6. The Counsel of the Wise
"And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
Details, details, details. The rough excavation of the caves had been completed, the rooms and hallways laid out according to Thranduil's design. The light and ventilation shafts were in place, and so was the piping that brought water down from the huge cistern at the top of the mountain. Now it came down to the more prosaic details: the fittings for the kitchens, the design of the torch-holders for the passageways and the sconces for the living chambers, and the patterns of the wooden doors for those same chambers, for privacy was just as important in a cave as in a wooden palace.
It felt good to be reaching the end of the project, and yet the approach of the time when he could put aside his nagging fear also hastened the inevitable confrontation with Lalaithiel. And that was Thranduil's greatest fear of all.
He sat at his desk, playing with his pen, a lovely instrument with a handle of carved deer horn and a silver nib that saved on the time he spent sharpening now that he was doing so much writing and drawing. He was sketching idly on a design of leaves and vines that he thought might look good on the mantel of the fireplace in his new privy chamber. Anything, anything to keep his mind off the conundrum.
The door creaked open and Galion's dark head peered around the jamb. "My Lord . . ."
"Yes, Galion?" Thranduil traced the veins on a leaf, darkening them for emphasis.
"There are two visitors who desire an audience with you."
Thranduil put on his kingly face, rose, and went out through the door to the throne dais. At first glance, the two strangers seemed to be elderly mortal men dressed in robes more of Mannish than Elven cut, one a soft grey and one brown. The one in brown, the shorter of the two, with shaggy brown hair that matched his clothing, was staring out the window in seeming fascination at a robin singing on a branch of a nearby tree and did not mark his approach. The other peered at him intently from beneath bushy grey eyebrows, with a shrewd, measuring look.
Thranduil blinked. For a moment, the vision of the old men wavered, and he fancied he saw two shimmering beings, taller, younger, and glowing with a shifting light. Some glamour was at work here. In addition, he felt the sort of odd sensation he had experienced only in Mordor and recently in the southern reaches of his own woods, but rather than the cold malevolence of the Accursed, these two radiated a feeling of benevolence tempered with quiet strength.
'Oh, what have we here?' Thranduil asked himself as he smoothed his robes and settled onto the throne.
The brown one turned -- he hadn't the failing hearing of an old Mortal at any rate -- and smiled, with an utter lack of guile in his gold-flecked brown eyes. 'This one,' Thranduil told himself, 'I can trust.' The other? Now, that was a different matter. The other one, the leader obviously, although Thranduil could not have explained how he knew it, still regarded him with the benign air of a favorite uncle, yet something lay beneath -- a sense of purpose in those young-old eyes. 'This one will not hesitate to use me if he must,' Thranduil thought. 'He means me well -- he means all of us well -- but . . . he serves a different master.'
Thranduil felt himself probed mentally, as he so often did to Mortals himself. He smiled blandly and shut the intrusion out. He cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow expectantly.
The grey one smiled back.
'Well, I'll be dipped in orc-shit!' Thranduil thought with wry amusement. 'He's going to make me speak first.' He really would have to keep an eye on this one, whoever or whatever he was, with the stones to put a king on the defensive in his own palace. Aloud, he said, "What may I call you, my friends?"
"Incanus, they named me in the south when I journeyed there," the grey one replied. "The Dwarves of the great dwarrow in the Misty Mountains, the one you Elves call Moria and Durin's Folk call Khazad-dûm, have dubbed me Tharkûn. But among your folk, I am known as Gandalf."
"Elf of the staff," Thranduil murmured, with a nod at the tall gnarled stick the fellow carried, although he seemed no Elf -- at least in the shape of his body. He did have about him that odd light that Thranduil had come to associate with the Lachenn exiles he had met at the war in the south, and who still hung about Elrond Peredhel's sanctuary at Imladris. "It seems a most fitting name for you, Grey Wanderer."
