Characters: Thranduil, Galion, Legolas, Smaug, OCs

Timeline: Begins around T.A. 2775, that is, about 165 years before Bilbo finds the Ring.

A/N: Where possible, OC names come from the Nandorin (Silvan) language. Words used are ‘dunna’ (black), ‘alm’ (elm tree), ‘sciella’ (shade), and ‘lygn’ (pale). Tauron is a Sindarin name for Oromë. Niphredil is Sindarin for snowdrop, and seregon is ‘stone blood’, a deep red variety of stonecrop.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there lived a king in a forest. Thranduil was his name in the language of that woodland realm, but the Elven-king he was called by those who did not know it, or chose not to speak it – some holding him in awe but others in fear or distrust. There was little reason for the latter two, for he was a good king of a good people, if rumoured to be both shrewd and quick to anger.

Come from the west with his father, the first king of the Wood-elves, the Elven-king had made a corner of the wood his own green haven far from the enemies of all free folk. There he lived in a great cavernous palace, made as comfortable as such a home could be. It was large enough to accommodate, in times of peril, all of his people within the great doors of dwarven craft. Bewitched, the doors needed no hand to let in and out those who had just business there.

Thranduil’s kingdom was a vast wilderness, once green and flowering as a meadow in spring, but of late become darkened with mists and cobwebs and gloom. The black squirrels, their glowing eyes of such menacing look, were native to the land, but the infestations of giant spiders were not. No-one could tell their source with any certainty. Rumour had it they were the spawn of an evil wizard who had taken to living in a tower where the thistles and thorns were thick, and be that rumour false or true, the creatures first appeared at the same time as the sorcerer. Before long, he had turned the whole forest to gloom. Greenwood was its name no more, but rather Mirkwood, for being far better suited.

The elves cared little for the passing of time, ancient creatures as they were, but this change filled them with sorrow. A few tried to see good where there was none, thinking the spreading thickets would keep thieves away, as well as prevent intruders from disturbing their night-time feasts beneath the trees.

The spiders learnt to fear elven swords and arrows – and to catch their quarry far from the Halls of the Elven-king. The elves, in their turn, knew where the spiders nested and avoided them, so fiercely did the beasts defend their own.

Though they could never like it, the elves eventually adapted to the change and carried on their daily life in the murk-ridden surroundings. Peace ruled, or at least cease-fire, until a new threat rose on the horizon, making the giant spiders seem as harmless as their smaller cousins. This time, the enemy could not simply be avoided.

*** *** ***

Dawn was near, the stars yet visible in that last hour called starry twilight. With many a song sung, and the wine nearly finished, only a few brave elves remained around the fire. Silent they sat, watching the flames dance, more thoughtful now than merry as of yore. Now and then, a flame rose higher with magical sparks, a result of the natural powers of their minds combined as the elves communed.

Suddenly, such a flame burst into a shower of sparks, making those near old Dunna jump.

“What bothers you, grandmother?” asked one of them softly, a youth with eyes dark as a squirrel’s pelt. “It is not like you to lash out so.”

“Only Smaug the Magnificent.” Irony was apparent in her voice. “That creature, chiefest of calamities, gives me no rest.”

“Dunna, please! Do not bring up the accursed worm again!” said the elf on her other side. “You will achieve nothing except to stir up fear and defeatism.” He sighed with annoyance at the thought of the dragon. As the Elven-king’s captain, he did not have that many free nights and he preferred to devote them to merry-making rather than sombre talk about matters that had no resolution. “Let us rather sing a last song before we return to our telain. Such a beautiful night should not end in gloom.” He looked around, but none was inclined to take up his offer. He sighed again and waved his hand in a gesture of resignation.

The squirrel-eyed youth cast a cautious glance at the captain, anxious to keep his good opinion but burning to satisfy his curiosity. Seeing the older elf shrug, he asked, “What about the dragon, grandmother? It has plagued the villages around the lake for years now.”

“The raft-elves who brought in goods from Lake-town yesterday said that the farmers there do not dare to take their cattle to the pastures anymore; they said the town of Dale is laid waste while we stand helpless to prevent it!” Another outburst of flames underlined the anger and desperation in her voice.

“What do we care about the affairs of mortals?” the young elf asked. “We should not interfere, is that not what you have taught us?”

“Do you wish to go hungry next winter, or to feed on roots as we did before the days of King Oropher? Need I remind you whence that cask of wine there hails?”

“Dunna speaks the truth,” said the captain, “but I ask you both to remember that the army has yet to be replenished after the old king’s catastrophe before the Gates of Darkness. We cannot fight the dragon even if we were inclined to go to war.”

“That is good,” said the young elf, turning quickly to face his grandmother again, “for it would be wrong to kill him. He has not attacked us.”

Dunna chuckled at his naive generosity. “That is merely a question of time, young sapling. Soon enough, he will deplete the resources of the mortals – and when their sheep and cows are gone, he will begin to hunt for food in our forest. But, before that, he will come for Thranduil’s collection of gems. A dragon can smell wealth and his hunger for treasure is greater even than that of his stomach.”

A number of heads nodded, looks of fear now apparent in many faces. The captain looked at her wearily, having so many times already discussed the threat of the dragon – at the king’s council as well as among friends around the night-time fires – without arriving at a plan of action that could be carried out with any hope of success. The safety of their realm weighed heavily on his shoulders.

“What do you propose we do, then?” he asked. “You know that I am open to suggestions.”

Dunna took a breath, and said, “I’ve been thinking. There is a way – the Dragon Bride.” She looked around the other elves, observing the effect of her words.

A few of them gasped. “That is forbidden!” one of them whispered as he rose, an elf wearing the long robe of Sindarin cut that marked him as a court official. Others sat open-mouthed with astonishment, but there were also those whose eyes had begun to shine with excitement at the prospect of partaking in secret lore and illicit practices.

