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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Those Who Wander III

The late summer sun shone through the forest canopy, filtering down into the undergrowth in slanting golden shafts.   As the King and his companions rode the familiar length of the Elvish road which connected the eastern border of Mirkwood with the western one, Thranduil reflected that it seemed inappropriate to call that region Mirkwood any longer.  Perhaps it was unnecessary for him to personally reinforce his command of it as often as he had before, but as his horse covered the distance at a powerful gliding trot, he reflected that it was one of the most pleasant duties on his schedule.  

Choosing to maintain close control of the traffic through the wood, Thranduil had neglected to clear the badly overgrown Dwarf road of centuries past, forcing all travelers to pass through the deepest reaches of his domain and declare their purpose.  In return, he saw that the road was well maintained, wide and clear with guards posted at distant intervals.  Everything was green and thriving now, a far cry from the dark and stifling footpath it had once been.  The enchanted river was still a danger, but the bridge had been very carefully rebuilt, and was guarded at all times.  

Thranduil had brought Lord Anárion with him, and also Lord Galadhmir, hardly pretending the excursion was anything more than the pleasure ride it was.  Lord Linhir would not be pried away from his duties, convinced the management of the kingdom would collapse in his absence.  Six of the King’s Guard made up the rest of their party, bringing up the rear.  The ruling Oropherionnath were so deeply entrenched in their roles that it was not possible to forget them entirely, but riding side by side—or at least with Galadhmir and Anárion maintaining their places a decorous shoulder’s length behind the King—it was just possible to glimpse those early years they had spent together beside the Sea, chosen brothers in an uncertain new world.

Pleased with his present company, and deeply gratified by the restored beauty of the wood around them, Thranduil surrendered to the irresistible impulse to bend low over the saddle and goad his mount into a gallop.  That warm green smell was in the air, and they were very near the western gate.  The others kept pace with him, racing through the dappled sun and shadow until at last they sped away from the treeline into the waving grasses of the valley beyond, framed by the jagged peaks of the Misty Mountains.  

Thranduil gradually slowed, appreciating the breathtaking beauty of the vast landscape, letting the free wind break across his face.  Anárion and Galadhmir drew up beside him, resting their panting horses.

“Sometimes it can be easy to forget the rest of the world,” Anárion observed, taking in the view.

“All too easy,” Thranduil agreed.  The ebb and flow of their fortunes in Greenwood occupied so much of their lives that they had little time to consider the larger expanse of Middle-earth.  He was silent for a moment, allowing his perspective to slowly correct itself.  It was no bad thing to feel small now and again.  It reminded one of his place in the larger drama.

“Unless my eyes deceive me,” Galadhmir said, drawing their attention to movement deep in the valley, “we will soon be honored by a familiar guest.”

Following Galadhmir’s line of sight, Thranduil saw a lone horseman ascending the rise toward them, a horseman wearing rough robes and a very distinctive hat.  He shared a knowing look with his friends.  “We might as well welcome him,” he said, spurring forward again.  

They galloped into the valley to intercept the familiar traveler, riding playful circles around him as they shed speed.  Thranduil’s stallion shook his mane and bellowed a challenge to the newcomer, and the other rose to the occasion with a squeal and a threatening leap forward.

“Whoa!” Gandalf protested, tightening the reins and grabbing hold of his hat.  “Stop cavorting around me like a pack of idiots, and we may yet avoid coming to blows!  Or might I expect no better from savages like you?”

“Mithrandir is in a black mood today,” Thranduil observed, continuing to ride his circle until he fell into place beside the wizard, headed back toward the gate of the wood.  His companions followed.  “Have the roads been unkind?”

“Just long,” Gandalf said with a huff, continuing forward at the same steady pace as before.  “The goblins are still behaving themselves, I am pleased to say.  May I expect a peaceful journey through Mirkwood, or have you been neglecting your duties?”

“You will find the road quite serviceable,” Thranduil assured him, as usual tolerating more insolence from Gandalf than he would from anyone else, “and you will have the King and his lords for an escort, if you wish.  What brings you beyond the mountains this time?”

“Pleasant work for a change,” Gandalf explained, almost smiling.  “I have been invited to a party, and I have something of a reputation to maintain among the Shirefolk, so I am taking myself to Erebor for the best fireworks the Dwarves can give me.”

