A King's Command
The stars were barely visible on the jet black dome that spanned above Dale, their silver gleam dimmed behind the stubborn veil of clouds that had brought the first snow into the valley. Despite the late hour there was a busy rush of elves and men going about their business, the ruined city alive with unusual bustle. Finishing touches were given to weapons, supplies were distributed and in between it all the elves still found the time and leisure to light up the night with their melodious singing voices. Ethereal and otherworldly they floated above the dissonant harmonies of metal against stone and noisy chatter, like beautiful images of springtime in the forest that was but a long lost memory in this forsaken wasteland.
“Don’t walk so fast! Or are you in a hurry to get away from me?” Faeldir teased Amardir as he struggled to keep up with his brother’s brisk pace.
The two made their way through the rows of elvish tents that were closely huddled together, as if they were seeking assurance in each others company in this place that was still haunted by the ghosts of its violent past. Amardir only threw him an annoyed look over his shoulder, he was clearly not in the mood for his little brother’s light-headed bickering.
“You know very well that we must make haste. It is the king’s command and not my wish.”
“That is what you say, but I heard it loud and clear when you offered yourself for this mission,” Faeldir countered as he clutched the cumbersome shape of their father’s shield in front of him like the most prized possession, the grey cloth wrapped haphazardly around it. Amardir was determined not to let himself be dragged into an argument with his brother, after all he needed to focus on the task that lay ahead of him.
“It was my duty and that should suffice. We both have our duties to fulfil, so you will do yours as I will do mine,” Amardir said rather gruffly, intent on closing this topic, but alas, he should have seen his brother’s stubbornness coming.
“But the king could have at least allowed me to go with you. I do not like the taste of this dreadful place he is sending you.” Faeldir kept on nagging as they hurried past crumbled remains of houses abandoned long ago, silent witnesses of the dreadful time when death on its heated wings had razed them like a tempest of fire.
“That is not for you to decide and you know that very well.”
Amardir suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned to face his brother, who had caught up and now nearly bumped into him. Faeldir stared at him, taken aback by the harsh tone in his brother’s voice and tightening his grip around the crumpled package in his arms. His lower lip trembled as he sought to keep his poise, the snowflakes settling like tiny stars on his brown hair.
“I know that he is our king but I also know that my place is with you. Thranduil does not need me here. He has an entire army to fight for him!” Faeldir said with a defiant glare in his eyes.
Amardir couldn’t help but smile at his little brother’s words. He knew how much his younger brother adored him and how little fondness he had for the idea of him being sent on a dangerous mission.
“Don’t mock me,” Faeldir protested at the dawning smile on his brother’s face, “I am very serious about it.”
“And so am I. I am not mocking you,” Amardir appeased his brother, “I am merely glad to hear how much you don’t want me to leave. But it is about time that you learn how to find your own way. No and don’t protest,” he raised his hand to silence Faeldir who had already opened his mouth with an answer at the ready, “you yourself showed me today that it is so, when you went to ask the king about our father. That was a quite daring thing to do.”
“You think so?” Faeldir blurted out, not quite sure if he should be relieved. “So you are not upset with me?”
“I have considered it, initially.” Amardir cocked his head sideways and cast his brother an assessing glance. “But no, I am not. You are not a little elfling any more and I must accept this.”
Faeldir beamed at his brother like the rising sun and almost dropped the shield in his excitement.
“I promise that I will make you proud. I will fight for both of us while you are away.”
“Don’t overexert yourself,” Amardir said chuckling at his brothers enthusiasm, earning him an amused grin from his brother.
“I won’t, don’t worry.”
“Good, now that we have cleared that up, let us not tarry any longer, for I must set out quickly.”
Amardir turned around resolutely and continued to lead the way towards their destination.
At last they reached one of the better preserved houses with its walls mostly intact and even a roof that provided some meagre shelter from the elements. Bard and his men hat set up improvised stables for their own horses, the few that they had been able to rescue from the fire, as well as the ones that had pulled the carts of the elves and of course Thranduil’s elk. Most were now munching away gratefully on what little food they had been given.
A stout middle-aged man with a dark red waistcoat that must have cost quite a good sum stretching dangerously over his protruding belly, his thick brown hair as wiry as his beard, received the brothers with a polite smile on his slightly overtired face.
“I have been expecting you.” He bowed curtly, the brothers reciprocating with a slight inclination of their heads.
“You have?” Faeldir asked with a surprised look.
The smile on the man’s square face grew bigger as he puffed himself up proudly.
