As they rode from the palace, Thranduil allowed himself a small smile. He loved hunting in his forest, even now the incursions by dark creatures were increasing in regularity. He especially enjoyed it on days like today when his son accompanied him. His forest was dangerous, that was true, but much less so for the Elves that lived there and hardly at all for him, even when he didn’t have members of his royal guard with him. He could still see the beauty of his forest, hear it’s voice, despite the insidious dark decay of the past 2000 years. If only his Legolas could have experienced it in the height of its greatness and felt the vigorousness of life within it.
They headed south east towards the mountains along paths that were clear only to them. As they traveled they passed many a woodland elf settlement. The hunting party nodded greetings at the Elves, content that all was currently well with their subjects. When the sun reached it’s zenith they paused to feast in a glade with the local Elves. It was a lively meal – the local Elves enthusiastically recounted their efforts at clearing a giant spider nest nearby and their culling of a small orc party that had stumbled into the woods. Thranduil listened, pleased that they were having no problems overcoming their foes, but concerned that orc packs were straying further into his realm. He congratulated and thanked the Elves for their efforts and reminded them that the palace was there if they ever needed it or if reinforcements were required. His hosts thanked him for his consideration and reassured him they would remember his wise words. When the feast ended they swapped gratitudes, and with a regal sweep of his hand, Thranduil’s party rode off.
They’d traveled for another hour when Thranduil stopped the hunting party in his tracks and listened. Something was amiss – he could feel it. Suddenly a white stag pelted from between the trees ahead of them. Thranduil could feel the distress radiating from it and he felt his ire rising. He signaled his guards to spread out ready to circle whatever was ahead and then spurred his elk forward at a run, Legolas following alongside. Breaking through the trees they caught a glimpse of a small, pale creature with large eyes skulking by the roots of a tree. The creature frighted at the sight of the Elvenking and his son. It tried to run, only to find there were Elves all around. It leapt to a low branch and started to climb.
“Togo hon dad!” Thranduil commanded loudly.
Legolas and the Elven guard leapt after the creature, sprinting and bounding along branches. The creature was fast and wily, but he was no match for the Elves. This was their forest. It took mere moments for them to catch up with the creature and restrain him. From the ground Thranduil heard the creature’s plaintive cries and whining as he was brought back to the forest floor.
“Who are you and why are you trespassing in my realm?” Thranduil demanded.
Between the whines and moans he caught “Nasty Elves…..hurting….precious!”, before he fell into an almost cough of “Gollum, gollum!”
“Bring him!” Thranduil sighed authoritatively to his son, unhappy his hunting trip would now be cut short. “Sweep the area, catch us up!” he added to his guards.
As the guards disappeared into the trees, Thranduil turned his elk and urged it into a steady run back the way they’d come. Legolas tied the creature to one of the guard’s horses, leapt to his own elk and followed his father. They were halfway back to the palace before the guards rejoined them having found no other trespassers. The journey had been uneventful once Thranduil had demanded the creature be quiet and stop sniveling. It had carried on muttering to itself, but at an acceptably low volume.
Back at his palace, Thranduil had the creature put in a secluded underground cell. He called for Legolas and a couple of trusted advisors to join him in his private rooms.
“There is something odd about the creature we found,” he explained. “I want its presence here to be kept to just those who were there when we caught him and those here. Legolas and I will try to question it tomorrow, but in the meantime it will need feeding and checked over. If I’m not mistaken, it has been injured, though not by us.”
After the advisors left to carry out their King’s orders, Legolas approached his father, puzzled.
“You are treating this creature differently to other trespassers in our land. Why? What is the matter?” he asked.
“I do not know what it is, but something tells me that it is important,” Thranduil explained thoughtfully, choosing his words more carefully than Legolas had witnessed in some time. “It does not seem to be what it appears, like it has been corrupted from what it once was. I have not encountered anything like it before, yet it seems familiar somehow.”
