4. Dragon Weather
Story art by Greywing
Part Four: Dragon Weather
The happy town of Dale was no more. In its place, Tamin found a smoking ruin. Not a building was left standing, and Tamin could see the charred piles of rubble in the shifting fog. The few people he could see, wandered weeping, or they sat stunned amid the ruins. What in the holy name of the Allfather had happened here, he asked himself?
The mists parted, and he saw an elf sitting on a rock with his head buried in his hands. The elf's garments were stained with ashes, his hands were blistered, and one long lock of his yellow hair had been partially burned away. The scorched and frizzled end lay lankly on his shoulder.
Tamin approached slowly. "Master Elf . . .?" The elf looked up blankly. His face looked young and fair, all but the eyes. His cheeks were streaked with soot cut through with pale tracks. "Master Elf, I seek Thranduil of Mirkwood. I am told he was here in Dale."
The elf stood up stiffly. "I am he."
Tamin could see that once he was on his feet this elf's bearing was indeed kingly, although weighed down by fatigue. "My lord, I am Tamin, a fowler of the marshlands. I bring news of your son."
Abruptly, the big elf's body crumpled and he sank back down onto the rock. "Spit it out, then. Put me out of my misery and make it quick."
Tamin was struck momentarily speechless. Had he just seen an Elf-lord go weak in the knees? "My lord," he stammered, "he is alive and well. My wife pulled him from the river five days ago and has cared for him since. We have him safe."
Thranduil made a strange sound like the air being let out of him and sucked back in. "Le hannon, Elbereth, le hannon," he whispered.
As Tamin watched, the Elvenking slowly returned to life. He stood, seeming to grow inches in height and breadth, and he wiped his face with the heels of his hands and brushed off his garments. He looked Tamin in the eye. "I must go to him." He began to stride off but then stopped, as if recalling himself. "But wait, I have one duty to perform first."
Thranduil walked a short distance up the path, to where Tamin could see an indistinct pile of dark shapes. He bent and pulled an arrow, scorched and blackened, from the center of a quiver. He picked up a handful of dirt and scattered it over them. "Hiro hyn hîdh ab 'wanath," he intoned.
"A final token for his remaining child," he said placing the arrow inside his tunic. If none of his people come to claim him he will lie with his son, at the head of his men, and they will melt into the earth together. A fitting elf grave for a brave king," he told the startled fowler, who realized he had just seen the last of the king of Dale. "We are done here. Take me to my son."
"It is more than a day's hard walk, my lord."
"Then we shall walk it, unless . . ." He gave a strange high-pitched whistle and cocked his ears as if listening for something. For a long while Tamin heard nothing but the sputter of the ashes and the faint sound of the Running River, but then there came hoof beats out of the fog, and a large bay horse cantered up.
Thranduil smiled and laid his cheek against the horse's massive nose. "I am glad to see you, Celeg. I knew you were too smart for that dragon to get you!"
"Dragon?" said Tamin, who understood a bit of the Woodland tongue from his dealings with the raft elves.
"Aye," said Thranduil. "What else did you think could have caused such wrack and ruin? This is not the result of some house fire grown out of hand."
Tamin glanced nervously toward the mountain. "Then the Dwarves of Erebor . . .?"
"The Dwarves of Erebor are no more, may Aulë give them rest, "said Thranduil. "Dale is finished too, and we should be away from here with all haste." He mounted and extended his hand to the fowler.
"My lord?" said Tamin uncertainly, shy about taking the hand of a king.
"Get up behind me. My horse can bear the two of us with ease. He is swift as well, and we will see your home and my son before nightfall."
Tamin did as he was told and sat gingerly behind the saddle. The horse moved off, slowly at first, back into the western hills surrounding the dale. "My lord Thranduil, there is a swifter road across the northern heath, for those who know it. I came that way."
The elf nodded. "Show me the way then. And you will have to hang on tighter than that once we begin to make speed, or else I will be picking you up off the trail."
