Far Beyond Mirkwood, Chapter 37
|Authors:||Mary A and Malinornë|
|Warnings:||This concludes Mary's and Mal's adventures with Thranduil in Middle-earth. Waaaah! Oh wait, there's an epilogue as well. But after that, this particular journey will be over.|
|Disclaimer:||This is a work of amateur fanfiction of the parody type and is meant solely for entertainment purposes, no profit is made.|
|Chapter summary:||Their missions in Minas Tirith completed, Thranduil's mortal women finally return home – wherever that is.|
No one who was still lingering at the breakfast table, during that suddenly final morning in Minas Tirith, seemed able to explain to my satisfaction the reason why we could not have flown around Middle-earth by eagle-back in the first place! Mal was still recovering at the Houses of Healing, and I missed her, but that meant she was not there when Thaladir brought the news to me about our imminent departure. I was sure she would have wanted to know why we could not have flown here instead, as well.
It all came back to me. All those terrible weeks stuffed into that nasty, bumpy, dimly-lit little carriage, especially through the claustrophobic path in the Mirkwood forest. It seemed now to me to have been some sort of amusement for the Royal household to watch me feel miserable. Feredir swiftly and silently rose from the table and left the room, right after I stood up and began demanding answers.
After a moment of silence, Thaladir quietly requested that I not shout.
The twins quickly pointed out that our travels had involved more than just one destination, and many of the people who we had met along the way were needed for Mal’s final performance. They always seemed to know exactly what was going on after the fact, and never seemed to know anything beforehand; I was catching on to them.
“The whole experience was for your personal enrichment, darling,” Elrohir insisted. “Think of all the wonderful times we had together.”
“Like when I was kidnapped by that soldier in Rohan?” I reminded them. They cruelly reminded me that I had sort of enjoyed it at the time. I hate it when they are right.
Thaladir was attempting to leave the room, so I stepped in front of him, and spoke right into his face, so he could not pretend he did not hear me, and asked him why I had to be stuffed into a coffin-sized vehicle and trundled through an airless forest filled with spider-webs, when we could have flown over them.
The seneschal replied that he did not seem to recall me displaying any unexpected discomfort during our journey.
“I complained every day,” I reminded him.
“Every hour of the day, you mean,” muttered Elladan, although he had seemed sympathetic to my constant irritation at the time.
“Yes, Lady Mary, I do recall your complaining,” the old elf said, “But that was to be expected,” As if that was an answer.
From behind us, I heard footsteps, and I turned, hoping to see Mal for reinforcement, but it was the king. He did not look happy. Behind His Majesty, I could see Feredir following him, the snitch.
“Have you had a change of heart about returning to my forest?” Thranduil asked, after he motioned everyone else out of the room. “It can be arranged for you to reside here...”
“How soon can we leave?” I interrupted.
“There is only the packing to be done,” remarked Thaladir, over his shoulder.
When Miriel sweetly offered to come to my room, to assist me with the packing for our brief trip home, however, I was too happy to have the help that I soon forgot about my grievances. My room was a complete shambles. We agreed that my cloak was enough to keep me warm, and she picked out a few other pieces that would not take up much room on the eagle. I could carry them in a purse slung over my shoulder.
Now, I was starting to feel excited about getting back to my quiet, calm private chambers in the caves. It grew difficult to even care anymore about how we got here. I was going home! We were going home! It hit me even harder when I saw my trunks being brought in. Under Thaladir’s scrupulous direction, the rest of my clothes were quickly sorted, packed, and readied for transportation, by the guest-room staff.
The packing crew moved to Mal’s room, and I followed to help, or look like I was helping, it was hard not to dance around in circles instead, and then I remembered she was not there.
“I am going to find Mal,” I whispered to Miriel, and I danced back out of the room toward the Houses of Healing.
The combined healing powers of King Elessar and Lord Elrond worked wonders in me. When I woke up the next morning I felt fresh and strong, ready to face the world outside again. I longed to see what the new Mirkwood, Eryn Lasgalen, would look like. After breakfast, I was going to seek out the head healer to tell her I was no longer in need of the comforts of the Houses of Healing. As I left the room, I heard a joyful call echo through the corridor.
