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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 23. Preparing for the Future
There had been many orders to give, many small, vital details of governance to attend - Thranduil's proposal of dividing the wood to at least hear - and though Celeborn had followed his wife's flight as soon as he might, it seemed he had come too late. He breathed in, tried to dislodge the weight of shadow that seemed to have settled on his chest, and ventured a small hope. "Oft, in a lover, the command 'leave me in peace' means only 'work harder to comfort me.' Then to obey it and go away would be...unfeeling. The worst thing I could do."
Thilevril smiled, not without sympathy. A frost eased in the depths of her hoar-grey eyes, but she did not move from her post, standing between him and his love. "This is not one of those times, my Lord. She needs to think, and to be alone."
It was in him to be angry at this. Here, in unlooked for victory, with a stainless and shining future ahead, would Galadriel take away from him everything that he had fought for these long years? And if she tried it, did he not have the right to storm and sulk, and inflict some of his inner pain on others? Did he not have the right to speak to his own wife whenever and wherever and however he wished?
He found his hands clenching, the desire to rage - at Thilevril, at Galadriel, at someone strong on him. In ages past he and she had had some bitter conflicts, coming almost to blows, often to the breaking of furniture. But that was with the woman who had once been Nerwen, warrior princess of the Noldor - a woman who would not have bowed and walked away when one of his younger relatives challenged her. Breathing out, a weakness came over him, as if he had thrust through by a war blade, as if he had lost far too much blood. How could he take his anger to this diminished, saddened Galadriel? It would be like kicking the wounded because they could not be well.
His voice and posture somewhat less forgiving than he had hoped, he said "May she rest well and recover swiftly." Turned away, holding himself stiff against the mortal ache, aware there was little chance of either.
Thranduil came on him then. The King of Northern Mirkwood had shed his armour in favour of a green velvet tunic, broidered with white gems. He bore a flagon of wine, and an aide followed after him, burdened with armfuls of maps. "I have given orders for a feast tomorrow," he said. "In honour of the new Age, and our survival. Your second - Merethir? - pledged that the elves of Lorien were as willing to make merry as we."
It was hard to think of rejoicing now, but truly this was the time for celebration, healing, rewarding the loyal and brave. Forgetting war. Learning to live again. "Of course," Celeborn said, baffled as to what he should feel, uncertain if the hollowness within even had a name. He tried to turn his mind from it, but - like trimming the sails of a boat in an uncertain wind - it was no sooner done than undone again, a constant battle. "That was a good thought. Now I will look at your maps and consider where we may fairly apportion the forest between us."
Thranduil's tent had been set up just to the East of the hill's crest, beneath the open sky. It was a fair pavilion, carpeted with thickly woven rugs and hung with many tapestries, pricked with jewels. On other occasions it might have amused Celeborn that his distant cousin - who so passionately spoke of abandoning the ways of Doriath, returning to the simple life lived by the Nandor - had such a taste for beautiful things, for ostentation and finery. But today he scarcely saw the colours, much less appreciated the many storied tales and histories woven into its design.
"It will be some time before Lorien will feed or shelter us as she used," he said, and drank Thranduil's wine without tasting it. "Much of the woodland has been poisoned, and I know not how much strength is left in the rest, now that many years of delayed time have come upon us at once. I have no wish to expand the country for my own grandeur, or to take away anything that is yours. But the Galadhrim must have more land, else we starve."
Then Thranduil smiled, ruefully. He leaned back in his seat and put a booted foot on the trestle table, whence his aide rapidly gathered the parchments, looking reproachful. "I am not my father, Celeborn. I do not accuse you of wishing to usurp my realm. Take all below the Narrows - did you not conquer it yourself? Do you not hold it even now? I would not attempt to wrest it from your grasp. And see, of what is left - even if I give a generous portion to the Beornings and the Woodmen - still I have more room to expand into than I have elves to do the work. We may grow for a hundred yeni ere we fill it."
He gestured, and at his signal the scribe kindled the white lamps which stood on stands about the pavilion, then took his maps and bowed himself away, allowing the flap of the door to fall shut behind him. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the green canvas of the tent, until they sat in radiance, as if in the centre of an emerald. In the sudden privacy, unobserved by prying eyes, Thranduil leaned forward, speaking softly. "I knew not that things were so ill in Lorien."
Celeborn was aware that Thranduil did not speak of the Golden Wood alone. He sighed. Then - the weight being too heavy to bear - he put his head in his hands and pushed his long fingers into his hair.
