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Autumn Leaves

Author: Mary A
Beta: Malinornë
Cast: Mirkwood elves, Lake-town men, dwarves and a hobbit
Warnings: Rated G.
Disclaimer: This is a work of amateur fan fiction written just for fun. No infringement is meant on the rights of JRR Tolkien or his estate.
Fandom: The Hobbit with a sprinkling of The Silmarillion
Timeline: During Bilbo Baggins' adventure with the dwarves.
Summary: During a night of merry-making and song in Mirkwood, thirteen dwarves escape imprisonment from the dungeons of the Elvenking, Thranduil, and make their way to Lake-town, with some unexpected assistance.
Author's notes: Written for the Marchwarden's Choice fan fiction challenge 2005 at the Haldir Lovers Yahoo Group.

"A number of elves came laughing and talking into the cellars and singing snatches of song. They had left a merry feast in one of the halls and were bent on returning as soon as they could. 'Where's old Galion, the butler?' said one. 'I haven't seen him at the tables tonight. He ought to be here now to show us what is to be done.'

'I shall be angry if the old slowcoach is late,' said another. 'I have no wish to waste time down here while the song is up!'

'Ha, ha!' came a cry. 'Here's the old villain with his head on a jug! He's been having a little feast all to himself and his friend the captain.'"

-- The Hobbit, Chapter 9: Barrels out of Bond

For nature, autumn in Middle-earth is a time of sowing and of scattering abroad. For mortal men, it is the time of harvest and gathering. But for the elves of Mirkwood, the fading and falling beech leaves signaled the advent of the season of joining inside of the Elvenking Thranduil's caves, instead of out of doors in his woodland, to enjoy the last of the grand feasts of the year before the snows came and the stored provisions had to be meted out more cautiously.

On one particular night each year, when the beech leaves began to turn and the moon rose fat and heavy in the night sky, the elves came together inside of the halls to recall and commemorate one of the most important episodes in their history and to pay tribute to their most revered hero.

Before the singing was started, the tables in the great feasting hall had first been cleared of the meal just eaten and jugs of wine were set out. After everyone had a filled bowl in hand, the Elvenking stood up in front of his high seat and lifted his oaken staff. All fell silent as he spoke:

"We honor this night the great Oromë, who we call Tauron, Lord of Forests. In darkness he once sought our people, bringing them into the light. He taught us the names of the stars that we already loved, and to sing of the water and of the forest, and even the secret songs of bird and beast. The Firstborn of Ilúvatar were lost and forsaken but he alone of the Valar remained among us; his secret songs were a light for us all. Stand and salute!"

The Elvenking lowered his oak staff, and all those who were in the hall stood up and chanted:

"We salute the ancient Waters of Awakening, the stars of Elbereth, and the forest that Oromë loved and taught us to love."

After the response was spoken, the Elvenking smiled broadly, laid his staff aside, and lifted his wine bowl to the harpists, who began to play. And the enchanting sound that the instruments made, in the hands of these masters at them, began to weave a thrilling spell within the carved walls of the great hall with a magic that surpassed mere music. No elf could resist lifting voice in song when the harps were strummed.

Through the night, the harpists led the way of the singing, starting first with a variety of graceful melodies about the elves' love of nature and beauty and then, in an instant, the mood changed, and laughter rang out now between choruses, as the harpists played songs that were merry and jovial. Next they moved on to lilting tunes that soothed the excited spirits before lastly evoking eloquent sorrow with the dirge-like strains for the songs of remembrance, songs of bygone days in Doriath, perhaps, or the consequences of Fëanor's oath with its destructive aftermath.

The wine never stopped flowing as throats were made thirsty from their exertions. After a pause for the musicians to rest their fingers, and wet their own throats, the songs would begin again.

Despite his efforts to join in the singing and merriment, it was obvious to many in the hall that the Elvenking was in low spirits. Most in attendance that night naturally assumed that the presence of unwanted guests in the palace dungeons was the cause of their lord's melancholy. Impetuous decision or not, his command to lock the troublesome dwarves away until they 'learned good sense' seemed reasonable to most of his subjects.

Those who were the happiest to learn of the imprisonment agreed that it should not take long for the bearded folk to admit to the reason they were wandering in the forest without leave and rousing the spiders while they were at it. The dwarves, these elves reckoned, were free to choose their own fate from the moment the cell-doors were slammed and locked in their bearded faces.

But Thranduil was quite sure that the Longbeards would never confess the truth of their mission and were only seeking for a way into the Mirkwood treasury to rob it from its rightful owner, namely him. "They thought to wheedle and cheat their way into my halls by posing as lost, starving travelers merely gadding about in the wild," declared the monarch scornfully to his advisors, directly after he had ordered the dwarves be detained. No one dared to contradict his version of the events.

"My treasure is not for dwarf-plucking," he further informed them, "anymore than is the plunder of the fire-drake, Smaug, under yon mountain." It was evident from the way the king's eyes shone with malice as he spoke that he felt more of a personal kinship to the dragon than with the thieving dwarves.

He did not have to use more than his common sense, the Elvenking declared, while tapping his forehead, to see through their schemes and plans. The current state of impoverishment suffered by the descendants of Thror, since being routed from their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain by Smaug, was well-known throughout the region. It was rumored that some of the scattered dwarves had taken to mining coal to eke out a meager living, while still others depended on small kindnesses to get by. If anything, he had been waiting for something like this to happen, eventually.

And those residing both within and without the caves who believed that Thranduil's low spirits were caused by the dwarves had no reason to think otherwise. For their lord was a good and gracious king, who normally treated those who foolishly strayed from the woodland paths with kindness, as long as the lost ones gave a good accounting of themselves and were willing to pay a toll for using the elf-roads.