“Fireworks?”  Thranduil tried to imagine the quiet inhabitants of Hobbiton as Bilbo had described them, and he would not have expected them to enjoy colorful explosions raining cinders on their manicured homes.  

“Yes, fireworks,” Gandalf insisted.  “There’s a spark of adventure in most hobbits, if you can reach it beneath all the good living and fussy manners.  This will be quite an extraordinary occasion, so only the most magnificent display will do.  Our dear Bilbo will be one hundred and eleven years old in the autumn.”

“I am very pleased to hear he is still alive,” Thranduil confessed.  “Is such longevity natural to hobbits?”

Gandalf muttered equivocally behind his beard.  “It is a bit unusual, perhaps,” he allowed.  He turned a quick but very pointed look at Thranduil.  “There may be other forces at play.”

Thranduil sobered immediately, remembering that Bilbo allegedly had a Ring of Power in his keeping.  He had briefly allowed himself to forget that.  “I trust you have not neglected him in the intervening years,” he said, concealing a much sharper question beneath the words.  

“I have kept a close eye, as I said I would,” Gandalf insisted, understanding him perfectly.  “You look to your business, Oropherion, and leave me to mine.”

“I would,” Thranduil said, “if the two did not so often intersect.  But I will leave this conundrum to you, since I have neither the experience nor the power to manage it.”  He turned the conversation slightly, not wishing to dwell on problems that were beyond his control.  “You must allow us to send a gift with you, along with our best wishes.”

Gandalf chuckled.  “It is actually the custom of hobbits to give gifts on their birthdays rather than the other way around.”

Thranduil drew himself up with mock indignation.  “Then you will inform Master Baggins that I have become accustomed to working my will over the last few thousand years, and that I expect him to allow me the indulgence.”

The wizard merely sucked his teeth and shook his head.  “Stubborn and headstrong as ever,” he muttered, “always going your own way despite all sound advice.”

Thranduil scoffed, remembering how effortlessly the wizard always seemed to maneuver him exactly where he wanted him.  “That bears no resemblance to your own experience of me, I am quite certain.”

They escorted Gandalf through the wood as far as the palace, where he was content to stay for a day, recovering his strength before he continued to Dale.  Thranduil sent him on with some fine wine for Bilbo, along with a jeweled cloak pin fashioned from a giant spider’s sting.  It would certainly be a conversation piece, if nothing else.  

Thranduil was left with many fanciful imaginings of what a wealthy hobbit’s birthday party illumined by a wizard’s fireworks would look like.  Unfortunately he had far too many duties of his own to consider slipping away to see it for himself.  There were some days when he envied Gandalf’s rootless existence, but never for long.  

“What news from Bain?” he asked Linhir, as he finally spent some time at his neglected writing desk, plowing through the correspondence that demanded his attention before riding out into the wood again.  

“Nothing directly from the King of Dale, my lord,” Linhir explained.  “Prince Brand seems to be managing his affairs of late, and he writes to inform us that his lord father’s health is failing.”

Thranduil frowned.  It seemed not so long ago that King Bard’s health was failing, though a quick calculation reminded him that Bard had died almost thirty years ago, not an insignificant passage of time for mortal kind.  “Very well,” he said.  “What other news from Prince Brand?”  

“Nothing noteworthy,” Linhir assured him.  “At least, nothing worth detaining you today.”

“What of Esgaroth?”

Guardsman Baroval left his post at the door and entered the chamber, interrupting the proceedings.  “Aglarín Neldorínion and his companions request an audience with the King.”

“Esgaroth will keep,” Linhir muttered, closing his book.  The King’s quiet interest in that young man was no secret.  “Shall I admit them?”

Thranduil nodded, and Linhir signaled to Baroval.  

Young Aglarín entered the room, carrying himself more like a veteran commander than an adolescent two decades shy of his majority.  The son of a fallen Guardsman, he had not allowed the loss to demoralize him, but instead he had embraced his father’s legacy with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession.  With him came eight other boys who had been drawn into his circle, among whom Thranduil recognized the sons of at least four other Guardsmen, all of them deferring to Aglarín despite the fact that he was not the eldest among them.  Together they had formed an unofficial company aspiring to service in the King’s Guard, and now it seemed they had some formal request to make.  Thranduil did them the courtesy of standing to receive them.  

