Poetry and Promises
Things were different in the palace now. There was a sense of tension and alert premonition permeating the halls of Thranduil that kept Anna on her toes most of the days. The biggest change she noticed was the absence of Legolas and Tauriel who, as she had been told, had gone on a head over heels chase after the dwarves. It turned out that the escape of the dwarves did not go as smoothly as Bilbo had wished for, because they soon had an orc-pack following their trail. What exactly drove the two to follow them was not clear to her, but she strongly suspected that it had something to do with Tauriel’s feelings for one of the dwarves.
The fact that both his son and his head of guard had left without his consent put Thranduil in a sour mood and it was best not to tangle with him. Although he never openly showed her any resentment there was a remnant of polite aloofness he displayed towards her. It was not really the fact that he thought her guilty of the dwarves’ escape. He knew that they could have possibly managed quite well without her help. It was the bitter aftertaste of the breach of trust that still lay like a thin veil of discomfort in between them both. So she tried her best not to give him another reason to fuel any possible distrust and remained in a position of quiet watchfulness and silent obedience.
The weeks dragged on in days of endless uniformity and even the slow change from autumn to early winter in the Woodland Realm went almost unnoticed as she only caught brief glimpses of the outside world when the gates were opened. The deep red and flaming orange had turned a sickly brown and a dreary grey mist enshrouded the woods that lay beyond the palace. Although the forest did not really look inviting, she had never longed more for a breath of fresh air, even if it were only for a short while.
But now with both Tauriel and Legolas gone her life was even more restricted to the palace. Under the impending danger of war Thranduil surely would not allow her to venture into the forest alone and apparently he only entrusted her safety to those two alone. No one else was allowed to accompany her and if they would they could be sure to incur the king’s wrath which under the given circumstances no one was willing to risk, much less for someone who was not one of their own. The only distractions left were her visits to the library which had lessened as of late, Brethilwen, who continued to be her loyal servant and the brothers Amardir and Faeldir, who kept their good-natured spirits even in times of gloomy anticipation.
“If you are in need of a remedy against dull afternoons we are ever at your service my lady.” With those words Amardir approached her, his younger brother beside him bowing low and joining in “May we offer you some refreshment of the mind with music that also delights the heart?” An exited gleam was in Faeldir’s eyes as he went on: “There is a new tune my brother and I have devised and it would be our pleasure if you could be the first one to hear it.”
“We named it ‘The Lady of the Forest’ and it is dedicated to you,” Amardir added with a distinct layer of pride in his voice.
A smile spread across her face. “Now you make me blush like a little girl.” She linked arms with both of them as she headed towards the small hall she knew was their favourite and said: “I am very honoured and cannot wait to hear it.”
“Excellent,” they said in unison and Faeldir went on: “We wrote it in your language, so you must bear with the possible imperfections it may have.”
It was perfect, at least to her. The song they had created captured in an almost haunting way her life here in the Woodland Realm:
Nameless she walks with her spirit so bright.
She comes from afar and a secret she holds.
Is it the sun that looks for the stars?
Her face shines with joy, but a shadow she bears,
a shadow that darkens her heart.
Is it the sun that looks for the stars?
Will the stars lift the shadow, will the sun find the light?
Will she linger forever until her own light shall fade?
Is she the sun in search of her star?
One could hear a pin drop when they had ended, Amardir still holding on to his flute and Faeldir with the harp in his hands, both of them looking at Anna with expectancy in their eyes.
“Wonderful,” was the only thing she could say. She was deeply moved that they had actually written this just for her. “Thank you so much! You don’t know how much this means to me.”
Both brothers were gleaming with pride and then Faeldir pulled out a small parchment from inside his blue tunic and handed it to her.
“This is for you, the poem. I am sorry that it is only jotted down poorly, but we wrote this on a late night inspiration, so you hopefully will forgive the inelegant form.”