“Your king’s word travels fast. And the hour may be late, but I have not been idle. My name is Odmund and I welcome you to these modest stables.”
He ushered them to follow him while he gesticulated to another young boy who had entered with a bale of hay in his hands and a questioning look on his face. “Take this to the Elvenking’s elk, special attention must be given to his animal.” At this the boy turned obediently towards the appointed direction and Odmund returned his attention to Faeldir and Amardir.
“If you would come with me please.”
Wasting no more time he led them directly around the side wall of the building towards the back where several horses had been tethered outside, all the while going on about the hardship of having been depraved of his source of income by the sudden appearance of the dragon.
“I am a farrier, you must know, and the best one you can find in all Esgaroth if I may say so.” He sighed as he reached for the reigns of a plain grey mare that stood in between two brown ones. “Well, I was the best one, before those confounded dwarves woke the dragon that brought ruin upon us all.” He threw an accusatory glance in the direction where he suspected the mountain to be looming in the darkness. “Many fine beasts have perished.” He shook his head, a gloomy frown on his face, as he gave the horse a friendly pat.
Amardir nodded gravely, not wanting to appear impolite, but at the same time hoping to speed up things.
“I am very sorry for the losses you had to suffer. But I assure you that our people are here to provide as much help as possible.” The questioning look on Amardir’s face as he took in the features of the mare prompted a sudden change in Odmund’s mood.
“But luckily for you, this one survived.” A small smile shone through the brown mess of his beard as he presented the chosen horse to the brothers. Faeldir had shuffled closer, trying to get a better look.
“This is Silvermane,” the man’s voice dropped low as he spoke the name with reverence. “Do not let yourself be deceived by her plain appearance,” he said, forestalling a possible complaint, “she has been selected with great care. Her pace is light, but smooth and swift and she will carry you to your destination safely. And she is most loyal to her rider.” Silvermane neighed as if in approval, her silver crest flowing around her slender neck and her dark brown eyes lingering curiously on the elves. Amardir was visibly pleased as he made his way around the horse, diligently saddled and patiently waiting for its rider.
“Do not worry good man. I do know the value of a loyal horse and do not judge it by its appearance.”
“Good, good. I see that I do not need to tell you more.” Odmund nodded and handed the reins to Faeldir. “I will leave you two then to it, as I have more business to attend to.”
“Yes, very well. Thank you,” Amardir said as he opened the saddlebags and to his satisfaction found that ample provisions had been packed inside them.
The farrier bade Silvermane goodbye with a tender stroke on her forehead and before he turned to leave he pointed a finger at Amardir.
“I only have one request: bring her back safe, will you?”
“I will, I promise.” Amardir had rounded the horse and was with one foot already in the stirrups.
With a weary smile Odmund straightened his waistcoat and headed back inside, still somewhat reluctant at leaving Silvermane behind.
“Be sure to take care of yourself,” said Faeldir as his brother finally mounted the horse. The wry smile on his face barely could conceal the worry that held him captive, now that the moment of truth was indeed upon them. Being separated from his brother was not something he appreciated and even less now that one was being sent on an obviously dangerous mission while the other had to stay behind, the equally dangerous threat of war looming overhead.
“Yes, of course I will. The same goes for you my brother.”
Amardir shifted in the saddle, making sure he had his sword stowed away in reach should the need for a quick defence arise, as well as his bow safely slung around his back. Seeing the lingering preoccupation in Faeldir’s eyes he addressed him in the most nonchalant voice he could muster:
“Do not worry, I will be just fine. The times of dragons in Gundabad are long gone by and you know that I can handle a bunch of nasty orcs. Besides, you are with me wherever I go, but you know that little brother, don’t you?”
Amardir ruffled the horse’s mane, the happy whinnying casting a fleeting smile on Amardir’s face.
“Yes, I know.” Faeldir nodded obediently. He handed his brother the reins and gave the horse an encouraging pat. “You better get going before you make me all teary-eyed with your sentimental babble.”
Amardir raised one eyebrow in playful indignation.
“Good bye then!” He took the reins from his brother and with one last glance turned away.
“Until we meet again,” Faeldir called after him.
Amardir spurred his horse and in the blink of an eye the darkness had swallowed both horse and rider.