However, those few of his lordly councilors who were the closest to him were of a different mind about Thranduil's temperament. They knew that their lord missed his wife, and their Queen, Tatharin, who was off visiting with her sisters in Lothlórien, but was due home soon. Ever since her departure, he had borne a proud and strong façade when out amongst his people but a dour and grim disposition when alone in private meetings with them, which was usually how things were when the royal couple were parted.

For the most part, the Elvenking's subjects were oblivious to his mood and did not recognize the classic signs of a frustrated spouse when he lost his temper with Thorin Oakenshield and the other dwarves who were caught later. Except for those elves that were privy to palace gossip and intrigue, there was no real reason for any of the others to think so. The idea of their stern and faithful lord being upset by his wife's brief absence would never occur to them.

Many high-born ellith were invited each year to visit the Golden Wood during Glaur, or Golden Light, which was that time in the fall when the mallorn leaves had finally all turned a uniform golden color and were at their most magnificent peak of radiance. In some circles amongst the Sindar, it was almost an obligation to visit at least once in a 'long year', which was roughly equal to one hundred and forty four mortal years.

This was an event that most reminded the elves in Middle-earth of their true home in Valinor. The light of the two trees was only a legend for most of the inhabitants of Mirkwood, who had never made the Great Journey. The autumn sun's rays shining through the golden leaves gave a unique mellow light to Lórien during the day, and with the colder temperatures and crisp air, the moonlight illuminated the entire forest at night as if it was filtered through a silver veil.

But the early evenings were the best time, when the light of both the rising moon and the setting sun joined to reflect the glittering foliage of the mellyrn and, for an enchanting hour or so, the air would be a dazzling blend of both the silver and gold, imparting a misty glow as if lit by the light from the two legendary trees. It was a rare sight that was almost as far-famed as Galadriel's mirror, and every year a few families from each realm would travel there for the event. The denizens of Mirkwood expected no less from their lord or his lady, and were not alarmed by the Queen's travel.

Also, Tatharin had long expressed her desire to visit Lórien while the granddaughter of Celeborn and Galadriel, Arwen Undómiel, was still visiting there, to pay her respects. The leaves of the beeches had not fallen fifty times since Arwen's mother, the tragic Celebrian, had left her home in Imladris for the Grey Havens, and eventually the Uttermost West, after suffering unspeakable torment at the hands of her orc captors. The tale still horrified every elleth in Middle-earth and all the more so because it was only a year after she was rescued that the injured elleth had abandoned her beloved children and lordly husband, so urgent was her desire to leave behind the frightful memories of her ordeal, forever.

Like her son, Tatharin traveled often, although rarely so far as Lórien. She had been provided with her usual escort of several dozen of the realm's finest spearmen and bowmen, but until she returned to the halls the Elvenking's moody and morose temperament would hold sway. Only old Galion, the butler, had heard a portion of their argument before she had departed, and he only told a part of what he knew, but it was enough to paint a picture of a stubbornly determined wife and her worried husband that needed no further details, although those who loved gossip wanted as much as they could get.

The Anduin was untrustworthy at this stormy time of year, Thranduil had claimed in vain, and furthermore, he insisted, the woodland paths were becoming increasingly fraught with peril under the ever-growing influence of the Necromancer from his foul southern tower. Although he and his subjects had managed to keep the immediate area outside of his great gates free of many of the loathsome creatures that infested the southern part of his realm, this protection did not extend through the forest all the way to the Anduin.

Still, she would not be stopped, laughing off all of his objections, as she usually did, while reminding him that she had seen with her own eyes the terrible corruption the woodland had suffered under the Necromancer's wicked spell.

"Who will be the more victorious if I cower in these halls while my sisters wait for me?" Tatharin's question remained unanswered, and to her other remarks the Elvenking had no immediate reply, and so his wife made ready to go.

But then he had finally admitted his suspicions about the true motives underlying the invitation from her sisters and Galadriel to visit with the lovely Evenstar, who was reportedly the very image of Lúthien Tinúviel.

"They conspire against me, perhaps," the Elvenking had said, "your sisters and Galadriel. They may think that if you see this last elf child born in Middle-earth, you will press me further for a daughter of our own." There were not many married couples left among the high born and Thranduil had long suffered being teased by his wife and her sisters about them having more children, besides their only son, but so far they had not pressed their cause beyond mentioning it now and then during family visits. Galion had reported this part of the overhead royal conversation to his eager listeners in whispers.

The Queen had laughed even harder before she swore to her husband that he had nothing to fear from her exposure to Galadriel's grand-daughter, who was not a tempting babe in arms after all. Her own child-bearing years were long over, claimed Tatharin, and nothing and no one, even he, she promised, could persuade her to bear another child.

Nonetheless, Thranduil had countered, there was no guarantee that she could not be swayed to think again, especially a Queen such as she who often mourned about the lack of another female within the royal chambers.

"And with you for her father," the Elfqueen had supposedly retorted with a yearning sigh, belying her previous objections, "a daughter of ours would be even more beautiful than Lúthien, and would you not enjoy dandling a darling elleth on your knee?"

"I would indeed," answered the king. "And I intend to do that right now."

It was at this point in the conversation that the gallant butler had discreetly withdrawn himself from hearing range of the royal couple, and his audience of gossip-loving elves had to be left disappointed.

