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19. Adopted Son
Near the Doriath border, First Age 473
The hare was almost invisible against the snow but it could not hide its black eye. Thranduil aimed at that with his nocked arrow. He breathed slowly, forcing himself to hold the strenuous stance while waiting for the animal to slow its pace and be still.
A drop of sweat trickled down into the corner of his eye. It stung. The need to wipe his forehead was overwhelming but he resisted.
Finally the hare halted and Thranduil released his arrow. It hit the snow a few inches left of the target, which quickly scurried away.
“Cock.” He scowled at the bow as if it had wronged him. Then he swung down from the branch he had perched in and went to retrieve the arrow. This would be the third night he returned to the cabin empty-handed, and that was bad. Really bad.
On a normal year, the spoils from the Autumn Hunt would last Menegroth through most of the winter, but after Morgoth’s victory his orcs and wargs had come into Beleriand and they had butchered nearly every animal outside Doriath. The king had forbidden his subjects to leave the realm and thus they had to rely on what game they could find within its borders. The larders and cold stores were all empty now and they were even running out of fish.
Most of the march-wardens were out hunting presently and Thranduil’s friends had thankfully managed better than he – he was the only of them who still had not brought anything back. It was humiliating, but he excused himself that he was not feeling well.
Physically he was fine, of course, but there was a darkness inside him. And his heart felt heavy. He tried not to think about the cause of that, he needed to stop brooding! But his mind would not obey.
He missed Aerneth and wanted her back, that was the truth of it, despite knowing they could never be together again.
He had hurt her. Just like his father, he had failed to control his anger and hurt her. Nothing could justify his actions.
Oropherion . She would not even take his own name in her mouth anymore, and he deserved it.
As always when he pursued this line of thoughts – and he did that often – the shame and remorse hit him with full strength, in combination with his black jealousy over what she had done, and of course the what-ifs that kept nagging him. What if he had not allowed her to go to the war? What if he had gone with her? She might never have kissed someone and Thranduil would not have been angry and hurt her and all would have been well.
But if he was truly honest with himself all would not have been well. Their marriage had been a disaster from the start. He was a disaster.
No wonder your mother left Doriath; Aerneth’s words came back to taunt him. They were true and that was why they had infuriated him so. He had failed his mother, failed his wife, and now he was failing his kingdom too with his inability to hunt.
Thranduil angrily kicked away a stone from the path. As if his personal troubles were not bad enough, there was the fact that the Dark Lord had won the war to worry about. Morgoth had wiped out nearly the entire Host of Maedhros and stacked all the corpses in an enormous pile in the desert to lie there and rot. The Battle of Unnumbered Tears people called it now, but its aftermath was proving to be even worse; orcs and evil humans roaming free in Hithlum and northern Beleriand, killing, stealing and burning homesteads, capturing the males and doing unspeakable things with the females.
Perhaps by now they had reached even further, to the western sea… Thranduil fought down the surge of panic that always followed on that thought, forcing his heart to slow down. Eglarest was safe. Galadriel would have told him if the situation had changed.
He was nearly back at the cabin when Faraion, the ellon he least wanted to see, joined him on the narrow footpath. Amroth, that traitorous so-called friend, had dragged the young elf along with them on the hunt. But of course he could not have known how much Thranduil despised the Gondolinian.
“Hello Tharan, any luck today?” Faraion looked happy to see him, a feeling which was not in the least reciprocated.
“Sadly, no.” Thranduil forbade his face to betray any emotions.
“Ai, I am sorry.”
Beleg and Mablung dropped out of a nearby tree. The archer carried three pheasants nonchalantly slung across his shoulder.
“Tomorrow will be your turn, do not worry,” he said. Beleg had an infuriating ability to sound kind and concerned while it was obvious he was secretly gloating.
Outside the cabin, Amroth was busily cleaning out the entrails of a young doe and Thranduil went to help him. Some use he would still be. Thankfully the other refrained from commenting on his lack of prey, Amroth knew what ailed his friend and why he was in no mood for banter.
