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Stars of Varda

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Before dipping my quill into the inkwell, I reach for another strawberry and read over the unfinished letter to my sister.

I can imagine your husband did not share your enthusiasm over the arrival of the Dwarves. Poor Lindir – will he ever warm to them? Thorin Oakenshield’s company made quite the mark on him.

Was Ori among the visitors? Not a day passes when I do not open his book. It is one of my most cherished possessions…

I glance at the small oak table near my settee. Ori’s book is where I last left it, opened on a page detailing Dwarvish armor. It is accompanied by an elaborate drawing of his older brother Nori, suited up for battle in grays and blues.

My chest tightens in deep fondness thinking about Ori and his illustrations. I befriended the Dwarf during the time my sister and I helped with the restoration efforts in Dale after the Battle of Five Armies. He presented the book to me on my final day there. I have not seen him since.

I dip my quill and return to the letter.

Has Lord Elrond made mention of our new prisoner? He is a miserable--

“Rîneth?”

At the sound of my father’s voice I drop my quill, a splatter of ink marring the parchment. I must be late. It would not be the first time. I stand to open the door to my chambers.

He looks down at me, his gray eyes inquisitive. His gaze slides past me to examine my writing desk, and the bowl of red berries resting upon it. His sudden smile softens his square jawline.

“I came to remind you supper is soon ready, but perhaps you no longer have an appetite.”

Relieved I am not late after all, I motion for him to come in. “A few berries are hardly a proper meal, Ada. I was finishing a letter to Faeleth. Did you hear about Imladris’ visitors?”

“The dwarves from Erebor, yes.” He plucks a strawberry from my desk and inspects it. “May I?”

“You need not ask.”

I hide a grin as he reaches for another berry after satisfied with the first. If I inherited my love of the fruit from anyone, it was my father.

“Faeleth must have been pleased to see them,” he says. “As for Lindir, I am sure he was remembering the time Thorin Oakenshield’s company bathed naked in the fountain.”

I tilt my head back and laugh. “Let us hope for his sake they kept their manners and did not behave like…Dwarves.”

“Yes, let us hope.” Gailon smiles thoughtfully. “Faeleth probably gave him proper encouragement.”

When I last saw my brother-in-law, it was in Imladris to celebrate their wedding. He had been most adamant about no Dwarves attending, believing they would dance on the tables and throw the food and wine. Without his knowledge, Faeleth had invited Ori and Dori. The Dwarves never made an appearance, but someone let slip to Lindir about the invitations.

Faeleth had threatened to cancel the wedding if he would not stop behaving like an elfling. He had calmed enough to satisfy Faeleth, but it has been her mission ever since to gently encourage him of the merits of Dwarves.

I doubt she has succeeded.

“Eventually he will learn to love their ways,” I say, as though I believe it.

My gaze flickers back to the letter, the soft glow of the candlelight illuminating it in the dimly-lit room. If only I could finish it before dinner…

“Forgive my interruption, iell nín,” Ada says, reading my thoughts. “You must not feel obligated to come every week.”

I return to my desk chair and smooth my silver robes. “Only a few words more and I am done. Luckily, I anticipated the evening and had an early start.”

As I begin to write, I hear Ada’s soft footsteps and sense his presence over my shoulder. He is always interested in everything I do, his curiosity at times bordering on being intrusive, but I forgive him for it. I am his only remaining family in the realm.

“I see you are telling her about our prisoner.”

“How can I not?”

I have had to restrain from writing too much about the topic. I have no doubt I could fill several pages.

He places his hand on my shoulder. “I shall take my leave then and expect to see you shortly.”

My quill pauses over the drying ink. I look over my shoulder at his retreating figure. “He is coming tonight?”

“Of course.”

I return my gaze to the golden-hued parchment under the light of the candle, a small smile forming on my mouth. I brush away a fallen dark curl of hair obscuring my vision. Once the door closes, I reach for another strawberry.

 

888

 

A waft of smoky warmth from the hearth fire drifts from the crack underneath the large entrance of my father’s chambers, permeating the cavern hall. It is the promise of homey comfort and conversation. A hundred unfinished letters could not prevent me from missing it, even for a week.

I softly tap the arched oak door.

“Come in, Rîneth.”

I swing the door open, and there is the roaring fire, the shadows from its flames dancing on the stone walls like a performance. Near the hearth are my two closest confidantes, sharing in a jest about a smuggler from Lake-town.

Their unguarded laughter warms me more than the fire. At least it is not about Dwarves again.

King Thranduil Oropherion lifts his gaze to mine, his eyes still carrying amusement from the joke. One of his elegant eyebrows quirks.

“My lord.” I bow my head.

“I was beginning to wonder if you would ever make an appearance.”

If I did not know him, I would think him intimidating with his mock derisive grin, the tallest elf in the room by far. With his legs crossed and his arms casually resting on the sides of his chair, he has the air of regality, the unyielding confidence which comes with ruling a kingdom for over three-thousand years.

His imposing tall-branched crown lies forgotten on the side table, its usual resting place during his visits. Though his title is never in question, with my father and I he is simply Thranduil.

“I was finishing a letter to Faeleth.”

“It could not wait until morning?”

“Of course, but I wished to finish it tonight.” I flash a smile.

For a few long moments he studies me, his blue eyes dark and glinty in the fire-lit room. Steepling his long fingers under his chin, he appears to be contemplating a grave situation and its many repercussions. No one speaks a word, the only sound the continuous soft crackle of the fire.

He is teasing me. Does he truly think I will fall for it? Perhaps he wishes me to believe he will lock me in with the new prisoner for being late. I keep my face devoid of emotion, my eye contact unwavering.

“Shall I call for the guards?” I finally ask. “I know you would not trust me to walk to the cells alone. I might escape.”

His mouth quirks, and his stern gaze softens, almost becoming tender. “Sit down, Rîneth. They have not yet called us for dinner.”

“Before or after I walk to the cells, my lord?”

My father chuckles, finding our exchange as funny as the jest about the Lake-town smuggler. “We shall save the prison cell for later, iell nín. Come and join us.”

I sit down in my usual garnet-red armchair closest to the hearth, and enjoy the feel of the fire’s warmth on my skin. “What was discussed in my absence, besides the colorful jest about the poor smuggler?”

“Gems,” says Thranduil. His midnight-blue robes have a life of their own from the flickering shadow flames.

“As ever, your fixation has me questioning whether you are a dragon rather than an Elven king.”

Though I do not have as many years of practice, I take pleasure in teasing him in return. I imitate him by crossing my legs and fashioning a smirk.

“Or I am both. I am older and wiser than you and know of many enchantments. Maybe I have fooled you all along.”

My father makes a sound of amused disbelief.

I lean forward to the edge of the seat. “I doubt it; else we would have felt fire in these cavern halls during one of your legendary outbursts. Yet all we hear is yelling.”

Thranduil does not smile, but the faint twinkle in his eyes betrays him. “I could have you banished for that.”

“Tis a good thing I am your friend, then.”

 

888

 

After supper we leave the firey warmth from my father’s hearth and half of a honey cake to take in the night air. A long stairwell from Thranduil’s rooms leads to a stone balcony offering the clearest view over the forest; it is not the first time we have gathered here to talk after a meal.

I tip my head back to gaze upwards. The stars of Varda glitter happily in the late March sky, as though oblivious to the dark and troubled Wood below. I wonder if the Valar ever consider our realm and its plight. If so, they keep their silence.

“I have had my fill of wine and conversation for the evening,” my father says. “I now long for dreams of the Gardens of Lòrien. Garo dhû vaer.”

“Good night, Ada.”

Thranduil bids him good night as well, and he makes his way to the spiraled stairs leading back to the lower cavern keep, an empty wine goblet in his hand.

“Lately he speaks of nothing but the Undying Lands.” I walk to the edge of the jutted rock, the metal railing cold under my hands. “I know he longs to be with my mother. I cannot blame him.”

“Gailon has stayed in Middle-earth for far longer than would be expected for one of his great age.” Thranduil joins me, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes fixed on an unknown point beyond the shadowed forest.

Our breaths make white clouds in the air. I wrap my arms around myself, hoping it is our last bitter cold spell. My decision to wear spring-weight robes was far too optimistic.

“I suppose I never shall be fully ready for him to depart.” 

“If not for you and your sister, he would have left long ago.”

“Did he tell you this?”

Thranduil turns his face to mine. “Yes.”

“Faeleth is well taken care of in Rivendell with her husband and newborn to keep her occupied. She no longer needs Ada’s protection or guidance.”

“Since when has Faeleth been his only daughter? Unlike your sister, you have decided to live alone and never marry.”

My sigh forms another visible cloud. Still my father doubts my capability to take care of myself without another’s help. His concerns over my well-being are misplaced. But my attempts to persuade him of that have never ended well.

“I can manage fine on my own. In time he will believe it.”

Thranduil’s sideways glance does not appear convinced. “Yet you still need a guardian whenever you leave the safety of the caves.”

“It is only when I reach the far outskirts of the village when there may be trouble.” I lift my chin. “And while your son may not believe my skills with bow and sword adequate, I am quick on my feet and can out-talk any situation.”

“The spiders will cling to your every word.”

“They will.”

My voice quavers at the edge of laughter until I can no longer contain it. His deeper laugh joins mine, and he unclasps his hands from behind his back and rests them on the railing.

I enjoy these unguarded moments, ones which betray he is flesh and blood like his subjects. A frigid wind flutters his hair, and he brushes away a few silvery strands from his eyes. He tightens his robes around himself, not unaffected by the cold.    

“When my father leaves for the Grey Havens,” I start, my voice turning serious, “who then shall be your advisor? He has been so for your entire reign.”

“And who shall be my closest confidante? He has been both advisor and friend. If you believe I look forward to his departure, you are mistaken--”

“Then you must speak to him.”

“--but I shall not be selfish, Rîneth,” his voice hardens. “Would you have me keep your father from Lady Nemiril until my own departure from Middle-earth?”

The answer is as clear as Varda’s sky, yet my heart does not warm to it. Ada has not only been the King’s advisor, but mine as well. After my mother left me far too young, I have relied on his guidance more than any other’s. Now I rely on his companionship as well.

For all my talk of being capable without him, I know I would suffer from his absence until I saw him again across the Sea.

“Gailon is not my only advisor, whether I wish it or not,” he says. “I have little doubt you will take over his duty fully when he is gone, even though I shall not ask for it. But perhaps you have talked sense before.”

My eyes widen. “Are you calling me wise, my lord?”

“Not as wise as your father, but at times you have come close.”

“Then it pleases me to know you will open your ears about the Dwarves. While I realize you still believe they are a disagreeable lot, even after Thorin-”

“But some of your advice is not logical,” he interrupts, “or needed.”

“Or perhaps you are prejudiced.”

“I shall never understand your fascination with the Dwarves…”

“They showed me nothing but kindness in Dale, and helped the Men restore their city without requesting payment or service.”

After the Battle of Five Armies and the death of Thorin Oakenshield, even Thranduil’s heart changed towards them a little, though he would never admit it to me, or anyone else.

The howl of a warg echoes in the night air. The skin at the back of my neck prickles. Where there are wargs, there are also orcs.

“Do they hunt within our borders?”

“The sound is too distant. They are hunting farther south, with their masters.”

His sharp eyes scan the forest, as though to make certain. But unless the orcs have surpassed their usual witlessness and built a camp fire, not even Thranduil can see them under cover of darkness.

“The evil in our lands continues to grow every night, mellon nîn.”

I do not question his awareness of it. The hint of worry visible in his eyes even now speaks volumes. But will he not go out and face it? Does he fear we are not strong enough to defeat the army of Dol Guldur? I wish I understood what holds him back.

He opens his mouth to reply, but the sound of fast-paced footsteps climbing the stairs makes him pause.

It is Legolas. He gives me a brief nod in acknowledgement, but his focus is intent on the King.

“We have a visitor, Adar.”

“Who calls upon us at this late hour?”

“Mithrandir. He wishes to speak to the prisoner.” Legolas’s mouth is etched in a near frown. “He says he has traveled a great distance.”

“The wizard always says he has traveled a great distance, and believes his presence is of utmost importance to all,” Thranduil says, his voice laced with contempt. “But come, let us not keep him waiting.”

He turns to leave, and Legolas falls in step behind him. His tall figure reflects the moon’s light. Before descending the stairs, he casts a glance over his shoulder.

“Ollo vae, Rîneth.”

“Good night.”

I long to follow them, and to take part in the meeting, but it is not my place. Still I cannot keep from wondering why Gandalf the Grey would travel to our faraway realm to question the wretched Gollum creature.

Beautiful artwork by hatteeho, commissioned for Stars of Varda by Maggie Shivers.

Chapter Text

Lady Aethel looks down at her daughter’s letter, her light eyes skimming over the words on the unfolded parchment for perhaps the tenth time. She smiles and shakes her head, still surprised by what she reads.

“To think that Lady Galadriel requested my Caewen to play for her. I am certain it will be many years before the Golden Wood ceases to remember it.”

I study the hem of my iris-colored dress sleeve.

“She would be too modest to ever admit she made such an impression, of course,” the Lady adds.

“How did she learn to play the harp so beautifully?”

I have never heard Caewen play anything, but I can only assume it is beautiful. To Lady Aethel it is the music of the Ainur.

“Her father’s mother, Erelil of Doriath, taught her. She has long left the shores of Middle-earth, but when Caewen was a child….”

My focus drifts to the delicate silver swan sculpture atop the bookshelf, its elegant wings spread wide, ready to take flight. It is the finest piece in the room, undoubtedly handed down from Erelil of Doriath herself. It is not the first time I have looked at it and wished I had wings as well, to fly far from Lady Aethel and her endless prattle over her daughter’s virtues and accomplishments.

“…I knew Caewen would do well in Caras Galadhon under the guidance of Lady Galadriel. She values the teaching of music far more than King Thranduil, and…”

Aethel was once close friends with my mother. These days she does not have many other companions, keeping in her chambers and not attending most dinners in the Dining Hall. What began as a heartfelt mission to befriend her turned into more than I bargained for. Now it is obligation which keeps me visiting weekly, not a desire to listen to Caewen’s letters.

If only I could escape. Interrupting her would be disrespectful, but Aethel has been known to ramble long into the afternoon without pause. My nods are the only encouragement she needs. Was she this way with my mother, or is it the effect of too much solitude? I suspect the latter.

“…grateful she has found friendship there. A marchwarden named Lord Haldir has taken a liking to her. Do you know him? I hope Caewen…”

Nodding, I move my thoughts again to the unexpected visitor from last night. After breakfast I sought Thranduil to glean more information, but en route to his chambers Legolas crossed my path and volunteered to tell me all he knew.

“Mithrandir requested to question him alone, without guards. Adar demanded to know his reasons, but he would only say he needed to learn everything Gollum knew about the One Ring.”

The Ring of Power. It is as Aragorn, the Ranger of the North, said upon delivering the creature to our doorstep to keep as prisoner. Gollum once had possession of it. Before being captured in the Dead Marshes, it was suspected he had been tortured and interrogated in Mordor. Likely the Enemy is already aware of the Ring’s whereabouts. If Sauron finds it…

I wrap my arms tightly around myself. Earlier the room was too warm.

Our forest home has been overtaken by Sauron’s darkness for a long time, but soon he will attempt to control all of Middle-earth. War is inevitable, and will determine the fate of all I hold dear. Is it any wonder why my kin cross the Sea in great number? Or why my father desires to join them? Perhaps I should leave as well, ere it is too late…

But I am not ready. My heart is here, in the familiar woods of birch and oak; the Sea’s call has not yet reached me. Perhaps it never will.

“…cannot keep from worrying about Caewen’s journey here, though I long to see her. This forest is not safe for travel now, even for the Eldar. Should she stay in Lothlórien? Their borders are well-guarded.”

My attention returns to Lady Aethel. For once she has stopped speaking. With her high forehead furrowed and her fingers absently twisting a strand of her brown-black hair, the Lady is visibly concerned.

“I do not doubt Lorien’s protection,” I say. “But our Woodland Guard will keep close watch over Caewen. She will be accompanied, surely?”

Aethel nods, and the ridges of worry on her forehead soften. “Lord Haldir and two of his fellow guards have kindly offered to travel with her. Did I not already tell you?”

She probably had. In truth, it is the first time I hear Caewen is coming to visit. The Lady has likely mentioned it countless times. If only I could stay attentive.

Aethel does not wait for my answer. “If only I lived in the Golden Wood under Lady Galadriel’s protection. Then I would not fear. I would be with Caewen, and we would live comfortably.”

A cold feeling grips me in the center of my chest. “Not even Lòrien is safe from the evil that may come, my lady. If Sauron has his way, we are all in peril. Do you not believe King Thranduil has protected us?”

“Yes…he has. But this darkness still endures.”

“And so has our realm.”

The Lady has my full attention now. I straighten in the high-backed chair.

“Rîneth, I know you and your dear father are friends with the King. But even you must question his actions. Or rather, lack thereof! The Lord and Lady of Lothlórien would never allow this to continue. They would have fought long ago. Caewen believes so as well.”

And what Caewen believes is nothing short of truth. I try to compose myself, the usual calming scent of vanilla and citrus wafting from Aethel’s bedchambers not working. The Lady and her daughter are not alone in questioning the King. I feel a sudden stinging guilt that I questioned him also, only last night.

“I trust his judgment.” I meet Aethel’s eyes and hope I convey the confidence I do not feel. “We all should.”

I stand. Lady Aethel follows, her kind smile returning.

“Ah, henig. You are exceedingly loyal. But there are times when loyalty is blinding. I only hope you are right.”

I do not know how to reply. I hope I am right as well.

“I have something for you.” She walks to a nearby table and opens its small drawer. Her hand grasps an unusual green object. “Caewen sent these with her last letter. I cannot eat them all.”

In my hand she places a large helping of lembas bread, still in its soft leaf wrapping. Sudden pangs of guilt assail me, and it is likely evident in my wobbly smile. Lady Aethel, for all her faults, is good to me.

It is the least I can do to come visit her every week. I promise myself I shall pay better attention.

“Hannon-le, my lady. Please thank Caewen for me.”

At the mention of her daughter’s name, the Lady’s light eyes light up like Silmarils. “She will be delighted to hear you shared them with me. They have always been her favorite, even when she was an elfling.”

“I have not had lembas since last I visited Lòrien,” I confess. “But I remember it being far better than any honey or seed cake I have had before.”

I make my way to the door.

“Rîneth.”

I turn around, anticipating another comment about Caewen.

“Have I ever told you that you are the very image of your mother? You must have heard it said before, but perhaps it means more coming from her close friend.” The Lady’s brow furrows as she studies me. “You have her kind features, her upturned nose…but those brown curls must come from your father’s side.”

I smile. “My aunt.”

“My sister has them also, but I am glad Caewen took after me. I have always said that curls would overwhelm her petite features. Your eyes, though…”

“All my own.”

“They are…striking.”

 

888

 

I lean back and close my eyes, longing to be out of doors and feel the warmth of sunlight on my skin. Ada says the wintry cold has disappeared for now, signs of early spring beginning to appear, not only in temperature but in the happy buds of pink and white on the trees. It is my favorite season.

It feels like I shall not see it this year. I return my gaze to the crisp parchment on my writing table, the faint outline of a tall, armored figure coming to life. It is the fourth attempt at drawing Thranduil’s father, King Oropher, likely not the last. For the life of me I cannot achieve what I hope for; his eyes and brows always become the same as Thranduil’s, and his expression too grim.

What did Oropher look like? Old paintings of him are rudimentary at best. If not for the silvery-blond hair and woodland crown, he could be anyone else. I half wonder if the artist used another model than the King. His face more resembles Lord Celeborn’s. Even Thranduil agrees.

But he has been of little help, offering no better description of his father than his tall stature and serious eyes.

These cavern halls, which have never lacked for light or space, are now suffocating. My large scriptorium with its cheerful amber lights and high ceilings are like Gollum’s prison cell. My feet long to touch soft grass rather than hard stone.

This particular drawing should have been finished days ago…

But it is the thought of disappointing Thranduil which keeps me crumpling parchment after parchment. His request for me, the realm’s only scribe, to copy his father’s many battle accounts was not made lightly. Knowing how proficient I am with quill and paintbrush, he asked for accompanying art as well.

I grip the twisted-oak arms of my chair and stand. No one can deny me a walk under sun and sky.

A soft, almost reluctant knock makes me pause. Is it a kind guard bringing me dinner again? If I missed it, the sun has already set…

“You may come in.”

The door opens. Instead of a guard, it is an elleth with plaited hair the color of strawberry, her uncertain expression making her appear younger than she likely is. She holds a small, brown book close to her chest. I remember seeing her before, though her name is a mystery.

“May I be of help to you, mellon?”

With a shy smile, she moves closer. “I hope I did not come at an inconvenient time, my lady. You look like you are about to leave. I can return tom--”

“Please.” I gesture to the chair in front of my writing table. “Sit down and feel at home.”

A wave of embarrassment hits me as I notice the girl observing my unfinished drawing of Oropher. I hurriedly turn the parchment over.

“Was that King Thranduil?”

Another failed attempt, then. “No, it is…” I cannot utter the name. “It is nothing for now.”

“You draw beautifully, my lady.”

I sit back down and smile, though my cheeks are still warm. I had not wished for anyone to see it. “I am ashamed to say I do not know your name, mellon.”

“Gwendes, daughter of Tadion. And you are Lady Rîneth.”

Tadion, the gentle-eyed potter who lives in one of the dwellings in the forest village. I have greeted him in passing often, not knowing much about him, nor making time to ask.

“I know of your father, but I did not know he had children.”

“Oh, yes. I help him with his pottery work. It is difficult for him to manage it on his own. Sadly, I do not have his natural talent for it. Not that he agrees…”

Gwendes’ words come out in a tumble, as though worried she will lose courage before speaking them.

“…but that is enough about me.” She places her little book on the table, but does not let go of her hands from its worn cover. “This belonged to my brother. I was told you were the one I should see…”

When Gwendes slides the book towards me and releases her hands, I understand. I touch the soft, chestnut-colored leather, noticing its many stains and scratches.

“Your brother…he is no longer living?”

Gwendes shakes her head. “An orc raid, my lady. It was long years ago. He had a flair for story-telling …”

“Are his stories in this book?”

But I know the answer. Already I am sweeping through the yellowed pages. They carry the vague scent of lamp oil, full of hastily-written text and hints of grand adventure. Words such as “sword” and “cave troll” spring forth, catching my attention.

Surely Gwendes will not mind me reading it…

“Yes, my lady. He had a wild imagination.” She grins, more comfortable now. Leaning forward, she watches as I continue scanning through the book. “As you can see, his handwriting is hardly legible in parts. More like scribbles. I…I was actually wondering if you might--”

“Yes.”

“You will?” Gwendes’s hands fly to her chest. “I did not think…I mean to say, I thought you would be too busy. Are you certain you have time for it?”

The younger elf glances at my overturned drawing of Oropher and I feel a fleeting sense of panic rise from my stomach. While the King’s task is overwhelming alone, to add another project to my already burdened shoulders would be foolish. Yet I cannot say no to Gwendes now. Not when it clearly means all of Arda to her.

“I shall make time. But my work for the King takes priority over anything else. Whether I wish it or not.”

Gwendes nods. “There is no rush, my lady. How may I pay you?”

With her sudden sheepish look and dress sleeves which fray at the seams, I know the potter’s daughter does not have an abundance of silver or jewels. Asking her to give what little she has feels cruel.

“The only payment I request in turn is friendship, Lady Gwendes.” I stand. “Would you like to go for a walk? I would rather eat a large helping of goblin stew than spend another moment in this cave.”

Gwendes’ brows shoot upwards. But when I make my way to the door and open it, she hurries to follow.

 

888

 

“I have never been invited to the King’s table, let alone for a feast. Are you sure about this, my lady? I do not wish to be an intruder…”

“You will be my guest, not an intruder,” I say. “It is a celebration for all our kin, not just a select few.”

It is our second walk together, and already we are friends.

A pleasant breeze flutters our hair as we stroll down the winding path, the trees around us with burgeoning green on their branches. The air smells cleaner somehow, but perhaps I have been indoors too long. It is the eve of a new year for the Eldar, and as usual, the forest celebrates renewal with us.

I desire Gwendes to experience Yestarë, the feast of the New Year, as I always have: tall lanterns flickering around platters of warm sweet rolls, fish from Lake-town, fresh fruit and berry tarts, and the Greenwood wine free flowing, with long-remembered songs and stories which tell of beginnings. 

“I suppose you are right. But what shall I wear? I do not have a dress suitable…”

I survey Gwendes’ current garment, a shapeless dove-gray dress which blends with our surroundings. “This is Yestarë, not a wedding. But perhaps you have a brighter color?”

“Yes…” She looks away, still appearing uncertain. “Shall there be dancing?”

It has been question after question since the invitation was given. I have spent most of our walk answering them, but she is never reassured. Perhaps I should not have invited her. It would have at least kept her from fretting.

“Of course, though not as much as during Mereth Nuin Giliath. When the feast ends and the King makes his speech regarding the New Year, the music shall play again. That is when the dancing starts.”

The path turns to meet the larger main road leading through the heart of the woodland village. We come upon a crowd of people gathered to listen to a minstrel standing on the ledge of the center fountain. In a high-pitched voice which does not fit him, he sings a ballad from Gondolin, one usually reserved for Yestarë.

Soon after we join the audience, a straw-haired elf strides up to Gwendes and greets her, his grin nearly reaching his large ears.

“Sírdor! This is indeed a happy surprise.” Gwendes’ returning smile is even wider. “You must meet my new friend, Lady Rîneth.”

“Mae govannen, Sírdor.”

He bows his head to me, but his gaze does not linger. “It is always a pleasure to meet a friend of Gwendes’.”

When his eyes return to Gwendes, I know he never wants to look upon anyone else again, save her. With his eager expression and the way his weed-thin frame leans in her direction, there is no doubting his feelings fly above friendship, above the treetops and to the firmament beyond.

“I was just speaking with your father,” he says. “I asked for you, but of course you were not home. It is only by luck I saw you here.”

Gwendes’ eyes turn downwards, showing her lashes. “Good luck or bad?”

“Very good.”

Not wishing to intrude, I turn back to the enthusiastic minstrel. But instead of listening to his song, my ears are still tuned to their conversation.

“Have you had the chance to read the book I lent you?” Gwendes asks.

“Not yet, but I assure you as soon as I find time to rest, I shall start it. I am busier than usual during springtime…”

“Yes, yes, of course. I thought of you the entire time I first read it. I knew you would appreciate the depictions of the battles, and the…”

The minstrel’s volume seems to increase with every word, making it impossible to continue listening to their exchange.

Though I cannot question the singer’s courage, I question his talent. But his loyal group of listeners do not depart. Two elflings stand at the fountain near his feet, their small faces peering upwards to watch his every move with wonder. It is surely the special air of spring and Yestarë which keeps them captivated.

Sírdor does not stay long, reluctantly saying he has more work to attend to. Before Gwendes’ attention becomes distracted by the minstrel’s ballad, I lead her away from the entranced throng and back down the forest path.

“Sírdor is very fond of you.”

She smiles. “Oh, yes. He grew close with Ada after helping him with our garden and leaking roof last summer. Ada invited him to dine with us and…well, we have been friends ever since.”

The gentle song from a finch in one of the beech trees is a more pleasing tune than the minstrel’s.

“It seems to me you are far more than friends.”

There is a tinge of pink at Gwendes’ temples. “Perhaps. He is always kind to me, you see. And helpful…not only to me, but to my family. And he admires my pottery work and believes I too often underestimate myself.”

“You do. I see that now more than ever…”

“What do you mean, my lady?” She stops walking.

“You fail to see that any lord in the realm would believe themselves lucky to have you, not only Sírdor.”

Her forehead furrows. “Lady Rîneth, you are far too kind. But I am Silvan. Nana taught me those of higher ranking do not mix blood with Wood-elves.”

An unpleasant sensation winds through me. So this is what the Silvans have been teaching their children. It is as I have feared. But have they been given reason to believe otherwise? I do not know for certain, and it troubles me.

“I shall never understand it,” I say. “The fact your people did not cross the Sea thousands of years ago should not mean anything.”

“It means everything, my lady. Tis why we live amongst the trees and you live in your cavern halls.”

“I know a few of your kind who live there. Most of you refuse to leave your homes in the forest. The King does not deny anyone safety within the caves if they wish it, especially in these dark times.”

Gwendes does not reply, turning her vision to the rushing river nearby.

“You must know something, mellon. My mother is Silvan, the daughter of a smith, little different from you. Ada was not so high-minded to think her below his station.”

“You believe there are others like him?”

“I do.”

“But…do you not believe Sírdor is a good match for me?” The lines of her mouth settle into a frown.

“While he is very kind, I fear you feel there is no other option. I shall not stand in the way of your happiness, but let me prove to you tomorrow night there are others who would deem you worthy.”

“Then perhaps I should borrow one of your dresses…”

A nasty hacking sound rents the air, ruining the peaceful birdsong. It comes from a large gnarled beech tree in the distance, near the riverbank. I spot two guards standing at its trunk, one with flaming hair which can only belong to Tauriel. Another miserable cough, and a whining voice follows, but I cannot discern the words. There is a movement in the branches.

“What is that?” Gwendes asks.

“Gollum.”

Chapter Text

Lord Elros, Keeper of the Keys, is the true match for Gwendes.

His keen expression and the subtle spark in his gray eyes when I introduce her remove any doubt I have. But it is no wonder why he is intrigued. The yellow glow from the lanterns reflects off Gwendes’ hair and shimmering brocade dress and makes her a walking star.

“She is also an artist,” I say. “Her pottery work rivals even the tableware from Imladris.”

Though Gwendes’ blush is not obvious in the lantern light, I know it is there. 

“Lady Rîneth is kind, but-”

“I speak nothing short of truth.” I address Lord Elros. “You must let her show you.”

I am sincere with my words. While my gift is with quill, Gwendes’ is with clay. At dinner she was astonished to see some of her flower-detailed jars and bowls resting upon the King’s table. Gwendes does not know her own talent.

“Oh, of course. She must show me…soon, yes,” says Elros with a nod. “I always trust your judgment, my lady.”

His green robes, only a few shades darker than Gwendes’, make for a pleasing contrast, as does his dark hair compared to her light. Already they look like a pair. I feel a small tingle of excitement at the possibilities, and that I am the one to bring them together.

While I have never called Elros a friend, we are on good terms. He has always treated me with enthusiasm, not lacking for kind words or smiles. If it comes to marriage, he will have the means to provide Gwendes a life with all she needs and more, surely prizing her as King Thingol of Doriath prized the Nauglamir necklace.

I envision their chambers close to mine, a few steps away from conversation and honey cake by the hearth. It would be a comfort to have a friend so near. Perhaps I could be an adopted aunt to their future children...

I only wish I knew why Elros continually glances in my direction. Does he require reassurance Gwendes is interested? The light touch of her hand on his arm is the obvious proof; the Eldar do not make such intimate contact unless it is close friendship or for reasons of love. I smile and give him a small nod.

While Gwendes’ interest in Elros is as palpable as the wine goblet in his hand, it will depend on him to deepen it.

“I think I shall take my leave and watch the dancers,” I say. “I trust you both have enough to speak about without me?”

I do not wait for a reply. Elros calls my name, but I wave my hand at them without pausing. His sudden timidity is hard to comprehend. If he cannot find his courage, perhaps Gwendes will have better success with Legolas.

The harpist and flutist are playing the Song of Eärendil. The uplifting melody reaches to the heavens, which watch our merrymaking with a sense of calm pleasure. It is a clear night, the view unobscured. A few of my kin are gazing upwards at the celestial bodies while others are dancing and laughing to the tune, the Greenwood wine working its magic.

Lady Aethel stands against the cavern wall without company, studying the empty glass in her hands. If I did not mind hearing about her daughter’s descriptions of grander parties in Lothlórien for the night’s duration, I would join her. Instead, I walk to the edge of the balcony and grip the unyielding stone.

In the distance is the outline of the Lonely Mountain. I have never been to Erebor. But in my beloved book of Ori’s drawings, I have seen it in vivid detail. The dark forest which lies before me is a barrier to it and the outside world. The evil which dwells within keeps us from receiving visitors who are not brave, Men or Elves. Never Dwarves.

Like Erebor in the past, we have our own Smaug, though this evil is vaster than one dragon alone. Instead of keeping us out, it traps us within. There is no one coming to reclaim the land. Perhaps we will be forgotten, our woodland realm a myth to tell the children of Men.  

I can dwell on it no longer. Turning back around to a brighter and warmer view, my dark thoughts subside. The Song of Eärendil comes to an end and a slower, more solemn melody takes its place. It is the fountain singer’s ballad of Gondolin.

I search the vicinity to ensure the minstrel is not here, else I shall be retiring early. When I do not see him, my eyes fall on Legolas. He is asking Tauriel for a dance, his face ardent. It is the same look he always wears when she is near. Tauriel accepts his request, but it is not without a glance behind her shoulder.

Will he ever concede defeat? I feel for them both.

Nearly a thousand years ago my father nudged me in the Prince’s direction. Being only a few years older than Legolas and having spent our childhood fighting pretend dragons together – though I did more advising on the most creative way to slay them rather than fighting – his logic was sound. I gave it deep consideration, as did Legolas.

But his heart resided in distant lands with a chance for adventure, and mine remained under the boughs of the Greenwood. He yearned for excitement; I was happy at home. It did not take us long to agree pursuing more than friendship would not bring us joy. There were no feelings of love, so it was not a loss. Only for my father.

As for Thranduil, he knew from the beginning we were not compatible.

I do not have to look to know he has joined me. His familiar, strong presence is enough.

“He still has strong feelings for her,” I say. “After everything.”

“Yes.” The textured brocade from Thranduil robes brushes against my hand as he leans against the railing. “Legolas may be subtle in some ways, but not when it comes to Tauriel.”

I look at him. It is always the night of Yestarë when he begins wearing his many-spined crown with white woodland flowers. I shall never tell him, but they soften his expression, even the hard line of his mouth. The King looks friendly and approachable in springtime…almost.

“He needs another to steal his attention. Lady Aethel mentioned her daughter is returning from Lórien soon. If we believe her description, she is more beautiful than even Lady Arwen of Imladris. And more accomplished.”

“You are forever on the search for a new pairing. It is why you invited this Gwendes, daughter of Tadion. She is watching my Keeper of the Keys like a hunter watches his prey. Perhaps I should ask her to join the Guard.”

“Do not be so harsh on her. She is young, but so is he. They are both fair and kind-hearted. If they are not betrothed by the first falling leaves of autumn, I shall be surprised.”

Thranduil narrows his eyes, as though trying to discern if I am being serious. “The match will never work.”

“Why?”

“Elros, of course. You have misjudged his character.”

“He has always been exceedingly kind to me.”

“That is no surprise.”

“But the way he looked at Gwendes earlier…”

It is pointless to continue. Arguing with Thranduil is as wise as arguing with the cavern walls. He will not be moved.

“All this matchmaking for others, yet you are still intent to never marry.”

“I enjoy seeing the happiness which love brings to my friends. As for myself, it is as I have told you. I have everything I need. Family and friends do not provide a romantic love, but tis love all the same. I am content, Thranduil. Though I do not believe your son shares my sentiment.”

Legolas leads Tauriel around the floor with his usual light feet, his face never straying from hers. I wonder if only an attack upon the realm would break his rapt attention.

“I do not wish for him to go through heartbreak,” Thranduil says.

“I fear it is too late.”

“Yes.”

It is the uncharacteristic tone of his voice which makes me to suspect there is more to his concern than paternal love alone, but I do not pursue it. A silence falls over us until the song comes to an end and Legolas and Tauriel go in their separate ways.

“Is Mithrandir still here? I have not seen him since yesterday.”

“He requested to speak to the prisoner one last time ere his departure at break of day. Before you ask, I did invite him to the feast.”

“How hospitable of you.” I smile. “Has he spoken to you further about his interrogation, or does he maintain his secrecy?”

“The wizard has withheld much information from me. But I ascertained Gollum let loose the Ring’s location in Mordor. They tortured him until he did so.”

A russet-haired elfling runs past, a bouquet of pink woodland flowers in one hand and a wine goblet in the other, far too large for her small body. It is not long before her mother quickly walks by to catch her. The elfling’s laughter blends in with the music. I glimpse Thranduil’s short-lived smile.

“Does Mithrandir know where the Ring resides?”

“It is in the Shire of all places, in a Halfling’s home. Bilbo Baggins’ home, to be exact.”

“Bilbo?”

I shall never forget the brave Halfling who rescued Thorin Oakenshield and his company from right under the guards’ noses. I have never met him, but Ori and Dori spoke of Bilbo the Burglar with nothing short of admiration.

He even made an impression on Thranduil, and only through my father did I learn he gave the Halfling the title “Elf-friend”.

“You are surely jesting. How in Arda could Bilbo have taken it from Gollum? How could they have met?”

“It is a tale which begins in the Misty Mountains and involves a game of riddles. I do not know the exact riddles, but perhaps the Wizard can tell you.”

“Is Bilbo aware of the significance of the object he keeps?”

“He knows it is a magic ring, but no, he does not know it is the Ring of Power. Bilbo is currently residing in Imladris. He passed it down to his nephew still living in the Shire.” 

“That is where Mithrandir is traveling to in the morning.”

“Yes.”

An unpleasant sensation of fear coils in my stomach. What if he does not reach it in time? I am so deep in my thoughts of Halflings and the forces of Mordor that I am surprised to notice Lord Elros standing in front of me, his arm outstretched.

“Would you care to dance, my lady?”

His eyes are expectant and his brows raised as he waits for an answer. He has drunk too much wine. Yes, that is it.

“You are kind, my lord. But surely you wish to ask Gwendes instead? I suggest you ask her now before someone else does.”

“Y-yes, of course, my lady.” He lowers his eyes. “As always, I value your advice on such…delicate matters.”

With a bow to myself and the King, he takes his leave. I try to ignore Thranduil’s chuckle and focus on the Gwendes’ delighted expression when the elf lord asks her to the floor.

“Do you not see it? A wedding this time next year.”

“Perhaps the spiders will have left Mirkwood by then, and the orcs abandoned Dol Guldur as well.”

I do not reply. The Song of Brethil’s subtle romantic tone would be perfect if Gwendes was more skilled, and Elros not so heavy-footed. Gwendes at least attempts to keep up with the pace…

“It seems they have found one thing in common,” Thranduil says.

“Maybe that is all they need.”

He turns to look at me, and his face softens. “How is it coming with my father’s writings?”

“I am not far from his last entries, ere he left the Greenwood to join the Last Alliance. Do you wish to come by soon and see what I have completed so far?”

“I do,” he replies, his tone lighter now. “Have you succeeded in drawing a portrait of him?”

My eyes flit away from his probing ones. I fear he will somehow see the images in my mind of my crumpled attempts. “Perhaps you should give me a few days longer. It is still…a work in progress.”

“I see.”

I have no doubt he does.

“Thank you, Rîneth.”

“Buion na ’ell.”

He bows his head and offers a rare smile.

I watch as he walks to the table of refreshments to retrieve more wine. Something Lord Amdiron says makes him nod his crowned head, the small white flowers striking in the dim light. My father joins them in their conversation, and again Thranduil flashes a smile.

With his smile and crown of flowers, I cannot help thinking for all his many years, the King of the Woodland Realm maintains his youth. It is only in the deepness of his eyes where I see the bodily evidence of age and wisdom of six-thousand years.

 

888

 

I stand with Gwendes on the high bank above the Forest River among the beech trees, observing the rippling current move in its ever hurried and frenetic pace. The sun hides behind a covering of dense clouds which mimic the river’s dark mood. It will rain soon.

“You were right about everything.” The wind lifts Gwendes’ unplaited hair and tangles it before letting it fall. “I was too eager in my feelings for Sírdor.”

“He is your good friend. It is natural for friendship to be mistaken for something more.”

“I see that now.” Her gaze rests on two guards crossing the river bridge, but her mind is elsewhere. “But Lord Elros is of nobler standing. I am being absurd.”

“Why do you believe he is nobler than you? Do not tell me it is his parentage. Sindar, yes, but his father was a hunter. We are all the Eldar and possess the same gifts and talents.”

“That may be true…”

“It is true.” I shut my eyes. “I shall never stand for this archaic thinking.”

How can I make her see reason? From birth Gwendes has been conditioned there is a line of separation, not to be crossed for even love. The prejudice is a poisonous thorn in the realm which continues to cause damage and pain, perhaps more than Sauron. My parents suffered persecution from both Sindar and Silvan for their unconventional union. Some of my kin even refused to attend the wedding.

I feel a crushing ache as my thoughts flit to the prejudice I have faced as well. No, I must not think of it now.

“If you are so strong in your belief of everyone being treated equally, my lady, why do you dissuade me from Sírdor?”

“I…it is not my intention to dissuade you. I just do not wish you to feel he is your only option due to a senseless divide between our people. Perhaps I have been too carried away…”

“Nay, my lady.”

Several moments pass between us, the only sounds audible the thundering current and birdsong.

“Tell me, Gwendes, do you love Sírdor?”

“I…perhaps.”

“It is either yes or no.”

“I do not believe I love him...”

“You must know your own mind. I cannot know it for you.”

“If I truly loved him, I would not have enjoyed Elros’ company as much as I did last night,” she says with more certainty. “Therefore I cannot love him. I confused friendship with love…”

I feel a sudden pang of sadness, but I do not know why. I place my hand on the rough-textured bark of a nearby beech tree.

“Friendship does not always create a marriage. My father wished for me to marry Legolas, but our feelings did not extend so far.”

Gwendes’ blue eyes widen. “If only it had. Then you would be the future Queen, and all the young ladies would despise you for ruining their hopes of stealing his heart.”

I laugh. “I have received many dark looks for merely being his friend. I cannot imagine what will happen to the lady he chooses to marry. I do not envy her!”

“Nor do I. I have never understood the fascination,” Gwendes says, almost sheepishly. “You are older than I and know much of love, yet you have never been in love. Or have you?”

There it is: the question which demands to be asked. My grip on the beech tree’s bark tightens until it hurts.

I will my voice to hold steady. “I have been only a friend to many, not just Legolas. But I made peace with it long ago.”

Brow wrinkled, she shakes her head. “It does not seem possible. I know there is someone who would make you his wife.”

“Do not worry yourself,” I say lightly, hoping to dispel her from probing further. “I shall happily grow older and wiser along with the forest and continue with my writings here in the Greenwood.”

“Forevermore?”

It starts to rain.

“Until the King leaves, and then shall I.”

“Because of your friendship?”

“Yes.” I smile.

Chapter Text

King Oropher mentioned very little of his Queen in his writings but was verbose on the matter of his elk steed.

Quill hovering over the parchment, I ruminate over the similarity between father and son. Thranduil never mentions his wife on any occasion. But neither does he speak often of his elk, much less with fondness. I wonder if he would be more expressive about his loved ones in writing. Does he keep an account of his life as I do? Or at least his many battles?

I tap my mouth with the quill’s feather while imagining him writing long and eloquent descriptions about missing his wife. It is a stark contrast to what he portrays to the world and even me. An odd sensation whirls in my stomach at the thought.

The half-written parchment on Oropher’s beloved elk can wait. It is likely past midnight…my mind can cooperate no further.

I hear a firm knock on the scriptorium door as I begin gathering my writings.

“You may come in.”

I have a feeling my visitor is the only other inhabitant in the realm well known for keeping late hours.

I stand as the King enters, a night guard closing the door behind him. Before voicing a word, he removes his crown and discards it on a side table under a painting of the lands of Lindon.

“I first went to your chambers. Gailon then informed me you were still here,” he says. “Is it your plan to forgo sleep and work until dawn?”

“Perhaps.”

“Did you even have dinner?”

“One of your guards kindly brought me a plate. I lost sense of time…” I sit back down. “How late is it now?”

“Late enough for bed.”

“Obviously, my lord.”

Thranduil walks over to where I sit, his sharp eyes darting over the parchments scattered haphazardly on the table, as though trying to make sense of them. He likely is having derogatory thoughts about my organizational habits.

I resume the task of gathering and stacking the parchments. “I knew you were coming soon. I suppose I have been striving too hard for perfection. You know my nature.”

“I do.” The corner of his mouth lifts. “But you did invite me, so here I am.”

“I shall show you only a part. The rest I keep until it is finished entirely.”

As I open the table’s hidden drawer, my heart starts to thump in my chest like a war drum. I am certain Thranduil can hear it in the silent room. I bring out the thick parchment, my twenty-third and most promising attempt, and lay it on the table carefully.  

“Does this resemble your father at all?”

Thranduil’s face gives away nothing as he leans over and examines it. If I did not know better, I would believe him to be looking at an unremarkable account from the raft-elves regarding the barrel activity along the Forest River. Or a map of the Mines of Moria.

But when his eyes lift from the portrait to mine, staying there, I cannot guess what he thinks, even for all of Arda.

“It is perhaps not--”

“I would believe you have seen him, if I did not know he died long before your birth. It is not his exact likeness, but you have come close.” His focus returns to the drawing. “I see Legolas in his face…”

“Yes.” The risky idea came to me at the last.

“His expression is almost soft, as though he is a moment away from smiling. He did not often smile.”

“I can change--”

“Keep it. It brings to remembrance days of my youth, when he carried less burdens and his crown was not as heavy.” Thranduil rests his palms on the table’s oak surface. “He often laughed at jests my mother made. She had an unconventional sense of humor he found refreshing.”

We both pause in silence, lost in our thoughts. I wonder about Thranduil’s mother and what she was like; she sailed to the Undying Lands soon after Oropher’s passing. If her unusual kind of humor passed down to her son or grandson, I have yet to hear it.

“I decided on the expression because it is one I have seen you wear at times. When you are not being ill-tempered.”

His sudden stern countenance is almost convincing. “I did not realize your keen observation skills.”

“There is much you do not know about me.”

“You may prefer to believe that, but I know everything.”

“You only think you do. There is a difference.”

Thranduil crosses his arms and straightens to his fullest height, peering down his nose at me. “I know you eat like a Halfling, close your eyes when you are thinking too hard and have an appalling lack of skill with the bow.”

I stand up, undaunted. He is still taller.

“The first two things anyone could easily observe. And the last is no secret; everyone in the realm knows, even the raft-elves.”

“But do you?”

“No.” I raise my chin. “I am unaware that others must clear the area if even a bow is in my hands. Or that I nearly struck my sister with an arrow when we were younger. And of course I am unaware Legolas still speaks of our unsuccessful lessons.”

“Not as much as he once did...” Distracted, he walks to the other side of the wide table and looks down at a parchment I have not yet put away. His hand touches its corner. “What is this?”

“A project for Gwendes. Her brother was killed in an orc raid long ago. He was a skilled story-teller. I believe his stories would even entertain you.”

Last night I was unable to close his journal to sleep, my imagination captured long into the morning hours by the adventures of Ronir the Silvan and his quest over the plains of Rohan and through Fangorn Forest. 

“This is…impressive.” He holds up the drawing of Ronir standing in the Golden Hall of Edoras with King Fengel. “Your friend shall be pleased, if she has any sense. What did she offer for your help?”

