The Spirits of Yule
I am sitting on the edge of Ecthelion’s fountain in the Square of the King, my bare feet dangling in its cool waters, breeches rolled up, as one might on a fair summer’s day.
How strange, I think. This is something I would never have done.
All about is darkness and fire. The air is acrid with clouds of smoke and dust, loud with shouts and screams, the roar of firedrakes, and the clash of metal on metal. The crystal waters churning around my ankles are coloured with spreading swirls of dark crimson and black, elven and balrog blood mingling in death.
Suddenly, something icy cold in the murky depths catches my ankle. I give a choking gasp as Ecthelion rises from the fountain before me, his wet raven hair charred and bedraggled beneath his helm, its diamond-spike black with balrog blood. His drowned face is a ghastly shade of blue-grey. Silver eyes glassy in death fix on mine. Blood-stained water streams from his battered armour, scorched black from balrog flame.
“Aiya, traitor,” he says, his voice a rasping whisper, a mockery of his once-dulcet tones. “Welcome back.”
The world about us has fallen silent. No sound comes from my throat as I struggle in vain to speak. To explain. To beg forgiveness.
“Aye, welcome back, my lord prince,” whispers another voice into my right ear. I turn my head to see the grey, bloodless face of Penlod, blue-grey eyes glazed, his armour bloody and rent by axes, a broken-off spear protruding from his chest.
An icy hand closes like a vice around my throat and pulls me backwards. I fall hard onto the flagstones of the courtyard and stare up at the faces of the Lord of the Swallow and another. Their glassy eyes hold mine. Duilin’s bloodied armour is pierced with orcish arrows. The other is blackened and charred by dragon fire beyond all recognition... only his silver-green eyes glisten, and by them, I know him.
“Reckoning time, Mole,” the Lord of the Hammer growls. A raspy whisper like a blade on a whetstone. The sickeningly sweet, acrid smell of burned flesh and hair fills my nostrils.
Duilin’s hand holds my neck still, as he bends over me, his dead face close to mine. “What’s got your tongue, traitor? You sang easily enough, to Moringotto.”
“Long have we waited for you,” says Ecthelion, water dripping off him onto my face, as he leans in as though for a kiss.
No sound comes from my throat as I scream.
My heart is pounding wildly as I awaken. I am soaked in cold sweat… my throat is dry. Instinctively, my hand reaches over the sheets for comfort, and feels only emptiness. A sudden gust of cold wind blows through the woven screens and fills the darkened talan with shifting patterns of shadows and silver moonlight dancing through mallorn leaves.
Where is this? Where is he?
Laughter and song and flute music float up from the pavilions below, and I remember.
It is Yule week in Ithilien. The woodland festivities will end in three days, then we shall return to Minas Tirith for the king’s banquet.
How long have I slept? I am shaking, but not from the cold wind. I slip out of bed and walk to the edge of the talan and pull open the woven screens. The restless wind whips through the shimmering golden branches and chases ragged drifts of dark cloud across the face of the moon. The moon is already low in the sky, setting over the lands of Lebennin.
The longest night of the year, sunrise in two hours, and he is still at the feast, the bastard.
I gaze down from the flet at the Parth Glóren, the glade at the heart of Legolas’ realm, where three fair pavilions of cedarwood stand on a green sward surrounded by twelve tall mellyrn, Celeborn’s gift to Legolas when the Silvan prince first travelled south to establish his colony. They have flourished astonishingly in the warm climate of Gondor—not yet the size of the ancient trees in Lothlórien, but for many years already large enough to bear telain.
I let anger banish the dread of my dreams. Wifely anger that he is still making merry, irrational anger that he has somehow failed me. There was a time he would have sensed my nightmare, even if he slept, even if he was at the other end of the great house of Imladris. He would have come running to me. He would have banished the dark shadows with light and song, and I would have wakened to the warmth of strong arms and surrounded by the golden glow of his hair.
I see no golden hair amid the groups of dancers below. I had lost my taste for the festivities around midnight and returned to our flet, hoping he would follow soon after. Obviously he has decided not to. Obviously he is still having a fine time. I nurse my anger. I would rather be angry than desolate.
I had thought the loneliness of our separation during the Rhúnaer War years hard to bear. This is worse, in some ways. And it began not long after his return from the war.
The triumphant return of King Elessar and King Éomer from Rhúnaer had been celebrated with a week of feasting in the Merethrond. The bards heard the recounts of the warriors, and composed many a lay that honoured the dead and glorified the heroic deeds of the war. While most of the songs on the first night were devoted to the two kings and the warriors of Rohan and Gondor, by the second and third nights, King Elessar’s halfelven brothers and the Silvan prince of Ithilien received their share of glory as well. And Laurefindel of course. Song after song. His feats were of epic proportions, and I do not believe the bards exaggerated too greatly.
On the third night in the Merethrond, the songs were growing overinflated, even given what Laurefindel was capable of. Our twins sat on the other side of the banqueting hall and listened raptly, but Laurefindel soon lost his appetite and fell uncharacteristically quiet. As a bearded bard warbled in epic style of how the elven hero of ancient days had gone forth bright as the sun, swift as the wind, fairer than moon and stars, terrible as an army in battle array, the longsuffering ancient hero could bear it no longer. I feared he would go up to the dais and break the bard’s harp.
Instead, his fingers interlaced with mine under the table, and he pulled me out of the hall. Our twins, seated with their young edain friends, would not miss us. We received curious looks from the Gondorians and Rohirrim to our left and right, but by then I think the usually courteous elflord did not give a troll-fart what they or the performing bards thought.
We slipped out of a side door, shut ourselves in a small storage chamber full of table linens and shelves of decanters and goblets, and in the darkness lit only by the glow of his hair, we fumbled with clothes fastenings and staggered against a pile of rolled-up tapestries against one wall. We did our best to drown out the muffled voices of the bards still audible through the heavy door.
