More Dangerous, Less Wise.
Beta: As always, I am very lucky to have Anarithilien.
Chapter One: A storm breaks.
29th June 3018
It was late when Galion strode down the passageway outside the King’s chambers, golden light spilled onto the stone flags from the slightly open door, an invitation if ever he saw one. Boldly he pushed open the door to see a single candle, thick with wax that had dribbled into the pewter holder; its long flame guttered slightly in the draught. Candlelight pooled on a map of the Forest held open by a goblet, another candlestick with only a smoking wick, and various piles of books. Beside the Forest map, but only half unscrolled, was the map of Rhovanion and the Hithaeglir, white peaks marking the spine of the lands spread before him. Like a spine, or teeth, thought Galion, remembering that long cold journey with Oropher many, many years before. He shook himself. Too long ago now. What was here and now was his concern. He knew why Thranduil had this map open and why he sat in shadow near the table, his fingers steepled and staring into the fire he must have lit himself for Galion would never have allowed such extravagance in Summer.
Thranduil’s slate-green gaze swung heavily towards his steward, his friend, and Galion felt the weight of it. It was a rare moment, Galion thought, coming into the room and prodding emphatically at the fire, that Thranduil was still. The King’s presence always filled a room. Like fire and air, Galion thought. Now the air was heavy as if a storm was about to break.
Since the long, miserable return from Mordor, Thranduil sometimes sank into these dark moods which were unflinching in their despair; then he withdrew from everyone and drenched himself in memories of blood-soaked Dagorlad, stood again in the ash and empty hopes of the Last Alliance and blamed himself for the encroach of the Shadow upon the Woods. It was usual for the melancholy to follow such losses as they had with the unexpected attack upon them that led to Gollum’s escape. It was many days since any of the Wood-elves had slept on their talans beneath the stars and moon; they still reeled from the assault and had retreated into the stronghold beneath the hills.
‘I noted you had taken the good stuff from the cellar,’ Galion said lightly, lifting a heavy glass decanter and sloshing the rich amber liquid around the glass bowl. He poured wine into the goblet that was being used as a paperweight and tutted disapprovingly. With his free hand he fished around in a pewter bowl that was being used by Thranduil to hoard stumps of old candles and bits of string, and pulled out a couple of exquisitely wrought silver clasps. They had been precisely designed to secure the map onto the table but Thranduil never seemed to remember. On the other hand, Laersul always did. But he was in the South of the Forest, hunting the Orcs who had attacked them and freed Gollum. Right now, Galion thought they were well rid of the creature for it stank and had bitten him more than once. Gandalf had bid them treat it kindly, but look how that had ended.
Galion sighed and looking down at the half-open map of the Hithaeglir, took a gulp of wine and felt it warm his chest and belly. Then he took another.
‘I heard Alagos had arrived with messages from Laersul.’
Thranduil made a slight movement with his head. ‘He reports that Gollum seems to be heading for the Gladden Fields,’ he said and looked back into the flames. A log shifted and sparks flew up, throwing an orange light upon the strong, handsome features, but his eyes were cast down and his long lashes showed sharply on his cheek. ‘Laersul pursues the Orcs into the South. They are level with the East Bight.’ He drank deeply from the goblet that he cradled in his hand and then said morosely, ‘Laersul thinks they will catch up with the Orcs in two days. He has sent Thalos to pursue Gollum.’
Well that accounted for two of Thranduil’s sons, Galion thought. He did not ask where Legolas was. Laersul may well not have told Thranduil and it would put him in a worse mood if he asked; Legolas was most likely to be with Laersul heading for Dol Guldur, and the thought of both of them in that dark place would be more than Thranduil could bear. Galion sighed, looking down into the dark amber depths. He took another gulp but this time it did not warm him.
‘Do you remember how we celebrated old Smaug’s death?’ Thranduil asked suddenly and Galion looked at him, slightly puzzled. This was not how he expected the conversation to turn.
‘The very last of the Dorwinion,’ he said, puzzled but grinning anyway, and Thranduil laughed a little then too, because it had been the last of the Dorwinion that led to one of Galion’s least fine hours*. ‘We celebrated all through the night. And Gandalf and Master Baggins with us.’ Galion smiled because he knew the King had a fondness for the hobbit.
‘Master Baggins indeed.’ Thranduil breathed through his nose and looked back at the fire. The wood splintered by flames, glowed orange and gold and black where it had burned, and he stared into it.
Galion threw himself in the low comfortable chair opposite Thranduil, indented already with another’s backside; probably Alagos, he thought disapprovingly, for the King’s messenger certainly never showed proper respect.
‘We had a double celebration as I recall,’ he said, closing one eye and considering. ‘Finally the Sit-on-your-Arse White Council actually did something and got rid of the blasted Necromancer-my-Arse. Although we all knew He had already gone anyway. Even so, it was good for a while, was it not?’
Thranduil smiled and lifted his own goblet in salute. ‘It was indeed good for a while...’ He drank, deeply, and the candlelight flashed on a rich, dark ruby on his elegant hand, glinted on emeralds and antique gold in the brooch he wore on his deep green tunic. But nothing was as fine as that long, heavy gold hair; Galion found his thoughts straying where they should not and was lost for a moment in memory, the sift of that burnished silk, the colour of gold coins. He pulled himself back to the present with a dramatic sigh.
