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Great Oaks  by Bodkin

Great Oaks

The deeper they went into the forest, the more beautiful it was. 

Thranduil stood, eyes closed, simply listening to the rustle of conversation among the immense trees.  It was like – in a way – being in council with his father and his advisors, Sindar warriors from Doriath and quiet Silvan elves from even more ancient times.  Elves who exchanged whole conversations in a lifted eyebrow and debated and dismissed policies with a purse of the lips.  He knew he was missing more than half of what the oaks were saying, their speech too slow and measured to reach his ears – but the beeches he found easier to understand, while the birches chattered, barely bothering to finish one thought before moving on to another. 

‘You will take root if you stand there much longer.  My lord,’ Faroth added as an afterthought. 

His friend frowned.

‘I know.’  The ellon shrugged.  ‘It sounds stupid to me, too, but Corudír said we had to.  He seems to think we are not showing respect if we fail to use pointless titles.  As if that is what it takes to remind us that you are Oropher’s son.’ 

‘Respect offered to me simply because of my adar seems to be hardly worth receiving anyway.’

‘You tell him.’ Faroth seemed unconcerned, reaching out to caress the smooth grey trunk of the beech as if it were a friend.  ‘He might listen to you.’

Thranduil’s snort made it only too plain what he thought of that.  ‘I will never be old enough for Corudír to look on me as sensible enough to make my own decisions.’

His friend grinned.  ‘I do not know why he insisted on coming along with us – he is clearly not enjoying himself.’

‘He would say that we are not here to have fun.’  Thranduil tilted his head and looked down his nose, his expression mirroring that of the elf who had followed his father east.  ‘This is a serious business.’

‘It seems to me a great deal of fuss about nothing,’ Faroth shrugged.  ‘We could settle anywhere and be happy.’

‘It is not quite that easy.’  The tall blond stretched.  ‘We have been settled at Amon Lanc for some time now and we are talking about moving a lot of people – who will need more than a roof of obliging leaves to shelter them from the rain.  Food, water, drainage – the possibility of transporting goods in and out.  Enough open space between the trees to accommodate gatherings – you will agree that that, at least, is essential!  We need somewhere we can be without putting a strain on the forest.’

‘I suppose.’ 

Faroth did not sound very interested.  Of course, Thranduil thought, suppressing his amusement, he was Silvan – and, if he felt that one part of the forest needed a rest, he was quite capable of packing all his possessions into a single bag and dispersing all evidence of his presence before moving elsewhere.   It had taken the newly-arrived Sindar several yeni to adjust themselves to the sheer fluidity of the Silvan population, where apparently long-settled villages of contented elves had vanished as if they had never been.  Not like Doriath, had been muttered by many a bewildered Sinda until finally they had begun to accept the peculiarities of the Greenwood.  The Silvan really did not seem to understand the Sindar need for a constant home – and, in many ways, he found himself in agreement with them.  It was not as if buildings and borders had ever offered much in the way of protection against the invasion of darkness, after all –while the ability to fade into the forest had served the Silvan well.

‘Do you want something to eat?’  Faroth asked.  ‘Or are you planning on standing here until the stars flower?  Corudír was wanting to speak to you about our direction, too.  My lord.’

Thranduil was suddenly aware that he had not eaten since an early – and not all that abundant – breakfast.   ‘Food?’ he said, shoving his reflections back where they belonged.

‘You do not think I came looking for you for the pleasure of your company, do you?  My lord.’  Faroth grinned.  ‘And if you do not hurry, there will be nothing left for you and you will be forced to eat grass.’

Now the ellon mentioned it, he could detect a distant scent of cooked food that drew him irresistibly towards camp.  ‘Corudír would insist you handed over your own plate.’  Thranduil was not fooled.  ‘I cannot think of a better reason why you would ensure there was plenty left for us both.’

‘That and the fish were throwing themselves at us in a joyful surrender,’ his friend acknowledged.  ‘They seemed to have heard of your stomach’s complaints and volunteered to provide you with more than you could eat.’

‘Come then.’  Thranduil snatched at a fold of soft green tunic and tugged Faroth insistently.  ‘It would be rude to snub their sacrifice – and I am hungry.’

The murmurs of the trees changed in tone to become more introspective as the elves departed – whether because the day was winding down or because of the recent arrivals’ sudden absence, no-one was left to wonder.

***

‘No.’

Corudír huffed, his lips thinning as he looked for another way to express his thoughts.

‘No.’  Thranduil stared him down.  ‘And it will still be no, whatever arguments you come up with.  We are not going to take up residence in holes in the ground.’

‘You would call Menegroth a hole in the ground?’ Corudír’s voice sharpened.

‘Of course I would not!’  Thranduil remained determined, his jaw tensed, but he could not let that pass.  ‘But I would not compare Menegroth to a sandstone cliff pock-marked with holes!’  He held the older elf’s stare.  ‘We are elves of the forest, Corudír – by choice and tradition – and we will seek a home that reflects that!’

‘This site has other things to recommend it,’ Corudír insisted through clenched teeth, ‘besides safety – which is not something that should be overlooked.  It is within easy reach of the river – something you seem to realise is important – and there are open glades where crops can be grown.  Meadows where the horses can graze.  Dry storage.’

Thranduil turned an expression disconcertingly like his father’s on the other members of the scouting party.  ‘What do you think?’ he asked forbiddingly, his own response only too clear.

Faroth shrugged.  ‘I doubt your naneth would like it much here,’ he remarked.  ‘And the caves are not deep enough to offer much shelter – you would be better off in the trees.’