"And now it seems you have another, Brother Dreamer," the brown one said. "Mithrandir -- it suits you. I am Radagast, my lord Thranduil," he continued. "I too have several names, but I like Radagast the best. So much better than 'fool' which I have been called also."
That brought a chuckle out of Thranduil. He definitely liked this one. "What brings you to my halls?"
"Passing through on my way to the east," said the one called Gandalf, "in search of two colleagues who came before me. Perhaps you may have seen them, fellows in blue traveling in a pair?"
Thranduil shook his head, and Gandalf reached into his robes, as if he had almost forgotten something. It was the gesture of an old man, charmingly harmless, and Thranduil was not fooled for an instant. "Elrond Halfelven gave me this letter for you, as long as I was headed this way."
Gandalf passed a rolled parchment to a footman, who brought it up to the throne. Thranduil took it, broke the seal and read:
Thranduil, the letter began, in Elrond's neatly rounded tengwar, I'm sure you will show the bearers of this letter your customary hospitality. The grey Ithron in particular. He is more than he seems at first glance, and Cirdan agrees with me. He shows an especial interest in the new presence in the south of your woods, the tower we have begun to call Dol Guldur.
Thranduil held back a bitter smile. 'His woods' indeed? How like the Golodhrim to hold him responsible for every little thing that went wrong in these parts. The tower lay directly across the river from Amroth's realm of Lothlórien and should really have been Amroth's problem, although in Amroth's defense, the current king of the Golden Wood was in no better position to fight off the threat, what with his armies having been almost as badly depleted at the battle of the Dagorlad, than was Thranduil. With the Anduin, wide and deep at that point, providing a natural barrier, why should he bother?
Now, if mithril had been discovered in the southern wood rather than orcs, Thranduil had no doubt that Elrond and his Golodhren advisors would be disputing ownership of the territory. For now, it was his problem. He scanned the rest of the letter quickly -- just the usual pleasantries and Elrond's signature. Thranduil re-rolled the parchment and began to stuff it into his own robes for safe-keeping. He halted at the last minute, wrinkling his nose.
'Nuath!' It smelled just like that horrid pipeweed of which the Naugrim were so fond, the dried and crumbled leaf the Men of Gondor called sweet galenas and everyone else called Westman's weed. Had this Gandalf taken up the nasty habit too? Thranduil sincerely hoped the old man would be willing to take his pipe and his smoke outside. He handed off the parchment to Galion, who bore it away as if he were carrying a dead rat.
"You have concerns about Amon Lanc, Master Gandalf?" Thranduil said.
"Yes, Dol Guldur," Gandalf replied, and Thranduil suppressed a little shudder to hear that foul name spoken aloud for the first time. "The Council --"
Gandalf smiled disarmingly. "A group of the Elven Wise, and another member of my order."
"I see." Thranduil tried his best to keep his frown from showing. As a prince of the realm first, and later King, he had rarely experienced the snub of not being invited to a party, but there was a first time for everything, he supposed. Of course, a Silvan rustic such as himself would not be deemed fit to join the Council of the Wise. He caught Radagast regarding him with a rueful smile and realized that the brown wizard had not been included in the august body either. "Go on please."
"The Council suspects the tower's builder may be one of the Nine, perhaps Khamûl the Easterling."
"I pray that you are right, Master Gandalf," Thranduil said. Having one of the Ulairi so close would be bad enough, but he found it preferable to his worst suspicions about the dark tower's inhabitant. "Even so, I fear you may be overly optimistic. What are your plans?" Mistaken though this Council of the Wise might be, Thranduil would take any help he could get.
"On my return from the East, my lord Thranduil," Gandalf continued, "I may take a closer look for myself."
"I would strongly advise against that," Thranduil said. "But you are not my subject. It is your own choice."
"My lord," said Radagast, "I would ask your leave to dwell for a time at the western borders of your forest. The birds and beasts of your land intrigue me."
