The Hungry Ghost

By Anonymist

Summary: There's a mysterious thief at large in the elf-king's halls, and Thranduil is about to discover that not even the king is exempt…

A/N: Placed third in the Teitho Contest's hobbit challenge. Yay! This is my first completed fanfic outside of poetry, so please, please please review and tell me what you think. Thanks much! -Anon


In Thranduil's Halls: The Hungry Ghost

)o(

Thranduil frowned as he picked up the empty goblet. He would have sworn that mere seconds ago it had been full of fine red wine, but now only a trace of the rosy liquor stained the depths of the cup. The thin line between his eyebrows deepened as he looked around the quiet, empty side chamber. It was an informal meeting room and (even less formally) Thranduil's favorite place for a quiet meal.

He had been called away from his lunch for a report from the elf who oversaw his prisoners, whom he had met in the hall just out of the doorway. No one had passed him, and the elf king would have heard anyone enter the room from the far side, elven stealth or no, for the door was a heavy one that led to the grand audience chamber and it did not move silently. Yet here was his goblet, emptied before he had touched it.

Thranduil looked up from this puzzling evidence as another elf entered the room. It was Legolas, still dressed in the deep browns and greens of the hunt and looking thoughtful. When he saw the king, however, his face cleared and he smiled.

"Father," the prince greeted him, bowing gracefully before he embraced Thranduil.

Thranduil returned the greeting warmly. "Legolas! The stars will shine brighter now that you are home. It is good to see you again, my son. Was your hunt not successful? You seem troubled."

"No, we were most fortunate. Maelas startled a white stag near the enchanted stream, and we found fowl in plenty near the fens on the east border. Never fear, there shall be plenty of game for the Autumn feast. It is something else that troubles—no, it puzzles me. Father, when does an elf lose his shadow?"

"When he is in the dark," Thranduil replied, completing the simple riddle with a quizzical glance at his son.

"Very true. But answer me this: When does a shadow lose its elf?"

"I don't understand you, Legolas." Thranduil arched an eyebrow. "Have you seen many elfless shadows?"

Legolas sighed, shutting the door and coming to stand beside his father. "Perhaps, perhaps not." His long fingers idly plucked a walnut from a tray on the small table and rolled it between his fingers. He looked at Thranduil seriously, his gray eyes troubled. "It may be my eyes deceive me, but as we passed the gates I saw more shadows than elves in my company."

"A trick of the torchlight?" Thranduil frowned. He could not see why such a thing disturbed his son. Their enemies hid in darkness and shadow, but he knew of nothing that could walk unseen through his enchanted gates.

Legolas still looked skeptical, but he nodded slowly. "It is possible."

"Or perhaps the spirit wished to see what you had brought for him," Thranduil chuckled. "But if so, he must be very swift of foot."

"Then the hungry ghost is still at large?" Legolas asked with a smile.

Thranduil nodded. "It appears not even the king is safe from his games." He held up his empty goblet. "I left it here as I spoke in the with Captain Amaril. When I returned the wine was gone."

Legolas examined it without surprise. There had been many such phenomena in the palace of late; here a loaf of bread and there an apple would disappear without a trace. One young elf claimed that a leg of venison had vanished from a platter before his astonished eyes. This impressionable elf and some of his friends were convinced that a hungry spirit roamed the halls, although the wiser eldar knew it was nonsense.

Thranduil sighed and shook his head, as baffled as ever. "If this were the first time, I might blame it on the excellence of Dorwinian brew and my own memory. But wine has never yet made venison disappear. I fear we have a thief at large."

"I am not convinced that it is not some game of one of the young elves."

Thranduil laughed and shook his head. "No elf could consume all of the food that has disappeared, not even by half. I do not think we will find the guilty one among our own."

"Then it is a thief that no elf can hear nor see, that not even our archers have spotted! A stranger, here in these great halls deep in Mirkwood?" Legolas looked doubtful. "He would have to be a master burglar."

A tiny sound that might have been a snort came from behind them, making the two elves spin around. But the room was simply furnished, and had no hiding places; there was no one there to hide from their searching eyes.

Thranduil and Legolas exchanged uneasy glances. By silent consent they left the room and continued their conversation walking down the long torch lit hall. It wound downwards at a gentle slope, leading to the storage rooms and, if one went far and deep enough, the prison cells.

"Just in case…" Legolas voiced their shared thought, and Thranduil quickly nodded his agreement. For a moment he had almost felt another presence in the room. The silence had felt expectant, as if it were eavesdropping on their conversation. Or was it just because the elves themselves were on edge?

"At least this thief's only interest is food," Legolas resumed the conversation, keeping pace smoothly with his father's long strides. "Nothing else has been reported missing."

"There is that," Thranduil agreed, half consciously stroking the pale yellow jewels worked into the intricate embroidery on his belt. The elven king loved all things fair to look upon, and treasure was no exception. His vaults were alight with many beautiful things, jewels of every description, fine gold and even mithril. Each treasure had some purpose, either to be worn about the neck or on armor and clothing, for he would not have such lovely things lying forever coated in dust. They were guarded closely, and woe came to the thief—elf or stranger—who ventured too near. Thranduil smiled at the thought. "Such discretion makes for a wise thief as well as a clever one."

"Or possibly there is no thief at all," Legolas argued. "Food is misplaced or forgotten. An elf may tell a ghost story, and then begin believing in it himself."

