1. All Lies and Jest
All Lies And Jest
'I have squandered my resistance,
For a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
All lies and jest.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.'
Thranduil paused in his work and massaged the bridge of his nose to stave off an impending headache. River tolls, inventories, trade agreements with Rhûn -- he had been at it for most of the day, and the cirth runes had begun to run together and dance before his tired eyes. Even the strange little adding device with the sliding beads he had purchased from the Easterlings six years past had proved to be of little help. It was an ingenious little thing, really, but Thranduil did not entirely trust it. It seemed too Golodren an invention for his tastes, and he preferred to add up the numbers in his head.
His counselors, and Galion too, had often told him not to waste his time and energy on such tiresome minutiae as the accounts, but Thranduil had learned early on in his reign that attention to minor detail prevented unpleasant surprises at the end of the year. Indeed, as he added up the numbers now, all seemed well. The forest had been bountiful, his people and the spiders productive, and the trade with Laketown, Dale and further east, lucrative. For yet another year, his realm was solvent, his people fed, housed and able to keep up the fight that held the terror in the south of the wood at bay .
Thranduil looked up from his desk at a knock on the door. In came Galion, who seemed to have the talent for being everywhere at once, despite his duties as butler, valet, and personal assistant to Thranduil in all things. "Sire, two of your subjects desire an audience with you. Are you at leisure?"
"Not really, Galion," Thranduil said. "But the diversion will be welcome. If I have to look at one more number today, I shall fade. Pray show them in."
Galion ushered in an elf dressed in the green and brown uniform of the Forest Guard. With him was an elf-woman, and at the sight of her, Thranduil raised an eyebrow. The aptly named Saerlin had been Legolas's nursemaid many years before, and he almost had not recognized her, so changed in manner was she. Gone was the perpetual scowl of misery, replaced with a glow on her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes. If Thranduil were not mistaken, the woman looked happy for the first time in nearly three thousand years. Noting that the couple held hands, Thranduil's eyebrow went even higher.
"Captain Pelilas of your Forest Guard, Sire," said Galion, "and Mistress Saerlin."
Thranduil searched Galion's face for any clue to what this interview might be about, but his butler merely shook his head imperceptibly, bowed, and left.
Thranduil motioned the two to be seated. "Captain, Saerlin . . . what would you ask of me?"
He saw the two of them exchange a nervous look. "Sire," Pelilas began, "there is no easy way to say this. Saerlin and I wish to marry. We ask you, as our king, for your blessing and your leave."
Thranduil blew out his breath and sat back in his chair. He truly had not expected such a request. "Pelilas, you ask something I cannot grant. Both you and this lady already have spouses and may not take another."
"Sire, my wife has passed to Mandos many years ago. I loved her dearly, but she is gone and will not return to these shores, even if the tales we are told of passage through Mandos' Halls and re-embodiment are true and not empty promises merely."
Thranduil nodded sadly. The young wife of Pelilas had drowned in the Forest River when a bank gave way beneath her in the spring floods. That had been in the spring following The Long Winter, the year Thranduil's own wife had . . .
"Should we be reunited at the end of all things," Pelilas continued, "my bond and my loyalty will be to her, but meanwhile, I still live, and a man grows lonely."
"Please, Sire," Saerlin spoke up. "You were with my husband when he fell at the Dagorlad. How many years has it been? A full Age -- over twenty ennin, and I barely recall his face. At last I have found new love with Pelilas, and he loves me. May we not be together until such time as all faer are reunited?"
Thranduil sighed and twiddled his pen unconsciously between his fingers to forestall making an answer. "If the two of you wish to take comfort," he said at last, "do so. I think no one will dare to look at you askance. Truly, it is no one's business where either of you spends your nights or your days either."
"Forgive me, Sire, but that is not good enough," said Pelilas. "We want children. My wife died young, before I could know that joy, as did Saerlin's husband. No matter how many years pass, my thoughts do not turn to other things. I would have the same blessings every other elf has, and I would have them in full honor. Please grant it to us that we might live together openly and lawfully, if only for the time we have."
"This has not been our custom . . ." Thranduil began reluctantly, until he looked into the face of Saerlin. Truly, he would have preferred to have her either scowling at him or undressing him with her eyes as she had so often done when his son was a young child, than to see her staring at him so hopefully pleading. How could he crush this woman's joy with a hasty word? "Until now. Give me time to ponder this. You shall have my decision tomorrow."
After the couple bowed and left, Thranduil sat for a long time, staring into his hands, twisting the leaf patterned gold ring he wore on his left forefinger. He and his wife had not married with rings, a betrothal, or any of the formal wedding trappings favored by the Iathrin old guard of his father's court, now his own. For the two of them, there had been a question, an answer, solitary vows, and the joining of bodies in the manner of the Elves of old Cuivienen. And yet he held his promise to her no less sacred for all of that. For the better part of an Age, it had been enough.
