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Thranduil went back to the guest house in a daze. Aerneth had told him to meet her by the western city gate in an hour. She wanted to be alone with him! He would have a chance to talk to her again! He could not believe his luck, all notions of acting calm and unconcerned were completely forgotten.
He left his room after only a quick check in the mirror. He looked flustered but found that a little colour to his cheeks suited him, he had never liked the paleness of his features.
The western gate was easy to find, it was on the opposite side of the city from where he had come in, located near the shore. Thranduil was early but did not mind waiting, especially since the rain had finally subsided.
He went out on one of the piers to look at the boats. They were shaped to look like swans, some very big, obviously to transport warriors in, but most of them small with nets and barrels in them for fishing. Maybe someday he could try riding in one of them.
All around the boats white birds swooped about, moaning and crying in shrill voices. They were called gulls, he knew, he had seen pictures of them in books back home but this was the first time he saw them live. They were larger than he had expected, the biggest almost an arm’s length from beak to tail, and seemed not at all afraid of him.
When he reached the edge of the pier, Thranduil curiously peered down. A flock of translucent, round animals were floating here, contracting and relaxing rhythmically, and further out a school of tiny fish came swimming at a slow pace. Suddenly they turned, impossibly synchronised, and disappeared into the deep as a larger fish began to chase them. On the stones of the pier grew other creatures, these were mussels he knew, he had tried one during lunch but did not like the taste. Between them sat a violet star-shaped thing, which Thranduil thought was a flower until it began to move. It slowly crawled up to cover a tiny mussel entirely, wrapping its five arms around it.
It was all very fascinating, but he had not the patience to stay for more than a few minutes, there was a nervous restlessness in him at the prospect of soon meeting Aerneth on more friendly terms.
The wind was strong out on the pier, and as he walked back towards the gate it caught his hair, whipping his face almost painfully. There went his careful brushing.
He spotted a small elfling by the waterside, maybe in her thirties or so, who looked to be fishing. Next to her was a leather bucket with some water. He peered curiously inside, noticing several shelled animals crawling around, threatening each other with sharp looking claws.
“What are those,” he asked.
“Crabs.” The elleth did not look up, her eyes intent on the end of her twine where she had tied a broken mussel. Thranduil sat down on his haunches and looked too. Soon there was movement under a bush of brown, leaflike water plants and another crab emerged, pouncing on the mussel and starting to tear meat from it with its claws, greedily stuffing its little mouth. The elleth carefully began to haul in the twine, and the crab was so busy eating it would not let go even when it was lifted above the surface. Not until the elfling shook it over her bucket did it lose its grip and drop down to its fellows.
“Well done!” Thranduil clapped his hands.
“Thank you.” The elleth looked up for the first time and peered at him curiously. “I don’t know you.”
“I am a visitor from Doriath.”
“Really?” The elleth’s eyes popped wide open and her little face lit up excitedly. “Have you met the king?”
“Aye.” He smiled. Elflings were so cute.
“What does his crown look like?”
“He has four of them.”
“Four…?” the elfling breathed, awed that an elf might own more than one such marvellous item.
“Four. The one he uses now is his summer crown, it is made of gold with painted green leaves and rubies symbolising red berries, but soon he will change to his autumn crown with yellow sapphires, golden leaves and acorns. In the winter he wears a silver circlet with a blue stone and white gold snowflakes, and in the spring also one of silver with pearls symbolising snowdrops and catkins.”
“Whoa… He must be very rich! I only own one pearl, but I am looking for more in every mussel I crack. When I find another my Ada promised to make me a pair of earrings.”
“I bet those will look lovely on you.” He ruffled her shoulder length brown hair.
The hour had nearly passed, and Thranduil returned to the gate, eagerly looking up the road in the direction of Círdan’s house.
Suddenly he felt two hands covering his eyes from behind. “Guess who?”
How embarrassing, a warrior caught unawares! He excused himself with not being in his right frame of mind at the moment.