"You have my permission and my blessing, good Radagast," Thranduil told him. "The creatures of the wood, and the Woodmen too, will need more than one protector in the days to come. Now, my guests, please come and enjoy the comforts my palace has to offer, such as they are." 'And for as long as they last,' he finished silently, knowing that he would not tarry here for long . . .
* * *
The trees had changed. How long had it been since he last took this trail? The lifespan of oaks, surely. Tûron and Nîwel were frequent honored guests at the palace, but Thranduil, busy with other duties, had little occasion to visit the haunts of the Evair.
Today he felt the same as when he had first trod the winding upward path behind his new bride as a nervous supplicant, a stranger to an alien culture, sick with fear at the prospect of losing that which was most important to him. In more than a thousand years it seemed he had come full circle. Only the trees were different.
He found Lalaithiel's father sitting in the shade of an elm tree beside his hut, leaning back against the broad trunk and hollowing out the bowl of a cup made of a solid oak burl. "Good morning, Hîr Adar," he said, sinking down beside him to sit cross-legged on the ground.
Tûron remained intent on his work, the thin curls of hardwood falling away before the blade of his knife: the same knife Thranduil had exchanged with him on the night of his coming of age ceremony, its blade now grown thin with repeated sharpening. "I hear you are planning to leave us, Thara-ndhul."
"Yes, Hîr Adar, and that is why I have come here today, to ask if you will come with us to the north."
Tûron shook his head, and another chip of wood fell away. "I do not intend to."
"In that case, I have come to beg you and your people to come with us. These woods are no longer safe."
Tûron looked up and around, finishing with an eloquent glance to the south. "I know that better than most, son. But they are no longer my people to lead. Some, I think, will go with you into the north. Others will not. I intend to stay here and take my chances."
"That is madness, Tûron. Do you think I wished to do this thing? But I have no choice." Thranduil paused and threw up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "Your daughter . . . Lalaithiel, is reluctant to leave all she has known. She is unwilling to live underground, even though it is the only place she can be safe."
"Can you really blame her?"
"No," Thranduil sighed. "But if you and your lady were to come with us, to be safe too, it might ease some of her pain."
"Do you recall, at the very beginning, how I told you there would come a time when the burden would grow heavy? Well, you are getting your first taste, and it is a bitter one indeed. I am sorry, son, but I cannot."
"Hîr Adar, I . . . I am afraid that she won't come with me."
Tûron set aside his carving and regarded Thranduil with a sad smile. "Let me tell you a story . . .
"I recall a time before the sun first rose, with the moon chasing her. We lived beside the waters then, and the cool, pure light of the stars was gentle on our eyes. The others had left us long before, in a time that only my parents could recall. The Dark Hunter -- the one who had taken youths and maidens out on solitary business -- seemed only legend designed to frighten the young ones from wandering too far astray; he bothered us no more.
"Then, the world began to change. The sun's bright light blinded us at first, but it revealed colors I had never thought possible. Even in the time of darkness we came to call the night, the moon waxed and waned, leaving us only three days out of every twenty-eight when the stars could be seen as they were meant to be, to do our solemn business of taking our mates, investing our kings, and singing our paeans to the One who put us beside those waters. It was at such a time that I took Nîwel to wife and received the knife that you carry now.
"There were many who decried the changes, calling it the work of fell hands in the West, but I embraced the new world for its beauties. I found it exhilarating."
Tûron paused, and his expression became solemn. "But not all change is kind. A new light appeared in the sky, a star that moved, brighter than all the others. We began to hear rumblings from the west, as if of a distant storm. One evening, a ball of fire flew overhead from east to west with a shriek that curdled the spirit and made us clap our hands over our ears. All that night, the ground shook like a dog ridding itself of fleas, so violently that none of us could keep to our feet. The sea began to slosh. I remember how Nîwel and I lay clasped together, listening as huge chunks of rock peeled away from the cliffs and crashed into the bay, thinking each moment would be our last.
