7. The Marble Arch
"Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,"
The Song of Songs
Lalaithiel awoke that morning to find Thranduil already up and dressed in simple attire, sitting at the foot of the bed. "Get up, my dear," he said, "and put on your riding clothes. We travel north today, and I wish to cover many miles before nightfall."
She blinked and ran a hand through sleep-tousled hair. "You take too much for granted, Thranduil. What if I refuse to come?"
His face took on a look she rarely saw, and when she did see it, it was directed at others, not her. "Need I remind you that I am your husband and your King? I am loath to order you, but I will do so if you force me."
"Is that so?"
He nodded. "I will tie you to the back of my saddle and drag you north kicking and screaming all the way if I must." He paused then, his shoulders sagging just a little. "This is important. Please, Lalaithiel, at least have a look at what you so despise before you spurn it."
She raised an eyebrow. He merely crossed his arms and continued to stare at her.
"I would have to pack some things," she said.
He held up a neatly wrapped bundle. "No need -- I've taken the liberty."
"Oh, no, Thranduil! Please tell me you did not make Galion do it," she said, not sure whether to be horrified or amused at the thought of her husband's valet handling her under-things.
He shook his head. "I did it myself. I'm not entirely helpless, you know."
She gave him a long, piercing look and sighed. "Very well." She supposed she owed him that much.
The ride north took place mostly in silence, with only the creaking of saddle leather and the tramp of the guard's marching feet as accompaniment. Thranduil had insisted on traveling with a larger troop of soldiers than usual, because of her presence, Lalaithiel suspected. Galion accompanied them too, his light duties consisting only of raising their tent and ceremoniously laying out Thranduil's bedroll at night and bringing them their food at mealtime.
As the days passed, Lalaithiel noticed the sharply rising mountainsides and the deep ravines giving way to a more gentle rise and fall of the land. The forest changed too. She saw fewer and fewer of the dark firs that gave the Emyn Duir their name. The foliage of the hardwood trees, just newly come into leaf, looked like a lacy green mass against the brief glimpses of blue sky above. The woods smelled different too: a scent of spring flowers and the grass trampled underfoot rather than the ever-present smell of pine. How could anyone choose to leave that delightful perfume?
She had to admit grudgingly that the light was brighter, and not merely because the sun reflected off leaves rather than evergreen boughs. A sense of doom had lifted as they went north, an oppressive weight that she had not noticed -- so slowly had it crept up upon the mountains of her home -- until she came out from under it.
In time they reached a section of the forest where the oaks and elms rose gracefully and the grass below glowed with an emerald light. The trail began to drop, cutting down through a deep ravine that reminded Lalaithiel of the steep hillsides at home. At the bottom lay a flat expanse of river bank dotted by stands of willows and cottonwoods. The river lay beyond, spanned by a stone bridge, and beyond that rose a tall hill, more like a mountain in shape, with vertical faces of bare rock on its upper heights.
At the sight of the bridge, Lalaithiel gave her husband a penetrating look. She had been literate for many counts of long-years, ever since Oropher had come among them from the south with his system of marks for the rendering of sounds and ideas. In the early days of her marriage, to quell the boredom and loneliness while Thranduil was off to war in the south, also to gain knowledge of her husband's people and the wisdom to rule them during the period of her regency, she had passed the time reading the histories she found in Oropher's collection of books and scrolls. In a way, she could understand Thranduil's fear now, for these had contained tales of ancient and hidden kingdoms, of people she did not know, falling one by one to sack and ruin. She recalled one in particular, an underground fortress by the name of Nargothrond, that had been overrun when its king had made the tactical mistake of listening to the advice of a stranger and building a bridge over the river that ran past its gates.
Thranduil returned her a bland smile and said, in that disconcerting way he had of sensing her unspoken thoughts, "The bridge has a keystone, held in place by spell and hidden mechanism. At my word, or that of my captains, it will collapse into the stream. May Elbereth grant I never have to use it."
They dismounted on the other end of the bridge, leaving their horses to the servants and workmen. Up a wide half-flight of stairs lay a spacious semi-circular courtyard, and, beyond that, a set of massive stone doors banded in iron. Thranduil spoke a word, and the doors ground slowly open, revealing only darkness beyond the initial pool of bright sunlight. To Lalaithiel, in her present mood, it seemed like the mouths of hell.
