3. Chilled Delirium
Chapter Three: Chilled Delirium
Many gathered elves awaited Thranduil and his small escort when they returned to the huts. All fires and torches had been extinguished, leaving the common area lit only by the starlight filtering down through the trees. Thranduil spotted Lalaithiel among a group of women, and he made as if to go to her.
"No," Tûron said, laying a restraining hand on his shoulder. "You must not speak to her, nor she to you until your night's work is done."
Thranduil cast a longing glance across the clearing to where his wife stood staring back, her pale eyes echoing the yearning he felt. "Then let us be on with it," he growled. "I want no more delay in my rejoining her."
"Come, then," said Tûron, leading Thranduil to a carved stone cauldron that stood beside a huge oak tree. He picked up a wooden cup and dipped it. "As the guest of honor, yours is the first draught of the night. Drink, Thara-ndhul."
Thranduil took the proffered cup and brought it to his lips, hesitating at the last minute as he sensed a strange under-scent to the liquid that made his ears tingle with suspicion. "What's in this?"
"Some wine, some special herbs, a little honey." Tûron shrugged. "And the essence of mushrooms."
"Mushrooms . . . ?" said Thranduil slowly.
"Yes. The little red ones with the white spots on the caps," Tûron said, his expression neutral.
Elbereth, Thranduil thought! Every elf-child knew better than to eat those. He stared down into the cup and then back up at his father-in-law. Tûron watched him dispassionately, and Thranduil knew he was being tested again. At length, he shrugged. If they had really wanted him dead, he'd have been explaining himself to Námo long since. "Merry be the Greenwood," he said, raising the cup and draining it in one gulp.
Tûron grinned as Thranduil doubled over and made a face. "Nuath!" he gagged. "That is vile!"
"It is an acquired taste to be sure," Tûron said, reaching out to take the cup from Thranduil's clenched hand. He dipped into the cauldron and drew a cup for himself. He swallowed his draught and handed the cup back to Thranduil. "One for me, tonight, and one more for you. It is custom."
"Whatever you say, Hîr Adar." Thranduil dipped his cup again, hoping that whatever Avorren healer had mixed this noxious brew, she knew what she was doing. If not, he hoped Oropher would not miss him too badly. He cast a glance across the clearing to catch his wife's eye. She smiled at him encouragingly, and he smiled back. "Worth it," he whispered and drank.
If anything, this second draught went down harder than the first. Thranduil grimaced and choked. "I swear that tastes just like piss!"
"It is," Tûron said tersely.
Thranduil's stomach gave a violent lurch.
"Keep it down, son, don't waste it," Tûron said quickly. "Our healers eat the mushrooms and filter them through their bodies to forestall the worst of the effects. I know it sounds unpleasant, but believe me, it is better this way."
"You have no idea how unpleasant," Thranduil groaned. 'The Belair must hate me to be putting me through this,' he added silently.
He felt Tûron's hand on his shoulder. "The first time is always the hardest. If you begin to feel ill, spit. It is not elegant, but it is effective." Others had begun to approach the cauldron, lining up to dip their cups. "Come, let us step aside. You will feel better in a moment."
'I cursed well hope so,' thought Thranduil as Tûron led him off behind a tree. Thranduil leaned back against the big beech, feeling the bark against his bare skin. He sucked the night air in deeply, fighting the nausea. He fell into a rhythm as time stretched out. Breathe. Spit. Breathe. Spit. At last his stomach settled, but his head began to feel oddly-sized, as if it were detached and floating about a foot above the rest of his body.
"Are we ready, here?" Nènlû asked, appearing round the tree as the slow beat of a hide drum started up from the clearing.
"I think so," Tûron replied.
Thranduil could not help noticing that both men slurred their words slightly. He giggled. Silly Evyr, couldn't hold their . . . whatever it was.
"I know so," said Nènlû, giving Thranduil a sidelong look.
"What next?" It seemed to Thranduil that he heard his own voice as if from far off, and his words, too, were slurred. He laughed again. Suddenly, everything seemed very amusing.
"We join the women and we dance," said Tûron, taking him by the forearm and propelling him forward.
