1. Under the Forest Eaves
Thranduil Oropherion dismissed his valet, blew out his candle and shrugged out of his dressing gown. "I feel the weight of every one of my years," he sighed as he slipped beneath his covers. He did not think sleep would come very soon tonight.
The three Middle-days between the months of Iavas and Narbeleth had traditionally been a merry time for the Silvan people. With the harvest over and whatever foodstuffs the forest had to offer stored away for the winter, it was an opportunity to relax and reflect on the past year and to remember those who had passed from this world into the next. There were some among the Laegren folk who believed that at this time of year the veil between the worlds grew thin and the faer of the Houseless might return to visit the haunts of their living days.
Thranduil, with so many lost to him, had always been more solemn at this time than most, but he had always enjoyed the feasting and the drinking and the swapping of tales around the bonfires, especially when his son was young and viewed each year with wide-eyed wonder. Now that Legolas was gone, sailed into the West a long-year past, the holiday seemed bittersweet indeed.
This year the celebration lay under a pall. A little girl had gone missing from one of the eastern settlements. A precious Elven child.
Every child was, of course, precious, but to the people of Eryn Lasgalen, they were a rarity as well. Thranduil was not entirely sure why this should be. It was not in the nature of Elves to breed indiscriminately like the Second-born, but Thranduil's realm seemed to labor under an extra handicap despite their need to rebuild the population after their disastrous losses at the Dagorlad. Perhaps it was a lingering sadness from the deaths of so many husbands, fathers, brothers and sons that weakened the spirit of those left alive. Perhaps it was the strain of first living under the Shadow in the Wood, and now in a world that increasingly passed them by, that sapped the strength of his people. Perhaps, and Thranduil was loath to admit this, it was some flaw in himself, for surely he had waited the longest of all to know the joys of parenthood. But Thranduil's folk greeted each child born to them as the most joyous of miracles.
There had been a time, not so long ago, that to preserve this most precious of resources Thranduil had decreed that every family with a young child must come and live within the safety of his fortress until the young one attained majority. But with the defeat of Sauron and the final razing of Dol Guldur he had set this policy aside. It seemed harsh to uproot a family's entire life and to shut a child within stone walls, away from sunlight and green leaves.
Now, lying and waiting for sleep to claim him, Thranduil wondered if he had been hasty, for even in this time of supposed peace little Eirien, a child of one of the Laegren foresters who dwelt in the telain near the river, had come to some mischance, going out to play two days ago and not returning for her midday meal.
There had been no orcs in the woods for close to two ennin. The spiders, kept confined now to their own sector, had dwindled to a size where they would be of no danger to anyone, not even a child. Search parties still combed the woods, but Thranduil's wardens opined, well out of earshot of the frantic parents, that the girl had most likely fallen into the Forest River and been swept away. Thranduil still clung to the hope that she had become lost and would turn up dirty and hungry, having spent her nights curled in some bush. But with each passing day his optimism seemed more and more misplaced.
No one had seen the child, not even the group of Woodmen who lived in a modestly-sized cluster of huts too small to be called a village just under the eastern eaves of the forest. In point of fact, this area belonged to Thranduil's realm. His councilors muttered unhappily about allowing squatters, but, in fond memory of an adaneth and her husband who had added joy to his young son's life, Thranduil tolerated them. For the moment, they were harmless.
Even if the girl had fallen into the river, some hope might remain. The river had returned what it had taken, once. The river . . . Thranduil let his mind drift out to it, visualizing its steep banks, hearing the rush of its swift current.
He walked along the path that headed eastward to Dale and Laketown, enjoying the sensation of the dappled sunlight on his face and feeling young and carefree for a rare moment. From up ahead came the tinkling laughter of a child, and he spied a flash of flaxen hair as a small hand reached out to chase after a black butterfly. "Look, Ada!" The small face turned to him, revealing a smile of delight. Legolas . . .
He turned to see a dark-haired elf-man, clad in austere shades of green and brown, standing among the trees.
"Thara-ndhul, you must awaken."
The sunlight faded, along with Thranduil's smile, as he returned to the darkness of his bedchamber. He had not even noticed when he slipped into dreams.
"Thara-ndhul." The tall figure remained, standing at the foot of his bed, his features still visible despite the gloom -- a face Thranduil had not seen for over an Age.
"Tûron . . .?" Thranduil startled and pulled himself back up against the knobby surface of his carved wooden headboard. His guards should have kept any stranger from entering his private quarters at this time of night. How . . .?
And then he saw the faint glow of his dying fire -- directly through the tall figure's mid-section.
"Oh, Hîr Adar," Thranduil whispered. "No . . ."
He had hoped -- oh how he had hoped! -- that his wife's father still lived, hidden somewhere among the secret glens of the Emyn Duir. He knew that many of the Evair remained there yet, preferring their wild freedom to safety. The decision to leave them behind when the shadow of Dol Guldur had forced him northward had cost him much grief.
He wanted to ask how and when his wife's father had met his end, but the words stuck in his throat. Instead he said, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be, son. You did what you had to do. As did I. The world of the Houseless is not too bad once you get used to it. I found it rather relaxing, once that annoying fellow in the West -- what do your people call him, Gwî, is it? -- realized I had no intention of answering his summons and ceased his Call."
"So . . ." Thranduil began and then trailed off, at a loss for words. The rules of polite conversation did not apply here. Enquiring after the health of a dead man seemed too odd even for the Dead Days.
"Forgive me for disturbing your rest, son, but there is someone I must show you." Before the choice of words -- someone rather than something -- had a chance to register, Tûron made a beckoning motion and a small figure, clad in the brown homespun shift his Laegren folk favored for their children of both sexes, materialized out of the shadows at the corner of the room.