Thranduil reached out his hand, and together they entered. The air was cool inside, pleasantly so, as Lalaithiel blinked, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloom. "It is like this year round," Thranduil said. "No more sweltering in the summer heat, and a simple fire suffices in winter."
They moved at first through a twisting tunnel lit by reddish torch light. Here and there passages branched off, to the stables and to storerooms, she supposed. The stone walls looked like the natural cave, with only a few rough tool marks where the way had been widened for easy passage. Was this the vaunted delving that had taken so many years to accomplish? She found herself unimpressed.
Beside her, Thranduil let out a little laugh. "Confusion for newcomers," he said. "Let strangers think us a rough and rustic folk. Those who take that fork in the tunnel back there to the throne room will never know differently. I don't want to reveal all my secrets."
They rounded a corner, and Lalaithiel found herself back in the light. They were in a capacious reception hall from which a wide stairway rose for two flights and then narrowed as it continued on to levels above. Its banister, carved from stone, was in the shape of a sinuous tree branch, mirroring the one at home in the Emyn Duir, as were the candle sconces that lit each landing. From far above came the pale natural glow of a light shaft. The stone floor of the chamber had been leveled and polished to a dull sheen.
In a tall fireplace along the opposite wall from the staircase, a small fire burned, chasing the damp and filling the air with the pleasant aroma of burning oak.
"Quite an improvement from the smell of bats," Galion murmured from his spot just behind Thranduil's other elbow.
"And Dwarves too," Thranduil replied. "Is all in readiness in the throne room?"
"I believe so, Sire, but I will make certain." Galion went off down a hallway at the rear of the chamber.
She and Thranduil followed at a leisurely pace. The wide passage curved gently, as if following a naturally occurring path, but the walls and floor were smooth save for a frieze of leaves and vines near the ceiling. Near the end, Thranduil said, "Shut your eyes." When Lalaithiel, in no mood to play games, turned and shot him a look, he continued, "Please, my dear, indulge me. I want this to be a surprise."
With a sigh, she complied and allowed him to take her by the hand and lead her forward.
"All right, you may open them."
She did, and found herself holding back a gasp. The room was large, roughly thirty of Thranduil's long paces from front to back and perhaps thrice man height. Here and there, at random, thick stone columns rose from floor to ceiling, as if grown out of the living rock. Compounding the asymmetry, these pillars had been carved into the shape of tree trunks, deftly chiseled lines suggesting bark in the middle, spreading branches near the top, and roots at the bottoms where they widened and flowed out onto the floor. Traceries of foliage adorned the room's ceiling, and the floor, unlike the smooth polished stone of the reception chamber and hallway, had been subtly incised to look like drifts of fallen leaves. Tiny light crystals had been set into the ceiling, and candles burned in candelabra carved into the shape of tree branches, which hung on the walls and the columns, three or four to a trunk. The entire effect was that of a moonless night out in the forest, with only the stars twinkling among the treetops.
The best lit area was a raised dais at the rear of the chamber, wide enough not only for Thranduil's throne and Lalaithiel's smaller ceremonial chair, but with room for a third. The sight gave her a pang. Despite over a thousand years of barrenness, Thranduil had still not lost hope of an heir. As a finishing touch, a beam of natural daylight from a carefully placed shaft fell directly onto the center of the dais, ready to illuminate the occupant of the throne that would eventually sit there as if it were a blessing from on high. How very, very like Thranduil! Her husband might be many things, Lalaithiel thought, but she had to grant he had good taste and a talent for showmanship.
Beside her, Thranduil cleared his throat. "Well . . .?"
Lalaithiel was impressed. She truly was. But some perverse part of her nature refused to give him this small victory. For all its magical splendor, the room was still a shadowy and secretive place, the refuge of a frightened man. "Very pretty," was all she said.
There followed a tour of a large hall for dining and feasting along with other common areas that might be used for workrooms. Up the grand staircase, on the second level, lay a library, empty for now but awaiting wooden shelves and Oropher's scrolls and copied books from the south. And on every level were the marvelous privies, where water for washing could be summoned by merely twisting a pipe in the wall.
