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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 50 - Those Who Wander II

The new Master of Laketown was a veteran of the Battle of Five Armies and a close associate of Bard’s, so Thranduil was inclined to approve of him before they had even met.  His good opinion was only strengthened by the judicious flattery the other included in his first written salutation, but it was the tribute he sent which truly made an impression.  He offered a mated pair of massive hounds which at first glance seemed to have more in common with bears than their other canine relations.  The Master explained that they had been bred as shepherds in the Rhûnish mountains, famed for their ferocious loyalty, and that he hoped they would ultimately prove more valuable than any other tribute Esgaroth could offer at present.  Seeing the way they were already able to dominate his wolves through sheer size, Thranduil allowed that they might prove a valuable addition to the bloodline.  

The small realm of Dale was rebuilt remarkably quickly once the Dwarves descended upon it, rededicated eight years after the dragon’s fall, roughly one hundred and eighty years since its destruction.  Thranduil personally attended the ceremonies, determined to maintain the close relationship which the battle had forged among the neighboring kingdoms.  Bard was not to be named a Lord of Dale in the manner of his forebears, but was instead crowned its king.  The future of that city seemed as bright as it had ever been, promising new prosperity for all the inhabitants of the region.  

Elsewhere the future did not seem so sanguine.  Thranduil was content to continue the cautious expansion of his territory, reclaiming regions he had not controlled for centuries, but there was a distinct unease in the air as they moved south, a mute tension he could feel in the land itself.  If he were not so closely attuned to the disposition of the wood he may not have noticed it, but he could not dismiss it.  The threat of impending doom had become a conventional part of life in Mirkwood, but now it was different, more distant but no less distinct, the dread prickle a seasoned warrior endured in the presence of an unseen foe.  Things were definitely moving somewhere, but because he was not in a position to do anything more about it Thranduil strove to put that shadow out of mind.  

As a robust woodland summer slowly faded into autumn, the King rode south with a militant party of chosen companions, all of them bristling with arms and armor as was simply the way in Mirkwood.  Several new villages were budding in their new southern borderlands, and he had come to witness their progress.  Foresters were clearing all the diseased vegetation, and establishing wide new roads in the deep places, a development that made military maneuver and general travel much more convenient, especially for the impractically grand warhorses Thranduil favored.  Wholesome animals were returning in great numbers, deer and elk and boar, and the trees were alive with the singing of birds and the chittering of squirrels.  Despite his deeper concerns, Thranduil was cheered to see it.  Those trees which had not been wholly corrupted by Sauron’s evil were grateful to be cleansed, and they quietly welcomed him back like old friends.  

“Here is Lorilothrín now,” Lord Anárion announced proudly as they rounded the bend and beheld the fortified settlement.  As the supreme commander of Mirkwood’s armies, second only to Thranduil himself, he had spearheaded the establishment of these courageous new outposts, populating them with his doughtiest soldiers and lieutenants.  

“They have been very diligent since last I visited,” Legolas observed from behind the vanguard.

“Indeed,” Tauriel agreed.  “There are clearly some talented gardeners within your army, my lords.”

Lorilothrín was pleasingly nestled into the wooded landscape, surrounded by a wooden palisade adorned with a rampant growth of the Queen’s yellow roses.  There were no children to greet the King’s arrival, simply because he had forbidden them to dwell there until the safety of the region had been confirmed.  Instead an honor guard of scouts and warriors had turned out in impeccable form, holding wide the gates and standing in formation along the center lane.

They saluted Thranduil in disciplined silence as the royal party passed, though they could not quite stifle their smiles.  The King allowed them the indulgence.  There was always a certain unpolished edge about the silvan Elves and their ways which he was disinclined to stamp out.  He led his escort directly to the grandest building in the village, doubtless the governor’s house, to meet with the commander of the local garrison.  

Before he could dismount, he was surprised to see a figure he had not expected.  Radagast the Brown emerged from the shadowed interior to stand beside the Elvish captain, raising his gnarled staff in greeting.  “Hail Thranduil!” the wizard called amiably.  “You are to be congratulated on your conquests, my lord.”

“It has been no great feat to reclaim the lands our enemy has abandoned,” Thranduil countered with a gracious smile, “but I will accept your puffery all the same.  What brings you north of the divide, my friend?”  

“I bear you grim tidings, I am afraid,” Radagast admitted, “and I crave your counsel.  Come down, if you will, and honor me with your company.”

Thranduil dismounted, his interest cautiously piqued.  He signaled his intentions to Commander Dorthaer, and then approached the captain of the outpost.  “Forgive us, Captain,” he said.  “Attend my companions while I hear what Master Radagast has come to say.”

“As you wish, my lord,” he agreed readily.  “We await your convenience.”