When those who knew of the disagreement between the royal couple had assembled to say farewell to Tatharin, they paid more attention to Thranduil than to her. If not for the stories from the butler, no one would have suspected that he was in opposition to his wife's travel. The couple did not part bitterly and all who watched her leave-taking saw pride shining in her husband's eyes as he kissed her and bid her to have a safe journey

And yet those who knew him best understood the effort the Elvenking made that day to remain serenely calm while he watched his wife embark on her pilgrimage to view the leaves of Lórien in Glaur and pay homage to the peredhel grand-child of the Lady of the Wood. Perhaps, his subjects whispered, Tatharin's displayed courage momentarily outweighed the Elvenking's reported suspicions about Galadriel's motives? None could say.

During the night of the feast, the high-born ellith in the song-filled hall agreed, with sly shared smiles, that it was possibly beyond the masculine mind of the Elvenking to understand how his wife felt a common bond of foster-motherhood, along with her sisters, for the Evenstar, this last child born of the Eldar. Within her worthy veins were carried the bloodlines of each noble house of both the elves and men of Middle-earth, and she was prophesied to be the last hope of both the Eldar and the Edain. Although it remained a mystery how the daughter of Elrond and Celebrian would have a hand in all of their fates.

But, there were many who believed, whether they knew of the royal argument or not, that it would have been better if the Mirkwood Queen had been at home within the halls when the dwarves had arrived and that was the chief reason for their lord's moodiness. Tatharin would have known what to do about the accused trespassers. Not every elf who lived in Mirkwood felt animosity toward the stunted folk and some were disturbed by their hasty imprisonment for more practical reasons.

What if they never learned proper manners? Not only did that sort of lesson seem a lost cause but some even murmured that those beards could grow to cover the dungeon floors before their stubborn owners displayed having any sense at all. Was the palace then to become a permanent sanctuary for this group of witless wandering dwarves? When the sensible Queen returned, she would set this impossible arrangement right, and their king's vexation would be soothed.

"'Save us, Galion!' cried some, 'you began your feasting early and muddled your wits! You have stacked some full casks here instead of the empty ones, if there is anything in weight.'

'Get on with the work!' growled the butler. 'There is nothing in the feeling of weight in an idle toss-pot's arms. These are the ones to go and no others. Do as I say!'

'Very well, very well,' they answered rolling the barrels to the opening. 'On your head be it, if the king's full buttertubs and his best wine is pushed into the river for the Lake-town men to feast on for nothing!'

First one barrel and then another rumbled to the dark opening and was pushed over into the cold water some feet below."

-- The Hobbit, Chapter 9: Barrels out of Bond

After the last weary participant at the feast had vacated the tables, Thranduil sat alone with his wine bowl in hand while the servants tidied up the hall. The brooding monarch half-turned in his chair and stared at the freshly lit fire close by him, into which the ellyn who were clearing out the debris from the night before were tossing their sweepings. During the meal and the singing the room was far too packed with warm bodies for even a tiny blaze, but now the refuse from the cleaning could be tossed into flames that would burn it quickly. The captain of the guards burst into the room, but then he stopped in his tracks and proceeded slowly.

The captain had apparently run up the several long flights of stairs from the cellars and was breathing fast from the exercise when he entered the mostly deserted hall. All who were near the entrance that witnessed his arrival, and reported on it later to those who were not present, told how the Elvenking was deep in thought at his table, on the other side of the hall. He had not even turned his head to see who was there, which had probably made the task of being the bearer of bad tidings that much more loathsome for the doughty guard to endure.

Although Thranduil's eye seemed unfocused and bleared, the wood-elf cautiously approached to within a few feet of him and then stood quietly.

"You have no need to tip-toe, Maethor, old friend." As he spoke, the Elvenking's gaze remained fixed on the hearth.

"Aye, I did not want to disturb you, lord, but I have some news to tell," said the captain. He licked his lips while he watched Thranduil drinking from his large wine bowl, as if he was thirsty for a taste of the forbidden royal vintage himself.

"Proceed," replied the king. He emptied the bowl, tipping it back to catch the last drops, and then sat still and stared into the fire while he listened.

Now, the elves consider music useful for any occasion and especially see it as friend of labor for it lightens their tasks by refreshing their nerves and spirits while they worked. Accordingly, the servants who were cleaning the hall had been quietly singing a nonsensical ditty about sweeping, dusting, and mopping, but now they hummed wordlessly when the captain of the guards spoke.

"As you know, lord, there have been a series of unexplained burglaries of foodstuffs from the royal storerooms and even from some of our private tables over the past few weeks," began Maethor in an official manner. "I have investigated and found no proof that any in your household was to blame, and no others in the realm have had entry into the palace. That there was a thief in your halls cannot be refuted, a sly and clever thief to be sure, and an unusually hungry one as well, but it was not one of your loyal subjects."

After this conclusion was delivered, even the humming stopped and a silence fell over the hall as the busy servants stopped pretending they were not listening to the conversation. The Elvenking kept his eyes fixed on the flames as he replied to the captain's report.

"I can not help but notice that you say both 'was' and 'had', as if these crimes against me were committed in the distant past," he said. "When we both know that as recently as this afternoon someone stole off with four loaves and a dish of butter from my kitchen larder. The chief cook gave me an ear-full of his thoughts about the need for installing locks and guards."

"Then, lord, you will be pleased to learn that the burglar is gone, I believe."

"You believe?"

"Forgive me, I should say that I am quite sure, actually," restated the captain. "And he seems to have, well, taken the, er, taken your prisoners along with him." He said this last in a rush, as if it would be easier to hear. At last, Thranduil broke his focus away from the blazing hearth and snapped his head around to face his trusted servant.

"He stole my prisoners?"

The captain did not quail or try to avoid the piercing gaze that seemed to fix him in place, although those who were watching the two of them could have sworn he turned a shade paler. "They are all gone, lord, nary a trace of them to be found in the caves."

