In the Halls of the King
Darkness was all she saw on her way to the Elvenking’s palace. The steady trotting of hooves made her dizzy and if she had not been so preoccupied and anxious about her future she might have even dozed off. Unknown sounds and unfamiliar smells swirled around her, surreal like a dream and still awkwardly present, a deviant reality beyond the normality she knew. Thranduil maintained his grip on her body firm throughout their journey, creating a strange combination of both comfort and menace. The warmth of his body was as palpable as was the coldness of his countenance, a lucid fire smouldering underneath a coat of ice.
The elk responded to Thranduil’s slightest commands without any words, his motions swift and steady despite its double cargo. After what felt like an endless meandering through winding pathways and across narrow creeks they finally drew near their destination. They were slowing down considerably, the distinct rataplan of hooves on cobblestone accompanied by a gurgling rush of water and an ample echo suggesting the crossing of a bridge.
They came to a halt and at a sharp command from Thranduil the hollow creaking of massive stone doors on their hinges being pulled open cut through the silence. A bustling of voices greeted them as she was being led into the Elvenking’s palace. How much she wished that she could just pull away the cloth from her eyes and look around, such a strange and marvellous place this must be just by the sound of it. But she had made a promise and as hard as her patience was now tried she would not give in to curiosity, not yet at least.
Thranduil dismounted, his hand reaching out for hers indicating that she was supposed to do the same. “Come,” he said. “You will be led to my chambers while I attend to pressing matters that have reached me as we arrived. You will be treated as my guest, there will be food and clothing should you wish so. But you are not to leave my quarters without my consent, under no circumstances. Do you understand?”
Anna nodded and it was clear to her that she was not really just his ‘guest’ but more of an almost-prisoner until he knew what to do with her.
“This is all very confusing for me. Can I at least ask you to take off my blindfold? I assure you that I am not a spy of whatever sort you may think.”
The silence beside her could only mean that he was pondering his decision.
“And I promise I will not try to escape, if that helps,” she added quickly to further emphasise her honest intentions.
“Not yet; we will see about that later. Go now, my guards will lead you to my chambers.” He cut her off abruptly and before she could reply she was swept away by guards on either side.
How many hours went by until Thranduil came to see her in his chambers she did not know, but the fact that he had literally left her in darkness for so long had cast a shadow on her spirit. She felt lonely, abandoned and disoriented like an orphaned child. Even though she was intimidated by Thranduil’s commanding attitude, his presence had also meant that she was most likely protected from whatever other evil things which might befall her in this strange world. Not knowing where she was and what was her fate she had refused food and drink and decided to remain on the bench the guards had led her to, eventually giving in to tiredness and lying down. She pulled her knees up and wept herself into a dreamless sleep.
A sudden change in the ambience woke Anna from her restless slumber. The guards behind her shuffling their feet and the echo of approaching steps made her sit up straight only to realise that she still would not be able to see anything, even with her eyes open. She didn’t know how much longer would she be able to stay blindfolded without the urge to just rip the cloth from her eyes becoming unbearably strong.
It was unmistakably Thranduil’s voice that commanded the guards to leave. His presence close to her sent her nervousness beyond unimagined heights. She was like a prisoner not bound by ropes but by darkness and it seemed that Thranduil was in no hurry to relieve her situation. There was a long silence as neither of them said a word and only the steady purl of water of a nearby fountain or pool filled the air. Maybe he was either studying her or expecting her to come forth with a confession of some kind. The tension reached unbearable limits when he took a seat beside her and her fingernails dug into the velvet surface of the cushion in a desperate attempt of holding on to something when she had seemingly lost everything.
“Hold out your hand.” When finally he spoke she was surprised at the gentleness of his voice. There was no trace of anger in it, only a commanding calmness which would not brook any defiance.
Her hands clung to the bench and she could not will them to move, as if letting go meant losing all the hold that she still had left.
“I will not hurt you. I gave you my word.”
After seconds seemingly stretching into an eternity she raised her right hand which he closed with his own around the smooth and polished metal of a heavy goblet. She let out a surprised gasp, his hand steadying her grip.
“Don’t drop it.” Slight amusement rang through his words. “You are my guest and I see that you have not touched any of the food and drink that has been offered to you. I insist that you drink this. It is a sweet Dorwinion wine, one of my best.” After a short silence he added: “And I do not take no for an answer.”
