2. The Shadows Deepen
"The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces."
Thranduil rubbed the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair. The written figures he'd been studying for the past two hours swam before his tired eyes, but they told a satisfying story. The food stores gathered by his people during the summer months -- nuts for bread and oil, various fruits both dried and preserved, with the excess made into wine, and the roots and herbs that the forest yielded -- would be sufficient to get them all through the winter, augmented by the fresh game his hunters would bring in.
There had been years in which his realm had been forced by the scarcity of naturally occurring food into trading their furs and his father's slowly dwindling hoard of gold to the Edain who dwelt on the wide river plain to the west in return for the grain they grew. But not this year.
Less reassuring to him were the reports of his scouts. A tower of stone had begun to rise on the summit of Amon Lanc, once their home but long abandoned after Oropher had taken them ever northward to put distance between himself and the Naugrim of Moria, or so he said. Thranduil had always suspected it had as much to do with the growing influence of his distant cousin Celeborn and his Lachenn wife in Lothlórien, although he held his peace about it. At first, he'd thought it a quaint eccentricity to be tolerated in a parent. But after the events during the campaign of the Last Alliance, he understood his father's mistrust of the Golodhrim only too well.
Three times they had moved, uprooting the folk to do so, and Oropher had promised their current home would be the last. And so it had been, for almost ten long-years, by Thranduil's count. The western glens of the Emyn Duir were a good home to him, filled with sweet memory.
However, the newcomer upon Amon Lanc had orcs and other foul things in his train. A cold hand gripped Thranduil's heart when he looked to the south and thought of that fell tower casting its shadow over the sunlit hilltop of his childhood. Sauron's evil was supposed to have been banished from the Middle lands forever and yet . . .
His desk held reports of a growing shadow emanating from the south. Strange creatures in the woods: black squirrels, black butterflies, and spiders of a size more suited to the spawn of Ungoliant than for those tiny innocuous beasts that wove their webs in the crannies of a household and kept the vermin in check.
The door to his privy chamber crashed open. "My Lord! Is Master Galion with you? I must find him!"
"He was in my bedchamber attending to the airing of my court robes last I saw him." Thranduil put on his best indulgent smile for the panicked waiting-maid. The girl was young and had no idea of proper ceremony. "Now what is so urgent that you must burst in on your King at his work?"
"His wife, Mistress Nínim -- he must come now!" The girl was nigh unto incoherent. "She's dying!"
"Morgoth's balls," Thranduil muttered. Hang protocol. He cast his quill aside. "Take me to her. Now!"
"Her granddaughter's chambers, my Lord, follow me quickly!"
Thranduil trailed the weeping girl through the hallways of his own palace. He found the room filled with people when he arrived: healers, guards, and a woman clutching an infant to her chest and sobbing hysterically. His chief healer, Nestalinde, knelt over the convulsing form of Galion's wife. She spared him a desperate glance before returning to her work, tightening a thong tourniquet around the woman's upper arm and applying astringent herbs to a blackened puffy wound on her hand.
"What happened here?" he demanded helplessly.
One of the guards pointed to the corner, where a spider the size of a small dog lay with its legs curled in death, one of its eyes oozing sickly pale fluid. "It got in through the open window, Sire, near as I can tell. Mistress Nínim came in and found it on the edge of the cradle, going for the babe. She plucked it back and managed to stab it through the eye with a fire poker, but not before it dealt her a killing sting. She saved her grandchild but . . ." He shook his head.
To his horror, Thranduil could see that Nínim's fingers and the tip of her nose had begun to darken and shrivel. Her eyes had rolled back in her head and a trickle of foam ran from one corner of her mouth.
Thranduil swallowed the bile that rose in his own throat. He knew how spiders fed, dissolving their prey from the inside and sucking out the juice at their leisure, leaving only the hollow husk dangling in their webs. "Galion is in my chambers. Send for him immediately. There's no time to lose."
"It is already done, my Lord. I dispatched people to any location he might be."
Sure enough, Galion came through the door at a dead run and threw himself to his knees beside his prostrate wife. "Nínim? I'm here, love. Speak to me, I beg you!" Her sightless eyes stared past him. "Please, meleth, don't do this! Stay with me . . ."
'I should not be seeing this,' Thranduil realized. It was too raw, too intimate. He had no more business witnessing the final moments of Galion's marriage than he would have its consummation. Privacy -- he must give them what privacy he could. "Out!" he ordered. "All but Galion and the healers."
The young woman turned a tear-stained face to the tableau and hesitated. "Grand-nana . . ."
"Now!" He hustled her from the room and shut the door behind him.
He leaned back against the wall, thinking of the open windows throughout his palace and of spiders climbing silently up walls and dropping from the trees. Sweet Elbereth . . .
"Thranduil! What happened?" Lalaithiel came hurrying towards him, her hands still damp from her dye work.
