from his origins.  It has become inescapably plain that somehow Gollum came into possession of one of the Great Rings.”

Thranduil choked violently, and was obliged to turn away until he could stop coughing.  When he turned back, it was with a very deliberate air as he gathered his own thoughts.  “We are attempting to recapture one of the Rings of Power?” he asked.  He did not like the Rings, he did not want them near him, and he was thoroughly unsettled by the thought of one wandering unchecked through his realm.

“Not at this time, no,” Gandalf clarified, “because his Ring was taken from him by Bilbo Baggins.  That grievance drove him from his lair, compelling him to retrace Bilbo’s progress through Mirkwood.  That is why I believe he will double back.  He is consumed by the desire to find Mr. Baggins and reclaim his prize.”

So it was the hobbit who had unwittingly fallen into the role of Ringbearer.  Thranduil disliked that for Bilbo’s sake, knowing he was undoubtedly still saddled with the hateful thing.  The Great Rings’ secondary effect of turning their mortal bearers invisible did explain many stubborn conundrums, but it also made his skin crawl to imagine one of Sauron’s malevolent creations lurking about his home for an entire month.  “Which is it?” he demanded, his mouth suddenly dry.  It was the obvious question

Gandalf shrugged.  “Who can say?  Bilbo was reluctant to let me examine it when at last he confessed his possession of it.  I did not press the matter, but I have not neglected it in the intervening years.”

“Surely we may make some reasoned assumptions,” Thranduil insisted with greater vehemence, determined to have an answer.  “No one has confided in me, but I imagine the Three are still secure.  The Nine, unfortunately, are also accounted for.  Might it be one of the Seven?”


The wizard’s tone did not encourage further speculation.  A few of the Seven had been lost, by some accounts consumed by dragons along with their bearers.  The only other possibility, that it was the One Ring, was too terrible to contemplate.  Thranduil was vividly reminded of the day Isildur had come to ruin at the Gladden Fields beside the Anduin, not far in fact from the goblin caves in the Misty Mountains.  Was it possible? 

Once he had considered it, Thranduil wished he could forget it, as one might immediately replace a pest-ridden stone he regretted upturning.  There was nothing he could do about it, yet the nagging anxiety which had plagued the earliest years his reign came creeping back.  The illusion of control which he had enjoyed in his realm was beginning to crumble.  With an effort he mentally braced himself, knowing he could not afford a freefall into undisciplined emotion, whatever the provocation.  They would do all they could do; they could do no more.  

He returned to himself to find Gandalf looking at him with a strange expression, as though he had read the rapid succession of sentiments on his face.  “Let us not be unduly disturbed by possibilities as yet unconfirmed,” the wizard advised.  “All lies quiet for the moment.  But now, my lord, I imagine you can understand my eagerness to apprehend this Gollum, and through him learn all we can.”

Thranduil nodded.  “We shall double our efforts,” he promised.

“Not too closely, mind,” Gandalf warned.  “We do not want to drive him to ground.  Best if we can take him unawares.”

Word finally came from the eastern marches many days later that the track had been rediscovered heading west through the forest.  The news brought a thrill of excitement, but also a note of alarm.  The trail had resurfaced well past the cordon placed at the border, and Legolas was obliged to turn his command and hurry along the river to continue the chase.  Gollum, whatever else he was, must certainly be a master waterman.  Thranduil had to admit that there was indeed something ghostly about him.

So the hunt continued.  The pursuers kept their distance as Gandalf had instructed, observing Gollum’s progress and watching for an opportunity to capture him.  That opportunity never presented itself.  Gollum was a quick and suspicious creature who seemed driven by an urgency beyond the strength of other mortals, frustrating Thranduil’s scouts at every turn. 

Halfway to the western marches he seemed to realize he was being followed, and he became even more skittish.  Fearing to lose him, the scouts abandoned their attempts at subtlety and plunged ahead.  Many times they sprang traps meant to corner or confine him, but he always managed to claw his way to freedom.  He was surprisingly strong for one so small, and many scouts returned with tooth marks on their vambraces and deep bites on their hands.  In a mad dash he gained the open ground of Wilderland, leaving Mirkwood behind him. 

Legolas would not allow his scouts to leave the forest without the express permission of the King, though a few of them observed the direction of Gollum’s trail.  He came himself to apologize for the embarrassing failure, taking full responsibility for it as a good commander should. 

“You are not wholly to blame,” Gandalf said heavily, standing by as Legolas knelt before Thranduil.  “Gollum is difficult prey, even for the most experienced hunters.  Did he maintain his westward course?”

“No, Mithrandir,” Legolas answered.  “He turned suddenly south when he reached the Anduin.”

Gandalf muttered to himself, looking distant and thoughtful.  “Well, it cannot be helped,” he said. 

Thranduil turned back to his son and his troop of worn and dispirited scouts.  “You are dismissed,” he said, not harshly, but he could see they still felt the sting of defeat.  A particularly dark look had settled on Legolas’ face, resentful of the humiliation.  Thranduil could not quite hide his own disappointment, and he knew they could see it.  As Gandalf had said, there was nothing more to be done, and that was the most galling of all.  They rose and took their leave in brittle silence.

Thranduil returned to his study, and Gandalf followed.

“Do not judge them too severely,” the wizard advised him with a grandfatherly air.

“I do not,” Thranduil said, his voice flat.  “Be that as it may, when we are given a trust, it is difficult to accept failure.”

Gandalf shrugged.  “There may yet be an opportunity to redeem that failure.  We have much to learn about Gollum yet, and there will no doubt be other occasions to capture him.  I am pleased he has turned away from the Shire, although I do not know what draws him south.  That will be a concern for another day, for I have many pressing matters to attend elsewhere.”  His eyes became distant again before returning to the present.  “Keep your own borders for me, my lord, and keep a strict watch lest Gollum return unmarked.”

“Of course,” Thranduil agreed.  “Shall we capture him if we can?”

“By all means,” Gandalf said, turning to depart on his urgent business.  “It would ease my mind to have him secured until we know what has been set in motion.”

Thranduil watched him go, a cold dread in the pit of his stomach.  Somehow he was certain something of dire consequence had indeed been set in motion, something they could not see and yet would feel soon enough. 

Dorthaer appeared in the doorway when Gandalf had gone, obviously anticipating further orders.  His posture was even stiffer than usual, as though he had read the King’s disquiet.

“I want the watch doubled at our borders, Commander,” Thranduil said, “all roads, all rivers.  Nothing moves but I hear of it.  And should anyone accomplish the safe capture of the creature Gollum, he will be handsomely rewarded.”

“At your command, my lord.”

Once again, as so often before, they could do nothing but wait and be ready.  It was a tiresome game, but one they had learned to play very well.


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