I would hold you now, if only I knew how.
(Sleeping At Last: Resolve.)
With great reluctance Thranduil had left Anna behind, the haunting amalgam of love and hate in her eyes sending him into a painful spiral of despair and desire. But he would need to silence his heart’s tender whispers in favour of the admonitory call of duty, which translated into attending the matters of his kingdom, something he had always prided himself in doing with utmost diligence and selfless devotion. Despite the recent victory against the orcish forces in Dale he could not afford to be negligent. The battle might have been won, but the war against the eternal foe was far from over. He could feel it, the lingering shadow that darkened both his heart and his forest. For a mere instant the malignant clouds had been lifted, allowing the rays of hope to shine through, but the evil storm was still brewing, always on the move, searching for a hold in his lands, sneaking and slithering like a venomous snake, ready to strike when least expected, and he needed to be one step ahead. Thranduil was an ever vigilant and prescient monarch and if he wished for his lands and its people to remain safe, any seemingly insignificant detail would have to be taken into account and observed carefully. And of course any messenger needed to be treated with the same attentiveness, be it someone from Dale or an emissary from the elven realms of Lorien or Imladris. The only thing he hoped for was that he would not have to concern himself with any of this confounded dwarvish nonsense.
So he sat upon his antlered throne, his head held high, a crown of holly resting on his silken hair, the cascades of his silvery white cloak flowing around his body and spilling onto the throne like a frozen waterfall. It glittered iridescently in the speckled light of the magnificent hall’s vaulted dome as if it had been woven out of ice crystals. Underneath the cloak’s abundant fabric a velvet robe in burgundy with black piping and a high open collar came into view, the spider brooch resting just beneath his neck, his whole appearance a picture of wintry splendour. The lofty height of his throne provided him with a welcome distance from the world around him and the subjects inhabiting it. Not that anyone would have seen a trace of his emotional upheaval on his face, after all he had several millennia of practice in keeping up a facade that was both flawless and stoic, but today he felt that the polished veneer might crumble at any given moment if anyone got too close to him. But Thranduil had all reason to be pleased with the outcome of this meeting, for the messenger had brought glad tidings. Not only had his son and his commander cooperated in an unexpectedly harmonious way in settling the affairs concerning the Woodland Realm in the aftermath of the battle, but they and with them the majority of the Elven army were now finally heading back to Mirkwood. Only those who would help in the rebuilding of Esgaroth would stay behind for as long as they were needed. Still, there was another detail of which he was not entirely sure if it was to his liking or not, and that was the fact that apparently Mithrandir and Master Baggins had joined the Elves on their return path. The meddlesome wizard and the nosy hobbit were not really the kind of visitors he was looking forward to receive right now, as he feared that they might inevitably poke their noses in affairs that most certainly did not concern them in the least.
With some worries alleviated but an equal amount of new concerns burdening his shoulders he had finally retreated to his chambers, but peace of mind would not come to him today. He had sent all of his servants away, leaving the two guards outside his doors with clear instructions that he did not wish to be disturbed. As soon as those oaken doors had closed behind him, he reached for the clasp of his cloak with impatient fingers, eager to shed the heavy garment as well as his crown which felt increasingly bothersome on his head. With a little less diligence than the usual he dropped both items on top of the massive dresser that stood ready to receive his majestic robes and kingly insignia whenever he wished to dispose of the outer layers of his royal obligations. But the stuffy feeling inside his chest would not be so easily shaken off. His gaze was drawn to the tall mirror on the wall in front of him and with a weary glance he looked at his own reflection. An ancient Elvenking stared back at him, at first sight still the same flawless face he had shown the world for thousands of years, stern and beautiful, framed by the sleek perfection of silvery golden hair, but he knew better than to trust the glamour that hid the wounds underneath. After all the magic was superficial and temporary. Only in the privacy of his chambers he allowed himself to lower his guard and even then it cost him to let go of his tightly regimented composure, even if it were just for one moment. There was only a handful of people whom he had granted a glimpse at his bruised persona, Anna being one of them. There had been empathy and pity, but no trace of fear or repulsion in her eyes, when he had first