Tender Feelings and Little Secrets
A gentle touch on her cheek awoke Anna from her slumber. At first she was reluctant to open her eyes, wishing to hold on to the last threads of golden dreams her mind had woven out of affectionate glances and warm embraces.
“Adaneth,” the fingers against her skin were now accompanied by a soft voice sinking into the fading clouds of her dreams. “Wake up. It is nearly dawn and we still have a long way ahead.”
A muffled grumbling was her only answer, the covers too soft and the images too beautiful to be exchanged for the cold of winter. She shifted around trying to slide deeper under the covers hoping to evade the unwelcome intruder into her snuggly cocoon.
“It is time. You must rise now.”
The voice was insistent and wouldn’t go away, no matter how much she pretended not to hear it and sliding down any lower wasn’t an option as she felt the searing heat of fire creeping up dangerously close to her toes. But only when a hand tugged with determination at her shoulder she finally stirred and reluctantly willed her eyes open.
The first thing she saw was a giant heap of silvery cloth blocking her line of vision and when she slowly pulled the cloak from her eyes the outline of a pair of thighs, stretched out beside her, came in focus. Her eyes followed the delicate floral pattern of the light grey robe that enveloped the body’s slender form, travelling upwards across dried bloodstains and small tears in the fabric, over the perfect line of clasps running up the chest like silver beads, coming to rest on that familiar spider brooch. By the time her eyes had reached the tempting curve of the elegant neck a small smile dawned on her face. She knew what would come into sight next: A determined jawline, perfectly shaped lips with an enticing gap in between them, and then under those heavy brows she would finally meet the eyes of her dreams just instants ago. So it was real and suddenly waking up didn’t seem so bad after all.
“Mmorng,” she mumbled into the thick folds, her mouth not really ready for anything beyond some unintelligible syllables.
“Well, good morning it is to you too,” Thranduil said with a smirk on his face as he gently pushed aside the layers of heavy fabric under which half of her face was still buried. She squinted up to him through sleepy eyes, although the light of dawn was only a somewhat dreary shade of grey, a drawn out yawn accompanying her lazy attempt at getting her body in motion.
He tilted his head sideways to get a better look at her face. “May I remind you that you were stubbornly adamant about not needing any rest, and look at you now: the one that didn’t want to sleep! I’m barely able to wake you from your slumber.” The strands of his hair tickling her nose finally dragged her from her drowsy state and she stretched her stiff limbs while trying to think of something smart to say.
“Well, that was yesterday. Now is today, so that’s different,” was the best she could come up with, her face still scrunched up as she fought her inner demons that sought to pull her back into her slumber.
He raised his eyebrows in amusement, a playful sparkle in his eyes. “If you say so my dear, I shall of course not query your undeniably logical way of reasoning.”
His low chuckle turned into an open smile, revealing a row of pearly white teeth and she couldn’t help but giggle at the silliness of her statement. It was way too early for her mind to be sharp and she could feel the aftermath of her nightmarish fight against the fever still like an echo in every fibre of her body.
Her first attempt at pushing herself up into a sitting position ended quite abruptly. She slumped backwards onto the blanket with a groan, the dull sting shooting through her body a painful reminder that her injuries were still fresh after all. She closed her eyes, trying to collect herself when she heard his voice beside her ear.
“Let me help you,” he said and before she could make another move he had wrapped an arm around her, offering her his other hand so she could steady herself. She put her hand in his and allowed his strong arms to pull her up until she had gotten into a somewhat stable sitting position. He made sure to place his cloak around her again to keep the early morning chill away from her, carefully extracting the strands of her hair from under the heavy fabric and gracing her with a smile once everything was to his satisfaction. She shifted around slightly embarrassed.
“Sorry to be such a burden,” she whispered in a small voice.
He leaned back against the tree, pulling up one knee and resting his elbow on it. “Don’t say such a thing. You are not a burden. You are in my care and I will do everything necessary to ensure that you will recover swiftly.”
A thankful smile tugged at her lips. “Thank you, my king.”
But then an unsettling thought crawled into her mind: “Why has the fever affected me like that?” She hoped to sound as casual as possible, trying not to allow her fear to float to the surface: “Will it come back again?”
His gaze lingered on her for a moment, as if he was trying to decide how much of what he knew he could tell her without planting more worries inside her head. He brushed off a piece of charred bark that had settled on his robe and then spoke with words that were, like always, carefully chosen and precisely measured:
“To answer your first question: This spider was not just any spider, but she was the leader, the oldest and most wicked of them all, a spawn of Shelob, ever eager for more territory for her offsprings and always hungry. They do not get much chances to find fresh human meat so she was even more aggressive than the usual. She does not appreciate being deprived of her prey. What she did, she did to mock me and she injected you with a lethal dose out of sheer spite, to prove her power. And since you are a human and not an elf, the venom affected you in a more life threatening way.” His expression hardened and he clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white, his rings cutting into his flesh. “But she paid a bitter price for it. No one mocks the Elvenking and hopes to get away with it.” There was a fierce glint in his eyes and apart from the recent events, painful memories of old seemed to take shape in Thranduil’s mind.
