10. The Dream of Life
"The water is wide, I can't cross o'er,
Yet I've no wings that I might fly.
I have no boat that will carry two . . ."
Traditional English Folksong
She awoke from poppy-fueled dreams of pine-scented mountain glens and an airy palace among the trees. It seemed she had lain in that room for months, one day blurring into the next, dimly aware of the healers who came to tend her. She recalled Nestalinde's kind face, and the sound of Thranduil singing their favorite songs to soothe her when the pain became too bad. "I will build my love a bower, by yon free-flowing fountain; and inside it I shall pile all the flowers from the mountain . . ."
Had it turned to summer already? The window -- her window that she had insisted upon when Thranduil brought them all north from the Emyn Duir to dwell safely underground -- stood open and the breeze blowing in through the heavy grille that kept the spiders out in the old days was warm; the light the reddish glow of sunset.
She fought to bring her eyes into focus, and saw, at first, a flash of gold and a splash of red. Thranduil stood at the chest of drawers on the far wall, bent over a vase of scarlet flowers . 'He looks haggard,' she thought, for his fair face was marred with tiny lines of sorrow. 'When is the last time he left this room?'
Sensing her gaze upon him, he glanced up and smiled. "Look, beloved," he said. "Galion has brought you roses."
Roses grew in only one place in Mirkwood, their private garden. 'Dear Galion,' she thought, always so quietly perceptive. He knew that of the three bushes brought from Ithilien, the red was her favorite, for its vibrant color and scent reminded her of her lord.
"I know your face." Her voice sounded thin and reedy to her own ears.
"Of course you do, my darling," he said, as if gently humoring her. "I am your Thranduil."
"No, you great royal fool -- I know you."
Upon hearing those words, he became very still and whipped his head round to peer at her intently. "There was only one who ever called me that; only one who knew she called me that, other than myself. My wife . . . Lalaithiel." The artificial cheer left his face and he looked at her with dawning hope. "Can it be, after all this time? Lalaithiel . . .?"
He rushed to her, knelt by the side of the bed and took her hand. "A, Lalaithiel, herves vuin, na vedui!"
As he brought her hand to his lips, she saw that it was pale, the bones and veins showing through the skin, more like a bird claw than the hand she remembered. 'What have I become in this Mortal flesh?'
"I have waited so long for you to call me by that name and to know me at last," he said, kissing her hand fervently. "Ever since that first day on the road outside of Esgaroth, when I looked into a pair of brown eyes and saw two moonstones staring back at me."
"You knew me from that moment?" she whispered.
"You and I are mates. Our faer are bound until the end of all things. How could I not know you?" he said. "You have no idea how hard it was for me not to snatch you up from the dirt and take you in my arms then and there. And yet you did not recognise me. I thought, that first night, when you came to me, but . . ." He shook his head helplessly.
"My heart knew you, Thranduil, even when my conscious mind did not. I was drawn to you, against all wisdom and logic. And I stayed with you, and loved you, despite your people thinking you a madman and me a trollop."
"I could not give two shouts in a high wind what my people thought of me. My vows to you were sworn before Eru, and only the One has the right to judge me -- no one else. But for you, it pained me to have my wife and rightful queen seen that way."
"Tell me, were there any among them who knew the truth?"
"Galion. I told him that first morning to save my own skin," he said, with a rueful laugh. "He has borne much from me throughout the years, but even he would not allow me to debauch a Mortal maid for my own pleasure. We almost came to blows over it, my good Galion and I. You have had a champion in him from that first day. It was he who told me it was a cruelty to take you from the only folk you had known, to live a life where you would be seen as a scandal. And he spoke true. Every slight to you has cut me like a knife. But you were my wife, and how, having found you again, could I not take you to me as before? How could I leave you among the Edain?"
He looked at her beseechingly, and she saw that one of his braids had come loose. How unlike him it was to be unkempt, and she realized that her situation must have come to a sorry pass for him to neglect himself in this manner, or to keep Galion from it. "Were there any others?"
"Nestalinde. She knew you right away, and she confirmed what I already feared: that were I to inform you of your true name and nature before you recalled it on your own, the shock to your faer might well drive you into madness or worse. I was betwixt Balrog and precipice; I must either be seen to be taking you, my own wife, as my mistress, or tell all and risk your sanity."
"There was one other about whose opinion you cared," she said. "Legolas. Did you tell him, my love?"
