Under the Tree
August 25, T.A. 2941 Mirkwood
Unfamiliar voices in a strange language rose Anna from her sleep. Her drowsiness faded away instantly as she heard them approaching, whoever they were. She scrambled to her feet, hastily brushing off leaves and earth that clung to her clothes. This did not feel right. She had to stay hidden. Instinctively she pressed herself against the mighty oak behind her, the bark rough and warm under her fingers, but one peek around the wide tree trunk was enough for her to realise that she was no longer where she had fallen asleep. The rustling of leaves had made her drowsy and carried her into a deep slumber, but something felt now altogether strange. These woods were not the same, they were way too crooked and gloomy to be growing near her home. Nothing seemed familiar except the tree she was holding on to. Don’t panic, she said to herself, there had to be an explanation for this. There always was a logical solution to everything. But first she had more pressing matters to attend to.
Closer and closer the people came and with them the galloping of hooves and floating above everything else soft singing voices. She held her breath as she shrunk against the tree, but Anna’s heart was beating like a drum, surely they would hear her and drag her from her hiding place and then she would never make it back home. She closed her eyes as if that would make her somehow invisible as the trail of people passed just behind her tree. It felt like nature itself had burst into song and was now filling her heart with images of far away places she had never seen, but somehow felt strangely drawn to, like a home she had never known it existed. The tree itself seemed to come alive under her touch, as if it were joining the tune, a song as old as the world itself. Her heart was suddenly overflowing with a yearning that came from an unknown place deep inside her. She was inexplicably pulled towards it with its ethereal voices, but somehow she was frozen to the spot, her legs wouldn’t move and so the floating harmonies slowly faded, an echo of themselves, still filling the air but ever fainter as they moved past her tree and deeper into the forest.
Relief and sadness mingled in her heart as she dared open her eyes again and allowed herself a quick glance around the tree. It was an extraordinary sight indeed, strange people dressed in long elaborate gowns and with flowing hair well past their shoulders, bows and arrows slung around their backs, their horses gliding along effortlessly, a graceful picture of both elegance and melancholy. If she wouldn’t have known it better she would have said they were Elves, but of course that was not possible, how could it?
“Don’t move!” A commanding voice behind her told her that she was not alone. Of course it was foolish of her to have thought that her presence would go unnoticed, and by the sound of it her captor was more inclined to be hostile than friendly towards her.
“Please,” she raised her arms to show that she was unarmed. “Don’t hurt me.”
“That remains to be seen.”
The stern voice was now closer behind her and she could feel what was unmistakably the tip of a sword against her back. Her heart was beating so fast she feared it would burst and she broke out in a cold sweat. This was not good, not good at all.
“Let me go, please!” she whispered almost inaudibly, her throat dry.
“Not until you have answered my questions.” Calm and assertive was the voice and its deep and melodic tone stirred up an intriguing mixture of fear and curiosity inside her.
“Turn around. And don’t try to run away, you would not get far.”
This condescending superiority would have otherwise instantly titillated her spirit of contradiction. But she was admittedly at a point of slight disadvantage, so she recurred to her right to remain silent. Stay focused, don’t do anything rash and everything will be all right, she said to herself as she slowly turned around.
Nothing prepared her for what she saw: a vision from another world was more like it. She had never seen anything or anyone so beautiful. He stood before her tall and slender with broad shoulders and the athletic physique of a skilled fighter, his pointed ears unmistakably identifying him as one of the Elves. He was draped in an ornate brocade robe of ash grey with tiny speckles of pearly white, a silver circlet and bejewelled fingers suggesting a noble descent, his long pale blonde hair glowing like the moonlight illuminates the darkness of night, ice blue eyes like the cold of a winter morning gazing intently at her.
“Am I dead?” was the only thing she blurted out.
The slightest of smiles passed his otherwise unyielding face: “No, not that I am aware of; not yet at least.”
He held his sharp blade advanced keeping her at a distance and circled around her slowly with the curiosity of a predator examining his prey. Anna could barely breathe and even less think straight as she felt herself under his piercing gaze being carefully assessed and evaluated. There was a heavy silence as he paced around her with measured steps, his eyes lingering on her longer than what she felt comfortable with.
“So, tell me: who are you and what are you doing in these lands?” his tone now slightly more nonchalant as he seemed to have concluded that she was no immediate threat. He sheathed his sword, crossed his arms and looked at her expectantly.
“I don’t know. I mean, I—I am no one.” She was trying to keep her wits together, but her brain seemed to have decided otherwise, gaping black holes opening up where there had former been a sharp mind. She struggled to make sense of her awkward situation while hoping to act as unsuspecting as possible. Something she failed miserably at.
“Well, no one of importance at least,” she said with a crooked smile. With rising panic she realised that she could not even recall her name anymore. This would not end well for her.