Thranduil lifted his shoulders gracefully, which was the nearest the elven king ever came to a shrug. He was nearly half convinced that he had drunk the wine after all, and that his own imagination had played him false. He had ample reason to be distracted, after what the captain of the guard had told him.

A scowl darkened his fair features as he remembered what Captain Amaril had said. "Perhaps that is what ails our stocky guests," he muttered, "and they believe their own falsehoods."

"They hold to their story, then." It was a statement rather than a question. Legolas gave his father a sympathetic glance. "I do not envy your task of dealing with them."

Thranduil made a gesture of disgust. "Would they cross Wilderland and all the great breadth of Mirkwood merely to visit kin? If I told you I would invite the spiders to feast on Midsummer's Eve, would you believe me? We know that Smaug wiped out their people under the Mountain long ago."

Legolas shook his head. "You will get nothing from them, Father. They are dwarves, with necks of iron and hearts as cold as gold."

"Their necks may be of iron, but the leader possesses a head as wooden as his shield."

"The dwarves will sit in their prison cells for decades rather than trust anything to elves. You should let them go and be done with it."

Thranduil scowled. "I will not let Thorin and his followers deceive me so easily. If I must I will wait a thousand years, until their beards grow over their toes."

Legolas smirked at the thought. "All thirteen will be so doddering and deaf that none could tell you what you wished to hear even if they remembered it. It is useless, I say."

"There is nothing for dwarves in the east but old woes and dragonfire." Thranduil said flatly. "I may not know what plot brings them hither, but I can guess what lies ahead. Were they free, their actions may add to our peril as well as theirs. I will not release them until I know their purpose."

Legolas, recognizing that the subject was closed, moved on to lighter topics. They had reached the cellars, and he persuaded the king to enter the winery to help with the selection for the upcoming autumn feast. They grew quickly absorbed in the task, tasting various wines and discussing with Galion, the cellar master, what dishes might compliment them best.

None of the elves noticed the heavy door, which had been left ajar, swing a little wider as if someone had just slipped out into the hall.

)o(

Bilbo sat down on a sack of flour in a little-used storeroom and mopped his brow with his sleeve, wishing for the thousandth time that he'd a pocket-handkerchief left. It had been very close quarters in Thranduil's audience chamber--too close for the hobbit's comfort. The king's son had cut off his escape by shutting the door, and there he was, stuck eavesdropping on two elves that he couldn't escape. It wasn't much good being Mister Invisible Baggins when he couldn't get through doorways!

He retrieved a handful of nuts from his pocket and began munching them thoughtfully. Bilbo wasn't in the habit of 'borrowing' the king's wine, and usually contented himself with the common fare he could pick up lurking around the kitchens. But after the worry he'd been in for the past week, Bilbo needed a change to something stronger.

The hobbit had ventured out with a hunting party some days ago in hopes of finding some way out of the forest, but it was all in vain. The elves needed few paths and made none that he could follow, try as he might.

So Bilbo had spent a miserable week hanging about the magic gates, hardly sleeping for fear of spiders and the elven watchmen, waiting for a party large enough to disguise his shadow to pass inside. Even today he had just barely got in. The way those doors shut with a snap right on his heels! Bilbo shivered. It was enough to unsettle the best of burglars.

Bilbo hated the elf palace. Had it been under different circumstances he might have felt differently about living so near to the fair folk. The halls were fair and bright and not at all like the dark, dripping goblin tunnels where he had met the creature Gollum. But being trapped inside with no choice but to skulk and hide and rob wore on him.

He longed for his own cozy hobbit hole, or even the big rough house of Beorn, miles away near the Misty Mountains, where he had last eaten well, in safety and comfort. It was terribly lonely and dangerous in the elven halls, with no one to talk to unless he could snatch a few whispered words with one of his dwarf companions. It only grew worse as the days dragged on. Bilbo no longer lost himself in the winding passageways, but he rarely slept and never took off his magic ring.

He had long ago tired of being invisible. It was odd and rather frightening to look down at himself and see nothing at all. It frightened him more when one of the elves looked his way, for under their keen, bright gazes Bilbo was always certain that his disguise would vanish. But the ring had not failed him yet, even under the scrutiny of the elf king himself.

"At least I've learned something valuable," he told himself. "Thorin is here too, is he? Then he wasn't eaten by the spiders after all, and what's more, we're all together. What luck!" He was pleased with this bit of news, but something else had caught his attention while in the wine cellar.

He had noticed a large, heavy wooden trapdoor embedded in the stone floor. In all his snooping around the elven palace he had searched in vain for a second exit. Could this trapdoor lead out of the caves? Bilbo promised himself a second look as soon as possible.

But first things first: He had to find where Thorin was imprisoned. Doubtless the dwarf would be as anxious for news of his companions as the others were for him. The hobbit jumped lightly off the piled stores and padded out of the storeroom, intent on finding the thirteenth dwarf.

Bilbo smiled. Maybe it was this new discovery, or maybe it was the wine that made him feel warm all over. Whatever the cause he was more cheerful than he had been in all of his precarious stay as a guest in Thranduil's halls. He had hopes that he might discover a way out for them all, and that he and his companions could leave the elf king's home behind at last.

"It's high time, too!" he exclaimed to himself. "I've had enough of this haunting business, and all this nasty underhanded burgling. I only wish I could repay these fair folk for their hospitality--even a burglar has his pride."

)o(

Much later Bilbo did find a way to repay the elven king, after his quest had ended with much excitement and a great battle was fought and won before the Lonely Mountain. But that is another tale.