She only nodded silently, not really knowing what to say, but he swiftly brought himself back to the present, his fingers gradually relaxing.
“Your second question is more difficult to answer. I am quite certain that I have halted the fever for now, but I cannot completely rule out that all the evil has left your body for good.”
“I really hope it doesn’t come back. I don’t know if I could go through another torture like the one last night,” she said, the thought alone making her shiver in horror.
“I know you could, although I do not think it will be necessary,” he said without any hesitation. “You were very brave, braver than many humans that have crossed my path during the undoubtedly long time I have walked this earth.”
“Well, then you are more convinced of my strength than I am,” she said, inwardly feeling at least a little bit proud that he apparently thought so highly of her.
He picked up a twig from the ground and began poking the fire that was wavering in its strength, lifting a log here and there and stirring up the embers and soon the flames were back to their former dance with renewed strength. And while she watched him in silence, a sudden realisation struck her like lightning: “You saved my life, not only once, but twice. And I have not even thanked you properly for it.”
The lingering deliriousness of her fever was finally wearing off, like a veil being pulled from her eyes, allowing for the magnitude of the recent events to sink in. His fingers toyed absentmindedly with the twig he had now retreated from the flames and when he let go of it he looked at her, the striking blue of his eyes like a new morning after a long night: “It was my duty and much more than that. It was what my heart commanded me to do.”
And then suddenly a dam broke inside her chest and all that she had been holding in poured out with the unbridled force of a roaring river. The cloak slid from her shoulders as she threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest, her hands sinking into the silken strands of his hair.
“Thank you for saving my life, for not letting me die,” she muttered into his robe. “Annon allen.” She didn’t care if it was unelvish or inappropriate. She could not hold it back any longer, or else her heart might drown in the flood of unspoken words, and if he was going to attribute this outburst once again to her overemotional human side, then so be it.
It took him only a few seconds and then he closed his arms around her too, pulling her closer, his heartbeat picking up its pace as he held her tight against his chest. He might have been an ancient and stoic Elvenking, but he was still alive after all and not immune to the stirrings of the heart, if he allowed for that door to be finally reopened again.
“You are mine to protect and I will not let anything bad happen to you,” he said softly.
“I have missed you so much. It was driving me insane,” she mumbled into the folds of his robe and the tears wouldn’t stop welling up. “I — I thought I would never see you again,” she said, breaking into muffled cries.
He gently stroked her hair, his own waves of silvery gold flowing around her, and he whispered: “I would have crossed all the leagues spanning my kingdom to prevent that from happening.” His voice was firm, only a slight tremble giving away how much it cost him to keep his calm.
“I’m so sorry that I broke my promise and ran away,” it poured out in between sobs, her face wet with tears, “I should never have lost my faith. Forgive me, please!” His warmth and his scent enveloped her and it felt like finally being home after a long and seemingly endless journey through darkness.
“I do forgive you,” he said, his hands weaving through her tangled hair and tilting her head back so she would meet his gaze. “It does not matter now. You are save. That is all that matters.”
Her eyes were veiled with tears and her lower lip trembled as her chest was overflowing with feelings both frightful and joyful. He grazed her cheek with the back of his hand, wiping away her tears, his fingers so soft she thought they would melt against her skin.
And when she looked into those eyes that had captured her heart with their beauty of starlight she knew that she had been caught forever.
“I won’t ever run again. I promise,” she said, her voice still shaky.
“And I won’t ever leave you behind again. I promise.” He smiled down at her fondly. “We do have quite a bit of talking to catch up in between us, but I suggest that we move that to the comfort of a warm room. You are still under the influence of all the evil that has befallen you and I do not wish to expose you to this wintry chill longer than absolutely necessary.”
She nodded, slowly emerging from her emotional roller coaster ride. “Yes, of course, warm sounds better than cold.”
He let go of her rather reluctantly and after she had pulled the cloak back around her shoulders she sought to clean up her face, suddenly aware of her dishevelled appearance. She rummaged in the pockets of her tunic until she found her cherished handkerchief to wipe away those lingering tears.
A look of curiosity dawned on Thranduil’s face. “Is this what I think it is?”