Turning around, he was face to face with Aerneth, of course. She smiled sweetly. “Come, follow me.” She took his hand and pulled him with her. Her hand felt so soft and small, he loved how perfectly it fit in his.
They walked for a while along the shore in silence. Thranduil first felt he ought to think of something clever to say, but figured he did not have the energy. It was such a lovely day and he enjoyed simply being with Aerneth.
Soon however, he began to feel intimidated by the openness surrounding him. The way nothing separated him from the endless sky above and the vast ocean to his right was nauseating, making his stomach churn uncomfortably. He was very grateful for Aerneth’s warm hand in his, it soothed and protected him, like she was an anchor preventing the empty air from sucking him up and away.
There was a darker shade near the horizon, and with a twinge Thranduil realised that it must be Aman, home of the Valar. His great grandparents, whom he had never met, lived there. They had followed Ulmo west across the sea during the Great Journey of the Elves early in the history of Middle-earth, but their son had decided to remain with Thingol in Doriath where he later married Thranduil’s grandmother and became father to Oropher and his two brothers. Only Oropher remained of his family now, the others had perished four centuries ago in the First Battle of Beleriand, killed by Morgoth’s orcs.
Those who had later travelled back to Middle-earth, such as Galadriel, claimed that all who died were reborn in Aman eventually, after spending some time in the Halls of Mandos. Did that mean his grandparents and uncles lived on that distant shore now, with Thranduil’s great grandparents? And his mother’s relatives as well? Eiriendîs was alone in Middle-earth just like her husband, being the last survivor of her family. She was of the green elves and had lost everybody before moving to Beleriand.
Yet, even if all the deceased lived across the sea, it would take a long time until Thranduil could meet them. He did not wish to sail there, departing to the unknown. What if he did not like it in Aman? There was no easy way back. No, he would try his best to survive, and protect his loved ones so that they would stay in Middle-earth as well.
When Aerneth and Thranduil had passed the last pier they came to a stretch of bare, desolate sand beach that followed the bay for miles ahead. A group of elflings were bathing some way off and it looked like they had a lot of fun, splashing water on each other, diving and swimming. Aerneth dropped his hand and removed her leather sandals, giving them for him to hold while she went closer to the water. She let the waves brush over her bare feet as she walked, every now and then bending down to pick up a pretty shell which she made Thranduil carry as well.
“This is great, my own pack horse.”
Thranduil smiled at her antics, not at all minding to carry anything she liked. She was beginning to be more like when he first had met her, playful and whimsical, and her cheerfulness effectively chased away his somber thoughts from before. Even the open sky was beginning to lose its edge.
“When we come to our cabin I shall show you my seashell collection.”
“There.” She pointed at a small wooden hut a couple of miles ahead. “Nana and I spend a lot of time in it during the summer. It’s much nicer than in the city.”
“Why were you in town today then?”
“Because it’s been raining. The cabin leaks.” She took his hand again, apparently done with the shell picking.
The afternoon sunshine was strong. Thranduil soon felt steaming hot in his woolen tunic, and since Aerneth only wore a light linen dress he figured it was alright for him to strip to his shirt. She looked at him with appreciation as he removed his outer garment, and he revelled in the pleasant feeling of her eyes on him. He enjoyed being desired.
A seagull landed by Thranduil’s feet. It regarded him calmly with a red rimmed, yellow eye.
”Hello,” he said to it, beginning to feel whimsical just like Aerneth. It was apparently contagious.
The bird opened its beak, it sounded like it replied. “Nín. Nín. Ca-ca-ca mee-ah!”
“First you say I am yours, and then you laugh at me. Rude.” His grin widened when Aerneth laughed.
“Aye, Master Gull, he is taken already.” She squeezed his hand and he looked at her, feeling warm and fuzzy inside. He wanted to kiss her but did not dare.
“Well?” she said, a challenge in her voice as she tilted her head slightly upwards.
That was all the invitation he needed. Thranduil bent down, brushing over her lips with his. When she did not protest, he repeated the action, closer now. Her hand came up to cup his cheek and he buried his fingers in her soft hair.
