1. A Mirkwood Pastorale
Part One: A Mirkwood Pastorale
" . . .We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap . . ."
W. B. Yeats, from The Stolen Child (1886)
Life under the trees of Mirkwood was good; very good. Legolas stood back among the shadows, watching the dancers and flaring his nostrils to enjoy the scent of the wood smoke.
The night of the Mereth Lasbelin traditionally marked the end of summer. Across the fire lit clearing, Legolas's father, Thranduil, sat at the head of a long line of revelers, crowned with a garland of leaves, goblet of wine in hand, obviously having one of those moments when it was good to be the king.
Legolas held his own half empty cup, and he had consumed enough wine already that he had allowed one of the lasses to give him his own circlet of late summer flowers twined in amongst his braids. This same maiden, the lovely Gwilwileth, had been flirting with him all evening, flashing him looks from under lowered lashes and letting her hand trail against his fingers overlong as she passed him dishes or refilled his glass. Which she had done quite often this night -- fill his glass, that is, and he suspected she was trying to get him drunk.
Legolas did not flatter himself. Her interest in him stemmed from the fact that he was Thranduil's son and heir. Of late, his duties in the service of the realm had not been the sort of activity to set a maiden's heart aflutter. Once upon a time, he could entertain with stirring tales of orcs slain or successes in the hunt. Now, he had only to recount the dry details of his days cataloguing books in the library and wait to see how long it took for the eyes of his listener to glaze over with polite boredom.
The evening was nearing its end, and even now, couples had begun to slip away hand in hand. Legolas was within one cup of wine of doing the same with Gwilwileth the next time she brought a bowl around, and taking her off into the darkness of the trees to steal a kiss or two. It would go no farther than that, for, alas, the maiden seemingly had nothing but thin air between those lovely ears of hers, and even the most exquisite beauty could delight the senses for only so long. But there could be no harm in having a brief taste of those lovely lips and maybe even a quick caress. Such amorous play was allowed between young unmarried elves, especially at the celebrations that marked the turning of the seasons, although Legolas, mindful of his high position, had never been a one to indulge very much in that sort of thing. But three years of soft palace living had left him as restive as a young horse cooped up too long in the stable, and the wine had made him reckless.
The dance ended and a new one began. Gwilwileth came towards him with a suggestive smile on her lips. Legolas answered her with a sly smile of his own only to have a sudden shiver pass over him, the sort of feeling his childhood nursemaid, an adaneth now long passed beyond the circles of this world, had referred to as having a goose walk over her grave. He felt as if he had been doused in cold water, and it chased all thought of pleasant dalliance from his mind. At that moment, a stocky figure about the size of a partly grown elf child but much broader stepped into the clearing. The harp music stopped. Someone kicked the fire, which shot up in a shower of sparks, and the torches went out, plunging the clearing into darkness.
There followed much confusion and rushing to and fro as the men hastened to protect the women and those few couples with children snatched their youngsters to safety. Legolas could see in the dark better than most, but even so, he almost tripped over the prostrate form of the stranger, still asleep from a simple spell of enchantment set to guard the festivities from such intrusions. True to form, Legolas soon felt his father's presence at this side.
"No lights yet," said Thranduil. "Form ranks around the women and the young ones, take up the stranger, and we shall return to the palace in the dark lest there be any others around. My son, you lead the way."
It was only a short walk through the forest, to the steep path through the ravine that ran down to the Forest River. Legolas found his way with ease, avoiding the occasional tree root across the trail and warning those who followed. Torches burned at either end of a stone bridge that led across the water to the great gates.
Once within the pool of light of the guard post, Thranduil ordered that the stranger be set down. It proved to be a dwarf, dressed in a sky blue hood with a silver tassel. The king snatched a torch from one of the bridge sconces and brought it down to examine the dwarf's face more closely.
He made a disgusted noise and beckoned to the chief of his forest guard. "Pallanen, give the rest of us time to go inside and then say the spell to wake this one up. Bring him to me in the throne room. You can toss him around a bit, but do not actually injure him. Legolas, you come with me."
Legolas gave his father a quizzical look as the two of them accompanied the crowd of revelers over the bridge and through the gates.
"It is a dwarf, son. Dwarves always mean trouble of some kind," Thranduil said as they headed to the throne room. "I am now told that two other forest gatherings were interrupted earlier this evening, so there are more dwarves than the one we just caught. I do not expect to get much information out of this fellow, but I want him off his balance as much as possible when I question him."
