The Black Arrow
Arrow!" said the bowman. "Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true King under the Mountain, go now and speed well!"
It was brought from the Lonely Mountain, from the forges of the true King under the Mountain. But it was taken from Smaug’s horde by someone quite unexpected.
The story of how the Black Arrow came to be in Bard’s hands, and how Legolas got his tattoo.
Disclaimer: No money. Not profit. Just a bit of fun.
Chapter 1: Dragon-fire
He smelt the burning before the messages reached him, had seen the strange, spike-winged shape flying high above the forest canopy, moving fast, faster than a hunting eagle, bigger, higher up... No bird. Headed for Erebor and its wealth, riches...its river of gold. He knew.
‘A Dragon is come,’ he had said and Galion’s already pale face had paled further.
There was no time to warn the dwarves, or Esgaroth or Dale. The raft-elves returned ashen-faced with tales of the Dragon soaring through the air; a spark of fire getting ever closer and the people along the Long Lake had stopped and stared in wonder at first...And then the Lake had rippled red like fire beneath the beating of the dragon’s immense wings* The Dragon had circled for a while above the mountain, and then suddenly stooped, plummeted to the earth and the trees had caught fire in the rush of flames from his jaws, and the wind from his passing set the bells ringing in Dale. The raft Elves could not hear or see all that happened then on the Mountain, but they could see great gouts of fire flaring up into the sky, and every now and again, the Dragon would leap into the air and roar down the mountainside, the trees like beacons of its passing. In Dale and Esgaroth, folk ran screaming, panicked as the River Running truly turned to gold, and red for it reflected the flames that tore through Erebor and turned the dwarven realm to ash.
The Woodelves listened in horror and looked at each other in fear. Erebor, Dale and Esgaroth. They were too close. The Elves retreated to their stone stronghold, hoping the wealth of the Dwarves would sate the dragon’s appetite.
But Thranduil knew it would not be enough.
Smaug. Golden. Old...Greedy.
The Woodelves huddled in their stone halls and wondered how long it would be. They looked anxiously around at the caverns, dwarf-delved but elven, light and airy, lit by great globes of light like starlight. It was like Cuiviénen. Not like a cave, an enchanted place hidden and guarded by the King’s magic. And they wondered how long it would hold out before the Dragon.
The Forest was already restless; malice as great as the Dragon crept upon the edges of the Woodland Realm. Shadow crept through the forest, lingered in dells and the dark places. Slowly the trees turned towards the darkness and the forest became a place of evil. The Elves no longer dwelt in the South. Spiders crept into the Wood, the spawn of Ungoliant, and Wargs. Worse things too, and screams were heard in the night that were made by no living beast or man. Though Thranduil had sent more messages than he could count to the White Council telling them of his suspicions, his fears. The White Council, he almost sneered. Useless. And Galion was less polite. The only one Thranduil had any time for was Mithrandir who visited from time to time and cast some useful spells and listened at least sympathetically to Thranduil’s fears.
An alliance with a Dragon against the Elves might seem a good thing to the Necromancer.
Thranduil watched the sky, the Mountain. There was sometimes smoke from the Mountain and thrice now, Smaug had been seen in the sky, turning the ridges of pines to fire but he had not come West. He had not come to the Wood. The Dragon had settled on his bed of stolen gold, and lost jewels. But the Elvenking did not forget his dangerous neighbour and he wondered often what was in Smaug’s mind; he was sated for now it seemed. But it would not be forever.
Though it went against his nature, the King knew in his bones and blood it was not he who would slay this Dragon. He had dreamed often...
A vast, red-gold Dragon, fast asleep and dreaming of gold; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, a wisps of smoke; but his fires were lower in slumber.* Beneath him gold. Coins spilled out from under his huge coiled tail...goblets and chalices, necklaces draped over the chalices, strung like stars. A crown hung jauntily on a golden throne as if someone had just taken it off in celebration, left it for a moment to pursue a lover, a mithril gauntlet cast carelessly aside... Behind him, stretched the cavernous halls, tiers and tiers of arches and terraces lit with a fiery glow. A long forgotten city, like Gondolin or Nargothrond. And rows and rows of coats of mail gleamed, and helms, spears, fine swords and a scattering of gems and jewels gleamed in the red-gold light. But over everything lay a fine layer of ash.
And carelessly, on the floor of the cavernous hall, as if forgotten, lay a black arrow. He reached out and his fingers brushed against it.
When he awoke, his fingers still tingled and there was a light stink of sulphur in the air.
In Thranduil’s forest, the leaves had turned golden and red fifteen times since the Dragon had devastated Erebor. And he was reminded again of the Dragon. It seemed he was not the only one for he received news that Mithrandir had been seen in the Wood, but coming up from the South. It was Legolas’ patrol who had sent the news and his father’s heart hoped that his youngest would escort Mithrandir, but the King knew he would not.