"I am sorry," said Thranduil, "I might have spoken gentler had I known. I little thought to see her so..." he stood up, laid his hand on one of the poles. "Weak does not seem to be the word for one who could bring down Dol Guldur with a song. Not 'weak' then, but sad. Reduced. What ails her?"
He resisted putting it into words, as though saying it would give it more power over him than it already possessed. But that was folly. "It is the Sea."
Across the table from him, Thranduil's smile altered, growing brittle and brilliant as cut crystal. It was, just barely, soothing to see there an echo of his own fragility. Long years had gone past without him speaking to this estranged kinsman, but that, like war, seemed to be over. Calandil was dead, and there was no other to whom he could speak plainly, who would understand, as Mirkwood's king would.
"All her thoughts are turned to it. She sings openly of Valinor, and neither knows nor cares how it breaks me. With Nenya's power it seemed she could keep the longing at bay. It seemed... I thought... she desired to do so, for my sake. She fought, then, to stay with me. But the ring is gone, and she fights no longer."
He brought one hand down, pushed at a spilled drop of ink, making a meaningless, ugly writing on the battered campaign table. Wished, briefly, that the fighting were not done. It would be a relief just to hit something, very hard.
"I am unwanted by her now," he said. "An annoyance she would willingly cast aside, that she might go home. And it comes to me that perhaps, perhaps she did not love me at all, but only amused herself with me, while she pursued her vengeance against Sauron." He raised his head, saw Thranduil's normally cheerful face clouded, his bright eyes widened in haunting memory. "I recall that Oropher warned me it was so."
At that, Thranduil came back to the present with a start, and a small bark of laughter. "My father was a good man, but he would not have entertained a kind thought about a Noldo, did any other explanation present itself. You are grieved indeed if you would heed his words now. You would not take them then."
"I am grieved. My heart fails me. It is too much labour to draw breath, and my thoughts..." Celeborn shook his head, as if it would help, "I do not know what to think. I pray you, Thranduil, do not expect sense out of me at this moment."
The King of Mirkwood took off his circlet of flowers and looked at it narrowly, brushing a tender touch over the frail petals. He poured himself a drink and then sat again, uncrowned; one friend to another. "You know I do not like her? I never have."
Surprisingly, Celeborn found some small comfort in this. It was good to be back among his own people, who cared less about seeming courteous than speaking the truth. "I could not have missed that."
"Then you will know I speak from no bias, coloured by no fondness towards her." Thranduil gazed at the diamonds bedewed about his cuffs as if they could council him. Perhaps they could - their beauty lightening his spirit's flame. "When did the Call first come upon her?"
Celeborn could place almost the day - though they had been many miles apart. So long it must have taken Celebrimbor to travel from Eregion to Lorinand, so long to nerve himself up to speak of his failure, his stupidity to her. So long standing, stammering out the story of how Annatar had deceived him. And then a moment, a single moment, when he held out his master work, the Ring of Adamant, like a fallen tear for her to take. He wondered - as he often had - whether he could have stopped her then, if he had only been there. It was fruitless to think it, impossible not to. "When she accepted Nenya," he said.
"And that was an Age ago - more."
Thranduil's look of sympathy was both ruthless and wry. "Then I count you blessed," he said. "Do you know how long it took my own wife to leave? Less than one yen. I too have asked - as you do now - 'did she ever love me? How could she leave me? And if indeed she hated me, still...how could she leave her children?'"
At this anguish, which he should have expected, avoided, but did not - so selfish he had become in his misery - Celeborn stirred, sat up, shamed into endurance. "Forgive me, cousin, I..."
"No," said Thranduil, holding up a hand for silence. "I do not speak to air my own sorrow, but to help council you in yours. As one who has been in the same place, felt the same pain, and yet is now recovered.
"Long I pondered this," he said. "And at last - walking among the houses of the Woodmen - I found my answer. I beheld a widow, weeping over her husband's body, and I thought 'we are not so different from they, after all'. No power of the will, no love, no strength of mind nor spirit can stave off mortal death beyond the time it is due. No more can an elf push back the Sea. But if Galadriel has fought it these many thousand years - and for your sake - you have at least this comfort, my friend. No other elf in Ennor has ever been loved with such strength of will, with such tenacity as she has loved you."
Oswy watched with pleasure and yet a slight sense of loss as Cyn stiffly dismounted, turned to help Gytha from the saddle and was scoldingly shouldered aside by Leofwyn. "Do not lift her. I will do it! You are not yet so well that you can carry heavy burdens."