‘The soils are thin away from the river,’ a slight Silvan said, ‘and the meadows are swamped in the spring flood, which brings down the silts that make it fertile.  There is a delicate balance here …’ He inspected the terrain with an eye that took in far more than the arching trees and shrugged.  ‘The land would welcome us – but we would be foolish to plan to dwell here year round.’

‘Then where would you suggest, Aelindor?’ Corudír snapped.  ‘We have spent the best part of the summer finding places that you claim would not support us – have you any idea where we might find somewhere that would?’

‘It is not that easy.’  The ellon seemed unaffected by the older elf’s mood.  ‘We are talking about moving a lot of people – and the forest deals much better with small groups that place fewer demands on it.’

‘I doubt there is any need for us all to migrate in one mass.  After all, we are not escaping an inundation – not this time.’  Thranduil looked round him.  ‘We will detail this place and add it to the list.  The final decision, after all, is not in our hands.’  The look he cast in Corudír’s direction was a little more conciliatory.  ‘We will present Adar’s council with our observations and any recommendations we might have, but I am sure he will come to look for himself before coming to any conclusions.’  His mother was not the only one reluctant to leave the area around Amon Lanc.  If he was not much mistaken, half Corudír’s ill-temper was springing from an increasing resistance to the idea of starting again in some more remote part of this vast forest.

‘You are probably right, my lord,’ Aelindor displayed little interested in strategy, but fixed on the point that meant most to him.  ‘It took yeni for the current population to accumulate – and the changes were small and gradual.  The king needs to spread people out again – that way they will not put too much strain on the forest.  Small settlements living in tune with the rhythm of the land – that would be best.’

‘A few here, a few there,’ Faroth said enthusiastically, his gaze shifting across Corudír’s expression with apparent innocence.  ‘A simple life – such as the forest-dwellers have always preferred.’

The grin passed across Thranduil’s face so quickly that it went almost unnoticed.  ‘I suspect the king will require a little more for his household,’ he said reprovingly.  ‘He will not want my naneth to exchange her home for a simple talan.  And it is up to us to find a place that will suit their needs.’

***

If his father was determined to get away from the Noldor, he was probably going the right way about it.  These groves were more impressive than any of their tall white towers, with arched windows reflecting the light like watchful eyes: greater, even, than the massive columns of Menegroth, carved in the semblance of immense trees, that he recalled from his early years at Elu’s court.  Although, of course, he had not been old enough to wander far from his mother’s skirts when that home had been torn from him – and he had been small enough that anything seemed huge. 

And yet, for all their size, these glades were deserted.  He had, he realised, barely seen an elf that was not of their party since they had left the gently sedate settlements at the fringes of Amon Lanc.  And it worried him.  Were his people, in fact, not truly welcome here?  Were they tolerated, much as deer endured the presence of wolves, because predators were impossible to eject from the forest – and kept under nervous observation because that was preferable to having them rise up with unexpected ferocity, baring fangs and claws.

Surely there must be villages of Silvan elves somewhere here amongst these giants?  And surely they should be allowed to have their say as to where the newly transplanted court should settle?  He, at least, had no desire to repeat the errors of the Exiles by presenting his people as better and wiser than those whose lands they would share – and being graciously prepared to share their wisdom with their inferiors.

Thranduil settled himself on a low branch.  This search was proving surprisingly frustrating.  If he had not known better, he would have suspected Faroth’s frivolity of concealing a cunning determination to lead them everywhere but the places they sought – and Aelindor’s reserved head-shakings of being deliberately designed to thwart their hopes of seeking out suitable sites.  But he knew them too well – this was not their intention.  He had seen the same problems and experienced the same doubts as they did.  He sighed.  Oropher would not be pleased if they were not back by the winter solstice, fully prepared to recommend a destination for this new journey.

The oak hummed reassuringly, its steady pulse finding its echo in his blood and relaxing him to the point that he began to drift into a pleasant haze.  He was old enough – more than old enough – to take responsibilities such as this, but the opportunity had not often been put his way and he had to admit that he was becoming increasingly stressed by their constant failure to find the perfect place to settle.  The throb of the oak, the humming of a canopy of bees, the chirruping song of a hundred watchful small birds combined to soothe him like a lullaby.  He sighed, leaning his fair head back against the rough bark and drew in a grateful breath of sun-warmed green.

He was unsurprised, when he stirred, to find that the tree was watching him.

So unsurprised, in fact, that he made no attempt whatsoever to acknowledge the delicate, leaf-tinted features that looked down at him, merely returning the gaze with complete openness and making no effort to shield himself from eyes as penetrating as a dawn mist.

And he was equally unsurprised that, once he blinked, the face was no longer there.

He shook himself, telling himself that he had not been properly awake – that the dream path had provided a face for the image he held in his heart – and he sat up. This was not the way to fulfil his mission.  He needed to apply himself to the task his father had set him.

If only it were that easy.  He sighed.  It was proving one of those apparently simple requests that seemed next to impossible to achieve.  It would doubtless be easier to fulfil his mother’s only-partly-frivolous demand that he find a bride than find a place that would suit the multifarious demands of a horde of displaced Sindar and Silvan courtiers looking to settle somewhere in these endless woods.

In fact, he would not be at all surprised to discover that his father had decided this would be an excellent lesson for his only son in the impossibility of satisfying everyone.  Thranduil had been, perhaps, a little too outspoken recently on the topic of his king’s tendency to ignore unwelcome advice – doubtless his father would relish his son’s discovery that consensus was virtually impossible.

