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Learning to Live
Oropher rested his head against the solid wood of the tall beech and closed his eyes as the soft leaves caressed his cheek like a mother’s fingers. This was hard.
But he had done hard things before. He had survived the first battles under the stars, when his own father had passed into Námo’s care. Survived Elu’s murder and Melian’s departure. Lived through the unspeakable horror of elves murdering elves for a foolish jewel. Endured war and the destruction of his home and the growth of a shadow that the Valar had not properly defeated – he had striven to build a new home and defend his people until, at last, he had died confronting evil.
Was it any harder to learn to live again?
In some ways, he thought idly, it had been easier when he had first emerged from Námo’s Halls – a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, naked and pale, his wings crumpled, everything new and strange. He had hated not knowing, hated the barrier between him and his past – but, as it had thinned and melted, like ice on a spring river, it had revealed too much. He was not ready for the weight of memory that came with being Oropher.
The branch held him, supporting him lovingly, almost as if the beech looked on him as its own sapling, and he opened himself to the slow pulse of the tree in the tranquil throb of the forest, letting the peace of the Blessed Realm soak into him.
Once, in the starlit silver of Neldoreth, his naneth had held him, singing her softly soothing song in his ears as she waited for his adar to return. It had lulled him, dimming his sight and loosening his grasp on the world, even as he sensed the anxiety she was trying to hide. For, as he knew now, the bliss into which he had been born was reaching its last flowering and Melkor had brought his evil to fester in the unguarded lands. Orcs had multiplied in the darkness like maggots proliferating in a corpse – and Thingol had taken his warriors to confront them. He had been cut off from Círdan and Denethor’s forces had come to his aid – only to be slaughtered upon the hill of Amon Ereb … and Oropher’s adar with them.
The elf sat up, forcing himself to alertness. He did not need to be lost in memories so intense that their revival was physically painful.
That, he felt, was one of the worst things about this return to a land so fresh and pure. All his memories were renewed – all of them fighting for his attention – all of them, even those that, over the passing centuries, he had managed to subdue and allowed to blur. He really did not want to recall his adar’s loss – did not want to remember his naneth’s despair, Melian’s gentle kindness, Elu’s understanding. He did not want to relive those early days in Menegroth, the time when Melian wove her power into girdle of protection and enclosed the heart of Thingol’s realm to keep out the servants of Morgoth.
Oropher climbed down to the glade below his refuge to splash his face in the cool refreshment of the spring, cupping his hands to drink water that tasted like liquid starlight.
He did not have to remember: not if he chose to reject the past.
But was not that cowardly?
His past was what made him who he was – his mistakes and losses as much as his successes. Coming to terms with them all was what would make it possible to start again – to build a new home in this other guarded land. A home where, perhaps, one day, he might be able to welcome back those lost to him, just as his son had greeted him.
If only thosegriefs had been all there was to remember. Oropher sighed. It had not, in truth, even been the beginning – just the first time he had been exposed to the effects of evil. The first, but not the last: nowhere near the last.
Yet he had been happy in Doriath.
Happy, that is, once his naneth had decided to stay with him – a pale shadow of the vibrant elleth she had been before, but alive. Thingol had taken them both into his charge and seen that Oropher did not lack the care his father would have offered, while his naneth had sat by Melian’s side and learned from her many mysteries. And, within the lands protected by the Girdle, they had been able to pretend that all was well– while beyond it the servants of Morgoth had flourished and the shadows grew ever darker.
And he had grown – in stature and skill – determined to be able to offer protection to those who could not protect themselves. While his naneth had insisted that he develop other skills. He grinned at the thought. Dancing and singing – playing the harp and pipe – writing and figuring – drawing, debating. He had protested, but all his complaints had ever done had been to earn him more time in the schoolroom and less on the training field. His naneth had been a ruthless taskmistress, but in the end she had been forced to release him to the care of Thingol’s captains. To Mablung and Beleg – to the life of the blade and the bow.