“Come.”  Thranduil beckoned the wizard to follow him through the hall and onto the porch on the opposite side.  “Are these grim tidings of a secretive nature, or will they be common knowledge soon enough?”

“The latter, I fear,” Radagast said.  He had always been more forthcoming than Mithrandir, honest and uncomplicated.  “News from the south is that the Dark Lord has indeed taken up his seat in Mordor once more.”

Thranduil’s pleasant expression vanished into something more cautious, but the development was not wholly unexpected.  It had only been a matter of time.  Sauron had fled Mirkwood a decade before; where else would he go?  

“Gwaihir and his Eagles have brought this to me, so I have no reason to doubt it.  He is still unable to enflesh himself, but his activities have resumed, his tower is rebuilt, and his orcs increase in number.  Gondor unfortunately is weak, and unable to challenge him.  No doubt he will bide his time until his armies are prepared.  We may yet have several years to prepare for war.”

“We are always prepared for war, Master Radagast,” Thranduil assured him, “even though Dol Guldur seems somewhat chastened these days.  Still, inquiries will be made, and we shall see if there is any way we can increase our efforts.”

“As for Dol Guldur,” Radagast continued, “it is not empty.  No fewer than three Nazgûl have been given charge of the place, but none of them are the dreaded Witchking.”

“I thought not,” Thranduil agreed.  He had discerned those three distinct presences some time ago, but had not been unduly troubled by them.  After training himself to withstand the spectral assaults of Sauron himself, the feeble attempts made by his creatures were child’s play.  Thranduil reflected grimly that he had been significantly strengthened by the Dark Lord’s long campaign of harassment.  Perhaps that was the mysterious providence of the Powers yet again, even the All-Father’s recurring pattern of bringing good out of evil intent.  Perhaps he had been strengthened for a reason.  Perhaps the reason was this new war.  

Thranduil realized his thoughts were wandering far afield, and Radagast’s keen eyes were peering at him from beneath his cowl.  “Have you anything else for me?” he asked.

“Not at present, no,” the wizard said.  “I rather hope you may soon have something for me.  The White Council may meet again to consider these developments, and it would be a great comfort to us to know how you propose to defend your wood.”

“Allow me to consult with my arms masters, and we may be able to oblige you,” Thranduil allowed.  “Thank you, Master Radagast.  You have given me a great deal to consider.”  

It was not an especially quiet night in Lorilothrín, but the stillness was disturbed only by the chorus of life teeming throughout the wood, and that was no bad thing.  

Legolas was sitting in the dark beside the guardhouse where the rest of their traveling party had been bedded.  He found sleep elusive in light of Radagast’s revelations.  A new thrill of restless urgency had swept through the ranks, despite the fact that their army was already thoroughly prepared.  Legolas was not the only one too chary to rest.  All around the central court he could see knots of soldiers and armorers, commanders and captains, all quietly deliberating how they might strengthen their defense beyond their current capabilities.  In the middle of the court, in a shaft of silver moonlight filtering down through the forest canopy, was the King.

Thranduil stood with his hands swept behind his back, his head tilted toward the stars, his eyes closed.  He was completely still, except when he occasionally drew and released a very deep breath.  Legolas watched him with pride and deep affection, seeing in his father the incarnation of the Galennath’s fighting spirit.  

It was not just a metaphor.  By uniting his spirit so deeply to the life of the wood, Thranduil had intimately insinuated himself into the very fabric of its existence.  The wood, in turn, had wholly embraced him as its guardian and protector, strengthening and magnifying his spirit beyond the limitations Thranduil’s own nature had intended.  He and the forest had molded one another into what they had become, and now they were almost inseparable.  Greenwood would be a fundamentally different place without Thranduil, and Thranduil would be sadly diminished without the vitality of Greenwood coursing through his veins.  Legolas indulged in a crooked smile, reflecting that if his father ever did relinquish the crown, Thranduil would simply have to be content to live as a legend of more natural proportions.  

That eventuality, however, seemed unlikely.  Thranduil would conquer or he would die, and considering the brutal realities of combat, he had already been unreasonably fortunate to have escaped the kiss of death for so long, even if occasionally only by a hairsbreadth.  With the prospect of another mighty clash with the primeval fiend and his bestial soldiers looming, Legolas knew it was almost fanciful to expect their warrior King to survive the tumult again, especially considering the way he conducted himself on the battlefield.  He knew it, their army knew it, and—more to the point—Legolas knew his father knew it.

He was wearing it now, that expression of cold resolve that had made him so dangerous, that had become so much easier to wear after their Queen had died.

A whisper of movement beside him made him turn, and Tauriel silently folded her legs beneath her in the grass.  “How is he, my lord?” she whispered.  

