“Tell me again, why did I decide to come on this hare-brained journey in person?” Thranduil hunched his shoulders at the increasing downpour and squinted into the slate-grey sky from below his dripping hood.
Because your Royal Haughtiness does not trust a Noldo further than you can throw him. Not to mention your expectation of me overriding any of your captain’s orders.
Glorfindel refrained from replying, convinced honesty would sit ill with the King of the Wood-elves, even had he voiced his answer with the utmost politeness, of course. Not that he could resent Thranduil such sentiments; the war of the Last Alliance was barely two yéni past and, ever since, the relations between the Greenwood and the other Elven realms had been strained at best. It was already a big concession to the situation at hand that Thranduil had shown willingness to cooperate, and while the Imladrim party had been received with cool reserve, nobody could accuse Thranduil’s folk of lacking in basic hospitality and politeness towards their visitors. Grudgingly, Glorfindel admitted that he had misjudged Thranduil’s abilities as a leader and diplomat. The Sinda had certainly come a long way since Glorfindel knew him as the blond popinjay of Doriath. Still, that did not mean that he had to like Thranduil, and he was firmly resolved to carry out this mission as quickly as possible and return to Imladris.
“Perhaps we should start looking for shelter,” Glorfindel observed, “I do not think this will improve anytime soon.”
They had woken to low-hanging clouds, and the drizzle which had accompanied them all day had turned to increasingly heavy rain with the approaching of dusk. Riding southwards on one of the larger forest paths, they were in an area with mostly deciduous trees which provided them with a brilliantly-coloured ground to enjoy, but barely any protection from above from the bare canopy.
“I had hoped to get closer to the village first and set up a base camp at a reasonable distance,” Thranduil said. He lifted his hand and waited until his captain had closed up. “Send scouts ahead, Arveldir. I want to set up camp at the forest edge, but we might need to make another stop before where we can light a fire.” He gestured upwards.
Arveldir nodded, bellowed a command and set off with two of the other Greenwood warriors.
“Do you really think it is a dragon?”
“What else could it be? A mûmakil with breath so bad it causes hallucinations?”
Glorfindel could not help but laughing out loud at Thranduil’s grumpy comment. His own mood had been more than bleak, but was improving rapidly at the Wood-elven king’s quips.
“I did not know you had a sense of humour.”
Thranduil snorted. “I have a lot of things you have no idea about, Noldo.”
Glorfindel was not sure if this was meant to be scathing, but the other’s voice betrayed that Thranduil’s mood was lifting as well.
“What I meant was whether you believe that it is a living dragon, or something else,” he continued. “You would know more about this than we do, obviously; I do not think I have even heard a dragon being mentioned since - well, since I came back.”
“Neither have we. But we know so little of what goes on in the remote regions of Ennor, nor of what Sauron had been up to when he was building up his forces. It would not surprise me to hear that he had started to breed dragons or bring some back here, if not in time for the battle.”
“I see.” Glorfindel shuddered. They had come to the Greenwood to investigate the mysterious death of an Imladrim minstrel in a village of Men at the border of the Greenwood. Much to their surprise, Thranduil had his focus on the very same village, as various bizarre and contradicting reports suggested that a dragon had taken residence there, and agreed to a joint reconnaissance mission. So far, Glorfindel had not really believed that this would be more than some clever, if threatening, sham, considering than more deaths had occurred.
Thranduil looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Lost your courage now, Noldo?”
“No. But I was joking earlier, I honestly had not thought it could be a living one.”
“Things are not adding up, that much is true,” Thranduil admitted. “For one, although there have been other deaths, none has been caused by any discernible means, like that of your minstrel. If it were just one person I might accept that they might have died from fright or shock. But several people dropping dead, just so? There were also no reports about a dragon flying, or any unexplained or sudden fires in the vicinity. I do not have to tell you how unlikely it is that a living dragon would not have left at least some traces of this kind.”
“Indeed not. What puzzles me is that none of our dead minstrel's company noticed anything unusual or surprising in that village, even though they spent three nights there. We were not aware of any dragon sightings at the time of their return, but surely, they would have mentioned something like this?”
Thranduil nodded. “We have to find out ourselves, I suppose, and be prepared for everything. Your suggested approach is good, I want us to follow it through.”
Thranduil turned his head to look at Glorfindel fully. “You know, I am grateful to have you with me, as well as your warriors,” he said with a slight smile. “Who would be better suited to take care of any fell beast, than the slayer of a Balrog and of a dragon?”
They were interrupted by the return of one of the scouts.
“The captain’s compliments, sire, and he believes the distance to Frywald is too far still. He suggests making camp again for the night and advancing by daylight, and has found a suitable location. I am to lead you there.”
Thranduil sighed. “So be it. Thank you, Callon. At least we will be getting out of this rain soon.”
It was nearly dark when they reached a dense copse of conifers somewhat off the path. Glorfindel sighed deeply. They had ridden through broad-leaved forest spread over softly rolling hills most of the day, and they were unlikely to find a handy cave or overhang for shelter. Since the area at large was inhabited, he had hoped for an abandoned hut or lean-to or something of that kind, but it looked as if the somewhat denser fir trees ahead were all the shelter they would get, in addition to their cloaks. The Wood-elves, who had made a bit of a show of demonstrating their hardiness on the trip so far, probably did not mind, but if he was honest Glorfindel himself did. He had likely camped out in any perceivable kind of weather in his long life, and was perfectly fine with it as long as he was able to stay dry. Rolling up in his sodden cloak with only a few pine branches between him and the ongoing rain, though, was at the bottom of his list of acceptable accommodations. However, it could not be helped, and he would rather face another Balrog than let any of this show.
