5. The Shadowed Hall
"By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not."
Song of Songs
Thranduil had hoped it all would blow over by morning. It did not. Outwardly, all seemed the same. Lalaithiel went about her days as usual. Her cool beauty graced the throne beside him, and she presided over his table with a smile as serene as it had been since the end of the previous Age. But at night they lay back to back, and the distance between their curled bodies grew as large as the bent sea that separated the Middle-lands forever from Aman. And the words that would heal the breach slipped further away from his helpless and muted tongue.
Work on the caverns continued apace. Chipping away at the solid rock went slowly, but Elves have nothing but time.
He was in conference with Nestalinde, discussing her newest treatment for spider-bites and the best means of disseminating them to healers in outlying areas, when the news reached him that orcs had made an attack on a settlement at the southernmost edges of the realm. Two were dead, and a border guard had gone missing.
Ignoring the breathless messenger, Thranduil watched his chief healer's face turn three shades paler and her left hand give an almost imperceptible twitch. Even though matters of security had nothing to do with healing, she spoke, breaking protocol. "They have him. You cannot let them . . ."
He nodded. "I know."
Thranduil insisted on leading the tracking party himself, over the usual grumbling by his general about how a king should not risk himself. Little mollified by Thranduil's customary explanation that a good ruler leads from the front rather than the rear, Magorion then insisted on coming along himself. And so did Galion, who clung to his wartime position as Thranduil's esquire with the tenacity of a dog snarling over a freshly tossed bone.
Thranduil was not the realm's best tracker. Neither was Magorion. They relied upon the woodcraft skills of one of the soldiers in the border patrol to pick up the clues of the missing guard's abduction and keep them on the trail once they had found it. Even so, orcs were pitifully easy to track, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake: trampled undergrowth, rude campsites littered with garbage and unburied feces, and corpses of small animals killed for the sport. Other signs, a few scraps of green cloth and blood that was red rather than black, confirmed that the orcs had the missing Silvan guard still alive, but Thranduil despaired of his fate.
They traveled southward, catching up to their quarry with each passing day, until one afternoon, while the trackers searched for signs of the broken trail, Thranduil realized the forest terrain about him was very familiar. The trees were different, but he knew the lie of the ridge and the valley beyond, having hunted in it many a time. He had made his first kill there, a three-point buck, as a stripling lad of less than forty summers.
"It's two ridges over," he whispered to Galion. "Amon Lanc. Our old home."
"I knew we were close," Magorion muttered nervously. "I swear, I can smell them."
Thranduil nodded, as a new plan entered his mind. "I'm going to have a look."
"My Lord, is this wise?"
Thranduil held back a sigh. When would his chief general realize that he was a seasoned ruler and not some green princeling new to the throne? "Not wise, perhaps, but necessary."
In truth, he could not have explained his reasoning adequately. He felt the normal desire to lay eyes again upon his boyhood home, and there was also the need to see for himself just what had become of it. But beyond that, Thranduil had begun to doubt himself over the past months, to wonder if his decision to uproot them all was an overreaction made out of unreasonable fear. Lalaithiel seemed to think so. "I wish to take the measure of this new enemy myself."
"Very well," said Magorion, laying his hand upon his sword hilt. "I will accompany you."
Galion nodded. "Let's go."
"Oh, no," Thranduil said. "I am going alone."
"I really must protest, Sire," Magorion said. "You must not take this risk."
"Must not, indeed?" Thranduil said with a wry smile. "I must do this, that much I know, but I will not put any of you into danger."
"My Lord, this area is teeming with orcs --" Magorion began.
Thranduil put up his hand. "Enough. I am your King," he said, keeping his voice low for safety, well aware that his general was probably right. He glanced quickly at Galion, who was staring at him with that 'crazy as his father' look of his. "I'll be safer on my own, rather than tramping through the woods with you two like a cursed processional. We might as well have a trumpeter blow a fanfare to announce our passage."
Galion shrugged. Magorion looked unhappy and muttered something Thranduil failed to hear and cared not to.
Thranduil nodded. "I will return."
He turned and made his way southward, moving silently through the forest as his father had taught him, becoming a squirrel among the boughs, a vole among the roots. Yet there were no squirrels or voles, and no birds sang. Even the trees seemed darkened and twisted, crying out in anguish to him as he passed, "Why did you desert us?"