revealed to her the rawness of his scars on that night, when she had come to confess to him about her involvement in the dwarves’ escape. And after that he had thought to have seen in her eyes even the wish to lay her hands on those imprints of evil, but of course she had never dared to put this wish into action. And he would have possibly not allowed it, he thought to himself with embitterment. He wasn’t good at letting anyone close to him, he knew as much, and it might easily be his undoing if he couldn’t find a way to break down the lingering remains of those walls of ice that encaged his heart. With a grim smile he assessed the elf looking at him, battered and broken inside and out, his scars more visible than hidden, no matter how much he might seek to conceal them. He leaned closer and the ghostly view of his near translucent skin sent a shudder down his spine, reminding him with painful and utter clarity of the price he had paid for still being alive after the dragon fire had nearly burned his body to bits and maimed his soul beyond repair. He was tired and exhausted, tired of this endless fight against the darkness that seemed to drain him even of the tiniest shreds of hope he still held on to. Too unsettling was the sight, so with a frown he tore his gaze away from the mirror, resolutely clasping his hands behind his back, his mood darkening with every passing minute of being condemned to idle waiting.
For hours he paced his chambers and with every single step his room felt more unwelcoming to him, suffocating even. The all too familiar walls seemed to close in on him and more than ever he wished that the accursed darkness could finally be forever banished from his lands, so he might feel the forest’s soothing presence around him. He found himself standing in front of the fireplace, staring into the flickering flames, their merry crackling only an empty imitation of the warmth he so much longed for. Several times his restless steps carried him to the concealed door which connected his chambers directly to the adjacent ones. His hand rested on the door knob more than once, ready to turn it around and storm into Anna’s room, cross the space to her bed with fiery strides and then sink onto his knees before her and beg for forgiveness. But then he imagined the resentment dawning in her eyes and the fear that he might lose her forever crawled back into his heart and his fingers let go of the knob. And yet again he resumed his pacing, time moving painfully slow like it was mocking the fact that he had an endless amount of it at his disposal.
Out of habit he reached for the decanter to pour himself some Dorwinion, but decided against it, putting the bottle back on the delicate wooden table with a resigned sigh and reproachful glare. He would need something significantly stronger to calm his nerves. In a hidden compartment of his armoire he kept his private reserve of Miruvór, the fabled elven cordial, and only during special circumstances had he resorted to this drink. Today would be one of those days. With slightly unsteady hands he uncorked the elaborate carafe and poured himself a small glass of the delightful liquid that gleamed like molten gold and promised him at least a momentary relief from the ghosts that not only haunted his past, but also threatened to poison his future, a future that looked more than dim if he was completely honest with himself.
A knock on the door tore him from his gloomy thoughts and for once he considered not answering. He did not want to see anyone and he did not want anyone to see him like this. He stared for another moment at the liquid, pondering the seductive promise of rejuvenation it contained, when it knocked yet again, the hollow noise amplified by the vastness of his chambers. Hadn’t his orders been clear enough? Wasn’t he granted to have a moment to himself? He had taken care of everything that had required his attention, hadn’t he? He furrowed his brows, pensively swirling the contents inside the glass and then he brought it to his lips, draining the whole of it in one long sip. He closed his eyes as the blissful warmth passed his throat and spread through his chest like liquid sunlight, rushing through his veins and filling every pore with renewed strength, sparkling and fresh like a vigorous spring after a long and dreadful winter. He relished in the moment of peace and quiet, although he knew that the improvement would only be a temporary one and his condition was beyond even the powers that lay within this concoction.
But of course it was a short-lived illusion to think that whoever requested admittance would simply go away. He sighed, but to his surprise he didn’t feel quite as annoyed as he should be, thinking that he already knew who wanted so very much to speak with him. There was indeed someone stubbornly enough concerned with his well-being, who would not so easily be turned away, especially and even more so if he had given his guards the orders not to be disturbed. Someone who knew him well enough to recognise this as a clear sign that things were not well with him. And who knew that his sense of duty would eventually prevail in the end. As it did.
