The King looked up at a knock on his office door. The guard that entered at the call saluted immediately. "Sire, there is a Dwarf at the bridge, requesting to speak to you."
Thranduil frowned. Of all the times for this kind of interruption… "Did he say what his business with us involved?"
The guard's head shook slowly. "No, Sire. The only thing he said was that he wished to speak with the Elvenking."
"Did he give a name?" Despite himself, he was growing curious. Other than the contact before and immediately after the Battle of the Five Armies, the Dwarves of Erebor and the Elves of Eryn Lasgalen had managed to get along quite nicely on their own, without need for communications. Of course, there was the matter of his son becoming brother-of-the-heart with one of them during the latter days of the Ring War, but surely nothing had happened to either of them…
"On second thought, never mind. We will speak with this person. Escort him into the Hall, give him a suite in the guest wing - a good one, not one at the far end of the wing…" Thranduil knew enough about the prejudices of his people that he added the qualifier deliberately and pointedly. "…and give him time to refresh himself before bringing him to us."
The guard pressed his hand to his heart and withdrew, and Thranduil returned to his tome of instructions that hopefully would address all possible areas of difficulty for the several months he would be gone. Weeks would be needed to travel the distance between Eryn Lasgalen and Ithilien and then back again, and although his Battle Master and Chief Counselor were perfectly capable of handling simple matters without instruction, it would be better to leave them some idea of the kinds of things they might have to face and how he expected them to address the issues.
He'd been composing this set of instructions in his head for the better part of a month, ever since he'd received the invitation to attend the official investment of his son with the lordship over the forests of Northern Ithilien, along with the elevation of the edain son of the old Steward of Gondor as the Prince of the edain in that land. Now that his own forests were well on their way to recovering from the devastating fires that had laid waste to whole areas, he had the luxury of considering travel in a land once more at peace. And he was curious to see these forests that drew his son away from his ancestral trees. As the time drew nearer that he would have to leave, he'd finally broken down and started writing down all the instructions that had occurred to him.
He looked up again when another knock sounded at his office door. A quick glance at the candle on his desk told the story: the better part of the afternoon had passed by in musing and composition. "Come!"
Another guard entered this time, and he had a very stiff expression on his face. "Sire, your guest is here to speak with you now."
Thranduil waved a graceful hand in the air. "Allow him to enter, Faeldur."
The guard pressed his hand to his heart and stood aside so that the short, stocky warrior, dressed in well-made Dwarven leathers stomped through the door. Thranduil's brows folded together; that face! Regardless the liberal sprinkling of silver threads among the dark brown, he was certain he'd seen it before. When the memory clicked into place, he narrowed his eyes and carefully returned his quill to the ink pot. Of all the nerve…
"With all due respect, Master Dwarf, we are very busy," he stated with clear impatience. "Please state your business."
"I am Glóin, son of Gróin," was the rumbling answer. "And I must say, I appreciate the luxury of the rooms assigned to me much better this time than the last, King Thranduil. You've mellowed."
Thranduil studied the one who faced him so boldly. "The last time," Glóin had said. So his memory had not failed him; this was indeed one of the small group who had entered his forest without permission – part of the group that he'd locked in the wine cellars in lieu of a dungeon, and which had eventually escaped his care in empty wine barrels set floating downriver. He still needled Galion about that, every time the man tippled a little too much again.
"We are as we were when you and your fellows attempted to sneak your way through our woods," Thranduil replied testily. How dare he cast aspersions on the way he had dealt with strangers! "Perhaps, had you and your companions come knocking on our doors like legitimate visitors rather than sneaking around and frightening our people and drawing the attention of spiders with your rackets, you would have found our accommodations more to your liking then as well."
"Do you throw all who don't answer your questions properly into cells?" Glóin demanded.
"When they are hazards to the welfare of my people, we do." Thranduil snapped. He had to work very hard not to pick up the ink pot and quill and throw them at the insolent Dwarf. Instead, he took a moment to breathe deeply and try to calm down. "But this incident of which we both speak is now years behind us both. And certainly you have something else on your mind than to complain of your treatment the last time you were here, do you not?"
