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Laerwen closed her arms around Idherien and let the strength of the forest flow into her. Her husband’s mother’s breathing steadied and deepened.
‘I will not let you go,’ she said fiercely. ‘We have lost too much to lose you, too.’
Idherien’s eyes came slowly back into focus from that distant place where she had gone. ‘I am lost anyway,’ she said. ‘How can I live, knowing that he will not come back to me?’
‘It would be a betrayal,’ the Silvan elleth declared. ‘Would you desert Thranduil, too – and leave him to return to a forest abandoned by all those who have lost their husbands, their sons, their lovers? Would you have him return to a … a sad desecration of the place he left?’
‘Oropher…’ Idherien moaned, wrapping her arms around herself and beginning to rock, as a mother does to comfort a hurting child. ‘I am broken … shattered – why would you want to make me stay?’
‘You are needed,’ her son’s wife said. ‘How can I persuade others to stay if you forsake them?’ Laerwen silently urged Idherien to keep drawing each laboured breath until her shredded fëa had a chance to settle back into its shell. ‘Listen to the trees,’ she demanded. ‘The pulse still throbs.’
‘I am not part of the forest,’ the bereft elleth asserted. ‘It does not need me – it cannot comfort me. It cannot fill the void within me.’
Laerwen continued to stroke the fair hair helplessly. There was, in truth, little she could say. In the end, the choice was Idherien’s. ‘Would he want you to give up?’ she asked. How many were going through this right now, she thought, in this cold echo of the shambles of battle’s aftermath? How many would be lost because they were left alone to endure this sudden feeling of emptiness? The forest did not fail – but it survived at the expense of storm-ripped leaves and lightning-shattered trunks, at the cost of searing flame and soil-leaching flood.
A choked breath snapped her attention back to her companion. ‘Oropher would never do what was expected of him, not unless he believed it to be right,’ Idherien said. ‘I remember, when Doriath fell …’
Perhaps, if she were able to reminisce … Laerwen felt a wave of guilt. She should not be looking at this clinically. Idherien’s loss was enough to cause a weaker elleth to abandon her hold on life and follow her beloved into Námo’s care … but Thranduil’s wife could not afford to let the widowed queen take that path. Idherien’s endurance would set an example for a forest full of other bereaved families to follow. And the Greenwood needed them, every one.
‘What would Oropher do, if he were faced with your loss?’ she asked. Cruel – but better the blade, at times, than the poultice.
‘What would you do,’ Idherien bit back, ‘if Thranduil’s fëa were to fly his body, leaving you in shreds and desolate?’
Laerwen’s breath caught, and she opened herself to the resilience of the forest and let it fill her with its song. ‘Do you think I have not thought of that? Ever since they led the elves forth, I have feared …’
‘You can live with fear.’ Idherien pulled away, bleak eyes staring at the paths she had once walked with her beloved. ‘While you fear, you also have hope. My hope is dead. However much legends will talk of success in battle, of glorious victory, of triumph over darkness – how many will return, unscathed, to tend the forest?’
‘Not enough,’ Laerwen sighed. ‘Nowhere near enough.’ She remained close to her mother-in-law – not close enough to be overbearing, now that Idherien had withdrawn from her clasp, but near enough to be a supportive presence. She wished she could leave – so many despairing victims of the distant battle would need attention – but she could only hope that, amongst their friends and neighbours, enough remained unbroken to offer the support required. Idherien was her business. Family – and family was needed to coax the widowed to keep their hearts beating in time with the forest’s pulse.
Shadows moved across the glade, flickering with every stirring of the breeze as the canopy shielded them from the brightness of the sun. It should be raining, Laerwen reflected. The Greenwood should be mourning the death of its king, limp leaves dripping into the undergrowth under skies of relentless grey – but life refused to comply with expectation. Just as it refused to stop. She exhaled silently. She needed to get Idherien to drink – and, if possible, to eat something. It would be much harder to give up on life over a cup of tea.
‘My father never wanted me to choose Oropher,’ Idherien said suddenly. Laerwen started – the silent brooding had begun to seem unbreakable. ‘He always thought him … cross-grained. Moody, temperamental, inconsiderate – determined to take every doubt as a personal attack. He refused to see him as I did – passionate, loving, loyal – one willing to follow an impossible vision and turn it into reality.’
Laerwen had liked Oropher – had understood him, perhaps, better than most – but she could see Idherien’s father’s point of view. The King of the Greenwood could never have been … an easy elf. Charming, certainly, when he wanted to be. Single-minded. Even persuasive. But not, perhaps, the adoring husband you wanted for your much-loved daughter. ‘He came round?’ she asked.
‘My mother insisted.’ Idherien shivered, her arms twined round herself, as if the warmth of the day could not penetrate the cold that surrounded her. ‘But he was always suspicious, as if Oropher was trying to deceive him.’
‘My father died too young,’ she said, ‘to concern himself with my choice of husband.’
‘I doubt,’ Idherien observed, a wry smile twisting lips that had forgotten the meaning of humour, ‘that he would have approved of my son.’
Laerwen tilted her head and noted that her husband’s mother seemed more … real. The crisis – the worst of the crisis, at any rate – might well have passed. ‘I think he would have,’ she judged. ‘Although, of course, I did not know my adar well and can only imagine what he would have said. Thranduil loves me and would strive to do nothing to hurt me.’
‘But if it came to choosing between you and the Greenwood?’ Idherien studied the hands that wrung together – almost surprised at the agony they displayed. ‘What would he pick? His family – or his duty?’
‘With leadership comes responsibility.’ Laerwen kept her voice steady, even though it was an effort. She did not want – she really did not want – to imagine a time when Thranduil chose the wood over her. Or when she was forced to do the reverse.