“Mee-ah! Ca-ca-ca,” said the gull, ruining the moment. They broke the kiss, laughing.
“I prefer to do that without an audience,” said Thranduil.
“Indeed, one can do so many more fun things when alone together.” Aerneth laughed again as Thranduil hid his flushing face behind his hair. “You are such an innocent little elfling,” she teased.
“Because you are so experienced?” he returned, secretly wondering if she was. They seemed to be less rigid in this city, the little he had seen so far, perhaps ellyn and ellith associated more freely here.
“I am. I have practiced in the bath.”
“Valar!” He pulled his hair to cover his face completely while he tried to not picture Aerneth in a bath, a particularly difficult feat because he had seen it once.
“Are you going to walk like that all the way to the cabin?”
“I shall lead you then.” She pulled on his hand.
When they arrived at the building, Thranduil found he recognised its insides. Aerneth had called him from there many times. Her room was tiny, with only a narrow bed and a shelf where she kept her shell collection, and a glassless window covered by a wooden shutter.
“Where is your mother?” Thranduil asked, trying to sound innocent. He very much wanted to kiss Aerneth again, but like he had said, preferably not with an audience. He realised he had not paid attention to Falasiel at all during lunch earlier, and could not even remember what she looked like.
“Out. She takes long walks in the summer, or works in her studio. I don’t see her much this season.” Aerneth closed the door, and now the room felt even smaller.
“I see.” Thranduil took a step towards her. She tilted up her face, her eyes inviting him to repeat what he had done on the beach. As his lips again found hers she snuggled close, her hands starting to explore his back and shoulders over the thin fabric of his shirt. She tasted so good and smelled so good, his senses were overwhelmed by her. He fondled the silky tresses of her hair and trailed her neck down to her shoulder with his fingertips. He wanted to feel her breasts but knew that was too early, they were not even courting officially yet! Instead he stroked her back, slowly working his way down to the interesting curve of her hips.
A sound from the other room made them both start guiltily and jump apart. Someone had entered the cabin.
“I’m home, my love!”
“It is Nana!” Aerneth’s cheeks were pink and her hair a bit tousled but she seemed not to care, for she opened the door and hurried to meet her mother, giving her a hug. Thranduil followed, feeling extremely uncomfortable about coming out from an elleth’s bedroom wearing only his shirt.
Círdan’s wife was a tall, thin elleth with golden brown hair, darker than her daughter’s. The two were very unlike each other; the mother had none of the soft curves and ample loveliness that he liked so much in Aerneth. Her face was long, her nose a little too big and her chin pointed, making her look almost like an ellon. She was dressed in a simple linen dress, rather wrinkled and covered with odd, grey smudges and her feet were bare.
“Oh, you brought your friend. Greetings, Thranduil.” She bowed, one hand across her heart. Her fingers had the same grey smudges as her dress. There was something dreamy over both her soft voice and the distant look in her pale eyes. “I’m glad to finally meet the ellon my daughter has talked so much about over the decades. I can see why she likes you; you are very beautiful.”
“Nana!” Aerneth blushed furiously.
Ignoring her daughter, Falasiel took Thranduil’s hand between her own and her strange gaze penetrated him, like she was looking at something far away but yet within him, reading his mind, or perhaps analysing it.
“Your temper is violent, but you have a kind soul and your heart is pure,” she said at last. “Forgiveness is the cure; learn to forgive, learn to ask forgiveness – then your anger will never get the better of you.”
Thranduil stared back at her, not knowing what to answer or how to react. Could she really see those things in his eyes? Forgiveness is the cure. He had said sorry to Aerneth today and it had worked, she had forgiven him easily. It should not be so hard to do the same again, if need be.
“I will try,” he said.
“Then you have my blessing to marry Aerneth.” She pressed his hand, smearing off some of the grey matter. He wondered fleetingly what it was and how he could wipe it off discreetly without offending her.
The elleth turned to her daughter. “I will be sorry to see you go, my love.” Then she changed the subject completely. “Have you shown him my studio yet?”