"Mal, Mal, we're leaving!" Mary cried as she came running.
"Really? Now? Right this second?"
She nodded enthusiastically and I felt a grin spread over my face.
"Thaladir has everything packed already, to be sent by road later on. We're flying, Mal! There are eagles in the courtyard and one is the biggest I've ever seen. It's Ga – Gaw – whatever. The king of eagles!"
"Gwaihir," I told her. "It means 'wind lord'."
"Honestly, Mal, I don't care if it means 'crawling snail', as long as it means we're going home." She shrugged and took my hand. "Come!"
Outside, three enormous birds were waiting, magnificent and menacing-looking. I knew from experience that they were benevolent, sentient beings, some of them even able to form crude elements of human speech, but they were still very much wild creatures. The sound their talons made as they scraped across the stone was as terrifying as watching their beaks tear apart the meat they had been given to feed on.
Mary led the way around the eagles – carefully – to where the royal couple of Gondor were standing, together with the Elvenking, Galadriel and Celeborn. Thaladir was there as well, of course, and, to my great surprise, Feredir and Míriel. Elrond stood just behind Queen Arwen, flanked by his sons. I cast the twins a quick glance, unable to wholly ignore their roguish smiles, as always filled with promise.
I even caught a glimpse of Gildor Inglorion, further away in the crowd, or so I thought. In the throng of people gathered in the courtyard, even elven individuals were hard to make out. Apparently, our departure from Minas Tirith would be as public as our entry to the city had been. The murmur of many voices became louder as King Aragorn Elessar stepped forward, and then fell to near silence – the sound of children playing and laughing was still heard in the distance – as he began speaking to his group of guests.
"I am not a man of many words," he said. "But you know my heart," at which he bowed, "and thus I will use that privilege and bid you a simple farewell, convinced that none of you will mistake brevity for disinterest." He spoke slowly and with power, and here he paused for quite some time, looking each of us in the eye. The moment was brief, but the honest care in his gaze instantly took me back to the night we had shared. I blushed, and winked at him. The next moment, he spoke again, spreading his arms in a blessing. "May Manwë watch over your journey, and green leaves welcome you upon your arrival. And may it be known to all lands that the alliance of Men and Elves stands!"
He took the Elvenking's hand in his own and lifted it above their heads. The crowd cheered and clapped their hands. Thaladir was beaming. His gaze was a little blurry; perhaps he was already composing a detailed report of this glorious event in his mind.
Celeborn was the first to approach the eagles, and it was only then I realized that he was coming with us to Eryn Lasgalen. How could I forget? With the joined realm, he and Galadriel would sometimes guest Thranduil's caverns, a prospect that was exciting and a little worrying as well. The former lord of Lorien spoke softly to the eagles, bowing, and then approached the one that inclined its head in answer. The great bird hunched, allowing the elf to climb onto its back with fluid movements. Galadriel followed in the same elegant manner.
Then it was our turn. Thranduil proudly strode forward with Mary and me on either arm. Gwaihir lifted his head and stared at us. The Elvenking stared back, and then boldly pronounced his question.
"Who will carry me and mine and ride the winds to my nest?"
The leader of the eagles lowered his head, and then his body, with great dignity, graciously allowing us to take our seats on the broad back.
"Farewell," said Aragorn softly as he lifted me into Thranduil's arms. "Live well."
"You too," I replied, suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that he had come to mean a lot to me, and I would, in all likelihood, never see him again. I did not dare to meet his gaze. This should be a joyous moment, not one of teary-eyed wistfulness.
Thranduil knew how I felt. He put his strong arms around me and I allowed myself to sink into the bliss of being near him even to the point of feeling immersed. No thoughts, no demands, no stress. Only feelings of complete rest, of being wrapped in a wondrous sense of security.
"Please hold me," I whispered.
"Always," he breathed into my ear.
