Anna had not been to Thranduil’s chambers since the day of her arrival in Mirkwood but the images of what had happened that day were as vivid in her mind as if it just had been yesterday. Maybe having come here was not such a good idea after all, this felt all of a sudden too intimate for the purpose of her visit. Her eyes wandered around the room, halting at the bench and her heart skipped a beat when she remembered the moment Thranduil had been so close to her and had captured her heart in the most unexpected way.
And then her eyes were drawn to him, as he stood beside one of the tables pouring wine in two glasses, his back turned to her. His heavy brocade cloak of silver and orange was loosely draped around his shoulders and shimmered iridescently beneath the candlelight. A long robe of ash grey slid in and out of view as he moved, the sleek perfection of his silver blonde hair enveloping his shoulders and gracefully flowing down to the middle of his back.
The heavy silence was finally broken when he turned around to greet her: “Good evening, my dear. Please, do come closer. What a pleasant surprise after today’s trouble with the dwarves. I imagine word has spread through the palace?”
“Yes, my lord it has.”
Thranduil sighed: “Most unpleasant and annoying indeed.”
She blushed, not quite sure as how to go on, but luckily Thranduil’s conversational skills would come to the rescue.
“To what do I owe this pleasure of you visiting me?” He raised his eyebrows in curiosity, but when he saw her troubled face, the familiar crease on his forehead deepened. “You do not look well. Is something the matter?”
“I am afraid I am not feeling all too well, my lord.”
“Nothing too serious I hope.” There was concern in his eyes. “Was that why you were absent from last night’s feast? Your presence was dearly missed.”
“Yes, I am sorry, but I was trying to get some rest, because yesterday —,” She hesitated. “There is something that I need to tell you.”
“Go ahead. But first, please do sit down.” He pointed at the comfortably cushioned half-round bench in one of the alcoves that was illuminated by an overhanging lantern and had a small table in front of it.
She shuffled to her appointed seat, keeping her eyes on the floor, barely being able to look at him as he approached her with two glasses of wine in his hands. How on earth would she be able to confess to Thranduil what she had done, when all she wanted to do was just sink into his arms and forget all her worries?
He handed her one glass and took a seat beside her indicating that he expected her to drink with him. She was only able to take one sip, although the wine was delicious, but her throat was clogging up. When she put her glass down on the table his penetrating gaze sent her blood rushing through her veins like a tempest and she was glad for the abundance of cushions around her, providing her with a sense of security in her inner turmoil.
“Now I am curious what it is that you wanted to tell me.” He reclined slightly against the cushions, the sweeping fabric of his cloak splayed around his body, spilling onto the floor and pooling around his black boots in a sea of silver and orange.
Guilt closed its iron claws around her chest threatening to squeeze the last remnants of courage from her heart. She kept her eyes on her tightly folded hands in her lap, as she did not dare to look at him.
“I think,” she began hesitantly, “I know how the dwarves were able to escape.”
“You do?” Thranduil’s voice oscillated in between disbelief and astonishment and when she finally looked up to him, he was assessing her with a strange glance. Eyes that could tell a lie from the truth. Eyes that could see to the bottom of her soul. Eyes she wished to lose herself in and drown in their endless sea of blue. But she needed to resurface from the ocean of his eyes and quickly pull herself together before he would think that she had gone totally insane.
“Yes, and I am afraid I had something to do with it.”
Thranduil frowned, but did not interrupt her as the words just fell from her mouth:
“The dwarves were not alone, a hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins was with them. I met him once in the hallways as he was scavenging for food. I felt sorry for him, so I offered him to come to my room so he could eat in a more dignified way. At first he refused, but then one day he indeed came to me. And in our conversation he told me about the dwarves and their quest to reclaim their home. He was all distraught, because he was the only hope they had to find a way out. At some point I mentioned to him the wine cellar and that is how he was able to find the trapdoor and use it as exit for the dwarves and himself. So I guess I somehow pushed him in the right direction.”
