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4. An Emissary from Eglarest
Menegroth, Doriath, First Age 462
They were nearing the end of their ten mile morning run, and Thranduil’s legs had become slightly tired. This part of their route was his favorite, especially in early spring like now. The air smelled moist and earthy, and parts of the Esgalduin river still had a thin cover of ice from last night’s frost. A soft mist covered the clear water, reminding Thranduil of that time a few years back when his company had been hidden from orcs. He would never forget the mysterious face he had seen in the water.
After the battle, when he had returned with his unit to look for the two missing human boys, Thranduil had scrutinised the river for clues about the apparition but found nothing. They had not found the boys either, which had been oddly disturbing, mostly because of their father’s and grandfather’s strong reaction. The two men had refused to give up even after a full day of thorough raking over the area, and were still searching when the elves returned home to Doriath. Thranduil had realised then, that even though their lives were very short, humans too could care a lot about each other and grieve for the loss of their loved ones.
That reminded him.
“Did you hear the news about the lost boys?” A small cloud formed around his lips when he spoke.
“Nay.” During exercise, was the only time Amroth was nearly as tongue-tied as himself.
“Apparently they showed up in southern Hithlum after a year. Their father lives there.” He stopped to catch his breath, bending forward with his hands on his knees. Hithlum was a Noldorin realm northwest of Doriath, but the southern part of it had been given to the humans as a fiefdom some years back.
“Did they.” The other ellon followed his example.
“Aye, but they did not look like they had lived in the wild. They wore fine clothes, new weapons – elvish weapons.”
“Now, that is odd.” Amroth’s interest was finally caught. “Where had they been, then?”
“They would not tell.” Thranduil made a motion to indicate his mouth sealed close.
The elves began to run again, a bit slower now.
“Could they have lived with the Outlaws of Dorthonion?” mused Amroth.
“True,” he agreed. “Dorthonion is miles from Dimbar where they were lost, and they would have had to pass through Nan Dungortheb where the giant spiders live. Cannot see two human kids surviving that.”
“Besides, the Outlaws were wiped out by Morgoth.”
“Not all of them. Rumor has it, one remains, and he is so powerful even the Lord of the Dark is afraid of him. They say he took on a host of orcs single-handedly!”
“Says who ?”
Thranduil only snorted at that, and increased his pace to ascend a hill. A cluster of yellow coltsfoot grew beside the path, braving the chill to bloom first of all flowers. A little way off to the side a deer couple watched them calmly. They were not afraid of elves, even though those sometimes would shoot them for the meat.
“So, if they were not with the Outlaws… where were they? Could it be... the hidden city ?” Amroth sounded excited about the idea.
“I thought of that, too. If it exists...”
“It must exist; Turgon and his people could not just have disappeared. If Morgoth had taken them he would have gloated about it. No, they must still live somewhere. There is a hidden city, I’m sure of it, and if the boys found their way there, it means it is not very far off from where we lost them!”
The rest of their run, Amroth chatted enthusiastically about getting Captain Beleg to organise a search party, and how they would begin in Dimbar and scout the mountains until they found the legendary secret realm of Turgon.
Thranduil thought the idea was stupid, but held his tongue. The lands outside Doriath were more dangerous than ever; Morgoth was free and still going strong, the Siege of his fortress Angband long since broken. After their defeat at the Crossing of Teiglin, his orcs had not ventured that far south again, but Thranduil feared it was only a matter of time before they tried again. It was safest to stay put until they knew what the Lord of the Dark was up to. Not that Thranduil liked to cower inside their realm’s magic fence, but he figured if they were going outside it would be on a more relevant mission than searching for a Noldorin city that may or may not exist.
When they were back at the training grounds, Amroth suggested some sparring, but Thranduil had an appointment and must decline.
“Oh I see. Perhaps a certain lady involved?” Amroth winked.
Thranduil only smiled noncommittally and returned home. There was no time for a bath, but he washed his face and torso and dabbed a drop of scented oil behind each of his ears, before changing into an elegant blue coat that matched his eyes and went well with his new knee-high boots. He kept the small braids on his temples which had held back his hair during the run, figuring they looked rather nice and made him appear like the warrior he was. A final touch was his thick silver ring inlaid with rhinestones, a gift from his father on his thirteenth decade day a few years back.
Thus dressed the part, Thranduil wandered over to the royal part of the city and bid one of the palace guards tell the princess her suitor had come. Their chaperone was already waiting. Daeron always brought a musical instrument on these occasions, either a flute, lyre, tambourine or, as today, a slender lute carried in a woven strap over one shoulder. He too had dressed up, but even in fine silk the older ellon was not handsome; his face was too narrow and his eyes too close together.
The gate opened to let Lúthien out, and Thranduil greeted her with a flourished bow.
“Shall we?” He offered his arm, and she took it with a polite smile. She looked as beautiful as ever in a mantle sewn with golden flowers, over which her black hair cascaded in orderly curls. Daeron followed a few steps behind them.
