4. A Soldier Of The King
"The soldier takes pride in saluting his Captain,
The devotee proffers a knee to his Lord . . .
A blast of the wind, O a marching wind . . ."
W. B. Yeats, from Three Marching Songs (1939)
The next morning dawned grey and chill. Legolas arose before dawn, strapping on armor and seeing to his horse. He took his place beside his father, head held high, not caring if the other more experienced warriors of the king's bodyguard minded being commanded by one who just a fortnight ago had been a librarian, the inkstains still fresh on his hands. Sinecure or not, he would do this duty with the same attention to detail as he had done all others.
As the ranks of pikemen and archers assembled, Legolas noticed a strange thing. He saw far fewer soldiers than he would have expected, and Magorion was conspicuously absent. He turned to Thranduil with a questioning glance, but before he could speak, a hush fell over the ranks and heads turned.
Trotting up from the rear came Galion, the disgraced butler, in full armor. Galion, whom no one had heard from since the incident with the wine and the Naugrim. He brought his horse up next to Thranduil's mount. "I cannot allow my Elven-lord to ride into battle without his longtime esquire at his side," he said with quiet determination.
Thranduil finally broke the protracted, uncomfortable silence. "I thought you had tired of strenuous duty, Galion."
"I changed my mind," Galion replied softly. He raised his eyes slowly to meet the king's stern gaze. "Please, Sire . . . allow me to do this."
Thranduil took in a deep breath and nodded. "So be it. Fefelas, you will attend the prince."
Legolas could not help but notice that Fefelas seemed quite relieved at the demotion, for Thranduil could be a most demanding master. His new duties would surely be light, because Legolas had been dressing himself for centuries and intended for it to stay that way.
A horn blew a clear high note. The Elvenking's banners flapped in the chill autumn breeze, and the host set off toward the east.
Before long, the army had reached the eastern edge of the forest and left the cover of the trees. Legolas looked up to spy flocks of dark birds circling overhead.
"Crebain," he said to his father.
Thranduil nodded and laughed bitterly. "The carrion birds know this yellow head of mine from days of old. Whenever they see it they expect to feast well. I pray to Elbereth that this time I disappoint them."
They marched for half a day directly east toward the Lonely Mountain. A little past midday, a group of riders approached from the southeast.
"Hail, Thranduil of Mirkwood. The men of Laketown seek your aid."
"Do you come from The Master?" said Thranduil, and Legolas marked that there was a hint of distaste in his voice.
"Aye, The Master asks for your help, but more truly we come at the behest of Bard the Bowman, who shot the dragon down. Laketown is utterly destroyed, and the women and children shiver on the banks of the lake with little food and winter nearing."
"Bard," said Thranduil softly. "I am glad to hear he is leading things. For the friendship I bore his forefathers, Mirkwood will respond." He turned to his esquire, all business. "Now, Galion, I am glad I have you along for your experience in provisioning. You and Séregon will see to it that food and tents go down the river to Esgaroth by raft. The army is turning aside."
So it was that two days later, the army of Mirkwood arrived on the banks of the Long Lake. A pitiful sight awaited them. The scent of smoke still hung over the water, and the lake steamed from the smoldering pilings and at the spot where the great worm had plunged into the depths of the lake. As the host rode past, children peeked shyly at Legolas from behind the skirts of their mothers, and the women whispered, "Look, the Elves have come."
The food and tents had arrived already, easing some of the discomfort, but after conferring with Bard, Thranduil directed some of the most skilled of his elves to stay behind with the men of Laketown who were too old to fight, and he ordered that timber be brought from the forest to build huts for the winter. The younger men of the lake, under the command of Bard, made plans to accompany the Elven host northward to Erebor, for a share of Smaug's treasure would be needed for the reconstruction of Laketown. Already, the Master was making plans for a larger town to take the place of the old, north of the spot where the dragon had fallen.
After a stay of a few days to plan and regroup, the army of men and elves marched north along the western shore, and on the eleventh day from the death of Smaug, they passed the rock gates at the head of the lake. So it was that Legolas got his first sight of the valley that once had been the kingdom of Dale.
The vegetation was sere, still blasted and stunted from the dragon's fumes, and only a few blackened stumps of towers and stone walls remained of the town. Bard's face, already grim, took on a somber cast at the sight of what had been the home of his distant ancestor. For this careworn man, Legolas had learned, was the descendant of that small boy, King Girion's younger son, whom Legolas had once hoped to meet and play with as an Elf-child before Smaug had intervened. Thranduil had always been reluctant to speak of that last day and night in Dale, and now Legolas knew why. He felt a great sympathy for Bard, for how painful it must be to gaze upon the spot where a forefather had met his doom.