“And I have no idea how I got here.” Maybe if she threw some questions at him he would forget his inquiry? Well, it was worth a try. He did not look evil enough to want to kill her right away.
“What is this place? Some sort of magical forest? And who are you and why were you pointing your sword at me?”
The elf arched his eyebrows ever so slightly and she immediately regretted her somewhat uncontrolled outburst. He seemed more amused though than offended.
“I believe I am the one asking the questions here, but to partially satisfy your curiosity: yes it is a forest and you might find magic within it if you look well. But it is also a dangerous place, so you are well-advised not to be roaming around alone. Besides, we do not suffer strangers in our lands these days.”
With these last words he bent down towards her, a cold glare in his eyes and she instinctively took a step back until her hands felt the rough surface of the tree trunk behind her and there was nowhere else for her to go.
“So, I am asking you again: who are you and why are you here? And believe me, I am not here to play games.”
He straightened himself, drumming his fingers delicately against the hilt of his sword. But his towering presence alone was intimidating enough to make her knees weak and her cheeks flush bright red in anxious embarrassment. She averted her eyes, staring at a spot right beside his shoulder, while muttering an unintelligible apology.
“I cannot hear you. Speak up please. Or do I need to use my sword again?” There was a malice in his voice as if he was enjoying himself quite a lot more than she felt appropriate.
“No, no! Please!” she was quick to answer. The last thing she needed was to get this volatile stranger to point his blade at her again. Come on, think, think! She needed to come up with a logical explanation of who she was and why she was here in this most unlikely of all places, something that would be much easier if her intellect had not deserted her at the speed of galloping horses. So she went for the next best explanation that she could think of, all the while talking to his shoulder rather than his face.
“I will be honest with you. I come from far away and I was travelling to my friend’s place when I got lost here in this forest. I am just an ordinary person, please, you have to believe me. I actually write books for children, so I am really nice and not dangerous and I did not mean to offend you in any way. So please would you just let me go so I can continue with my journey.” She congratulated herself on her short but witty story, particularly the part about the children’s books, hoping to have found his soft spot. Oh, how wrong she was!
His face darkened: “I believe your journey ends here. You will go no further.”
Then everything was but a blur. In an instant he had drawn his sword, pointing the silvery blade directly at her heart. Anna froze in shock, her breath stuck in her throat as he dragged the sword up her chest deliberately slow until the cold metal hovered right above the pulsating vein in her neck.
“Don’t lie to me! I have no mercy with liars,” he growled at her. A dangerous glint was in his eyes, a relentless demand for answers, his mouth twisted in anger. Anna’s fingers dug into the bark behind her, looking for a hold so she would not be swept away by her agonising fear. She only stared at him, her eyes wide and her lips trembling. So this would be her last moment, it flashed through her head. She would die at the hands of a mysterious elf, far away from home and no one would ever know what had happened to her.
“I—I,” she stammered, unable to form a coherent sentence with the abyss of death opening up before her.
He narrowed his eyes, holding the sword advanced with measured precision. “I am warning you,” he said and his voice had gone dangerously low. “You are at my mercy now, a human trespassing these lands, and you are just one syllable away from being a dead one.”
She felt the sharp sting of tears rise in her eyes, cold sweat crawling all over her skin. “Please stop,” she pleaded, a rising lump in her throat choking her voice.
But she had awoken something inside him, dangerous and dark, an enigmatic power beyond her human existence, both awe-inspiring and terrible to behold.
“When you are prepared to tell me the truth, I will be prepared to let you go. Until then you are mine.”
His crystal blue eyes bore into hers and in a moment beyond time she lost herself in his eternity, endless, cold and beautiful like starlight in the darkness of night. And something in those depths suddenly floated to the surface, a trace of sorrow and grief that hit her straight at heart, pulling her in.
“But I need to go back,” she protested weakly, still mesmerised by his gaze and kept in check by his sword.
“I do not think so,” he said, retreating the blade and stepping away from her. “You are coming with me now. And there will be no dissent.”
Anna still didn’t dare to move as if he had turned her to stone with his gaze.
“I promise that I will not hurt you if you follow me willingly.” Seeing the doubt in her eyes he added: “You have my word.”
Anna’s heart was still racing as adrenalin shot through her veins, her mind trying to grasp the meaning of these recent events. Her whole body was shaking, her hands glued to the tree behind her and her knees threatening to give in, but with the last shreds of composure she was able to pull herself together and manage to stand up straight.
“Promise?” she croaked, her voice a mere shadow of itself.
“Yes,” he said, sheathing his blade, and when he drew himself up to his full height she could not help but think that he looked nothing short of a king.
She pondered her options, but she had to admit to herself that she was seriously lost and trying to escape was futile: she had no idea where she was and in an ironic twist of fate this daunting warrior was apparently the closest she had to help her out of her predicament. Despite his menacing appearance there was something alluring about him. More than one dark secret seemed to loom behind this haughty facade.