“But how I am I to know that you are not going to poison me or somehow else kill me?!” She immediately regretted her undue outburst, but there was no way to take back her words and besides, she was just being honest. She would not be able to keep her countenance calm in this status of uncertainty for much longer. And somewhere in the back of her mind there was a warning going off never to accept food or drink from strangers, even more so if they were not human.
“You don’t. So my word will just have to suffice.” He brought his mouth so close to her ear she could feel his breath tingle on her neck. “But let me tell you this: if I would have wanted to hurt you or kill you I could have already done so numerous times.” He lowered his voice to a dangerous growl: “I will not have you refuse my hospitality.” Anticipating another objection he tightened his grip on her hand: “Do not antagonise me.”
He let go of her hand, her fingers tensing around the goblet. Anna’s mind was racing, it felt like this was the point of no return, if she would drink this it would somehow seal her coming into this world, shutting the path of return, entwining her fate with his. But there was nothing for it, it was either drink this or incur this strange Elvenking’s wrath, which was not something she was keen on. Maybe he would kill her after all if she didn’t comply.
She took a deep breath and put the cup to her lips taking a tentative sip. Unexpected warmth filled her weary heart like the golden sun caressing her on a warm summer day as the liquid passed her throat. Never had she drank anything so sweet and delicious, she could literally taste the ripe fruit among the heavy scent of unknown fragrant flowers. Images of lush valleys under sapphire skies bathed in sunlight appeared before her inner eye and without another thought she drained the whole cup like someone who was dying of thirst.
He took the goblet from her hand before it would slip from her fingers as dizziness seeped through her veins, crawling rapidly up to her head. This wine was not only exceptionally delightful but also much stronger than any human made wine and she feared that she would either collapse or start talking nonsense, both things not really desirable in her situation.
“Now, this was not so bad, or was it?” His voice sounded more velvety than ever, spreading like liquid fire under her skin and setting her every pore ablaze with its flames.
“It was wonderful. I have never tasted anything like it before.” Anna felt considerably lightheaded and being still deprived of her power of vision she had trouble sitting up straight.
“I do not doubt that. It is indeed a splendid wine.” He brushed a strand of hair from her cheek, his fingers lingering on her skin just long enough to make her shiver under his touch.
Before her courage would leave her again Anna decided to take a plunge and get ahead of a possible interrogation that she was sure he had in mind. As much as she hated being blindfolded, now it actually provided her with a certain sense of comfort. Not being able to see his reaction to her words emboldened her and she felt braver than she actually was. She was going to tell him the truth, even though she did not even quite know what was the truth any more. Her past seemed to melt more and more into a vague framework of someone else’s life.
“I am sorry that I lied to you. That was wrong, please forgive me. I just didn’t know what to say, so I came up with this silly story.”
She paused, waiting for his reply, but he only said: “Go ahead. I am listening.”
She swallowed hard and then the words just poured from her mouth:
“I don’t know who I am any more. I—I seem to have lost my past. Everything from before the moment I woke up under the tree where you found me is but a blur, shrouded in fog. It is like a dream slowly fading away. The harder I try to hold on to pieces of my memories, the faster they disappear. People and places, friends and family, everything just slips through my fingers and I cannot do anything to stop it.”
Her voice was on the verge of cracking, the last words barely a whisper. “I cannot even remember my name any more.” She wrung her hands in despair. “This is the truth, I swear. And you are my only hope of ever finding my way back. Will you help me, please? I beg you!”
She felt tears welling up and an ever growing lump in her throat made it impossible for her to keep going without losing her poise. He said nothing. The silence was unbearable.
“Please,” she was desperate, “why won’t you say anything? Something? You have to believe me, I—”
She broke off as he suddenly leaned closer towards her, the scent of forest leaves and berries enveloping her.
“Who are you, strange girl, and why did you come here?” he said softly, his voice devoid of all coldness.
“I—I don’t know,” she whispered, her body taut as a bowstring. “But please —,”
His finger reached under her chin to tilt it up. “What do you seek here?” he inquired, but Anna was paralysed, her last remnants of coherent speech swiftly fading beneath his touch.
“N—nothing. And I—I didn’t want to come here,” she stammered, wishing that he would just stop asking her those questions to which she knew no answers.
“But yet you did,” he said, his warm breath so close it clouded her senses and after a moment of silence he added: “I see shadows where you came from. You bring with you unrest and —,” he inhaled sharply and pulled the cloth from her eyes in one brisk motion.