The Running River made a great sweeping curve across the valley after leaving the great gate of Erebor. At the southern edge of the bend, just before the river headed due south to the lake, the Elven host first made camp as twilight fell. Thranduil, for both his own and Bard's sake, wished to avoid the haunted ruins of the burnt town.
In the morning, it was decided to send a scouting party of both men and elves up to the gate. Much to Legolas's gratification, Thranduil picked him to lead the contingent of Mirkwood soldiers. It was about a two-hour hike, crossing the river twice and heading up the old road on the eastern bank of the river. To the left ran the southwestern spur of the mountain, with a tall hill over which black birds circled. These were not the crebain that had followed the Elven host in their march from the forest, but rather ravens, and Legolas thought them to be noble birds. The hill also looked to him to be a good spot to defend, if matters came to such. He had had a good long look at the spur from the west, and it pleased him to finally see what lay on the other side.
The sight at the gate was not so pleasing. A pile of jumbled rock blocked the stream, with a waterfall pouring over it. At the top, they found a broad pool. The only means of reaching the gate ran along a narrow ledge, and a wall of squared stones with occasional arrow slits blocked off the gate itself.
At least, thought Legolas, the wall did not look to be orcish work, and sure enough, the blue hooded dwarf himself hailed them from the top of it.
"Who are you that come as if to war to the gates of Thorin son of Thrain, King under the Mountain, and what do you desire?"
One of the Lakemen made as if to answer, but Legolas cautioned him to silence. "Make no challenge or demand as yet," he said softly, "lest we provoke the Naugrim to further stubbornness. Allow my Elven-lord and Bard to set such terms as they deem just." He lingered for a while, sizing up the dwarves' defenses, before following the rest of the party back to the camp.
The news was met with much consternation. Thranduil said a word that Legolas would not have cared to translate, and Bard nodded grimly. "Who would have thought they still lived? Aulë must have blessed their efforts."
"Pah, I should have known it!" Thranduil said disgustedly. "Those dwarves have more lives than cats, and truly, I like cats much better than dwarves. Cats are much cleaner, and of a far more friendly disposition. Legolas, what is your estimation of their defenses?"
Legolas shook his head. "Good. Too good. We could take them, but we would waste half our army doing so. Perhaps diplomacy would be the better course of action."
Thranduil gave his son a sour look. "We need to move the camp closer. We will be doing a lot of talking in the next few days. At least we shall not have so far to walk."
That night the camp was moved an hour's march further north until it rested right between the arms of the mountain. The valley became fragrant with wood smoke, and the sound of Elvish harps rang between the rock walls.
The next morning, Legolas was surprised to see Thranduil exit his tent dressed in the brown and green uniform of a Mirkwood pikeman. His hair was tied back into warrior braids and all but invisible under a leather helm. In his left hand, he held the green banner of his own realm.
"Father, you look . . ."
"Unrecognizable to even my own mother at twenty paces, I hope," Thranduil chuckled. "This is Bard's cause. My presence would only cause complications, given that there is little love between Thorin and me already. But I wish to hear with my own ears what this dwarf has to say for himself." He tossed Legolas a spear and a helm. "Put aside your bow. Today you and I will be our own heralds."
They joined with Bard's company of spearmen and took a spot beside the blue banner of the lake. Truly, Legolas thought, he would not have recognized his own father. Gone was the regal posture, and Thranduil somehow managed to look an inch or two shorter as they trudged along the rocky trail. He heard his father humming a soldiers' marching tune that was familiar from Legolas's own days with the patrols. "Do you do this often?" Legolas asked softly and was answered with only a cryptic smile.
After another long hike, Legolas found himself again before the gates of Erebor.
Again, Thorin called down from the wall: "Who are you that you come armed for war to my gates? I am Thorin, son of Thrain, King under the mountain!"
With only the briefest of sidelong glances at Thranduil, Bard stepped forward. "Hail Thorin! There is no need to fence yourself in, for we are not your foes. We rejoice to find you still alive, and we seek parley and council with you."
"Who are you, that I should have anything to discuss with you?"
