1. Diplomatic Relations
I admit to feeling a sense of anticipation, tinged with trepidation, when Lord Celeborn asked me to journey to Mirkwood and petition an audience with King Thranduil. I had never met him though I had, of course, heard some stories and old legends. The Mirkwood Elves had isolated themselves centuries ago, delving their caves within the mountain in the north of the Great Greenwood as their forest had become a haven for foul creatures and marauding Orcs. None could find the hidden realm and, after an incident involving Thorin that had led to the Battle of Five Armies, it was said he had cut off all trade. Now he and his people kept to themselves, never venturing far beyond their stronghold.
Recently the Mirkwood king's son had passed through our lands with his eight companions. I and my men had encountered the company at our borders and led them to Caras Galadhon, where they were received by the Lord and Lady. I heard they had told a chilling tale of Gandalf's fall in Moria. Yet with my duties keeping me at the fences I had little occasion to speak with the prince while he and his comrades took their ease in Lothlórien. He seemed a strange fellow. Friends with a Dwarf, too. Unfathomable.
Shortly after they departed, Gandalf arrived, much to my Lord's surprise, borne upon the back of the Great Eagle, Gwaihir. What Gandalf told Lord Celeborn I do not know, but I was summoned and told I must lead a party to Mirkwood with all haste. My mission was to deliver the news of the One Ring and the journey of the eight walkers. Our time, the time for all in Middle-earth, was growing short, Lord Celeborn said, and no strength of the Elves, neither a ring of power nor a fortified cave, could halt the coming conflict or stay the war's destruction.
So, while I looked forward to the adventure of the journey, the prospect of meeting the Mirkwood King filled me with a curious dread. What welcome my party might receive I knew not. Indeed, we might find ourselves fighting for our lives, or unable to find the entrance to his mountain halls. I was glad for the company of Rúmil, who had also been chosen as part of the retinue, as we set out in the early morn.
Our plan was to ride north, without saddle or tack, along the river, then cross over, release the horses, and seek the Elf Path. It had been over two ennin since I had been beyond the marches of my homeland. I knew from our recent visitors that danger was much more prevalent now and could come unexpectedly from any direction, but as we planned to travel quickly and in starlight I hoped our movements would go unnoticed by spies of the enemy.
We set out in a pleasant mood, the great Mellyrn sheltering us as we rode, the breeze soft upon our faces. My cares for the journey were distant in my mind as I sat astride my mount, a gentle-natured white mare. Rúmil was singing softly while Celebneldor and Erebel were riding silent but alert behind us. Even at the edges of our own fair wood we could not let down our guard, for Yrch had been roaming in greater numbers since Aragorn and his companions had passed through.
The trees thinned as we reached the river and we rode beside it, but away from its banks, the rushing water always in view as we made our way upstream. We had traveled perhaps two or three miles when the ground became hard, the soft breeze became a sharp, cold wind, and high, wintry clouds masked the stars. We rode on, keeping our pace steady, keeping our eyes on the threatening sky.
Then the snow began to fall. Not a gentle drift of large flakes but sheets of icy pellets that lashed us with the strengthening wind. We drew our cloaks tightly, working to calm our increasingly skittish horses. Something was woefully amiss. Even with the harshness of the season, snows of this ferocity were rare. We took off our belts and tied them together, each pair of us clasping an end to keep from losing sight of each other as we pushed the horses along. The sharp flakes stung our faces and hands, the snow blew, swirled, and deepened but we continued on. As the night grew colder, the snow higher, the horses struggled to push through drifts that rose to their knees.
By the time the first light of dawn broke through the oppressive gloom and cold, the wind began to let up a bit. A thick blanket of white covered the ground all around us while the rushing water of the Anduin crackled with the ice breaking at its edges. Rúmil and I looked at each other and I saw we shared the same thought. All chance of stealth would be lost if we kept to the horses. Their tracks would show our path clearly and the poor creatures would not have the strength to make it back to the wood if we pressed them forward through the frigid wind.
We dismounted and sent the horses back. My mare stamped her foot and snorted impatiently, determined to see me though, but I would have none of it. In the end she relented and joined the others who had already set off on the arduous journey back. We watched them for a moment then turned our faces north into the cutting wind. For the rest of the day we ran, to keep our limbs warm and to make up time lost in having to continue on foot. Few creatures would brave this cold, and if the sudden storm was the design of an evil will then in any attack that was to come we would have the advantage in the deep snow.
Even for an Elf the going was difficult. We did not come to an end of the snow for another four days and the almost constant wind hampered us, stealing our heat and strength. Keeping to our plan, we ran through the nights and rested during the day when the sun offered a bit of relief from the cold. Sleep was difficult for we were forced to huddle together for warmth and could not lie down, while the wind and relative inactivity forced the chill into our bones. Nor could we chance lighting a fire, which might be seen for a fair distance, and sheltering trees upon the plain were few. Still, we managed well enough with our warm cloaks and huddled bodies. Our rations held up well and Rúmil managed to snare both birds and rabbits which had wandered far from their warm warrens and nests to find food upon the white plain.