Sleep would not come easily to Thranduil that night as he spent the hours shifting around worries in his head, all attempts to put his mind at rest crowned with little to no success. As he lay awake in his bed he could not help but let his thoughts drift back to the conversation with the hobbit. Something was odd about this Master Baggins, something elusive, something he could not put his finger on quite yet. He was now sure that he had felt his presence in the palace at least once. Back then it had been only a mere hunch, a singular drift of cold air casting a fleeting shadow on his heart. Bilbo Baggins was clearly not an evil person, but no one, not even hobbits, small as they were, possessed the power to turn invisible at will, unless they were to use magic. And the fact that he had so blatantly refused to give him an explanation only reinforced Thranduil’s suspicion that a stealthy power beyond the hobbit’s own comprehension had once again begun to work its dark malice in Middle-earth.
Thranduil had not been able to explain to himself the sudden chill that had crept under his skin and into his bones, but now he began to understand the whole extent as more pieces of the puzzle appeared. Mithrandir and his warning, a hobbit with astonishing abilities and his own premonitions: it all fell suddenly into place.
He hoped that whatever this meant it would not be a bad omen for his quest and the dwarves might indeed be his only foes he would have to worry about. But the ring of concerns only tightened around his heart with relentless force. After all he had lived long enough to recognise the darkness when faced with it, however it might disguise itself. And contrary to a young elf like Faeldir he as king could not allow himself to show fear, because it would only be construed as weakness, thus playing into the hands of his enemies. The Mountain lay under siege, but he did not feel much different himself, all his worries piling up like an impenetrable wall of stone and casting a dark shadow of hopelessness on his heart.
The only rays of hope breaking through the wall of gloom were the gems he so much desired, those precious jewels that lay deeply hidden in the vast underground halls of Erebor. Their iridescent gleam like pure starlight caught in their vexing facets emanated an otherworldly glow of eternal beauty. A beauty he desired above everything else on Arda, cold and pure like immaculate crystals of ice. The prospect of being able to feel their smooth perfection beneath his fingers and take delight in their ethereal gleam filled his heart with a soothing warmth he so dearly longed for. A fierce desire rose within him, a desire that was both driven by the hunger for retribution as well as the deeply rooted feeling of devotion he still felt for his departed wife.
If Thorin wanted his Arkenstone back, he would have to give up Thranduil’s necklace in turn, or else he would not hesitate in laying a permanent siege on those walls behind which the dwarf hid like a thief in the darkness. He was patient, he could wait. At some point the dwarves would run out of food inside the Mountain and they would come crawling forth like beggars, asking for an exchange. An exchange he would gladly offer them. After all it were the dwarves that have kept what was rightfully his for far too long.
Mithrandir’s words rang like an unwanted admonition in the back of his head. But he did not want to hear anything of giving up on those gems. The wizard was a fool when he thought that Thranduil would simply let them go. Surely not now that he was so close!
This time he would not fail, he would take home what belonged to him.
He tossed away the bedsheets as he could not find any rest and rose from his bed, throwing a silken robe around his shoulders. He turned towards the decanter but decided against another glass of wine and for a breath of fresh air instead.
As he motioned to pull apart the drapes a tiny ball of grey feathers shot through the opening gap and over Thranduil’s head with great speed, sending snowflakes everywhere as it zoomed around slightly disoriented. It was a little bird chirping excitedly, fluttering around the tent in search of a place to land.
Thranduil ducked his head instinctively, but once he recognised the small blackbird hen as one of his winged messengers from the palace he welcomed it gladly, offering it his outstretched fingers to land. The bird flapped its wings hurriedly as it landed and then ruffled its feathers, all tousled from the snow storm, its tiny beak gaping restlessly as it sought to catch its breath. The bird leaned into the Elvenking’s hand that was now gently stroking its minute head, glittering eyes like small black pearls looking up curiously to him as he spoke to it soothingly, smoothing its feathers until it had calmed down enough to be able to divulge the information it held.
“Tell me my little friend, what word do you bring from the palace? You come with haste, is there anything unusual going on?”
Thranduil continued to run his fingers through the fluffy feathers, seeing as the blackbird thoroughly enjoyed the attention the Elvenking bestowed upon it. Swollen with pride the little messenger now piped eagerly.
“Indeed my lord. Your human guest is more restless than ever.” It jumped from the king’s fingers onto the bedrest as Thranduil had walked over to the bed and taken a seat on the edge of the bed, eyebrows knitted in concern.
“My lord, Brethilwen believes she is making plans to leave the palace.” The blackbird hopped along the wooden backrest excitedly, the tiny head bobbing up and down rhythmically as it moved.
This was not good. This could not be happening, he thought to himself. Not now, not with him being stuck here in Dale, so close to the treasure he so much desired and war looming on his doorstep.
“Are you sure of it?”
“Yes, my lord. She has been seen collecting food and other items and finding a secret spot to hide those belongings.”