Thranduil shook his head slowly. "Tell our son that the mother he had never known now stood before him and yet remembered him not? It would have been cruel. Even worse, I knew that I might use you as a weapon to influence him to stay. I will not say that I was not tempted, but in the end I could not."
Thranduil looked down into his hands and took a slow breath. "I told him merely that I loved you and made no apology. He replied that he was eccentric enough in his own friendships that he was hardly one to judge me and that if I loved you, you must be worthy of it."
She laughed softly, even though it sent a wave of pain through her. "You raised him well, Thranduil. Our son is decent, gentle, and kind."
"And gone too soon. At our last meeting, he told me he had come to love you for yourself, and that I should treat you well." He looked back up at her, his face twisted with an old memory. "And what did I do then? I got drunk and . . ."
"You called me by my name that night. In the extremis of your grief and your pain, you almost let it slip." She could not help smiling at the irony of it. "To think I spent the last thirty years feeling jealous of a woman who turned out to be myself. It would seem the Belain have a sense of humor after all."
"I fail to see the humor in it," Thranduil sighed. "Why now, love? Why, after all these years?"
"I am nearing the end. My ties to this body are growing weak. Only now can I see past the veil of this mortal flesh."
His face clouded then. "Lalaithiel, wife, I fear to ask you, but I must; how is it you come to me as a Mortal woman? You did not steal a body. . . ?"
"I love you, Thranduil," she said, shaking her head. "I would claw my way back from the very Halls of Mandos to be at your side. But I would never do harm to another."
"Then how . . .?"
"I did not answer the Call," she said quickly. "When I passed from life, your grief was so great that I hovered near you, but I could not give you ease. I was with you, my love, when you took my body to the Emyn Duir and made me a secret grave in our glen. I watched while you laid me to rest and wept. I feared for you then."
Thranduil bit his lip and looked away. "I feared for myself. But I could not give in to grief. I had our son, and he needed me."
"The glen, with its sweet memories of the first time we met and later lay together, held me," she said. "The faer of my folk are in those mountains, and the living ones too, still hidden. They knew you had brought me home. I wandered among them for a while. Time passes strangely for the Houseless, and space too, and so it was for me. Sometimes, I watched you, and our son, as he grew. It seemed to me that once, I saw you among the burning trees, in a great battle. You laughed, as you swung your sword amidst the flames. I thought you mad with the warrior-lust, but I laughed too and stood beside you as you fought."
"It was not the blood-madness," he said. "I expected that at any moment I might meet my death at the end of some orcish sword, or take an arrow like my father and be allowed at the last to join you, with no shame or shirking of my duty. The thought gave me joy. As for our son, he had gone on a quest that I knew would take him to the Black Gates, to the very spot where Adar fell. For all I knew he no longer lived either."
"But he lived," she said, "and so did you. And the Wood threw off the Shadow and became green again. My faer haunted the mountain glens, mostly, in our spot or where your father's old palace lay fallen among the trees. But sometimes I would watch the Edain at the edge of the wood. Their lives were so short, yet their spirits were vibrant for all of that.
"One day, I was drawn to a little hut near the swift river, called by the smell of the blood, or perhaps it was the desperation of two women as they worked over the struggling body of a third. I saw the drama play out, a tiny scrap of a girl-child laid aside in the vain hope that her mother might be saved. The spirit of a man, newly dead, hovered near, and he saw me and called me Lady Starkindler, although I knew not why. I could tell him only to be at peace, that all would be well, for all are in the power of the One, and life and death are all the same."
There came a knock at the door then, one of the Healers come to tend her. "Leave us!' Thranduil snapped. "I will call when you are needed." He turned to her, all gentleness again. "Go on, dearest. What happened then?"
"The babe was born before her time, and her spirit was too weak to cling to her body. She let go at the same time as the dying woman gave up her fight. The tender soul of the young one flew to her mother's arms; the father beckoned and enfolded them both, and I saw the family journey on together into the west. I looked at the abandoned body of the infant. I knew my Elven faer could make that still heart beat again, force air into those silent lungs. I knew the strength of my faer could make that body, untimely born, grow and thrive. She was my way back to you, Thranduil, and I had only a moment to think, only one moment to decide. I went into the flesh . . . and forgot."
"Oh, my love," Thranduil whispered. "Even I would not have had such courage."
"Yes, but it was a trap. And but for the dreams of a dimly remembered life and the trees whispering to me at night, I might have lived and died in that little village, never finding you."
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "For once, Vaire was kind to me. You and I were meant to be."