“What did you hunt in Gondolin, Faraion? Must have been hard to find game in the mountains.” Amroth had been bombarding the Gondolinian with questions about the hidden city ever since he arrived in Doriath.
“We kept mountain goats. There was this lovely vale surrounding our city, with the sweetest grass and flowers for them to graze.” The young ellon’s gaze became distant.
“How interesting. But did you not run out of goats after a while?”
“We bred them.”
”Aye. We captured them alive and brought them into the vale, where we fed them well. Then they became almost tame, staying near the city and birthing their young there. We only slaughtered the kids and always made sure to spare a few, and so the herd grew every year. By now there are several hundred of them.”
“What a clever idea! We ought to take after that, do you not agree, Tharan? Maybe we could breed deer in Doriath.” He turned back to Faraion. “What did you feed the goats with?”
“We used some of the corn Princess Idril grew on the slopes of the hills – the kind used for lembas.”
“Splendid. We can ask Queen Melian if she has any to spare. Maybe we could construct some sort of fence too so the deer cannot stray.”
They kept discussing animal breeding for a while, and then followed another favourite topic of Amroth’s; the war. Faraion did not like to speak of it, especially not about the dragons which had appeared late in the battle, but Amroth was too curious to leave the subject alone. Mablung and Beleg were much more outspoken about their experiences, but they had been in the western host and only met orcs, wargs and balrogs. It was the dragons that fascinated Amroth.
“Do you think Morgoth bred the dragons in the same way you did with your goats?” he asked now.
Faraion shuddered. “I have no idea. But some were smaller, so maybe they were young. They were still huge though.”
“How big? And how many were they?”
Thranduil listened intently to their conversation despite the sickening feeling any mention of the war still gave him. He was searching for clues.
Who was it? That was the question which would not leave him alone.
He suspected Faraion himself the most. When the young ellon came to Doriath this autumn, weak, half-starved and terrified, he told them he had been directed there by an elleth named Aerneth, whom he had communicated with through water. That meant they must have met in person first; Aerneth could only establish water connections if they had. What had happened during that meeting? Faraion was barely eight decades, far too young for her, but she would probably not care. He was good looking, almost as tall as Thranduil and with striking, raven hair. Every time he looked at the other, Thranduil involuntarily pictured Aerneth in his arms, his hands roaming over her curvy body, their mouths intimately joined.
She had admitted to kissing another ellon, but what kind of kiss? Short, long? Deep? With or without tongues? Undressed?
Even if it were only a peck, Thranduil wanted to strangle Faraion, but without proof he could not do anything. It could be someone else and then Faraion was innocent. Maybe even Mablung or Beleg. Beleg Cúthalion who so often seemed smug, like he kept some interesting secret. Yes, he clearly loved Mablung, but Aerneth loved Thranduil and yet she had kissed someone else.
Or was it Galdor, that Falathrim with the long hair? She had pretended to like him before, but what if it was not only pretence? Maybe there were some real feelings underneath, and now they had been together in a war and one thing had led to the other.
At other times Thranduil suspected Celeborn. He looked a little like himself, blonde and tall, and Aerneth was good friends with his wife. Galadriel and Celeborn did not seem to be very close as a couple – Galadriel was too independent, he suspected, she would never lean on an ellon. Maybe she was busy fighting orcs and Celeborn got lonely, seeking out his wife’s friend for some cuddling?
It could be one of the royal elves too; Fingon before he died, or Turgon of Gondolin, the new high king. Or one of the sons of Fëanor? It was not known whether they had survived; Faraion had seen them escape into the mountains but since then nobody had heard from them.
It could be just about anyone. The army was full of handsome warriors.
Not knowing was the worst. Thranduil felt like one of the dragons had settled inside his intestines and was eating him from within.
The next day Thranduil was tracking a boar when he heard the sound of Beleg’s horn, a signal that he had felled something big and needed assistance to carry it back.
Thranduil glanced at the tracks in the snow. Never mind. He would probably fail to kill the boar anyway, he might as well go help his captain.