Thranduil dropped to the ground and crawled on his elbows and knees, keeping his head low as he crested the final ridge. Although he had thought he had steeled himself for the changes in his old home, his first sight of what it had become caught him unprepared. The tower thrust up from the summit of the hill like a jagged finger flaunting an obscene gesture at the skies, and over him fell the same nameless gnawing fear that he had felt in Mordor when gazing upon Barad-dûr. Thranduil had always wondered if others in Gil-galad's besieging army had the same reaction, but he'd never quite had the courage to ask, merely keeping as much distance from the place as was possible during the siege proper and averting his eyes.
This was worse, though. Much worse. Thranduil let out a soft gasp and hugged the earth in terror as his gweth withered down to a shriveled stalk and his testicles did their best to hitch back up into his body. Even with the hateful sight gone, he felt in his mind the presence of a disembodied, lidless eye searching and burning. He dared not twitch a muscle or draw a breath lest the sound bring it down upon him.
He felt the presence, searching, probing, and underneath the curiosity, a malicious glee. He lay frozen, paralyzed. Soon they would come . . .
"Thranduil." A hand fell on his shoulder and his body gave a great jerk. Fortunately, he hadn't the breath to yell; it came out in a weak rush of air: "Ahhhh . . ."
"Thran, look alive," Galion's voice hissed. "I came to bring you back."
"You aren't supposed to be here," Thranduil managed to mutter, caught between annoyance that his orders had been disobeyed and relief that his valet had come to his rescue. Without the intervention he most likely would have lain there frozen until Ardhon Meth.
"Right. Neither should you be." Galion flicked a quick glance at the summit of Amon Lanc. "Nasty."
Was he really so unaffected? Thranduil wondered. Their eyes locked. Galion's insubordination would not be mentioned later, neither would the fact that his valet had found him quivering and sweating in mortal terror and on the verge of screaming like a maiden. This was the pact that had existed between them since their days together in the cradle.
Most importantly, Thranduil now knew exactly who had taken up residence in his woods; what he was dealing with.
"Please come, Sire," Galion whispered, falling back seamlessly into his servant role. "The scouts found something you must see."
He turned and left, not looking back.
The naked corpse of the missing guard hung transfixed against the broad trunk of an oak tree, his two hands above his head pinned by a single crude spear. They had plucked out both his eyes, and his genitals . . .
Thranduil turned quickly away. One of the trackers had already been violently ill into the undergrowth, and it was all he could do not to follow suit. He finally raised his head to see the thin-lipped faces of his general and the rest of his party. "Get him down from there," Thranduil said.
"They will know we were here if we do that," Magorion said.
"They know we're here already," Thranduil snapped back. "I will not leave him." The dead guard had been left as a chilling message, to mock him, Thranduil knew. The new master of Amon Lanc would let him go this time to skulk home with his tail between his legs, laughing at his impotence and enjoying the sick game of cat and mouse for a while longer.
As he watched his men go about the grim business of retrieving the body of their comrade, Thranduil tried to rid himself of the shameful feeling of relief that the death meant he would not have to make the choice between entering that horrid place and leaving one of his own behind.
They withdrew, silent and disheartened. They retrieved their horses at the southernmost settlement, telling the family of the slain guard, whose body had been given a decent burial once they had reached a spot far enough away from the taint of the tower, that he had died bravely in defense of the realm. Thranduil could only hope that it was true.
Even as the remainder of the tracking party rode northward, Thranduil was already making plans to order the southernmost of his folk to pull back north of the Men i Naugrim and to redouble the patrols along the now shrunken border. In a realm still lacking in manpower because of the grievous losses at the Dagorlad, assigning extra warriors to the patrols would mean fewer to work on the delving of the northern stronghold, but it could not be helped. In a small secret corner of his mind, Thranduil felt a measure of relief; a delay would put off the final confrontation with his wife, which he dreaded.
Even though he returned as he had set out, without his missing warrior, the mission had not been an utter failure. Thranduil was now completely assured of the rightness of his course. Amon Lanc, his boyhood home, belonged to the Enemy now, and that enemy meant to have the entire forest before it was through.