“She needs silver more than I.”

He shakes his head and lays the parchment back on the table. “You work too hard for nothing in return.”

“I have no need for anything, only projects to keep me occupied.”

One of my worst fears is becoming idle like Lady Aethel, with no occupation and no purpose, a harp without strings.  

Thranduil returns to where I stand. “Surely your hands must tire.”

I feel a jolt of surprise when he takes my hand in his own and brings it to his face. His eyes examine the black ink stains on my fingers, the evidence of my many hours spent with the quill. He squeezes them lightly before letting go.

“Go to bed, Rîneth.”

“Is that a command, my lord?”

“Yes.”

“I shall consider it.”

 

888

 

“I am not much of a painter…” Gwendes lowers her brush and contemplates her forest scene. The corners of her mouth turn downwards. “My hand refuses to cooperate the moment I lift a brush.”

I flit my eyes to Gwendes’ painting and then back to my own. As with everything, she is unforgiving on herself. If there is any need for improvement, it is with perspective. But her use of color is enviable; the greens of the trees and blues of the river are striking in an unconventional way for Elvish art.

“Next time you should give me a lesson in pottery making.”

“I would like that very much.”

We stand on a grassy clearing overlooking the river and tall waterfall beyond. I have painted the panoramic view before, at both sunrise and sunset. But my focus has never included the solemn statue watching the scene in silence, having remained there for nearly three-thousand years. As the surrounding forest has darkened with time, the statue’s gaze has remained transfixed on a faraway point in the distance.

The Queen of the Woodland Realm is beautiful, even in carven stone.

Gwendes sighs. “I feel more confident with clay. In truth, I feel more confident with archery than painting…”

“Tis the one thing I cannot do to save the entire realm.” I smile, remembering my conversation with Thranduil. “Give it some time and you will hear Legolas speak of my failed lessons.”

“How did you fail them?”

“By never once hitting the target. To give Legolas credit, he kept his patience until my thousandth miss.”

Gwendes’ mouth forms an O-shape. 

“To think, when I was an elfling I wished to become a warrior.”

Gwendes laughs. “I had the very same dream! I am not skilled enough to be a warrior by any means, but I can hit a target on the rare occasion. It was actually my brother who taught me...”

She drifts off. Mentioning her late sibling has the effect of removing her smile. The silence is now deafening, even with the thundering water and the distant shouted commands to soldiers in the training grounds.

“I have decided…” I lift my brush from the canvas. “…your brother is as legendary as Ronir the Silvan from his stories.”

Gwendes blinks. “He would have liked hearing you say so. But he was only a simple soldier and potter. He had no grand adventures like his written heroes.”

“Have you forgotten his current grand adventure?”

“What do you mean?”

“He has surely left the Halls of Mandos by now.” I look at the statue of Thranduil’s wife. “What greater adventure than the land of the Valar? I imagine him exploring it fully, from the Gardens of Lórien to the highest peaks of the Pelóri Mountains.”

“I have never thought of it like that.”  Gwendes’ smile returns. “But I believe you are right.”

“I believe I am as well.”

I dip my brush into a dark shade of gray on the palette. The Queen’s countenance in my painting is not as forlorn as her one in stone. I imagine her more wistful, as though missing the lands of Lindon and her family there. I imagine her having trouble adjusting to the endless forest of the Greenwood, so unlike her airy coastal city. Perhaps the sculptor exaggerated a normal longing for home.

The only thing I can remember of the Queen is her hair. As a child I believed it was spun gold, created by the Dwarves in the mountains. But she died before I learned otherwise.

Though the dullness of the stone will never be a substitute for gold, the sculpture captures the length and fullness of the Queen’s hair; it frames her petite face and cascades down her back like a still waterfall.

“Mae govannen,” say a male voice from behind.

I turn around. It is Lord Elros.

Gwendes tries to hide her artwork by standing in front of it, but her bold choices of color catch Elros’ attention before we can return his greeting. His thin brows fly to his hairline.

“Mae govannen, Lord Elros,” I say. “If we had known of your coming, we would have endeavored to finish our paintings beforehand.”

His brows return to their normal position and his smile widens as he looks at me. “I was on my way to deliver a message to Litchon the Smith when I saw you through the trees. I felt it would be impolite if I did not greet you. How are you, my lady?”

“Gwendes and I are well.”

Gwendes vigorously nods in agreement after I cast her a pointed look.

“We thought it too fine a day not to try capturing it in paint,” I say. “For no other purpose but our own enjoyment, of course.”

“Of course.” Elros approaches and stands directly behind my shoulder to inspect my work.

If only he would not lean so close. I can feel his hot breath on my neck.

“You have made the Queen come alive again, my lady. No longer is she mere stone.” Elros places his hand on the side of my arm. “The way you painted the light beaming on her through the branches is extraordinary. It should be displayed in the King’s personal chambers. Or my own…”

A painting of Thranduil’s wife in Elros’ rooms? Does he wish for banishment from the realm? I try to keep my composure, but the uncomfortable pressure of his hand over my dress sleeve is difficult to ignore. Judging by the crinkle on Gwendes’ forehead, she has noticed.

I clear my throat. “You are generous with your compliments, as ever. But have you seen Gwendes’ landscape? I am envious of how she captured the essence of the river…you can see it move upon the canvas.”

Relief washes over me when Elros drops his hand and moves away. Gwendes reluctantly stands aside to let him examine her art, her face flushed and arms tightly crossed while awaiting his verdict.

“You are right, Lady Rîneth. Quite…pleasant.”

Gwendes’ cheeks turn a few shades darker, but her relief is visible by way of a glowing smile. “Thank you, my lord.”

“Perhaps hers is the painting you should hang in your rooms?” I ask.

For half a moment it appears he has bitten into molded dwarf cram. His face contorts in a grimace, but is placid before Gwendes notices.

“If that would please you, my lady, I wish for nothing else.” He looks at Gwendes. “Have it sent to me when you are finished, without delay.”

After a nod to us both, his eyes lingering on me, he takes his leave. I do not feel disappointment about seeing the back of him.

Thranduil’s words from the night of Yestarë return to me unbidden: “You have misjudged his character.” Have I? Even the often disagreeable King would never display such distaste over a lady’s artwork, even for the split moment Elros had.

It is a bright midday. Could it have been the harsh light tricking my eyes? It is hard to convince myself.

“My painting in Lord Elros’ chambers! Can you believe it? Perhaps he sees potential I cannot.”

I do not dare to look up from my canvas. An unpleasant sensation springs in the deep of my stomach, one I recognize as guilt. If I was mistaken and Elros does not care for Gwendes, it will end with nothing less than a broken heart. She is already far too invested.

“Gwendes…” I start, “though Elros is thoughtful…well, there are many others in the Kingdom who would have your affection. Please do not yet settle your heart and mind until you know for certain.”

“But I do know for certain. Thanks to your gentle direction, I am surer than ever. I even believe I love him.”

The unpleasant sensation grows. It is much worse than I feared.

“It is a little too soon to be using such a strong word, do you not agree?”

She grins sheepishly and picks up her brush again. “Normally I would, my lady. But he is all I think about. I see him in my vision when he is not there. Nana has even questioned my cheerful disposition. It surely cannot be anything but love…”

Gwendes’ starry-eyed behavior is reminiscent of a mortal girl in adolescence, mistaking her temporary infatuation with something more. It is too familiar. If possible, I would reverse time and not interfere…

I look at my painting and vaguely wonder what I should do with it. The overwhelming guilt which hangs above me like a stormy cloud makes it impossible to think. Perhaps I will leave it unfinished.

“Let us see what happens, Gwendes.”

Chapter Text

If not for my tormented conscience, I would skip the scheduled visit with Lady Aethel. What better reason than the need to work on my writings for the King? She would understand without question, affording me a week’s respite.

But my guilt carries me over the winding, narrow bridges and past the tall, carven columns resembling trees until I reach the deepest part of the caverns. I walk down the amber-lit hallway leading to Aethel’s rooms and anticipate another letter-reading and one-sided conversation on the perfection of Galadriel’s realm.

Perhaps today will be about how Lórien’s springtime rivals ours. Or how Caewen has been asked by Galadriel to play her harp again…

But I shall endure it. Feeling responsible for encouraging Gwendes down a dangerous path, I do not wish to risk causing further pain to anyone else. Aethel has been good to me, and after all she has suffered, a few hours of inconvenience are little to ask.

Before my mother’s departure from Middle-earth, she spoke of Aethel’s husband dying only the day after Caewen’s birth. With her daughter’s long absence, she has been left to live alone. Is it any wonder why the Lady seeks companionship?

The door is ajar. I lightly tap the oak and walk in, assuming she anticipated my coming and left it open.

On first glance the room is empty, the swan-carved chair without its usual occupant. I wonder if she is even home, and if I should wait for her. A small movement in the corner of my eye makes me turn.

Sitting by the bookshelf, under the silver swan sculpture with its outstretched wings, is a flaxen-haired elleth who could be Lady Galadriel’s granddaughter.

I open my mouth but cannot find my voice.

“You must be Rîneth, daughter of Gailon the Advisor,” she says in a voice both high and soft, and stands. “I am Caewen.”

Without conscience thought, my hand flies to my mouth. I had not made the connection upon first seeing her. Caewen does not share any of her mother’s darker features. It is as if her time in Lothlorien transformed her appearance to one more fitting of Galadriel’s elegant kindred.

“This is indeed a happy surprise,” I say. “I heard of your coming but did not know it would be so soon...”

“I arrived only yesterday. The journey was long and arduous; I cannot say I am eager to repeat it.”

Though Caewen maintains a small smile, it does not reach her dark blue eyes. There is a secretiveness about her. Her face is devoid of much discernible emotion, as though it is hidden away. It is in stark contrast to her mother. I cannot decide if I am a welcome visitor or not. Where is Lady Aethel?

“It is not a road for the faint of heart. You must still be tired.” I sit down, relieved Caewen follows my lead. “Tis a shame we have not seen each other since we were children.”

“It is.”

“Have you enjoyed being home after so long?”

Lady Aethel enters from her bedchamber before Caewen can reply, the permeating scent of citrus and vanilla following her footsteps.

“Rîneth, henig, is she not more beautiful than any gemstone?”

Though Caewen seems adept at hiding emotion, her embarrassment is as noticeable as her mother’s bright lavender robes.

“More beautiful than even the gems of Lasgalen.”

It does not seem possible for Lady Aethel’s smile to widen further.

“Why have you not come before now?” I ask. “We have been so eager for your return.”

“I could never stop learning in Caras Galadhon, even when I believed it was impossible to learn more. I was reluctant to depart from my teachers and friends…they were all so kind. But of course I missed Nana...”

I notice Aethel’s warm, cheerful expression does not extend to her eyes as she listens. There is sadness in them, and confusion as well. Does Caewen realize the hurt she has caused by being away for so long? With the way Caewen stares at her lap instead of making eye contact, it seems there is more to the story.

“I traveled to Lothlórien when I was much younger,” I say. “I remember it as being full of light and splendor, like I had strayed into my dreams of the gardens of Aman, yet still I was in Middle-earth. I explored every corner and every tree, yet I could never explore it fully. But I have often thought the same of our own realm.”

“Yes.” Caewen looks up. “But with the growing darkness in Mirkwood, I felt safer under Lady Galadriel’s protection. Nana has kept me well informed of the enemy’s servants who roam freely near the borders.”

Roam freely? It is an interesting choice of words; the Woodland Guard maintain a close watch on the borders at all times. If they were not successful, the realm would have been overrun long ago. A tingle of irritation ripples through me at Lady Aethel’s continued lack of faith in Thranduil.

“A few marchwardens offered to accompany me or I would not have risked travel,” Caewen says.

“Why did you decide to return?” The words pour from my mouth before I can stop them.

Caewen studies her hands again, her face inscrutable. “Nana has gone without my company for far too long. And after all, the Greenwood is my home. I am here to stay.” She looks at her mother. “And I am happy for it.”

If Caewen is happy, I decide anything is possible, including Elros suddenly professing an abiding love for Gwendes. Or the creature Gollum making for pleasant company.

Lady Aethel’s smile never wavers.

“Caewen, tell her about your mishap. And, more importantly, who saved you.”

“Nana, please…”

Aethel turns to me, her eyes holding a newfound sparkle. “The night before her departure from Lórien, she nearly died.”

“Nana!”

I lean forward. “Died?”

“Yes,” says Aethel, delighted. “She was on a midnight stroll through the Golden Wood and climbed a tree for a better view of the starlight, knowing she would miss the skies above Lórien dearly, but the branches were slippery and she lost her hold. Luckily, someone caught her before she met her end.”

“Who?” I look at Caewen. 

“Lord Haldir,” Aethel answers.

“I remember hearing his name before…”

“He helps patrols the borders of Lórien, a favored marchwarden in the realm. He…accompanied me on my journey here,” Caewen says uncomfortably.

“How fortunate it was he was there to catch you. He must be quicker on his feet than most.”

Lady Aethel nods. “I said the same.”

I doubt Caewen would have fallen to her death, no matter how high the branches. As a child I fell from the top of an oak tree without as much as a bruise, Legolas more than a few times – the Eldar are nimble-footed and not prone to injury as easily as Man or Dwarf.

“Is Lord Haldir still here?” I ask.

Caewen shakes her head. “He left this morning.”

“Tis a shame…I would have liked to meet him,” says Lady Aethel. “And see the fair face others have mentioned, though Caewen will not admit it.”

“He is just as any other, Nana.”

I bite the inside of my lip to prevent laughter over the comical scene. The visit has become more intriguing by the moment, the opposite of the dull conversation I expected upon my arrival. If Haldir and Caewen are in a courtship, or interested in starting one, why would she have braved the perilous journey to return home? And if Haldir accompanied her, why did he not stay to be with his lady?

It seems Caewen is a mystery, even to her own mother.

 

888

 

“I shall not try to persuade you to stay, Ada.”

“I know.” My father touches the unfolded map of the Grey Havens on his lap, his fingertip tracing the river Lhûn until it meets the Gulf. The candle casts a yellow light on the already yellowed parchment. “But I sense you are not ready.”

I shift in my chair. My eyes dart from his to the stacks of folded maps on his cherry-oak bookshelf. There are maps of Dwarven halls, of the Shire where the Halflings dwell, of the hidden city of Gondolin, and of the forest realm of Doriath, all of them as reliable as my father’s intuition.

“If you wait for the day when I look forward to your journey over the Sea, you will wait too long. It is a matter of wishing you to stay, not needing.”

“You do not need me anymore, iell nín?” His tone is teasing.

“Always. But I am capable without you. No longer am I an elfling in need of your counsel with every step.”

“It is not that I believe you incapable.” He begins to refold the map. “But too stubborn to see what afflicts you.”

“I was not aware I had an affliction?”

“Loneliness, Rîneth.”

I give a tight smile. “I know you are hinting at marriage again, Ada. I see through your words.”

“I see through your façade.”

I stand, the sudden twist in my chest too unpleasant for sitting still. His delivery was gentle, but his words were dull blades, cutting deep to expose something which feels uncomfortable. Something which wishes to stay buried.

Walking to the hearth ledge and back, I stop behind my chair and rest my hands on the soft upholstery. It is surely his unfounded assumption causing me to feel exposed. When will he accept I do not require marriage for happiness?

“You are wrong for once,” I say, my words measured. “I assure you I am far from lonely, Ada. I have friends to keep me company once you leave.”

“I have oft witnessed through my years the ones who seem the least lonely are, in truth, the loneliest.”

“That is not always so.”

“No.” He softly taps the folded map on his knee. “But I see a distant look in your eyes when you believe no one is watching.”

“I am in my head often. What do Men call it…daydreaming?”

I remember my friendship with a farmer’s wife, a mortal woman, who spoke of daydreaming. She often forgot her daily chores, and at times forgot supper. Her husband would come home after a long day in the fields anticipating a warm stew and end up with a bowl of leftover porridge instead. Mattie laughed and laughed when recalling such evenings, but I had doubted her husband found it as humorous.

“Yes, daydreaming,” I emphasize. “I envision places I have never been and things I have never done. I do not think my loneliness is what really concerns you. It is my protection.”

“Rîneth--”

“If Thranduil cannot offer me sufficient protection, who can? Certainly not a noble’s son.”

The loud knock is a welcome interruption. I give him a softened glance before walking to the door. Disagreements between us are few, but when the topic of my well-being arises, he is relentless in voicing his concerns. I only hope our visitor’s presence will pour water over the growing flames.

“Punctual as ever, my lord.”

Thranduil bows his head to us both. “Rîneth. Gailon. How do you fare?”

“We were discussing my future journey over the Sea,” says Ada after standing. “But perhaps a change in subject matter will lighten the mood.”

His brow raised, Thranduil slides his eyes towards me. “By all means, let us continue the conversation. I may even board the ship with you.”

His hardened jaw and humorless expression are telling signs of a troubled day upon the throne. Is it Gollum again? Or bad tidings from afar? Perhaps his darkened mood will fan the flames rather than put them out…

“Then come and sit. I have even brought out my maps.”

“First I must speak with Rîneth.” He gives me a pointed look, his eyes sharp glaciers. “In private.”

“Of course.” Ada gestures to his bedchamber. “Please.”

Without further discussion, Thranduil makes for my father’s cherry-oak door, expecting me to follow.

My stomach twists into an unpleasant tangle. When in our presence, he always feels at ease to remove his crown. The fact it still graces his head is a bad omen. A glance over my shoulder at Ada gives no further clues; he appears just as perplexed.

I close the door behind us. “What is the matter?”

“Sit down.”

“Not until you explain.”

Ignoring me, he points to the high-backed settee on the side opposite my father’s bed. After several moments pass and his cold gaze remains fixed on the seat, I know he will wait until dawn if need be. Surrender is against my nature, but it is far better for Thranduil to believe he has the upper hand. At first.

I sit down. “This is uncalled for.”

His stare is more befitting for someone caught stealing wine from his cellar. I do not avert her eyes from his, even once.

“You are not one to cause trouble, but this time your match-making has gone too far.”

The unpleasant tangle in my stomach forms a knot. “My match-making?”

“Gwendes.”

“Has something happened to her?”

The room’s low amber light gives Thranduil a shadowed twin on the stone wall, the many branches of his crown transformed into tall and sinister spikes. “You may feign ignorance with me, but you are not very good at it, Rîneth. You know of what I speak.”

Stung, I raise my chin. “I do not. Nor do I appreciate your tone, my King.”

Thranduil narrows his eyes. “While I will overlook your familiarity with me since you are a close friend, I will not ignore your disrespect. My duties as King are trying at the best times, but especially when trouble brews from the unlikeliest of sources.”

“Tis against my nature to sit quietly when you accuse me of feigning ignorance over something I know nothing about.”

It is the second time in one evening I am accused of pretending, both from my closest confidantes. I know the sarcastic emphasis of Thranduil’s title was a poor choice, but so was his hurtful accusation. If only I had not left the comfort of my chambers…

“What of Gwendes?” I will my voice to hold steady.

“She rejected an offer of betrothal today, from Sírdor, son of Sídhon.”

The knot in my stomach tightens. “I did not know…”

“The news reached my ears not from Sírdor, but his mother. She has long been a harpist in my halls,” he says with cold calmness. “At noonday she requested my audience. Can you guess why?”

“No.”

“She wished to inform me she would be unable to play for a season until she recovered from despair. So certain had she been of Gwendes’ acceptance, she informed her kin in Lórien of the betrothal last season.”

I stand, my height no match for Thranduil’s. “I assure you Gwendes said she harbored no love for Sírdor, that what she felt for him remained in the realm of friendship. She speaks of love for another.”

“Elros.”

“Yes…”

“Of course, my Keeper of the Keys.” Thranduil sneers. “The very one you steered Gwendes towards on the night of Yestarë, though it was obvious he would not have her even if she offered all the gold in Erebor.”

His menacing shadow twin is distracting, but I keep my gaze fixed on his eyes, their color black sapphire in the dim light. “I have no control over Gwendes. I admit I nudged them in each other’s paths at the beginning, but she did not seek my counsel on this. Tis the first I have heard of it.”

“But you discouraged her from the lowly gardener from the start.”

“I only suggested there was the potential for better options. She is young and without much experiences in matters of love, Thranduil. I--”

“You speak of matters of love as though you are an expert.”

I blink, momentarily losing the ability to speak. His words are unexpected, like a knife tip to my heart. Does he not realize I already know, better than anyone? Or perhaps he intends to be cruel. I sit back down.

“Rîneth--”

“I do not presume to know much about it,” I say, determined not to show he has wounded me. “But I know Gwendes underestimates herself. My actions were…wrong. But I was thinking as a friend. I was thinking of her future. I still refuse to believe Gwendes must settle for less because she is Silvan. She may have anyone in the Kingdom, if she so wishes.”

Thranduil sighs and sits down beside me, the shadow disappearing. “Your belief is idealistic, but naïve.”

“I have lived nearly three-thousand years, longer than your son. I am not naïve.”

“I never said you were, only your belief. When you become half my age, perhaps then you will realize there are many who will not betroth potters’ daughters with no grand lineage. That includes my Keeper of the Keys. He hardly knows of her existence.”

“How can you be certain?”

“He only has eyes for you.”

I look away, my vision landing on the familiar oil painting over my father’s four-poster bed.

“But you have suspected it,” he says.

“I did not know…for certain. Nor did I wish to believe it.”

“Why would you? He is arrogant, vaunting himself as though he is heir to the throne rather than Legolas. The only reason I tolerate him is because his kind-natured mother was the Queen’s friend.”

If only I had listened to my conscience. When once passing Elros on an evening walk from the village, his eyes lingered on my chest far too long to be accidental. I ignored it, wishing to see the best in someone who offered such kind words. But those words were a ruse.

I study my mother’s painting, the proud ship at harbor waiting to sail West. The light from the sun kisses the foamy water, and I can almost see the gentle waves moving. Never have I been able to achieve her skill.

“If I had known his true nature I would never have considered matching them. But I cannot deny I…hoped an interest in Gwendes might end his blatant stares.”

“You have been selfish.” His voice lacks warmth.

“Do not speak to me like I am a mere child.”

“In this instance, your behavior has reflected such. I am fond of Sírdor’s mother. From what I know of her son, he is far humbler than Elros will ever be. Your Gwendes was fortunate to have been offered a place in his family.”

“But what of Sírdor? Would he not be fortunate, as you say, to be in Gwendes’ family? They are good, hard-working people. And Gwendes…she is full of life with many creative talents.”

“She is also your friend.”

I look at him, incredulous. “Friend or no, she should not marry someone without love, regardless of how perfect they appear to be.”

“You know well she loves Sírdor.”

“I cannot read her heart. I have little knowledge of their relationship before I befriended her. But tell me, if she loves him, why does she speak of Elros incessantly? I tire of it.”

“You deserve it for leading her astray.”

“You believe I have complete control of her feelings. If I have a power which I am not aware, I beseech you to tell me,” I say, my voice taut. “I did not make her reject Sírdor. It was her own doing.”

“She thinks highly of you, values your opinions…you are older.”

“I assure you, she has her own mind.”

“And it is easy to mold.”

I shake my head, wondering if he will not relent until the final days of Arda. “Do you agree with Elros in his thinking? Do you believe her Silvan blood should keep her from looking beyond the village? Perhaps that is truly why you are angry with me…”

“No.”

His voice is little more than a whisper, but its acidity strikes my core. I believe him.

“But there are many who do.” His tone loses its sting. “Including Elros. If you had to nudge her towards another, you could have made a better choice.”

I can hear faint shuffling of parchment from the other room; likely Ada is putting away his maps. Does he hear our raised voices as easily as I hear him?

“An entire family sits in despair tonight,” Thranduil persists. “And soon will Gwendes, once she realizes Elros will never have her. I hope your friendship can withstand the storm, and that you will be there to dry her tears.”

“I shall. But I shall not tell her to love Sírdor.”

“You succeeded in turning her sights on Elros.”

“And I regret it.”

“Then convince her to return to Sírdor and accept his proposal.”

“I shall do no such thing.”

His glacier stare is penetrating, but I hold it without flinching, returning a fiery gaze. A few moments pass in unyielding silence until his expression softens, the heat of my flame melting the ice.

“For all your good intentions, you are yet stubborn. I expect you know what you should do. But I shall not argue with you further on this matter, Rîneth.”

“I am relieved, for I was beginning to think you would never cease.” My hand brushes against the moss green fabric of his robes as I sweep a stray curl from my face.

“Let us join Gailon before he grows concerned.”

If Ada is not concerned by now, I will believe anything possible, even an alliance between Elves and Dwarves. After the thorny direction the evening has turned, my only desire is to leave. The sting from Thranduil’s words pain me still.

I watch him head towards the door, his back rigid, and wonder if he has forgotten our friendship. If the accusations were from anyone else, surely the vicious sting would not persist…

Not wishing to worry Ada further, I stand to follow him.

Chapter Text

The gentle rumble from an approaching storm can be heard from Thranduil’s balcony, the dark forest waiting in still anticipation. I stand at the edge of the jutted rock, my hands loosely gripping the railing, as Ada drones on about the strife and decline of the city of Gondor.

I have contributed little, my thoughts tossing like a ship on the waves of a turbulent sea. I yearn to be elsewhere, under the golden mallorn trees of Lórien, or with Faeleth in Imladris fair. Perhaps I could be like Caewen, not returning to my homeland for a span of many years. Ada would finally depart, reassured that if I shall not marry, at least my sister will see to my needs.

A warm wind blows from the east, carrying the smell of damp earth. The storm travels at a slow pace, but it will be upon us soon.

In Imladris I could start anew. Keeping to myself and my quill, I would veer far from the affairs of others…

It is a bitter sting, but Thranduil spoke true. I foolishly led Gwendes to believe Elros could love her. If only I had listened to the small, unobtrusive voice of my conscience from the beginning, its warning clear.

My mistake has been made, its consequences already in motion. But if I speak to Gwendes, perhaps I can lessen their severity. Can my friend be swayed to open her eyes to Elros’ prejudice? It feels imperative to try.

“I do not recall when I last observed you so distracted.”

The closeness of Thranduil’s voice startles me. I turn to face him and realize we are alone. Somewhere during the journey across the waves of my thoughts, my father took his leave.

“Gailon said you were…daydreaming.”

I remember my use of the creative word earlier; Ada obviously remembered as well. Our disagreement before Thranduil’s arrival feels insignificant now.

“I was thinking of my sister. I have not seen her in far too long.”

“Since her wedding,” he says. “Does she still write often?”

“As often as possible while rearing a child. She tells me he has a head of brown curls, like mine.” I return my gaze to the dark landscape and the starless sky above it. “He is growing fast…”

“You plan to visit them soon.”

“I am considering it.”

The storm wind returns, causing my hair to lash my cheeks. After mulling over his heated confrontation from earlier, his words echoing in my ears, I cannot muster the courage to meet his eyes. It would be too revealing; he would see how easily he wounded me.

“Rîneth, look at me.”

I hold my gaze over the forest canopy, resolved not to give in to another of his demands. The rumble of thunder is louder now, angrier, signaling it is time to retire. I open my mouth to bid him good night, but his hand grasps my chin and gently turns my face to meet his.

Ours eyes touch briefly before I look away. “My lord?” 

“I know you oft desire to visit your sister and nephew, but I sense your longing tonight is caused by another reason. I do not like…us to be at odds.”

“It has been a long evening...”

“What I said to you was undeserved.”

I dare to look at him then, his usual stony features transformed with unguarded softness. Silver-blond strands of hair fly across his face in a sudden gust, landing tangled and out of place when the wind lessens. In need of a comb, he has lost his intimidating presence entirely.

“I have not forgotten the pain you suffered,” he says.

My eyes begin to smart, but I blame it on the cutting wind. “It was long ago. It is true…I am no expert in matters of love.”

“Perhaps you know better than anyone.”

“Tis the reason I was so eager in encouraging Gwendes,” I confess. “What happened to me was due to unfounded prejudice. I could not bear the thought of prejudice affecting her, even if in a different manner. I wanted her to believe she could have anyone…”

“Your heart was in a noble place.”

“He and Elros share many similarities. How did I not see it?”

“You did not wish to believe anyone could be as cruel.”

I look down at my feet, noticing a part of my teal gown hangs over the edge of the rock face. “By encouraging her, I have inadvertently placed her in the same position. You had good reason for your anger.”

“Not towards you. I knew it was never your intention to cause trouble. When angry, I do not always act with my usual clarity.”

I know how much it means for him to admit that fault. If Thranduil has one weakness, it is his anger, robbing him of all wisdom or reason.

“I forgive you for it.”

Lightning lights the darkness, its blue branches reaching far across the weighted clouds. I let go of my hold on the metal railing. It will soon be time to seek cover before the coming rain. The quake of thunder is like a clash between balrogs, its intensity startling.

“Shall we leave?” he asks.

“Not yet.” I look upwards at the turbulent clouds, wishing I could see them clearer. “I have always loved the spring storms.”

“So have I,” he says, surprising me.

We fall into silence as the wind increases, whipping our long hair behind us as we turn to face it. A flash of lightning, and the balrogs return. I wonder how many storms Thranduil has seen in his lifetime. In truth, he is a storm himself, housed in the body of an Elf.

“I am not as wise as you,” I admit, not knowing why. “I cannot always foresee the repercussions of my actions.”

“At times your wisdom rivals mine.”

I smile. “You need not save my feelings. I have already forgiven you.”

“You are wiser in heart.” The night makes his eyes a black sapphire again, though they hold more warmth than earlier in my father’s chambers.

“If that was true, Gwendes and Sírdor would not be in their current predicament.”

“But your intentions were sincere. Perhaps your Gwendes will realize what she feels for Elros is not love, but infatuation.”

“Yes. But I still hold fast that she should not limit her choices. She should set her sights on whoever she desires, whether it be a gardener or a king of Dwarves.”

His eyebrow quirks. “A king of Dwarves? I doubt this king would find her lack of beard winsome.”

I tilt my head back and laugh, a cold rain droplet landing on my forehead. “You may be right.”

“You should consult Tauriel on the matter.”

“Oh, yes. She would know for certain.”

His hint of mischief is a surprising treat, one which I surmise is born from the thrill of the oncoming storm. I have witnessed this mischief often in Legolas, but it is far rarer in his guarded father. Is this where the prince acquired it?  

“You should ban all prejudice in the realm,” I say, feeling emboldened. “You are the King, are you not?”

“I am. But it would change nothing. King or no, I cannot control the minds of my people.”

“It would be a start.”

The onset of rain comes as a torrent, pelting my face and hands and every exposed part of me. It is as though the skies have upturned a water bucket the size of the Lonely Mountain. Squinting, Thranduil leads me to the door, his hand on my back. The crashing sound from the rain becomes muted as we enter the caves.

I notice the strands of wet hair which cling to his face and neck and hide my grin. I do not dare take advantage of his good humor; he is always so careful about his appearance.

“I should retire and appoint you as Greenwood’s leader,” he says, continuing our discussion.

“I would rather just advise you when needed.”

“Rîneth…” He absently gathers his hair and wrings it, droplets of water falling onto his boots and the stone floor. “You advise me even when not needed.”

 

888

 

The forest holds no clues a heavy storm passed over it, the brightness of the mid-morning sun having dried the earth. It is not a far distance from the cavern halls to Gwendes’ home near the village center, but I first pause by the courtyard fountain to steel myself. Nestled behind the chandlery, the potter’s house is small but distinctive, with tall windows overlaid with intricate patterns of entwined vines.

I stop to admire the various-sized pots resting on the stone steps, surely molded by Gwendes’ and her fathers’ hands, each overflowing with blooming yellow Elanor. A fond memory arises in my mind of the Elanor crowns I wore as an elfling; it has always been my favorite flower.

As I lean over to take in its familiar sweet smell, the front door swings open.

“Rîneth?”

Gwendes wears a clay-stained apron over her dress, her strawberry hair tied in a loose bun. Upon seeing her, my flutter of nerves returns, and I abandon all thoughts of the Elanor. Perhaps I will excuse my visit as merely a passing hello…

“Garo aur vaer.” I muster a smile.

“To you as well, my lady. I saw you through the window…” Her forehead furrows. She casts a quick glance over her shoulder through the open door. “Is everything well? I was about to begin work with my father.”

“Oh, I apologize…I should have realized.” Feeling foolish but immensely relieved, I turn to go, promising myself a slice of honey cake for my efforts upon returning home.

“Rîneth…wait.”

Leaning her head through the open door, Gwendes calls out to her father that she will return soon. She removes her well-worn apron and places it over a nearby chair before joining me at the bottom of the steps.

“I know you did not come without reason,” she says. “What is the matter? Has your father decided to depart?”

“No, not at present. It is…something else which lies heavily on my heart…” I look down the path leading from the village center to the less-populated outskirts. “Can you spare time for a walk?”

“Of course...”

The earthen road becomes narrowed from thick shrubs of pink and white viburnum, filling the air with a fragrance reminiscent of cloves. I reach out to touch a domed flower cluster as we walk by, a butterfly’s sudden flutter of wings like the nervous flutter in my chest. Do I have the courage to say what is needed?

“My lady?”

I see the confusion on her face, but the innocence there as well, and know I have no other choice.

“My reason for coming is about Elros.”

“Is he alright?”

After the unexpected death of her brother, her immediate concern is understandable, but I feel frustrated; Elros would never give her the same concern or care.

“I saw him on the way to the practice grounds earlier, his bow in hand. I can assure you he is more than alright.”

“Then what troubles you?”

I fall into silence when I see the slim form of Sírdor in the distance, his back facing us. He appears to be building a wood railing for steps leading up to a viburnum-encompassed home. He turns his head at the sound of our approaching steps, but does not return Gwendes’ eager wave.

I wait until we are past his range of hearing and push aside my hesitation. “I fear I have led you astray regarding Elros.”

“What do you mean?”

I cannot mention Elros’ prejudice concerning her heritage. If Gwendes knows the entire truth, she will assume all Sindar believe similarly. It is the last thing I wish for.

“I have given it much thought, and I do not feel you share enough interests to be compatible. It is my belief that Sírdor is a better choice.”

“My lady, you said-”

“I know. Tis not the first time I have been wrong, nor will it be the last. You were too quick in rejecting Sírdor’s proposal yesterday. You should have reflected on your feelings, sorting reality from imagination. You have only just met Elros.”

Gwendes stops walking. “I have already studied my feelings. I told you I love him; that has not changed. Your sudden negativity comes as a surprise...”

“How can you love someone you do not know?”

“From what moments we have spent together, I feel I do know him.”

Someone else might laugh at her childish answer, but I feel pity, and also understanding. Had I not once uttered similar words? The path in front of us forks, the direction rightwards leading to the river, but we do not continue further.

“Tell me, did you love Sírdor before you met Elros?”

“I….” She trails off, a soft breeze plucking the wisps around her face. “I do not know.”

“I maintain my belief you can set your sights on anyone, but you must be careful where you put your heart,” I say. “I found myself in a similar place once, in love with someone I thought I knew well. His true character came to surface many times, but I disregarded it, not wishing to believe him anything less than ideal. He--”

“Then what is Elros’ true character?” Her voice hardens. “What is it you discovered which I am not privy to?”

I hesitate. “That he is conceited, belittling those he deems lesser than himself.”

“That sounds nothing at all like Elros.” She tucks the stray wisps behind her ears. “I believe I know who this came from.”

“Who?”

“The King.”

It is an unexpected turn I did not anticipate. “He merely helped open my eyes to what my conscience already knew. He has observed Elros many years, far longer than you or I…”

“You have it wrong. Tis not Elros who is prejudiced, but the King. He has persuaded you to dissuade me from a relationship with Elros. Sírdor is the better choice, of course – he is of my same rank.”

I bite the inside of my lip as irritation winds through me. “You forget he is my friend, Gwendes.”

“I certainly do not.”

“He has my best interests at heart, and yours as well, for he knows we are close. He would not lie to me.”

“My father heard Elros’ mother was friends with the Queen. Can you not see he is protecting him?”

“From a fair elleth? He would be fortunate beyond measure to have you. The King is not prejudiced. He confessed his only reason for keeping Elros is due to the same reason you believe he is protecting him. He does not like him at all.”

“He does not like much.”

I restrain a desire to lash out, knowing Gwendes’ strong emotions hold the reins. When she interrupted my vulnerable confession, which I brought up out of desperation, I knew the battle was lost. If she would not listen then, she will listen no further.

I know what that is like.

“Regardless of your opinions on the King, you cannot deny his wisdom.”

“Nor can I deny his age,” she replies heatedly. “His way of thinking is old, much unlike yours. That is why I know you are blinded by friendship. You would have reached my same conclusion otherwise.”

“Gwendes…”

“I choose to believe the best in Elros, until proven otherwise. Your assumptions are not sufficient proof for me.”

“That is your right,” I say, dispirited. “I shall not try and stop you. But my conscience feels satisfied in in knowing I have warned you.”

The soft breeze returns, bringing with it the spicy smell of the viburnum and a hint of the honeysuckle by the river. If only our discussion was in agreement with the weather; then perhaps I would not feel like hiding from the sun.  

“I must return,” she says. “My father waits for me.”

On the walk home, I realize I no longer looked forward to the honey cake, for it would surely taste like dust in my mouth.

Chapter Text

Spring gives way to a fervent summer without me hearing from Gwendes again.

My scriptorium is a haven from the unremitting heat, but I have been writing since dawn and my fingers cramp from the quill. Longing to stretch my legs, I leave the dark coolness of the caves to meet a still blinding sun. The main road is mostly barren, the villagers settling in for their suppers.

I stroll past the quiet courtyard and a small distance beyond, taking solace in knowing the road is well-guarded. There is no pleasant breeze to soften the sun, but I take little notice. Ada would have say I am daydreaming. If only it was true. If only I could stop fretting over Gwendes…

The day after my message of caution, I returned with a basket of freshly-baked bread as a peace offering. But Gwendes’ usual warmth and enthusiasm were absent. With my persistence we spoke of the weather, and the yellow Elanor which bloomed so happily on her front steps. But our usual easy banter was stifled, lasting no longer than the time it would take for a Halfling to eat second breakfast.

I lost myself in writing as the spring blossoms faded to a perpetual green. It is my hope the sooner I finish the project for Gwendes, the sooner all will be forgiven. But I shall not apologize for doing the right thing. If there remains even the smallest thread of hope she will heed my advice, it was not in vain.

The approaching clop of a horse sweeps me from my ruminations and back to the Wood. I strayed too far while wading through my thoughts. Glancing over my shoulder, I still see the outline of the village, but I have walked farther than intended. With a frustrated sigh I turn around. Even cave trolls pay better attention.

The rider travels swiftly, the clip-clopping drawing closer. What if an orc has slipped past the guards? Yet orcs never use horses, for the horses would not survive past supper. Perhaps it is a guard, but most travel on foot. My hand moves towards the belt of my dress and I brace for a meeting.

With a loud whinny, the horse slows to a stop. “Mae govannen, my lady. May I offer you a ride back to the village?”

The Elf upon the steed is dark-haired and dark-eyed, with an angular face and sideways smile. His attire is of the finest make, the familiar silver-veined leaf brooch fastening his cloak belonging to the realm of Lórien. A long, ornate sword hilt juts from his hip.

Anyone who would dare journey through Mirkwood unaccompanied can only be a highly-trained warrior.

“I thank you, my lord, but the distance is not far to walk.” I release the sheath at my belt. “Surely you have good reason for braving the dark Wood alone…”

“I am returning home to my father for a season. Luckily, I had no trouble in the forest.” He grips his sword hilt, his sideways grin widening.

“You have come from Lothlórien?”

“Yes. My aunt did not wish me to depart, but my insistence finally quieted her.”

I raise a brow. “Is your aunt your keeper, my lord?”

“Though not quite the word I would use, it works well enough, Lady Rîneth.”

A wave of shock washes over me. “How do you know my name?”

He dismounts with a clink from his large sword. His dapple gray horse gives a soft whinny; he absently pats its flank as he studies me. “Daughter of Gailon the Advisor. How could I ever forget your fair face? I daresay mine is not as memorable.”

“I thought you familiar, yet…” I shake my head.

“Perhaps you are acquainted with Lord Amdiron. I am his son, Ferdir.”

Ferdir. The name tickles my mind. It is not distinctive, but when spoken, I am reminded of Legolas. Why Legolas? And his sideways smile and dark eyes…I have seen them before. A thousand years ago, or longer.

“You helped patrol the borders with the Prince for a time. You were his friend…yes. I remember now…”

“You and I were never close, not that I did not wish otherwise.”

I hope the warmth flooding my cheeks is not visible. “I am sure we can be friends now, Lord--”

“Ferdir. Without title.”

There is a sparkle in his eyes like a night sky, a promise of mischief which I have never seen in his father. Lord Amdiron is serious, more serious than even Thranduil.

“Ferdir, then.”

“Should you be walking this road alone, my lady? I have heard the spiders are becoming braver, and more cunning.”

“Our realm is well-guarded,” I say confidently. “But I have a knife.”

“Can you use it well?”

“Do you have reason to doubt me?”

In truth it is a needle compared to the knives Legolas and Tauriel carry. It was my sister’s, left behind during her move to Imladris. Barely used, it would do little damage to cooked pheasant, much less a spider of Ungoliant. But it is all I have, and better than nothing.

“Never.” His smile returns. “But unless you have changed your mind, I shall leave you now and go to my father.”

“He will be happy to see your return, I am sure.”

A swoosh of his black hair and he is atop the dapple gray again. “Perhaps I will see you again at supper?”

Without waiting for my answer, he is off. I watch as horse and rider become smaller, their figures illuminated by the sun’s softened rays through the tree boughs. I start to follow.

 

888

 

Lord Amdiron is smiling.

I watch him across the King’s table as his son speaks to him animatedly about his journey, and wonder when last the stone-faced lieutenant allowed himself the luxury. I cannot remember it. As a child I found him intimidating, as an adult more so. But his loyalty to the King and realm is unfailing.

As for Ferdir, he carried a smile upon entering the capacious Dining Hall, and it has never faltered. Not even when receiving a frigid reception from the King while paying his respects. Thranduil gave him a mere nod, uttering nothing in acknowledgement. The others at the table seem overjoyed at Ferdir’s presence.

My gaze moves to the King. He sits at the center of the long table, the high back of his oak chair carved to resemble a row of forest trees, the tops of their boughs tightly entwined. It is a smaller representation of his throne, and though it lacks the grandeur of the elk antlers, it is no less beautiful.

Its occupant is not engaged in any conversation, his glacier eyes staring at his plate of untouched venison and summer greens. I wonder if the hard set of his jaw and rigidness of his posture are caused by our visitor. What could Thranduil have against Amdiron’s son?

“I had forgotten your excellent taste in wine, my lord,” says Ferdir, addressing the King with a raised goblet. “I found the drink in the Lady’s realm too sweet for my palate.”

Thranduil tips his head forward slightly. I wonder if anyone else noticed the movement at all.

Undaunted, Ferdir continues. “Your great cave stores the finest wine in Arda, and I daresay the finest maidens. The ladies of Lòrien, though indeed fair, lack individuality. They seek to imitate their Lady of Light, whose beauty cannot be imitated. I prefer more…uniqueness.”

Everyone’s eyes shift to mine as they follow his pointed gaze, including Thranduil’s. Elros clears his throat.

Feeling my skin flush and heart pound like a stampeding Mûmakil, I suddenly wish to excuse myself and hide away. But it would only provide more fodder to the gossips. What game is Ferdir playing? I am unsure whether to be offended or flattered by his brazenness.

“What is your occupation in Lòrien, Lord Ferdir?” I ask, ignoring his comment. “Do you help patrol the borders as you once did here?”

The others resume eating and lose their interest. I exhale in relief. It is only Elros who maintains a keen stare.

“Yes, alongside a friend of mine: Haldir. Have you heard of him, my lady?”

“So often of late that I am now curious. He accompanied Lady Caewen on her return journey this spring, but did not linger…”

“Ah, Lady Caewen.” He takes a bite of melon.

“We were happy to see her return to the realm indefinitely. You must have been acquainted with her in Lórien…”

“Indeed, I was.” Not elaborating, he reaches for the fruit platter and scoops more fragrant red melon on his plate.

His impassive replies about Caewen are puzzling, but I say nothing further. Would they not have shared a bond, being from the Greenwood and far from home? Perhaps he found Caewen’s secretive demeanor off-putting, or perhaps there are ill feelings between them. My imagination lights up like the amber pendants which hang low down the length of the table.

Legolas leans forward, the ends of his blond hair trailing on his empty plate. “I know your stay is short, but the Guard is in dire need of help. If you have other obligations, I understand--”

“My lord,” Ferdir interrupts, “I planned to volunteer my service even if not requested.”

I relax as they begin discussing the ongoing evil in Mirkwood, relieved the attention is no longer on myself. When the staff from the kitchens arrive to clear the table, I notice Thranduil’s plate is still full.

“…have not faced the same perils in Lòrien as here, and there are no spiders to contend with. If your realm asked for aid, it…”

In every topic but Caewen, Ferdir has endless enthusiasm, his angular face showing a myriad of expressions. If he is trying to be the stark opposite of his father, he is succeeding. Yet I am curious if he is overcompensating for being away from his homeland for too long.

A lone flutist plays a light, summery melody as the dinner comes to a close. Sírdor’s mother is still absent from her place at the harp. Only an empty chair remains, a solemn reminder of what has been lost. I close my eyes.

“May I walk you to your chambers, my lady?”

Ferdir’s cheerful voice lifts me from my dark ruminations. His hand is resting on the back of my chair.

I notice everyone is leaving. Thranduil stands from his seat, and for a moment his eyes touch mine. Too many evenings have passed since our last conversation. I miss his counsel, and long to know what troubles him.

I offer Ferdir an apologetic smile. “Another time, perhaps? I believe your father would prefer you to be in his company tonight, after so long.”

“You are right, of course.” He nods. “Tomorrow, then…Lady Rîneth.”

Lord Amdiron smiles again when Ferdir joins him, making them look like twin brothers. I am soon left alone in the high-ceilinged hall with Thranduil. The sudden absence of the wafting, airy tune from the flute makes the silence loud.

“You knew I wished to speak with you?”

“You made it clear.” He starts for the door. “Let us go outside first.”

Thranduil takes the lead as we walk to his private rooms nestled far above the Dining Hall. His large living chamber is dark and cool when we pass through it. Afraid of stumbling, I lightly touch his back as we climb the spiraling steps to the familiar rock platform beneath the waning sunlight. I then let go.

He strides to the edge and leans over the railing in an unguarded pose.

“What troubles you?” I ask, joining his side.

He withholds a reply, his face carven stone. I know demanding answers will only heighten the wall he keeps between us. It is better to wait. That he has let me accompany him is sufficient proof he will tell me in his own time.

I breathe in the heavy, humid air and slide up my linen dress sleeves. The heat lingers even at eventide, making my lightweight garment a winter robe. A humorous image of my friend Mattie, the farmer’s wife, springs to mind unbidden. One unforgiving summer she hiked her skirt above her knees and rolled her sleeves to her shoulders, not apologizing for it. Seeing my scandalized expression, she bluntly suggested I do the same, and that it would be good for my skin to see the sun.