An hour later, as we lay entwined on one of the tapestries that had fallen over and rolled open, he finally spoke his first words since we left the feasting hall. “Let us not go back. Shall we ride out to the Pelennor?”
“Uuhhh… yes,” I managed to utter, still dazed and breathless, my body wildly thrumming like the bards’ epic harp strings. It had been an amazing one hour, it had been epic. And yet… I was aware of a strange uneasiness. I felt incomplete. Somehow… empty.
Our coupling was, for him, never merely about lust. But for the first time I felt uneasily as though it had not quite been about love either. A seeking of comfort, perhaps. Or oblivion. I think it began then… his fëa had begun to retreat from mine. It had begun to harbour its own secrets as mine once had from his.
In those first weeks after he returned, I would find his dreams entangling themselves in mine. The splatter of crimson as bodies crumpled in the path of destruction he swiftly cleared in the enemy ranks. The choking death-gurgles and final screams from men’s throats heard through the clangour of battle.
And he knew, whenever I looked into his eyes the following morn, that I had seen his dreams.
I wound one of his shining tresses around my finger as it lay across our pillows. “Talk to me. Tell me about it… what it was like to fight the moratani.”
Eyes fixed on the ceiling, he said, “Call them not such. In time, it is to be hoped, they may yet become allies of the Reunited Kingdom. Mayhap not in this generation of men, but the next.”
“Atani, then… how did you feel, fighting them?”
“Feel?” He laughed lightly, gave himself a long, languorous stretch in bed, then rolled over to smile at me. “It was a war. They were the enemy. It was simple.”
I do not think he was lying. I think he chose to believe it himself. “But that first time, at the siege of Dharikân—”
“There is no more to the telling than you have already heard,” he cut me off shortly. “The pereldar and Legolas and the bards have told it all.”
A week after his return from the Rhúnaer, I walked in on him polishing his two shining swords, his azure eyes dreamy and distant as he lovingly wiped them with a cloth, over and over. I gazed on with vague misgivings. Elven swords know no rust or tarnish, and elentinco, this lustrous, white star-alloy created by Aulë, never even needed polish—just a good wipe after use.
“You cleaned and polished them only last week.”
“Just a little loving care for my battle wives.”
“They have no need of it. They are not rust-prone pieces of mortal-made crap.”
“’Tis not that they need it… I simply felt like doing it.” He continued to gently rub at unseen stains on the blades.
“Well, put them away. Neither the winds nor Legolas will wait for us.” The Silvan prince had taken up ship-building as soon as he returned from Rhúnaer, and he wanted us to witness him take on the challenge of sailing his first small craft upriver.
Laurefindel smiled absently, gave the blades one final wipe, and slid them back into their scabbards.
Once we returned to Imladris, he laid the twin swords to rest in a wooden chest. And did not touch them again… or not, at least, when I was around.
I remember the last of his dreams of the war that merged into mine. It was that midsummer, in Ithilien.
I awakened in the same moment he did, my mind full of the images of the carnage of war. I rolled over and slipped my arm around him. “Are you all right?”
I caught the haunted expression on his face in the moment before he wiped it away. “Fine, vesseya. I am fine.”
“Liar.” My eyes narrowed. “You were dreaming of Hrónairë—”
I felt a wall come up, shielding his mind and heart from my probing. “Yes, I dreamed. What warrior does not occasionally dream of battle? You dream still of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad every decade or so, do you not? It means naught. It was a war like other wars.”
“Before you left—you struggled with it—you said this war would not be the same. You had taken no atan’s life before—”
“I gave that no further thought once we were there—”
“The children of Eru Ilúvatar, you called them—”
“And I sent them back to him with as much mercy as I could—”
“Mercy?” I leapt on that. “So—it was not like other wars.”
“They deserved clean deaths. I gave them that. It weighs not on my conscience.”
“Yet I feel it, a—a shadow upon your fëa.”
He laughed dismissively and glanced at me with affectionate exasperation. “Shadow!” he said with a scorn he could only have learned from me. “It was a fairly long war, and we are all a little weary, that is all. You make far too much of it.” He smothered me in a tight embrace and kissed and caressed me in a way that usually addles my ability to think—at least for few moments. “You worry over naught, vesseya. I am fine. Now, shall we get dressed and take the boys to the Pelargir Sailboat Festival?” He lifted me out of bed, pulled a white dress out of the clothes chest, and tossed it to me with a dazzling grin. “An hour downriver. We should be in time to catch the harbour race.”
And there were other kinds of dreams. A blindingly white mountain peak soaring steeply heavenwards. Surf rolling in on pearlescent beaches shimmering in starlight. Ethereal song and white swanships riding sparkling blue waves. Vast meadows clothed in unfading grass and flowers, in a land of eternal summers. And over it all, such a wistful, aching longing.
I would awaken, badly shaken, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it all, and struggle against the yearning it awakened within me as well…
Those dreams he was far more willing to speak of. He told me all about Taniquetil… Avallonë… Oromë and Yavanna’s lands. The love of them was in his voice, and his azure eyes were wistful and dreamy.
I listened in silence, and finally said, “You should go. It is where you belong.”
He gazed softly at me. “It is where we all belong. We shall sail soon,” he said gently.
I was silent. I could hear the sea-song, feel Aman pull at me… and yet…
“We shall,” I said, willing myself to want it.
His eyes were sad for a moment, then it was as though a shield-wall had been raised. “Yes, we shall. When you are ready.” And he kissed me and smiled. “I am starving for breakfast. How about you?” And we spoke of it no more.
