The Battle of the Five Armies was over.
The brief reign of Thorin, son of Thrain and King Under the Mountain, had ended in glory and grief. In his final moments, the dwarf king had reconciled with Thranduil Elvenking, and Thranduil had returned Thorin’s great sword Orcrist that it might be buried with him. And buried he was, with all honor, before the title of King Under the Mountain had passed to Thorin’s cousin Dain Ironfoot.
Knowing full well the evils of the dragonsick gold that clogged the halls of Erebor, King Dain endeavored to loosen its hold by way of generosity to his fellow dwarves, and the men and elves who had been his allies against the armies of Azog the destroyer. To the hobbit, Bilbo, King Dain granted any treasure he should desire. Being a modest hobbit and knowing the curse of Smaug’s hoard more deeply than any, (other than those dwarves remaining of Thorin’s company,) Bilbo declined all but the smallest recompense: a shirt of finely-wrought mithril that had been gifted him by Thorin, a single chest of silver and one of gold, and a necklace of white gems that sparkled like starlight.
The necklace, however, was not for him, though Bilbo kept it close until he and the wizard Gandalf were set to take their leave of Thranduil, King of the Mirkwood Elves.
“And will you not sojurn here yet awhile?” Asked Thranduil. The Elvenking stood tall and resplendent in silver-chased armor, his crown of silver branches wreathed with fragrant pine, for winter was upon the Mirkwood.
“With all goodwill I would, majesty,” replied Bilbo, “but that I yearn to see my homeland once more.”
Thranduil blinked eyes pale as a winter sky and sighed. “I will not press you, much though I may desire your company, and that of Mithrandir. For I know home lies as much in the heart of little hobbits as the need for fresh air and light lies in the heart of elf-kind.”
As they stood at the edge of the Mirkwood, Bilbo considered the home of the elves, who had been forced to build their keep within the mountains to escape the creeping taint of Morgoth. Even within the mountain did they endeavor to retain their beloved woods: the soaring pillars had been finely wrought to resemble trees, and well-concealed tunnels down from the summit had been bored to allow shafts of sunlight to shine upon them. Yet though every effort had been made to bring space and light and life into his realm, King Thranduil’s halls were still made of stone. Perhaps it was this which had frozen the king’s heart with misery.
And yet there must be more to the seeming coldness of Thranduil than that he was king of a land beseiged! During the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo had seen the Elvenking’s depth of feeling, the honor and compassion which lurked behind the cool facade. Bilbo would not forget the devastation upon the king's face as he had surveyed the ranks of elves fallen in his service. His heart was true, and his care for his people evident; so why then was Thranduil so often cold and detached, Bilbo wondered? As they traveled from Eerebor, well attended within the elven caravan, Bilbo had questioned if Gandalf knew aught of the king of the elves.
“Well do I know Thranduil Oropherion of old,” Gandalf had replied readily. “I knew him as a boy, wild and joyful and full of Sindarin fire, much as his son Legolas is now. As a young ellon I knew him, a captain in his father’s army who fought bravely in the Battle of Dagorlad where his father and most of his kinsman were slain by the armies of Sauron.”
“Is he so very old, then?” Bilbo asked.
“Old?” Gandalf smiled. “What is old to an elf, my dear Bilbo, is youth to a wizard, while a wizened man is but a child to an elf. Thranduil is yet in his prime as the immortal elves account the years; and yet I would say that in experience is he agéd, for he has lost much in war.”
“To lose a father is dreadful,” Bilbo agreed, thinking of his own dear father’s death many years past.
“Indeed. And not only a father, but brothers, cousins, friends. His wife, the Elvenqueen, was murdered at Gundabad, taken along with their son and held for ransom against Thranduil’s surrender during a war long ago.”
Bilbo was aghast. He had met few elven ladies, but those he had were beacons of light and grace. To kill an elf was a horrible thing, but to kill an elven lady was beyond the depths of depravity, even for an orc. “Did he surrender?”
“As a king, his duty was to his people,” Gandalf sighed. “To surrender would have been to sentence his people to death and despair.”
“But to lose his wife and child!” Bilbo exclaimed.
