It took several days for the realisation to sink in that Thranduil was indeed gone. At first Anna was in denial and pretended that he was still there, just somehow out of sight, and she tried to uphold her normal daily routine. But day by day it was harder to actually fool herself and she had to accept her own folly. The king was gone and with him almost half of the population of the palace and the Woodland Realm. Besides Thranduil himself, Legolas and Tauriel, who had been away for several weeks already, she missed Faeldir and Amardir the most, after all they had been the sweetest and most charming companions for countless afternoons. She had not even had a chance to say good bye to them, which made their absence even more aggrieving. What if they never returned? She carried their poem with her wherever she went, a crumpled piece of paper in the depths of her pocket, just like she did with Thranduil’s cloth. The halls were eerily quiet and the few voices that remained were hushed and rather subdued as the days dragged on with no news from the Mountain. Although she assumed that at least no news meant good news and that Thranduil was still alive, but the uncertainty was slowly but steadily draining her emotionally.
Countless times her feet carried her up to the same gallery where she had watched Thranduil bid her farewell, reliving this last moment over and over again and always hoping for the gates to be pulled open and on a wave of bright light seeing the figure of Thranduil return in victory. But the gates remained shut and no light and no king were anywhere in sight.
Miserable was how she felt, as if her heart had been torn out and replaced by an empty shell that still kept her alive but had no life in it. She barely slept and skipped food more than once and if Brethilwen had not insisted that she get up and eat she would have spent her days in bed waiting for doom to befall.
A shadow crept into the emptiness of her heart, sneaking in like a stealthy thief and settling inside with the poison of doubt. First it was just a small voice in the back of her head, scorning her for being a fool and having stayed behind, when she really should have ignored all orders and simply sneaked somehow into Thranduil’s army. Although it was totally unclear to her how on earth she should have managed that. But the voice steadily raised its volume and kept insisting that she would not see Thranduil again if she just stayed in Mirkwood and waited for him like she had promised.
The fact that she had now so little distraction from her dark thoughts did not help in lifting her spirit. On the contrary, it rather encouraged her dwelling on all the possible heart-wrenching scenarios her mind could come up with. She had become an expert in picturing Thranduil’s violent death in all its mind-boggling variations. Images of fierce battles and deadly combat tortured her head and always, always there was the moment when she saw Thranduil being pierced by one of the orc’s filthy scimitars, his limp body being pulled down without mercy from his elk and dragged through the muddy battleground by those evil creatures and then —, then she forced her mind to stop. She refused to think the unthinkable, she would not allow this to happen. That is what she told herself. And for a while it worked, but not for long. Her imagination was her worst enemy after all. She had no experience in wars of any kind but she had read enough depressing recollections in the library to have a quite clear idea of the merciless slaughter that was war. Death took, regardless of age or status, Men, Dwarves and even Elves. After all that had been the fate of Oropher and Thranduil must have known very well the danger he was walking into.
And then still another feeling grew inside her heart, although she tried hard to keep it down and quiet. But it would not shut up, no matter how skilfully she tried to play deaf and its venom crept on and on until all the hopes that she thought safe in her heart were overshadowed by doubt. Jealousy was back with a triumphant return shaking hands with despair and a firm determination to bring her down and shatter the trust she had put in his promise. If Thranduil truly had feelings for her he would not have left her behind, it whispered in her head. And if the recovery of this necklace meant so much to him that he was even willing to risk his own life for it there could be no doubt as to whom his heart truly belonged. She scorned herself for her delusion of having thought that she could ever have a space in the Elvenking’s heart. After all, what were a few weeks in comparison with the endless eternity that was his lifetime? But then if she listened really closely there was still another timid voice in her heart whispering words of confidence. And there were Thranduil’s eyes looking at her with affection and his hands reaching out for hers and their warmth filling her heart with the promise of his return. But those patches of clear skies lessened as the days of loneliness grew longer and the clouds of dread thickened.
And so the shadows closed in on her from all sides and the darkness found its way into her heart. She had her own war to fight, alone and defenceless, and slowly but surely she was driven into a dark corner that was a dead end. And the only way to avoid defeat seemed to take the offensive. Otherwise she would go mad with the infernal trio of despair, uncertainty and jealousy.