After we returned to Imladris, oft in his waking moments I caught a dreaminess in his azure eyes as in his mind he wandered beyond the Bent World to another realm. And catching my eyes upon him, he would begin to speak of things light and inconsequential. Hunting, what I wanted for dinner. He laughed and sang and chatted gaily as always. No one saw any change in him, save I.
And so brick by brick—or shield by shield—the wall was raised. Years passed, then decades. Eldarion was born to Estel and Arwen. Our boys came of age. Éowyn went the way of all mortals, then Faramir, a decade later. Elboron married one of the twin princesses and became a grandfather. Eldarion married one of Éomer’s granddaughters…
I glimpsed his dreams no longer—not of Rhûn, nor of Aman, nor of anything else. And so rarely did our minds meet in thought, that one day I looked at him as he laughed and joked with the others over the parlour dining table, and realized it had been over a year since we last spoke mind-to-mind.
So here we are. We share so much daily, eat and speak together, bathe, couple, sleep curled against each other’s bodies nightly. His kisses are still as sweet, his embraces still as passionate. But once we had… more. We had no secrets before. We could feel the movements of each other’s heart and mind. Two bodies, one life.
Now here I am, standing alone on an empty flet in Ithilien, shivering from my dream. And it stares me in the face—how neatly we have walled ourselves within the secret cities of our separate selves with a barrier so high it might as well be the Echoriad.
For I am equally to blame. Laurefindel tells himself lies. I know the lies I tell.
At Imladris, we all speak oft now of the journey west. Círdan has sent word: the ship is ready. And as I did in Gondolin, I smile and lie. Yes, it will be good to sail soon. How I look forward to meeting all the exiles in Tol Eressëa.
“I should like to meet all the Lords of Gondolin, and King Turgon!” Arman said at one dinner two summers ago. “All save Maeglin, and Salgant, of course.”
I saw Laurefindel wince. I kept my face impassive.
“Imagine if they have built a new Gondolin, Ammë,” said Aryo. “Would it not be exciting to live there rather than in the middle of a forest?”
“Yes. How glorious that would be.” I smiled at my son and took a sip of wine. You have no idea how exciting, yonya.
“The Belain will surely aid you in finding all those lost to you,” Legolas said earnestly to me just last night. “How you must long to meet with your parents again.”
“I do. So much.” My father will be in transports of joy to see his son again. His son… short of one fairly vital appendage and with some enhancements to the chest.
My reverie is interrupted by a sound on the ladder that winds around the bole of the tree to our talan.
The very fact that I am able to hear him alerts me to trouble. I run to the ladder just as he appears through the semi-circular opening in the centre of the flet. He stands on the ladder swaying slightly, looks at me with unfocused eyes and gives me a beatific smile.
I stare at him in disbelief and anger. In the three hundred years I have known him, I have not once till now seen him this drunk. Not even that night at the Star Dome, when he had offered to train me in the basement. “Vennoya,” I say, a dangerous note in my voice.
“There you are, my lovely! Such an adventure, getting home.” He falls against me, clumsy as a newborn pup, and we end up on the floor in a tangle of limbs. His golden hair spills over me and across the floor, luminous in a shaft of silvery moonlight laced with leaf-shadows. “They all look alike, these mellyrn. I had no idea Rúmil and Merileth were married.”
“They are not.” I try to get up, but his arms are wrapped around me.
“Ooohh… is that why they asked me to join them?” He is warm and glowing and full of life as he laughingly kisses me, a perfect antidote to the dead lords in my dream.
But it is comfort I want now, not passion. He tastes of Harondorian firewater—a vile brew from grape seeds that he would normally never touch. I pull back from his kiss with a grimace.
“Hammer of Aulë, how much of that muk did you drink?” I manage to clamber to my knees, his arm across my shoulders, and struggle to my feet.
“Just one cup.” He leans heavily on me as I haul him off the floor. “Legolas kept filling it, though.”
“Have you not been drinking with Legolas for centuries? How did you allow yourself to become so drunk this time?” We fall upon the bed together.
“Drunk?” he says wonderingly as he lies across me. “Spectacular. After seven millennia, something new.”
I roll him onto his back with a sigh, and begin to pull off his boots. He eyes my silk shift with distaste.
“Black. I hate you in black.”
“This is my one garment in black and I like it.”
“You were such a dark, disturbing boy,” he murmurs. “All-black garb, even after mourning was over…” I pull his tunic off over his head. “Gave us a shock, the way you liked to materialize all in black out of the shadows.”
“Precisely the effect I sought.”
“Well, off with this crow’s rag! You will always be most beautiful, my love, in what I saw you wear that first moment…” His smile is irresistably charming. “…nothing.” With a warm, hungry kiss, he slips the thin lace straps of my shift off my shoulders and pulls me down onto the bed.
I pull away and slap off his hands. “No! Down, boy! Not now. Just rest.” I leave his leggings on and lie down next to him.
He has closed his eyes. “So many of them tonight...” he says drowsily. “So many voices…”
I think he means the revellers below. “Yes, more than before. I wish Legolas had not invited atani and casári. It is getting too crowded, and the mortals get pig-drunk and rowdy and misbehave. I can bear it not.”
“Oh, so you hear them too? Talk to them. They cannot seem to hear me. Mayhap they will hear you. I had to. It was war… tell them I am sorry. So sorry.”
On this mild winter’s night in Ithilien a chill descends on me like a northern winter. “Them…? Who… from the Hrónairë?”
“Are they… upset?”
“Oh stars, yea. Would you not be?”
I thought of Tuor. “I imagine so.”
“Did my best. Each one fast. Clean. They suffered little or not at all.” A sigh goes through him and he winces. “There is no need to shout.”
I edge closer to him. He rolls towards me and his arm goes around me. Unable to help myself, I relax into the comfort of his warmth. I whisper, “What do they say?”