“It is no coincidence that such a protest comes from you, Galion, when it comes to a little risk-taking,” Dunna replied. “You were among the first to abandon our customs of old and seek shelter inside the mountain when the king called. Or should I say his wine?” Laughter interrupted what could otherwise have become an ugly quarrel. The cask his neighbour passed to him gave the old elf a graceful way to back down as he took a swig to hide his blush.

“I was but voicing a legitimate complaint,” he muttered, now shaking the near-empty barrel morosely to determine if anything but dregs were left. “His Majesty would not wish anyone to try such a dangerous, not to mention foolish, thing.” He took another deep swig from the small cask and then sat down, cradling it as if it were a baby.

“But who is she, this Dragon Bride? Will you not untangle this riddle for us?” asked the youngling, eagerness betraying his age, the combination of ‘forbidden’ and ‘dangerous’ being always such an irresistible pull on the young.

“According to wisdom long forgotten by most,” said Dunna, “there is a way to deceive a dragon so that the great worm leaves its lair, for long or even for good, thinking it has heard the mating-call of a female of its kind.”

“So,” Galion said with sarcasm, “all we need to do is to find a she-dragon and lead her to old Smaug, and then he might fly off with her. Or he might not and then we will be saddled with both of them, and their brood, forever.”

Now it was the captain’s turn to chuckle. “Surely Dunna does not mean to tell us that female dragons are meek creatures who feed on grass and flowers and could easily be found and made to do our will. I’ll give you that, old friend, your doubts are sound.”

Turning to Dunna, he continued, “I do not wish to frustrate your plans – you know well that nothing would make me happier than removing this threat from our wood – but I cannot believe in what you propose.”

“Old fools, both of you,” said Dunna, with worried affection in her voice. “Then you have indeed forgotten, and seem to find it a pleasure to flaunt your ignorance.” She shook her head. “There is no she-dragon involved; that is only what Smaug will think, once he has been touched by his elven bride, if she knows the trick of it.”

“Touched? That would certainly be a queer union.” The captain winked, but nobody even pretended to be amused. He took the cue and begged a sip from Galion’s cask.

“It is not what you imagine,” she replied. “Should you feel the need to be educated on the carnal practices of dragons – a topic much less exciting than you would think, dear captain, – I would be happy to oblige, at some other time, and in private.” Her exaggerated winking drew laughs; those listening were relieved to find Dunna had a plan to offer.

“Now, if you allow me to continue, I will explain. Our fore-mothers knew that all male dragons have a spot on their underbelly where the scales are fewer and softer. In his grace, Tauron, Lord of Forests and All Peoples of the Wood, appealed to Eru when the world was young to make it so that if a marriageable maiden of pure wood-elf descent caresses a dragon in just that place while singing certain words in our old tongue, this will have the effect of enchanting him. She need not wed the worm in earnest, only sneak up on him in his sleep.”

“Not to mention live long enough to come that close,” muttered the captain, unheard by most. With a few exceptions, all were now listening eagerly to Dunna, new hope glowing in their eyes.

“I did not say it would be easy. Only a single attempt may be made – after that, the dragon will be on his guard and the mission hopeless. We have only the one chance, and the outcome will either be total success or utter failure. There is nothing in between.”

“Dunna, forgive me,” said Galion, sounding surprisingly sober as he expressed his doubts. “There isn’t enough wine in Mirkwood to make me believe this is possible. We could send our good captain with a whole company of archers, and still not stand more chance than a squirrel in a spider’s net.”

“That’s as may be,” said the captain with a reluctant glance at Dunna, “But if the tale is true, a few of the young maidens may actually have the skills and the common sense to make it more than a suicide mission.”

“Who would be that foolish?” retorted Galion, finding an unlikely adversary in his friend.

Dunna hushed him and then asked the captain softly, “Who among our brave women do you deem to be a suitable candidate for this venture? Laswen, perhaps? I have seen her hunt.”

“Yes. Laswen and Almiel, her cousin. Possibly Laegeth, unless she is courting – you would know that better than I. And…” he hesitated, “my own daughter.” The last words came out in a whisper, which was likely not what he intended, as he cleared his throat audibly before continuing. “Those are the ones I could ask without sending them to certain death.”

Dunna nodded. “Laegeth is not available, but the other three are eligible. Perhaps your Sciella would be the best choice.”

A shadow passed over the captain’s face. “If she agrees, I will not stop her.” He sighed. “All I ask is that I not be the one to present the idea to her, nor the one to inform her mother.” Dunna put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“With your permission, I will talk with them,” she said. “Thank you for hearing me out. Now, it is indeed time for a last song before we set about the new day’s tasks. But first, tell me, would she indeed do it?”

“I fear so, though I am not certain. What say you?”

Dunna, about to open her mouth, was interrupted by a rustle of leaves and then, from a bough above them, two bare feet dangled for a moment before their owner made an agile leap and landed between the old woman and the captain.

“Why speculate when I can tell you I am willing?”

This young woman, the captain’s daughter, might be plain to behold with her hazel hair and grey eyes, but cloaked and hooded, in her clothes of green and brown, she melted into the forest like a shadow when standing still. This was a much sought-after ability. Not particular about looks, the elves of the wood saw beauty in everyone who had a good heart and Sciella had that, too, in abundance. Sciella, the Shade, was the name she was known by, although the name her mother gave her at birth was another: Lygna – that is ‘pale’. Since there was nothing white or blond about the child, her father argued that it was hardly suitable. But the mother insisted, claiming that the name was one of foresight.