I closed my eyes and only opened them again when we were already soaring high above the plains of the Anduin vale. In the front, I could see Haldir and Thaladir on the third eagle, and with Celeborn and Galadriel slightly to the side. I tried not to look down, despite Mary's cheerful cries that I ought to see this or that. I made an exception for the statues at the falls of Rauros.
Up close, the massive stone giants were not as smooth and solid as they appeared from afar. Rather, the stone was scarred by numberless scratches, overgrown by a thin layer of grey lichen in those areas protected from the elements, such as the eyes. This gave the statues so life-like a quality that it almost seemed their eyes tried to follow us as we flew past. I lifted my hand in a shaky final salute. The Elvenking chuckled behind me as I hurried to steady myself with a firm grip of Gwaihir's feathers.
Other than that, I only really saw the places where the eagles rested, high among the hills of Emyn Muil, on rocky cliffs in the river, and once even in the top of a withered giant fir. That time Thaladir complained, though, so we were gently taken to the ground for the night while our carriers perched high among the ancient branches.
On the third day we reached the southern outskirts of Eryn Lasgalen and parted from Galadriel, Celeborn and Haldir. From then on, there were only trees, more trees, and impatience for the journey to end. The sight of them cheered my heart almost as much as seeing and feeling what they did to Thranduil.
A weight seemed to lift from him when the Mirkwood Hills became visible. Suddenly he appeared younger by many years, less burdened by responsibility and there was a newfound playfulness to his voice as he began to talk to us and point out landmarks and trees that were special to him. Even Thaladir seemed more relaxed.
When we crossed the Enchanted River, the Elvenking leaned forward to gain Gwaihir's attention. "Leave me here," he said gently, "I wish to walk."
The bird landed on the forest floor and Thranduil jumped smoothly to the ground. Rather than rise at once, he bowed low, touching the soil with his hands as if caressing it. When he finally stood, his eyes shone in a way that I had rarely seen since we left forest realm, many months ago.
"Thank you," he said to the eagle, with true warmth in his voice. "Thank you," he said again with a bow, before slowly making his way towards the caverns, stopping every so often to touch a leaf or trunk.
We all watched him with a sense of happy awe, and then Thaladir cleared his throat. Gwaihir expertly lifted from the ground, somewhat hindered by the vegetation, and minutes later gently set us down in the clearing outside the entrance to the king's underground dwelling. Elves began to gather around us, their worried faces changing to broad smiles as soon as Thaladir declared that the king was near. Gwaihir took off in a near deafening cheer, apparently preferring to save the deer he was given for a quieter time and place.
Eagles, it turned out, did not layover during the night at any spot in the civilized parts of Middle-earth. They liked to take their rests as high above the earth as they could find to land, and gave no real thought to human comfort. The elves could adapt to anything, of course, but Mal and I were more or less forced to tolerate the less than desirable accommodations the eagles chose for us to endure.
The first night ‘on the fly’, we were sat down on a rocky cliff on the side of a steep mountain, before the eagles flew up even higher to the very top. Only the notion of reaching the cave in a matter of days, instead of a matter of months, kept me from complaining as much as I normally would about the cold and scary perch we were expected to sleep on.
Under no circumstances, however, would I ever gripe about anything when Thaladir could hear me. I would surprise the old elf by doing the unexpected, this time, and never let him hear me complain.
Seated on flat stones, Mal and I huddled close together in front of a small fire the elves had made, apparently out of nothing since there were no trees in sight. It was not exactly raining on us, but the air was cool and misty, and flying on an eagle had already wrecked my hair, which quickly turned into a maddening helmet of frizz.
“Couldn’t the eagles at least find a mountain with some nice dry caves?” I muttered to Mal, after making sure Thaladir was too far away to hear me.
Since her hair is already curlier than any mere mortal deserves, it probably would not have bothered her, if she had taken any time to notice. As it was, she just shrugged a shoulder at me, while she stared into the flames. She seemed removed from the rest of us travelers, as if she was all alone on her own journey, but she did not look unhappy, just withdrawn.