By the time we reached the ford, clumps of grass could be seen sticking up through the patches of snow that dotted the landscape. But now a new obstacle stood before us, for how could we cross the swollen river without our horses?
As we stood debating our limited options, Celebneldor drew our attention to a rapidly approaching figure on horseback. We stood together, ready, but did not draw our weapons as the old man rode up and hailed us. His cloak and hood were the deep brown of newly tilled earth and his face was ruddy and broad with a wide, cheerful smile beneath a sable beard.
"Well met, friend Elves," he said. "What errand brings you so far from Lothlórien, and in such bitter weather?"
"Merely a traveling party, sir, on our way to Mirkwood to visit kin," I said.
He nodded but his eyes twinkled as he replied. "I did not know the bonds of kinship between the Lothlórien and Mirkwood Elves were so strong."
"Strong enough for us to make the journey," Rúmil replied, as though chatting with a stranger upon a moonlit plain was an everyday occurrence. "We did not expect the harsh weather, but it is no matter. The storm we came though has ended and the snow is fading from the plain."
"Where do you intend to cross the river?" the stranger asked. "For a journey of another day or two will bring you to the marshes, and ice is still thick among the reeds there."
"In fact, we had planned to cross here but the river is swollen with the melted snows from upstream and the water is very cold," Rúmil replied.
"The reason I ask," the man continued, "is that if you continue only three or four miles along the bank you will find a shallow where great rocks rise from the riverbed. If you are careful and your feet true, I believe you could walk across there. That is if you don't mind taking the counsel of an old man, and a stranger in the bargain."
"Thank you for your advice," I said. "We shall travel a bit further. We cannot be worse off than trying to make the crossing here."
"If you would heed but one more word, do not come under the eaves of the forest until you reach the Elf Path. It is not safe anywhere within that wood these days, except for the halls of the Elven King, as you well know."
"Again, we thank you for your counsel. It has been many years since we have journeyed from our homeland."
"I must admit you have picked a most unfortunate time for travel. Strange doings abroad these days. There are few safe places outside the Elven Realms."
"Indeed. Well, we cannot always choose the most opportune time to make our journeys."
The man seemed to reflect on this for a moment. "Yes, that is certainly true," he said thoughtfully. He then pulled the hood of his cloak down and nodded. "Good eve to you. I must be on my way."
"Good eve," I said, and he galloped off toward the distant mountains.
"What do you make of that?" said Rúmil once the man had vanished in the distance.
"I do not know, but there is no harm in taking his advice. If we are to get wet, I see no reason not to delay it for a few miles."
We continued on and, as the man had said, the water was shallower in this part of the river and a path of large rocks rose from the swift flowing water.
"Watch your feet, my fellows. One false move and we shall be fishing you out, or joining you in your swim," Rúmil called as he started across the river.
We picked our way carefully across, going single file. At the halfway point Erebel had a misstep that nearly sent him into the freezing water, but he managed to gain his balance and we crossed without further incident. On the other side we picked up our speed again, running to keep pace with the moon which was sinking fast. Suddenly Celebneldor gave a shout and we all slowed to see him looking back at the river. The rocks where we had made our crossing were gone and the river flowed deep and swift in the moonlight.
"Do you think that old man. . .?" Rúmil began.
"Some things it is best not to question," I replied. "Let us continue."
We traveled many more nights without incident but the closer we came to the wood the scarcer was game, or indeed any living thing. Our rations were holding well but we were saving our lembas lest we lose our way in the forest and have only our waybread to sustain us. When we came at last to the Elf Path that led deep into the murky wood we paused, peering into the dark forest, our limbs reluctant to move us forward.
I knew we could not linger and so, gathering my courage and my will, I stepped beneath the trees and the others followed. The change in atmosphere was immediate and oppressive. The chill beyond the forest vanished and the heat beneath the eaves was as midsummer. Darkness surrounded us, blotting out all trace of moon or stars and we could see nothing, not even each other. I called a halt and we stopped. Though I could not tell the positions of the others I could feel them close by. I realized we must wait until morning to continue, hoping that the daylight would filter though the branches at least enough so we could make our way. But just as I was getting ready to tell my companions we could go no further, a light seemed to glow just ahead and we followed, keeping our course straight lest we stray from the path.
For hours we followed the tiny light which never seemed any closer or farther away. When we stopped, the light stopped, and when we walked it again led the way. At last, as day broke, the light ahead faded and we were able to clearly see our way, though the sight of the dark trees curtained with cobwebs and the foul black creatures scampering and crawling about was more disheartening than the darkness had been. Weary from our travels in a way that had nothing to do with physical fatigue, we decided to camp and post a watch. I also made the decision to change our night travels for day now that we were within the wood. Whatever spies lurked in the darkness would be aware of us long before we were aware of them, and I did not fully trust the light we had followed through the previous night.
