But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
Thranduil and his escort picked their way over the rocks and scrub that littered the High Pass though the Hithaeglir. The way had fallen into disrepair since the end of the Third Age, but the pass was still used by Elves who sought to traverse the mountains between the east and west. The company was on foot and well-armed, for orcs and goblins had become more of a presence in the area since Durin VII had retaken Moria seven years ago.
“It is long since I have visited Imladris,” Erestor was saying. “It will be good to see the place again, though a pity Elrond’s sons will not be there.”
“Indeed,” Thranduil replied. “I have rarely seen them, so often are they absent from the valley.”
“They feel their work will never be done as long as the evil creatures of Sauron continue to trouble the land. I doubt they will sail for many years to come,” Erestor said, skirting a large rock on the path.
“While their dedication is admirable, they cannot kill every orc in Arda. If it were possible my people would have done it long ago.”
“Ah, but your people do not live so close to the Hithaeglir,” Erestor reminded him. “The tunnels beneath have been teeming with orcs and trolls for the past two Ages.”
“And my people fought them since they first appeared. We would have routed them from the mountains long ago if not for the stubbornness of the Dwarves.”
“Perhaps that might not be such a good thing to mention at the negotiations,” Erestor said with a chuckle.
Thranduil could not help but smile at this. “I assure you, Councilor, I will be on my best behavior. If successful, this trade will help us finish the work of the Ring War.” He stepped over a cluster of low, scraggly bushes and kicked a few rocks over a steep drop to his left.
“Yes, Durin’s people will want to trade quickly to bolster their fledgling colony now that they have begun their mining operations again.This should put us in a good position to acquire a steady supply of mithril, for a time at least.”
“I hope you are right. Only weapons forged of true silver can kill the foul creatures making incursions into the Greenwood. I fear the latest raids we are seeing from Gundabad may mean the rumors of a new shadow are true.”
“I fear this as well,” Erestor said, navigating his way with care down a dusty slope.
As they left the pass, the decline became steep due to a recent rockslide that had taken out the gradual downward grade of the path. They all fell silent as they concentrated on their footing. On this side of the mountains the daylight was still with them but Thranduil decided they should make camp along the next stream they encountered in order to replenish their water supplies. It was still another half day, at least, to the valley.
“It has been a long time since I have visited Imladris,” Thranduil said. “It will no doubt be much changed with the parting of Elrond, but Lord Celeborn will be pleased to see a familiar face. I mentioned in my message to him that you would be accompanying us, Erestor."
A faint smile touched Erestor’s lips. “I will not be so familiar to him, I’m afraid. We have never met.”
Thranduil was puzzled. “How is that possible? Did you not attend Elrond’s wedding?”
“No, I was in Mithlond at the time on an errand. Despite the frequency of Arwen’s visits to Lothlórien, I never had the pleasure to go myself. I lament that I never took time off to make the journey for I hear it was a marvel of timeless beauty when the Lady was in residence.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised,” Thranduil said. “Relations between the Elven realms grew infrequent in the Third Age. I visited Lothlórien only once and that was in my youth, relatively speaking of course.” He smiled.
Just then, one of the scouts that were reconnoitering the area ran up and motioned for silence.
“There is a party of orcs ahead. A small party we could easily dispatch if it is your wish, Your Majesty,” he said softly.
“How far ahead?”
“Less than half a league. They are heading roughly for this position, though you know how orcs move.”
“No, we would be best served to avoid them for the moment. Dead orcs will only draw unwanted attention to our presence and we wouldn’t want them to increase their patrols so that we have more to deal with on the journey home. Well then, I guess we had better stay to the safety of the trees.”
He turned to his fellow travelers who raised the hoods on their cloaks and drew their weapons. Even Galion, the king’s butler, drew a long knife from his belt.
“We will move north to skirt around them, it will put us closer to the valley anyway. Single file, twenty paces apart. Lhaeghen, you take the point, then me, Erestor, the guards, and then Galion. Geliravar, you bring up the rear.”
They all nodded and entered the grove of trees, keeping their pace light and swift. They managed to skirt the orcs without incident and soon the scout whistled the all clear. The rest of their trip was uneventful, which suited them all just fine. They found a place close to a stream to make camp and the guards constructed some camping flets in the trees above. Thranduil did not want to chance a fire so they filled their waterskins at the stream and ate dry rations before settling into the branches of the welcoming trees.
Since the Dagorlad Thranduil always had difficulty sleeping in the wild. An unseasonably warm wind awakened him well before dawn. He sat on the edge of his flet, looking toward the east. Lothlórien was over those mountains, a shadow of its former self now, but the image in Thranduil’s mind was of the grandeur of days long ago.