But when they entered the small clearing the captain had chosen for their camp, things did not look as dire. The huge trunk of a fallen tree served as a wind shelter, a small fire was going with a decent pile of dead wood nearby, and the second scout returned carrying a brace of hares. Everybody got busy with setting up camp, the Imladrim warriors taking care of the horses and dinner, leaving the shelter to the superior wood-craft skills of their forest brethren. Supple, thin, ropes and tarps of a kind Glorfindel had never seen before came out of saddle-bags and were slung between trees and over the fallen trunk, the tarps stretching to a surprising size, and in what seemed no time two large shelters had been rigged, one each for the horses and the men.
“What are these? I do not think I have seen anything like this before.” Glorfindel had been helping with the horses and now settled besides Thranduil under the silvery tarps. They dented slightly with each falling raindrop, and swung up and down quite a bit in the wind, but were perfectly waterproof.
Thranduil passed him a flask with the fragrant red wine he favoured. “I do not think these are known beyond our borders. We use spider silk and hair, elven for the ropes, and horse-tail for the tarps.”
“Spider silk?” Glorfindel looked up again, touching the glossy material above his head. The ropes holding everything together seemed to be not thicker than laces and very elastic, while the tarps were stretched so thin that he could see the outline of the branch above through it. The whole structure did even look a bit like a spider’s net.
“This is ingenious! But where would you get such amounts?” Glorfindel took a hearty swig before passing the flask back.
“There is a colony of giant spiders down south, at Amon Lanc,” Thranduil explained. “They must have come from the Ephel Dúath, as one of Ungoliant’s offspring is rumoured to hide there. Their silk is dangerous to harvest, but has a unique quality which provides us with a durable, waterproof, and very light material.”
“You have some quite interesting surprises hidden in your forest,” Glorfindel remarked drily.
Thranduil snorted. “I would rather do without such surprises! So far, none of them has proven to be good, silk ropes notwithstanding.”
They were joined by their seconds-in-command, bringing supper. Glorfindel sniffed appreciatively at his bowl. It was just the ordinary travel fare, consisting of preserved concentrate dissolved in hot water, with leftover cold meat and a handful of fresh greens thrown in. But in this weather, anything hot and savoury was more than welcome. Around them, everybody was settling down with their evening meal, and the previous bustle was changing into a relaxed atmosphere.
“I wonder why those travelling minstrels have not noticed anything amiss,” Bregedaer, the lieutenant from Imladris, remarked. “Could it be possible that the dragon had flown off during their sojourn?”
“That would indeed explain it,” Thranduil said “It does not seem very likely, though, considering that there are no reported sightings whatsoever of a dragon in flight. I have seen dragons before, and they flew at some time.”
Glorfindel frowned. “You do realise that if this is some breeding experiment by Sauron, it might actually be a flightless dragon, but with other attributes …”
A collective moan was the answer, and Thranduil lifted his hand in warning. “Nothing is gained by speculating. Let us rather plan our proceeding on the morrow. We hope to arrive at our intended rendezvous location around noon. We will set up camp there, and everybody is to report back there if there are problems. Glorfindel, will you brief us about the strategy we decided upon, please? You suggested it after all.”
“Of course, thank you. Well, the village of Frywald lies close to the northern forest edge of the East Bight. We will set up our rendezvous camp as close as possible to the forest edge and then split up in three groups. Two groups will first reconnoitre the surrounding area from the north and the south, and then proceed towards the village. The third group will go to the village openly in the guise of travellers. We will meet again at the base camp to compare our discoveries before we decide about how to proceed from there on. Any questions so far?”
When nobody objected, Glorfindel continued: “We are thirteen, six warriors from Imladris and five from the Greenwood in addition to King Thranduil and I. The groups will be led by Thranduil, myself, and captain Arveldir, one man will stay behind as guard. Arveldir, I want you to consult with Bregedaer to make sure every group has a good scout, is well-balanced, and consists of men from both of our realms. Everybody, thank you and have a restful night!”
Looking around into the faces of the warriors chatting excitedly, while the lieutenant and the captain were deep in discussion about their task, Glorfindel smiled with relief. This had gone well.
“Thank you for choosing my captain as the third leader, and having him sort out the groups,” Thranduil said softly. “I selected my men carefully, taking only those I trust with not feeling enmity towards any of you. But it is still not easy, as you certainly are aware, and I am worrying that some triviality might cause discord.”
“So am I,” Glorfindel said. “Arveldir was the obvious choice, though. He has the highest rank among our men, and as we are in your realm, it seems logical to choose somebody with local advantage.”
Thranduil made a dismissive gesture. “True. But we never established who of us was to be in command, and I expected you to prefer your own men, as you naturally know them and their abilities well. I am sure it will be easier this way for my men, to experience first-hand that not every Noldo will seize the power of command. I know, I know, this is not what happened at the Last Alliance,” Thranduil hastened to add when Glorfindel frowned at his words. “But it is what most of my people believe happened. My father -”
“No.” Glorfindel laid his hand on Thranduil’s arm. “Let the past rest. Your father made mistakes, yes, but he was not the only one, and I see no use in dwelling on who to blame. The war is over, and we are all aiming to live our lives in peace as best we can. If some small action on my part might contribute to an easier understanding between our people, I am grateful.”
Thranduil looked at Glorfindel with an unfathomable gaze. “Thank you,” he said again. “You are a good man.”