Title: Shadows Amongst the Leaves
Chapter 20: Kingdom at Dawn
Disclaimer: All characters in this fanfic belong exclusively to Tolkien and his estate – minus originals. Lord of the Rings belongs strictly to the Tolkien Estate, and there is no profit to be made from this. References of some of Mirkwood's landmarks in Elvish come from the book The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad.
Shadows Amongst the Leaves
There were no songs to be sung; Thranduil realized when one of his captains knelt swiftly before him. "My lord, one of the scouts reported activity in the southern fringes of Mirkwood wherein the enemy lies. I bid him make haste to return, lest he put himself and the rest of the kingdom in danger. What would you have me do?" The captain was one of his finest, trained and hardened through skirmishes with the darker forces that invaded Greenwood as a shadow. With his stern mien, erect carriage, and the gleam of battle in his grey eyes, Taerlalven also served as a model for the rest of northern Mirkwood's army.
Those qualities also placed him as Legolas's immediate reinforcement during scouting and for the transport of the injured or dying. Ever since the young Elven prince left home to complete Thranduil's bidding, Taerlalven became part of Nimthôn's troops. Thranduil left him there to take command, to discharge the duties given to him and to aid in reorganizing what forces they could muster. With his other son imprisoned for the near-murder of family, Nimthôn was the only available kin of his bloodline left to bear the weight of responsibility.
He only wished that Legolas, his youngest, could carry his.
"Taerlalven, when the scout returns; have him deliver unto me a full report. Dol Guldur has lain quiet; yet, we cannot underestimate the evil there."
The other Elf held his gaze and cleared his throat. "Prince Nimthôn is with the scouting party. It seems that he left Imladris, having received his counsel and under the protection of some Elf-lords, met with them in the field."
"My son is near the border of southern Mirkwood? What are his movements as of late?" Having thought his second son safe, the news of Nimthôn's sudden departure from Elrond's house unnerved him. Schooled to hide such moments of agitation, Thranduil took note of how quickly his child assumed his given role. Instead of riding home immediately under cover of darkness, Nimthôn had joined with the captains and reinforcements to assess the plans of their enemy. It was this kind of alertness that united both Legolas and Nimthôn when commanding the defensive and offensive regiments in the open. Carrying out this kind of task single-handedly revealed true courage and the beginnings of an able ruler.
"He is making full haste to gather his troops, my lord. When he heard of the disturbance, he sent me forth to bring word and to seek your advice. Prince Nimthôn fears an ambush, but knows not the hour or day if that threat should become imminent."
"More the reason why our forces cannot sleep," Thranduil replied, glancing over the entirety of the hall and its denizens. "Cease these songs, and prepare every warrior for the long struggle ahead. We have been vigilant thus far; by Ilúvatar's grace, we shall withstand this storm that the enemy brings. Direct the scout toward the throne room, and double the guard on Prince Mornereg. That one will not wield a sword for our cause even if he proclaims his right to it."
"As for Prince Nimthôn?"
"He will know where to find me. I am trusting you follow, Taerlalven. Defend our home so that Greenwood will return, should we win this war. Defend it for your soldiers, for yourselves, and in loyalty. Defend it for Prince Legolas, so that when he returns, he will have a home to belong to. Let us not greet him with the ruins of a once-mighty dominion, with friends and family slain. Will you do this for me, Taerlalven?"
The Elf nodded; his eyes hard. "Yes, my lord. I will."
"Go, then. You have a task to do." As Taerlalven bowed and left, shouting orders, Thranduil strode in the opposite direction towards the throne room. With the quickening steps of full-fledged battle on their heels, he would be remiss to remove his presence as one equally outfitted for war. His people needed him as a beacon of strength and resilience, not simply an enthroned sovereign with his standard behind him. Two guards bowed and opened the double doors for him as he approached. Closing them quietly behind him, they left him in stately silence and the glitter of the court.
Behind his throne lay his armor and weapons. Ever since the day and year Oropher his father misjudged the strategy of the battle of the Last Alliance and paid for it in blood, Thranduil saw no reason to don the same instruments of war. As necessity would have it, however, the Battle of the Five Armies required him to do so. Reaching behind the gilded seat, he brought forth the sword he had used that day to fend off swarms of Orcs. The leather scabbard was still supple and soft, embossed with elegant circular designs. The silver locket, oiled and polished throughout the ages, shone softly. Drawing a deep breath, the Elven king unsheathed the blade with a glorious ring that echoed in the vastness like a clarion call.
It gleamed brilliantly in the warm glow of the firelight, beautiful and deadly. The edge with its blue-grey hue, curved like the underside of the moon and glittered fiercely with killing intent. Thranduil eyed the inscriptions etched into the surface, remembering his insistence at carrying the true meaning of Elvish character into a war against Sauron's evils. During the battle of the Last Alliance, the only moral standing to be found resided within the vessels of Men and Elves. That raw character, however, did not save more than half their forces from being decimated and routed.