He yawned and raised his face to absorb every detail of the overlapping leaves above him, deriding himself for the vain hope that he might again catch sight of something that had never been there to begin with.  A soft breeze stirred the canopy, the high branches shifting as if embarrassed to be the centre of his attention, and he smiled and looked away, rubbing his hand over the ridged bark apologetically.

East, he thought.  Forget what Corudír thought.  Like father, like son, it would seem.  His instincts drew him east.

***

Faroth whistled to his horse.  He was, he was happy to admit, fond of the creature – but there was no doubt that he preferred to travel through the trees.  There was something … liberating … exultant … sanctified about the process.  He was not bound to the earth, but felt almost as if he were flying, secure in the love of this forest for the elves who dwelt in it.  And it was just such fun.

The horse, well-used to his rider’s peculiarities, speeded up a little to follow him along the narrow deer-trail, the packs he deigned to carry bouncing on his back.

It felt – at last – as if they were getting somewhere.  Since Thranduil had put his foot down and decided to ignore the dozen different casts into a score of different directions, behaving almost as if he was following a trail hidden to the rest of them, Faroth had begun to feel as if they would discover what they had been sent to find.

He landed lightly on a narrow branch that swung under him, flexing as he ran along it to leap to another rather closer to the forest floor.  

Of course, this risked approaching the part of the forest where his own father had advised him not to go – but he failed to see what he could do about it.  Thranduil was far less … rigid … than some of the older Sindar, but he still expected that those he had been raised to lead to follow him rather than take him off down avenues of their choice.  Faroth shrugged to himself.  There was not a lot he could do about it – Oropher’s son had a mind of his own. 

He swung from the beech into a whip-like birch, grabbing the narrow fronds in practised hands and using the impetus to send him higher into an older and rather grander oak, one large enough to have watched the rest of the forest grow around it, landing only to jerk back, his boot seeking a footing in air.

The stranger grabbed him before he could fall.  ‘Careful, child.’

The branch shifted slightly to counter his stagger, while cool fingers calmed him.  His heartbeat steadied as he met eyes of lichen-grey in a pale face framed with hair that reflected the green-gold light beneath the canopy.  Faroth swallowed.  This was – if he was not much mistaken – someone of whom he had only heard whispers.  Someone of whom stories were murmured on nights of celebration, when too much wine and too little discretion had loosened tongues better kept still.  Someone in whose existence he had not altogether believed.

‘My lady,’ he said, attempting a low bow as best he could, considering she had his arm firmly in her grasp.

The tension that emanated from the indistinct figures on the branches round them lessened slightly.  Those who guarded her were mollified, if not entirely relieved of their distrust.

‘Enough.’  She was clearly amused by their concern, but not so much so that she was prepared to tolerate their interference.  Eyes that had opened to starlight turned imperiously on her would-be protectors, who melted into the shadows without a word.

He could not think of anything to say – but, fortunately, she did not seem inclined to discuss their party’s intrusion into lands that were part of her ancient realm.

She inspected him.

Faroth swallowed.  He was left feeling much as his had when his rather formidable grandmother had looked him over after he had been inspired to turn her embroidered sheets into sails for a raft that had foundered on its first voyage.

‘Tell me,’ she invited in a soft voice that admitted no possibility of evasion, ‘all you know of the Sindar boy of Elu’s house.’

***

‘The soils are deeper,’ Aelindor agreed.  ‘We would be able to plant gardens to grow food – although they would not be large.  And the trees produce fruit in abundance – we should be able to store acorn meal in plenty.  None would need to go hungry.’  He ignored the sour face Corudír pulled and continued to enlarge on the advantages of the area.

Thranduil suppressed his laughter.  He was coming to think that refusing to exhibit an emotional response under extreme provocation was one of the essentials of leadership.  ‘The hunting is good here,’ he said, keeping his face sober, ‘and the streams are full of fish.  It is almost as if the region is waiting for us to arrive.’  He looked round approvingly.  ‘You are not saying much!’  His gaze settled on Faroth.  ‘You are not usually so reserved – what do you think?’

‘Meant,’ his friend muttered.  ‘You could be right.’

‘Well, if that it all …?’ Thranduil added a final note to the report on his lap.  ‘Let us spend a little time getting to know the region better.  Faroth – you are responsible for feeding us tonight.  The rest of you …’ He smiled.  ‘Enjoy a break.’

He felt Faroth’s eyes on his back as he packed the papers away in the carefully-preserved oiled silk, and was, for a moment, tempted to turn back and extract from his friend the reasons for his recent change of mood.  But Anor was shining and the breeze from the green waters of the lake was cool – and there would be plenty of time for that later.  For now, all he wanted to do was meander among these welcoming trees.

He sang as he wandered – not an ancient lay of doomed love scribed by past minstrels, but a wordless song inspired by the freshness of the day and the beauty of the forest.  The leaves reached out, brushing against him, and he happily wove his way among the summer-green foliage towards the spot where the rock-filled stream entered the wide pool.   A heron flew over, its broad wings whispering as they beat against the air.  He paused and watched as it settled in the shallows, dipping its head to peer into the water.

And there, at the corner of his vision, he saw her.

He froze, reluctant to turn and find that she was no more than the light catching a sapling, no more than a drapery of soft leaves, no more than the gurgle of a tumbling stream, but he could not stay still indefinitely in the hope that holding the moment would make her real.  Thranduil moved his head slowly, like a plant turning to face the sun.  This time he was awake.  This time he knew what he was seeing.  He could not convince himself that this dream was real.

But the fluttering leaves of the young birch, the silver gleam of its slender trunk, the darker green of the shade behind – all combined to frame a face he recognised, somewhere deep inside himself.  This was the reason for his journey.  From Doriath of old, from Sirion, from the rising tides of broken Beleriand, across mountains, through tranquil woods, he had been seeking …

He had nothing to say.