“My lord,” Aglarín began, as he and all his companions dropped to one knee, their fists over their hearts in a soldier’s salute, “we have trained for many years, and have come to request an assignment in your army.  We are all prepared to serve you, either by life or death.”

Thranduil sighed, but not too obviously.  It was always concerning when the young prematurely lost their sense of levity.  He remembered when it had happened to him.  Life in Mirkwood was a slow kind of burn compared to the ruin of Doriath, but it could still scar hearts and spoil childhoods.  They were not yet so desperate for soldiers that they needed to press boys into the ranks.  “Your death will be no service to me, Aglarín,” he said, “if you meet it carelessly or without need.”

“With your pardon, my lord, we do not make this request carelessly,” Aglarín insisted, “nor, I think, without need.  If you will try us, you will find us worthy of your colors, and equal any challenge in battle.”

Thranduil lifted a brow.  “Do you, who have not lived one century in this world, presume to explain our war to me?” he asked.  

Aglarín bowed his head again.  “It was not my intention to so presume, my lord,” he said, “but we are wasted here.  Let us prove ourselves and earn our place.”

Thranduil was torn, starkly reminded of when Tauriel had made the same request.  He tried to remember what it was to be young, to always feel as old, as wise, and as prepared as one could possibly imagine.  He could sympathize with their impatience, and they had been putting in a great deal of work for a very long time.  Even Commander Dorthaer had noticed.  Perhaps they had earned a chance to impress him.

“So be it,” he said, surprising most of them.  “You have shown extraordinary initiative, and I will reward it by conditionally granting your request.  You will not be assigned to the army, but you may occasionally accompany me on campaign to see if you are truly as competent as you fancy yourselves.  The rest of your time will be spent continuing your instruction beneath whomever I shall assign to you.  Understood?”

All of them answered in a stuttering jumble after a moment of stunned silence.  “Yes, my lord!”

“Does your company have a name?” he asked.

Aglarín opened his mouth, and then shut it again.  “None worthy of mention, my lord,” he said.

It must have been something juvenile, Thranduil assumed, something these young warriors did not want following them into adulthood.  “Very well.  As you are all aspiring to a place among the King’s Guard and will be serving alongside them, you will be the King’s Auxiliaries.  Expectations will be high, and discipline swift.  Agreed?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“On your feet.  Give your names to Lord Linhir, inform your guardians, and report to the stables as soon as you can.  I was meant to ride within the hour, but I will only wait until dusk.”

The new recruits quickly queued in front of Linhir to be added to the roster, then one by one bowed to the King and took their leave as though the soles of their boots were on fire.  Thranduil glanced over the list when they had gone.  

“Inform Dorthaer that Lancaeron, Bregonsúl, and Ascaron are to be removed from my escort this time,” he said.  “We will never teach the young ones independence with their fathers hanging over them.”  

When Thranduil arrived in the stables, armed and armored and ready to ride, he was pleased to find his entire company assembled in good order.  The fresh young faces were a stark contrast beside the grim veterans, outnumbering them three to one.  Guardsman Tavoron in particular seemed quietly displeased with the arrangement, a surly tilt to his expression.  Thranduil paused in front of him, staring him down until that surly air disappeared.  Then they all took their horses in hand and swung astride.

They rode directly along the southern road in the deepening night, heading directly for the most violent border region.  Thranduil would not ordinarily have exposed raw recruits to the worst Mirkwood had yet to offer, especially ones so young, but these had set high standards for themselves, and he wanted to know immediately who had the mettle and who did not.  Whatever their aspirations, they had lived sheltered lives in the shadow of the Elvenking’s palace by design, and if they wanted to be soldiers it was high time they were introduced to the taste of violence and death.  

Dawn was breaking when they arrived at the fortified camp.  The defenders had obviously just repelled some insolent trouble or other; casualties were not heavy, but there were wounded and there were dead lying in rows, and the air smelled of blood.  

“Captain Tauriel!” Thranduil bellowed over the clearing.  “Who has had the audacity to make this mess?”

“Just a pack of orcs, my lord,” Tauriel explained, appearing in the early morning light.  “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I have brought you some fresh blood in want of experience,” Thranduil said, indicating the younger members of his party as they all dismounted.  “See each of them assigned to a senior soldier so they can learn the way of things.”