“Come in,” he said, soaking up the last glorious droplets of golden delight that had settled at the bottom of his glass, and as expected, Brethilwen’s concerned face showed up in between the massive wings of the oaken doors. She seemed to have come in a rush as she still clutched her leather satchel containing her store of salves, tinctures, and draughts, all those medicines which she administered to Anna on a daily basis with rigorous diligence. She quickly flattened the creases on her moss green dress and smoothed down her dark brown hair with her hands until she seemed sufficiently pleased with her appearance. Her gaze darted from the empty glass in Thranduil’s hand to the uncorked carafe of Miruvór on the armoire behind him and with a frown she swallowed whatever remark might have preyed on her mind and only said:
“My lord, I know that you do not wish to be disturbed, but may I have a word with you?” She looked at him expectantly and before he might turn her away she added quickly: “I promise that I will not take up much of your time, but it is important.” She lowered her voice, lending her words more weight, “I come directly from my visit to your guest and, well, something is not quite right, and that is putting it mildly.”
Thranduil caught her imploring glance and bade her to come in with an approving nod. He turned around and after he had stowed away the glass as well as the carafe in his armoire, he let himself sink onto one of the enormous high back chairs in front of the mantlepiece, beckoning Brethilwen to take the seat opposite him. She carefully placed her satchel on the floor beside the chair and sat down, and although she was naturally tall as are all elves, she almost appeared small on this regal chair of massive proportions, a prestigious piece of furniture, which had been obviously fashioned to impress by its sheer size. When she had finally settled, she folded her hands in her lap, her fingers fiddling with her sleeves. Thranduil sat cross-legged, his arms languidly draped on the wide armrests as the last sparks of the cordial flickered inside his chest like a warm hearth, a small but powerful flame, which would hopefully be enough to temporarily seal the cracks that threatened to tear him apart.
“Please do tell me what burdens you so,” Thranduil said with the most nonchalant smile he could muster. That was all the encouragement she needed and the words just poured from her mouth as she seemed more than eager to share her concerns with the Elvenking:
“As I have said, I have just seen to your guest and, well, her behaviour struck me as odd. Not only was she extremely taciturn and showed all signs of emotional distress, but also the sting on her back, which had finally begun to heal at a satisfying rate, was flaring up again and seemed to cause her a considerable amount of pain. To be honest, I am not quite sure which of those two things has caused the other, but I thought that you should know.”
Thranduil nodded slowly, still hesitant about revealing too much: “Did she tell you anything, anything unusual?”
“No, she didn’t. As a matter of fact, she barely said a word and only reluctantly allowed me to tend to her injuries and administer her medicines. All she wanted, was for me to go away again and to be left alone. But I could see it in her eyes that there was something wrong. It seems that all our efforts in improving her condition have suddenly come to a halt and I fear that it could take a turn for the worse.”
Thranduil stiffened slightly, his hands gripping the armrests, and when he glanced at Brethilwen, she had narrowed her eyes in a way she always did when she was about to take the conversation to a more personal level.
“May I speak freely, my lord?” she inquired tentatively.
“Of course you may,” he said. “You know that I very much value your counsel.” Brethilwen had been his healer for so many centuries that in the privacy of his chambers he had gotten used to treat her more like a confidant than a subordinate.
“Thranduil,” she began, finally dropping the formalities, “I see that there is trouble brewing and you are not well and I daresay that her emotional state is not unrelated to yours.”
For a moment Thranduil froze in his seat and threw her a calculated glance, but he knew that trying to keep up his facade in front of her would be futile, after all Brethilwen had been the one who had taken care of him after the dragon fire had nearly claimed his live. She knew him better than most.
“You can tell me, you know. I have always been there for you when you needed me, so I think that I do deserve your trust. And if I am going to help you both, then I will need to know what is going on.” She straightened herself in her seat, her long brown tresses framing her serene face like a statue and then she waited, looking at him expectantly.