She watched him, her face serious.  Intent.  As if, once she spoke, it would be too late for either of them to change their minds.  This was not just a meeting but … the upheaval of two great rivers changing direction to flow together towards a distant ocean.

He held his breath, unwilling to do anything that might startle her, put her to flight, make her take refuge among her trees and slowly, tentatively, extended a hand towards her.

‘You have brought a carrot?’

Whatever he had expected her to say, it was not that.  He frowned, confused. 

‘I am not a horse, Thranduil Oropherion.’  She stepped towards him, moving from vision to reality, from dream to waking life.  She touched her fingers to his, her hand cool and smooth and undeniably solid. 

‘I never thought you were.’  A bubble of laughter began deep in his belly.  Whatever he had imagined of this meeting, it had not included jesting.  This would be something to savour – something to speak of in distant centuries, when their grandchildren would be unable to imagine a first encounter between the two of them.  ‘You are far more beautiful than my horse – and you have fewer legs.’  He blinked.  ‘You know my name.’

‘I have long been watching you,’ she admitted.  Her voice was as lovely as she was, singing with the purity of the forest, underpinned with its power, but her accent was strange and the cadence of her words enticingly different.  ‘I wanted to speak, but …’ She shrugged.  ‘My grandmother was uncertain.  She wanted to see you for herself.’ 

Thranduil forced himself to look away from her, checking the trees warily.  ‘Your grandmother is here?’

A tress of hair the colour of light through leaves floated on the breeze as she shook her head.  ‘She has consented,’ the elleth said simply.  ‘She recognised you at once and knew you were the one.’

He frowned.  ‘And I did not see her?’

‘No-one sees her unless she so chooses.’  She smiled and he forgot to breathe.  ‘She is … like that.’

‘But how can I ask her permission to court you …?’

‘So suddenly, my lord?’ She batted her eyelashes at him in feigned modesty, but he could sense the laughter that hid underneath. 

‘Not suddenly at all,’ he protested.  ‘You have been in my mind since we reached the Greenwood.’

She laughed.  ‘That you are here at all is permission enough,’ she said.  ‘Will your adar be content here?’

Thranduil was too intoxicated by the sound to allow the wisps of suspicion to coalesce into anything that would spoil the moment.  ‘I cannot imagine anywhere better,’ he told her.

She was close enough for him to feel the warmth of her skin, inhale the scent of her skin, see the pulse beat beneath her ear.  She leaned forward deliberately, touching her lips to his in a chaste kiss that left him burning.  ‘A promise,’ she said, ‘for the time to come,’ and stepped back.

‘Wait!’  His urgency stabbed deep and sharp.  ‘Do not leave me – I do not even know your name!’

She paused, half-hidden by the sweeping boughs that curved protectively between them, and turned.   She inclined her head to one side and considered.  ‘Laerwen,’ she said and smiled a mischievous farewell as she faded into the forest.

‘Laerwen,’ he echoed, the name a sigh of yearning, as he gazed blankly into trees whose beauty had dimmed in the absence of hers.  His mother, the thought occurred to him as the impudent song of a teasing robin mocked him, might well find that wishes come to pass did not always provide what was expected.

***

The promise held him.  Through all the tedium of consultations, through the bad-tempered packing, through the monotony of the journey.  Even the endless diplomacy involved in settling people into new lives had been tolerable because she had promised … But she did not come to him.  The seasons turned.  Wet springs became warm summers.  Generous autumns chilled to bare winters until the rains again stirred the plants to life, yet still she did not come. 

He was glad, in some ways, that he had not spoken of her.  It might have made her more real – but then, did he want her to be real?  As it was, he clutched her image close and she belonged to him alone.  And she was something he did not want to share.

‘Drink!’  Faroth offered him a cup of the rich herb-scented honey drink distilled for the night when Anor barely went to bed.  ‘Whoever she is, she is not worth it.’

Thranduil threw back the golden liquor in a single swallow.  He sometimes thought that his friend knew more than he was saying – but was that not just typical of the Silvan?  For them, so often, the knowing was enough.

Without asking, Faroth refilled the cup.  ‘How long are you planning on hanging around the dancing lawns?’ he enquired.  He grinned and raised his eyebrows in invitation.  ‘You owe some of us a chance to get back at you for your success in our last encounter.’

‘My naneth extracted a promise,’ Thranduil admitted, ‘that I would neither drink to excess nor gamble tonight.’

‘Is she determined to ruin your fun?’ Faroth shook his head.  ‘There are only four nights a year we are allowed to get away with more or less what we want!  It is not much to ask.’

Thranduil grinned.  ‘Unreasonable, I know.’  He swirled the drink round the cup idly.  ‘She seems to think that I might enjoy dancing the night away.

‘She is trying to soften you up,’ Faroth declared.  ‘Weaken you, so that some elleth can entice you into providing her with grandchildren.’

‘Not a chance.’  No matter, Thranduil thought, who his mother found.  There was no elleth in Arda who could compete with the one who already held his heart hostage.  He took a sip from the cup.  It reminded him of her – pure and cool and sweet, but burning, like a peat fire out of control below the ground.  She would come.  She had said she would.  Or had she?  She had implied …  ‘Come,’ he commanded, pushing himself away from the tree behind which they lurked.  ‘Let us make our escape while we may.  I am in no mood to fritter away the night in this crowd.’

A voice stopped him – one that he had nursed in memory, one that impelled him to thrust his half-empty cup into Faroth’s hands and straighten his formal tunic.  ‘Escape?  Is that truly what you want?’