“Oh but it is lovely! I will treasure this forever.” In a very unelvish way she hugged both brothers one after the other leaving them slightly baffled but nevertheless with a happy grin on their faces.
“The king would not want us to speak to you about your…,” Amardir paused in the middle of his sentence looking for the most innocuous words when Faeldir came to the rescue.
“What my dear brother means to say is that we are not supposed to ask you anything about where you come from and who you really are. But you know, he cannot have anything against a little poem.” And with a mischievous wink he added: “Maybe it’s best if you just keep it to yourself though.”
“Yes, I will of course.” She folded the parchment and stored it in her pocket together with Thranduil’s piece of cloth, raising her total amount of precious possessions to a modest two. “I myself wish I could speak about it, but I am afraid all I have are questions and no answers.” And with a shrug she added: “And I have not found anyone who would be able or willing to bring light into that darkness of mine. I only ever get cryptic hints or evasive answers so I have stopped asking.” She gave them a resigned smile and added: “At least for now.”
“But the king surely must know something about it, after all he has an extensive knowledge of our world and what lies beyond.” Faeldir furrowed his brows. “But I assume that now would not be a good moment to bring up this delicate topic, as he is very upset to say the least about Tauriel’s disobedience and even his son going against his orders.”
She did not wish to elaborate on why she also thought it was best not to bother Thranduil with this now, after all the mess she had made with the dwarves, so she only said: “I will do so when the moment is right.” If it will ever come to that, she thought to herself.
“And his mind is now surely also directed towards the Mountain and the dragon,” Amardir added, stirring the conversation away from treacherous waters to a safer haven of general small talk.
So they spent the rest of the afternoon in an animated conversation exchanging more or less fanciful theories about how the dwarves would be able to enter the mountain and possibly defeat the dragon. It was a nice time spent in good company.
But it seemed that nothing was going to happen in Erebor after all.
Until one day a murmur went through the palace that steadily grew into an excited upheaval pervading the air of Thranduil’s halls. It did not take her long to find out what had happened, because everyone seemed to be having only one thing on their mind: the dragon was no more, Smaug the terrible had been killed! The further particulars were still unclear, she could grasp only so much that the beast had gone on a rampage burning down a village and then had been shot down and drowned in a lake. There was no word about the dwarves or a hobbit, but the predominant opinion seemed to be that they had all perished in the fire. Not that anyone shed much tears over any of them, it was considered simply an unfortunate side effect of the unwise waking of the dragon. After all Thranduil had foreseen exactly that. Everyone seemed simply relieved that the dragon was no longer a menace to be reckoned with. But the affair was far from resolved, it had now merely shifted to the apparent ownerless treasures still buried deep inside the mountain. And Thranduil did not tarry long in proclaiming that he very much desired his share in the riches of Erebor. She could only surmise what that meant but it was clear to her that the gold would not simply wander into Thranduil’s hall on its own, but that this would involve a more or less hostile act of conquest. Even Anna with her limited knowledge of this world could guess that the Elves were not the only ones wanting a share of this legendary treasure. And even if the dragon lived no more, it was naive to assume that the dangerous darkness that Thranduil feared so much had also been eradicated. The impending doom of war was still looming overhead, dampening her spirits.
So she could not really join in the general mood of relief. All she could feel was worry and dread. She had indeed sent Bilbo and the dwarves to their grave! How would she ever be able to forgive herself? Although in the back of her mind there was a small glimmer of hope that maybe they were still alive after all, if they had found the wizard on time and with the help of a series of fortunate events possibly. But it was only a fool’s hope after all. And then seeing Thranduil so determined to lay a claim on the riches of this mountain only contributed to her feeling of unease. She had never seen him like that before, it was as if a hidden force was driving him or something of that treasure hoard was pulling him towards it with some inexplicable magic.