If the word for squirrel could have been recalled in the old language of that woodland realm, this might have been the choice of the girl’s parents, for she was agile and quick, but that was not the case. In expressing their love for the Elven-king and his father before him, along with the other tall Sindar come to live with them, the Wood-elves embraced the culture of their new rulers so eagerly that the Silvan tongue rapidly fell out of daily usage. By the time a movement arose to revive it, a millennium later, only remnants were left. This, however, did not deter those who wished to return to the old ways of life. Rather, they were proud of their knowledge to the somewhat silly point of referring to a tree as ‘galad’ rather than the now proper Sindarin ‘galadh’ – but Sciella’s parents did not know any words for squirrel in the old Silvan tongue.

Along with many of the other Wood-elves, Sciella’s parents lived near the gates to the king’s halls, but preferred to have their sleeping quarters in telain up in the trees, rather than in huts on the ground. Sciella herself was most often out in the woods, where she could find a wider selection of the flowers and leaves needed for her craft. She was one of the maidens and pages who made the king’s crowns, a fresh one prepared for each day, whether he would need it or not. A strange connection there was between the king and the forest and all that grew there, so that when he spent much time out in the woods, the flowers waned slower than if he was largely in his halls, locked up in council or plotting how best to protect his people.

She saw him not as often as one might think, considering her trade, but that was as she wanted it. On stealth she prided herself and she was modest, too, so the Elven-king’s butler, Galion, would often have to pick up the day’s crown, or wreath, from the threshold where she left it before the gates could open for her. But the king was not unknown to her, of course, and it brought her much pleasure to look at him on his frequent wanderings in the woodland. She honed her skills to the point that she could follow and observe him for hours without being caught staring or even noticed at all.

Fair he was of face, more so than the men of Wood-elf kind, she thought, and his blond hair shone about him like the sun’s rays through beech leaves in spring. His walk was brisk and proud, not silently sneaking, as if he had no fear in his heart, even when he ought to take care. More than once she had put herself between him and the spiders’ nests.

Sciella’s sudden appearance led to a stunned silence around the fire, while Dunna examined her carefully.

Sciella stood still for her inspection: the old woman had been one of the Wood-elves’ unofficial leaders before the Sindar came, and she deserved respect. Her father looked stricken. Had he not counted on her being a willing volunteer?

“You don’t need to tell me what it’s all about – I’ve heard everything you said, from up there.” A baffled look passed over the captain’s face. “I know it’s important,” she continued, “and that haste is required. Just let me finish this wreath, so that Galion does not open the door later this morning and find our king’s doorstep empty.” She indicated the garland of oak and beech leaves in her hand.

“Sciella, dear, certainly the need for haste is not so great. There are preparations to make – things Dunna needs to tell you, and maps you ought to study with me.”

“Ada, everyone knows that Erebor is visible from the very top of the hills behind Thranduil’s Halls. If I start from there I need no map to find the Lonely Mountain.”

“That is true, but you do need Dunna’s advice. I shall not let you go without due preparation.”

Sciella glanced over at the old woman, whose expression was enigmatic. Could she count on her support? She wanted to get this over with.

“I promise to listen carefully, this afternoon. After that, I’ll leave. If the main purpose of my life is to become a dragon’s bride, even briefly, then I will do it tonight.”

She shook back her hair and gave a slight laugh as she saw her father’s resistance melt. She could always wind him round her little finger – this, too, would be on her own terms. The captain sighed.

“I’m afraid you’re going to regret such an impetuous decision, my courageous daughter. But I am proud of you.” The power of his hug left her breathless.

*** *** ***

After a few hours rest, Sciella delivered her wreath to the waiting Galion. Then she went to Dunna and listened patiently to all she had to say, or as much as she would reveal at this time. According to the older woman, Sciella’s instructions would only be complete after fulfilling a certain ceremony that would set her apart as the dragon’s betrothed.

When the sun had disappeared behind the trees, they met again deep in among the ancient beeches on the far side of the Forest River. Sciella had per Dunna’s instruction brought two simple wreaths put together from dry twigs, but covered in delicate white niphredil from the shady river vale and thick-leaved blood-red seregon from the hilltop.

To her surprise she noted that her father was present, as well as Galion and young Tinnu, Dunna’s grandson of the beautiful eyes. The king’s butler held a jug, as was only to be expected, but the captain’s lit torch surprised her – it would not be dark for quite some time. Tinnu gave her a shy smile when she looked at him, and then swiftly opened his cupped hands to give her a quick peek at something even more puzzling – a tiny brown lizard.

“Now let us begin,” Dunna said as she took the wreaths. “As you all know, we have gathered here because of Sciella’s courageous decision to help her people in our time of need. Her willingness and natural abilities are important, but only this ceremony will in truth make her the dragon’s bride, thus giving her power over him.” After a glance at the others, she continued.

“The place of the dragon’s steward properly belongs to our king, but as he would not approve -”

Galion suddenly had a fit of coughing and Sciella traded a meaningful glance with Tinnu.

“As I said,” continued the wise elf-woman, “our beloved king does not agree with all of our practices of old, and so I have taken measures to arrange a substitute. The captain would be the natural choice as commander of Thranduil’s forces, but is disqualified for other reasons. Galion has declined to represent the court as anything other than a witness. Therefore, I have chosen Tinnu – his heritage and character compensate well for his lack of years and official status.”

Sciella readily agreed – whatever the ceremony involved, she would much sooner go through it with the young elf than Thranduil’s old butler. She found herself distracted by thoughts of the king himself by her side, but the idea was too wondrous to indulge for more than a moment and she turned her attention to the matters at hand.

With curiosity she watched Dunna arranging the two wreaths side by side on a moss-grown stone. Tinnu released his catch between them. The little lizard peeked about with its peppercorn eyes, and then sat for a moment in the centre of a wreath before it bit off the head of one of the white flowers and disappeared behind a tree.

Sciella giggled.

“I am sorry, but it is only a forest lizard. I could not find a salamander,” Tinnu said apologetically.

