Cave of Secrets
“Some truths, over time, can learn to play nice
Some truths are sharper than knives.”
(Sleeping At Last: South)
One word, a single word had stirred up a whirlwind of emotions inside her. She did have a name after all, wasn’t a no-one, and the hazy fragments of her past lay finally within her reach. For a moment she didn’t quite know what to do with all the excitement bubbling inside her, so she stared at the closed door through which Gandalf had disappeared, pondering if she should go after him to ask him all he seemed to know and still hide about her. She was quite sure that her name was not the only thing, but then she decided against it, assuming that he would now want to speak to Thranduil and she did not want to interfere in what would hopefully lead to the lifting of her spell. Instead she sprinted towards her desk, making Aradan jump in surprise, sat down and pulled the blue book, Thranduil’s gift, towards her. The elk calf staggered backwards, but caught himself to quickly teeter behind her. Anna opened the book on an empty page, dipped the quill into the ink-pot and with a pounding heart she began scribbling down her name over and over again, not once nor twice, but dozens of times until the entire page was crowded from top to bottom with narrow letters, huddled closely in each other’s company. Her quill flew over the parchment like a nimble bird. It was as if she couldn’t stop writing, as if she were afraid that at any moment she would forget it again and she had to make sure that it would be written down for her to remember. When she was finally done, she dropped the quill, wiping her ink stained fingers on a handkerchief she always kept in reach on her desk. Much to Thranduil’s amusement she still had not yet managed to keep her fingers clean when writing, and while she did enjoy his teasing, it irked her that something so simple should prove to be so difficult to accomplish. She threw the handkerchief back on the table, her fingertips now sporting only a slightly greyish hue. It was good enough for now. She would scrub them later, or maybe she would ask Thranduil to do that for her. He had the gift of transforming even such an innocent thing as washing her hands into a sensual act that set her every nerve on fire. With a satisfied smile she admired her work and then held the book up to show it to Aradan, who was dozing beside her on the floor and was now curiously raising his head.
“This is me,” she said, waving her finger excitedly at the page crammed with her name, “Anna, that’s my name.”
Aradan angled his head with mild interest. Obviously to him it did not make any difference if she had a name or not. For him, her presence was the only thing that mattered, name or no name, memory or none.
“Aradan.” With a flourish gesture of her hand she pointed first at him and then at herself. “Anna.”
The elk calf rose to his feet and began sniffing the book with that typical curiosity of small animals, something that could still get him into trouble if she ever applied the strict rules Thranduil had urged her to establish. Before Aradan’s teeth would get a hold of the page she snapped the book shut and placed it back on the desk. She strolled over to the breakfast table and picked at the food rather aimlessly, searching for something, anything, to keep herself occupied and her mind busy, but to no avail. There was only one thing she really wanted to do right now, something that could not wait any longer, lest her heart would burst in her chest. She needed to see Thranduil, tell him that he finally could call her by her name.
But not like this. Looking down at herself she concluded that this was an occasion that called for a nice dress. She whirled around, sending her robe flying towards the bed, her nightshirt quickly following suit. Her fingers danced undecidedly atop several dresses in her closet until they came to a halt on a stone grey dress made of softest velvet, accompanied by a fitted bodice of black leather and matching black leather slippers. It was a simple yet exquisite piece of clothing with a high neckline and long, buttoned up sleeves, somehow tantalisingly modest, whilst flowing around her curves in a way that would have Thranduil’s gaze rake over her body as if he could see right through the velvet cascades. It exuded the exact type of understated elegance she was hoping to convey. She slid the dress over her head, revelling in the smoothness of the fabric against her skin, carefully adjusting its fit and then swiftly proceeded to tighten the laces on the leather bodice without having to look at herself in the mirror while doing so, something she had finally mastered after four months of being dressed in elven gowns. She finished up the laces with a tidy bow at her waist, imagining how Thranduil’s long fingers would undo it, slowly pulling the ribbons through the eyelets one by one until the bodice would slide off her shoulders, exposing the entirety of her velvet dress to the mercy of his hands.
