If the right words exist, may they find our lips.
(Sleeping At Last: Resolve.)
Anna’s days slowly melted into an indistinguishable molasses of repeating routines dictated by her medical treatment. Her nights were dreamless and empty and she suspected that whatever concoction she was given to heal her wounds and strengthen her body also made sure that her sleep would be deep and undisturbed. This was something she was truly grateful for, since she suspected that her dreams would have most likely been populated by hairy spiders and scorching fires, unnecessary obstacles on her way to convalescence. She tried very much to be a good and obedient patient, which was not all too difficult at the beginning, but her initial fondness of the bed that had welcomed her with its soft covers soon turned into an ardent wish to finally be able to leave those imprisoning sheets behind. She had to admit that her body still felt considerably weak, as if some insistent magic was siphoning off the strength she gradually regained. Nevertheless she was slowly improving day by day, thanks to the combined efforts and comprehensive supervision of Thranduil and Brethilwen, whom she had gotten to value as competent healers in the recent past.
When even after a near fortnight Anna was still only allowed to leave the bed for mere minutes so she could attend to her bodily needs, she was ready for what felt like a small rebellion. Every time she had tried her luck, hoping to wrest either from Brethilwen or Thranduil the permission to at least wander around freely in her room, her pleas had gone unheeded. Always had she been presented with the near identical rigorous glance and stern nod, accompanied by several ironclad reasons why she was not yet fit to leave her sickbed. Obviously in elven terms a few weeks bound to the bed were considered just a minor setback in their lives that were devoid of an expected ending. But Anna was starting to get antsy, she wanted to stretch her legs and move her limbs, be able to explore all those beautiful things her chamber had to offer.
The permanent attention of servants and healers and their near constant presence left her also with little to no privacy. Only when Thranduil wished to see her alone, the room took on the intimate aura of a quiet repose she loved so much about it. His daily visits to her room were the peak moments of her day and no matter how busy or how tired he might have been, he made sure to come and see her. And after she had read through all the books from her bookshelf he had made a habit out of supplying Anna with a new book for her to read every time he would visit her and sure enough when he came to see her on a particularly frosty winter morning he had another volume bound in midnight blue leather clutched under his arm as well as a rectangular wooden box. He entered Anna’s room with energetic strides and when he found her already awake he pulled up his usual chair beside her bed and made himself comfortable, his legs languidly crossed and his long fingers elegantly wrapped around the book and the box, both resting on his lap.
“Good morning, my dear,” he said, greeting Anna with a nonchalant smile. “So, how is my favourite patient today?”
Her lips curved into a sweet smile as she propped herself up further, flattening the covers as she did. “Good morning, my king,” she said, “I am fine, thank you. After all, I’m well looked after.” She absentmindedly brushed some breadcrumbs off her covers, irksome remnants of her breakfast that otherwise would later sneak stealthily under her nightshirt, converting her bed into a minefield of small but annoying hazards, intent on making the stay in her bed even more uncomfortable. She interrupted her motions with a frown when she felt his gaze lingering on her.
“As much as I enjoy my bed there is a downside to be taking my meals in here,” she explained, holding up one tiny crumb in between her fingers with an indignant glare. “I swear these things multiply in between my sheets if I don’t brush them off immediately!” She flicked the crumb away as if it were a despicable criminal.
Thranduil raised an eyebrow, the ghost of a smile twitching around the corners of his mouth while he silently enjoyed the sight of Anna wrinkling her freckled nose in annoyance.
“I see now that there is an imperative need for you to be allowed out of bed for your mealtimes. I shall instruct Brethilwen to serve you at the table from now on lest she wishes to incur your wrath and mine.”
He had lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and Anna couldn’t help but smile at the boyish grin he displayed, so very unlike his usual rigid self. She nodded contentedly, as this would be at least a small improvement to her situation, but her woes were not quite sorted out yet. Twisting one of the tiny white buttons of her nightgown in between her fingers she said: “I am sorry if I must appear impatient, but could I not at least be allowed to get up and walk around my room? I haven’t even been able to see all the beautiful things this chamber has to offer. And I also don’t think that I need constant supervision from the healers and servants. I do feel much better already and I doubt that staying in bed is absolutely necessary to improve my health.”
Thranduil sighed, his playfulness swiftly hidden behind the aura of duty and concern. “You know that we have been going over this every time I come to visit you and you know already what my answer will be.”
He fixed Anna with one of his piercing glances which would usually have put a brusque end to her objections; but not today. Today she would not let herself be silenced by stern glances and rigorous words. She was a grown woman after all, not a little girl, quite capable of taking her own decisions, or so she thought.