The mellyrn soared so high Thranduil was forced to crane his neck to see their tops as he stood on the outer edge of the forest. Their smooth silver-grey bark reminded him of the birches in the Greenwood, but the simple birches of his home bore nothing as beautiful as the golden blossoms filling the air with their delicate perfume. He decided if his mission went well he would ask for a nut or sapling to take back to the Greenwood.
“It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?” his guard said. Thranduil glanced over to see him and the others looking up at the treetops. “I wonder what it would be like to run through those branches with the ground so far below. What good sport that would be.”
“Yes, well, we mustn’t linger if we want to reach Caras Galadhon before sunset,” Thranduil said gruffly and strode off so that his escort had to hasten to catch up. This was his first visit to Lothlórien as King of the Greenwood and he was determined to present himself from a position of strength. He didn’t want his men or his hosts to think him too impressed with the Golden Wood.
Now under the protection of the trees, Thranduil slowed down, surreptitiously basking in the wonder around him. They were surrounded by gold. Gold leaves as large as dinner plates at their feet, gold floating in the air all around as blossoms released their petals in the warm spring breeze. He wanted to stand in one spot and spin with his arms out like a delighted child, but he marched on with determined, confident stride.
“Daro!” a voice called sharply from above, and they all halted and looked up into the trees again. A rope ladder tumbled from the branches above and a warden climbed down. He was dressed in the same smooth sliver-grey as the tree bark. Thranduil thought the camouflage impressive. He would be hard pressed to see one of these men in this forest, even with his keen eyes. “Mae govannen,” the warden said with a bow. “Our Lord and Lady are expecting you.”
“Very well, lead the way,” Thranduil said loftily.
The warden raised an eyebrow, then turned and led them through the forest. Caras Galadhon was the new settlement of the Lothlórien Elves, having been founded by the Lord and Lady a few years prior when an evil presence began to make itself known once again in Dol Guldur. Thranduil’s people were equally wary of this new threat. His scouts reported orcs and fell beasts congregating close to the old fortress but a shadow emanated from the hill impenetrable to even Elf eyes. Thranduil was concerned about the threat and had moved his people well away from the evil influence of the fortress but the corruption surrounding the hill was growing apace.
There was no sign of any blight or blemish on this land, however. Lothlórien was untouched by the shadow. Thranduil suspected some powerful sorcery was involved and he didn’t trust it. Still, with the Lord and Lady establishing this new realm, and his people forced to flee to the North, Thranduil hoped the growing threat from Dol Guldur could be contained with their joint cooperation.
They arrived at Caras Galadhon just as the sun was beginning to set and the first lights began to show from the treetops. They were led up a stair as white as alabaster but made from the sturdy wood of the mellyrn. The bannister was carved to look like living vines, with the glistening, waxy appearance of the same, so cunningly wrought Thranduil was reminded of the white holly of the Greenwood.
As they ascended into the trees with the lights of the telain twinkling all around them it felt as though they were rising up among the stars. Thranduil chanced a look down and saw the world fall away below, adding to the effect. They walked a series of rope bridges to the Great Hall where they were presented to the Lord and Lady.
Even an Age later, sitting in a rough talan on the outskirts of Imladris, Thranduil smiled at the memory of seeing Celeborn for the first time. Tall and regal, his silver hair shining like mithril in the soft light of the lamps, the Lord of Lothlórien exuded a calm, unassuming nobility.
Galadriel stood next to him, the very essence of Elven majesty and beauty, but he could not take his eyes off Celeborn. Thranduil was so captivated he momentarily forgot himself and a long pause ensued before he found his tongue at last.
“Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood, I bring greetings from Eryn Lasgalen. Thank you for receiving me. We have much to discuss,” he said.
“Well met, King Thranduil,” Celeborn replied. "We welcome you and your fellow travelers to our home.”
Galadriel gave him a small nod of acknowledgement but Celeborn took his hand in greeting and smiled with the radiance of a full autumn moon. Thranduil could see the lights of Elbereth in his blue grey eyes and he wanted nothing more than to wander those starlit paths. Just then he felt a touch upon his mind, seeking entrance. He rudely pushed it away and turned to Galadriel with a courteous smile.
“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Galadriel. Your realm is lovely. I have never seen the like of your mellyrn.”
“Thank you,” she replied graciously, though her mouth set itself in a grim line. “This is the only place in Arda where they will grow or I would give you a cutting to take back to the Greenwood.”
Thranduil covered his irritation with a nod and rueful smile. He had not raised his defenses quickly enough it seemed. “What a pity. I was going to ask you about that before we left.”