“Nay Nana, I figured you would want to do that yourself. I will make us something to eat meanwhile. Don’t forget to wash your hands before you come back.” The way she spoke, it sounded like Aerneth was the mother and not the other way around.
Falasiel took Thranduil to an octagonal building behind the cabin. “See how light here is,” she said as she showed him in. It was, sunshine poured through many large windows facing in all directions, making the room almost as bright as the beach outside. In the middle stood a table, laden with grey mounds of clay and several molded sculptures. So that was what the grey stains came from.
Thranduil went closer, curiously examining the figurines. All of them were sea creatures; fish, seals, seagulls, crabs and those strange star animals he had seen below the pier. The detail put into the artwork was incredible, from the tiny bead eyes of the crabs to the individual feathers of the birds’ wings.
“These are beautiful!” He lightly touched one of the gulls. It smudged his fingertip.
“They are not hardened yet, I have an oven in our city house where I finish them.” She took his arm. “Now look at the paintings!”
The pictures were even more outstanding than the clay animals. They covered the walls between the windows, all of them variations of the same theme: the sea. Water in every imaginable colour, sometimes meeting the sandy beach of the bay, sometimes licking the stones of the pier. Many portrayed water alone, close studies of a rippling wave or sunlight playing on the surface. Thranduil imagined they would feel wet to the touch, that was how realistic they were.
“I love them. They are amazing,” he said earnestly, and was rewarded with a wide smile from Falasiel making her androgyn face light up from within.
“I know. Now, we must eat. Come!”
During supper around a small table in the cabin, Thranduil was treated like one of the family, as if Falasiel had known him forever. By her many hints he realised that for her it felt that way; apparently Aerneth had spoken about him ever since her return from Doriath when she was little and her parents had also known about their distance relationship later. He could only silently pray she had not told of all they had done during those calls.
Falasiel seemed to think Thranduil had come to Eglarest to take Aerneth home with him – that their courtship was already over and they were ready for marriage. He did not know how to respond to that. His own father expected him to go by the book, this first journey was only to ask permission to begin courtship and then there would be a betrothal ceremony attended by both families. The wedding would not be held until at least a year had passed after their betrothal, probably more if he knew Oropher.
Thranduil settled for silence on the matter, allowing Falasiel to believe what she wanted for now, but his mind was working hard. Maybe he could send a pigeon with a message to his father, asking to have the betrothal ceremony sooner? If they were betrothed, Aerneth could come live with him in Menegroth until the wedding. Now that they were together again he did not want to leave her so soon, they had already proven being apart was bad for their relationship.
When they had eaten, Aerneth opted to follow Thranduil home to the guest house. Back in the city, she asked if he wanted to see where she worked, and to this Thranduil had no objections. The longer he could be with her, the better.
Aerneth worked in a bakery, making lembas to be used as fare for warriors during wartime as well as by fishermen and travellers. Inside was a large oven and several workbenches, and the air smelled heavenly of bread and spices. The room was empty now and the oven cold, the city’s stores were full and no more batches were planned until later that year.
“Where do you get grains?” Thranduil asked, scratching his nose which had begun to itch from all the flour dust. Back home, Melian’s farmers planted corn on top of the rocky hill that contained the caves of Menegroth.
“They grow it on the slopes of Brithombar, and the elves there collect the seeds twice a year and ship them to us.” She opened a door to a second room. “Here is the mill where I grind the flour.”
Thranduil peered inside and sneezed. “How can you stand working in this place?”
“I’m used to it, but it will be sad to leave nevertheless. My apprentice makes tolerable lembas now though, I dare say she shall manage without me.”
With a twinge of unease, Thranduil realised that not only Falasiel was under the impression he had come to take Aerneth home with him. He did not look forward to having to explain the situation, she was not the most patient of ellith.
“Here.” Aerneth picked up a piece of lembas for him. “Try it.”
“I know what lembas tastes like.”
She smiled secretively and held it to his mouth. “Open up!”
He obeyed, and as he tasted the bread his eyes widened in surprise. “What did you put in it?”