“Help...” he says so softly I barely catch the word.
“You want help? They want help?”
“They. They seem… lost,” he murmurs sleepily into my hair. “Some weep. Where is the way, some say… ’tis shut...” By now the lengths of our bodies are pressed against each other. I put my arm over him and hug him tightly. “The screamers are the worst. I tell them… sorry… cannot help. No elf knows where lies the path for atani. Eru alone can guide them there.”
“It is not your fault.”
“Perhaps… but it is me they blame. And hound.” His voice is matter-of-fact. His face is snuggled against my neck.
My helplessness enrages me. “There is release,” I whisper. “In Aman. The gardens of Estë. You told me once.”
“Not… going,” he mumbles into my neck. “Not going. Stay. Here. With you.”
Without my saying anything, he knows. He has always known I fear to sail.
“You must go to Aman. Have you not said we would?”
“Stubborn bastard. You must. I shall not forgive you if you stay.”
“I can live with that.”
I stroke his hair gently. Then curiosity gets the better of me. “These atani… how many are they?”
“Uhh… let me count,” he says drowsily.
A long silence follows. Just as I think he has fallen asleep, he murmurs, “One thousand two hundred and forty-nine.” As I take that in, he adds, “Methinks the rest found the door and passed through.”
He falls asleep soon after. I hear his breathing slow and deepen. I watch moonlight reach white fingers into the talan to dance amid leaf-shadows over his sleeping form. His hair is moonsilver spun into sunlight. His azure eyes are half-open under long dark lashes, shimmering with dreams. I hope they are his dreams of Valinor. From the gentle smile on his lips, I think they are.
I am left in deeper confusion than ever. I have been torn in two from the first days of our joining, always knowing this time would come. To sail. To not sail. His need, his happiness. My need, my fears.
I could weep knowing he is willing to make the sacrifice and stay for love of me. I would be ready to do the same, and sail for love of him.
But tonight, that dream…
The revelry below has quietened down. A few groups will have gone into the forest to dance and sing till daylight breaks. Some will have retired to flets. I hear the sound of hooves. Several horses. Crisp voices sharply cutting through the morning air—sober, commanding, questioning.
I gently pull away from his sleeping body, climb out of bed, walk to the edge of the flet, and look down.
I see five cloaked and hooded figures standing next to their horses at the edge of Parth Glóren, and Legolas and several elves hurrying towards them. One pushes back his hood, and I recognize the stern features and pale-gold hair at once. Thranduil.
Thranduil?… here? I am dumbfounded. Then the four guards also push back their hoods and my heart leaps as I recognize one of them.
I glance at Laurefindel as he sleeps soundly on the bed, then quickly pull on a dove-grey dress and descend the ladder. There had been a time when heights terrified me, but no longer… not since Laurefindel coaxed me onto my first flet in Lothlórien, and helped me up and down the ladder three times a day when I was expecting our twins.
By the time I reach the ground, the horses and guards are gone, and I see Legolas leading his father into the woods, away from the glade of the mellyrn.
“You send a letter,” I hear the king saying in a biting voice. “A letter. You could not come, and tell me face to face…” As they disappear, I catch only stray words. “…fool’s quest… duty… folly…” “…Ada… please… understand…”
The king’s Silvan guard must be with the elves of Ithilien busying themselves with various tasks. There is a talan to be prepared, I imagine, and a hot meal, and the horses to be groomed.
I espy a flash of silver-gold in the distance, and head towards the stables. He stands outside with the horses as they are watered at a long trough, rubbing down the king’s own steed. It is strange to see him in his guard’s uniform of green and brown. He turns to look at me and I see the white scar across his forehead that runs from his hairline to his left eyebrow, and something in his eyes that makes him look older than the eager boy who rode out from Imladris two years back. But then he smiles as sweetly and radiantly as ever. His father’s smile. “Ammë.”
I do not rush to embrace him as I long to, mindful of his dignity as a grown nér, and how it had mortified me when my mother thought nothing of ruffling my hair even after I was taller than she. But he is not me. He is his father’s son, and I find myself enveloped in a warm hug as he plants kisses on my cheek. “Ammë, Ammë of mine! I thought you were in Minas Tirith. Aryo should be there now.”
“We arrived here six days past, yonya. And return to Minas Tirith in three days for the King’s great Yule banquet. Aryo should await us there.”
“Where is Atto?” Arman asks, as he resumes rubbing down the horse.
“Asleep. How came you by that scar?” I sound reproachful. He does not write as oft as Aryo does, and then his messages are brief and unsatisfying, lacking in detail.
He touches his forehead a little bashfully. “Oh, that. A nauro.”
“A nauro? In Eryn Lasgalen?”
“There were two. I had a little brush with the second.”
I step forward swiftly and take his hands before he can step back and look at the scars on them. They have healed well and will fade, but they still look ugly now. “A little brush, indeed. Where else were you wounded?”
He takes his hands away. “The arms, mostly.” As I continue to stare at him, he sighs and indicates across his body. “Here… and here. And here. Please do not fuss, Ammë. All is well now.”
Does it run in your father’s blood, this propensity for wrestling with demons? I almost want to ask, as he continues rubbing down the horse. But I simply nod. I am a warrior and wife and mother to warriors. He is right. He is in one piece and there is no cause to fret.
“It is good you are here,” I say, changing the topic. “We can return to Minas Tirith together.”
He does not look at me. “No, Ammë. I remain in service to my king.”
The grey stallion’s rubdown is complete. At my tone, the king’s steed gives me a warning look ere an elf of Ithilien leads him into the stables. Arman and I are left alone.
“I took an oath of service,” says my son.
“We sail soon. You will need to return to Imladris.”