That afternoon Brethilwen knocked at her door, the soft spoken voice announcing her welcome presence. Anna had just given up on another more or less successful attempt to redo her braids that had come undone during the day. With a frustrated sigh she tossed her brush on the table, turned away from the mirror and bade her to come in. Brethilwen bowed and addressed her in her formal voice: “My lady, I bring word from the king. He wishes to see you in his chambers.” But upon seeing her worried face she veered towards a caring tone: “Is something the matter? You seem uneasy.”
Anna shifted around uncomfortably on her chair, trying to make her voice sound as casual as possible: “I think I am at a loss with these braids of mine. I will never learn the elvish way!” Brethilwen smiled kindly at her as she approached her. “Let me give you a hand with this.” She picked up the brush and Anna threw her a nervous glance in the mirror as she stood behind her chair, her hands expertly reaching for the loose strands of Anna’s hair. “But I assume that it’s not the braids that worry you, am I right?”
It was no use denying, she could read her face like an open book. Anna’s green eyes found her grey one’s in the mirror and her heart opened up to her. “You are right Brethilwen. All this turmoil of the dragon and the treasure is making me sick. And I worry about the king.” She paused, watching for Brethilwen’s reaction, but she only displayed curiosity as she worked through Anna’s hair.
“I have been wondering what it is that draws him to the Mountain. I have not seen him like this before. Why would he want all those treasures? There is something that I cannot quite grasp.” She added in a sombre tone: “And I fear that bad things might happen.”
Brethilwen kept her voice light. “I do not think that you need to worry about the king. He knows very well what he is doing.”
“That is not what I meant. I have no reason to doubt his abilities as king.” This was harder to put in words than she had anticipated: “It is as if there was something that he wanted to claim.”
When Brethilwen had finished with her braids she threw her a satisfied glance in the mirror. “There, you are all set.” She rested her hands on Anna’s shoulders and leaned forward, her mouth close to her ear: “I daresay there is something of utmost personal value to the king in this mountain that he very much wishes to recover. But what exactly that is, only he may tell you.”
This was one of those moments when her response pulled open the floodgates for more questions, but Anna knew that it was no use to keep probing. So she only nodded and then Brethilwen sent her on her way with an encouraging smile. “Well, you better be off then. Don’t make the king wait.”
Her uneasiness did not wane on her way to Thranduil’s chambers with the whole palace being in an atmosphere of departure. This could not be good. And indeed Thranduil himself seemed to be in an absent mood, his mind already far away from here. He stood in the middle of his room, bent over a piece of parchment that had been spread on one of the bigger tables and that strongly resembled a map of some kind. He furrowed his brows, his eyes following the lines his bejewelled fingers traced on the map. His long velvet cloak of burgundy flowed around him, enveloping him in his usual aura of regal elegance. When he heard her enter the room he looked up, a mixture of preoccupation and gladness in his eyes.
He greeted her politely. “Come in my dear. I will not take up much of your time. But there is something I need to inform you about.” His chambers were not quiet like the last time she was here, but there was a busy rush of elves moving about the room with the king’s belongings as if they were to be packed away. In a far away corner she even caught a glimpse of perfectly polished black metal gleaming ominously in the twilight like a sinister omen.
His eyes followed her and he bade her to sit down on the familiar half-round bench in the alcove, the small tables in the room now being used as temporary storage for some of Thranduil’s personal possessions that were in transit to be stowed in elaborately decorated wooden trunks. Several of them had been placed along the walls, their open lids resembling gaping mouths, ready to devour whatever prey would get caught in their fangs.
“Please excuse the disarray, but you will have noticed that some preparations are taking place in the palace.” Thranduil picked up a pile of neatly folded pieces of cloth to hand them to one of the diligent servants, who immediately proceeded with it to the nearest chest and then the king took a seat beside her.
“Yes, I have.” She nodded, her level of apprehension rising.
“I am sure it has come to your knowledge that indeed the dragon has been killed, against all odds so it should seem. And now the Mountain lies deserted, but surely this will not last long. If it stays unattended, soon others will come and claim its riches. That is why I am preparing to set out with a company of my trusted warriors towards Erebor. We will depart tomorrow at dawn.”