“Ginger and honey.” She looked very pleased over his reaction.
“Brilliant.” He reached out to take another piece but she slapped his fingers.
“You just had dinner. Greedy ellon.”
He laughed and pulled her to him for a kiss. In here, her mother could not interrupt them. She responded eagerly, her fingers resuming the exploration they had begun in the cabin. They slipped in under the hem of his shirt, making him draw in a sharp breath.
“Maybe… maybe we should take things a bit slower,” he murmured, still with her lips against his.
“I don’t want to take it slow. I want you.” Her palm touched his nipple.
She was irresistible! He let his own hands move to the softness of her round breasts on the outside of her dress.
“Shall I take it off?”
“Please, don’t... I will not be able to hold back much longer.”
“You don’t have to hold back, Thranduil,” she purred, pulling the garment up and tossing it on the dusty floor, standing before him in only her underpants. She was magnificent. Again, the water images had not made her beauty justice.
“Gorgeous,” he gasped, blood rushing down through his body with every frantic beat of his heart. Her smooth skin against his palm felt indescribable good as he cupped her breast. He burrowed his nose into her hair and nuzzled her skin just above her collarbone, drawing in her mesmerising scent. How badly he wanted her. He could picture himself pushing her down on one of the workbenches, taking her against it. Why did they have to wait so long? It was torture.
With huge effort he pulled back, trying to calm his breath. “We can’t… not like this…”
“We could go to your bedroom,” she suggested.
“Nay. We must wait. Aerneth… My father wants us to follow tradition. A betrothal ceremony, a formal wedding. All of that.”
“Still you want me to wait? I thought you had come to marry me.” Frowning, she picked up her dress and pulled it back on. It was sprinkled with flour.
“I know. I know...“
She jumped up to sit on one of the benches, dangling her sandaled feet. Thranduil felt his cheeks flush as he again pictured taking her against it. What was happening to him? His self-control used to be immaculate, he had always prided himself over his ability to resist the cravings of his body. But Aerneth had only to look at him with those large, blue eyes, and all his sense of decorum flew away like a seagull.
He sat beside her, taking her hand and kissing it. “I will send a message to my father as soon as possible, asking to have the betrothal ceremony here, finishing it before my return. That way you can still come back with me as my bride-to-be.”
“Why does your father have to decide? Are you not an adult?”
“I respect and love him, and I want his blessing.”
“Very well. But if he says no, we do it anyway.”
“What? You can make your polite request, but if he is being impossible and refusing what is so natural after all the years we have known each other, we must decide for ourselves.”
Just after sunrise the next morning, Thranduil went to the city’s pigeon coop to send a message with one of the Menegroth birds kept there. Every trade delegation brought birds with them, and similarly there was a coop in Doriath containing pigeons from Eglarest for the return mail. The clever fowls always found their way home, and they were fast too, usually it would take less than five hours for a bird to cover the distance between the two cities. Thranduil expected to have an answer from his father before supper.
The rest of the morning he spent with Aerneth, sightseeing in the city and the havens, even climbing up to enjoy the amazing view from the lookout tower. From there they could see Aman more clearly, but it was too far away to discern any of its cities.
They had lunch with Aerneth’s parents, and this time it was only the four of them in the spacious room. Lord Círdan asked Thranduil many questions about his home, his family, his occupation as a march-warden. The answers seemed to satisfy him.
“My daughter, you have chosen well,” he said. “Thranduil will make you a good husband.”
“I know.” She smiled smugly.
Thranduil said nothing. Tension was beginning to build up inside him, he worried that Oropher would say no, and what would he do then? Aerneth seemed intent on following him home, and in all honesty he dearly wanted her to. What would his father do if he was disobeyed? It might turn him against Aerneth, and unfortunately Oropher was not one to soon forget an offense.
Círdan served berry wine again, and Thranduil drank several glasses, knowing the alcohol would calm his wound up nerves. It helped a little.