‘Ah, it was good. The Summers beneath the stars... But we were never at risk from Smaug.’ He shook his head as he always did when he remembered the journey to Erebor with Thranduil that he thought reckless. ‘You can tell me what you like about magic swords and wizards and magic rings, but there is nothing to beat a Woodelf’s wit or witlessness!*’ he said, guzzling the really very good stuff that he knew, as a good steward does, was utterly wasted on him. It should really only be drunk by the King.
‘That marked the end of the good time, though we did not know it then, my old friend. We will look back and think what a fool I was, Galion.’ Thranduil took another drink, a long one. ‘I should have listened more carefully to you when you said there was something about Master Baggins...’ He paused for a moment and here was only the sound of logs shifting into ash in the grate. Then quietly, he said, ‘It is upon us, Galion. One way or another, it is upon us.’
Galion frowned a little blearily, wondering why Thranduil was immersed in that memory. True, Galion, whilst liking the hobbit, had said there was something about Master Baggins that made him uneasy and Thranduil had not disagreed then, but no one thought any more of it. Why was he bringing all that up again now? Galion pulled the half-empty decanter towards himself with one hand and in the other, held his goblet. He pulled the delicate glass stopper out with his teeth and spat it out onto the table where it clinked against the candlestick. A little wax dribbled onto the map and he wiped it off with his elbow.
‘Watching you, Galion, is always a joy,’ Thranduil said drily. ‘I see where Legolas gets his manners and his subtlety.’
‘Wood-elves are known for their grace,’ said Galion. He squinted at Thranduil, pleased that he was recovering his sense of humour, and proportion. ‘And I am not to blame for that boy’s manners, or his lack of subtlety. I would sooner trust your horse with anything that required subtlety. Besides, you are his father.’
Galion’s eye caught again on the outspread map. He found himself tracing the inked lines; one led straight to Dol Guldur, the other ran alongside it first, then wavered, doubled back and then ran towards the Gladden Fields. They had been lovely once, he sighed. The loose end of the inked line now pointed West, towards the spine of mountains.
‘You have been following their trail...’ Galion stared at the point where the trail petered out. ‘Do you think that is where he is heading?’ He screwed up his face. ‘With any luck Gollum will disappear back into the bowels of the earth and the goblins can have him.’ He wished they were all safely home and found the map wobbled a bit although he could not think why. ‘How soon before you let them come home?’ he asked. ‘They will not find that nasty little beast now.’ His voice caught a little and then he felt Thranduil’s strong, warm hand on his and he looked up.
‘You never could take the good stuff,’ he smiled and Galion let his gaze linger a while on the loveliness of it.
‘You think I am drunk? A Wood-elf is never drunk!’ he declared mildly outraged and wanting Thranduil to leave his hand there a little longer. ‘Now you, with your bit of SIndar blood, are hopeless. I remember Caras Galadhon.’ He always brought up Caras Galadhon when in his cups, loved the memory of it.
‘Neither you nor I acquitted ourselves well that day,’ Thranduil said, unperturbed by those long ago memories.
‘Nonsense! We upheld the reputation of the House of Oropher,’ Galion snorted but Thranduil would not be distracted more, and stared again into the fire, lost in his own dark thoughts. Galion wanted nothing more than to hold onto his hand, to comfort Thranduil, but he knew that right now it would meet with nothing more than friendship.
He put down his goblet and closed his eyes for a moment. ‘There is nothing more you can do, Thranduil,’ he said suddenly serious. ‘Sometimes even Mithrandir can get things wrong.’
Galion watched the firelight flicker over Thranduil’s handsome, noble features...high cheekbones and straight nose, strong set jaw. The firelight always seemed to catch on his hair, gilding him gold.
‘I wish I had not let Gollum go outside, nor climb that tree...’ Thranduil said in sudden anguish and his hand slowly clenched the small oak leaf pendant about his neck as if he could somehow change things, just by wanting. ‘If I had not allowed it, Celdir and Anglach would be at home now with their mothers, and Sîlaros’ young wife walking with him under the stars instead of sitting at his bedside weeping as if her heart will break, and clutching his hand as if that might bring him back to her.’
He did not speak of Naurion, still missing and for whom Laersul and his warriors risked their lives going closer and closer to Dol Guldur in the hope of reaching him. Somehow.
Galion banged his goblet down angrily, spilling a little wine on his sleeve. ‘Why is this your fault,Thranduil?’ he demanded. ‘Would that Mithrandir had taken that accursed Gollum to Imladris or Lothlorien, where they could truly guard it!’ he burst out. ‘You, we, have given more blood than any other Elven people in Arda to put right the wrongs of others. Whilst they sit in their protected little kingdoms and deny you, we are slaughtered! Just like Dagorlad, just like Doriath!’