We then walked many days, all but despairing of ever finding the halls of the Mountain King. We checked our map a dozen times a day but there was no mistaking that we were on the right path. Rúmil had given up singing and no one felt like telling stories once darkness fell. The walk was long and plodding, broken only by the occasional squeaking conversation of great fat spiders that, fortunately, seemed reluctant to attack us outright once they ascertained we were armed. We could not hunt and our lembas was running low when, finally, one day as we began our daily travels, we heard an Elven voice ring out from the canopy above.
"Oh ho, my fine fellows. What have we here?"
We looked up into the branches to see a half dozen or more Wood-elves, their arrows trained upon us.
"It looks to be a party of Lórien Elves strayed far from their wood," answered another.
Even in the gloom I could see their eyes gleaming with a fey mirth.
"Greetings," I replied, "I am Haldir, March-warden of Lothlórien. My companions and I have come to seek an audience with your king."
"One does not simply walk into Mirkwood," one of them chided. "How well do you know our king that you come uninvited into his realm?" I knew from his voice he was the one who had hailed us and surmised him to be their leader.
"We do not know him at all, but our news is most urgent. My Lord Celeborn thought it important enough to send warning of a peril all must soon face."
At the mention of our lord's name I thought I detected simultaneous scorn creep over each visage, yet they did not answer rudely.
"Does the news you bear include any word of our prince who has been gone these many months?" the leader asked.
"Indeed it does," I said, glancing around at the cobweb-covered trees, "but perhaps there is a more welcoming place to impart our tale."
The leader nodded. "Very well, we will take you to the mountain, but the way is secret. You must allow us to blindfold you. We cannot be too careful, even with distant kin, in these dark times.
I bristled at the idea and I could feel the tension in my fellows as well. To make an Elf walk blindfold within an Elven realm was asking much. I opened my mouth to speak, and in my mind's eye saw Legolas's ire at my similar demand of him and his friends. Tight lipped I replied, "If that is the way it must be, then we accept."
"Now see here!" Celebneldor broke in indignantly.
I whirled on him with a grim look but placed a reassuring hand on his arm.
"If it is their way, we shall abide by their custom," I said evenly.
Celebneldor was angry but he deferred without protest. Rúmil, however, grinned at me, always happy for a joke at my expense. Before the blindfold was placed over my eyes I saw the Wood-elves were grinning as well, as though they shared Rúmil's amusement.
We must have been closer to our goal than we thought, for it was not long before we heard the sound of rushing water and our blindfolds were removed, revealing to us the sight of a stone bridge and the enormous stone doors of Thranduil's stronghold. As we walked across the bridge, the great doors swung outward and we were met by another group of armed Wood-elves. Their leader was tall, his features sharp, but his grey eyes held the same merriment as that of the March-wardens who had brought us here.
"What have you brought us?" he asked the leader of our escort.
"These Lórien Elves would speak with our king, Captain," the other answered. "They say they have news of some urgency."
He looked us up and down, taking in every detail of our attire, equipment, and weapons.
"Very well," he said to me. "You may enter, but you must surrender your weapons. They will be returned to you upon your departure."
"We agreed to your custom and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded, but this we will not do," I said. "We have not come into your midst idly or as spies. We are here to speak to your king of the decision of Elrond's council and its impact on the Greenwood."
"And would you allow armed men before your Lord were the situation reversed?" he asked.
"We have done so recently. A group entered our wood only one of whom was known to us, and we did not take their weapons, not even those of the Dwarf."
"A Dwarf? This must have been a strange party indeed."
"It is one of the reasons we have come."
He thought it over for a moment then nodded. "You may enter and we will ask only that you give up your swords. Is this a fair compromise?"
"It is," I said. We relinquished our swords to the guard Captain's men and he then led us through the doors.
As we passed the threshold, we heard the scrape of stone and the doors swung inward clanging with a sound like metal as they closed behind us. A magical affectation, but the sound's finality sent a shiver up my spine.
"You have traveled a long way, would you like a chance to freshen up before taking your audience with the king?" asked the Captain.
"That is most kind of you. I believe we would," I replied.
"Indeed, we would!" said the others heartily, as eager as I for some familiar comforts.
He called a servant who gave us a smile and bow before leading us through the warren of tunnels that were lit by torches set in graceful sconces. The stronghold was so honeycombed we would have soon lost our way without a guide. Wide tunnels shot off from central hubs in all directions. Tunnels led to halls, which led to other tunnels, which led to rooms, which led to more tunnels. Patterns that appeared random but which, I suspected, were carefully designed to confuse any enemies should the mountain fortress be breeched. The tunnel walls were filled with bas-reliefs and etchings of hunts, feasts, and starry landscapes. The halls and rooms held colorful tapestries of silken weave bearing scenes of Elves at work, play, and in battle. I determined to have a more thorough look around at the first opportunity. I had expected a dark, gloomy cavern but the Wood-elves had made the mountain a real home.