Legolas shrugged.  “No worse than he ever was,” he allowed, gauging his father’s mood at a distance.  “Perhaps better.  He is resigned,” he decided, “content in the knowledge that we have applied ourselves well.  As he always says, we shall do all we can, we can do no more.”

“I would do more.”  Tauriel shifted restlessly.  “I cannot say what, but I feel we must.  Something has changed.  Something has . . . opened.”

“Something is continuing,” Legolas corrected her, “something that began in the Elder Days and was meant to be put to rest three thousand years ago.  Sauron has merely taken up his position again, ready to advance his cause again in this endless war, a war which has been the ruin of many kings more renowned than ours.”

Tauriel sniffed indignantly, unwilling to compare Thranduil unfavorably to any king living or dead.  “He has not taken our wood yet,” she insisted, “and he is not the only one who waxes in power.  Every tree we cleanse strengthens our cause.”

“True.”  Legolas nodded toward the King, now aglow with more than just moonlight.  “He can feel it.”

“Can you, my lord?” Tauriel asked, her eyes gleaming in the darkness.  “You are his son.  Can you feel it as he does?”

In some vague and imperfect way, Legolas knew he could.  Thranduil included him in his regnant meditations from time to time, teaching him to feel the vast web of life as it existed all around them.  He was not the King, but as the King’s blood heir the wood did recognize him.  That would be important in the tragic event of the King’s death, a circumstance Legolas would prefer never to face.

He wondered if it was something he was capable of sharing with Tauriel.  She was gazing at Thranduil with more than just a soldier’s devotion, and Legolas felt she deserved the privilege.  

He lay his hand deliberately among the roots of the tree beside them, clearing his conscious thoughts and opening his mind to the movement of life in the forest.  He could see nothing with his waking eyes, but soon he was piercingly aware of the breathing of the trees for leagues in every direction, the canopy of living branches stretched out above them, the interconnected nets of roots beneath their feet coursing with what could almost be considered conscious feeling.  He almost perceived it as a light all its own.  It all swirled around them like the slowly spinning stars, emanating from and returning to Thranduil in vibrant concentric spirals, the nexus of the entire pulsing tapestry.  

Legolas extended his other hand to Tauriel, hoping to pull the veil aside for her at least once.  She seemed surprised by the invitation, but then eagerly accepted, sliding her calloused hand into his.  

Her eyes shone with unaffected delight as her perception widened and she beheld the King’s communion with the wood.  It was one thing to know that it happened, but quite another to see it, the ageless dance that governed the balance of their lives.  

Then the flow subtly changed as the outgoing streams reversed direction.  Thranduil was not just standing amid the current anymore, he was commanding it, drawing all power to himself.  Down from the branches, up from the ground, the trees acted as living conduits drawing from one another to pour the throbbing force of their life into the King.  Thranduil’s brow creased as the intensity built inside him, channeling it to his benefit as he had learned to do.  His breathing deepened as the weight of it became more difficult to contain, but still he allowed it to build until he had been transformed into a brilliant beacon of raw vitality for all who had eyes to see, a potent focal point for the slumbering might of Greenwood.  Still he reached deeper, until finally he came against a threshold of pain he seemed unwilling or unable to push beyond.  

Thranduil held himself in that excruciating moment as long as he could, impressing himself and his will into the very essence of the forest that had freely united itself to him.  His eyes were open now, seeing nothing and yet seeing everything at once.  He trembled with the exertion, and it seemed to Legolas and Tauriel that the whole wood trembled with him.  

Then he let go.  He did not project that power toward any purpose, but simply let it drain away with a sigh, back to the trees that had lent it to him.  

In the stillness of the night, it took Legolas a moment to remember that the whole drama had played itself out invisibly and in silence.  The other quiet groups present had not even paused in conversation.  

Thranduil lingered there for another long moment, then turned and strode pensively toward the guardhouses.  As he passed in and out of the dappled moonlight, they could see the glow as it slowly dissipated from his body.  “And what is keeping you two from sleep tonight,” he asked, “on the rare occasion that neither of you are on duty?”

“The same that keeps everyone else, my lord,” Legolas answered as he and Tauriel rose to their feet.  “It is difficult to find rest when it seems there may be so much work yet to be done.”

Thranduil’s smile was almost imperceptible, something that could be felt more than seen, and the light in his eyes was especially sharp.  “You are quite correct,” he said, “which is precisely why I would advise you to take what rest you can.  I will not be accepting excuses in the morning when I begin to delegate tasks.”

The next years were very productive ones in the Woodland Realm.  Everyone, whatever his profession, was encouraged to innovate and present novel ideas to the King to bolster their war effort.  The recent peace had given the whole population room to breathe for a time, and everyone applied himself to his tasks with fresh enthusiasm.  