“It is late and you and your men must be weary,” she said. “We have accommodations prepared for you. Perhaps you would like to rest and postpone more weighty matters until tomorrow.”
Celeborn looked at her curiously but remained silent.
Thranduil looked around at his men who all appeared to be sagging with weariness. “That is most kind of you. We will meet again in the morning.”
She directed a servant to show them to their quarters then she and Celeborn moved off together toward the sound of a lute at the far end of the hall. As they moved away she made a point of taking Celeborn’s arm and leaning into him, smiling a dazzling smile.
Thranduil and his men were taken to and settled in their talans. Comfortable beds were provided but the structures had no walls or roof, only screens that could be shifted loosely around the platform. Thranduil had them all meet in his talan before releasing them to turn in.
“Did you feel it?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“Yes. When you spoke to her a sudden weariness came over me. I could hardly keep my eyes open,” Naurlam, his captain, said.
All the others agreed that it was when Thranduil and Galadriel spoke that they suddenly felt as though they had been without sleep for days.
“We must be vigilant here,” Thranduil said. “Keep mental defenses sharp and avoid the Lady if you can. You needn’t attend me here anyway. This place is probably the safest realm in Arda at the moment.”
“What power do you think she wields?” another of his guard asked.
“Whatever it is, we do not want to fall under its influence. Just use caution. With the shadow growing in Dol Guldur we’ll need all the help we can get.”
The group retired to their telain shortly afterward and the next day Thranduil had his meeting with the Lord and Lady. The talks proved less fruitful than he had hoped. Galadriel seemed to know or suspect something about the old fortress that she would not or could not share. Celeborn counseled against Thranduil sending his men to scout the area anymore, assuring him that action would be taken to determine the strength of the threat. In the end, Thranduil left feeling dismissed by the two of them, putting him in a wrathful mood.
He remembered how he had returned to his talan and changed into hunting garb, then climbed down from the trees and stalked through the forest with his bow in hand to blow off steam. He wasn’t planning to kill anything, not really, but even shooting a few blossoms off the trees would be satisfying at this point. He could pretend the golden flowers were Galadriel’s golden hair.
Before long he came to a crystal stream, flowing rapidly through a clearing. He stopped to listen to the water, soothed by its rippling music. His anger flowed away with the stream and a sense of peace swept through him. As he watched the water, it began to move and change until it formed little silver fish that leapt and swam over the pebbles visible in the creek bed.
Despite himself Thranduil burst into laughter. He turned to see Celeborn standing behind him. He was also dressed in hunting garb and carried a bow and quiver.
“Very clever,” Thranduil said. “I have not seen this before. Do you have a special power over water?”
“It is a gift of the Teleri,” Celeborn said. “I thought it might amuse you.”
“A timely balm, I must admit.”
“I saw you down here and thought I might join you,” Celeborn said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Looking in his eyes, Thranduil decided there was little this man could do that he would find bothersome. He looked up into the trees but the golden boughs revealed nothing.
“Is it your habit to spy on your guests from afar?” he asked, wondering how Celeborn could possibly have seen him through the flowery branches.
“Only a few,” Celeborn said with a twinkle in his eye. “I also feel I should apologize for the council earlier. I fear we may have annoyed you with our vague warnings. You were hoping for a different outcome.”
“Yes, about that,” Thranduil said. “Why do you turn a blind eye to the evil emanating from Dol Guldur? Your people are closer to the threat.”
“We are closer, that is true, but we have not turned a blind eye. We are monitoring and taking steps to counter the situation. But the fact is we don’t know what we’re dealing with yet and so must exercise caution.”
“What steps? Your land is fair and beautiful and the Lady Galadriel is powerful, but even she cannot stay the decay and corruption of these lands any more than I can stay them within the Greenwood. Surely not even your combined strength can spare your people from evil sorcery and dark magic.”
Celeborn hesitated and Thranduil felt a mind touch again. He did not shove this time but gently closed the connection.
“Your defenses are good, but I must know your mind if I am to know whether I can trust you.”
Thranduil bristled. “Trust me? You’re one to talk about trust. I have been given nothing but platitudes and half assurances since I came here. I have a people looking to me to remove the blight from the Greenwood and I thought with our mutual cooperation I could give them hope.”
“Come,” Celeborn said, “There is something I must show you.”
He led Thranduil to a rope ladder and climbed up into the tree. “Follow me, if you please,” he said.