Thranduil’s fingers tensed almost imperceptibly around his glass as he listened to her revelation and when she had finished he sighed and put the glass on the table. “Why did you not tell me about any of this before?”
“I don’t know, but I think I was afraid of what would become of Bilbo if you knew of his existence.”
“And what is his fate to you?”
“I felt sympathy for him. He had been lingering in your halls for weeks, snatching morsels when he could and trying to find a way out for his friends. So I wanted to help. And hearing about the dwarves and their loss of home, I thought that they should be given a chance rather than rot in the dungeons. After all I do know how it feels to be without a home.”
Her eyes travelled up the abundant fabric of Thranduil’s cloak and the perfectly fitting robe underneath to his neck where his spider brooch glittered like darkest amber in the twilight. Thranduil’s eyes had narrowed dangerously and his hand gripped the armrest a little too tight, an aura of smouldering menace emanating from beneath his composed self. She held her breath, watching him from the corner of her eye and bracing herself for an angry outburst. Only it did not come. Instead the chill of an accusing silence permeated her heart, the steady purling of the water filling the air, but she did not dare to say anything for fear of just making everything worse.
Suddenly Thranduil rose from his seat and turned towards the pool, his gaze lost in the glittering surface, the silent tension in the room rising to unbearable heights. Anna lowered her gaze, her heartbeat hammering and her clammy hands tightly wrapped in her lap. When she thought that her emotions were going to burst through the dam of her tenuous composure, he turned around again and she felt herself shrink into insignificance beneath his glowering gaze as he towered over her like a wrathful god of old.
“Look at me!” he ordered and she obeyed reluctantly, afraid of what she would find in his eyes. Anger flickered beneath their piercing blue as he looked sternly at her. “How could you go behind my back like that? What were you even thinking?”
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I was just trying to do what I felt was right. But maybe I was not thinking ahead,” she muttered ruefully, a growing lump in her throat threatening to drown her voice.
“Indeed you were not.” He clenched his jaw as he went on, the biting frost of his voice piercing her heart with icicles. “Do you really believe that your empathy — be it real or imagined — with a company of dwarves and a hobbit entitles you to meddle in things that do not concern you?” He added with a low growl: “And that are dangerous.”
“My intention was not to cause any trouble.”
“But you did.” He sighed, annoyance flickering across his face. “Even though you may not have acted with ill intent, the outcome is still the same.” He shook his head, his voice now full of contempt. “What is it with you humans and your desire to act upon an impulse? It is a tendency not to be eradicated, so it seems. Much harm and suffering has come from this and apparently will continue to do so.”
“Well, I am deeply sorry if I am not blessed with the foresight of the Elves,” she grumbled defiantly, not knowing how she even dared to object so blatantly. But despite her fear she felt now also anger rising. Thranduil had every right to be upset with her, but there was no need to attribute her actions to what he considered to be a human weakness, just because she had helped one little hobbit out of his misery.
“You have quite the nerve talking to me like that.” He raised an eyebrow, his expression a mixture of surprise and outrage.
“What I meant to say is that I simply acted upon what I felt was right. If that makes me human, well that is what I am after all. I did not foresee the consequences, that is true, but if I cannot trust my heart, then what guidance do I have?” Her spirit sank as she felt driven into a corner by Thranduil’s accusations.
“You may well have thought your actions to be rightful, but that still does not vindicate the fact that you have kept all this hidden from me.” His gaze softened slightly as he went on. “Why would you trust a hobbit, but not me? Have I not also earned your trust?”
The reproachful tone in his voice tore at her heart. He pulled the folds of his cloak tighter around his shoulders, reached out for his glass of wine and returned to his seat beside her.
He was so unbearably close and still so infinitely far and it took all her meagre self-control not to throw herself at him, begging him for forgiveness and find blissful oblivion in his embrace.
“You do have my trust and I am sorry if I made you think otherwise. I was simply scared that Bilbo would also end up in the dungeons if you found out about him.”
“Why would you think of me being so unreasonable?”