The kennel masters continued cultivating the new line of hounds from the impressive beasts gifted to them by the Master of Esgaroth.  The original pair eventually aged and died, but they produced enough pureblooded offspring to spread throughout the population of Thranduil’s wolfish hounds.  Initial results were encouraging, producing wolves of heroic proportions, twice as tall at the shoulder as their predecessors, with stockier legs, huge paws, impressive tawny manes, and a crushing bite.  With any luck, they would be a worthy match for whatever Wargs Dol Guldur may be breeding.

Radagast continued to employ the sharp eyes of Lord Gwaihir and the great Eagles, who were the only ones able to stoop over Mordor and observe it with impunity.  Rumor grew of monstrous beasts nested in those dread mountains, spawned from the dark imagination of Sauron.  Attempting to anticipate every eventuality, Thranduil commissioned the creation of unusually heavy bows and equally overbuilt missiles, capable of piercing armor, flesh, and bone as necessary.  The draw on such weapons would be formidable, and the sooner they could begin training with them the better.

Fresh soldiers were admitted into the army at a younger age than previously.  Recent years had been good to the Galennath, and there were many half-grown boys in need of martial discipline.  Even if Sauron’s new assault was years distant, any soldier’s best defense was experience.  Thranduil took a personal interest in the newest ranks, following their progress closely.  It was one of the only effective ways he had found to quiet those festering concerns lingering on the fringes of his mind.  

Years passed without incident, and that invaluable time was spent to best advantage.  The wraiths in Dol Guldur made some attempt to disrupt their neighbors in the north, but the King’s borders were firmly established, and when they violated them he knew it.  They were repulsed without great difficulty and succeeded in only making a bloody nuisance of themselves.  They did, however, provide invaluable experience to the younger soldiers who were just learning to face the abominations of the Dark Lord.  It was imperative that they learn to master their fear at least as well as their bows and blades.  Thranduil often patrolled the southern border with them, inspiring hope and confidence while also strengthening their defenses.  

Those defenses were coming together nicely.

Thranduil stood downrange of his target, a massive boar carcass strapped into different kinds of armor at different points.  In his hands he held a true masterpiece of a bow, an elegant recurve painstakingly laminated together out of many layers of wood and horn and sinew, strung with a plaited cord of his own hair.  It was built to royal proportions, and required such strength to wield it that it would be little use to any of his silvan soldiers.  He was eager to try his luck with it.  

“Here are the shafts we devised,” Anglos said, presenting him with an assortment of arrows.  There were heads of different sizes and shapes for different purposes.  None of them was especially novel, but they were each as overbuilt as the bow, heavy shafts with robust fletching.  “Each of the heads has been steeled so that it may be as effective as possible.”

Thranduil raised an eyebrow at him.  Metallurgy was not among his personal disciplines.

“They are returned to the heat for a time after they are forged,” Anglos explained.  “The process hardens the edges.”

“I see.”  First, Thranduil selected a shaft with a long, thin point with no barbs, like a small javelin.  He nocked it to the string, set his elbow and pulled his shoulder back.  The weight of the draw was considerable, even for him.  He selected a section of layered leather armor beneath Orc’s mail, and let the bolt fly.  It punched through without difficulty, burying itself up to the fletching.  

Pleased with that result, Thranduil chose a different one, a heavy flat head with close-swept barbs.  He took aim, and loosed again.  It easily severed the boar’s spine.

A third variety was especially intriguing.  Tipped with a thick squared point with four sharp ridges, it was meant specifically for defeating plate armor.  It had been an elusive goal, and they were usually obliged to shoot for weak points.  A heavier missile might be more successful.  Thranduil boldly angled toward the center of an orkish breastplate, and let fly.

That arrow was foiled, rebounding so violently that the shaft splintered.  Unwilling to accept that result, Thranduil loosed a second, and a third.  The last finally stuck into the scored armor, the head at least achieving some damage.  It would not be a fatal wound, but certainly a bothersome one.  Still, it was unlikely that his enemy would be so kind as to allow him three attempts at the same point.

“Very impressive overall,” he commended the smith.  “Let us see if we can continue to improve their performance.”

“Yes, sire.”  

Thranduil amused himself by practicing his aim with the remaining arrows.  The bow was a wonder, immensely powerful, and quickly becoming one of his favorite weapons, although he knew he would be feeling the strain in his shoulder in the morning.  

“My lord,” Guardsman Bregonsúl ventured, appearing at his elbow, “a guest has arrived bearing salutations from Lord Elrond and the Dúnedain of Arnor.”