Beleg had apparently defied the king’s prohibition of going outside the Girdle, for Thranduil found him perhaps a mile north of the border. The archer was proudly standing in a small glade next to the carcass of a huge moose, its large, flattened antlers sporting no less than fourteen points. Had he killed a stag of that size with only his bow and arrow? Thranduil was awed, but his face remained neutral as he approached the other.
“Congratulations. A fine prize,” he said politely.
“Thanks. Good of you to come, I need all the hands I can get to bring back this beauty to the cabin.”
There was a rustle in an oak and Amroth dropped out of it, whistling between his teeth at the sight of the animal. “Amazing!” He dunked the older ellon’s back. “I have never seen a stag with antlers of that size.”
“I am sure there are some who have larger,” said Beleg with false modesty.
They had just constructed a sled of branches and rolled the moose onto it so they could pull it with them, when a most unusual trio emerged from the surrounding woods. Humans! Two old men, dirty and bedraggled with long, unkempt hair and beards, and a small boy.
“Halt right there and state who you are,” said Beleg sternly.
The little boy straightened his back, unabashedly looking up at the twice as tall ellon. "I am Túrin, son of Húrin. But he was lost in the war so I am the Lord of Dor-Lómin now. And my companions Gethron and Grithnir here are servants of my House." He looked so proud and serious despite his dishevelled state that Thranduil had to hide a smile.
Húrin, he had said. So this was the son of the boy Thranduil had lost in his first battle. Humans grew up so fast it was staggering to fathom; it felt like hardly any time had passed and now that boy already had a child of his own.
“What is your errand in these lands?”
“My mother Morwen sent me to stay with my relatives. She is the daughter of Baragund, who was cousin to Beren son of Barahir, the husband of the Elvenking’s daughter.”
“I see.” Beleg’s lips were twitching with mirth. “But Beren Barahirion no longer lives here.”
“I know that.” Túrin frowned. “I had to leave my home or I would become a thrall to the Easterlings, and Mother would not say what a thrall is but my friend Sador Onefoot told me it’s one who has to work every day or he’ll be beaten. And if his lord tires of him he sends his dogs after him and they rip his throat out.” He formed his small hands to claws, showing how that might look like.
“Then what boon would you have of King Thingol?” Beleg sat on his haunches to reach the boy’s level.
“I want to be one of his knights, to ride against Morgoth and avenge my father!” The boy’s eyes gleamed.
Beleg smiled openly now. “And this may well happen, once you grow a little taller. You have the makings of a valiant man; a worthy son of Húrin.”
The boy’s back straightened even further. “I shall grow fast.” He swallowed. “I may need some food to do so, however. We have not eaten for days.”
Beleg had some lembas with him which he gave to the starving trio, while Amroth hurried back to Menegroth to ask whether the king and queen would allow the humans inside Doriath.
When the young lord had eaten his fill, Beleg resumed his questioning. “You say your mother is Beren’s relative, but why has she not come here also?”
“Mama carries my sibling in her belly and could not go.” Túrin’s chin trembled slightly, showing how young he really was despite his grown-up way with words. A child missing his mother.
Thranduil felt an urge to hold the boy and comfort him. He was so small and lonely.
It struck him he might never have a son or daughter of his own; never carry a baby in his arms and hear it call him Ada. How could he be a parent when his wife had left him? The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Then he noticed the face Beleg was making and realised the older ellon might feel the same. He too would never be a father, unless he entered into a loveless marriage of convenience.
Turning away, Thranduil blinked a few times, drawing a deep breath to calm down. It was what it was.
While Amroth was gone, the others made camp right there in the glade. Beleg sounded his horn for Mablung and Faraion to join them, and together with the humans they cut up and salted the moose. It would be a shame to let all that meat go to waste.
The next day Amroth returned with a message from the king: The young Lord of Dor-Lómin and his followers were welcome.
The walk back took much longer than usual, both because the boy was so small and because his followers were old – and in addition they were humans, with their lesser stamina and need for sleep. They were also very weak after their lengthy journey and lack of food.
But at last they saw the hill of Menegroth and could cross the bridge over the Esgalduin.
Inside the city, Túrin and his companions looked around in awe, taking in the beautiful quartz ceiling, the tree-shaped silver pillars, the birds and the sparkling fountains. When they entered the palace, their eyes were so big they threatened to pop out of their eyes. Thranduil found it both amusing and a bit flattering.