Then Ithil had risen – and, from the first, brought delight to the elves of Doriath as gifts hidden by Yavanna stirred and woke. Oropher looked up at Elbereth’s stars, scattered across the velvet night. Their beauty had been hidden and the subtle music of life had become a crescendo. A smile hovered on his lips. He did not regret Tilion’s coming. How could he? And he had been young enough that Anor’s rising had been a wonder – an explosion of colour and sound that, for a brief while had threatened to shatter the peace of the Hither Lands, even as it caused Morgoth to scurry into the deepest pits of Angband and hide from its light.
Yet Tilion’s vessel had preceded the march of the Noldor into Middle-earth like a knell. Elu had always been wary of the shining elves who arrived in Anor’s wake. And wisely so… Not all that was new was good – and the Noldor had proved that.
Oropher jumped to his feet, determinedly shaking off his introspection. He needed to eat. Eat and busy himself with work that took his mind off the past. He still thought he had been right to leave Taurevron and head off into the uncharted forest. His son’s realm was not the place for him – it had not taken him long to work that out. It had been hard to convince Thranduil that he needed time alone – and harder still to send his grandson home to his wife and children – but he did, indeed, feel better with nothing but the forest creatures to help him accustom himself to this new life. And this forest … He looked round at the towering trunks of the immense trees. This forest was special. He could, he thought, see himself dwelling here in perfect contentment until Arda ended. But not alone. Please the Valar, not alone.
Faint wisps of smoke rose from the dry wood as he sprawled beside the embers of his fire, picking hot flakes of fish from its bones. He had forgotten the joy of eating – the distinct flavours of different foods, the pleasure of finding a patch of berries or a hidden cluster of fungi. He smiled. The quiet intensity of the hunt that granted him a fish, a rabbit, a duck. He had seen deer in plenty picking their way between the trees, but that would be greedy. No lonely elf seeking peace in the forest needed that great a gift. He would have to live with his hankering for venison.
The sky between the dancing leaves had taken on the steely gleam of the hour before dawn. What should he do with this day? Oropher folded his hands behind his head and lay back, watching the forest waken to the colours of morning. He had no duties, no calls upon his time – he was able to wander, taking no other’s wishes into consideration. Had he ever been this … free?
Not, in truth, a question he needed to ask. He had served. In Doriath – and later, when he had protected the remnant of Elu’s people – of Dior’s people – in the aftermath of the Noldor’s treachery. He had gone to war and seen, he thought, the worst that sentient creatures could do to each other. He had led those who trusted him to safety – and, in the doing, had found another people who chose to look to him. And done his best for them. A best, he thought bitterly, that had led from their forest to the plains before Mordor. Led to their slaughter far from the trees of home.
Did he deserve freedom when he had failed so abysmally?
Oropher blinked. Tears were not appropriate. He was a warrior and a king. He could deal with the massacre of the Silvan elves without resorting to weeping. He drew a resolute breath. It had been his fault. No question about it. He had allowed his resentment … his dislike … of the Noldor to influence him, to make him suspect their motives – and then Sauron had been able to use that to provoke him into reckless defiance. He had allowed himself to be deceived – and the elves of the Greenwood had trusted him and followed him to their deaths.
He should have learned to understand his errors, to regret them and let the guilt go – it was part of another life – but he found that that had come easier to an unhoused fëa, to whom emotions were irrelevant. The intellectual understanding he had developed – done, regretted, over – did not seem so simple when he could, if he allowed himself, still hear the cacophony of battle, still see the slaughter of gallant elves who should have dwelt for ever in their forest, still smell the smoke and blood, still feel the pain of the blade that had sliced …
No. He would not think about it. This was another of those memories he must acknowledge and put away. Unless he wanted to lose himself in a past he could not change.
Work: that was the key. While he was busy, he had no time to forget himself so that hours passed in the recollection of times long gone.
Oropher looked round him. Food was easy. The forest was generous. A roof – well, he needed little more than he had now. The trees would shelter him from any creatures and their canopy would keep off the rain. He could bathe in the streams and pools – wash his clothes. All he lacked, really, was company – and he was better off without that until he had learned to manage his own mind. He shuddered. The enthusiasm of a gathering of Wood-elves had been almost too much for him and he had felt himself choking on their emotions, unable, almost, to draw breath. He needed barriers in place before he attempted to deal with people.