At each new wonder, Lalaithiel merely smiled blandly and uttered her standard reply: "Very pretty." She noticed Thranduil beginning to exchange worried looks with Galion, who continued to trail them at a discreet distance.
"One more thing," her husband said, "and then you will have seen all you need to see."
To her surprise, they stopped and turned into an otherwise unremarkable door in the middle of a broad hallway that continued on to end at a set of ornate double doors some paces down. Finding herself in the sort of narrow passageway that servants might use, Lalaithiel raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Where did that lead? Those big doors, I mean."
Thranduil grinned. "To a storeroom for linens and other such supplies. I want that way to look inviting to anyone who might enter this abode bent on mischief. Come . . ."
They continued on a short distance and then took a right turn up three flights of narrow stairs to a wider hallway at the top. Unlike the perfection of the throne room, they seemed to have come to an area still under construction. Lalaithiel saw tools laid aside, and piles of wood shavings beside the newly hung doors.
"We're at the uppermost level," Thranduil said. "Above us is only the cistern and the top of the mountain. This is Galion's room," he said, with a passing gesture at a room whose door stood propped against the wall, awaiting installation. "And this is the royal suite."
They proceeded into a spacious sitting room chamber with a large fireplace where a cheery fire burned. The mantelpiece was carved with a design of oak leaves and acorns, and a crystal set into the ceiling lit the room almost as brightly as day. "We will have hangings," Thranduil said, "and paintings. Whatever scenes you wish to have about you."
Lalaithiel, who of course wanted to have the actual smells and sounds of the forest about her, merely set her lips. "Why the narrow hallways and the roundabout?"
"If enemies should manage to pierce the gate and gain entrance, they would not easily find their way to the chambers of those I love. The passageways look as if they lead to servants' quarters, and they will be disregarded. All my nobles will be in this wing."
Lalaithiel looked to catch Galion's eye, but the valet's face remained impassive.
Thranduil opened a narrow door at the right-hand side of the fireplace, revealing a narrow descending spiral staircase. "Directly below lies an identical set of rooms. For now, it will be a chamber for honored guests -- perhaps either one of those Ithryn who visited us a few years past, or even Elrond Peredhel, should he deign to pay us a call. But someday I hope . . ." Thranduil shook his head and left off. "But I get ahead of myself."
A wider door lay to the left of the hearth. A heavy oaken door with a sturdy drop bar. What, Lalaithiel wondered, did her husband think he might be fending off?
"The bedchamber," Thranduil said. "Come."
Galion bowed and turned away as Thranduil led her through and shut the door behind them. The room on the other side was as large as the outer chamber, with a fireplace backing the one in the sitting room, a niche that seemed designed to accept the headboard of a large bed, even though the room was as yet bare of furniture, and doors that she supposed led to dressing rooms.
Thranduil spoke not a word, but he went to the wall at the foot of the bed, the wall that Lalaithiel's internal sense of direction even underground told her faced to the west. He undid a metal latch and pulled open a wooden shutter. Fresh air came into the room, and the light of day. Through a window, set into some four feet of solid rock, Lalaithiel beheld the green forest to the west, with the silver ribbon of the river curling off into the distance.
She took it all in: the deeply set window, its heavy wooden shutters banded in steel designed to withstand a siege of dragon-fire or worse. Her husband was afraid, and for the first time she allowed that he might have good reason for it. And yet . . .
Thranduil stood there with the same look he had worn upon his return from Moria, the night he had given her the dearly won necklace that was to be his betrothal gift to her, the look of a man saying with deeds what his inadequate tongue could not express. On that night, simply glad that he had not gotten himself killed in the foolish gesture, she had reached out and taken him to her before she could lose him again, sealing their bond for however long fate might allow it to last.
Here he stood again, with so much more at stake this time. Imperfect. Flawed. Weak, in the secret moments between them. And yet, despite his fear he was giving her this gift. She would have to give up much for him: home, family, maybe more. Yet, could she live without him through the long-years until Ardhon Meth?
No, she decided, she could not.
As she had done so many years before, she held out her arms to him. "Oh, you great royal fool . . ."
"The window is set into a sheer cliff face," he mumbled.
