4. A Time to Build Up and A Time to Break Down
" . . .the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."
"Privies," Thranduil muttered. "I hate them." He would never forget the two weeks he and Galion had spent digging the pit of a six-holer in the hard, rocky ground of Amon Lanc: the bone-jarring shock to muscle and sinew every time his pickaxe hit a rock in the flinty soil, the itch and tickle of his sweat in the hot summer sun, and then the biting of the flies. He vaguely wondered what had become of it, if that long-ago filled-in pit now lay under the foundations of the cursed tower that continued to rise on the summit of his boyhood home.
From that time onward he had seen outhouses as a necessary evil, nasty things that smelled no matter how often they were limed, and were a trial to walk to in rain and snow. But now, the issue of sanitary facilities presented him with a further problem. Before him lay the final survey of the cave on the Forest River. He knew down to the last hand-span the exact dimensions of the rock and the layout of the natural caverns he could expand to suit his own purposes. This was to be his fortress, with one single entrance guarded by spells. The prospect of sending servants out into the forest to empty chamber pots every morning seemed unappealing, not to mention impossible during a siege.
His surveyors had found a smaller branch of the river running beneath the mountain. They could empty their waste into that, but out of consideration for any of his people who might choose to live downriver Thranduil wanted another alternative.
Why couldn't people be like horses? His stable grooms simply piled the droppings and the sweepings from the stalls into one place and nature took care of it. Thranduil recalled the old manure pile on the summit of Amon Lanc and how it never seemed to grow. The grooms threw the waste onto the uphill side and by the time gravity had moved it to the downhill edge the natural process of decay had turned both manure and straw into a rich black soil which the gardeners prized as compost.
Thranduil let out a soft, "Hmmm . . ." and sat back in his chair, tapping the handle of his pen against his front teeth. Would it work? Enclosing the entire system posed problems, but those could be circumvented. He leaned forward and set to work.
"I've brought you tea and a piece of bread, Sire. I thought you might like some refreshment." Galion carefully set his tray down in the only corner of the desk free of papers. "How goes the work?"
"It goes well, old friend," Thranduil said, putting the finishing lines to a rough sketch. "Come, take a look. I think you will appreciate this."
Dutifully, Galion approached and looked down at the sheet of paper. "What am I looking at, Sire?"
"A diagram of our new privies," Thranduil replied, trying and failing to keep the pride in his own cleverness out of his voice.
The valet raised one dark eyebrow. "A multi-story outhouse? In that case, my Lord, I do hope that I will be quartered on the top floor."
Thranduil held back a laugh. How good it felt to see his old friend emerging from his cloud of grief and finally feeling well enough to make a joke. "Of course your chambers will be handy to mine. We can't have you trudging long distances in case I need my shirt fastened or my robe held." He turned back and pointed to his drawing. "But, no, Galion -- look here. Although they are clustered around a central shaft, the privies on each level are staggered so that none is directly below the one above. The waste falls to this long tunnel, here, with a gentle slope that will carry it out into the forest over a period of years. By the time it reaches the outlet, it will have turned into compost."
"But indoors, Sire? What about . . .?" Galion made a face. "Chamber pots are bad enough."
"The odor and the heat of the decomposition will be vented up this air-shaft to the top of the mountain." Thranduil leaned back in his chair and beamed.
"And I see you have even designed a private facility for your own chambers," Galion observed wryly. "Living underground may be more attractive than I thought. No more emptying your pisspot."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Galion. Now my job is to convince everyone else."
Thranduil bade his valet goodnight and, borne aloft on the fumes of the evening's wine, opened the door between his dressing-room and his bedchamber.
He found Lalaithiel sitting at her dressing table, engaged in some female business: plucking her eyebrows, applying berry juice to lips -- whatever it was that women did at night to make themselves beautiful even when they already were beautiful to begin with. In all his years of marriage, Thranduil still had never quite figured it out. She had already changed into her simple nightgown of white linen. After more than a thousand years as his lady and his queen, she still refused to take a maid to help her with the personal details of her robing and toilet.
Her gown, a green and silver hue of her own weaving, hung neatly on a nearby peg. Thranduil had watched the play of its colors all evening as it hugged the curves of her body and changed with her movements, and she had looked so utterly toothsome that it was all he could do not to sweep her up and carry her upstairs right then and there. He smiled secretly to himself; the nightgown would not last long either.
