Chapter 2 - Misunderstandings
"Oh! Help me out of this wretched armor, Elara!" Thranduil groaned the moment the door to his private apartment had closed behind the two of them. "It protects one from arrows and swords, but rubs the body in all the wrong places after many days on the back of a horse!"
"Where?" Elara moved closer. She'd helped him put the armor on before he left - tying some of the laces - and she felt across the metal-inlaid leather to find those laces again.
"You are pale," Thranduil said softly as they worked together to loosen the hold the armor had on him, "and you have lost weight. You have not been eating properly again."
"I missed you," Elara stated, ducking her face down and concentrating on feeling her way to untying the knots. "I called to you over and over again, and you didn't answer me anymore. I was frightened that…"
"I know," he replied and then shrugged off the chest plate beneath her hands and allowed it to slip to the floor. "Come here." He reached out to her and pulled her close to him and into a tight hug at last. "I am here, Elara, and I am going nowhere for a very long time.
"I was so worried," she said with a hitch in her voice, her arms slipping immediately around his waist and holding him back. "I thought..."
"I knew you would fret," he answered, his lips in her hair, "but there was no alternative." He took a deep breath. "You should know that I am well now, but there was one battle where I almost did not survive. Warg riders broke through the line of our archers, and..."
"Oh!" Elara shuddered. "That was my nightmare - that warg riders had broken through the line. Randirion came to me and told me that you had fallen... that he alone had survived because he was close to Lord Celeborn's men..."
His arms tightened around her. "I did not fall, but I was badly hurt. That was our last battle - the one where the Enemy finally threw everything they had at us, and there were more of them than we expected. It took time for me to heal enough to sit my horse and begin the journey home." He was silent for a moment, and Elara knew that he could feel her trembling. "I did not expect you to know. If I had known of your fears and nightmares, I would have answered you at once, to set your mind at ease. Forgive me; I underestimated the strength of our bond."
"Míriel woke me from the nightmare a few days ago, and she explained to me that if you had truly fallen, I would have known it." Her hands twisted in the silk tunic that had protected his skin from the chafing leather. "Until then, I was so afraid that you wouldn't come back."
"I will always come back to you, Elara nîn," Thranduil's deep voice rumbled soothingly at her. "Always, in the evenings, my thoughts were with you, wishing I could hold you close in the night. I rest better when you are near; and now there will be no reason to pull me from your side again." Again he let a long silence fall between them, during which time each enjoyed the simple pleasure of holding the other again. Finally he sighed. "I suppose I need to bathe and change into more comfortable robes, and then see Tarion before the feast. There are commendations to be awarded this night that cannot be set aside."
"I am delaying you." Elara backed away immediately, only to be snatched close again.
"Come back here! I have looked forward to having you as a most pleasant distraction for quite a while now." He swayed back and forth slightly, as if calming a small child. "The feast will not start without me, and I think a King should be allowed a little time with his Lady after such a long absence."
She snuggled into the warm safety of his embrace. Still... "Shall I tell you how many times Tarion lectured me on the importance of duty, or how the higher the position of authority one holds, the more important it is not to shirk..."
"He would," Thranduil commented dryly. "Although Randirion always passed along glowing reports from Míriel of how diligent and hard-working you were, so I doubt that Tarion was giving you the lecture because you had tried to avoid your duties. Relax - I only intend to linger here a little longer and enjoy the peace and quiet with you before returning to my duties and allowing you to return to yours." He kissed the top of her head and continued more softly. "I have not yet told you how much I love you and have missed your company."
"I love you too," Elara said quietly, "and I missed you desperately."
"You will not let your health falter any further," he ordered her in a deliberate yet tender voice. "I forbid it."
"I will obey," she responded with a soft smile, "because you are here once more to keep me honest."
"This is good, for you know very well that the Elvenking is cruel and does not take it well when crossed. They say he is a tyrant."
"And proud of it too." Her smile grew broader with the repeat of an old and familiar source of private laughter between them.
"Definitely." Thranduil put a finger beneath her chin and lifted her face. "When it comes to protecting your health, I am most definitely willing to play the tyrant."
His kiss was as gentle and tender as it had ever been, and Elara rejoiced to feel the warmth of his embrace magnified as he gathered her close through their bond as well. He kissed both cheeks and then her eyelids. "Ai, Elara! We have so much to discuss that must wait until later. Forgive me for distressing you so. Promise me you will rest now and regain the roses in your cheeks."
"I will do whatever you ask of me," she sighed contentedly. He was home –Thranduil was home – and life seemed poised to right itself again.
