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The Call Of Duty: Legolas At Erebor: 3. Upon The Cold Hillside
"He sent out his spies about the shores of the lake and as far northward towards the Mountain as they would go, and waited."
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Legolas rode east that day. He knew his way through the marshes that lay just outside the eastern edge of the forest. There had been great earthquakes and the land had subsided, increasing the depth and breadth of the wetlands. The marsh folk had deserted their villages, and the island where once a fowler's cottage had stood centuries before lay now almost completely submerged beneath the risen waters. Yet Legolas stopped for a brief look, and to pay his respects, as he passed through.
For convenience, this time he rode with no saddle or bridle. His destination was the wilderness, and there would be none to complain that the seat of his breeches smelled like a sweaty horse. It felt good to be out on the heath, sitting atop Gwaeren's muscular back, with the wind in his hair. The horse seemed to relish the freedom too, and Legolas allowed him to run, laughing for joy when he gave a few joyful kicks as they sped over the ground. His pockets and the saddlebag that he carried in front of him, laid across his lap, were filled with lembas, lembas and more lembas, for although he carried his bow, he expected to find no game to hunt within the area of the dragon's desolation. He also carried several flasks of wine to ward off the chill of the autumn nights.
Mindful of Gwaeren's safety, he abandoned the horse in a sheltered hilly spot well west of the mountain. He made sure the horse had access to provender and water and bade him stay, shouldering the saddle pack and continuing on foot. On the eastern slope of the foothills surrounding Erebor, he found some of the few remaining trees, made camp, and settled in for his long watch.
This was as far as he needed to go or wanted to go, for there was surely no one around to whom he needed to prove his courage. Indeed, although the Lonely Mountain lay several miles away, it looked as if he could almost reach out and touch its western flank. For once, he had no worries about orcs -- the only advantage to the dragon's proximity. In his cloak of grayish brown, he was nigh onto invisible against the sere vegetation. During the day, he sat quietly and stared east. At night, he lay down on his side and made a tent of his hood with one of his own arrows. Even in sleep he faced eastward, so that no activity or movement would escape his open eyes. Autumn was ending and the days and nights grew steadily colder. He felt the cold but did not let it trouble him. If the snow came, he would be uncomfortable indeed, but he did not expect to be there that long.
By the end of the first week of his vigil, Legolas found himself longing for the relative excitement of his library. Even though he knew a dragon dwelt beneath that tall peak and he had even seen the worm out flying once or twice, he felt none of the spiritual dread that had overcome him gazing upon Dol Guldur.
In the pocket of his tunic, he kept a folded letter, brought in a diplomatic pouch along with other missives by a courier from Imladris the previous month. From time to time, he took it out and read it, smiling each time at the carefully drawn tengwar and earnest message:
I am fine, and I hope you do well. My Quenya lessons with Elladan continue. They are not as exciting as my riding lessons with Elrohir. Next month, if I am good, Elrohir says he will teach me to use a short sword. I will be good, because I want to learn sword fighting.
Your Friend, Estel"
It had been Legolas's idea that he and Elrond's young ward correspond in the ancient language of Quenya rather than Sindarin, mostly for the experience it would give the boy. Yet Legolas had found it challenging as well, for it put the two of them on a more even footing. While Legolas could read Quenya with ease, his ability to speak and compose in it was limited to the 'how are you, I am fine' level, and the writing served as good practice for him too.
This missive had contained something extra. At the bottom of the page, in a more mature hand, proudly phrased in Westron, although Legolas knew the writer spoke Sindarin fluently, had been another message:
"My Dear Prince of Mirkwood,
I thank you again for the interest and inspiration you have provided to my son. Your friendship means much to him, and his behavior continues to be improved thereby. Even Master Elrond remarks upon it. I remain your dutiful servant,
Gilraen, Daughter of Dirhael, and Wife to Arathorn, Deceased."
On the cold hillside, Legolas ran a fingertip over the feminine script and sighed. He had kept all of Estel's letters to him, not sending them to the vats to be remade into writing paper, but this one he carried next to his heart.
In between reading his letter and singing every song he knew, he had thought up imaginative curses for Thorin and his dwarves, who were no doubt enjoying their soft stay at the expense of the Master of Laketown so much that they were delaying their journey north while he froze out on the blasted heath and his haunches grew numb from sitting. In desperation for something else to occupy his mind, he began to devise a strategy for the continuation of the game of chess he had been playing with his father before his departure from Mirkwood. Things had been going well; he had been on the verge of taking out Thranduil's queen, and he visualized the board, picturing every possible move his father could make. With increasing dismay, Legolas began to realize that he would not only fail to take the queen, he would checkmated within a short number of moves. No matter how he played it out in his head, ten moves was the best he could do before going down to defeat. His father had outwitted him.
