5. Epilogue: White Feathers in the Snow
Epilogue: White Feathers in the Snow
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,"
TS Eliot, Gerontion
Thranduil Oropherion sat in the snow at the base of the oak tree, alone, save for a solitary deer that wandered through the clearing, leaving only a faint trail of footprints behind to mark its passing.
Much had changed. He had lost Oropher to an orcish arrow on the dusty plain of the Dagorlad, over three thousand years ago. Lalaithiel had been gone for more than four ennin now, dead in the making of their son, so long desired and bought at so bitter a price. Almost two hundred times had the leaves fallen in the woods since that beloved child, Legolas, took ship into the west to seek healing for a heart called by the sea and a faer ravaged by war and the slow loss of his mortal friends to death. They had all vanished as surely as the snows of winters past, although, unlike the drifting white cover that blanketed the woods every season, they did not return.
Thranduil himself remained, as the woods aged and the world of Men grew around him. With each new loss, Thranduil had learned that it did indeed take more courage to live than to die. His father-in-law's words, so little understood when first uttered, began to take on meaning.
"Why do you stay, Thranduil?" Galion had said just that evening, forgetting to use his title as his old friend was increasingly wont to do in moments of concern, after catching him sitting alone in the dark and staring off absently into the west. "Why torture yourself? I will take ship with you, and many others also, just as we followed you north so long ago."
Thranduil had only shaken his head wearily, risen, and left Galion without a word. Taking only his cloak and a full wineskin, he left the cavern and headed out alone into the woods. Now he sat, drawing in the strength of the ancient oak at his back. The Avorren knife hung in a deerskin sheath at his belt, as it had done for all of the previous Age.
Thranduil had not laid eyes upon Tûron since bidding him farewell soon after the Shadow took root upon their old home of Amon Lanc and spread its evil gloom over the Wood. Despite fervent entreaties, his father-in-law had declined to accompany the folk north when Thranduil made the difficult decision to lead them to the safety of the caverns along the Forest River.
"I know the bitterness of leaving a beloved home and leading people to a new place, Thara-ndhul. I have done it once, and I shall do it no more." Tûron's words were grave, but his face held a grim joy. "Here, in these mountains, I will stay to meet whatever end awaits me."
Only a handful of the Forest Folk had come north with their queen, ensuring that their ways would not be forgotten. Yet Thranduil knew the others were still out there, hidden in the glens of the Emyn Duir and among the sheltering boughs of what he had renamed the Wood of Greenleaves. He could still hear their voices as a silent song among the trees and feel their faer along with the life-force of the forest itself, the living and the Houseless both.
Had Thranduil ever been tempted to doubt, he had only to recall his last great battle under the trees, when, during the final days of the Ring War, his realm had been assailed by the forces of Dol Guldur. The orcs of that cursed tower used fell substances and flaming arrows to set the woods alight, and Thranduil, fighting amidst the burning, had feared that all was lost, for his army, even with many of the women pressed into service to wield sword and pike in a last ditch defense of life and home, found itself grievously outnumbered.
Remembering his parting words to Legolas, "Better to die on your feet like a man than weeping on your knees as a slave," Thranduil had begun to laugh, vowing to show these foul yrcch how a scion of the House of Oropher met his end, when out of the burning woods they materialized, strange elves in clad green and brown, as silent as if the trees themselves had birthed them.
They wore no armor, and they carried only light knives and bows, but how they had fought! The tide of battle turned, and Thranduil had the victory. With the orcs routed and their disorganized remnants fleeing south before his army, Thranduil, his eyes streaming tears from more than the smoke, turned to see an elf whose face he knew from an entire Age past. Nènlû. The Avor had not spoken; merely bowing and mouthing the word, 'Remember,' before leading the rest of his folk back into the blackened trees.
A cool wind brushed his cheek. Returning his thoughts to the present, Thranduil brushed a drift of snow from his lap and raised the wineskin, which had by now become much lighter. Soon, he thought, taking yet another deep draught. How could he ever forget?
For confirmation, he grasped his left arm, feeling the strength of the muscle through the thick layers of his cloak and jacket. The marks, which raised a bumpy scar at first, had quickly smoothed, yet they remained as dark as when they first were applied, never fading. Thranduil thought they might even outlast him.
"Stubborn, you called me once, Adar," Thranduil said softly into the night. "Well, you did not know the half of it. Until the last of my wife's folk have left these woods, I have promised to protect them, and to that promise I hold firm. I am their king, now and until the end of all things."
Moving his hand to his heart, where the cloth of his jacket covered the mark of his wife's name, Thranduil conjured up a vision of her face and sighed. "Forgive me, my love, but this is the price I paid for you. In my innocence, I had no idea how steep it would be, but even now, with the full telling, I still count you worth it."
Thranduil looked up through the trees to the night sky, where Eärendil made his nightly voyage across the heavens. Such a Golodhren star, Thranduil thought, to burn so brightly that it outshone its fellows. And how odd that his own folk called it Gil-Estel, for in the end, Hope had taken his son from him.
Thranduil raised his arm, stretching it out before him, and smiled, for his hand still remained solid enough to block out the light of the star, erasing it from the heavens and allowing the more subtle glimmering of the others to show. It may yet be that the tales were true and that, for his choice to stay behind, Thranduil's flesh would be doomed to lose substance, fading from the sight of the world, until he became no more than a whisper on the wind and a chill in a Mortal's heart on a moonless night. But today was not that day.
Taking up the wineskin, Thranduil drained it in a long pull. Was it enough? It would have to be enough. Laying the skin aside for future retrieval, he rose, brushing snow from his pants. He felt unsteady on his feet and his head spun. But such was the condition he sought tonight.
Leaping high, he pulled himself into the oak tree and stood swaying on the branch. 'You are going to fall and break your neck, you know,' his voice of reason informed him. "Be still," he told it. "Always do you say that, and never does it happen. Be still."
Even as he spoke, Thranduil could feel the trees, his trees, reaching out to enfold him and guide his feet on their way. He sensed the eyes and hearts of the Forest Folk, his people, upon him, sharing the strength of their faer with him. The vain imaginings of a drunken brain? Perhaps, but it made no matter, for in this moment Thranduil believed.
He threw back his head and let out the Elven war cry that had put fire into the blood of his people so often in the past. There were no more battles for him to fight; nothing left but the slow fade and the long defeat, until the final prophesied conflict, when Morgoth would come back in through the Doors of Night and bring on Dagor Dagorath. Whether as living, faded, or Houseless, Thranduil intended to meet it on his feet, as he had done all others. And until that day, he endured.
Drawing in a deep breath and sending his heart on ahead of him, Thranduil took off running through the treetops. A faint sound from the forest floor reached his ears, and he looked down to see a single deer speeding along the snowy ground below, keeping him pace. 'Is anything better?' he asked himself with a smile. 'Tell me, then . . .'
Letting the old magic claim his feet once again, Thranduil Oropherion ran through his woods under the starlight.
* * * * * * *
ennin: Long-years, the Sindarin equivalent of yeni, 144 years each.
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