Mattie knew the legendary propriety of the Eldar and delighted in my reaction. But I have since longed to be daring and do the same, and have even imagined the comical reactions from my kin. Now I imagine Elros, so distracted by the sight of my bare flesh that he runs into the cavern wall and injures himself. And Thranduil…he would likely banish me from the realm.

Even long after her death, Mattie’s vibrant view of life holds a special room in my memory.

The resounding howl from a warg disrupts my thoughts, and Thranduil’s as well. He finally turns to me.

“I received bad tidings today.”

My heart lurches. “What is it?”

“On my orders, Legolas and Tauriel led a host to drive out the spider nests near our borders again. The mission was successful, but the youngest member of my guard was struck by a small band of orcs.”

“Amathanar…” My throat tightens, remembering the bright-eyed youth who mirrored Legolas’ every move for a time, eager to be just like him. “He did not survive?”

“I gave the news to his family before dinner.”

I suck in my breath. It is no wonder why he did not touch his meal.

“Why did you not make an announcement at the table? It was not an occasion for trivial conversation.”

“I have not seen such joy on Amdiron’s face for a long time. I decided to wait before sapping it.” His brows come together in a scowl. “Ferdir, home at last. He should have returned long ago.”

I wonder again about his animosity towards Ferdir, but it is no time for probing further. Before thinking better of it, I place my hand on his shoulder. “The blame lies with Sauron alone. You had no choice but to remove the spiders. We cannot allow his evil to fester further, driving us from our home…”

He looks at the forest again. The moon has replaced the final traces of sunlight. “It is a malevolence which sleeps not, a raging fire across the lands. The flames have claimed many in my lifetime. Yet here I remain above the fading trees.”

Knowing he not only speaks of his father, but his wife as well, a deep and fleeting sorrow grips me, a flash of his inner grief.

“Amathanar knew the risks. His family will see him again in the Undying Lands. He has not passed from this world forever.”

“It is more troubling news to a people weary from it. We have already moved once, Rîneth. They no longer have faith I can protect them.”

I study his profile, the way his ears taper to a point, larger than my own. The sides of his crown no longer rest upon them; he discarded it when passing through his chambers. He is vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than I have ever seen him. Tonight he has let down part of his wall...to me.

Is this how he speaks with Ada when seeking counsel in private? Or is this a side even his closest advisor has not seen?

“You have protected them for three-thousand years. If they still lack faith, they always will. The Valar are on our side. They gifted us the strongest warrior in Middle-earth.”

“Your idealistic view of me is perhaps mistaken.”

“My views on most things are idealistic,” I admit. “But I would be a fool to lack faith in you.”

He captures my gaze, holding it intensely for a few breaths before letting go, and returns to that unknown point beyond the Wood.

“Thranduil, your people--”

“We shall speak of it no more tonight,” he says, his impenetrable wall restored. “I believe you intended to discuss your friend.”

I swallow my frustration. “Not anymore.”

Discussing Gwendes feels insignificant now, even laughable. Why did he open up to me, only to close himself again in a mere blink? It was like catching a rare glimpse of a white hart, it disappearing into the shadowed woods before I could see it clearly, leaving me to question if I saw it at all. 

“Gwendes will run back to you soon enough.”

“It matters little...”

“Elros is eager to marry,” he says. “I am sending him to Imladris on an errand. Perhaps there he will find a bride.”

I look at him, surprised. “Perhaps.”

“You rectified your mistake. She was warned; she cannot say otherwise.”

“Your harpist is still absent.”

“Gwendes should bear that guilt, not yourself. Let it go, Rîneth.”

“She is no longer interested in my friendship.”

“Then she has lost far more than she realizes.”

Chapter Text

I scan the final entry of Oropher’s journal, his last hastily-written words on the eve of the battle. Proof of his overconfidence vaults from the parchment as unintentional foreshadowing. The Battle of Dagorlad was his last. His unwillingness to follow the High-King Gil-galad’s orders led him to make an early charge upon the enemy, and he and his lightly-armed company were no match for the forces of Sauron.

Even so long after his demise, I feel a stinging frustration. I lay down my quill. If Oropher had waited on Gil-galad, would the outcome have been different? Would he still be King of the Greenwood, and Thranduil the Prince? It is impossible to know, but perhaps life would be different for our people and realm. Pride consumed, as it always has…

The heavy warmth of the mid-June sun makes me glad for my haven in the caves. Their cool temperature serves as a popular respite to those working out of doors; even some of the villagers find solace for a time.

I shake my cramped hand and pick up the quill, persistent to keep going. It is only a matter of days before Thranduil’s Aur en-Onnad, or Day of Begetting, and I hope to present the final work to him then.

Lost in writing Oropher’s diatribe about Gil-galad’s continued lack of faith in him, the blunt knock on the scriptorium door comes as a surprise.

“You may come in.”

I look up when I hear the creaking of wood and clapping of boots on stone. Still in his guard uniform, he has obviously taken leave from his duty at the prison cells. The dark shade of his leaf-patterned attire matches the brown of his eyes and hair. Without waiting for a greeting, he approaches my writing table.

“Lord Elros.” I stand. “This is…unexpected.”

“You look exquisite today, Lady Rîneth.” He rolls my name over his tongue like honeycomb, and roves his eyes over me. “That particular hue of blue reminds me of the river Anduin on a clear day.”

I avert my eyes downward, pretending to be distracted by my writings. “And you, my lord, rain compliments like a summer storm. But…thank you.”

“You may see my compliments as rain, but it is only because your garden is in need of water, my lady.”

“My garden?”

My mind urges me to stay calm, but discomfort roils from my stomach like a wave. I doubt my half-hearted attempt at hiding it is successful. Yet Elros is oblivious, his own flowery words seemingly giving him courage. He walks around the table, my only safety barrier, to approach me closer.

“I believe there is hope for it yet.”

How had I never noticed his ridiculousness before? A scent of lavender and mint wafts under my nose when he is an arm’s length away, overwhelming and cloying, like his words. I step back.

“Is there something you need, Lord Elros? I am rather occupied in finishing my project for the King…I am sure you understand.”

“You are not alone in having duties for the King. Tomorrow I am leaving for Imladris at his behest.” He raises his chin. “As I am yet unaware of the time of my return, I shall bear this agony no further.”

He tentatively reaches out his hand. I look away.

“Should you not be at the prison cells? I would hate to hear our prisoner escaped…”

“A young guard took over my duties until my return. Nandir or Narunir…I cannot remember his name. He seemed eager to assist. I doubt there will be any escapes, my lady.”

“Even so, a young guard--”

“Enough.” He closes the gap and takes my arm. “No more delaying on your part. I wish to hear it from your pretty mouth. That you love me.”

My stomach twists. “Lord Elros--”

“It is obvious, yet you are intent to keep it from me, and play this maddening game. Or perhaps you are afraid of my rejection? I assure you, there is nothing to fear.”

I wrench my arm away. “You have gone too far. Your arrogance has you believing that which is not the truth.”

“My arrogance?” He smirks. “It is not arrogance, but observation. The looks you have sent my way, the secret smiles, the honeyed words… you have given me no reason to believe otherwise.”

I move to the opposite side of the large table, putting a barrier between us once more. My eyes dart to the painting of Lindon on the wall, to the shelf underneath storing my overflow of books, to the cheerful vase of purple woodland flowers resting upon it, to anywhere but Elros. I touch the varnished oak table. Several moments pass as I steel herself. 

I meet his eyes. “I apologize for giving you the wrong impression, my lord, but I sincerely assure you any smiles or glances on my part were from a place of friendship.”

“I…do not believe you.”

“You only saw what you wished to see.”

His eyes narrow. “I thought for certain--”

“Have you so easily forgotten how I introduced you to my friend on the night of Yestarë? Or my request for you to ask her to dance instead of me?”

“I believed you to be teasing me.”

“Regardless of what you believe, I am not one for games.” My voice is as taut as a bowstring. “Precisely those which involve the hearts of my friends. Gwendes is the one in love with you, not I.”

“Gwendes…your red-haired friend?”

My fingers curl into the skin of my palms. “Do not pretend to be ignorant of her.”

He clears his throat again. “She is…fair of face, I admit. But I do not believe I must step down to find a willing partner.”

“I suppose by stepping down you mean she is of lesser nobility than you. In character, however, she is a hundred steps above you.”

Elros’ eyes widen, and his mouth forms a tight line. “You surprise me, my lady. I would have expected your…oddity would make you grateful to hear of my affections for you. Yet you wish they were for your friend instead.”

“Oddity,” I repeat in barely a whisper, my heart falling to the floor, the rest of me with it.

“For lack of a better word.” He picks up one of my finished writings and glances at it, scowling. Letting it fall, it drifts briefly in the air before landing on the table edge. “It is at least an oddity for the Eldar. I would have guessed it was caused by the mixed blood, yet your sister does not share it…”

My breath catches in my throat. I have heard this before, from someone else, long ago. Blinking furiously, I strain to hold in my tears. I will not let him see them, will not let him see how he has affected me…

“Nevertheless, I looked past it and still found you desirable. I even planned to ask for your hand today. I am relieved you stopped me in time.”

“I am as well,” I say between clenched teeth.

“For years I have wondered why you are so close to the King, but now I understand clearer. You are both…unlovable.”

I slap my palms on the table surface, my chest rising and falling with my weighted breaths. “You may speak ill of me, but you will not speak ill of King Thranduil in my presence. He has given you a great position in these Halls, one you do not deserve and never have.”

His face remains expressionless.

Leave.”

Offering no further response, he makes his way to the door. Before turning the handle, he looks over his shoulder. “Farewell, Lady Rîneth. Galu.”

I close my eyes to find my composure, surprised at the force of my own words. But I feel no remorse for them. He deserved far worse, and for the briefest of moments I imagine him being taken by spiders on the forest road to Imladris, no one there to save him. But then I reign in my emotions. No, I do not wish him death. Only a harsh awakening.

When the clap of his boots became less audible on the other side of the door, I open my eyes. Hands shaking, I unlock the hidden drawer in the table and grasp the cool silver handle of my mirror.

I cannot say why I feel compelled to look. Nothing in my reflection has changed. My brown curls are too unruly, my face fair enough for my race.

Since the awakening of the Elves by Eru, my people have carried a great love for beauty and symmetry in all things, whether it be the trees, the stars, the sea…the ships they build, the cities they construct. Men call us the fairest creatures in Arda, without blemish or fault.

But my eyes are an anomaly. They stand out as a blatant imperfection …

One is gray, the other brown. Light and dark.

I return the mirror to the drawer and sit down, and pick up my quill to write again. But as the tears fall to the parchment and smear the ink, I know I shall have to start over.

 

888

 

Ada is sitting in his favorite chair near the unlit hearth. An unfurled map of Valinor rests in his lap, the edges threatening to return to their original rolled state. One hand keeps the scroll flattened while the other loosely grips the delicate glass of his wine goblet. I am reluctant to interrupt his peace. But there is no one else. Faeleth is a world away, beyond the forest and over the perilous Misty Mountains. Middle-earth’s great hurdle. More than ever I long for my sister’s comfort.

“Did you know he had feelings for you?”

I stare into the empty hearth, rubbing the fabric of my sleeve between my thumb and forefinger. “I…suspected he was interested. Thranduil was adamant about it.”

“His intuition is unrivaled.”

“Yes.” Letting go of my sleeve, I swipe under my eyes again. “I thought it was a passing fancy, a superficial curiosity…nothing more.”

“I see.” He steeples his hands under his chin and studies me, his gray eyes probing. “Why did you believe it was nothing more?”

I open my mouth to form a response, then pause. My throat tightens. “This is not about the past, Ada.”

“Are you certain? Since Lord Ne--”

“Please do not speak his name.”

“Since the day he left your life,” Ada persists, “you have underestimated yourself. You allowed his puerile words to shatter your confidence and belief someone could find you lovable.”

I clench my jaw. His choice of wording is coincidental and well-meant, but it is yet another piercing arrow to a gaping wound. Elros’ comment already resides in the forefront of my mind, taunting me, but now I hear it louder, clearer, with more emphasis. “You are both…unlovable.”

Unlovable.

If only Ada knew what he fears me believing is exactly what I heard today. I have not mentioned it to him, nor Elros mentioning my peculiarity. Ada is peaceable, not one prone to angry outbursts, but in this instance he would find offense, perhaps even confront him. It is better to let Elros leave tomorrow and let the matter to wash away with the summer rains.

“Elros hardly knows me,” I say. “It is that fact which kept me from believing he felt something more, not a lack of confidence on my part.”

“Then what keeps you from opening yourself to love?”

I stand. He is nothing if not determined. Regardless of my trying day, he has found a way to broach the topic again. Can he not see my suffering? Perhaps not. I keep my deepest wounds buried, far from the exposing light.

My fingers touch the grainy texture of the wood ledge above the hearth. I release a heavy breath.

“I have never said I am not open to love. Only that I have no intention of marrying. It will take great love for me to be swayed.”

My own confession comes to me as a surprise. Like a snowfall in midsummer, I am unsure if I believe it.

“Then you have given me hope, for your heart has softened a little.” Ada’s eyes reflect a flicker of light. “Perhaps it is because you already know great love and have not recognized it.”

I give a humorless laugh. “I do not love Elros.”

“I did not m--”

“He is conceited. Thranduil has observed it as well. I told him Gwendes loved him, and he had the impertinence to ask if she was my red-haired friend. As if he needed verification.” I shake my head and sit down again. “I fear for his future wife. I doubt she will know of his cruelty.”

He covers my hand with his. “Forgive him, iell nín. While I do not defend his behavior, I believe it arose from a place of embarrassment at your rejection. It does not seem he is acquainted with being wrong…about anything.”

“I can believe that.”

“With age comes wisdom and humility. He is younger than you, as I recall. Let us hope he will learn from this incident.”

We fall into a comfortable silence, and my gaze returns to the empty hearth. I imagine a roaring fire there, its blanketing warmth emanating through my father’s chamber and lessening winter’s chill. Thranduil sits in the chair opposite mine, envisioning plans for the future while Ada tells stories from the past. I enjoy listening to them, interjecting a comment here and there, telling a story or two of my own. Those are my favorite nights, and always have been. If it only was such a night.

I blink and the fire is gone. It is summer again. My thoughts drift back to reality. How ironic it is that Elros, with his air of superiority, has fallen into the same trap as Gwendes. Both believe they are in love with someone they do not know. I, too, believed it once.

“What creates infatuation, Ada?”

He looks up from his map. “An attraction, kind words, a glance, or even an appreciation. That is how it often begins: innocently. But then imagination begets an idea, one far exceeding reality. A person will believe themselves in love with someone, when really they are only in love with their idea.”

It is the simplest of explanations, yet it speaks to a deep part of my heart. I look down at my lap. “Then what creates love?”

“Love…” He repeats the words, cocking his head to the side. “It is often born from friendship. From knowing someone’s faults and accepting them, the good and bad and everything which lies between. From them speaking a language your heart understands. Infatuation is temporary, but love deepens with time.”

“Infatuation has ensnared many, has it not?”

“Yes.” His face turns solemn. “The Eldar are not immune, by any means.”

Chapter Text

There is no grand feast planned for Thranduil’s Aur en-Onnad, nor a dinner held in the Dining Hall. For as long as I can remember, he has preferred a small gathering in his personal chambers, inviting only those closest to him. There have been times when he has not invited anyone at all.

He seems to enjoy the seasonal celebrations like the rest of the Eldar, and while he does not participate in dance or song, he watches his subjects’ merriment long into the night. But he gives little regard to his Aur en-Onnad, perhaps feeling he has grown too old in years to honor it. I suspect a deeper reason.

Thranduil’s large living chamber with its lofty ceilings makes the guests appear even fewer, though there are more than in times past. Legolas is leaning against the high stone wall near a tapestry of the forests of Doriath. He is conversing with Amdiron and Ferdir, likely about spiders and orcs and battles. I doubt Ferdir is a desired guest, but the father could not be invited without the son.

I look to the other end of the vast room, towards Thranduil’s envied collection of books from the First Age. Sitting beside an extraordinary silver harp, the top of its curved neck shaped as a floating swan, are Lady Aethel and Caewen. I feel a small jolt of surprise. The Lady has never before been invited to the King’s Aur en-Onnad.

As soon as Aethel sees me, she stands, and smooths her bright periwinkle gown before making her approach. Caewen follows. Both are adorned lavishly, the occasion worthy of their finest gems. A large diamond rests above Caewen’s brow, the intricate silverwork of the circlet wrapping around her golden hair and fanning backwards to resemble wings. Her mother wears a ring on every finger save her thumbs, of gold and diamonds and emeralds.

I let out a small sigh. Why had Thranduil invited them? I look at the towering rock hearth, and see him sitting in one of the chairs arranged in front of it. His crowned head is lowered as he looks at a book.

“Ah, Rîneth,” greets Aethel, Caewen trailing behind. “You must wonder why we are here. I overheard our King was in need of a harpist. Who better suited than Caewen?”

“I doubt anyone, my lady.”

“It was the perfect timing, for she received a beautiful harp a few days ago. It was sent from…an anonymous source.” Aethel utters the last three words in a loud whisper.

“An admirer?”

“Tis the assumption. If true, there is little doubt it was sent from Lord Ha--”

“Nana, you must not tell every one of your suspicions!” Caewen flashes me an apologetic smile. “It likely was sent from my friends in Lórien. I confessed to them often how I dreaded returning home without a harp of my own.”

“A friend is one way of describing him,” says Aethel.

I stifle a grin. “What is the significance of the swan shape? It must mean something…”

Nodding vigorously, the Lady turns to her daughter. “Just as I said also. A lovely silver swan, like your grandmother’s sculpture. You must have told him how she taught you to play.”

“It is mere coincidence, Nana. Swans are often used in the Golden Wood for decorative purposes. Lady Galadriel has a swan boat, more beautiful than even my harp. It is clearly of Lothlórien origin.”

“Is that not where he resides?” Aethel asks.

I remember the swan sculpture atop Aethel’s bookshelf, its elegant wings spread in preparation to fly, and am inclined to believe her assumption is correct. As I had ascertained after Caewen’s arrival home, she is far too demure for there not to be something hidden under the surface.

“I see it as a declaration of love,” I say. “Your admirer knows you and your history well. I look forward to hearing you play it tonight.”

Caewen looks away, her expression inscrutable.

“Perhaps even the King will smile upon hearing her,” Aethel says, delighted. “He appears as though he could use one. But when does he not?” She titters.

Following Aethel’s gaze, I see Thranduil still sitting alone, ignoring his guests. Likely he is regretting the invasion of his space. I tighten my clutch on the package against my chest, wishing Aethel would take her titters elsewhere.

“What do you have for the King, henig?” Aethel’s curious eyes are resting on the wrapped package.

“A book.”

“How many more could he need? He certainly--” At the sound of the door opening, she turns around. Her mouth forms a smile at the newest guest’s arrival. “I must greet your father. He will be surprised to see me…”

Thankful for the momentary reprieve, even if at Ada’s expense, I start across the room.

“Lady Rîneth,” Caewen calls. “Please wait.”

I feel a strong desire to pretend I did not hear. I still have not wished Thranduil an oronnad meren. It is the King’s day, not theirs…

A forced smile is all I can muster. Caewen casts a glance over her shoulder to verify her mother is still occupied, then leads me to the wall, far out of hearing range. Small white jewels glitter in her golden hair like constellations.

“I must entrust you with a secret. It was not Haldir who sent it.”

“How can you be certain?”

“He is pledged to another.” She peers over her shoulder again. “He has only ever been a friend to me, Lady Rîneth. I tried telling Nana, but she does not wish to believe it. She is keen on the idea of a wedding.”

“But she must learn the truth eventually…”

“And conclude her daughter will forever be alone? Her spirits are low already, but yet still she clings to hope. I must wait…”

“For whom? The one who sent you the harp?”

“I do not know,” Caewen says. “I was not lying when I said it may have been sent from friends.”

“Then what reason for anonymity?”

Again Caewen glances back at her mother, who has finished speaking with Ada and is looking curiously in our direction. She lightly touches my arm before going. “Please tell no one.”

It is the most expressive I have seen Caewen thus far. I am mystified. Why would she choose to confide in me? Perhaps she was making certain no further gossip spread. Knowing my closeness to the King, maybe she feared the speculation returning to Lord Haldir and all of Lórien. It would place Haldir under suspicion from his betrothed…

If Haldir was not responsible for sending the harp, who was? It is possible someone in the Woodland Realm has gained an admiration for Caewen over the past few months. I take a deep breath and resume my walk, determined not even the King of the Valar could interrupt me now.

Thranduil looks up from a well-worn book on Quendian linguistics. His blue eyes soften when he sees me, but he withholds a smile.

“Oronnad meren, hîr vuin.”

“Rîneth.” He gestures to the adjacent chair. “Sit.”

A warm amber light falls over the hearth area, adding a homey glow to the otherwise stark room. Thranduil lifts his book again when I sit down. I look at the package resting on my lap, wrapped in silver brocade, coincidentally the same color as his robes. It seems I should have chosen another day.

The visitors’ cheerful expressions are unaffected by the King’s disposition. Lady Aethel is attempting to join the discussion between Ferdir and Legolas, offering enthusiastic nods and glancing from one to the other like an eager elfling. Caewen watches from a distance, maintaining a graceful posture.

Growing weary of the silence, I cast aside my hesitation and boldly place the book in his lap. Thranduil looks at me then, his brows raised in high arcs. 

“I believed it a favorable day to present this, but perhaps I was mistaken.”

He unwraps the cloth to reveal his father’s writings, bound in soft brown leather. His face unreadable, he lightly grazes his fingers over the cover.

With bated breath I watched as he scans through the pages, pausing to examine each accompanying artwork, lingering longest at the drawing of his father’s elk. When he reaches the last entry, he reads it to the end.

He lifts his wintry gaze to mine. “It is far more than I imagined.”

“I…put all my heart into it.”

A faint smile lights his eyes. “I shall always think of you when I look upon it.”

I feel a warm tingle spread through my body. It has all been worth it then, every long day and late night. Not trusting myself to speak, I smile in return, hoping it conveys how much his words mean to me.

 

888

 

Lady Aethel had not exaggerated. As Caewen plucks the strings of her harp, it gives forth a glittering, celestial sound, as if from the stars themselves. I am certain it rivals the music in Valinor. Judging from the rapt expressions from those listening, I am not alone in that certainty. All eyes are transfixed on the flaxen-haired elleth and her instrument. Thranduil has even put away his book.

Caewen finishes the song and begins The Sea-Crossing with hardly a pause, as though it is only a continuation. Her hands effortlessly move forward and backward with the soft melody. I look at Legolas standing beside me. There is a question niggling my mind, one I have kept too long.

With the other guests entranced, their ears tuned to the music of the Sea and Stars, there is no better time to ask.

“Why does your father give his Aur en-Onnad such little regard?”

His cobalt eyes widen in surprise. I instantly regret my boldness.

“Lord Gailon has not told you?”

“He does not share the King’s secrets, even with me.”

Legolas frowns, and shifts his vision back to Caewen and her harp. “It is no secret, Rîneth. But many have chosen to forget. It is…the day my mother died.”

I inhale a sharp breath. “Please forgive me, mellon. I truly did not--”

“You have nothing to apologize for. He does not speak of it.”

The sound of a cascading waterfall floods the room as Caewen’s hands fly gracefully down the strings. Lady Aethel begins to clap, though the song is far from over.

“If he would rather be alone, why does he invite us?”

“For that I have no answer,” he says solemnly. “I have wondered if the presence of others helps to lessen the memory.”

“I do not remember your mother well, but I remember her golden hair. And her kindness….”

“We were both young when she died. But I was younger. I…do not remember what she looked like.”

The dramatic harp-song fills the silence which falls between us. Caewen is now moving her head with the music, her usual composed manner crumbling as she loses herself to emotion.

“How did she die? I have heard there was no grave…”

He makes sure his father is still sitting in his chair, far from hearing range. “She was murdered. At an orc stronghold at Mount Gundabad, south of Angmar. She was…thrown into a fire.”

My heart wrenches painfully. “Goheno nín…”

His unsettling answer only conjures more questions. Why was the Queen at Mount Gundabad? Had she been captured? Where was Thranduil? Noticing Legolas’s tightened jaw and the way his brows pull together, for a fleeting moment not a warrior prince but a boy who has lost his mother, I know the wound pains him still.

I wish I had not asked. I certainly cannot ask more.

I chance looking at Thranduil. His eyes meet mine. He has been watching us. Has he discerned from Legolas’ expression the intimate topic of our discussion? I return my gaze to Caewen, hoping it was a coincidence.

Though the Greenwood is my home, every oak and beech around the village and cave known to me, there is much about the forest I do not know, many secrets I have yet to discover. Thranduil is like his forest. A mystery, vast and remote. I once believed I knew everything about him. I was wrong.

After a final crescendo, Caewen ends her song with a barely audible pluck, leaving the guests breathless before they break into applause. Lord Amdiron nods his head with his claps, offering an impressed smile before remembering he is made of stone. Ferdir looks like he would rather be anywhere else. Remembering his unenthusiastic responses about Caewen the night of his arrival, I wonder again at his behavior.

The King stands from his chair, and the room falls quiet.

“Lady Rîneth, sing for us.”

If he had deduced the subject of my conversation with Legolas and is punishing me, I will perhaps never know, but the sudden command could not have shocked me more. As if I am stuck in mud, I cannot move. Everyone is looking at me expectantly. Lady Aethel’s mouth is agape.

“You are good at the Hymn to Elbereth, I recall,” says Thranduil, his deep voice dispassionate.

“I…I shall try my best, my lord.” I bow my head.

I force my legs through the mud. They are wobbly from the effort. Though a few steps away, it feels like a journey to the Iron Hills. Or the Sundering Sea. I finally reach where Caewen sits with her harp in front of Thranduil’s endless wall of volumes and tomes and scrolls. She looks up in question. I nod.

I shut my eyes to recall the lyrics, and to gather my strength as well; I have not sung in front of an audience since Ada’s Aur en-Onnad a hundred years ago or more, and only at his sincerest request. Why would Thranduil command this of me? He never has before.

I open my eyes and see him. He has moved from the hearth and joined my father, and both stand in front of me. He gives me a small smile. With a nod to Caewen, I open my mouth to sing.

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!

O queen beyond the Western Seas! O light to us that wander here

Amid the world of woven trees!    

The flowing notes from the harp complement my voice and fill me with courage. I sing louder, with more feeling, and lose myself to the words and to my own thoughts.

Na-chaered palan-díriel

o galadhremmin ennorath,

Fanuilos, le linnathon

nef aear, si nef aearon!

My mind whirls over what Legolas revealed, what I have never known before. It is obvious Thranduil still grieves his wife’s passing. Was he there to witness her being cast into the fire, unable to save her? It is unfathomable. No wonder he does not speak of it.

Without intending to, the Hymn to Elbereth, usually played at celebrations and happy feasts, lacks its usual joy.

We still remember, we who dwell

In this far land beneath the trees,

Thy starlight on the Western Seas

The harp fades with a last melodic strum, and the watchers applaud softly. Ferdir claps loudest, flashing his teeth in a wide grin. Thranduil bows his crowned head, and returns to his chair without voicing another request.

“Let us now hear Caewen sing,” says Lady Aethel. “She has the prettiest voice in all of Arda, I daresay!”

I step back into the small audience between Ada and Ferdir. Ada grasps my shoulder, a comforting gesture after Aethel’s thoughtless words. But I know the Lady meant no harm. Her adoration for Caewen surpasses her awareness.

As Caewen begins the Song of Nimrodel, her high dulcet voice as clear and beautiful as the celestial melodies from her harp, a warmth floods my cheeks. I wonder if it is too early to take my leave.

Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,

Her shoes of silver-grey

“Your song was far better,” Ferdir whispers, his vision fixed ahead.

“You are too kind, my lord. But my attempt--”

“--carried more feeling. A song without feeling is no song at all, which Caewen would do well to learn. Have you determined yet who sent her the harp?”

“How do you--”

“How do I know? Dearest lady, I suspect everyone in this room knows, perhaps the entire Woodland Realm. Caewen may wish to keep her secrets, but her mother sees little point in them.”

Her hair was long, her limbs were white,

And fair she was and free

“That is certainly true.” I notice Aethel is watching her daughter with a smile which could light the beacons of Gondor. “I am not closely acquainted with Caewen. I would not even know where to begin in guessing. But I warrant whoever he is, he is…interested.”

“I would say so.”

“Do you know who sent it, Lord Ferdir?”

“Ferdir. And no, I cannot say for certain, but I have a few guesses.” He lowers his voice further. “One in particular shall take you by surprise.”

“You act as though they are in this very room.”

“You are astute.”

Where now she wanders none can tell,

In sunlight or in shade

The mischievous glint in his bronze eyes is puzzling. “If your guess is Prince Legolas, I can assure you he only has eyes for our Captain of the Guard. But you have not been around us long enough to know.”

“Yes, he is in love with Tauriel. I surmised it the night I arrived. You are not thinking hard enough, my lady.”

Ferdir continues watching Caewen as though keen on hearing every lyric. I wonder if my newest friend might be a bit of a troublemaker. Who could he possibly be alluding to? Lord Amdiron has a wife waiting in Valinor, and Ada is not even worth contemplating.

“If this is your idea of a jest, your skills are lacking,” I tease.

“Do you give up?”

“I…yes, of course. I have no other choice.” I playfully roll my eyes. “But now you have piqued my curiosity.”

“I believe King Thranduil sent her the harp.”

I laugh out loud. I cannot prevent it. Quickly I cover my mouth to stifle the sound. Lady Aethel casts a displeased glance over her shoulder.

“I was wrong,” I whisper after the Lady turns back around. “The joke was quite funny. Well done.”

“I was being serious.”

At first I do not believe him. But when he does not speak further, I realize his sideways grin is absent, and his dark eyes lack their humor. I step back, feeling a twist of unpleasant emotions. Troublemaker, indeed.

When dawn came dim the land was lost,

The mountains sinking grey

Beyond the heaving waves that tossed

Their plumes of blinding spray

“You have clearly had too much wine, so I shall forgive you. Consider putting down your goblet before you start spouting out this impossibility to someone who will not be so kind.”

“Why is it impossible, my lady? Even my father noted Lady Aethel has never before been invited to the King’s own chambers. It is interesting she received an invitation now that her daughter has returned…”

“His harpist has been unavailable for some time now. Caewen plays the harp. It makes sense.” I strain not to raise my voice. “His wife waits for him in the Undying Lands.”

“Do not be so sure.” He sneaks a glance at Thranduil, who is still sitting in his chair a world away. “I have heard she did not love him.”

“What a preposterous claim. Why would she not love him?”

Ferdir raises his brow. “You and your father may be close to him, but the rest of us see how cold he is. An ice king would be a fitting title, if only his cave was not made of stone.”

“Where did you hear such a rumor? Is gossip a favorite pastime in Lórien?”

“I will not tell you from whom I heard it, for their sake, but I believe its validity.” He looks back at the King. “See how he watches her.”

Despite my reluctance, I look. Thranduil is watching Caewen with the barest hint of a smile on his shadowed face, his eyes unmoving. An unpleasant sensation roils in my stomach. I shake my head and the sensation leaves.

Of old he was an Elven-king

A lord of tree and glen

“Caewen sings as if she is one of the Maiar. Do you not see how everyone is entranced? This rumor was invented by a gossip who holds a grudge against the King. I shall never believe it.”

“Then forgive me,” Ferdir says sincerely. “When you find out the sender of her gift, please let me know. I am…curious.”

The wind was in his flowing hair,

The foam about him shone;

Afar they saw him strong and fair

Go riding like -

A host of guards suddenly stride through the door, led by the Captain of the Guard. Tauriel’s flaming hair clings to her neck in wet strands, evidence she has been in a hard rain. There is blood on her hands. Her usual placid features appear distressed, even afraid.

“What is it?” The King asks, standing.

“My lord.” She keeps her head bowed. “We were ambushed by orcs. Gollum has escaped.”

Chapter Text

I am resting on my cushioned settee, a green leather-bound copy of The First Eorling in one hand and a glass of cool water in the other. Despite my many attempts, my thoughts stray far from the words on the page.

Midsummer has turned to late summer, and the merciless sun’s heat remains, any hint of autumn’s respite not evident. A month has passed since Legolas’ departure to Imladris to give Lord Elrond the news of Gollum’s disappearance, having volunteered for the treacherous journey before Tauriel could. It was with some reluctance the King let him leave.

My mind journeys backwards in time to the fateful night in June when Gollum escaped. The King left his Aur en-Onnad party in a hurry, along with Legolas, to join the guards in their search. Long into the starless night they scoured the forest for any trace of the creature, returning only at dawn with empty hands. Gollum likely had long reached the stronghold of Dol Guldur.

Before his escape, it was said his guards took him to his favorite beech tree by the river, having mercy after his continued pleading for fresh air. While Gollum climbed the branches, they stood at the bottom, lightly armed and inattentive. They were easily slain when the orcs attacked. It had clearly been planned.

It is still unknown how Gollum devised it. But Thranduil and the guards underestimated his cunning, and the Enemy’s spies. Now he is loose again, undoubtedly hunting for the One Ring at the Enemy’s behest. Is a lone Halfling any match for that wretched creature?

I shiver, though it is far from cold, and close the book with a dull thud. Mulling over the events of that night makes it impossible to focus on an overly-detailed journal from a forgotten Rohirric King. And no matter how I try to block Ferdir’s words, I still hear them in an unending repetition.

“I have heard she did not love him.”

I lift the smooth glass to my lips and take a sip to wash the words away, but they have settled like boulders. Water will not move them. I walk to my bookshelf and return the faded green journal to its home, perhaps to reside there for another hundred years.

The Eldar marry only once for the ages. It is a union carefully considered and created by nothing less than love, broken by neither strife nor death, ending only at the world’s end. It is the will of Eru. Whether or not the Queen loved her King changes nothing, and never will.

Even if Thranduil’s heart has changed and he loves another, it is folly. No new marriage vows will be accepted under Varda’s skies. Ferdir’s unfounded belief that the King sent Caewen the harp would perhaps be amusing to some, but I find it unsettling.

The Queen loved him, surely.

“Do not be so sure,” Ferdir says.

I sigh heavily. I cannot stay secluded in my chambers and allow my troubled thoughts to reign. Visiting Lady Aethel would at least provide a needed distraction…

“Rîneth?”

Ada’s voice. I stride to the door to let him in, grateful for his timing, yet curious. It is only late afternoon, too early for his usual visits.

He greets me with an untroubled smile, clutching what looks like a letter in his hand. “May I come in?”

“As long as you are not delivering bad news,” I tease, and lead him to the settee. I pour a glassful of water as he settles. “Do you have something for me?”

“Hannon-le.” He takes the offered drink. “Thranduil received a message this morning. He wanted you to read it.”

I sit down. On the white parchment is a broken maroon seal of the House of Elrond, its filigree design one I have seen before in letters from my sister. But the writing is small and precise, different from Faeleth’s feminine, loopy script. It is addressed from Lord Elros.

I read over it hastily, and again, letting every word sink in. Releasing a breath, I re-fold the letter, not knowing what to feel.

“I wonder if I should tell Gwendes, or let her find out on her own.”

“Neither,” he says. “Hand her the letter so she may read it.”

I turn over the crisp parchment. It is not much heavier than air. “I would need Thranduil’s permission.”

“He is the one who suggested it.”

I smile faintly, knowing Thranduil’s reasoning has little to do with Gwendes’ well-being and more to do with mine. He knows I still suffer guilt for leading her astray. Perhaps he sees a possibility for reconciliation. I am not so optimistic. But I shall deliver the letter to Gwendes if it will prevent her from being taken by surprise, and allow her heart time to heal before his return.

After sharing a bowl of sweet melon with Ada, my thoughts too scattered for decent conversation, I leave the cool comfort of the cavern halls and make my way to the village. I push my sleeves to my elbows as the angry sun bears down on me, as though inflicting vengeance for my time spent away. The sky is a washed-out blue, wispy clouds slowly marching over the trees. The villagers are still out and about, finishing their last chores before supper.

Behind the colorful chandlery house is the potters’ residence, the cheerful pots of Elanor still resting on the steps but now missing their yellow star-shaped blooms. I feel an unpleasant flutter as I remember my last unwelcome visit. Will Gwendes ask me to leave, refusing to read the letter? My vision falls on a stained apron thrown over the vine-carved railing.

A daintier and shorter version of Gwendes opens the door, the same red locks falling to her waist. Her eyes are almond-shaped and brown rather than Gwendes’ round, cutting blue. She wears a wide grin.

“She is walking by the river, my lady,” says Gilrin, Gwendes’ mother.

“Alone?”

“Yes. And she goes there every day, unless the weather prevents it. I have warned her, but she will not listen. You would think with her brother…” She trails off, her face etched in worry.

I thank her and leave, and follow the overgrown shrub-lined path running by their small home as it forks towards the river and the cave beyond it. Does Gwendes fully understand the dangers of straying too far from the village? She surely must know of the recent ambush on Gollum’s behalf. Thranduil has increased the guards on patrol at all times, but the orcs are skilled at slipping through unseen.

I follow the mossy riverbank towards the waterfall, eventually glimpsing Gwendes’ long strawberry hair and dress the color of orchid, a stark contrast to the surrounding greenery. I increase my pace, eager for the initial awkwardness to be over. She turns around as I grow closer. Her eyes widen.

“Lady Rîneth. What are you doing here?”

“I first stopped by your house. Your mother said you were here. I…” I feel the sharp edge of the folded letter on my skin, and my heart quickens. “Should you not be closer to the village, where it is safer? The guards--”

“I have seen them here often. I am not alone.” There is a hint of annoyance in her tone. “Why were you looking for me, my lady?”

I blink, the simple question making me feel ridiculous. What right do I have to deliver the news? It will be misconstrued as me wanting to show I had been right in my warning, like rubbing salt in an open wound. But I cannot turn back now, not when her eyes have flitted to the parchment in my hand.

I hand it to her. “I…am sorry for everything, Gwendes.”

I turn back, looking forward to the comfort of my chambers, regardless of the troubled thoughts keeping me company. Even resuming reading The First Eorling, despite its tedious monologue, no longer fills me with dread.

I am halfway to the arch bridge when Gwendes’ high voice breaks the steady roar from the river.

“Rîneth, wait!”

Gwendes runs to catch up with me, the letter flapping in her hand like a white flag of surrender. I hold my breath, not knowing what to expect.

“I already knew, my lady. I already knew,” she repeats between labored breaths, her previously composed face now crumbled.

“How did you--”

“I did not really know. But I knew. I knew you were right about him, but my pride would not allow me to admit it to either myself or to you. Perhaps you will forgive me in time…”

“Then have your feelings for him changed? Next we see Elros, he will be with his betrothed. She is to move here within the coming month.”

“My tears betray me.” She looks sheepish as she wipes under her eyes. “I still carry hope, even while I know there is none. It is no one’s fault but mine.”

“Gwendes…” I hesitate, wondering if she will now be willing to listen. But I feel a strong compulsion, a burning need to tell her, as if telling her will help to heal my own heart. “I know your pain. I have experienced it as well.”

“Love unreturned?”

“I once thought it was love.” My eyes sting, perhaps from the sun. I avert my gaze to the river. “But how could I have loved someone I did not know? He wore a mask to me, for reasons I still do not understand.”

“What was his name?”

“Nethanar.” The word feels strange on my tongue; I have not uttered it in so long. “He once lived in our realm, before his parents’ departure to the Havens. He left soon after. I do not know where he went, nor do I care.”

“I have never heard of him.”

“He…did not mingle with the villagers,” I say, remembering his oft-spoken disdain. “He was a stranger to me until one summer when he whispered a jest in my ear. He enjoyed my laughter, and I enjoyed his sudden attention. While the other maidens fixed their attention on Legolas, I had always found Nethanar, with his dark hair and green eyes, far handsomer.

I accompanied him everywhere, whether it was to the practice grounds or on hunting trips, and he let me. His compliments were unceasing, and I eagerly believed them. I convinced myself I was in love, that he loved me as well, and we would be married.” I shake my head. “He gave me no reason to believe otherwise, Gwendes. Yet I did not wish to contemplate why I knew so little about him, or why he never sat beside me at the King’s table…”

I fall silent, memories flooding my mind of a hundred more instances when I disregarded my intuition. My heart had its own foolish agenda.

I lift my eyes from the river to the bridge, a flash of harsh sun falling on two Elves walking across it.

“Legolas came to see me at the summer’s end. It was not for a usual friendly visit, but to warn me about Nethanar. He told me I was not the first to fall for his charms, and that he had a cruelty about him, an ugly need to hurt those he deemed lesser than himself…”

“Lesser than himself,” Gwendes repeats, her brow wrinkling. “You did not listen to him?”

“Of course not. I was infatuated, and therefore blinded. I could not see it and did not wish to. You now know the feeling well.”

She nods solemnly. “When did you find out his true nature?”

“When he grew tired of me. When he saw my heart was wrapped around his finger. When he knew it would hurt me most.” I close my eyes. “I had not seen him for several days and grew worried. When I went to his chambers, he opened the door wearing an angry scowl, so different from his typical affable grin. He…told me he wished for nothing more to do with me, that my eyes reminded him I was part Silvan. He told me he deserved better.”

“Oh, Rîneth…”

“My father and King Thranduil have since convinced me Nethanar was atypical, lacking the kindness and morality of our kin. I have heard rumors his twin brother was killed in battle on behalf of saving a Silvan soldier, and perhaps his resentment started there. I shall likely never know.

But I am now sensitive to prejudice, despising its very existence. Tis why I pushed you to prevent it determining your choice in a mate. By doing so, I led you towards someone with the same ideas as Nethanar. It was never my intention...”

She shakes her head vigorously. “Of course not, my lady. I do not blame you. More than ever I understand. If only I heeded your warning…your experience has given you superior wisdom.”

“Yours shall give you wisdom as well. Just as Nethanar was to blame for what happened, Elros is as well. We should no longer blame ourselves. Neither of us saw his prejudice.”

“If only we had.” Gwendes looks down at her feet, a warm breeze lightly lifting her hair. “His poor future wife.”

With that statement, I know all will be well. I shall have my friend again.

 

888

 

“Elros was desperate to have found her in only a matter of weeks. I doubt she knows his true nature. Should we warn her?”

My fingers touch the soft feather of my quill. Buttery light from the wall sconces emphasizes the blank parchment resting on my desk. I lift my gaze to Gwendes, who is pacing my scriptorium with the weight of Arda on her shoulders. Save for sleep, she has refused to part from me since our reconciliation.

Though I have enjoyed the return of her companionship, she speaks of nothing but the Keeper of the Keys.

“It is better if we stay out of their affairs,” I say. “I have learned my lesson the hard way. It is possible she knows him very well, and accepts him regardless.”

“She would have to be as arrogant and prejudiced as Elros to--”

“Enough about our dear Elros.” I gesture at the empty parchment. “I am determined to include a portrait of your brother for his book. But I am in need of a good description…”

“Oh…yes.” Gwendes blinks, and stops walking. “His hair was red like mine, perhaps a shade darker. He was strongly built with broad shoulders, yet light on his feet. He had Nana’s brown eyes and kind smile…I once thought Elros had a kind smile.”

“He deceived us both.” I breathe in, my patience waning. “Did your brother resemble you in face?”

“He had a wider jaw and nose, but I suppose so. Nana has a portrait of him hanging on our wall. I shall fetch it for you tomorrow.”

“Perfect.”

She begins to pace again. I imagine her parents are relieved to have a respite. Only three days have passed since Elros’ letter, and I long for a respite as well. I can only guess how the past few months have been at the potters’ small home.

I look forward to tonight, and some time spent away.

“I am sure his lady will be beautiful,” says Gwendes. “You must tell me about her as soon as they arrive. If they are similar in personality, I shall feel better.”

“Even if her nature is kind, we cannot think on it further. It was her choice to accept his proposal.”

“You are right, but--”

“The day grows late.” I stack the blank sheet with ones filled with tidy script. “As you know, I have plans to visit my father tonight. And I insist you reach home before the sun sets.”

“You worry too much, my lady.”

I bite my tongue. Gwendes has done nothing but worry over Elros since meeting him. In truth, she worries about most everything. Everything but traipsing around the forest unaccompanied despite an attack which took the lives of three guards.

“If our king is concerned, we should be as well.” My tone brooks no argument. “I shall see you…tomorrow. Maer daw, mellon.”

Once Gwendes leaves, I clear the table and tuck my writings in the drawer. My hand brushes against the cool silver of my mirror. Unsure of what compels me, I grasp the handle and look at my reflection. I rake my fingers through the coarse curls and tuck them behind my ears. Should I change into something nicer? I smooth the soft linen of my green dress. My mismatched eyes stare back at me in the glass. Frowning, I put the mirror away.

My heart thumps in my ears as I cross the narrow bridge over the cavern stream leading to my familiar winding hall. I lift my hand to knock on Ada’s wide arch door, then hesitate, feeling strangely self-conscious.

What has come over me? Is it still Elros? His harsh words left a mark on my confidence; perhaps the wound has not yet healed. Yes, that must be it. I suck in a deep breath and knock.

My father is sitting in his favorite chair, moving his hands enthusiastically as he speaks about trade with Dale. The tall lord opposite him looks up as I enter, and stands.

“I apologize for my tardiness. I lost sense of time.”

“You do that often.” Thranduil gives a flicker of a smile. He motions to the armchair beside his. “Sit. Earlier we were discussing your favorite topic. Sadly, you were not here to defend it…”

I sit down, relaxing with the warming presence of my closest friends. I take the goblet of wine Ada offers, and turn to Thranduil beside me. His azure robes match his eyes. I cannot remember when last I saw him wear so bright a shade.

“Dwarves,” I say flatly. “And it is not my favorite topic, but yours.”

He smirks. Ada chuckles. I cross my legs, making myself comfortable.

“What was it this time? King Dáin’s incompetence in ruling Erebor, or the Men of Dale’s incompetence for being on good terms with him?”

“Actually, your Dwarf king’s supposed wisdom may have proven true,” says Thranduil. “News has been sent from Dale that a messenger from Mordor presented at the gates of the Lonely Mountain offering them an alliance with Sauron. Dáin sent the messenger on his way.”

The room seems to grow dimmer, though the candles are shining still. My mouth goes dry. “These are dark days indeed. Sauron must be readying his forces…”

“He has been for a while,” says Ada gravely. “It is only a matter of time now. It is imperative he does not find the One Ring.”

“Surely it has not been allowed to stay in the hands of the Halfling.” I suppress a shiver, wrapping my arms around myself. “Mithrandir must have it. Tis why he was in such a hurry to reach the Shire…”

“We do not know for certain,” Thranduil says. “But Dáin is preparing for war.”

I lean to the edge of my seat. “Then we must as well. We should call for aid.”

“Our army is highly trained and experienced.”

“The strength of our army is not in question,” I say carefully. “Only its number. We do not have enough soldiers to fight an onslaught from all of Dol Guldur…”

“Nor do we have enough soldiers to spare if our ally requires help in return. Are you willing for our people to die defending another land?”

