9. The Pilgrim Soul
Chapter 9: The Pilgrim Soul
"Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds . . .
Love is not Time's fool, though rosey lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come . . .
If this be error and upon me prov'd
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. "
Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
After that dark night, Thranduil rose, pulled his strength about him like a cloak and put on his kingly smile. In time, he even learned to laugh again and be merry with his folk, yet, in Sigrid's secret heart, she knew the sadness never entirely left him.
The rosebushes from Ithilien, planted the autumn before in Thranduil's private garden on the riverbank, survived the winter and bloomed that summer, thriving in their new home. The white one had proved to be a climber, twining itself around the trunk of an ancient oak that grew at the edge of the glade. Galion had offered to prune it back saying, "It will choke the tree, Sire," but Thranduil had refused.
"It gladdens me to see the strength of the rose, Galion," he had said. "This is my tree, and I know its heart. The rose will do it no harm." Sigrid often saw him gazing at the bright blooms over the course of the years, as the two of them lay together in their private spot.
In the first summer after their return from Ithilien. Sigrid had finally given in to her curiosity about what had become of her aunt and asked if she might travel south to her old settlement. Thranduil, still deep in his grief over the sailing of his son, had insisted on accompanying her. Although the shadow had left the wood long since, there was still peril for a woman alone. She felt guilty for taking him from his duties, but Galion had whispered to her as he saw them off, "The time alone with you will do him good. He's little use to us now, as he is. Every Elf needs to go among the trees from time to time, to remember who we are and where we came from."
The journey south had taken almost a fortnight. Again, they shared the same horse, but they kept to no path, Thranduil finding his way among the trees seemingly by instinct alone. He hunted what food they needed, and by night they slept curled together in one blanket. Galion had been correct, for the longer the two of them spent in the emerald light of the woods, the more the tension seemed to lift from him.
"We are almost to the southern borders of my realm," Thranduil said, when they reached an area where the ancient oaks thinned out in favor of younger stands of elm and poplar. "There was a great battle here, and a burning, but the woods have healed themselves. Soon the scars will be gone; the damage of the Enemy forgotten like an evil dream."
At times, the trees became sparse enough to allow a view to the west, where the land rose toward pine clad mountains. "Those are the Emyn Duir," said Thranduil, his face haunted. "I gave territory to Celeborn and to the Edain of the Wood, but I shall never cede the mountains. Never."
Then he had turned to her with a smile. "But we do not go there. If we continued on south we should come to the Men I Naugrim, the Old Forest Road, but we will turn east now. We are just a half day's journey to the edge of the forest, at the spot where the Celduin enters the Wood. There you will find your former home."
They came at last to the edges of the wood. "Let me go on first," she said, as Thranduil tied the horse. "I do not know what I will find."
He nodded reluctantly, but Sigrid noticed his hand strayed unconsciously to the hilt of his sword. "I will be close by."
She went on slowly, spying the familiar bulk of the rickety shed. Off to the side of the building, nearer to the trees, she saw a grass covered mound which had begun to collapse in the middle.
A lank-haired girl with an infant on her hip stood in the yard, tossing out grain to the chickens. Sigrid had to look closely to make sure, but she reminded her of a young village girl she had once looked after while her mother went about her work. Wulf leaned against the shed, a cup in his hand. She did not have to guess at the contents when Wulf spoke, slurring his words. "Quit your day-dreaming and get inside. I want my dinner before sunset." The girl nodded wearily and disappeared into the house. "And shut that brat up," he yelled after. "Useless girl-child. The next one had best be a boy . . ."
Sigrid sighed, looking at the lonely grave beyond the shed. "Oh, Asa . . . " But she had no tears to spare; her aunt was past her suffering now.
Alerted by some sound of hers, or perhaps only the sensation of being watched, Wulf shifted and peered into the forest. She knew he saw her then, standing like some ghost among the trees, for he squinted and then blinked in disbelief. His mouth formed a silent, "Sigrid, girl . . .?"