“Yes, I know and I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I appreciate all the care I am receiving, but I am beginning to feel like a prisoner in my own bed.” With an overly melodramatic sigh she sank back into the pillows, but Thranduil would not be so easily swayed.
“I am sorry that you feel like that, but I assure you that it will not be long now until you can leave behind the confines of your bed and maybe even this chamber. Brethilwen tells me she is very satisfied with your progress and she might even soon allow you to walk with me around the hallways.”
“But you are the king! You can allow me to get up. You don’t need anyone’s permission!” she insisted as she flicked another breadcrumb from her bed with a deadly glare that could almost rival the Elvenking’s.
“You are quite right. I do not need anyone’s permission. But I am also a healer and so is Brethilwen and since I hold her judgement in high esteem I will not override her decision just because you are being impatient.”
Anna rolled her eyes, putting on a grim face and muttering something of ‘unfair’ and ‘endless’ under her breath, but she knew already that she was getting nowhere with her complaints. Obviously the Elvenking was not only much more versed in fighting an argument, but he also had reason and prudence on his side, while she had only impatience and rashness to speak for herself.
“Don’t give me that sour look,” Thranduil said, tilting his head sideways as if he was talking to an unreasonable child. “You know that this is only for your own good. I do not wish to compromise your health. Your injuries were severe and a few weeks are nothing in comparison to the rest of your lifetime.”
“In comparison to your lifetime maybe,” she grumbled, feeling downcast and glum, “but my days are surely numbered.”
A sorrowful glance flickered across Thranduil’s face. “Please, do not feel so dejected. It is only a necessary precaution. I simply want to make sure you will be all right.”
“Yes, I know,” she said with a resigned sigh, absentmindedly tugging at the corner of her pillow. “I am sorry. I did not mean it like that. I know you only have the best intentions and I promise that I will try to be more patient.”
Anna put on a propitiatory smile and shifted sideways, trying to get a look at the book Thranduil had brought with him. Maybe this would take her mind off her curtailed freedom.
“I see that you have spied this already,” he said with a look of relief on his face, obviously glad to detour the conversation away from more possible complaints about the restrictions that have been laid upon her. He pulled out the book as well as the box from the folds of his cloak, placing the box on the bedside table.
“I thought you might like this,” he said, holding the book up and without any further ado he let it slide into Anna’s welcoming hands. Her curiosity was immediately stirred up as this one felt different from the others. It was neither ancient nor did it show any signs of usage. Actually it seemed to be completely new. She bent eagerly over her present, biting her lower lip in excitement. It was diligently bound in smooth midnight blue leather, heavy and simple looking, with no lettering to be found on neither the cover nor the spine. As a matter of fact the only adornment was a delicate circular flower in white and gold embossed on the book-cover. She slowly turned it around in her hands, and when she finally opened it, she saw her suspicion confirmed: the pages were completely blank. She thumbed through it, feeling the slightly rough surface of the untouched pages in between her fingers, a vast sea of emptiness longing to be filled with an ocean of words. Instinctively she brought it to her nose, the scent of new leather and fresh parchment evoking distant memories of times long gone, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on yet. She peered at Thranduil over the edge of the book and then her eyes darted over to the wooden box on her bedside table, anticipation dawning on her face like the rising morning sun.
Thranduil had leaned back in his chair, all the while observing her with a thorough display of satisfaction on his face. “Now open this,” he said, pushing the wooden box towards her with his fingertips.
She shot him a quick glance, and when he nodded encouragingly she reached out for the rectangular case. It was of a rich dark brown colour, the surface smooth and expertly varnished, relatively plain though in comparison with the elaborate designs to be found in every nook and corner of Thranduil’s palace. Her fingers traced the engraving of a small flower and then she clicked the golden lock open with her thumb. Nestled on a lining of dark green silk lay an elegant quill and a small ink jar. A small gasp of awe escaped her at the delicate beauty of the pristine white feather quill. Her cheeks were flushed as images began to rise in her head and slowly turned to words, growing into sentences that extended into paragraphs eager to find a new home on those snow white pages.
“Do you like it?” Thranduil’s voice suddenly broke through the figments of her imagination.
She had been so involved in her thoughts she had almost forgotten that Thranduil was still sitting beside her bed and when she looked at him, her whole face was glowing.
“Like it?” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I love it. This is the best gift I have ever received.”
“Better than the necklace?” he asked her half teasingly.
“Yes,” she nodded, her face suddenly turning serious. “Please, don’t misunderstand this. I do love the necklace. It is very beautiful, but it is only made of lifeless gems after all. But this,” she pressed the book against her chest, “this will be filled with life when I’m done with it, you’ll see.”