"Why are you talking like that?"
"Like what?" Thranduil was beyond incensed.
"Like you're a whole flock of Elves rather than just one, that's like what!"
Thranduil blinked. "We are the King here, and this is the way Kings speak."
"'This is the way Kings speak,' he says," Glóin mumbled to no one in particular. "This wasn't a good idea; I knew it! I can't imagine what either Gimli or Legolas were thinking…"
"Legolas?" Thranduil was half out of his chair. "What have you to do with my son?"
Glóin looked up at him and huffed. "Oh, and now you start speaking like a normal person. Have you given up your crown then?"
"We should have you thrown back into the cell where you were the last time," Thranduil snarled. "But first you will tell me what you have to do with my son!"
The Dwarf glowered at him. "I have nothing to do with your son, but my son sets great stock by his opinion. I'm certain this whole thing was probably Legolas' idea."
"What whole thing?" Thranduil thundered. "You speak in riddles and rudely too. You have yet to explain your presence here, and we grow weary of this."
"Fine. I am here at your son's suggestion, as told to me by my son…"
"Your son?" Why, in the name of all the Powers, would Legolas… Thranduil's eyes opened wide suddenly, and his heart gave a hard thump. "Your son, his name is not Gimli, is it?"
"Is there any other Dwarf's son who's foolish enough to set stock in the ramblings of an Elf?" Glóin snapped at him.
Both the Elvenking and his guest turned their heads in surprise, having forgotten that there was a witness to this exchange – a witness with his hand to the hilt of his sword. The interruption gave Thranduil an opportunity to think through his reaction a little better. The Dwarf said that he was here at the behest of both Gimli and Legolas; it probably wouldn't go well if he didn't at the very least treat Gimli's father with a modicum of respect.
"All is well, Faeldur," Thranduil sighed and settled himself back into his chair. "It seems that we are gifted with a visit from the father of Legolas' declared brother-of-the-heart, so there is no need for that." The absolute last thing he needed was for Legolas to hear that Gimli's father had been skewered by one of the Hall guards. "Rather, if you would be so kind, could you go to the kitchens and bring us a pitcher of that ale we purchased a few years back, and a mug for our guest? No doubt Master Glóin thirsts after his long journey and would appreciate the relief," he added with a sigh.
The dark eyes beneath the Dwarf's bushy brows glinted merrily. "Ale would be much appreciated. My son told me that the hospitality in your Halls had improved since last I was here."
A visibly confused Faeldur saluted and left the office. "The last time you were here, we believe, you and your comrades managed to find a way out of our wine cellar that was quite... creative. We never had an opportunity to congratulate any of your party on your success when next we met." Thranduil reluctantly gestured toward the chairs that sat before his desk. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
Glóin's thick eyebrows rose sharply, and then he shook his head and parked himself in the indicated chair. "Thank you. I think…" He glared at Thranduil. "I can't tell if that was a compliment or a backhanded insult."
"You may take it as it was meant, Master Dwarf. Your escape was creative, and it has given us ammunition with which to plague our valet in the years since. Galion has still quite the taste for our Dorwinion, although he tends to be more cautious and not imbibe while attending to his duties."
The discussion came to a halt when Faeldur knocked and re-entered the office, a pitcher of ale in one hand and stoneware mug in the other. He deposited the pitcher and mug on Thranduil's desk and then asked, "Will there be anything else, Sire?"
"Thank you, Faeldur. That will be all." Thranduil gave a shallow bow of the head in answer to the salute and then rose to pour the mug full of ale from the pitcher. He handed Glóin his drink while the guard exited the office and quietly closed the door behind himself. "We must admit – reluctantly, of course – that we found your son a very interesting person," he added, removing to a sideboard and pouring himself a liberal goblet of his Dorwinion. After all, it was late afternoon, and his instructions could wait for the morning to complete. Besides, he could use something to settle his nerves that had been so thoroughly frazzled. "According to Legolas, Gimli proved himself a most capable warrior, and has become a cherished companion to our son."