At last our guide stopped and showed us our room. It was large with smooth, slightly rounded walls. There were tapestries of a sunlit forest scene with large beech trees shading the grassy bank of a brook. Thick down mattresses were laid upon platforms of sturdy wood with carved headboards of dark oak. The room had a doorway which led to a bathing chamber where a natural basin had formed long ago, possibly the result of some sort of erosion.
The servant left to fetch hot water and, once alone, we unpacked our gear and chose lots for who would get the first hot bath. Erebel won and was soon soaking in the steaming water with a sigh of blissful satisfaction.
"I do not know about you, but for my part I will be glad to finish this mission and get back to our wood," Celebneldor said. "For all its airiness this underground living is stifling. I do not know how Elves can live like Dwarves."
I chuckled. "We have been here only perhaps half an hour, Celebneldor. At least the atmosphere is hospitable, even if our host may not be."
"Do you think Thranduil will see us?" Rúmil asked. "I have heard he has a peculiar, unpredictable nature."
"Yet you ask me to predict how he will greet us," I teased. "How different can he be from any other Elf Lord?" I shrugged. "Each rules his people in the ways he thinks best. We cannot rightly judge the customs of others from the outside." My words masked my unease, for I was not certain of the king's reaction to our news.
After we had all bathed, the servant appeared again to announce the king would grant us an audience within the hour. He invited us to take our ease at a small eating hall two tunnels down where food had been provided for us. We snacked on some sort of roast bird spiced with ginger root, thick nut bread, and small bowls of wine. It was a fine feast indeed after nearly three weeks of road rations and we sated ourselves to our content.
At last a servant appeared to escort us and we were led down another mazelike path of tunnels to a large chamber with pillars of natural stone. The sight of the Elven King seated on a carved wooden throne at the end of the hall, dressed in an emerald green jerkin embellished with white gems, his golden hair crowned with a garland of leaves and white berries, stole my breath. His eyes were the green of budding spring leaves, lit with a radiance I had thought only an Elf who had seen the Two Trees possessed. My fascination with, my attraction to him, was fierce and immediate. He regarded us with a canny intelligence, with wisdom I suspected equaled that of my own fair Lord.
Despite the presence of strangers in their midst, all eyes in the hall were on him, not us, as he bade us approach.
"I am told you have news of Elrond's council and of our prince," he said, his voice a strong, ringing baritone that echoed slightly through the hall.
"Indeed we have, Lord Thranduil," I said with a bow. "Thank you for allowing us an audience. We know it is against your law to enter your realm unannounced but our Lord Celeborn thought our news of great enough import to warrant the risk."
"Speak then," Thranduil said. "My son left for the council some months ago. What does Lothlórien know of his travels?"
"He passed through our wood with Aragorn and six other companions some weeks ago. The One Ring has been found and the decision of the council was to send a party of nine to Mordor to destroy it by returning it to the fires of Mount Doom."
An audible gasp rose from the court but the king silenced them with a look.
"Nine? But you say only eight came through your wood."
"Yes, that is true. Gandalf the Grey was the ninth but he fell to a Balrog in Moria."
A flicker of some emotion lit his eyes but was gone as swiftly as it had appeared and again there was a ripple of whispers from the court.
"And the others?"
"Our Lady presented them with gifts to aid their endeavor and they left, taking the Anduin downriver."
His eyes hardened at the mention of the Lady. "So, the others continue to Mordor. Is this the extent of your report?"
"It is," I said, feeling suddenly awkward. I gave another bow and my companions did the same.
"In two days time my people will have their monthly revels," Thranduil said. I was certain my confusion showed, but if he noticed he gave no sign. "Each new moon we feast in wood and hall, each sharing what they have reaped during the past moon," he continued." Hunters bring their finest game, fishermen their best catches, those who gather the fruits and nuts of the forest their finest harvests, and we all share in the bounty, singing and telling stories all night. I invite you to stay and share this feast with us."
I was taken aback by this offer. Here we had journeyed far to tell the king war was nearly at his gates, that his son was on a quest that placed him in peril, and he was inviting us to feast and make merry? I paused, not knowing what to say.
"Thank you, your majesty," Rúmil said. "We accept your hospitality."
I know my mouth dropped as I stared at my brother. He smiled at me and shrugged as if to say, 'Surely you are not anxious to return through dismal wood and frozen plain.'
He was right, staying and feasting certainly sounded better than the return journey. I turned to the king and acknowledged my brother's response. "Yes. We will stay."