Anna’s cheeks flushed bright red at the fact that he should know about her little secret. She had grown so accustomed to the presence of this piece of cloth that she had not thought twice about using it in front of Thranduil, but now there was a mixture of fear and embarrassment rising in her chest. What if he didn’t approve of her keeping his handkerchief? His expression was impossible to read and for a moment she feared that he would consider her behaviour ridiculous. But of course trying to hide it was useless, so she lowered her gaze and said with a small voice:
“Yes, it is. I— I thought that you would not mind if I kept it.” She looked up into his eyes, slightly worried of what she might find in them.
“All this time you have carried it with you?” he said, an amused smile escaping him at the pitiful state of this once pristine piece of grey cloth. It had been so worn and was sporting a considerable amount of stains which rendered it nearly unrecognisable. But of course, Thranduil would surely know what had been formerly his.
She nodded and said: “This has been the only thing I had of you while you were gone.” It was probably best to go with the truth. “I am sorry if this makes me foolish in your eyes.”
No trace of anger or mocking was in his voice when he said: “There is no way that I would ever consider such a gesture of loyalty foolish. I am glad it could keep you company when I could not.”
A smile of relief dawned on her face and she proceeded to clean up her face with it, her lingering sobs finally ebbing away.
“But maybe we should get you a new one in the near future. One that serves its purpose better than this ghastly rag.” He rose his eyebrows in feigned disgust.
“Don’t call it that!” she protested. “I rather like it as it reminds me of the moment when you gave it to me.” And just to be sure she quickly stuffed it back into her pocket.
“Of course, you may keep this one for as long as you wish,” he said with a slight tilt of his head. “But nothing can be said against you choosing another one from my rather extensive wardrobe. I very much doubt that I will be needing all of them myself.”
“In that case I thank you very much for your kind offer, although I hope that I will not need a piece of cloth to substitute your presence anytime soon.”
“You will not,” he said, but then his eyes fell on a small piece of crumpled paper that lay on the blanket beside her. It must have slid out when she had searched for her handkerchief. She saw it just an instant too late and when she tried to snatch it before Thranduil would get a hold of it, he had already picked it up, being infinitely quicker than Anna. This might yet take another uncomfortable turn for her. She knew exactly what this paper contained and it was not for his eyes to see.
“And what is this?” he said, an eyebrow raised in curiosity, holding the paper aloft and turning it around in his hand, making no move to let go of it any time soon.
“Could you please give it back,” she said, trying to sound determined and holding out her hand. “It’s private.” Even though the fever might be gone, sweat began crawling all over her skin. After all it had been made quite clear to her that she was to keep this best to herself.
“Ah, another interesting discovery,” he said, ignoring her plea, as he smoothed out the paper with his fingers, his eyes skimming through the narrow handwriting.
“I can explain,” she rushed to get ahead of a possible interrogation. “This is—“
“Faeldir’s and Amardir’s poem.” Thranduil finished the sentence for her.
“Yes. Wait, what? You know it?” Her mouth fell open in surprise. How could he possibly have known about this?
“Of course I do. Remember that nothing stays hidden for long from the king. They sang it for me on our journey to the Mountain. It is different from their usual style, but it is quite beautiful.”
“Yes, it is,“ she said with a tentative smile and a lingering doubtful frown. “So you are not angry then?”
“No, why would I? The only thing I might hold against you is that you have hidden this treasure from me.” He looked at her from under stern brows, but a twinkle in his eyes gave him away. She smiled slightly abashed.
“I am very sorry about that. I did not mean to hide this from you, but Faeldir and Amardir were both quite adamant about keeping this to myself, as they thought that you might not approve of it.”
“Well, they thought wrong. How could I not value such a heartfelt gift they have devised for you?” He carefully folded the paper and handed it back to her with a formal nod.
She took it and stored it safely away with the handkerchief, both of her most priced possessions now not so secret any more.
“The brothers, how are they? You have not told me anything about them,” it suddenly flashed through her head. “I did not even get to say good-bye to them. Are they all right?”
There was a moment of hesitation before Thranduil answered. “They are alive, which is all I wish to say about this matter now. I do not want you to worry about them.”
She nodded, though not thoroughly convinced. There were so many unanswered questions tumbling through her head right now, things that would require a considerable amount of time to be told, the mountain, a battle most likely and the question of the necklace were only a few that she was burning to have answered. But this would have to wait like he had said before.
Her mind now slightly more alert, she looked around and the air was heavy with a mist that seemed to creep into her bones if it weren’t for the cloak as well as the trusted fire. The greyish colours made the giant oak under which she had slept appear even more ghostly than in the dark of night, the spindly branches reaching out in awkward angles on top of her. Even the brightness of the fire had been somewhat dimmed by the faint light of dawn that seeped through the canopy of twigs. And then her eyes travelled to a neatly laid out wooden plate which she had not noticed before. Thranduil must have prepared it while she had been sleeping. It contained a loaf of bread, two slices of cheese, a handful of tiny, scarlet red berries as well as slightly larger, dark blue ones. Beside it stood two mugs full of a steaming hot liquid, which she suspected was similar to the concoction she had drunk last night.
