3. The Cleft in the Rock
"The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks;"
"No, that won't do. It won't do at all." Thranduil threw down the latest report of his scouts, ignoring his chief advisor's look of growing frustration. Site after site had been brought before him only to prove unacceptable. "How will we get our water?"
Water dripping through limestone had carved out the cave eons ago, but the ancient cataclysm that formed the Emyn Duir had raised it far above the ground water. The cave was dry as the fabled deserts of Rhûn.
"There is a spring two furlongs from the cave entrance, Sire. Water can be carried."
"In a siege?" Thranduil sighed. "Séregon, I would not put servants to such a task in the best of times. What else have you?"
"Very little that you have not found fault with already. Either the location is bad or the stone too hard for the delving or the mass of rock too small to house all of us. I begin to think, my Lord, that you do not really want to leave this place."
Thranduil shook his head and ran a weary hand through his hair. "I don't, Séregon. But I must. And if I do move us all, it will be to a place that will stand the test of time. Have you nothing else?"
"There is one, my Lord, a spot our northern scouting parties discovered. It is a natural cave on a river running through the northeast corner of the wood. It has the added advantage that Dwarves have been there some time in the past and done some tunneling. They seem to have abandoned it, though, in favor of that solitary mountain at the head of the River Celduin."
Thranduil almost made a face. If the Naugrim wouldn't have it, why would he, a prince of the Eluwaith want it? But he sensed that he had tried the patience of his nobles with his exacting requirements and he sought at least to make the gesture of being reasonable. "Show me on the map."
"Here, my Lord," said Séregon, smoothing out a chart of the woods on the desk before him and pointing to the spot. "We hesitated to bring it before you because it was so remote . . ."
"It is a goodly distance from here," Thranduil agreed. "But it has the advantage of the river close by. Did the party take a survey of the dimensions of the hill?"
"Preliminary, my Lord. The hill might almost be called a mountain."
Thranduil quirked his lips. Did Séregon think he would be impressed by size? "Show me the report."
For the next twenty minutes, Thranduil pored over the notes of his scouts. The forest outside his window was darkening into twilight when he raised his head from the sheaf of pages. "Séregon, I need to see this place with my own eyes."
He told Lalaithiel he was going hunting. She did not question it, merely wishing him a pleasant respite from the burden of his duties and bidding him farewell with a kiss at his stirrup as he rode out. He had gone hunting before, and, before, he had returned. In a marriage of more than a thousand years, one in which he had been forced to leave her for seven years at the beginning, an absence of a mere two fortnights seemed but a heartbeat and a blink.
Thranduil had never lied to his wife before, not directly. He had kept things from her, most of them inconsequential, others not so. He never spoke of his time in Mordor, hoping to prevent the taint of that foul place from touching her. When he awoke, sweating and gasping in the night, from dreams of blood splattering like rain, the stench of death, and the screams of men dying, he only shook his head and told her to go back to sleep. He had fought so she might never know such horrors.
Of the soldiers' comfort that had passed between him and Galion in that cursed land, of the things a man does to keep himself sane out of fear and need, he had not spoken either. It had nothing to do with her; it need not trouble her.
An unease sat in his chest, a leaden feeling that jogged in the pit of his stomach like the sour remains of last night's dinner with every footfall of his horse as he rode northward. Galion, returned to his duty but still wrapped in his cloak of grief, rode a few paces behind, silent for once.
The lay of the land changed from the steep slopes and deep ravines of the Emyn Duir to gently rolling hills whose rise and fall he barely noticed in the thick forest. The woods changed as well, to a mixture of hardwood oak, ash and elm, with only an occasional evergreen among them. "How I will miss the smell of the pines!" he thought, realizing that he was bidding farewell to the land of his carefree young manhood.
On the sixth day of the first week, his scout signaled him. "Not far now, my Lord. The river lies half a league beyond this point."
Soft drops of autumn rain, still warm yet with a hint of chill that signaled the coming winter, pelted Thranduil's face as his mount picked its way down the side of a ravine that slashed downward through the flat plateau of the forest and led to a narrow flood plain. Beside a river whose banks were overhung with willows and stands of slender poplars, Thranduil paused and smiled, letting the breeze out of the north lift the hair away from his face. The hill, a ridge of limestone that thrust itself proudly up above the surrounding karst, was surely large enough to house them all. Henceforth, he would call it a mountain.
