2. Uneasy Lies the Head
Chapter Two: Uneasy Lies the Head
"But there was in Thranduil's heart a still deeper shadow . . ."
JRR Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales
As Thranduil had promised, he did not remove his boots, and it was as delicious as it was brief. But when the storm of urgency passed, his wife insisted he take a bath. He did not mind this at all, because Lalaithiel knelt beside the tub, washing him with her own hands and checking over every inch of his body for wounds. Then, with him clean and his lady satisfied that he truly had returned to her whole, they went back to bed and made love until their strength ran out and they fell into the sleep of satiety.
Some time after nightfall, he sat up in bed with a yell of terror, his heart pounding. It took a few moments for him to recall where he was, and then a few more for him to notice Lalaithiel's hand shaking his shoulder. "Thranduil, my love -- what is the matter?"
He turned to face her and managed a shaky smile. These evil dreams had troubled him for much of his sojourn in Mordor. He was not the only one so afflicted. Often he'd heard Galion moaning in his sleep from his pallet in front of the tent's opening. Thranduil had hoped they would cease once he was home and had put the poisonous land far behind him, but it seemed this was not to be.
For a moment, he felt tempted to tell his wife about the fearful memories that became real again in sleep. But had he the right to ease his own heart, to lighten himself like a hound dragging home a piece of rotting carrion from the forest and dropping it on the hearth rug? He recalled Oropher's words, explaining why he had decided to join the newly formed Alliance of Men and Elves, even though he had no great love for the Golodhrim and their High King: If we don't fight the evil where it lives, and do it while we may, it will be on our own doorstep soon enough. Thranduil had left his young bride and faced the horror of the Dark Land to keep it away from her, and even though he feared he had brought the taint home with him, he would not let it touch her now. He would not drag her down into misery along beside him.
"Nothing but a foolish fancy, my love. It is over and done with."
"But, Thranduil --" she began, and when she touched his cheek he realized, to his everlasting humiliation, that it was wet with tears.
He rolled over to cover her then, stopping any further questions with his lips on hers. Soon her happy sighs told him that she liked him far better as a man grown, and one who loved her, than a frightened child pouring out his woes to her.
Afterward, although Lalaithiel's breathing subsided into a peaceful cadence punctuated by a few gentle snores, sleep eluded Thranduil. After lying wakeful for what seemed an eternity, he gave up and rose from his bed, careful not to disturb his sleeping wife.
The room had become unfamiliar to him in the seven years he'd been away, and he lacked his customary assistance from Galion. He groped around and managed to find a pair of loose trousers to pull on and a robe to throw over them. He padded downstairs, nodding to the occasional servant he found awake and abroad at this late hour.
His first stop was his father's study, which was situated in a little annex directly off the throne room. Like the first time he had entered the private area of the King's pavilion after Oropher's death, he felt ill at ease, as if he were an intruder. It was odd, really. He'd been in this room countless times before, bringing his father reports, discussing matters of state, and, all too often, called on the carpet for a variety of transgressions deemed unbefitting a scion of the House of Oropher. The most recent had been his blushing confession of his spur of the moment marriage to Lalaithiel the night before, a marriage that could not have come at a less fortunate time. Old as he was, this room still had the ability to reduce him to the state of a squirming child.
That would have to change. The room was his now.
He went to the desk and reached inside his robe. He took out Oropher's great signet ring, which had hung on a chain around his neck since he had removed it from his father's dead finger seven years before. Elf corpses decayed rapidly, more rapidly than those of Dwarves, or even Men, making transport of a body impractical if not impossible. Oropher, or what little was left of him, remained behind in the burial ground near the marshes where Amdir had met his end. On the journey home, Thranduil had noted unhappily that the ground had subsided or the water level risen, bringing the edges of the bog even nearer to the ranks of graves. Soon they would be engulfed entirely. The ring, a sharp-edged chunk of onyx incised with a stylized beech tree, was the only piece of his father that Thranduil could bring home. He pulled open a drawer, set the ring inside and shut it again.
In the corner stood a small drafting table where it had been Oropher's wont to work at his old craft of copying manuscripts for relaxation between his more kingly duties. The pens had been laid aside, the brushes cleaned and the ink pots emptied, but when Thranduil approached he saw that a parchment still lay affixed to the work surface, a sentence half completed when the hand that penned it had left for the south. Oropher had been that certain that he would return to finish the job.
"Oh, Ada . . ." Thranduil whispered and felt tears spring to his eyes for the second time that day. He shook his head angrily and drew the edge of his sleeve across his face. He never wept. What was wrong with him?
Back out in the throne room, a single oil lamp with the wick set low illuminated the empty throne. On a small table beside the throne lay a wreath of autumn leaves and dried red berries. Old Forlas, as he had done since the establishment of the realm, had made a crown up for Thranduil's use on the morrow.