She wanted him, needed him, consequences be damned, and it was obvious to her that he felt the same, his honour the only thing still holding him back from making her his. This time she would make sure that Aradan would not interrupt them again. She knew what was in her heart after she had finally said it out loud once, and she would do so again. She would look into Thranduil’s eyes and would tell him that she loved him. No matter what the revelation of her past might bring, at this very moment this was her only truth. Her feet slid into the soft leather slippers and then she shot herself an assessing glance in the mirror. Her skin was glowing, the dark circles under her eyes gone, and even she herself had to admit that she looked quite pretty. Thanks to Brethilwen’s expertise her hair was still in near pristine condition, her braid falling loosely down the middle of her back. For a moment she stood pondering if she should store the phial Brethilwen had given her in the small wooden box where she kept Faeldir’s and Amardir’s poem alongside Thranduil’s tattered handkerchief. She closed her hand around the glass and then decided against it, the healer’s words still ringing in her ears. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to leave it behind, so she slid it into the pocket of her dress. One more thing occurred to her before she was ready to go to Thranduil’s chambers. She carefully extracted the page from her book to take it with her, just to show him the written proof that she wasn’t a nameless woman any more.
“I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay here,” she told Aradan who had been following her all around the room and looked at her now wide-eyed. “I need to go and see the king.” Aradan angled his head and wagged his tail excitedly.
“Alone.” She lowered her voice, standing with her arms akimbo. “And looking at me like that isn’t going to convince me otherwise. Just curl up in your corner and wait until I come back, but don’t get into my bed, not while I’m not here.” She raised her eyebrows, the way she had seen Thranduil doing it when he gave out orders, her mouth drawn into a thin line. After a moment of hesitation Aradan lowered his head and then trotted obediently towards the pile of blankets and cushions that made up his bed in an alcove beside the pool.
“Good boy,” Anna said, smiling and positively satisfied with herself. Maybe she was finally getting the hang of being more authoritative.
With a renewed bout of energy and her heart as light as a feather, she slipped through the concealed door, the vast expanse of Thranduil’s bedchambers lying surprisingly quiet and empty before her. She strained to hear the resonant sound of his voice, even closed her eyes to will her ears to pick up the faintest echo of it, but all she could hear were the muffled voices of servants as they shuffled around in whatever hidden areas of his chambers. She looked around, scanning the room, her eyes darting to his favourite armchair beside the mantlepiece, but there was no trace of him nor of Gandalf. Two servants, young ellith balancing enormous piles of bedsheets in their hands, promenaded past her towards the magnificent fourposter bed, but just like Brethilwen had hinted to Anna, Thranduil must have not gone to bed at all, as the perfectly wrinkle-free bedsheets looked pristine and unused. She couldn’t help but think that it was about time that those sheets would see some activity which would actually merit them being changed. Still, out of habit or possibly following the king’s orders, the servants would anyway provide the bed with a new set of equally elegant looking sheets, cream coloured and dark green silk, which she knew by now were the king’s preferred colours when it came to bedding and upholstery. The elf maids greeted her with a small inclination of their heads, but they did neither stop her nor inquire, as everyone by now had gotten used to see her in Thranduil’s chambers on a daily basis. Still, most servants rarely ever went beyond greeting her, or asking if she needed anything, and she was not quite sure if they were simply being polite in that slightly stiff and unemotional elven way, or if they still considered her a foreign addition to the royal household, albeit a welcome one. No one doubted that her presence was an actual blessing and had helped their king in greatly improving his mood and so much more. It was obvious in the way he strove to treat his subordinates with more patience, how he had so dedicatedly worked on repairing the broken relationship with his son. Even his playful sense of humour, buried under centuries of grief, had resurfaced, and Anna particularly enjoyed this lighthearted side of Thranduil, which made him appear so much more alive. But there was also no denying that the memory of the former queen still overshadowed whatever possible relationship was going to unfold between Anna and the Elvenking.
Now that she had recovered her own name, she was wondering if she might finally work up the courage to ask Thranduil for the queen’s name, something he seemed to have keenly avoided mentioning to her. She did not mind, after all, the fact that he spoke so little about her, must mean that somehow he was indeed leaving this part of his life finally behind. But she still had the impression that there were too many unresolved aspects of his former marriage lingering, things that needed clearing up, if they were ever going to have a realistic chance of being together. The queen’s image still haunted Anna’s dreams and sometimes even her waking hours, the beautiful and serene face in the locket forever etched in her memory.
She wilfully ignored the bitter aftertaste that remained when she thought that, no matter what, her own mortality would forever separate them. She would still be mortal and he would be an immortal elf, so their relationship would be doomed to whatever tragic end. Unless there was a miracle coming to save them, but miracles didn’t happen, not in real life anyway. She would need to make do with what she was offered, maybe a few decades of happiness with Thranduil until her body would wither and inevitably succumb to old age and then death, while he would live on, beautiful and ageless until the end of time. But she wouldn’t let this thought spoil the happiness she felt, not today, so she pushed it to the back of her head, where it would stay hidden for as long as she could keep it from surfacing.