It was a crisp bright morning, when Mithrandir strode up the forest road, chatting merrily to his escort, Anglach, Legolas’ friend. The sunlight pierced the trees here, for it was almost winter, and dappled the soft forest floor. As they approached the stronghold, or the Palace as the Woodelves like do call it for it was fair-wrought if not quite Menegroth, other Elves came out to shout a greeting and to sing a welcome, for Mithrandir was ever a friend to the Wood. Anglach fairly danced beside him, all lightness and energy. The maidens smiled and threw their hair back as he passed for he was handsome and a warrior in the South.
Thranduil waited to greet Mithrandir, standing on the floor before the dais and carved throne, for he did not stand on ceremony with such old friends. He smiled at Anglach, fresh-faced and bright, who carried Mithrandir’s pack though the Wizard was strong and hale, Thranduil knew.
‘I have brought fireworks!’ Anglach called and waved without any sense of deference to his King and Thranduil smiled indulgently but he heard the tut of Galion and the muttered complaint.
‘Hush old friend,’ he murmured softly back over his shoulder. ‘It is Anglach whom you have dandled on your knee and made wooden dragons for more times than I could count.’
‘Humph. And he pissed on me more times than I could count too. That rascal needs to learn some manners.’ But Thranduil did not reply; it was Galion’s way of showing affection to scold and give cake as he scolded. ‘Puked up on me too,’ Galion hissed in his ear and then turned and said gruffly to the grinning Anglach, who had heard every word, ‘Come then rascal child. I suppose you will expect feeding.’
“I swear not to puke or piss on you, Galion,’ Anglach said cheekily and flashed a quick, bright grim at Thranduil that was so like Legolas that it took his breath for a moment. ‘I have some nice black squirrel to help you flavour the lembas. It’s from Legolas. He says it will improve the flavour... Ow!’
Later, much later, Thranduil stood with Mithrandir on the balcony of his study, a wide platform with no rail that looked out over the forest, and above them the stars were a dust of jewels in the night sky.
‘Laersul and Legolas are in the South of the Wood?’ Mithrandir asked, as if casually, but Thranduil knew nothing was ever casual with the Wizard. So he merely inclined his head and kept his eyes on the stars. ‘There is much trouble in the South?’
‘Yes.’ Thranduil said and tried not to answer brusquely for Mithrandir was his only voice on the White Council and it suited him to keep Mithrandir close. He sighed. ‘It is hard to send my sons into such danger,’ he answered more conciliatory. ‘Thalos is here though, you have seen him?’
‘I have. You are right to be proud of him.’ Mithrandir smiled and looked at Thranduil.
‘Yes, he has his mother’s ways.’ Thranduil looked down into the depths of his wine and tried not to be too obviously proud for his heart felt it would burst sometimes when he thought of his bright, handsome sons. ‘I had thought to send him as emissary to Erebor before the Dragon. Laketown is hardly a challenge to his skill.’ Thranduil gave the Wizard the opening that both of them waited for, for Mithrandir had hinted as much earlier during the rather more lavish dinner than was usual in the King’s own rooms. But Galion had always liked Mithrandir too and had been thrown into the kitchens into a frenzy of baking and cooking.
Mithrandir turned away from the starlit night and settled deeply into one of the armchairs that flanked the fire. The fire was lit and crackled and burned, the glowing red embers settled and deep red wine glowed in goblets of soft burnished pewter.
‘I met Thrór in the Blue Mountains you know.’ Mithrandir flicked a deep gaze at Thranduil. ‘He was smithing. Making tools for Men.’
‘I believe that dwarvish-made tools are of the highest quality,’ Thranduil replied blandly and raised his goblet to his full lips. He looked at Mithrandir from beneath his lashes. It was no shame to work, he thought. He and his sons worked alongside everyone else all through the year, and all of his sons fought beside the warriors of the Wood. But he thought Thrór would take it hard. He shrugged. ‘It will be hard for him, but harder still for his son,’ he observed, remembering Thror’s son, Thrain, who was prouder still and was stiff-necked indeed.
‘I have something that I need you to keep for me...In whatever way you think is best.’ The Wizard drew a pouch from somewhere inside his robes and handed it to Thranduil. ‘Do not ask how I came by it. That is another story and I may tell it to you sometime. But for now at least, it is in your care. You know what it is.’
He did indeed know it, and was astonished and left much richer. When Mithrandir left three days later, he hid the treasure deep and spoke of it to no one...Until now, he had barely looked at it.