“The blessed little creature has done what it was asked to do,” Dunna stated. “Sciella, this is yours.”

She placed the wreath of flowers the lizard had chosen on Sciella’s brow, and the other on her grandson’s. Then she stood in front of them, flanked by Galion and the captain.

“Sciella, now is the time for your final decision. Do you freely agree to serve your people as the Dragon Bride, thereby risking life and limb?”

Sciella took Tinnu’s hand and tried to feel the ancient magic by which the elf, in his role as the dragon’s steward, was becoming linked to her. After a moment of hesitation she said the words Dunna had told her earlier that day: “I am the one Smaug the Golden has chosen.”

Now Dunna began to sing, an ancient song the words of which only a small portion were known to the others. As she sang, she walked slowly around the couple, the torch-bearer and the cup-holder following in her steps. After three rounds, she stopped in front of Sciella.

“Again I ask you, will you tread the path of the Dragon Bride by your own free will?”

“I am the one the Magnificent has chosen.” This time Sciella needed no time to think before speaking the words – any previous doubts had vanished. She had been chosen for this and she would succeed.

The chanting began again, but this time continued until seven rounds had been completed.

“For the last time I ask you, is it your wish to become the Dragon’s Bride?”

“I am she.” While Sciella did not feel any different she knew that the words were true.

Now Dunna removed both wreaths and put them on the ground, at Sciella’s feet. She offered the couple a sip from the cup – a far headier brew than was used at feasts, and one enhanced with herbs – and then poured the remainder over the flowers.

The captain put his torch to the wreaths, which caught fire immediately and burned brightly until only the shrivelled remains of the red seregon’s water-filled leaves were left on the ground.

“Sciella,” declared Dunna, “you are now in truth the dragon’s bride and no male but the dragon himself, or his steward, may touch you while your mission lasts.”

“Tinnu,” she continued, “as the dragon’s steward, you too are to refrain from other relationships, until Sciella returns or is lost beyond doubt. You may now say your farewells.”

Sciella’s smile was earnest as she looked into his soft, dark eyes the moment before their kiss but as she closed her own eyes, it was the Elven-king she thought about.

King Thranduil had remained unwed for thousands of years. Some said it was out of fear of siring a motherless child – he had crossed the mountains with only his father. Others claimed that he was still waiting for the right bride to appear – a princess of the Sindar, no less – which was not only utterly impossible since no other royal house existed, but was also pure nonsense. The Elven-king loved his new people with a vengeance and felt more at home with them than he ever had with those among whom he was born in the far west before the world was broken asunder.

Whatever the reason for his reluctance to marry, the Elven-king did not lack for female company. His appetites for women were renowned throughout the kingdom – and beyond its boundaries, although neither the Lords of Dale nor the Mayors of Lake-town had succeeded in their attempts to put one of their daughters on the woodland throne. Rather, Thranduil had been enraged by the various fathers’ clumsy schemes and showed his disapproval by withholding payment for butter and wine for a time.

The young women he would always take pity on and whenever one was found crammed inside a crate or barrel, she was quickly saved from her predicament, treated with the utmost respect and allowed to remain with the elves for as long as she wished (which was rarely more than a few weeks – the king’s kisses could make up only for so much suspicion from his people, and as kisses were all he would give them, they soon wished for better suitors).

Sciella remained with Dunna and Tinnu among the beeches for some time, but at dusk she grabbed her bow and began to walk. With considerable ease she navigated the maze of tall trees along the eastern perimeter of the wood. She slipped through the undergrowth easily and although she had not ventured this close to the edge of the forest before, she felt comfortable. This was her home.

As she left the forest, she heard a loud squeal coming from the grass. The shrill sound startled her at first, until she recognized the field mouse. She tried to imitate it and laughed at the little creature’s surprise when it stuck its head up looking for a friend only to find her, a giant. When Sciella squealed again, the mouse seemed to shrug and then left. She picked up a rock and threw it into the air to distract the approaching hawk.

The uneasiness she felt without trees above her head surprised her. She tried to navigate between rocks and bushes, and to avoid open areas as much as possible. It was too soon for fear, when she was not yet within the sight of the dragon.

To focus her thoughts as she walked, Sciella often reminded herself of the words she would use to snare him, which in our modern tongue sound something like this:

“O, mighty dragon, hear my call:
Your bride am I, come be my thrall!
Come fly with me to northern lands!
Magnificent! O, feel my hands!

O, listen to the words I sing:
I bind your tail, I bind your wing,
I bind your claw, your jaw as well,
All will be bound by this my spell!

I bind the fire in your throat,
I bind your shining, scaly coat,
I bind your heart, so greedy cold,
O, heed my call and leave your gold!”

When morning came, she prepared a simple bed under a thorny bush, squeezed in between some pointed rocks. As she lay there, forehead pressed against the bark for comfort, she began to understand what she had done. The hawthorn was silent, as if dead. Nothing in this desolation would speak with her, not even the golden-red dragon that would soon become the only husband she had known, if not literally. Smaug. Merely thinking the name made her shudder.

She remembered her father’s parting words and vowed never to let him know that she had learnt her lesson already. Next time she would listen better, even to terse advice. She would not, however, abandon her mission, her people or her king.

With some effort, she pictured the king’s face in her mind. ‘Thranduil,’ she whispered. ‘Thranduil Oropherion.’ She saw his eyes, his hair and his strong hands with the veins standing out slightly when he reached for his hunting bow. She saw his peaceful face as he caressed newly sprung leaves of beech and birch with the tip of his finger. His surprise at finding her before him one day had made her smile, and then he had smiled back. The crown she made for him that day was the best she had ever crafted.