Before they could be presented to the king and queen, the humans were taken to the guest rooms to have baths and get new clothes. Thranduil surprised even himself when he volunteered to help the boy, who was not used to that kind of finery.
“Shall I comb your hair?” he offered when Túrin was scrubbed clean and sat wrapped up in a linen towel on the narrow guest bed.
The boy nodded, his mouth full of lembas. He had been eating almost continuously the past day, probably making up for many lost meals. When Thranduil had helped him out of his bath before, he had seen how wretchedly thin the small body was, with protruding ribs and a swollen stomach.
“Can I have warrior braids like Beleg?”
“Of course.” Smiling, Thranduil sat down next to the boy and began to untangle his black tresses with a soft brush. Túrin closed his eyes with pleasure, even forgetting to chew his lembas. In no time he was fast asleep, his body heavy against Thranduil’s chest.
Looking down at the small frame with the still half-finished braids and trail of breadcrumbs on his rounded chin, Thranduil felt his heart swell with affection. Túrin was a mortal and a stranger, but he was also a child who needed protection. No matter what the king’s decision might be, Thranduil would make sure the boy was taken care of.
When the old men came to fetch their young lord a while later, he still slept. The men wore fine clothes now, with their well-combed greying hair fanned out over their shoulders in the fashion of humans.
Thranduil sheepishly roused the child, mumbling an excuse that he had seemed to need the rest.
Túrin yawned and filled his mouth with more lembas while Thranduil swiftly finished the braids and dressed him in a burgundy coat and knee-high leather boots, clothes outgrown by an elfling of the distant past. The result was stunning. With the elegant outfit and braided hair he could almost pass for an elf.
Soon Túrin stood proud and straight before the royal couple in the throne room, promptly answering the king’s many questions in that bold way he had, making him seem much older than his eight years.
Before long Thingol waved him closer and placed the child on his lap.
“You shall stay in my kingdom, Túrin Húrinion, and live here in the palace as my foster-son.”
The assembled march-wardens and palace workers gasped in surprise. A human boy, to be treated so? Thingol certainly had changed since he met Beren in this very same room not long ago.
But perhaps it was not so strange. Elflings were rare in Doriath; the surrounding world had been troubled for so long and nobody felt the time was appropriate to rear a child. This boy was both beautiful and intelligent – like Beleg had said, he had the makings of a valiant man.
In addition, the fact that Thingol’s own daughter and grandchild was inaccessible to him may have increased his benevolence.
Thus it happened that the king gained an adopted son and Túrin got himself a new home, much to the delight of almost every elf in the city.
Galadriel poured water into her bowl, and the king leaned in to see better. Since the Battle of Unnumbered Tears he had made good use of Galadriel’s friendship with Aerneth to get news from the outside world.
Eglarest had a high tower called Barad Nimras, the Tower of the White Horn, from which Círdan’s lookouts had a great view over the open heathlands between Doriath and the Falas. Tidings of the movement of Morgoth’s minions were invaluable in these troubled times, for Thingol feared that the Dark Lord might find out about the two hidden elvish cities, Menegroth and Nargothrond, and try to take them over.
When Galadriel made these calls, the king's captains and other march-wardens were usually present as well, and one of them was always Thranduil. He would stay in the periphery, able to see but not be seen.
He knew it probably did him more bad than good, but he just could not keep away. Even if it only was a glimpse, he needed to see his wife’s face and hear her voice, to know she was still alive and well.
Today Aerneth had troubling news to share; a great host of Easterlings, orcs and wargs had laid siege to Eglarest and Brithombar and she feared the Falas might fall.
Thranduil held onto a nearby pillar to remain standing, his legs suddenly weak as jelly. So it was beginning then; the foresights the ellith had seen in Galadriel’s mirror. Eglarest would be ruined, and Nargothrond, and Doriath.
Aerneth’s face was unusually pale in the clear water. “Since the war ended we have been working hard to strengthen our city walls, but the enemy has built towers on wheels and other strange contraptions – we do not like the look of them.” She paused. ”My father wishes to speak with the king of Doriath, if he is there?”