Sigrid said nothing, staring back at him. She heard the rustle of footsteps in the leaves behind her, and she felt Thranduil throw a proprietary arm about her waist, drawing her back against his chest.
Wulf gaped and shook his head. Thranduil laughed then; a low throaty chuckle with a hint of fey menace. "Come, let us go from here," he whispered. He took her by the hand and led her into the deepening shadows of the Wood.
"I saw it all," he said. "What a squalid place! Is your heart eased, my love?" Sigrid shook her head, although there was nothing more she could have done to help her aunt, or the girl, who but for a turn of fortune could just have easily been herself.
"I am sorry to hear that," he said. "But mine is."
* * *
Time passed, as is time's wont. She wove her cloth. She learned to play the harp. In the years that Thranduil went to arrange trade agreements in Esgaroth, she rode at his side. They stayed in the same inn, in the same rooms and it was the inn-keeper's son who came out to greet them on arrival, all bows and smiles. She saw the chamber wench who had mocked her at their first meeting grow stout with age and lose her teeth. The woman treated her with deference now, for Sigrid was accepted by the folk of Laketown as the Elvenking's lady, no longer a beggar-maid taken up upon the road.
The years passed, each one bringing only a little change, yet change they brought, until one morning Sigrid looked into her mirror and asked, "Who is this woman who stares back at me? Who is she, that came in the night and stole my face?"
The years had been kind. The woman before her was grave and handsome. Only a few lines marked her skin; a gauntness here, a fullness there to mark the pull of the bones of Arda upon its Mortal children. How many years had she been with her Elven-lord? Sigrid counted up the winters, when the frost had crisped the branches; the springs when the wood-violets had bloomed, strewing the forest floor with their indigo glory; the summers, with the warm fragrance of the roses in their secret garden; the autumns, with the jewel-like glory of the shedding leaves. Thirty of them had passed, she realised. At thirty-eight, Asa had been an old woman. Sigrid was forty-eight, and she was still pleasant to look upon, yet she wished for her youth back.
As she sat looking into her mirror, she saw Thranduil come up behind her, fresh from his morning ablutions. "Why the sad face, dearest?" he asked.
She looked down into her lap. "Galion tells me that he can no longer mend your riding jacket. The sleeves and shoulders are worn through," she said, holding up the garment to show him.
"Ah, well, it is thus in life. All things must pass. I shall send it to the seamstresses to make into patches, and I shall have another made."
His face was the same youthful mien she had beheld above the crowd of little golden stars so many years before. How could she explain why the loss of that jacket made her sad? Or why the slowing and eventual cessation of her monthly courses filled her with fear. "I have a grey hair," she said lamely.
She watched him carefully in her glass then. She saw his hand poised above her head as if to pluck. "Thranduil, my love, if you use that tactic, I shall become bald, all too soon."
In the mirror, she saw him pull his hand back with a guilty frown, only to reach down again to stroke her head. "You do not know Elves. We find silver hair to be very attractive."
"Do not mock me," she said quietly. "I know that I age and wear out, much like this jacket."
"Mock?" he said. "I desire you. That will never change."
"Please, my Lord, after all these years, do not lie to me." She knew she had struck home, because he snatched her up and whirled her to him.
"Is this a lie?" he asked, taking her hand down to himself, where she felt him swell beneath the fabric of his dressing gown. "Oh how can I make you understand, beloved? I see your faer when I gaze upon you. To me, you are the same lovely girl who captured my heart so many years ago. I will never see another. I desire you now."
She shook her head in exasperation. "Oh, Thranduil, why is it that you think you can solve every problem by bedding me?"
"Because I am very good at bedding," he replied with an earnestness that she would have found comical under any other circumstances. "And if bedding does not solve the problem, at least the two of us will have passed a pleasant hour and our spirits will be raised thereby. I, for one, would like to have my spirits raised, and I have nothing better to do this fine morning than to remain right here in this bedchamber with you until your spirits are raised as well." He stood looking down at her with one brow raised quizzically. "Hmmm?"