“So it is true then.” He nodded slowly, his gaze absentmindedly shifting from the blackbird to the drapes being ruffled by the winter wind.
If only he knew if she was leaving to search for him or if she was running away to look for the wizard. He rose from the bed, his robe carelessly sliding off his shoulders and landing on the floor in a silky heap of grey, leaving him only with a thin silver tunic that flowed around his body in delicate waves with every step. He clasped his hands behind his back and began his restless pacing, the blackbird fluttering around him obediently awaiting its master’s command.
He knew that there was no way for him to keep her in the palace unless he were to use force or magic, both of which he did not feel inclined to resort to. If her leaving the palace could not be prevented he needed to at least make sure she would not be falling victim to the dangers that loomed in the forest. She had to stay safe until he would be able to get back to her and find her, wherever she might be.
The blackbird zoomed around the tent, watching the king’s pacing with rising impatience, finally settling on Thranduil’s chair.
“My lord, what are your orders? What do I tell Brethilwen?”
“The sword, the Queen’s sword, make sure she finds it. It will be the only weapon effectively protecting her in the thickets of Mirkwood. And whatever else she might need. Brethilwen will know what to do. She always does.”
Thranduil knew that he could count on Brethilwen’s loyalty as well as her discretion when it came to his personal matters.
“Yes, my lord, of course. Will there by anything else?” The bird cocked its head sideways following the king’s motions with its keen eyes.
“This will be all.” Thranduil reached for a loaf of bread on the small table beside his chair, tearing off crumbs and spreading them on the surface.
“One more thing: be sure to keep this secret. Only Brethilwen must know, no one else in the palace and least of all my guest. Is that clear?”
“Yes, my lord, crystal clear!”
The little bird nodded dutifully, happily picking the breadcrumbs before it would start back to Mirkwood.
The forest would have to spare its king still for a good while to come and whatever she was up to Thranduil could only watch from afar, hoping that his misgivings would not prove themselves to be true.
He needed that breath of fresh air now more than ever, so he picked up his heavy cloak, snatching an apple from the wooden bowl on the table as he left and decided to head for the stables, where everything lay now dormant in this darkest hour of the night. Thranduil slipped inside quietly, passing Odmund who lay sound asleep on a provisional bed huddled against the wall made out of hay and mismatched rags. It was not difficult to spot his elk as its antlers towered considerably over the horses’ heads around him. As kingly mount it had been given the best and most sheltered corner in the back, where it had ample space to eat and rest before it would carry its master to battle. A smile dawned on Thranduil’s face as a sneaky ray of moonlight cast a pale light on the majestic features of his loyal servant. Sensing the presence of its master the elk raised its head curiously to then bow it in a gesture of reverence when Thranduil reached out to stroke its thick hair in between the antlers.
“Yes, I know the hour is late, but I cannot find sleep.” Thranduil spoke softly while allowing his fingers to ruffle through the soft fur.
“And I see that neither can you.”
He pulled out the apple from under his cloak and the elk took it with a happy snort, crunching loudly as he devoured it eagerly.
“You seem restless my old friend.” Brown eyes so dark they almost appeared black looked intently at him, and he saw his own uneasiness staring back at him from their depths.
“I know you wish to go back home. So do I. But you also know that I have unfinished business to attend to.”
Thranduil diligently brushed through the shaggy mane along the neck, the elk rearing its ears as it listened patiently. “And no matter what, I must bring this to an end or else I will never find peace.”
The elk sniffed the air curiously, gently prodding Thranduil’s shoulder in search of another treat. “No, I don’t have another one, besides this is not what you should be eating anyway.” He chuckled at the elk’s insistent nibbling and then said with a slight frown:
“And don’t look at me like that, you know this has to be done. Only then will I be able to truly move on.”
With skilful strokes Thranduil’s hands made their way along the flanks, the firm muscles under the thick fur flexing beneath his touch, and the Elvenking’s mind still revolving around the news his messenger had unveiled to him.
“And even then I might come too late after all.” He paused for a moment to then add: “She might be running away from the palace.” Thranduil suddenly stopped his ministrations, a deep sigh escaping him. “This is all my fault. I should have never left her behind.”
He shook his head absentmindedly and pinched the bridge of his nose, the amiable poking of the elk’s snout against his cheek eliciting a strained smile.
“Yes, I know, you only mean to console me, but I fear that bad things might happen. The shadow of darkness is spreading once more and it will be more dangerous than ever out there, even more so for a human with little to no knowledge of our world.” He returned the elk’s gesture with a friendly ruffle, his gaze now lost in the darkness of the stables.