Glóin's heavy eyebrows worked, and then he chuckled. "Hmph. I'll wager you were as astonished and appalled as I was at learning of our sons' choices in companion. Admit it: I'm right, aren't I."
Thranduil hesitated, and then held out his goblet and tapped it against the mug. "You too, eh?" he commented with a wry grin and then sipped, enjoying the burn. It wasn't comforting to discover that the two of them actually shared the other's opinion after all.
"Did you give your boy a lecture too?" By the Powers! It looked as though the Dwarf was enjoying himself immensely all of a sudden, and Thranduil had to admit that he, too, was now finding this encounter stimulating. Glóin was a brazen soul, he had to admit, thoroughly under-impressed by the company he was with. And yet there was something about him…
Thranduil snickered. "I do not think 'lecture' to be quite the proper description of…"
Glóin barked a laugh that Thranduil found irresistible. "No, I suppose it isn't," he managed finally. "And I suppose your boy was just as determined and unshakeable as mine was, no matter what you said."
"Indeed." Thranduil nodded at the memory of the glint of steel in Legolas' gaze at the very thought of renouncing his friendship. "I think that if either of us intends to enjoy our sons' company in the future, we will have resign ourselves to seeing the other in their company, as often as not." He made his way back to his comfortable chair behind his desk and shoved the parchment instructions aside before leaning back. "However, despite our sons' friendship obliging a dialogue between Dwarf and Elf again, I still wonder what would bring you here now. Speak, please, for unfortunately I truly am very busy..."
The Dwarf buried his nose in his ale for a moment, and then wiped at the foam caught in his whiskers with the back of a hand. "Yes, I suppose…" He gave the King a sharp look. "I want you to know that this is my son's idea, although Gimli tells me that Legolas leant his support to the suggestion…"
"Yes." Another moment of silence passed while Glóin worked on his ale again. "By Mahal! I know not what either of them are thinking…"
Thranduil leaned forward. "Speak, please! Is something amiss?"
"No," Glóin replied slowly. "It's just that Gimli and Legolas seem to be of the opinion that you and I should journey together to Aglarond and Ithilien." He seemed to pause. "You were intending to go to all the fancy doings there, were you not?"
Glóin took a long draught from his mug and grumbled, "Gimli insists that I make the trip, if for no other reason than to stop by his new home in Rohan, where he and several families of Dwarves from Erebor are producing some very fine gemstones."
"Rohan? Legolas said nothing of…" Thranduil leaned forward and began rifling through the papers on his desk, looking for the letter from his son. "His letter mentioned Ithilien only, I thought…" Finally his son's spidery handwriting came into view. He snatched it up and scanned it quickly. "'It would mean a great deal if you could be in Osgiliath by… ceremony in North Ithilien on…' I told you!" He glanced up, triumphant. "I see no mention of Rohan here… Wait…" He read on into the final lines. "'We shall all travel together then to Aglarond…' Where is this Aglarond?" He frowned at the nod from the Dwarf that indicated that he knew where it was. "Well?" he demanded.
"Aglarond is the name of Gimli's colony in the mountains near Helm's Deep. That's in Rohan," Glóin sighed. He reached into his vest and pulled out a fold of parchment and opened it. "He says here, 'We both think that you two would benefit from traveling together, since you both will be going to the same places. You can keep each other company on the road, and perhaps get to know each other better.' See?" Glóin tapped the letter with a frustrated forefinger and then tossed it onto the desk, where Thranduil caught it up immediately. "I told you: not my idea."
Gimli's handwriting was even worse than Legolas', but then, Thranduil was far less acquainted with the Dwarven script than with the cirth or tengwar that was used in Sindarin. "Nor my idea of a good idea either," he replied, tossing the letter back to the desk. "Even if it were, Gimli told me that your kind does not favor riding, and I certainly have no intention on walking the hundreds of leagues between here and Osgiliath!"