He held his arms out to her, unable to trust his voice, and shook his head. He drew her in, feeling the comforting warmth of her body next to his, burying his face in her fragrant dark hair. And in his mind's eye it was Lalaithiel who lay stricken on the floor. He tried to shut out the vision of himself kneeling beside her, holding her hand and watching helplessly as she died, consumed from within . . .
* * *
Thranduil sat at his desk, not really seeing the document in front of him. He had read it three times in the past hour, and each time he had forgotten what it held. The palace echoed with the sound of hammering as his artisans affixed wooden grills to every window.
The door creaked open. "Your tea, Sire."
He looked up, instinctively expecting to see a dark head and then stopped short. "Fefelas . . .?"
"Galion is with his family, my Lord, doing . . . what must be done."
Thranduil sighed. Galion's wife had died in the night, never wakening. The absence of his valet's familiar face drove the loss home even further.
"Thank you, Fefelas."
Comfort. The familiar. Thranduil thought of this as the door shut behind the servant, realizing how complacent he had become, how assured of his safety. He looked around his privy chamber, seeing it as if anew: the carvings on his wooden mantel, worn smooth by years of the hands of chambermaids as they steadied themselves while stooping to clear the ash from the hearth, the view from his window, changing ever slowly as trees grew up, died, and were replaced by their offshoots.
He rose and wandered out into his throne room, his eyes taking in the high, vaulted rafters and the carved throne. How gingerly he had sat upon it at first, returning home following his father's death in the south, yet by now it had worn itself to the contours of his body. He thought of the room upstairs to which he had brought Lalaithiel as a young bride. Theirs now -- it fit them like an old, broken-in boot.
But what did he see, now that he looked at it with a fresh eye? Wood. Old, dry wood and thin walls -- and the forest outside growing darker, less green. Walls that would never stand against . . .
His mind could no longer block out the report on his desk. Orcs had attacked a settlement at the southernmost edges of his realm. They had been turned back with only a few casualties, but the fact that they had attacked at all was troubling. Following the loss of Isildur at the fields of the Gladden, Thranduil had hunted the ones responsible, driving them into the sanctuary of the Misty Mountains. The remainder had hidden themselves in the far corners of the woods, he had no doubt. But they had known better than to assail his folk. Until now.
Where one band came, others would come. In a changing world, this palace, so long a delight, would never withstand an attack. Thranduil needed a fortress.
With a last wistful glance at his throne room, Thranduil returned to his privy chamber and removed a small wooden casket from the drawer of his desk. Inside lay a ring of carved onyx, incised with a stylized beech tree. He took it up and held it, clenching his fist until the sharp edges of the stone dug painfully into his palm. The signet felt as cold as it had when he took it from his father's dead finger at the end of the last Age. "Oh, Father, some wisdom, please. What am I to do?"
As ever, he heard nothing but silence, felt nothing but emptiness. After more than a thousand years he had trouble recalling Oropher's face to his mind.
But memory came at last, an odd memory of himself as a child, on the sunlit summit of Amon Lanc. Oropher sat beside him on the grass, in shirtsleeves, his face turned up to the sun, free of kingly care. They had not often been alone, just the two of them, and Thranduil smiled softly as he remembered the day.
In the blue sky, a hawk circled lazily, borne aloft on the warm summer winds. Only a few yards from their feet, a lone rabbit hopped about, grazing on tender shoots. Turning his attention back to earth from a cloud that looked like the rump of his pony, Thranduil saw the hawk cease its circling and stoop. "Ada," he whispered, "the rabbit . . ."
"Hush, Thranduil," his father had said, laying a reassuring hand upon his shoulder. "Stay still. All will be well."
Sure enough, as the shadow of the plummeting bird crossed the grass, the rabbit put on a burst of speed and disappeared down an almost invisible hole in the hillside. The hawk swooped low and then retook the sky, seemingly unperturbed.
Thranduil heard Oropher chuckle beside him. "Watch, my son. Watch and learn from the birds and the beasts and all the other things of nature. They have a wisdom that the 'Wise-elves' of the west have forgotten long ago in their love of gems and power."
"The rabbit hides, Father. It is a weak, cowardly thing."
Oropher had sighed then. "Don't think like the Golodhrim, son. It is not cowardice to run from a fight you cannot possibly win. I came east to put a distance between myself and such things; to live as elves were meant to do. Our friend the coney has the best house of all, the earth itself. Elu Thingol knew this when he built Menegroth, and no one dared call him coward."
"No one dared call him coward," Thranduil whispered, returning the signet ring to its hiding spot. He took a deep breath and rang for a footman. "Fefelas," he said, when the servant appeared, "have Lord Séregon attend me now. Tell him it is a matter of urgency."
He waited patiently for his chief advisor to show up. The familiar room looked different to him now, dear, yet strange and fading, as he already mourned its loss. The door opened.
"Séregon, I want you to send out scouts, seeking a place with the specifications I shall give you." The hammering of the carpenters echoed as hollow as his heart. "Old friend, this is what I propose . . ."
* * * * * * *
Lachenn: Flame-eyed. A not very respectful Sindarin term for the Noldor
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