“Have you made your choice?” His voice had returned to its initial calm aloofness while his eyes still bore the remnants of an icy glare.
Anna pushed all those voices in her head that screamed ‘No!’ to the back of her mind and gave him a small nod. “Yes. I will go with you.” Maybe she could still find a way to escape. She needed time to think, process all this. Then she might be able to see clearer. “But I have one request,” she added boldly.
“And what is that?” A shadow of impatience flickered over his face while his posture remained still and motionless like the surface of a frozen lake.
“I will go with you, but I will not have you tie me up like a prisoner.”
She threw him a sideways glance, preparing herself for another outbreak of wrath. With an almost inaudible sigh he replied: “Very well then. So be it. But I will hold you to your word. And if you try to run, I will not be gentle with you.” His words, though softly spoken, were a scarcely veiled threat should she try to defy him. “Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Her answer was barely a whisper, but a small smile of satisfaction around his lips told her he had heard her clear enough.
He took her by her elbow and led her away from the tree and through a narrow pathway lined by a dense thicket of shrubs and scattered blueberries into a small clearing surrounded by gnarled oak trees and sweeping beeches. And there along the far edge across the lush grass she saw it: an enormous elk with antlers as wide as the branches of a tree, leisurely grazing while awaiting the return of its master. If she needed any more proof that she was not anywhere near home, well this was the last piece of evidence. Never ever had she seen an animal more likely to have been extracted from a fairy-tale than this.
“Oh!” was all she said as she was led towards this creature, irrefutably impressive and undeniably graceful despite its immense size. Sensing the presence of its master it raised its majestic head and started trotting towards them.
“Wait, you are not telling me that we are riding on this— this giant elk?!”
Anna’s eyes darted from the colossal mass of brown fur back to the elf by her side. She stopped in her tracks and squeezed his arm a little too tight. Her incredulous stare brought a condescending smile to his face as he turned towards her: “I reassure you that this animal of mine will not do you any harm. It will carry us both safely.”
She swallowed hard trying to not let her anxiety show too much as the elk stopped in front of its master bowing its head low in a gesture of reverence. She caught a glimpse of tenderness in the stranger’s eyes as he caressed the animal, softly stroking the thick brown fur between the antlers and murmuring words in a foreign language she did not understand. After giving the elk an encouraging pat he took the reins, beckoned her to him and pointed at the stirrups.
“You will go first.” Seeing the hesitation in her face he added “This is an order and I expect it to be followed. Do not stretch my patience, as it is wearing thin already.”
“But I have never…I don’t know how to do this,” she stuttered.
He offered her his hand. “I will help you.”
She took it and his slender fingers closed tightly around hers and while she reached for the saddle he pushed her up with his other hand firmly against her lower back until she was securely seated. She was so far up from the ground that she felt like floating in the air, almost brushing the branches of the nearest tree, her feet dangling high above the stirrups. With lithe elegance and effortless ease he brought himself up into the saddle right behind her.
Once they were both seated he leaned towards her: "One more thing: I promised that I would not tie your hands, but I must insist to blindfold you." Sensing an outburst of protest from her side he chose his words with adamant determination:
“This is non-negotiable. My palace lies well hidden deep inside the heart of this forest. And I do wish for it to remain this way.”
She turned her head sideways, her eyes wide in surprise: “Your palace? Who are you then? Will you not at least give me your name now that I am coming with you?”
He considered her request, his bearing proud and unyielding:
“I am Thranduil Oropherion, King of the Woodland Realm. And this is my kingdom. So: my lands, my rules.”
And with those words he reached into his robe and pulled out a thin and delicate cloth of the same dark grey and silver to cover her eyes. He tied it with a tight knot behind her head and darkness surrounded her.
Thus deprived of her power of sight she felt her remaining senses suddenly sharpened. Her hands stroked the elk’s coarse mane, filling her with a strange feeling of comfort. The smell of wood, earth and a distinct musky scent wafted around her, a swirling mixture of memories long forgotten and wishes not yet granted. She felt dizzy and confused: with her sense of direction gone the loss of home weighed even heavier on her heart. Searching for a hold she leaned against the chest of the Elvenking and even through the layers of both of their clothes she could feel the rhythm of his heartbeat slow and steady against her back, while her own was racing wild, pumping frantically like an obnoxious drum. She feared that she would either faint or fall or worse: both, possibly in that order. He must have sensed her despair, trembling like a leaf and clinging to the saddle a little too tight. In a gesture both possessive and protective he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her tightly against him. Warmth flowed through her like the golden rays of the afternoon sun after the passing of a thunderstorm.
“Don’t let go, please!” was all she said.
“I won’t,” he murmured into her hair.
Both of them smiled without the other one knowing.
And thus began her unexpected journey.