“I shall, Ammë. But not just yet. The king—”
“—loves having you at his beck and call, I am sure.”
“—not so. I am honoured to serve him—”
“Honoured? To serve in that little hole? A hundred caves to Menegroth’s thousand. Oropher’s vainglorious attempt to be Thingol—”
“—Ammë, I like it there. I love the woods, and the people, and I respect and admire my king—”
“—to even call him a king is laughable. How many are left in all his realm? Two thousand at most? Your father was lord over ten thousand in the House of the Golden Flower. Over eleven thousand at the height of its strength, no less than eight thousand at its least. And that was one house in Gondolin!” My own house had numbered nine thousand at its strongest, but we had all given part of our numbers to the House of the Wing when it was formed.
“It is not numbers that matter. Atar was a great lord, but he was a lord in a land that enjoyed mostly peace and prosperity till the Fall came. Âr Thranduil has strengthened and led a people beset by darkness on all sides, warred against the Shadow and preserved his kingdom over three thousand years. He is a great lord—”
“—who has shown little love or gratitude to your father for all your father has done for his realm during the Third Age—”
“—he has been good to me, Ammë.”
“So when will you leave his service?”
There is an awkward silence, then Arman says with some relief. “I can sense Aryo, Ammë. Aryo is here!” He turns and moves in the direction of the river and I follow him. Then both of us halt on the dewy grass.
Aryo emerges from the trees on his dark-grey horse Talagor, his golden hair shining through the white morning mist. He exclaims, “Ammë! And hanno!—you, here as well?”
Both Arman and I are staring and silent. Seated behind Aryo on Talagor, arms wound about his waist, is a raven-haired maiden with sea-grey eyes. She is dressed in tunic, breeches and boots, a bow and quiver on her back, but she is very obviously a maiden. Slender-waisted, long cascading silken hair, delicate features. Rounded ears.
A mortal maiden. No, no, no… not again, my heart screams.
The mortal maiden smiles at me. Estel’s eyes, Arwen’s smile.
“Mae de’evennin, Híril Lómiel and Arman,” says the adaneth.
“Princess Arasael?” I say. Mae l’ovannen sticks in my throat. Arwen and Estel have so many grandchildren now and even great-grandchildren, that I have paid no great attention to each one, but I now recognize this child as the baby among the grandchildren. Eldarion’s youngest. The future king’s favourite child.
Yonya, are you insane? How could you? I want to grab my firstborn by the shoulders and shake him till he comes to his senses.
Arman must have last seen Eldarion’s youngest when she was fifteen—a gangly colt of a girl who could chatter animatedly about stars and horses, archery and books. She must be twenty-three now, and just reaching full womanhood. Shyness seems to have got her tongue after that greeting. She sits a horse well without saddle, I note irrelevantly. “Arasael, you… you have… grown,” blurts out my secondborn. It is one of the more inane things he could have uttered, given the many mortals he has seen rapidly sprout up over the years. But this is the first one of them to wind her arms around his twin’s waist like that.
Arasael flashes Arwen’s smile at Arman. She is not as lovely as her grandmother, but that smile would melt the Helcaraxë.
“Has she not?” says Aryo with a smile almost as luminous as hers. “I met her on the road to Minas Tirith. Her horse was lamed, and I fortuitously chanced upon her outside an inn, haggling with some rascals attempting to sell her an elderly gelding for thrice its worth. It was she who told me you and Atto were headed to Ithilien, Ammë.”
The eyes of the twins meet in silence. I wonder if thoughts fly between their minds or if a wall of silence has risen between them. Arman suddenly looks so young, so lost. Aryo lightly dismounts, lifts the maiden and sets her down ever so gently. The way they look at each other, the way they linger before letting go of each other, tells all.
“Does your father Eldarion know you are here?” I ask the girl.
“I have sent word to him, Híril Lómiel. Once Father knows I am visiting Hîr Legolas, and that Aryo is with me, he will worry not.”
Just wait till he gets the word I send to him. He will worry plenty...
We walk back to the stables. She carries herself with an assurance that reminds me of Estel when he was young. But for a high-born maiden her age to wander the lands alone… My mother had done the same, and just look what had happened to her. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. This girl is almost as tall as her grandmother Arwen, smaller and slighter than me or my Amil—no warrior, clearly. Even if she is a dead shot with that bow, I doubt it would avail her much against the bandits and scum that waylay travellers these days. Far worse than a lamed horse and Arinnáro Glorfindelion could have befallen the granddaughter of the King. Not as wise as her name, and far too reckless for my liking. In my mind, I have always imagined my sons settled with damsels in the mould of Itarillë, or Arwen, not…
I can hear how Laurefindel would laugh at me. “Not wayward and wilful like you? Or your mother?”
Several néri and nissi of Ithilien descend upon us, a little tipsy and laughing, to escort the newly arrived guests to telain. As is the Silvan custom at Yule, there is much kissing exchanged among the unmarried edhil—not chaste pecks to cheeks but full on the lips. The one nér so inebriated that he approaches me by mistake is repelled with a cuff to the head. I see with a pang the possessiveness with which Aryo fends off any who attempt to kiss his fair adaneth.
As Aryo and Arasael exchange a tender look before they part ways at the foot of a mallorn, I see a hurt, bewildered look on Arman’s face. It resembles for a moment the look I saw on Laurefindel’s face on the walls on Gondolin, when he realized I had betrayed the city.
After the adaneth has vanished up the ladder, Aryo turns and looks at his twin. “Hanno…”
But another of Thranduil’s maethyr appears and nods at Arman. The azure blue eyes look from his twin to me, then without a word Arman strides away swiftly to do his duty to his new liege lord.
Aryo and I face each other alone. “Ammë…”
“Madness, yonya. Sheer madness. We sail in a year, perhaps less…”
“I do not wish to leave her behind—”
“Yonya, she cannot come.”