Thranduil was annoyed but he followed Celeborn, climbing up and up and up until they reached a large lookout platform at the top of the giant mallorn. The view was magnificent with the snowcapped mountains on one side and the Greenwood on the other. He could see where the Celebrant met the Nimrodel to the west and the Anduin snaking across the plain to the east. Over the fields, at the edge of the Greenwood, he saw the shadow of the fortress rise upward over the trees then plunge into the woods below, blanketing the area for a span of perhaps 20 miles. The surprise, however, was the shadow reaching over the plain beyond the trees. He did not realize how far the blight had spread.
From Lothlórien a golden mist crept along the plain in the late afternoon light. Where it met the darkness it contested it and gained ground for a painfully short distance only to be pushed back again. Thranduil could see the light and darkness struggle together like two swordsman locked in a fierce duel. At least that’s how it looked. Thranduil wondered if this was not a trick of the fading daylight or an illusion wrought by his hosts.
“It is no illusion,” Celeborn said as if reading his mind. “The evil is real and Galadriel has brought her powers to bear to contend with it. We do not know the cause for certain but we suspect the Dark Lord may have returned to the fortress.”
Thranduil paled. “But how? He was destroyed in the Last Alliance. I saw him fall, I saw. . .” He broke off, his mind in a whirl. “If it is his dark magic we must gather our forces and march against him now before he regains his full power.”
Celeborn shook his head sadly. “The might of the Greenwood and the Gold are no match for Sauron, weakened though he may be. How much strength has your homeland regained from those days? Have your numbers increased significantly?”
“No,” Thranduil reluctantly admitted. “We have never made up the losses of the Alliance.”
“Our realm has been slow to grow since the death of Amroth. Many of the Sindar have left for the Havens, looking for a better life beyond the sea. Others have drifted off into the forest to live with our Silvan kin. Those with the stomach for battle are fierce and dangerous but too few. We are fading from these shores even as Men gain in numbers and might. We may have the strength for one last campaign against the enemy, yet even if we win we will have lost. Men are gathering strength in the South and East, their time approaches as ours ends.”
“I refuse to believe that Sauron will be our end upon these shores,” Thranduil said stubbornly. "I will ensure the safety and prosperity of the Greenwood with or without the help of Lothlórien.”
“We will give such aid as we are able,” Celeborn said. “Your kingdom is much admired by our woodland kin. We lamented when you moved your people north, but we understand that you did what you must. Let us do what we must.”
“Do you and your Lady wield that much power, power to contend with Sauron himself?”
“Tell me, Thranduil, what do you know of Celebrimbor?”
After Celeborn explained the situation Thranduil understood for the first time just how far reaching Sauron’s influence had been. His father had known of and feared Sauron’s might but after the Dark Lord was defeated in the Alliance Thranduil thought the world was at last entering a time of peace that would flourish for an Age or more. Then an evil presence took the old fortress on the hill and he was forced to finish the exodus his father had begun, far away from Dol Guldur to the very edges of the forest. Thranduil had learned the hard way that peace was a fleeting thing. Determined to not repeat the mistakes of his father, he had been active during the period of Watchful Peace to consolidate the remaining strength of the Greenwood Elves, giving little thought to happenings beyond his realm until reports of a new presence in Dol Guldur had reached him in his northern kingdom.
“How do you know the power your Lady possesses will be enough?” he asked. If this Necromancer is indeed Sauron we must attempt to stop him. He must not gain a foothold in Middle-earth again.”
“That was my thought as well, but Saurman argued most eloquently against it. Without the One Ring his power cannot strengthen, and that ring is lost. We must watch and wait, draw him out, make him reveal himself. The Necromancer might be a human sorcerer or one of the Nazgûl, which we can overcome without the losses neither of us can afford. In the meantime, we must strengthen our realms, bring more of our Silvan kin to the cause and train them for battle. Then if the Necromancer is Sauron and we are forced to move against him we may have the forces to put an end to him forever. We will only have one chance. Neither of our realms have the numbers to fight a prolonged war or mount an extended siege.”
“And when was this decided?” Thranduil asked. “I seem to have misplaced my invitation to join in the debate.”
Celeborn gave him a rueful smile. “You have not visited the Golden Wood, nor sent word to us of your plans, since Galadriel and I established this realm. I know the struggle you have been through to keep your people together, to keep them safe. It was my decision not to include you in the council. I promise to make up for that the next time we are forced to meet, though I hope that will never happen.”
Thranduil sighed and unnecessarily checked the tautness of his bowstring while he reflected on his host’s words. Celeborn was right, dammit. As much as he wanted to fight, to do so now would be suicide. He had isolated his people but he did not trust solely to the caves for their security. Right now in the Greenwood he was training soldiers, forging alliances with Men, persuading Silvan hunters and craftsmen to learn strategy and war. They still had a long way to go before they would be ready for a battle of this scope. He could only hope Saruman was right in his assessment of the situation.