“Are you willing for all our people to die defending our own? We are vulnerable in this forest.”

His eyes become shadowed. “You know nothing of war, Rîneth.”

I look at Ada, expecting him to defend my reasoning, but he softly shakes his head. Swallowing frustration, I stand and walk to the bookshelf to put some distance between us.

While it is true I know little of wars and battles and death, even an elfling would know that remaining isolated, without help from friends, is foolish. Where is Thranduil’s usual foresight? What hope do we have on our own? Even Ferdir has recommended we seek aid from Lothlórien.

Suddenly I am reminded of his father, Oropher, who wished to remain independent and stubbornly refused to wait for Gil-Galad’s command. He charged his small army into the hands of death. Will his son follow the same path? Will pride destroy a kingdom?

I pretend to be distracted with scanning one of my father’s heavy tomes. Ada begins discussing trade again, as though nothing is amiss. I dare to glance over my shoulder. My gaze collides with Thranduil’s.

“What book have you found?” he asks.

I surreptitiously look at the cover. “Weaponry of the First Age.”

“It sounds like something you would enjoy.”

I close the book with a snap, and hastily place it back on the shelf. “Though not my favorite subject, the illustrations are fascinating, particularly the ones of the various Noldorian bows.”

“I am sure.”

His dark mood has vanished, as though it never existed at all. His mouth bends in a wry smile. Though still frustrated, warmth envelopes my heart, and I reluctantly return to my chair.

Trying to understand Thranduil is like trying to understand the Dwarven language of Khuzdul.

“You are welcome to borrow it, iell nín,” says Ada, amused.

Thranduil picks up my goblet, and his fingers brush lightly against mine as he returns it to my hand. “I doubt merely reading about weaponry will help her to use it, Gailon.”

“Your confidence in me is astounding, my lord.”

The discussion stays on less serious topics, of past memories and amusing stories, any talk of the coming war left for another time. It still dwells heavily in our minds, sedating the mood at first, but as the wine works through our bodies the war starts to feel like something far away.

“I now have a story to tell...” I say. “A Dwarven story.”

“Let us pour more wine first,” Thranduil says. “I have not had enough as yet.”

I giggle, his response just what I had hoped for. “By the time you return, perhaps I will have come up with one. In truth, I do not know any.”

“You tease me with this subject often. I should have known.”

“Perhaps you enjoy being teased?”

“Perhaps I hope for the best in you but are continually disappointed.”

My mock wounded expression makes him chuckle. I feel a tingle in my chest at its sound, and blame it on the wine.

Ada leans forward. “I know a Dwarven story neither of you have heard.”

“Eru spare us.”

“You may recall I was friends with a Dwarf from Erebor before the dragon came…”

“I must pour more wine for our dearest King before you continue, Ada. He will need it.” I stand up, and press my lips tightly together to stifle another laugh.

Chapter Text

Ferdir comes by my chambers and invites me to accompany him for a sunset walk. I can think of no reason to decline. The days are growing shorter with September’s approach, the lavender-blue pincushion flowers along the road to the village among the final blooms of summer.

I pause to touch one of their frilly petals, admiring their enduring spirit, inclined to pluck a few to cheer my rooms but not wishing to disturb their peace. A firey glow from the sky filters through the trees, bathing the earth in warmth. The light touches the river’s surface, turning it to running gold.

I take in the scene before me, memorizing it by heart, for no paintbrush can capture it.

“You look like Goldberry,” says Ferdir. “The River’s daughter.”

I look at him in surprise. “Alas, my river is not the Withywindle, nor am I as ancient as spring.”

“Thankfully not.” He reaches down and plucks one of the pincushion flowers, and tucks it behind my ear. “But this forest belongs to you, and you belong to the forest. The sun’s light gives your hair a firey halo, or perhaps a crown…a woodland queen.”

“I am no queen.” I smile shyly, removing the flower from my hair and pretending to study it. “Only Rîneth.”

Silence falls between us, Ferdir seemingly as lost in his own thoughts as I am mine. His manner of giving compliments so freely reminds me of Nethanar, and despite an inner knowing he harbors no malicious intentions, I feel wary.

“I shall be departing after Mereth Nuin Giliath,” he says. “My aunt has already sent two letters begging my return.”

I walk to the edge of the mossy bank for a better view of the golden river, and lean against a trunk of one of the proud beech trees. “She seems to be attached to you.”

He joins me. “When my mother died, Adar thought I should be raised by her sister. She is like…a mother to me. And to her I am a son.”

“Why did your father not raise you?”

“At that time he had many duties. He traveled far and wide, to realms of both Elves and Men. He did not believe he could raise an elfling on his own.”

I imagine Lord Amdiron trying to rear a child and silently agree.

“I feel much guilt when I leave her,” he continues. “My aunt and uncle never had children, for reasons I am not privy to. It was planned for me to return to the Greenwood after I reached adulthood, but when I did not, King Thranduil believed I lacked respect for my father.”

And there it is: the reason for Thranduil’s disdain towards Ferdir. Ever since his arrival I have pondered it, never feeling at ease to ask about it. The King places Amdiron in high regard, not only for his loyalty and respect, but for being at his side through every battle. It makes sense he would believe Amdiron deserved the same respect, especially from his son.

“Shall you ever live here permanently?”

“Yes.” He leans his hand against the trunk above me. “The reason my aunt is so desperate for my return is due to them leaving soon for the Grey Havens. Afterwards, I shall live here.”

“Their departure must be difficult for you.”

“Yes, certainly.”

But I see only a touch of sadness in his dark eyes, as though he speaks of mere acquaintances.

“At least you shall experience Mereth Nuin Giliath. I doubt it compares to the festivals in Lórien, but here the song and dance continue through the night, until the sun’s rising.”

His sideways grin returns. “The Elves of the Greenwood love a good party.”

“Tis true. And we love to dance.”

“Then you and I shall dance the entire night.”

I gasp as he suddenly pulls me into his arms. Around the riverbank he leads me in a dance, his angular face full of delight, as though he has waited for this all summer. My legs feel wobbly until my initial shock wanes. I decide to humor him, allowing him to lead me between the trees, and I tilt my head back in laughter after a dramatic twirl. He gives me a wink when he finally lets go.

“You are quite skilled, my lord.”

“I hope I continue to surprise you, my lady.”

I return to my prior spot against the beech trunk, an unpleasant knot tangling in my stomach. I wish he would stop looking as though he has just won a battle. Or my heart.

“Tell me, have you solved the great mystery?” I ask.

“The mystery of the harp?” Ferdir shakes his head, strands of his black hair flying away with the gentle evening breeze. “I still have my suspicions, even though you do not share them.”

“Nay, I do not believe it was the King.”

“You know him far better than I, so it is settled. It was not our dearest King Thranduil Oropherion,” he says, his tone unconvincing. “Poor Lady Caewen. Unless her admirer reveals himself soon, she may be left to spend the ages with her mother…”

“You speak as though not marrying is the ultimate doom.”

“It is when you are Caewen. Her father left them with hardly any silver to their name. She must learn a skill so may live comfortably until she crosses the Sea.”

“Caewen is young and beautiful. I have little doubt she will find a mate.”

“She is beautiful, yes, but she is no you.”

My cheeks grow warm, and the unpleasant knot in my stomach tangles further. I excuse myself with a strained smile, stating a need to finish chores before the day’s end.

As I reach the arch bridge, I let the pincushion flower fall from my hand to the river below, a small touch of blue in a rush of gold. It is carried to the other side of the bridge towards the shadows, where the water is dark gray, and I see its happy speck of color for a moment more. Then it is gone.

 

888

 

It is the eve of Mereth Nuin Giliath when Elros and his betrothed arrive from Imladris. As I walk to my chambers, passing by the carved pillars which rise to the ceiling like ancient trees, I catch a glimpse of her. She stands with Elros at the foot of Thranduil’s high throne, paying her respects to her new king. From what little I can see from a distance, she is petite and elegantly dressed, with hair the same silvery blonde as Thranduil’s.

Though her face is hidden, I doubt she is an ugly duckling.

I do not mention her to Gwendes, deciding to distract the younger elleth by inviting her to my chambers before the feast and letting her choose a gown from my wardrobe.

“I am not sure this shade suits me.” Gwendes bites her lip as she stares at the looking glass.

No other color could suit her more. I assure her of it no less than a dozen times. The cerulean blue satin contrasts beautifully with her strawberry hair, which I arranged in a loosely-plaited bun at the nape of her neck. She wears a twisting gold circlet, sloped in a V-shape on her forehead. Though I shall never tell Gwendes, Elros will question his decision after seeing her.

“You look radiant,” I say. “I would not lie to you.”

Gwendes is finally convinced enough to look away from her reflection. She turns her attention to me. “Perhaps I am only envious of your gown, my lady. It gleams like a waterfall under a full moon’s light. Lord Ferdir’s eyes will not stray for even a moment.”

I glance down at my slate beaded gown, and the sheer silver-veined fabric draping over my shoulders and trailing to the floor. I wonder not for the first time if I should have chosen something more subdued.

“His eyes may stray all they like. In truth, I would prefer if they did.”

Gwendes lets out a soft sigh. “But he is someone to dance with. Tis my favorite night of the year and I am without a partner. I am sure Elros will dance with only his lady.”

“Someone shall ask you to dance, Gwendes. I am sure of it. Let us go before we are late for the feast.”

We leave the cavern halls and join the parade of others in a merry walk to the practice grounds, now cleared away to make room for the entire kingdom. I pause to take in the sight. Large silver lanterns hang in the surrounding trees, twinkling brightly, as though the stars have descended to watch our celebration. They cast a glow over the long oak tables adorned with platters of stuffed fish and quail, oversized bowls of venison stew and sweet rolls, fresh greens and fruit and tiered honey cakes with ivory frosting. Harp and flute song mingle with happy laughter from several elflings running over the open field. The chilly evening air seems to tingle with excited anticipation from Sindar and Silvan alike, the one occasion in a year where we are joined together without reservation. The Feast of Starlight.

I feel a pleasant warmth in my chest as I soak it in. I walk towards the tables to find a seat, Gwendes trailing behind. 

The King’s proud chair from the Dining Hall is now positioned at the centermost table. Thranduil stands behind it and speaks with my father, his tall branched crown now entwined with berries and red leaves of autumn. Ada says something to him, and he turns to look at me. He bows his head.

He has always been striking with his tall stature, even more so when he wears his crown, but he is most magnificent on Mereth Nuin Giliath. His robes of blue-gray shimmer in the lantern light like a beacon in the night. They are the same color as mine. I hide a smile.

“Our king is very handsome,” Gwendes says.

“He is.”

There is no denying it. He outshines every lord and lady present, even the forest stars with their celestial light.

Ferdir insists on sitting beside me during the feast. But he speaks little, giving only approving murmurs for each dish he samples. He withholds his usual bevy of compliments, even though I am more lavishly dressed than usual. Instead of feeling disappointment, my spirits lighten. Perhaps he will not wish to dance after all…

“Have a look at Caewen’s hair,” Ferdir whispers. “Do you suppose it was Lady Aethel’s idea, or her own?”

I allow a circumspect glance towards Caewen, not wishing her to believe she is the topic of gossip. I look again, wondering if I have missed something. Her hair is exquisite, gathered atop her head with white jewels placed at random, and cascading down her back in golden curls. I wish I had thought of it instead.

“Perhaps it is in honor of her admirer.”

“It will surely scare him away.”

I smile, but it does not reach my eyes. Why is Caewen the object of his disdain? I consider asking him, but think better of it. For the remainder of the supper I give my attention to Gwendes instead, and try my best to distract her from watching Elros and his bride-to-be. It proves an impossible task.

“…but I do not see much affection on her part. The way she looks at him would make one wonder if….”

My gaze wanders down the length of the table. Gwendes’ voice blends in with the music and enthusiastic chatter until I no longer hear it. There is my father, and Lord Amdiron, and Thranduil, whose stony face is carved with a smile for once. I lean closer, my curiosity piqued…

“She is walking this way!” Gwendes says. “What ever shall I say to her?”

I reluctantly turn back around, feeling more than a touch of frustration. “Be yourself, mellon.”

We stand to greet her.

Emlinith is of small stature for the Eldar. Though pretty-faced with bow lips and moon-pool eyes, her thin brows are even lighter than her hair, disappearing into alabaster skin. She wears an ornate crown upon her blonde mane, of silver and crystals and pearls, as though she is a princess of Arda rather than a maiden of Imladris.

“I saw you from the other end of the table and knew I must speak to you. I am acquainted with your sister,” she says, ignoring Gwendes.

“What a lovely surprise. You must tell me about your friendship…”

Emlinith’s mouth curves in the semblance of a smile. “Regrettably, your sister has been busy with her child of late and keeps to her own family. A pity, really. A friendship has been difficult to…achieve.”

I pause, taken aback. “I am sure once my nephew is older she will have more time to spare. She is the kindest being you could possibly know.”

“I shall take your word for it.” Her smile turns sour, and her eyes rove over me boldly. “That is quite the remarkable gown. Where did you come by it?”

“I drew the design myself. But I had the seamstresses make it, for I do not have much skill with the needle.”

I notice Emlinith’s robes are a garish pink. I have never liked pink.

“Oh yes, your sister mentioned you are a skilled artist. Yet you work as the King’s scribe?” she asks, as though a lowlier position does not exist.

I now understand why my sister did not pursue a friendship. In truth, I am sure I have never met someone more dislikable, save for the time I ran into a cave troll with Legolas when we were children.

“I feel honored to have the position. What did you do in Imladris, Lady Emlinith?”

She gives a half-suppressed laugh, and swiftly covers her mouth with her dainty fingers as though it is accidental. “What did I do? I had no need to do anything. Elros prefers it to stay that way.”

“I see.”

“I really must return to him. I am sure we will be speaking often. Novaer.”

As soon as Emlinith turns away, I exchange a glance with Gwendes. We break into helpless wide smiles.

“Perhaps we should feel sorry for Elros instead,” I whisper, meaning it.

Chapter Text

When the King signals the supper’s end, my hopes are overturned when Ferdir follows through with his promise. He takes my hand and leads me to the open field where others are beginning to gather. The clipped grass is an endless silvery floor beneath my feet, reflecting light from the surrounding tree lanterns. Voices whisper excitedly about the musicians and the stars and the dancing to come. I feel a surge of relief at the start of the familiar song. It is one of the Greenwood’s own: a group dance.

With Ferdir’s hand on my waist and his other flattened against my palm, we dance in an intimate circle until the exchange of partners. An enthusiastic guard with dusty-blond hair takes my hand next, his rounded facial features giving away his young age. The lively song’s tempo increases. I notice Sírdor’s mother among the musicians, fluttering her fingers across her harp with a contented smile.

After several energetic group dances, the mood changes when the flutist plays the opening somber notes of The Sea-Bell. The harpists follow in accord as the singer’s delicate voice rises in the velvety night air. Ferdir appears distracted as we dance alone. His dark eyes dart to places behind me, his mouth a thin line pulling downward.

I clear my throat. “You are quite good at this.”

His gaze returns. “Thank you, my lady.”

“Did your aunt teach you?”

“My aunt? Alas, she cannot dance to save all of Elvendom. I taught myself.” 

“All the more impressive.”

Ferdir grins, but his gaze does not linger.

Whatever the reason for his odd behavior, it is not enough for him to take his seat. If anything, he seems more adamant to stay at my side. Does he intend to dance with me until the stars burn out? I know it should be a thrill to have him as a partner, a proud lord of Lòrien eager for my company, but my heart is not in it. Whether it is because of his strange mood, or my own, I cannot say.

My gaze leaps to Thranduil. He is as conspicuous as a moon-lit mallorn tree as he watches the dancing from afar. Lady Aethel is speaking to him, her hands gesturing as animatedly as her expressions despite his lack of attention. As though sensing he is being watched, he suddenly locks eyes with mine. I hold them for a single breath before Ferdir’s steps move us in the opposite direction.

The feel of his hand pressing hard against my waist makes me stiffen. My movements become wooden and forced, and I feel a strong desire to flee. Since the evening’s start, more than one elleth has given me an envious stare. How I wish he would dance with them instead…

Offering the explanation of needing a drink, I excuse myself mid-song. Circlet-crowned heads turn to look as I leave the dancing floor abruptly. I take a wine goblet and make my way to Gwendes, who is sitting at a table alone, like an undiscovered sapphire in a sea of shiny crystals.

“I believe you broke Lord Ferdir’s heart.”

“I did no such thing.”

But it is true he appears out of sorts, even lost. He leaves the dancing throng and joins Lady Aethel, who has given up trying to converse with the King. How strange it is he would seek the mother of the elleth he so despises. Caewen, however, has danced with many partners already, all respectable lords.

“Do you not fancy him?” Gwendes’ tone is clipped. She is breaking apart a sweet roll with more force than necessary. “He seems keen.”

I swallow, and take a seat. I have entered troubled waters. “I like him as a friend. As anything more, I do not believe so.”

“Why?”

“He is very affectionate, offering honeyed words and acting as if I am a prized gemstone, but it is overdone for my liking. Our conversations are mundane at best…he speaks of himself more than anything. He does not excite me.”

“That is not how I felt even about Sírdor,” she says, her face softening.

I look at Ferdir again. His sideways smile makes a brief appearance while he listens to Aethel. “I see he cares for me. He is very kind. Yet his overt attention makes me uncomfortable. And he is--”

“Arrogant?”

“Perhaps. I do not sense he has malicious intent. Yet the manner he speaks of others...” I shake my head. “It is clear he does not like Caewen, yet he now talks with her mother as if she is dear to him. I believe he wears another face.”

“He cannot be worse than Emlinith, no matter how many faces he wears.” She motions to the other end of the table.

I look in time to witness Emlinith refusing her betrothed’s request to join him dancing, her plummy voice loud enough to reach the ears of children nearby. They giggle. Elros takes a few steps backwards and busies himself with straightening his chestnut brown tunic.

“She must really not like dancing,” whispers Gwendes.

“I doubt she likes much of anything, especially him. She was likely desperate, and Elros had a suitable enough lineage. I doubt many lords were lined up to ask for her hand.”

“Poor Elros.” Gwendes watches intently as he walks down the path leading back to the keep. “Perhaps he is reconsidering....”

“Do not even think it for a moment. It is time to set your sights on someone far superior to Elros. Have you…seen Sírdor tonight?”

When her frown returns, I regret mentioning him.

“No one will ask me to dance.”

I would have stayed home in my quiet, too-large chambers and forgotten the feast entirely if it meant Ferdir would dance with Gwendes instead of me.

“The night is far from over, mellon,” I say. “You must move closer. You are much likelier to be asked if he can clearly see you in his sights.”

It is with some reluctance Gwendes leaves the safety of her chair and edges closer to the dancing. With her arms tightly wound around her chest and her gaze darting back to the table, she looks more like a frightened rabbit than a willing dance partner.

My feet guide me away from my troubled friend and the throng of jewel-toned dancers to the far edge of the field. A brisk wind lifts my long curls and silver-veined cape, as though attempting to pull me back to the party.

I am not deterred. Here I have a closer view of the hanging lanterns, a tradition which came to life during King Oropher’s reign. The intensity of their glow burns into my vision, and when I shut my eyes I see their bright starry imprints.

The forest is well-guarded tonight, especially with the entire kingdom in one place. How odd it is that we celebrate at all. Death and darkness suffocate our home, our world. Will the Woodland Realm have another Feast of Starlight? Or will next year, and all the years to come, belong to Sauron?

Perhaps it is the true reason my heart is elsewhere, far from the dance and song, far from my kin who choose to remain oblivious of what is to come…

“Rîneth.”

I whip around, my breath catching in my throat.

“What are you doing here alone?” asks Thranduil.

“I…needed some momentary solitude.”

His eyes reflect the tree stars. He narrows them. “Since when have you needed solitude on Mereth Nuin Giliath? You even have an eager dancing partner. He has been looking for you.”

“I do not doubt it.” I look away from his probing stare. “I needed a change of scenery for a time. Is that really so curious, my lord?”

“For you, it is.”

My vision falls on his intricate elk brooch, and the shimmery blue-grey fabric of his robes. The shade is not the same as mine as I first believed, but richer, more mysterious. Like its wearer. I have a strange desire to reach out and touch it. “Is that why you followed me? Curiosity?”

“No.” His mouth quirks.

“Did my father ask you to come? He worries far too--”

“I came to ask you to dance with me. But if you would prefer to stand here and watch the trees for the remainder of the night, I shall not try to convince you otherwise.” 

I open my mouth, but my tongue will not move. If a fire-drake from the mountains flew over our cheerful celebration and breathed its flames down on us in a scarlet rage, I could not be more surprised.

“Have you become mute?”

“Of course not.” I feel heat in my cheeks. “You caught me by surprise; that is all. Since when has the King joined the dancing?”

“Since tonight,” he says simply, as though it explains everything. “Come.”

My feet stubbornly remain rooted to the ground as he walks ahead, his robes trailing on the grass, his silhouette tall and proud. With a great force of will I move my legs and hurry to catch up with him, and wonder if someone has slipped something into my wine. Or his.

As we near the crowd of dancers, he removes his voluminous outer robe and hands it to my father. Ada’s serene expression shows no surprise, as though this occurs every evening and always has.

Thranduil holds out his arm. The raised texture of his tunic under my hand is soft, a stark contrast to the hard muscle underneath.

Like wind through a field of summer barley, the crowd parts to make way for the King. Their faces show a mixture of disbelief and astonishment; it has been before the Queen’s death when they last saw him do anything so frivolous. I maintain my composure, even when he clasps his hand to mine, and places his other at my hip. I am convinced the jolt in my stomach is due to the unfamiliarity of his closeness. It is not as if I have ever danced with him before.

It feels strange, daring even, just resting my hand on his shoulder.

A nod from the King is the only signal the musicians need to begin the next song. I recognize the first opening harp notes like a brilliant sunlit day. I look at him in surprise. I have not heard my mother’s song in at least a hundred years.

“White Sails on a Glittering Sea.”

“I believed you would enjoy hearing it.”

“You are full of surprises tonight.” I smile, carefully following his steps. “Are you certain you have not fallen under a forest spell?”

“I am immune to such enchantments. Are you?”

“I do not know.”

If it is true that Thranduil has not danced since his wife’s death, no one could dare say he has lost his ability. His movements are smooth, elegant, and controlled. And while not as playful as Ferdir, he moves me across the silver floor with a graceful command Ferdir lacks. The other dancers allow us a wide berth, as though afraid to come too close.

“Tis good to have you dancing with us, for once.”

“It may never happen again.” His voice is serious, but his half-smile betrays him. “You should feel privileged.”

“I should, yes. But what I feel most is bewilderment.”

“Bewilderment that I can dance?”

“No, though I shall say you are very good at it.” I swallow as the pressure of his hand on my hip increases. “My…bewilderment comes from the reality that you are dancing at all.”

“I see.”

The flute plays a lovely tremolo, and for the briefest of moments I shut my eyes and see the still waters of the Gulf of Lune, a proud ship with a sail like a large cloud resting at the harbor, awaiting a voyage to a distant land. I stand on a high grassy bank overlooking the scene, my spirit soaring. I turn to look beside me. But there is no one there, only grass and air and forever.

“When my mother wrote this song, she was soon to make her journey to the Havens. I have oft wondered why she felt the Sea-longing so strongly. It is strange for a Silvan elf.”

“She is a dreamer, like you. Yet her heart was not contented in the forest alone. When evil began to take hold, she grew restless, and her paintings became scenes of ships and the Sea. But paintings were not enough. Not for her.”

I smile wistfully. “She tried to convince us to come with her. Ada told her it was not time, Faeleth and I were far too young, and he still had work to do here. I am sure you remember his devastation at her departure…”

“I remember yours as well.”

“I was young. I did not understand. I confess I still do not. But I hear the Sea-longing is stronger than anything…do you ever feel it?”

He looks away. “No.”

I am called by the Sea, the light beyond the shore

And voices of the people who have traveled before;

For I cannot find peace in the Wood anymore

Today I will go, and soon I will see,

White sails on a glittering, glittering sea

“I know you did not leave the celebration earlier only for a change of scenery,” he says. “What troubled you?”

“It matters not. Do I look troubled now?”

“No.” He twirls me around, then pulls me against him and moves his mouth over my ear. “You look beautiful.”

Before his words settle, the song is over in a final gentle wave of notes like a tranquil sea, and he lets go of me. I find myself clapping with the crowd. Whether they applaud for their king, or my mother’s song of homecoming, I cannot say. But I clap for my friend, and the thrill of the dance, and the hope there will be another.

Feeling emboldened, I open my mouth to ask. But Ferdir steals the moment, causing a stir as he jostles through the throng to reach us. His dark eyes meet the King’s in a silent challenge, but his voice carries dutiful respect as he asks permission to take his place as my partner.

I decide to answer for him. “Perhaps later we could--”

“You may,” Thranduil says. He looks at me, his face impassive, though I am certain I see a flash of irritation. He bows his head. “No veren, Rîneth.”

Be joyous. I feel a pang in my chest as he leaves, like I have lost something dear. Who is Ferdir to believe I prefer his company over the King’s?

I say nothing as he takes my hand. Nor do I speak when the music begins, a blur of sound I cannot discern as a song. It is only noise. And only a dance.

“I know I am no equal to King Thranduil,” he says after a time.

Be joyous, Rîneth.

“I…apologize. My mind has been elsewhere tonight.” I force a smile.

“You seemed much more spirited when you were with him, my lady.”

“If you knew our friendship, it would not surprise you.”

“What surprises me is that you are friends to begin with.”

“Why should it?”

“You are kind, full of warmth and light,” he says. “He is cold and unyielding, like ice clinging to a branch in midwinter.”

A sound fills my ears unbidden. It is Thranduil’s warm laughter as he listens to Ada enthusiastically tell a Dwarven story. I remember it as though it was only a few breaths ago, and can hear it as clear as the bells of Elvenhome.

“He has been through more than you know.” My voice is taut. Our dancing slows. “You should not judge him until you know him as I.”

“I doubt I shall ever know him as you, Rîneth.”

A wintry wind returns, a dancer of another kind, giving me gooseflesh and making me wish for a cloak. Or my chambers, shielded by impassible stone. Ferdir could not bother me there.

“I believe Caewen has danced with every eligible elf in the kingdom tonight.”

“Save for you,” I say.

“I count it as a mercy.” His eyes narrow as he follows Caewen’s movements behind my shoulder.

“I cannot say I am surprised by her popularity.”

He frowns. “She appears desperate.”

“She is not doing the asking.”

If not for the uncomfortable silence which overtakes him, I might finally brave asking why he dislikes Caewen. But the start of yet another song makes me weary, and whether my friendship with Ferdir endures the night matters little to me now. He is soon to leave for Lòrien. I cannot bear to dance with him much longer.

My eyes rove the crowd for Gwendes. Standing in the same spot where I left her, she is looking at her slippers, her posture dispirited. I plan to go to her as soon as the song finishes. But what can I say in consolation? I had assured her someone would ask her to dance. Yet no one has.

Thranduil reaches her before I can, holding out his arm in a request for a dance. A dance with the King. Gwendes’ eyes light up like moons. She smiles nervously as she takes his proffered arm, her face revealing a pretty blush. The crowd parts again as he leads her to the dancing floor.

I watch behind Ferdir’s shoulder as Thranduil guides Gwendes’ steps with effortless control, making her appear an accomplished dancer. Everyone is avidly staring in interest, for who expected the King to dance at all, let alone twice? I am as surprised as the onlookers. Perhaps more.

“Our king is cold, you say?”

“It may be that dancing with you melted the ice tonight, but tomorrow he will be the same as yesterday, and the day before it.”

Ferdir excuses himself, stating a need to rest before his journey in the morning. Feeling peace with his absence, I happily watch Gwendes dance for the duration of the night. After dancing with the King, she never lacks for another partner.

Artwork by the fantastic hatteeho, commissioned for Stars of Varda by Maggie Shivers.

Chapter Text

A knock echoes through my chambers as soon as I sit down in front of a noonday breakfast of buttered bread with pears and cheese. It must be Gwendes. Doubtful I am awake enough to make an adequate listening companion, I pad to the door and hope she will not mention Elros for once.

After dancing with nearly every eligible lord in the kingdom last night, surely Elros is long forgotten.

But behind the oak entry is Ferdir, still missing his usual cocked smile and warm disposition. I lead him in the room and offer a seat on my settee, making little effort to hide my confusion. Had we not parted amicably enough only hours ago? After our strained conversation during the party, surely there is nothing more to be said.

“I admit I am surprised to see you.” I take a seat in the chair opposite. “Did you not say you were departing this morning?”

“I had everything prepared and my horse saddled, but I realized I could not leave without seeing you again. It lies heavy on my heart…” He trails off, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.

I outwardly remain a still pond, even as blood surges at my temples. The scene is reminiscent of Elros’ fateful visit not long ago.

“Would you like something to eat before your journey? I have bread and cheese, even fruit…”

“I have already shared a meal with my father, but thank you.” His gaze is fixated on my writing desk, though I wonder if he sees it at all. “You have shown me much kindness since my arrival, Rîneth. You have made me feel I belong here, not in Lothlórien.”

“But what about your father? What about Legolas, and your friends from the Guard? They have welcomed you warmly enough.”

“Yes, of course. They have.” He moves his eyes back to mine, a touch of tenderness in their bronze depths. “You are too humble if you believe you have not had a large part in me feeling at home here.”

“You are kind, but--”

“I am well aware my behavior last night was…strange. And I apologize for it. I assure you that you were not the cause. I am most grateful for your friendship.”

Relief washes over me like a soft April rain. I manage a smile. Friendship is good. I know how to be a friend. Anything more is uncharted territory, a strange sea without a shoreline in sight. I do not wish to explore it with him. I know I never shall.

“I am grateful for yours as well, and I appreciate your apology. I admit you had me wondering.”

The sweet smell of pear wafts under my nose, reminding me of my untouched breakfast. If only Ferdir would take his leave before my stomach rumbles and gives me away…

“It should not come as a surprise to hear what I say next. I only wish I told you from the start.” He leans forward and wets his lips.

Panic grips me. It is as I feared. I stand up abruptly before he can continue. “Would you like some wine, my lord?”

“Wine?” he asks, bemused. “Not now. I was about to tell you something rather important…”

“Are you certain? It is no trouble at all.”

“Without doubt.” His eyes flash with restrained frustration. “Have you been listening to me at all?”

“I have.” I feel flames in my cheeks as I sit back down. They are likely the shade of plum. “Please forgive me. It was a long night. I did not have much rest.”

Seemingly contented by my reply, he ploughs on, oblivious to my discomfort. “You are perceptive. You surely know what I am about to say, even before I utter the words.”

“I cannot say I do.” My heart reaches the pace of a running doe.

“Really? I was certain…” His forehead furrows, and he falls into silence.

I clear my throat. “Ferdir, I am of the opinion you should make haste while the sun is still high and bright. Since the incident with our prisoner, I believe there is a cause for concern. You should have left at dawn…”

“I should have. But I first wished to say farewell to Lady Caewen and her mother. It was the respectable thing to do.”

“Of course…”

Glancing down at my lap, I hope I can disguise my incredulity. It seems impossible he would feel obligated to visit them as he has no close ties with either mother or daughter. Certainly not a tie of friendship. But what reason would he have to lie?

“You are right. I need not delay any longer. I apologize for my confusing manner. I was mistaken in thinking you knew my…” He shakes his head dismissively, and stands. “Farewell, Lady Rîneth. Until we meet again. I do not believe it will be long.”

Ferdir places his hand against his chest and then brings it forward, bowing his head in a sign of affection between the Eldar.

I return the gesture, not knowing what I feel more: relief, confusion or guilt. As if I sail on a stormy sea, I feel tossed to and fro by all emotions at once, yet still maintain a tight hold on the mast.

“Namárië.”

 

888

 

I manage to finish my breakfast before there is another rap at the door. The adventure novel I chose for escaping my conflicting feelings will have to wait until the evening. It is surely Gwendes this time, and she will stay for a while. My hand grips the door handle, and I open it to find Ferdir’s dark eyes staring at me again. But unlike before, he is not alone.

My throat tightens, momentarily cutting off my air. “O Elbereth. Tell me she is unhurt…”

“I found her in time,” he says, holding an ashen-faced Gwendes, her limbs hanging like a marionette without its strings.

“What happened?”

“She was attacked by an orc.”

Gwendes is weak but conscious, her eyes fluttering open at my voice. “I asked him to bring me here. I…did not wish to cause my parents unnecessary shock…I am fine, truly…”

I swiftly lead Ferdir to the settee where he lays Gwendes down and gently places a goose-down cushion under her head. It is only after inspecting her and finding no injury or reason for concern when my heart ceases pummeling like a battering ram.

“Tell me everything,” I say. “From the beginning.”

Gwendes takes a deep, shaky breath. “I was walking by the river picking berries. You know how I oft go down that path.”

“And you know how I have warned you of the dangers.”

“I believed the area was safe or I would never have gone. I have seen guards there, Rîneth. But today was different. I sensed something strange, a certain stillness, and turned back…”

Ferdir continues the story. “I was passing by the area and heard a distressed shout. I rode in that direction and saw her being attacked by a rogue orc. I must say, she was giving a good fight.”

“You had a weapon on hand, Gwendes?” I ask.

“Only a small knife I always keep with me, if ever I need use of it. I was able to cut its arm, which gave Lord Ferdir enough time to loosen his arrow.”

“The creature did succeed in pushing her to the ground.” He looks down at Gwendes, and touches her shoulder. “It was not your day to die, my lady. Are you certain you are well?”

Color is slowly returning to Gwendes’ cheeks. She gives a reassuring smile. “I am, though I do not believe it would be so if you had not heard my cry. I am forever in your debt.”

“Stay alive, my lady, and consider the debt paid.”

I notice how their voices carry a measure of fondness. Gwendes especially has a tenderness in her gaze as she looks up at him, and Ferdir has not yet released her shoulder.

“You must return to us as soon as you are able,” I say, addressing Ferdir. “If this is not sufficient proof we need you in the Guard, I do not know what is.”

“I shall return. But now I must give these grave tidings to King Thranduil. He will want to know an orc slipped past the borders and attempted to attack one of his own. There may be more to follow.”

A shiver runs down my arms, though my chambers are warm. “Stay another night at least. Do not travel until we know if there are more. Your aunt can wait one more day.”

“I agree.” He looks at Gwendes. “I shall visit you tomorrow to see how you fare. I advise you not to go picking berries by the river again…”

Her smile is playful, her color fully returned. “As long as I carry my knife, why should I not?”

“You make a good point.”

We bid him farewell, and he leaves my chambers once more. But I suspect I shall not see him again before his departure from the realm.

“It was more frightening than I made it out to be,” Gwendes says when the door is closed. “I…did not wish Lord Ferdir to think me timid.”

“You are anything but timid. I am glad you have some skill with the knife.”

“It was a skill I did not know I had.” She sits up. “I would not have been able to keep the creature off for much longer, Rîneth. Its blade was much larger than mine. And it was stronger.”

We sit in silence for a time, each in our own deepest ruminations. The only sounds are the distant trickle of water from the cavern stream, and Gwendes’ soft breathing as she stares at the goblet of wine I gave her.

If not for Ferdir, my young friend would have been slain. It is a thought both terrifying and impossible to comprehend. What was a lone orc doing in our part of the Wood? What more can be done to protect our isolated homeland? There are not enough guards.

And now we are without two of the best: Legolas and Ferdir.

“I must tell you something which will surely make you proud,” Gwendes says suddenly, shattering the dark stillness of the room.

“I cannot imagine that anything you say will make me prouder than knowing you are alive.”

She shrugs, and absently wipes away some dirt remaining on her hands. “It is just...I do not love Elros anymore.”

“When did you come to this happy realization?”

“Recently,” she whispers, as though telling a secret. Her smile turns shy. “I have developed feelings for…another. But I do not wish to say his name and ruin it. Can you guess whom I speak?”

Remembering the exchange of fond looks between Ferdir and Gwendes, I feel a tingle of warmth in my chest. If it is true she has developed feelings for her rescuer, I shall not object. Though my matchmaking days are over, the pairing makes obvious sense.

“I believe I have an inkling. But I shall not say his name either.”

“I know it is not meant to be. He is too far above me. He is as the endless stars, and I am but a mere woodland plant…”

“You know how I feel about that ridiculous way of thinking.”

“Even you should think me ridiculous for this. But tell me, do I have even the smallest reason to hope?”

I recall Ferdir’s words to Gwendes: “Stay alive, my lady, and consider the debt paid.”

“Yes, you should. But for now we must say no more about it, lest the same thing happens as with Elros. I do not wish your heart to break again.”

Chapter Text

(Artwork for this chapter by elithien/Eli Draws, commissioned by the wonderful Maggie Shivers)

 

Following Gwendes’ frightening encounter, King Thranduil joined the Guard in scouring the realm and beyond the borders to ensure a host of orcs were not awaiting an attack on the kingdom.

But not even the Guard’s most skilled tracker could find evidence of foul activity, even in the dry weather conditions. Another spider nest had sprung near the southernmost edge of the border, which Tauriel led in successfully destroying. Yet there was no clear explanation for the lone orc’s appearance so near the village other than it wishing to find more interesting prey.

Thranduil looms over my shoulder in my scriptorium, giving precise instructions on what to include in a recorded account of the recent happenings.

“Mention Feren’s involvement as well. He and Tauriel have been paramount in destroying the nests in Legolas’ absence.”

My quill scratches against the parchment as I write. “I shall also make mention of Lord Ferdir. If not for him, we would have lost one of our own.”

“Anyone else would have done the same.” His tone turns cold, like the autumn winds which have snatched the leaves from the beech trees by the river.

My quill stops scratching. “While I agree with you, he was the one who was there. Should he not be honored for his bravery?”

“If it had been Elros, would you still wish to honor him? Or is it because Ferdir looks more the hero?”

I cast a bemused glance over my shoulder. “What do you have against him?”

Thranduil leaves his position behind me, and walks over to examine my mother’s oil painting of Lindon. He rests his arm on the top of my bookshelf, the metal of his rings reflecting the light from the wall sconce.

“He has not seen much of battle,” he says. “He has remained coddled in his aunt’s home in Lòrien while the rest of his kin have fought to defend our realm. His own father has fought by my side many times. He was there when we came against the fire-drake at Gundabad…” He reaches up to touch his face.

“Yes, of course--”

“He would have you believe he has slain a fire-drake mightier than Smaug, and saved Elvendom single-handedly.”

I clamp my lips to keep them from turning upwards. While it is true Ferdir vaunts himself more than I prefer, and often grips the hilt of his sword with a smug grin, he has never once mentioned slaying dragons.

“He is a little arrogant at times, that is true, but he saved my friend’s life. Thus I cannot say much ill about him.”

The steel in his eyes sharpens. “You cannot say much ill about him because he charmed you.”

“What is wrong with charm?”

Thranduil studies me, his expression inscrutable. His grey robes rustle as he moves to stand in front of the table. The palms of his hands rest on the varnished oak as he leans over.

“If charm is what you seek, you shall have it in abundance with Ferdir.”

Deciding to hold my tongue, I return to my writing. In truth, I could do without Ferdir’s overdone charm, but he is not as dislikeable as Thranduil has depicted him. Even if he does use his aunt’s home as a hideaway from his troubled homeland, he has been kind to me.

But I have learned that when Thranduil is in a disagreeable mood, it is best to leave him be and allow the storm to pass. I surmise his current thunder is due to the stressful events of late, and Ferdir is being used as a target.

I expect him to take his leave at my intentional silence, and not achieving the argument he desires, but he lingers. He walks around the large chamber and continually pauses to study various objects.

The brown feather of my quill tickles underneath my chin as I move it with my fingers, and I realize I have stopped writing to watch him. I re-ink it and bend back over the parchment.

“You may make mention of Ferdir, but Tauriel and Feren take precedence, at least in this account,” he says after a time.

My heart leaps at the small victory.

“Does Legolas ever speak of his continued feelings for Tauriel?” I ask, changing topics before he can attack Ferdir again.

“He does not speak to me about anything of a personal nature.”

I finish writing a sentence and put down my quill, giving him my full attention. My victory, no matter how small, has given me courage. “Perhaps because he does not feel he can?”

A familiar crease forms in the center of his forehead, one which often appears when he is in deep thought. “He knows I am his father.”

“He knows you are the King,” I say carefully. “You must give him a reason to believe he can see you as anything else.”

His brows pull together. “Speak plainly, Rîneth.”

“You must treat him as a father treats his son, not as a king treats his guards. He needs you. And your approval.”

The warmth from the room is swept away in an instant, the temperature dropping to match the crisp coolness of the outdoors. My robes suddenly feel too light. My bounding courage withers and dies.

“But it is my hope,” I say, veering the discussion to calmer waters, “he shall find a lady worthy of him in Imladris. Faeleth may know someone…”

He quirks his brow, a spark of warmth returning. “Ever the matchmaker.”

“I have retired from that position.”

“If only I believed you.”

He makes his way towards the door without announcing his departure. I feel a small twist of regret that I shall be left alone again, even though my companion had been moodier than a Halfling going without a proper meal.

“I will see you at dinner,” he says. “Unless you are too busy in your writings to remember to come.”

“I shall be there.”

“Good.” He grips the handle, then hesitates.

“Is there anything else?”

He opens the door and enters the hallway before answering. “No.”

I listen to the echo of his boots slap the stone-floored passageway until an oppressive silence takes its place. Feeling a desperate need to busy myself, I soon lose myself in my writings and forget about the silence, and my friend’s strange behavior.

 

888

 

“In Imladris they have far more scrolls and books than here in Mirkwood, many dating back to even before your king’s birth. But your sister must have told you about them.”

I have the misfortune of sitting beside Elros’ betrothed at supper, who wears a gown a shade brighter than daffodil, or the sun. Where in Arda did she attain the fabric? Surely not from the elegant halls of Imladris.

Even Halflings wear less vibrant colors.

“It has been since Faeleth’s wedding when I last visited, but I could never forget the vast libraries of the House of Elrond.”

Emlinith finishes her bite of apple cake, and dabs her mouth delicately with her linen cloth. “Do you not feel envious? I wonder if Thranduil would allow you to move there to live with your sister.”

Thranduil? How disrespectful to mention the King without his title. Even I have never done so in the presence of anyone save Ada. I move my eyes to Thranduil, who is in a rapt discussion with Caewen and appears oblivious to what occurred.

He nods his head while listening to her, even offering a smile as she continues gesturing enthusiastically. The harp and flute play a light melody, reminding me of the crimson leaves floating on the Forest River. The mood in the Dining Hall is much like the song.

I return my gaze to Emlinith, feeling heavy.

“It is not about King Thranduil allowing me,” I say, “but that I do not wish to depart the Greenwood. I am fond of my homeland, despite its troubles.”

“It has many.” Emlinith’s moon-pool eyes flash with the barest hint of delight. She dabs her mouth again. “But you are young, my lady, and--”

“I believe I am older than you.”

“Well, yes, but you are not…well-traveled. Once you have been far and wide as I, Greenwood the Great will not seem so great after all.”

“You presume to know much about me.” I hold my gaze steadily. “Who is the source of your information? Lord Elros?”

Emlinith adjusts her position. “He knows you and your family well.”

“He likes to believe so. He once even believed I would have his hand in marriage. It would not be wise to rely on his expertise.”

Though Emlinith looks away at my blunt statement, her expression does not reveal any surprise. Then it is true; she somehow knows about Elros’ near proposal. Not only does it explain her foul behavior, but also her attempts at persuading me to move away.

“I have seen enough of the world to know I am content in living here,” I say. “There is no realm without its faults, even fair Imladris. Though I agree it does not have many.”

Emlinith cocks her head and studies me as if I am strange and ugly weed. “All my life I have heard the Wood-elves are an odd sort, and this ever rings true.”

Losing all semblance of patience, I feel an unusual desire to go against the peaceful nature of my kin and strike Emlinith. To be called a mere Wood-elf is not only offensive, but degrading.

“Our people are called Silvan, of which I am half,” I say through clenched teeth. “My father, Lord Gailon the Advisor, is Sindarin.”

Emlinith smiles. “Regardless of your heritage, you and your kin dwell in the woods, do you not?”

“If you marry your desperate choice of partner, so shall you. But please excuse me. I find I no longer have an appetite.”

I stand up, planning to make a swift exit before Emlinith speaks further and drives me to cause a scene.

In the corner of my vision I notice Thranduil still in conversation with Caewen. Is that a blush on the lady’s cheeks, or is it a trick of the light? Instantly reminded of Ferdir’s suspicions, the unpleasant sensation in my stomach returns and I hasten my steps to the door.

I long for the fresh forest air, and to feel the chilly autumn wind lash my face and bring me clarity again. Perhaps it is Emlinith’s despicable comments alone which have caused the sensation, but I must be rid of it. And soon.

The harvest moon shines brightly through the swaying branches, illuminating the leaves carpeting the ground. The village is a faraway and unreachable shadow in the distance. I inhale deeply and grip the railing of the river bridge, concentrating on warm memories to erase my darkened mood, like the Feast of Starlight when Gwendes danced until the first rays of morning.

And when Thranduil asked me for a dance.

Again my thoughts swirl to Caewen and her silver swan harp. A fierce wind attempts to steal my hair and cloak and carry them to the Sundering Seas. I hug my chest in a tight embrace.

I know I must ask him. I am willing to bear his fury to have solace in knowing the truth.

The truth being he still loves his wife, and always shall.

I suddenly dislike Ferdir very much for placing doubt in my mind where there had never been doubt before.

“I knew I would find you here.”

“I must practice not being so predictable.”

Thranduil steps onto the bridge to join me, the dark outlines of several guards standing at the cavern entrance behind his tall figure. “It seemed you were troubled at dinner. Was it the Lady Daffodil?”

“I am surprised you noticed. You appeared to be in deep discussion with Lady Caewen.”

Even though I kept my voice light, Thranduil raises his dark brows. “I would not describe a conversation regarding Lady Galadriel’s musicians as deep. You must not have had any deep discussions of late.”

With the teasing in his tone, I dread asking him the question which will remove it and transform the playful light in his eyes to cold steel.

“You have never been skilled at disguising your feelings, Rîneth.”

“I am aware.” I look away from his probing gaze, and my false smile disappears, swept away with the wind.

“What is wrong?”

I muster just enough bravery, or foolishness, to utter the words in a swift tumble. “Was it you who sent Lady Caewen the harp?”

At first his face gives away nothing. Not even a wrinkle on his forehead. He becomes still, the barest movement of his chest the only assurance he has not turned to stone. He finally turns his face to stare at the waterfall ahead.

I braced for a storm, yet his temperament has not made a significant change. Anger I anticipated, and have handled many times before, but this is something different. Feeling off kilter, I tighten my grip on the railing and focus on keeping my breaths even.

When he finally speaks, it feels like a year has passed.

“You will never reveal who gave you this idea, but I know it is not your own.”

“You are right. And I do not believe it.”

“Then why did you ask me?”

Heat creeps up my neck and face. “For reassurance.” 