Thranduil settled himself on his carved throne and arranged his robes about him. He shot a quick glance at Legolas who, realizing how silly he must look, hastily snatched the garland of flowers from his head and stuffed it inside his clothing. He stood to the side of the throne and tried to compose himself as best he could. The effects of the wine were still with him, but he was sobering up quickly.
In marched Pallanen and his soldiers, dragging the now sullen-looking dwarf. "Is this the customary courtesy of the woodland elves? To manhandle innocent travelers?" the dwarf demanded boldly.
Legolas tensed, and he could see several of the guards wince. A small vein began to pulse in Thranduil's temple, but he replied with measured calm.
"I owe no courtesy to those who are in my realm without my leave and who refuse to state their business. Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at their merrymaking?"
"We did not attack them; we came to beg because we were starving."
Legolas found it hard to believe that anyone could be hungry in a forest full of game and tender summer plants, but he supposed that of all folk, the dwarves could manage it.
"Where are your friends now, and what are they doing?" Thranduil asked, with unusual patience, for Thranduil.
"I don't know, but I expect starving in the forest," came the answer.
"What were you doing in the forest?" Thranduil had begun to sound somewhat frustrated, and Legolas suspected that his adar felt as hung over from the harvest wine as he himself did.
"Looking for food and drink, because we were starving," the dwarf replied, and the guards began to look nervous and step away from their charge as if they expected their king to begin throwing things or shooting lightning from his eyes.
"But what brought you to the forest at all?" said Thranduil, definitely annoyed by this point.
The dwarf folded his arms over his stocky chest and refused to say another word.
"Very well, take him away and keep him safe until he feels inclined to tell the truth, even if he waits a hundred years."
The guards bound the dwarf with thongs and began to march him away. "Wait!" the dwarf protested. "Common decency insists that you place me in a cell that is twice as wide as I am tall, and that I be provided with bread twice a day and all the water I can drink. I demand exactly that and no less!"
Thranduil narrowed his eyes. "Very well, Master Dwarf. Never let it be said that the elves of the Woodland Realm are not reasonably decent to their captives. Guards, find him a cell of those dimensions and treat him exactly as he says."
"Do we even have one that small?" Legolas whispered, as the elves took the dwarf off to the depths of the dungeons. "And why would anyone in his right mind refuse fruit and venison?"
His father merely shrugged. "Gah, dwarves!" he said as the echoing footsteps died away. "Cursed, stiff-necked folk. Nothing good can come of their doings, secret or otherwise."
At that moment, the palace butler entered, carrying a tray with a decanter and two glasses. "I heard tidings of the prisoner, Sire, and I thought a cup of wine would not come amiss. It's Dorwinion, the last of the 2933."
"You were not wrong, Galion," Thranduil said, the prospect of a drink banishing his ill humor. "The last, you say?"
"Indeed, Sire, but have no fear. Five barrels of the 2934 vintage are due in next week."
"Splendid, Galion. You know my taste for Dorwinion. Have a cup for yourself when you get back to the kitchen."
Smiling, the butler poured two glasses, bowed, and left.
Legolas took his glass. "I would say, Adar, that for a dwarf who was off his balance, the interrogation did not go very well."
"On the contrary, my son. I learned as much as I had expected to learn." Thranduil leaned back on his throne, relaxed, and sipped his wine. "You are too young to remember, but I have seen that dwarf before in Dale, long ago. He is the grandson of Thror, he who was king under Erebor before the dragon came."
"I thought the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain were all killed."
"Not all. There were a few out hunting that day. There was also a rumor that the king and his son had made it out alive. This would confirm it. If Thorin is passing through my realm and refusing to tell me the reason for his journey, it can mean only one thing; that a great deal of treasure is involved which he does not wish to share. And the only treasure I know of is under Erebor. That fool of a dwarf is going to stir up the dragon."
"I'm afraid so, Legolas. If Thorin and his party were on the way to honest blacksmithing jobs they would not hesitate to tell me so and ask for the food and safe conduct they need. No, they mean to get their treasure back, or at least a good part of it, and they haven't a thought for what effect their actions will have on the people of Esgaroth. Or us, for that matter."
"The wealth in trade the dwarves brought downriver was a good thing for Laketown and for us, I thought."
"Quite true, but you are forgetting the dragon. Thorin's company cannot be very great in number, or we would have noticed their passage through the woods before now. They have not the slightest chance of killing Smaug or even driving him out of the mountain. Believe me, Legolas, if I, with all my army, could have accomplished such a thing without a grievous loss of life I would have done it long since. No, I suspect some kind of burglary, and when that great worm misses even the smallest piece of his hoard, he will fly into a killing rage."