"Explain to me, Maethor," Thranduil quietly commanded as he carefully sat his wine bowl on the table and laid his palms flat on either side of it, "how a single burglar could manage to penetrate my secret dungeons and filch thirteen dwarves from out of their locked cells, as if they were loaves of bread in a cupboard or a dish of butter on a table, without your stopping or delaying them. And leave no details out."

Those who were in the hall to do the clearing away would later tell how it appeared that the captain, even though he was standing, had been addressed from a great height by the seated Elvenking. And the wry smile on Thranduil's face was not fooling anyone. The way his eyes had seemed to turn into flint that gave off sparks told the truer tale of his emotions upon hearing of the apparent escape of the dwarves, and without a trace.

The gates had not been breached, claimed the captain, although not even a field mouse could have slipped in or out of them unnoticed. But there were a few points in his story that were vague and hazy, even under direct questioning by the skeptical Elvenking. However, after the captain had finished relating all that he knew, or said he knew, about the emptied prison cells, the impatient monarch did not dwell long over the particulars. Once it was clear that he had been thwarted by the dwarves and their mysterious, and seemingly invisible, co-conspirator, he gave his commands to remedy the situation.

"Search every tunnel in the caves and send out scouts to every corner of the woodland," ordered Thranduil. "Have my huntsmen take the hounds out as well to search every trail. Muster a division of my spearmen and bowmen. And have my son meet with me in the war-council room. We will march out as soon as we learn the whereabouts of the Longbeards."

"At once, lord," said the captain, who appeared relieved to have burdensome duties to perform now that the hard part was over. The truth of the escape was told and he still managed to keep his head for a while. He turned sharply on his heel and prepared to follow his given orders but was halted in place and spun around by the Elvenking's voice.

"Ah, Master Turnkey," said Thranduil, being shrewd enough to have guessed the reason for the captain's lapses in memory during his report, "perhaps the next time you are offered a bowl of my private vintage, you would do well to refuse it while you still have your wits. Methinks it is an impractical idea to fall asleep face-down in your cup when there are prisoners to be watched and a burglar afoot."

"Indeed, lord, I certainly shall refuse it," replied the captain regretfully, and he hung his head in shame, like a naughty elfling who had just been caught at some mischief, while he spoke so quietly that he was nearly inaudible to the elves that were sweeping nearby. "Do you desire then that I resign my position immediately? I understand that I may no longer deserve the honor of my station; drunkenness is a flimsy excuse for dereliction of duty. I would say that much is evident."

"Nay," replied the Elvenking. "I need your services too much at the present or I would throw you into one of those dungeon cells with my own hands and nail the door shut."

Even though his eyes still shone with seething anger, Thranduil's voice was gentled as if he felt genuine sympathy for the jailer's chagrin at the revelation of what he assumed was a secret drinking binge and subsequent deep sleep. "We shall discuss the consequences of your misdeeds after the fugitives have been recaptured and fully accounted for; as for now, you are dismissed to carry out my orders. I am in the mood to hunt for dwarves." And his eyes sparkled for the first time in a long while with happy anticipation. But the captain stepped closer to the table, leaned forward and spoke up again, bravely, although he kept his voice even lower.

"Lord, pardon me, but might I respectfully remind you that your Queen is due back soon? It might take some time to track down the missing prisoners; perhaps you should send out your son instead, and then you could be here when she arrives?" Although Tatharin was never as moody or temperamental as her husband, Maethor knew that she would not like returning to a kingless palace.

"Aye," replied the Elvenking with a smile. "If we were hunting a band of yrch it might be true that it could take much time; however, I do not plan to pain my good wife with my absence. No dwarf could be clever enough to wander for more than a few hours in my forest without my knowledge, let alone escape my borders undetected."

To those who overhead Thranduil's remark, he seemed to be speaking more to himself than Maethor. He paused then and poured himself a healthy draught of wine and sipped at it thoughtfully before he spoke again with more confidence.

"Thirteen of the stunted folk could not possibly evade my scouts and I do not care how masterful at picking locks the burglar is who assists them. He must next take them through my woodland if they truly seek to escape. Now without another delay, do as I have bid and the prisoners will be back within their cells before midday."

And there were none in the hall, or among those who heard afterward of the conversation about the escaped dwarves, that harbored any doubts over the likelihood of immediate capture of the fugitives, and the crafty burglar who assisted them. How could any creature wander long amongst the spiders' nests in Mirkwood without the assistance of the wood-elves to begin with? The most likely place they would be found was hanging from the beech trees, wound in web-silk, and ready for the taking.

"... the barrels floated on the stream, bobbing along, until they were carried by the current to a place far down the river where the bank jutted out, near to the very eastern edge of Mirkwood. There they were collected and tied together and floated back to Lake-town, which stood close to the point where the Forest River flowed into the Long Lake."

-- The Hobbit, Chapter 9: Barrels out of Bond

For Nendir, night-time was the best time for fishing, and tonight was perfect so far. As soon as the last of the floating casks and tubs that had drifted downriver from the Elvenking's caves were captured, and lashed together in the shape of a crude raft, he would fetch his spear and catch dinner. He worked alongside of several other elves that lived close by in a tiny village at the edge of the water. It was their job to keep the river cleared of such obstructions and they would profit by their work as well.

The various emptied containers that the raftmen caught with their long hooked poles were carried out from the distant cellars by an underground river that flowed beneath the caves. After being disgorged from the hill-side beneath the magic gate that guarded the halls, it rushed into the great Greenwood and joined the larger Forest River. The bobbing cargo traveled unhindered for many leagues until the river bent slightly when it reached the easternmost edge of the forest.