“Not unreasonable, but distrustful of strangers, especially of someone that would prove to be in league with the dwarves. And I did not want to be at fault for the failure of their quest.”
He shook his head and shifted his eyebrows in skepticism as curiosity began to gradually overtake his initial anger. “It still eludes my understanding why you should have anything to do with dwarves and hobbits.”
She fiddled about with the drawstring of her bodice as she attempted to organise her thoughts, but whatever raft she had haphazardly cobbled together, it was doomed to drown in the roaring sea of her emotions. She wished nothing more than to stay here close to Thranduil, but she also wanted to be truthful about her motives concerning Bilbo and the dwarves. Treacherous were these waters to navigate and if she did not want to suffer ship-wreck there was only one course to stir: honesty.
“I am waiting.” Thranduil reached for her glass of wine and offered it to her. “Maybe you want this now?”
“Yes, thank you.” She managed a small grateful smile and took it gladly, allowing the delicious warmth of the sweet Dorwinion wine to dabble her parched throat and fill her insides with a warmth that she so dearly needed. Thranduil watched her over the rim of his glass, apprehension and curiosity mingling in his eyes.
With a deep sigh Anna embarked on her journey of confession, giving Thranduil as much details as she could remember of her encounters and conversations with Bilbo. After all, if she was going to confess, she wanted to make it count and at least try to earn back his trust. He was an attentive listener and did not once interrupt her, allowing her to take her time and find her own pace, something she was truly grateful for. The only thing she was hesitant to reveal was what Bilbo had told her about Gandalf. It was not something she wanted to talk about; not tonight.
When she had finished, Thranduil furrowed his brow, but remained silent, his arms draped around the cushions.
But for her all this proved to be too much, now that she had unburdened herself she felt the emptiness in her chest being flooded with despair. All she managed to say was: “Please, don’t send me away. Anything but not that!” her voice barely more than a whisper.
When he finally looked at her his expression was impenetrable, showing neither anger nor affection. “I will not send you away if that is what you fear.” Hope stirred in her heart, maybe not everything was lost after all. “But you have to be aware that your deeds will have consequences.”
“Yes.” There was a lump in her throat choking her voice.
“The dwarves are gone and they will be waking the dragon.” His face darkened as he continued. “And its wrath and ruin will be upon them and maybe upon us all.”
“The dragon?!” Anna’s eyes widened in shock as she recovered her ability to speak.
“Yes, the dragon. I assume Bilbo did not care to mention this insignificant detail, did he?” He tilted his head sideways, his voice now downright condescending.
“No, he didn’t. I am sure I would have remembered that. I mean a dragon is something to remember.” A nervous chuckle escaped her, but she fell silent again, embarrassed at her unduly behaviour.
Apparently her own confession was not the end of tonight’s revelations.
He took another sip of wine, put the glass back on the table, allowing the fabric of his cloak to slide off his shoulders, a cascade of orange and silver flowing around his lean body.
“So let me enlighten you then: The dragon I speak of is Smaug and he is the one that took the mountain from the dwarves, as dragons are ever drawn to treasures and their desire to possess them matches the dwarves’ love for gold in their fierceness. For many years he has been lurking deep down in the darkness of Amon Ereb and no living eye has seen him outside for many years. But he is still there, brooding in the dark and guarding his treasure with jealous love and the dwarves are fools if they think that they can either slay or outsmart him. They will all perish and Smaug will bring ruin and death upon them and everyone that stands in between him and the gold.” Thranduil’s eyes had trailed off into the distance as if he was remembering a doom of old that still haunted him. She did not dare to speak, but sat silently beside him, holding her breath. And when he turned to her there was terror in his eyes. “You do not know dragon fire and its harrowing ruin. It is a wall of flames, a storm of fire and it burns everything in its wake, Men, Elves and Dwarves alike.”
And suddenly his left eye went blind, staring at her in ghostly whiteness and his left cheek seemed to melt beneath the sizzling heat of an invisible fire, eating away his flawless elven skin and laying bare charred flesh and gaping wounds, a visible memory of a deadly flame forever burnt in his face. Impeccable beauty mutilated and a pure soul eternally marked by a horror it could not forget.