"I am Bard of Esgaroth, who shot the dragon, who would otherwise have returned to the mountain to your great woe. I am the heir of Girion, King of Dale, whose treasure is mingled with your own in the late dragon's hoard. I also speak for the men of Esgaroth, who aided you in your hour of need and whose homes are now destroyed. These are all fit topics for discussion."
"We will pay Esgaroth back for the supplies and lodging in due time. As for the rest, I will not negotiate under threat of arms. Certainly not until you send that yellow haired elf and his army back to the woods where they belong."
Legolas glanced nervously at his father, but Thranduil had merely set his lips into a wicked smile, and his eyes glittered behind the helm.
"The Elvenking is a good friend to me, and to the people of the lake, whom he has already succored, although they had no claim upon him save friendship. You would do well to do the same, Thorin Oakenshield," said Bard grimly. "In the name of justice, I ask for one-twelfth of the treasure as recompense for slaying your dragon for you. I will help the men of Laketown out of my own share, but if you wish for the friendship and respect of Dale and Esgaroth, as Thror had in times past, you will show generosity from your own share as well. I will give you time to ponder the wisdom and justice of my terms."
"No need," said Thorin, "here's your answer," and he fired an arrow at Bard, who caught it in his shield.
Legolas tensed his spear-throwing arm, but Thranduil put out a hand to stay him. "He is lucky I did not have my bow with me," Legolas whispered angrily.
"If that is your answer," Bard cried, the arrow still quivering in his shield, "then you may consider yourself under siege. Go back into your mountain and eat your gold." He turned and led the party swiftly back down the trail.
"You have just had your first lesson in Dwarvish diplomacy," Thranduil observed once they were out of earshot. "Every time I am tempted to start feeling sorry for those folk, they do something like this to bring me to my senses."
"I had no idea," said Bard angrily. "Thror of old was never reputed to be such!"
"That was before they fell on hard times. Poverty can affect the spirit, as well you know, Bard," Thranduil said. "It is the dragon sickness. It has hold of him and there will be no reasoning with him now. But like it or not, we are in a stalemate. We have food; Thorin has shelter. My army is hardy, although we have no love of the cold, but I fear for your men, Bard, with the winter coming on."
"Freeze here at the foot of the mountain, or go back home and freeze on the shores of the lake. It isn't much of a choice," said Bard bitterly.
"I doubt it will come to that," said Thranduil. "Thorin will have sent word to his kin. And there will be others who may come. It will not be long before the crisis."
The armies settled in to wait. Legolas found that the hardest part -- the incredible grinding tension and boredom. The weather grew colder, and on some mornings there was frost on the ground and ice in the water buckets, although the river still ran free past the camp.
On a crisp night with no moon, a group of Elven riders arrived from the south. The chief among them was his father's heretofore missing general, Magorion, and a cloaked rider in grey. Among the soldiers accompanying them was an elf Legolas recognized from having served with him in the border patrols. As Magorion and the cloaked figure were shown into Thranduil's tent, Legolas called this elf aside.
"Hoi, Glavras! Where have you been? And Lord Magorion? I thought it most strange that he was not with the army when we marched from Mirkwood."
"Did you not know, Legolas? Lord Magorion led a group of us south all the way to the southern tip of the wood. There we met with troops from Lothlorien. Lord Celeborn was there himself and the two wizards, Mithrandir and Curunir, and even some fighters from Rivendell, although not many. We went on business of the White Council, marching against the Necromancer at Dol Guldur. You were away in the east when we left."
Legolas stared at Glavras, dumbstruck, and then let out an oath. "How did I not know of this?"
"Well, we were all told to keep it very quiet, and it happened quickly," Glavras stammered, "although one of the lieutenants told me that Mithrandir asked the king for troops as early as last spring. None of us ever see you anymore, now that your father has you locked up in the library most of the time."
"Well, what happened?" said Legolas, with increasing dismay.
"Nothing, that's the strange part. All that marching and buildup, and it was all to naught. At first they put up a token defense, as if to draw us in, but they soon melted into the forest. When we got to the tower, the place was deserted, not an orc to be seen, and the Necromancer . . . pffft! They say he headed south, although you couldn't prove it by me. The dungeons were still full though, and I hope I never see such a pitiful sight again. The orcs had cleared out and left the prisoners locked up with no food or water, and most of them were skin and bones to begin with. Edain, dwarves, even some elves, all looking like death itself. They are in the care of the folk of Lothlorien now, but I don't think many will live."
"The orcs were gone?"