"I had not thought you feared the dragon, Adar."
Thranduil laughed bitterly. "You had best believe that I do fear that dragon! I was in Dale when Smaug came, and I have not forgotten. Would you like to see Laketown burned to the pilings, or these woods in flames? I fear that is what will happen if we allow these dwarves to continue on eastward."
"I see your point," Legolas said, pouring himself more wine.
"That will be the last one for you tonight," Thranduil said. "I want you clear headed tomorrow to go hunt out the rest of those dwarves and bring them in."
"What, no library duty?" Legolas asked dryly. "The organization of the books may suffer from my absence."
"Do I detect a note of discontent there, my boy?" Thranduil laughed. "I am sure you can understand my natural wish to keep a closer eye upon you until you mature enough to understand the difference between courage and reckless risk to your own person. Have you not always expressed the desire to learn the workings of this realm and to make yourself useful by whatever means?"
"Aye, Adar," said Legolas inclining his head gracefully. "Even if the tasks assigned me by my Elven-lord involve shoveling up after the horses in the stables or learning how the laundresses keep the shirts so white. It is merely that I feel I might be more usefully employed at times."
"Then you shall make yourself useful tomorrow by tracking down the rest of Thorin's party. And I shall have a word with Pallanen about why his patrols allowed strangers to come so near to our festivities without us becoming aware of it. This vexes me somewhat. Dwarves are not known for their stealth."
Legolas sighed. "If I might be allowed to make an observation, you should place a different elf in command. Pallanen is a good sort and very brave in battle, but he could not find a fart in a pisspot."
Thranduil snorted. "That language is not very princely, my son."
"I humbly apologize to my royal sire, who, I am sure, never used an uncouth term in his long life," replied Legolas innocently.
Thranduil blinked with momentary surprise, chuckled, and recovered himself. "Your memory is too good. I shall have to bear that in mind. I expect to have those dwarves in custody by nightfall tomorrow."
With an early start the next morning, Legolas had expected to bring in the rest of Thorin's band of dwarves very quickly, but the task proved more difficult than anticipated. The trail away from the clearing started out clear and easy to track, as one would have expected from dwarves, but it soon split into a myriad of smaller ones as if the dwarves had milled about and lost track of one another in the darkness. Those smaller trails came to sudden ends with signs of a scuffle, and Legolas very much feared the spiders had been at work. No doubt, the dwarves had been hoisted into the trees and transported above ground, and were even now hanging from some branch waiting to be made a meal of. Finding them now would be a matter of dumb luck.
So, it was not until twilight fell over the forest that the band of searching elves were alerted by the unmistakable clamor of a conflict coming from the woods to the south. From the sound of things, the dwarves had broken free from the spiders and were being pursued into the hands of the waiting elves. There was much crashing of undergrowth, loud breathing, dratting, and hissing from the spiders.
The elves melted into the bushes, waiting for the fleeing dwarves to pass. Legolas caught the eye of the archer nearest him, and the two could not help exchanging a grin. The behavior of the Naugrim in the woods was really too funny, and Legolas felt most lighthearted from spending a day out in the fresh air and getting the chance to wield his bow again.
Then, the back of his neck prickled, and he felt the same shivery sensation that had come over him at the feast the night before. He shook the feeling off, wondering what could be amiss. He feared neither dwarves nor spiders, especially surrounded by a company of Mirkwood archers.
The torches sprang to life like small glittering stars. A few well-aimed arrows sent the spiders into full retreat, and the dwarves were quickly surrounded and bound with thongs along a long line of hithlain. The final count was twelve, and they appeared to be the worse for wear, covered in the remainder of spider web and looking as starved as Thorin had said.
Back to the palace they went, and Legolas could not rid himself of the strange feeling of being watched. He looked about to see if any of the other elves were affected, but they seemed oblivious as they crossed the bridge and the stone gates shut behind them.
The trussed prisoners were taken into the presence of the Elvenking. Thranduil had designed his throne room so that during the daylight hours a light shaft cast a beam of light directly onto his carved wooden throne. The effect was especially splendid around sunset, when the ruddy light turned the monarch's golden hair into a fiery halo, and Legolas much regretted having missed the optimum moment by half an hour.
Even by torchlight Thranduil looked very imposing. He wore a crown of autumn leaves and held a staff of carved oak, which matched the carvings on the throne. The look on his face indicated that he was ready to knock heads with it if pushed too far.