Of course he heard the news of the death of the last King-under-the-Mountain at the hands of the Orcs. He did not grieve for he had no love for Dwarves. But the dreams began again...
... The Mountain gilded and the river ran gold...Upon the heights, the trees burned, and the sky was aflame...A blast of red lightning shot through the night and there was the sound of great reptilian wings whumping the air...
When he awoke he looked for the Black Arrow he had clutched in his hand, but it was not there of course. Years later, he heard that Thror’s death had been avenged and he wondered if the sons of Thror dreamed of gold, and revenge. Or if the Dragon knew what was in their minds... He sat on his talan beneath the stars and drank rich wine and wondered if Smaug thought the Elves might succour the heirs of Thror.
Thranduil searched the eastern skies every night for dragon-fire. Every night he drank, thinking of how to shore up his stronghold against the Shadow, against the Dragon should he come. Every night, he dreamed.
...He walked through vast, empty hall and gazed upwards to the tiers and tiers of arches and terraces lit with a fiery glow. A long forgotten city, like Gondolin or Nargothrond. And rows and rows of coats of mail gleamed, and helms, spears, fine swords and a scattering of gems and jewels gleamed in the red-gold light. But over everything lay a fine layer of ash.
Nestling against his heart, was a treasure richer than all the gold under the Mountain...It left the hoard incomplete....
Mithrandir had said, keep it for him... in whatever way Thranduil thought best. He knew then what he had to do; the bargain he had to strike.
Looking down at his hand, Thranduil clenched his fingers slowly, hooked them so they were like talons. He thought how like scales was skin, and how like talons his long, elegant fingers more used to sword now than harp, for the Forest was beset. And no help to come, he thought bitterly. For his fingers were not talons, his skin not scales but easily pierced. No, he was not invincible. He had no weapon against Smaug that equalled the Dragon’s hide and claws and fire. He only had Mithrandir’s gift.
Carefully, he removed the old gold rings set with the emeralds that he preferred, and the fiery ruby that was his from his father, and slipped them into a wooden box before he left, lay them beside a necklace and lightly let his fingers caress the delicate chain as if it were the neck of she who had owned it. He held his hands before him, naked, and thought he would have to rely on his wits.
Far over the Misty Mountains cold....
To dungeons deep and caverns old..
We must away ‘ere break of day..
To seek the pale enchanted gold...
It was not gold that Thranduil sought, but something much more precious.
When he set off, it was in secret and with only his old friend, Galion, with his sharp green eyes to watch his back, to bear the news of his fall. They would have tried to stop him, had they known, his gallant sons, his trusted friends. His impossible youngest.
Their light forest raft skipped easily over the rapids and pools of the Forest River and down to Esgaroth. From there they passed through ruined Dale and its charred, empty towers and the blackened skeletons of the houses. They saw the sad grey ghosts of Men lingering on the riverbank. Thranduil sketched a blessing over them and they faded in the early morning light.
They did not linger and he made Galion stay at the edge of The Desolation of Smaug, for the King would not risk any of his folk. He went on alone.
Desolation indeed, Thranduil thought. It was a bleak, forsaken place. Grey rocks, scree slopes, towering grey granite cliffs and the once paved road was broken, smashed by Smaug’s huge talons, his volcanic heat. More than smashed, thought Thranduil, looking down; the stone had melted and the once pristine marble that Dwarves had used to richly pave their road, had the look of lava, molten though it had long since cooled...but beneath it all, he felt heat...fire...a smoulder of flame that merely slept for a while.
There were no trees. The pines that had cloaked the shoulders of the mountain had burned and perished like everything else and there were only charred and blackened stumps to mark the avenue that had shaded the Dwarves as they traded and travelled.
He climbed upwards, through the Desolation of Smaug and his lungs filled with the stink of sulphur and the hot metallic tang of Dragon. Under his feet the scree slipped and slid, and rocks bounced down the slopes far below. Ahead of him the river still streamed from the cavernous opening in a great cliff wall between the arms of the Mountain. But as well as the white water of the river there came steam and a dark smoke, and every now and again, a black crow flapped above. The only sound was the stony water and the harsh croak of the crow.*
Thranduil looked up and watched the crow for a moment. It regarded his with its beady eye but said nothing and Thranduil began to climb again.
Ahead of him now, there were glints and twists of metal, scattered between the rocks and scrub grass grew long. There was treasure to be had, he realised, if one was brutish enough, and he bent over one to discern what it was, and recoiled in horror. Long wiry hair was stuck to the metal and he realised this had been dwarvish armour and mail, and it had melted and the occupant seared, burned, incinerated...What looked like thin black twigs clung to a twist of metal, and he realised it was a small hand, a child perhaps. Its fragile little bones lay twisted as if it had curled up on itself. He gently moved the small skeleton closer to the melted armour, he could not really say why for it would not comfort any who perished on that dreadful day and it was years now since the Mountain rang with dwarven hammer or the deep chanting of their songs. Thranduil, who had seem much over his long, long years in the Forest, on the edges of Mordor, in Dagorlad and before, found himself moved with pity. He bowed his head for a moment over these pathetic bones and hoped it would not befall his own people.
