"The world was fair, the mountains tall . . .
There hammer on the anvil smote,
In many-pillared halls of stone . . ."
Part One: The Prince of Eryn Galen
"As long as you are bent upon this course of action," Séregon had told him before he left Eryn Galen, "I suggest you take the time to gaze upon the Mirrormere. It is a sight not to be missed. Especially since that sight may be among your last."
Galion's opinion had been more to the point. "I think you're crazy. But then, I always thought you were crazy. Despite that, it has been a pleasure serving you all these years. I am going to miss you, Thran."
They all thought he'd gone mad; he had no doubt of that whatsoever. In the week before his departure several of the older Iathren nobles had made it a point to take Thranduil aside and recount for him their memories of the sad end of Elu Thingol. Not that the cautionary tales were meant to apply to anything in particular, they had assured him, because the doings of the King's only heir were of course his own business -- they were just making conversation. The palace seneschal, Helegui, had merely shaken his head and sniffed every time Thranduil entered his father's study, as if folly on the Prince's part were a thing to be expected.
Oropher had been the only one with any useful advice. When a series of increasingly heated letters between Eryn Galen and Moria had proved fruitless and frustrating, his father had said only, "If you don't make them respect you now, Thranduil, they never will."
And so, Thranduil found himself standing beside Durin's stone, on the banks of the lake on a bright afternoon in the early summer. Séregon had not exaggerated; a man ought to see such beauty at least once before he died.
Off to the north, a deep clefted valley, already in shadow, wound its way toward the three snow-topped peaks of Fanuidhol, Celebdil, and Caradhras. At the end of it, Thranduil could see a series of cataracts like a thin thread of silver, casting up a cloud of mist at the mountains' feet. At his own feet lay the waters of the mere, still as glass.
"Don't fall in," Séregon had warned him, and indeed, Thranduil could tell from the darkness of the water that the lake was nigh to bottomless. Thranduil knelt carefully on the soft grass of the bank and peered downward into the water. At first he saw only darkness, the black depths, but slowly the reflected form of the mountains took shape, along with his own face; a worried Elf-man, bright of hair and blue of eye and old enough to know better than to do what he was about to do now. And then, in the darkness of the water, the sky above appeared, filled with stars as they had been in the Elder Days when the first Elf-sires awoke, before the sun and moon had taken their first journey across the sky.
"White gems," Thranduil whispered, and they reminded him of the way the water droplets had sparkled as they flowed off Lalaithiel's body when she rose from that forest pool the day he'd first laid eyes on her. A crowd of them clustered about his head, almost like a crown.
"That will be the day!" he said with a rueful laugh. His father lived and ruled a peaceful realm. Thranduil would not wear a crown of gems, nor of leaves either. He would never be a king. He was not even sure that he would live to be a husband.
Thranduil rose and wiped the grass-stain off his knees. He climbed back up the slope to where his horse patiently stood cropping the sward beside the road. He stripped off the bridle and the light saddle he used for travel and stowed the gear beneath a bush, where it would be out of the elements. With a sigh, he laid his forehead against the stallion's glossy mahogany-colored neck, taking in the good clean smell of horse and wishing the animal a silent farewell. Gaeroch was a good beast. He would wait for his master for a good long while, taking care of himself now that he was unencumbered of tack, but eventually, he would head for home.
With a final caress, Thranduil turned and headed up the paved stone road toward the gates of Moria.
He met no other travelers on the way up from the lake, which surprised him, because to hear Oropher tell it while muttering in his cups, there was a steady stream of incessant intercourse between Moria and Lothlórien. Why Amdir put up with the Lady Galadriel and her Golodhren followers who had refugeed east after the fall of Ost in Edhil, Oropher could never understand, and that is why he had relocated them all further north to live cleanly and simply as Elves were meant to do . . . At that point in the discourse Thranduil's eyes would glaze over and he would cease to really listen.
He shook his head and managed an ironic smile, realizing, not for the first time, that his father didn't know quite everything.
"Halt! Who goes there?" The voice was deep and gruff, spoken in an oddly clipped accent, and it issued from a slit in the rock beside the gates about an arm span above Thranduil's head.
"I am Thranduil Oropherion of Eryn Galen, at your service and at your family's." Thranduil, of course, was at the service of no Dwarf, but Séregon had warned him that without this form of courtesy, which passed for manners among the Naugrim, there would be trouble. There would be trouble in any case, but there was no sense in starting it before he was even in the door.
The unseen sentry cleared his throat.
"I come on a matter of business with one of your craftsmen," Thranduil concluded lamely.
"Very well, you may enter." Thranduil felt a deep rumbling begin beneath his feet as the great stone gates began to slowly grind open, and he had to step back a pace to avoid the right-hand side of the gate as it swung past him, riding on smooth metal bearings set into a semi-circular track cut into the stone beneath his feet. Of the mechanism that opened the doors, he could see no sign.
He had expected to encounter the gloom of underground once inside, but instead he found himself in a vast hall, lit by windows set high into the eastern wall. Windows in a cave! Perhaps his visit to the realm of the Naugrim would not be as dark and claustrophobic as he had steeled himself for.