They rounded the final bend in the avenue of oaks and beeches leading up to the palace, and Thranduil's heart sank. For the first time since he had returned home from the war, indeed, in all their marriage, Lalaithiel was not there standing on the steps to meet him.
Lalaithiel awoke early, but not so early that Thranduil's side of the bed was not already empty. She slipped into a simple dress of muted forest hues, one that would suit her plans for the day. She bound her hair into a utilitarian plait, and, moving stealthily, she tiptoed past the open door to her husband's dressing room. He was in there, of course, with Galion, getting ready for the day.
Not for the first time, she shook her head, wondering why it was that a grown man needed someone to dress him and do his hair. She had never quite understood it from the very first days of her marriage to Thranduil, but she doubted she would be getting an answer anytime soon. Her husband's folk were strange and made no sense sometimes.
Today, she felt glad that Galion diverted Thranduil's attention. She knew her husband would not approve of what she planned to do, and she hadn't the energy for a confrontation. She made her way down the back stairway, to the side door the chambermaids used when they took the chamber pots out to the privies each morning. After that, it would be only a short trip across the yard to the shelter of the back wall of the stables and the woods beyond.
"I am not sneaking through my own house," she muttered to herself, although she was doing that very thing. If the sentry guards saw her, there would come the enquiries, politely couched of course: "Where are you going this morning, my Lady?" and "Do you not wish an escort, my Lady?" And when she told them no, equally politely but firmly -- she was the Queen, after all -- the poor fellows would have to deal with her husband's temper, which could be a fearsome thing if he found any of his subordinates to be remiss in their duty.
Lalaithiel was no fool. The forest held very real dangers, but nowhere near what her husband -- a very frightened man judging by the snatches of words she heard as he lay beside her at night trapped in the toils of his nightmares -- believed. Should she meet one of the Yrch, she had the ability of her folk to still her breathing and fade into the undergrowth, becoming nigh unto invisible. If worse came to worst, she could leap up into the trees and travel from branch to branch as easily as could a squirrel, a skill Thranduil had never been able to master while sober.
In the years since the poor valet's wife, Mistress Nínim, had died, the spiders had been hunted back. The foul things were too numerous to be eradicated entirely, but their nests were kept far away from the populated areas. If she did meet one, she carried on her belt the knife her father had given her at her coming of age and taught her to use.
She needed no guarded escort simply to pay a visit to her mother. Perhaps danger did indeed lie in the woods to the south, but it had not reached here. She thrust the next thought away quickly: at least not yet.
Even so, as she moved among the pines and let her feet take an upward course, leaving the more tended woods near the palace far behind, she noticed a new darkness among the trees, a chill in the air that belied the warmth of the bright autumn day. It was a chill more of the spirit than of the body.
A strand of old spider web, its inhabitant long dead, hung down across the trail, and it brushed her face as she passed, soft as silk. The stickiness was long gone; it felt almost pleasant. Lalaithiel noted this with surprise and thought, 'Hmmm . . .' but put the thought away for later. She had reached her destination.
The huts stood clustered about a clearing, almost fading into the surrounding greenery unless one knew where to look. The huge tree at the edge of the common area, the one Thranduil had fallen from on the first day of their marriage, much to the amusement of her father and brother, had grown old and died, being replaced by a sapling that grew to ruinous old age and was superseded by yet another. Change happened so slowly that she barely noticed it -- until now.
She found her mother kneeling on a hide blanket, hulling an apron-load of walnuts. They were the best nuts, yielding a bountiful supply of flavorful meat once cracked, but the hulls were as great a prize for their deep brown dye.
Without a word, she sank down beside her mother and set to stripping, the glistening nuts going in one pile for drying and later picking, the green hulls to another. Her mother turned to her with a raised eyebrow, and Lalaithiel shook her head. Yes, her hands would be stained, a dark brown stain that resisted even the strongest soap, but her husband's people had long since learned not to remark upon the foibles of their Queen.
After a while, Lalaithiel spoke first. "You know what he means to do?"
"How could we not? The talk is all over the woods of the vast delvings in the north -- and of the troubles in the south."
"What am I to do, Amèh?" she said, her voice sounding small and childlike in her own ears. "He means to take me away from all of this. He means to take everyone."