Thranduil swallowed. Here lay a final step. Reluctantly, he mounted the dais, turned himself around, and settled gingerly onto the massive chair he had never thought in his entire life he would occupy. The wood felt cold, the seat poked him in odd places, and the knobs on the carved arm left voids beneath his hands. The throne, carved out of a single massive block of wood by a Laegren artisan in the earliest days of the realm, had known only one master: Oropher.
"Well, I see you wasted no time. Your lord father is barely cold, and you cannot wait to claim his chair."
Thranduil froze in the midst of shifting to find a more comfortable position. He saw the figure standing in the darkened doorway and thought, of course. This confrontation had been inevitable.
That portion of his mind that remained a small, frightened child wanted to protest that he had never desired this, had not been ready for it, not now or on that ghastly day at the Dagorlad, and that Oropher's throne could remain Oropher's until Ardhon Methfor all he cared and indeed had expected. But Thranduil recalled one of the few pieces of advice on leadership his father had ever given him: Make them respect you now, or they never will.
He leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs casually. "I can assure you, Helegui, my father is very cold. I saw him lowered into the earth myself."
"Magorion told me how it happened. Magorion! Alas, I can now almost count the remnant of the Eluwaith on the fingers of my one hand. How is it you escaped whole while so many fine warriors died?"
Helegui had a talent for putting his finger directly on a matter. This was a question Thranduil had asked himself nightly for seven years now. "I suppose there would have been more glory in standing our ground and dying to a man. I saved as many as I could, and myself in the process. Of course, my duty was in the King's guard, at my father's side in the thick of battle, rather than staying home to protect the wine cellar and the apple barrels."
Thranduil could see that remark hit home. "My lord, I was under orders."
"As was I." Thranduil took a deep breath. "Have you some other fault to find? You must, if you are dogging my footsteps at this late hour. You might as well get on with it."
Deaf to the tone in his King's voice, Helegui jumped right in. "It was bad enough Oropher saw fit to leave an unseasoned forest girl in charge as regent, but I thought she would have the wit to listen to experienced advice."
"Take care, Helegui. I would remind you that you are speaking of my wife -- your Queen," Thranduil said softly. "I assume that 'experienced advice' was your own?"
The seneschal nodded. "At the very least not that . . . that dark elf."
Thranduil sighed. "We are all of us dark elves, except for Elu, who saw the light of the Trees but forwent Aman for sweeter joys here in the Middle Lands. I suppose you mean Tûron?"
"Very well, go on. What is this horrid thing he did?"
"In the third year you were gone we had a summer drought followed by a hard winter. During the last week of Narwain, a group of Woodmen came to us, asking if we had food to spare them. We had not -- our own reserves were low -- and I told your lady that. But she insisted on taking the counsel of her father rather than mine. Tûron said that generosity is repaid in good will if nothing else, and Lady Lalaithiel, as regent, opened the stores to them as well as our own folk. The fare at the King's table became exceedingly sparse."
"You do not appear to have starved as a result," Thranduil said, "nor anyone else."
"Had the drought not broken the next summer, we might have done," Helegui replied sourly. "It was that, and a hundred small decisions in which my advice was overruled. Who is Tûron -- or any other Avar -- to meddle in the affairs of our realm?"
Indeed, who was Tûron? In the short time Thranduil had known his wife's father, he had become more of a mystery. The short answer was that Tûron was more than he seemed. Aloud, he said, "The Forest Folk are not our subjects, yet they are a part of this realm nonetheless. It was their presence that allowed Oropher to feel confident in taking so many of our men south, knowing there were those to guard the forest in his absence." He paused, sighed. "I must tell you, Helegui, I would have given the same advice and come to the same conclusion."
"And that, my lord, is why I must leave your service."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Thranduil ventured politely, although he felt anything but sorry at the prospect of having this particular thorn out of his side. "Do you intend to seek some other form of endeavor here within the Greenwood?" The vision of Helegui wielding a forester's axe or taking aim at a deer was ludicrous.
"I do not. The era of Great Greenwood as a second Doriath ended with the death of King Oropher. I shall depart."
"I really don't think it was intended to be that," Thranduil muttered. His father had not told him much about the past, but the one thing he had communicated was his distaste for the artificial pomp and cant of Thingol's court. "Perhaps you should try Imladris. Elrond Peredhel is not such a bad sort once you get to know him, despite all those Gelyd he keeps about him. He may be in need of a butler."
Helegui made a fleeting grimace of annoyance at being called a butler rather than the more prestigious title of seneschal and shook his head. "I plan to seek the Havens, to follow my King west. Oropher was a leader the likes of which we shall not see again. He built this realm from nothing and ruled it in glory throughout an Age. You, my lord, had your position handed to you, as a birthright. You have always been frivolous and cosseted, and your hasty marriage and choice of a queen are proof of your recklessness. You are not the man you father was, and I do not wish to tarry and see what becomes of this realm in his absence."
Thranduil took a deep breath. "Duly noted. Indeed, I am not the man my father was, or else your words just now would have earned you a banishment or worse. Instead, I bid you farewell with my thanks."