The commendations ceremony took place prior to the feast, and Elara could feel the swell of pride as each name was called and the award presented. She beamed as Randirion was called to kneel before his King, knowing how proud Míriel must be of her husband for being the one to save the King's life. Elara promised herself that she would make an opportunity to thank him privately for his bravery.
At the meal, she picked at her food but at the first taste found it had once more regained its flavor, and so she needed no quiet pokes in the ribs from Thranduil to keep her nibbling until the small helpings were all gone. The conversation with the Avarren King held her spellbound, as tales of Ages long ago were spoken of between Thranduil and Borendor as if they had happened less than a year previously. The surprise came in discovering that Borendor was Míriel's uncle; and that it was he that had awakened in that mythical time by the shores of the long-lost lake.
Later, to the accompaniment of several of the Avarren warriors, who proved themselves very capable musicians, Borendor himself sang the story of the awakening of the Elves and of those first centuries to all who remained in the Hall. Elara leaned against Thranduil's arm, utterly captivated by the tale and the music weaving together so seamlessly that she could almost see the events happening before her eyes. She had heard the story before, told in poetry and song, but the immediacy in Borendor's voice pulled her in and made her understand all that happened.
Then, at last, Thranduil rose and pulled Elara with him. "Please continue to enjoy the hospitality of my Hall, Aran Borendor," he told the other Elven King, "but I believe my Lady and I are ready to retire for the evening."
Elara felt the movement as the Avarren King rose as well. "May the stars shine brightly upon you this night, my son," Borendor intoned almost formally, "and upon you, child of the edain. May you both dwell long and happily together beneath the leaves of your trees." A strong and long-fingered hand rested very briefly on the top of her head.
"Thank you," Elara said, putting her hand to her heart and bowing in the manner Míriel had once told her was a proper Elven farewell. Then Thranduil's arm about her shoulder drew her away.
"He called you 'my son?'" she wondered as they walked slowly toward the royal wing.
"He is my uncle by marriage, brother to Lalaith's father, who was King in those days. By tradition, he is the eldest of my household when he is present." Thranduil replied. "The Powers themselves must have aligned to put us together in this battle, for I had not anticipated his involvement with the cleansing. He explained many things to me that I did not understand before while I lay recovering from my wounds." His arm about her tightened. "And I must tell you of these things, for they are important to us."
"They must wait until we are alone, behind closed doors," the Elvenking told her solemnly. "Patience."
"How badly were you hurt?" she asked then. "Where?"
"It is fully healed, Elara nîn, nothing to worry about anymore," he reassured her.
"Honestly, it is healed - as are all the other wounds I have suffered over the Ages. Peace - I am well and whole." He pushed at a door and opened it. "Here we are."
"Your rooms or mine?" she queried, putting out a hand.
"Ours," he replied firmly. "I had your belongings moved here during the feast, for you shall be living here with me from now on. So there is no reason for you to go to your old suite - there is nothing for you there any longer."
"What?" Elara hesitated in shock. Before he had left, he had been most insistent that they maintain separate apartments for propriety's sake; even though nearly every night saw him entering her rooms and sharing the bed with her. His place was on top of the covers, with her tucked in warmly beneath them, wrapped in his arms with her head pillowed on his shoulder or chest. What had begun in Ithilien as mutual comfort had become a habit neither wanted to break.
"Come." His arm about her shoulder had not loosened, and he pulled her through the sitting room and in the direction she knew led to his bedroom. "We can speak of this more as we undress." After a few more steps, he stopped her and then lifted the circlet from her hair. "You looked very much like a proper Lady of Eryn Lasgalen this day, Elara."
"You're stalling," she stated flatly. "What's going on, that you would stop worrying about the propriety of it becoming known throughout the Hall that a married Elvenking and a widowed mortal woman live together and even sleep together every night?"
Thranduil sighed. "I was never worried," he then replied casually, walking across the room she knew to stow the circlet properly - more than likely along with his own. "I was merely being conscientious of the feelings of others - including you."
Perhaps he was right, Elara considered. She had never wanted to seem like she was trying for a position or privilege that she didn't deserve - and she most definitely was not the King's wife. "What has changed, then, that these things no longer are important?"
She heard him step toward her, and his gentle hands turned her and began working at the laces of her gown. "I told you," he replied, bending so close to her that his breath rippled across the back of her neck, leaving her wondering whether she had imagined the lightest brush of lips. "I spoke at length with Borendor, and many things that I never knew or understood were made plain."
Elara sniffed. "That tells me very little."