“I see,” he nodded knowingly, “so you prefer books over jewels.”
“I do indeed, as they are able to contain a whole world in between those covers, moments of joy and sadness alike, a lifetime in letters.” She placed the book back on her lap, patting it lovingly. “Books are the real treasures, not gems.”
“Then I am very glad that I have made the right choice,” he said, smiling broadly.
“You did and I am truly grateful for such a thoughtful gift.” For a moment she sat in silence, admiring the box and its contents when a thought flitted through her mind. “But how did you guess that I would like this?”
Thranduil did not answer immediately, but rather seemed to be preparing himself for something that he had rehearsed numerous times in his mind.
“I remember very well that first day I found you in the forest, when you said that you wrote books, children’s books to be precise. I know that some of the things you told me might not have been the truth, but this was not a lie.”
“You still remember what I said to you under the tree?” she said, her eyes widening in amazement.
“Every single word.”
“Then you remember a great deal more than me.” She closed the wooden box with a sigh, being suddenly sorely reminded of all the things she did not know. She remembered clearly the way he had looked at her, the intensity of his gaze forever etched in her mind, but everything else had been pushed into an area of impenetrable shadows, apparently never to see the light of day again. Her past was still one overhanging cloud so dense and ominous that not even the dream during her search for Thranduil had been able to disperse it. And as much as she might have tried to avoid this subject, it kept nagging and bothering her, like an inquisitive neighbour that would not stop asking the same nosy questions over and over again, no matter how much she would try to cover her ears.
“I have been here for many months and I am still no closer to finding out who I really am,” she finally said, the joyful sparkle in her eyes gone.
“You are here with me now. Is that not enough?” A fleeting shadow darkened his face as he searched her eyes.
“Yes, it is, but at the same time it is not.” She pulled up her knees and only the steady purling of the small fountain filled the air as her eyes trailed around the room, lingering for a moment on the tapestry with the stag before she returned his gaze to him. A strange glow was in his eyes, eyes that searched her soul with the effortless ease of someone who had lived the lifespan of a thousand humans.
“I think that what you are looking for lies not in your past, but you will find it in your future.”
“But how can I even have a future if I do not have a past? How can I stay here with you if I don’t know who I am? And how can you want me to be with you if you don’t know anything about me?” she said, throwing her arms around her knees trying to contain her rising despair.
“I have eyes to see and a heart to feel and I know that I can trust both.” He slid forward to the edge of the chair, the warmth of his body radiating so close to hers that she had trouble hanging on to her thoughts. But the icy torrent of despair flooding her heart had reached breaking point and brimmed over in a sudden wave of anguish.
“But I cannot even remember my name! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a nameless woman.” She shook her head, raking her fingers through her hair in frustration, unable to stop the mighty torrent that threatened to drown her from within. “A— and how did I come here? And where was I before?” She stared at him as if she was hoping to find her past somewhere hidden in those blue depths. “I need answers to those questions before I can move on. I have been trying to pretend that it would not matter, but it is an illusion and not a day has gone by where I do not ask myself those things again and again.” She buried her face in her hands as the entire weight of unresolved issues that were her life pulled her into a dark abyss.
Thranduil’s face had turned a shade paler, his lips tightly pressed together in an effort to remain calm and not to let himself be swept away by Anna’s emotional storm. He suddenly leaned forward in an impulsive motion and reached for her hands, lacing his fingers through hers and his eyes studying the pattern of their intertwined fingers.
“I know that you seek answers to your questions and I am sorry that there is only so much that I can give you,” he said, the warmth of his hands flowing into hers that had gone cold and clammy. He exhaled slowly as if he was trying to weigh his options and then he looked at her again, an unmistakable strain on his face as he spoke:
“Much of your past and your whereabouts remain shrouded in mystery, but I can tell you that the tree under which I found you is not just any tree. It is as old as the forest itself and its roots reach deeper than that of any other. It has seen even more passings of seasons than I have. Strange things are said to happen around it and people have been said to disappear if they got too close to it. In some rare cases it has even been told that it might uproot the laws of space and time, allowing for a passage that would otherwise be impossible and prohibited.”
Anna stared at him open-mouthed as she was trying to make sense of his words. “S—so, you are telling me that I came through the tree?”
“If you want to put it in such direct words: yes.”
“But this is not possible! Where does this tree lead to? There has to be another side to it, another exit! I must have come from somewhere! I cannot just have materialised out of thin air!”