"My lord, I would not presume to lay hands upon your person."
"Master Fowler, I am in your debt. You may grab me wherever you like in order to keep yourself on this horse, although around the waist will do. You have given me back my son, and I will see that you have any reward you wish."
Tamin sighed. "It is not within your power to give me what I desire the most. But I would ask a favor of you. Be kind to my wife and stay your anger. She lied to your elf when he came asking about your son, and it is best you learn this from me. Never, in all our years together, could I give her a child. Your son was a gift to her spirit and it was her desire to keep him close that caused her folly. Please forgive her."
Thranduil was silent for a time, and Tamin feared he grew wrathful, but when he spoke, his voice was gentle. "Master Fowler, I know the child hunger can make women behave in strange ways. It can do the same to men. No matter what tales you may have heard about me, you need not fear. I am still grateful. But for your wife's actions, my son might have been reclaimed sooner and come with me to Dale. I would not have had him near those killing grounds for all the wealth of the Lonely Mountain."
"You are not at all what I expected from the way the raftsmen speak of you," said Tamin candidly, forgetting for a moment that he was talking to an Elf-prince thousands of years his senior and notorious for his temper. "I find you to be quite a regular fellow."
Elven laughter can never be said to be 'booming' but Thranduil's resulting guffaw was definitely hearty. "I am usually better dressed, and I do not smell like a campfire, that much is true. As for the rest of it, please do not spread it about. My reputation as an unreasonable despot is carefully cultivated and very useful to me. Besides, you have not seen me when I am angry. You would not like to see me when I am angry."
At that moment, the horse shied and snorted as something very large flew overhead, unseen among the clouds.
"By the Allfather, what was that?" Tamin asked in fright, hanging on more tightly to the elf to keep from being thrown from the horse.
"It was the dragon," Thranduil replied, all trace of his good humor gone and replaced with a sudden concern.
"What brings him out here from the mountain? Is he after us?"
Thranduil shook his head. "Two things will make a dragon fly. It is not hunger, for he has eaten enough in the past day to sustain him for a year. The other thing is treasure. Dragons can smell it from far off, and they are drawn to it like a hound after a bitch in heat. What treasure could there be out on the heath? I like this not at all, Tamin."
He urged his horse into a faster gallop, despite the fact that the terrain was still hilly. Before Tamin had a chance to ask why they were hurrying into danger, he saw a disheveled figure stumble over the next rise, running toward them.
"This is trouble," he said. "That is my brother-in-law, and it can mean nothing good that he is here."
Sure enough, when the man spotted the elf on horseback, he turned and ran south in a pathetically obvious attempt to avoid a meeting. A fat man on foot is no match for an Elf-trained mount, and he was ridden down and cut off.
Thranduil leaped from his saddle and grabbed the man by his collar. "You know who I am. That much is obvious. Why do you attempt to flee from me?" Gone was the easy-going elf of just moments before, and Tamin thought he might get the chance to see what Thranduil was like when he was angry. Knowing Ottan, this was almost a certainty.
"You, my lord? Nay, it was the dragon I was fleeing." Ottan began to sweat and squirm.
"Stop it, Ottan," Tamin said. "Your lying will only make it worse for you." He had a dreadful feeling that his brother-in-law was lying to save his own skin.
"Something brought that dragon to you, and I suspect it was a shirt of mithril. What were you doing with it? Tell me the truth, and tell me now!" When Ottan shook his head and sputtered denials, Thranduil took him by the throat with one hand and lifted him slowly off his feet until his kicking shoes were two feet off the ground. "I said, tell me NOW!"
"Your son . . . is wearing it . . . bringing him to you," Ottan managed to choke. "The dragon came . . Horse threw me. I ran . . ."