They took the same route Thranduil had just come, back towards the bridge leading out of the city. He never needed to ask the princess where to go, she always wished to walk in the forest. They passed under an avenue of stone beeches, whose leaves were so delicately carved and painted that one almost expected to see them rustle in the breeze. A bright peacock had perched in one of them, right beside a silver dove. The city was full of silver animals and lots of live ones as well; mostly birds like that peacock and several sweet-singing nightingales, but the greater part of them were sparrows – much to everyone’s annoyance because of all the guano. Thranduil hardly even noticed their ever present chirping anymore.
He bent his neck to trail the tallest pillars with his gaze, until they connected with the distant ceiling of the huge cavern, dimly lit by a broad seam of quartz extending from one end to the other. Not much daylight reached down into the city, which instead relied on oil lanterns, but the quartz led some of it through and by looking up Thranduil got a hunch of the weather and time of day outside. He always checked the ceiling before going out, it had become a habit, like a good luck charm for when he was leaving the safety of his home.
While walking over the bridge that was the only way in or out, Thranduil and Lúthien undertook the mandatory small talk about how their morning had been, to which the answers were always the same. Thranduil had exercised or practiced with his weapons, Lúthien had either been singing, reading or done needlework. Usually all three of those.
Normally, Thranduil would have a hard time thinking of anything to say after this, but today he actually had something to talk about; she had recommended him a book last time and he had read it. He was no great reader, and normally only would do it if his father had assigned him a book as part of his education, and those covered entirely different subjects; warfare or politics mostly. This book had been one of poetry with beautiful illustrations. The poems were too sentimental for his taste, but he had really admired the artwork.
The book was a pleasant enough topic which seemed to actually interest the lady, unlike most Thranduil had chosen before. Unfortunately their chaperone was equally captivated, and it did not take long until he took over the conversation entirely, moving on to other books Thranduil had not read. When he began to recite old romantic tales from when the world was new, Thranduil knew he had lost.
Thranduil’s walks with his intended always ended the same way. Like it was Daeron who wooed her, and Thranduil who was their chaperone. Had he really cared about the princess, he would not have allowed it, he would have rather punched the minstrel in his ugly face than let him steal his bride. But as for now… Thranduil figured it might be for the better. If Lúthien exchanged him for Daeron, Thranduil would be let off the hook, and it would not be his fault. It would not be he who ended things with her.
They were well outside the city now and walked under bare branches, above which Thranduil caught glimpses of a pale blue sky. He rarely saw the sky; never back inside Menegroth of course, and even out here it was hidden by dense foliage most of the year. He felt an ambivalence towards it, it was beautiful in a way, especially at night with all the stars out, but it was also so vast and open. It made him feel insignificant and small, naked and exposed. He turned his gaze away, taking in their surroundings instead. They had come to a glade in the woods, where the warming rays of the early spring sun had awakened some of the grass; tiny green tufts peeked shyly through the thick carpet of last year’s discarded leaves. There were a few flowers too, and Thranduil bent to pick a purple violet and put it behind his ear.
Lúthien laughed at the sight.
“Come, Daeron, play something merry,” she asked. The minstrel had no objection, and as he began, the princess invited Thranduil to a dance. Her hands were warm and soft in his large, calloused ones as he twirled her around in a flutter of rustling leaves. He felt Daeron’s glare on his back but ignored it, resting his eyes instead on the lovely elleth he danced with. There was no other in Doriath to match her beauty, perhaps not in the entire Middle-earth – so why could he not feel it? Instead, another face formed before his inner eye, framed by golden curls, with large blue eyes and full lips. The vision had been slightly distorted from the ripples of the water, but her features had etched themselves into his brain nevertheless. Hers was another kind of beauty; the tempting, alluring kind that made his thoughts linger on forbidden subjects.
Who was she? And would he ever see her again?
His parents were arguing again. They fought more often these days, and usually Thranduil had no idea what it was about. It could be anything big or small; that she had made the food too cold, that he had come home too late, that she refused to make social visits. This time however, their dispute probably concerned Mother’s drinking. As always, Oropher took fruit juice or water with his meals, but the past year Eiriendîs had begun to drink wine, claiming she did not need a clear head because politics did not interest her. Her husband had frowned upon it but said nothing at first, but lately she drank more, enough to make her sometimes embarrass them in front of guests.
Thranduil tried to close his ears to his parents' agitated voices; they kept them down but the walls inside their abode were thin. In all the home caves of Menegroth the outer walls were of massive stone, but the inner walls were usually of wood with only the tapestries the ladies wove to muffle the sounds.
Tonight was a bad night, the angry voices had given way to sounds of violence. Oropher never beat his wife, but if he was upset enough to lose his self-control he might shake her, or even push her into something. Her bruises the next day would tell what had happened.