Bringing her thoughts back to the present and having checked all other possibilities, she decided to peek into Thranduil’s study, a relatively small chamber, which was crammed with old tomes, maps, dusty objects of questionable origin, possibly unwanted gifts Anna had mused, as well as a rather ancient looking desk. Thranduil rarely used it though, as he much preferred the more comfortable desk in his bedchamber. Not only was it wider and looked more stately, but it also offered him to be able to work while enjoying Anna’s company, something that the study could not provide, since it did not contain comfortable armchairs or cushioned settees, but rather displayed utilitarian furniture like wooden chairs, narrow shelves and said desk, which Thranduil seemed to have converted into a permanent storage area for discarded items. The room lay in a greyish gloom, the few sconces along the wall providing only minimal lighting, definitely not enough to be working in a comfortable way. She trailed her finger along the carved edge of the desk and allowed her eyes to adjust to the little light, but it was obvious that no one was in here. There were no voices and no motion, and even an elf and a wizard could not work in complete and utter silence. She let out a sigh and with sagging shoulders she made to turn around, resigned to the fact that Thranduil was nowhere to be found.
But then she remembered that in one of their rare visits to the study he had casually hinted to her, that the main purpose of him still using this room was the fact that it led to another, lower level of the palace, allowing him to reach that area without having to use the general hallways. When she had asked him where exactly this would lead, he had been rather vague and evasive. She knew him enough to conclude that this meant that she would not get anything more out of him, as this was his way of saying that he wasn’t inclined to share any more details. It occurred to her that perhaps today was one of those moments where he had resorted to use the study as a means to actually go elsewhere. And indeed, her assumptions were confirmed when she discovered a suspicious crack in the back wall. It was the outline of a door, almost perfectly concealed between two shelves, quite narrow, but tall enough even for an elf of Thranduil’s height to pass easily through. And the door stood ajar. With a racing heartbeat and trying not to think too much on the audacity of what she was about to do, she gave the door a tentative push and it swung open slowly, revealing a narrow stairway spiralling down. Whereto was impossible to tell, but she was determined to find out.
Torches were lit along the wall, illuminating the steep descent, so she gathered up the hem of her dress in her hands and without looking back she put her foot on the first step. Downwards it went, a little bit narrower and darker with every turn, and she had to keep her eyes on the ground, watching out for the unexpected uneven step, as she had nearly tripped already several times and was beginning to regret her decision to wear such a long and elegant dress for this unexpected excursion into the depths of the earth. The further down she went, the sparser were the torches and when she had finally reached the bottom of the stairway, she found herself faced with a long hallway, more of a tunnel really, that gently sloped downwards, its endpoint hidden in complete darkness. Two torches beside her were the only sources of light, so she didn’t hesitate and lifted one of them out of its bracket to light her the way. Given that elves had much better eyesight than humans, they of course could make do with little light, while for Anna it appeared that she was facing pitch black night.
She lingered for a moment, hesitating, tentatively swinging the torch around her in a slow circular motion, but there seemed to be no imminent danger lurking in the unknown. Only the slightly mouldy smell of a place that had been enclosed and kept away from fresh air for far too long hit her nose. If she listened closely she could hear the rushing of water not far off, which meant that she was low enough to have reached the area where the Forest River passed directly under the palace. The temperature was surprisingly warm and the thought of finding Thranduil was incentive enough to keep going, so she gave herself a push and headed into the tunnel.
If Thranduil’s palace was old, then this tunnel seemed downright ancient, maybe even older than the Elvenking himself. It did not even appear as if it had been delved into the rock by the Elves. Maybe the earth itself had opened up to make way for the passage, which did not show any of the beautiful ornaments or decoration the Elves usually liked to bestow upon practically any surface. The thought alone struck her with awe and she pushed the image of bulbous eyes and hairy bodies on eight legs far from her mind. There was no way that Thranduil would allow those foul creatures to sneak into these heavily guarded halls. At least that’s what she told herself as she groped her way along the rocky walls that were beginning to feel increasingly moist beneath her fingers, her feet treading carefully to avoid misstepping on the floor with its occasional trickle of water crossing her path. Why, out of all her available shoes, had she chosen those thin leather slippers? She should have gone for her tall leather boots, much like the ones Thranduil preferred. Her toes were beginning to feel uncomfortably wet already and by the time she got to the end of wherever she was heading to, her feet would be possibly soaked. There were several times when she questioned her boldness and almost turned back, the feeling that she was being watched by invisible eyes creeping up insistently on her. Maybe she should have, just for once, tried to be patient and reasonable and have waited for Thranduil in her chamber instead of letting her curiosity get the better of her. But she shrugged off the feeling of guilt, as she was not really doing anything forbidden. Thranduil had never explicitly told her that she could not venture into these areas, and it was too late now to turn around anyway.