Although, there were, of course, people and people… His son, his grandson, his great-grandchildren. Their presence had offered him comfort – taken him from himself and made him look outwards. But they were the future … and what he needed now… He paused – well, let him be honest with himself… He ached for his wife. She was the bridge, the one who had offered him that steady centre around which his spirit span, the one who bound him together – in whose eyes he was one and whole. She it was who had taken the wild warrior and calmed him and brought him to an understanding of his place in the world. Who had given him his son, been by his side when they had been cast out, comforted him and remained staunch as they sought a new home. Who had survived the destruction of all she had known only to die pointlessly and unexpectedly in a forest as beautiful as this one, leaving him bereft. Another wound that was again distressingly raw.
Why did some return when others did not?
He stared accusingly at the impassive blue of the sky. Why had he returned when other so much more worthy elves rested still in Námo’s Halls? It was unfair.
But when had fairness had anything to do with it?
If the Valar had been concerned with that, they would have saved Thingol from his fate at the hands of the Dwarves, they would have struck Fëanor’s sons down with a bolt of lightning before they let them broach the halls of Menegroth, they would have offered him the means to save his people from massacre … But the Valar allowed choice – and choices could be wrong. How could the Elves grow if the Powers constantly saved them from the consequences of their errors? Thingol’s obsession, the oath of the Fëanorionnath, his own suspicious, impulsive pig-headedness … had they not brought their own fates upon themselves? And, in so doing, swept uncounted others to their doom?
He sighed. He was doing it again. Another day had passed to night while he sat and brooded. It was as well he was alone. He was no fit company for any other to endure right now.
He rose and stretched. Not that it was a bad thing to pass the star-touched nights in the practical activities of life. Truth to tell, this reminded him of happier times – it was like going back to childhood. And he loved the night’s song. It was gentle and forgiving. Comforting. Less demanding than the day, its shadows less hard-edged.
He stripped and waded into a still pool set among pliant willow and sturdy alder, relishing the caress of cool water against his skin, setting off silvered ripples to spread across its surface. A deer, coming to drink, withdrew circumspectly into the trees to watch him, before deciding that this creature floating on the mirrored water was no threat. Even the deer, he thought, knew that they were in little danger here. Odd though he might be, the doe, at least, was prepared to tolerate his presence.
Oropher let himself sink in the water, so that only his face broke the surface. Washing away – not the past, he mused, but the chains that came with the past. He did not expect others to forget his mistakes, nor yet forgive them. But he had to accept that there was nothing he could do to change them – that he had done the best he could, however flawed that might have been.
Time in Námo’s Halls – was about seeing the elf you were. Recognising the good and the bad. Acknowledging your errors and bearing the results of your actions. Forgiving others and learning to forgive yourself. He sighed, moving the water that pressed gently against his chest. It was easier there. There you did not have the solidity of a body to bind you to the earth. You did not have the weight of other people’s hopes and expectations. You did not see the eyes of those who had lost husbands and sons … who had grown up fatherless. Yet the lessons were no less true.
He had served when he was young and foolish and known he was right. Was it not still his task to serve now that he was old and wary and experienced enough to know that he had little claim to wisdom and still less to infallibility?
He needed … he must seek out … not the presence of the young and hopeful, but the company of those like him, who had lived and suffered and died and come to understand that existence was a gift, too precious a gift to be wasted on self-obsession. It would continue to be hard – but would he want it to be anything else? If things came too easily, you did not appreciate them at their full worth.
It would take time – not so long, he hoped, that his grandson’s children had grown to adulthood before he felt able to live fully in the Blessed Realm – but time enough. Yet he did not have to take the whole path in one go. One step at a time: that was all. He needed to bend and learn to accept help along the way – and each step would make the next less taxing. To refuse the challenge – that would be cowardly. He was Oropher – who had never refused to take up a task because it would be difficult. Who would not let this get the better of him.
He surged out of the water, shedding a cascade of silver droplets to make a pattern of intersecting ripples on the trembling surface before striding purposefully to the edge of the disturbed pool.
He was ready to make a start.
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