A long silence passed, her mother's face creased in painful thought as the hulls dropped onto the pile, one by one. "Dach-nai," she finally said, using Lalaithiel's spirit name, the secret name reserved for only the most private and solemn of occasions, "as my daughter, your fate was never to be commonplace, nor your path an easy one. I knew this as I made you, and I knew it as I gave birth to you. My mother must have known the same as she brought me into this world, as must her mother before her. I had no choice -- if I were to spare you, you would never be. This is our lot. And now it begins."
"It has already begun, Amèh," she murmured. Indeed, it had begun in the early days of their marriage, upon his return from the war, tired, frightened and wounded in spirit. "He can't . . . he can't even give me a baby."
The line of her mother's lips hardened, as if she had just experienced one of her glimpses of the future. "Perhaps that is just as well. You never know what fate will bring." Three more hulls fell onto the pile. Plop, plop, plop. "My dear little girl, think on this. Why did you choose him -- other than he's a pretty thing to look at?"
It popped out without a thought. "He's strong." And indeed he was. Even now, Thranduil was like a force of nature, the rain that sets the rivers rushing down the mountainsides in a froth of white water, the gust of wind in a summer storm that knocks a tree flat. When set on something, he was unstoppable.
Nîwel raised an eyebrow and then gave a knowing nod. "And strong men do not tame easily, nor would we want them to. We choose them for their strength, to lead us and to make the hard decisions. How can we complain when they do that very thing?"
"Amèh, I cannot! I cannot leave these woods, these mountains -- everything I have ever known. I cannot leave you!"
"That is what I said to your father when he decreed we would leave the Waters of Awakening. I could not face the loss of the land of my birth, no matter how sorely it had changed. I could not face leaving my parents behind, for I knew they would never journey with us, any more than they would set out with the others, back before the sun rose and we had only the stars to light us."
Lalaithiel stared at her mother in surprise. She knew her parents had come from the east, long-years before her birth, but this part of the story she had not heard before. "What happened?"
The pile of fat green nuts in their plump shells waiting to be hulled had dwindled to none as the two of them worked. Her mother wiped her brown-stained hands on a piece of cloth and smiled sadly. "We are here, are we not?"
Lalaithiel helped her mother carry the two separate piles of hulls and nuts into the hut and then bade her goodbye. Instead of heading for home, she let her feet carry her to a clearing in the forest, their clearing. The bower of pine branches that Thranduil had built with his own hands and filled with seasonal blossoms, the special place where they had sat during their courtship, lay long fallen, melted into the earth. Here they had begun their marriage.
She sat on a rock beside a pool, alone with her thoughts. Here was the very pool she had crouched in on a summer day so many long-years ago, taking a quick bath in the heat. She had heard a crashing in the woods, and a stag bounded through the clearing, followed by a young elf-man, his bright hair of an impossible gold flying out behind him and his skin glistening with the sweat of the chase. He skidded to a stop, and the stag ran on, forgotten.
He stared at her, his chest rising and falling with the remnants of exertion. She felt her breath quickening too. "Will you hand me my dress?" she said, nodding to the garment hanging over a nearby branch.
She watched as a slow smile bloomed on his face. "And what if I don't?"
She held back a mischievous laugh, the laugh that was later to earn her the lover-name of Lalaithiel. "Then I suppose I'll have to get it myself." Slowly she stood, letting the water cascade from her body. His mouth fell slightly open, his breathing stopped, and in those gem-bright blue eyes of his, she saw the look of a man whose heart was no longer his own. Nor was hers.
Lalaithiel, no longer a simple forest girl but a queen, sat alone in the woods now darkening with the taint from the south. She had lied to her mother. She had not married Thranduil for his strength, although strong he was, and stubborn too. She, alone, knew how sadly his strength was tested as she listened to him mutter in the night and held him when he woke and watched as the tiny lines of fear began to mar his smooth, untroubled skin.
She had been seduced by the reflection of herself in his eyes, an image of impossible beauty and perfection. He adored her. How could she resist returning that love?
She looked down onto the still surface of the pool and saw staring back up at her only an ordinary elf-woman, sad, tired, and a little frightened.
Lalaithiel, no laughter left within her, began to weep, and her tears mixed with the waters of the pool.
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.