He turned, his face masked, prepared to be the smoothly-smiling prince, and his breath caught in his throat.  He did not hear what Faroth said – had no idea how she introduced herself, this elleth tall and pale as spring sunlight.  It did not matter anyway.  He knew who she was, just as she knew him.

‘You came,’ he said.

‘I came,’ she agreed.  ‘It took longer than I intended, but I am here now.’

‘And will you stay?’

Her nod was enough to make him engulf her in his arms and swing her off her feet into a dizzying circle, her face the only thing he saw.  ‘Marry me,’ he demanded, slowing to place her gently on her feet.

She glanced swiftly at Faroth, watching them open-mouthed, then turned back to Thranduil.  ‘Of course,’ she said.  ‘Why else do you think I came?’

This chapter does not follow on from the first - not really.  The first section was, originally, the beginning of the story, but it just didn't really fit with the turn taken by the tale and was, therefore, excised!  However, it just didn't want to take rejection - and developed into something slightly different.  I was considering posting it separately, but it is really part of this story - so here it is.

**********************************

Little Acorns Grow

‘Naneth?’

Strong arms wrapped round her, warm and comforting.  When had he grown to be so big?  It only seemed a moment ago that he had been newly-born, resting trustingly in her protective clasp.  Idherien held back a sigh and stroked loving fingers along a hand trained to hold a sword rather than an infant.

‘Have we not lost enough?’ she asked, even as she scolded herself for her foolishness.  That was not how the world worked.  She knew that.  The higher they climbed, the further they had to fall – and fall they would.  Had not the drowning of Beleriand taught her that?

He did not answer, but rested his cheek on the top of her head and just let his presence reassure her.

‘You know Adar,’ he said eventually.  ‘He is a loving elf and a good king – but he holds on to grudges ages old.  He will never forgive the dwarves – and he will always loathe the Exiles.’

‘I have been happy here,’ Idherien said wistfully.  ‘Amon Lanc has become home – and I do not want to leave it.  Why should we be driven out?’

‘If you cannot persuade Adar to stay, then no-one can.’  Thranduil was philosophical about the change – but then, his mother thought, smiling at him, he was still young enough to think that change was automatically a good thing.  And he had spent enough of his life following his parents as they sought a place to call home, that he doubtless thought that settling down was not an enviable fate.

Idherien sighed.  She was not sure that it was not a mistake to leave this hill to bury themselves more deeply in the forest – in some ways, it would leave them more vulnerable – but Oropher would not be convinced, and she had long since learned that he was easier to guide if she let him have his head.  Only once had she put her foot down and demanded that he give her her way – and the result of that was standing behind her.  Which only went to show, she thought wryly, that she knew what she was doing – for their son provided an immense amount of joy to them both.

‘Has your adar decided where we will go?’ she asked.

Thranduil could not entirely suppress his excitement.  ‘Not entirely,’ he admitted with attempted nonchalance.  ‘He has commissioned me to lead a group to seek the site.’

His mother smiled.  No wonder the ellon was less than distressed at the prospect of leaving the home they had built up over the last yeni – Oropher had offered him the perfect enticement.  ‘He could not find a better scout,’ she declared.  ‘You know what we need – and the Silvan will follow you willingly.’  She squeezed his hand.  ‘You may be Sindar-born,’ she said, ‘but the elves of the forest have taken you to their hearts.’

‘Naneth,’ he protested, a wave of colour heating his fair skin. 

‘Not least,’ she added dryly, ‘because you throw yourself whole-heartedly into activities of which your adar would thoroughly disapprove.’

That did not discompose him at all.  Ellyn were funny creatures, she thought.  Embarrassed by open affection – but quite indifferent to accusations of intemperate behaviour that would mortify a sensible elleth.

‘I doubt that Adar is ignorant of anything I do,’ he observed.  ‘Or that I do anything he has not done himself!  Silvan customs …’ he grinned at his mother, ‘are – as everyone has been telling me since we arrived in the Greenwood – different.  In taking part, I am … I am showing my respect for tradition!’

‘The Silvan,’ she said lightly, ‘have a tradition of marrying young.  I have not observed you attempting to follow that custom.’

‘Nor will you,’ her son declared instantly, loosening his clasp on her and stepping back, eager to run from the repetition of a conversation that went round in circles.  ‘I have not yet found the one who is right for me – and I am not looking.’ 

‘It is not one of those things you can force,’ Idherien agreed.  ‘But both your adar and hers would have been happy if you and Matheniel …’  She sighed.  ‘Especially since …’

Thranduil grinned wickedly.  ‘Matheniel has always been too much of a sister to me,’ he said.  ‘And her adar reconciled himself to her choice in the end – even if they all ended up taking refuge in Lórien just to get away from Adar’s glowering.’

‘Oropher has reason not to care for the Noldor,’ his mother reproved him.

‘As a general rule,’ Thranduil agreed.  ‘But he is …’ He looked cautiously at Idherien.  His mother did not take kindly to criticism of her husband.  ‘He is blinkered,’ he said carefully.  ‘He sees evil intent where none exists and refuses to look at individuals and judge them on their own merits.’

‘That is not entirely true,’ Idherien said, unable to deny that there was something in her son’s words.  ‘He has learned that distrust honestly – and is not beyond suspending it, once his respect has been earned.’ 

‘He had better learn to suspend it with Matheniel’s husband – if he wants her adar back on his council.’  Thranduil grinned at his mother’s frown.  ‘You know it, Naneth.’