Dancing? That would be interesting, Thranduil thought, as his father-in-law led him back into the clearing, for his feet did not seem to be making firm contact with the ground. But rejoining the women sounded like a capital idea.
Somewhere, off in the trees, a reed flute began to play a melody both wild and alien to Thranduil's ears. It put the wind in his blood, and his heart began to race, his body eager to surrender to the rhythm. Soon, the coarse rattle of pebbles inside a gourd joined the piping of the flute and the beat of the drum.
The women stood in the center of the clearing, hands linked in a circle and facing outward. Lalaithiel stood among them, her hand clasped in her mother's, waiting for him it seemed. Her pale eyes bored into him, piercing straight to his heart. In the small triangle of flesh at the base of her throat she wore a newly placed mark no larger than the span of his thumb. It was no rune Thranduil had ever seen, and he could not decipher it, yet he felt a sudden overwhelming urge to kiss that mark. Compelled, he moved forward.
"Not yet, Thara-ndhul," Tûron said, taking hold of his left wrist and restraining him. "There will be time for that later. Take my hand now."
Thranduil clasped hands with Tûron on the left and Nènlû to his right. "What are the steps?" he whispered.
"They are of no matter," Tûron whispered back. "The great circle is the thing. Let the music guide your feet." With that, the circle of men began to move to the left, while the women stepped to the opposite direction. Lalaithiel, who had been directly in front of him, moved rapidly away among the whirling dancers.
Thranduil paid no attention to what his feet were doing. Running, skipping, following an intricate pattern, it made no difference, for his attention was fixed upon his wife's dark head as she went round the circle and returned to him. He caught the flash of her pale eyes and the gleam of his mithril necklace at her bosom as she flew past him and was gone again. Thranduil began to feel dizzy, keeping track of her among the spinning bodies.
The tune changed, the pace of the drumbeats accelerating, and the circle suddenly broke into two smaller ones, as the inner circle of the women did the same. Lalaithiel remained within Thranduil's grouping, and she flew past him even more rapidly now. The scene took on an eerie clarity in Thranduil's vision. It seemed to him that he saw as vividly as if it had been bright noonday. Eyes and teeth flashed in the reflected light of the stars, and the skin of the dancers glowed with an inner radiance all their own.
The circles broke and reformed again. Lalaithiel was tantalizingly close now, as she sped past. The piping of the flute worked its way into Thranduil's brain. He could smell the hair of the women, and in amongst it he caught the clean earth and rain scent of his wife's skin, so deliciously learned and savored last night. The mark in the hollow of her throat drew him in like a metal filing to a lodestone, and the beat of the drum echoed the racing rhythm of his heart.
Once more the circles broke and Thranduil felt Tûron and Nènlû let go his hands. Before him was only Lalaithiel, holding out her hands to him. He took them, arms outstretched, and began to swing her, faster and faster, keeping up the momentum of the dance. From the corner of his eye, he could see that the others had left off and formed a circle about them.
As the two of them whirled, Thranduil recalled how some seasons ago he had seen two eagles above the mountain tops, a male and a female in their mating flight. High, they had flown, almost out of sight in the clouds above, until they clasped talons and spiraled to the earth, breaking apart at the last moment to return to the clouds and do it again. Thranduil had watched them long, enchanted by the magical spectacle of the two noble creatures coming together. And then, as Thranduil observed from below, the male eagle had taken his mate . . .
Thranduil threw back his head and uttered a mighty laugh that issued from the very depths of his faer. Never had he known such joy before, and never, he felt, would he know it again. He pulled his wife in close, his lips seeking her throat. The music ended with a crash of the gourd.
"He's ready," he heard a voice say, as hands gripped his arms, holding him back. He fought against the restraint, groaning in frustration.
He heard laughter. "More than ready, from the look of things."
A hand grasped his sore bicep, bringing him back to reality. "Ai!"
"Not yet, Thara-ndhul," Tûron's voice sounded softly in his ear. "Soon, but not yet."
As they led him away again, Thranduil glanced back to glimpse Lalaithiel's face. She stood silent, watching him, her longing showing as deeply as his own. Her moonstone gaze held a message: "Courage."
Thranduil smiled back, before she was lost to his sight.