“So soon?” Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Yes, of course. If our quest is to be crowned with success, speed is paramount. By now the news of Smaug’s death will have spread and we are not the only ones having an eye on that treasure.”
“But why is this so important to you? Why would you need more gold and jewels?” she blurted out and added provocatively: “I thought only dwarves and dragons were drawn to hoards of treasure.”
Choosing to ignore her unruliness he elaborated in a serious tone: “There are gems in this mountain that I very much desire to reclaim.” His eyes trailed off into the distance as if he were restoring an old memory from the depths of his mind. “A necklace of white gems, fashioned into the most wondrous work of art. These are the White Gems of Lasgalen I speak of, famed far and wide for their extravagant splendour. I myself designed a beautiful necklace and gave the gems into the hands of the Dwarven smiths as they are the most gifted amongst all in crafting exquisite jewellery. But when the necklace was finished they withheld it from me. The dwarves themselves wished to keep the treasure that was not theirs to keep. Now that the dwarves are gone and it rests buried deep inside the mountain I finally wish to bring it back into my possession.”
This revelation left her only modestly surprised, since she had already assumed something of that kind, having noticed that the king indeed was quite fond of precious stones. The irony that it was actually a necklace crafted by the dwarves was not lost on her. Still she did not quite see the urgency Thranduil displayed in this matter: “I see now why you hold a grudge against the dwarves, but could you not just have someone else fashion a different necklace?” She faced him with a frown: “It seems quite an enormous effort to reclaim one piece of jewellery.” Indeed he seemed to be rather preparing to go to war than to retrieve a lost necklace that supposedly lay alone and unguarded in an empty mountain.
Thranduil sighed, seeing as that he would have to elaborate more than he had expected on the motives of his plan. A flicker of impatience crossed his face as the air grew thicker with the constant shuffling of feet and bustling of voices and suddenly he rose from his seat.
“Leave us!” he ordered and all the servants abandoned their busy work and slipped quietly through the door one by one until there was only her and Thranduil left.
After a moment of silence Thranduil sat down again and turned to face her, his voice now solemn. He chose his words carefully:
“Those gems are precious to me beyond measure. Never can or will I ever forget this necklace nor will it ever be replaced.” His mind was caught in a far away place. “It was to be a gift for my wife. But she was never granted the joy to wear it.”
Anna’s heart just drowned in a bucket full of ice, her face a frozen mask as her mouth formed the words “I am so sorry, I did not know.” A lump in her throat swallowed whatever else she may have wanted to say.
Upon the sight of pain in her eyes, he resurfaced from his grievous recollections and his voice took on a pleading tone:
“I have to do this. I could not bear the thought of this necklace falling into someone else’s hands. For too long has it already been withheld from me. I know that it will never shine upon the breast of the one for whom it was intended, but it is the last thing on this earth that I can do for her. I could not save her from death, but at least I can try to recover what was supposed to be my gift for her.” There was a firmness in his voice that would not brook any dissent.
“Yes, of course. Do what you must.” She gave him a stiff nod, the demon of jealousy that she had thought defeated once again rearing its ugly head in her heart. “I will be prepared then for tomorrow morning.” But the silence that followed told her the bitter truth: she would not be going with him. When she looked up to him there was sorrow in his eyes.
“I am sorry, but there cannot be any other way. It would be too dangerous for you.” He was trying to keep his voice calm. “What if we indeed will be facing a war? The darkness has not been conquered yet, only the dragon is gone. I could not guarantee your safety.”
“But I do not want to stay behind!” she protested, her chest now firmly in the iron grip of despair. “There is nothing left here for me without you.” She felt the hot sting of tears in her eyes as she helplessly ran out of arguments. “And how can you be so sure that I would be safe here when you are gone? And when you are taking your army with you! Please, I promise that I would not be a burden.” She added in a small voice: “I just want to stay by your side.”