“Indeed?”  That was intriguing.  Thranduil loosed the last arrow in hand, satisfied by its solid entry into the target.  Then he turned to receive his mysterious guest.

He was a young man, tall and lean, dark, and with the piercing gray eyes common to all true Dúnedain.  He had a natural nobility about him despite his rough clothing and the grime he had accumulated in the wilds.  Thranduil had some suspicion of his identity, but he would not deprive his guest of his own introduction.  “Well met and welcome to my dominions, son of Arnor,” he said instead.  “The Dúnedain of the North have always been esteemed by the Galennath.”

“I thank you, Aran Oropherion,” the young man replied, offering the bow to which Thranduil was entitled.  Had the Kingdom of Arnor still been standing, he would have owed only a slight nod of the head.  “Lord Elrond assured me of your steadfast support, and it was he and Mithrandir who bade me make myself known to you.”

Thranduil allowed a tolerantly intrigued expression to pass his features.  The boy certainly came with excellent references, and his Sindarin was impeccable.

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chief of the Rangers of the North,” he said.  “Lord Elrond sheltered me in Imladris until I came of age.  Now I am journeying through this world to learn what I can of it.  It has pleased me very much to see that the foul shadows of Mirkwood seem to be in retreat.”

Just as he had suspected.  Still, Thranduil was not habitually introduced in such a formal manner to every chief of the Dúnedain.  He could see that Elrond was already pinning some special hopes on young Aragorn, and if Thranduil’s initial impressions of the Man were accurate, he could not fault him for it.  It was yet another unsettling reminder of how events seemed to be grinding inexorably toward some upheaval or other.  

“Yes, Lord Aragorn,” he said, accepting the mild compliment, “Mirkwood continues to shrink before us.  We have every hope the trend will continue.  Now,” he continued, returning his bow to the weapons master and inviting Aragorn by a light touch on the shoulder to walk with him, “I am pleased that you have come to us, because I would know you better.  I heard rumor that Lord Elrond had a royal ward in his care, but obviously he had no wish to draw attention to your presence.”  

“He went to great pains to keep it quiet, my lord,” Aragorn agreed with a slight smile.  “He did not even tell me until my twenty-first year when he presented me with my heirlooms.”

Thranduil smiled as well.  “I imagine that was a more significant gift than you expected on the occasion.”  He glanced at Aragorn’s scabbard and recognized a familiar crossguard and pommel, back like a gleaming fragment of a nightmare.  “That, I assume, is the great blade itself.”

“It is,” Aragorn confirmed, his hand drifting to the grip.  He still seemed in awe of the relic.  “What remains of it.  I would very much like to see it reforged, restored to its former glory.”

Thranduil fixed his apprehensive expression on the emptiness ahead of them.  “I would not be so eager to see that yet, my young ranger.  The day that blade is reforged will herald a host of other cataclysms we are not quite prepared to meet.  Patience, for all our sakes.”

Aragorn ventured only a chastened smile.  “As you say, my lord.”

“How long do you intend to remain among us, Aragorn?” Thranduil asked pleasantly, changing the subject to more immediate concerns.  “You are, of course, welcome to say as long as you like, but I imagine you have other duties which call you elsewhere.”

“My duties at present are simply to acclimate myself as thoroughly as possible to the world beyond Imladris,” Aragorn explained.  “I may stay through the summer, or until you believe you have no more to teach me, my lord.”

Thranduil smiled, appreciating the young Man’s humility.  Not yet thirty, Aragorn could not have experienced much of life in the wide world, especially after living such a comfortably sheltered childhood.  His willingness to learn was commendable, and Thranduil suspected he would catch on quickly.  “I am certain we can provide many enriching experiences for you here,” he promised.  He looked up and saw a patrol returning with impeccable timing.  “Ah.  Legolas!  Come and greet a fellow prince of this world.”

Legolas came as he was bidden, still bearing all his arms and armor, his cheer undimmed by the filth clinging to him after several days in the dark places.  He offered his father a bow, and their guest a nod.

“My son, Legolas, Prince of Eryn Galen, Commander of the Forest Guard,” Thranduil said.  “I am pleased to present Aragorn, lately of Imladris, the heir of Númenor in Eriador.”

Legolas’ eyes brightened with new interest, and he warmly extended his hand, one prince to another.  “One of our distant kinsmen, I see.  Welcome, Aragorn, to the most violent woodland in Middle-earth.  Whatever else your stay may be, I trust it will not be uneventful.”

“I certainly do not expect it to be so,” Aragorn agreed, grasping Legolas’ hand with a strength and bearing that presaged a great man.  “I am eager to see whether the long battle beneath the trees of Mirkwood merits the renown it enjoys in Lord Elrond’s halls.”