The breeze grew stronger and blew away the mists, revealing a star-lit sky. I was happy with my elf cloak, it kept me warm, but the fire was extra comforting. After we ate a small supper, Haldir, Galadriel, and Celeborn sat at the very edge of the cliff, in order to get a better view of the stars, but were otherwise silent. Thaladir stood by, imitating a statue the way he does so well, and appeared ready to follow any orders thrown his way. Like the king, he seemed focused mostly on Mal.
Perhaps, I wondered, we should have stayed in Minas Tirith until she felt her old self again, but I was not in charge of the travel plans. Thranduil sat on Mal’s other side, held her hand, and gave her most of his attention, leaving me to amuse myself.
After a while, having nothing better to do, I thought over the remarkable events I had only just lived through, with the king, and Mal, and Aragorn, and the stupendous bridging connection we had all shared. I felt honored to have been included, and almost smug about the part I had played in it all, until I remembered one little thing. Immediately, I stood up, and walked over to stand beside Thaladir.
“Your Excellency, can I ask you something?” I said, after dropping a quick curtsey. He nodded, which I took as a ‘yes’.
“I think that you know me pretty good by now,” I said.
“As well as it is possible, Lady Mary.”
“Alright, then you have probably noticed that I sometimes forget things that have happened, because something new is always happening, before I realize it is even happening, so I don’t remember until something else happens?”
“Lady Mary,” he answered solemnly, after a long moment’s pause, “your unfortunate tendency toward inattention, which allows you to become too easily distracted, has been duly, if not frequently, noted.”
“Well, I have been very distracted, you’re right about that, but I was wondering about something in particular. That night when you came to get me from the Gardens of Healing to help Thranduil, and then I found out that he didn’t want me there, well, how did I know he needed me?”
Although it was hard to tell by the firelight; I could have sworn Thaladir’s ears turned pinker. From behind me, I thought I heard the king chuckle.
“I took the liberty of summoning you, Lady Mary,” the seneschal admitted. Then, he nearly hastily added that he had never done it before, and would never do so again, but the circumstances at that juncture warranted extreme measures be taken.
“I’m glad you did, Excellency,” I whispered. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” As soon as we traveled past Lorien, and before we even flew near where Thranduil’s caves were located, it was obvious from my eagle-back point of view that Mirkwood was not Mirkwood anymore. At the king’s request, the eagles circled over a great clearing with a round hill in the middle of it. There was a small group of mallorn trees growing at the base of the odd little hill.
“Amon Lanc,” Thranduil said, with a great sigh of relief. The trees had to have been a gift from the Lorien royals, planted while the king had been away, and I wondered what else we were going to see as we traveled further north. Part of me was worried that the caves would be changed, with maybe windows added now, and more doors to get in and out. Any number of awful things could have happened.
Despite all of my pleading, Mal had not been able to bring herself to look down for most of our travel, but now she was interested, and she seemed more cheerful. During the king’s travels, Celeborn had overseen the blending of Lorien with the former Mirkwood, and the new joined-kingdoms were now called Eryn Lasgalen, Wood of Greenleaves.
While we were away, Galadriel had cleansed the once dreary, dark, forest lands of the ugliest of the old gnarled trees, thorns, poisonous vines, spider nests, and other wretched influences left over from the previous age. It was The Greenwood again. When we finally crossed the Enchanted River, I truly felt at home.
Everything around me as we flew nearer to the caves was familiar, and unchanged, as Sauron’s evil influence had never touched these parts of Thranduil’s northern domain. The only thing different were the groups of Lorien elves, blended in with the Wood-elves from the original Mirkwood, who all cheered jubilantly as the eagle finally landed. We had left the king some distance behind us, because he wanted to spend time alone with his beloved forest.
Thaladir formally thanked the eagles, while Mal and I went into the caves and caught up with everyone about the latest news of the newly blended Kingdoms. Mal wanted to go back outdoors, but I felt happy, giddily euphoric, as I raced up the stairs and into my bedchambers. It was just as dark and silent as I remembered it, and I never wanted to leave this quiet haven of stone again. Except for dinner.