“I assure you that I will not leave you here unguarded.” Urgency overran his composure as he spoke: “You must understand. This is something that I must do on my own. Where I am going is not a place for you. I would not want to lead you into peril. It is important to me that you stay here, in safety.”
He leaned closer, strands of his hair casually brushing her arm. A wave of goosebumps rolled over her skin and she had to resist the urge to run her fingers through the silken tendrils, feeling their softness against her skin. She wanted to bury her hands in the abundance of his silver blonde cascades as she wrapped her arms around his neck and nestled her head against the hollow of his neck, letting herself fall into his tender embrace. The mere thought of this blissful delight loosened the dreadful noose around her chest, warmth flooding the very corners of her heart. But she could not lose herself in pointless daydreams, least of all now when he had just told her that he was going to leave. She pulled her arm away quickly and searched for his eyes only to find her own longing reflected in them. Suddenly he reached out for her hands, his slender fingers closing softly but with a firm grip around hers.
“Will you promise me to wait for my return?”
The steadfast grip of his hands both sent her heartbeat into a wild frenzy and provided her with a bastion of calm amidst her emotional storm. It took all the leftover remnants of her self-control to keep her voice steady as the warmth of his hands flowed into hers like the tide rolling in and claiming the lonely shores of her desperate heart.
“Can you promise that you will return?”
“I know that you will be waiting for me, so I will return.” He ran his thumbs softly across the back of her hands and in his eyes there was sincerity. “Gweston.”
Never before had he actually addressed her directly like this in Sindarin. She felt her resistance already melting away beneath the magic of his voice and his touch. There was no shield powerful enough in the entire realm that would guard her from the effect that he had on her. If only he knew how she felt. If only she could show him a glimpse of her heart. But the fear of making a wrong move that would push him away from her was paralysing, so she only stared at her entwined hands, unable to move or speak. When finally she forced her eyes away and looked up into his face she found his gaze also resting on her hands, the glimpse of a smile briefly lighting up his face as he took in the sight of her hands fitting perfectly into his. She wished this moment to last forever, but of course she knew that it could not. So she tried her best at putting the worries that were torturing her into meaningful words:
“But how can you know that? How can you be so sure that you will return? What if there is indeed a battle? What if you are …?” Her sentence remained unfinished, the simple thought of losing him stabbing her heart like a knife.
“You will have to trust me on this. It fills my heart with sorrow that I must leave, but I know that I will not rest until I have fulfilled what needs to be done. It will be easier for me if at least I can rest assured that you are out of harm’s way.”
The imploring tone in his voice tore at her heart and finally she gave him a small nod.
“If this is your wish, then so be it. I will stay here and wait for your return. Gweston.”
“Annon allen.” The corners of his lips curled into a grateful smile but a shadow of grief remained in his eyes.
She barely slept that night, not only because of the bustling noise in the halls of the king, but mainly because of the roaring sea that stormed inside her. In a few hours Thranduil would be leaving the palace with an army that seemed more than ready for combat, the king’s mind set to recover what was so precious to him that he was even willing to risk his life for it. She was no fool, after all she knew that Elves could indeed be killed in battle, so even if he had promised her his return, there remained a seed of doubt in her heart. But she was determined not to let it grow and instead would hold on to his words. After all they were all she had left of him while he was gone.
The next morning she did not have the strength to see him off, it would have torn her heart in two. All she wanted to do was hide in her room and fall asleep under as many sheets as possible only to wake up to Thranduil’s victorious return. But Brethilwen would not hear of it.
