The Return of the King
Chapter One: Homecoming
" . . . Thranduil his son survived, but when the war ended and Sauron was slain (as it seemed) he led back home barely a third of the army that had marched to war."
JRR Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales
No laurels greeted him, no garlands of flowers, no songs of praise. The only sounds were the creak of leather from the saddle beneath him, the footfalls of his mount on the rising trail, and the muffled tramp of marching feet in the damp leaf-mould. It seemed to him that an ever greater silence fell as he passed those of his people who lined the way. The look of joyous expectation faded from their faces when they took in the sadly lessened train of soldiers behind him, only one out of three who had set forth seven years before. The trees themselves fell silent, their limbs and foliage ceasing the autumnal rustle in tribute to the fallen.
The King is dead, long live the King. Thranduil Oropherion had come home.
In the early days, Oropher's palace on the summit of Amon Lanc had commanded the forest for miles around, announcing grandly, "Here I am!" This dwelling in the western glens of the Emyn Duir was the third his father had built as his distaste for certain neighbors had driven them ever northward. It lay tucked between the steep sides of mountains that rose on either hand, like the head of a lover nestling between the breasts of a woman.
This train of thought put him in mind of his wife. Lalaithiel's breasts, barely large enough to fill his cupped hand, were not the sort one could nestle between, yet he wanted nothing more than to lay his head next to her heart and forget his sadness. During their married life they had been apart far longer than they had been together. He remembered the first year of their marriage as a honeyed time, made bittersweet with the knowledge that he would soon be called away, perhaps never to return. Instead, he was the one riding homeward while so many stayed behind to molder in the poisoned soil of Mordor.
A final twist of the path brought the palace in sight, a seemingly haphazard yet harmonious collection of multi-story wings that branched off up the hillside and looked as if they had grown out of the earth itself. There, at the top of a short flight of flagstone steps, Lalaithiel stood waiting, flanked by her father on one side and Oropher's seneschal, Helegui, on the other. Only a slight stiffness of posture betrayed her apprehension.
When their eyes met, she brightened with relief, her arms reaching toward him and her lips moving silently in the shape of his name. Hang princely dignity, Thranduil thought. What good was it being the King if he could not do as he pleased when his heart moved him? He urged his horse into a canter, rushing out ahead of his retinue of nobles. He brought his horse to a skidding stop and threw one leg over its neck to drop to the ground. He took the low flight of steps in a bound and swept her into his arms.
The sensation of her body, soft and pliant against him, and the woodsy scent of her hair in his nostrils was like a healing balm, and he felt the strength flow back into him as he held her. His spirits raised and his gweth along with them. "I'm not even going to take off my boots first," he whispered huskily and felt her shiver with the promise.
"You are all right, my love?" she asked, pulling back and searching his face. "You are uninjured?"
He could only nod silently, as her fingers found the little notch in his ear, almost completely healed now, where an arrow had clipped him.
"My lord. My lord?" The voice of the seneschal brought him back to reality. "My lord Thranduil . . . the King?"
Thranduil pulled himself away from Lalaithiel's gaze. "My father fell in battle during the early days. I am sorry, Helegui, we . . ."
A loud cry from the courtyard below interrupted him. He turned to see his esquire holding his weeping wife. Galion stood stolidly, his face an expressionless mask, while Nínim, his helpmeet for the better part of an Age and the mother of his children, a boy and two girls, beat her delicate fists against his shoulders and wailed out her helpless grief.
"Galion's son was killed in that same battle. Our losses were great, Helegui. Too many . . . far too many." Thranduil looked away, pretending not to notice the expression that came over the seneschal's face at the realization that the former prince was now his sovereign.
Lalaithiel stared up at him, her pale grey eyes glittering with unshed tears. Thranduil thought of all the women who would lie alone weeping that night, of all the families bereft, and he felt ashamed of himself for being so thoughtlessly eager to dally with his wife.
"Thara-ndhul." Tûron's voice came in a whisper, soft yet urgent.
Thranduil turned to his wife's father. "Yes, Hîr Adar?"
"The road ahead of you is a long one, your burden heavy. Take your ease where and when you may, find your healing, and do not begrudge yourself." When Thranduil hesitated, Tûron smiled. "Go on, son. She has missed you."
Thranduil sensed that Helegui stiffened behind him, and he did not have to look to see that the man's lips pursed in disapproval. As he rode in, Thranduil had noticed the telltale postures of the three of them, how Lalaithiel leaned close to her father and how Helegui stood rigidly, his body turned subtly away from the other two, but in his hurry to embrace his wife he had thrust the thought aside.
'This means trouble,' he told himself, but Tûron was right: now was the time for rest and renewal. Tomorrow would come soon enough, and all the endless days after that, to deal with the mess.
He turned to the assembled army in the courtyard. "I will speak to you all on the morrow. Meanwhile, tonight we rest. Dismissed!"
He put his arm around Lalaithiel and led her inside.
* * *
To be continued . . .
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.