There had been no Lasbelin festivities that evening, so all the court was available, and Thranduil was flanked his chief advisor, Séregon, and his general, Magorion, along with several other nobles. It was a much better showing of pomp and circumstance than one slightly bleary and hung over prince. Legolas was clearly not needed to make an impression on the already ragged and weary band of prisoners, so he stood against one of the sculpted stone pillars of the throne hall and watched his father at work, bearing in mind that what the dwarves did not say was just as useful to Thranduil as the information he would be able to get out of them.
"Untie this lot," Thranduil said. "They look too tired and hungry to be much trouble. Besides, they need no ropes in here. There is no escape from my magic doors for those who are once brought inside."
That was not strictly true, Legolas thought. There were a few ways out for those who knew their way around the palace, but these dwarves would not know that. The idea of being trapped below ground, no matter how luxurious the surroundings, was usually quite intimidating to most of Thranduil's prisoners, although perhaps less so to the Naugrim.
While his father questioned them long and searchingly about their destination and where they had come from, Legolas took the opportunity to study the dwarves up close. He was familiar with the appearance and the manner of the Edain, but he was too young to have had any experience with the dwarves of Erebor, so these folk were a novelty. The first thing that struck him was how hairy they were; much more so than men, with huge thick beards that hung past their belts and a thick pelt even on the back of their broad hands. They were noisy too, even when they were not speaking. Unlike the elegant stillness of the First Born, they were constantly shifting from side to side, breathing loudly and grumbling under their breath. Much to Legolas's distaste, they reeked of pipeweed, an odor of which he was all to familiar from his trips to Esgaroth and the infrequent visits of the wizard, Mithrandir. He did not envy the guards who would have to spend the next weeks or months in close proximity to them.
Perhaps the strangeness of the Naugrim prisoners affected him, but Legolas again felt that odd sense of unease that had passed over him in the forest. He chided himself, for surely there was nothing to fear from a pack of half-starved dwarves.
Exhausted and hungry though they might be, the dwarves still had some fight in them, for they gave no more information than Thorin had done, and they soon stopped their minimal attempts to be polite. Finally, the one who seemed to be the eldest among them, a strange looking fellow with a white beard and a scarlet hood, had had enough.
"What have we done, O king?" said this dwarf. "Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders? Are the spiders your tame beasts or your pets, if killing them makes you angry?"
Thranduil's eyes fairly blazed. "It is a crime to wander in my realm without leave. Do you forget you were in my kingdom, using the road my people made? Did you not three times pursue and trouble my people in the forest and rouse the spiders with your riot and clamor? After all the disturbance you made I have a right to know what brings you here, and if you will not tell me now, I will keep you all in prison until you have learned sense and manners!"
When the dwarf stood firm and refused to speak further, Thranduil shook his head angrily and summoned the captain of his palace guard. "Heledir, take this lot to separate cells. They are not to speak to one another or come out until they decide to talk."
Legolas narrowed his eyes as the elf captain, Heledir, stepped forward. The two of them had served together in equal rank in the patrols in the south of Mirkwood not three years past. Now Heledir served as captain of the palace guard while Legolas was assigned duty as the palace librarian. This change in Heledir's fortune had come about at the same time as Thranduil had learned of certain activities on the part of his son; activities that might have been considered reckless, at least by Thranduil. Legolas had an unconfirmed suspicion that the two events were connected, and his liking for Heledir was no higher than his estimation of the elf's abilities.
"One more thing, "Thranduil said as the defiant group of dwarves were led away. "Confiscate their pipeweed."
As the sound of the footsteps died away, Séregon spoke. "That was a brilliant touch, Sire. You know how touchy Mithrandir gets when he cannot get outside to smoke his noxious weed. I give them a fortnight at best before one of them talks."
Thranduil looked rather pleased with himself. "I had to do something to make them feel ill-used. They will not have been so well fed in a long time, and a stone cell is pleasant lodging for a dwarf. But truly, Séregon, I would rather they not talk. Once they admit they are heading for Erebor, which I already have guessed, I will have no just cause to hold them."
"You could demand such a huge share of the treasure that Thorin would refuse to pay it," Magorion said.
"No share of any treasure would be worth the risk of rousing the dragon, "Thranduil replied. "Not even if Thorin agreed to pay it. I am doing the poor beggars a favor, really, by keeping them from going to their deaths. I will be happy if they never talk."
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Author's Note: My thanks and gratitude go to my beta for this story, Lexin.