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Beyond the Clouded Hills
‘We are being watched.’ Thranduil leaned over to murmur in Maltheniel’s ear. His horse, laden with carefully-packed treasures that his naneth had insisted were essential to the wellbeing of their venture, ignored the movement. However skittish Osproch had been at the start of their journey, she had settled, like the rest of them, into the resigned placing of one foot in front of the other.
‘Of course we are,’ she retorted scornfully. ‘A hundred horses – five times as many elves on foot, dogs, chickens, goats – every living creature within a score miles hears us coming and gazes at us with horror before scuttling leagues in the opposite direction.’
He snorted. This exodus had not lived up to his expectations. The flight from Doriath had been … swift. Hidden. They had attempted to move without attracting attention, hearts pounding, desperate to avoid those seeking to spread death among Elu’s people. This – well. He supposed it was better to have enough food. And there were good reasons for travelling as a group. And at least they were adequately armed, with enough warriors to ensure that they were relatively safe. But …
‘You are on latrine duty for the next week, are you not?’ his friend asked somewhat maliciously. ‘I told you that your naneth would not appreciate you and those ellyn going off with skins of your adar’s wine. And you were fortunate that she managed to calm him down, or he might have decided to overlook his fondness for you and make the punishment rather more unforgettable.’
‘Who would have thought that he was so attached to a couple of wineskins!’
‘Not so much the skins as the contents, I suspect.’ She frowned at him, shaking her head in disbelief. ‘And had he ready access to more, I daresay he would have laughed off your little adventure – but who knows when he will be able to obtain fresh supplies? You escaped lightly, Thranduil.’
He would have argued – Maltheniel was becoming rather too sanctimonious and … and girlish for his liking – but the prickling on the back of his neck made him uncomfortable. They were being watched – and watched by unfriendly eyes at that.
‘Just because we did not ask you to join us …’ He left it for her to make what she would of his words.
‘I would not have been so stupid,’ she snapped, flushing indignantly. ‘Even if I could have got away from my naneth’s watch.’
Ah, Thranduil thought, as he inspected the nodding leaves. Maltheniel’s naneth had been less than happy to leave the relative safety of Lindon – and had centred her arguments on the impossibility of providing the right environment for her gently-raised daughter, calmly disregarding the fact that Maltheniel was more dangerous with a bow and a knife than most ellyn her age. Eriol had overborne his wife’s disinclination to follow Oropher in search of a new home – and she had immediately begun a campaign to prove that their daughter was unsuited for such a rough life by forcing Maltheniel into conduct that chafed her into constant ill-temper. There were those who had place their bets on Tavoriel’s success – but his money was on his friend.
‘We were celebrating Corudír’s betrothal,’ Thranduil told her. ‘He seemed to think the event noteworthy.’
‘Ninglor’s naneth was not impressed.’ Maltheniel had joined him in watching the trees. ‘She felt his actions – and their outcome – were disrespectful.’ Her step faltered briefly. ‘There! Do you see him? Between the branches of that oak.’
Thranduil slid his eyes in the direction she indicated. ‘Do not stare!’ he insisted. ‘We stand no chance of catching anyone once they know we are aware of them.’
‘He is armed,’ she murmured. ‘I see his bow … but he does not have an arrow to it.’
‘Only a fool would go unarmed with a rabble like this approaching.’ Thranduil glanced back. ‘Walk with Osproch – I am going to slip into the woods. If anyone asks, tell them …’
‘I am telling them nothing,’ she said flatly, ‘because I am coming with you.’
‘You cannot.’ Thranduil grinned at her. ‘Your naneth would start screeching about your being compromised and demand that my adar sanction a betrothal. You might end up having to marry me.’
Maltheniel pulled a face. ‘Adar would not let her. And, it is stupid enough to go off into the woods in the first place, but it would be even more stupid to go alone.’
‘While going off after an armed stranger with no-one knowing where we are is much more sensible?’ he asked.
‘It is the only way you can be sure that I will not send your adar’s guards straight after you,’ she pointed out.
‘What a choice!’ Thranduil frowned at her in an – inevitable – failure of an attempt at intimidation. She had known him far too long and was far too much of a sister to him to be impressed by his moods. ‘Adar’s guards now – or yours later.’
‘I cannot see any others in the trees,’ she said. ‘I doubt whether we are in any real danger – my adar and yours are far too wary to risk walking into an attack, and the scouts would have spotted any real threats. They must know there are elves in these woods.’
Thranduil looked over his shoulder – and caught her elbow as they rounded a clump of scrubby hazel, pulling her back into the shelter of the leaves. ‘If you insist on coming,’ he said, ‘keep quiet and come.’