The king nodded in satisfaction, a slight smile gracing his full lips. "You and your men may wander freely within the fortress but do not go into the woods unattended. There are many paths that lead to danger if you do not know the way." He looked me in the eye and I felt my heart flutter with a warm elation. "You all may go now. Except you March-warden. I would like you to attend me in my chambers."
I actually stumbled over my surprised reply. "Now?"
"Unless you have more pressing concerns," Thranduil said, the amusement in his eyes now unmistakable.
"Not at all. I. . ." I looked helplessly at my companions, who offered no help at all.
"Do not trouble yourself about us," Celebneldor said. "We are weary and will rest until you return."
I could scarcely believe my ears. Celebneldor had said he could not wait to return home. Now he seemed as content as Rúmil to remain within the fortress. But before I could speak, Thranduil was on his feet, walking from the hall.
"Then come," he said, and I had no choice but to follow.
The king's chambers were more ornate than any room I had seen thus far, filled with carved wooden chairs sporting ornate cushions in cheerful hues of blue and green. The tables were oak, the lamps silver. There was a tapestry of Thranduil in armor before the black gate, one of a man shooting down a dragon, and another of a golden haired child in a shirt of fine mail, holding a small sword, facing down a spider the size of an ox. The artistry of the Wood-elves was extraordinary, making me feel as though I was part of each scene.
So taken was I by the tapestries I did not notice Thranduil was addressing me until he repeated his offer.
"Please, have a seat. Haldir is it?"
"Yes it is. I am afraid I have no more to say than what I told you in your hall."
"I did not think you would. It is not why I have asked you here."
"Then why did you wish to speak to me privately?"
"Things are moving swiftly now. The quest is severed. The wizard Saruman has turned traitor. Armies of Orcs and Easterlings are amassing south of Dale. Your Lady must know this."
I blinked at him in surprise. "I do not know. But if she does, why were we sent?"
A chill went through me as the events of the past day clicked into place. The guardsmen blindfolding us, Thranduil's impassivity at the news I imparted in his hall. He knew everything.
The king smiled thinly as he replied. "I believe your Lady thinks us a rustic folk of cave and dell, out of touch with events beyond our borders. It has been many centuries since we last had contact. As you can see, the shadow of Sauron holds much of our forest now. It is commendable she thought to warn us. We shall have to thank her when next we meet."
I know I was blushing as I replied, "When I was asked to make this journey, I must confess I thought the same. All I know of your people is that they do not venture from the wood and that visitors are not welcome."
Thranduil gave me a doleful look. "It is not a matter of welcome. It is a matter of protection. We can no longer protect any area of the wood except the portion where we dwell. We do not have the power. This wood cannot be a sanctuary for all. I must look after my own people."
"This I understand," I said. "Yet if you know of the danger, why not send us back to Lórien? Why ask us to remain?"
"Our feast is in two days and we must keep up appearances. All preparation for war is taking place within the fortress, but the enemy must not know. Your travels will be marked if you leave before the dark of the moon."
"Spies of the enemy. Radagast has found his bird friends to be compromised by Saruman's treachery. We do not know how many others may also be corrupted."
"I hope our presence here has not put to ruin your plans," I said. "It would sit ill with my Lord and Lady should the Greenwood come to harm."
"I believe I know why you were sent after all," Thranduil said, looking at me thoughtfully. "You are a March-warden, are you not?"
"Yes, Lord Thranduil. In my land I am Master of the wardens."
"And your men?"
"All good and true guardians of the Golden Wood."
"Perhaps you could serve me, if you are willing. I could organize a hunting party tomorrow and you could ride with me to the marches. I would like for you to meet my own Wardens and give your opinion on our defenses. That is if the protection of your wood by the Lady's Ring has not dulled your edge."
I opened my mouth for an angry retort but saw the twinkle in his eyes, and chuckled instead. "We will gladly help you in any way we can."
"Good man," Thranduil said. He rose and so did I. He clapped me on the back. "Rest yourself, March-warden. We leave at dawn."
His clap upon my shoulder was hearty, companionable, and it gave me visions of what else those strong hands might do to me.
I went back to our rooms, thinking on the conversation. Could it be that Lord Celeborn had sent us to help, or had he underestimated Thranduil's power? Whatever the reason, I was content that our journey might come to some good for the Wood-elves.
When I entered our guest chambers I saw that my companions were all sleeping peacefully. I took off my clothes and slipped into bed, but sleep did not come right away. All I could see were those penetrating green eyes that seemed to see right through me, and all I could feel was that hand upon my shoulder. I chided myself for my foolishness. He was a King and I merely a guardsman. Nothing was going to happen between us.
Dawn came early and I arose with eagerness to tell my men of my conversation with Thranduil. They were as surprised as I to learn that the king already knew of what had transpired in Rivendell and our own wood. It seemed foresight was not only a power of the Noldor nor, perhaps, was farspeaking.