Thoughts of the king were what sustained Sciella’s spirit when it seemed like the world would never be fresh and green again. A whole day she had walked after a few restless hours under the hawthorn, and everywhere the same ruined landscape met her eye: dry bushes, listless grass, and occasionally a spot of yellow-brown earth where the dragon’s waste had poisoned it. Sunset came as a blessing.

A haunting cry split the silence, making her instantly seek shelter behind a rock. When the eerie, drawn-out sound finally petered out, the air filled with a low rumble as if a storm approached. Yet rather than the moist smell that is the portent of rain, there was a strange dryness to the air, a pungent tinge of smoke she could associate only with the worst fear of wood-dwellers: forest fire. The red glow which she spied in the distance seemed to confirm her misgivings, except it was concentrated to a small area and moved though the air at an alarming speed.

Shivering and waiting in the darkness, Sciella crouched as a great shape lit with golden-red light crossed the night sky. Watching it filled her with dread, but she could not take her eyes from it. Rather she felt drawn to watch, unable to avert her gaze even when the beast – the dragon, Smaug – was so close that he filled most of her field of vision. Moon and stars disappeared behind his enormous body and for a moment the world turned unearthly red and golden.

The deafening sound of Smaug’s mighty wings beating the air made the impulse to cover her ears nearly impossible to fight, but she found when she tried that she was too scared to move a muscle. Only her hair moved, blown about her face by the wind raised by the dragon. She held her breath, as if the simple act of drawing in air would alert him to his presence.

Blessed darkness fell again; the dragon’s unhealthy glow diminished to a feeble reddish spot among pure white stars. Now that she was free to follow her earlier impulse, Sciella’s hands flew to her ears as if by their own volition. Long she sat like that, uncomfortably crouched but unable to relax, afraid to change position or even move her hands. Finally her exhaustion was so over-powering that she fell asleep on the spot, never comprehending that silence ruled the night once more…

*** *** ***

That same night, Dunna and the captain gathered around the fire again, together with a crowd of other elves. By coincidence, or providence perhaps, the Elven-king and his butler chose to join their circle, rather than one of the many others spread out throughout the forest around his Halls. Food and drink were plentiful, despite Galion’s best attempt at emptying each cask personally, but the singing sounded far more solemn than usual.

“What weighs so heavily on your heart, my friend?” the king asked his captain. “Something must oppress you, other than our military situation, which is nothing new after this many centuries.”

“No, my king, the burden I carry is no matter of state, but something much more private.” He bowed slightly, lips pursed, and would say no more.

After a few moments of silence, Dunna spoke up; “Sciella has gone to the mountain to become the dragon’s bride.” Many were taken aback by her frank words, and the captain hid his face in his hands.

Thranduil’s patience snapped like a twig.

“She has done what?! And you permitted it, Captain?” The officer still said nothing. “Allowing a girl to take this upon herself is like sending an unprepared amateur against an army of goblins.”

“There is no need to exaggerate,” Dunna protested. “Sciella is our best chance and you would be surprised to know the full extent of her skills in moving about undetected.”

“My daughter,” added the captain at last, “is fully grown, has a good head on her shoulders and was free to choose this path, with or without my blessing. I respect her choice. She saw it as her duty to her people, and to you.” Sciella’s father answered quietly for fear of reprimand.

“That is nothing but a flimsy excuse! None of my people are free to choose a meaningless death.”

“Thranduil,” said Dunna softly as she laid a hand on his arm.”Our numbers may indeed be small, but can you not accept the sacrifice of one for the salvation of many?”

“You know as well as I do that if she dies, her life, and those of any children she may bear in the future, would be robbed from us in vain.”

“Trust me, if I did not believe in her success, I would not have let her go. Nor would I have mentioned the Dragon Bride.”

“With all due respect for the wisdom of the wood, I do not share your confidence in dubious old rumours and I will not have the truth of this one tested in so foolhardy a way! She must be stopped! The captain will come with me and you will come with me. As will you, Galion!”

“Pardon, sire, but what about your Halls? Surely you need someone to see to them in your absence?”

“My wine cellar will be safe behind bars, and the more so without you in the vicinity. You will come right now, and help the captain muster every elf we can use. This is not the time I would have chosen to send out troops against the dragon, but as the situation stands, I see no other possible course of action.”

“It will be the death of us all!” One of the younger elves panicked, but was quickly calmed by Dunna. Her comforting words of ancient, eternally life-giving trees with roots deeper and branches taller than any dragon could crawl or fly captured the attention of all and many wished to hear more of the leaves whispering wisdom in the wind. The Elven-king was not among them.

He pulled the leaf-crown off his head and threw it on the ground as the small crowd stared in disbelief. “No wreath will I wear until she has been found.” His steely voice and uncharacteristic, cold expression shook them more deeply than his initial outburst.

Angry but resigned the Elven-king gripped his sword. “You have left me with no choice. We march upon the dragon on the morrow.”

*** *** ***

For Sciella, the next day began as a depressing repetition of the previous one, the only difference being that the land appeared even more desolate the closer she came to the mountain. The broken, blackened remains of trees that had once adorned its lower sides filled her eyes with tears. Such meaningless destruction!

Sciella’s bow proved useless, as there was nothing for her to hunt. Her quiver had more value for the way-bread in the bottom of it than as storage for her carefully fletched arrows.

As she turned around a hill, she finally saw something that lifted her mood: the waters of Celduin, the River Running, which had its source deep within the mountain. Seeing a thing of beauty here moved her to tears again, but for another reason – this was proof that some life at least remained unspoilt by the dragon. Even here, this close to his lair, there were things he could not conquer.

The merrily singing water, playfully splashing over dark rocks glittering in the sun made Sciella forget her mission for a moment. The stream had cut deeply into the rock, but she dared the climb down as her flask was nearly empty. She drank and washed her face, even removed her boots for a little while and let the icy water cool her feet. When she stood on the river bank once more, she took a more careful look at the valleys and mountain spurs in the distance. It was hard to believe that the smouldering ruins she saw had been the town of Dale not so long ago. According to Dunna, it was only last summer that the remaining people had either fled or been killed.