Thranduil leaned back with a sigh, his head falling against the backrest, and for a moment he stared silently at the vaulted ceiling above him, his eyes tracing the dance of the ghostly shadows created by the flickering flames. She was right, he needed her help. So he would have to tell her, no matter how much he may have wanted to keep this morning’s happenings to himself.
“I nearly spoiled everything today,” he began and then he leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose, before directing his gaze at Brethilwen, whose expression had only shifted to a slight frown mingled with curiosity.
“I went to see her this morning like every day,” he elaborated, “and I brought her a book and a quill for her to write.” A small smile played around his mouth as he remembered Anna’s sparkling eyes and the way she had pressed the book against her chest.
“I’m glad you have heeded my advice. I knew that this would be a gift to her liking.” A distinct trace of satisfaction dawned on Brethilwen’s face.
“She said, she liked it more than the necklace,” he added with a wry smile.
Brethilwen nodded, eyeing Thranduil quietly. Obviously there was more to come.
“But then she started asking questions, too many questions and despair threatened to overtake her.” He rubbed his fingers against his temples. “She looked so utterly lost and I think I must have gotten carried away.”
Brethilwen’s eyes widened in alarm.
Thranduil swallowed hard and his voice dropped to a near whisper: “I told her about the tree and her loss of memory and my involvement in the latter.” He shook his head and clenched his jaw. “She did not take kindly to it and I cannot blame her for it.” His shoulders sank and he stared off into the distance with empty eyes.
Brethilwen’s voice seemed to come from a great distance, and although the words were not new to him, he had always chosen to ignore them. “If you will forgive my saying so, but I have always insisted that the choice of keeping secrets is not the wisest path and I have never been a friend of this particular enchantment either. She was bound to find out eventually. You know that it has always been like that. Only this time it might finally be the one you have been waiting for so long.”
He raked his hands through his hair in frustration. “That is why I wanted to be sure to do everything right, make sure she would stay. But it seems that I have only improved my ability at failing.”
“There is still hope. I am quite sure of it, but it is dwindling,” Brethilwen said.
Thranduil nodded tersely, holding on to the remains of his kingly composure. “So what do you recommend I do?”
“You know that there is only one choice: you must restore her memory and then let her decide for herself what her heart’s true desire is.”
Thranduil buried his forehead in his hands as this was what he had known and feared all along. What if she would choose against him? She was his last hope and without her he was about to lose everything. His gaze drifted to the crackling fire and when he watched the flames licking hungrily at the logs, the speed with which they devoured the wood seemed to only remind him of his own doom. He was running out of time.
“What if she—,” he broke off, afraid of saying out loud what he feared the most.
“You must have faith, faith in her and in yourself.”
“How can I still have faith?” A mirthless laughter escaped him. “I have been running low on faith and hope for too many centuries already.”
“Thranduil,” she said sternly, “you cannot give up hope, not now. If you do, then everything has been for naught and you cannot want that.”
He shifted in his seat, facing Brethilwen with what he hoped to be a stoical expression. “How long do I have?” he said with a drawn out sigh, which gave away more than he had intended.
“Not long enough to face the future alone, but hopefully still long enough to set things right with her,” she said. “The healing has taken a toll on you, Thranduil, first Faeldir and then her. You nearly stretched yourself beyond your limit,” she said, her words spoken like a true healer admonishing her patient. “If the rift in between your rhaw and fae widens any more, there will be no potion or spell strong enough to keep you alive and prevent you from fading. Not even Master Elrond would be able to help you then.” She looked at him imploringly. “You give too much and keep too little for yourself.”
“You always say that,” he stated dryly.
“Because it is true,” Brethilwen insisted, tilting her head sideways, “And since you constantly seem to forget, I need to make sure that I remind you of it.”
“For which I am grateful and I promise you that I shall not forget it this time,” he said, raising an eyebrow in amusement. “But what I did was necessary to save their lives. There was no other choice, not for me. Although I am first and foremost a king, I am also a healer. I could not have let them die, not if it was in within my power to keep them alive. I would have never forgiven myself.”