"And you left him?" Thranduil threw back his head and uttered a howl of feral rage. He gave a mighty toss. Ottan landed hard into the dirt ten feet away and began to crawl off feebly. "Pray, Mortal, that I never lay eyes on you again!" In a flash, he was on his horse and galloping west. He disappeared over a rise in the trail and Tamin saw him no more.
* * *
Smaug crouched on the heath, tearing the body of a horse to bits and swallowing large chunks whole.
He had smelled the siren scent of mithril from far off. Curious, he had flown west and peered through the mists to spy a horse and rider coming across the heath. As the dragon swooped down upon them, the horse had reared and thrown its human rider, leaving an elfling clinging to the horse's mane. The dragon had taken down both horse and elfling at once, while the man fled on foot into the east. It would be a simple matter to catch him later. The horse was dead, and the elfling lay face down in the dirt, held fast by one of Smaug's talons in the back of his neck, right above the collar of the mail shirt. The elfling was alive for now. Smaug liked his meat alive and wiggling, if possible.
Smaug tore off another chunk of horse and raised his head to see a scorched and angry looking elf advancing toward him from the east with a sword in hand. How delightful, thought Smaug. Elf flesh was particularly delicious compared to men or dwarves, although the older ones could be a bit tough. The dragon was no brainless brute, for his kind were descended of the renegade Maiar spirits who had forsaken the light of Valinor to join the evil of Morgoth in the Elder Days. Some mortals were unaware of this, but with one of the Eldar, Smaug expected to enjoy some stimulating conversation along with his meal.
"Let the child go . . . Worm!" the elf growled.
The dragon regarded the newcomer out of one red-golden eye. "Why should I do a thing like that . . . Elf? The little one will make such a tender dessert after I have finished with this stringy nag."
"You will let him go, Worm, or I will kill you."
The dragon laughed, with a rasping sound like subterranean rocks grating together. This usually had the effect of throwing fear into the hearts of his prey. "I think you are in no position to dictate, Elf. One flex of my claw, and the elfling dies."
"And then, so do you," said the elf, with a feral grin.
"Little elf, I could burn you to a cinder with one blast of my breath." said the dragon, enjoying this duel immensely.
"Aye, that you could. But mark how close to you I have come while we talked. Even as my body burned to ash, my sword would be through your eye and into your filthy brain. This meal would be your last. Now give me my son, nachuithron!"
The great golden eye narrowed, for he was suddenly feeling less confident. "Such language! And from a king! Judging from this fine little shirt, this can be only one elfling, and that elfling can have only one sire, Thranduil of Mirkwood. I knew your father, Elf."
"And I knew your mother . . . Worm!" Thranduil spat. "Are you ready to stop playing with me now, or do we die today?"
Smaug hissed. The remark about his mother had stung, for he had been quite fond of his mother. And she had been fond of him, even readily forgiving him for devouring his nest mates soon after coming out of the egg. His mother has given him one good piece of advice -- never come between an adar and his elfling. And now, it seemed, he had ignored that advice in the worst way. Even worse, this adar was from an Elven house known for its volatile temperament. How best to extricate himself from this standoff, Smaug wondered, while retaining a semblance of his dignity
"Oropher was mad, they say, and so are you. Just my luck to meet up with an insane elf when all I want is a quiet meal and a nice bit of treasure. I can't go away empty handed. It is a point of honor. I must have something to make it worth the flight."
"Then take the mithril and choke on it. Just leave me my boy!"
The dragon pause just long enough to make it seem he had been seriously considering declining the offer and then nodded . "Done." He slowly withdrew his great claw from the back of the child's neck.
Thranduil remained tensed for the attack. "Legolas, roll away from the dragon and take off your mail. Very slowly . . . that is good. Drop it on the ground and come get behind me."
The great Worm clasped the mithril garment, running the liquid silver appreciatively through his talons. "Another day, Elf."
"Not if you have any sense," Thranduil replied.
The dragon laughed his grating laugh, flapped his red-gold wings, and took flight to the east.