Soon she began to cry, and Oropher’s voice grew soft, soothing. “I am sorry. I love you so much. I am sorry… I am so sorry…”
Thranduil knew what would come next and stuck his fingers into his ears, before burying his face below his pillow. It did not help. Mother’s low moans of pain changed and became louder, of pleasure now, and soon he heard the rhythmical pounding of their bed.
Not until their lovemaking was finally over, could Thranduil get some well-earned rest. He must rise early tomorrow, he had palace guard duty and it did not do to be late.
King Elu Thingol’s throne room was the most beautiful cave of all the thousand dwellings in Menegroth. The pillars were formed into trees twining together in stony embraces, and the pink granite floor underneath was polished so smooth one could use it as a mirror. On either side of the raised throne were silver fountains, and the chair itself was of silver too, carved with reliefs of forest animals. Thingol was no less elegant, clad in a cloak woven with silver threads, and on his head a matching circlet with a pale blue diamond set in the front. The cool grey of Thingol’s furniture and outfit did not really suit him; his dark hair called for warmer colours. Had Thranduil looked like him, he would have worn golden or red nuances.
Thranduil liked palace duty, despite the dullness of standing straight by the door for hours at end; the surroundings were pleasant to rest one’s eyes on, and the topics discussed between the king and those seeking his audience were usually interesting. Unlike his mother, he found politics quite engaging. Hearing all the matters Thingol had to address and make decisions about, made Thranduil realise what a demanding office he had; being king was so much more than idly sitting on a throne, wearing fine clothes and a crown.
A page came in, he whispered his errand to Thranduil as to not interrupt the king’s conversation with one of his lords. Thranduil nodded, and in turn passed the message on to one of the courtiers, who edged closer to the throne where he caught the king’s attention with a small cough.
“Ah, our guests from Eglarest are here,” Thingol acknowledged. “They have been riding fast, Melian felt them pass through the Girdle but four hours ago. Pray, let them in.”
The Girdle of Melian was the king’s name for the magic fence surrounding Doriath, and it was rather fitting, as it was the queen who upheld it with her Maia magic. None could pass through it unless they were stronger than her, and so far nobody had proven to be. Only Sindar elves were allowed entrance, except Galadriel and her brother despite their Noldorin heritage. They claimed to have had nothing to do with the crimes committed by their kin in Valinor, and in addition, Galadriel was a very close friend of the queen.
The page returned with the visitors, a small group of simply dressed elves. They went to stand before the throne and greeted the king politely.
“We bear tidings from Lord Círdan,” said one of them. Positioned by the entrance, Thranduil could not see the ellon's face, but his black hair was unusually long and almost reached his knees.
Círdan's message turned out to originate from Fingon, the new high king of the Noldor, who because none of his people were welcome in Doriath had bid the Shipwright to deliver his plea. Apparently a huge orc army was coming against him, marching towards a mountain pass near the river Sirion’s source which was the only way into Hithlum from Morgoth’s realm. Fingon was greatly outnumbered and had called for aid to resist the foe.
Círdan and his people, the Falathrim as they were called, already sailed their ships north along the coast meaning to join Fingon that way, and from his southern fiefdom came many human warriors. Still, Fingon feared he would not be strong enough. Would not the grey elves help this time? King Thingol had large numbers of skilled march-wardens, if he would send them north to the Pass of Sirion the orc army would be hit from two sides, by the Noldor and the Falathrim from the west and by the Sindar of Doriath from the south.
Thingol listened in silence until the emissary had finished, and when he responded, his voice was cold. “If I did not hold Círdan Shipwright in such high regard, I would have had you thrown out of Doriath for wasting my time.” He rose to tower over them, his height accentuated by the upraised position of his throne. “Círdan and the Noldor knows my position; never shall my people lose their lives defending those who killed my kin in Valinor!”
Thranduil winced. Why could not the king see that Morgoth was a threat to them all? If he beat the Noldor in Hithlum, he could easily turn south and attack the rest of Beleriand. This time it was only orcs, but he still had his balrogs and his dragon!
“Lord Círdan knows this well.” Another of the visitors had spoken, an elleth this time, with a single dark braid trailing down her navy blue dress. “Yet, he would have you know how grave this matter is. The orc army is immense, the scouts reported their numbers to be uncountable, a host greater than has ever been seen since the Dark Lord came to Beleriand. Your queen's magic cannot protect you forever.”
“It can, and it will. Now, leave me.”
As the emissaries trooped out, Thranduil could see their faces for the first time. They looked tired and dejected, and some seemed annoyed too. He could understand them, they had undertaken a long journey from Eglarest all in vain.
Suddenly a chill seeped into Thranduil’s veins. One of the ellith… Her hair was blonde, in a more golden hue than Thranduil’s own, her eyes blue, and those full lips… It was her ! The elleth he had seen before his inner eye every day the past four years. The face in the water!
As she passed him, the elleth turned her head slightly and their eyes met. She smiled and winked at him.
And then she was gone.
Next chapter we shall find out who this mystery elleth is! Any guesses? ;)
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