When the servant took us to breakfast, King Thranduil was there, as were two of his courtiers. As we ate, the king laid out his plan. We Lórien Elves would dress in the green and brown of the Wood-elves and ride forth as though going on a hunt. We would then split up, with Thranduil and me riding to the eastern border where we would devise a strategy for the border guards: their location, how they would be armed, etc. Meanwhile the others would examine the layout of the huts and flets of the Elves who dwelled in the woods, meeting their warriors and discussing plans for evacuating the women and youngsters to the stronghold in the event of an attack.
We put on the clothing provided to us and rode forth to a fanfare of trumpets. It was considered good luck if the king returned from a hunting trip with game, and if he did the fanfare would trumpet his return as well. When we had entered the forest, Rúmil and the others set off with two of the king's men, while Thranduil and I rode with his other men far into the forest. His golden hair rivaled the sun in its brightness, standing out against the brown of his cloak as he rode at the head of our party. Here the blight had not broken through the king's defenses and the trees, though yet barren, contained many buds waiting for the first breath of spring.
As we came to the edge of the wood, I could see beyond the eaves a vast, open plain. An army marching from this direction could be seen for miles, yet their numbers could be vast. Conversely, an army coming through the wood from the southeast could use the trees for cover but, if they were many, would move much slower. I considered, as did Thranduil, how the enemy might think. We discussed the matter and at last determined what we thought Sauron's forces might consider the most strategic manner to breach the king's defenses. We then drew up a plan that would place his troops in the best position to take out the vanguard, then another for dealing with the enemy once they reached the forest.
I met with and spoke to the March-wardens, who were curious to see my silver hair beneath the hood of my cloak. Yet they did not question their king. We rode the perimeter of the realm's defenses, mentally adding troops here, taking them from unneeded positions there, discussing armor, weapons, and the skill of the Mirkwood warriors, until Thranduil was satisfied with our work.
"You are a good strategist, Haldir. Your ideas are similar to mine, but you have brought many things to my attention my own advisors would not have seen. . . or agreed with." I thought I detected a hint of regret in his voice.
"We do not know what may be in store for our respective woods, but you have shown great foresight, Lord Thranduil. There was little help I could offer. The Greenwood should fare well if the halflings prove true."
"Even if we do not, the Dark Lord will pay a steep price for this wood ere his shadow swallows it up," he said with fierce determination.
As we rode back to the stronghold, we stopped at a stream to let our horses drink. It filled my heart with gladness to be out among the trees, the sky a brilliant, chilly blue above the thick-branched canopy. All around us were the scattered leaves of autumn, deep beneath our horse's hooves. The sound of rushing water and rustling branches surrounded us and it was hard to believe this forest was part of the same dark place, full of spiders and black creatures, we had traversed to get here. I closed my eyes for a moment and breathed in deeply, drinking in the spirit of the wood that flowed through my faer like water through a stream.
I opened my eyes, gazing around contentedly, when all of a sudden a stag stepped from the trees on the other side of the stream. When it saw us it froze for a moment, scenting the air and staring at us, prepared to flee at our first movement. We sat still upon our mounts, which raised their heads at the creature's approach. With careful, tremulous movements, the stag walked slowly to the stream, leaping lightly across. Then, with more confidence, it dashed into woods behind us and was gone.
A forlorn feeling replaced my joyous mood. I reached down to pat my horse's neck, as much for my reassurance as his.
"I do not wish to leave this world," I sighed. "Yet our time grows short. We are fading even as we prepare to fight. The children of the sun replace the children of the stars. Day must follow night."
"So you mean to sail?" Thranduil asked.
"You do not?"
"I have not given it much thought. If my people survive, if our wood survives, I see no pressing reason to." He shrugged.
"But we all must, eventually," I protested. "It is the charge of all Elves to return home."
"I am sure your Lady can tell you more about it than I, but I do not believe the Belain would charge us to come. I believe it is our choice."
"We should want to go," I said stubbornly. "What is left for us here? Our power fades, our ability to effect change weakens. . ."
A full throated laugh burst from him, stentorian and musical. "Yes, without a ring of power it is difficult to effect change," he said. "Yet our vigor remains. Our strength remains. Ivon's Trees, man! You are younger than I! You feel your time in Middle-earth is over should your Lord and Lady choose to sail?"
I twisted a lock of my horse's mane between my fingers as I replied. "Do you know it is said the forests of Aman are ever green and no corruption of autumn or winter touches their leaves? I have lived in such a wood all my life, but I think I prefer this forest with its stark winter trees and withered beech leaves to the green and gold of the Mellyrn. The melancholy it engenders is agreeable in some strange way."
"I have yet to tire of it," Thranduil said. "I cannot imagine a place more suited to Elves than a forest such as this."
He kicked his horse into a walk and we crossed the stream, heading back. We took our time, keeping our horses to a walk, enjoying the sights and scents of the forest. The sun was beginning to set by the time we reached the gates. We were told the others had returned some time ago and were already at board.