* * *
The sun was low in the sky when the big bay charger cantered into the yard. Tulie ran out of the cottage to see her husband riding behind a strange yellow haired elf. Legolas was with them too, seated in the front, in the protection of the older elf's arms. Tamin slid from the saddle and ran to embrace her. Tulie hugged him back hard for she had been worried to death. Meanwhile, the elf dismounted and lifted the child down after him.
Tulie suddenly realised who this strange elf might be, and she threw herself at his feet. "My lord Thranduil, forgive me! I tried to keep Ottan from taking your son, I truly did."
"By the Rodyn, woman, let go of my knees and get up. I am in no way angered with you." He took her by the elbows and helped her to her feet. "I really must ask Galion what is said about me to create such a reaction from total strangers," he said to no one in particular.
"Answer me one question, though," he continued. "Who gave my son those braids?"
"It was Tulie," said Legolas, quick to answer. "She let me help her with the cooking and she taught me how to catch a fish with my bare hands, and one day other children came and I got to play."
"It was Legolas who told me how to do them. Did I do wrong, my lord?" She looked up into the king's face to see that, despite his obvious weariness, he was fighting off a grin.
"Oh, aye, I have no doubt that it was my son who told you how to do them," he chuckled. "I would rather he had asked you for the plaits of a scholar or a bard, but my boy has always been after having a warrior's braids, and I see that, by hook or crook, he has got them. I am so happy to see him alive that I would not mind if you had braided his hair like a maiden or cut it off entirely." He took her hand and kissed it. "Mistress Tulie, I am in your debt."
She smiled and blushed a little. He was quite handsome, really, taller than her husband by half a head, and he looked very young despite the grime and deep lines of fatigue that marked him. Not so delicately beautiful as Legolas -- that must have come from the absent mother, but one could see the father in the son and vice versa.
"My lord," she exclaimed noticing his hands for the first time. "You are burned. It must pain you!"
"Hmm, I remember picking up a smoldering beam some time in the night," he said matter-of-factly. "It does hurt, now that you mention it. I had not noticed till now."
"Let me tend to you, " she insisted. "Come inside, and I will bathe your hands and put some salve on the blisters."
"It was the dragon, " Tamin said, as they went inside. "My love, Dale is gone."
"Dragon?" she said, with widening eyes.
Tamin nodded. "There is much to tell. Legolas already told us of how Ottan came for him. I fear Ottan will not be returning, for the last I saw of him he was making off for Esgaroth as fast as his legs could carry him. You will have to tell Serka, so that she may join him . . . or not.'
"Legs? What happened to his horse?"
"The dragon ate it," said Thranduil, "and if I ever see that miserable Mortal again I will break both of his legs for him."
"He called me a bastard," Legolas added. "What is a bastard, Ada?"
"Something you are not, my son," Thranduil said gently. Not so gently, he added, "I may break his arms for that."
"Then he was being silly," said Legolas. "But he hurt Tulie, and that was not so nice."
"Please save an arm for me to break, Sire," Tamin said quietly.
"Ada," Legolas continued, "that word you called the dragon, what did that mean?"
Tulie, busy at the hearth heating water, heard Thranduil choke, and she turned her head to see a look of dismay on the Elf-king's face.
"Legolas, I would like you to forget that word. If you cannot forget it I must insist you never ever say it. At least not until you are as old as I am and you find yourself in an identical situation." Thranduil flashed Tulie a quick apologetic smile.
Dragons, devoured horses, cursing elves -- something had happened that the men had not told her, and then she realized what was missing. The mithril shirt was gone. Thranduil of Mirkwood, whose reputed love of treasure was legendary, was seemingly unconcerned with the absence of an object worth a fair portion of his kingdom.
She steeped some aromatic herbs in the hot water, and carried the bowl to the table. Thranduil offered up his palms, and Tulie gently dabbed at the burns with a moistened cloth, paying special attention to where the blisters had broken open from the pressure of wielding a sword and holding reins. She spread some salve on the palms and began wrapping them in clean bandages. Thranduil heaved a sigh of contentment. "Thank you, Mistress. That feels much better.