Tauriel appraised her new wards with cautious optimism.  “With pleasure, my lord.”

The day was spent quietly, repairing the defenses, attending the wounded, burying the dead.  Thranduil rode along the border, inspecting the fortifications for several leagues westward until he met with Legolas’ company.  All was quiet now, especially with the King himself abroad, so Thranduil returned to Tauriel’s camp, arriving not long after sunset. 

“How have they performed?” he asked as they walked together through the firelit gloom.  

“Admirably, my lord,” Tauriel assured him.  “They certainly do not lack courage, nor the will to succeed.  Although, I would have thought some of them much too young to serve in this capacity.”

“And I would have agreed with you,” Thranduil said, “but they have asked to be held to a higher standard.  I can recall you begging an assignment from me against all sound advice, and you have not given me cause to regret it.”

Tauriel looked demurely away.  “I should hope not, my lord.”

“I may soon recall you to supervise their instruction for a time.  You understand better than many how to make the most of your talents despite not being the largest or the strongest.”

“Yes, my lord.”  There was a note of discontent in her voice despite her attempts to mask it. 

Thranduil turned toward her with a paternal smile.  “Do not forget that I recalled Legolas to do much the same for you,” he said.  “I fear the orcs will always be with us, but I need your help to mold the next generation.”

Tauriel sighed, but ceded the point.  “Very well, my lord.  I could never refuse you.”

As he often did, Thranduil felt a swell of affection for her, but once again he stopped himself from touching her as he would a daughter.  There were lines that must not be crossed, whatever his feelings.  

He broke away to join Aglarín as he stood the night watch.  There were shadows behind the boy’s eyes that had not been there yesterday, but he seemed to have lost none of his determination.  “The watch is not a glamorous assignment,” Thanduil commented, standing beside him on the rise overlooking the camp, “but an invaluable one.  How did you find your first day in the field?”

“Enlightening, my lord,” Aglarín said, although his flat tone left no doubt that it had been a sobering experience.  

Thranduil had the impression that there was a great tangle of thoughts in that young mind struggling to express themselves.  He did not intrude, simply stood the watch with him and waited for the inevitable questions.  

“Why do we stay here, my lord?” Aglarín finally asked.  “Why do you stay here?  If all elvenkind are permitted to sail into the immortal paradise, as you say, then why suffer this life?”

It was not an unreasonable question.  “I suppose,” Thranduil decided, “those of us who may leave do not because we recognize a duty to defend those who could not otherwise defend themselves, those who may not have the means or the inclination to leave.  Mirkwood may not be the most hospitable place to live, but it would be much worse without us here to hold back the darkness.  We will play our part, perhaps to the death, and then we will have earned our peace.”  He turned to Aglarín then, as the boy stood scowling into the night.  “As your father did.”

Aglarín’s shoulders fell slightly, but then he straightened them again, staring resolutely ahead.  “I will strive to be an honor to his memory, my lord.”

Thranduil sighed, the audible expression of a frown.  “Commendable, to be sure,” he said, remembering many lessons he had learned long ago when responsibility had been thrust upon him, “but you cannot live your life overshadowed by your father’s memory.  The Neldorín I knew would grieve if he thought his death had robbed his son of all joy.  He died so that we could be here now, and to truly honor him we must not forget to truly live.”

He did not expect an answer, and instead was carried away by his own thoughts.  That obligation cut both ways in his case, he realized.  “You asked me why I stay to fight,” he said, “and the simplest answer is because my life is no longer my own.  Too many people like your father have died to keep me alive.  Until I am slain, or until this war is ended, my every breath has been bought with their blood, perhaps someday with yours.”

Aglarín finally turned, considering the brutal reality they were both facing.  Thranduil had deliberately phrased it that way.  This was not simply an idealistic matter of honor and personal accomplishment, of proving worthy of his father’s legacy.  Thranduil needed Aglarín to understand that he was freely offering to die in his place, as stark and unpleasant as that sounded.  

Aglarín did understand that, although he had perhaps never confronted the idea quite so directly before.  The adolescent trepidation soon hardened into a very adult resolve.  “I hope my lord will forgive me if I insist upon giving a good account of myself before I consent to die for anyone,” he said with a grim smile.

Thranduil mirrored the expression.  “Your lord expects it.” 

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