3. Part Two: On the Sad Height
'Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay . . .'
Dressed only in a robe thrown over a pair of loose-fitting trousers and wearing soft slippers, Thranduil eased open the door of his private study and padded over to his desk. Lalaithiel lay abed in their chamber upstairs, sleeping the sleep of contented exhaustion. Thranduil needed his sleep as well, but a nagging sense of duty had kept him from his rest. Let his beloved slumber; he would not waste her waking hours attending to the overdue business of his realm.
As he suspected, a pile of documents had accumulated on his desk in the past week. At the top rested a long list of names, a final tally of those who had returned along with Legolas. Thranduil moved aside the rock that Galion had used as a paperweight and read, nodding with approval as he recognized many who had been lost to his realm at the Dagorlad and during the long-years of Mirkwood's battle against the Enemy. Some were strange to him -- returnees from Lothlórien, he supposed, or dissatisfied elves of Aman.
Even as he rejoiced in those returned, his heart sank at the absence of those names he had hoped to see and did not. Haldhoron, Galion's son, had been prominent on the list of the returnees, but Galion's wife did not appear. "Oh, my old friend," Thranduil sighed.
He turned the roster over and set it aside. No use grieving over what could no longer be changed. Next on the pile, he found the monthly accountings, reports of the production of the realm. River tolls had fallen to nothing as the folk to the west came to fear the Wood and call the Forest River haunted. Just as well, Thranduil thought; the upkeep of the banks had always been onerous, and he had much disliked the mannish traffic that sailed beneath his stone bridge in days past.
Silk production, alas, had diminished as well. With each generation, the great spiders had grown smaller, along with the size of their webs. His elves no longer hunted them, but rather, encouraged them to breed and spin their strands between the trees. Although the beasts were more numerous, their output had not kept pace with that of days past. On the plus side, while exports of silken cloth had fallen, the amount of raw dyes and medicinal plants harvested from the forest had risen. Trade goods still floated down the Forest River to Laketown, while gold and foodstuffs returned.
Pleased with the figures, Thranduil leaned back in his chair and massaged the bridge of his nose. He felt chagrined to see two months' worth of reports in the stack. Had he truly let things slip so badly? Now that the returnees from Aman required food, shelter and assignment to meaningful work, that would have to change. The income and outflow figures also reminded him that he had not been to Laketown in some years to renegotiate the trade agreements with the men of Rhûn and further east. This too required his attention.
No longer did he ride to Esgaroth as Thranduil Oropherion, the Elvenking whose gold had rebuilt the town. Now, he played the role of an eccentric merchant who covered his ears with his bright hair and kept his sources of goods a dark secret. Even so, his heart warmed at the thought of taking Lalaithiel with him on his next visit, to spend the night with her in a suite of rooms in an old inn beside the market pool.
The door creaked open, and Thranduil looked up, expecting that Galion had brought him a late night glass of wine. He saw a flash of pale hair and smiled; not his butler, but his son. Legolas!
His smile froze on his face. The hair was the same. The stubborn set of the chin, the same, but -- no, it couldn't be! He had searched the list in vain for that one special name he both hoped and dreaded to see.
"Ada . . .?" Thranduil squeaked, his voice breaking for the first time since his youth.
"Hello, son," said Oropher, sauntering in with his customary self-assurance. He leaned against Thranduil's fireplace, one elbow draped nonchalantly over the mantel. "It's good to catch you alone at last. I knew that if I bided my time you'd have to come up for air eventually."
His lips quirked in the crooked grin Thranduil remembered so well. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I spent the first fortnight following my release from Mandos in bed, making up for lost time. At least we're seeing you two at dinner."
"Ada . . .?" No, it still came out in a bleat. Best to shut up until he could master his own voice.
"I really like what you've done here," his father continued, running his hand over a carved frieze of stone leaves decorating the mantel. After two thousand years of staring at it, Thranduil had ceased to notice the small details he had taken such delight in designing during the early days of the stronghold's occupation. Now, he saw it anew. "The ventilation and light tubes are better than Thingol had back in Menegroth. And those marvelous privies! I'm impressed, boy."
"How . . .?" Thranduil managed to choke out. He still hadn't quite caught his breath.
"Legolas has been giving me the grand tour for the past week, while you and your lady play catch-up."
Thranduil shook his head and made an unhappy face. "Legolas. I've been neglecting him."
Oropher barked out a laugh. "Believe me, Thranduil, he understands. You managed to raise a fine son there -- gentle, brave, and with a good head on his shoulders. You should have seen him arguing his case at Máhaxanar. He really did you proud. Stood right up to Manwë Súlimo
Thranduil leaned back in his chair, still speechless. Yes, this would be a tale for the telling, once he had the leisure to listen to it. His boy had defied the gods themselves in order to come home.