“If Legolas can bring a dwarf—”
“A dwarf who was one of the Nine Walkers. A dwarf whom Lady Galadriel, ere she sailed, promised to seek the grace of the Valar for—”
“She is the grandchild of King Elessar, the great-grandchild of Lord Elrond, bearer of Vilya. She has elven blood—”
I shake my head. “All too little, too weak. Arwen was fully mortal when she wed Estel. And you forget Eldarion. Do you imagine he would let you part him from his treasure forever? And do you imagine a cossetted and cherished child like her could bear the eternal loss of her family and all she knows and loves here? How long have you been in love with her? Five days? Three? And already you dare presume to plan the remainder of both your lives.”
No fool like a boy madly in love. I remember a black-haired nér wild with longing for a golden princess. Unrequited. First cousins. Forbidden. Doomed. None of that had mattered. None of that had lessened the insane, obsessive passion that had endured over a century and destroyed a city. In my son’s grey eyes I see a reflection of the self I once was, and I am filled with dread.
I read it in his grey eyes even before he speaks it. Before he echoes the words his father spoke earlier. “Then I shall not go. I shall stay here. With her.”
I return to our talan and try to wake Laurefindel. But he murmurs “Mm-hmm… good…” to everything I say, then slumbers on. I restrain the urge to clout him violently on the head or throw water on him. I lie down facing him and feel the weight of my desolation.
“Damn it, I have not felt so lost for a long time, Flower. I have no idea what we will do,” I say softly to the sleeping warrior. “You said you would stay here with me. And now… our sons may be turning their backs on Aman. If they, too, do not wish to sail… and we all stay, should I not be happy? One united family… fading together in the mortal lands till we or Arda are unmade.” I sigh. “Muk. I thought once this was what I wanted. But the truth is… and this is the crazy thing… I wish no longer to linger here. Only now, when all three of you might stay do I see it. I do not want to stay. Aman terrifies me. More than ever. And yet… this land is no longer where we belong. This world is no longer our world. I want Aman. Truly I do. But not those who come with it.”
He is luminous as ever in slumber, and looks serene enough for one haunted by the deaths of thousands of mortals. I curl against him and attempt to sleep. It is futile. After a couple of hours, I dress again and descend from the flet, leaving him still deep in his dreams. He has never been drunk before. I do not know how long it will be ere he awakens. Galdor had once slept two whole days.
All is quiet in Parth Glóren. The festivities will resume once more in the three hours before midwinter’s early dusk.
I see Legolas looking pale but calm as he talks quietly to Celeborn beneath the mellyrn. He does not wish to say much about his talk with his father aside from, “It went exactly as I had expected.”
I discover from him that Thranduil vanished an hour ago, taking Arman and the guards of Eryn Lasgalen into the surrounding forest, but leaving their horses with the herd that grazes peacefully in a field by the stables.
“He and Aragorn’s grandchild sleep still.” Then he sees the expression on my face, bursts into laughter, and hastens to add, “On separate telain in different mellyrn. Worry not! They are not in any danger of getting married… yet.” Even Celeborn is smiling at me. I fail to see anything amusing and take my leave of them rather stiffly.
So much for family reunions.
I leave Parth Glóren far behind, and walk by the dark waters of the Anduin.
Just yesterday the sky had been a tender blue and the sun had shone warm still and bathed the fair, wooded slopes in clear, luminous light. Now, grey clouds gather like a vast army on the march in the skies, the wind comes howling and rushing against the land in big gusts, and the sea-gulls throw themselves with wild cries against it.
I welcome it, and the solitude. The wind buffets me. It is cold and sharp and clears my mind. There is rain in the air. My feet take me through groves of ancient cypress and olives, towards a secluded place Laurefindel and I think of as our own, each time we visit Ithilien.
I need to think. It is Aryo’s ill-advised liaison that is foremost on my mind now.
A message to Estel and Arwen. I should send one. But… would they intervene? Or would their own story cause them to sympathize with the young lovers? Eldarion. I should send a message to Eldarion. He could be here within a day, whisk his favourite child back to Minas Tirith, and lock her up in the Tower of Ecthelion, whilst Laurefindel and I knock some sense into our son.
But then again, maybe not… Eldarion might also not be the ally I hope for. The twins and he had come of age in the same year. As the youngest in the family, the long-awaited heir, the prince had gone through a brief season of rebellion ere he came to manhood, and the twins had journeyed through it with him. When Eldarion snuck out of the Citadel late at night, disguised as a commoner, it was Aryo who had pulled wenches off his lap and saved him from siring bastards, and Arman who had bloodied noses alongside him in tavern brawls on the Second Circle of the city. They had kept his secret from his parents and his subjects, nursed him through hangovers, and cheered him on as he embraced his responsibilities as Crown Prince and courted the granddaughter of Éomer and Lothíriel. The twins had played with Arasael as a baby, for Eru’s sake. Eldarion had even wanted the twins to be her godfathers, only custom dictated it be a mortal and a kinsman of the royal family. He might be delighted by Aryo’s love for his darling, especially if Aryo makes the Reunited Kingdom his home.
A crack of lightning, a roll of thunder. As large drops of rain begin to pelt down, I arrive at our shelter. Nestled against the hillside, surrounding by a grove of mature cypress and olives, is the graceful pavilion of cypress wood we raised a century ago. But to my dismay, someone else is there.
There is a small, round table at the centre of the pavilion, surrounded by four chairs. Seated elegantly on one of the chairs is Thranduil, looking as though he has been there for quite a while. He is staring out across the wide river and the fair plains of Lebennin beyond it, and brooding darkly.
This was a place of special retreat for our family. Arman, I think with a flash of anger and resentment. How could you bring him here?