"Nothing can get to it. I can turn a lever from the cistern and it will appear as if a waterfall is hiding it --"
"Shut up, Thranduil," she said, taking him in her arms the way she had on that moonless night so long ago. Like on that night, she pulled him earthward, and this time it did not even require the saying of the vows.
At the last moment, he turned and flipped her above him. "I'll be the mattress this time," he whispered. "No more the cold ground for you."
"Hush," she said, hands fumbling frantically at laces and pulling aside skirts to remove the barriers of cloth between them. "Oh, Thranduil, my love, how I have missed you!" she murmured as they joined and their utterances subsided into heavy breathing and her soft laughter.
A short time later -- a very short time -- Thranduil chuckled ruefully. "Well, that had to be the worst performance of my entire life."
Lalaithiel raised her head from Thranduil's shoulder, where she had buried her face after collapsing forward. "Never mind, my love. What it lacked in duration, you more than made up for with sheer enthusiasm."
"I'll make it up to you later, I promise."
She laughed. "Oh, I know you will." She rolled off him and began to smooth her skirts and redo her hair while Thranduil put himself away and laced up again.
Galion, consummate servant that he was, did not so much as turn a hair when the two of them went back out into the sitting room. He reached out to brush at the shoulder of Thranduil's jacket. "You have stone dust on your back, Sire," he said, his face neutral, and Lalaithiel saw the tips of Thranduil's ears pink up briefly.
"Galion," Thranduil said, "have our bedrolls brought up and laid out. We will dine here today, sleep here tonight, and leave in the morning."
"So soon, my Lord?"
"No need to stay any longer."
"All is well, then, Sire?"
Thranduil smiled and nodded. "Yes, Galion. All is well."
The day of leave-taking, so long awaited and so long dreaded, had finally arrived. Thranduil stood on the steps of his palace surveying the assembled train of his subjects. The Laegrim had gathered together their belongings and their children. His nobles, likewise, waited beside their horses, ready to mount at his signal. What furnishings had not already been transported to the caverns were strapped to pack animals. The chests containing Oropher's scrolls, those same scrolls written in the old king's own hand and carried east from Lindon at the founding of the realm, rode in litters slung between two horses. Ranks of pikemen stood at attention, ready to guard the journeyers on their way north.
The week before, Thranduil and Lalaithiel had paid a final visit to her parents, who maintained their refusal to leave the Emyn Duir, and afterward, the two of them had bidden their clearing a last farewell. There, on the soft bed of moss and pine needles, he had kissed away his wife's tears and made love to her, although for one of the few times since he had returned from the war, he deliberately held back the calling of the faer, feeling it unfair to any child to be engendered in a moment of such grief.
Lying together afterwards, she had whispered, "I loved this spot, and I will miss it."
"I'll bring you back here someday. I promise."
She had buried her face in his neck. "Hush, Thranduil. Never make a promise you cannot keep. I have you beside me, wherever we go, and that will be enough."
And now, in the early morning of a summer day, he gazed for the final time on the airy wooden palace that Oropher had built. For over ten ennin a place of song and laughter, the halls which had once echoed to his father's voice now stood empty.
"Sire . . .?" Galion's voice prodded him, awaiting the word.
Thranduil began to give the order to shut and bar the doors behind them, but at the last moment he stopped himself. What did he wish to lock out? Let the deer wander through his throne room. Let the foxes and the badgers come and the birds nest in the rafters. Let families of squirrels shelter in the room where he and Lalaithiel had lain twined in each other's arms. Let the creatures of the wood make use of it until the forest reached out to claim its own, and the rotted fallen timbers nourished a new generation of trees that would sprout in the ruins. The place was his no longer.
"Come," was all he said. He turned and helped Lalaithiel up onto her mare.
The long procession wound its way down the twisting mountain paths. At the turn of the trail Thranduil began to hear singing, a wild and plaintive lament in an ancient tongue, and he looked up to see the ravine sides dotted with the faces of the Faithful peering out from the trees. At the very top of the ridge stood Tûron and Nîwel, their hands raised in a silent gesture of farewell.
Beside him, Lalaithiel rode, her eyes dry and her face bleak. Slowly, deliberately, she changed her grip on the reins and reached out to slip her palm into his. Thranduil clasped it and together the two of them rode, hand in hand, into the north.
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.