For Thranduil's Begetting Day in the summer before the birth of their son, his wife had presented him with the ring. "This is the final step," she had said, stroking her belly, which swelled gently with the child that would be Legolas. "I am one of you Iathrim now. You gave me a token when we came together, and now I give you one in return."
He had not removed it since. He still thought of himself as a married man, albeit a very lonely one, never questioning the teachings on such matters. Marriage was between the faer, though the bodies be destroyed. Forever . . .
Thranduil had questions, and the answer might be found in only one place. Pushing himself back from his desk and rising abruptly, he left his privy chamber and stalked through the corridors of his cave, heading for the library. He found it empty save to a few floating dust motes and the smell of old parchment.
Officially, Thranduil had never removed Legolas from his position as Librarian, even though he had long since assigned his son other duties as well. Thranduil smiled. Legolas would sooner kiss an orc than admit to his father how much he enjoyed working with books, but for that reason, Thranduil had left the position open as a lure and a reward for those times when his son was at home, despite his eloquent protests about the stultifying nature of scribe-work.
At present, Legolas was away, serving a six month tour of duty with the border patrols in the south of the wood, and as ever, Thranduil fretted in secret for his safety. Although Legolas was a more than competent warrior, one of the best Mirkwood had ever produced, he reminded Thranduil far too much of his own father for comfort. Legolas shared Oropher's reckless courage, always willing to put himself at risk in the place of others, and Thranduil would not breathe easily until his son was home again, copying scrolls in his beloved library.
Thanks to his son's organization, Thranduil found the scroll he sought immediately, on the section of shelves devoted to social customs and commentary. He took it into the small alcove off the main room that served as Legolas's private area and spread it out on the work table there. He perched on a high stool, pausing only to gently touch with a wistful fingertip the pot of brushes, pens, and ink stick awaiting their owner's return.
As he perused the scroll, Thranduil recognized Legolas's gently slanted cirth, as if the very writing echoed the Tawarren lilt of his speech. At first, when his child began to learn to talk, Thranduil had fretted at his son's developing Silvan accent, remembering how Oropher had firmly corrected him in his own youth for straying from the precise cadence of old Doriath. The Royal House of Oropher must have its standards, after all! But Thranduil had soon given up the struggle and come to appreciate the beauty of his son's speech. Legolas sounded like his mother, he sounded like Galion, he sounded like their adopted people. His son was Wood-elf in his speech and in his thought, and Thranduil found it meet.
The scroll began:
Copied in the month of Narbeleth in the year 2947 of the Third Age of the Sun, from an original by one Oropher of Lindon. The original scroll is fragile but still quite legible and may be found in the trunk along with the rest of the Lindon scrolls. I reproduce it here, for purposes of preservation, with no further comment.
Legolas Thranduilion, Librarian and Scribe of Mirkwood
Below, the scroll continued:
I have taken the liberty of combining two documents, re-created from memory, that came into my hands during the last days of Menegroth as part of King Thingol's attempt to better understand the Amanyar returnees by secretly obtaining and translating their writings. The first was a description of the marriage and courtship customs of Finwë's folk in Aman, and upon reading it, I thanked Elbereth that I am not a Golodh, for a more preposterous collection of old-maidenly nonsense I had never seen before and shall hope never to see again. The second document told an account of the trial concerning the remarriage of the aforementioned Finwë, and while it confirmed my previous impressions, it also explained to me why the Golodhrim felt inspired to depart Aman and head east. I would have done the same. Sooner. At any rate, the two documents seemed to belong together, and this I have done.
I have provided King Ereinion, also known as Gil-galad, with a copy of this document, without this commentary of course, and I made a pretty penny at it. I gave it into the hand of his herald and archivist, Elrond Peredhel, and what use they will make of it, I do not know, nor do I care. I wish them joy of it.
Oropher, Scribe of Lindon
Here, Thranduil paused to chuckle softly. He found it amusing to read his father's familiar wordsmithing style written in the hand of his son. When not setting pen to paper, Oropher had been less restrained in his language, referring to the marriage and bed customs of the so-called Wise-elves as a pious pile of Golodren cant when speaking in polite company and using far earthier terms when the two of them were together in private.
Alone in the library, reading his father's words in his son's handwriting, Thranduil felt himself to be a bridge between the generations. Yet, he was an important bridge, for his was the decision that would affect the lives of others for better or worse. The information he sought would be found in the scroll, for a kernel of truth resided there.
Slowly, Thranduil scanned the document, passing over the information on the growth and naming of children, the description of a 'proper' betrothal and wedding that had so troubled him when he fell short of the mark, and the surprisingly naïve discourse on the nature of Elven passions. Seeing the words inscribed so plainly made Thranduil again wonder if he himself were not somehow unnatural for harboring the lusty thoughts that still troubled him. What poor Legolas had made of it all while copying, he could not begin to speculate.