Returning to the Elvenking's realm in northern Mirkwood after many months of travelling felt unreal. Just as Thranduil had when he left the eagle to walk the last part of the way, I experienced a near physical need to touch everything, every leaf, branch, wall and piece of furniture, as if I had to convince myself that it was real.
Time had not been standing still during the king's absence – Canath's beaming report on the state of the kingdom was as much evidence of this as the new signs that now said 'Eryn Lasgalen'. Otherwise, the Mirkwood caverns remained the same – welcoming, stately, comfortable and safe. My room with its mallorn-adorned walls was as spacious and beautiful as I remembered it, and the sun's beams filtered through the many-coloured glass panes with as mild a gaiety as ever.
Yet I could not fully partake of the joy of our glorious return. In every moment of happiness, in each small comfort of daily life there always seemed to be a shadow lurking, just beyond the edge of my field of vision, perhaps a residue of the extreme weariness that had came over me in Minas Tirith. I tried not to pay too much attention to it, though at times it darkened my perception of everything so much that I felt my life was limited to something beheld through a veil of smoke.
Occasionally it would drift away, sometimes even disperse entirely, until I dared hope to have seen the last of it. Then it would clamp down on me again, a heavy curtain of darkness that sometimes left me bedridden for hours. I was afraid and it left me feeling doubly shamed. I wanted to enjoy my life with the Elvenking, happy and strong, for him, for us. I did my best to ignore it, but the day came when I could no longer fool either of us.
We were in his bedchamber, having just retreated there from the dining and dancing in the great hall. My face was flushed from our embraces on the dance floor, as well as the king's heated glances and the promises they carried. His touch as he slowly ran his hand over my arm thrilled me in a way it hadn't since Minas Tirith. I sighed with pleasure and leaned into him.
"Yes," I said.
He arched an eyebrow, then proceeded to caress my throat, and the healthy amount of skin displayed by my cleavage. Slowly, with caution, waiting for my by now customary reluctance. A grin spread across his face when he met nothing of the sort.
I held my breath as he traced the top of my bodice and then began to lavish me with more attention of his hands and lips. The material peeled back compliantly, giving way to exploration. His mouth closing around a nipple made me gasp with intense pleasure and clutch his head, pressing it harder against my chest.
"Yes," I urged him, "more, please. Please!"
A rumble of laughter rose from his throat as he complied with my request, urgently nibbling and kissing his way over my breasts. Having surfaced, he nudged me back onto my spine and kissed me soundly on the mouth. Then he dived lower, between my thighs that had parted for him as if on their own volition. His kiss there made me burn for him even more and I felt, no, I knew with certainty that this would be the night when we renewed our intimacy. He would claim me again, for the first time since I slept with the King of Men, and I would truly be his once more.
Then his mouth was against my ear, hotly whispering the most delicious obscenities as his hands continued their wicked play.
"I will have you now," he declared as he let his thumb idly circle my core. "You are finally ready to be mine," he chuckled "– your wetness tells it even louder than your words."
I moaned with delight as I felt his fingers thrust into me, and I squirmed against them, wanting him closer still. We kissed again, and then it happened.
Darkness once again threw its ugly veil over my mind and suddenly all pleasure was gone. I could still register the Elvenking's ministrations, but they no longer stirred any feelings in me. I felt withered, like an empty husk with no will or strength or mind of her own.
Thranduil froze in mid-motion, then withdrew from me. He let nothing slip of his disappointment, something I admired him for afterwards. At the time it happened, I did not even care enough to be sorry for the lost moment.
"You are weary yet," he said gently as he covered us with the blanket. "I will patiently await my time by your side. Half my nights are still yours – the Elvenking is true to his word."
As he looked into my eyes with concern and understanding, the veil suddenly lifted and I saw in horror the cruelty of the situation. This was not just about a disrupted intercourse, something that could be mended later. What it meant, was that it was useless to even try. I would never be his again. Never. In despair, I lashed out angrily against him.
"Face it! I am not your concubine anymore." Tears welled into my eyes, and I sobbed loudly. "I am not even myself."