Glavras nodded. "But not for long, I think. Celeborn showed no eagerness to garrison the place, and Elbereth knows we haven't the troops for it. The orcs will be back in there the minute we turn around. They should have razed that tower to the ground and sown salt into the soil if you ask me!"
The two of them had walked through the darkened camp and had reached the banks of the river. Legolas bent, picked up a stone and shied it viciously into the water. He had thought that with his assignment to scout Erebor, he had at last gained his father's confidence, yet it had turned out to be no more than a ploy to distract him from the real business at hand. Although, he had to reason with himself, had he really wanted to go anywhere near Dol Guldur after seeing it the once? No, he most certainly did not. But just the same . . .
"Legolas, are you all right?"
Legolas sighed. A cold wind blew from the north and he shivered. He was about to speak when another splash came from the river.
"That is no fish!" Glavras said, alarmed.
Legolas whistled, and elf guards with lanterns arrived quickly. "Hide your lights. There is a spy about. They will help him more than us, if it is that strange hairy footed creature that is their servant."
Legolas peered off into the dark, and out from behind a rock popped a small brown haired man, almost as if he had appeared from thin air. He was plump and had a cheerful face. There was nothing at all threatening about him, yet Legolas found himself on edge. "Who are you? Are you the dwarves' Hobbit? How did you get so far past our sentinels," he demanded, with an especially sharp look at the soldiers of Thranduil's guard.
"Have a light. I am here if you want me. I am a companion of Thorin's, and I know your king well by sight, though he may not recognise me. You too, Master Elf," he said, looking straight at Legolas. "Thank you for the bread and the apple. They were delicious."
"What is your business?" Legolas demanded hotly, aware that his elves were looking at him as if he was somehow in league with this cocky little intruder.
"It is my own, and it is with Bard, who knows me well. If you ever wish to get back to your own woods from this cheerless place, you will take me to him."
The hobbit was swiftly relieved of his weapon, an Elvish dagger that served as a sword for a being so short. Small though the dagger and the halfling were, Legolas was not about to let him go armed into the presence of either Bard or Thranduil. The search also revealed something that Legolas would rather never to have seen again. The hobbit wore a child-sized coat of silvery chain mail. The collar bore a fine tracery of vines and golden leaves, and there was a little belt of pearls and crystals. It could be none other. The last time Legolas had seen that mithril shirt, it had been trailing from the claws of a dragon in flight.
He and Glavras escorted the soaked halfling to the tent of the Elvenking, and sat him in front of the fire, wrapped in a large blanket. And they watched from the sidelines while this strange creature, who introduced himself as Bilbo Baggins, warned Bard and Thranduil of the imminent arrival of a Dwarf army lead by Dain Ironfoot and produced the Arkenstone of Thror. Legolas had never seen the like of it, nor had Thranduil, by his look of amazement when Bilbo pulled the huge gem out and offered it as his own share as a bargaining chip against Thorin.
"Bilbo Baggins, you are as worthy to wear the armor of elf-princes as any who have looked more comely in it," said Thranduil. "Although I fear Thorin will not see it that way."
While the hobbit was offered, and declined, the sanctuary of the camp, Legolas was left to ponder the meaning of his father's words. Legolas had never thought he looked the slightest bit comely in that mail coat, merely absurd. Although, looks aside, there had been many an occasion since his childhood when he wished he had a coat of mail that would stop an arrow as that little mithril shirt had done.
"Well done, Mr. Baggins," said a man who had been sitting cloaked and mostly hidden in the shadows. "There is always more about you than anyone expects."
'And more about you, Mithrandir,' thought Legolas, recognizing the wizard as the cloaked horseman who had accompanied Magorion from the south. Something was definitely afoot, if Gandalf had ridden to join Thranduil's army rather than remain with the other members of the White Council.
He pondered on this while he escorted Mr. Baggins back to the edge of the camp, and he could not help but heave a sigh of relief as the hobbit splashed northward across the river and out of sight. Such a pleasant little fellow, and Legolas was at a loss to understand why he felt so uneasy in his presence.
"I say, Legolas, wasn't that your old coat of mail that little creature was wearing?" said Glavras with a saucy grin. "You always used to look quite the little warrior in it."
Legolas muttered beneath his breath and glared. "You show great courage, Glavras, to be making sport of one who someday might be your liege lord." Almost as soon as the words had left his lips, he regretted them. Such a sentiment was too uncomfortable with a battle brewing, for it could too easily become reality.