Before the next wave of doubts could surface, there was a faint golden light appearing at what might finally be the end of the tunnel. She increased her pace until she found herself faced quite abruptly with an unadorned wooden door, flanked by one torch and an empty metal mount on the other side, into which she slid her own torch. Crammed along the walls were several shelves, some of them tall, some low, but all of them stacked to the top with jars, vials, arrays of dried plants, collections of strange stones, a most wondrous mixture of items, which Anna could only guess, the Elvenking might need for whatever magical purposes of his. Her curious inspection was cut short by the sound of two voices coming from behind the door. There could be no doubt that one of them was Thranduil’s. She knew the low and resonant baritone timbre well enough to recognise it. Excitement began to mount inside her chest and she bit her lower lip as she placed her hand on the doorknob, but then another voice made itself heard, its low rumble slightly roughened by age, which only could belong to Gandalf, and instead of opening the door she let go of the knob, leaning against the wall beside the door. Maybe this was her chance to hear whatever else Gandalf still knew of her. So she decided to linger, closed her eyes, straining her ears to listen closely to the conversation beyond the door. They seemed to move about inside. She could only catch the occasional phrase between the shuffling of their feet and the clinking of glass, the steady trickle of water making it even more difficult to clearly discern their words. She was almost ready to give up and head inside when suddenly she heard Gandalf say:
“What of Calithiel?”
She could hear Thranduil draw in a sharp breath. “What of her?” His words were clipped.
“Well, have you never considered the thought that she might be reborn?”
Anna swallowed away a lump in her throat, pressing herself closer into the wall behind her. The stone against her back wasn’t nearly as cold as the sheet of ice settling around her heart.
She might have just gotten her wish granted, as this could only be the queen’s name. A beautiful name, fitting for such a beautiful elleth. Unlike her own, which suddenly appeared to her simple and plain. Anna, there was no mystery or alluring ring to it.
By all rights, she should not even be here and if she knew what was good for her, she should either turn around and head back right now, or go inside before it was too late. But she did none of the two things. Too tempting was the thought to finally hear what Thranduil had never told her, even if she would run the risk of hearing something she might later regret. And so, heart pounding madly in her chest, she stayed.
“I did cradle that hope once, yes, but not any more. I have given it up a long time ago, realising that I have been chasing after a ghost. Calithiel was ever pulled towards Valinor, never quite felt at home in the Great Greenwood and when the darkness fell, so did her spirit. She grew weary of this world at a frightening pace and no matter what I tried to make her happy, it was never enough. She knew when she had agreed to marry me, that I would have to stay, to linger until my duty here in Middle-earth was done. I am not just the king of this forest, but I am also its guardian, our fates inseparably entwined, a long time before I have bound myself to Calithiel. If I were to leave Mirkwood behind, it would wither and die, something I would never allow to happen. Without my presence everything here would succumb to the evil spreading from Dol Guldur. After Legolas was born, I still had hope that she would adjust and she would want to stay for him. A futile hope, as I knew that in the end she always wanted to sail West and leave Middle-earth behind and she wished for me to do the same, but I could not. So she made me promise her one thing.”
“And what was that?” Gandalf’s voice was remarkably subdued.
“Should I still wish to stay, she wanted me to make sure that Legolas would sail West when his time came, so she could be united with her son.”
There was a pause.
“And you agreed?” Gandalf said into the silence.
“Yes, of course I did, though with reluctance at first, but I did not want to deny her the chance to be reunited with her son, even if it meant for me to be forever separated from both of them in the end. I always knew that I would first and foremost be a king and the leader of my people, so personal sacrifices on my part were to be expected.”
Anna’s heart tightened in her chest at hearing those words and she strained to hear what was said next, but they must have moved to a far away corner, because she could not make out any of the words exchanged between the two of them. There was quite a good amount of rummaging, opening and closing of closets or cupboards and she was quite sure that she even heard the distinct hissing of fire. Whatever they were brewing in there seemed to near its conclusion, and she had already reached for the doorknob to enter, assuming their conversation to be over, when the wizard’s voice sounded again from inside.
“But do you love her?”
A moment of silence. Anna held her breath.
“Yes, I do and nothing will change that.”