There the rushing current swept all the various barrels or tubs away to the north bank, in which its waters had eaten out a wide bay. The graveled shore stood under hanging banks and was walled at the eastern end by a little jutting cape of rock. On the shallow beach most of the floating wooden receptacles washed aground, though a few went on to be caught against the stony pier. The elves would wait until a few had accumulated before clearing them away.

"They must be having quite a feast up at the halls," Nendir commented. It was common for those who lived in the small village to speculate about the assumed merry-making in the Mirkwood caves based on the number of empty food barrels that would suddenly come floating downriver. Normally there would be two or three a week; this night there had been at least a half-dozen, so far.

"Aye," replied Nenchir, his brother. "We should have a tidy payment at this rate. The wine casks alone will bring as much silver as all of the rest." The other elves that were working along with the brothers agreed, and were happy for it.

None of them were jealous of the far-off feasting elves and they did not see themselves as unfortunate to live without benefit of the Elvenking's kitchens. No elf in Thranduil's forest would ever be allowed to starve, no matter his distance from the halls, but that is not what made these river-dwellers feel exceptionally fortunate and comfortable with their lives.

They were a rare breed, these elves of commerce, and the only ones who regularly dealt with the people in Esgaroth. This meant that they could buy their own supplies of those foods otherwise not available to them, like butter, cheese, and wine. But they also knew that they were lucky to live at the edge of a game-filled forest and on the mouth of a fish-filled river. They considered themselves twice blessed.

These raft-making elves lived in huts just at the bend of the river before it spilled out and filled the bay that it had carved into the soft shoreline. The water slowed and pooled there, spreading out like a small lake, which was big enough to row a boat into the center of to cast for bass or pike. The trees that grew sparsely near the shoreline were not as gloom-filled or dreadful as the ones deeper in the forest and hunting there was easy.

But the coins earned from delivering barrels, added to the largesse of the forest and river's natural bounty, were only part of the benefits they enjoyed. They also controlled the only access to the Mirkwood halls for those merchants who had deliveries to make by water, instead of by road. There was a toll to be paid, and the elves were allowed to keep a part of the monies, after they had turned the rest over to the king.

When the barrels had finally all been fixed in place for the next day's delivery, Nendir said what he thought was a final goodnight to his brother, and the other elves, and went to get his spear.

Coarse beach gravel of small water-worn stones and pebbles crunched delicately beneath his light-footed step as he sought his favorite location. He always took his time to get into the correct position, settling his limbs exactly so that he could spring at the right moment. As he crouched, he relaxed and breathed deeply of the crisp fall air. It would be a fair and mostly cloudless night. At last he lighted the tiny lamp he used for such sport, and held it over the water.

The silence was only enhanced by the occasional sounds that traveled to his ear from both close to him and far away. Over by the huts, someone was chopping wood, and from nearby there would come the occasional dripping noise from the evening's dew, as it collected and then spilled from a plant's leaf or fern's frond at the water's edge. With a soft 'plink' each drop fell into the river.

Even farther in distance, he could hear the sound of the barrels and tubs that had been collected that week and made ready to deliver to the town tomorrow. Tied together they bumped and thumped against each other and the pier where they were fastened. The gentle collisions sounded like drums, and the tune they played was like music to his ears. He mentally fingered silver coins and thought of what he might purchase from the Lake-town's merchants.

His thoughts were interrupted by a raucous 'caw' from over his head. He lifted the lamp higher to reveal a crow that was perched in the tree next to where he crouched by the water, and even though the small black body was barely visible in the faint light, its bright eyes glittered.

"You are out late, brother bird," said Nendir. "What news have you, if any, pray tell?" Although he rarely encountered one of the king's personal messengers, he was always polite in case he was being watched over by one, not wanting to insult a spy for the throne of Mirkwood. He nearly fell from his carefully arranged pose on the river rock when the crow replied clearly and distinctly to his greeting.

"I bring news from the Elvenking! Be alert! The dwarves have escaped from his dungeons, and they are many!"

"What dwarves?" There had been a rumor some weeks ago of such folk found wandering in the eastern territories, rousing the wrath of his Elflord with their obstinacy and stubborn refusal to cooperate under questioning, but he had collected few other details about them at this end of the river. The bird must mean the very same ones.

"Be alert, they are many!" repeated the crow and then with a rustle of beating wings, it flew off to carry the tidings to the next elf it encountered. Nendir absorbed the message after he resumed his crouching fishing stance, and stored it away for the time. He would examine the fragment of information later, after his supper was caught. From this moment on he would let nothing interfere with his concentration.

Beneath the surface, he could see the speckled bodies of fat trout moving among the rocks now and then illuminated by the glimmering light of his lamp. He noticed one that would loop around a particular submerged stone in a figure eight pattern, obviously territorial. That habit would be its downfall.

"Got you," he whispered as his spear sliced the water and pierced his catch. It was a large fish, a hearty meal for his table. The stars were twinkling overhead and the breeze was brisker and chilly.

At that moment, he heard at least a dozen, possibly more, new barrels thumping along the river bend and banging up against the rocky outcropping. These last sounded as if they were riding low in the water and his ears tried to tell him more but the picture they drew would not come clear. They did not make a very hollow sounding noise and he vowed to examine them carefully when it came time to round them up. For now, they could wait where they landed.

His wife, Siriel, clapped at the sight of the speckled catch as soon as he held it up for her approval. While she prepared the fish for cooking, she cut a graceful figure in their tidy kitchen. She swayed and sometimes slightly turned her body from side to side in time to a tune that she was humming. It was a bewitching habit. He watched her as he sat at the table to peel and slice some potatoes to have with the trout. After a particularly fetching half twirl of her skirts, which revealed a bit of her leg above the ankle, he let out a yip.

"What is it dear?" Her eyes were wide with concern.