Sigrid was forced to laugh despite herself. "Honestly, Thranduil, how old are you anyway? For sometimes you sound no more than one of the silly stripling boys back home."
"Truly, beloved," he said, "you do not want to know."
"Oh, very well," she replied. "Let us raise our spirits together. But indulge me in one thing. Today, I would like to be the lover."
He smiled slyly at this. "I always find that very pleasant."
Slowly, she stood tiptoe to kiss his chin, smelling the scent of soap on his smooth skin. She undid the fastenings of his dressing gown and slid it from his shoulders. He stood naked before her, and she said, looking down, "I see a spirit is already raised, my Lord."
"Then you must conjure it down, Sorceress," he laughed. "And I am Thranduil to you."
"Once we are in the bed, you will be Thranduil," she said, pushing him backwards until his legs caught on the edge of the mattress and he settled down onto his back. He lay outstretched on the blankets, smiling up at her. She stripped off her robe and tossed it aside, kneeling over him. He reached out to her and she caught his hand. "No. Lie still. I will be the lover today, remember?"
He put his hands back down at his sides, obedient, but she noticed his fists gripped the covers as she rained kisses upon his chest and ran her tongue down his body, past his navel to the triangle of silky golden hair at his groin. He stood tall for her, and she blew gently over him, taking in the musky scent he gave off when aroused. A tiny bead of moisture had formed at his tip, and she licked it away, circling her tongue lightly at first, then fully round the velvety head to its underside. She took him fully into her mouth, sliding her lips down his shaft as far as they would go, caressing with cheeks and tongue.
He gave a gasp and bucked his hips forward, hitting the back of her throat. "No -- please, you must stop. I cannot control myself when you do that."
No matter, she thought. He was as hard as a tree branch and she already ached for him herself. Any further subtleties would be entirely unnecessary. She drew back and straddled him, easing herself down onto the slickness of her own mouth.
Slowly, she sank lower, letting him fill her.
"You are the scabbard to my sword; the quiver to my arrow," he murmured.
She bent forward, laughing as the sensation of her hair tickling his nipples made him hitch in his breath and squirm. "Thranduil, if you can still speak, I am not doing my job right." She began to move against him, watching his face as he slowly came undone.
'I am the most fortunate of women,' she thought, 'that this glorious man should be mine, if only for a time. All that wild power, rendered gentle, for me alone.' She re-doubled the rhythm, and his hands came up from the blankets to grasp her hips, pulling her down onto him and meeting her with an upward thrust of his body. He set the pace now, but she did not protest, for she felt her own crisis building.
In that moment, she cherished everything about him; the shudder in the loins, the grimace on his face as the pleasure took him. Best of all was her power to bring him to such a state beneath her, surpassing even the joy of her own culmination.
The climax past, she pulled away and sank down beside him, laying her head on his shoulder. "Le melin," he whispered.
"And I love you, Thranduil. Whatever the two of us are, it was meant to be." Slowly, she ran her hand over the mark on his chest, feeling the cadence of his heart beating beneath her palm. He had stubbornly refused to explain what the runes meant, and by all rights she should resent this strange symbol, yet, instead she treasured it.
He, in turn, put his hand to her heart, slowly lower to cup her breast. He smiled . . . and froze. "This was not so large a fortnight ago."
"They were never very large," she laughed, still basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking. "Perhaps I grow plump at last."
"No," he said, his brow knitting. "This." He took her hand and put it to a spot just above her left nipple. She felt it then, a hard, tiny knot beneath the skin, the size of a pebble.
She was troubled, then, but did not show it. "I will consult Nestalinde this week."
Thranduil shook his head. "You will go to see Nestalinde. But you will do it now, and I shall come with you."
* * *
Sigrid sat, bare to the waist as Nestalinde examined her with gentle, skilled fingers. If she felt any embarrassment at being naked before a stranger or being touched by another woman in the sight of her lord, it was of no matter, for Thranduil, predictably, hovered anxiously and would not be sent away.