That was when the world around her spun faster and faster at a nauseating speed until it suddenly stopped completely, a black hole opening up beneath her. Slowly, ever so slowly, like in a bubble of air underwater, Anna could feel her heart shatter and then burst into a million pieces. The blood rushed to her head, drowning out any other sound, and she clamped her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob, the sting of tears imminent in her eyes. Of course he still loved her. She was his wife after all, his queen, the mother of his only child. Elves only married once and he was no different. Her whole body was shaking as her insides crumbled to dust and her hand shot out towards the wall to keep herself from collapsing. Two fat tears clung to her lower lashes, slowly spilling over her cheeks.
‘Nothing will change that,’ he had said. Not even death would.
Even if she had long departed from these shores, she still remained ever present in his heart and most likely in the hearts of her people. How could she, a mere human, have had the presumptuousness of even thinking that she would ever take her place? This was turning into a nightmare and she was trapped inside it without the hope of ever waking up, no matter how hard she tried. Her fingernails dug into the craggy rock until she felt the warm trickle of blood on her fingertips. But she could not care less. The pain wasn’t nearly as bad as the one that tore her insides apart. The laces on her bodice all of a sudden felt too tight and there wasn’t enough air for her to breathe in this damp and forsaken place. What a fool she had been! What a terrible fool! And the worst of it was that Gandalf had made her confess to him that she loved Thranduil. He must be now either laughing at her or pitying her, possibly both.
She could not linger any longer. She had to get away from here, away from Thranduil, even if she still didn’t have her memory back. Better no memory than to have to face him again, knowing that his heart still belonged to another. This wasn’t her life to live, she knew it now. She broke away from the wall, stumbling sideways, not heeding where her feet treaded on the slippery floor. One of the narrow shelves with an array of delicate glass flacons and jars of earthenware swayed dangerously and then went crashing to the ground as she brushed against it with her shoulder. A loud clattering noise echoed through the tunnel, causing Anna to break into a frantic run. She did not bother to look back.
“Anna?” Thranduil’s voice boomed through the raucous behind her.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, hot and salty. This was not the way she had envisioned hearing her name on his lips for the first time.
“Wait!” Thranduil called after her, but she did not turn around, did not want to have to look at him, at those brilliant blue eyes that had promised her such heavenly delight, only to throw her now into utter despair.
“Leave me alone!” she called into the darkness behind her, her voice choked.
Half blinded by the veil of tears she staggered through the dark tunnel, up and up, never stopping, never looking back, one hand grazing along the wall. The passage seemed not want to end until she finally saw the faint light of a singular torch marking the beginning of the stairway.
“Anna! Don’t run away!” Again, her name. It cut like a dagger through her heart. His voice sounded much closer already, so she picked up her pace, gathering up the length of her dress in one hand. The stairs were uneven and she had to hold from the wall with her right hand so as not to stumble in the twilight. But Thranduil with his much longer stride had soon caught up with her and she felt his hand closing in around her wrist, turning her around towards him. His other hand went towards her waist, but she evaded his arm, his touch and the closeness of his body suddenly unbearable.
“Please, don’t!” she said, backing away from him, trying to wrest her wrist from his grip, but he would not let go.
“Why are you running away? What did I do?” he said, his gaze boring into hers, but he refrained from pulling her closer towards him.
Her lips were trembling and her throat was all clogged up. “What you did? You are still asking me?” She turned her eyes away from him, the gloomy wall suddenly easier to look at than his beautiful face that seemed to speak only of betrayal.
“Tell me, please! Don’t speak in riddles!” And then he suddenly paled. “Did you—, did you hear what we spoke?”
There were more tears streaming down her cheek, but she did not try to stop them. “Yes, I heard. I heard loud and clear when you said that you loved her.”
“No,” was all he said, shaking his head, his usual eloquence turned into speechlessness.
“Don’t even try to deny it! You love Calithiel. That’s her name, isn’t it?” She threw him an angry glare, wriggling her wrist free from his hand.
“I—, Anna—,” he began, but she cut across him, anger and rage flaring up inside her.
“Yes, that’s my name. I see that Gandalf told you too. But it’s her the one you love, the one you have always loved. I don’t know what you thought that you were doing with me, but it’s not working!”
She wiped her running nose on the back of her hand and then she pulled out the paper with her name from her pocket and shoved it against his chest.
“There, you can keep that! So you have something to remember me by when I’m gone!”
Without another glance at him she turned away, thundering up the stairs, all gracefulness forgotten. “And don’t come after me!” she cried.
“Anna! This is a misunderstanding!” he called from the bottom of the stairs, standing rooted to the spot. “It is not what you think it is!” His voice echoed through the empty darkness ahead, but she had already reached the topmost landing and stormed through the door, throwing it shut behind her.
To be continued…