Without a word, he stepped behind her and took up her hair, removing the silver clasps and running his finger to undo the plaits. How he loved the feel of it on his hands -- like silk! When he had the braid undone, and her hair hung free, he pushed it to one side and bent to kiss the back of her neck, letting his warm breath tickle her skin.
Instead of her turning to meet his kiss, he felt her shoulders tense beneath his hands. "Just when exactly, Thranduil, did you propose to tell me about this plan of yours?"
Even in his surprise over the sudden change in her demeanor and the dangerous tone in her voice, Thranduil managed to hold back his first response: How did you know? He had never been able to keep anything from Oropher back in the old days. Why should things be any different with his wife now?
"The completion of the fortress is many years away. There will be time," he stammered.
Slowly she turned to face him. "And it never once occurred to you to ask me how I would feel about this?" Her grey eyes bored a hole through his chest. "Why, Thranduil?"
He waved a hand all round, ending up pointing toward the south. "Surely you know why. These woods are no longer safe. Orcs. Spiders. And that foul wight, whoever he is, whose tower profanes the summit of my old home." He had an idea, oh yes he did -- one that even he feared to give voice to. The dreams of something even worse -- of a great burning that consumed all he loved and had sworn to protect -- troubled his sleep with increasing frequency. "I didn't wish to lay such burdens on your shoulders, my love."
"I am not some fragile cowering thing in need of shelter from all storms. I am your queen and your help-meet these many long-years. If I have not your heart and your confidence, Thranduil, I am your harlot, not your wife."
"Lalaithiel!" he said, shocked to hear the low term coming from her lips. "I would never think of you thus!"
"Oh, no? You keep secrets from me. If I am nothing more than a decoration to grace your arm and your table and the throne beside you, I am little more to you than those kept women I am told the Edain use for their own comfort when their wives age and begin to pall."
"Be reasonable," he said. "The task fell to me to lead and protect us all, and I must be free to do it as I deem fit."
"You didn't even ask," she replied with increasing stridency. "You had no thought at all to my wishes in this matter. And now the work on the halls is well in hand; there is no turning back." She held up her hand as he tried to speak. "Thranduil, you cannot drag me far from my home and my family, to lock me below ground away from the fresh air and the sunlight, you simply cannot! I will die if you do that!"
And you will die -- we all will die -- if I do not, he almost shot back, but the edge of hysteria in her voice made the words stick in his throat. This was why he had dithered about telling her of his plan -- for fear of precisely this sort of reaction. Neither could he give voice to the nightmares about burning and destruction, and to the most disturbing of all -- a vision of him sobbing helplessly, crouched over a freshly turned patch of leaf-strewn earth. It would not happen. He would not let it happen.
"Lalaithiel, beloved," he said, reaching out to her, "let us talk of this tomorrow. Come to bed."
She batted his hand away. "Do not touch me, Thranduil. This is not some petty vexation you can smooth over by tupping me into complacency. Do . . . not!"
"Very well, have it your way," he said, finally becoming out of temper. If she would not see reason, he hadn't the energy to keep arguing about it. He shrugged off his robe, giving her a glimpse of . . . nothing at all, since the confrontation had left him feeling as if he'd been doused in cold water, and tossed it carelessly over the back of the nearest chair. He yanked back the bedcovers and slid naked between them. "Snuff the candles when you are through."
Thranduil pulled the covers up around his ears, turning towards his side of the bed and drawing his knees up to his chest. The room grew dark by increments as she extinguished the sconces at the dressing table and finally the one beside the bed. He felt the mattress settle beneath her weight.
Judging by the ragged breathing coming from the other side of the bed, Lalaithiel was having as hard a time as he was getting sleep to come. They lay curled back to back, no more than a hand span apart. Thranduil could almost feel the void between them as if it were a palpable thing, pulling at the base of his spine like a lodestone.
A small voice in his head said, turn to her, you fool, and make this right; don't let the night pass in wrath. But in his heart, he felt a deeper fear that anything he might say would stir things up further and make it worse, and each word he longed to say died at his lips.
Thranduil lay in the darkness in a miserable ball, sick at heart, until the visions finally carried him away.