"It is an affliction of Mortal women," the lady healer said, only a slight wrinkle between her dark brows betraying her concern, "most commonly seen among those who have not borne a child."
Sigrid saw Thranduil's face pinch in pain. She felt a brief moment of compassion for him, but it was overshadowed by a flood of comprehension. Back in her settlement, there had been two middle-aged women who lived alone together on the edge of the wood, making their way by gathering and selling herbs they gathered in the forest or grew in their little garden, relying on no man for their livelihood. At the mention of their names, Wulf had always spat in disgust and muttered a vile word. When the younger of them had taken a canker on her breast he had said that her painful death was the judgment of the Allfather upon her for her unnatural ways. Perhaps, Sigrid thought, the Allfather was punishing her now for her love of Thranduil.
"Is there aught that can be done?" Thranduil demanded.
"There are measures I may take," Nestalinde replied, her face guarded. "I have lived long and I have seen the course of this malady enough to be familiar with it since the coming of the Edain."
"Good," said Thranduil, with the look of one who is grasping at straws. "See that you do all. I want my beloved made well."
"Yes, Sire," said Nestalinde, but not before Sigrid had seen a flash of pity in her grey eyes; pity not for herself but for Thranduil. The two women exchanged a glance of silent understanding.
Sigrid sighed, feeling an odd resignation. 'My Lord will not be forced to love a crone after all,' she told herself sadly.
* * *
Nestalinde put Sigrid under an Elven spell of sleep, and when she awoke there was a tiny cut on her breast, tied with two stitches of spider silk. The 'pebble' was gone. The wound healed with barely a scar, and she stayed well for some time, seeing her roses bloom on the riverbank twice more. But at the Solstice time of the second year, when Thranduil's elves filled the cave with garlands of evergreen boughs and her Lord put on his crown of holly berries, and she began to feel a sharp ache in her knee and walking became painful. The pain in her knee was soon joined by one in her wrist, and then a stabbing in her back that made sitting upright a torture. Even the dark juice of the poppy flowers Thranduil imported from the east could not allay the aching in her bones completely, and she took to her bed, spending more and more of her time in drugged sleep.
On the first warm day of spring, Thranduil carried her outside to their riverbank. As the King passed through the halls, his lover borne in his strong arms, Sigrid had seen the eyes of his elves upon her, filled with sadness. 'Some of them do love me for myself,' she realized. 'Despite all.'
He picked wood violets, which he put into her hands, and the two of them lay together in the soft grass, her head on Thranduil's chest as they watched the clouds drift by overhead. Her roses had again survived the winter and were putting out their first green buds of the season's growth. "How I wish I could have seen them bloom one more time," she said to him.
"You will, my love," he replied. "You will see their blossoms for many years to come."
She sighed, too tired to say him nay. 'My poor Thranduil,' she thought. 'You think that simply by saying it firmly enough you can make it so. But there are some things that even a mighty king may not command.'
When the afternoon drew on and the air began to cool, Thranduil carried her back into the shelter of his cave. Light as a feather in his arms, she heard the great stone gates grind shut behind them, and she knew that she had heard the rustle of the trees and felt the warmth of the sun on her face for the last time as a living woman.
* * *
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
Le melin: I love you
Unfortunately, breast cancer is not a disease confined to the modern era, although it has become more prevalent thanks to a toxic environment, women living longer, and women having fewer children. I offer the following quote --
"A horror known to every culture in every age, breast cancer has been responsible for the deaths of 25 million women throughout history. An Egyptian physician writing 3,500 years ago concluded that there was no treatment for the disease. Later surgeons recommended excising the tumor or, in extreme cases, the entire breast. This was the treatment advocated by the court physician to sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, though she chose to die in pain rather than lose her breast. Only in the past few decades has treatment advanced beyond disfiguring surgery." Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer, and History by James S. Olsen
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.