"Leave us," Tûron commanded, when they had reached the edge of the clearing. "I must take counsel with my îdiondo alone." The other Avorren men, Nènlû among them, nodded and melted off into the night.
"Show me your knife, Thara-ndhul," Tûron said.
Thranduil unsheathed his hunting knife, a Laegren dagger with a steel blade and a handle of carved bone. He had always been proud of the simple, unadorned weapon, so appropriate a tool for a Wood-elf, in contrast to the one Oropher carried, which almost looked to Thranduil as if it were of Dwarven make, although he had never dared remark upon it. He held the knife out to Tûron, hilt first.
Tûron grunted and shook his head. "That won't do. You must have no metal about you for the rest of this night. Nothing that the earth does not give freely for the taking. Here," he said, "use mine."
Tûron held out his own blade of dark obsidian, its solid stone hilt wrapped in deer hide and thong. Thranduil accepted it with a nod of thanks, grateful that he had not chosen to wear his trousers with the silver nibs on the lacings tonight, else he find himself exchanging pants with his father-in-law as well. The knapped blade looked every bit as sharp as it had felt earlier in the evening.
"Guard it well," Tûron said, pocketing Thranduil's own knife. "It bears the blood of kings."
Blood of kings. What was that supposed to mean? Instead, Thranduil asked, "I'll need a knife?"
"If you are your father's son, you should know that every elf needs a knife when in the woods."
Of course, Thranduil thought. Tûron's words seemed reassuring on the face of them, yet the look in his eyes said something else. "What must I do?" he said, feeling the chill of the night's purpose settle on him.
"Go into the trees, Thara-ndhul," Tûron replied. "Your faer will lead you to your destiny." His father-in-law gestured upward.
Thranduil found himself at the foot of the same oak where his abortive arboreal journey had started out that afternoon. He leaped, caught the branch, and again drew himself up to stand balancing on the balls of his feet. He stood swaying on the all too narrow branch, drunk and giddy from the strange Avorren mushroom potion. 'You are going to break your neck this time,' his small voice of reason informed him.
Tûron's voice came from below, deep and comforting. "Let your heart run ahead, son, and your feet will follow."
Thranduil looked down into the silver glinting eyes of his father-in-law, and his spirit felt buoyed, for he divined that the man meant him well. Suddenly his failure earlier in the day meant nothing; the darkness meant nothing, and neither did his dizziness. Thranduil believed.
He sprang forth and ran, paying little attention to where he put his feet, his mind fixed only on the path in front of him. His route was not a matter of conscious decision. Some indefinable goal called to him from deep within the forest, and it seemed to Thranduil as he ran that the very trees bent their branches before him to help in on his way. Soon he had left the clearing far behind.
Through the shifting leaf canopy above, Thranduil saw the coldly burning stars. Below lay the darkness of the forest floor, and all around him, he sensed the life-force of the ancient Greenwood itself. From up ahead, he began to hear a pulsating noise that matched the rhythm of his own heartbeat. Curious, he turned and made for it.
As he approached, the sound resolved itself into the thunder of many hooves. Below him ran a herd of deer, some white and glowing in the starlight, and yet others as black as the deepest corridors of Moria. It seemed a strange thing to Thranduil, for all appeared to be stags, and he had never seen males group in such great numbers, not even in the rutting season, which, at midsummer, would not come for several months.
Thranduil watched the deer pass below him for a time, keeping pace with their movement. Then, by some strange impulse, he leapt from the branches and dropped among them, hitting at a dead run.
To run among the deer was madness, he told himself, for a single careless swipe of the antlers could gut him before he even knew what happened. And yet he laughed and sped onward, at one with the herd, glorying in the working of his muscles and the sensation of his soft-soled boots on the leaf-strewn forest floor. He breathed in deep, filling his nostrils with the musk of the animals and the scent of his own sweat.
As he ran, he began to outpace the deer, moving forward in the body of the herd. He could see the lead animal up ahead now, a great stag, black as the wing of a craban, with fourteen points on its massive rack. Suddenly, the stag whirled and turned to face him, bringing the entire herd to a standstill. Gingerly, Thranduil walked down the gauntlet of motionless stags, conscious of the myriad pale eyes upon him as the deer regarded him warily. One by one, they stepped back, allowing him through to their leader.