The light in the room went dim as an unsettling darkness surrounded Thranduil’s figure, blurring his features as if he were a vision from a disturbing dream. A chill crept under her skin and into her heart, clutching it with the ruthless hand of despair as an impenetrable shadow enveloped her like black ink dipped in water.
Her eyes were wide in horror and she averted them instinctively. It was not the ghastly view that scared her, but rather the feeling that she was witnessing something that was not meant for her eyes. But he made her look, so she would know the shadow that was in his heart.
“Look at my face!” he said and in his other eye there was a blazing flame, not scorching and deadly like the dragon fire, but bright and pure as starlight. “And look well so you do not forget what you see. For I have faced the doom. The dragon fire is only the beginning, the onset of darkness, an evil malice that festers and feeds on fear and dread. Long has it hidden in the East and from there it will arise again and spread. Sinking into the hearts of those that will fall under the spell of evil. Ever will it seek to conquer the light with a shadow as black as night.”
“You mean war?” Her voice was hushed, as if she was afraid of what her own words would bring with them. “Is this what this is all about, the darkness and the dragon?”
Thranduil nodded, all disfigurement vanishing from his face without a trace in the blink of an eye, his untarnished beauty restored as if by magic. “Yes, that is what I fear. The evil may have been broken and banished, but I know in my heart that it has not been conquered forever. And it will break forth again, not resting until it is either victorious or utterly defeated. But I will do everything in my power to keep our kingdom safe, darkness will not take us. The Woodland Realm will not fall, not as long as I am king.”
There was innate valour in him and never had he looked more regal to her than now, a wise and prudent king concerned with the well-being of his kingdom and prepared to fight the evil power should it arise to threaten his land and its people.
Finally she understood, or at least she thought that she did, that this was not just about a group of stubborn and homeless dwarves setting out to reclaim their mountain, but that there was a bigger plan and an even greater danger behind all this. And that was the shadow that lay on Thranduil’s soul.
The horror on her face filled his eyes with worry and he quickly sought to dispel her concerns. “But you need not despair. I can assure you that we are perfectly safe here inside the palace. No evil dares enter these walls. And I will have the watch doubled along the borders. Nothing moves in this kingdom but I hear of it.”
Any traces of lingering anger and annoyance had now given way to a protectiveness that shone like a faint glimmer of hope on the dim horizon of her future. She gave him a weak smile, emotional exhaustion and sleep deprivation now finally taking a toll on her.
“But we will speak no more of this now. Enough of darkness and doom for one evening.” He leaned forward, his eyes travelling across her face. “You look awfully pale. Maybe you should now try to find some rest. At this moment there is still no need to fear the worst.”
“Yes, you are probably right.” She nodded, grateful for his display of empathy.
Thranduil rose from his seat and she followed suit making her way to the door.
She had already reached for the door knob when she turned around again.
“One more thing.”
“Yes?” Thranduil had remained in the middle of the room, his eyes following her motions.
“Bilbo had asked me to go with him and the dwarves.” A flicker of distress appeared on Thranduil’s face.
“But I told him that I could not go, because I had made a promise to you. And I do keep my promises.”
Thranduil put his hand on his heart in a reverential gesture and her own heart filled with warmth at this sight. “And so do I,” he said.
On the way back to her room her mind was spinning with images of flames and shadows. Little had she known that when she set out to confess this was going to bring forth even more unsettling revelations about a dragon and the impending doom of war. It was not Thranduil’s initial anger that still gnawed at her heart, but the fact that she had disappointed him and that her rash actions had caused him more trouble than she had anticipated. She had only thought of Bilbo and the dwarves, but the bigger picture had been lost on her. Of course, how should she have known after all? But whatever had been done could not be undone any more. Events had now been set in motion and all she could do now was wait and hope for the best: that she had not actually sent Bilbo and the dwarves to their fiery grave and that war would not find her here in Mirkwood.