The belt was still well maintained, and Thranduil quickly strapped it on. Sheathing the sword, he undid the cloth that held his armor and cast it aside. Dust rose in the air, dancing upward in the light like unearthly beings, and swirled down to the polished floor. Thranduil narrowed his eyes, reached forward and brought forth the breastplate. Gold glared in his sight, reflecting off of delicately worked curves. Impressive though its forging, the beauty of the armor seemed to belie its purpose; yet, an Orcish blade had deflected off it, saving his life. Placing the piece down, he gazed at the greaves, vambraces, and skirt that completed the ensemble.
One of his sons was analyzing the movements of the enemy on the southern passes. Another son sat in the dank dungeons, self-righteous to a fault. His last son fought in distant lands, still attempting to overcome himself as his own foe. For these children of his, he would charge headlong into chaos and war so that they knew that their father loved them. Assured, Thranduil seated himself, ready to command those he ruled through inevitable difficulty.
It was not a moment too soon, for the doors swung open.
"My lord, Taerlalven told me to report to you." The scout's eyes widened, and he knelt. "Will you again join us in war, my lord?"
It was the sword. "Rise, Fêrhên." It was becoming apparent to Thranduil that his wearing of arms surprised his troops, for during this entire offensive against Dol Guldur, he commanded from the vicinity of the palace, unarmed but for a dirk. "I will join the army on the field and for that; I need a detailed description of the activity you witnessed. What exactly occurred in the southern passes?"
"I saw smoke rising on the far reaches of the southern-most trees, my lord. Dol Guldur itself stands silent, but smoke means fire, and it could be fires feeding the forges. The enemy must be amassing weapons and armor as we speak. There were no Orcs or fell creatures prowling about at the border; yet, Prince Nimthôn decided that it would be best to withdraw and plan a counterattack should an ambush occur. 'Tis the agreement amongst the captains as well, my lord."
"Was your report thoroughly confirmed by the prince?"
"Good." Battle plans would have to be drawn, and he awaited his son's arrival to initiate that. "Report to Taerlalven for further instructions." Thranduil recalled teaching his sons about the subtleness of dismissal; oft times, listening subjects understood when their duties were fulfilled before the throne of a king. T'was only the idle-minded or untrained that needed complete instructions on how many steps to stand before the throne, proper protocol in the court, and the abrupt declaration akin to being civilly thrown out. Oropher was blunt; while, being his father's son, he was not.
Nimthôn, being his child, knew when to stand at ceremony and when to discard court formalities. He wondered how quickly the reconnaissance party was being brought in; at how his son would appear before him – clad not in the garb of luxury but those of war. It was too soon again since the last battle that sent his children on their separate ways, stirring the smoldering embers of their past hatreds and dividing them with internecine strife. Thranduil mused that should his beloved be living, mayhap the bloodiness of their indignation and waged domination would still. Reflecting whereupon that possibility was never to be, he thought about laying down his hand, diverting that sullen anger elsewhere.
Like all created beings under Ilúvatar, flaws were unavoidable.
His discipline came too late. It was a father's mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his years until Arda passed and faded. He only hoped that Legolas, suffering from all his aches and sorrows, would forgive him for such an oversight.
If he survived, Thranduil thought bleakly.
His son had taken the worst of wounds in captivity, endured the cold scrutiny of his peerage, survived the backstabbing of his brother and now was a distance away fighting for his sanity, life, and the hope that Middle-earth would arise above Sauron's tyranny. Knowing the stubborn pride of his youngest, Legolas would sacrifice all if it meant keeping Sauron at bay. He nearly did so the night evil brutally robbed him, leaving his hröa and fёa so scarred that death should have been imminent.
It was that fact that plagued Thranduil. He had never witnessed fading after such an atrocity. His presence through Legolas' nightmare seemed to anchor his son's soul for the time being, but what if that was merely a deception? Together with Legolas' affliction and injury, what if fading was only delayed, waiting to strike at the end of all things?
He shook his head. He would not believe that.
"My lord king," a clear voice echoed across the vast room. "I am here to await your command." Nimthôn strode exactly seven paces from the throne, giving a warrior's fealty bow. It was example, lived and learned, that ran the internal workings of his court and thereby his dominion. His son appeared alert and bright-eyed; sword strapped to his hip, bow across his back, and his lightweight armor shining softly beneath the slight folds of rich dress. Grey eyes remained respectfully cast downwards, but Thranduil glimpsed the slow burn of warlike spirit behind them.
"It is good that you have arrived in such a timely manner. I received the scout's report, and I wonder if your reconnaissance of the southern passes brings us further information. It is disturbing to hear of the confirmed misgivings that an ambush might be nigh. What concerns me is the possibility of a fire attack, which is deadly in these woods. Might you have a plan that aligns with mine?"