Thranduil eyes me with barely disguised resentment of his own as I run into the shelter, my hair and my blue-grey dress damp with rain. He looks immaculate in the grey and white colours he favours in winter. He wears a long, full-sleeved white tunic embroidered with silver over dove-grey breeches of soft, supple deerskin and darker grey high boots. Small, white jewels glint in a simple circlet upon his brow, and on the matching belt and dagger at his waist. The wind plays with his silvery-blond hair and his fluttering sleeves. A glazed earthernware flagon and cup sit on the table.
“I am sorry to disturb your solitude, Taur.” And far more sorry that you are disturbing mine. “Are your guards and my son not here with you?”
“I dismissed them. You have chosen foul weather for a walk, híril-nín,” he says.
No fouler than our moods. “This is a place of fond memories, Taur. I have come to see it one last time.”
“Ah, yes. Your son told me that you built this.”
Arman and Aryo were not even of age when we last were here as a family. For a moment, the weakness of nostalgia grips me. I wish they were that young again.
I eye the driving rain. “It looks to last for a while,” I say glumly. A long, loud roll of thunder appears to assent with me.
“Indeed. Pray be seated.”
As I sit across from him, his eyes idly give my body a look-over. Lecher.
“I would offer you wine, híril-nín,” he says, exerting himself to be courteous. “But I have none. And what I have here is rather strong.”
“Strong is good, Taur.”
“Are you certain, híril-nín?” he says, sweetly condescending.
“I am.” As he takes a cup from a pack and pours a clear liquid into it, I add, “But I hope it is not that Harondorian horse-piss Legolas has grown fond of.”
A corner of his mouth quirks in wry amusement. “Eru forbid I touch anything resembling horse… piss… as you so charmingly put it. No, a Gondorian urnen, according to your son.” He hands the cup to me. The glaze on the cup is the pale, delicate blue-green of a robin’s egg, swirled with white patterns like feathery clouds.
“Galwalas, Âr Thranduil,” I say, raising the cup to him.
“Galwalas, Híril Lómiel,” he says. And we both toss back our shots.
The pale liquid is deliciously smooth and smoky-sweet, but it burns with such fire down my throat that my eyes water and I almost choke. I lean back in my seat blinking away tears and see him smile at me out of the corner of my eye.
“Are you well, híril-nín?” He sounds amused.
“Excellent, Taur,” I say huskily when I find my voice again. “Was this my son’s selection?”
“It was. I must say he knows his way around the store of liquor here. A young ellon of discerning taste.”
“At least one of my sons has decent taste in something,” I mutter.
“Ah,” says the king. “My condolences on the impending nuptials.”
“There will be no nuptials if I can help it,” I growl. “My condolences on the impending loss of your sole heir.” I reach for the flagon.
“Is that wise, híril-nín?” he says sweetly, arching an eyebrow at me as I pour myself a large shot.
“Wiser than having children.” I take another swig of urnen. “Let mortals fret themselves silly over posterity, let them angst over leaving the world reminders that they once ever were. I wanted no children in my life. But then, once they arrive, children become… everything.” My head hurts. And my heart.
“My son wishes to sail and your sons wish to stay. Perhaps an exchange is in order.”
He speaks lightly, flippantly, but I stare at him. “My sons… stay?” I say sharply. Bloody gossipy Silvan elves. Regardless of all that had been said or not said early this morning, it was a shock to hear a third party announce it so matter-of-factly.
“You did not know?”
“Naught is confirmed. My sons spoke unthinkingly. They are young.”
“That was not what Orlin indicated to me this morning.”
I look at the king, my head spinning from downing the urnen too quickly. “What did he say?”
“He spoke not as one who plans to depart. He spoke of his desire to return to Eryn Lasgalen, and make it his home.”
“No. He assured me he would return to Imladris. That he would ask to be released from your service. He must.”
Thranduil’s face is impassive at this. “What makes you think he wants to be released?”
“All his life he has known of our sailing west. He has awaited the moment eagerly for years.”
“Perhaps all that has changed. He appears perfectly happy to be where he is now. He belongs in Eryn Lasgalen as one born there. He loves the woods and the halls.”
He loves you, you mean. And you would hold on to him, and steal my son from me, you selfish Sindarin bastard.
“The edhil are fading. For us this land ages and grows grey. It is wisdom for us to seek the west.”
“My woods are green and fair, and there is no shadow of fading there,” he says coldly. “My people belong to the woods and I belong to them. So too, does Legolas, but he has forgotten his place and his responsibilities.”
“He has walked with the Ring and sailed on the sea. He cannot look back.”
“Why not? All it takes is a pretty face, apparently, to make one wish to stay.” He smiles wryly. “How many other granddaughters does Aragorn have? Bring them on.”
“Daughters,” I murmur bitterly, emptying my cup. “I should have had daughters, not sons. Daughters do not think with their cocks.” My mother should have had a daughter. It would have saved a city and her life.
“You are wrong. My beloved sister may have no cock, but she grieved our father greatly by thinking with… what ellith do have.” He pours more urnen into both our cups. “And if my beloved son had thought with his cock more, he might have wed, given me grandchildren, and have a wife of the Tawarwaith who would compel him to stay. And not be forsaking his duties and sailing off to the ends of the earth with a dwarf.”
“Be happy he cannot marry the dwarf,” I say, emptying my cup. The world around me has begun to sway dizzily.
“Oh, I have wondered at times if he would if he could.”
“Theirs is a great friendship.”
“More fool he. Trust no naugol farther than you can throw him.”
“I like many naugrim more than I like some edhil. And far, far more than I like most edain.”
“That is ignorant and unwise. The naugrim are all at heart cunning and avaricious. Like the treacherous wretches who struck down Thingol.”