Downhearted but refreshed enough to carry on with her mission, Sciella followed the Celduin upstream until, after a bend, she came to a big hole in the mountainside from which the river’s water gushed forth. A wide stone-paved road led beside the waters, broad enough for many men to walk abreast.

All seemed quiet and she made a dash along the road, but rather than following it into the mountain, she darted into an elongated pocked of rock which stood guard along the approach to what had once been the huge, formal entrance to the old realm. As she stood there, literally on Smaug’s doorstep, scanning the air and listening for any sign of the dragon, she saw that this narrowing crack had been augmented. Peep-holes had been cut through the outer walls in such a clever way that she had seen no trace of them from the outside. The conversion of natural stone to such a sentry-box was a good example of the stone-craft of the former Lords of the Mountain – the dwarves.

Detecting nothing alarming, apart from an unpleasant odour that came out of the mountain, Sciella cautiously sneaked through the entrance, careful to keep to the shadows. Once inside, the foul reek hit her nostrils with full force. She quenched the impulse to rush back out again, but had to stand still and concentrate on her breathing for a time before she could continue her stealthy walk into the darkness. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed that it was not entirely dark – a dim light seeped into the main passageway from a number of shafts hidden above.

Along the way, she glimpsed smaller tunnels and stairs leading in various directions, though as she ventured further below ground, all traces of daylight disappeared. Yet there was never any doubt to as which road she should follow, for she was led by a faint glow from within the mountain itself. Occasionally what seemed to be a shed scale, gleaming like metal and, like metal, hard to the touch, proved that she was following the right path downwards. Only the vast cavern near the roots of the mountain – the dwarves’ bottommost chamber – was large enough to house a dragon with any comfort, particularly one of Smaug’s famed size.

Despite Dunna’s information, and her own night-time encounter with the dragon, Sciella was unprepared for the sight that met her once she reached her goal. Emanating a magical, silvery light, a great creature lay sleeping on top of a huge mountain of mithril and gold. Its sleek body and tail, coiled around its treasure, appeared not red and golden, but rather a greenish blue. Wisps of grey smoke came out of its nostrils as it breathed, now and then lit with white sparks.

However unlikely the association, the dragon’s colour, in combination with the scales and the fin-like ridge on its back, reminded Sciella of the strange fish of the Enchanted River, the kind one could not eat, but that children sometimes carried home in triumph as proof of their mastering the sleep-inducing waters. Smaug appeared as soundly asleep as if he himself had fallen into the river and succumbed. Sciella decided to act at once.

Careful not to tread on anything sharp, or any piece of jewellery that would make a noise if moved, she tiptoed towards the dragon. The way he lay partly on one side exposed a portion of his underbelly, but she would still have to climb over his tail to reach it. Suddenly certain the worm would wake up the instant she looked him in the face, she carefully kept her eyes trained on the thick, snake-like tail, even when a hot breath singed her boots as she passed his nose.

She searched the dragon’s belly for the necessary spot, at first only with her eyes, but soon adding her fingers, running her hands lightly over the scaly skin with increasing speed and alarm, not finding what she was looking for. All the scales she could see, or reach, were of the same size, all were equally hard and horn-like. None fitted with Dunna’s description. Either the soft, vulnerable patch was placed further back than the wise woman had indicated, or Sciella was too inept to find it – and then her entire people would suffer for her foolishness in thinking she could do this. She would never be able to face the king again!

Thoughts of the Elven-king revived her common sense. She would simply have to wait until the worm adopted a more favourable position and then make another try. Unless – the thought that suddenly hit her was nearly unthinkable – unless she had not been able to find anything because there was nothing to be found.

Sciella suddenly became aware of a new sound, coming from the entrance tunnel. Something large, dragging its body over stone, was drawing nearer by the minute. Any moment now, it would stick its head through the cave entrance and see her. Fear gripped her heart and in her panic to get away, she crawled right over the sleeping dragon’s back. Ducking, she slipped through a small opening in the wall and found temporary refuge beyond it. She tried exploring the winding path of what seemed to be a tunnel upwards but soon found the way barred. Rather than rocks from a crumbling ceiling as she would have expected, the surface in front of her was smooth, as if the tunnel ended with a wall. Finding no crack or mechanism that would reveal a door, Sciella had no choice than to return the same way she had come.

The light seeping in from the cavern suddenly turned a glowing red, as if a fire had been lit. The shuffling sounds were replaced with the heavy clank of scales against metal, and a sickening scraping that could only come from a dragon’s claws. Sciella dared a glimpse through the opening, curiosity winning over her beating heart, and in confusion recognized the same dragon which had flown over her during the night. From the descriptions, the enormous, golden-red worm must be Lord Smaug the Mighty, the Great and Magnificent, and the Chiefest of All Calamities: her husband to be.

Sciella shivered, puzzled. The head of a sheep dangled limply from his jaws as a silent reminder of the deadly danger that followed his every step. He dropped the bloody carcass at the feet of the sleeker blue-green dragon, who, in turn, gave a purring sound, surprisingly high-pitched for a creature of its size.

Slowly, as Sciella watched the two dragons share their food as amiably as any lovers, the impact of the scene dawned upon her. She would have laughed with joy had she dared to. Smaug already had a mate! Her quest was over! Not only would the beast be immune to her but the pair would fly far north to breed in the Withered Heath, the homeland of the great dragons, and not return until their young were fully grown. Hopefully they might not return at all. Sciella had not needed Dunna to tell her that dragons courted for centuries. She need only wait until both dragons left the cave and then she could be on her way home.