“I know. That is very noble and I would not have expected anything less from you,” she said with sympathy in her voice. “But you must not forget about yourself. If you spend yourself completely, then the kingdom is left without a king.”
“I do not plan on dying, Brethilwen,” Thranduil said with only the slightest trace of sarcasm in his voice, “and even if the worst were come to pass, there is still my son. He is a very capable leader, as you have seen so yourself, and he has proven himself worthy throughout this last battle and from what I have heard also in its aftermath. I have complete trust in his abilities.”
“Indeed I have known Legolas since a young age and I have seen his abilities.” Her gaze rested for a moment on her folded hands in her lap. “But it is not his destiny to be king of the Woodland Realm. His path will be a different one.” She leaned forward, her grey eyes now searching his. “You are the king and the fate of the forest is inseparably tied to your own. You need to be whole again and not broken, if both of you are going to endure. But you know that already, don’t you?” He acknowledged her words with a resigned nod.
The hissing of the fire and the fountain’s steady purling were the only sounds filling the room as they both sat in a moment of silence. What he had done to Anna wasn’t something he was proud of, but it could not be undone anymore, even if he succeeded in bringing her memory back, and his only hope was her forgiveness. He impatiently awaited the evening, so he might see her again. But brooding in his chambers would not do and he did not want to occupy himself with anything that involved bureaucratic paperwork or other kingly duties. There was only one place, besides Anna’s room, where he wanted to be right now.
The quiet moment was broken momentarily by Thranduil rising from his seat and Brethilwen dutifully following suit.
“I shall go out and take a walk,” he said briskly, shifting towards his usual commanding tone, “And I do not plan on being back any time soon. I will take dinner in my private chambers, or I may even skip it altogether.”
He had already turned towards his dresser, his fingers flicking through the array of cloaks in a multitude of colours and in varying degrees of elegance.
“Yes, my lord,” Brethilwen said, picking up her satchel and easing back into the more distanced relationship of king and servant, which they had been keeping up parallel to the one of patient and healer for so many centuries that it felt like the most normal thing for both of them to do.
Thranduil interrupted his motions to face her again and said with sincerity: “Thank you, Brethilwen, for everything.”
“Of course, Thranduil, this is what I was sent here to do after all,” she said, a grateful smile lighting up her face and without another word she silently let herself out of his chambers.
Thranduil reached for a thick hooded cloak, one that was less regal and more practical, woven out of plain dark grey wool, the colour of trees in winter, he thought to himself with satisfaction. In one fluid motion he threw it around his shoulders, pulling the hood over his head until all strands of his silvery golden hair had disappeared beneath it. With a feeling of growing anticipation he made his way through the hallways and towards the gate, but even despite his more modest attire there was no mistaking him for a common Wood-elf. After all, being king wasn’t solely in the clothes and Thranduil, with his tall frame and proud bearing, carried himself with innate power and the natural authority of a seasoned leader. And when his guards pulled the heavy stone doors open they bowed before him with due reverence. He strode past them with a solemn nod, the doors creaking on their hinges as they fell shut behind him, the dull thud muffled by the layers of freshly fallen snow.
For a moment Thranduil stood motionless and inhaled sharply, filling his lungs with the stinging, but refreshing cold of wintry air, his spirits lifting instantly as the frosty breeze tingled on his face. He looked up into the overcast sky, scattered patches of muddled grey with the promise of more snowfall, and then into the dense woods that lay ahead of him beyond the bridge, dark and gloomy, ready to pull him into their gnarled embrace of swaying branches. No darkness, however evil and devious, had been able to completely overcome the strength that lay in those roots that were as resilient as they were old. More than ever he desired to be among his trees, walk in between their tall pillars, feel their rough bark beneath his fingers and hope that their ancient melody would still be able to soothe his tormented soul.
Thranduil did not return to the palace until late that night.
rhaw - body
fae - soul
Miruvór - an elven cordial, rejuvenates and strengthens