"Are you all right, Thranduil? You look ill." His father came over and sat down, putting his feet up on the desk. "Here, have a little of this, it'll set you to rights." He took a small flask from his pocket and held it out.
Thranduil pulled the stopper and took a gulp, expecting Miruvor, since the flask looked to be of Golodren work. Immediately, his throat and lungs flooded with liquid fire. "Aulë's Mighty Rod -- what is that stuff?" he wheezed. At least it hadn't come back out his nose.
"The distilled spirits of fermented rye liquor," Oropher said, reclaiming his flask. "I picked it up in a Mannish village while we were passing through Eriador -- although the Edain don't call it Eriador anymore. Nice, eh?"
Thranduil nodded more in acceptance than agreement. It surely had taken the edge off.
With the numbness came an odd clarity of thought. He knew what he must do next. Pulling open his desk drawer, he removed a key and a small casket. Inside the box lay a ring of silver and onyx, incised with the representation of a beech tree. "Your signet, Father," he said, holding it out. The metal felt as cold against his palm as the first time he'd held it in his grasp. "I took it from your finger before we . . ." He trailed off, unable to say the words. "You'll be needing it."
"Son . . ."
Thranduil slid the key across the desk and went on hurriedly, "This key opens the treasury vault. You'll find the accounts in order; the horde has grown nicely. I imagine Legolas has already given you the words that work the gate. But the spell for the vault is --"
"Thranduil," his father said again, this time louder, "what do you think you're doing?"
"You're the King," Thranduil said, meeting his father's pale blue gaze for the first time. "You're back. That means I'm the Prince again. Kings rule, and princes serve." He swallowed, not sure if he felt regret or relief.
"I'm sorry I don't have a crown for you. It's been a while since I've had the occasion to wear one." He shrugged, trying to remember. On the New Year? Or perhaps as far back as the Solstice, when he wore the holly berries. "Old Forlas still makes them up fresh whenever I need one, you'll be glad to hear. We're almost into flower season now."
"Thranduil . . ." Oropher slid the key back and covered his fist with a long-fingered hand that so resembled Legolas's that it made his heart clench. "Son . . . no. Why do you suppose you didn't see my name on that list?"
Thranduil shrugged and shook his head. He had never been good at riddles.
"I came back incognito," his father continued. "I kept to myself, hiding my face -- only Legolas and a few others know. I don't intend to take up the crown again."
"But, why not?"
"My long-years in Mandos gave me ample time for reflection," Oropher said, with a bitter laugh. "I realized I'm not cut out to be a king."
"But you founded this realm. You built it from nothing and led it for the better part of an Age."
"And my last act as King nearly destroyed it. It outweighs all that came before." Oropher picked up his signet ring and twisted it back and forth between his fingers. "Truth to tell, when it first happened I had a mind to remain houseless rather than answering Mandos' call. It wasn't until Galion's boy died and hovered there looking so lost, that I changed my mind. The two of us traveled west together. I've never felt easy about looking all those men in the eye. I've no wish to face their families now. No, Thranduil, this is all yours. You're better at the business of ruling than I am."
Thranduil shrugged and held out his hand. "Would you mind giving me that flask again?" Oropher handed it over and grinned while Thranduil took another swallow, this time a prudent amount. Even so, he coughed at the sensation of liquid flame. He doubted he would ever acquire the taste for this Mannish tipple, but in the absence of Dorwinion, it calmed his nerves. "Ada, in case you haven't noticed, I'm holed up in the furthest northeast corner of the Wood. In a cave."
"Manwë's bollocks, Thranduil!" Oropher exclaimed. "Since when have you been such a whiner?"
"Since you got yourself killed and left me a realm with two-thirds of its manpower gone," he shot back. "My first act as King was a screaming retreat, and I've been running before the Enemy ever since." He shut his eyes and tried to block out the memory of Oropher with an arrow through his neck, drowning in his own blood and silently begging for the stroke of mercy his own son lacked the courage to give. "I'm sorry, Father."
"It's all right, son," Oropher said softly. "You tried." He reclaimed his flask and took a swig. "I couldn't have done half so good a job of holding things together, given what I left you. Legolas told me what those Dwarves stirred up in Moria. Our old palace in the Emyn Duir would never have stood against that ancient horror if it came down to a fight. Nor against a dragon -- or any of the other creatures of The Enemy you had to face."
Oropher's hand shot out to grab his wrist, holding it up to the light of the fire. "Tell me what you see, Thranduil."
He looked, feeling the strong warmth of his father's grasp. "I see my hand. It's solid," he whispered, realizing that after the fell vision of the week before he would never be able to take the substantiality of his flesh for granted again.