Above him, an eagle cried. Then a second eagle shrieked, high, high above and he looked up into the sky. The eagles wheeled and looped about each other, high on the sun-warmed thermals, but here in the vale before the Mountain, it was shadowed and cold.
Still watched by the crow, he picked his way over the broken stone and melted metal and listened. In the stones of the Mountain it seemed to him, were locked the cries of panic and despair. He heard the echo of the roar of the Dragon and the terrible fire that erupted from its gaping maw, the screams of Dwarves as metal melted onto their skin, caught light in their flesh, boiled their blood and melted their bones.
Ahead of him, the mouth of Erebor opened. A mouth indeed, he thought, and for a moment, his heart faltered. But his people were not safe and what good was a King who cowered and waited for the Enemy to come to him? It was not the way of the House of Oropher. His lips thinned wryly. Perhaps he should have told Laersul before he left, prepared him to be King as Thranduil himself had not been...
He sighed as he trudged up the slope; Laersul would have forbidden it and Thalos would have persuaded him that he should go instead, he thought. And Legolas would have pleaded with him to go as well, like it was some merry trip. The thought if his sons made him proud and his heart surged with love.
No matter, there was no going back now.
He strode through the gaping mouth of the cave like the King he was, merely visiting another King. He stepped from the grey daylight into the strange gloom of the Halls of Erebor.
The air was warmer than he expected, the smell of sulphur and metal stronger. A low rumbling throbbed through the air, like a huge cat purring somewhere deep in the heart of the Mountain. He shook himself. No cat this, except it might like to play a little first, and was that not what he was hoping?
He glanced behind him once, at the great iron doors that were buckled and twisted. They looked smooth, polished clean, but it was heat that had melted the crown of Durin from the doors. Thranduil did not steal silently through the great halls. He strode at first. He had not even a knife in his hand and still he did not pause,even to wonder. No. In his dream he had nothing but his wits. That had made Galion laugh long and loudly until he realised what Thranduil intended.
Beneath his feet something cracked, a thin shell of something and he glanced down; rounded domes gleamed slightly like ivory in the red-gold glow that came from deep within the Mountain... He stepped cautiously over the strange domes until his feet brushed one and it toppled sideways...empty sockets and hard white teeth. Skulls. They were all skulls... and bones amid the twisted metal. This must have been where the Dragon trapped those trying to escape the Mountain, and simply blasted them like a furnace. He held onto his heart and breathed slowly. And listened then, titled his head to one side and half closed his eyes...There was the panic, the fear. Heat beyond any furnace or forge and their screams were trapped in the walls of great cavern. It was a terrible death.
He cast his gaze slowly about the cavernous and empty darkness and remembered Erebor as it had been. Before the Dragon. He stood in now what had been the greatest of Erebor’s halls. Letting his hand drift over the marble surfaces of the high, fluted pillars, he stepped carefully through the grave of the Dwarves. Once these pillars had been carved about with wonderful abstracts and runes, alchemical symbols and metallurgical symbols, prayers to Aulë he was told, but now the surfaces were smooth for the stone had melted and run like lava so the pillars looked more like half burned candles with the wax cooled on their great trunks. He remembered that there had been gemstones set in the cornices, and great globes of fire hanging mid-air it seemed, to light the darkness. Once, silver and mithril gilded the roof so the light that came down the great chutes cut into the mountain, flashed and gleamed, and reflected a thousand times. Great brass sconces had borne colossal flaring torches that caught the gold and silver and mithril that cut through the stone, patterned the marble floors. Mithril had laced the great doors, chased through gold and set with jewels. The great halls of the Dwarves had been marvels of the Age...Now, only bones and dust.
He had thought, when he set off, that he would have to search for the Dragon and guessed it would have gathered all the treasure to itself, heaping it into one great hoard upon which it slept. For now at least. But he did not need to guess. The presence of the Dragon was everywhere, the suffocating warmth, the red glow like some demonic furnace, and the rumble like distant thunder...but there was too, a sort of glamour, a lure that pulled him inexorably onwards now.
Deeper he went, further. The air became warm, then hot, then sultry and filled with the sulfurous stink of Dragon. Slowly he edged his way down. He knew he would not be able to steal anything from Smaug but he was not here as a thief, or even dragon-slayer.
He thought perhaps instead he should announce himself.
As it happened, he did not need to.