It seemed they may add considerate flattery to the Dúnadan’s many talents.  Elrond had indeed prepared him well.

“I pray there is no more renown to be had today,” Thranduil said, the westering sun casting the forest in a fiery light.  “Go prepare yourselves for supper, both of you.  Legolas, see that our guest is properly attended, and I would be pleased to see you both at my table tonight.”

“Yes, my lord.”  Legolas’ deliberate nod indicated that he had caught Thranduil’s subtle emphasis, and understood that Aragorn was to be admitted to the royal baths, a courtesy not extended to everyone.  It would have been indelicate to suggest that Aragorn’s acceptance of that courtesy was a firm expectation, but Thranduil was confident the extravagance of the offer would make refusal impossible.  

They were reunited over supper as planned.  Aragorn had been transformed now that he was clean and wearing some of Legolas’ clothes.  He moved in Elvish society with ease, a testament to his upbringing.  They sat down together around the large but low table where the King took his more intimate meals, all of them seated on oversized cushions rather than chairs.  They made do with very few attendants, making the occasion as comfortable and informal as possible.  

“I trust Lord Elrond is well,” Thranduil began.  News still traveled slowly and intermittently in that part of the world.  

“Very well, my lord,” Aragorn confirmed.  “Although he is preoccupied by the state of Middle-earth and the beginning of my sojourn in it.”

“As anyone would be,” Thranduil allowed, stabbing his fork into an excellent cut of venison.  “You have proven very interesting to me already.  There is an air of bald-faced ambition about you, Dúnadan, that I find very encouraging, because your purpose is almost entirely selfless.  You are a walking contradiction.”

Aragorn smiled and lifted his cup appreciatively.  “I shall accept that as a compliment, if I may, my lord.”

“You may.”  Thranduil continued to appraise his guest as those few discreet servants circulated the different dishes.  He was still forming his opinion of him, but on the whole young Aragorn gave a distinctly favorable impression.  “Where do you intend to take yourself when you have finished here?”

“It is my hope to continue south, Rohan and Gondor, to see the lands of my forebears for myself.  Lord Elrond thought it would be wise for me to spend some time among the people there.”

“Indeed.  Is this a custom observed by other lords of the Dúnedain, or particular advice for you alone?”

“It is not common practice, no.”

“I see.”  Thranduil leveled a knowing look at the young Ranger, who seemed to recognize the trajectory of the Elvenking’s questions.  “I will ask you directly and spare us all a great deal of polite and pointless dithering,” he said.  “Is it your intention to one day claim the throne of Gondor?”  The interregnum in that country had become an institution in its own right, a feature of Gondorian life for almost a thousand years.  Ending it peaceably would be no small feat.  

Aragorn looked a bit abashed by the blunt question, as though it were a subtle indictment of his youth and inexperience, but his pride and enthusiasm were plain nonetheless.  “One day, yes,” he confirmed.  “It will not be this day, nor indeed any day soon, but I would see the realm of Elendil and his sons restored.  I owe it to one that I love.”

Thranduil arched an eyebrow, and he and Legolas shared a reflexive glance.  Love was involved already, and that always made things more interesting.  But that was none of their business.  

“It is to that end that I would ask your advice, my lord,” Aragorn continued, looking up from his food with a quiet eagerness that betrayed not only his devotion to the dream, but also his determination to prepare himself properly for his part.

Thranduil was flattered, but bemused by the request.  “Lord Elrond has not already advised you?”

“He is not a king.”

Thranduil scoffed gently, dismissing the distinction.  “But he is an admirable and experienced lord, certainly.  Our rank differs not so much in kind as in breadth.”

“Perhaps,” Aragorn allowed.  “He has advised me, but I would also hear what you would say, my lord.  It is true that I am very young, and I would be a fool to neglect the counsel of a king who was alive in the world before Númenor rose from the Sea.  If I may be so bold as to ask, what would you tell me now as I set my feet on this path?  What have the years taught you?”

Such humility and willingness to learn spoke very well of Aragorn’s disposition, and revealed a self-awareness that would serve both him and the people of Gondor well in the future.  Thranduil took his time considering his answer, letting the wine roll over his tongue as he distilled centuries of experience into a few foundational points.  Their origins were not so dissimilar as they may appear.  They had both been raised without royal aspirations until circumstances thrust them into a much larger world.  Amid all that upheaval, as their fortunes rose and fell, there was a constancy that had proven invaluable.