“It was an impossible choice. What he would have done I know not, though I believe he would have attempted to rescue his queen alone before consigning them to death. But the choice was taken from his hands by the queen herself.” Gandalf was quiet a moment, listening the melancholy sound of hooves upon the forest floor. “You see, Bilbo, the queen knew the orcs for the treacherous filth they are. She knew that once she and her son were captured they were as good as dead, that the orcs would never honor their word to Thranduil even should he surrender fully. So she engineered her own escape, with Legolas; and when they were discovered, she sacrificed her own life that her son might escape and make his way back to his father.”
“How awful!” The hobbit’s heart ached for the valiant queen, and what she must have suffered before her death; it ached for the young elf-child Legolas, who lost his mother. And most of all it ached for Thranduil, who must ever after see his son as ransom for the life of his wife, a way in which no father should be forced to view his only child. He sighed deeply. “I think I understand now.”
Bilbo shook his head briefly, indicating to Gandalf that his answer was better spoken when they were alone. Though the wizard was concerned, he knew enough of the cleverness of hobbits to follow Bilbo in this.
It was not until that evening, when a the elven caravan had made camp for the evening under a chill wind and a blanket of twinkling stars, that Bilbo continued his thought, and Gandalf continued his tale.
“I was thinking,” Bilbo said softly within the warm confines of the tent he shared with Gandalf. “I was thinking upon the elvenking, and what may have set his heart so on claiming the wealth of Erebor.”
“Oh?” Gandalf had seated himself comfortably, with his feet upon a settle and a full pipe of Old Toby. “And what would a hobbit think about such things?”
“I was thinking,” Bilbo said, “that though the king has, himself, a fondness for gems, well also must he know the curse upon a dragon’s hoard. So why would he send himself and his people into grave danger for what is only a chance at winning a share of such a treasure? And why also,” the hobbit asked, “would he, after such a trial, accept the emerald gem with which King Dain gifted him without so much as a murmur of protest?”
“Perhaps he had seen the madness of greed overtake Thorin, and wished as Dain did to avoid a similar fate?” The wizard’s tone was innocently reasonable, but his expression was sharp.
“I think not,” Bilbo replied, knowing full well when he was being baited. “I think that perhaps it was more than love of treasure which motivated the king. I think, perhaps, that these,” taking from within his bags a wrapped parcel, “had meaning to the very heart of Thranduil.”
The hobbit unwrapped the parcel, revealing the shimmer of a delicate silver necklace, wrought with pearls and flawless diamonds which glowed in the golden lamplight as though the very stars had come to earth. “The White Gems of Lasgalen, Thorin called them.”
“Did he indeed?” Gandalf’s tone had become as sharp as his eyes. “Where did you get that necklace, Bilbo Baggins?”
“It was given to me by King Dain himself,” Bilbo answered. “And I could see he thought nothing of it, but old Balin looked askance at me. Now I know why. These gems belonged to Thranduil’s queen, didn’t they?”
“They did,” Gandalf admitted on the end of a puff of smoke. “And I believe it was his desperation to regain a piece of what he had lost which led the Elvenking to war.”
“Then why did he not ask for them?”
“Because his quest to reclaim the gems taught Thranduil that he had overlooked the true treasure his wife left him: their son. Legolas, it seems, has gone a-wandering. Most young elves do, of course; even Thranduil left Amon Lanc in his youth. But his travels were less bitter for his father Oropher, as Thranduil was beloved by him.”
Bilbo gazed upon the White Gems of Lasgalen, and thought of the death of Lasgalen’s queen in the dark keep of Gundabad. “Is Legolas not beloved by Thranduil, then?”
“Of course he is!” Gandalf exclaimed. “There is no place in Thranduil’s heart greater than that which is occupied by his only son. But the pain of losing his queen, the guilt of being unable to save her, forged that love into a fierce protectiveness, an armor past which no softness could penetrate. Thranduil’s only thought has been the protection of his son. He protected Legolas’ life by teaching him the ways of an elven warrior, and thought to protect Legolas’ heart by never speaking of his mother’s death, for fear his son would be crushed under the same guilt that weighs upon Thranduil himself.