Further down the page, he reached the section he sought. The tale concerned the debate of the Rodyn, or the 'Valar,' as the Golodhrim called them in their own excessively flowery tongue, on the petition of a widowed king of the Golodhrim to take a second wife when his first refused to return from the Halls of Mandos. Much tragedy and strife had resulted from the decision to allow it: the jealousy of sons, estrangement between Finwë and his second wife, and the ultimate death of Finwë.
At long last, Thranduil came upon the pertinent passage he remembered from his previous reading, many years before:
The Eldar then asked: 'How shall the will or doom be known?' It was answered: 'Only by recourse to Manwë and by the pronouncement of Námo. In this matter it shall not be lawful for any of the Eldar to judge his own case. For who among the Living can discern the thoughts of the Dead, or presume the dooms of Mandos?'
Thranduil shut his eyes and sighed, for his memory had not tricked him. No Elf might lawfully judge his own case. How much more so for the case of another? That the all-powerful Belair were not available to consult was quite beside the point; such was the rough luck for the Morben of Ennor. Thranduil dared not risk allowing any one of his subjects to become an oath-breaker or a bigamist, and, although his mind shied away from it, he dared not consider that transgression for himself.
'Why not?' asked a little voice in his mind. 'Your kingdom needs children to replace those of your elves lost to the Shadow. Why forbid it? What have these 'Valar' done for you lately, other than to allow one of their own to run loose troubling your land? What can they do to punish you, far away in their 'Blessed Realm' safe from all harm?'
Thranduil would have liked to consider it the voice of reason, yet he feared it to be the voice of selfish temptation, or perhaps even The Enemy himself. What could the Belair do to him, indeed? He knew what they could do.
Thranduil had read his father's copied scrolls and listened to the tales told by the Lore-Masters over the last two Ages. He knew of these Powers in the West, some of whom did not even have names in his own tongue, yet he knew who they were and what they might do to any who displeased them. These beings had shaped the world, and they might unshape it at their will.
Thranduil recalled hearing his father's reminiscence of coming out of a cave on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains after a night when there had been fire in the sky and the earth had shaken like a demented thing, to find that the sea, which had been hundreds of leagues to the west the night before, had rushed in to lap at his very feet. An entire land had drowned beneath the waves at the wrath of these 'Valar.'
Thranduil also remembered the whispered tales told by his wife's folk of a cataclysm that shook the land like a hound ridding itself of fleas and made the life-giving waters of Cuivienen drain away, leaving first a stinking mud flat where fish flapped helplessly and died, and later a desert of dry sand, forcing them westward to seek a haven beneath the sheltering trees of the Great Greenwood. This, too, was the handiwork of the 'Valar.'
And on a much more personal level, Thranduil knew that Námo judged the dead for their works in life. His wife, Vairë, was said to weave the tapestries of Fate itself, and neither might safely be displeased. Thranduil's thoughts went to Legolas, fighting the Shadow in the southern wood. One slip of the Lady Weaver's shuttle, and an orc arrow might find his son's heart.
Thranduil Oropherion feared little in life, but this he feared.
Shaking his head sadly, he rolled the scroll up again and replaced it on the shelf. He had made his decision.
* * *
Saerlin's cornflower blue eyes glittered with unshed tears, and the spark died in them. It tore at Thranduil's heart to dash this woman's hope. 'Forgive me,' he longed to say. 'I would help you if I could, but I dare not.'
But of course a king may never show his uncertainty or his self doubt. He must appear strong, always. Better to be thought an unfeeling tyrant than to admit himself a superstitious fool in fear of the Belair, or to show himself weak in any way.
"Is this your final decision, Sire?" Pelilas said quietly.
Thranduil nodded. "It is. How you conduct yourselves in private is your affair, of course. But I cannot, in good conscience, give your union official recognition. I am sorry."
"I am sorry, also, Sire, but you leave us no choice then. If we may not wed each other, Saerlin and I will travel to The Havens to seek our mates in the Undying Lands."
Thranduil shut his eyes in pain, feeling the loss of two more people in a realm already bereft, where instead he might have had their children to replenish the diminishing population. In that moment he questioned both the kindness and the wisdom of the Belair. "You are a good warrior, Pelilas; your loss will be felt keenly. And you as well, Saerlin. However, I do not hold my folk in thrall. As much as it grieves me, you are free to go, with my blessings. Garo 'lass, and may you find what you seek."
* * *
The courier from Imladris arrived six weeks later, when the first crisp weather of autumn had begun to turn the leaves to red and gold. Along with the usual diplomatic missives and news of doings in the outer world, there came a package with Master Elrond's seal. Thranduil broke it with foreboding, although he could not have said why.