Since the announcement had gone out that this part of the forest - together with the long sweep of meadow down to Anduin - now belonged to Lorien, many elves had come from Caras Galadhon, bringing what supplies they could. Cooking trenches had been dug, and the breeze was full of the scents of roasting meat and herbs. A festival air filled the preparations, as the folk of Lothlorien and those of the newly named Eryn Lasgalen mingled, bickered in friendly rivalry, exchanged news and laughing insults. But beyond the sense of enjoyment was a release - the knowledge that, at last, it was over. All that needed to be done had been done. What remained was to give thanks for survival, and return - in so far as it was possible - to normality.
Oswy unstrapped baby Scild's basket from behind Cyn's saddle, and lifted his tiny brother out into the air. It had been only a day since Dol Guldur fell, but already grass and daisies covered the scar. Beneath the stamping hoof of Cyn's horse, the first flower of niphredil, white and green as springtime, unfurled in the early evening cool. Scild grizzled, scrunching his face up against some small discomfort, and Oswy saw the white gleam of a new tooth in his mouth, just as he began to wail in earnest.
Handing the child to his mother swiftly, Oswy spotted Ulf in the crowd of elves. Sensing his glance, the woodman turned from his path, came to stand companionably close and watch the doings of Oswy's folk with a grin. "I have news from Rohan," he said, "And it is good. Theoden King arose from shadow and rode to death and great glory outside Gondor. But the paths of Rohan lie open once more and all peril is driven off. Its folk await the return of Eomer, King, to a country which has weathered the storm." He gave them a sideways look, full of thought. "You will be returning there soon?"
Rohan, like many other things, had altered in Oswy's mind since passing into the Golden Wood. The thought of home was less comforting than it should be - outgrown, empty of wonder. "I know not," he said. "Gytha is so happy in Lorien, and I am minded of what you said - it seems a terrible fate to me never to see the elves again."
"Gytha is happy now," said Leofwyn, uncomfortably, "Too happy, I deem. Did you not mark that she said 'mae govannen' to you, and not 'waes thu hal'. I fear for her. What will happen when she is grown to maidenhood - will she not fall in love with one of these unearthly, beautiful folk, and thus condemn herself to a barren future? You, and little Scild - where will you look for wives? Shall I have no grandchildren? No one to sing of Oshelm and keep his memory alive down the ages? I like it not. Men we are, and with Men we belong."
"They have given us succour and shelter, and deserve some loyalty in return," said Oswy, stung.
"An alliance in time of need, so the Lord termed it," she countered. "I warrant he does not expect us to stay, now that the way is open for us to return to our homeland."
Seeing them glower at one another Ulf laughed his rasping laugh. "I have this day received more new land than I have folk to fill it," he said, rocking back on his heels. "Why not do as I did, and settle with the woodmen? You will be hemmed in with elves, sufficient to gladden any man's heart, but among your own kind. And thus I will be able to achieve the purpose I conceived when I first saw you, and will be easier in my mind for it."
"I..." Oswy was taken by surprise by this suggestion, but the more he turned it in his mind, the more he admired its shape, as leaving them with everything they had gained, and losing nothing of worth. "What do you think, Cyn?"
After riding across the battlefield between Lorien and what was now it's eastern colony, Cyn had sunk down to sit on a fallen tree, but he looked merely weary - no longer in danger. "I will bide by your decision," he said, quietly, and turned to smile as Gytha presented him a caterpillar she had found, upon a stick.
"Then," Oswy put out his hand and Ulf clasped it, "I will take your kindness for myself and my folk, and - if my Lord release me - we will come and live among you."
For a moment they were glad, as though the sun shone upon them, and then Leofwyn laughed, merrily. Looking in his mother's face, Oswy was astonished and thankful to find a lightheartedness there which she had not worn since the orc attack. Her blue eyes gleamed. "And thus are all the songs proved true," she said, grinning. "How perilous is the Golden Wood! For look, did not the folk of Oshelm venture there, never to be seen again in the fair fields of their birth? Such victims of sorcery we are! The heart trembles to retell it."
The stars stood in a dome of light over the hill of Amon Lanc, and elves danced there, flickering gold and pale in starlight and firelight, their hair like shadow and their eyes like flame. A long table was set out for the High folk, and there sat the Lady Galadriel, bearing the night sky as a crown. Slender and white and sad she seemed, like a carven tree of marble, whose song has been forgotten in the long wearing of time.