After a moment he looked back up at Celeborn with a staunch defiance that belied the haunted look in the depths of his eyes. "It seems I have little choice. When the time comes, if it comes, the Greenwood will be ready to join the fray. I will make sure of it.”
“And the next time the White Council meets the voice of the Greenwood will be heard,” Celeborn said assuredly.
“Then my journey has been for naught,” Thranduil said. “If a decision has been made there is nothing to discuss. I will take my leave in the morning.”
“If you must,” Celeborn said, “but you are welcome to stay for a time if you wish. It might be advantageous to know something of Lothlórien and its people, and I would be interested to know more about the Greenwood and our Silvan kin there.”
Thranduil considered for a moment. “Very well then. If we are to be allies it is probably a good idea to learn more about each other.”
“Excellent. I see you are dressed for hunting. Would you like me to join you?”
“The truth is, I was using it as an excuse to do a bit of exploring. I have no stomach for killing tonight.”
“Then perhaps we could sit up here and watch the lights of Elbereth. I could have supper brought up and we could chat, if you like conversation.”
“That is more to my liking,” Thranduil replied. “This talan is a perfect vantage point for stargazing. In the Greenwood one must walk to the forest edge to get a good view.”
Celeborn went to arrange their supper and Thranduil watched him disappear over the side of the talan. He felt a flutter of excitement to be spending more time with Celeborn, which he quickly squashed. All he needed was to turn a diplomatic visit into a diplomatic incident. He looked up, watching the light slowly fade from the sky, setting the jagged peaks of the Hithaeglir aflame. ‘Ai, Elbereth, you fool,’ he thought. ‘What have you gotten yourself into?’
Celeborn returned shortly, dressed in a comfortable grey tunic and trousers. He was followed by a servant who laid out a supper of game fowl with fresh mushrooms, brown bread, and berry filled honey cakes. The wine was a vintage from the south Thranduil had not seen before. When everything was set up, the servant departed, leaving them alone.
Thranduil watched Celeborn prepare his plate. “What about your lady wife? Will she not be joining us?”
“No, she likes to walk among the trees in her grotto in the evening,” Celeborn said. I rarely see her after sunset.”
Thranduil thought that odd, but then the Noldor had always been a mystery to him.
“This is a remarkable wine,” Thranduil said, sipping appreciatively, “such a rich, heady flavor. What’s the vintage?”
“It is from Dorwinion,” Celeborn said. “It’s a bit of an expensive import but well worth it. Take care though, it is quite strong.”
When they finished their supper they sat side by side with their backs against the tree branch that cradled the talan and watched the first stars wink at them from the darkening sky.
They talked long into the night, and Thranduil discovered something he had been missing for a very long time, a person to talk to as an equal and not as a king. They fell into an easy, immediate camaraderie, like a pair of old friends, and before they knew it the night had turned chill, heralding the coming dawn.
Thranduil stood with a yawn and a stretch. “I had better get to my bed before someone has to bring my breakfast up here. Thank you for your company. I can’t recall a better evening in recent memory.”
“Nor I,” Celeborn said. “It has been a long time since I’ve had a conversation that didn’t turn into a discussion about the health and well-being of the realm.”
Thranduil chuckled. “Yes, that is true for me as well.”
He felt a gentle touch upon his mind that withdrew immediately. Though the talan was lit by only starlight, Thranduil could have sworn he saw Celeborn blush.
“Forgive me, sometimes when I’m tired my mind wanders. . .”
“And seeks out a kindred spirit,” Thranduil finished for him. He smiled. “I have done the same myself many a time.”
He sent out a gentle touch Celeborn’s mind and was met with a tender longing that matched his own.
“I feel the same,” he said softly.
“I know. I recognized it when you pushed me away before,” Celeborn said. “It was faint, but I caught it.”
Now it was Thranduil’s turn to blush. “It was an instant, unconscious feeling. I hope you weren’t disturbed by it.”
“Quite the opposite,” Celeborn said. He stood and put his hands on Thranduil’s waist, looking into his eyes. “I’m not disturbed because nothing is going to happen, is it?”
Thranduil put his hands lightly on Celeborn’s arms. “Nothing at all,” he agreed.
They stood locked in their stance for several moments, gazing into each other’s eyes, sizing each other up. Then as if my mutual accord they stepped away at the same moment.
Sitting in a tree on the outskirts of Imladris, Thranduil remembered that moment with fond nostalgia. Had he ever been so young? The only happier moments he could recall were his marriage and the birth of his son. Now he had lost them both to the sea, as Celeborn had lost Galadriel.