"Nothing, nothing," he said, although his words were somewhat muffled by the tip of his finger between his lips, which he had nicked with his paring knife, being distracted by the lovely elleth he had married. He was embarrassed to let her know that his thoughts had been so occupied elsewhere. At times he felt as excited and shy around her as he had during his courtship.

They had been together for seasons beyond count or memory, and yet his heart stood still when she smiled at him, even to this day. And after all of their years together, their minds seemed more than one, at times, as if together they were greater than the sum of their parts. When he had a problem, he brought it to her first, if possible, knowing that her wisdom lay in allowing him to see his own way to the answer.

"The night is peaceful enough, so far," he said when she finally sat to eat with him, but for the time being he was far too hungry to say more. He admired each sliver of flaky fish or slice of potato on his fork before tucking it into his mouth. After most of his meal had been consumed, he told her about the crow, and the tale it told about the escaped thrawn folk.

"There is no escape from the magic doors for those who are once brought inside," his wife said wisely. "Unless through some treachery or sorcery." Nendir shrugged at her words; the crow had not mentioned either and most probably would have if that was the situation.

"I just hope they do not come here," he said. "I would not leave you alone tomorrow if I thought so, but I do not think that this would be a likely destination for them." However, his answer did not seem to comfort Siriel.

"What if they managed to steal some boats?"

"Ai, I had not thought of that! But the boats by the great gates are well guarded; I do not see how the bearded folk could quietly slip away unnoticed in one of them, let alone several."

"How many are there?" Siriel asked. "Do you know?" Now this was a question with no easy answer. The messenger bird had said 'many', which meant the number was over twelve, that being the highest a Mirkwood crow was taught to count. "What if there were so many that they overwhelmed those who guard the river in front of the great gate?" Nendir patted Siriel's hand to reassure her, and possibly himself, too, before he spoke.

"Then we shall greet them here with bow and spear, tie them with thongs, and deliver them back to the halls to collect the bounty. That will mean more silver for our winter; we should be quite snug."

After he had eaten, his brother and the rest of the raftmen were ready to round up the last group of barrels that Nendir had heard arrive while he was fishing. He told all about the crow's message and it was agreed that guards would be posted along the outcrop in the unlikely chance that the dwarves were traveling by water.

"They will not get past us," said the crew's chief, Nenchir, who was supremely confident that no dwarf could escape being detected by the river-elves, no matter what method of escape they chose. "The village seems enough safe from danger right now, so let us hurry and get these fine barrels tied up and set sentries in place to wait for them."

And in all of the confusion, Nendir forgot how he had wanted to examine these last barrels that had not sounded completely empty when they had banged up against the rocky outcrop earlier. He did not remember at all until they were finished and it was too late, but by then he decided that being on the lookout for the escaped prisoners was a much more important duty to perform in service to the throne of Mirkwood.

"Very soon there was a fine commotion in the village by the riverside; but Bilbo escaped into the woods carrying a loaf and a leather bottle of wine and a pie that did not belong to him."

-- The Hobbit, Chapter 9: Barrels out of Bond

The mist rising from the river had a rosy hue; there was a storm passing off to the southeast. The sun was just rising above the rim of the eastern horizon and its first rays were illuminating the distant but view-dominating solitary peak of the Lonely Mountain. As ever, and like every living creature within sight of the landmark, Nendir explored the skies for the tell-tale silhouette of the dragon, but he saw only one long thin crimson-tinted cloud that was a streak of color across the morning sky.

As the sky grew lighter, the birds twittered and chirped out their first songs of the day. A pair of doves cooed to each other lovingly. Thin lines of smoke were rising from the roofs of the huts and Nendir could just discern the rising morning breezes now, which fluttered the leaves and bent and turned the chimney smoke into dancing swirls. He had volunteered to stand guard for the last few hours before dawn, but wished he could have been in his hut with Siriel.

It had been an unsettling night in their usually quiet village; there was evidence that there had been a mischievous creature about with large wet feet and an even larger appetite. He, or it, had made off with a loaf of bread and a pie. But the most loudly grieved theft of all was a leather bottle of wine. It had been an especially fine container that was tooled by hand by its owner during the storms of the winter before last, when they were idle for many days.

All that the elves found during the resultant searches for the burglar were some footprints made by what were apparently thoroughly wet and unusually large bare feet. No one had seen or heard anything of the dripping wet thief except damp spots here and there and occasionally a loud sneeze, which was confounding. There was no plausible way that the thefts could have been related to the dwarves, even if they had sprouted wings after they had escaped the dungeons and flown there. And furthermore, why would they come to their tiny village if they could fly? But even if they could have gotten there so quickly, there was no possible way that a dwarf could have escaped detection in a small area filled with alert elves. Unless they had some sorcery about them to keep them hidden?

But dwarves did not have feet that large nor did they normally go without boots. And why was the thieving creature soaking wet? Was it perhaps some type of otter or bear that had swum there from the Long Lake and was not at all connected to the fugitive dwarves? Irregardless of all their guesswork, in the morning, the sneaking thief seemed to have moved along and his tracks led to the water's edge near the barrels.

Still, Nendir hated leaving Siriel even though there were plenty of other ellyn, well-armed and handy in a fight, staying there to guard the village. More crows had come to report that the dwarves were still on the loose, but she had insisted that he go when she came to the shoreline to send him away with a flask of miruvor and some lembas bread, carefully packed for travel.

With deep affection in her eyes, Siriel bade him farewell with a kiss, and then stood on the windswept beach to watch him depart. The elves pushed the raft with poles out to the current which carried it around the outjutting of rock, and then half-towed, half-steered the unwieldy craft made out of the collection of wine casks and food barrels to Lake-town.