They moved deeper into the shadows, remaining concealed until the majority of the train had passed, attracting no attention from elves who were, on the whole, more than tired of the business of journeying east. A bright-eyed dog with a plume of a tail slunk over to sniff at them, but they had ignored it and, after a moment, it abandoned them to rejoin the elves calling its name. They continued to wait until the birds resumed their singing and the forest settled back into tranquillity, before Thranduil stretched and drew a deep breath.
‘I get so tired of being in the middle of a crowd,’ he admitted.
‘There is no chance simply to sit and listen,’ Maltheniel agreed. ‘Come on. He is not going to be easy to track down – and I want to find out who is so interested in us.’ She rubbed her hand across the gleaming bark of the tree, patting it in farewell. ‘Any preference as to direction?’
Faroth scowled. They polluted the forest with their noisy presence – and the beasts they brought with them would upset the balance of animal and plant life and the wood would suffer for it. Why the elders had chosen not to drive the intruders back beyond the borders, he could not understand. It was not as if they were proper elves – they paraded through the trees without any real response to their song, as if their ears were stuffed with down and their eyes were veiled.
He moved easily from the branches of one kingly oak to the next, thanking them silently for their shelter. And then, he continued to brood, his father had told him curtly to keep his nose out of the matter and do as his mother bade him – just as if he were an elfling barely old enough to wipe his own nose! It was … it was insulting. He had sat through enough meetings – with his mouth shut, just as his father had demanded – listening to accounts of the war in the west and the fall of Beleriand to know that anyone coming east was likely to be bad news. His people had chosen their life and bound themselves to this world – and he, at least, had no desire to welcome a rabble of refugees who undoubtedly considered themselves to be some gift from the Powers of distant Aman.
Nevertheless – and he refused even to think it too loud – the presence of these invaders was the most interesting thing that had happened in his recollection, and he resented being told to keep away from them. He would not make things more difficult for them – he would, reluctantly, obey the instruction not to litter their path with unexpected and unavoidable traps for the unwary, but he intended to keep them under careful surveillance to ensure that they did as little harm as possible in their passing.
The stragglers were encouraged to keep up by the guards at the tail of the column. He stared at them, narrowing his eyes at the weary-looking elves. Some of those working to stay in touch with the leaders seemed … less than whole. War veterans, then, still recovering from injury even after all this time. And there were others – wearing simple clothing, cloth well-worn from years of laundering, rubbed leather that had been long-used. Elflings carrying burdens that looked too heavy for those so young. These were not invaders – they were people: people who needed a home.
In his interest, Faroth forgot to expend as much care as he needed to ensure that he remained unseen. The trees thinned over the rocky outcrop and, to save time, he jumped from a narrow branch to take a short cut over the tufted grass. Watching his footing, he failed to notice quickly enough that he was not alone.
The fair-haired ellon – the one who looked as if he could do with a good kicking – awaited him, leaning casually against the trunk of a young beech, his arms folded as if to say that he had no need to worry about attack. He looked … amused. Haughty and superior, as if he had caught out the Wood-elf and won some game that they had not been playing. The blood surged in Faroth’s veins, as his hand tightened on his bow.
‘I would not do that if I were you.’ A soft voice behind him contained far more menace than he would have expected from such feminine tones.
He whirled, then cursed. Turning his back on the greater danger was hardly wise. Instinctively, he started to twist back towards the tall ellon, only to freeze in place when the message reached his brain that the slight elleth was the one holding a gleaming knife on him. A blade with which she looked extremely comfortable.
‘Put that away, Maltheniel,’ the ellon commanded. ‘If he has done nothing to harm anyone in all the time he has been watching us, he is not going to start now!’
‘Especially if it might cause him considerable pain,’ she retorted, showing no inclination to obey. ‘I am doing nothing to hurt him. Yet.’
‘My apologies.’ The intruder addressed Faroth directly. ‘I try – but she refuses to behave in a civilised manner.’
‘Your sister?’ They did not appear to be siblings. The girl lacked the height and elegance – and her colouring was wrong – but that proved nothing.
The ellon looked more approachable when he grinned. ‘Thankfully not. Just friends. I am my parents’ only child.’
Possible courses of action made Faroth’s head spin – everything from disarming the elleth to leaping into the trees and running – but none of them presented as an obvious option and he was left dithering. Finally, he sighed and said sourly, ‘You should count yourself lucky. I have two older sisters and have been their victim often enough to know the dangers.’