From the various seeds of doubt, watered so devotedly by her heart’s despair, there grew a plan in her mind. First it was only the tender sapling of a very vague idea, but over the course of the next week it blossomed into a vigorous sprout that she nourished and cherished with a passionate dedication. And then everything was clear to her:
She had to go after Thranduil and find him. It was the only way.
She could not bear the waiting and the uncertainty any more and her heart would not be able to hold her caged emotions any longer. If she did not want to be devoured by her own despair then searching for the one she loved was the only option. She needed clarification and she was going to get it, either way or another.
Once she had made up her mind there was no more going back.
Finally she felt that she could break out of the prison of lethargy that had held her captive since Thranduil’s departure and her spirit rose with the anticipation of being able to be close to him again. New life filled her heart and there was a glimmer of hope on her dim horizon.
The only thing that pained her heart about it was that she could not share her giddy anticipation with Brethilwen, after all she was the last confidant that remained by her side. But she knew that if she told her about her plans Brethilwen would try everything in her power to dissuade her from her scheme. After all Anna would be breaking her promise to the king if she proceeded with this. But she pushed that thought to the very back of her head, she liked thinking of it more as her own quest, its purpose being to find Thranduil or perishing in the attempt to get to him. She could not stand idly by while he might be facing death in battle. After all she had nothing to lose. She had no home and nowhere else to go, Thranduil was the one thing that kept her heart beating in this strange world.
She needed to act cunningly if she was going to go through with her plan, it was paramount that no one found out about it, because surely Thranduil had left everyone instructed that she was not to leave the palace under any circumstances. So her preparations had to be carried out carefully, not attracting any unwanted attention. Her mind was racing with all the steps that needed to be taken into account. She had to travel light, because it would be too obvious if anyone saw her walking around like a pack mule. But since it was winter, she needed appropriate clothing, food and water was equally important, maybe she could even snatch a knife or dagger to carry with her. She was by no means a fighter, but a small weapon was better than none at all. After all these woods were dangerous and full of strange creatures. And last but not least she would need a map. This was by far the easiest task, so she would tackle it first. Thanks to her previous visits to the library she knew exactly where they were kept and almost no one used the library during these days, so she should not have any problems sneaking out one piece of parchment. The hardest part of her whole endeavour was the actual act of leaving the palace. The trapdoor in the wine cellar was out of the question for obvious reasons. Not even a mouse would be able to sneak through there. So the main gate was her only option. But that presented her with another pile of insurmountable obstacles. The gates were always guarded and only ever opened for brief intervals and once they were shut magic sealed them for good. But she would worry about it when she got to that point. One step at a time. Small steps. Hobbit steps. She smiled inwardly at the thought that she was not so different from Bilbo, who had spent so many weeks like a stealthy burglar in Thranduil’s halls and she only wished that she would actually possess his secret power or whatever it was that had helped him stay undetected. But the smile vanished from her face as fast at it had appeared when she remembered that Bilbo was possibly not alive any more and sadness filled her heart at the thought that she had sent him and the dwarves to their graves. But she could not let grief paralyse her, her target was set and she had to stay focused if she was ever going to succeed.
First things first. The map, obviously, because she needed to know where she was heading after all. Her excursion to the library was uneventful and she found what she was looking for faster than expected. On a neatly organised pile in one of the main rooms there lay several maps in different sizes and varying degrees of detail and she chose the one that suited her purpose best, covering the north-eastern region of Mirkwood and extending towards Lake Esgaroth and the Lonely Mountain. She folded the parchment and slid it in her pocket to then wander aimlessly further into the depths of the library until she came to a halt in front of the restricted section. She had not really thought on going there, but her feet had carried her here and now she stood in front of the threshold once more sorely reminded of Thranduil’s absence. Her eyes lingered on the rows of books and memories resurfaced in her head, both sorrowful and joyful of that evening when he showed her this special place, his Queen’s refuge. She extended her arms, expecting the invisible barrier to prevent her hands from going through, but to her surprise she did not meet any resistance at all. The magic had been lifted. If only for her or for everyone remained unclear, but she would not miss her chance to revisit this quiet hideout one more time. Maybe this was the last time that she would ever come here. She strolled through the narrow aisles, allowing her fingers to graze along the spines of the books like she had done when she had been there with Thranduil, but then the subtle blue light pulled her magically towards the back of the room, leading her into the hidden grotto, where Thranduil had opened up his heart to her for the first time.