"The mouth of the cave, my Lord, is at the top of that fall of rocks."
Thranduil nodded, still assessing the area. The river was wide and swift enough to provide an obstacle to any invading army. They would have to build a bridge -- or not, given the lesson of Nargothrond. He set the question aside for later consideration.
They crossed a rope bridge strung by the first scouting party. At the top of the pile of scree, one of the scouts lit a torch, and the party went inside, making their way through a twisting natural tunnel lit by the flickering red light. Thranduil felt the cool breath of the cave on his face and nodded in approval; ventilation would be less of a problem in a naturally breathing cavern. From time to time he saw rough tool marks on the walls where the dwarves had widened the tunnel for their own purposes.
"Why do you suppose they left?" asked Séregon from Thranduil's right. The advisor had come along to see the site for the first time himself.
Thranduil managed a shrug as he ducked his head under a low-hanging ridge of rock. The Naugrim had enlarged the tunnel to suit their own ease, not that of taller folk. "No gems or gold to be delved here? But we're not here after treasure, Séregon."
Fifty paces in, the tunnel widened out into a natural chimney that rose high into the darkness. His mind began to work, planning a use for the chamber. He envisioned a grand staircase carved into the rock, rising up several levels.
High above, Thranduil heard the far off squeaking of bats. "Shit," he said.
Séregon turned to him, one eyebrow raised in mild surprise. Thranduil allowed himself the ghost of a smile. He was becoming more and more like his plain-spoken father as the years passed, but such vulgarity was uncharacteristic. "Guano," he explained. "The bat droppings make excellent enrichment for the soil. I had not thought the Naugrim to be very interested in agriculture, but perhaps they hoped to trade it with the Edain further east. At least it made this place worth their while until they determined there were no richer spoils to be had. How deeply did they delve?"
"Not extensively, my Lord," one of the scouts replied. "Down that tunnel there are several chambers -- storerooms, workrooms and a dormitory by the looks of it. It's hard to tell with those folk, and they have long abandoned the place."
Thranduil nodded. The corridor stretched away into the gloom, cut from the living rock and incised with the sort of straight-lined decorations he recognized from his visit to Moria over a thousand years before. The Naugrim had an odd sense of beauty, but no matter; when the tunnel was enlarged to Elven height and comfort, Thranduil would excise the Dwarven frieze and have another carved to his tastes. Vines perhaps, or intertwined tree branches to remind them of the forest outside, of the growing things they had left behind.
"This way, Sire."
Thranduil made as if to follow. 'Wait -- what have we here?" he said, feeling a draft blowing against his right cheek. The current of air issued from a large cleft in the back wall of the natural chamber. He thrust his torch inside for a better look, watching the dance of the flame as it blew back at him. "There's something on the other end of this."
Ignoring his advisor's dubious noises about getting stuck or finding unfriendly animals, Thranduil eased himself into the diminishing crack. Almost immediately, he had to get down on all fours, and soon he found himself crawling along on his belly, pushing the torch in front of him. There came one awful moment edging around a boulder when he thought himself wedged tightly, but he calmed his breathing, let the air out of his lungs and pushed forward. He felt the ground drop beneath him and the hand holding the torch push through into a void. As his body followed, he looked up and smiled. His lips formed one word: Perfect!
The chamber that opened out before him spanned thirty paces from front to back and was almost as wide. Two men could have stood, one upon the other's shoulders, arms stretched high above the head, without the fingertips of the uppermost brushing the vaulted ceiling. The size, however, was not what had inspired Thranduil's pleasured exclamation.
Over the ages, water had dripped down through the ceiling, each drying drop leaving a tiny residue of mineral behind until they had formed an icicle of stone. Correspondingly, spires had built up from the floor, slowly, patiently, until they met in the middle, creating a forest of pillars. Their very randomness pleased Thranduil's sense of beauty.
At the far end of the stone chamber lay a natural ledge of limestone rising above the level of the floor by a height roughly equal to the length of his forearm. Thranduil eased out of the tunnel and picked his way over the rocky debris that littered the ground. He sat down on the ledge and rested his chin upon his drawn up knees. What an ideal spot to place a throne!