"What is this darkness in your spirits?" Thranduil lifted my chin and looked long into my eyes. I felt his muscles stiffen under my hands. "I have been blind. Forgive me." The words spilled breathlessly from his lips, almost as if he had not uttered them at all.
"How long?" he demanded. "How long have you been hiding this from me?"
"I – I did not want to worry you. It was gone every time I was near you, or thinking of you. But I began feeling strange now and then almost as soon as I woke up that morning in the Houses of Healing."
"You should have told me."
"I know. I just thought – " It had been foolish of me to think my dimmed emotions part of general exhaustion. But if it was more, how come it had escaped the combined efforts of Master Elrond and King Elessar? "Is it sorcery?" I asked. Perhaps even with Dol Guldur torn down and the forest cleansed, a shard of evil still remained in these lands that had perchance latched onto my weakened state.
Thranduil shook his head. "I sense malice about it, but it is random, possessing your body and mind without clear cause. It has to be a malady."
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I should have told you at once. Please forgive me. Please!"
"Stay here." He opened the door and called, "Thaladir!"
"Sire?" The seneschal came so soon he must have been standing guard outside.
"Fetch a healer," the king said, slightly louder than was necessary. "All of them! Now!"
When Thaladir came back, he had not a pack of healers in tow, but only one, Echuilas, reputed to be the wisest in the ways of the wild wood-elves from the depths of the forest.
She studied me silently for a long time, holding my hands and looking deep into my eyes in much the same way Thranduil had done. "Rest," she said at last. "Remain close to our king, for that is what has kept you so far. I will prepare teas for you, which will make it easier for you sleep."
"Only that?" I said at the same time as Thranduil.
She nodded. "I regret to say it is all I can do. Sometimes, these things go as suddenly as they come. Time will show." She tucked the blanket closer around me and nodded approvingly when the king gathered me into his arms.
"Thaladir," said Thranduil in a low voice.
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
"Send for Elrond."
From the time Thranduil discovered my illness I spent half my time in close proximity to the Elvenking, and the other half rendered blissfully unconscious by Echuilas' brews. Then, one day, one of the guards came to the throne room, saying we had a visitor. Behind the bowing, nervously smiling wood-elf towered Lord Celeborn, his entire presence shimmering silvery in the dim light.
"You?!" exclaimed the king, displeased. "I sent for the Peredhel."
"Elrond Half-elven has sailed west, with my lady wife," declared the elf-lord and waved his hand, which made two figures step forward from the shadows. "The remaining Peredhil I bring to you," continued Celeborn, "– perchance a vein of the father's gift will awaken when dire need calls."
I could see that Thranduil put much hope in Elrond's sons. In the days that followed, Elladan and Elrohir spent nearly all their time with me, seeking to comfort and cure me with their presence. They were quieter than usual and more solemn. Even at night, when I rested with one of them on either side, their behaviour was entirely serious and chaste. They treated me with the same healing technique I had experienced with Elrond and Aragorn at the Houses of Healing, yet while their company cheered me, they could not cure me. Eventually, even they had to give up.
"We will talk to our sister," Elladan said, defeatedly, upon leaving. "Aragorn will make haste, and he will prove the old saying again."
As touching as their trust in their foster-brother was, it could bring me no hope, and his arrival little more. Thranduil reacted differently – he showed the new guest into my room with a new confidence and shut the door behind him almost cheerfully.
Aragorn sat down on the chair beside my bed and took my hand between his. For a long time, he looked into my eyes, much as Thranduil had done when he first discovered my condition. I tried to be a good patient, but eventually I had not even enough strength to keep them open any longer.
"Sorry," I whispered.
He pressed my hand in answer and then said, "Rest if you can, while I gather the herbs I need."
I heard him rise and go to the door, and then came the Elvenking's eager voice: "Well? Let me know if there is anything you need, anything at all..." There was a pause, and then I heard him speak again, with slightly less cheer. "You will be able to cure her fast, will you not?" No answer. "You will be able to cure her?" Thranduil was suddenly speaking very slowly, pronouncing every word with great care.