Immediately two stocky guards stepped into his path, barring his way with crossed axes. The guards themselves came only chest high on Thranduil, but they were built broad and strong, and the blades of the weapons gleamed wickedly. Thranduil sighed and gritted his teeth. "Thranduil Oropherion of Eryn Galen. At your service and that of your families."
A third dwarf, this one dressed in richer robes and wearing a heavy chain of office about his neck, stepped forward. "I am Throin Steelhammer, steward and doorwarden to his Deathless Majesty, Durin IV. What seek you, traveler, in the dwelf of Khazad-dûm?"
Thranduil bowed stiffly, hoping he was not being unforgivably terse. "I wish to speak with one Dorin of the fourth level, who has lately performed some metalwork on my behalf."
"Dorin, eh? What's that about? No matter, I'll be happy to take you to him." This came from a fourth dwarf, a black bearded fellow dressed in a dark colored uniform who came striding up.
"Captain Narki," said Throin. "What a convenient happenstance. Now, if Master Elf --"
"I am the son of the King of Eryn Galen," Thranduil said quietly but with unmistakable meaning.
"If my lord Elf will divest himself of his sword and any other weapons," Throin continued, "Captain Narki will take you where you need to go."
Thranduil smiled. "My errand is one of peaceful commerce, merely."
"In that case you'll not mind leaving your sword here at the door. We'll give it back to you when you go."
"Of course." Thranduil inclined his head and relinquished his sword. What would the weapon avail a lone elf in an underground city of Dwarves anyway?
"And your knife," Throin went on.
Thranduil stifled a bitter laugh. Might as well die for a Silmaril as for an agate. He handed over the knife. "I have nothing more."
"Come with me, then," said Narki.
Doors at the west end of the hall led to a wide corridor. They were no longer in the brightness of the first hall, but shafts of daylight cut down through the ceiling periodically. This was not too bad yet, Thranduil thought.
At the end of the corridor, a flight of stairs descended, and Thranduil followed the dwarf-captain, letting his eyes adjust to the lessened light. "How do you like this?" said Narki when they reached the bottom.
A deep chasm dropped away into blackness, crossed by a narrow stone bridge with no railing or kerb. Fifty feet he must pass where only a single man could walk. "I think it's brilliant," Thranduil said. "No army can ever take you from the eastern gate."
"There are some who falter here," his escort replied. "If we must, we bring our craftsmen out to those who lack the courage to pass. But I doubt Dorin will be willing to cater to such maidenish nonsense."
"No need," Thranduil replied, and stepped out boldly onto the bridge. At home, he had seen Galion's folk, the Green-elves, run a rope stretched between two trees or across a river. If a Laegel could negotiate a path the thickness of a man's arm, surely he, Thranduil could manage one as wide as that arm's length. 'I'm walking on the solid ground,' he told himself, ignoring the sheer drop into fathomless depths and the understanding that Narki could rush him from behind. He had barely broken a sweat when he reached the other side of the bridge and the second hall of Moria.
It was vast. It was tall. Why, Thranduil wondered, did such stunted folk as the Dwarves feel the need for so much height? For the convenience of those with whom they did commerce? To impress? Or maybe to redress the fact that their creator was, himself, a lesser god. Whatever the reason, it made the spirit soar, even underground. Black columns rose, in the shape of tree-trunks, but they resembled no trees Thranduil had ever seen in the outer world. The boles were straight, the branches that supported the ceiling as regular as the arms of saluting soldiers. Did all the Naugrim see the world in such a harsh geometry?
No daylight reached into this deep hall, yet it fairly blazed before Thranduil's eyes with the splendor of sun, moon and stars. The floor beneath his feet was polished to such a high sheen that it seemed to be made of silver, and the roof far above his head glowed a faint gold at the tops of the lofty pillars. How could there be so much light underground? It was the many lamps, he realized, some glowing as warmly yellow as the sun, some with a cooler, blue light. He wanted to stop and examine them, to see how it was done, but Narki hurried him along.
So many Dwarves there were too, hurrying about their business, conversing with their fellows in that odd mumbling tongue of theirs, giving him curious glances before turning back away. They smelled strange, the entire place smelled strange, a combination of the odor of stone dust and hot metal. Thranduil began to understand how truly outnumbered he was.
Beyond the hall lay more corridors, more flights of stairs to lower levels. They were deep within the mountain by now; even so, from time to time they would pass a ventilation shaft and Thranduil would feel a breeze against his cheek and smell fresh air.
"You have some fault to find with Dorin's craftsmanship?" Narki turned to him and demanded as they went along.
Thranduil was about to tell the Dwarf captain that it was none of his business until he realized that the response was not very tactful. "Indeed I do." He left it at that.
The dwarf let out a barking laugh. "I thought so, when you decided to come yourself rather than sending one of your minions to hash it out."
"I have every confidence in my agents," said Thranduil, emphasizing the word, "but some negotiations must be conducted face to face."
"You're about to have your chance. Here we are." Narki stopped in the middle of a long corridor and rapped the handle of his axe against the heavy planks of a wooden door. "Oh, Dorin . . . you have a visitor . . ."