He looks at me then, his eyes as dark as the deepening night. “Why do you need reassurance?”

“Because it will not leave my mind, Thranduil. It was a dark seed planted which has grown and taken root, shaping my vision and thoughts to believe that which I know cannot be true. Just tell me yes or no, ‘tis all I ask…”

“All you ask? Do you not realize how much weight your question carries? It implies I could love another…”

“Besides your wife.”

His eyes flash. “Could you ever believe this?”

“No.”

Our breaths create white clouds in the air. The forest is silent save for the soft hoot of an owl and the mild wind rustling the leaves.

I remember Ferdir’s other rumor, that Thranduil’s wife did not love him. But I dare not ask him about it. Not now, not ever.

“Please forgive me, mellon.” I close my eyes. “It is not that I have or ever would believe it, but since hearing the rumor and it taking hold, it cannot be removed by anything other than truth. I need to hear it.”

“Truth,” he repeats the word as though it is bitter on his tongue. His jaw tightens. “Then hear the truth: I did not send the harp to Caewen. Nor do I have feelings for her.”

“Thank you.”

The silence grows louder than the water’s frenzied rush. I expect him to take his leave; I have disappointed him. I feel the bitterest guilt. Never should I have asked him such a question, regardless of the doubt muddling my thoughts. Had I not already known the truth?

“I beseech your forgiveness,” I say, no longer able to hold his gaze. “I do not know what came over me…”

“There is nothing to forgive, Rîneth.”

“I was wrong. I should never have--”

“You would not have asked if you truly believed me incapable of loving someone other than Itaril.”

My eyes widen. He never speaks his wife’s name, not to me, not to even my father. I can only stare at him as if struck dumb.

“I am aware of the rumor. Do not pretend you have not heard it.”

“Thranduil…” It is all I can utter.

I shake my head in shame. What have I done?

“I know you defended me when you heard it.” His voice is calm and even. “That is how you are, always defending...”

“I told them I did not believe it.”

He smiles, surprising me further. “You never wish to believe anything but the best. It is one of your flaws.”

“I do not understand.”

“Yes, you do. Have not your experiences given you wisdom? We do not live in a perfect word like the one in your head. Oftentimes, rumors prove true.”

I search his eyes, awaiting a teasing glint which will give way to the corner of his mouth quirking. But when it never comes, I look away, unable to face him. Something wrenches tight in my chest.

“One day I will tell you everything, but not tonight. It is not…easy for me to discuss. Losto vae, Rîneth.”

Chapter Text

I do not speak to him the next day, or the day after, and see him only at dinner as he speaks to everyone else. I have no intention of avoiding him. I wish he would tell me everything. My entire world is spinning like a loosened wheel, and I need him to set it right again.

But he has shown me vulnerability, more than he ever has, and he will need time. I cannot guess how much.

When the allotted day of the week arrives for him to dine with Ada and I, he gives the excuse of having other errands to attend to. I wonder if I have successfully hidden my disappointment from my father, or if I have been an open scroll for all of Arda to read.

When Thranduil spoke the Queen’s name, and shared the possibility of truth behind the rumor, something changed irrevocably between us. During the many years I have known him, never has he mentioned much about his wife, let alone utter her name. I had believed his grief prevented him. I never pursued the matter, regardless of our friendship. There was a wall there, and though invisible, it was more solid than our cavern fortress.

But now the wall is chipped away. Not all, but a part. Whether our friendship will deepen or dissolve, I cannot say, but it has changed forever. There is no returning to before.

I hope it will deepen…

It is difficult to fathom his wife not loving him. Thranduil has his flaws, his stubborn ways, but he is the most majestic being I have known. Ever the King, ever the defender of his people.

Does Ada know the truth? How had such a rumor begun?

I still carry guilt about asking him for reassurance regarding Caewen, but I cannot regret what I learned, nor him showing his vulnerability. If only he would open further. I would listen and be his supporter, his ever loyal friend. And perhaps then my thoughts would cease buzzing like a swarm of bees without a home.

But I shall wait for him, as long as the smallest hope remains.

“It should only be a moment, my lady. Gwendes is helping her father.”

It is Gwendes’ mother, Gilrin, who greets me upon my arrival to their small cottage house. Her olive dress, though simple in design, compliments the brown warmth of her eyes and tailors to her small frame.

I mirror her smile. “I was actually wondering if I might come in.”

“An ngell nîn!” She lights up like the noon sun and motions for me to follow. “Make our home as your own. Would you care for some apple? They were brought in yesterday, the reddest I have ever seen.”

“That would be lovely, hannon-le.”

Their dwelling is small in size, but it does not lack for cheer. Jewel-toned pots and decorative earthenware of various shapes and sizes rest on the shelves in an elegant array, evidence of the pride they have for their craft. Some appear newly made, while others are of an ancient style, gold pitchers with long necks like swans. They are likely passed down from the First and Second Ages.

“I shall tell Gwendes and Tadion you are here,” says Gilrin.

I take a seat in a chair next to a tall vase of purple aster in front of the window. The room smells earthy and sweet, of clay and apples and a recent fire in the hearth nearby.

Gwendes enters from the back room, her curious expression transforming to a wide smile when she sees me. The windowlight highlights the remnants of clay on her hands and the small splotch under her eye.

“You should have at least told me you were coming, my lady.” She holds up her hands sheepishly. “Look at me! Alas, I am not fit for company. I would have cleaned up--”

“Please, Gwendes. It is just a bit of clay.”

She does not appear convinced, but her arms fall back down to her sides. “Is everything well?”

“As well as can be. I only hope I did not stop by at an inconvenient time. I wished it to be a surprise, but I can return later if it would be more suitable…”

“A surprise?” Her questioning gaze lands on the bundle in my lap.

Before she can comment on it, her father walks in behind her. As ever, his appearance reminds me of a raven-haired Lord Celeborn, with the same calming manner and gentleness in his blue eyes.

“Mae govannen, Lady Rîneth,” Tadion says, bowing his head.

“Mae govannen,” I greet. “You are all very kind to welcome me into your home. Likely you are wondering why I am here.”

Gilrin places a plate of sliced apple topped with cinnamon on the low table in the center of the room and sits down. Gwendes and her father follow suit.

Looking down at the linen-wrapped package resting on my lap, I feel a torrent of flitting butterflies in my stomach. It is possible it will not be as well-received as I hope. What if I have not captured the essence of the person I never knew?

As they wait for me to speak, the wind chimes on the other side of the window play a pretty song.

“Not long before Yestarë, Gwendes came to me with the sincerest request. She wished I would record her brother’s stories.” I glance at Gwendes. Her eyes are suspiciously shiny. “I knew very little about her, but I felt a strong compulsion to help. Little did I realize I would gain such a close friend that day, and also discover a hidden gem this side of the Sea. In truth, I find your son’s stories a greater treasure than any gem. After they are read by others, I shall not be alone in that belief. It was an honor to have recorded them.”

As they each look through the book in turn, I feel I should leave. I do not wish to be an intruder in something so private. This was their only son, Gwendes’ only sibling. I never knew him, nor do I even remember news of his death.

My gaze moves to the door. Before I can stand, Gilrin reaches out and clasps my wrist.

“We shall never be able to repay you, my lady.” She dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief. “The drawings…you have captured him well.”

“He would be proud to know his stories live on,” says Tadion. “They were his life, his very happiness.”

I give a wobbly smile, unsure how to respond. Keeping my composure is proving more difficult than I could have imagined. Tears threaten to break my tight rein over my emotions. I am about to lose the battle.

Without a word spoken, Gwendes pulls me up from my chair and into a tight embrace. The light from the window envelopes us like a cloak.

It is rare for friends or acquaintances to embrace in our culture, and even in some families it is uncommon, but I do not care. Nor do I think it strange. Our friendship has been unconventional from the start, and still has endured much. When the tears come, I do not try to stop them.

 

888

 

A letter from my sister arrives at autumn’s golden zenith, when the forest is nature’s own Erebor, capable of stopping even the most hardened dwarf lord in his tracks. Faeleth writes of the little one, and how she has hosted Legolas and his company during their long stay.

With all my heart I wish I could be there for your Aur en-Onnad, but alas – the roads in Mirkwood are far too dangerous to bring a child. How long shall it be before I see you and Ada again? I often wonder if we will only meet again in the Undying Lands…

I fold the parchment and place it on the table, my heart heavier than my father’s tomes. Perhaps I could find a way to travel, even if it meant hiring someone to accompany me on the dangerous forest road.

“Do you know of anyone?” I ask Ada. “If not for fear of my demise, I would leave without delay.”

He chuckles, a sound as warm as the newly-lit fire. For the briefest moment I imagine Thranduil’s deeper laughter joining his. But his empty chair serves as a stark reminder of his absence. It is the second dinner he has missed. This time there was no excuse given.

“Even if you were as skilled as Lady Tauriel, I would not advise traveling unaccompanied. Nor would I trust a lone companion to guard you from the evils of the land.”

“Then when shall I see Faeleth and my nephew? When the King decides to send his entire army to Imladris?”

“Or when Thranduil himself plans a visit,” he says. “He is the most capable warrior we have.”

I lean forward, my hands on my knees. “Yet I cannot remember when last he traveled farther than the Lonely Mountain.”

“It has been a long time, yes.”

The fire pops and crackles, its flickering light creating dancing shadows on my father’s walls. I take a sip from my glass of cider, the golden liquid crisp and bitter on my tongue. I have always preferred the sweeter varieties.

“I should have accompanied Legolas on his journey. If I wait for Thranduil, I likely shall never see Imladris again.”

And it is true. It is becoming doubtful he will ever speak to me again, much less allow me to accompany him on a journey, if by rare chance he decides to visit. Things are different between us now, after all…

Ada steeples his hands under his chin. “He has isolated himself from the world. Though he will never admit it, I believe he has done so out of fear. Our friend has lost much.”

“I know.”

“His father, his wife, his soldiers, his friends…” His expression turns grim. “We are diminished from what we once were.”

“Yet shall we hide in these secret halls forever while the evil from Dol Guldur grows daily, and allow it to consume our home? We may be diminished, but we are still strong, Ada.”

“Can we alone fight this evil? I do not know. Our number is too small.”

“If the King is the most capable warrior we have, as you say, his strength gives us the advantage. We could do much damage to their stronghold. For far too long we have watched our Greenwood become Mirkwood yet have not stopped it. Destroying spider nests is not enough.”

“Are you willing to fight, Rîneth?”

“I…” I hesitate, and look away. “I am not sure what good I can do in battle, but I will try my best to learn. If I am truly hopeless, I could be a healer. Or do my part in some other way...”

“I do not doubt it. Yet you may wish we had stayed in our secret halls when you see the realities of war, and what friends you may lose to it. Thranduil has a reason for not gathering his army without careful deliberation.”

I rub the rose velvet sleeve of my gown between my fingers, and avoid my father’s gaze. I know he is right.

“You are still young and have not seen battle. It was my hope my daughters never would, but my hope was in vain. Sauron has seen to that.”

“Do you suggest we hide forever, Ada?”

He reaches out and touches my knee. “I suggest you have faith in your King. When the threat grows darker still, and when there is no other choice, he will rise up and fight to protect our realm.”

“Why does he resist calling for aid? It would be the best answer.”

“Perhaps,” he says. “But he knows it as an obligation to send aid in return, should it be needed, and in these dark days it certainly shall. He does not wish his people to die for other lands.”

“I understand his view on the matter, but the Elves of other lands are our kin as well. Should we let them die without even offering our help? It feels wrong to me; such selfishness could very well be our downfall.”

He nods, his brow wrinkled in thought. “You should speak to him and gently try to make him see things from a different perspective. You may be the only one who can.”

“If you are unable to persuade him, Ada, I surely cannot. He appointed you as his personal advisor.”

“That is true, iell nín. But I am not you.”

With his glass of cider in hand, he abruptly stands and walks to the bookshelf before I can reply, and begins humming the Hymn to Elbereth.

Chapter Text

My Aur en-Onnad arrives as the beech trees cling to their last firey leaves, not yet willing for winter to take them. The paths through the village and forest are covered in foliage of orange and brown, crunching under our boots as Gwendes and I take a late afternoon stroll. I lean my head back and inhale the crisp air. The sky is cloudless, the shade of lapis.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon ensuring everything is in order for the party. My settee is relocated to the back wall to give Caewen ample space to play her harp. I hope my guests will at least enjoy some beautiful music on an otherwise lackluster occasion.

It is with some reluctance I call it a party; I have only invited a small number, and I am not sure how many will show.

Still I have not spoken with Thranduil, even in passing. At suppers he pays me no heed, yet talks freely with my father as though nothing is amiss. Will today be different since it is my Aur en-Onnad? Will he come? My eyes keep darting to my open door, hoping to see him walk through it despite the party not starting for a while.

The uncertainty looms over me like a dark storm cloud. I wish I could forget the day altogether.

Gwendes helps me arrange the food, a decadent spread of roast quail and sweet rolls from by the kitchens, with autumn greens and apple tart. Gwendes’ mother baked a tiered cake with frosting the color of lilac, adorned in happy white flowers, insisting it is the least I deserve after the favor I did for her family.

Gwendes’ parents are the first to arrive, followed by a lavishly-dressed Lady Aethel and Caewen, whose swan harp is carried in by a young guard. Like a besotted pup, he keeps at Caewen’s side even after his task, eager to assist her further. I have the mischievous thought of inviting him to stay, but Aethel dismisses him before I can do so.

I feel a jolt of surprise when Tauriel makes an entrance. I did not expect her to be released from guard duties, but the King gave his consent without rebuke. She has always been more an acquaintance than friend, but it is my hope a friendship will grow. I have long admired her impressive skill in combat, as well as her confidence despite her young age.

Lord Amdiron is the next to arrive, the stern set of his mouth now even sterner since his son’s departure. I invited him to spare my father from Aethel’s unending prattle should Thranduil not attend, but I now wonder if Aethel would be a better choice.

Everyone finds their seat at the dining table. But it is not until Gwendes reminds me the food is turning cold when I reluctantly give up hope of him coming and join them. My heart feels like a stone weight, and falls to the floor with a dull thud as I sit down.

I turn to Ada beside me. “Did Thranduil give a reason for not attending?”

His brow furrows. “I have not spoken to him today. I assumed…”

I smile tightly, grateful he does not continue. Of course everyone assumed he would attend. Gilrin and Tadion wear the finest apparel they own, having expected to meet the King. Even now their eyes shift to the empty chair at the head of the table, as though expecting him to suddenly appear there.

“He likely had important matters to attend to.”

His eyes narrow. “You are not on good terms at present?”

I shift in my seat. “As for my part, we are on good terms. You and I both know his ill moods. Perhaps he is in one tonight.”

“Perhaps…”

I had requested my guests not to bring gifts, assuring them their presence was gift enough, but they did not listen. Most arrived with book-shaped packages. My love of reading is well known, but my collection has grown larger than my shelf space. Knowing me best, Gwendes and Ada give me a set of new quills and paints.

But it is Tauriel’s gift which is the most unexpected. It is a pair of slender, golden-hued fighting knives, wrought by the King’s favorite smith.

“They are beautiful.”

“And deadly,” says Tauriel, smiling. “I shall teach you how to use them. In these dark times it is important for us all to have the ability to defend ourselves.”

I steal a glance at my father. He gives me a slight nod, revealing his involvement. Remembering our conversation from a few nights ago of the inevitable war ahead, it does not come as a surprise.

“I hope you have infinite patience. Legolas must have told you about his unsuccessful attempt at teaching me.”

“Luckily I have far more patience in teaching than Legolas.”

After my guests bid their farewells, Ada lingers for a while. He helps return my settee to its normal place and sweeps through the pages of my new books, offering to store them in his chambers. I am grateful for his comforting presence, but even more so that he does not ask questions about Thranduil’s absence.

Once he leaves, my rooms feel emptier than they ever have. The tomb-like silence is unsettling after the music and cheer from earlier, the shadows dark and tall. I wrap my arms around my chest, and for the first time in a long time I allow myself to wish I do not live alone. I allow myself to wish for a companion with whom I could share my home. My heart.

My bed, which I have never questioned before, now appears too large for one person. For a fleeting moment I let my chained imagination go free, and picture someone sleeping beside me there. He makes me feel alive. Makes me feel loved.

No. I flutter my eyes open. Why dream of what can never be? My time passed long ago. I shall be content alone. I already am.

My night gown feels soft against my skin, lighter than the velvet robes I wore to my party. I pad across the cool stone floor to my bed, looking forward to a long and mindless sleep.

The knock at the door stops me.

My heart flips over in my chest, and then settles. It is surely Ada. He must have forgotten something…

I swing open the door. My hand flies to my mouth.

“My lord! I did not expect--”

“Neither did I. May I come in?”

Feeling too startled to voice consent, I move aside to allow him entrance. Thranduil appears as though he has just woken from sleep. His hair is more disheveled than I have ever seen it, his crown left behind. His usual adorned fingers are entirely bare. But his dark blue robes are impeccable, and I suddenly feel naked in my night gown.

He refuses my offer of a seat, instead standing with his arms tightly crossed and his eyes fixed on the wall behind me. Never have I seen him so uncomfortable.

The room is dim and cool, the only light coming from a few shallow candles on the table. Most of his face is hidden in shadow.

“Rîneth…” His eyes briefly touch mine before returning to the wall. “I…apologize for not attending your party. I know it is much too late.”

I know not the hour, but I guess it was well into the new day.

“Did I wake you?” he asks, his gaze now scanning my attire.

I hug my arms to my chest. “You knocked just as I was walking to my bed. Why have you come?”

He turns and walks to the table where I have left my gifts. His hand reaches out to lightly touch the leather sheaths of my knives. “I knew I could not wait until morning before coming to your door. My distance of late has been…unwarranted.”

“Yes.” I feel a surge of emotion at his confession. “I did not ask you to share what you did with me. I did not know you were aware of the rumor, nor would I have ever mentioned it.”

“I have never blamed you. My reason for avoidance is because I blame myself, for having told you.”

“I am your friend.”

He looks at me then, his steely gaze capturing mine and holding me still. “My own son does not accept the truth, Rîneth.”

The truth. But what truth? I bite the inside of my lip to refrain from asking, knowing he would leave if I did.

“He heard the rumor long ago, and came to me demanding answers. Perhaps you now understand my regrets. I do not wish for more walls.”

“There shall not be one. I am on your side. You must know that by now.”

Silence answers me, but it comes as no surprise. I hold my tongue. What more can be said? Until he allows me entrance into his private affairs, I do not feel at liberty to ask for more. If he believes me trying to pry, it could break the threads holding our friendship together. Now I am not certain how strong the threads are.

I begin re-lighting the candles, relieved to have a reason to keep busy. I wonder what storm is passing through his mind.

“Rîneth.”

His voice is little more than a whisper, but in the quiet room it might as well be a roar. I turn to look at him.

“It is not easy for me to--”

I softly shake my head. “I do not ask for more, Thranduil. But know I am here for you, should you ever need an ear to listen.”

His features soften. “Le athae…mellon.”

Once the remaining candles are lit, I sit down on my settee. Thranduil joins me. The silence between us is hesitant, full of many unspoken things. I do not expect him to open up further tonight. He looks weary from it.

“Your party,” he starts. “How was it?”

“I am not sure it would be truthful to call it a party, but my guests appeared to have enjoyed it. Or at the very least they enjoyed Caewen’s harp. For my part, I felt it was missing…something.” I give him my first smile since our rift. “You must surely be aware of how difficult you are.”

“I am aware you are teasing rather than threatening me. It is a relief. I was unsure whether to bring the guards.”

“You are without your guards?”

“If you set your mind to it, you could send me to the Halls of Mandos by dawn. That is what we will pretend, at least.”

“You underestimate me. Perhaps you forget you are unarmed?”

Thranduil laughs.

“You think me incapable?” I flourish a mock outraged expression.

“Not at all. You are certainly capable of injuring an unarmed mouse, or yourself. But I do have something for you,” he says. “If you will accept it.”

He reaches under his robes and pulls out what appears to be a sliver of a precious metal. Holding it carefully between two fingers, he brings it up to the light, revealing a white-gold ring of small entwined branches, its delicate leaves wrapped around a single brilliant diamond in the center.

I inhale, feeling a strange flutter in my stomach. “A Star of Varda...”

“A gem of Lasgalen,” he confirms. “They have been in my keeping since I retrieved them from Erebor, untouched until now.”

Though I have lain eyes on the gems before, I was too young to remember their particular sparkle. The diamond carries its own light, casting a faint silvery glow on his skin as he holds it. When I manage to lift my gaze to meet his, it is difficult to find my breath, much less my voice.

“I…I feel honored.” I swallow, and flit my eyes back to the ring. “But I do not understand. Why give me this? The gems are a rarity, an heirloom of the Sindar. They should not be given away lightly.”

“No, they should not. What do you think of the design?”

“It is extraordinary,” I say, and reach out to touch it. “The twigs are so intricate, so tiny. I love how naturally they are entangled, as though they are real and not made of metal. Did one of the goldsmiths design it?”

“I did.”

My eyes widen. “I never knew you were an artist…”

“See, there is much you do not know about me.” He twists his lips wryly. “Nay, I am no artist. I only sketched a rudimentary design and the goldsmith worked magic and turned it into…this.”

The strange fluttering returns as he slides the ring down my forefinger. It is a perfect fit. How had he known my size? I stand and walk to my mirror so I may see it from another angle, but mostly I feel a peculiar need to move my feet.

He follows and stands behind me, much taller in stature.

“It is the most beautiful thing I have seen,” I say in little more than a whisper, holding my hand up to the glass. “But I still do not understand. Why did you do this for me?”

“You may have forgotten the long months and late hours you spent working on my father’s writings, but I have not.”

As is of their own volition, my eyes move from the ring to the reflection of Thranduil behind me. I notice the contrast of his light hair against my dark, and the breadth of his shoulders, and became acutely aware we are less than an arm length apart. He meets my gaze, then looks downwards at the ring without the mirror’s aid.

I blink. It is growing very late.

“My thanks shall never be sufficient, but…thank you. With my whole heart.”

He takes my hand and lifts it to his mouth. “Thank you for not harming me, though you had every opportunity.”

“I am now glad I resisted.”

I wonder why I still feel his mouth on my hand after he has let it go.

“You must make your way to bed,” he says. “And I must return to mine.”

“Yes, I should say so.” I accompany him to the door. “I do hope no one saw you enter my chambers at such a late hour. They would likely assume the worst.”

His brows fly upwards. “What would they assume?”

“I…nothing. Forgive my tiredness, my lord. It has been a long day.”

“Even in the dim light, I can see your blush.”

I touch my cheeks and feel their warmth. They have betrayed me. “You are teasing me again.”

“You have spent too much time around farmers’ wives and the women of Lake-town, I see.”

“Do not be ridiculous.”

“They have corrupted your mind.” Thranduil smirks, a playful light dancing in his eyes. “Good night, Rîneth.”

Chapter Text

Not a week passes when I do not meet Tauriel for a lesson in knife wielding. And though the blades refuse to cooperate, preferring the forest floor instead of my hands, the young captain has an unending store of patience. The first snow of winter arrives and melts, and still I cannot spin them in my hands long enough to practice any further maneuvers.

It is humiliating, and difficult to hide my frustration around Tauriel. I feel like a helpless child unable to hold a spoon.

“Tell me truly: is there any hope?”

“Tis a good question,” Tauriel admits, her hand on my arm. “But I have not given up on you yet.”

“Legolas did.”

“Yes, he warned me about you long ago. But it did not stop me.”

“Perhaps it should have.”

We break into an easy laughter. I find no offense; we have laughed about it before. It is a testament to Tauriel’s character that she refuses to admit defeat regardless of a seemingly hopeless situation. And for that I admire her more. If our roles were in reverse, I would have concluded it as a lost cause.

Many times after our lessons we talk until supper, trading memories and humorous stories, most of which involve Legolas. We share a bond in our acquaintance with him, and a bond in not seeing him as anything more than a friend. Tauriel confesses she is afraid. Afraid to hurt him, and afraid their long friendship will not endure if she tells him her true feelings.

It is my belief Legolas already knows and cannot yet accept it. But soon he will, I promise her, and perhaps his visit to Imladris will be the catalyst to a change in his heart. A realization it belongs elsewhere.

“Keep practicing, mellon,” she says. “Eventually you will feel comfortable with them. And then and only then will we try something more challenging.”

Unless the weather is not conducive, I practice every day after leaving my scriptorium. But no amount of practice makes the knives feel natural in my clumsy hands, and my frustration mounts as they continue to fall to the ground. Even young babes can eventually learn how to hold a spoon.

I am lucky I have not cut myself.

Why did I not inherit the graceful dexterity of my kin? Elros would say it is due to me being only half Sindar, the same reason he gave for my mismatching eyes. Another oddity. It seems I have many. 

“Your grip is too tight,” says a familiar voice behind me. “It is a fluid motion. You are going to injure yourself.”

I stiffen, and one of the knives escapes my hand. Thranduil’s chuckle is as loud as a horn in my ears. If all of Arda was watching, I could not feel more absurd.

“So I have been told a thousand times, or more,” I say through my teeth.

He approaches me, dried leaves crunching under his boots. “Then you are not listening. Here, I will show you.”

His voice is calm, any sign of his earlier amusement wiped from his face as though it was a conjuring of my imagination. A brisk wind flutters his loose hair and sage green cloak, and his eyes are warm as he looks down at me. With reluctance I discard my pride and hand him the knives.

In a mere moment he is deftly spinning them in his hands with an ease which puts Tauriel’s supreme skill to shame.

“Watch my fingers. See how my I move my thumbs back at the start of the spin? I noticed you were dangerously close to cutting yours off.”

Thranduil’s motion is graceful and controlled, the daggers but an extension of him. He loosely keeps them in his grasp. His spinning turns to slashing the air, moving his arms but the rest of his body very little, not exerting more strength than required. No theatrics, no unnecessary moving around like I have seen from Tauriel and Legolas. He is a powerful storm in a small space.

“I am not focused on the fear of them falling. Since that alone is where your focus lies, you are too tense and cannot hold them for long.” 

Without warning, he throws one at a nearby oak. It hits the trunk’s center with a dull crack of wood. A family of sparrows escape from its overhead branches in alarm.

“Now you are only showing off.” I glance at him over my shoulder as I walk to retrieve it, suppressing a smile. “The Warrior King.”

He looks pleased. “It is an appropriate title.”

“Yet when last did you go into battle?”

My tone is playful, but I hope my words strike a chord. It is still my intention of convincing him take a stand against the enemy. If only I knew how.

“Far too recent.” His mouth becomes a thin line. “Now it is your turn. Try only one knife this time, and hold it at an angle. It will slow the spin and help you practice easier.”

Holding the dagger as loosely as I dare, I will my body to relax and envision we stand on a peaceful, endless shoreline bordering an emerald sea. The tension leaves my shoulders and wrists as though it never existed. I exhale.

As Thranduil demonstrated, I begin to spin the blade with a more fluid movement, my grip not as tight as before. It is taxing to go against my nature. But I focus on the gentle waves, and the sound of my own breathing.

A squawking bird causes me to lose the vision, and the battle as well; the knife falls to its familiar resting spot on the ground.

“Better,” he says.

“Hardly.”

“For a moment you gave me hope of your abilities. It was fleeting, however.”

I point the knife at his chest. “Pardon?”

“Your reactions are never a disappointment.” His mouth quirks. “All you need is practice, and belief in yourself, and you will be as good as any of my Guard, Rîneth. Your mind is your biggest enemy. It always has been.”

I feel heat creep in my cheeks at hearing the truth. I lower my knife.

I have been listening to taunts from Nethanar and Elros in my mind for too long, and I have started to believe them. Their cruel voices are nothing but my own insecurities rising up from a buried place within.

Unless I stop giving them heed, they will continue until they shatter my spirit.

Blinking, I return my gaze to Thranduil, and suddenly feel grateful for his company. “You do not oft wander outside the caves without purpose. What are you doing here?”

“I do not wander. I was walking to the stables when I saw you and stopped to watch your attempts.”

“How long were you watching me?”

“Not long. I could not stand back and say nothing.”

“Of course not.” I shake my head, and re-sheath the knives. “Are you going somewhere?”

His gaze flickers down to my hand, then returns. “If I was, you would only wish to come along as well.”

 

888

 

“I would accompany you to the Black Gate of the enemy to have a change in scenery,” I say. “I long to look out over a grassy plain, without tree in sight.”

“You would ride to Mordor?” He raises a brow, his tone unconvinced.

“I would.”

I am jesting, but for half a moment it seems an intriguing prospect. To journey anywhere, no matter the danger. To the world beyond Mirkwood, the world of Men. I doubt he is leaving the forest, but my imagination wishes otherwise.

“Then come.” He motions his head to the winding path leading to the stables. “My destination is not Mordor, but Dol Guldur should suffice. It will put your lessons to good use.”

He starts down the trail without waiting for a reply, his hair nearly the same shade as the overcast sky. His velvet cloak trails on the cobblestone. I shake my head and follow.

“You are no longer capable of discerning truth from jest.”

“Neither are you.”

A jutting, arm-like branch grabs my hair, and I pause to reclaim it. By the time I untangle the curly strands clinging to the limb, he has turned a corner and is no longer in clear view. I quicken my pace to catch up with him, feeling foolish for allowing my curiosity to replace my good sense.

“Where are you going, if not Dol Guldur? If you are hunting, I would prefer to return to my practice.”

“What better practice than hunting? Whether it be for orc or game, it will allow you to test what you have learned.”

He is teasing again. I hear it in the timbre of his voice, and see the way his mouth lifts at one side.

I whip my head around at a sudden rustle of leaves nearby. I let out a relieved sigh. It is only a small rabbit scurrying through the forest. My mouth forms a tight line at the sound of his chuckle.

“The hunt has not yet begun, Rîneth.”

“Where are you going, my lord?” I ask again, emphasizing the formality. “Enough of this hunting nonsense. I do not believe you.”

“If you wish to know, you may ride with me.”

He is taking full advantage of my curiosity. And it is working. I continue to follow as he ploughs ahead, unable to keep up with his wide strides. The sky is bright despite the obstructing clouds, but the light does little to increase the temperature.

I pull my wool cloak closer about my arms. “Are your guards to accompany us?”

“Do you believe we need them?”

He absently touches the hilt of his sword, and I realize I have impinged on his pride. “I suppose not. But if I become supper for a band of spiders, I shall never forgive you.”

My touch of humor softens his features. “Come.”

The stables are busy with young Silvans tending to the animals. It is a decent way to earn silver while they train for their chosen trade. A newly-born foal stands on stick legs as it hides behind its mother’s legs. The mother gives a soft whinny. A smile touches my lips. I have not visited the stables since before my sister’s marriage.

I once enjoyed riding, and the freedom it offered me. Nothing but the wind and the animal carrying me, and the possibility I could ride forever, or at least until the Sea. I am not sure why I stopped.

I follow Thranduil to the large stall at the farthest end. His elk is enormous from a distance, but upon drawing closer I surmise he is the size of a house. His mighty antlers reach the stable walls on both sides, hindering him from walking freely. They are as sharp as Númenorian spears, useful for impaling a host of orcs in battle.

“I know it would require a dwelling larger than a mountain to give him ample space, but I hope he is allowed a daily walk.”

Thranduil motions for a groom to help him saddle the beast. “Two walks, in the morning and evening.”

It is with some trepidation I hold out my hand and allow the elk to smell it. If he desired, he could swallow it with one bite.

Thranduil reads my mind. “He eats only grass and trees.”

“How big are these trees, my friend?” I ask the elk.

He seems friendly enough, grunting softly when I touch his muzzle. Sensing no irritation in his eyes or manner, I stroke his coarse brown coat. Perhaps he is like his master: intimidating in appearance, but gentle within.

As long as it is on his terms.

“What do you call him?”

“Gilroch.”

“You named your elk Star Horse?”

Thranduil looks up from fastening the monstrous saddle. “He believes he is a horse.”

A smirk passes over the ginger-haired stablehand’s face, gone before his King can notice. I bite the inside of my lip, trying not to make the same mistake. If Thranduil so much as thinks I am ridiculing him, I can forget accompanying him anywhere.

I consider the reasons for Gilroch’s name. Does he oft try to join the other horses? Has he attempted to mate with them? It is not as though there are other elks his size in the vicinity, at least not that I have seen.

“Legolas gave the name to Gilroch’s sire when he was an elfling,” says Thranduil, interrupting my thoughts. He looks down again at the saddle, inspecting it to ensure it is secure. “I kept the name.”

Warmth spreads through me at his discreet sentimentality, and that he has admitted it. The young groom bows to us both and steps back.

“Are you ready?”

“I…yes, I suppose.”

With the casual grace of having done it countless times, he climbs atop Gilroch and grips the reins in one hand. With his other arm he pulls me up behind him as if I am made of naught but air.

It is a strange sensation to have such a massive beast beneath me. He is much wider than a horse, and my legs stretch out almost painfully. I take a deep breath. My lack of control is unsettling. If Gilroch wished it, he could sling us into a tree like a child’s plaything.

“Why in Arda did I agree to this?”

“I told you to come, and you followed.”

“That is not at all true. You – oooh!”

We set off. My stomach swoops with the sudden movement. The ground is a world away, like I am riding on a fast-moving Ent. The bustling village soon becomes a distant outline as Gilroch takes us south, towards the heart of the forest. Towards Dol Guldur.

“You can still hold on without blocking the air from my lungs.”

I loosen my grip. “I do not believe the fall down would end well.”

“You are not going to fall.”

Willing myself to relax, I lean forward and rest my cheek on his back. His sage green cloak smells clean, with a vague hint of hearth smoke, and something familiar I cannot place. But it is distinctly Thranduil.

Feeling more comfortable, I raise my head again and take in the stark landscape around us. The tall oaks are blackened skeletons, their long, twisting branches blocking most sunlight. The forest has darkened since I last came this way, and even then it was festered with evil. Now it is consumed.

There is a charred trunk ahead, the eye of Sauron painted brazenly in crimson over the bark. The oak’s top half has been chopped down and lies withered on a bed of rotted leaves. I feel gooseflesh on my arms.

“Why are we heading this way?”

“Our destination is not much farther.”

“Have you been there before?”

“Many times.”

The branches gnarl closer together as Gilroch continues down the overgrown road, and the light becomes dimmer, the temperature colder. I do not often question Thranduil’s regard to safety, but this is madness. If we go any farther, we will be in utter darkness.

I am about to demand we turn back when Gilroch abruptly turns off the road onto a narrow trail through the forest. His wide antlers clip against the trees as he gallops past, leaving their trunks with dented, barkless patches. The trees ahead are already dented. This is not the first time the beast has traveled here.

Where could Thranduil possibly be taking me? The Wood is barren, full of death and darkness and only the promise of more…

A faint glimmer captures my attention. What appears to be a large pond shines with a rich gold hue in the distance, open to the sky. Though surrounded by an army of withered trees, they give the water a wide berth. Does the sun give the water its color, or something else?

My heart quickens as we near its inviting light. Thranduil says nothing. There is no reason to ask him our destination now. It is the most extraordinary sight I have seen, surpassing Lothlórien’s silver fountains and the waterfalls of Imladris. How has it remained undiscovered by my kin?

Yet Thranduil knew of it…

My eyes refuse to stray from the water, even as he helps me down from Gilroch. I approach the shore. It is a large pool, spanning half the distance of our practice grounds, its bottom as clear as Lindon crystal. Though the sun shines upon it, the water carries its own ethereal light. It radiates a warmth which tingles my skin and lessens the chill.

Laurenendë springs to my mind, the name for Golden Pool in the ancient language of Quenya.

“Is this some kind of dark enchantment?”

Thranduil joins my side, his eyes reflecting the gold shimmer. “No.”

“Are you certain?”

“I have swum here countless times and still maintain my life.”

An image comes to mind of him alone in the water, his noble elk waiting on the shore. What do the stablehands think when he returns with his heavy robes soaked through, yet no rainstorm in sight? My cheeks warm at the childish nature of my thoughts. He surely swims nude.

“It must be an enchantment, even if not a dark one.” I remove my boots. The shore feels soft under my feet like loose sand. “Perhaps it is the work of Radagast the Brown.”

“Perhaps, but the wizard resides in the southern reaches, far from here.”

I anticipate a rush of icy cold when my feet touch the water, but instead I feel a heady warmth, as though the pond has rested under the heat of a summer sun. I wish more than anything to wade in and never leave. It beckons me like a dream I did not know I wanted.

But my heavy winter gown is a burden, and the thought of riding back to the kingdom in drenched attire under winter’s cold keeps my feet firmly planted.

“How did you find this place?”

A few moments pass without an answer. In the corner of my vision I see a movement, and hear a faint rustling of fabric.

“What are you doing?”

“Going in the water.” Thranduil folds his outer cloak and coat and places them on the soft bank.

Never having seen him in anything less than his immaculate robes, I feel disoriented, as though my vision is under a spell like the pond. He remains fully covered, but it seems he wears nothing at all. He pulls back the sleeves of his linen tunic, revealing his arms.

“Join me,” he says, ignoring my obvious surprise. He wades into the water and swims to the middle.

I look down at my voluminous cloak. The thought is still tempting. “I do not have the luxury of…stripping down, as you have.”

“You will not drown, if that is your concern.”

“I simply do not wish to travel back in wet robes in the brutal cold. I doubt it would be pleasant.”

“Yet worth it.”

I glance down at my bare feet, and the warm water gently lapping my ankles. The journey home is not a long one. If I at least remove my cloak, it will be a dry cover when I return to the shore.

“I cannot as easily protect you from here,” he says. “It is safer in the water. The spiders…do not come near it.”

“And the orcs?”

“I once saw their tracks on the bank.”

I look behind me, and my eyes adjust to our grim surroundings. The skeleton trees stand as far as I can see, coalescing into an inky darkness which looks like the edge of the world. Their thick trunks are a perfect hiding place.

Thranduil knew just the words to make me relent, and he wears a satisfied smile when I wade into the pool. The strange enchantment has the effect of making my robes feel non-existent. I let out a contented sigh as the water envelopes me, and I lean back until my hair is fully submerged. As I look towards the sky I feel my spirit has wings and could fly to Valinor and back.

“It must have been created by one of the Maiar,” I say, and I know I am right. Who other than a spirit of the Valar could create such perfection?

My feet touch the silky bottom as I turn upright again. I swim towards Thranduil. His hair is a shade darker now that it is wet, and clings to his neck and white tunic, making him appear oddly youthful. If I did not know better, I would believe him only a few hundred years old.

“How did you discover it?” I ask again.

“Legolas was still a child, and even more of an explorer than now. He demanded me to take him down untrodden paths through the Wood in hopes of discovering a treasure. Eventually we found one.”

I see it clearly in my mind. A young Legolas in exploring mode was a force of nature. There were many day-long expeditions he led me on as well. It is impossible to contain my laughter at the thought of him leading an exasperated Thranduil around the forest.

“Does anyone else know of it?”

“A few guards have stumbled upon it. But they do not oft go this way.” His eyes darken. “Nor does Legolas, anymore.”

Something in his manner keeps me from pursuing it.

“You and Gilroch are its only faithful visitors?”

“I believe it now has another.”

My amusement fades into a small, contented smile. “I wish I had known of it long ago. It is beautiful. I…thank you for taking me here.”

He nods and swims away. The water still reflects a brilliant golden light, even as the sun begins a slow descent. I dive underneath the surface, and my heart surges with a youthful pleasure.

I open my eyes. I can see the bottom clearly, as well as the shore on all sides. There are no other living creatures. The water is even more radiant from below, glittering as I glide through it.

“I wonder for what purpose the Maiar made it,” I say after resurfacing.

“For no other purpose than for her own pleasure.” Thranduil swims to meet me.

“Now the pleasure is ours.”

He distractedly looked downwards to the water beside me, his brow furrowed. I follow his gaze. There is a bright, glittering light coming from my hand. I raise it above the surface and the light goes out.

When I lower it in the water again, the light reappears and shines brighter. I suck in a breath. “My ring.”

“It is often said the gems of Lasgalen were imbued with an enchantment from the Maiar, giving it the unique sparkle.” He takes hold of my hand. “Its enchantment must be reacting with the enchantment from the water.”

“I have never seen anything like it.”

He smiles. “Neither have I. Nor did I know the gems were enchanted. It was only legend.”

“Now we have two answers at once. I wonder if the same Maiar who enchanted the gems made this pond.”

He does not answer, his eyes lingering on my ring. Its unearthly light reflects on his face. He now looks like a Maiar himself, the Water’s Keeper, a Spirit of Light.

“Thranduil?”

He looks at me, the reflection broken. I feel a small pang of regret when he releases my hand.

“The sun shall not last much longer...” I say.

He turns to look at Gilroch, who is now drinking from the water’s edge. “I must tell you some news before we depart.”

A change sweeps over his features, setting off an alarm in my mind. There is a trace of sadness, mingled with what looks suspiciously like fear, until his face settles into its usual hardened mask.

The silence of the surrounding forest grows eerie, and closes in on us.

“Please tell me.”

“Legolas has joined a fellowship in Imladris. He is to help a Halfling take the One Ring to the fires of Mordor to destroy it.”

“A Halfling? I do not understand…”

“Neither do I.” His tone darkens. “But they are led by Mithrandir, and you know his stubborn faith in the Shirelings. The ring-bearer is Bilbo Baggins’ cousin, the one who inherited it.”

My heart skips a beat. “The fate of Middle-earth rests in the hands of a Halfling?”

“According to the scroll I received from Elrond, yes.”

“He approves of this?”

His jaw hardens. “It would seem. But he has always put his trust in wizards, especially Mithrandir.”

I do not share in Thranduil’s unwarranted dislike of the grey wizard, but I cannot fathom the even-keeled, logical Lord Elrond being in acceptance with such an ill-fated plan. No matter how brave Bilbo proved himself, Halflings are small creatures without much knowledge of the outside world or forces of darkness. How could one so small be expected to carry the One Ring through the black lands of Mordor without Sauron detecting him? How could anyone, for that matter?

“Who else has joined this fellowship, besides Legolas?”

“Aragorn, son of Arathorn…”

My heart lifts slightly.

“Boromir, son of Denethor the Steward, three of the Halfling’s friends, and a Dwarf.” He says the last word as if it tastes foul in his mouth. “This is a quest in which they are unlikely to succeed, or escape with their lives. It was madness for Legolas to have joined it.”

He is concerned his son will not return home. My heart aches for them both. But especially for Thranduil. He has lost too much already. To lose his son would be a blow in which he might never recover.

What will happen if they are discovered? War is inescapable, as sure as the dawn, but if Sauron has ownership of the One Ring, it will be destruction for all. Not even the power of the Eldar could keep him at bay.

I have always believed myself to have strong faith, but to have faith in a Shireling to save the world is too great a leap even for me. What little hope I still have rests on the shoulders of Legolas and Aragorn, and even Mithrandir. The wizard’s wisdom far exceeds my own understanding.

If Legolas has put his faith in the quest, perhaps we should as well.

“Legolas has survived much,” I say, hoping I sound more confident than I feel. “At times his skill has rivaled your own. If anyone survives this war, it will be your son.”

“He has always sought adventure. And danger. He has never been contented to stay in the realm.”

“After this particular adventure, perhaps he will never leave.”

My awkward attempt to lighten the mood succeeds at nothing. Thranduil moves towards the shore, to the bitter cold of the dead Wood.

“I must prepare the kingdom for war, Rîneth.”

Hearing him say the words shakes my core far more than the cold ever could. It has taken this news of Legolas to make him realize the inevitability. The effect is as stark and bleak as winter.

“If we called for aid…”

But the remainder of my words are left in the warmth of Laurenendë, and as I stand on the bank I know it is better to say nothing further. Thranduil is grieving. Not only for his son, but for his kingdom. It is the reason he has come here, and perhaps the reason he brought me with him.

I know I am the first he has told of the news. I cannot explain how. I just know.

Wringing my gown proves useless. I am weighted down in an ice bath. Even my dry cloak cannot prevent my shiver.

Once more I look over the still pond and etch the scene in my memory. But I know I shall never forget. Despite its beauty, I am ready to leave. The thought of drying by the hearth spurs me to walk quickly towards Gilroch.

As I reach out to touch the elk’s flank, a consuming warmth falls over my arms and steals the chill. I turn around and see Thranduil behind me, his velvet cloak missing. It is draped over my shoulders.

I shake my head. “I shall manage fine with my own.”

He climbs atop Gilroch before I can protest further. “I suggest you put it on sooner rather than later. We do not have long to return before the light fades.”

Knowing he will not change his mind, I move my arms through the sleeves and wrap it tightly around me. The fine material pools on the ground due to our height difference. Having been made for his broad shoulders, the cloak drapes loosely about mine, but the extra material does wonders to stop my shivering.

As we begin our journey home, I ponder why he chose to tell me first of the news from Imladris. In the past he would have gone to my father, his closest advisor. It speaks volumes of how much he has grown to trust me.

For some reason that thought warms me more than his cloak, and as I hold onto him during the return journey I forget the chill entirely.

Chapter Text

It is early eventide when we reach the stables, the forest a dusky grey. But the trees are gloriously alive, even though their branches are barren from the cold. The evil has not yet touched them. Home is a welcome sight.

The stablehands say nothing at our arrival, but their questioning eyes scan our soaked apparel as we dismount Gilroch. I offer no excuse. Neither does Thranduil. Our close friendship is well known in the kingdom, but with the rumor abound of an unhappy marriage, I cannot deny I am afraid our curious excursion will provide more fodder for the village gossips.

I rub Gilroch’s muzzle in gratitude before departing and hope he will remember me next time. If there is a next time. The thought of never returning to the golden pool is too much to contemplate. A groom helps walk the beast to his stall and closes the gate door, a home far too small to contain him.

“If you set him free from that prison, I do not believe he would leave you.”

Thranduil says nothing for a while, as though contemplating my words. “In only a day’s ride you claim to understand him more than any other.”

“He is much like Legolas. And you, also.”

After ensuring all gates are secure, the young grooms leave the stables to return home for their suppers, a lone guard remaining to protect the animals. A horse suddenly makes a loud whicker.

“What do you mean?” asks Thranduil.

“He does not belong secluded in a stable, cut off from the world. He is an explorer, a warrior. He requires freedom to be who he is truly is. But if he remains secluded, he will forget. Perhaps he will become afraid.”

Thranduil keeps silent as we head to the caves.

The amber lights of the stone halls are a warm contrast to the bleakness of the winter forest, the cavern stream like a gentle song. Looking forward to a warm bath and dry clothes, and also hoping not to run into any inquisitive neighbors, I say farewell to Thranduil and quicken my steps to reach my chambers.

As I begin to turn the handle, the door to the adjacent room opens. I stand frozen in place.

“Ada.”

His eyes widen as he notices my attire. “Mae athollen, iellig. Have you been through a rainstorm? The skies were clear when last I was outside.”

If there is anyone I feel safe telling, it is my father. He knows my friendship with the King better than anyone. “Nay, I was with Thranduil.”

His puzzled expression softens to a smile. “Your time was enjoyable, I hope?”

Of all the questions he could have asked, this one catches me off guard completely. I shift my weight to the other leg. “It…yes, it was.”