Steady purling of water filled the air, the placid aura inviting the weary to depose of all sorrows. Her eyes were drawn to the pool in the middle, the turquoise surface lying in perfect stillness like a mirror before her. She sat down on one of the benches beside it, but something held her back from dipping her hands inside like she had done last time, it was as if a magical spell lay on the water, the motionless liquid somehow eerily daunting. But her curiosity anyway drew her closer and she bent her head over the edge to peek into the depths of the pool.
At first the water appeared murky as if there was a dense mist floating beneath the surface, not allowing her to see neither the ground nor anything else in the water. But suddenly the fog dissipated in soft swirls and gave way to clearer waters and a delicate outline appeared in the water, barely visible at first. She squinted her eyes in an attempt to identify what it was that she was actually seeing, and from the depths a figure started to take shape, emerging ghostly white and with an ethereal glow, holding her heart in anxious suspense in between fear and wonder. As the nebulous waters receded towards the edges, the middle of the pool began to glow with a blinding white light and the distinct shape of an animal emerged beneath the surface, the contours now clearly outlining the majestic body of a white stag. It first appeared to be cantering leisurely in the depths of the pool, but then it stopped, suddenly made aware of her presence and turned its head gracefully towards the surface, its snow white antlers spreading wide like boughs beneath the smooth surface. And then it looked at her through crystal clear eyes of perfect blue.
She knew those eyes. Eyes that could tell a lie from the truth. Eyes that looked to the bottom of her soul. She froze in shock at the sight. It could not be. This was impossible! He could not be here. He was far away!
Wordless was this precious moment of silent understanding as her eyes were held captive by his attentive gaze. Melancholy and wisdom spoke through them, but the quiet sadness in their endless sea of blue made her heart ache.
How much she missed him! How much she wished to be near him again! The pain of being separated from him and not knowing if she would ever see him again filled her heart with dread and for an instant she felt a desire to reach out for the deer’s face that seemed to be only inches away from her hands. But the fear of breaking this magical moment and scaring the animal away held her back and she only stared at it quietly.
Her fingers tightly clutched the stony edges of the pool as her emotions overwhelmed her and tears flooded her eyes.
“Please, come back to me. I miss you so much.” And then all her grief broke through: “Every day I wait for you. Every day I walk to the gate and look for a sign of your return. But every day I wait in vain and the gate does not open for you.”
The stag reared its ears in curiosity. There was a growing lump in her throat that threatened to drown out her voice as his silent gaze lingered on her, the black pit of guilt opening up inside her as she was reminded of the plan she was about to carry out. “I try so hard to keep my promise, but I don’t know how much longer I can bear this.” She closed her eyes in shame. “Forgive me that I cannot be strong like you.”
And then tears fell from her eyes into the water, the tiny droplets distorting the surface, breaking the smooth reflection into small rippling circles that swiftly raced towards each other shattering the image like glass into a million pieces and then in the blink of an eye the stag was gone, disappearing back into the depths of the pool and the image vanished from her sight. The silvery glow faded away and nothing of the ghostly impression remained on the glimmering turquoise surface. It was to be only a memory. A tender memory that took refuge in her aching heart.
On the way back to her room she was in inner turmoil. Those eyes had looked into her heart only to find the chasm of despair that threatened to devour all the narrow pinnacles of confidence that she had managed to guard from the flood of darkness. And soon those would be drowned too in a sea of hopelessness. What if this vision was a warning? What if Thranduil was in danger? She had to make haste and pursuit her plans with even more perseverance. There was no time to waste. Any day could be a day too late.
Hence she decided to speed up her preparations, focusing on the next relatively innocuous step, which was to get her hands on food for her journey. She knew for a fact that the elves had some highly nutritious way-bread which they called lembas and she had seen a good amount of it left behind in the kitchens after Thranduil’s host departed for Erebor. If she took only a few pieces at a time no one would notice and she could have a full store for several weeks - that was her worst case scenario - by the end of the week, which was the date she had set herself. By then it would be almost three weeks since Thranduil was gone and her hopes of him returning alive were dwindling by the day. The kitchens were relatively quiet these days, now with the king gone there were no lavish feasts, so it was an easy task for her to sneak her necessary provisions from the shelves in the kitchens.