Elated that the dragon problem of her people was solved, Sciella drifted into pleasant thoughts about the swords and spears she had seen on the walls, the jars filled with jewels standing beneath them, the countless piles of wealth that she had trampled under her feet without as much as a second glance – and about the gems and mithril she would bring back as an additional benefit of her quest.

Now it seemed the height of folly to think that she had rushed into hiding without taking with her as much as one coin of the sought-after dwarf-silver. As soon as the dragons had left, she would amend that. She would choose carefully the prize that would be most agreeable to the Elven-king, and then he would notice her in earnest. Not only would he commend her for her loyalty and courage, but he would fall in love with her, of that she became surer the more she thought about it. In fact, he would certainly ask for her hand in marriage as soon as he laid his eyes upon her. But what would she bring him?

Perhaps the great necklace of emeralds the same hue as his eyes – it would be a fitting gift. Better still, perhaps she should choose the large white gem that had glittered more than any other, enhanced by the female dragon’s glow. A worthy centre-peace of a king’s crown it seemed to her, and a thousand times more beautiful than wild flowers and leaves, for Sciella had come under the dragon-hoard’s spell. Her innocent heart had gradually filled with the same greed as that of the great worm, as deadly as Smaug when allowed to have its course. Rather than being killed by the dragon, many a dwarf had met his death by starvation as he hid in the upper tunnels, stubbornly refusing to leave the mountain’s treasures behind when the more level-headed of his race fled.

But Wood-elves are a sturdy kind and, like hobbits, unlikely to lose their wits for any length of time. When Sciella woke from her doze to the rumbling sound of two dragons snoring, her thoughts of riches dissipated and Smaug’s golden treasures again meant nothing more than fallen autumn leaves to her – they were beautiful, but dangerous for anyone desiring to move undetected.

Sciella sighed. Who knew how long dragons would sleep after a meal? Waiting soon became tedious and every so often she peeked out of the tunnel to see if either of the great worms was showing signs of waking and leaving the cave. On seeing nothing she was lulled into bored calmness and eventually, carelessness.

“I smell elf!” The roaring noise that was Smaug’s mighty voice was accompanied by two high-rising yellow-red flames.

Sciella ducked instantly, quenching a whimper. With greater care than at any time before, she crept to the far end of her shelter turned prison. There she huddled on the floor, hiding as best she could. She sat with her arms around her knees and closed her eyes, hoping to comfort herself but thoughts of the Elven-king would not come.

“Where are you, little rabbit?” Now the dragon sounded sweeter, almost bland. “I can smell you, maiden!” he said silkily. “I would eat you myself, but you will be a fitting gift for my mate!”

Then he laughed, a terrible sound that chilled Sciella to the bone, made all the worse by the added purring from the other dragon. She covered her ears in a futile attempt to shut out their noise.

“You say nothing?” Smaug continued in a teasing tone of voice. “That is wise, for few ever wrestled words with dragons and survived to tell of it. Will you come to me, foolishly brave as your kind is wont, with the useless little bow you are no doubt carrying? Have you not seen my armour? I am Smaug the Impenetrable!”

There was more laughter, followed by a sudden rustle and clank of metal. Sciella could well imagine the dragon strutting about, showing off his scaly splendour to his admiring female. Sciella did not look out, apparently a wise decision as Smaug, now furious, bellowed:

“Come out, or I will roast you in that little hole of yours!”

Sciella, now frozen with fear, could not have moved even if she dared to. She could not know that the fearsome talk of roasting was an empty threat, for the dragon had no means of removing her from her hideout and would not risk ruining such a valuable bridal gift. She remained where she was, stillness alternating with shivering fright, until a fitful sleep claimed her.

The moment she awoke she knew that she had to flee at once. A cautious glance through the tunnel opening revealed only one dragon, Smaug himself, sound asleep. The absence of his mate worried her, but being confined indefinitely seemed a much worse fate than running into the dragon’s true bride in the main entrance tunnel. She counted on sufficient warning and to dash into a narrow gallery or up a staircase where not even the smaller dragon could follow.

As swiftly as her feet could bear her, she left her hiding-place and tip-toed past the sleeping dragon, ignoring the globe of a jewel that was shining unhealthily in Smaug’s red glow, not at all the pristine white she had been drawn to earlier. Reaching the beginning of the paved passage, she dared a last glace at her former would-be betrothed. He lifted an eyelid ever so slightly and a piercing ray of red sent her running. Smaug was awake!

With a roar that shook the mountain, the great worm rose from his lair and took up the hunt, breathing fire as he crawled towards the entrance. In his ire, he was clumsier than usual and his great body nearly got caught up in some of the narrower parts of the tunnel, allowing Sciella the lead she needed to avoid his flaming wrath.

Her happiness on seeing daylight was extinguished all too soon by the sight of the second dragon circling the air near the mountain’s entrance. Caught between the horrible pair, her only way out was to hide in the alcove by the gate.

Heart in mouth, Sciella watched Smaug as he burst from the mountain in all his violent glory. Roaring like thunder and breathing red fire, he soared into the air and flew along the mountain side, turning the dead trees into flaming torches in his wake. His angry screams over her escape could only be matched by those of his mate as she joined in the mayhem. Boulders were smashed to gravel and sections of rock caved in when hit by the mighty blows of their tails. The whole mountain shook as if in agony. The patches of yellow grass turned into a sea of flame, until the fire died out for lack of anything to feed on.

Rather than panicking, Sciella felt strangely calm, as if she had already experienced more fear than her mind was capable of taking in. Motionless and holding her breath she finally saw the dragons disappear into the mist and clouds around the mountain top. Having learnt never to trust a dragon, she waited in the alcove until the midday sun baked the mountain’s entrance, but she did not see them again. Then she ran.