“My advice,” Thranduil decided, “would be to try your hand at everything before you consider claiming a crown and its attendant duties.  Master every skill you can while you have the freedom to do so.  Those you cannot master, entrust to worthy friends.  Find those friends now, before you come into your estate, when it is easier to judge their hearts.  My dearest and most valuable friends are still those who endured the worst times with me and persevered until the end.  Linhir is my administrator, Anárion my lieutenant, Galadhmir my support, Gwaelin my loremaster, Noruvion my physician and general miracle-worker.  The strength behind the throne of Oropher is not one man, but a family.”  He smiled, appreciating that reality with fresh awareness, though he had never forgotten it.  “You have been given time, Aragorn, perhaps the greatest gift of all.  Lay a strong foundation, and you may yet be a great king.”

The next month passed in the blink of an eye, hardly different from any other late summer in the Wood.  The struggle continued as the expanding influence of the Galennath crept down from the north, pushing back the noxious shadows of Dol Guldur in a slow but very deliberate campaign of reconquest.  Thranduil was adamant that they take no more than they could occupy, wanting to avoid wasting effort on cleansing a territory too large for them to hold.  

Legolas took young Aragorn under his wing and integrated him into many of the most dangerous patrols.  Dol Guldur seemed to have found its courage again now that its dark master had formally reestablished himself in Mordor, but Sauron’s influence was too far removed to empower his servants as he once had, and the creatures who tried Thranduil’s borders found them well established and fiercely defended.  The lines were holding and the experience only served to strengthen the army.

More attuned to the life of his realm than ever before, trained in the crucible of Mirkwood’s darkest days, and now uninhibited by any greater power, Thranduil had only to listen to the whispering of the trees and the chatter of the birds to know what was happening in every corner of their territory.  The goshawk population had become almost an additional wing of his army, coaxed by him and Radagast into serving as very efficient couriers between the King and his soldiers, messages literally flying back and forth from the capital to the scouts.  Their speed and Thranduil’s prescience made it increasingly difficult for their enemies to mount any kind of surprise attack.  Despite the violence, morale was high.  Privately, Thranduil wondered whether his enemies would tolerate the continued rebuff or reorganize their efforts into a concentrated attack.  There was an itch growing in the back of his mind, an intuition he had learned to trust.  

Restless in his capital, the King rode out to join the defenders at the border.  He brought Lord Galadhmir with him, and was pleased to see Legolas and Tauriel again, reuniting their fractured but chosen family in the violent pastimes that seemed to dictate the rhythm of their lives.  Aragorn had once again conformed perfectly to his surroundings, clearly just as comfortable in the wilds as in a banquet hall.  Thranduil had expected no less, considering the legendary woodcraft of the Rangers.  

Night fell without incident.  Sitting on a stone beside the campfire, Thranduil let his eyes fall closed to augment his other senses, consciously joining himself to the life of the forest.  It strengthened and magnified his presence for those with the ability to perceive it, even as he surrendered himself to its currents.  They were one, the Wood and the King, a subtle but significant power forged by ordeal and steeled as one of the smiths’ arrows by the repeated attempts to destroy it.  

Mordor lay well beyond his sight, but Thranduil trained his thought in that direction anyway.  He was dimly aware of Sauron brooding at the summit of his dark tower, that monstrosity Barad-dûr that Thranduil had once helped to throw down.  All Mordor was rising again, rebuilt as though to negate all the victories of the past age, a mockery of the people who dwelt in Middle-earth by a Dark Lord who would not be destroyed.  But not everything was the same.  The Lord of the Black Land had not yet recovered that bitter laughter that had once come so easily to him, and Thranduil refused to look away.

As well acquainted as they were, Thranduil knew Sauron was aware of him, resolutely ignoring him as a foe beneath his contempt, but unable to dismiss him.  It was an intriguing shift in the state of play.  Thranduil’s persistence had become his hallmark, and now he would force Sauron to look and see what he had become.  

He was supposed to dead, and he was not.  He was supposed to be unnerved, and he was not.  He was supposed to be weakened, diminished, powerless, but he was not.  He was quite the opposite, more alive, more resolute, and more empowered than ever before.

See, Thranduil said, his voice rumbling silently through the life of the trees.  See!  I am what you made me.

YOU ARE NOTHING, came the irate reply, aimed into the forest like a barb, its sting dissipated by the trees, MORIQUENDE, LORD OF SKULKING AVAMANYAR, NOTHING TO THE GREAT ELDARIN KINGS OF OLD WHO FELL BEFORE ME.  YOU ARE NOT WORTHY TO CHALLENGE ME.

I do not pretend to be, Thranduil persisted, refusing to be cowed, and indeed deeply gratified that he had provoked a response.  And yet I stand, and you have fled.

Sauron growled into the vast emptiness between their realms, his frustration growing into an impotent roar as a smile crept across Thranduil’s face.  The Dark Lord could roar all he liked, but he could not make him stand down.  It was far too late for that.