Legolas’s brows furrowed further. He had no doubt his father was right to be wary – the darkness had been spreading further across the land, but what such a small, pathetic creature could have to do with it he couldn’t begin to imagine.
In the morning the creature was brought before Thranduil and his son by two of the guards they had been accompanied with the previous day. The creature was still whining and muttering to itself. As soon as the guards released it from their grip it began to throw itself about the floor fitfully. At his father’s nod, Legolas crouched down and grabbed it, to stop it hurting itself. Instead of stopping, it wriggled more till with a sigh Legolas let it go again.
“Stop that!” Thranduil commanded sharply. “We have no intention of hurting you, unless you bear this kingdom ill will. If you do – then your punishment will be swift and fatal.”
The creature stopped its writhing, instead curling up into a ball, cuddling itself tight, without a pause in muttering. The Elves listened intently in the hope it might say something that would indicate how to proceed. After some time and a few well timed questions they established the creature would answer to “Gollum”. When they removed the ropes that held it’s wrists and which it insisted, contrary to all evidence, burnt, it calmed further and became more coherent in its babbles.
Over several days of Elven levels of patience, the application of further healing balms, frequent meals of raw fish, Thranduil was confident that they were making progress. He had been right – the creature had been repeatedly tortured until recently, apparently by the Dark Lord’s forces in the East. They had wanted to know about a ring that had belonged to the creature and that had been stolen by a Hobbit. Gollum was very voluble about how much he hated Hobbits and this one in particular, frequently spitting his name and swearing vengeance if only he could find him.
It took a few more days before they learnt that the Hobbit had stolen the ring whilst Gollum had lived deep under the Misty Mountains. They unhelpfully also learnt that raw goblin was a delicious feast, though not as good as fish. The Elves were unconvinced about the culinary virtue of goblin, but they had discovered early on that letting this creature ramble without undue interruption produced more that arguing. Besides – it meant there were less goblins in the world. Gollum also seemed oddly convinced that the ring had made him invisible, making goblin killing a mere formality.
The following week, Thranduil was beginning to wonder if the creature had said everything it was going to say. They had tried to ask questions, but it was repeating the same things it had already said hundreds of times. Then all of a sudden one afternoon Gollum muttered something about the ring that caught his attention. Carefully Thranduil encouraged him to repeat it. Yes – he’d heard right and a chill gripped his heart. The ring. The ring that the Dark Lord’s forces had been asking after, the ring that this creature held so precious……it had been found in the river between this very forest and the Misty Mountains. Thranduil couldn’t be sure, and the creature couldn’t be coaxed to be anymore specific, but there was one ring that had been lost in an area that could be so described. He still remembered getting a message about the ambush and taking a small party to investigate. Remembered the bodies spread across the area, with no sign of their leader. Remembered his Elves tracking down some of the orc raiding party and making sure they would take no more lives. Knew that there had been no ring found though – it had surely been lost forever. But now he needed to know for certain that this was just a coincidence, that this unfortunate creature was just missing an ordinary ring.
Signalling for Legolas to follow him, he moved into an anteroom and alluded to his concern. He would ride to Imladris with four of his trusted guard to speak to Elrond, see if he could shed more light on the puzzle. Legolas would have to protect the realm while he was away and send private word if Gollum revealed anything more. Gollum was to continue to be treated well, but kept from sight, for his own protection.
Legolas had rarely seen his father this agitated. He had prepared to leave within the hour, only briefly pausing to remind his son of how to keep the palace secure and to watch over the forest. With barely another word, he had ridden out of the palace and into the forest.
Thranduil took the fastest path he could through the forest and tried not to look southwards where the darkness brewed. As they left the shelter of the trees and headed west across the grasslands, Thranduil felt the weight of his forest ebb away. It was Legolas who would have to protect their home now. But he would be back, as soon as he’d spoken to Elrond and found out the truth.