“I am.” Thingol took Galadriel’s place before the mirror, and in the other end Lord Círdan did the same.
“My Lord King, longstanding is the friendship and allegiance between the Falathrim and the Grey Elves of Doriath. Now we need your assistance. With your march-wardens we may still be able to beat the enemy, for you would come at him from behind. These war machines he is constructing – you could destroy them.”
“I hear you, my friend. And I wish I could help, I most certainly do – but our strength lies in stealth. Should we leave Doriath at this point Morgoth will know where to find us and strike back with full force. He might even send out his fiery dragons to burn down the forest that protects us. And then he would soon come for you anyway. Sending out the march-wardens could only give you a slight respite, but the outcome would be the same, only that Doriath would fall as well.”
Círdan’s face became stern. “You cannot possibly know this. The dwarves injured the leader of the dragons, he might be dead. And besides, even a slight respite would be better than nothing, it would buy us time to regroup and strengthen our forces, and to send for the aid of Turgon in Gondolin and Orodreth in Nargothrond. Still many great elven hosts remain – we do not need to give in to the Dark Lord prematurely!”
“I am sorry, but I cannot do what you ask.”
“I see.” His jaw set and his eyes grew hard as flint. “Farewell then, king.” Círdan disappeared and Aerneth returned. Pink spots had appeared on her cheekbones.
“You disgust me. All of you. Cowards.” She closed the connection.
Thranduil could not breathe. The walls were closing in on him and flashes of white appeared in the edges of his vision. He half-staggered, half-ran out of the room, desperately needing to get away from there, out from the heavy stone of the city which for once felt confining, like a tomb.
When he finally was outside he slumped down with his back against a beech tree, hiding his face in his arms.
Merry birds were chirping all around him and the smell of spring flowers was sweet, but in his mind was only darkness.
Would Aerneth survive? Just like when she went to war without him, pictures of her lifeless body paraded before his inner eye and he could not dispel them. He loved her – he had realised it then, and despite everything that had happened since, he knew he still did.
Perhaps she would live and the orcs would take her captive, turn her into one of the thralls young Túrin had spoken of. Or worse, an Easterling man might make her his wife, another fate not uncommon for females according to the same source.
Thranduil swallowed the bile rising in his throat as he saw new images – of Aerneth naked, taken by force by an unkempt human.
He should never have let her go with Círdan, he ought to have restrained his anger and brought her back here despite her infidelity. He could have learned not to harm her – and besides, anything was better than the fate she would meet now. He would gladly let her kiss all the ellyn of Doriath as long as she was safe.
Could he rebel against the king? Gather his friends and attack the host’s rear like Círdan had wanted? But he knew they would never agree to that. Despite Thingol’s often irrational behaviour his subjects were loyal.
No, Thranduil was completely powerless. There was nothing he could do to save his wife. He could only wait and pray, beseech the Valar to assist the Falathrim; for Tulkas to bring their warriors strength and for Ulmo to aid them through the water.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder and nearly jumped. Looking up, he met the grey eyes of Túrin, and further away stood Beleg and Mablung with their arms full of practice swords and arrows.
“Are you well, uncle Tharan?”
“Nay,” he admitted. Before the boy he could rarely uphold his emotionless air.
“Want to talk about it?”
He shook his head.
“Want to come with us and practice archery, then? Uncle Beleg promised to let me use sharp arrows today. I am going to hit bull's eye.”
“That sounds fun.” Thranduil managed a thin smile. No matter how bad he felt, the king’s adopted son could always lift his mood.
A few nervous days followed with the situation gradually growing worse at the coast. Aerneth refused to open any official connections with the king, but she still communicated privately with Galadriel, and it was through her Thranduil got his information.
The contraptions the enemy had built proved to be some sort of giant slingshots, capable of throwing rocks with great strength. Piece by piece the mighty stone walls of Eglarest and Brithombar crumbled away under the assault.
The Falathrim still defended their cities valiantly, but the enemy were just too many, and on the fifth day of the siege Aerneth no longer answered Galadriel’s calls.