“I think far better of them than the treacherous beasts who turned on the sons of Fëanor in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.”
“Would that the Afterborn had slain them all. Thrice-damned-and-accursed kinslayers.”
“Your king was an ass. He denied the dwarves their rightful payment for their work. And your king and his heir denied the sons of Fëanor what was theirs by right.”
Few things are more sacred to the Iathrim than the memory of Thingol. My vision has blurred, but I can see well enough to tell that Thranduil is glaring at me as balefully as Glaurung might. I doubt any have dared speak to him thus in three millennia without being clapped in his dungeon. Too bad. Thranduil has no dungeon here, and I am a guest of his son.
“The naugrim lusted for the silmaril and sought to steal it from Thingol. And as for rights—tell the thousands of innocents, the children, the defenceless women, that their blood flowed in the sacking of Menegroth for the rights to a bauble. You dare defend the rights of monsters?”
On another Yule, six thousand years ago, the kinslayers had descended upon Doriath, and in the thousand caves a young Thranduil had watched as a son of Fëanor slew his mother. In another mood I might have been touched by compassion or empathy that he, like me, has known the horror of witnessing his beloved mother brutally struck down by his own kind. Has known what it is to sit by helplessly as the life that birthed his own ebbs away.
Now, unfortunately, I am as belligerently bent on being disagreeable to him as he is to me.
“The slayings were monstrous. But none of it would have happened but for that monumental moron of a king setting that bauble as a bride-price.”
“Enough!” he snaps. “Thingol was the greatest and wisest of all kings, his realm the most powerful in Beleriand—”
“Nargothrond was larger by far and wealthier. And your king’s power and wisdom resided wholly in his queen, and his greatness between his legs. Becoming the balan’s boy was the best thing that ever happened to him.” My voice, slurring only slightly, is loaded with contempt.
I do not remember rising from my seat, but we are both standing and leaning close to each other. The world spins a little and I hold on to the table to keep it in place. In his glittering eyes, so near my own, I see a dangerous fury and realize he is a heartbeat away from striking me.
“Quite the arrogant, insolent golodhrin huil, aren’t you? Or would that be an Avarin, a Morbennin huil?” He makes both terms sound equally insulting and barbaric.
I shrug. “It takes one hû to know another.” I smile unpleasantly at him.
“The huil has fangs.”
“You have no idea.”
“Just the sort of lowness one would expect from tainted blood.”
“Why, Eru save me. I have upset the king.”
“I have never met such insolence.”
“Insolence? I have barely begun.”
“You are a vicious, vulgar wench. A mongrel of questionable blood just like your golodh bastard of a husband. Obviously like draws to like.”
We are a breath away from drawing weapons and each other’s blood. My hand itches to move to the hilt of my dagger. Or to smash in his arrogant face.
“Release my son from his oath, then. A mongrel of bad blood. Both sides. It must disgust you. Send him away.”
“Your son is… exceptional. He has caught no taint of you. He is free to choose whether to seek release. And it pleases me that his choice is to remain.” A faint mocking smile appears on his lips. I have your son, says that smile. And it pleases me to keep him.
I see red and throw all restraint and caution to the winds. I swing my fist at him and he catches hold of my wrists.
“You son of a petty Dandrin lord,” I snarl as I struggle to free myself. “For that is all your father was… seated high on that mincing horse… looking down upon us as though we were chattel… my Adar was ten times the man yours was… had he crushed his pitiful Dandrin balls you would never even have been a gleam in your Naneth’s eye.”
He has gone pale with rage and shock, the blue eyes narrowing dangerously as they lock on mine. I wince as his grip tightens.
“Watch your words or you will pay dearly for them,” he says icily. “You could never have met my father. What absurdities do you utter?”
“Oh, I met him. Lord Oropher. By a pool called Gladuial, long ago and far away.”
“You are drunk and raving. Who do you imagine you are?”
I smile wickedly, as the world tilts and my knees buckle, and I collapse into his arms. I seize hold of the neck of his tunic and pull him closer as I fall. Our faces are inches apart.
“I am nuthrachon, the accursed,” I say silkily as my eyes hold his. “Thief of the black star-blade, doom of mother and father, treachery that stands smiling by a king’s throne… I am the hand and eyes of Morgoth Bauglir, the deaths of a hundred thousand, destroyer of the stone that sings…”
As I relish the shock and consternation in Thranduil’s face, from the olive grove behind me suddenly rings out a strong, clear voice in a tone that has chilled the blood of errant or ill-disciplined warriors at Imladris for millennia. “WHAT in Eru’s name??”
I am suddenly wrenched from Thranduil’s grasp, and through a haze as the world spins, I see violet eyes blazing with white fire frowning into my own, and a halo of bright gold hair.
“Throttle that prick for me,” I breathe in Quenya, before all goes black.
Glossary (alphabetical order)
Arasael (S) – noble + wise [methinks maybe it should be lenited to “Arahael”, but that’s one of her Dúnedain male ancestors, and it just sounds more feminine this way.]
Balan (S) - “vala/power”, and there seems to be no Sindarin word for “maia”
Belain (S) – plural of “balan”
Dandrin (S) – a “Dand” = “back-turner” = the Noldor’s term for those who began the journey to Aman but turned aside from it. Fairly insulting, I think.
Glass a galu (S) – joy and fortune
Hû/huil (S) – dog/bitch
Mae de’evennin - Well met (said to more than one person)
Moratani (Q) – Móri = dark, atani = men – darkened races of men
Nauro (Q) - werewolf
Nuthrachon (S) – man under a curse [translation by dreamingfifi on realelvish.proboards.com ]
Parth Glóren [S] – sward shining with golden light
Rhúnedain (S) – men of the east – Easterlings
The stone that sings – literal translation of Gondolin