"I believe I would like to bathe before I eat," I said. "Shall I meet you in the dining hall later?"
"No need," Thranduil said. "We can use my private chambers."
"Oh, no. I could not presume. . ." I began.
"Nonsense, you deserve a reward for your work on behalf of my people. And I am keeping you and your men prisoner here for the next few days. Come. I will not take no for an answer."
I followed Thranduil through the stronghold until we reached a tunnel where stood a single guard. The guard smiled as we passed and I smiled in return. Little did I know then what his greeting meant.
The light at the end of the tunnel was unusual. Not candle or torchlight but more like bright sunlight. When we reached the end I saw why, and scarce did I believe my eyes. Entering the chamber was like stepping into a sun dappled forest glade. There was light, birdsong, and the trees were bursting with blossoms, their perfume an intoxicating mixture of scents. Beside a tall beech tree was a clear, deep pool. I expected Thranduil to stop there but he continued on and I trailed after him, gaping about dumbstruck by the beauty that surrounded us.
He continued to another area of the splendid . . . room? chamber? I knew not. The air became cold and sharp as we reached our destination. This place was a mirror image of the spring glade, only here the forest was robed in winter. The trees were heavy with snow and the pool beneath the tall beech tree was steaming in the late afternoon light.
The king stopped and began to remove his clothing as I continued to stare about me, not knowing quite what to do. Then my eyes fell upon the nude Elven King and my heart froze like the trees around me. By the Belain, he was beautiful! All golden hair and pale skin, strong arms and a broad chest with a dusting of golden hair surrounding his rosy nipples. My eyes traveled down of their own accord and I blushed as I was not sure whether the sharp intake of my breath had been audible or only in my imagination. He was the paragon of masculine perfection, his manhood bountiful, his balls heavy and succulent between the pillars of his thighs. A vision took me of my mouth paying worshipful homage to that body, a shiver rippling through me.
He was stepping into the water and he glanced up, catching my look as I stared. I feared he would be angry, but instead a broad smile lit his handsome face and his green eyes fairly glowed.
"Are you cold, March-warden?"
"Uh, no, your majesty."
"Then I trust you plan on joining me," he chuckled.
"Certainly, certainly," I said, hastily doffing my clothing and sliding into the hot water.
Thranduil was already relaxed, lying back in the pool as he watched me undress. I could not bring myself to steal a glance and see if he liked what he saw. I settled in opposite him, letting the hot water work its magic on my muscles, especially the muscles of my thighs, which were sore from riding all day.
"This is quite a bathing chamber you have, Lord Thranduil," I said by way of conversation.
"Yes, it was created in much better days. It's my favorite room in the fortress."
"I can see why," I said.
"You know, I like you Haldir. Your innocence of our ways, your readiness to undertake a dangerous journey in the interest of mending fences between our people. You intrigue me."
"You have always been a mystery and curiosity to me, your majesty. I wanted to meet you myself."
"And now that you have, what do you think?" His eyes gleamed merrily.
"I wish I had made the journey sooner," I smiled.
"And what did your lady wife say when she found out you were leading a mission into the heart of Mirkwood?"
"I have no wife, lord. Nor do any of my men. Few women have remained these past years and those that have are wedded."
"I might have guessed as much. Since my wife sailed, I have seen the marriages and children dwindle with each passing ennin. It saddens me, yet we continue to thrive in small ways. Recently two of our youngest were wed and a little one is expected soon."
"I can see your desire to remain on these shores as long as there is the slightest hope."
"I have been on the edge of losing hope many times, but your presence here has renewed it," Thranduil said, gazing deeply into my eyes.
I swallowed as I gazed back at him, my mouth dry with expectancy. "I have hope as well, of quite a simpler nature. Yet I would not presume to burden you. I know nothing could come of. . ."
Before I could finish my sentence his lips were upon mine, his strong hands pulling me against him. I seized him in a fast embrace, my hunger for him fueled by the force of his overture. We grappled aggressively, a duel for dominance of each kiss, each touch. My fingers dug into the muscles of his shoulders and his into my lower back we as pressed avidly together. The cold air surrounding the hot pool was a pleasant contrast to our heated wrestling and the rising of our arousal.
I pushed away from the kiss, seeking a tastier challenge as I moved down to bite his tender, fur-clad chest. He responded by grasping my buttocks and grinding his hardness against my belly, a moan of delight singing from his throat. I forced one hand between us and seized him, my fingers clasping and tugging strongly as I fulfilled my vision and let my tongue speak its adulation of his muscular torso. I released his arousal, preparing to dive beneath the steamy water. My mouth keen to complete what my hand had started, but he seized me and pulled me away roughly.
"You are eager, March-warden," he said, his deep voice thick with need.
"And are you then timid?" I challenged. "Why do you deny my desire to pleasure you?"