Thranduil’s hawkish gaze fixed upon him, a dangerous reference, Galion knew but he was a Woodelf through and through and could no more back away from danger than he could refuse a drink and song. So he took a long gulp of the heady wine and said, ‘We, you, have given yourself freely; you have given your own sons. That could have been Legolas slain or taken! We should be glad that creature has gone. With luck, the goblins will eat it and it will make them as sick as it made us!’
‘Enough, Galion,’ Thranduil said but surprisingly, there was no heat in it. ‘It was not Legolas.’
Galion breathed in, blew out.
‘And it is not only us who pay,’ Thranduil continued. He swirled the deep amber wine in his goblet, lost in his thoughts. ‘Elrond has lost his wife, and now it is said he has lost both his sons to the Shadow. They ride in fury, hunt and kill mercilessly. The Sons of Thunder they are called by the Orcs and goblins of the Mountain. I would not have that for any of my own, to lose themselves in such bitter hatred.’
Galion gave a snort that only a Woodelf would give. ‘Perhaps they could come here and kill a few spiders for us! Or Orcs...maybe a Nazgûl or two.’
The King leaned forward and stirred the dying embers of the fire. Sparks flew. ‘We have no need of their help when we have such sons of the forest as we do.’ His handsome face softened, and he tilted his head, looked back into the flames. Galion gazed at him for a while, remembering the catch of desire softening those long green eyes. Only once, for both loved their wives...but at Dagorlad, all needed comfort. And Galion could not forget...
He glanced at Thranduil, his golden hair burnished, gilded by the firelight, who caught the glance and gave Galion a smile that reached into Galion’s loyal heart and squeezed.
He swallowed and looked away at the map outspread on the table. ‘Call them back, Thranduil,’ he said thickly for his voice was not his own, too choked, too full his heart. ‘Do not let them pursue Gollum into the Mountains. They are treacherous enough on their own without the swarms of goblins. Send Alagos to Mithrandir now, do not delay longer. Tell him Gollum has gone and good riddance.’
The King turned away and stared into the flames, pupils wide and his full lips closed. ‘Not yet, old friend, though my heart is as uneasy as yours. Perhaps Gollum is heading for the Mountains indeed...but for now, he is not even at the Gladden Fields. We may still catch him, our hunters are swift and sure.’
Galion collapsed back against the chair, feeling helpless. Thranduil would not be persuaded now, he recognised the set of his stubborn jaw and his eyes had hardened. Silence covered them and there was only the crack and shift of the ashes settling as the last flames died.
Then slowly, quietly, Thranduil spoke again. ‘There are times, Galion, when I wonder if we should not move again...Further north once more...I hear of others going West. They feel the tide in their blood.’
Galion stared, shocked beyond speech. Thranduil felt it and glanced his way.
‘You have seen how many of our warriors are returned to us, cold and dead. And sometimes...sometimes worse.' He swallowed. 'It creeps upon us like night. And there seems nothing more we can do...’
‘Thranduil! If you have given up, how can any of us have any hope?’
Thranduil reached out then and touched Galion gently. ‘No, I have not given up, old friend. But we send our children to fight the Shadow at our doorstep. Tell me, do you ever feel it? When the Moon is full and pulling the tides West?’
‘No,’ Galion declared. ‘Why would anyone wish to go to some distant land that not even the Noldor liked? Even they found it too restrictive and they have are all those laws and things. You would never cope, Thranduil.’ He shook his head in disbelief. Wood-elves in Valinor, he had never heard such a thing! ‘I hope for his sake that Oropher is not reborn. They would have to send him back East, like they did Glorfindel.’
Thranduil laughed loudly at that; never was there more glorious and audacious a leader as Oropher. It was a view shared by many of the Woodelves. Oropher suited them. And they loved Thranduil Oropherion for he wore the name like a badge, and for his bright burnished courage, his sheer will, and his stubborn determination that the Shadow would not win.
Thranduil suddenly pushed his chair back and stood so he could lean over the table where the maps were spread. One be-ringed hand toyed with the silver clasps Galion had fixed the map with and unseeing, he said, ‘I can feel how the air is changing.The fires of the earth are hot and He searches. Frantically now. He knows It is near...The Nazgûl are hunting. They will leave Dol Guldur, and Galion, I fear for our Mr Baggins.’
Thranduil turned towards Galion, and the flames cast shadows on his face so he looked more hawkish than usual. ‘Gollum had a precious thing, the only thing he cared about..He came out of the Mountains looking for it, believing that our Master Baggins had stolen it from him...I heard him speak thus, Galion. The Man, Strider, Aragorn, found Gollum on the edge of Mordor.’ He fixed Galion with his long green eyes that could be warm but now were flint. ‘What is this precious thing that he came so far from the Mountains to find, that he lost? What is this thing he thought might be in Mordor?’
Galion stared, a horrible sense of foreboding descended. Like a veil of darkness, and he had a sudden image of the Forest in flames and yellow smoke curling upwards...a child screamed somewhere...And he thought he saw Legolas standing staring at the edge of a clearing***... He started suddenly and looked around as if he thought it might be real.
‘There is a storm coming, Galion. And I very much fear that Gollum and our Mister Baggins will be in the heart of it.’