The sudden explosion of light around her blinded her like a cloudless summer sky. She buried her face in her hands, trying to relieve the all too sudden transition from darkness to light. Thranduil observed her closely, but remained silent.
Timidly she took in her surroundings, an ample chamber with tall columns, delicately carved, deeply hidden inside or more likely even under the forest. Lavishly furnished and tastefully decorated the king’s chamber also sported a wide pool, spring-fed by a happily gurgling fountain at the far side of its walls. Deep amber and a mossy green enwrought with speckles of silver and gold imparted these rooms an aura of earthiness with a distinct layer of melancholy. Anna was smitten with amazement, unable to tear her eyes away from all the magnificent splendour.
But rather sooner than later her gaze was inevitably drawn to Thranduil himself, who had changed into a long robe of gold and green, its iridescent texture reminding her of the bark of the tree where he had found her. A sweeping cloak of heavy brocade was elegantly draped around his shoulders, the sparkling silver with a lustrous lining in deep shiny orange engulfing him in a blazing aura of fire and ice. On his head he wore the most extravagantly shaped crown of twigs, leaves and berries she had ever seen. If she had thought him intimidating when she saw him in the forest, his present appearance left her speechless. Her breath hitched in her throat when her eyes finally found his. There was but the faintest glimmer of empathy in them that she had not seen there before. Still, their piercing intensity made her feel like he was looking straight into her soul, laying bare her innermost wishes and desires. It was slightly unsettling to say the least.
“Your sudden appearance is in indeed most curious and I am not quite certain what to make of it,” he said, eyeing her with a scrutinising glance as he stowed away the small piece of cloth in the pocket of his robe. “But be that as it may, I am willing to grant you the benefit of the doubt, as your words seem to be sincere.”
“Thank you,” she said, a glimmer of hope dawning on her gloomy horizon. “Thank you for believing me.” Without giving it any further thought she added quickly: “And I do wish to go home more than anything. So I would be most grateful for your help.”
The flicker of empathy died in his eyes and Anna wished that for once she had kept her mouth shut instead of blurting out something she did not really mean.
Stern was his expression and his voice unexpectedly cold like winter’s frost when he spoke again:
“If you are so sure about it then I will offer you whatever help I can provide so you can get back to where you came from. Assuming that this is what you truly want.”
Of course it was. Or was it? What else could she possibly want? Anna swallowed, feeling suddenly exposed. It was as if he had read her mind, the struggle that unfurled inside her apparently obvious on her face.
“But what is your heart’s true desire?” He threw her a suggestive look, his eyebrows raising ever so slightly.
She opened her mouth, but no answer left it, not with him staring at her like that. So she lowered her gaze, looking at her hands, that lay twisted and clammy in her lap, hoping that he would not keep pressing for an answer; which to her surprise he did not.
He stood up, preparing to go, his manner polite, but reserved:
“Well, I shall leave you to it then. Tell me when you have come to a decision. And you better be truthful about it. I will know it if you are lying.”
She looked up to him, stunned, still not finding any words, as if he had stolen her ability to speak. An hour ago she would have given anything to be able to go back and find her past life, wherever that was, but now she was not so sure any more.
With a slight inclination of his head he addressed her in a formal tone: “While you remain in my halls you might as well join me at tonight’s banquet as my guest. We have not had a visitor from a truly foreign land in quite a while. It is mereth nuin giliath, the feast under the stars. I will send Feren to call upon you.”
“But where are you going?” She called after him as he turned to leave and she had partially regained her ability to speak, though she still was heavily inebriated by the wine. “What am I to do now? You cannot just leave me!”
He stopped in his tracks, a condescending glare in his eyes. “Yes, I can.”
He sighed, his annoyance as clear as daylight. “My dear, you seem to forget that I have a kingdom to rule. I cannot just spend all my time here with you. Strange people are passing through my lands these days, dwarves and who knows else. And there are numerous other important matters that require my attention. Surely you understand.”
Anna nodded, ashamed and embarrassed at her own ignorance. How silly of her to only think of herself, after all she was just a small insignificant human, lost in his wide Elven kingdom.
Seeing her all crestfallen he veered towards a more forgiving tone. “I am merely offering you a chance to ponder your options, as my guest, not my prisoner. You might want some time to weigh your options. And you may now also wander around freely in these halls.”
He opened his arms in a sweeping motion to underline his generosity and turned on his heels to leave, the trail of his cloak billowing behind him like rippling waves of pure silver and burnt orange.
He halted at the door, a smirk on his face. “But try not to get lost. Again.”