The moment the laces were loosened, he began removing the pins from her hair and letting her braids down. "Then I shall tell you a story that will bring all into clarity. A very long time ago, when I was very young in Doriath, my father decided he wanted a simpler life. He and his followers left Doriath before it fell and came to the Greenwood, where he founded an enclave in conjunction with some of Nandor and Evyrren in the area and eventually became the King. But his upbringing continued to reflect the way things were done in Doriath, where the laws and traditions of the Valar held sway because, although we were Sindar, we had had a Maia for a queen. And while I have not felt the need to be bound by those laws and traditions to a great extent, some of them reflect Sindarin ideals as well, so I have not openly broken with them."
His fingers began loosening the braids. "When Lalaith died, I assumed that she would have gone to Mandos' Halls and then been reborn in Aman. It never occurred to me to think otherwise. What I did not know was..."
"You mean she didn't?" Elara turned toward him, only to be gently turned away again so that Thranduil could continue his task.
"No; I have recently learned she did not," he answered simply. "When I thought I was speaking to her in Aman through our bond, I was speaking to her houseless faer, which had remained close to me to offer comfort. She did not answer Mandos' call, because she knew my oath to her father meant I would never be able to go West; so she chose the fate of her kin: to stay near and comfort the living for a time, and then fade and join with the spirit of the wood, even as I will eventually. But my grief was great - my need for her comfort even greater - and so she stayed close for a very long time; far longer than most remain. And she did not tell me of what she had done because she knew I took comfort in the thought that she lived once more in Aman, especially after I learned of my son's Sea Longing. I was glad that at least he would have one of us with him there, too."
"What does this have to do with..."
"Patience," he soothed, his hands gathering her hair together and loosely braiding it into a single plait. "Do you remember, long ago, when I told you that her voice in my mind was beginning to fade?"
"Yes," Elara answered. "Why?"
"Because there was a reason for it. Borendor told me that Lalaith had most likely seen you come into the Hall - seen that I found your company more than just intriguing - and knew that my need for her was coming to an end. She could finally rest. I did not entirely believe him, so I reached out to her once more - and she told me that he told the truth. Her time with me was over, and I would no longer be able to reach her again. Her voice in my mind was so very soft, and I know I will never hear it again." Finished at last, he stepped in front of her in time to thumb away tears. "What is this?"
"You have lost her all over again," Elara replied softly. "I'm so sorry."
"No, no! Weep not for me!" He gathered her into his arms. "We said our farewells, something she knew that I needed to do before she faded away again; but ours was not a painful parting. I know she is here, in Eryn Lasgalen, as part of the spirit of the Greenwood that has touched you and spoken to you. You know of what I speak."
Elara nodded against his chest. The Greenwood was an entity of great grandeur and incomprehensible depth; it had revealed itself to her once in a glimpse that still amazed and confused her.
Thranduil continued, "Borendor also told me that it is not unusual for an Avar whose mate dies to eventually learn to love another, perhaps even to marry again; that such a thing is considered normal and unremarkable. Death, to an Avar, ends the oath that cleaves husband to wife."
Elara grew very still. "What are you saying?"
One of the Elvenking's arms remained around her, holding her to him tightly; the other allowed his hand to begin to wander, to brush back wisps of hair from her face. "While I was recovering, I spoke to Borendor of you often. Eventually I admitted that I had become very fond of you, that I loved you. I thought I was confessing a wrong; instead, he laughed and told me to rejoice. Lalaith would not wish for me to live to the breaking of the world without the comfort of companionship and love, and that there was nothing standing in the way to prevent me from finding or loving another. He told me it was unfortunate that I had chosen to give my heart to a mortal, for our time together will be so brief; but that we should enjoy our time together to the fullest for as long as we are given to be together, and do so without guilt. Once Lalaith confirmed everything he had said, I promised myself that, the moment I returned to you, that was exactly what we would do."
"And so here we are." A finger beneath her chin lifted her face. "What Borendor gave to us, as we left the Hall just now, was the gift of his blessings on what will happen this night, Elara, if you are willing." He bent and kissed her cheek. "My sweet fíriel." He kissed her nose. "My gift." He kissed her other cheek. "My treasure." He brushed her lips very lightly with his. "Na vedui, meleth nîn!" And then his lips captured hers in a kiss that began as softly and tenderly as always, but became slowly more insistent.
Stunned, Elara couldn't help but wonder if she hadn't fallen into one of her impossible dreams, where her Elvenking would move their relationship from the quiet and tender love that held no fire which they had shared for years now to something far more intense. His gentle tongue caressed her lips within the kiss, silently asking something of her she had no way of understanding. Timon had never done such a thing!
With one large hand cradling her head, he lifted his lips from hers and dragged them to her ear, dropping tiny, fiery kisses all the way. "Open to me, my love," he whispered in a deep and urgent tone, "and let me show you our way. Let me make you mine."