"Yet in his attempts to protect his son he has grown ever more strict, seeking to control Legolas rather than to understand him. In this last battle, Thranduil banished a young elleth captain of whom Legolas had grown fond; and in doing so, harmed the very heart he wished so dearly to hold safe.”
“Tauriel,” said Bilbo, who had seen the she-elf’s love for the dwarven archer Kili.
Gandalf nodded. “In a moment borne of pain, Thranduil and Tauriel nearly came to violence; and Legolas, in saving Tauriel, turned his back upon his father. Thus Thranduil came to realize that his pursuit of the White Gems of Lasgalen, (in a way, his pursuit of his long-dead wife,) had lost him Legolas’ love.”
“So this was why he did not pursue them,” Bilbo said in sudden understanding.
“Perhaps he feels that he does not deserve them,” Gandalf agreed. “That denying himself the spoils of an ill-considered war is fair recompense for his errors in judgement. Who can truly say what is in the mind of an elf?”
“I was going to give them to him.” Bilbo shook his head. “As thanks for his help and hospitality; but now I am not certain. Perhaps this gift will only cause him pain?”
“Perhaps. And yet, perhaps the jewels, given selflessly as a gift from a true friend, would ease the pain already felt. The choice is yours, Bilbo Baggins. But choose quietly.” The old wizard rose from his settle and tapped out his pipe upon the back of his hand. “For I am going to bed.”
The morning after that, the caravan had reached the borders of Mirkwood, to the north of the place where the Forest River ran out. It was here where the Elvenking bade the hobbit and the wizard sojurn awhile within his halls. But there they halted, and would go no further, for they intended to go along the forest’s northern border, in the waste that lay between the forest’s end and the beginning of the Grey Mountains.
“Are you yet certain?” Asked Thranduil. “For it is a long and cheerless road. Far merrier might you be after a time within the elven lands!”
“Merrier would we be with you, O Elvenking!” Agreed Gandalf. “But now the goblins are crushed, it seems far safer than wandering the dreadful pathways under the Mirkwood trees that lay beyond your halls.”
“To this I cannot argue,” sighed Thranduil. “Farewell! O Gandalf! May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected! The oftener you appear in my halls the more I shall be pleased!”
Then Gandalf bade the Elvenking farewell, and Bilbo knew the time had come for him to make his choice. Before he knew it, his hand had reached forth and presented the necklace to the king.
“I beg of you,” said he, stammering and standing upon one foot, “to accept this gift!”
Thranduil first glanced, then stared, his eyes opening wide as he beheld the White Gems of Lasgalen sparkling upon the palm of the hobbit. For a moment he could say nothing, so full was his heart. “In what way,” he breathed, “have I earned such a gift, O hobbit?”
Bilbo glanced at Gandalf, who gave him a warning look; to speak of Thranduil’s queen would be in poor taste. So did Bilbo say instead, “Well, er, I thought, don’t you know, that, er, some little return should be made for your, er, hospitality. Even a burglar has feelings,” he said with a smile. “And I have drunk much of your wine and eaten much of your bread.”
Thranduil’s gaze pierced deep into Bilbo’s soul, and for a moment it looked as though he might choose to disbelieve the hobbit’s reasoning. But he said only, “I will accept your gift, O Bilbo the Magnificent!” A curious expression passed over him then, as though caught between great pain and great joy.
Bilbo lowered his eyes, feeling as though he trespassed upon the king's privacy.
But in the next moment Thranduil's face had regained its customary serenity. Gravely did he accept the gems, and stored them away about his person. Raising one hand in gentle benediction, the Elvenking proclaimed, “I name you elf-friend and blessed! May your shadow never grow shorter, Bilbo Baggins; or else stealing would be too easy!”
Bilbo smiled at the jest, and Thranduil smiled back; a smile untinged by arrogance or anger, the first and only such Bilbo would ever see. He would remember it always; for fair though the Elvenking was in all other ways, his smile would shame the very sun.
"Farewell, O Elvenking!" Said Bilbo.
"Farewell, Bilbo Elf-friend!"
Then the elves turned away towards their halls, and Bilbo and Gandalf began the last leg of their journey home.