Forgive me, Thranduil, for being the bearer of bad tidings, the letter began. Two weeks ago my sons had occasion to pursue a group of orcs which made a raid upon our valley's outer defenses. In the course of the hunt, which took them up into the mountains near the Cirith Forn en Andrath, they came upon the bodies of an elf-man and woman, killed by the same orcs only a few days earlier from the look of things. The bodies were too badly mutilated to be identified, and my sons gave them a decent burial, but judging from their clothing and possessions, they seemed to be two of yours. I am returning their personal effects to you in the hope that it may provide some comfort to their loved ones to know of their fate, sad though it may be.
I am sorry, old friend.
Elrond Peredhel, Master of Imladris
Thranduil let out a vicious curse as he recognized Pelilas's knife and a thin bracelet of truesilver that had belonged to Saerlin. He crumpled the letter angrily and threw it across the room.
Who would it have hurt, he asked himself, if he had given in and allowed the two of them to wed? All he could do now was to hope that their end had not been too painful and that the promise of a reunion with lost loved ones in Aman was not a lie. For better or worse, Pelilas and Saerlin were in the hands of Mandos now, having saved themselves the trouble of a long sea journey.
'Forgive me,' he whispered. But who was there in all the world that could grant him absolution? Those he had harmed? Surely not those distant Belair, whose expressed will he tried so clumsily to obey. There was, he thought, the one the Golodhrim called Eru and the Edain called The Allfather, but, as it had been throughout the long Ages of Thranduil's life, The One remained silent.
Thranduil sat alone with his bitter thoughts as the day drew down and the light from the ceiling crystal failed. At last, the glow from the dying fire became the only illumination in the room.
The door opened. "Sitting alone in the dark, Sire? That cannot be good."
Thranduil looked up to see Galion, carrying a tray and some glasses. "I see you brought the extra large wine decanter," Thranduil said, as his butler moved about the room lighting candles and re-stoking the fire. "Enough for both of us."
Galion shrugged. "From what the courier said, the news could not be good. I had a feeling you could use the wine. And the company."
Thranduil gestured at an empty chair. "Sit."
Galion sat and poured two glasses of the red wine. He held one out to Thranduil who took it and drained it in a single gulp. Galion raised a dark brow as Thranduil held out his glass for a refill, but he complied without comment.
"I am a coward, Galion," Thranduil said at long last. "I held the lives of Saerlin and Pelilas in my hands, and I failed them. I have failed you all. Under my rule, Greenwood the Great has become Mirkwood, Taur nu Fuin, the playground of The Enemy. I suffer that name and use it as a perverse badge of pride, but it troubles my heart nonetheless. The worst part of it is that I begin to doubt the truth of what we've been told. What if I have placed my faith in a pack of lies and jest?"
Galion sipped his own wine and sighed. "I told you once that no man can be a hero all of the time, nor should try to be. Why should you be any different?"
"Because I am not an ordinary man," Thranduil laughed bitterly. "I am Thranduil Oropherion, mighty king, who shits white gems and farts starlight, and never, ever, does an unwise thing."
"Bah -- tell that to someone who has not been at your side for two Ages and watched you put on your trousers one leg at a time throughout it all," Galion snorted. "Although, if you could, indeed, learn that white gem trick it might solve some money woes."
"I daresay," said Thranduil, forced to smile despite himself. "I shall work on it."
"You are flesh and blood, and you have done as well as you can, considering what you were given," Galion continued gently. "Put off the burden for one night, Thran, and enjoy a drink with a friend."
Thranduil raised his eyebrow in turn, noting Galion's use of his boyhood nickname, rather than the more formal, 'Sire.' "And perhaps some good companionship?"
Galion twitched up the corner of his mouth and shrugged. "Perhaps. I find myself in the mood for a little of that myself." He raised his glass. "Now, drink up, Thran, and merry be the Greenwood!"
Thranduil saluted with his own. "Merry be the Greenwood, Galion."
But as he drank, Thranduil knew the Greenwood to be less merry, and the world felt no longer quite so young.
* * * * * * *
Author's Note: This story is written to explain why, in my universe, the Sindarin/Silvan elves of Mirkwood may seem to be aware of the language and concepts to be found in Laws and Customs Among the Eldar, a document that, in Tolkien's universe, is not to be written for another Age. I postulate an earlier document, carried by sailing Elves to Tol Eressea, and later copied by the Mariner, Aelfwine. So blame Oropher.
ennin: Long-years, or 'Yeni,' 144 years each
Tawarren: Wood-elven, or Silvan
Belair, Rodyn: The Valar
Morben: Dark-elves, Moriquendi
Garo 'lass: Farewell, have joy!
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.