After lunch, Aerneth made him temporarily forget his apprehension when she suggested they bath together. Wearing only their shifts, they swam and dived, enjoying themselves immensely. Aerneth showed off her water magic, singing forth a multitude of shapes similar to the clay artwork her mother created. Thranduil liked the water dolphins best, she made them jump and bounce in circles around them, hiding them from the view of bypassers. He used the diversion to steal several wet kisses. Aerneth’s white dress had become slightly transparent and the sight was driving him nearly mad with desire, and under the influence of the wine he found it harder than ever to resist touching her.
Afterwards they sat in the sand, letting the wind and sun dry their clothes. Thranduil imagined Aerneth lying on the soft surface, naked, with himself on top.
“Can’t we just skip the boring ceremonies and marry tonight? Only the two of us.” Apparently her thoughts had lingered on similar topics.
“I want our parents to attend, and for them to bless the union. Besides, I did not bring any rings.”
“Aye, do you not use them? Silver rings for betrothal, and gold for marriage.”
“We use plaiting of our hair here, one pattern for courtship, another for marriage, every couple chooses their own.” She regarded his pale, moist strands. ”I like your hair best without them though. But our pattern could be that; no braids.”
”Fine by me.” He knew her hair would look lovely whatever she did.
Aerneth began to undo the small braids that had held back part of her hair. “Anyway, if you think rings are important, we could get them when we come to Doriath. And we can have all sorts of celebrations there. My parents will not attend either way, I think, Ada is still weary of travel after the war in Hithlum and Nana never leaves the sea.”
“You make it sound so easy.” He sighed.
“It is easy. We undress. We pray to Eru. We do it.”
He chuckled and stroked her cheek.
“Don’t laugh.” She punched his arm lightly.
“I’m not laughing.”
Dear son. Answer is no. Return here, arrange betrothal, she comes with parents later. With love, Oropher
Dismayed, Thranduil read the short note over twice. But what had he expected? Of course Oropher would say no, he wanted a proper ceremony and had likely neither time, nor inclination to hurriedly travel to Eglarest.
Aerneth had read over his shoulder. “That was short and to the point,” she remarked.
“Sorry,” Thranduil mumbled.
“Don’t be. Be an adult instead and make your own decisions. This is your life, your future. Our future.”
He looked at the note in his hand again, slowly shaking his head. He could not do that, his father would not only be angry, he would be hurt. It was wrong.
“Come.” Aerneth took his hand. “Mother is staying in the city tonight, we can have the cabin to ourselves.”
He met her gaze. Her eyes looked darker inside the pigeon coop, her large pupils turning them nearly black, and they sucked him in. She wanted to wed him like elves did when there was not time to observe customs, their physical joining alone sealing the bond. We can have the cabin to ourselves.
Silently he followed her, allowing her to lead him out of the city, his mind a turmoil of conflicting thoughts. Do it. Don’t do it. He knew that with every step, turning back would be harder.
As they entered the cabin and Aerneth’s room Thranduil felt the last of his resolve melt away. Her scent filled the confined space and he wanted her so much it hurt.
She sat on her narrow bed. “We pray first, and then we bond. Aye or nay?”
Defeated, he sat down next to her, taking her hands in his and closing his eyes. He hoped the Valar would not only bless their marriage, but also protect them from Oropher’s wrath when they came before him as husband and wife.
“Aye,” he whispered.
What do you think, will they get married ‘the speedy way’ or will Thranduil resist after all?
On seagulls: “Nín”, as the gull says, means “my/mine” in Sindarin. Yes I know, I stole that from Finding Nemo. Again. :D
On elvish races: The first elves who awakened became four clans; Avari, Vanyar, Noldor and Teleri. The Teleri later were divided into Falmari, Sindar, Silvan and Laiquendi (green elves). King Thingol’s adversity towards the Noldor originated from the first kinslaying, where Noldorin elves assaulted the Falmari in Aman, stealing their ships to chase after Morgoth and the Silmarils he had stolen. Since the Falmari were Teleri like Thingol, he never forgave the Noldor for killing his kinsmen.
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