Thranduil felt his heart sink. Her rounded face had the same combination of innocence and baby-sweetness that Legolas had possessed at that age. When she stood beside Tûron, timidly clutching his hand, the glow of Thranduil's hearth showed through her body, precisely at forehead level.
"I found her wandering lost and confused in the woods," Tûron said. "I brought her here to you."
Thranduil swallowed hard, working helplessly at a large lump that had formed in his throat. Tonight was a night for shattered hopes. "What can I do?"
"She needs a decent burial and to make sure her parents know what became of her."
"Eirien," Thranduil said gently, "what happened to you?"
The little girl let out a whimper and buried her face against Tûron's leg.
"She's terrified," Tûron said, and in response, Eirien raised a thin arm and pointed in the direction of the east. "She'll just have to show us. Will you come?"
Thranduil nodded. Keeping a sheet around himself for modesty, even in front of the dead, he rose and dressed himself in the sort of simple clothing he usually wore to go hunting. He crept silently through the corridors of his own palace, with only a wave of his hand to reassure the guards, who were by now used to his wakefulness and nighttime prowling. In the stables he saddled his horse without bothering to wake the sleeping grooms. As he tugged the final knot tight on the girth strap, he looked over to find the shade of Tûron staring at him with a half-smile of amusement.
Tûron's grin deepened.
"Hîr Adar," Thranduil sighed, "I think you might be surprised to learn how much I can do for myself. The servants, the gems, the ceremony -- they're all for show. I was a prince; now I'm the King. I must maintain the illusion."
The old Avar shook his head. "Your people are passing odd, Thara-ndhul."
Thranduil set Eirien on the saddle in front of him, and together they rode eastward through the night. In the woods beside them ran a black stag whose hooves made no sound in the drifts of autumn leaves. The child's cold hand on his forearm served as his only guide. It felt like ice.
They passed the easternmost huts of his people without pausing. They rode on until they came to the settlement of Men at the edges of the forest. Only then did Eirien clasp his wrist with her cold hand and whisper, "Stop."
Thranduil dismounted and lifted the child down after him. He turned to find Tûron at his side. They stood at the edge of a clearing that contained a rough hut and another larger building that gave off the tangy smell of heated iron. "He used to let me help," Eirien said, making an up and down motion with her arms, like pumping a bellows.
"This is the village forge," Tûron said quietly. "Their blacksmith."
Thranduil nodded. Skilled metal workers were hard to come by among the Men, and the people of a settlement might be inclined to overlook the eccentricities of a valuable artisan.
"He was nice," the little girl said. "And then he . . . was not nice."
She took Thranduil's hand in her icy grip and led him to a hidden spot back among the trees. She pointed to a spot where the earth was freshly turned beneath its sparse covering of fallen leaves.
Thranduil gathered her up into his arms and laid his cheek against hers, his warm tears mingling with her cold ones. He cast a quick glance at Tûron, whose face looked equally somber.
"You are her King, Thara-ndhul. If she is to have justice, yours is the hand that must deal it."
Thranduil set Erien down and nodded. "So be it. Wait here until my return."
Thranduil returned a short time later wearing a grim face. "It is done," he told Turon. "From this day forward, he will never harm another child."
"He keeps calling," Eirien said. "Make him stop."
Thranduil turned to the little girl. "Who, little one?"
"The dark man, in the west. I'm afraid."
Exchanging a quick glance with Tûron, Thranduil knelt in the leaves, bringing his face level with the little girl's. "You must answer him, child. You need not fear. Go now; follow the call. Your faer will find the way."
"Are you sure?"
"Very sure," Thranduil said. "He means you well. You will find rest and healing in his Halls and you will live anew. Now, go."
Eirien smiled and laid a cold kiss on Thranduil's brow; then she did the same with Tûron before turning to the west. Her faer brightened for a moment and dissolved like a puff of fog.
Thranduil turned to his wife's father. "I hope I told her the truth."
"I told you once that the burden would grow bitter in time. And none would come to lift it from you."
"I would not have it any other way," Thranduil said, with a rueful smile. "You should go with her, you know."
Tûron shook his ghostly head. "I will not leave these woods. My traveling days are through."
"Stubborn old man."
"You're a fine one to talk."
Thranduil laughed. "Navaer, Hîr Adar."
"Until our next meeting, son," Tûron replied. He turned and melted into the forest, as the first fingers of dawn pierced the eastern sky.
It was past mid-morning when a woman with a pot that needed mending found only a cold forge and went to seek the blacksmith in his hut. She discovered him still lying in his bed, the left side of his face hanging slack and the limbs on that side of his body useless. He managed to slur out, "The pale king . . . he touched me . . ." before falling silent and giving up the ghost. The hair on his head, a dark chestnut brown the night before, had turned completely white.
In the process of clearing out his hut, the horrified villagers found the clothing and other pitiful effects of children who had gone missing over the past two decades and had been believed lost to the river or wild beasts in the forest. Hidden in the trees out back, they found five small graves of varying ages. The fifth, and most recent, lay open, its sad contents gone.
In the days and weeks that followed, the people of the settlement began to lock and shutter their windows at night. Already, several huts stood empty, abandoned by their inhabitants, who had muttered about unquiet dreams that troubled them as they lay on their narrow pallets. The forest, once a place of warmth and emerald light, had become haunted and sinister.
And as autumn wore down into winter, an Elf-man and woman traveled west, hurrying to beat the first snows before they closed the High Pass in the Hithlaeglir, seeking the Havens and their lost one in the Undying Lands. At night, a black stag ran, solitary, beneath the boughs of the dormant trees. And Thranduil Oropherion slept the untroubled sleep of the just.