His consternation was such that he took several moments to notice that a mounted train of dwarves had rounded the southeastern spur of the mountain and was heading north. Legolas snapped to attention. Each dwarf rode a pony and several had pack animals in tow. The expedition had arrived at last.
The next two days proved only marginally less boring. The dwarves set up a camp on the western face of the mountain between the two western spurs. They made no attempt at concealment, for their fires burned night and day. Their movements were pitifully easy to track, and Legolas had to wonder if they were incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. He reminded himself to bring up their example next time his father accused him of behaving as if he had a death wish. Unlike the earth toned garb of the wood-elves, the dwarves' bright clothing stood out against the mountain, and even though the air was filled with the perpetual haze from the dragon's reek, he had no trouble seeing that the dwarves were showing a particular interest in a clefted valley partway up the western slope. He could even hear the ringing of their hammers against the rock across the miles that separated his position from theirs. How Smaug could have failed to notice their presence, he had no idea, but the dragon did not appear immediately.
Then, on a night when the new moon hung like a faint sickle in the dark sky, Legolas awoke to a light show such as he had never seen. The dragon flew back and forth across the western slope of the mountain, breathing his fire. This was the end of the dwarves, he thought, surely. But when morning came, he saw their bright hoods out against the mountainside, although the fire at the lower camp no longer burned. Puzzled, he decided to hold his position.
That night, the dragon flew again. This time, the sound of stones crashing down the mountainside accompanied the show of dragon fire. With his wrath visited upon the rocks, Smaug flew off to the south, and again Legolas saw ruddy flashes off behind the hills that separated the desolate plain of Dale from the Long Lake. Esgaroth was burning.
When the day dawned, Legolas could see no dwarves alive upon Erebor's slopes, only tumbled crushed rocks and scorched earth where nothing could have survived, and he decided he had exhausted his mission. What he had seen would be reported to his father, in hope that he could warn his people before the dragon turned westward to visit his wrath upon Mirkwood.
He ran over the hills westward to the spot where he had left his horse. To his surprise, he found three ponies sheltering there. Lucky little beasts to have escaped the worm! He left them where they were and rode hard across the heath to home, hoping there was still a home to go to. But along the way he began to hear the rumour of the birds and the small marshland beasts. They sang a song of joy and relief. Smaug was dead.
He rode over the stone bridge and was taken immediately into the presence of the king. At that moment, the weariness hit him, just as he saw the relief wash over his father's face.
"The dragon is dead."
"So we hear, Legolas, although the birds care little for details. Esgaroth took great damage as well, by the reports of my other scouts. But yours were the only Elven eyes so far north. Tell me what you saw."
"Not much. The Naugrim busied themselves on the western slopes of the mountain. Then Smaug laid waste to it during the night and flew off south. The next morning, all was silence. I do not see how they could have survived."
Thranduil gave a grim look to his advisor, Séregon, who stood nearby. "Nor do I. We must proceed as if Erebor is deserted. Are you well, my son?"
"Well enough. I would like a bath, a hot meal - anything but lembas - and a good night's sleep, in that order."
"You shall have them, " Thranduil said. "But rest well, for tomorrow, we ride."
"Sire, is this wise?" Séregon ventured.
"It may not be wise, but it is necessary. The Lonely Mountain, with its vast halls and all its wealth has none to defend it. Would you like to see it inhabited by goblins from the north? Rich orcs for neighbors; now, is that not an appealing thought, Séregon? Nay, we must bring together such troops as we have and head for Erebor with all speed."
Séregon bowed and left.
"Father," Legolas said, "I cannot say for truth that those Naugrim are dead. I did not go to scout the mountain close up."
"For once you obeyed me. I am surprised. And I am pleased."
"As you are so fond of saying, Father, kings rule and princes serve. How do you wish me to serve you tomorrow?"
"I am appointing you captain of my bodyguard."
Legolas set his jaw in a grim line, hoping to disguise his bitter disappointment. Even in an army that likely would see no fighting he was to be given an empty title as a sop to cover the reality that Thranduil wanted to keep a close eye on him. He bowed stiffly and went off for his bath, his hot meal and his bed, in that order.
"Good night, my son," murmured Thranduil to his retreating back. "I hope you will do a better job of body-guarding than I did."
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
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