"The next morning, the sun rose on a dim day, as if her face were veiled in smoke and ash. Instead of the waters, we beheld mudflats where fish flopped and died, as far west as the eye could see. Within a few days they began to stink. Within months, they had dried into a sea of burning sand that stung our eyes when the wind blew out of the west. And it did, Thara-ndhul -- it did. And still we waited, for the rains that never came."
Thranduil recalled his own father speaking in awed tones of a night when the earth trembled and groaned and he came out of his cave in the Ered Luin the next morning to find the sea lapping at his feet, where all of Beleriand had lain. Truly, had the disaster been so far-reaching?
"There were some who muttered that the One, finding some fault in our faith, had turned from us and was testing us," Tûron continued. "Perhaps it was so -- I did not know. What I did know was that what little water had remained was now disappearing. The game had died or moved away, and we would die too, unless we left. Many others agreed with me.
"Nîwel wept and railed and accused me of ripping the heart out of her for dragging her from all she knew and loved. Her own father was resolved to stay, being no more willing to follow me west than he had Araw or the Greycloak. She swore she would not come with me if I persisted in my madness. I almost lost my nerve, then. How did I know but that the entire world had burned and withered, leaving us to wander westward through a wasteland until we died and left our bones bleaching in the sand?"
"You did the right thing," Thranduil said. "You are here, and you are alive."
"I knew it in my heart," Tûron said, with a bitter smile. "Or am I merely speaking with the keenness of hindsight? You see, son, I have walked in your shoes, questioning my own wisdom and facing the prospect of losing something more important to me than my own life."
"What did you do?"
"We are here, are we not? But as I took my first steps westward away from the Waters of Awakening, leading a train of the like-minded, my heart felt like a stone. When, at the last moment, Nîwel fell into line beside me, silent and weeping but with me, I knew I could never risk such a thing again. I promised her that I would never henceforth require such a sacrifice from her, and to that, I remain true. Fortunately, the decision is mine no longer."
"I don't understand," Thranduil said.
"Even now?" Tûron shrugged and sighed. "I still wonder what became of those we left behind. Our travels were hard and long, but eventually we came to the Greenwood and found a home beneath the trees. Here, we had our family and built a new life. It isn't the Waters, but it has sufficed. Neither Nîwel nor I are eager to leave it."
"You can do it again, Hîr Adar. I beg you, come north with me to safety."
Tûron shook his head. "No, Thara-ndhul. I have done it once, and I shall do it no more. Here, in these mountains, I will stay to meet whatever end awaits me."
Thranduil sighed. "That leaves me in a very uncomfortable position."
Tûron shrugged and picked up his partially finished bowl again. "I must do what I have to do, and you must do what you need to do. That is the way of the world."
"But what of your daughter -- my wife?"
Tûron favored him with a final smile. "She will do what she wishes. And that, son, is between the two of you."
* * *
On his way back home, Thranduil took a detour to their special spot, the clearing where he had first come across Lalaithiel bathing and had watched, dumbstruck, as the water cascaded from her naked body like white gems. The lean-to of pine branches that he had built with his own hands had collapsed into the earth long ago. Thranduil smiled, recalling the days when he would follow her about like a puppy, carrying her basket for her, only to end up in this spot, sitting with her cuddled under his arm, talking for hours on end. How long had it been since he filled that shelter with mountain flowers for her? How long since they had been here together at all?
Something had been lost over the years, he began to understand, and he would have to find it again if he did not want to lose her entirely.
Back in his study, he spent hours hunched over his desk working with his pen and paper. A footman had been in to light the afternoon candles and gone again before Thranduil summoned Séregon to him and held out his finished drawing. "See that this gets to the cavern artisans and that they begin work on it as soon as possible."
"But, Sire -- are you certain of this?"
"Am I ever uncertain of my orders?" Well, of course, he was privately uncertain of many things, but it had been many ennin since he'd had the luxury of showing it. "I know the interior of that mountain like the back of my own hand. It will be as I say. See to it, Séregon, that it is done as soon as possible."
Now, pray Elbereth, let it work . . .
* * *
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.