"Sport?" the other elf replied innocently.
"Aye. I may have been but a child, but it did not escape my notice how some of you would smile behind your hands whenever my father would make me wear it, and how some would call me The Leaflet when you thought none could hear."
"Not I!" insisted Glavras. "Your father would have had the ears off of any elf he caught saying such a thing, and I had not the courage for it. As for smiling at the armor, well, you have to admit you were just so adorable in it."
Legolas drew breath for a sharp retort but found himself laughing instead. "I was, was I not? What an image! Thranduil The Magnificent and his son, Legolas The Adorable. If ever I wish to acquire a new lore name for myself, I will bear that one in mind."
He was still shaking his head when he returned to his father's tent. As captain of the bodyguard, he had placed sentries, to whom he gave a brief nod as he passed. Had he not been immediately recognizable, he knew he would have been greeted by drawn bows. He would spend this night, as every night, asleep across the entry to the tent, while Galion slept at the king's side. No one could come into the tent or nigh unto Thranduil without both of them springing to his defense.
Thranduil, all smiles and courtesy, was bidding Mithrandir goodnight when Legolas arrived, and the smell of pipeweed hung in the crisp night air. Legolas bowed respectfully as the wizard left to head for his own tent. Legolas was surprised to see Thranduil's smile harden into a grim line once the older man disappeared from sight.
"Ai, wizards," Thranduil muttered unhappily. "Thanks to Mithrandir, I find myself with a battle brewing and half of my troops still several days march from here."
He nodded at Legolas to sit beside him near the fire.
"On the one hand the wizard asks me for troops to help the White Council drive the Necromancer from Dol Guldur," Thranduil continued, "while on the other hand he sends Thorin to confront Smaug and create a diversion. Had I known, I would never have divided my army this way. Now I am caught with my breeches unlaced -- nay, down around my ankles -- and I do not like the feeling."
"He told you he sent Thorin to distract the dragon?"
Thranduil shook his head. "Of course not, but he knows too much about that perian creature and about Thorin's plans for it to be otherwise. I have been deceived, Legolas, and I find myself rather vexed."
"One would never guess it from your friendly manner towards him just now."
Thranduil laughed mirthlessly. "I call myself a king, while Elrond of Imladris takes no grand title. Yet I do not delude myself as to which of us has the greater power and prestige. I am but the ruler of a backwater realm, and I know better than to enter into a water-passing contest with one of the Ithrynn. Mithrandir suspects I know what I know and that I do not trust him entirely and that I trust his brother Curunir not at all. Of all of them, you may trust Radagast alone, for he has no guile. Do not misunderstand me, Mithrandir works for the good, and he means well, but on his chessboard I rate no higher than a pawn. We both know this, but you will never see either of us betray a sign of it. This is kingcraft, my son."
"If kingcraft involves deception, then I would rather not learn it," said Legolas bitterly.
"I would rather you not have to learn it either. Not for many a year. Let us hope that fate is so kind. Meanwhile, know that Mithrandir himself has been deceived, along with the rest of the White Council. The Necromancer let them waste their time, while he has stolen off elsewhere. Somewhere, I fear, where he may do more harm." Thranduil sighed. "It is an ignoble thought, but I am glad that he is now on someone else's doorstep instead of mine."
"Father, the Necromancer . . ."
"Hush, Legolas. I know of what you speak. You sensed it right away. I have long suspected who he was, and I will not utter that name."
"Then I suppose it was worth it, even if it means your army is divided now, just to have him gone. How many days will it be before they can join us?"
"They were just north of Rhosgobel when my messengers reached them with news of the Dragon's death. Magorion and Mithrandir came ahead swiftly, but the foot troops march more slowly. They will be making all due haste, but it will be three days if not more. Dain will surely be here before then. But be of good cheer. That little hobbit has just given us a ray of hope. We may use the Arkenstone to make Thorin see reason."
"Ai, the hobbit! Father, I am most ashamed that I allowed him so near the camp tonight, and that I overlooked him back in the forest. I do not understand how that could happen."
Thranduil laughed. "I do. Gandalf tells me the little burglar has a kind of magic charm he found in the Misty Mountains that allows him to go about unseen. I do not think that any kind of magic will help him when Thorin learns what he has done. Come, let us to bed. Tomorrow our fortunes may change for the better."
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Ithrynn: the Sindarin equivalent of 'Istari,' Wizards.