Propping his torch against a rock, he let his eyes fall half-closed and allowed his thoughts to drift. He let his mind flow down through the living rock, feeling the mass of the mountain above him, sensing the faults and crannies in the stone that he could exploit to his benefit in the design and delving. Drawing on his memories of Moria, he envisioned the narrow shafts that would bring in fresh air to chase the dankness and the ever-present smell of bat droppings. He plotted out the chimneys that would vent the smoke from the warming hearths and return the stale air to the outside world above. And light! Rather than the flickering red light of his single torch, he saw the glow from carved stone sconces filled with candles. Torches might do for the passageways, but his throne room would twinkle like the light of stars among the tree branches.
He laughed, and the sound echoed between the stone walls and columns, a hollow haunting sound. There came an answering chorus of high-pitched squeaks from the ceiling above, and an eddy of bats descended, buffeting about his face and hair like an angry whirlwind before heading for the tunnel. Thranduil's torch toppled, fell and went out.
"Cursed flittermice," he muttered as his heart began to pound and his eyes tried vainly to adjust themselves to the utter absence of light. The bats would be the first thing to go.
Never had he experienced a blackness so profound. Even during the three days of the month when the moon went dark, the friendly stars lit the sky and bathed the forest in their gentle glow. But now . . . He held his hand up in front of his face, wiggling his fingers experimentally. Nothing.
'Stay calm, don't panic,' he told himself, even though his body had begun to twitch like a frightened horse. It would not do to go blundering about in the dark, breaking an ankle on the rock-strewn floor or dashing out his brains against one of the stone pillars. He forced his breathing back to normal and remained seated on the rocky ledge, hoping that help would come before he had to grope his way back to the entrance.
Clearly, torches and candles would not be enough, for even Elven eyes could not see in pitch blackness. How had the Dwarves dealt with the problem? He cast his memory back to his visit to Moria over a thousand years past to demand satisfaction over a mithril necklace, recalling first the incredible size of the place and then the amenities. Many of the chambers had been dark, illuminated only by candles, but others had been lit by light shafts cut through the rock. And so would he, although Thranduil determined to do the Naugrim one better by bringing the light of day down from above with a series of strategically placed mirrors lining the tubes.
He was smiling at his own cleverness when he spied a faint glow. He blinked to make sure his eyes were not playing tricks on him, but sure enough, the reddish light emanated from the mouth of the tunnel.
"My Lord Thranduil, are you all right?"
He heard Séregon's baritone and Galion's familiar tone of concern, then scuffling, and soon one body popped from the tunnel mouth, followed by the other. Both of them looked a little green in the complexion, he noted with some amusement. The tight spaces seemed to have that effect.
He composed his features and settled on his stone, arranging his limbs as if he were Elu Thingol himself, relaxing on his throne in Menegroth. "Over here. I'm quite well. However, I could use some light."
His advisor and his valet hurried toward him, their faces showing relief. "My Lord, when the bats burst from the crack . . ." Séregon said.
Galion wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air in distaste.
"I know -- it stinks of the guano in here," Thranduil said.
"No -- Dwarves," Galion replied.
Thranduil smiled softly. He supposed it did. "A little air will clear both."
Then Galion's face crinkled. "Look what you've done to your knees and elbows, Sire! And the front of your jacket. I'll have Morgoth's own time getting the dirt out." He began to brush fussily at Thranduil's shoulders and chest.
"Look at yourselves," Thranduil laughed. "Galion, save your efforts until we get back out of here."
The three of them crawled back out on their bellies, Thranduil bringing up the rear in case he really did get stuck this time and required a helping hand to pull him loose. "That is the first thing we'll enlarge," he said, as he stood up and finally allowed Galion to clean him off.
"My Lord?" asked Séregon.
Thranduil merely nodded. "See to it that we take an exacting survey of the dimensions of the mountain. I'll want to know precisely how much room we have to fit our delvings into. This is the place."
Lalaithiel awaited him upon his return. As ever, Thranduil's heart leapt to see her standing at the top of the palace steps when he rode up the path between the beeches and fragrant pines. In a moment, he had dismounted and was at her side.
"Did you get what you were after, my husband?" she said, carefully eyeing the carcass of the deer he had thought to shoot on the journey home and had slung across the back of his saddle.
"Yes, my love," he replied, taking her into his arms and kissing the top of her dark head. "I found it."