Then he felt it, a corrosive darkness and a familiar revulsion rippling from the living things in the forest ahead of them.  The dread denizens of Dol Guldur must be personally abroad again, driven to rash action, wreaking whatever havoc they could.  Thranduil opened his eyes, consenting to meet the challenge.  It would prove a valuable experience for their guest.

“Dorthaer,” he said, alerting the commander of his guard hovering at his back, “sound the alarm and give orders for the rearmost rank to fall back to the defense of the Woodmen.  They are coming.”

Dorthaer didn’t hesitate, blowing a blast on his horn that immediately stirred the rest of the camp.  Thranduil caught young Aragorn by the arm as he and Legolas rushed to their posts.

“What has happened, my lord?” the Ranger asked.

“Our enemy presumes to penetrate our defenses,” Thranduil explained.  “Tell me, son of Arathorn, have you ever encountered the Nazgûl?”

Aragorn blinked.  “Not in the flesh, my lord, though I have heard tell of them.”

“Whether they have flesh or not is a matter capable of question,” Thranduil said.  “I have reason to believe there are at least two roaming wild in my dominions, and I would be honored if you would join me in repulsing them.  Follow me.  We ride at once.”  

Swinging astride his charger, Thranduil led the rearguard along the open road toward the nearest village.  Given the choice between throwing themselves against a hardened force of Elves or a cluster of slumbering Woodmen and their families, he suspected which the invaders would assault first.  It was his intention to meet them with a rude surprise instead.

The heralds continued sounding the alarm call as they rode, rousing everyone to arms.  Lights were kindled in the village in those few precious seconds before the first wave of orcs threw themselves against its defenses.  Thranduil’s column of horsemen slammed through the side of the enemy charge just as they reached the walls, breaking the momentum of the assault and throwing the orcs into confusion.  A close and vicious battle was joined, a confused churning of Men, Elves, orcs, and horses in the gloom.

Then the bone-chilling shriek of the Nazgûl split the night, and every man, woman, and child screamed at once.  Two wraiths charged into the village on their grim black horses as if to claim it, quailing the defenders with their unearthly cries.  Thranduil ceded the courtyard to them in a strategic retreat, aware that Aragorn had been brutally unhorsed at the edge of the wood and was just regaining his feet.  

“Dúnadan!” he called, pulling his stallion to a heavy stop beside him and leaping out of the saddle.  “If you would be king, prove yourself now!”  Thranduil seized the young man by the hand and all but threw him onto his own horse.  “Swords and shafts are no use against them, and they can poison you with their breath, but whatever else they may be, they are cowards who still feel pain.”  He grabbed a flaming torch from the nearest sconce and thrust it into Aragorn’s hand.  “Set them alight!  I will unhorse them.”

Rallying himself, Aragorn charged back into the battle as Thranduil pulled his great bow off his back.  One moment to aim, and one of the black horses collapsed with the oversized fletching of Thranduil’s arrow protruding from its chest.  A second draw, and the second mount fell as well.  The young Ranger bore down on them with new confidence, brandishing the torch.  Foaming with fear, the Elvish charger danced around the long swords as Aragorn thrust the fire against one wraith and then the other.  Shrieks of rage became agonized howls as their dark robes roared into flame, and they fled, garish beacons in the night as their visible vesture was consumed.

More Elves were arriving, inevitably tipping the battle into a rout.  The surviving orcs abandoned the village and fled south as their lords had done.  Stray fires were stamped out, the wounded were recovered, and the dead were sorted.  It was a weary routine, familiar to everyone in that volatile region.

The master of the village limped out to meet Thranduil amid the mess in the courtyard.  He was crippled by an old wound, but he offered the best bow he could manage.  “Thank you, my lord, for your timely assistance,” he said.  

Thranduil clasped the old man’s wrist, both steadying him and meeting him as a fellow warrior.  “It is fortunate we were near enough to repulse them before they could do greater damage,” he said.  “Some of my soldiers will remain to see your homes repaired as soon as possible.”  

Aragorn was prodding the dead horses and their gear with the toe of his boot.  Thranduil pulled him back.  “I would not touch such accursed things more than you must,” he warned.  “Sauron and his servants are masters of spite, and it would not surprise me if they had devised a way to poison you with their corpses.”  

The young man regarded the wrecks with greater caution, appreciative of the warning.  “Those cries can freeze the heart of a man,” he observed.  “Without your direction, my lord, I would not have known how to engage them.”

“The knowledge was hard won,” Thranduil confessed, “but I gladly pass it on.  We have only three to trouble us here.  The day may come when you must contend with the other six, and the experience will do you good.”

It was almost a certainty now.  Sauron had set those appalling wheels turning again, and he suspected it would require the combined effort of all the good people of Middle-earth to stop them.

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