A throaty cough behind him made Thranduil turn around sharply, the blurry outline of a man silhouetted against the open gate of the building. Despite the softly spoken words Odmund had awoken with the commotion in the stables and stood now drowsy and baffled at the sudden presence of the fabled Elvenking before him. The sight of the tall and intimidating figure made him bow instinctively and he thought it best to resort to a quick apology.
“I am so sorry my lord, but I must have fallen asleep. I was not expecting your visit.”
In lack of anything else to say he simply bowed again, hoping that Thranduil might not be as unforgiving as his reputation that preceded him.
“You have no need to apologise. I did not announce my visit.” His words were well chosen and not hostile, but not exactly friendly either, so Odmund kept his guard up.
“I hope you have found everything to your satisfaction. I have made sure your elk would receive the best care possible. Of course given the circumstances, I am afraid what I can offer is quite limited.”
He shrugged apologetically while brushing off hay from his waistcoat.
“Yes, everything is fine.” Thranduil gave Odmund a benign nod. “I know that the losses have been grievous.”
“Indeed my lord, they have.”
A moment of awkward silence during which Thranduil assessed Odmund with a curious glance was finally broken by the king’s question: “I take it that you provided Amardir with your swiftest horse as I have instructed?”
“Yes, I did as I was bidden.” Odmund’s face tightened considerably and intimidating Elvenking or not, he had to unburden himself.
“To be honest my lord I must admit that I was reluctant to give Silvermane away. She is my treasure. You must know that we have lost many horses in the fire.”
He was ready to dive into another elaborate explanation of his dire situation, but the rather strained look on Thranduil’s face prompted him to only say:
“But of course your request is my command.” Still he could not hold back his curiosity. “No one told me though what for she was needed, but I suppose it must be quite an important mission.”
“If you mean to ask me where will your horse be heading to then please, by all means, do not hesitate and simply ask.” What he kept to himself and didn’t say was: I won’t cut your head off, even if the thought is quite tempting. Thranduil might have been tired but that did not prevent him from being annoyed, moreover it rather augmented it. He raised an eyebrow and luckily for his nerves it did not take Odmund long to catch the drift.
“Yes, I would very much like to know, as I wish for her safe return.”
“Gundabad will be the destination in search for my son and I can assure you that I am most grateful that you were willing to offer your best horse for this task. I will make sure that you will be most richly rewarded.”
A sudden shadow descended on Odmund’s square face at the mention of this cursed place and he said in a grave voice: “That is very generous of you, but that won’t be necessary. Silvermane’s value cannot be measured in gold. She was my daughter Edda’s horse, you know.”
“When you say was, you mean - ?” Thranduil asked tentatively, his mood suddenly shifting away from annoyance to empathy.
Odmund nodded, his voice now shaky. “We lost her when the fire came. I thought that she was with us, but then the flames drove the horses mad and they bolted. I did not look back and then she was gone. My wife had to hold on to the little ones and Edda, our oldest, had helped me with the horses. Silvermane was her most treasured possession, you must know, so she went after her.” His face had turned the colour of ash when he added in a resigned tone. “But only the horse returned — alone. Edda never came back. Silvermane is the only thing we have left of her.”
“I understand.” Thranduil clenched his jaw, Odmund’s grievous loss momentarily pushing his own worries to the back of his head.
“But can you be sure that she is indeed gone? Have you searched for her?” he insisted, his gaze never leaving Odmund’s pained face.
The Elvenking’s sudden interest in his fate took Odmund by surprise. “Well, yes, we did go back of course but as you well know ruins are the only thing left of our city and we had to move on and come to Dale with our other children and the horses.” With bitterness in his voice he added: “We had no other choice.”
“Do not despair. There might still be hope.” Thranduil looked out through the open gate, the faint blue gleam of dawn beginning to push away the darkness of night.
Odmund shook his head, his expression shifting in between disbelief and hopelessness. “I do not think so. Too much time has gone by.”
“You cannot give up hope until she has been found.” Thranduil’s voice did not allow for dissent. “I will instruct my men to search for her. It is the least I can offer you in return.”
Tears of gratitude found their way into Odmund’s tangled beard as he bowed deeply in front of the Elvenking. “Thank you, my lord.” He fumbled with the buttons of his waistcoat, words beginning to fail him.
“I hope that you will find your son as well.” The last words from Odmund’s mouth were nearly swallowed by his choked voice.
Thranduil’s wordless gaze rested on the stout man bowed with grief before him and in a fleeting moment the farrier and the king were just two fathers hoping against all odds that their children might be alive and well after all.