Their destination was the town of Men close to the point where the river flowed into the Long Lake. It would take all day to get there, and usually they sang to pass the time, as all elves will do when they gather together in some common labor. Their collection of songs was different from those of the wood-elves in the forest or even the palace elves in the caves, as the lyrics were mostly about the river, its water and its currents, and about the barrel-rafts.

Today they speculated about the whereabouts of the escaped dwarves, the identity of the sneezing, swimming sneak thief who raided their village, and the likelihood that they were all being spied on by the Elvenking's crows, which flew overhead in small, dark clouds. Every once in a while, one of the black birds would land on the raft to give them the latest news about the missing dwarves, mostly that they were still missing, but they were not very helpful otherwise.

"Why do you think they follow the river so close?" Nendir asked his brother while he watched another small cloud of crows fly overhead. "It seems more likely that the stunted folk are lost on some dead-end path or false trail in the forest."

"This river is the only road," answered Nenchir, "besides the Old Forest Road many leagues south of us, that follows all the way through the woodland and leads anyone out to the other side without a guide. If the fugitives have any hope at all of escaping the borders of our king, this is the only way they could use where they might have any chance of success." He added that, of course, they would never get past the raftmen's village by boat. They all wondered what the bounty for each escapee would be, for their king was known for rewarding his subjects for their good deeds.

For a while after, the elves discussed the troublesome times they had in keeping this watery road open for boat traffic, what with the occasional landslides, which clogged the river with fallen boulders, or the winter storms with their gale-force winds, which toppled the trees that grew along the banks into the water. If not for their efforts, there would be no other direct route to or from the Elvenking's caves.

Finally, at sunset, the river reached the lake, and the raftmen drew their barrels around a promontory of rock and into a sort of bay. The town of men was built there out over the water on piers. At one end of the odd municipality was a wide circle of quiet water surrounded by the tall piles on which were built the greater houses, and by long wooden quays with many steps and ladders going down to the beach. This is where the barrels were delivered.

As was traditional, the raftmen attended a dinner held for them at one particular establishment, called the Gate Stream Inn, which served both elves and men. It was hosted by the Town Master, a genial man. There was passable food and wine and even some singing, but it was otherwise not an eventful evening at the inn, until the first dwarf appeared.

With a loud 'slam!' from the inn's front doors being flung open hard enough to hit the walls behind them, he stood in the doorway and announced that he was Thorin Oakenshield the son of Thrain, son of Thror, the last king of Durin's Folk, and he had returned to claim the throne under the Lonely Mountain. He was followed closely by the Lake-town's chief gate guard, who was providing escort, and three others: two full-grown dwarves and what the townsfolk at first assumed was a dwarf boy child. This last person was shorter than the Longbeards, but did not seem to resemble them in any other way; he was quiet, and beardless, and had large, fur-covered feet. When the citizens learned his ridiculous name, Bilbo Baggins, they laughed, and he was ignored.

The river elves rose up, astonished, and Nendir, his brother, and the others, immediately approached the Town Master to inform him that these dwarves had to be the same ones that had escaped from the king's dungeons and should be turned over to their custody on the spot.

Thorin Oakenshield roared in response to their charges, "It was a mercy that we got out alive!" He threw back his torn cloak, revealing his golden belt and necklace, and then drew up the sleeves of his tattered, stained tunic to show fresh scrapes and bruises on his elbows and forearms. "But it takes more than locks and bars and a magic gate to prevent this rightful king from taking back his throne!"

The dwarf then stood up on a bench and went on to exclaim how he and his companions had crossed the Misty Mountains, and had fought off armies of trolls, goblins, and spiders along the way, and without assistance, only to be wrongfully detained in the Mirkwood caves during their homeward journey by the hostile Elvenking. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room at the charge, but then Thorin laughed heartily while spreading his arms wide and said that his very presence among them showed how the legends of old had at last come to pass.

"We defeated yon king's sly plans to prevent us from regaining our inherited glory, after all, or we would not be here before you, despite his every effort to delay us along our way, and that alone is proof of our claim!" He beamed with delight at his logic.

For a moment, everybody seemed to be speechless in shock, and then pandemonium broke loose. If the King under the Mountain had returned through such trials as were described, then he must be telling the truth. Long forgotten words were recalled of how when the King returned, Erebor would flourish once again as it had in the days of yore. Maybe all of their bad fortune would be reversed! The idea caught on like flames on a dry grassy plain, and within moments a new party was going on to celebrate the happy event. And in the chaos, few cared how the dwarves had arrived, let alone about their temporary imprisonment in the Elvenking's caves.

Nendir was horrified by the spectacle. These dwarves were no better than common criminals and instead of being bound over into the local jail they were being treated as guests of honor, while their tale of abuse at the hands of the Mirkwood elves was repeated as if it was the truth. He searched through the room for a friendly face amongst the townsfolk and used his ears as well.

Some of the townsfolk did not believe a word of it, he was relieved to note. Even though her voice was low, he could hear one woman, her anger apparent beneath her harshly whispered words, scolding someone else for not putting a stop to the nonsense. Nendir craned his neck to see her, and saw a couple standing near the doorway, as if they had just arrived.

He recognized the man as an elf-friend, and an expert bowman, who frequently visited the forest to hunt or came upriver by boat to visit the village. His name was Bard and the young woman beside him must be his sister. They did not live on the rickety piers but instead had a house on dry land some distance away from the Lake-town. Their forefathers were refugees from Dale, important folk, too, but their former family fortune had never recovered and Bard hunted and traded pelts to earn a living.