“That is good to hear, iell nín. You deserve a little fun.”

My confusion must be obvious. Does he know where we were? Thranduil did not mention Ada’s name among the small list of the pool’s visitors, but perhaps he is aware of its existence.

“I am leaving to visit Randir, brother of Noruidor the Smith,” he says. “He has sought my counsel on a business matter. And I am feeling generous.”

“What kind of business matter?”

“I do not yet know, but his ideas have become bolder of late. I suppose it is to be expected given his recent dealings with the Men of Dale.”

“Take care, Ada. Do not stay out too late.”

I watch him leave, my hand still touching the handle to my rooms. He acted as if there was nothing strange about me returning on an outing with the King in a wet gown. Perhaps his mind was preoccupied with his meeting with Randir.

Judging from the curious gazes of the stable grooms and guards, Ada is the only one without questions.

It is not until I enter my chambers and begin lighting the candles when I smell the wood smoke, and the familiar scent I cannot name, and realize I am still wearing Thranduil’s cloak.

 

888

 

I have not been back to Laurenendë. But since the fateful news of the Halfling’s mission to destroy the One Ring, and the reality that our lives hang in the balance, Thranduil has been hastily preparing for war. He commanded Tauriel and Feren to train more soldiers, and even ordered stronger fortifications to be built to protect our vulnerable village.

Now at winter’s end, a defensive stone wall surrounds us with guards stationed at every end. It is not half as tall or strong as the walls of the grand cities of Men. Time has been far too precious. But it is better than nothing.

There have been no tidings regarding the whereabouts of Legolas’ fellowship, only reports of a growing darkness from Mordor, and legions of orcs as far as eyes can see marching towards Gondor.

And so we wait, holding our breaths, for the arrival of an army from Dol Guldur. I still have not given up trying to persuade Thranduil to form an alliance and call for aid, but his stubbornness is more enduring than the trees of Fangorn Forest. We are on our own.

My gaze falls on the newly-trained guards patrolling the village road as I take a late afternoon walk with Gwendes. Most are Silvan Elves, fishers and smiths, keen on protecting their homes and families. There are still not enough.

“My lessons with Tauriel have ceased for now,” I say, an explanation unnecessary. “But it is my hope I will be able to defend myself better if the time comes. When the time comes.”

Gwendes reaches out to touch a green bud from an optimistic flower bush. “Tis what you hoped for, yes?”

“It is, though I foolishly hoped I would become as skilled as my teacher. It did not take long for me to return to my senses. Tauriel was born with a natural talent. I was born with clumsy hands and a head too far in the clouds.”

She giggles. “You have talents in other areas. Besides, there is still much time to learn.”

“I am not so sure. How long do we have before war reaches the Greenwood? We are right within Sauron’s grasp…”

“The King will protect us.” She raises her chin. “You have said so yourself.”

“Yes, but--”

“Remember the fortifications he has put in place. The training of soldiers, the nightly curfew. We are more prepared now than ever before. I doubt you will need to use your knives anytime soon, my lady.”

I look at my young friend. The afternoon sun has given her strawberry hair a summery halo. What is the source for this sudden expressed confidence in Thranduil? Like Lady Aethel and many others, Gwendes has voiced nothing less than skepticism over the King’s motives in the past. She once even believed him responsible for Elros’ lack of interest in her.

“You are right,” I say. “He…he has never lost a battle.”

“Have you ever seen his scar?”

“Pardon?”

“The one he keeps hidden by enchantment,” she clarifies. “Ada says it was caused by dragon fire.”

Realization pours over me like cold water. It has been so long since I pondered the scar that I had forgotten its existence. He never allows it to be seen in public. And he certainly has never shown it to me.

I smile. “I believe the only one to have seen it is not a person, but his looking glass.”

“I have heard it is quite disfiguring.”

Two laughing elflings dart from the forest, one chasing the other. They appear to be twins, a brother and sister. As the Eldar do not procreate often, there are few children among us. Twins are especially a rare thing.

I hope Gwendes’ sudden faith is not misplaced, and that our realm will survive this war. There is too much to lose.

“Have you given any more thought to your love interest?” I ask, eager for a more lighthearted subject.

“Oh, yes. He is ever present in my thoughts, so much so that I cannot believe I once had feelings for Elros…”

“Perhaps he thinks of you just as much.”

“I know better than that, my lady.”

I open my mouth to protest, but a sudden movement in the distance steals my attention, as does the growing sound of clopping hooves. The twin children quickly move off the road to the safety of the grass, their eyes wide and expectant. Gwendes and I follow them.

As the small host passes us, my breath catches when I see Lord Ferdir leading on his dappled grey, a sky-blue banner of Lothlórien waving in the air. They are heading towards the caves.

If Ferdir noticed us, he gave no indication. Judging from the granite set to his jaw and the swift movement of the horses, I doubt his visit is one of leisure. A feeling of alarm buzzes through me, speeding the pace of my heart.

Something is wrong.

I address Gwendes. “I am going to see if I can discover what news they bring. Return home and wait for me. I shall come as soon as I am able.”

“Do you believe there is trouble in Lórien?”

“I cannot say for certain, only that something is amiss.” I look towards the bridge. The host has disappeared. “They appear to be in earnest. I promise I shall return later and tell you what I learn.”

Before turning to leave, I notice the twin elflings are still standing in the grass, watching me curiously. “Go home to your family for now, young ones. It is nearly time for supper.”

With quickened steps I pass over the bridge and reach the tall keep doors, the same doors Ferdir and his companions entered only moments ago. The sound from the river is a rush in my ears, and I feel a strange sense of foreboding.

I approach a high-cheeked guard standing sentry at the entrance. “Do you know where the host of Lothlórien went?”

He narrows his eyes. “They sought audience with the King, my lady. Why do you ask?”

“Hannon-le.” I stride through the entrance without answering, and hope he will forgive my rudeness should we meet again.

There is no one present in the throne room save for a guard. Thranduil does not spend much time here unless expecting visitors. It is apparent from his absence he did not anticipate their coming.

If not on his throne, he is likely in his chambers. I climb the steep stairs leading over the Dining Hall to the King’s secluded domain. I know it is not my place to pry into matters which do not concern me. I am not Queen. But Lord Ferdir is a friend, and Thranduil is my closest. I feel a strong compulsion to be present if the tidings are grim.

And to understand why I feel such a heightened sense of alarm.

I walk down the dim hallway to the large double-doors of his chambers. They are closed, a guard at both sides.

“May I enter?”

“King Thranduil has visitors, my lady.”

I recognize him as the besotted youth at my Aur en-Onnad who helped bring in Caewen’s harp and did not wish to leave her side. He is not so merry now.

“I know, but I…” I trail off, unable to voice an adequate reason for gaining entrance into a private meeting which does not concern me. “I shall wait here.”

Steadying my breathing, I lean against the hard stone wall. I feel foolish as I wait, and I suspect the guards think me so also. My friendship with the King does not grant me access to storm into his private meetings whenever I wish.

Has my closeness to Thranduil deepened to where I have forgotten my station?

Before I can ponder it further, the doors swing open and there is Ferdir, his expression grim. There are heavy shadows under his bronze eyes.

“Lady Rîneth? What are you doing here?”

“I saw you arrive. You seemed in a hurry. I confess I was…worried. I came to find you.”

His expression softens. “If only I could allay your concerns…”

“What news do you bring?”

“News of war, my lady.” His words are flat and blunt. “The forces of Dol Guldur attacked Lórien four days ago. Lord Celeborn sent us to plead for King Thranduil’s aid.”

My blood runs cold. “Is Lady Galadriel unable to keep them at bay?”

“Her power is not without limits. We do not know how much longer we have. Even now we may be too late.”

I shut my eyes. If Lothlórien falls, there is little hope for anyone.

“These are grave tidings indeed.”

“I must go to rest, Rîneth. Our journey has been arduous and without sleep. Tomorrow at first light we shall make haste. Your king has agreed to come.”

Chapter Text

I watch with my heart racing as a guard leads Ferdir’s small host down the passageway, their tall shadows on the walls. I do not ask permission to enter Thranduil’s chambers, nor am I stopped. The room is brightly lit for once. I allow a moment for my eyes to adjust.

Standing with his taut back facing me, he appears to be focused on an unfurled map on the trestle table. The large chamber is so quiet I can hear him breathe. My steps echo on the stone floor as I approach.

“There is no time for talk, Rîneth.”

His gaze is still fixed downwards, his back turned. How does he know it is me? Perhaps he expected me to come, predicting I would try to nose in. I dip my head, feeling foolish again.

“You plan to leave in the morning?”

It is a question I already know the answer to, but it is the only one I can conjure. I clasp my hands in front of me.

“Yes,” he says. “I must go now and ready the army. They are not yet prepared for battle, but there is little choice now.”

It seems to me there is a choice, but I hold my tongue. I have been the one pushing him to act, to even be willing to help our kin in other lands. It was easy then to speak of the need to fight, but now that the time has arrived, it dawns on me how much there is to lose.

“I shall ride with you. In battle I would be useless, but a healer will be needed for the injured.”

I do not know what I am saying, only that I wish to go, and cannot not contemplate the idea of being left behind.

For the first time since entering the room, he turns to look at me. I brace myself for a rebuke at my hastily-spoken words, but his eyes are soft. He releases his palm resting on the table and approaches me.

“Our kin of the Golden Wood are the most skilled healers in Middle-earth, Rîneth. I need you here, to look after our people.”

“How should I look after them? What would you have me do?”

He wraps his hand around my wrist. “Care for them, see to their needs. Your empathy is your greatest strength. If the battle goes ill, you will help your father rule the realm. Until Legolas returns.”

“If the battle goes ill?” I step back, and pull my hand from his grip. I feel immediate regret. “You will return victorious, as ever. Why are you saying this?”

“Rîneth.”

“I do not understand. Where is your confidence, your faith? Must I now have the faith you so obviously lack? I shall not listen to you. I--”

“You will do as I say.” His voice turns hard. “It is my command.”

I look at him defiantly, my eyes blazing, my emotions whirling in an overwhelming haze I cannot see the end of. I feel a sudden urge to seize the branched crown from his head and cast it into the fire. For everything it signifies. I have never hated it until now.

“It is easy for you to give commands, for you to put me in my place. You are King. You are Thranduil Oropherion. You are not to be questioned, never to be rebuked.” My eyes smart. “You will go to battle while I am to stay here, without even a promise of your return, and I can do nothing about it.”

“If you believe leaving my people behind, you behind, is easy, then you are a fool.” He looks away, his jaw the sharp edge of a rock. “This is what happens in war. This is what happens in an alliance. This is what you wished for, is it not?”

“I…” My voice falters. “I wished for safety. Peace, most of all…”

“It comes at a high price.”

I furiously wipe at my eyes. “If you go to Lórien, you will take your army with you. We will be defenseless. We would not withstand a sudden attack.”

“Ferdir believes Dol Guldur’s entire force is there. But I plan to leave a portion of my army. You will be well protected.”

“Then you will not have enough soldiers. This plan is folly, Thranduil. When I had suggested an alliance, I had expected…”

“…for us to be the ones in need of aid,” he finishes. “But we are not the only people vulnerable to Sauron’s stronghold. This attack is one nobody had predicted, but it does not surprise me. Nothing surprises me.”

Of course not. He has been alive since the First Age, before Middle-earth’s history was written. Is there anything he has not seen?

“It would be wrong to deny helping our neighbors in their hour of need,” he continues. “I need not ask if you agree.”

In the past I would have been glad to hear him say it. But now it is a bitter drink I cannot swallow. I turn my gaze to the green and gold tapestry on the wall, the one depicting Doriath in springtime, its happy motif a strange contrast to the starkness of his chamber, and the harsh realities of war.

I look at him, my eyes beseeching. “If you would allow me to accompany you--”

“No.”

“I promise I would not be a burden. I would keep to the wounded, and--”

No!” he yells in a lion’s roar, and strides towards me. He grabs my chin and hovers over my face, his breath hot on my skin, his cold eyes boring into mine. “Listen to me carefully, or I shall lock you in your chambers and order the guards to not release you. I am your king, and you will obey me. You will stay here, in this cavern keep, until my return. You will not attempt to accompany me or sneak out to join the soldiers. If I see you, or even hear a rumor of you, if the orcs do not tear you apart, upon our return I will lock you in a cell and throw away the key.”

I am trembling. Hot tears slide down my face before I can prevent them, before I know they are coming.

“Do you understand me?”

“I understand I have never seen you more hateful.”

He lets go of me, but his eyes hold mine, keeping me captured. Within them is an ocean storm, welling up with what looks like surfacing waves, or tears, but I shall never believe it.

“An orc messenger once took pleasure in describing how they destroyed my wife’s body, how they tore her to a thousand pieces before casting her into the fire. If you believe me hateful, so be it, but I will not allow you to have the same fate.”

His pained gaze moves to the wall behind me, as if reliving the memory, then meets mine again. “It would kill me.”

I cannot speak. I have forgotten how.

He reaches out his thumb and wipes a tear from my face. “Do not come for me again, Rîneth.”

And then he is gone.

 

888

 

For several moments, or several sunless days, I stand alone in his chambers. Somber candles flicker on the dark beech table, the unfurled map of Lórien abandoned. The hearth fire’s warm light fades like the last days of summer, along with its clucking crackle. I do not know time anymore. It is lost to me.

It is not until the guard from my Aur en-Onnad walks through the doors when I find it again, and remember I need to tell Gwendes the news. I promised I would.

“Are you well, my lady? I did not see you leave…”

I wipe at my eyes before lifting them to the guard. His brows push together, noting the evidence of my hurt. “I am going now. Hannon-le.”

My mind is leagues away, but my feet have memorized the direction. I allow them to guide me through the winding halls, now crowded with Sindar soldiers, and out the keep doors into the deepening twilight. The chilly air pierces through my green wool cloak.

If it was any other night, I would not venture out so late, but the grounds are covered in a vast number preparing for battle. There will be no curfew. They will continue until dawn, forgoing rest.

Blades will be sharpened, arrows made, supplies gathered, horses saddled and bridled. Those who have not recently used their sword arm will practice without ceasing. The soldiers have not seen combat since the Battle of Five Armies over half a century ago. Some have not seen combat at all.

I cross the river bridge and near the busy practice grounds, hearing Tauriel’s voice over sharp clangs of steel and energetic murmurs. I pause for a moment to watch her teach hasty lessons to the younger Elves who are trained but not battle-ready. I suspect Tauriel knows, more than I, that battle cannot be learned from words alone.

I walk on and reach the village center. A throng stands in the lamp-lit courtyard seeking fellowship, the grave tidings having sent them from their warm homes, their suppers forgotten. I search for Gwendes but do not see her. Fragments of conversation reach my ears, of sons and daughters riding to battle, of surprise that the King will send aid, of a certain death for all… 

The fountain continues to play as though the world is not ending. One of the twin children sits on its stone ledge, his round face watching the bubbling water. How is it possible only a few hours have passed since Ferdir arrived and I told the children to go home for supper?

Again my heart thumps painfully as my thoughts return to the exchange with Thranduil. I wonder where he is now. I imagine him somewhere in the keep giving more orders, his voice as commanding and unyielding as it had been to me. I still feel his breath on my cheek, and hear his words clearer than tonight’s sky. “It would kill me.”

The arched windows of the chandlery are unlit, its occupants having joined the courtyard crowd. I turn down the shadowed path at its corner. With the commotion from the villagers, Gwendes and her family likely know. But my promise keeps me walking, and I inhale a deep breath as I climb the stairs to her cottage door. I must remain strong.

Gwendes opens the door before I can reach it, letting out a buttery light and the smell of cinnamon. Her mouth is parted, her pretty features lined with concern. I suddenly recall the first time I came here, and how different the circumstances. The ordeal regarding Elros feels like something from another life.

“Are we going to war?”

Gilrin and Tadion join their daughter in the doorframe. I can tell from their grim expressions they already know my answer.

“The army leaves at dawn. Lórien has been attacked by Dol Guldur. The King will ride with them.”

“And so shall I.” Tadion’s voice brooks no argument. He crosses his arms.

Gilrin whips around to face him, her cheeks as red as her hair. “You have not seen battle since the fire-drake at Gundabad! I will not allow it!”

“You will not be able to stop me, Gilrin.”

Judging by his weary tone, I guess their argument an old one. Gwendes starts down the steps and takes my elbow, leading me to the road, away from her parents’ raised voices. She flashes a look of apology on their behalf.

“We already guessed the news.” She clings to my arm like a child to a blanket. “When you did not come I became even more concerned, and wondered if you were well…”

“I apologize, mellon. I lost sense of time.”

How long had I stood in Thranduil’s chambers after he left? How long had I tried to reign in my emotions, to process his words?

A crease forms between Gwendes’ brow. “You look troubled. Were…were you crying?”

“Tis no wonder,” Gilrin mercifully interjects, joining us on the road. “This is grievous news to all. There will be many tears when our loved ones do not return, and no comfort to be given.”

“Nana, please…

“We have already experienced a great loss.” Gilrin looks up at her husband, who stands poised at the door with his arms still crossed. “I cannot bear it again. We should pack our belongings tonight and journey to the Grey Havens ere it is too late…”

“I have cousins in Lórien. I will not abandon them in their time of need. You lack such faith in me--”

A shrill noise rents the air, stealing the remainder of his words. The Woodland horn reverberates through the forest like an unearthly bird call.

Ice jolts down my spine. Gwendes tightens her grip until I can no longer feel my arm. Tadion flies down the stairs to reach us.

The ominous horn sounds again, so loud I can feel the vibration in the deep of my chest. My eyes sting. The distant rings of steel and murmurs from the courtyard are silenced. The world becomes still, as though all living things have been removed. I can only hear blood thrumming in my ears.

“It is the guard giving the warning,” says Tadion. “We will not ride out tomorrow to war. War is already upon us.”

Once more the horn sounds, and then remains silent.

Chapter Text

My first instinct is to run, but fear keeps me frozen.

The otherworldly silence shatters like brittle glass from a coming storm beyond the village. It is a crescendo of thundering feet and bestial grunts, and commands roared in a language from below the earth. The horrific noise echoes in the air as a harbinger.

My breath catches in my throat. Fire arrows race across the inky sky more numerous than the stars. Like dragon’s breath, they land in tree tops, and on the roofs of the outlying dwellings. The wind picks up, as if harnessed by Sauron. A rush of heat lashes my cheeks. If the beasts do not reach us first, the fire will.

The distant screams are the catalyst to move my feet. Finding strength within, and a fervent desire to survive, I take Gwendes’ and Gilrin’s hands and run. If we fail to reach the cavern keep before the enemy climbs the walls, our chances of waking to another day in Middle-earth are grim.

A large group is still huddled in the courtyard, watching the scene unfold as though captured and caged. As though it is too late. Angry orange light reflects on their hair and shocked faces. I see the twin children clinging to their mother’s legs as she stands immobile, covering her mouth with her hands.

I grab the mother’s shoulder and address the crowd. “Run to the keep! Hurry!”

I yell the words in repetition, my voice cracking. As though woken from slumber, the gathering disperses, reaching for their loved ones and running to safety. A feverish energy propels me forward again, and helps me pull Gwendes and her mother along with my swift steps even as they lag behind. I have never run faster in my life.

“The orcs are now climbing the walls!” Tadion shouts.

I do not dare look behind. I am afraid of losing momentum, and even more afraid of what I will see.

Our feet slap the cobblestones like the frenetic pace of my heart. The practice grounds are in sight. The young soldiers I saw earlier with Tauriel are frantically putting on armor and heading towards the village, swords and bows in hand. There are not enough of them.

Fire arrows lift the darkness like unholy lanterns, flying over the trees and landing on the practice field. A soldier rolls on the ground to put out the flames devouring him, his tortured scream giving me gooseflesh.

I silently pray to the Valar for mercy. I pray for those living closest to the walls, for the brave soldiers who will give their lives to save the realm, and for all of us. Once the orcs climb the wall, there will be little time to reach safety. But the walls have at least afforded us a chance.

Relief washes over me when the river bridge comes in to view, but I do not slow. The keep entrance is open still, the sunny light from inside like the beacon of a lighthouse.

Lord Elros stands on the bridge, his arms vigorously motioning forward when he sees us. “Hurry! They are coming!”

The panicked screams heighten in intensity, mixing with Orcish and heavy tramping through the surrounding forest. There is no more time.

“They have crossed the walls!” Tadion says.

I feel a strong instinct to turn back and help. Never before have I felt more frustration over my lack of ability in wielding a weapon. If only I had practiced harder and longer, I could join Tauriel and the others, and save even one life. It would be worth giving up my own…

Gwendes’ hand is suddenly yanked from mine. I whip around, terrified. She is sprawled on the cobblestone like a thrown doll, and a passerby tramples over her red hair as they flee to safety. I kneel down at her side. Her heather wool dress is torn, blood trickling down her knee. My eyes fall on the nearby jutting tree root.

“Are you alright?”

Her eyes are wide. “Yes, yes. Please help me up before they--”

Tadion gathers her in his arms, and again we begin to run. Though not her fault, Gwendes’ fall has cost us our small advantage. Elros shouts again, but his words are stolen by the surrounding storm. Enormous dread fills me.

I think of my father. If only he had departed for the Grey Havens when there was time. If not for me, he would be on a white ship, soon to be reunited with his beloved. And my sister, Faeleth…is it too late to visit her and meet my nephew? Must I wait for their coming on the shores of Valinor? A thousand regrets dart through my mind like poisoned arrows, and pierce my heart where it hurts most.

As though I am watching from afar, a towering monster runs out of a copse of trees straight towards us, waving a broad-bladed scimitar over its misshapen head. Gilrin’s and Gwendes’ screams shoot through the air.

I cannot think. I can only act. I reach for the pair of knives hidden under my cloak and forcefully throw them at the orc, as though all my practice has been for this one moment. The knives penetrate its tough hide with a dull thud, as I knew they would. I find my breath again with a struggle.

The monster looks down at the protruding knives almost curiously. It cocks its grotesque head, and bares a row of sharp, rotting teeth. The odor of decay and excrement assail me. Once again it starts to march towards us, its pace quickening with each step. Tadion shields Gwendes and Gilrin with his body.

There are no more weapons, no outrunning it. It is too large, too fast. I squeeze my eyes shut, and hope death will be swift and the Halls of Mandos warm.

“It would kill me.”

My hair flutters as something whizzes past my ear. A pained grunt and loud thump make me dare to open my eyes. The beast lies at my feet, a Woodland arrow protruding from its temple. It twitches and moves no more.

Elros lowers his bow. “You must hurry before they bar the doors! Now!”

“Hannon-le.”

My legs shake as I start to move again, but the entrance is nigh. Guards stand on the bridge, their arrows aimed towards targets in the dark. The rustling of foliage and branches are the only indications the orcs are nearby. I dare to look behind my shoulder. Most dwellings are now in flames. Endless smoke billows to sky, blanketing the stars.

“Rîneth!”

The relief in my father’s voice is palpable. I feel it deep in my chest. He stands at the entrance, his usual calm demeanor shattered by tears in his eyes. I do not stop running until I am in his arms.

“When the guards told me you had left the keep, I…I feared the worst.”

“I am sorry, Ada…”

I do not leave the crook of his shoulder. The cacophony of battle rattles my hearing, a continuous reminder of reality. I cannot not process what I have seen, nor form it into words. It does not feel possible.

“I am relieved you are safe, iell nín.”

“If not for Lord Elros, we would have met our end. We are forever in his debt.”

“We owe the same debt to your daughter,” says Tadion, stepping forward. “Her knives met their target, allowing Lord Elros enough time to let loose his arrow.”

“Thank the Valar,” Gilrin whispers, her breathing still heavy.

There is a sudden commotion from the inner halls. I turn around. Leading a small army of Sindar soldiers, Thranduil approaches the entrance in a hurried stride. The soldiers’ faces are ashen and grim, their fear tangible. Their armor has been put on in a rush, with breastplates incompletely fastened and braces missing. Some do not even wear helmets.

But no amount of armor could make them more prepared for what awaits. How could it? The enemy has taken us when least expected.

In contrast, Thranduil’s face is a steely mask, his bearing composed. I have always admired his elegant armor, and the large silver-leather wings behind his shoulders, as though he is a glorious bird of prey. He grips his unsheathed twin swords in both hands, their steel hilts engraved with vines and leaves.

The memory returns unbidden of the day he demonstrated how to use my knives. The Warrior King, I called him in jest.

It is truer now than it has ever been.

I move aside to let them pass. As he commanded, I do not go to him, though every part of me wishes to rebel. His eyes are focused ahead. He gives no indication he sees me.

My father addresses us. “We must make way to the deepest rooms of the keep. Many of our kin wait there. It is our safest refuge, for now.”

It is as though he speaks from the end of a long tunnel. I cannot not tear my gaze from Thranduil. I do not wish to be parted from him. It matters not that he is a great warrior, or that he has survived every battle in his long life. This is one he had not anticipated.

They are outnumbered. There is little hope.

My father squeezes my shoulder, but it is no comfort as I watch the King walk towards the entrance, his loyal army following. When I believe he will fade into the starless night, he turns around to look at me.

Unguarded softness sweeps over his stony features. His words are unspoken, but they are already etched in the walls of my heart. Since first speaking them in his chamber, he has whispered them in my ear a thousand times again.

I hope my eyes convey the message I cannot not speak in turn.

“It would kill me as well.”

He gives an infinitesimal nod, and turns back to face the flame-lit world. With a loud command to the soldiers, they move swiftly and disappear from sight. If not for my father’s firm grip, my legs would give way. I release a breath I did not know I was holding.

“Please take care of my family, Lord Gailon,” says Tadion, and bolts towards the open doors to follow the army.

The entrance guards restrain Gilrin as she attempts to run after him. She kicks her legs as she tries to break free, calling out her husband’s name again and again until her voice becomes hoarse.

“Nana!” Gwendes runs to her, and takes hold of her flailing arms. “Please…it is too late! It is too late…there is nothing we can do…”

Gilrin releases a labored breath and slackens, and clings to her daughter when the guards release her. An ache squeezes my heart.at their heavy sobs. But as much as I wish to comfort them, I know there is none to give. Within myself I feel a similar pain.

“He does not even have a weapon, Ada.”

“It will not take him long to find one.”

I imagine lifeless bodies on the forest floor, swords and bows and knives strewn by their sides as the flames creep closer. My mouth goes dry.

The guards bar the doors, trapping us in the stone tomb. The blurry sounds of battle are now muted. It feels as though we have chosen to abandon our dying kin to save ourselves. It feels wrong.

Ada releases my shoulder. “It is time to leave.”

Gwendes and Gilrin follow him, still clinging to each other. With a last long look at the doors separating two worlds, I join them, and we make way to the deepest rooms of the keep. It is the longest walk I have ever taken.

 

888

 

Unless visiting Lady Aethel, I do not oft pass through the deeper chambers. I prefer the open and airy halls nearer to the sunlight, where the cavern stream reflects the amber pendant lights hanging from the high ceilings. It is quieter here, and darker.

Guards are lined against the passageway like stone statues, ordered to protect us should the cave be infiltrated. The keep doors are of the strongest make, but they have not been tested by cave troll or battering ram.

The hall is empty otherwise, the remainder of my kin keeping within closed chambers. The Woodland Elves are not known for cowardice, but I hope every able body who can wield a weapon is helping to fight.

I lead the way to the familiar arched door by the corner before the passageway veers left, and lift my hand to knock.

Lady Caewen peers through a small crack before opening the door wider. The blue of her eyes is emphasized by reddened lids, but her expression remains collected.

“I am relieved to see you all. Come inside.”

I motion for Gwendes and Gilrin to enter first. Lady Aethel’s rooms are smaller than mine, but they do not lack for the space or warmth needed. Sitting in her favorite swan-back chair, Aethel does not look as calm as her daughter. One hand grips the arm of her chair as if it is her salvation, and the other trembles while reaching for a near-empty wine glass.

“Thank you for having us,” I say. “We have been through…much.”

The Lady’s troubled gaze jumps to my father. “Have we any hope? Everything happened so quickly. We were told to stay in our rooms and to leave under no circumstance…”

His mouth forms a line. “Those living in the village had no warning, nor time to prepare but for the mere moments ere the enemy climbed the wall. The forest is alight with fire.”

Caewen’s rigid posture breaks, her shoulders slumping as she buries her face in her hands.

“As for hope, there is always room for it, however small,” he says.

Lady Aethel’s face is a ghost’s, her knuckles white as she grips the sides of her chair. Gwendes and her mother walk silently to the cushioned divan near the hearth and sit down. If I did not know otherwise, judging from the faces around the room I would believe the battle already lost.

Ada’s voice cuts through the uncomfortable stillness. “Our King and soldiers are fighting now. Many were outside when the attack began, scattered hither and thither. They had no time to plan, only to swiftly gather their weapons and armor…”

I remember the young soldiers Tauriel was training before the horn blew its warning. To have never seen battle and then be faced with it unawares…how will any of them survive?

And Tauriel. I have not seen her since the attack began. There is little doubt of her capabilities, but even she is no match for fire...

“Have any of you seen Lord Ferdir?” asks Caewen hoarsely.

Gwendes lifts her head from her mother’s shoulder. “I…I saw him earlier with the King and Lord Amdiron as they marched to join the fight.”

Caewen nods solemnly and returns to studying her lap.

Her sudden distress over Ferdir is vaguely puzzling. He has made no secret of his disdain towards her, and I assumed the feeling a mutual one. If it was any other time, I might dare to ask. But now I have not the mind to care.

“It is good he fights for his father’s people,” Lady Aethel says. “At least we have three more able soldiers than before.”

My father nods. “It is apparent Dol Guldur attacked us as they predicted we would go to Lórien’s aid. We can be thankful it is not their entire army.”

If only we had received an earlier warning. Even half an hour would have made a tremendous difference...

The room falls into a suffocating silence. Everyone holds their breath while awaiting the unknown. As much as my feet long for rest, I cannot bear the thought of sitting idly while my kin fights for their lives, and ours.

But standing is no better.

Gilrin breaks the quiet, her voice shaky at first. “Please tell us, Lord Gailon: what will we do if the doors are breached?”

“If the guards cannot hold them, they will blow the horn signal. We will then flee to the trap door over the river, if it has not been discovered. But it is well hidden.”

“And well known,” I say.

He flashes me a rare reproving look. “We will try escaping through the passage on barrel rafts and brave the river until we reach our kin.”

“The raft-elves,” says Aethel.

“Yes. The forest may be teeming with orcs, but it is possible they will not expect us on water. We will have guards with us, so we will not be without means of protection. Hope will still remain.”

“A false hope.” Gilrin turns to the wall, her red locks obscuring her face.

“If the King does not survive, who then shall rule the realm?” Lady Aethel leans forward. “Is that why you are here, Lord Gailon?”

His nod is grave. “It is the King’s command. Until his son returns.”

The pounding of my heart pains my ears. No longer do I wish to be in this too-small room listening to my father’s answers, answers which tear at my soul like claws from a foul beast. It is too much to endure.

“Lady Aethel, may I seek solace in your bed chamber?”

I expect her to ask for an explanation, but she merely nods, not bothering to look up at me. Her mind is elsewhere, likely on braving the swift-moving river on a lone barrel raft.

My father gives me a concerned glance, as does Gwendes, but I cannot reassure them. I shake my head softly and leave, closing the doors behind me. The bed chamber is dark and cool, Aethel’s familiar scent of citrus and vanilla reminding me of another life.

I walk to the other side of the bed to the looking glass. My reflection is little more than a shadow, save for the ring on my finger. I lift it to my chest. Perhaps I hope its happy glow will warm my heart and remove my fear. And win an impossible battle.

But the Star of Varda’s enchantment is only beauty and light, not a miracle.

I let my arm fall to my side, and shut my eyes.

“It would kill me.”

“Not if you are already dead.”

Chapter Text

My back against the wall, I slide down until I meet the cold floor. My calm façade crumbles like aging stone. I cover my face with my hands, and give in to the maelstrom of emotions and thoughts I have tried ignoring for too long.

I am not afraid of dying. Its sting will be far from pleasant, but for the Eldar, death is but a shortened passage to our home across the Sea. Should I die before dawn, my spirit would be sent to the Halls of Mandos for a time of rest. With my physical body restored, I would then stay with my mother under the mallorn trees of Valinor, and await the arrival of Ada, Faeleth, and my nephew.

Nay, I do not fear death. I would rather it claim me than for the sun to rise on the Woodland Realm without its people, and without its King. I would have to depart the forest and live elsewhere, my homeland to become a legend told to the children of Men. Thranduil Oropherion’s spirit would reside in the Undying Lands, soon to be reunited with his wife.

He would think of me no more.

I once believed time irrelevant. I only measured it by the passing of seasons, feasts and celebrations, unlike Men who measure it in weeks and days and hours. It was a promise to me. Vast and unending and unhurried. But now it sifts through my fingers like loose sand. Now I wish for a thousand years more of life as it was before the battle. Only a thousand…

Strolling with Gwendes by the riverbank as we discuss her love interests under a waning sun, copying ancient texts long after midnight, spending an evening at the fireside with Ada and Thranduil. Thranduil giving me a piercing look when proving a point, Thranduil dancing with me at Mereth Nuin Giliath, Thranduil listening while I speak of trivialities…just listening. I have taken it all for granted.

Even a thousand more years does not seem enough.

“It would kill me.”

I now understand the significance of his words. He has lost much in his life; to lose again would be the final thread undone. The Eldar can die of a broken heart. It has happened before. I know he loves me, as a friend, as a sister of sorts. That thought disconcerts me, though I cannot explain why.

“It would kill me as well.” Those were my words unspoken before he left to face an endless night. I cannot guess if he heard them, but they came from a secret space beneath my ribs, one I did not know existed. And they were true. Even if his death did not kill my body, it would kill my spirit. I would join my father in his journey to the Havens.

I bring my knees to my chest, and rest my cheek upon them, wishing I could block the urgent murmurs from the other room. They are a reminder of time. How much I have wasted it, and how little is left.

When my friend Mattie was still alive, I would oft visit her at her farmhouse by the River Running. On one such visit I spoke of how Thranduil was like a brother to me. Her laughter could surely be heard from the other side of the Lonely Mountain. She gave no reason for it, but patted me on the head like a slow-witted child before strolling outside to gather more Elanor for a bouquet. I felt bewildered.

But now I understand.

He is not like a brother at all. Comparing our relationship to the familial one I share with Faeleth feels strange, even repulsive. It is not the same. Mattie knew this. And though he is certainly a friend, so is Gwendes. Should she die, I would grieve but still carry on, warmed by knowing I would one day see her again.

Carrying on does not seem possible without Thranduil.

“Rîneth, may I come in?”

“Yes.”

The door swings open. The light from the living chamber burns my eyes, and then is put out again. Gwendes looks astonished to see me sitting on the floor, not in my usual composed state. I am grateful she has the grace not to comment. She sits down beside me.

Feeling incapable of conversation, I remain silent. I wish for once she would give me peace.

“If only we knew what was happening,” she says. “I am afraid, Rîneth. Afraid for my father…”

I hope my hand on her shoulder will bring comfort without words. I do not trust mine could give her what she needs.

“Nana had good reason to be worried. He has not been in battle for a long time, since the Queen’s death…” She bites her lip. “He forgets he is a simple potter, and not a warrior from the First Age.”

Her slippers scratch against the stone surface as she moves her knees to her chest, imitating my position. I feel her sigh on my ear.

“I am also afraid for the King.” Her tone changes, becoming soft and oddly familiar. “He looked so handsome and brave before going into battle. If he dies, I shall be devastated.”

“Devastated?”

“Beyond measure.”

I realize why her tone is familiar. It is the same she once used when speaking fondly of Lord Elros.

“Why does he mean so much to you now?”

Gwendes’ brow furrows. “You are aware of my feelings. I have not kept them hidden from you. You…you told me you knew.”

Feelings?” The whoosh in my stomach puts me off balance. “I do not understand. I thought you spoke of Lord Ferdir…”

Her laughter is devoid of humor. “I hope you are jesting, my lady. He is only a handsomer version of Elros.”

Heat rises up my neck and to my cheeks. “He saved you from your death, or have you forgotten?”

“Of course not. Elros saved us tonight. Does that mean we should now be in love with him?”

I do not bother to answer. My fingers curl into my palms

“He was so kind when he danced with me at Mereth Nuin Giliath,” she says dreamily, closing her eyes to relive the memory. “I never realized before then how kind he could be. And his eyes--”

“Enough!” I shoot up from the floor. “To have feelings for the King is not only folly, but illogical. His heart is with his wife in the Undying Lands. He cannot break his vows. Not for you, not for anyone. You are being ridiculous.”

“Tis what I expected you to tell me from the start. But the rumors gave me hope, little though it was. Please do not be cross with me, mellon. Not now…”

Not now. I am brought back to the ongoing battle, and time and how little there is of it. It is no time for arguing. It is time to leave before I say something I shall regret forever.

“I am going to find some Athelas. The wounded will need it.”

My father pleads for me to stay in the safety of Lady Aethel’s chambers, but my curt refusal silences him, making even Caewen look up from her lap. Instant guilt covers me. My emotions are in a whirl, and I cannot seem to gain control of them.

When I find a storeroom, I walk in and shut the door behind me. I stand without moving in the shadowy chamber, my palms stinging from my digging fingernails. I unclench my fists, and release a surrendering breath.

It is Gwendes who has opened my eyes to the truth of what I have been feeling for longer than I know.

I am in love with him.

888

 

“I am in love with him.”

Confirming it aloud in the empty room causes the dam I have so carefully built to burst. Hot tears run down my cheeks. I am the world’s biggest fool.

The harsh words I spoke to Gwendes were for myself. It is folly. Whether he lives or dies tonight does not change that he is bound to another, whether in the Woodland Realm or Valinor. I have chosen the impossible.

Afraid of enduring heartache again, I once convinced myself I was content in being alone. But Ada saw through my façade to the truth of my loneliness, and I did not wish to believe him. He was right.

My heart has acted of its own accord and betrayed me. Despite my best attempts, I shall suffer hurt again, this time more than I can bear.

I jump from my skin at an earth-shattering boom above the ceiling. Ornate bottles fall from the shelves and shatter, hundreds of glass shards glittering the dark floor. Dust fills the air and enters my chest, making me cough.

Is a cave troll trying to gain entrance? Or has it fallen into the rock face? I steady my breathing.

I hastily wipe away the wetness from my face and lock away my foolish heart. As deftly as I can, I step around the glass shards and scour the shelves and drawers for any sign of the healing herb. Athelas is best used when freshly cut, but I know of nothing better.

If there are survivors, there will be injuries. Even if it comes to us escaping through the trap door on barrel rafts, we will likely face some kind of peril during our flight. The Forest River alone is a dangerous creature. Having Athelas on hand could make the difference between life and death.

My stomach leaps when I spot the nondescript jar. Had it not been labeled, I would have passed over it. The herbs inside appear preserved, as though kept fresh by the powers of the Eldar. I clutch it to my chest.

I leave the storeroom and walk down the ill-lit passageway. A passing guard halts at my approach, and his curious gaze darts to the jar in my hand.

“You should not be out here, my lady.”

“Have you heard any news?”

“Nay,” he says solemnly. “Our time is short now. You must prepare to move quickly when the signal comes.”

I nod and continue walking.

My lady!”

His voice is a warning, but I do not stop, and he does not follow. Longing for fresher air and brighter light, I walk until I reach the cave’s main hall. Thranduil’s antlered throne stands empty in the distance, accentuated by a flood of golden light from above, as though its owner is only away for supper.

I have never seen the caverns so vacant, nor heard them so quiet. The stream’s gentle trickle is the only sound, the usual murmurs and echoing footsteps from a normal evening absent. It is not until I reach the entrance when I hear muffled steel. An agonized cry sends shivers down my flesh.

A group of guards stand waiting, their weapons at the ready. One carries a large Elvish horn.

The boy with the horn notices me. “Find safety before it is too late, my lady.”

I cannot recall his name, but I recognize his long nose and dusty-blond hair, and his rounded face. I have seen him dine with his father at the King’s table.

“Has there been a signal, anything at all?”

He shakes his head. “We are in the dark. These caverns serve their purpose but keep us isolated. There is no choice but to wait. Tis the King’s orders.”

The King’s orders. I know too well about them.

“Have you heard any clues from the other side of the doors?”

“Faint yells and steel, little more. You must have heard the crash into the rock face. What it was, I cannot say.” His light eyes move to the jar of Athelas I carry, and his mouth turns downwards.

“It is for the wounded.”

“Listen, my lady…you should not carry much hope for…” A shadow falls over him. “Return to your chambers and to your loved ones. We will do our best to hold them off, and give you time.”

“And what of you?”

“I shall do my duty, my lady.”

I swallow, my throat turning to sand. His fear is thinly-veiled. He did not expect death to come so soon…

I yelp as another boom rents the air, louder than the one before. I reach out to the rock wall for support. It sounds like thunder but feels like an earthquake. Pebbles fall from the ceiling and dust obscures my vision. My legs continue shaking even after the rumble echoes through the halls.

If Ada was worried about my whereabouts before, now he will surely be coming to find me. I wave my hand to clear the dusty haze. It is time to return to Lady Aethel’s chambers and prepare for the river escape. Any flame of hope I carried has diminished to a mere flicker in the darkness.

I turn to cross over the narrow walkway, but take only a few steps when a resounding bang on the doors halts my feet, and my heart.

It is though my legs are stuck in mud to my knees when the bang sounds again, reverberating through every chamber in the cave, a louder warning than a horn could ever give. And again it comes. My spirit tries to flee from my body.

“They are coming through! Brace yourselves!”

I feel the fourth crash vibrate in my chest. With the fifth is the terrible sound of cracking wood. Why am I not running? My legs refuse to cooperate; my eyes cannot break away. I am struck dumb.

The guards’ bows are taut, arrows pointed ahead, bodies tense. Any moment now the battering ram will burst through…

Another crash and more splintering wood. The young guard lifts the horn to his mouth to give the reluctant signal all is lost, and we must attempt our final hope: a trap door and the perilous river of Mirkwood.

But when another bang does not come, he keeps the horn poised at his lips, waiting a moment more. I hear muted shrieks and yells from beyond the doors, but it seems the battering ram has ceased its determined pounding.

I let out a shaky breath. Another moment passes, or a hundred, but there are no more attempts to breach the doors. The young guard looks at me, his face wet with perspiration, but his relieved smile rekindles the flame in my chest. There is still hope left.

I must tell Ada and the others the glad tidings, that our army has prevented the worst from happening. Not all our kin are dead. They are fighting still.

A Woodland horn suddenly blows from beyond the entrance. Thrice it sounds, each longer than the last.

It is a signal.

“Unbar the doors!”

Chapter Text

I do not know what to expect as the doors are pulled open. Is it a trick from a crafty orc who has guessed our signal? Are we soon to meet a fate worse than death? I stand on my toes but still see nothing; the guards have blocked my line of vision.

A frigid gust blows into our tomb, stinging my cheeks.

“Make way for the King! Make way!”

I suck in my breath. The crowd of Elves hastily part, the orange light from the outside torches reflecting off their armor. Four soldiers come forth, carrying a body on their shoulders. I see the familiar intricate breastplate when they draw closer, and the silver-blond hair hanging behind them as they walk. I become hollow, without heart or lungs.

Earlier my feet were stuck in hardened mud, but now they move of their own volition. It takes but a flutter of a sparrow’s wings to reach him.

Thranduil is as I have never seen him. He is unconscious and pale, the gruesome burn scar on his face exposed to me for the first time, revealing muscle and sinew. His arms hang lifelessly. Blood seeps from beneath his arm, leaving a trail on the floor from the entrance.

In appearance alone, he looks to be dead.

“Is he…” I do not have the courage to finish.

“His heart still beats, though faintly,” says Ferdir, who is one of the soldiers carrying him.

He is still alive. I reach out to touch his forehead, streaked with black orc blood. His flesh is still warm.

“Carry him to his rooms, quickly!” I say.

I remember the glass jar I clutch in my hand, and call out to the young guard with the horn. His eyebrows shoot to his hair, and he hesitantly steps forward from the group of watching guards.

“Boil a pot of water and gather some linens and bring them to the King’s chambers as soon as the water is done.”

“My lady--”

“Do not delay.”

“The battle is not yet over. There is still--”

“Now!”

He pales at the force of my yell. Satisfied he will obey, I run ahead to prepare Thranduil’s chambers. My experience with healing is little, having only saved the lives of small animals in my youth. There are others who would be a better choice, but they are not here. There is no time.

“Eru, please spare him,” I whisper. I have never been more afraid.

Only hours ago I stood in his rooms. It feels like a hundred long winters have passed since then. The chambers are low-lit and cold, as if echoing their master who barely clings to life. It feels intrusive entering his sleeping quarters, but there is no other choice. His bed is large and tall, its varnished wooden posts reaching to the ceiling. Like his throne, the posts are carved into ornate trees with overlapping branches, representing his forest kingdom.

The room smells like him. That familiar masculine scent I cannot place.

After making certain the bed is suitable for him to lie on, I hurriedly search for something to stanch the bleeding. I find his robe closet just as the soldiers open the doors to his living chamber. I wish there was another choice. His many outfits are beautiful in their varying colors and textures, but time is no longer afforded to me.

I make a hasty decision and grab a robe of black linen, a color he does not wear often. He would still be cross with me if he knew.

“Remove his armor so I may reach the wound,” I say as they lay him on the blue coverlet. “We must be as swift as possible.”

Ferdir looks at me, his handsome features marred with blood from both orc and Elf. “Rîneth, the battle still goes on. We cannot afford to stay, not if we wish to save what little is left of our homeland.”

His bluntness strikes me. “What happened to him?”

“The enemy nearly succeeded in breaking through the doors, but the King managed to slay those carrying the battering ram. It was an incredible feat, but he did not escape the orc blade which pierced his side above his armor.”

I wince. He saved us…

When the soldiers remove his breastplate, I rip open the crimson-soaked undertunic. The wound under his arm is large and gaping, bleeding steadily. His face is as pale as a midwinter’s snow, and his lips have now turned blue. The blade must have punctured his lung. I take the pitcher resting on the bed stand and pour water over the wound to remove any debris, and then compress the black linen against it to try and stop the flow.

If only my heart would slow its frantic pace. I must remain calm.

“We must go, Rîneth.”

“Then please do!”

I regret my yell instantly; it flew from my mouth without thought, born of nothing but fear.

The clap of their boots echo against the stone as they depart. Despite reason, I do not like them for leaving. I am now alone with my dying friend, my hopes resting solely on the young guard bringing the boiling water. If he does not come soon, it will be too late. Perhaps it already is.

“Thranduil, can you hear me? You must hold on. You are strong, far stronger than anyone else. And I suspect you know it.”

My pleading voice in the silent room sounds odd to my own ears. I do not even know half of what I am saying, most of it nonsense and words I would never utter if he was conscious. I brush away strands of hair from his face, and I lay my ear against his bare chest. His heart continues a faint beat, like the pattering of hare’s feet across snow. He does not look like he is breathing.