He had stayed in Lothlórien for only three days before returning to the Greenwood, but he and Celeborn had spent almost all of that time together. Often they would be speaking to each other without words, through their thoughts alone. It was the memory of those moments that sustained him now. He did not know how the years had changed Celeborn but he had changed a great deal. Would they even recognize each other now? Would their friendship be the same?
One by one the others began to awaken and they broke camp early. Thranduil’s mood was much improved for leaving the mountains behind. He had never been fond of the Hithaeglir and even though peace, of a measure, had returned to the land he retained his natural caution of places where the Orcs and Dwarves made their homes.
They reached the Bruinen around midday without incident. As they trooped onto the shelf of sand at the river’s edge, the flow of the river slowed and the water foamed. Thranduil could not help but smile to see the small whitecaps take the shape of river turtles, swimming swiftly away from them as the waters receded to allow them to cross. Perhaps Celeborn had not changed so much after all.
Celeborn greeted them warmly in the courtyard of the Last Homely House. He was dressed in a silver and white tunic and pants the grey of a mallorn. He looked every inch the prince Thranduil remembered. He stepped forward, grasping Celeborn’s forearm in a warrior’s handshake as their minds reached out to each other. Teasingly, Thranduil sent him a mental picture of the two of them sitting on a talan under the stars. Celeborn gave him a smile of acknowledgement.
’A fond memory for me as well,’ he said silently.
Thranduil made the introductions of his party and they each bowed to Celeborn as he greeted them.
“Erestor, I have heard much about you from Elrond and his sons. It is good to finally meet you.”
“It is a pleasure to be in the valley again,” Erestor replied. “How many dwell here now?”
“A few of the previous residents, and some of Lothlórien. Perhaps 80 all told. People still come and go as they always have. It is a shame the twins aren’t here to greet you. They are working with Eldarion in Arnor now.”
“Ah, so the king is in Arnor. I had thought he might come to these trade talks. Will Gondor be sending representation then?”
“They have sent a small delegation. The mithril of Moria is a powerful draw it seems. And with your party’s arrival, the talks may begin. Everyone else who is going to take part has come.”
“Excellent,” Thranduil said. “I apologize for our tardiness. We would have been here sooner but the High Pass has become difficult of late. Perhaps the Dwarves would be interested in repairs.”
“We can certainly bring it up at the council tomorrow,” Celeborn said. “Let us show you to your rooms and get you settled in. Tonight we will feast and leave the important talk for tomorrow.”
Thranduil’s company took to their rooms to bathe and change for supper. On his way to Celeborn’s study from his rooms, Thranduil came across Durin who was muttering under his breath. The Dwarf was dressed for supper in royal attire in which he looked exceedingly uncomfortable.
“You must be King Thranduil,” he said, blocking Thranduil’s way.
“Yes, yes I am. I had thought to make the introduction at supper but it is good to meet you. How fares Moria since your people returned?”
“There is a lot to do, and very little help doing it,” Durin groused. “Everyone wants our metal but no one wants to enter the mountain to trade for it, or to help us get our mining operations up and running. They are too skittish about the remaining Orcs.”
“We came across a party of Orcs on our way here. Very unusual to see them out in the daylight, and so far from the tunnels. I hope their numbers aren’t growing,” Thranduil said.
“I know nothing of that,” Durin said gruffly. “They are no longer a nuisance in our kingdom and that’s good enough for me.”
Thranduil wasn’t surprised at Durin’s attitude. In his experience it was typical of the Dwarves to isolate themselves and then complain of the actions of their neighbors, not that he missed the irony of his thought. He had been accused of the same in the past.
“Well, it was good to meet you,” Thranduil said. "I look forward to working with you at the council tomorrow.”
“What do you know of the rising shadow in the East?” Durin asked.
Thranduil was stunned that Durin knew about it, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Dwarves from Gimli’s folk still traded with Gondor and provided stonework for the city. “Nothing but the rumors one always hears,” he replied. “Personally, I think it is only some mischief such as Men do. I don’t believe the old evil is behind it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. There were Men who followed the Dark Lord and he taught them black magic. Some are said to worship him still.”
“Those rumors have been around since before Aragorn died. I never put much stock in them,” Thranduil said.
“There is more to it than rumor now,” Durin said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Tell me, has there not been fell monsters roaming the Greenwood of late? Creatures only true silver can kill?”