The ellon’s grin widened as he unfolded his arms and stepped forward to greet the Wood-elf. ‘I am Thranduil,’ he said, ‘and my belligerent friend here is Maltheniel. It is a … pleasure to meet a native of these woods at last. Although I would be surprised to find that you were the only elf in the forest – why have we seen no others? Are we so unwelcome?’
Faroth opened his mouth and then closed it again. He did not understand the elders’ reasoning himself – how could he possibly explain it to anyone else? ‘Word is …’ he hesitated. Should he reveal anything to these strangers? ‘My adar says you are to be allowed to make your way into the Greenwood.’ He could not hide his glower. ‘More than that… You will have to earn your place.’
Elegant golden eyebrows arched and a pair of clear grey eyes bored into him uncomfortably. ‘Fair enough,’ the Sinda agreed finally. ‘All we ask is a chance to make a home here. We have no wish to change the way you live. We are not the Noldor.’
A snort of incredulity was enough to advise Thranduil that his new acquaintance doubted his assurance. ‘No wish to make a change does not mean no change,’ Faroth declared. ‘Your presence alone alters the song.’
‘Maybe.’ Thranduil raised his chin to look up at the rustling canopy. ‘But that is not always a bad thing.’
Oropher rubbed a finger over the bridge of his nose and suppressed a wince. Tavoriel could be unnecessarily shrill when matters were not going her way, and now it appeared that Maltheniel had slipped her jesses and flown her keepers, her mother was decidedly wrathful. He cast a harried glance at his wife, refusing to voice an open request for rescue.
‘Your son, my lord,’ Tavoriel snapped, ‘is constantly leading others into trouble. I knew it would be a bad idea to encourage his friendship with Maltheniel – and, as far as I am concerned, this incident only goes to prove I was right. We should have stayed within reach of civilisation!’
‘Tavoriel.’ Idherien spoke coolly enough to send a shiver down her husband’s spine. Outspoken he was, thoughtless at times, strong-willed always, but even he knew better than to speak disparagingly of his son in his wife’s hearing. ‘The pair of them are scarce-grown and they are interested in everything around them. Had you not chosen to cage your daughter, there would have been no need for them to slip off in order to spend time together.’
‘Scarce-grown, maybe, but grown they are – and it is not proper for them to be alone together without a chaperone!’
‘My husband will see they are found.’ Idherien stared Tavoriel down, clearly less than pleased. ‘Or would you prefer me to send suitable chaperones to escort them? With a dance card, perhaps, for my son to complete?’
Oropher snorted. ‘Just because you are pretending that Maltheniel is a delicate flower,’ he said, ‘does not mean we have forgotten that you let your daughter wander with my son at will among the remnants of the Valar’s host. You are reaping what you sowed, Tavoriel. Maltheniel is a strong-minded elleth – and she, at least, is more than happy to be travelling among us.’ He watched as his friend’s wife flushed a most unattractive shade of red. ‘We will find them. They are perfectly well aware of the dangers of the forest and well able to cope with anything they might encounter close to our parade. You settle into camp for the evening and make yourself comfortable – and we will return your miscreant daughter to you as soon as she shows up.’
The narrowed eyes and pinched lips suggested that only Tavoriel’s awareness of Oropher’s position made her hold her tongue, but she tossed her head and stormed towards her husband – doubtless to let Eriol know just how intolerable she found the company with which she was forced to associate.
A sigh escaped Idherien as she stepped closer Oropher. ‘Find them, please, and bring them back before Tavoriel gets any more waspish.’ She leaned towards him and rested her hand on his chest, raising her chin enough to offer him a mischievous and private smile. ‘And I will leave it to you to explain to our son just why you are annoyed with him.’
‘Oh thank you,’ he said. ‘Very much.’
‘My adar would not have come this far had he not been assured of a certain level of welcome,’ Thranduil said obstinately. ‘He spent months – years – in discussion with all manner of elves, and had people travelling back and forth across the mountains.’
Faroth glowered at him. ‘I have heard nothing to confirm that,’ he declared. ‘And I cannot believe that the Silvan would concede any of the forest to you.’
‘Sharing is not conceding.’
‘Stop arguing!’ Maltheniel snapped. She had, after a while, sheathed her knife, which made her companions rather less wary of irritating her.
‘I have no idea why your leaders would agree to shelter us,’ she said, ‘but clearly they did, or we would not be here.’ She looked at the young ellon speculatively. ‘Who is in charge here?’
Faroth exhaled noisily – a sound, Thranduil thought, that showed clearly that he was only too accustomed to older sisters. ‘No-one. Not really. We live in small groups – extended families mostly – and listen to our elders. And our elders listen to their elders – and so on. The eldest share their wisdom and hold that we respect the world around us and do not count ourselves more important than anything else that lives in the lands we roam. We take nothing that cannot be put back and ensure that our passing causes no harm to the forest.’ He looked at the two Sindar rather scathingly. ‘Which is more than can be said for you.’