"I am having a thought," he said, as she continued to work. "My son's nursemaid has long seemed unhappy with her duties. Legolas likes you very much, and you are very good with him. Would you consider returning with us to Mirkwood with us to look after him? He is becoming too old for a nursemaid, so we could call you a governess, if you like."
Tulie's spirits soared and then fell again. "But what of my husband?"
"Those are beautifully fletched arrows I see in the corner. My own elves could learn a thing or two from such a craftsman. And, frankly, I enjoy grouse and pheasant at my table, which my own hunters seem unable to supply in sufficient quantity. Master Tamin would be a very useful addition to my staff. I know it would be a sacrifice for you both to leave your life in this place, but I would ask you to consider it."
Tulie saw a look pass between the two men.
"Sire," said Tamin, "I would not like to accept charity."
"Nonsense. Have you not been listening to what I said? Master Fowler, tell me truly, do I have the reputation of being a charitable elf?"
Tamin smiled. "No, my lord. You do not have that reputation."
"Good, then I hope that's settled."
"By the look on my wife's face, it is settled, whether I will it or not. Although, I hasten to say that I am very willing to trade this marsh cottage for comfortable quarters in your fabled palace. Shall my first duty be to go to the south channel and inform your elves of your return?"
Thranduil nodded. "But not tonight, Tamin. I have been awake for nigh onto two days straight, and those days were hellish. I am weary to the bone. You must be as well. Tonight, all I want is a hot meal, the company of kind folk, and a bed to rest myself. I intend to hold my son close this night, and I suggest, Master Fowler, that you do the same with your wife."
Tulie watched the king from across the room. Legolas had climbed into his father's lap, and Thranduil absent-mindedly rubbed at a reddish mark on the back of the child's neck as he spoke. "Life is so fragile. Two days ago, I feared my son was lost, and I envied Girion his handsome young heir. Now Girion and his son are dead, and his widow and orphan will need my aid. There are many widows and orphans in Esgaroth who will need my aid in the days to come. How quickly it all changes. The stoutest armor proved no protection." He sighed. "Even stone gates are no defense against death when it wishes to enter. All we can do is to savor the time we have to spend with those we hold dearest."
* * *
It was late into the evening by the time Tulie had finished up the washing and began blowing out the candles. They had enjoyed a pleasant meal, and Tamin had shared a bottle of her homemade wine with Thranduil. The two men had grown quite merry, leading Tamin to sing a song whose lyrics Tulie had always found to be rather improper, but the Elvenking had laughed like a naughty boy. Then, after refusing the offer of Tamin and Tulie's bed, he had yawned, excused himself, and carried his son off to bed in the spare room.
Tulie now peeked in to see if all was well. Thranduil had somehow managed to fit himself into the small bed, and he and his son were curled tightly together.
"Should their eyes be open like that?" Tamin asked, joining her in the doorway. "He really should have taken our bed."
"That's how they sleep, Tamin."
"Hmm. It is passing strange, although I suppose we'll have to become accustomed to it now that we'll be living among them. " He put his arms around her. "I wonder if they're all that good looking? I'm not sure how I feel about sharing you with a palace full of handsome elves."
"Don't be silly. I'm sure the elf women are just as beautiful. We'll be the only two old people in the place."
"Old? Bite your tongue, wife!"
"What are you doing, Tamin?" she laughed, feeling him kiss the top of her head.
"Obeying my new Elven-lord's command, beloved," he said, leading her off to bed.
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
Author's Note: My thanks to Claudio for a more accurate Sindarin rendition of Thranduil's insult to Smaug. The meaning should be apparant from context but may be obtained by contacting the author privately.
The lovely story art is by HASA's own Greywing. Thank you Greywing!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.