Her fingers trembled in his hold and for a moment she stared fearfully at her surroundings as if she expected everything around her to suddenly disappear, vanishing into thin air while they spoke.
“It is a door in between the worlds, a portal if you wish to call it so,” he elaborated further, his eyes never leaving Anna’s face.
“A portal,” she muttered as if only by repeating the word it would somehow become less surreal. “But where does it lead to?”
“It can lead to many places far away in time and space, but only when the moment is right, will someone be able to pass through it. I do not know what lies beyond it as I have never treaded on this path myself.”
“But you have known about the existence of this, this portal?”
“Yes, I did, but I was not sure at first if this was indeed where you had come from, only when you presented me with this not very credible story of yours I knew that this had to be the way you had arrived here in my forest.”
By now Anna’s heart was racing wildly, her mind barely being able to keep up with the speed of Thranduil’s revelations. “And does this happen a lot around here, people coming through this portal?” she said, resorting to her last bits of dry humour in a vain effort to hold on to her sanity.
“No, it doesn’t. As a matter of fact it is a quite rare occurrence,” he replied, a slight tremble in his voice, and his fingers still tightly entwined with hers, “but you are not the first person — or the first human, to be more precise —, to step through the portal from the other side. Wanderers in between the worlds we call them and when they arrive they are in a state of utter confusion. Much of what belonged to their lives does not pass with them, lost in the passage through space and time, but some pieces of their old life still linger, so their hearts will forever long for something they have left behind; pulling them back like ghosts from the depths of time, making it impossible for them to take roots in the new world. Forever torn, they usually succumb rather sooner than later to the desire of returning to what used to be their home.”
Anna’s head was spinning and she had trouble following her own thoughts which were galloping around like a bunch of wild horses. Despite the warm covers and the Elvenking’s hands, her whole body was shivering as if it had been submerged in a bucket of ice.
“But why can I not remember anything at all from my past life? It seems that nothing has passed with me. I don’t even have shadows to hold on to. I have nothing.”
Her words hung in the air like a storm cloud and for a moment Thranduil’s face only displayed a rare blank expression as if he was not quite sure about how to proceed. His voice gradually shed all layers of calmness as his usual aura of aloofness began to crumble beneath the rising level of anxiousness he had sought to keep hidden from Anna, and possibly even from himself.
“Please you must believe me, whatever I might tell you now, whatever I did, was not meant to harm you in any way. You must promise me not to take this the wrong way.”
This did of course not have the desired calming effect, but rather the opposite. Anna sat bolt upright, all muscles in her body tense in expectation of a revelation of the worst kind.
“How can I promise that, if I do not know what to expect? How can I believe any word that you are going to say?”
“Allow me to explain myself. What I will tell you is the truth. And I want you to be very sure of one thing: all I did was because I wanted you to stay.” He looked at her imploringly, but Anna only managed a wordless stare.
And when he finally spoke it seemed to cause him a great deal of pain, the words leaving his mouth almost against his will.
“The fact that you cannot remember anything of your past can largely be attributed to the effect of the Dorwinion you drank on your first day. It was more than just a normal wine and quite a bit of magic was involved in it.”
“What?” she exclaimed, her face blanching and her stomach suddenly turning upside down. “You cannot mean what you just said! You knew that this would make me forget my past? And you—, you made me drink it anyway?” Her voice took on a slightly higher pitch before failing her completely.
“Yes,” he said ruefully, tightening his grip around her hands as she was stirring dangerously close towards a nervous breakdown. “I am very sorry that I did that, but I had to. I was afraid that you might have wanted to leave again, and I did not want that to happen. I was intrigued by your presence and I needed to find out more, get to know you more.”
“B—but you could have just asked me to stay instead of making me forget everything. How could you have been so sure that I would have wanted to leave again?” She wanted to pull her hands away, but he held them in a firm grip.
“I don’t think that you would have stayed just because an ancient Elvenking takes you to his palace and asks you to stay. Not if you knew that you would be consciously leaving behind a life.”
There was unmistakable bitterness in his voice and when she looked into his eyes she saw a vulnerable soul and a tortured heart, aching for someone to keep him company in those endless days of loneliness.
“Don’t think so lowly of yourself,” she said as a wave of pity suddenly surged inside her, nearly but not quite overtaking her flaring anger. “You could have at least tried. I might have stayed anyway.”
Thranduil’s face was a picture of misery, the emotional turmoil beginning to break through the magic that usually hid his scars from view. But he made no effort to conceal them, after all he had already allowed her a glimpse into the terrors of his past before and if he was ever going to regain her trust, the time for hiding things was definitely over.