She kept a wary eye on her husband’s mother as she sank back into silence. She seemed smaller, frailer, like a husk dried out in the wind as she huddled into herself. It would be a mistake to take quiet as acceptance, and she would never forgive herself if she allowed the grieving elleth to surrender her life in her anguish.
Idherien’s sudden wail was the scream of a doe brought down by a wolf. A primal scream of agony as sharp teeth ripped into flesh and tore her apart. Her daughter-in-law grabbed her again and held her together, imposed her presence and drew the tortured elleth back from the edge of death. Her arms offered the gentle cage of a mother’s grip – surrounding, protecting, keeping safe and, as the haunted whimpering calmed, she began to hum the song of the starlit forest.
Dawn was sending whipcords of blood-red cloud across the sky before Idherien emerged from her bout of despair, and Laerwen eyed them sourly. How many would have chosen, in the cool indifference of the night, to join their loved ones in Námo’s care? How many more would resent the return of daylight and slip away?
‘Tea,’ she suggested, as Idherien shuddered to wakefulness. As her mother-in-law sat up, stretching muscles stiffened into unaccustomed positions, Laerwen drew a comb from her pocket and began to draw it through the other’s corn-silk hair. Small matters – grooming, lavender-scented soap, clean clothes were more likely to remind Idherien of life than any philosophical discussions.
‘I am sorry.’ Thranduil’s mother sounded hoarse, like one who has passed through the fire and come out the other side. ‘You must have so much to do, and I am taking up all your time.’
‘You need me now,’ Laerwen said gently, continuing to arrange the pale hair, ‘and the problems will still be there tomorrow.’
Idherien steadied herself. ‘Oropher left letters – both personal and instructing his regents in what must be done should he … should he not return. We need to summon the emergency council and break the seals – and then implement his final commands. At least we here in the Greenwood have learned to cope in the absence of those who went to battle – the changes will have to become more permanent. We need to ensure that the forest’s people do more than survive to welcome back their king.’
‘Are you ready for this?’ So much practicality on the back of such despair surprised Laerwen.
Idherien drew a deep breath. ‘Not really,’ she admitted. ‘I daresay I will have my moments when I cannot see how I can go on … but,’ she looked at her daughter-in-law, looked at her and saw her without a fog of desolation clouding her vision, ‘I have to do this. I owe it to my husband – to our people.’
‘We have been promised,’ Laerwen reminded her, ‘that such divisions will be mended when Námo returns our lost ones to us.’
‘In time,’ Idherien agreed. ‘In the west.’ Quite unexpectedly, a wicked smile brightened her pale face. ‘Can you imagine,’ she said gleefully, ‘how Oropher will react to finding himself restored to life in the Blessed Realm, among all the conceited, self-satisfied Noldor he loves so dearly? He will be beside himself with fury!’
‘Perhaps.’ Laerwen drew Idherien to her feet and brushed them both down. A night spent weeping under the stars was hardly conducive to queenly elegance. ‘Maybe it would be a kindness to the population of Aman for you to sail in time to save them from dealing with Oropher’s frustration. One day,’ she added, ‘Far from today.’
‘I will not leave you and my son,’ Idherien reassured her. ‘I thought for a moment that I could not bear …’ She closed her eyes, then determinedly opened them again. ‘I will feel my beloved’s loss with every heartbeat, I am sure – but I will not give up. Not now.’ They shared a look of understanding. So much could be said, but it was probably better not to stir the pools of emotion any further until they were better able to deal with the results. ‘You mentioned tea?’
‘And some porridge,’ Laerwen insisted. ‘It will be a long day, and who knows when we will next get a chance to eat.’
Her mother-in-law looked repulsed at the idea – she felt as if she never wanted to eat again – but she nodded reluctantly. Life did not stop. Somewhere, far to the south, on a blood-stained plain, the dead of the Greenwood were on their funeral pyres, but here … ‘It will be some time before we know what happened,’ she said. ‘I hope Sauron was defeated, or battle will find its way here to us in time.’
Laerwen rested a hand on Idherien’s arm. ‘Can you imagine Oropher consenting to a defeat?’ she asked. ‘Our warriors’ sacrifice will have bought our freedom.’
Flinching, as if from a blow, Oropher’s widow stopped, forcing herself through the sudden pain, making herself take deeper breaths, waving away her daughter-in-law’s concern. ‘To start with,’ she said, ‘it takes almost nothing to bring back the loss – but, in time, it happens less often. The more there is to do, the further it retreats, until, in the end, you are more alive than dead. After Doriath … there was no time to brood.’ She resumed her walk, aware that eyes were watching them as they left the Queen’s Garden, the precious retreat that Oropher had made for her. ‘I will wear the green velvet, I think, and the mithril diadem.’
‘Be the Queen,’ Laerwen agreed. ‘The Council will be only too happy to let you take charge.’
‘You need not worry about me,’ Idherien said. ‘I will … cope. And, by the time that Thranduil returns, I will have grown more accustomed to ... to being broken.’
He had to come back. He had to … A wave of longing, of terror, of helplessness surged through Laerwen. They had to keep their nerve if they were to stand a chance of weathering the disastrous awareness of death that had swamped those left behind. Too many knew that their warrior would never rest again beneath the trees of home. Those who still waited, who still hoped … A silent plea escaped her, imploring whichever Powers might be listening to send their loved ones back to them.
Idherien’s hand clasped hers, the comforted becoming the comforter. ‘You would not give me up,’ she said, ‘and we will not give up on them. They will come home – and the forest will learn to live again. Being left behind is hard, but we are elves of the Greenwood – Oropher’s people. We will survive.’ Her voice quietened to no more than a murmur. ‘I will survive – I can do no less. He would not have it any other way.’
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