"Because I have desires too, my dear Haldir. Desires I intend to satisfy if you will but turn around."
"I will deny you, lord, but only because I insist on seeing your face as you come undone."
With that, I straddled him, scissoring his waist between my thighs as though mounted upon a horse. I reached behind me to guide his arousal and plunged downward, taking him in as the water lapped in small swells around us. He cried out, his hands gripping my hips, his beautiful face in an aspect of sheer joy as he drove upward. He slid in deeply and I grasped him with my inner muscles, groaning in satisfaction as I sought to pace his thrusts to my pleasure. I shifted slightly and his next plunge brought his arousal into contact with a place within me that made me growl and paw at him like an animal.
"Again!" I shouted, jerking my hips to his rhythm to increase the sensation.
"Harder!" I cried, and he obliged with all his might.
Our mouths locked then and his hand grasped my arousal as it rode the waves of his undulating belly, his hand stroking me hard and fast, completing the circle of our pleasure that spiraled us up to the stars winking from the sky of the bathing chamber. When we knew we were close, we broke our kiss, I looking into his eyes and he into mine, sharing the enraptured intimacy of our release.
Gasping and moaning, I clung to him. His strong arms embraced me, his lips brushed my flushed, damp cheek. At last I slid off him and we lay in the pool for a while longer before climbing out to take a plunge in the cold pool of the spring glade. My ardor cooled at last, we dressed and returned to Thranduil's chambers where he had meat and drink brought for us. We ate, chatting companionably far into the night. Finally I told him I must go back to my rooms.
"Why not remain here?" Thranduil asked.
"My men will be wondering about me, asking questions I would rather not answer just yet."
"Very well," Thranduil said. "We shall meet again upon the morrow and make plans for the feast."
I made my way back to the room to find Rúmil and the others waiting anxiously.
"Where have you been, brother?" Rúmil asked. "We were getting worried about you."
"A private supper with the king. It seems he has taken a liking to me," I said, hoping my eyes did not give away the extent of this mutual fondness.
"That is good," Celebneldor said. "I had thought our mission in vain after last night, but it seems our journey has served some purpose."
We chatted for a bit longer and then, after everyone turned in, I caressed myself to another orgasm, the sight of Thranduil's nude beauty dancing before my eyes.
The next day the king was caught up with plans for the feast and with court matters and did not have much time for chatting. Then the day after was the feast. We had never experienced anything quite like the exuberance of the Wood-elves in their cups. The singing and storytelling lasted far into the night. Rúmil and I remained in the king's hall but Celebneldor and Erebel feasted in the woods with the Elves they had met on the day of our false hunt.
That night, Thranduil invited me again to share his rooms and I decided I must tell Rúmil what had transpired between us. I expected there might be some difficulty or hard feelings, but was surprised when he said, "It is about time, brother. I was beginning to despair for you."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "I have been content with my life and my service."
"But you have always had a place in your heart none of the Golden Wood could fill. Orophin and I have our special friends and are content. But I have always known that kind of life would not suit you. You are a seeker, Haldir, and a seeker can never be satisfied until he finds what he seeks."
"What is it I have been seeking?" I asked, bewildered.
"What we all seek, brother. What we all find if we keep our hearts open to possibility. Love."
The next days went by quickly, too quickly for my liking. Yet Thranduil and I spent as much time together as we could. I knew I yet had a duty to discharge, just as Thranduil had a duty to his people. Finally the day came when we knew we must part.
The four of us had our gear packed and ready to go when Thranduil called me to his rooms.
"You have not changed your mind?" he asked, sadness dulling his bright eyes.
"I cannot, Thranduil. I must be there to fight with my people."
"Very well, Haldir, I understand. Though it grieves me to see you go. I hope when this is all over you may find your way back to me. I shall be waiting."
"If it is possible, I shall," I promised.
Just then a messenger burst in. "An army, my lord, several thousand strong at least, upon our eastern border!"
Thranduil looked at me with concern. "You must go quickly. Take the Elf Path back as swiftly as you're able. They will not attack from that side of the wood, not yet."
I rushed back to my men and told them what must be done. Rúmil clapped me on the shoulder. "You have made the right decision, Haldir. I know it."
We hastened from the stronghold and to the Elf Path, two Mirkwood guards leading the way. When we came to the place where we had first encountered the March-wardens, I seized Rúmil in a fierce embrace.
"The blessings of the Belain go with you all."
"And you, brother," Rúmil said, his eyes glistening.
"Tell Lord Celeborn of my decision. I hope he will understand.
"He will," Rúmil assured me. "I know he will."
I had only time to watch them take off at a run before I turned back to the stronghold. "Come," I said to the Mirkwood guards, "let us go and protect our people."
We set off on our return to the mountain halls, Thranduil's halls. I would fight with him, die with him if that was to be our fate, but I would not leave this wood again, not even for Aman. I had found my home at last.
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.