‘Some things, my son, are best left unsaid.’ She reached out to tug on one of his blond braids.  ‘When are you to leave?’

‘After the festival,’ he told her.  ‘Adar sees no reason to rush – not now the decision has been made.  He wants us to do this right.’

Idherien’s smile dimmed a little and he moved closer to put an arm round her shoulders.  ‘And you must tell me what I am to seek.’

She could not resist giving in to a wisp of mischief.  ‘A bride,’ she declared.

***

In the shadows beyond the broad dancing lawn, Idherien fought nobly to hold back her laughter.

Oropher scowled, only too aware that her sympathies did not rest with him.  ‘I am not asking much,’ he protested.  ‘Only that …’

‘Only that our son should choose himself a wife to suit his adar,’ his wife nodded, almost as if she were agreeing with him.  ‘Decide he loves whomsoever he likes, as long as she fits your idea of a perfect wife.’

‘I am happy for him to take a Silvan bride,’ Oropher objected.  ‘Do not twist my worries to make it seem as if I am not!’ He drew closer to her, frowning in a way that would have made many step back – but they did not know him as Idherien did.  She smiled and took his hand as he continued, quietly enough that only she could hear him, ‘But what do we know of her?  What does anyone know of her?’

‘Perhaps she has bewitched him,’ Idherien suggested.

He began to nod before he picked up the edge under her grave tone. 

‘Did you know about this?’ he asked more sharply.

‘Know?  As in being in my son’s confidence?  No.  Know – as in observing that he has, for some time, been clearly desirous of something he could not have, seeing him seek solitude among the trees, noticing his flare of interest in the arrival of strangers from distant parts of the forest – yes.  I have noticed that, since he returned from the task of seeking out our new home, Thranduil has shown all the signs of having met somebody in whom he was more than interested.’  

Oropher linked his fingers with hers and drew up her hand to kiss her knuckles.  ‘I suppose you think I am stupid to have been so … flabbergasted?’ he said.

‘No,’ she said, squeezing his fingers, ‘I think flabbergasted is a very good word.’  She leaned forward to kiss him gently.  ‘But I think it best if no-one else realises quite how – flabbergasted – we are.  Or they might start to believe that our astonishment means that we are not happy to welcome this elleth to our family.’

‘I suppose we have no say in the matter?’ He sounded wistful.  It would be so much easier to put his foot down and inform Thranduil that it was too soon and too sudden – that he needed to take time to learn to know the elleth, while his parents negotiated with hers the intricacies of bonding their houses.

‘None whatsoever.’  Idherien sounded distressingly unconcerned.  She looked at him and laughed.  ‘Your son, my husband, is as stubborn as you are … and as quick to make decisions.’  She brushed her fingers over his cheekbone and let them linger at the corner of his mouth.  ‘How long did it take you to decide to make me your wife, my love?   And how much attention did you pay to your family’s concerns?’

‘This is different.’  Oropher hunched a shoulder defensively.  ‘I did not announce our intentions on our first meeting!’

‘No …’ Idherien’s lips twitched.  ‘I think you waited until the third.  And then declared yourself in front of Elu, when my adar felt you were overwhelming me with too much attention and suggested that you should restrain your ardour.  It was no wonder that he took time to warm to you.’

Oropher cleared his throat.  If asked, he would have said frankly that his wife’s adar would only warm to him if he were on fire.  ‘Yes, well …’ he said awkwardly.  ‘That is as may be – but what do we do now?’

‘We smile,’ Idherien instructed him.  ‘We smile and offer her a kiss of kinship and we take her into our household.  And,’ she pointed a warning finger at her husband, ‘we withhold judgment.’  Her sigh was almost imperceptible.  ‘We can change nothing,’ she said.  ‘Thranduil has made up his mind and she has accepted him.  We live with that – or we lose our son … and that is a price I am not prepared to pay.’

Her husband held her close and murmured, his breath warm in her ear, ‘Nor I, my love.  Nor I.’

***

‘Naneth?’

Anor had risen above the trees and gleamed down onto the waters of the lake, turning it into a mirror and the forest appeared to be sleeping after the revelries of the night.  Thranduil hesitated.   Idherien perched motionless in the dappled shade of the old willow, her posture suggesting that she would prefer not to be disturbed, but she turned and smiled at him and patted the broad root that provided her with a seat.

He hesitated, feeling oddly like an elfling hoping for his mother’s approval when he knew he deserved a scolding.

‘I could not be sure she would come,’ he said.

The tilt of her head made him question that.

‘She said she would come,’ he amended, ‘but not when – or whether she would come straight to my arms.  I did not want to …’ he paused, already unsure what had made him keep his love secret, ‘presume,’ he finished. 

She continued to watch him.

‘And you told me to go and seek a bride,’ he reminded her airily.

Her narrowed eyes told him that he was unlikely to get away with that. 

‘And is she not …’ Even thinking about her warmed him and distracted him and made the glory of the day dim. ‘Is she not beautiful?’

Idherien’s face softened.  ‘She is beautiful,’ she agreed.  ‘And, for some reason, she seems as unable to take her eyes from you as you are to think of anything but her.’

‘The only way I could endure the wait,’ Thranduil confided, suddenly aware of the reason behind his silence, ‘was to keep my hopes locked away – confine them to a tiny part of my mind and just continue as if they were not there.’ He sat next to his mother, offering his hand, palm upwards, in a gesture of peace.  ‘And now … they fill me.’

He shone, Idherien realised, with the glory of love realised and acknowledged.  And, for all she had wanted this happiness for him, it still hurt a little to know that he would never again be her son in quite the same way.  He had moved on – and was at the brink of a new stage of his life.  Which was, she sighed silently, as it should be.