"Thranduil," she managed before he sealed her mouth with his again. Trustingly, she parted her lips, only to be amazed when his tongue very carefully ventured into the vault of her mouth, touching and stroking. He tasted of wine and the nut cakes that had been served for dessert, and she found the entire idea oddly arousing. She would have been quite happy to continue to investigate this new and intriguing way of kissing, an entirely new and pleasant intimacy, but that his hand had dropped to her shoulder and was now easing her gown and chemise down.
His lips soon followed, tracing kisses from behind her ear, which she discovered was very sensitive now, and down her neck. "Thranduil!" she tried again, finding her voice shaky and broken. "What are you doing?"
He lifted his head and chuckled at her. "I am doing exactly what you think I'm doing, meleth. What did you expect?"
Things were suddenly moving far too quickly, and she began to squirm. "But…"
She ought to have known better. When Thranduil wanted to hold onto her, there was no getting away from him. "Relax. All is well, is it not?" His hand had stopped pushing her dress down her arm, and he sounded amused.
"It is, but…"
His breath was hot in her ear. "Then what is the problem?"
Indeed, he was within his rights to ask her why she was complaining. Had she not dreamed of this many times? Her lack of a good answer for him gave him the opening he was obviously waiting for, and he began landing kisses on her neck and took her earlobe between gentle teeth and sucking on it. "I have waited for so long to be able to do this…"
Elara could feel her heart rushing from the way he was kissing her, touching her. It was making her feel as if she had run a great distance, And yet, she had to try to explain… "This is happening so fast, Thranduil. Please…"
"We have already had our long betrothal, Elara," he smoothed his hand down her cheek. "We have lived as husband and wife in all ways but one since before we returned from Ithilien. Quietly, yes, with great discretion, that the fact remains that, for all intents and purposes…"
"I know, but…"
He didn't allow her to continue, but pressed his lips to hers yet again, this time more firmly and his tongue swept and demanded entrance. At the same time his fingers resumed easing her gown even further from her shoulders with determined movements. When at last he broke the kiss to move to her neck, she finally gasped, "Thranduil! Stop!"
"What is it?" He nuzzled her hair while his hands fell to her waist and rocked her gently. "You have said that this is what you have always wanted. Have you changed your mind?"
"But?" She could hear the patience in his voice, and also heard that patience rapidly reaching its end.
She sighed and leaned into him, willing him to try to understand her. "To move from what we have had to…" Just how far had he intended to go? "I just want a mome…"
"There is no reason not to move on from what we have had before," he cajoled and dropped a kiss on the edge of her ear that made her shiver. "I am not married anymore… at least, not at this very instant. I intend to remedy that situation very soon, however…" His tongue traced the inner curve of her ear, and he pressed himself against her so that she could feel his desire for her.
"Don't I get a say…?"
She felt him hesitate, and then snort in what she knew was impatience. "You have said much over the years we have been together, my gift. I know that you want this as much as I do…" His fingers returned to her shoulders, and she knew that only one more small push would shift it to a point where Elara knew she would feel exposed. Vulnerable.
"I do, but…" she replied, trying to undo the damage he was doing to her state of attire. "Give me a moment, and…"
Now he did hesitate, and pulled back from her a little. "Why? What is going on here?"
"I would just like a moment to think…" Why, oh why, would he not listen to her? She caught at his hand and pulled it away from her gown. "Please!"
He stiffened. "Do you no longer wish my touch, is that it?" Oh, Elara thought, she was on dangerous ground! There was a definite hint of frustration and anger in his voice now, and she could feel his hold on her beginning to loosen.
"I didn't say that," she said in a rush.
"Is it then that you prefer that we limit ourselves only to what we have shared before?"
"Then be at peace, my gift." He gathered her close again and buried his nose in her hair. "The long days of our having to make do with half-way gestures is over." One hand cupped her jaw and he kissed her again, while the other settled to the small of her back and pressed her firmly against his hardness.
She wrenched her lips from his and began pushing at his chest. "Thranduil, please! Stop for a…" This determined man, intent on taking her to his bed and not at all listening to her, was a stranger. Where had her patient Elvenking gone?
With a growl he let go of her abruptly and put distance between them. "Do you have any idea what it has been like to dream of you night after night, ever since we began our return journey? I have ached to hold you, to love you the way you deserve. And now, when I offer you everything, you…"
"I have missed you too…"
His sniff of derision hurt. "Yes, you say you have missed me. But not enough to want to finish what we started in Ithilien, to accept my offer of m…"
"That isn't fair." Stung, she raised her head. "You have had all those days of travel to get yourself nicely worked up, so that when you finally arrived, all you can think of is to get me into your bed."