‘Yes, well …’ Thranduil had taken to the young elf and was prepared, for the moment, to tolerate his petulance. Faroth seemed not to like them much – but he had shown no sign of wishing to withdraw and take himself back into the trees. ‘Teach us. We are willing to learn.’
‘And we will not be dazzled into bowing to you.’
‘Why should you?’
The three of them had settled into a secluded stand of beech, growing no more than half a mile from the wide grove where the main party had stopped. While not entirely comfortable together, the three youngsters of two different peoples could not bring themselves to abandon each other and make their ways home.
Thranduil leaned back against the broad trunk and closed his eyes, letting the thrum of the tree’s slow pulse soothe him into a half-doze. ‘It is peaceful here. There is so much to learn – so many new songs to come to know.’
The grove’s song wound its way round the three elves, incorporating them and adapting to make them part of the music: the same, yet more, and, Faroth realised, better than before. Maybe, just maybe, he had been wrong. Perhaps the elders had been right to accept this change.
‘We must get back,’ Maltheniel insisted as the shadows lengthened. ‘My naneth will be looking for me.’
‘I am not supposed to be here, either,’ Faroth admitted.
Thranduil flipped a casual hand. ‘We will all be in trouble. It is not worth worrying about.’ He grinned. ‘Making new friends is probably more important.’
‘I advise you not to let your adar know that you do not take his authority seriously.’ Maltheniel raised an eyebrow at him. ‘He would not take it well.’
‘Oh, I do take it seriously.’ Thranduil did not sound very concerned. ‘But surely, if we are to settle in these woods, we need to reach out to those who are already here. He cannot be too angry if we are … acting as diplomats.’
‘Do not under-estimate your ability to annoy me.’ The young elves froze at the steel under Oropher’s smooth tones, as the leader of the new arrivals stepped from behind a tree. ‘I have spent half the afternoon chasing your trail – and I did not appreciate the embarrassment of seeking out the local elders to inform them that you were wandering and asking them to watch for you.’ His cool grey eyes settled on Faroth and he felt an unexpected desire to squirm. ‘My discomfiture was only countered by your adar’s admission that you, too, were not where you were supposed to be.’ The Silvan elf blushed. ‘While your naneth’s response to your disappearance, Maltheniel …’ He left the words to trail, as the elleth ducked her head. He should not, he supposed, take his irritation out on her. Maltheniel, after all, had to endure living with Tavoriel – and he was sure that the infuriated elleth would make her daughter’s life miserable enough in punishment for this escapade.
Oropher sighed. ‘You are old enough to know better,’ he said. ‘Perhaps, once we have found somewhere to settle, you will have the time to be carefree, but … right now, we need everyone working towards our common goal. And that would be?’ he prodded his son.
‘A home,’ Thranduil answered obediently. ‘Shelter before winter and enough food stored so that no-one goes hungry.’
‘You remember enough of what it was like before,’ his father said. ‘After Doriath. After Sirion. After the waters swallowed the land.’ Oropher sat down next to Faroth and leaned back against the grey column of the beech, listening to the song deepen and increase in power as he fed it with his own. He dug his fingers in the leaf litter and began to trace patterns on the ground. ‘Making friends is important, I have no wish for you to think it is not. I am pleased you have met. But,’ he raised his head to hold his son’s gaze, ‘duty is more important. You have not only taken my time today, but you have drawn others away from the rest they need.’ He stopped. ‘Thranduil, you are at your naneth’s command until she chooses to release you. Perhaps that will help remind you that you are an adult and should have passed the elfling stage. And now … it is time to go home, all of you,’ he commanded.
Faroth stared at the tall Sinda, unaware of anything beyond the intensity of the forest’s song. He had never heard anything like it: it was as if the trees recognised this ellon, recognised him and called to something in him. He blinked. Perhaps, he thought, this was what the eldest of the elders had sensed: that this elf belonged here, that he and his son were part of the Greenwood.
‘I think,’ he said – reluctantly, because although change was sometimes necessary, it was also painful, ‘I think I know a place where you could belong.’
Thranduil’s smile blazed in self-justification as his surprised father stared blankly at the Wood-elf. ‘You see?’ he said. ‘I knew making friends was a good idea.’
Maltheniel appeared first in Long Memories and was mentioned - with her name spelled as Matheniel - in Great Oaks. Her father, Eriol, was also in Long Memories.
Faroth appeared in Great Oaks
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