Thranduil looked at her sideways.  ‘Adar is less than pleased, is he not?’

‘What makes you say that?  Why would he not be happy for you?’  Idherien evaded a direct answer.

‘He does not care for being surprised.’  Oropher’s son grinned ruefully.  ‘Or for being put in a position where he cannot express his doubts.’

‘If you know that, then why did you not behave with a little more discretion?’

‘Oh, you know.’  Thranduil’s smile took on a more intimate depth.  ‘Sometimes emotions simply overwhelm good sense.  I could not risk the possibility that Laerwen would leave me – it seemed only natural to ask her to remain by my side.  And, when she agreed …’  He took a deep breath.  ‘Nothing else mattered.  Nothing!  Even though I knew, somewhere in a corner of my mind, that Adar and you might feel I was rushing matters.’

Idherien laughed.  ‘I cannot imagine your adar’s son behaving in any other way,’ she admitted, turning to face him squarely.  ‘But,’ she warned, ‘your marriage is a different matter!  Convention demands that you wait a year – and your adar will expect you to do so.’  She ignored her son’s frown.  ‘And it is a wise custom.  You need to know more of each other – we need to come to know your bride – and she needs to learn what will be expected of her as wife to Oropher’s heir.’  She silenced him with an admonitory finger.  ‘No arguments!  What is a year, after all?  It can take longer than that to embroider a gown.’

His initial urge to object fizzled away.  It was a small thing to ask – even if the passage of the seasons would be a torment to him – and a part of him acknowledged that he and Laerwen knew very little of each other beyond the fact that they belonged together.

‘As it is,’ Idherien mused, ‘Laerwen will have everyone watching her and wondering about your relationship.’  She looked at Thranduil quizzically. ‘You could not have made yourselves more obvious had you tried – it is almost enough to make one suspect that  you did it on purpose.’

There was no doubt about it.  His mother knew him far too well.

***

Oropher found her in the arms of an enormous beech only because the joyous murmur of the leaves and the throb of the tree’s pulse revealed an unusual presence.  He hesitated, unexpectedly uncertain whether he was wise to approach her in this way.  He did not, after all, want his son to think he had been interfering.

‘My lord?’

She revealed no sign of nerves – just a mild curiosity.  He was not altogether sure he approved of that.  It was not every day that his son claimed a strange elleth from the deep forest as his bride and he rather felt that she should be more anxious to explain herself.  On the other hand, he had to admit that he admired courage and appreciated the refusal of his Silvan people to be overly impressed by their Sindar rulers.  It was what an elf did, after all, that should earn reputation – and what he had done had made him king.

He put a hand on the smooth grey trunk and let the tree feel his authority.  ‘May I join you?’ he asked politely.

The tree welcomed him, but he found he was rather less certain of the elleth’s feelings on the matter.  ‘Of course, my lord,’ she said, but her voice contained the fresh nip of a spring breeze and he wondered what he had done to earn this coolness.

She bowed as he settled on a broad branch opposite her and drew one booted foot up to rest his elbow on his knee.  A fair braid slipped over his shoulder to dangle over his tunic, weighted down by the heavy carved bead adorning the leather tie.  He remained silent, inspecting her mildly.  She bore up well, neither shifting nor looking away, and a slight smile began to lift the corners of her mouth.

‘Are you surprised that your arrival is – disconcerting?’ Oropher asked finally.  ‘Or offended, perhaps, that Thranduil’s parents have not embraced you with uncritical enthusiasm?’

‘Not in the least,’ she replied promptly.  ‘You would be unusual parents indeed if you were not suspicious of so … immediate … a declaration.’  Her smile widened.  ‘I was surprised myself.  I had not expected Thranduil to be so … so certain.’

‘Why should he not be?  If you were sure of your feelings for him …’  Oropher stopped.  Was he now defending his son’s headstrong leap into betrothal?  ‘You need to take time to learn to know more of each other than that you are in love.  There is more to building a life together than looking into each other’s eyes.’  He raised his chin to look down at her.  ‘What of your family, child?  What will they think of this?’

‘My adar did not survive the First Age,’ she said, ‘and my naneth would not endure without him.  My daernaneth… well, she has consented – but she had little desire to linger here to learn to know those come newly to the forest.  She will not dwell where there are so many elves – although she concedes that you care well for the trees.  She, too, says that it would be folly to rush – that I might find that I could not be happy among you.’

Oropher bristled.  He was almost insulted – who was this Silvan elleth to disregard his people or doubt that her granddaughter would be happy with his son?  Only the recollection of Idherien’s words kept his tongue still long enough for him to realise that they all sought the same end.  ‘Will you stay with us?’ he asked cautiously.  ‘At least for a while?  I am sure my wife will want to spend long hours in consultation with you – weddings seem to require more planning and debate than wars.’

‘Some might say that the ill-effects of injudicious marriage can linger longer,’ the elleth said, ‘and cause as much harm.’

She was no innocent, Oropher realised, for all he thought of her as young.  There was experience in the lichen-grey eyes and determination enough to take – and abide by – hard decisions.  She would be Thranduil’s equal and stand with him through adversity as surely as in prosperity.  Perhaps, after all, he did approve of her.  The forest certainly did – and it would be no bad thing to be tied to the Silvan by bonds of matrimony.  Thranduil’s children – his grandchildren – would be part of the Greenwood in a way that he never could be.