"We don't tend to favor riding temperamental creatures three times taller than ourselves, no," was the arched reply. "But I wouldn't object to a pony…"
"A pony?" Thranduil's brows nearly touched the woven circlet of leaves and flowers. "You do want to get there in time for the ceremonies, do you not?"
Glóin's brows could fold into a frown that was downright frightening. "Are you saying that a pony would not get me there in time?"
"I am saying that I will be riding my stallion, and it will be difficult for any pony to keep up with him." Thranduil sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "If you travel with me, you will have to have a more proper mount."
"I'll fall and break my neck!"
"Nonsense! Gimli spent a goodly portion of that wretched Quest behind Legolas on his Arod, who is no less tall than my Aduial. To my knowledge, he did not fall or break his neck."
"Yes, and Gimli told me that if he never had to sit on the backside of a horse again, it would be too soon!" Glóin thumped the mug down on the desk and crossed his arms over his chest in a mirror of Thranduil. "If you think I'd agree to hanging onto your belt so that I don't tumble to my death…"
Thranduil blinked. "I did not mean that you would ride behind me!" He huffed and frowned. "Certainly one of the benefits of being royalty is being able to ride one's own steed in peace."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't manage by myself on one of those monsters, now, would I?" Glóin retorted, "And although he hates the jostling, Gimli had to admit that they traveled faster when he rode with Legolas, who, as your son, is also royalty, is he not?"
"That was different," Thranduil fumed. "They were…"
"Did they not arrive at your Hall together on the back of that beast? I know they arrived at my Hall that way…"
"I am not going to force Aduial to ride double!"
Glóin glowered at him. "Is he so delicate an animal then?"
"He is a highly trained war-stallion. He is most definitely not delicate!"
"Then what's the problem? He can bear the both of us…"
Thranduil stared at the Dwarf and then buried his face in his hand. "This is never going to work. Somewhere along the road to Osgiliath, we are certain to kill each other."
"I know. I have no idea what they were thinking," Glóin commiserated.
"What are we going to do?" Thranduil leaned his chin into his hand and contemplated his guest. "They will expect us to take their suggestion."
Glóin shrugged. "How soon were you planning to leave?"
Long fingers picked lazily through the papers and brought up three drooping sheets. "I am still in the middle of leaving adequate instructions for my aides to follow in my absence. It will take another day, perhaps more, before I can consider leaving. And once this tome I write now is done, I will have to fight my advisors who, because they are unhappy with my leaving in the first place, will no doubt insist on my taking a squad of warriors at the very least, for my protection…" His hand fell limp to the desk, bearing the papers with it.
"You can't travel quickly with a military company!"
Thranduil nodded. "Did you not hear me say that I would be fighting them? Like our sons' suggestion, it is not my idea."
Glóin's eyes narrowed. "Another day or so at least before you can leave, eh?" He rubbed his forefinger beneath his nose, stroking the moustache and then sat up straighter. His eyes glinted in restrained mischief. "How much would getting away without an escort be worth to you?"
"Why? What did you have in mind?" Thranduil sat up straighter himself, suddenly wary. Dwarves making deals was never a situation that inspired trust.
"If I can figure out how to get you out of here without an escort and accompanying nobles, you will put me on the back of that… mule of yours so that we can make good time," Glóin stated firmly, defending it with, "It's a fair compromise."
"We shall still end up wishing each other dead by the time we pass the southern fences of Eryn Lasgalen," Thranduil warned.
Glóin shrugged. "So? What else will be new?" He smiled at the Elvenking. "Are you game?"
"I can already tell I am going to regret this," Thranduil grumbled, "but yes. If you can get us out of here without a full escort, I can… Aduial can carry us both."
"Good!" The Dwarf had the audacity to look pleased. "Then this is what we shall do…"