“I do not deny that some strange creatures have appeared recently that our steel does not kill, but they are a new menace, they are not the creatures we have seen before,” Thranduil said. He kept his tone neutral but Durin’s warnings were disturbing. Could it be the ancient evil was somehow alive again and free to plague Middle-earth once more? He would have to ask Celeborn about this.
“Those creatures are older than you know. Some walked these lands before the Elves awoke. They should have lost their power when Sauron’s evil was cleansed, and yet they live.”
“You remember those days?” Thranduil asked.
“I do,” Durin said. “I remember the evil that lurked in the darkness of those days. I fear we may be seeing the beginnings of it again.”
“All the more reason we need mithril,” Thranduil replied. “Please keep that in mind during our talks tomorrow.”
“We will give you a good price,” Durin said. “I should be shrewder in my negotiations but I would not want your people to suffer.”
“Thank you, Durin. Our people have worked together before and I would like to continue to do so for our mutual benefit.”
He went to Celeborn’s study and found him reading a book. He looked up as Thranduil entered.
“I just had a conversation with Durin that concerns me,” he said.
“About the growing evil, I know,” Celeborn replied. “I was going to discuss it with you later tonight.”
“I have heard of dark cults in the East but I did not make the connection with what is happening in the Greenwood right now. I thought the cults were only Men grasping for their paltry bits of power, that there was no real evil behind it.”
“Some believe the Dark Lord is behind it, others don’t. I think there is something to the rumors but what I don’t know. The dark magic of the world did not end with Sauron. He was too clever a teacher, and there are too many of his followers still on these shores.”
“Is that why you stayed?” Thranduil asked. The thought was a bit disheartening as he liked to suppose it was so Celeborn could see him one last time.
“Only partially,” Celeborn admitted. “You needn’t worry on that score.”
“I was only a little worried,” Thranduil said with a grin.
They chatted until supper, catching up on this and that. They had kept their mind link for all the years in between but did not use it often, sharing the joys and sorrows of the heavy years between them. Though they saw each other rarely, they shared a closeness, a bond, that few other Elves shared.
When the servant announced the meal, they went to the family dining room where the Greenwood contingent sat with the councilors of Imladris. The room was spacious with a set of double doors open onto the terrace, letting in the perfumed air of the garden beyond. Celeborn sat with his back to the door, the soft spring breeze ruffling his silver hair. They enjoyed a fine meal with lively discussions and much laughter. Just as dessert was about to be served, Erestor excused himself and did not return.
As they sipped wine and enjoyed a lovely strawberry cake, Celeborn, who was sitting by the open window suddenly sat bolt upright and his eyes flew open wide. Thranduil thought for a moment he had been struck by a vision of some sort, but then he felt the panic hit his mind through the link as Celeborn slumped forward, a Dwarven dagger in his back. The guards were summoned and ran out onto the terrace in search of the attacker.
Erestor cried out from the hall beyond. The Greenwood Elves ran to see about him while Thranduil tended to Celeborn. The dagger had struck under his left shoulder blade, and when Thranduil gently lifted his head his eyes were rolled back with just the whites showing. He helped the healers carry Celeborn to the healing rooms but was not allowed inside while the healers did their work. Thranduil was trying desperately to reach him through their bond when Erestor was brought into the healing rooms with a nasty gash on his thigh.
“What happened?” Thranduil asked harshly. “Did you see you who attacked you?”
“Nay, the dagger was thrown from a distance. Here it is.” Erestor held it out and all could see the dagger was of Dwarven make, like the one that had struck Celeborn.
“It is Durin’s folk,” Lhaeghen spat. “We were fools to think the Dwarves would negotiate in good faith.”
Thranduil was suspicious, despite the evidence. Had not Durin warned him earlier of a growing threat? Why would he do that and then perpetrate a cowardly attack? The Dwarves could be difficult and stubborn but this kind of assassination attempt reeked of a deeper plot.
“Durin did not attend supper,” Galion said. “But why would he or his people do this thing?”
“Exactly what I was wondering,” Thranduil said. He turned to his men. “Gather everyone in the Hall of Fire while we tend to the wounded. No one is to leave until we discover the truth.”
His guards moved to comply. There was much grumbling and angry exclamation from the Dwarves when they discovered the accusations. Durin took it particularly hard when he was forced to admit the weapons were his and that of his chief advisor.
Thranduil refused to leave Celeborn’s side, holding his hand and speaking softly to him as he slipped in and out of consciousness through the night. The guards questioned everyone and gave him a full report at dawn. There was no new evidence and the Dwarves were threatening to leave if the Elves did not find the “true culprit" and apologize soon.
Around midday, Thranduil felt a touch upon his mind, though Celeborn’s eyes were closed. ’Am I in Mandos?’