Women did not usually attend the raucous feasting at the Gate Stream Inn but, when she was younger, Bard's sister had accompanied him on boat trips to visit the raftmen. It had been many years since Nendir had seen her last, and it was always startling to the elves how quickly these mortal children grew into full maturity; it seemed in a blink of an eye they went from childhood to adulthood. But he was sure it was she because her eyes were the same vivid blue and her hair the same glossy black as Bard's. She was very angry.

Oh, she could see the bearded folk with her own eyes, she declared in a husky whisper that she thought was only heard by her brother, so it was not a matter of her doubting their existence. However, she refused to accept their version of their treatment at the hands of the wood-elves. As far as she knew, the good people of the woodland were more likely to provide assistance, than deny it, to those who wandered astray in their forest. If these dwarves had been mistreated then she figured that they had deserved it, or it would not have happened. Nendir took heart from her words and felt less alone.

"You are a stubborn one," said Bard back to her, but with an affectionate tone.

"Do you believe what they say?"

"They have the bruises," he pointed out, "and they look very battered."

"They don't look too bruised to me," she said, although she admitted that there was not enough light in the large smoky hall for her to see them clearly. Nonetheless, it was obvious to her, she added, that in an effort to gain sympathy and toss off suspicion about the truthfulness of their claim, the dwarves might exaggerate their version of events. As Nendir listened to her, she reminded him of his wife, Siriel, and the way she could see through the slightest subterfuge, sometimes to his mortification.

"Did you ask of them over there?" As Bard's sister asked, she turned toward where the raftmen were standing and seemed to look Nendir right in the eyes. He smiled with gratitude at her, but she quickly looked away, her cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment, as if she had not expected to be noticed. There were few other allies in the inn that the elf could find, however, and among most of the Lake-town denizens, the Longbeards not only had an audience for their unbelievably absurd tale of dire misfortune, but the enthusiastic people seemed ready to crown the dwarf named Thorin King of the Lake in their foolishness.

"Stand back!" shouted a man who suddenly stood in the doorway, "stand back for the Lake-town Councilmen!" The noisy townsfolk barely paid attention as their civil leaders crowded into the inn to have a look at the so-called King of the Dwarves. They had hurriedly dressed in their official Lake-town magisterial robes in an effort to flaunt their authority in this time of crisis, presenting a united front. No one seemed to notice. Instead there was a loud squeal near the windows.

"Here come some more of them!" This was directed at the appearance of a few more bedraggled dwarves who came staggering in as if by an awaited signal. Nenchir, taking his position as crew-chief seriously, again approached the Town Master to plead with him on behalf of the Elvenking, and reminded the man how these dwarves had recently escaped from the Mirkwood dungeons and should be returned there immediately.

"I ask for the last time that you help, or at least not hinder, my brother and me while we take custody of these dwarves," he said, adding, "Our king has many legitimate complaints against them, besides the trespassing, such as being a public nuisance and general stiff-neckedness and other behaviors deemed offensive to us or against our laws."

"Stiff-neckedness?" The Town Master kept his well-known and oft-voiced opinion about the stiff neck of the Elvenking to himself but his grinning councilors barely stifled their chuckles until he turned and glared at them. Then he placed his hand upon his chest and spoke with courteous solemnity.

"My good friends," he said, "I have made a sworn oath to protect the best interests of the people of Lake-town, and I would pray that you understand my predicament. Although I neither condone lawbreaking nor seek to alienate such good neighbors as you and your lord, the people of my town seem to have spoken and their wishes are my chief priority. I am afraid the charges you state against the dwarves are meaningless outside of Thranduil's borders." The Councilmen nodded.

"Then so be it," replied Nenchir scornfully, "and you harbor those fugitives at your own peril. Perhaps you will come to regret your decision before long." He shook his head as if he pitied the hapless townsfolk in the thrall of the Longbeards. But he said nothing more.

Unfortunately, the raftmen were ill-prepared to counter the dwarves' clever ability to manipulate public opinion in their favor. They were not interested in causing any trouble and quietly left the inn. When they reached the place where their boat was tied, the first thing the elves noticed were a group of barrels that had been cut free from the raft and carried onto the shore. As the others wondered out loud at the sight, Nendir swore softly under his breath when he counted them; there were exactly thirteen. He and his brothers did not have to think fast to realize who the occupants had been.

This shockingly unexpected outcome of their day's labor humbled the raftmen, who fell silent as their unwitting complicity in the escape came clear. The king's crows had already flown on ahead, carrying the news of the dwarves' whereabouts to the Elvenking, but the elves knew not if their part to play in the whole affair had been discovered.

But no elf feels downhearted for very long and the glittering stars above, the fresh breeze on the river, and a few sips from the flask of miruvor, lifted the raftmen's spirits. They found some solace in the fact that their king's magic gates had not been defeated by the dwarves after all, and that they had been paid generously for the barrels they delivered, empty or not. Before long they were laughing at themselves for having been well-fooled, and they counted their silver while singing snatches of favorite songs as they happily headed for home.

"I have never heard what happened to the chief of the guards and the butler. Nothing of course was ever said about keys or barrels while the dwarves stayed in Lake-town, and Bilbo was careful never to become invisible. Still, I daresay, more was guessed than was known, though doubtless Mr. Baggins remained a bit of a mystery. In any case the king knew now the dwarves' errand, or thought he did, and he said to himself:

'Very well! We'll see! No treasure will come back through Mirkwood without my having something to say in the matter. But I expect they will all come to a bad end, and serve them right!'"

-- The Hobbit, Chapter 10: A Warm Welcome

The End

A/N: Just a few explanations about liberties taken with Tolkien's universe. The term Glaur (golden light) was invented by my Beta. As far as I know, the Mirkwood crows can count higher than twelve if they can count at all.

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Posted: June 1, 2005

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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"