“Call her again.” Thranduil wanted to shake the tall elleth to make her obey, but after he lost his temper with Aerneth that summer he had become better at restraining himself.
“If she is fighting, it would merely distract her needlessly. We can only wait and see.” Galadriel's beautiful face was calm but the look in her blue eyes was both understanding and deeply worried.
Thranduil had to admit the wisdom of that and resorted to a long, fast run in the woods. Anything to keep his mind off what was happening in the west.
When he had run his normal ten mile route thrice he could not stand the suspense anymore. Walking down to the river, he tentatively reached out to Aerneth in his mind.
No answer. Nothing at all.
He slumped down on the ground, not caring about the mud soaking his pants. Was she lost? He touched his heart, wondering if he would be able to feel it if she was dead. He did not know.
Tears trickled down his cheeks. If only there was a way to find out.
Then it struck him. Galadriel’s mirror. Could she not try to see Aerneth even if she did not reply? Or maybe he could?
He was already on his feet and running back to the city. It was worth a try. He had to try.
Galadriel was in her home. Celeborn looked surprised when he opened the door and found the younger ellon outside, panting heavily, soaked with sweat and wearing mud stained clothes.
Inside, Thranduil hardly paid attention to their tasteful furniture and many carpets, he had only eyes for the silver bowl on a side table.
“Can you help me see her? Please?”
“I can try. But the mirror cannot be controlled, it shows what it shows. You might not like what you see.”
“Please?” he repeated.
Sighing, Galadriel filled the bowl and sang the spell, and Thranduil eagerly leaned over it.
There was only white mist at first, but when it cleared he saw a battle, elves against orcs, and in the middle a blonde ellon was struggling hard. His enemies outnumbered him manifold and he was bleeding from many wounds. Just as the ellon sank to the ground, clutching his heart, Thranduil saw it was Oropher. Would his father die in battle? When?
Before he could dwell on it, the vision changed. A person was standing with his back towards Thranduil, tall and strong looking, and he wore a steel helmet with gold details. Long, black hair flowed down his back, and in front of him was a huge monster. A dragon.
And then they too were gone and he finally saw Aerneth. She was sitting in a stone building beside another blonde person, an ellon Thranduil did not recognise. The ellon bowed down and kissed her. After much too long, he pulled back and said something. When she replied he looked shocked and then angry, and suddenly ran away.
So this was how it had happened. If Thranduil ever met that ellon, he would…
But now the image changed a third time to show a swan ship, one of those he had seen tied to the pier in Eglarest, but now it was leaving. Behind its white sails Thranduil saw a burning city.
Aerneth was standing alone in the stern, her beautiful face blotched and smudged black with soot, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Aerneth...” He reached out to touch her but his finger met only water. The image dissolved in ripples and was gone.
“What did you see?”
“She was on a ship.” He met Galadriel’s gaze, making his face smooth to hide what else he had seen. “That means she has escaped? It must mean that.”
“It could. I do not yet know how the visions work, whether they always come to pass or not.”
When Thranduil left Galadriel he was temporarily calmed. Aerneth likely had survived, and in addition he no longer had to be jealous of poor Faraion or Beleg or anyone else he knew. The one she had kissed was a stranger.
The other visions he had seen, Thranduil still could not understand, but there was no use dwelling on them. He did not know who the person with the dragon was, and as for his father, all he could do was stay with him, protecting him as best he could. If Doriath was attacked Thranduil would not leave his father’s side.
A couple of days later, when Thranduil was at the training grounds with Túrin, Galadriel came to tell him she had been in contact with Aerneth again. His wife lived, she was still at sea with her parents and the other survivors, planning to take refuge at the Isle of Balar in the south.
Finally Thranduil could relax completely. Aerneth’s city was no more, and many of her people had been either slain or taken captive, but she was alive and her parents were too – and that was all that mattered to him.
Aerneth survived the Fall of the Falas and Thranduil has found someone to love again, but is it wise to care so much about a mortal? And will he ever become a father himself?
Well, at least we all know the answer to the last question. ;)
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