"And yet, there has been a price. My faer has burned this poor body out, Thranduil. I am used up." She held up her hand, yellowed and withered; even that effort was almost beyond her strength. "What has this Mortal flesh brought me to?"
"What matters rhaw?" he said, brushing back the thin strands of hair from her face. "I see your faer. To me, you are the same lovely girl I spied rising from a mountain pool, the drops of water sliding from your naked body like white gems. I fell in love with you in that moment, and I shall love you still at the end of all things, in the hour that the seas run dry and the sun turns the very rocks of Arda into ash. My bondmate, my love . . . my wife."
"And yet I am flesh, and this flesh fails me." She sighed, for what must come next would tax them both to their limit. "It is time for my draught, Thranduil."
"Of course," he said, rising from where he knelt and going to the chest of drawers. "I am a fool and a churl not thinking of your comfort." He took up a glass and the phial of dark poppy elixir, preparing to pour.
"No, my love," she said quietly. "The other draught."
His shoulders sagged, and his knees gave way just a little, as if he had taken a blow. He turned to her with a look of utter pleading. "No . . ."
She had seen the blue phial standing apart from the other, over to the back of the chest for the past month and wondered idly in her poppy befogged state, 'Why two?' Now that Elven understanding had returned to her, she felt a silent gratitude to Nestalinde. 'Would he have had the strength to do it at need without me forcing the issue?' she asked herself.
"Not now, not yet . . . just when you have returned to me at last," he said, his face crumpling. "You do not know what you ask of me! To lose you again so soon, and by my own hand? Please, wife, stay with me a little longer."
"Would you force me to lose what dignity I have left and cry out in pain when the strength leaves me to resist? I can tell you that such a time is coming soon. Or would you have me lose my wits and become no more than a suffering beast so that you might hold onto me for a time? I have never known you to be a coward, or to shrink from duty, no matter how painful to yourself." She paused and did her best to smile at him reassuringly. "It has been a good day, but, Thranduil, I am in agony. You must let me go."
He shut his eyes, set his chin and nodded wearily. Slowly, he took the blue phial and poured its contents into the glass.
'Too many defeats he has had,' she thought, 'and each does not make the next any easier.'
He carried the glass over to her and brought her to a partially sitting position. "Are you sure of this, my love?"
"Very sure, Thranduil." She reached out to stroke his arm through the fabric of his sleeve. "Strength, remember? And the other says Loyalty. These are the promises you made. It is your duty to me. And to your people."
"Sometimes," he sighed, "I wish I were not a king. I am weary of always having to be strong, dearest; so very weary." He brought the cup to her lips and helped her drink.
This liquid tasted of astringent herbs that disguised an underlying acridity even more bitter than the juice of the poppies.. It warmed her immediately as it went down and stayed down. "And now, will you hold me until I go to sleep?"
He nodded, silently again, as if he could not trust his voice. He kicked off his boots and sat cross-legged at the head of the bed, drawing her up into his arms. "Am I hurting you?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered honestly, "but not so much as would the emptiness of not having your arms about me." Already, her limbs felt heavy, and darkness closed in around her vision like a cloak of night.
"You must say good-bye to Galion for me," she said, and he nodded. She felt his hair brush her forehead and a warm drop hit her cheek. "Lalaithiel, you once called me; daughter of laughter, and instead I have brought you sadness." Already, speech was becoming difficult and her tongue felt thick, as if it were turning to wood.
"No," he said, his voice husky. "You brought me joy. I would not have missed this time with you for all the wealth of the Lonely Mountain, Arkenstone included." He kissed her gently. "But my love, you must promise me that you will never risk this again. You must answer the Call of Mandos this time."
She shook her head. "Not . . . leave you."
"You must. Our son is in Aman. Once the Dwarf dies, he will be alone. He will need you then. You can pass through Mandos and be re-embodied; it is the only way. I beg you, Lalaithiel -- go to him."
She tried to answer; tried to get the words out, asking him if he would join them. She no longer had the breath.
"Please love, you must promise me," he said.
With the last of her strength, she nodded. The pain, her constant companion for the past months was gone at last. She felt Thranduil's arms about her still, and heard, as if from a great distance, his lovely, lovely voice, as the darkness closed in around her. "Le i mheleth o chuil nîn . . . "
* * *
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
herves vuin, na vedui!: beloved wife, at last!
faer: spirit, Sindarin for fëa
rhaw: body, Sindarin for hroa
Le i mheleth o chuil nîn : You are the love of my life.
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.