"Is that all you think I considered?" He sounded genuinely angry now.
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I have lived with you for how many years now? And you have told me endlessly that what we had would have to be enough – that there would never be passion between us. I have learned the limits to which you would allow us to go: which touches you would allow and which you would not, learned not to think beyond so that I can enjoy the happiness we have. And now, after being gone for the longest half a year I've ever spent in my life, you are suddenly back, lifting all the limits and changing everything I've ever known about living with you with a wave of your hand…" She put on her hip the hand not involved in holding her gown up. "Have you thought about how the rest of your people will take…"
His growl was almost frightening. "They will take this because it is my will, or they will pack and find another Elven enclave. How many times have I told you this before now?"
"But that was different!"
"Only to us!" he insisted, his voice sinking dangerously. "Those who do not know us, especially those who just happen to observe my leaving your rooms early in the morning, assume we have been lovers for a very long time. This merely…"
"Yes, and I have heard the whispers!" she snapped back. "My sight may be gone, but my hearing is very good. They accept me because you demand it of them, and because I have a good mind for keeping your people prepared for the winter. What will they say when you throw this in their faces?"
"They will say nothing, because they will not have any knowledge that things have changed except in one respect." His voice had that warning tone that it got before an explosion.
"Are you ashamed of being with me? Is that it?"
"If I were ashamed of being with you, I would never have allowed you to sleep with me in the first place, however innocently!"
"Why did you then?" He was almost shouting.
"Because you wanted to be there, and because I wanted you there too." Why wasn't he listening to her?
"You allowed me into your bed, allowed me to hold you close in the night, but now do not wish me to make love to you or claim you as my own. Is that correct?" He wasn't shouting anymore, but his voice had taken on a cold tone that she'd never heard before from him.
"It isn't that I don't want…"
"Yes, or no?"
Stung again, she straightened her back. "It is not a yes or no question, Thranduil. I wish to be consulted in the process, not taken for…"
"What, in the name of every spirit and tree, do you think I have been doing for the last few minutes?" he shouted again.
She shrugged her chemise and gown back up securely onto her shoulder. The last thing she wanted at this moment in time was to be undressed. "Still taking my agreement for granted," she said, finally letting her own temper loose a bit, "and throwing a fit when I do not simply tumble into your bed on demand."
Elara heard the scuff of his slippers as he moved rapidly about the room – probably pacing, she decided. "We have spoken often enough about what we wanted when I believed it to be impossible. I did not think we would have to go over that ground again, especially since the situation has changed. Obviously, I misjudged your response, and you have no interest after all in what I am offering you."
She heard a sound she hadn't expected: the door to his apartment opening. "Thranduil?" Hands out, she felt her way across the bedchamber and then across the sitting room to the door. "Where are you going?"
"Lighting the fire for you in your chambers, my lady," came his reply in a cutting tone from a distance away. "I would not have you cold when you retire this night… alone."
Alone!! But he had just gotten back. "Thranduil…"
His hand closed on her arm in a grip that was tight but not quite bruising. "We are not having this discussion in the hallway. We are not having this discussion anymore at all. You have made your wishes plain, and I am merely abiding by them."
Now she was in tears. "Don't do this," she pleaded.
"This is not my doing, lady." With a hand to the small of her back, he nudged her into her old suite without making her trip. "I wish you good night." And with that, he pulled the door closed with a very final slam.
"Thranduil!" she cried out, utterly bereft. But he didn't come back. In fact, she heard the door to his chambers slam just moments later. Thranduil! Don't do this!
Stay out of my mind! his mental voice snarled at her, and then it was like the door that had linked them in that way was slammed shut as well.
She reached out for the familiar placement of furniture and sank into her favorite chair in front of the fire, not feeling the warmth at all. The wonderful welcome and all the joy of having him back had been snatched away. She didn't understand him at all, nor did she understand why the seemly endless patience with which he had always handled her had vanished so abruptly.
Her head fell into the palm of a hand propped up by the elbow on the arm of the chair, and the tears began to fall. This was worse than anything that had happened between them in Ithilien, or any of their previous spats since coming home. They had argued, yes; both of them had stubborn streaks and exercised them regularly with no small amount of heat. But never – not once – had he thrust her away from him in such a... a… final manner. This was utter abandonment, with no hope of reprieve.
In shock and unable to even conceive of what life would be like for her now, she cried until she had no more tears, and then leaned back in the chair and fell into a restless sleep haunted by snarling voices and the cold sound of doors slamming closed.