I strained my ears for Aragon's answer, delivered in a subdued voice. "I do not know."
After that, the Elvenking stopped asking how things were going, but would just open the door now and then to glance at us and see Aragorn at work. I made an effort to smile on those occasions, for all our sakes. The bitter truth was that I felt weaker by the day, soon unable to enjoy Aragorn's presence beyond the touch of a cool hand on my feverish forehead. The drugs he prepared brought me no relief.
"This is beyond my powers," he finally told the Elvenking, with the same honesty he had used with me. "This illness is going to destroy her. I am sorry."
That day, Thranduil tore down half of the tapestries in his throne room before Thaladir could stop him.
"Sire, you must understand," I heard the seneschal plead with him in a low voice as they came down the corridor. "All who examined her agree that nothing can be done for her in Middle-earth."
"We know little of the cures that may be available in foreign lands and at distant times. Perhaps merely the familiar surroundings of her home will bring her out of that soulless state."
"There may just as well be nothing, and I may be sending her to certain death. She is staying."
I was relieved to hear Thranduil say this. I found that the idea of losing him was what I feared the most, but he kept his promise of devoting half of his nights to me. He sat by my side, or held me in his arms, always in silence. Being near him probably helped in slowing down my fading, but eventually I understood that it was no longer enough to keep me alive. Within weeks, it was evident to all that the finale of my mission for Thranduil, my night with Aragorn, King of Men, had left me drained in ways much deeper than anyone had anticipated.
"You have to let her go, Your Majesty," I heard the seneschal say one day when Mary and I were with Thranduil in the throne room. Thaladir had repeated these words often over the last weeks, but this time there was an edge of command to his voice. Mary and I looked at each other with surprise. The old elf did not usually speak to the king in this manner.
The Elvenking refused, as many times before. He never said why, but I hoped it was due to affection, rather than plain egoism and reluctance to depart with any possession of his, be it a fortune or a penny.
"No," he said angrily. "No one tells me what to do in my own home." His voice was icily calm all of a sudden.
"It would be far from me to do so, Sire," said Thaladir, deadly calm, "on almost any other occasion. In this matter, however, I cannot remain silent. As much as I regret to inform you, the lady can no longer be sustained here. She is lost to you, whether or not you can see it."
At this, the king abruptly turned his head to me. "Say it," he demanded. "You are still mine!"
"Always," I replied in an effort to soothe him as much as myself, "I am yours." But for the first time, I doubted the truth of these words. Bitter tears welled into my eyes. "I am yours," I repeated in a whisper. "I will always be." I could not muster the strength to look at him, much less deliver a lie to his face.
"Thranduil!" yelled the seneschal, in a manner I had never before heard him use with the king. "Send her back now, or she will die!"
"I forbid it!" bellowed the Elvenking, half rising from his throne. All colour had drained from his hands, clutching the armrests.
"Not even you can command death," said Thaladir slowly, his stony face only inches from the king's enraged visage.
Physical fight seemed inescapable, but Mary gently laid her hand on Thranduil's arm, which made him glance suddenly at her, then at me. With a deep sigh, he sat down again.
"Thaladir, mellon, you were always the voice of reason. Do as you will." His voice was suddenly tired and he sat for a long time with his eyes closed, holding my hand and Mary's in his. My heart went out to him and I felt like crying, yet I was strangely calm. The decision had been made.
Had I been hale, I might have fought my destiny with as much fervour as the Elvenking. I did not want to leave him, never! As it was, I acceded to Thaladir's sound reasoning. Even a sliver of hope would be better than remaining with the king now that my fading days brought little joy to either of us.
"I release you from your vows," the king said suddenly.
I wanted to protest, but the sound that came over my lips was only a faint whine.
"I release you," the king repeated. "Go." He kissed my forehead, then my lips. "Go," he said again. "Go!"
I remained still, unable to carry out that last command from the Elvenking, suddenly no longer my liege lord.
"Go," he whispered, then gently pushed me aside and strode from the room without looking back.
I needed not ask where he was going. It had lately been his wont to seek comfort, no, oblivion, in the arms of his first love, Dorwinion red.