“I know that you wish for the king to stay here.“ She put her hand on Anna’s shoulder as she led her with an energetic stride from her room towards the busy hallways that echoed with a cacophony of sounds, the shuffling of thousands of feet, harsh clatter of metal and the polyphonic humming of exited voices. “But at least you have to go and see the exit of the king’s host for yourself. Believe me, my dear, it is a sight to behold.“
Anna trotted reluctantly alongside Brethilwen as she took her to one of the narrow bridges that spanned like a small gallery across the widest hallway close to the gates, so she could observe the whole scene from a vantage point.
“Now, here we will stay and watch,” and with a scrutinising frown she added “Do not let sadness prevail. If the king promised that he would return, then so it will be.” Anna tried to return her encouraging smile, but her mouth only managed something like a crooked caricature of a smile.
“Now look.” She pointed at the hallway below that was empty no longer.
It was an impressive sight indeed, the green banner of Thranduil leading on rows upon rows of elvish warriors in their armour of gold and brown with fanned helmets, their chainmail shirts of mottled gold sliding in and out of view as they marched. All of them equipped with expertly crafted longbows, a deadly weapon in the hands of the skilled elvish archers. Quivers filled to the brim with arrows hung from belts around theirs hips, and beautifully decorated long shields they carried in their hands as well as long spears. In the vanguard of his army there was Thranduil, and if ever there was someone worthy of the title knight in shining armour it would have been him. He stood out from everyone else with his regal black armour gleaming in the twilight, the most elegantly fashioned and possibly lethal twin swords sheathed in scabbards on either side of his body, a silver circlet crowning the pale blonde hair and a long dark grey cloak cascading from his shoulders. Anna could not take her eyes off him and Brethilwen gave her a small nudge: “I told you that you had to see this for yourself.” She only nodded, her fingers gripping the railing in front of her as the feeling of despair threatened to overcome her again.
As the king reached the gate it was pulled open at his command and the faint grey light of dawn poured into the hallways. Outside she could make out the blurry silhouette of Thranduil’s elk patiently awaiting the arrival of his master. “How long will it take them to reach the mountain?”
Brethilwen leaned closer trying to drown out the noise traveling up from below: “The fastest way would be of course by water, but there are not enough rafts or boats for the entire host, so they will have to take the slower way through the forest by foot. But do not forget my lady that we elves are lightfooted and even long marches do not strain us much. And the king has sent a great store of provisions ahead down the river. In a few days time they should already be at the bottom of Erebor.”
A glimmer of hope appeared on Anna’s gloomy horizon. “So maybe they will be able to come back soon?”
“Hopefully yes, if all goes well.” Brethilwen put on her most confident smile, but Anna’s attention was drawn to Thranduil as he lingered for a moment at the open gate and suddenly turned around, his eyes searching for her. When he had found her he raised his hand to his heart to bid her farewell. She was too far away to read the expression on his face, but his gesture alone filled her heart with affection. She reciprocated his motions and whispered “Navaer, Aran nín.”
And then the moment was gone and Thranduil turned around resolutely and passed through the gate, followed by his host and soon was out of her sight, swallowed by the early morning mist that lay on the forest like a shroud. She did not wish to linger any longer and bade Brethilwen to walk her back to her room. She did not object and as they made their way down from the gallery through the labyrinthine hallways there was still an incessant stream of elves heading towards the gate, so they took one of the smaller corridors back. Finally they reached the quiet area leading to the king’s chambers and her room and Brethilwen left her at her door.
“It is still very early in the morning. Maybe you wish to rest now for a while? I will be back around midday if this is all right with you?”
“Yes, that is fine,” she agreed, feeling the lack of last night’s sleep taking its toll on her now.
“Very well then.” She held the door for her and bade her good bye.
Once more her bed welcomed her with what she hoped would be a few hours of blissful oblivion. She pulled the sheets up to her chin, the image of Thranduil bidding her farewell both warming and crushing her heart. It seemed to her that once the gates would close behind Thranduil and his elven host all her hopes would go with him, leaving her empty heart behind in the dreadful darkness of uncertainty.
What if he never came back?
There would be nothing left for her here.
And she had nowhere else to go.