Next she turned to finding a place where to hide all those forbidden possessions. Obviously it could not be her room, because Brethilwen had surely kept track of all her modest belongings and it would be suspicious if she discovered piles of lembas and clothes or even weapons in her room. On her strolls through the palace she had noticed that in a remote corner close to the gates one of the pillars had actually a small alcove beneath the coiling vines that seemed like the perfect hiding place for a small backpack and a bundle of clothes. It was conveniently hidden from view and no one in the palace seemed to have even noticed its existence. She made a mental note of bringing her provisions here step by step, so she could have everything ready by the end of the week. The discovery of this little spot had given her spirit a lift, but still she needed to gather a thick cloak as well as boots that were suitable for winter and then there remained the challenge of getting a hold of a weapon.
The next morning she woke up to a surprise. Luck was with her or so it should appear, unless she had an unknown benefactor, which seemed strangely probable after all. Someone had placed a bundle on her table. Whatever it was, it lay neatly wrapped in a dark green piece of cloth beside the food Brethilwen had brought for breakfast. Despite her hunger she ignored the food and eagerly investigated the lengthy package. It was heavier than she had anticipated and suspiciously long. Her heart almost stopped as she unfolded the layers of cloth revealing beneath them a beautiful elven sword. It gleamed bright in the dimly lit chamber, the silver surface perfectly polished and its curved blade beautifully decorated with sublime floral garlands etched into the surface that wound themselves up and around the pommel and the elegant hilt. It was quite small and lightweight and when her hand closed around the smooth and cold metal of the delicate hilt it fit like a glove. Her eyes were wide in awe at the stunning beauty of this weapon as she gave it some tentative swings. It was as exquisite as it was deadly. This was no mere soldier’s sword, it looked like it had been forged for the king except that its size was perfect for her. But her admiration was cut short by a knock at the door. Hastily she wrapped the sword back into its cloth and slid it under her bed before she assumed an unsuspicious position at the table pretending that she was actually having breakfast.
“Come in,” she called slightly out of breath trying to conceal her excitement at this unexpected gift. Whoever had brought her this must somehow be aware of her plans and must have access to the king’s armoury. But why would anyone in the palace want to help her in her endeavour?
Brethilwen’s head peered through the door, a smile on her face. “I see that you are finally eating again.”
Anna nodded obediently and then Brethilwen slipped quietly into the room, closing the door behind her. She took a seat beside her but when she looked at the food she raised an eyebrow and frowned “But you have not touched anything! My dear, what am I to do with you?” She threw Anna a reproachful glance and sighed. “The king would not approve of this, you know.”
“Well, the king is not here, is he?” Anna countered stubbornly. “And for all I know he may never come back. It has been so long already.” She pushed the tray away from her and stared at the table in front of her, working hard to keep her countenance.
Brethilwen rested her hand on her shoulder, her voice finding a calming tone. “Do not lose hope. I know it is not easy for you, but you cannot waste yourself in constant grief.”
Anna bit her lower lip and looked at Brethilwen from the corner of her eye, her emotions lying bare beneath her attentive glance.
“I may be only a servant, but I am not blind. I see the despair in your eyes and the desire in your heart to go and find the king.” She was going to mouth a protest, but Brethilwen bade her to be silent as she went on: “I know that you feel abandoned and lost. But I want you to know that you are not alone.”
She lowered her head in shame and sadness and then Brethilwen pulled her into an unexpected embrace and for a moment she allowed the comfort of affectionate touch to fill the dreadful emptiness in her heart. Snuggled against her shoulder all the worries that she had kept so tightly tucked in shook off their ties and burst forth in a shower of unanswered questions.
“But what am I to do? How do I know what is right? What choice do I make?” She was sorely reminded of the mess she had gotten herself into with Bilbo and the dwarves and were afraid of making the same mistake all over again.
“No one can tell you what you must do. Only you can.” Her grey eyes lingered on Anna’s distraught face with empathy. “You must find the answers to those questions in your heart. And whatever decision you take is yours and yours alone.” And with a knowing smile she added: “And if I am not mistaken you have made up your mind already.”