All day Sciella fled wildly across the plain, desperately throwing all thoughts of stealth to the wind. She stopped only when she could run no longer, when every bit of strength in her body was depleted and she was far enough from the looming mountain to allow her exhausted body to collapse. There, behind a rock but within sight of the first green trees, she fell asleep with a smile on her lips and the Elven-king in her thoughts.

Later that night, a sharp sound woke her. The next time the horse neighed she came fully awake. Sharpening her ears to the limit, she could hear distant singing – the tunes were familiar, but in these surroundings they seemed more like echoes of her dreams than physically perceived voices. Something stirred at the limit of her vision, making her shrink back and wait in complete stillness until she felt sure that whatever it was, it could not be aware of her presence.

It drew closer and she gave a soft sigh as she recognized the elf scanning the ground. Clearly visible in the moonlight, a silver veil of hair nearly hid his face but gave away his identity as well as any name. King Thranduil was the only elf in Mirkwood with hair of that wondrous hue…


“Not any more,” stated a young voice, interrupting the storyteller. “You have very nice hair, too.”

“Thank you.” Legolas smiled at the little girl; he was used to the story being interrupted at this exact place. “Do you want to hear what happened next?”

“I know! I know!” The excited call came from one of the boys. “King Thranduil found her!”

“Hush,” said another. “Please, Legolas, tell us.”

“And so it happened,” continued Legolas, “that the same morning Sciella reached the mountain, the Elven-king set out with a small army, determined to rescue her, at best, or at worst to revenge her. They lost nearly all hope of finding her alive when birds began to arrive with reports about the dragons’ destruction and yet they pressed on towards the mountain all day, downhearted but carried by Thranduil’s smouldering wrath and Dunna’s unconquerable faith.

“By nightfall the news of an elf seen fleeing the mountain lifted their mood again and although their exhausted mounts made it necessary to stop their search for the night, many hoped once more for a happy ending. The songs around the camp fires told more of courage and glory than of sorrow and defeat.

“Thranduil was restless, reluctant to wait in idleness when victory was near at hand. Leaving the others in a sparse grove of hazels, he began to scan the ground for the fresh trail of footprints that would confirm Sciella’s miraculous escape. Part of him knew that such an endeavour was vain – it was unlikely that she could have crossed their path without them spotting her. Yet he would not rule out the possibility that she might not keep a straight path towards Mirkwood.

“With time he grew thirsty and searched the contents of his saddlebag for his flask. The young vintage he had brought was light, its yellow tint so faint it was nearly transparent. As he lifted the flask to his lips and drank he imagined a well of cool, clear water against his palate, bringing freshness and strength. He drained it fully, enjoying every drop. Although manufactured in the plains, the ease it gave him was remarkably akin to what he felt when wandering in Mirkwood’s own meadows of wood anemones in spring-time. He was already looking forward to seeing how Sciella would weave the fragile white flowers into one of his best-loved wreaths. But first, he needed to find her.

“The wine may have softened his senses so that when he laid his eyes on her slim figure in the moonlight, he not only found her beautiful, but was touched by a desire stronger than any he had felt before. Utterly amazed by the singing in his heart and body, he approached her on legs somewhat more shaky than is common for a king.

“The warmth of his smile during their greeting sent a shiver down her spine. She received him eagerly, greatly comforted by his presence, and followed her heart in turn in sharing a kiss the sweetness of which would be the material of tales for many a century. That night they became lovers, the king and the fearless maker of crowns, and instead of becoming the dragon’s bride, it was the Elven-king she bound herself to.”

Legolas paused and his admiring audience drew a collective sigh of relief at the happy outcome of the Dragon Bride’s quest, just as he knew they would. The story was not new, but it was the most popular tale among the young and had been told in every hut and talan.

“And so, you were born a year later,” the little girl, who had earlier remarked on his hair, stated with obvious satisfaction.

“Yes,” Legolas replied, “as an unexpected outcome of that adventure, my father wed my mother, she changed her name to the more Sindarin-sounding Lasciel and I was born from their love despite there still being evil in this world. Now let me finish.” He recited:

“The moral of the end is this:
If circumstances all are right
And the Valar gracious in their might,
Of woe may come the greatest bliss.

“The dragon claimed what was not his,
Would not let go without a fight,
But secret powers may move at night
When elven lovers share a kiss.

“For wonder happened in that wood,
The Elf-king got his blushing bride
And freed from peril were all men.

“Though still remain the spider’s brood,
From Smaug there’s no more need to hide,
Nor from his fire ever run again.”

“But Smaug came back,” said another fair voice. “He wanted his old gold more than his new bride. That is not nice.”

“And that is why we need to make sure the treacherous beast is really gone this time, once and for all,” said Thranduil as he entered the room, grim-looking in full armour. “The thrushes’ twittering bears tidings of his death by the arrow of one named Bard of Lake-town. I will believe it when I see it. And if it proves true, good reason for a warning against the plunderers the empty lair will attract to our door-step. We may well find ourselves delivered out of the dragon’s jaws and thrown into a pit teeming with wargs and goblins.”

“Legolas,” he continued after placing an affectionate kiss on the top of his son’s head, “I trust you to keep all safe who remain here. Entertain the children with stories as best you can so they will miss their fathers less, and their mothers get a quiet minute.”

“Am I not nearly two hundred? May I not come with you, father? Please?”

“Legolas, my son, we have discussed this before. You are indeed a grown elf, and therefore in charge in my stead. You have my word: if I return without your mithril shirt, it won’t be without very good reason.”

‘What do I care about treasure or shining armour,’ thought the Elven-prince, ‘as long as you come back safe and sound.’

And that was proof that though he be part Sinda, Legolas had not only inherited all his mother’s fearless courage, but all the common sense of the Wood-elves, too. One day he would find his own adventure – one both more exciting and more important than fighting over any dragon’s hoard – but that is a different story altogether.


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