"Yes, it's solid, and it will remain that way as long as you stay strong. But do you know what I don't see?"
Thranduil shook his head.
"I don't see any Ring of Power such as I know Gil-galad and Galadriel wore. I'm assuming Ereinion passed his on before he died?"
"He gave it to Elrond," Thranduil muttered. "At least I'm fairly certain he did. Imladris never seemed to change in all the times I visited there."
"You did it, son: held this realm together and built all this." Oropher gestured around, at the stone walls of Thranduil's chamber with their carven tracery of vines and leaves casting shadows from the firelight. "And all without the help of any Golodhren magic like the others had -- just through sheer force of will. You're the last one -- the only Elven king in the Middle lands -- and I'm not about to change that. I'd be a fool to change it."
Thranduil managed a shaky smile. "I've always said my father raised no fools. I daresay yours didn't either."
Oropher laughed and shrugged. "I wish I could say that. But my time in Mandos did teach me a few things. I've learned from my mistakes. Your mother and I were always the happiest living together alone in the wilderness, and that is what I plan to do. I'll go to Amon Lanc and build a cabin with my own two hands. Back to where it all started."
"I'm afraid it's a bit of a mess," said Thranduil, making a wry face. "We acquired some new tenants partway through the last Age. They weren't the best sort of folk."
"I think I'm up to the challenge," Oropher said. "It will keep me out of your hair. And on that score, there's someone you need to meet."
Thranduil cocked an eyebrow.
Oropher proffered his flask. "Best have another hit, son, before I bring her in."
"Her?" A third pull on the flask now seemed a very good idea. "You don't mean . . .?"
Oropher grinned and nodded.
"You left my mother standing out in the corridor?"
"Her idea," Oropher said with a laugh. "She waited long enough for me to get out of Mandos. She didn't want to send you there first thing from the shock of the two of us walking in here together."
"Wise woman," Thranduil muttered, taking a quick drink while his father got up and went to the door.
Oropher leaned out and beckoned. "Colwen, sweetheart, you can come inside now. He's ready."
Oh, no he wasn't, Thranduil thought. How could a man ever be ready for something like this? He sat back in his chair, listening to the hammering of his heart as Oropher led a woman into the room.
Thranduil rose and went to meet them, moving without conscious volition. Always, he had felt the odd one out among the Laegrim and the remnants of the Iathrim who made up his father's people. Yet here he saw, as if looking into a mirror, hair of vibrant gold, bright as the glint of sunlight off polished metal. He saw vivid blue eyes, unlike Oropher's pale sky color, and his own too-wide mouth and chiseled nose. His mother stood before him; his missing half at last.
The woman he had called Nana, Galion's mother, whose face he had seen above his cradle and to whom he had run with his childhood scrapes and bruises for comfort, had been dark-haired and short for an elf-woman. She had loved him, and he had returned that affection, yet always with the secret understanding that he did not come first in her heart. Now, confronted with this stranger, he felt at a loss.
He took her into his arms; it seemed the right thing to do. Although she stood a head shorter, and felt deceptively fragile within his embrace, Thranduil sensed that it was she who sheltered him. "Mother . . ." he whispered.
She pulled away and stood smiling up at him. "Hello, Thranduil. At last we meet. I've heard so much about you."
"All of it good, I hope," he said, with a sharp look at Oropher, who stood biting the inside of his cheek.
"For the most part," she replied with a quick laugh.
Thranduil saw his parents exchange a cryptic glance. "What? What am I missing?"
Again, the look passed between the two of them, as if they shared a secret joke. Colwen shook her head subtly, and Oropher nodded and turned to him. "That's enough for now, son. If I try to explain it, we'll be here all night, and you're not the only one who enjoys your . . . rest."
Thranduil let out a soft, frustrated sigh, and his father laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder.
"Don't be so impatient, Thranduil. That's another lesson I learned in Mandos. We'll answer any questions you care to ask tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that."
"You mean to stay for a while? Incognito, I assume?"
Oropher nodded. "Of course . . . 'Randirion.' 'Master Pethdan' and his lovely wife, Colwen, intend to hang around here for a few more weeks before heading south. We'll talk more. And if not, well, then we'll have all the time in the world."
"Very well then," Thranduil replied, a blush coloring the tips of his ears. Legolas had obviously been talking. "Good night, Father. Good night, Mother."
Oropher ushered his wife from the room and stopped, his hand on the doorjamb. "I once called you stubborn, son. Little did I know what a virtue that would turn out to be."
A rush of warmth filled Thranduil's heart, and Oropher returned his involuntary smile.
"Nicely done, Thranduil. Nicely done indeed."
To be continued . . .
Laegrim: Green-elves, Nandor
Iathrim : Doriathrins
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.