Anna blushed and threw her a surprised look, embarrassed at her thoughts apparently being so obvious.
“Don’t give me that look.” A slightly amused smile passed Brethilwen’s face as she released Anna from her embrace and tucked back a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I know you have. And I will not try to dissuade you from your plans, because I know that your wish to find the king is stronger in you than any means I might have of convincing you otherwise.”
A grateful smile dawned on her face now that it was also clear to her to whom she owed her gift.
“And I thought I was being clever in disguising my agenda.” She shook her head at her own naivety, but there was relief in her heart at not having to hide her plans at least from Brethilwen anymore.
“I have been around for quite a while. So not much will stay hidden from me. And I know a strong will when I see one.” She raised her eyebrows in amusement, adding in a more serious tone: “But please be careful. I have grown quite fond of you.” With a soft squeeze of her hand she rose from her seat and made for the door. “I will leave you to your breakfast then.” She tilted her head sideways as she reached for the door-knob. “And you better finish your food. You will need all the strength that you can get.”
Anna responded with a well-behaved nod that send Brethilwen on her way with a satisfied smile.
With Brethilwen now being in on her secret her preparations rolled smoothly towards their completion and by the end of the week she had everything that she needed. Brethilwen had provided her with a thick travel cloak, matching gloves and soft black leather boots to protect her from the cold. Everything had been neatly packed into a small backpack, she even had received a black leather belt with a scabbard for her sword and all that remained was to wait for the perfect moment to leave. Brethilwen would not be able to help her there, because surely the type of magic that sealed the doors would lie beyond her abilities. On the day before her planned escape she had already stuffed the backpack inside the alcove close to the gate, making sure that it was well out of view.
She had made it a habit to walk to the gate every day, hoping that eventually Thranduil would come back, but now her mind was set to wait for the right moment that would allow her to sneak out of the palace unnoticed.
The following morning she made her way towards the gate as usual, checking that her backpack was still in place when suddenly the gates were being pulled open with a creaking noise. She had only seconds to decide, so she quickly pulled out the cloak and snatched her backpack, waiting with a hammering heartbeat in the shadow of the column for the right moment. Only a few guards were watching the gate and most of them had gotten already used to see her linger around, so they did not really pay attention to her, besides their eyes were geared towards the gates and not her. She sneaked carefully closer as the doors fully swung open, hiding her backpack from view and her sword diligently stowed away under her tunic. Her hands were clammy with sweat now that all that she had been looking forward to was actually about to become real. She slid her hands in her pockets making sure that her poem, Thranduil’s cloth as well as the map were there and then she was all set. She took a deep breath and while the guards were distracted by welcoming whoever was entering the palace and standing with their backs to her, she sneaked past them like a stealthy thief, her eyes fixed on the bridge ahead. The forest lay in peaceful white perfection before her, the treetops covered in freshly fallen snow and the ground beneath spreading like a pristine rug of glittery white, only a line of lonely tracks cutting through the middle.
She pressed herself against the wings of the gate, the cloak pulled tightly around her and then only a few more steps separated her from the outside world. She peered back over her shoulder and it seemed that the person that had arrived wrapped in a thick travel cloak was some sort of messenger as the guards all welcomed him heartily and surrounded him in an animated conversation, not heeding their surrounding. But it was too late now to turn around, she had already made her choice. And it was now or never, stay or leave. If she turned around to find out what news were being delivered she would lose her only chance of leaving the palace. And that meant her only chance of finding Thranduil. Her heart was beating so loud she was sure the guards would soon hear it and drag her back in. She could not linger any longer, now was the moment to decide. She looked back no more and moved ahead in swift silence.
Once she stepped over the threshold her feet sank into the soft snow and the cold stung through the thin shoes she was wearing. She quickly made for the corner on the outside of the terrace to wait there hidden from view until the gate was being pulled shut again. And then she would change into more fitting clothes. The voices of the guards and the visitor slowly faded away as they all entered the palace together and then the gates were being pulled shut, the thump of the heavy stone door muffled by the freshly fallen snow.
This was it, the moment of no return.
Thranduil’s palace lay behind her and the world was now ahead.