He reached out for the bread and broke it in half, handing her her portion. “Now we will eat and I must insist that you do not skip your mealtime.”
But this time she didn’t need to be told. “Oh, it looks delicious,” she said, gladly taking the offered food, the grumbling in her stomach reminding her with utter clarity that she still had a considerable amount of eating to catch up with.
For a while they sat silently side by side, each of them quietly munching on their frugal meal, Thranduil as always slightly more graceful and elegant than Anna, and her thoughts drifted off once again, worries beginning to overtake her recent confidence. Just a few hours ago there was nothing more that she wanted than to be back in the safety of the palace, but now suddenly things looked different. She still longed for the warmth and the comfort provided by his magnificent halls, but there was something else that crept up from the shadows of her mind. She had shared unexpected moments of intimacy here with Thranduil alone, away from everyone and everything else, and she was afraid that under the influence of protocol and everyday life this tender bond would be severed again. Buried under the routine of ruling a kingdom she might eventually sink back into the position of a guest; a visitor pushed back to the sidelines.
“You seem sad and pensive,” he said, looking at her with a frown. “Is something worrying you?”
Her first reaction was to just pretend that everything was all right, but she knew that if she did not voice her concerns now it would be too late and her courage would leave her again.
“I am afraid that when we get back to the palace everything might be just the way it was before.” Thranduil said nothing, but just looked at her quietly, so she went ahead. “You will be king again and have to attend to your duties and I will be your guest. And I don’t know if I could bear that. Not after all this,” she said, staring into the fire that was slowly burning down again, the embers glowing bright red before they would turn black and cold.
A small smile played around his mouth, but there was honesty in his words.
“I am always the king, no matter if in the forest or the palace, but that does not change in any way how I feel about you.” He laid a hand on top of hers to emphasise his words. “What has grown in between us will not be cut again. I will make sure of that.” He then raised her hand to his mouth, his lips barely touching her skin. “You have my word as king. I have almost lost you once and I will not let that happen again.”
“Promise?” she said, her gaze fixed on his mouth still hovering above her hand, images rising in her mind of what else those lips could do if unleashed from their restraint.
“Yes, I promise. It might have taken my son’s harsh words to push me in the right direction, but I will not waver from my chosen path. Of that you can be sure.”
“Legolas had a hand in this?” Her eyes widened at this unexpected revelation. “You have reconciled with your son then?”
“I did, but it is a rather long story and I’m afraid we don’t have time for it now either.” He turned her hand around to plant another fleeting kiss on the inside of her palm, sending a pleasant tingle down her spine.
“I can wait for the details. Only to know that you have finally overcome your differences fills me with happiness.” She smiled at him, a warm feeling spreading in her chest. After all, those lingering differences in between father and son had taken a toll on both of them and it could only mean that things would be better from now on. “But you have to tell me all about it!”
“Yes, I will. But now we must indeed make sure to be on our way. You need healing and rest and I do not want you to catch your death just because we lingered too long.”
With those words he let go of her hand and while she finished the rest of her meal she watched him as he prepared Silvermane for the next and possibly last leg of their journey back. The tender way he treated the horse reminded her once again of how fond he had been of his elk and the empty space his death must have possibly left in his heart.
She took a sip of the herbal beverage that was delicious and spicy, filling her insides with a comfortable heat. When nearly everything was stowed away Thranduil proceeded to extinguish the fire by pouring the leftover liquid from his mug over it and the sudden drop in temperature made her shiver even under the voluminous heap of his cloak.
“Do you think you can stand up?” he asked, holding out his hands to her.
“I don’t know, but I will try,” she said and reached out for his hands, her knees still feeling weak like jelly. He pulled her up, supporting her back with his other arm and she nearly stumbled, her legs not yet used to carry her full weight.
“Lean on me,” he said and she wrapped her arm around his waist, while he held her upright with a strong grip around her body, his cloak trailing behind her like a grey sea as she walked, and with small and measured steps she finally made it over to Silvermane. He lifted her up into the saddle and once she was seated and all set he picked up the leftover items including the blanket, leaving behind the site with only the black remnants of the fire and no other trace of their nightly camp. He hoisted himself up into the saddle behind her and then the familiar grip around her waist meant that they were ready to head out once again.
“Hold on tight,” he said and she did, gripping the saddle and leaning backwards until she was flush against his chest, her heart both anxious and elated, “and if Silvermane is as swift as Odmund has praised her we shall reach the palace before nightfall.”