She smiled – and, for a stomach-dropping moment, Oropher felt as if his thoughts were as clear to her as Anor’s light through the leaves.  This was not, he knew Idherien would inform him emphatically, an occasion for politics – and he could not think of a better way to blight his relationship with his son’s bride than to have her believe that he looked on her as no more than a diplomatic coup.  He softened, anxious to offset an error she could not even suspect. 

‘Will you walk with me?’ he suggested.  ‘Before my son comes seeking to bear you away?  I would like to show you some of the changes we have made here to help the forest accommodate us – and I always enjoy a good excuse to walk the lake shore in preference to meeting with my advisors.’

She nodded her agreement and stood, stepping down the curved branch to where it dropped to the grass as easily as if she were strolling across a woodland glade, and he followed her, taking note of the simplicity with which the forest responded to her.  ‘I look forward to coming to know you,’ Oropher informed her, making up his mind.  If he could come to appreciate the qualities of his friend’s Noldo son-in-law – even if it was through gritted teeth – he could welcome this elleth.  ‘My wife always told me that we should have had a daughter.’ 

Laerwen smiled – as if she understood him.  It was quite worrying – he would face any number of open enemies in preference to a knowing female.  Oropher placed the elleth’s hand on his arm and patted her fingers paternally.  It would be all right.  He would show his approval of the match by walking with her through the heart of the community and then hand her over to his wife.  The thought comforted him.  Idherien was definitely the one to deal with this – she, at least, would take it in her stride.

***

The gown was magnificent in its simplicity, Idherien thought.  Not for Laerwen a heavy encrustation of pearls from a sea she had never seen.  Not for her threads of mithril from the depths of the dwarven realm.  Not for her the glint of faceted stones cut by Noldor jewelsmiths.  Of the softest green, like the haze of a spring dawn, her robe was adorned with a twining embroidery of small flowers, while in her hair she wore a wreath of leaves and blossoms.

Idherien’s lips twitched.  Oropher had been outraged when Thranduil had declared that he, too, would wear leaves in preference to the gleaming circlet that was one of the few treasures that had followed them from Doriath, and it had taken considerable patience and subtlety to convince her husband that this change from tradition was a good thing – symbolic of the new lives they led in forest, and growing out of respect for an ancient custom.

Laerwen, though, had been unimpressed by Oropher’s outburst – what that said of her own family made Idherien wonder, for there were not many who could withstand Oropher at his most forceful.  And she was going to be left to wonder, for none of the elleth’s kin had emerged from the deep forest to stand with her on this day.  She had seemed unconcerned, saying that it was unnecessary, but Idherien could not help but be indignant on her behalf.  What was approval of the match, if it did not include being at the elleth’s side as she and Thranduil claimed each other?

‘You look beautiful,’ she said reassuringly, noticing Laerwen’s fingers shake as she wriggled a twined band of honeysuckle over her hand so that the trumpet-like blooms dangled like charms.  ‘Thranduil will be stunned when he sees you.’

‘He will not even notice the effort that has gone into it all,’ Laerwen demurred.

‘But the effect!’  Idherien grinned impishly.  ‘The effect will leave him gasping.  He will not know what to do with himself.’

‘I doubt that either of us …’ Laerwen puffed out a breath and strove to calm herself.

‘Not much longer.’  Idherien spoke soothingly.  ‘I remember my naneth saying something similar to me when Oropher and I …  Of course, his adar was not there to stand by him, but Elu did his best to keep Oropher waiting patiently.’  She smiled.  ‘And to make him wait a respectable amount of time before he carried me off from the festivities.’  She enveloped her future daughter in a careful hug, unwilling to disturb any of the skilfully-arranged finery.  ‘It will be worth it,’ she assured the younger elleth.   ‘You will be very happy together.  Thranduil is – a worthy recipient of your love.  Although, I am his naneth – of course I would think that!’  Her fingers lingered on the back of Laerwen’s hand.  ‘My adar, though – he was never really happy with my choice of Oropher.  I hope …’ she paused, ‘I hope that your kin …’  She let the suggestion hover between them.

‘They are content with my decision,’ Laerwen declared.  ‘They may not altogether understand why I should choose to bind my life with a Sindar prince, but they accept it.  And my grandmother may not be here today, but many more distant kin will be with us – and they will celebrate our joining with enthusiasm.’  She turned towards the glade where people were already gathering to watch the brief ceremony that would confirm the new couple’s decision to become one, and the trees around them seemed almost to shiver in anticipation.

‘Not long now.  Not long,’ Idherien soothed automatically in the tones of a naneth calming a fretful child.  ‘Be patient a little longer.  Anor is nearly at rest and Gil Estel will soon begin his path across the sky.’

‘This has been the longest day I have ever passed,’ Laerwen avowed. ‘Every minute has lasted a full year.’

‘Soon you will be hard pressed to pick out a single second of it,’ Idherien informed her.  ‘And you will be wishing that you could do it all again, so that you can savour every moment.’

The hum of the trees appeared to intensify momentarily as birdsong subsided and small, scuffling creatures sought their homes, dropping then to a steady throb as the pulse of the forest slowed for the night.  The sound of joyous singing swelled among the trees, growing louder as the fires of Anor subsided and the first star brightened. 

Idherien smiled and released a breath she had not realised she was holding.  ‘Everything is ready,’ she said.  ‘And the time has come for you to claim each other … Come, my daughter.’  She extended her arm in a formal gesture, as she prepared to lead Laerwen through the gaggle of maidens waiting to escort the bride.  ‘Let us make our way to the place where your groom waits for you, knees knocking – so that you might begin a journey like no other.’  Her voice softened to a murmur as she offered a mother’s blessing to her children.  ‘And may you live in happiness together until the world is remade.’





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