“You must not leave us. I command you to hold on and live. Your people need you. I need you, more than you know…”

Athelas alone will not save him. The wound is too large and too deep for a mere herb. It is only the grace of the Valar which can spare him, nothing less. But I will try everything I know.

“A little while longer, mellon nín. Keep breathing…”

The door opens. It is the young guard carrying linens and a steaming pot of water. I would embrace him if there was time, but there is not. I let out a relieved, shaky breath.

“Press this tightly against the wound while I prepare the Athelas.”

He sits down at Thranduil’s side and takes the blood-stained robes in exchange for the water. The steam rising from the pot covers my face in a humid heat, sharpening my senses and clearing the fog in my head.

It will require all my strength and mind and love for the task ahead.

 

888

 

If Lord Elrond was with us, the greatest healer in Middle-earth, it is possible even he would be unable to save Thranduil. But it does not prevent me from wishing desperately for his presence. With a deep inhalation, and an unspoken prayer to those who might be listening, I break the Athelas leaves and place them in the water to steep. I pray it will not take too long.

I turn to look at him. My eyes are drawn to his vicious burn; half his face is injured beyond repair. His unconsciousness must have removed the glamor, his mind no longer able to sustain it.

The scar is an evidence of weakness, and Thranduil is proud. He does not wish others to see it. Extending from temple to jaw, the fire melted his flesh and left muscle and bone exposed. It is painful to look upon.

If he survives, he will carry yet another terrible scar. Has he not been through enough?

“What is your name?”

The guard looks surprised at my question. “Narunir, my lady.”

“I shall tell everyone, Narunir, of how you helped save the King. Whether he lives or dies, you shall be remembered for your efforts today.”

He offers a small smile, a tinge of pink reaching his ears. I know it is what he needed to hear; it is of utmost importance for someone so young to prove their worth. Likely he has not yet reached his fiftieth year.

“You are his close friend,” he says. It is not a question.

“Yes.”

My chest tightens painfully, and I look away. I cannot let myself crumble, not now. Not when I must be stronger than I have ever been.

The Athelas is ready. Taking a linen cloth, I submerge it in the steaming water and then wring it with my hands. I close my eyes, and steel myself for attempting the final hope. The Athelas smells like a fresh spring morning after a rainfall, when the world becomes new again.

A sense of peace covers me like a soft quilt. The Valar are listening.

Narunir removes the black robe pressed against his wound, and I replace it with the Athelas-soaked cloth. I wring it gently to allow the remaining water to flow into the deep puncture. Again I submerge the cloth into the pot, and begin the prayer.

I am not one to usually pray aloud, keeping my requests in my heart always. But it is different now. The Eldar have power in spoken words, and more so in prayers for healing. I raise my voice and let all the emotion I can muster mingle with my voice.

“Eru, boe de nestad! I beseech you to spare him, to release him from death’s hold. Our people need him more than ever. Please let not his spirit depart to the Halls of Mandos. An ngell nín…”

I say the prayer in a continuous repetition, knowing I cannot hold back. My emotions consume me like a fire even my tears cannot quench. I dip the cloth again in the water, and this time I touch the burn on his face, and then his chest, and his arms…my love is overwhelming. Has it been this strong all along?

I feel an urge to address him. “Thranduil, meleth nín, tolo dan nan galad! Come back to us. Hear my voice, do not let go…”

The steady bleeding ceases, but the gaping wound has not yet healed. I know the Athelas is not enough, nor will it ever be, but I will not give up until I have no other choice. I would never forgive myself otherwise.

“An ngell nín…have mercy. Please heal his wound and remove the shadow covering him…”

Like a glimpse of sunlight after days of rain, Narunir’s deeper voice joins mine, his intent gaze never leaving his King’s wound. The hint of a warm light envelopes us, its source a place I have never seen. The Valar are hearing us. There is hope. The shadow is passing...

I lean over his face for a clearer view. His lips have returned to their normal color.

“Meleth nín, tolo dan nan galad. Come back to the light. Come back to me.”

In the far reaches of my mind I know the young guard is questioning my ardent words to the King, pushing the boundaries of mere friendship beyond question, but I cannot restrain my emotion. Not when it could make the difference between his life and death.

I continue my prayers until the water turns cold and I am spent, until every drop of energy in my body is expended. Narunir expresses concern I will collapse and leads me to a chair at the bedside, adamant I stay there for a time. I do not have the strength to argue.

Thranduil’s wound does not look as angry as before. The color in his face is returned, and his expression is oddly peaceful, as though he is in a pleasant slumber. I take his hand and clutch it in my lap. There is nothing more I can do but wait.

 

888

 

“Rîneth. Rîneth…”

The feather touch on my arm wakes me. Ada stands in the center of my vision, his brow wrinkled and his mouth in a troubled frown. Remembering everything all at once, I fly from my chair.

Thranduil’s chest is rising and falling. He is still alive. Relief pours over me like a spring rain.

“I promised myself I would not fall asleep…”

“You nearly gave your own life to save his, Rîneth. Sleep was what you required most. You still require it. You will be weak for many days.”

“Ada, I--”

“I searched all over the keep for you, from your chambers to the deepest dungeons. It was not until a guard informed me the King suffered a grave injury when I knew I would find you here.”

I flutter my eyes shut. “I cannot apologize, Ada. I can only express my wish that you had been here with me. My skill in healing is not sufficient. I do not--”

“I could not have done more than you, my child. It is my firm belief he would have died had I tried to heal him instead.”

“You are far more skilled than I. Why do you say such?”

His smile is kind, his eyes apologetic. “I believe you already know, iell nín.”

Chapter Text

As Narunir is eager to return to his duties, my father takes his place in the bedside vigil. He speaks little, his concern for his friend evident in the hard line of his mouth and clenched jaw. If Thranduil does not endure the night, I will not be the only one to suffer his passing.

He has been friends with Thranduil since the Last Alliance, saving the then-prince from an Easterling’s fatal spear blow. After Oropher’s death in battle and during Thranduil’s ascension to the Greenwood throne, Ada provided his support and counsel, inspiring the new King to give him the title of advisor.

So close was their friendship, Thranduil requested he speak the customary blessing on his wedding day. The bridegroom’s father traditionally held the honor, but as Oropher’s spirit had passed on, Ada was chosen in his stead.

“Did you know the Queen well?”

He looks at me, his half-shadowed face revealing no surprise. The solemn fire’s crackle is the room’s only sound as he gathers his thoughts. He moves his gaze to the hearth on the opposite wall, the square line of his jaw hardened. I wonder if he had decided not to answer.

“I knew her, though not like Thranduil. She came from the lands of Lindon, and was fairer than the brightest star. But she did not shine as one. She was diminished in countenance, sparing a smile only for a close friend or her child.”

“I hardly remember her.”

“Even so, you saw Itaril in her happiest days here. She carried more joy in being a mother to Legolas than in being a queen. She gave her life for it, in the end.”

I lean forward. “How did it happen? I have never heard the story fully.”

“Perhaps after you do, you will wish you remained ignorant.”

“I…must know, Ada.”

“Very well.” He takes a seat at the end of Thranduil’s bed, and steeples his hands under his chin. “It was a brisk autumn day, Mereth Nuin Giliath a few nights hence. The Queen was very protective of Legolas, but after his pleading she allowed him to accompany Lord Elros’ father to watch him hunt. The forest was not as festered with evil then; orcs and other creatures did not appear within the borders. The Queen had no reason for concern.

Thranduil was away on a trip to Lórien and was due back in time for Mereth Nuin Giliath. If he had been home, things would have ended differently.”

“What happened?” I whisper.

“They were attacked by a band of Gundabad orcs. Elros’ father was struck by arrows to both limbs, and was unable to save Legolas from being taken captive. It was late evening ere the barely-conscious hunter managed to reach the road and recall the events to a guard. When the Queen heard the news, she was so overwrought she did not delay.

Despite my advice to wait for the King, she gathered her four best soldiers to accompany her north to Mount Gundabad. They stopped neither to eat or rest. The soldiers pled for her to wait, promising her they would be vastly outnumbered at the orc hold and would surely die. But it was not her plan to fight, rather make a bargain. She knew there was a reason the orcs had taken Legolas captive instead of killing him.

When they arrived, the Queen offered herself in Legolas’ stead to the orc chieftain. She promised when Thranduil came to retrieve her, he would give them whatever they desired for her safe return, whether it be gold, jewels or land. What was more, she promised if he did not honor the agreement, they could kill her.

The Gundabad orcs were ignorant and greedy, and accepted her offer. They saw an opportunity to claim the Greenwood for their own.”

I shake my head. “Surely she knew this plan would never work?”

“She did,” he says grimly. “They returned Legolas, and she made certain he was unharmed. Then she handed him to her best soldier, Lord Amdiron, and instructed him to repeat to Thranduil the exact words she had spoken to the chieftain. He pled for her to reconsider, but it was too late. The agreement was final.

The Queen knew the orcs desired to join forces with Dol Guldur and destroy the Woodland Elves, and she knew it could never happen. Not wishing Thranduil to be faced with the decision, and believing she would not escape the hold alive regardless, she confessed her lie to the orc chieftain.

They murdered her brutally, in a manner I shall not utter. There was nothing left for a burial.”

Tears spring to my eyes as I remember Thranduil’s graphic description.

“An orc messenger once took pleasure in describing how they destroyed my wife’s body, how they tore her to a thousand pieces before casting her into the fire…

“The King arrived two days later with a large army on horseback,” Ada continues. “A messenger was waiting to give him the news of the Queen’s death. The orc handed him her favorite necklace as proof, broken and missing its jewels. As Thranduil could only think and breathe revenge, he struck down the messenger and ordered his army to attack the stronghold.

Having foreseen this, the orcs let loose a mighty fire-drake. I should not have to tell you our friend did not escape unscathed.”

“His burn…” I turn to look again at Thranduil’s gruesome scar. Until now I have never known when he acquired it.

“Though the Greenwood army was larger and stronger than the orcs’, Thranduil had not predicted a dragon, nor did he have the means to take it down. After he fell from his grave injury, the army began to retreat. The dragon followed them for a time – many did not survive its fire.”

“No wonder he does not speak of it.”

“Not many do. Who wishes to remember the great Greenwood army fleeing from battle? But against a fire-drake, there would have been no victory. Only certain death for all.”

I look at my lap, and notice my blue velvet gown is strained with Thranduil’s blood. “It was the orcs’ plan from the moment they took Legolas. It was a trap.”

“They anticipated the King and his army to arrive to retrieve his son. They had not anticipated the Queen and her bargain.”

“Did they truly believe Thranduil would hand over his entire kingdom for the return of his wife?”

“Enough to see what would unfold. Orcs are far from intelligent creatures. But it would have ended the same. He would not have given up his father’s kingdom to the enemy of the Eldar, though he would have tried everything he could to save his wife, of that I am without doubt.”

“She was very brave…”

If not for the Queen’s actions, I doubt Legolas would be have survived. She sacrificed her own life to save her son’s. Was there any greater love?

I glance at Thranduil, and reach out my hand to touch his forehead. A bloom of fear forms in my stomach.

“I believe he has a fever…”

Ada stands. “It is time for more Athelas. I shall fetch the water. It will only be a short while now, iell nín.”

“For what?”

“To know if he lives or dies. And to know if the battle has been lost or won.”

 

888

 

This time it is my father who speaks the prayer to the Valar. As much as I wish otherwise, I have no strength remaining to utter it again. But I refuse to sit by and only watch, and take another Athelas-soaked cloth and touch it to his chest and arms. His fever abates, but he still appears to be fighting a great battle within. I hope beyond reason his usual stubbornness and determination prevail. Ada ties a linen cloth around the chest and wound, creating a makeshift bandage.

“Do you believe he will die?”

His distressed countenance gives me no comfort, nor does his sudden pacing in front of the bed. His usual disposition has been my greatest source of peace and reassurance since childhood. Now he appears to be as out of sorts as I am.

“I cannot say. But we have done all we can.”

I rise from my chair. “Come and sit. You are exhausted from the prayer…”

“You expended far more energy than I, Rîneth.”

I cannot deny my legs are fatigued and shaky, and the desire to return to the chair is hard to resist. But I sit down at the end of the bed instead, where it is easier to look over Thranduil.

Ada finally takes a seat and the chamber grows silent, both of us lost in a deep ocean of troubled thoughts. A soft tap on the door brings us back to shore. Narunir strides in, his youthful face and armor splattered with black orc blood, proof he has been involved in the battle. There is a spring in his step I did not notice last I saw him.

“Do you have news?”

“I do, my lady.” His mouth curves upwards. “We have been victorious. The remaining orcs retreated into the forest, back to their hold. We succeeded in bringing down their cave trolls and killing their wargs and other foul beasts.”

My heart makes a small leap of joy, then plummets at the dark shadow which falls over Narunir’s countenance.

“It was a tremendous effort from our army, and the villagers as well, but the victory did not come easily, or without sacrifice…”

Ada leans forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped as though bracing himself. “Go on.”

“The fires were all-consuming.” Narunir looks at the floor. “Many inside their homes did not leave in time. Others climbed the rocks and escaped into the northern forest. It is uncertain if they found safety. There was a witness who saw several orcs fast on their heels…”

I grip the bed post so tightly my hand hurts.

“Lord Elros gave a valiant effort in helping to defend the keep entrance, but was eventually outnumbered. He slaughtered perhaps a dozen orcs even after the arrows struck his chest…” His voice fades.

My throat feels like a desert. If not for Elros, I would not be alive. If not for Elros, I could not have seen to Thranduil after his injury. He had saved more than one life. If only someone could have saved his…

“What of Tauriel?”

“Very much alive, my lady. After the King fell, it was Tauriel who led the charge and brought us to an eventual victory. If not for her leadership and skill, the battle might have gone differently.”

I feel relief for my friend. It is a small patch of sun in a darkened world. But there is still so much uncertainty.

“And the injured?” my father asks.

“They are carrying them to the halls now. There are a great number, my lord. It is the other reason I came to see you.” He hesitates, his gaze landing on Thranduil. “The people need guidance. They are without a leader.”

“I shall come.”

Narunir thanks him and departs, stating he needs to help carry in the remaining injured. For several long moments my father and I say nothing, both of us lost in our thoughts again. Then he places his hand on my shoulder.

I dare not admit my selfishness. I do not wish him to leave.

“I should not have to tell you,” he starts, “that your place is here, with Thranduil. If…if anything changes, come and find me. When you are able.”

I understand his meaning. But even more, I understand my father does not believe our friend will survive. His loss of hope is evident in the long look he gives Thranduil before leaving, and the hint of mist in his gray eyes. I have not seen him give such a look since my mother’s departure to Valinor.

I know he is saying goodbye.

I bite my lip painfully and look away.

“There is still hope for our people, iell nín,” he says, his voice thick. “We have suffered a great loss, but we will endure.”

Thranduil uttered those same words many times throughout his reign. I know my father uses them now to give me what little comfort he can. But they only serve to remind me Thranduil does not need to be alive for the realm to endure. Legolas will not abandon his father’s people. If we survive the War of the Ring, he will wear the crown.

“Speak to him, Rîneth. Speak to him as you always have. Speak to him as you would if you knew things could be different. Do not hold back. Perhaps he will hear you.”

Chapter Text

The room is cold despite the fire; it is still March and winter refuses to give up the battle. Or perhaps it is the tidings of death which have brought the chill. I berate myself for not having thought to cover Thranduil’s exposed chest. In an oak trunk in front of his bed I find a large woolen blanket and cover him up to his neck.

“You have been a lot of trouble tonight,” I tease. “You would not be impressed to see yourself in this less-than-impeccable state, disheveled and looking like death. Even your crown is askew. Yes, it is best you are unconscious.”

I remove his circlet and place it on the bedside table. Its silver entwined branches flicker from the fire’s wavering light, as though it has a life of its own.

“It is a start, my lord. But your hair…” I shake my head. “You look as though you have walked through a cyclone. Those tangles will never do.”

I find a comb and run it through his silken strands, a strong contrast to my coarse curls. I cannot resist gliding my fingers through them; this is an occasion likely to never happen again. His hair is a mixture of two kingly metals: silver and gold.

“I wish I could touch it every day,” I confess matter-of-factly, emboldened by his unconsciousness. “If I was braver, I would fashion it in a lady’s style. Your injury would be the least of your concerns upon waking.”

His expressionless face remains unchanged, and my smile fades. Suddenly the teasing has lost its appeal. When his hair is combed, I walk to his ceiling-high bookshelf by the hearth and examine his collection. Unlike the public selection in his living chamber, these books are older and more delicate, with faded and broken spines. Most are battle accounts from the First Age, with a handful on the various languages of Men and Elves. But it is a folded parchment wedged between two weighty tomes which intrigues me most.

I gingerly pull it out and unfold it. My eyes widen. It is my own handwriting.

Rîneth is written numerous times in black ink, each signature a varying size and style. It is scattered across the parchment at different angles, even filling the corners, as though an excited child just learned to write their name. I remember it from long ago, something I thought was lost.

A small project to pass the time on a rainy afternoon, it was a silly attempt to create a unique signature for my artwork. It was nothing of importance. I had lost no sleep over its disappearance, and had forgotten it until now.

I look over my shoulder in astonishment. “Why did you take this?”

He must have visited my scriptorium when I was absent. What use would he have had for it? Why has he kept it all this time? I am stunned, incapable of making sense of it. I re-fold the parchment and return it to its home between the tomes, and walk back to his bedside.

“You are a conundrum, Thranduil Oropherion.”

A deathly silence answers me. I rub my arms to fight the forbidding chill, but it is no use. The fire is now little more than an ember, and I am too fatigued to continue standing. Hoping Thranduil will forgive me if he lives, I remove my slippers and join him on the bed. The woolen blanket is large enough to cover us both. I dare to place my head on his shoulder and grasp his hand. His wound is under his opposite arm or I would not have attempted it.

“Do you remember our day at Laurenendë? I have deemed that the pond’s name, so you must never call it anything else.” My smile is shaky. “It was…a good day. It was even worth riding on Gilroch.”

Having never been this close before, I make a study of his face. Its planes and curves fascinate me, even his disfiguring burn. I have never noticed before how long his eyelashes are. I reach out to touch his mouth, but think better of it.

I suddenly desire to draw him, and I wonder why I never have.

“I followed your orders. I stayed alive. Do you not remember? ‘Twas one of the last things you spoke to me, that my death would kill you. So you must wake up now. I demand it…”

I hover over his face, waiting for him to wake at my command. And I realize he is no longer breathing.

The blood drains from me, leaving my body a hollow shell, and I have no feeling in my limbs as I check for his pulse, but his pulse is gone, like mine, for I have lost my heart. I am dead as well.

But if I was dead, I would be in the Halls of Mandos, not still in his chambers. I would be seeing Thranduil’s spirit instead of his spiritless body.

I look down at my spiritless friend and know I am not in the Halls of Mandos, but trapped in a life without him. I gasp for breath, even while wondering if I could brave suffocation. Why did the Valar not claim me as well?

If only I was a mortal woman and could leave the world entirely. I have never felt the Eldar’s curse stronger than now.

There is an unsettling voice grieving his passing, loud and pained, its words indiscernible. I turn around and there is no one there, only a dead fire in a dead room. The awful sound is coming from my own throat. I bury my face in my hands to make it stop. My eyes are dry; my body is numb. I am weaker than a newborn.

“Eru…Eru…” One word. One name. It is all I can utter.

I must find my father and deliver the terrible news, but I cannot move. The fatigue from the attempted healing left me without much strength, but now it has fled altogether with my grief. It was all for naught. It was all in vain.

I did not save him. Perhaps he did not wish to be saved.

Unable to keep my head up, I fall on his shoulder. My eyelids are like stone weights, and close against my will, and I sink into an abyss.

“Please come back…”

 

888

 

I am walking in darkness.

In the distance there is a burning light. An orange flame. I feel its fervent heat, yet I continue to walk towards it as if it is my salvation and my doom.

I am in the dragon’s belly. It has found me again.

The light grows brighter. I look down at my palms; I am still flesh and bone, my robes are silver. My body is my own. Intact and whole. Nothing about me has changed.

Now that the darkness is lifting, I take in my surroundings. The world is shadowed and fogged, but I see I am walking down a stone-columned hall. The ceiling is so high it cannot be viewed by natural eyes. I know there are other halls, and other people nearby, but their faces are hidden to me.

It is obvious where I am now. The Halls of Mandos. I must have fallen in battle.

Death has finally claimed me.

“Thranduil.”

A voice. Hers. I have not heard it in three-thousand years, but it is not one I can forget. I turn to the left, the right, but there is no one. Only darkness and shadow and death. Where is she? I try to stop walking but I have no control.

Still I am heading to the orange flame. The dragon’s mouth. The point of no return.

“I do not believe you, Adar. These are nothing but lies born from your hatred of the world. She was kindness and warmth and light and everything you can never be. If it is true she was unhappy, it was because of you. You did not even save her…”

Legolas. The day I told him everything. The Valar are cruel to return his words to me now, after I have lost everything. After I have lost my life.

“It is easy for you to give commands, for you to put me in my place. You are King. You are Thranduil Oropherion. You are not to be questioned, never to be rebuked.”

Rîneth. I look around me, but she is not here. I am in a hell.

The orange flame is not a mouth, but a portal to an eternal world of fire. Valinor is a lie. Everything the Elves have been promised is a ruse.

“Thranduil.”

Her again. I do not bother to see if she is there; I know the answer. Instead I close my eyes and brace myself, for the flames are nigh and I must endure them. But I have endured them before. The dragon taunts me still.

“Thranduil.”

A warm touch on my face, a hand. My feet have stopped moving.

I open my eyes and she is standing before me, bright eyes and soft skin and gold hair. She is a walking star as she has ever been. But there is something different about her, something which elevates her above the stars. I must know what it is…

“Itaril.”

She embraces me. Any question I had of her existence vanishes; she is tangible and alive. And warm. A kinder warmth than the bright flame ahead.

“Why are you still here? Your death was long ago. Your spirit should now be residing under the trees of Valinor, not in these dark Halls…”

“The Halls are for resting,” she says. “And rest I have not found yet. Until I do, I shall not be able to leave.”

“Why have you not found it?”

“Ada! Where are you keeping Nana? I do not like this game anymore. I cannot find her anywhere, not in the cave and not in the forest…”

Legolas again. I look around me, half expecting to see him appear as well, having died in the War. But there is nothing but shadows as far I can see.

“Did you hear him?” I ask. “He spoke those words when he was a child. It was only a few days after your…”

“Death. Nay, I did not hear him. The voices are different for everyone who passes through the Halls. They are memories. Until one can make peace with them, they will continue to speak.”

“Do you still hear them?”

“No.”

“Then why are you still here? You have not answered me.”

She twists her mouth as though she is amused. “Indeed, I have not. I see patience is still not one of your strong suits. But pray tell me: How is our son? I have heard many things from those who have passed through the Halls and knew him. Is he as well as they say?”

Is he? I do not even know his whereabouts. Even now he may be fighting in a battle which will determine the fate of the world. But I must not give her such grave news. I must withhold it.

“He is happier than he has ever been. He is ever the adventurer. He speaks of you every day.”

Itaril’s laughter is musical. “That is pleasing to hear. I miss him so much, Thranduil. I have no doubt you have been a good father to him.”

I look away. Perhaps I should walk into the flame willingly.

“Do not even think it,” she says. “I witnessed it with my own eyes. You must be more forgiving on yourself. It was not your fault. The day will come when Legolas will no longer question it.”

“If I had reached you in time, he would have had a mother.”

“You could not have saved me. It was my time to leave the earth. It was the will of the Valar.”

The cruel spirits who would steal a mother from her son. No wonder she has found no rest here. I am not so sure about the Valar now.

Itaril places her hand on my arm. “I…must ask your forgiveness. I never told you then, but I shall tell you now: You were a good husband to me. You protected me and did everything you knew to bring me joy. I should have been more appreciative, yet grief clouded my entire world. Even now I am sorry I could not give you what you deserved.”

I shake my head. “It is I who should ask for forgiveness.”

“I shall forgive you, if you forgive me.”

Her eyes hold an ocean with a great depth. They always have. “I do.”

“The Halls are a place of forgiveness. Now we have both found peace for our mistake. And perhaps we have a chance to rectify it. Tell me, if you could relive it, would you make the same choice?”

“Of course not. You know that.”

I now realize what is different about her. She is wearing a smile. It is radiant. It lights up her entire spirit, her force. She is a queen of another kind.

“Yes,” she says. “But your confirmation is relieving to hear.”

“Why do you require confirmation?”

Itaril opens her mouth, but another voice interrupts her.

“I followed your orders. I stayed alive. Do you not remember? ‘Twas one of the last things you spoke to me, that my death would kill you. So you must wake up now. I demand it…”

Rîneth. Yet I do not remember her speaking those words…

“So it is true,” says Itaril, delighted. “Elros told me about your friendship just before you arrived. He seems to believe you are very close.”

“I thought you could not hear the voices?”

“It must not be a memory, for I heard her clearly.”

I suddenly look behind me. There is nothing there. No one. Only a black abyss. In front of me is still the bright flame, the dragon’s mouth.

“Where are we, Itaril?”

The radiant smile again. She is enjoying knowing something I do not.

“Between two worlds. Beyond the flame door is the Halls of Mandos. If you pass through it, you cannot return. I have been given permission to meet you here, in the in-between. You asked me earlier why I have not left. It is because I have been waiting for you. There is…something I must tell you.”

 

888

 

“Rîneth.”

There is a pressure on my hand, like it is being squeezed. Something faint and terrible reminds me I must not wake up, I must never wake up. It is better to continue on in mindless dreams which cannot harm me.

Again the deep, familiar voice calls for me, more urgent, sounding as if it is coming from another room. I know the voice from somewhere, but this somewhere is not where I wish to be. I am afraid of it. I cannot remember why.

“Rîneth. Wake up.”

I open my eyes at its persistence, though not without a tremendous struggle. The room is dim and cool. A warm hand is clutching mine. My body jolts upwards, the relentless beat of my heart racing to the Sundering Seas and back.

Thranduil’s sharp blue eyes are open. They are looking up at me.

“You sleep like a Dwarf. I did not think I would ever wake you.”

If not for the tangible bed and the clarity of the room, I would believe I had drifted to the Halls of Mandos in my sleep. Still, I am not certain. I reach out my hand to touch his face. He covers it with his own.

“You were dead.”

“Yes.”

I lay back down and bury my face in his shoulder, not wishing him to see my tears. He wraps his arm around me.

“I heard you,” he says.

Chapter Text

It is not long before Thranduil remembers.

The Lórien messengers, and the battle preparations, and the Woodland horn warning, and the unexpected attack. He soon remembers it all, save for his injury. I tell him what I know, the good news and the bad, and more than once I try to prevent him from leaving. It is not in his nature to stay sequestered in a bed while others pick up the pieces of his broken kingdom. I reassure him my father is acting in his stead, but it does little to calm him.

I wish to know how it is possible he lives, and how he heard me beyond death, but it seems I shall have to wait. His mind is intent on his kingdom rather than his journey back to the living. The few moments we shared after I woke were only a few heartbeats in time. When his memory returned, so did the King.

Feeling awkward, I make to leave his bed, but he reaches out a hand to keep me. I do not ask why, but I guess perhaps he needs the close comfort of a friend.

“The enemy would have breached the keep doors if not for you,” I say, hoping he will realize he has already done his kingly duty. “I was there, mellon. I heard the wood crack and groan. You died for it…”

“It was not enough. Far too many lives have been lost. We are not strong enough to withstand another attack.”

I prop myself on my elbow and look down at him. “I do not believe they have the number to return a second time. The other half of their army went to Lórien. Perhaps Lady Galadriel’s power has defeated them by now.”

“I hope you are right.”

He winces as he makes a sudden movement. I know his pain must be agonizing for him to cast aside his usual stoicism. Remembering the clear liquor Ada set on the side table, instructing me to give it should he wake, I leave the bed before he can stop me again.

“Drink.” I hand him the flask.

He studies it and holds it up to his nose. “Miruvor.”

Miruvor is a reviving cordial of the Eldar which has power to grant renewed vigor and strength. I know it will not give him the ability to leave his chambers, but I hope it will lessen his pain for a time.

I smile, and sit down by his hip. “From my father.”

“He was here?”

“For a long while. Our vigil lasted through the night. We both had a part in your healing, though we cannot claim to be the reason you are still here. For that miracle you must thank the Valar. Your wound was too deep for Athelas alone to heal…”

Having finished the Miruvor, he returns the flask to the table and then moves his eyes to mine, his expression unreadable. It is not the first time I am unable to decipher him.

“What is on your mind?” I finally ask, giving up the attempt.

“That you look like you have not slept in days.”

“You, my lord, look like you have been to the Halls of Mandos and back.”

It was meant as a jest, but not even a trace of a smile touches his mouth. I duck my head. It was a poor choice of words, and I blame it on my exhaustion, and my emotions being dragged through the length of the Anduin.

I open my mouth to apologize, but Thranduil finds his voice first.

“Rîneth--”

The door opens, and my father strides in. His solemn eyes widen at the sight of Thranduil awake, and his face breaks into an uncharacteristic broad grin which shows his teeth. His relief is palpable, cutting through the room’s chill.

“My king!” He bows.

“Gailon, I am forever in your debt,” Thranduil says weakly, and readjusts his position on the bed to appear more presentable. “And Rîneth’s. What you have both done --”

“I cannot accept your gratitude, though I did what I could,” he interjects. “From the very moment they carried you through the keep doors, it was my daughter who was at your side. Lord Ferdir told me she was adamant about saving you, and even heard her yelling orders at your youngest guard.”

I feel a flush of warmth cover my face as they both look at me. Thranduil’s eyes flicker with what I recognize as amusement.

“Just because I do not often raise my voice does not mean I am incapable of it. It was a dire situation.” I look pointedly at Thranduil. “I feared your spirit to be passing on. Time was the enemy.”

“It was, without doubt.” Ada approaches the bedside and touches his friend’s shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

It is now time. I cannot wait a moment longer to tell him about Thranduil’s return from death. I inhale deeply before forming the words. I still can hardly believe it happened.

But Thranduil lightly brushes his fingers over my hand in a subtle message, silencing me. He obviously knew what I was about to say. I throw him a questioning glance, but his eyes are focused on my father. I do not understand. Why would he not wish his advisor and friend to know about his miraculous return to the living?

“Never mind how I am feeling,” says Thranduil. “Tell me everything you know.”

Appearing oblivious to our silent exchange, Ada lowers himself to the bedside chair and begins to speak. The casualties of the night were many, but not as many as first feared. The villagers who escaped into the northern forest are still unaccounted for. Ada is stubborn in keeping hope for their safe return.

I have a sudden remembrance of the twin children I saw after the horn gave its warning, as our world and everything within it was changing forever, and I hope with all my heart they found safety.

“Many are now tending to the wounded. Most shall recover with time and healing. The Woodland Realm endures, my lord.”

“As it always has,” I whisper.

Thranduil has kept his silence during the detailed account, but upon Ada reaching the end of it, he closes his eyes in what appears to be pain. I suspect it is no longer due to his wound.

“Would you like some more Miruvor?” Ada asks.

He declines with a brisk wave of his hand. When he opens his eyes again, he averts his gaze to an unknown point on the wall. “Have a message sent to Legolas, wherever he may be, though he will not receive it well.”

Legolas. Fear strikes me like a balrog’s fiery whip. I do not know if he is even alive. I have heard nothing of the Fellowship or their mission. If the Halfling does not accomplish what he set out to do, there will be many more battles to come. We will certainly not win them all.

“Of course.” My father stands. “I believe it is best for you to rest and allow these tidings of war and death to settle in your mind. Sleep would be prudent, if you can manage it.”

Ada gives me a pointed look, and I nod in understanding. Yes, it is best I leave, if only for a little while.

 

888

 

The large cavern hall, which was barren and silent in despair the last I saw it, is now teeming with hundreds of injured, and perhaps a hundred more tending to them. The air appears to carry a soft glow from the healing power of my kin, containing a warmth which travels through my blood and strengthens my still-weak body.

I walk carefully through the maze of bodies, my eyes searching for faces I recognize. Not far from Thranduil’s empty throne I see Gwendes’ mother beside her husband. Her eyes are reddened from crying.

I kneel down beside her and reach out my hand to touch Tadion’s arm. He is alive but sleeping.

“How does he fare?” I ask.

“I do not know how it is possible, but in time he will be fine.” Gilrin’s almond eyes fill with tears, and she shakes her head as if to clear them. “I had believed he was dead. When I saw him breathing, I could not trust my vision…”

“He is stronger than you know.” I look over his body, and see no wound or blood. “What happened to him?”

“Lord Feren told me it was a cave troll. It lifted him and then dropped him from a great height. The bones in his legs are broken in several places, but his heart beats stronger than it ever has.”

I notice his legs do not lie straight. I inwardly wince. If Tadion was of a different race, he would perhaps never walk again. It is not the first time today I am thankful the Eldar have been given the gift of recovery from grave wounds.

“I have remembered your husband through the long night. I am relieved to see he is alive,” I say. “Where is Gwendes?”

“I do not know. She left shortly before you came.”

Where else would she be? Perhaps she decided to help the other injured while her father sleeps. I leave Gilrin and continue a slow walk through the halls, inspecting the faces of the wounded and pausing to speak words of encouragement.

I kneel down by an auburn-haired lady I recognize as the chandler’s youngest daughter. Her wounds have been tended to, but her face and neck are still marred with dirt from when she fell while fleeing with her children. I find some water and linen and wipe away the dirt. I doubt my words offer much comfort, but she seems to appreciate my feeble effort.

“Where are your children, my lady? Should I search for them?”

She shakes her head weakly. “Inuhel and Ianion are sleeping with the other children in a nearby chamber. A guard is watching over them.”

“Are…are they twins?”

“Yes, my lady.”

I smile, and feel a warming flood of relief that they are safe. Though my mind and heart have been focused on Thranduil through the night, I have wondered about the fate of the children, and many others I know and love.  

Ferdir is also among the living, the only evidence of injury a jagged gash a mere fingertip under his eye. His usual sideways grin makes an appearance when he sees me, and he walks over to meet me halfway.

“Lady Rîneth,” he greets warmly. “Please accept my apology for…earlier. I had just been in the heat of battle, and--”

“There is nothing to forgive. I, too, was not in my normal frame of mind. In a life and death situation one cannot be expected to act their usual self. I am glad you were there to help carry him.”

His expression becomes somber. “How is he?”

“He woke not long ago. His injury is grave, but I believe the danger is over.”

Ferdir exhales a relieved, ragged breath. “I witnessed it from the start, Rîneth. It is little wonder where Legolas learned his acrobatics while fighting. I have never seen anything like it. If not for him, the battle would have turned the other way, and perhaps none of us would be alive.”

I feel a surge of tingling warmth. It is one thing to hear it from an admiring young guard, but quite another to hear it from one of Thranduil’s skeptics.

“Every soldier here knows it was the King’s victory.”

“Tis high praise coming from you,” I say. “You have not always thought so highly of him.”

“I do not deny it,” he admits. “I did not have the respect for him I should have. But then I witnessed him fight, ploughing through the enemy with no effort, as though it is something he does daily before the evening meal.”

I stifle a laugh. “He does not like to be reminded, but he is very old. He has had much practice.”

“Time and again I heard my father speak of his legendary skill in battles of old, the battles they fought in together. But all I could see was a vain ruler who hid in his caves.”

“Most who do not know him believe the same. It is ironic since he had a similar view on you, believing you too arrogant to fight for your people. At least you have proven him wrong.”

Ferdir has the decency to look sheepish. “I hope you are right. Soon I shall be residing in his kingdom. After Lórien came under attack my aunt and uncle said they could endure no more. If they survive, they will make their journey to the Havens, and I shall leave the Golden Wood. But I must return for a short time to say farewell.”

“I look forward to you not leaving us again.”

“I do as well,” says another voice, high and soft.

I turn to see Caewen approaching with a smile as wide as her petite face, her dewy eyes fixed on Ferdir as though he is the only one present. When he pulls her in his arms, someone could tell me the Misty Mountains had turned to dust and I would believe them. He kisses the top of her golden hair before loosening his embrace.

Feeling bewildered, I can only stare at them. It takes a few moments to find my voice again. “Are you…”

“Yes,” Caewen answers, her smile unwavering. “I apologize we kept it from you, but it was not without reason. We have been betrothed for a long time.”

I look at Ferdir, my mind running in a hundred different directions despite my fatigue. “The harp. You were both playing a cruel jest on me. Why should you have kept it a secret? I see nothing wrong in this union…”

“My aunt does not approve. She has an elleth hand-picked for me in Lórien, one with great nobility,” Ferdir explains calmly. “An instant refusal would have caused a rift between myself and my aunt.”

“Then why did you not come to live here?”

Ferdir glances away, rubbing the back of his neck. “I am…to acquire a large inheritance once they leave. It will be more than enough for Caewen and I to live comfortably for our duration here. And while silver is not everything, the world is changing…the Men run on currency instead of good will…”

“So you were afraid you would not receive the inheritance should you leave them?”

He nods, still not meeting my eyes. “I have been waiting for them to depart before letting our betrothal be known. Now that it is happening so soon, I do not feel the need for us to stay in secrecy among friends.”

It is now obvious why Caewen stayed so long in Lórien, and why she returned home so suddenly. Countless things I once found confusing begin to make sense. I shake my head and fight the childish urge to roll my eyes. All such trouble for an inheritance of silver…

“I did not wish for you to suspect anything in the slightest; your friendship with nobles and King Thranduil put us at great risk of the secret being quickly exposed,” Ferdir continues. “I tried my best to lead your thoughts astray, but I felt guilty for it. I tried telling you before I left for Lórien, but--”

“I see.”

I wonder if Caewen is aware how often her betrothed insulted her to keep up the act. It would be unkind to mention Ferdir’s overt use of flirtation to deceive me, but if I was not so tired perhaps I would do so regardless. Not only had he lied, he had slandered the King’s reputation, causing me to go against my nature and boldly ask Thranduil if he had given Caewen the harp.

I had believed Thranduil’s disdain towards Ferdir had everything to do with him choosing to live with his aunt and uncle in Lórien instead of returning to his homeland and his father. But now I wonder if Thranduil suspected this deception from the beginning. 

“I apologize, Rîneth. I hope you will forgive us in time,” he says, visibly uncomfortable at the sudden barrier I have erected between us.

Caewen nods vigorously. “We would never have deceived you otherwise.”

I remember Lady Aethel, and I know this news will bring her a wealth of deserved happiness. For her sake alone I force a smile and hold my tongue. But I am unsure if I can ever trust them again, regardless of their seemingly harmless intentions.

The day has been far too long and I have been through far too much; I do not wish to continue the exchange further.

“I wish I could say I understand fully. Nevertheless, I wish you both every happiness.”

I make my way back through the sea of bodies. My legs are barely able to hold me up, and my mind is in an overwhelmed whirl. Before I turn to leave the main hall, a glimpse of strawberry hair catches my eye.

Gwendes is kneeling beside someone with a familiar face. Her hand is resting on his chest. He appears injured but is speaking to her ardently, his focus far away from his wounds. My chest constricts when I realize it is Sírdor, her gardener friend.

This time I do not have to force a smile.

Chapter Text

Not wishing to interrupt Gwendes and Sírdor in their intimate exchange, I allow my heart and feet to lead me back to Thranduil’s door. I tell myself it is only to check on him, but I know that is half true. I wish him to look at me as he had earlier, to brush his fingers over my hand, to ask me to stay for a while.

Forcefully pushing the dangerous thoughts from my mind, I lift my hand to knock. After no answer, I quietly open the door and walk into his bedchamber, surprised by my own boldness. He is sleeping.

I know I should leave. But I find myself sitting down again in the bedside chair. Earlier, when in death’s clutches, he appeared pale and vulnerable in his sleep. Now he appears at peace, as if he drifts through the Gardens of Aman as he would on a normal night. His glamor is restored, the gruesome burn replaced with smooth flesh. There is no hint of its existence.

For a long while I sit there, the calming crackle of the restored fire reminding me of my own exhaustion, the steady sound of his breathing lulling me to join him in sleep, to shut my eyes and let it take me over.

But I reach out my hand instead, and brush away a strand of hair resting over his brow. I blame my daring on an addled mind; it is not something I would have done otherwise. His hand grabs mine.

“Rîneth.” His eyes remain closed.

“You have quick reflexes!” I give a half-hearted attempt to break free from his strong grasp, but he does not let go.

“Yes.” He opens his eyes. Their wintry color makes them as sharp as they have ever been. “But I was not sleeping.”

“You were when I entered the room. How long have you been fooling me? And more importantly, why?”

Thranduil sits up, carefully positioning himself so as not to cause further pain. “I was not awake for long. I hoped you would drift off, but you are too stubborn. Like your Dwarf friends. You need sleep more than anyone in Arda.”

“I am fine.”

“When last did you pass a mirror? You appear as though a band of orcs dragged you through Mordor and back.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“And instead of finding your bed, you went to visit the injured.”

I stand and reluctantly walk to the tall looking glass in the corner of the room, unsure of what I will see. “How did you know my whereabouts?”

“I knew you would wish to check on your friends. Your good heart precedes your wisdom, at times.”

I feel an unpleasant leap of shock when I look at my reflection. Reddened and swollen, my tired eyes carry dark half-moons under them. My curls, though always unruly, have reached new heights, and my face looks like it belongs in the Dead Marshes. There is a large tear in the blue sleeve of my gown. I do not recognize myself.

I lift my hands to my cheeks. When Thranduil died, perhaps I did as well…

“I have certainly paid the price for being at your side today,” I say, employing humor to hide my embarrassment. “But you hardly look better.”

“Come and sit down before you collapse.”

As soon as I lower myself on the chair, he takes my hand and brings it to his chest. I feel heat race through my body. Surely he sees the effect he has on me. He is anything but blind.

“Hannon-le, Rîneth,” he says softly. “For what you did. To bring me back from death, the Valar must have heard the sincerest prayer.”

“It was not only me. My father also--”

He squeezes my hand, silencing me. “Accept my gratitude. I do not give it lightly, nor without reason.”

I avert my eyes from his piercing gaze, afraid he will see through me. There is so much I must keep hidden. “When you died, I…I thought perhaps you did not wish to be healed, that perhaps you wished to leave.”

“Leaving is one of the last things I wish for, Rîneth.”

I flash a warm smile. “I admire your loyalty to our kingdom.”

What I recognize as a spark of amusement flits in his eyes, and the corner of his mouth turns upwards.

“I was not trying to be funny…”

“I did not think you were.”

“I trust I may speak on behalf of all your subjects in saying we are grateful you did not wish to leave us. Even Lord Ferdir’s respect for you has grown a hundredfold after tonight. He can hardly stop glowing over your skill in battle, your acrobatics, as he put it.”

“As long as I have Ferdir’s approval, I shall never leave.”

I give an un-ladylike snort. His sarcasm is still perfectly intact, even if his body is worse for wear. His faint smile widens at my reaction. For half a moment I can pretend it is a normal night of banter and friendship in my father’s chambers, realities of war tucked into a far, untouchable corner of my mind.

But everything has changed now. In more ways than one. My smile fades.

“Before I demand you to go to your chambers and rest, I believe you have a question for me?” he asks.

I nod, relieved. It is the question which has not given me peace since last I left him, causing my already fatigued mind to tangle in confusion. I smooth my soiled gown and rest my hands on my knees.

“Why did you not wish me to tell my father about your death?”

He takes a sip of wine, then pauses to study his goblet before answering. “Because he would have questions. Questions I was not ready to answer.”

“What do you mean?”

He returns the goblet to the bedside table before meeting my curious gaze. “I felt you had the right to be the first to know what happened after my death. My spirit was sent to the Halls of Mandos.”

My hand flies to my mouth. I had never considered the possibility. The Halls have always seemed like a point of no return, a place of finality. It is at first too much to comprehend, that his spirit left his body entirely and was among the resting spirits in Valinor. Why was he sent back?

It happened only once before with Lúthien Tinúviel, an Elf who pled with Mandos to live a mortal life to be with her beloved in Middle-earth. Too many questions overwhelm me to know which to ask first. Instead, I wait for his explanation.

“I never passed through the final doorway to the Halls, however. I was in a passage between Middle-earth and Valinor, a void of shadow and darkness. Itaril was there. She spoke with me.”

Itaril. His wife. I feel a lead weight fall through my stomach in disbelief.

“Why would her spirit still dwell in Mandos’ Halls instead of with her family in Valinor? She died so long ago, when I was only a child…”

He nods. “At first I did not understand either. I asked her why she had not left; she told me she had been waiting for me.”

“She knew of your coming death?”

“It will be impossible for you to understand without me telling you everything, from the beginning.”

 

888

 

Thranduil is silent, his hands steepled under his chin as if contemplating whether he should continue. It feels like the span of a mortal man’s life. My intense curiosity is making me breathless and fidgety. If he does not tell me soon, I might send him back to the Halls of Mandos myself.

“In Lindon fair was where I first met her.”

I let out a breath.

“I was on a trip there with my father. One summer evening we dined with his friend’s family and stayed the night. They had a young daughter whom I had not met before, and upon seeing her I fell in love.”

My face must betray my surprise. When he had said he must start from the beginning, he had obviously meant the very beginning.

“She had no interest in my foolish attempts to gain her affection, but undaunted, I returned to Lindon not long after I left. And again I returned. And again. I was nothing if not persistent. At first she insisted we remain in friendship, but when it was apparent I would not rest until it became something more, she withdrew from me completely. I lacked the wisdom to understand. It was not until later when I heard the reason.”

This younger and rather obtuse version of Thranduil is difficult to imagine. “Perhaps she just did not like you in that…way?”

He does not smile at my light attempt at humor. “No, she certainly did not. She was in love with another.”

I lean forward. This is an unexpected turn.

“His name was Annúnor, and he had been Itaril’s closest friend since childhood. As soon as she became aware of romantic love, she knew she felt it for him. Annúnor felt the same, but neither would voice it for fear it would destroy their friendship should the other not return the feeling.

After I journeyed to Lindon many times to pursue her, making no secret of my intentions, he could no longer stand back and keep silent. When the tidings reached the Greenwood of their betrothal, I no longer traveled to Lindon.”

Thranduil turns to look at me, but his mind is elsewhere, in another time and place. I can only wonder how the story will change.

“I changed my thoughts to war, for Sauron was strong in the land, and Elendil and Gil-Galad were gathering forces, my father among them. We marched to battle. Meanwhile, Itaril’s betrothed refused to wait idly in Lindon as his king and kin planned to fight. It was but a few months before their wedding day. Itaril pleaded for him to stay, but when she knew he would not listen, she asked to be married beforehand. Again Annúnor refused her, promising they would be wed before all of Lindon just as she had dreamt, with her father there.”

“Her father was with Gil-Galad preparing for war?”

Thranduil nods. “Though she was distraught, he promised her he would return alive. But he was young and had never seen war, and could not foresee the great battle ahead. Itaril never saw him again. Both Annúnor and her father died in the Battle of Dagorlad a month before the wedding.”

I shake my head, unable to imagine her grief.