Nimthôn's gaze never wavered, locked onto his, grey and bold. It was an astonishing change from the gentle peacekeeper Thranduil often saw. The mantle of command that normally fell upon his eldest now lay upon Nimthôn, who took his authority with dignity. It was fortunate, considering how the kingdom lacked its other two highest-ranking captains. "Should a fire attack occur, brigades will be assigned to contain it. We are hemmed in by roads with only a river to offer succor; hence, we shall station some at the Forest River to quench the flames, whilst manning the Enchanted River and attempting to lure the enemy within its waters."
"Have you considered retreat and the defense of our northern fringes?"
"I have. We will hold them hence with volleys of arrows 'til the danger of smoke and flame beckons us to withdraw. The brigades will carry out their orders and all captains shall charge their forces to make a stand. According to my judgment and that of the others, the palace will not be abandoned; nor shall we press towards the Men-i-Naugrim once we have crossed it. I myself will lead some archers out to clear the path for the reinforcements."
It was a good plan. Yet, it needed some trifling as to better adjust some details, as fallacies in war left one injured, captured, or slain. "This is my thought: Forcing the enemy back instead of handing them a retreat is far more advantageous. If we drew the flames to a certain boundary, it would provide a smoke screen for our archers. At the same time, their tactics can be reversed on them by harassing them with diversion and momentary assaults. Pushing them into their fire trap provides a possibility of comeback."
Long ago, Nimthôn took tutelage by his side, unschooled and a novice in politics and stratagem. He could see the concerned expression widening that gaze, as well as the sudden tightening of slender fingers around an elegant sword hilt. Nimthôn, he noticed, was trying his best to hold control of his innermost emotions. "What if they avoid being baited?"
"Oropher my father made the mistake of sending out his forces too early. I am trying to avoid the trap of constant retreat. You have studied the maps, my son. Beyond the Men-i-Naugrim, aligned to the east is the Emyn-nu-Fuin. The last choice you ever want to make is to place your troops with their backs to mountains, especially ones difficult to scale. Unlike Men who find their backs to the river perilous, the forest gives us means of escape. Therefore, amending your chosen strategy, we will advance towards the path stemming from the Forest Gate, stationing those swift and diligent by the rivers for support. We shall take the battle to the western expanse nearing the mountains. I am sure the Enemy will skirt rocky ground, even if it offers better height and obstruction."
"From there, killing the fire-bearers and those who would stop us would be the first priority. If the attempt fails, we withdraw to the path and barricade the flames there. At that moment, you have full authority to carry out your proposed plan. Stalwart them, agitate them, and give them the lure or the edge of your sword so that they may fall back. Force them towards the western side. We do not cut them off without any means of escape, for that brings death on our heads. Should anything change, we switch tactics."
"'Tis different from the Battle of the Five Armies, ada."
"Mirkwood stands for itself this time without the alliance of Men, Dwarves, and Eagles against Orcs and the Enemy's dark creatures. That is the only difference. We are the only sovereign Elven stronghold without a ring of power that can still muster strong warriors. I commanded Taerlalven to fight for loyalty, for Greenwood, for his companions, and for Legolas' return. Remember, Nimthôn – the battle is the same once these are accounted for."
"Except for Legolas' return home," his son countered calmly.
"He is committed to his duty, as you are yours. If Ilúvatar desires it, your brother will return. If he does not, his death will be sung as part of legend. Both of you are my sons; both of you know a warrior's life. Nimthôn, you tried your hand at keeping the peace, but that was not to be. I am delighted, though, to know that my son will be joining me on the eve of battle, unafraid and wholly devoted."
"As for Mornereg?"
Distaste welled within Thranduil at the sound of his eldest child's name, despite his grief at his sudden change of mood. "He is not to join us. A kinslayer foregoes all trust, all bonds, and all command. What he once had has been relinquished. I place most of it on you, Nimthôn. You have shown your excellence, even if you thought you were overlooked for the sake of your brothers' service. Let us inspect the lines. I will not let Dol Guldur strike us from Arda."
"I must study the terrain again. Did you not say that hedging the enemy against the mountain is dangerous?"
It was not a night of rest or slumber, or one offering much abundance of hope but the Elven king did not fret over such trivialities. When the war of the Ring truly dared break on the northern fringes of his domain, he would be fully equipped and ready to engage it. Even with one son imprisoned and the other seeking an ultimate goal, the House of Thranduil – that of the son of Oropher, once king of Greenwood the Great – was going to war.
Taerlalven – straight elm-tree. (Sindarin)
Fêrhên – beech tree child. (Sindarin).
Men-i-Naugrim – The Old Forest Road
Emyn-nu-Fuin – Mountains of Mirkwood