A white stag briefly lowered its head and shook its antlers menacingly. Thranduil held out his empty hands in placation. 'A three pointer,' he thought, 'not even ready for the hunting yet.' And, indeed, he had hunted enough of them during the past age to know.
"I mean no harm," he said aloud, and the young stag backed off, but Thranduil felt suddenly vulnerable, bare-chested, his own skin pale as the deer and open to the night air, armed with naught but a belt-knife.
The black stag stood silent, regarding him calmly. A faint dusting of white hairs on its muzzle betrayed its venerable age, even if the number of points on the mighty antlers had not. Thranduil approached cautiously, staring deep into pale eyes.
"I know you," Thranduil breathed in wonderment, remembering a stag he had pursued into a forest glen many years past, only to be distracted by a bathing girl. "You led me to her."
The stag dipped one huge antler as if nodding in agreement. Thranduil heard a voice in his mind: 'Yes.'
Thranduil laid his hand to his heart and inclined his head. "I thank you, brother. She is my life. What would you have of me in return?"
'Nothing. And everything,' came the voice in his head. 'I would have you, Son of the Tall Beech.'
Thranduil looked up just in time to see a flash of horn, sensing a passing blow and feeling the sting as the tip of a sharp antler laid his cheek open to the night air. He put his hand to his face and brought it away again, dark with his own blood. Thranduil stepped back in shock, yet strangely, he felt no fear, for the stag could just as easily have disemboweled him had it wished to do so.
Slowly, the stag lowered its head. Thranduil stretched out his hand and placed it between the animal's eyes, leaving a mark in his own blood. The stag raised its muzzle and tipped its rack to one side, laying bare its neck in a gesture of unmistakable meaning. Tûron's knife hung heavy at Thranduil's hip. Slowly he drew it, feeling the hilt warm to his touch, the very blade seeming to quiver in his grasp. He sensed what was being asked of him, yet could the beast really mean . . . ?
When Thranduil hesitated, the stag shook its head and stamped its foot angrily. Again, it bared its neck to the knife.
Thranduil readied his blade to strike, taking in a deep breath. At the last moment, he turned it aside. "No, Old One," he said, making a shallow nick in the soft hide, far from the vulnerable jugular. "Go in joy and peace. Make your way into the forest and find whatever end awaits you there. My hand will not deal your death."
As he dipped his finger in the resulting trickle and marked his own forehead, Thranduil again heard the voice in his mind. 'So be it, Young One; you have sealed your own doom. Long life for you, and none will come to give you surcease, even though the burden become heavy and the task wearisome.'
Thranduil looked into the stag's pale eyes and laughed. Life in the Greenwood lay before him, joy lay before him, and never could it become weary. "Are we done here?"
The stag snorted and tossed its dark head. 'You have chosen your fate. We are done.' It wheeled and sprang away into the forest, the others following. Within moments, Thranduil stood alone in the night.
Thranduil did not tarry long, for he knew where he wished to be. Again, he sprang into the trees, his trees, as he was coming to think of them, and he ran, the branches seeming to bend to his will and speed his way. The night drew to a close, for as he sped onward he caught, through the leaves, glimpses of a bright star rising in the east. Eärendil, the Golodhrim called it, but his own folk had named it Gil-estel, the star of hope.
Thranduil dropped down into a clearing beside a pool. In a bower of pine branches that he had built with his own hands, Lalaithiel awaited him, lying on a bed of soft leaves and flower petals, her arms wide open. Thranduil fell into them, his lips at last claiming the mark in the hollow of her throat. He tasted blood and sweat, and the strange bitterness of the oak gall ink used to make the mark, along with the delicious flavor of his wife's skin.
Knowing that the first words out of his mouth this night would be in the nature of a blessing that would govern his future existence, he drew back, even as his hands fumbled with laces, ripping away the last vestiges of clothing that kept him from her. "You are the love of my life," he whispered, rushing in toward that which to him at the moment seemed to be the very center of the universe . . .
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Îdiondo: The concept of son-in-law would be alien to Primitive Elvish, so for dialogue I combined the word îdî (heart) with iondo (son) to get 'son of the heart'