Yet her voice was ever raised in praise of those who had fought well, and many were the elves she singled out by name and rewarded with gifts or glory. Beside her, Celeborn sat, and he had done off his armour, and was clad in silver-grey, a torc of twisted mithril about his throat. His dark eyes were preoccupied, and his temper chancy. Only Thranduil, in that company, seemed glad; his laugh as bright as his yellow hair.
It was just ere dawn that Oswy's plea for an audience was heard, and Ardil came to escort him to the High Table. The sky was lightening in the East, and above the horizon one brilliant star shone palest gold. Gytha lay asleep by her father's side, sprawled in a nest of cloaks, and Leofwyn said "I will stay here. It is your place to speak for us now. You need me not."
So Oswy came before Celeborn alone, and he bowed and said, "Lord, I have a boon to ask."
"You want to go home," said the elf lord, with a small, twisted smile, "Of course."
"Well, in truth," said Oswy, conscious that his next words would settle the shape of his future into something untried, something rather less reassuring than 'home', "I have accepted an offer from Lord Ulf that I may settle my folk among his. If you will release me to do so."
"You have done me good and faithful service," said Celeborn, and it seemed to Oswy that he relaxed a little, briefly touching - if not happiness - then at least content. "And are owed much thanks."
Then he leaned forward, and Oswy caught a flash of the brisk practicality he had come to trust. "But tell me how you will live. If I do not mistake my guess, you have no woodcraft. And if our hopes are not betrayed this time, there will be no further need for your skill at warfare."
In the silence, Oswy berated himself for not thinking of this earlier. His folk and he had nothing. One elderly gelding, and his mother's cob, did not make up for the loss of all their stock, lying slain on the wolds of Rohan. He would be reduced to leaning on Ulf's goodwill for some years, ere he could learn another skill, and that he most certainly did not desire.
Seeing his doubt, Celeborn motioned to Erethon, who had been given a seat at the High Table in token of his promotion to the position of Captain of East Lorien. Some silent communication passed between them before the dark archer rose and departed. "It seems to me," said the Lord of Lorien, "That your herds are more likely scattered than entirely slain by the orcs. Reduced, they will be, but such remnant as there is, I will have gathered and brought to you in your new home."
Erethon returned, and with him, lead by no rein, unsaddled and glimmering like the dawn sky, there came two elven-steeds. Like the breath of the North wind they seemed, prancing, shaking light from their manes, their hooves making no mark on the forest floor. The stallion's eyes were full of pride, as though he well knew his own worth, and the mare's so wise she seemed almost on the brink of speech. To Oswy, whose folk valued their horses almost as high as their children, these took his breath away - beyond jewels, beyond crowns, beyond kingdoms. Surely they were Mearas, whose line had seemed likely to end in Rohan with the untameable, unmateable Shadowfax. A legend ending, and a light going out of the world. Now it seemed that would not be so. The Royal Steeds of the Mark would continue. And - if he could believe this gesture - his would be the stable from which they came. It was a mighty gift!
"Sularan is the stallion's name," said Celeborn, "'King of the wind'. And the mare is Celglin; 'Flowing gleam'. I do not give them to you lightly, for their lineage is greater than yours. Their forefathers came out of the West, and many of my kin were slain defending the ships that carried them here. If you - or any of your folk - mistreat them, they will find their way back to me, and I will know."
"My Lord," cried Oswy, and his heart was moved with a painful joy at this honour, and this parting, "I will never betray this trust. May your reign in Lorien endure forever to witness it."
Then Celeborn laughed, not unkindly, "Forever is too long a time for any man to foresee," he said, "But I thank you nevertheless. Go with such blessing as I am able to give, Oswy, friend of the elves."
Oswy took the horses to Leofwyn, and she marvelled at them. Already she had moved such few possessions as they retained in among the camp of the Woodmen. But at the sight of Sularan and Celglin she looked back at the revelry of elves, and the Lord and Lady of Lorien, chill and still among it. "They have given us a future," she said, in awe. "One which they do not see for themselves."
He looked at her, puzzled, and she smiled, sadly. "There was a time in this war when I deemed the pain of fighting evil too deep to be worth the cost. I thought of you then, yet I might have spoken more truly of others." One last glance she gave, seeing the two stately elves rise and walk aside together, without touching. "Some wounds linger still, unseen. And our new dawn is bought at a great price." She sighed, and then dusted her hands together in preparation for work. "All the more should we seize it with both hands, to honour what has gone before. Come, we have a house and a stable, and a new life to build. Let us begin it now."
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