’No, you are here with me.’
’Then I am content.’
’Do you know who?’
With an abruptness that alarmed Thranduil the connection closed. He was relieved to see Celeborn’s chest rise and fall peacefully. A short time later a healer came in and checked on him, saying the worst was over and he would only need a few days rest to recover.
Thranduil was relieved and suddenly, overwhelmingly weary. He had been so worried about Celeborn he did not realize how exhausted he was. He stumbled to his feet and was on his way to the kitchen for a cup of strong coffee when he heard a commotion out in the courtyard. He went toward the sound to find Erestor held in a headlock by one of his guards. Elrohir and Elladan were there, along with Durin and a couple of his entourage.
“Tell him, you scum,” Durin said. “Tell him or I’ll really take a dagger to you.”
“What is going on here?” Thranduil said, rushing over. “Let him go at once.”
“Nay, this is our would-be assassin,” Elrohir said. “This man is not Erestor.”
“Not Erestor? But he came to me with an introduction letter from Elrond.”
“A forgery I should think,” Elladan said. “When Erestor left Imladris he said he wanted to travel a little before he sailed. Then Celeborn received word he was working for you in the Greenwood and we thought he had decided to stay.”
“He knew he could fool Lord Celeborn for they had never met, but he also knew we would know at once he was an impostor,” Elrohir said. “I am sorry, King Thranduil, but this man is a phony.”
“Why did you do this?” Thranduil said angrily. “You held my confidence and then you betrayed me and all who work to maintain the peace bought at great cost in the war. Why would you try to kill someone who has never wronged you?”
“You fools will never know peace,” the false Erestor growled. “I was a follower of Sauron, raised in the Barad Dûr, favored by him like a son. He was the greatest Lord in Arda and you all destroyed him and his gifts. Only he understood the true nature of Men and Elves.”
“But why frame Durin and his folk?” Galion asked.
“To drive a wedge between the Elves and Dwarves, to make sure mithril did not again flow from Moria. And I would have gotten away with it if these two hadn’t shown up.” He glared knives at the twins who looked upon him with disgust.
“Take him away,” Elladan ordered. “We will deal with him in our good time.”
“I am so sorry to have taken this viper to my bosom,” Thranduil said. “If there had been any indication of his treachery I would have ended this long before it began.”
“There was no way you could have known,” Elrohir said. “You must thank our grandfather for our return. When he heard you were coming he had a flash of insight and asked us to return from Arnor. I only wish we had arrived last night.”
“How is grandfather?” Elladan asked. “We were told he is going to recover.”
“Yes, the healers say he will be fine, but will need to rest,” Thranduil replied.
“Good luck with that,” Elrohir snorted. “He can be as stubborn as a Dwarf when. . .” He trailed off with an apologetic look at Durin. “Forgive me, Lord Durin.”
“No apology necessary for speaking the truth,” Durin said gruffly. “Perhaps our meeting should be put on hold for a few days while Lord Celeborn recovers. We will stay, with your leave.”
“Of course, we are happy to have you with us. The Hall of Fire is always more lively when Dwarves are present,” Elrohir said with a grin.
Thranduil returned to Celeborn’s rooms, shaken by his error in trusting a servant of the enemy. Had age caught up with him at last that he had been so willing to believe the false Erestor’s story?
Celeborn was awake when Thranduil returned. He was sitting propped up with pillows, grimacing as he sought a more comfortable position. “Do not think of it as an error,” he said. “We both thought the new shadow was merely a rumor. It seems not only the Men of the East were corrupted by Sauron’s influence but Elves as well. I would not have thought an Elf capable of being swayed to Sauron’s cause after all the pain and suffering he caused in Arda. Now I wonder how many more like him might be out there somewhere, waiting for their chance to strike.”
Thranduil sat beside him and heaved a heavy sigh, taking his hand and kissing it lightly. “Will we ever be free of the darkness?”
“There is one way,” Celeborn said.
Thranduil saw a vision in his mind of he and Celeborn sitting on a platform at the top of a tree, watching Varda’s lights dance in the heavens. But the tree was not in Lothlórien. Thranduil could hear the sound of the sea. A longing stirred in him stronger than he had ever known, but the feeling passed when Celeborn broke off the connection.
“A beautiful vision,” Thranduil said, “but I cannot. I have promises to keep.”
“So do I,” Celeborn said. “You cannot go and I cannot stay.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“Enjoy the time we have,” Celeborn said with weary smile.
Thranduil leaned in and rested his forehead against Celeborn’s. Their minds linked as they fell into drowsy reverie, walking starlit paths in Lothlórien together under the soft blanket of night.