He lowered his head and then he spoke again, his thumbs drawing small circles on the back of her hands: “I know that I had no right to do what I did and wanting to keep you here with me was an utterly selfish thing to do. But I had long given up all hope, so when you arrived in my lands I wanted to make sure not to lose you again.”
“Hope, what hope?” she asked sharply.
He raised his eyes, an infinite ocean of glittering blue so intense she nearly drowned in their depths.
“Hope that one day someone would come from the other side,” he said, his voice low and resonant, “someone unlikely and altogether unexpected. A person emerging from the shadows, bringing unrest—,” he paused to study her face, starlight dawning in his eyes, “and love.”
This singular word shone brilliant like the summer sun, the promise it contained enveloping Anna in a dazzling glow, warm, beautiful and endless, a web of molten gold spinning itself around her heart. How much she wished to just let go and give in, but the brightness was ever dimmed by the clouds of doubt, obscuring the light, her heart sinking back into the shadows.
“And you thought that this person was me?” she said in a small voice, barely trusting her own words.
“Yes, I did,” he said solemnly. “I have listened to the song of the tree and the endless melodies of the rustling leaves. You must have heard it too, the song that called to you, although you might not have understood its words or meaning, but I know you must have felt it in your heart, because only then could you have passed through the portal. The tree would not have allowed it otherwise.”
This was nearly too much for Anna to digest. Magical portals, talking trees and enchanted wine that somehow miraculously erased her past had her chest overflowing with contradicting emotions.
“B—but I still don’t understand! Why now? Why have you not told me any of this before?” She stuttered, her heart stumbling blindly through darkness, the redemptive light eluding her grasp.
Thranduil suddenly abandoned his chair to sit beside her, bringing her hands to his heart so she would feel its steady beat. Gently he weaved his slender fingers through her hair and pulled her face closer to his. And then he looked at her, long and deep, the rich baritone of his voice caressing her like velvet:
“There are too many unspoken things in between us. Too many things I have not told you out of fear that you would reject me and might want to leave again. But I do not want those things to stand in between us anymore.”
Something ancient and unfathomable rose from the depths of his eyes and their crystal blue darkened as he continued:
“Because this is the point where we must take a decision: go further or stop now.”
Anna swallowed, barely being able to breathe in their shared space, his heartbeat drumming loudly beneath her hands, his fingers warm against her skin and the tempting curve of his lips so unbearably close to hers.
“And I do not want to stop,” he said softly.
A sudden knock at the door cut through his unfurling confession and the hopeful gleam on his face died, turning into silent aggravation. Anna’s eyes were reddened with unshed tears and it pained him to see her so distraught, knowing that he himself had brought all this upon her. He wished nothing more than to pull her into an embrace, holding her close to him and murmuring words of tenderness into her ear and then finally kissing those rosy lips until she would melt in his arms. But it might never come to this after all.
There it was again, the knocking, this time with more insistence and Anna shot the door a reproachful glance.
“You might need to answer this,” she whispered, her hands still flush against his chest, her cheeks flaring hot beneath his tender touch.
“Yes, I fear I must,” he said, reluctantly letting go of her and rising from the bed in one graceful motion. He took a deep breath to recompose himself, straightening his robe and in a matter of seconds he had sealed away all emotion behind the polished veneer of a king ready to face one of his subjects. He stood beside the chair with perfect poise, and only at the last moment his hand shot out to grip the backrest, the turmoil raging on inside him still too dangerously close to the surface.
“Come in!” he called in a stoical manner.
A thin servant with an apologetic look on his face entered and bowed low. “My lord, I am very sorry to disturb you, but a messenger from Dale has arrived with important tidings.”
“Tell him that I shall be with him shortly,” he retorted, his voice hollow and his hands tightening around the wood.
“Yes, my lord.” And with another bow as well as his most neutral expression possible the servant quietly headed for the door again, leaving Anna and the Elvenking in a rather awkward place as their hearts struggled on the twisted pathway towards each other.
“I think I need a moment to myself now,” Anna said shakily, the dull pain in her lower back making a return appearance and an icy chill creeping through her veins.
“Yes, of course, I understand.” There was a heaviness in his words as if all the millennia of his existence were weighing him down like an unbearable burden. “I will come back tonight.”
He lingered for a moment undecidedly, a laden silence blanketing the room that was churning with the echo of what had remained unsaid for too long. Anna sank back heavily into the pillows, pulling the covers up to her chin, a meagre consolation in her present state of uncertainty, and when she looked up to Thranduil his eyes were full of hopelessness.
“Please keep a space in your heart for me,” he said, his voice on the point of breaking. “I could not bear to lose you.”