"Send message to Lake-town," Thaladir told a servant. "We will need to restock early this year."
The next morning I was fastened securely on the back of a nameless eagle and expelled from both Thranduil's realm and Middle-earth, accompanied by a fine drizzle falling from the bleak sky. Only the seneschal and Mary watched my departure, huddled together in the chill of the wind. He had a determined look on his face, she was barely holding back tears. I had none left.
Up in the air, I waved feebly to them, for a moment drawing the likeness of a smile from Mary, before she looked sad again. I watched them until they were completely obscured by the forest. I felt sad as well, naturally, but most of all relieved. And tired, so very tired.
For a few weeks, everything seemed better than it had before, with few restrictions on my wandering around outside, now that the spiders were all gone. Thaladir no longer cared if I wore layers of clothes, mostly because I wore my cloak to cover up my tell-tale glow whenever I left my room, which was rare. I felt a fully-fledged member of the flock.
Mal loved being outdoors, but I preferred my bedchamber, and our paths rarely crossed. The king made good on his promise to hang my bed from the ceiling, so it swayed when we were both in it, but stayed still if I was by myself. I would stay in it all day, while I wrote this story in my journals, and nap whenever I felt like it.
Then, bewilderingly, everything seemed to feel wrong. Thranduil was distracted, and so was Thaladir, about something. At first, I thought it must have been an affair of the kingdom, from the long faces I saw at the dinner table, and the dreary mood that invaded the caves. I tried to stay out of it, and hid out in my rooms. But, I could not hide from everyone.
The king came to my rooms one night and told me that we were not going to have sex, because he had something important to tell me.
“That night in Minas Tirith,” he began, “when I sent you to be with Galadriel in the Healing Gardens, she was to detain you there until I came for you. I intended to release you from your vows to me and leave you at Minas Tirith to live a mortal life in the closest to a healthy mortal world I could find for you. ”
“You needed me,” I began, but he put his finger to my lips to stop me from speaking. His gaze grew fierce, and I froze with instant obedience.
“It could have harmed you, indeed, the experience might have killed you, what transpired,” he said firmly. “In truth, it probably would at least have broken your mind, if I had ordered you to participate, do you understand? Think long before you answer.”
“That’s why I had to offer myself, as a grateful friend, instead of allowing you to invade my mind, as a dutiful subject?” The king nodded, and then, finally, he smiled, and spoke.
“The only thing that saved you, that continues to save you, is the fact you have never fallen in love with me. Do not argue with me.”
It was a struggle not to contradict him, but he knew me better than I know myself, so it would have been useless. It was not exactly a secret, either.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “But, I’m not in love with anyone else, either. I do adore and worship you, and I think that I always will.” From his silence, I knew that Thranduil was trying to tell me something, and, as usual, he expected me to figure it out for myself. If he had smiled at me right then, or kissed me, I would never have leapt to the direst assumption possible.
“Are you trying to tell me,” I said, suddenly certain that I was doomed, “that I have to leave you now?”
If Thranduil had a ready answer for me, it would have been in vain, because I blubbered out the loudest, noisiest tears that I ever burst into, and wallowed around in them for quite a while. The king held me, stroked my hair, spoke softly, wiped my nose, and calmed me down until I finally reached the hiccupping stage of my gushing grief.
The king reassured me that I would always have a home in his caves, would always be considered an honored member of his household, and would never have to suffer the indignity of bridging, ever again. Not that I had ever minded, much, but it did seem a relief.
“We will never be intimate again,” he finished. “You are free to live out your mortal life in my caves, and in these very rooms, because I know that you love living here, but you are to be just another of the subjects of the realm. Our peculiar relationship must end.”
Without another word being said, the king left me here alone in my bed, and I found that I could not even shed a tear about it. I would always worship and adore him, no matter where the rest of my life in these caves may lead me.
No one ever told me where Mal went, or why. But, I believe I will see her again, someday.
To be finally, finally concluded in the Epilogue.
Chapter posted: October 28, 2011
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"