“My father died as well in that battle, as you already know. I returned to the Greenwood as King, much changed from before. I heard of Annúnor’s death, but I did not contact Itaril again – I had lost all hope in anything between us. After the passing of several years, Itaril arrived to my kingdom with her mother and a host from Lindon. She asked me if I would still marry her.”

My eyes widen. “Truly?”

He gives a humorless smile. “I was blinded by happiness over her coming and did not question it. I did not stop to consider why she would suddenly be interested in marriage when her heart had belonged to another. But I did fear her mind would change, so I broke the tradition of waiting a year; we were wed within two months.

Our marriage did not bring her any joy, nor did helping rule over our people. For a long time I gave my all to return the smile she wore in Lindon. I commissioned Dwarves to design jewelry made with precious gemstones. When she wore them she looked as though she belonged among the stars, but still she did not smile. I involved her in projects I believed a lady would enjoy, of creating gardens and designing halls. I even sent for her mother to live with us. But none of these things filled her empty heart. How she did not die from it, I do not know.

It was not until Legolas’ birth when she began to smile again. I believed everything would then be as it should, that Itaril would be whole again. But her affection was only for our child.”

I press my lips together, feeling a wave of sadness as I think of the rumor.

So it was true.

“Then she gave her life for him,” I say, remembering my father’s story.

Thranduil looks away, in obvious discomfort with the subject of her death. I immediately regret mentioning it. We fall into a strange silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts.

“If she still loved Annúnor, why did she come to marry you?” I finally ask, the question giving me no peace. “Why not sail to Valinor to be with her beloved?”

“She did,” he answers. “Or rather, she tried.”

“I do not understand…”

“She departed from Lindon in secrecy, for it was against her mother’s wishes to go to Valinor at such a young age. But Itaril knew she could not bear a life without her betrothed, and boarded the first ship upon arriving at the Grey Havens. Not long after setting sail, there was a great storm, its waves climbing over the ship and stealing some of its passengers. Itaril was…one of them.”

I am unable to make sense of what I am hearing. I have never heard such an event happening to the Eldar whilst crossing the Sea…

“Her body was discovered washed upon a shore by a mortal woman who lived in a nearby village. Though alive, Itaril’s spirit was grieved; she believed Ulmo had created the storm to send her back, for what purpose she did not know. When she returned to Lindon, her mother did little to comfort her. She even told her the Valar were displeased with her.”

“Where was her heart?”

“In the wrong place,” he replies. “Her mother remembered I loved Itaril and would marry her. What mother does not desire her daughter to become a queen? I believe she convinced her that if we united, our offspring would one day be great leaders of the Eldar.”

“I do not believe the Valar sent her back. It does not make sense.”

“It was a storm, nothing more,” he agrees. “I should have stopped the wedding. I should have convinced her to board another ship. But when it came to Itaril, I disregarded all my usual foresight.”

I briefly close my eyes. Is it any wonder why the rumor started? Surely the realm saw the Queen’s continued unhappiness with each passing day. After all her misfortunes and trials, I wonder how she managed to continue living. If only she had not listened to her mother…

“Did she ever love you?”

The look Thranduil gives me speaks volumes; he knows I am thinking of the rumor. If he was anyone else, I would believe him to be embarrassed at my question.

“She loved me in her own way, as one would love a protector or perhaps a friend. I was the father of her child. But she was never in love with me.”

I say nothing, not wishing any words spoken to be misconstrued as pity. I feel sorrow for Itaril as well. Both made an irrevocable mistake by joining in marriage. One which cannot be undone.

I suddenly remember his reason for telling me the story, that Itaril had been waiting for him between the two worlds…

He reads my mind like an open scroll. “When I saw Itaril again, she said she had not spent her days in the Halls alone; she had spent them with Annúnor.”

 

888

 

“How can this be?”

Like a twisting vine, the story has grown even more unpredictable. Why would Annúnor still have been in the Halls of Waiting? His death was long before even Itaril’s. I hold on tightly to the arms of my chair as I wait for him to explain.

“I wondered the same,” says Thranduil. “When Itaril’s spirit arrived to the Halls, she found Annúnor still there. He had not left as he had been unable to find peace. The anguish of being separated from his betrothed had prevented it.”

“What happened when they were reunited?”

He tilts his head, his lips upturning into a small smile. “Now we have arrived at the reason she was waiting for me. As you can guess, their feelings sprang alive again, their lengthened separation not having quenched it. But there was the small problem of her already being married. She pled her case before Mandos, who finally had mercy and spoke of it with Manwë, greatest of the Ainur.”

Manwë. It is like one of the stories of old, the stories my father told me when I was a child. It is difficult to remember to breathe.

“Manwë was understanding of their plight, of her mistake and mine as well. It was an unusual circumstance, much different than any which had been presented to him before from the Eldar. A long span of time passed as he contemplated the will of Eru. He then came to Itaril and gave her strict instructions.

In order for the marriage vows to be considered dissolved upon her spirit leaving Middle-earth, she would need my consent. He promised in time he would make it possible for her to speak with me. Though my injury was not Manwë’s doing, it presented an opportunity…”

I swallow, my mind still attempting to process his words. “Did…did you consent?”

“After her dark and stormy life here, I did not wish to deny her the happiness she deserved.”

I look away, my eyes smarting as a small ember lights in my chest. It feels too much like hope. I quickly put it out before it can grow further. It cannot be so simple. Nothing ever is.

“Are you sure this was not just a vivid dream, Thranduil? I do not doubt what you saw, but I have heard fever dreams are--”

He places his hand over mine. “It was not a dream.”

For a moment I cannot speak as I attempt to gather my jumble of thoughts into something coherent. “How is it…” I shake my head. “How could it be so simple? The vows of the Eldar are spoken before Eru, broken by neither choice nor death. Manwë may have had mercy on a grave mistake, but surely…”

“He did not give mercy freely, Rîneth.”

“What do you mean?”

“He told Itaril that if I consented, there would be a consequence for us both. But it was a consequence I was willing to live with.”

I lean forward, my heart pummeling. “What consequence?”

He offers no reply, but his eyes hold fast to mine, behind them an emotion I cannot place. He lets go of my hand.

“Thranduil?”

“I shall tell you in time,” he says. “But for now you need rest, as do I.”

Chapter Text

Thranduil soon left the confinement of his chambers to meet with his people. Though still weakened from the wound which temporarily sent his spirit from the earth, he was strong in mind, refusing to be kept from his duties as ruler. He ordered a host of his guards to scout the northern forest and search for the villagers still missing. Tauriel came upon them soon after departing, safe and in good health, and traveling home.

Mostly mothers and their children, they had found protection by keeping in tall trees during the long and dangerous nights of Mirkwood. Thranduil made an oath to rebuild the destroyed homes into stronger ones, and to restore the Greenwood fully. His promise was met with a grateful reception. But there was nothing which could replace lost loved ones, and no words to heal the hearts of those left behind.

Longing for fresh air and the sun’s warm beam on my skin, I decide to leave the comfort of the cavern halls and face what has become of my homeland. It is time. I step through the entrance doors and am greeted with a heart-wrenching sight. The world is black.

The Forest River runs steadily under the bridge as it ever has, the treacherous waters dark and unchanged. But the once-beautiful woods beyond its bank are charred, devoid of any color.

Most homes are now ash, only remnants of others remaining. Craggy stumps stand in place of my favorite beech trees nestled by the river. A foul odor hangs in the air from the orc remains burned last night.

I slowly walk over the bridge and down the main road, and look upon what has become of the village with a terrible ache in my chest. Reaching the location of Gwendes’ home, I walk around remains which give no indication there was a lively dwelling here only a few days ago.

Blackened jars and pots litter the ground, earthenware which surpass my own age by thousands of years. Though they had undoubtedly survived many times of hardship, they were no match for what befell them.

“I have visited many times,” a small voice says behind me. “But the scene never changes.”

Gwendes does not wear her usual open smile. Her hands are covered in ash, evidence she has been searching through the burnt remains. She looks like she has not slept since the night of the battle.

“Your brother’s book…did it burn as well?”

I am not sure why I ask. I already know the answer.

“I searched everywhere for it, but it is dust now.” She does not meet my eyes. “I still have his stories…they are written in my heart.”

“I shall write another one.”

She does not reply, but I know she is grateful by the way her mouth lifts into a half smile. Even half a smile is a strong contrast to our black surroundings, though its warmth does not lessen the chill.

“How is your father?”

“He is well,” she says, her gaze directed to an unknown place beyond my shoulder. “He still cannot walk, but he will soon enough. It would not be so if he was a mortal man. Blessed are our people…”

The glimpse of optimism from Gwendes warms me. “Even our dead shall wait for our coming by Sea.”

She nods. “They are not lost to us forever. Perhaps Lord Elros now realizes he escaped a fate worse than his death.”

Despite the darkness of her humor, I cannot stifle a small chuckle. “I do feel for his betrothed, miserable as she is. Do you believe she really loved him?”

“I cannot say, but I have a suspicion not much time will pass before she finds his replacement. Lord Elros redeemed himself to us in the end. I am left thinking fondly of him.”

“I as well. I hope he finds happiness in Aman.”

Gwendes kneels and picks up a piece of broken pottery, and absently turns it over in her hands. “I heard your father shall say a few words at tonight’s burial, as well as the King. Will you be there?”

“I shall.”

My chest constricts as I think of how many bodies will be laid to rest, of how many of my kin have lost their husbands, wives, sons, daughters…I do not know the final death count. Part of me does not wish to know.

“Do you remember Sírdor?”

I kneel down beside her, feeling a rush of relief at the change of subject. “Of course I do. I saw him speaking to you after the battle, but I did not wish to interfere…”

“When I heard his voice again, I remembered how much I valued his friendship,” she says. “I do not know how I had forgotten. After everything I put him through, he still maintains his kindness. He is a good person.”

“I know,” I say, and mean it.

“He…” She trails off hesitantly and searches my face, as though seeking my consent to continue.

“Tell me good news, mellon.”

She exhales in relief. “He asked me…to marry him.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”

I suddenly see the forest gloriously alive again, fresh sprigs on the high branches of the beech trees, and pink and white blossoms surrounding a vibrant wedding ceremony on Yestarë.

“I could not be happier for you, Gwendes. I know without any doubt you have made the right choice.”

 

888

 

March turns to April, and the lingering chill from winter gives way to a mild spring, bringing with it messengers from distant lands. The first comes from Lórien, giving tidings of their victory in the battles against the forces of Dol Guldur. After defeating them in their homeland, Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel led an assault on their evil hold. With Galadriel’s power, Dol Guldur was finally destroyed, along with all wicked inhabitants in Mirkwood.

The second messenger comes from Dale, the city nearest the Lonely Mountain. The Dwarves of Erebor joined them in fighting a brutal battle against the Easterlings, the barbaric nomads from Rhûn. The Easterlings had planned to attack the Woodland Realm from the north, but the battle at the Lonely Mountain waylaid them. It thus prevented what would have been a certain end to my homeland.

The third and final messenger is from Gondor, at Legolas’ bidding. It is the greatest news of all. The Halfling accomplished the impossible, destroying the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Sauron and his black lands of Mordor are gone forevermore.

Now at the end of the Third Age, there is finally a promise of peace.

It is more than I had imagined, or hoped for. I expected more battles to come, more suffering, more death. But as my friend Mattie used to say, good always prevails, even if a little late. It makes us appreciate it all the more.

There is no grand celebration in our halls at Middle-earth’s victory, the shadow hovering over the land a constant reminder of how much we have lost, and how long the road to recovery will be. Healing will be slow. There are those who are already making preparations for their journey to beyond the Sea.

Still, a glorious victory resides in my heart. It keeps me looking to the future. It gives me hope.

 

888

 

I have seen Thranduil very little since the burial. He is occupied with the restoration efforts at all hours, and busy ensuring the homeless villagers have a place to stay within the keep. Gwendes is residing in my own chambers, sleeping on a makeshift bed near the hearth, while Gilrin and Tadion are staying in Ada’s more spacious rooms next door. If anything good has come from the battle, it is end of the separation between Sindar and Silvan.

It has forced us closer together, not only in living arrangements, but in relying on each other’s skills and knowledge in rebuilding our homeland.

Thranduil suggested in passing I should put my quill to use and create designs for new dwellings to be constructed in the near future. I spent late last night sketching various ideas, but was satisfied with none of them.

Now it is a new day and I am back in my scriptorium. Several discarded parchments rest on the corner of my table. Though I am eager to assist in helping with the restoration, my mind is set against me. It is elsewhere, far from these four walls and writing desk.

I drop my quill. It is no use.

After Thranduil’s return from death, everything was revealed to me. His usual character does not consist of baring his soul. But he told the entire bitter tale from its beginning to end, admitting embarrassing truths and foolish mistakes.

He was adamant his journey between worlds was no fever dream. He agreed to end his vows with Itaril, despite a consequence. Silencing the voice of reason in my mind, I allowed a spring of hope to grow within me and become a fountain. When I noticed he no longer wore his wedding ring, the fountain overflowed. Even Gwendes questioned my sudden high spirits.

But now…now it is as if nothing happened. He treats me no differently than before, perhaps less so. At first I blamed it on him being distracted by the needs of his kingdom, but with the passing of time he still speaks to me like I am a mere acquaintance. And though he has retreated in the past after vulnerability, this feels different.

Perhaps he has guessed my feelings for him and does not wish to lead me astray. His intuition sets him apart from any other, even my father. I almost gave my own life to spare his, refusing to leave his side until his fate was known. Is it not obvious to everyone? There is little need for intuition when I have displayed such bold affection.

I bury my face in my hands. The explanation for his withdrawal is clear.

He knows.

I place aside another parchment of uninspired ideas and stride to the door. I must speak with Ada. Likely he knows what Thranduil does not have the heart to tell me. Better to hear the news from my father’s gentle voice…

The door swings open after my first knock.

“Rîneth.” His brow creases, and he looks behind his shoulder.

I follow his gaze. Thranduil is sitting in his favorite chair facing the door, his legs uncrossed and his back rigid. It is not the day of the week he normally visits for supper, nor have I been invited. He bows his head.

“My lord.” I bow in return, relieved to hide my face, if only for a moment.

I nervously smooth my rose damask gown. Ada is still standing at the door, not offering me a seat or a glass of wine. It is the first time I have felt like an intruder in his home.

“Are you well, iell nín?”

“I am fine, though still tired. I confess I have not slept enough of late.”

“I must ask Gwendes to ensure you retire to bed earlier.” He places a hand on my shoulder. “Is there a reason you have come?”

I blink. Since when must I need a reason to visit him? Often I visit for no reason but his familial company…

“I wished to speak with you, but I was not aware you would be occupied.”

“Thranduil’s visit was not expected, but it was a pleasant surprise. We were discussing…” He smiles awkwardly. “…a private matter.”

I look at Thranduil. He quickly averts his gaze to the wall, his expression as closed as a Dwarven door. Whatever their private matter, I have been shut out from it. Having been privy to their discussions for longer than I can remember, I feel like the air has been stolen from my lungs.

I step backwards to the door and try to remain composed.

“I apologize.”

“There is nothing to forgive, iell nín. I shall find you later and we may talk then.”

I force a wobbly smile. “It can wait. Enjoy your evening. Both of you.”

My hand hovers over the door handle, but I cannot turn it. Not yet. Feeling a strong rush of boldness, I whip around, and my vision collides with Thranduil’s before he has time to look away.

“Is everything well between us, mellon? We have not spoken much since…” I leave the sentence intentionally unfinished.

His slight nod tells me he understands. “Of course it is. I have had many matters to attend to; that is all.”

It is the answer I expected, a tepid reply which gives no comfort. I open the door with a heavier heart than when I arrived. “Good night.”

“Rîneth.”

My hand still grips the handle, but I do not turn around.

“Tomorrow I am leaving on a day’s journey. I would like you to accompany me.”

“Where are we going, my lord?”

“Meet me at the bridge at the first light of morning. We must leave early.”

I look over my shoulder and search Thranduil’s wintry eyes for clues, but there is nothing. He keeps his secrets well hidden. He is more Dwarf-like than he knows.

“I shall be there.”

“Maer fuin, Rîneth.”

A hundred questions or more swirl in my mind like a cyclone for the rest of the evening. Why does he wish me to accompany him? Why is the destination a secret? Where are we going which will require a whole day’s journey? I am mystified, and soon forget my hurt at not being a welcome guest in their private discussion.

I refuse to allow my imagination to mix in with the mystery, but I am helpless to prevent the tingle of excitement in having an entire day to spend with him.

Chapter Text

I am there early, before the sun begins its ascent, when the world is dark and still. The guards are my only company, one whom I recognize as a fresh-faced Narunir. He does not remark on my presence, nor do I offer a reason. I know Thranduil will arrive at any moment, ever punctual, with the first sign of sun.

I place my hand on the bridge railing, and a cold mist from the river sprays my face and removes the last vestiges of sleep. Breathing in the early spring air, I listen to the rushing water. There is a certain peace in mornings not found elsewhere.

I am finished guessing his reasons for taking me along, having done enough the night before, at first with Gwendes, then later in my bed when sleep refused me. There seems no obvious explanation, and my friend uncharacteristically suggested I stop overthinking it. If Gwendes knows of my true feelings for the King, she has not mentioned it. For that I am grateful.

He did not give instructions for proper attire for the journey, but I assume my wool traveling cloak and riding boots are adequate. I gathered freshly-made bread from the kitchens and a bottle of Dorwinion wine from the cellars for sustenance.

The finches begin to chirp in their morning ritual, and the surviving oak trees make an interesting play of shadows as the first hint of light touches the sky. Thranduil strides through the doors on cue. His branched crown is adorned with white woodland flowers of springtime, and he wears a silver velvet cloak clasped with an elk brooch.

Glancing down at my cloak, I notice part of the fabric frays at the hem from overuse. I look like a raft-elf.

“Where are we going?”

“When will you learn to trust me?”

His teasing smile could be a trick of the dusky light, but I am not convinced. “I learned to trust you long ago, my lord. But I would like to know if my attire is suitable for our destination. I am now having doubts…”

“That is nothing new.” He makes a quick assessment of me from my boots to the top of my curls. “Green suits your hair. It will do.”

It will do,” I repeat, bemused. “I am not sure if I should thank you…”

“You are welcome.”

Nay, his teasing is no trick of the light. I feel a whoosh of warmth at his smile, and quickly look away so the feeling will leave. “Why are you dressed in your finest robes?”

“Because it is a good day, and I feel like wearing them. Are you ready?”

“I suppose, though your cryptic behavior is setting me on edge. But I did say I trusted you, so I must hold to my word.”

“Good.”

With a swish of his cloak he starts across the bridge, the growing light of dawn throwing a rosy cast on his pale hair. I follow closely behind. Why does he insist on keeping me in the dark, yet take pleasure in teasing me about it? Not only is it unnecessarily puzzling, it furthers my long-time suspicion that he has a flair for the dramatic.

“Did the horses survive the battle? I can ride on my own…”

“That will not be necessary.”

I pause in my tracks at his loud whistle. Its sound is unusual, almost resembling a song, and even the finches give up their happy chirping to listen. Before I can ask, a massive beast the size of a house appears from the woods, galloping over the blackened remains of the village and straight towards us. I step backwards.

But the antlers become clearer as he approaches, as does the graceful stride and proud set of his head. The elk comes at us with full speed, hooves clopping against the cobblestone, then slows down and stops near the bridge.

“Gilroch! How did he survive? The stables burned…”

Thranduil approaches him and pats his large neck by way of greeting. The elk seems happy to see his master, giving a soft snort and nuzzling his hand.  It is obvious from Thranduil’s gentle manner he has a soft spot for the beast. I stand back and watch.

He looks at me over his shoulder. “I followed your suggestion. Do you remember it?”

“I remember being horrified at the smallness of his stable…” My mouth widens as the memory returns fully. “You set him free.”

“I did.”

I join them and glide my hand over Gilroch’s coarse coat. The soft rosy dawn is turning to a brighter yellow, bathing us in a pretty light where we stand under a patch of open sky. I am not sure which stuns me more: that he followed my suggestion, or admitted it to me.

“That was kind of you.”

“Your intuition was sound. He remained loyal and came to me during the battle. Riding on him gave me an excellent vantage point for striking down the enemy.”

I smile, and pointedly look at Gilroch’s monstrous antlers. “I am sure he was happy to assist. Do you no longer have his saddle?”

“It was destroyed in the fire. But I do not believe it should be a problem for you.”

I know he refers to when I was an elfling and rode ponies every day, adamantly refusing to sit on a saddle, even when the stablehands, and my father, insisted. Somewhere through the many years I adopted the Silvan trait of using it. But most Elves of the world prefer riding bareback.

“Of course not.”

“Then we must leave now. The light grows steadily.”

He climbs on the elk and pulls me up behind him. I have forgotten how much time has passed since I rode saddleless. It is a strange, unsettling feeling, especially as Gilroch is triple the size of any horse.

“Relax, or you will spook him.”

I breathe in the crisp morning air and relax my legs, which are gripping Gilroch’s sides too tightly. The elk gives a grateful grunt. I wrap my arms around Thranduil, fearing he will set off without warning like last time.

“Rîneth…”

“Yes?”

“My side still pains me. Perhaps not so tightly.”

I instantly let go of him, unable to believe I forgot his wound. “I apologize. I--”

He reaches behind and takes my hands, directing them closer to his hips, and squeezes my fingers before letting go.

I open my mouth, but lose my voice as Gilroch jerks forward, starting at a decent pace down the main road, passing the blackened trees and flattened remains of our homeland. A lump grows in my throat at the sight. From such a high viewpoint the destruction appears even more horrific, more absolute.

It is still hard to fathom what has befallen us, and how much we have lost.

The scenery changes as Gilroch leads us southwards into the burgeoning green of spring. We are heading straight towards the dark heart of Mirkwood, home to orcs and other servants of Sauron. Though Sauron is dead, and the fortress of Dol Guldur destroyed, my heart’s pace quickens at the uncertainty.

“Do we have reason to fear?”

“No. I have made sure of it.”

It is true the forest appears lighter, both in appearance and in feeling. The road and forest floor are dappled in soft sunlight, and the ominous trees I remember from our last journey greet us like old friends as we pass. Their branches carry the first green sprigs of the season. There is a palpable warmth in the air, even though the breeze is cool on my face.

It is a beautiful day. It is a promise. The forest has returned to us, and though our small city must be rebuilt and restored, no longer will the dark shadow of Mirkwood surround it. The shadow has been lifted.

Feeling a burst of bravery at the thought, I lay my cheek against Thranduil’s back and allow my mind to run as free as Gilroch.

It is easy to imagine possibilities, a future of life and light with my closest friend. I shut my eyes and the imaginings are as real as the endless forest. Being so close to him, it is easy to forget where reality ends and dreams begin. I breath in the familiar woodsy smell which clings to his robes.

I lift my head and sit straight again, the voice of reason quieting my mind. He loves me as a friend, as a sister. If only I could go back to before the realization of my feelings. I look upwards. The dim light of morning has turned into a bright sun, the sky a vast ocean.

We ride onwards without stopping and reach the heart and soul of the Wood. Tall, ancient oaks block out the sun for a distance, then thin out and give way to open fields of vivid green, dotted with wildflowers of pink and white and blue. I doubt this wealth of color and life existed a few days ago, when darkness still claimed the forest.

A variety of birds have found a home here again, long-tailed sparrows and blunt-crested skylarks with sturdy legs. A family of chestnut-coated rabbits scamper across a patch of grass leading to a small pond covered with water lilies. I have never seen the Greenwood so alive.

A sea of sunlit grass in the near distance catches my attention. The open field is the size of a small village, surrounded on all sides by beech trees. Gilroch halts suddenly.

“We are here,” Thranduil says, and dismounts.

“Where is here?”

He lifts his arms to help me down. “You have met Lord Celeborn before.”

“Yes, but it was long ago, even before my mother left. Why?”

“He will remember you.” He reaches out his hand to remove a small twig from my hair. “We are here to meet with him.”

I remain rooted to the path while Thranduil walks onward, feeling more puzzled than ever. I take a few small steps, allowing my sore legs to adjust to the firm ground beneath them, and hurry to catch up with him. The sun is warm on my skin.

“What business do we have with the lord of Caras Galadhon?”

“You and your endless questions.” He looks at me from the side of his eyes, their blue color lightened in the noon light. “Have patience.”

“My patience wears thin. Enough of this mystery game.”

“Do not pretend you are not enjoying it.”

I clamp my lips, feeling a heat on my cheeks no longer coming from the sun. “If I enjoy anything, it is the scenery. It is beautiful here.”

It is little wonder why he has dressed in finery. If I had known I was to meet the exalted Lord Celeborn, I would have worn the best gown in my possession. Instead I wear a dull traveling cloak in need of mending, and I have even left my silver circlet behind. Celeborn will think me a servant.

Why did Thranduil wish me to accompany him for a meeting between lords?

We find the lord of Caras Galadhon sitting under a lone willow in the field, his guard playing a light-hearted tune on his lute. He stands when he sees us approach, and waves his hand for the music to cease.

“Mae govannen, King Thranduil Oropherion.” He bows his head.

We bow in return. Lord Celeborn is tall in stature, though not as tall as Thranduil. His hair is the shade of light honey, and while fair in face, he is not as fair as the Lady Galadriel. Nor as intimidating.

“Long has it been since we have traveled these parts so freely,” says Thranduil. “How was your journey?”

“It was peaceful and without trouble, my friend. The forest has more life than even before Sauron’s darkness spread through it, and it was beautiful then. It is even more so now. We may no longer call it Mirkwood.”

He turns to acknowledge me, his light eyes studying mine with the barest hint of curiosity. “You are Gailon the Advisor’s daughter. I remember you well.”

I briefly look at Thranduil. His neutral expression reveals nothing. He had been right, but I do not understand how. Surely I did not make an impression during my visit from years ago. My father, perhaps, but not an insignificant elleth from the Woodland Realm.

“I…feel honored to have stayed in your memory.” I smile. “It has been too long since I have been to the Golden Wood, but it is my intention in these happier times to journey there again soon.”

“You are welcome at any time,” he says kindly.

“How is Lady Galadriel?”

“Her power is strong, but the strength required to diminish the evil of Dol Guldur took a heavy toll. It shall take some time for her to recover. It grieves me to say she will soon pass into the West.”

“I…I had not heard. Will you be joining her?”

He shakes his head grimly. “I have business to attend to in Middle-earth for a time. But I shall miss her dearly, as will all her remaining kin in Lothlórien.”

“Not only in Lothlórien, but all of Middle-earth, my lord.”

Celeborn bows his head, and returns his focus to Thranduil. Not once does he question my presence, but I notice him exchange an unusual glance with Thranduil, not meant to be shared. It sets my curiosity ablaze.

He invites us to join him under the willow, a pleasant respite from the noonday sun. The guard plays a cheery rendition of the Song of Nimrodel. We share lunch from an array of food Celeborn brought from Lórien: fresh lembas, spring fruits dipped in honey, and sweet ruby wine. I cannot not help but think the Dorwinion variety I brought from Thranduil’s cellars would be a better choice.

“Mirkwood is no longer a fitting name for this land,” says Celeborn. “And Greenwood is too reminiscent of times long past, before the great evil.”

“What do you suggest?” asks Thranduil.

As the sun reaches its zenith, the lords ponder it over their wine, offering a variety of names which do not sound fitting. I keep my silence, though my mind churns with a hundred possibilities.

A bumblebee buzzes lazily nearby and lands on a leftover strawberry. I begin to feel fidgety, eager to share my thoughts but afraid they will not be received. Who am I to offer a new name for a land so vast and important?

“Rîneth, your thoughts would be appreciated,” Thranduil says. “Surely your creative mind has already come up with a name better than our suggestions.”

I feel a wave of shyness as they both look at me expectedly. “It is still a forest. Why not keep Eryn in the name, reminding our people of the past? We could then add a new word, so they will look to the future…”

He grins and touches my arm. “What do you say, Lord Celeborn?”

The lord of Caras Galadhon nods thoughtfully, and takes another sip from his goblet. “I agree. Do you have any ideas for the new word, my lady?”

“How about Eryn Lasgalen, Wood of Greenleaves?”

Thranduil smirks. “If only we had asked her from the beginning. It would have saved us time.”

I look down at my lap and try to not appear too pleased.

Now that the new name is decided, the Elf lords agree to divide the lands. It is something I had not foreseen, but I realize it is the true purpose of their meeting. I sit back and watch as they discuss the matter over an unfurled map, pointing their fingers at various places on the yellowed parchment.

It is decided from the Narrows south is now to be Lord Celeborn’s, becoming East Lórien. The land from the mountains to the Narrows will belong to the Beornings, the skin-changers. And the north will remain Thranduil’s realm. Home.

I feel a curl of disappointment when it is time to depart. But it will require several hours to return to the keep before nightfall, no matter how fast Gilroch’s pace. Celeborn’s journey will be even longer.

After saying our farewells, Celeborn addresses us both. A light wind flutters his golden hair, and softens his kind smile.

“We will hold a great feast in your honor when you return to Lórien. I expect it will be soon.”

He looks at us both in turn, and bows.

Chapter Text

The sun is high in the sky as we start our journey homeward. My spirits are as low as my riding boots. Thranduil was right. I immensely enjoyed the mystery of it all, guessing our destination and his reasons for bringing me along. And though his motive for having me meet Lord Celeborn is still unknown, our return home feels too soon. It like an adventure has ended before even beginning. Time has slipped through my fingers again.

There will never be enough of it anymore.

I wish to still be resting under the willow as Lord Celeborn’s guard plays his lute, listening to discussions of kingdoms and future plans, things which do not concern me. Despite feeling like a duckling among swans, I enjoyed the meeting. Perhaps my contribution prevented Thranduil from regretting taking me.

As the grassy fields and wildflower patches give way to thicker forest, I realize I am dreading returning. He will be occupied again, the needs of his kingdom rightly outweighing anything else. I shall not see him much until life returns to a semblance of normalcy. It will be a long time.

But for now he is still near. It is only us. I tighten my embrace.

The return journey feels only half as long as the journey there, and soon the forest becomes more familiar as we enter home territory. I steel myself for goodbye, and returning to my chambers and Gwendes with more questions than before. It is near sunset, the sky fading to powder blue as orangey light takes prominence.

Gilroch makes a sudden detour leftwards down a small, overgrown path. I lift my head and straighten. This is not the route to the King’s halls, nor is it anywhere I know.

“Where are we going?”

Thranduil does not have to answer. I glimpse a shimmering gold light which reflects on the trunks of the surrounding lively oaks. It is no wonder I did not recognize the path. Last I saw it the forest was dead, but now it is as alive as the treasure it keeps hidden.

He has taken us to Laurenendë.

The water is as I remember it, its beauty now only enhanced by the forest’s flora, with snow-white flowers dotting the grass near the shoreline. They are the same flowers entwined in Thranduil’s crown. I spot a duck with an emerald head and yellow bill gliding across the pool’s golden surface. Spring is more evident here than elsewhere in the Wood, both in season and renewal.

Thranduil dismounts Gilroch and looks up at me, his cool eyes searching yet giving away nothing in return. I move one leg over the elk to join the other, and slide down in his arms. But this time is different. When he lowers my feet to the ground, he does not let go.

I am not certain if a heart can completely turn over, but the intensity of his stare makes me believe. Or at least believe my mind is playing a cruel trick. He has never before looked at me with such longing, and I cannot believe he is now. It must be something else.

He draws me closer to him, his stare never wavering. If his hand did not have a firm grip on my waist, my legs would surely give way. He leans his forehead against mine and closes his eyes. I have never been closer.

“Rîneth.”

His whisper makes me acutely aware of how close his mouth is, but I dare not close the gap. Despite appearances, it is possible the forest has not healed entirely and I am under its spell. Mirkwood has confused and tortured many a traveler with its dark magic. Not even the Eldar are immune.

He steps back, his eyes still searching mine, but for what I cannot fathom.

“I have something for you.” He reaches under his robes to reveal a folded parchment. “I have had it in my keeping for a long time.”

The parchment is soft in my hands, the paper having lost its crispness with age and use. I look at him, seeking an explanation, but he motions to open it.

 

Dear King Thranduil,

You and I are not acquainted, but we share a mutual friend. Rîneth has been my friend since she and her father visited Dale and stayed at my family’s inn long ago. When I became of age and married, she loyally came to visit me as oft she could at my husband’s farm near the River Running. The road became too dangerous for her to travel, as you well know, but she has never stopped sending letters. I can truthfully say she has been the most faithful friend I have ever had, and the most oblivious.

I shall get to that soon enough, but first I must tell you something important. I am on my deathbed, and I doubt I shall last to see the winter. Rîneth does not know it, and I want it to stay that way. She will take off without telling anyone and come see me, bless her, but it is too dangerous for anyone to travel, even the Fair Folk.

I am an old woman now, good King, and though not as wise as you by any means, I am wise for my kind, and have learned a thing or two about holding my tongue. I mostly say what I think, and Rîneth is no stranger to that, but there is one thing I have not told her.

She has had a rough go of things, you see, and she is holding on to the past. She is afraid of hurting again, so she feels she must live the whole of eternity alone. Tis a ridiculous notion, and I have told her so bluntly, but she is convinced it is what she wants. The truth is, she does not know what she wants, even while it is right in front of her.

I doubt there is much that gets past you, being a king of the Fair Folk, so you likely know Rîneth is in love with you. There has never been a visit or letter without her speaking of you with the highest admiration. To be truthful, I know more about you than I care to know, and as I have grown older I have had less tolerance for it, but I have held my tongue. I wanted her to figure it out on her own.

I know I said she is oblivious, but she has good reason. I do not pretend to know everything about the world of the Fair Folk, but it seems your kind complicate everything. From where I come from, dead is dead. If a spouse dies, there comes a time to marry again. I once believed loneliness was only for the Men of the world, but after knowing Rîneth, I have learned no one is immune.

And from what I have learned about you, good King, it affects you as well. Tis probably the reason for that foul temper of yours. So listen to an old woman on her deathbed. End this foolish Elvish business and marry her. You both love each other, it is as obvious as day, and its past time something is done about it.

Take care of her for me, and tell her the Elanor she planted in my garden is in full bloom. I suspect it is the last time I shall see them. They always remind me of her.

Rîneth’s oldest (and youngest) friend,

Mattie

 

I feel a rush of heat across my cheeks as my fumbling fingers attempt to refold the letter, and I furiously blink away the forming tears. I cannot look at him. I am afraid of what I will see.

“I-I tried explaining to Mattie our ways on many occasions, but she never understood…she was highly intelligent but preferred to keep things simple.”

“Perhaps she had the right idea. The Eldar complicate life far too much.”

I glance down at the parchment in my hands, and at the pond, and anywhere but Thranduil. “You must not read too much into her words. I spoke of you often because of our friendship. She loved to play matchmaker, and--”

“Like you?”

My cheeks burn again. “I have not been successful at it, so it stands to reason--”

He takes hold of my chin and turns my face to his. Still I cannot meet his knowing gaze, and instead focus on a point behind his ear.

“Are you now afraid of me?”

“I am afraid you have taken an old woman’s fanciful ideas to heart, and shall never think of me the same. I do not understand why you had me read it….”

From the corner of my vision I see his smirk. “Your friend was right about you. You are oblivious, even when it is as obvious as day, as she phrased it.”

“I confess it.” My eyes smart. “I also do not understand why you had me accompany you to meet Lord Celeborn.”

“He is an old friend and knows of my trials. I shall not hide to him, nor all of Arda. But as I suspected, he already knew.”

My heart turns over again, and I dare to look at him. “Knew what?”

He shakes his crowned head. “If it is not obvious to you now, it shall never be, Rîneth. I refuse to believe I have read you wrongly. But I cannot deny your confirmation would be pleasing to hear. Tell me: do you love me?”

I move away, my mind at first not allowing his words to sink in. I feel his hands on my arms as if they are still there.

“You must assure me we are under no forest spell, that your question is as real as the flames which burned our homeland.”

“It is as real,” he replies. “And as fervent.”

His words have the effect of stealing my voice.

“If confirmation is what you seek,” he says, “we shall leave now and go to your father. I spoke to him last night of that which I have kept from him.”

“Your death?”

Thranduil nods. “He did not doubt what I saw and heard. Nor did he doubt the breaking of my vows with Itaril. Though I did not need his acceptance for myself, but for you.”

“Why for me?”

“Why must you persist in asking these questions when you already know the answer?”

“You ask for my confirmation. May I not ask for yours?”

He strides over and takes my hand, and lifts the finger holding my ring. “Why do you believe I gave you this?”

I swallow. “For helping with your father’s writings….”

“Yes, that was what I told you.” He smiles wryly, and squeezes my hand before letting go. “In truth, my motive was selfish. I wished to see you wear it and pretend you were mine, even though it could never be so. I liked the idea I could claim some part of you, if only a finger.”

The fluttering beneath my ribcage takes my breath. Or perhaps it is the way he stares into my eyes so brazenly.

“I consented to break my vows with Itaril,” he continues. “Do you require more confirmation?”

“You told me you did it for her happiness, so she could be with the one she truly loved…”

“I am not selfless, as you have learned by now. There was a far more personal reason for me to have accepted Eru’s consequence so readily.”

“What is the consequence?”

He looks towards the pool, a hint of sadness passing over his features. “I shall be on the final ship to sail across the Sea, the last of the Eldar to leave Middle-earth. Manwë will send a messenger when the long-awaited day arrives. It is promised Legolas will depart long before then.” His eyes return to mine. “It has…taken time for me to accept, even after making the decision, so I hope you will forgive me for my distance of late.”

I feel stricken. “Why did you agree to this?”

“You know the reason.”

“Surely Itaril must bear some consequence as well…”

“Yes,” he says. “Her and her beloved will be confined to a remote shore of Valinor, unable to live among their kin until such a time as Manwë deems appropriate.”

I shake my head. “I did not know Eru to be so severe.”

“Considering it is against the law of Eru for marriage vows to be broken, he has been more merciful than I could have ever believed. Before my death, my faith in the Valar was weak. Now it is stronger than it has ever been. I have been given a second chance at life.”

We both fall in silence, and the chirping of the woodland sparrows grows in volume, as though beckoning us to continue. I lift my gaze to the tree limbs where the birds reside, and though I do not see them, they more real than any of Thranduil’s words. For as long as I have existed, my friend could never be anything more. The mere thought was so impossible I never paid it heed, until my feelings could no longer be ignored. Until my heart betrayed me.

Even now, the impossible having become possible, I cannot grasp it. Nor can I grasp the feeling is returned…that he feels the same and has for a while.

“Rîneth…” he says. “The question.”

The question. I look at Thranduil now, his blond hair a striking white as the sun hits it. He is as real as he has ever been. As real as when he lay on his bed dying only days ago. As real as when he told me the story of his past. As real as when he gave me the ring, the Star of Varda, far more than a gift for a friend. I raise my hand to look at it.

The enchanted gem is shining brighter than it ever has.

It is real. All of it.

“Yes.”

He seems to hold his breath, waiting.

“Yes, I love you. I have loved you for longer than I know.”

He steps forward and cups my face, the intensity of his gaze making me blink. “And Eru’s consequence? Does your love for me surpass its sting?”

“If you have me, I shall wait with you for the messenger, and be by your side on the final ship across the Sea.”

He closes the gap between us, and his mouth falls on mine. The force of it sends a torrent of flutters to my stomach. My hands reach up to his hair; his arms wrap around my waist to bring me closer still. It is a kiss that has waited for perhaps a thousand years and cannot be stopped now. I let his lips guide mine, let his hands keep me from falling.

Again and again he kisses me, and I return every one, my lungs remembering to breathe even as I forget. When we break apart I believe the sun has surely set, but upon opening my eyes it is shining still.

He removes my ring and places it on another finger, one which carries more promise, and gives me a slow, satisfied smile.

“Finally.”

Breathtaking artwork by masseffxt on tumblr, commissioned for this chapter by Maggie Shivers.

Chapter Text

The Blue Mountains fill the skyline, the rising sun making its majestic peaks a rosy gold. There is a slight chill, the first sign of autumn’s arrival. I wrap my cloak closer about my shoulders, and search the wooded area for a place to watch the dawn.

I find a large, jutting rock in front of a clearing with a perfect view of the field and the mountains beyond. The air smells salty. The Sea is close now.

It is my last day in Middle-earth. By afternoon we will reach the harbor of Lindon, and board the final ship waiting for us. Three-hundred years have passed since Thranduil’s return from death. It is finally time to leave.

I woke before dawn with my mind full or whirling thoughts and could not find sleep again. Leaving my husband still dreaming, I left our large tent to greet the new day and witness my last sunrise this side of the Sundering Seas.

I am not disappointed. The sky is rose and gold and amethyst and blue, the sunbeams reaching through the clouds like hands of the Valar. Middle-earth has given me a scene more beautiful than a painting for my farewell gift.

Standing guard at the field’s edge is Narunir. The light frames his lithe figure. Perhaps he is aware of my presence but is leaving me to my thoughts and memories. I tried persuading him it was a journey he need not take, that Thranduil would protect me, but he was insistent.

I swallow a lump in my throat as I remember the fateful night of the battle so long ago. He was the only one at my side as I attempted to heal Thranduil, and joined in with my prayers, forming an unbreakable bond between us. Upon becoming Queen, I requested him to be my personal guard. He has been reluctant to leave my side since. He is a true friend.

He is not so young anymore, and has a family of his own. His Silvan wife does not wish to cross the Sea, and I know he shall not leave her. I suspect his desire to accompany me had less to do with my protection and more to do with goodbye. I dread it, for I know I shall not see him again.

I hear a flock of gulls in the distance, but also the forest finches singing a morning melody. They remind me of those from the Greenwood. Shall there be such cheerful birds in Valinor?

I have said farewell to many friends, to my Silvan kin who will never have the Sea-longing. But while there is an ache at the loss, there is joy abounding in my heart. I shall soon see my family again.  I have not seen Ada since the day after my wedding and coronation; he departed on his gray horse with a proud grin, finally free from the worry over my well-being, and looking forward to the world to come. I still remember his parting words as if he just spoke them.

“I knew Thranduil was in love with you for a long time, iell nín, but it was not until I realized you returned his feelings when I grew concerned. While we were in Imladris for your sister’s wedding I searched the vast library of records, hoping to find a circumstance when a second marriage had been permitted. It had only happened once, in an even stranger situation than yours, but it made me wonder if the Valar could have mercy once more.

Nevertheless, I still intended to warn you, to advise you to live with your sister in Imladris for a time. But something held me back. Instead of dissuading you, I found myself almost encouraging you. At the time I did not understand, but I believe I do now.

Do not weep for me, iell nín, for you have found new life again, and now I go to find mine.”

It has been almost as long since I have seen my sister and nephew. Thranduil took me for a visit to Imladris soon after our wedding, a stay filled with laughter and story-telling late into the evenings, even as the beautiful city around us faded away. It was to be our only visit, for Faeleth and Lindir did not wish to stay after Lord Elrond’s departure.

Gwendes and Sírdor left a few years ago, along with their children, joining the small group of their kind to make the passage. They never offered a reason, but I knew Gwendes wished to see her brother again. I smile remembering our eventful first year of friendship, and how she unknowingly helped me realize my feelings for Thranduil.

I look forward to seeing her again…

And then there is Legolas. War changed him greatly, making him more willing to accept the truth of his parents’ relationship. And though he at first had difficulty believing their vows were broken, the new vows spoken successfully between Thranduil and I were the ultimate proof for all. In the years to come he would take pleasure in relentlessly teasing me about marrying his father.

He would often visit with his Dwarf friend who was part of the Fellowship named Gimli. They shared in many adventures, exploring the earth as Legolas had dreamed from childhood. On his last visit to his homeland, he finally made complete peace with his father, and asked for his blessing to build a ship to sail from Middle-earth and cross the Sea. Thranduil gave it, but not without a heavy heart. That was over 150 years ago.

A soft wind blows from the harbor nearby, tossing my curls playfully. The sun has risen higher, its brightness blinding. I look down at my ring. The gem’s glow now matches the orange shade of the sky.

Life has been good to me, as has Thranduil. We spent the first years of our marriage restoring the Greenwood, rebuilding the homes which were destroyed in the fire, and adding gardens and courtyards and commissioning art and sculptures. When finished, I doubted our realm had ever been more glorious. But Laurenendë we kept a secret; the Golden Pool was ours alone, and we visited it often.

One of my greatest accomplishments as Queen was persuading Thranduil to form an alliance with the Dwarves from Erebor. With Gimli happy to act as our envoy, we finally established a long-lasting peace between the two races. Dwarves and Men soon passed through our Wood often, and would stop to pay us their respects and visit us for a time.

There was a period when I longed for a child, especially after my family’s departure from Middle-earth. But when I could not fall pregnant, I assumed it was an unspoken consequence from Eru. I came to accept it, and enjoyed being an adopted aunt to Gwendes’ children, and a mother to my people.

I smile wistfully remembering our last day in the Wood. Our friends threw us a grand celebration with the entire realm in attendance, as well as Men and Dwarves from the North. Before the night’s end, we presented the Kingdom to Tauriel. A Silvan ruler to rule a Silvan realm. She accepted the crown with grace, and the people were overjoyed with our choice.

I am without doubt the Greenwood will be prosperous and secure forevermore, a hidden Elven kingdom in a world of Men.

“How long have you been awake?”

I turn around. Thranduil is standing in the path of the dawn sun, his hair and robes alight, as though we have already taken the Straight Road. He shall never wear the crown again, but he does not need one. He is ever a king of Elves.

“Not long. I could not fall back asleep. My thoughts would not let me.”

He sits down beside me. “Do not tell me you have become sentimental now.”

He is teasing me, of course. His eyes can never hide it. “Perhaps. I was thinking back over our life together.”

“And what of our future, my Queen?”

“I have thought about that as well.” I smile.

He reaches out and tucks a curl behind my ear. “How about one last hunt before we depart? We shall not be on land for a time.”

“Alas, I have already packed away my bow. Will we not have enough time to hunt when we reach Valinor?”

“Time is all we will have. Stay here while I retrieve your bow.”

He kisses me before I can protest. I shake my head as he walks away, knowing I should never have become proficient in handling weapons. I have been on more hunting trips than I can count.

Determined he should not have the upper hand, I form an idea. “I shall ask Narunir to accompany you in my stead. He would feel honored to be by your side on your last hunt before leaving.”

Thranduil looks over his shoulder and gives me a blazing look, causing a storm of fluttering in my stomach. “Perhaps you misunderstood me.”

I shake my head again. Hunting, indeed.

“You are maddening, my lord.”

 

888

 

We dismount Gilroch. I breathlessly walk to the edge of the high grassy bank overlooking the harbor, my spirit soaring. There are the still, glittering waters of the Gulf of Lune, and a proud ship with a white sail like a cloud, awaiting a voyage to a distant land. It is waiting for us.

It is the final voyage. We are the last of the Eldar to depart Middle-earth, as Manwë promised. The time has finally come.

I turn to Thranduil standing beside me. “There is one last thing I must tell you before we depart these shores.”

A gentle sea wind picks up his hair. “What is it, meleth nîn?”

“I am with child."