Helegui blinked. "Thanks?"
Thranduil suppressed a smile. It was clear that gratitude was the last thing Helegui had been expecting. "Do you recall, Helegui, the day you knocked out my front teeth with the pommel of your sword and kneed me in the groin while we were sparring?"
Helegui nodded. "I do, my lord." Indeed, from the look on his face it seemed the incident was one of his most treasured memories.
"Well, in that first battle, the day my father died, a big orc-captain tried that maneuver with me -- the move you had taught me to be wary of. So I thank you, my teeth thank you, and my bollocks thank you. The orc I killed does not thank you. Whether Eryn Galen will thank you remains to be seen. Farewell, Helegui, and may a fair wind speed you West."
For a moment, the seneschal's icy features thawed. "Navaer, my lord Thranduil."
Another figure crossed paths with Helegui on his way out the door: Galion, carrying a tray. "What was all that about?"
"It seems Lord Helegui is desirous of change. He is leaving us."
"Oh, what a shame." Galion set the tray down. "Can I have his job?"
"Yes, you may, as long as you continue as my valet, Master Seneschal."
"Pfft -- 'butler' will do me just fine, Sire. Let Séregon advise you in matters of state. I'll stick to telling you which color tunic to wear today and provisioning the wine cellars, which from the look of things could use it." Galion whipped off the napkin covering the tray, revealing a plate and several chunks of bread. "Hungry?"
Thranduil shook his head no. He had taken a brief meal after his bath, and by all rights his subsequent exertions should have left him ravenous, but the exchange with Helegui had killed his appetite.
Galion shrugged and took one of the chunks of bread for himself. "Are you thirsty, then?" he said, indicating a decanter and two glasses on the tray. "The cellars are rather bare, but I found a half-cask of Dorwinion -- about to go over, but it's better than that barrel swill we've been drinking in the south."
"That's more like it. And then stay. I could use the company." Thranduil accepted the generously filled cup and took his first sip. The wine had that sour taste of a cask left too long opened, but it was still just as strong. "Is Nínim asleep?"
He thanked the lucky stars he had not punctuated this remark with a lascivious wink when Galion replied, "Yes, she finally wore herself out with the crying and drifted off."
"I'm . . . I'm sorry, old friend."
Galion shrugged his usual pragmatic Laegren shrug. "I've had seven years to get used to the idea of losing him. For her, the wound is fresh. She'll heal. We all have nothing but time." He sipped meditatively at his wine. "I had an idea you might be down here, so I came looking."
"You couldn't sleep either?"
Galion nodded. "Nighttimes are the worst."
Again, Galion nodded.
"Do you dream of the battles or . . . the tower?" For Thranduil during the siege, the looming presence of Barad-dûr and the terror that emanated from it had been like a splinter in the mind, festering, yet driven deep beyond the reach of any means to pluck it. He had never until this moment asked if any of the others felt it, not wishing to appear flighty in front of the more seasoned warriors.
"Neither," Galion said. "I'm standing in the burying grounds north of the Battle Plain, in the fog, but it's not as we left them. The marshes have crept in and swallowed up the graves. There's something out there in the mist, something with my boy's face but . . . not. It calls to me, and I'm afraid, but Elbereth help me I want to go to it." He paused, shuddered and took a gulp of his wine. "You?"
"The first battle," Thranduil said simply. Nightly he found himself reliving it: that initial moment of overpowering fear when the orcs attacked both flanks and he realized that Oropher and his nobles in the vanguard were cut off and surrounded. And then, the dull thunk of an arrow hitting flesh, the horrible rasping gurgle of his father, pierced through the throat, drowning in his own blood, and the look of mute supplication in Oropher's eyes, begging for a quick end that Thranduil hadn't the courage to give him. "Just that. You were there."
He sat silent for a time, and said, finally, "Galion, am I my father's son? Am I the man he was?"
Almost without hesitation, Galion replied, "No, Sire, you are not." At Thranduil's wounded gasp he quickly continued, "But that is a good thing. My Lord . . . Thranduil, I would follow you into the very pits of Thangorodrim. But I trust you enough to know that you would not lead me there, and in that, you are not your father."
Thranduil sighed. "Thank you Galion."
"You are very welcome, Sire. I can be quite wise . . . for a butler," Galion said and failed to stifle a yawn.
"There's nothing like Dorwinion wine for soothing the spirit," Thranduil said. "You need to get back to bed. You should be there when your wife awakens."
"Are you sure, my Lord?"
Thranduil nodded. "Go on. I wish to remain here alone for a little while longer."
He watched as Galion gave an unsteady bow and headed out the door. When the last echo of his valet's footsteps had died away, Thranduil set down his wine and picked up the crown of leaves from its low table.
"I never wanted this. I never expected it," he whispered. He set the crown on his head and waited for the mantle of kingly wisdom and confidence to descend upon him. And he waited, in the darkness, until he felt a brief envy for Helegui as he packed his things for his journey west, leaving all responsibility behind. "This realm is crippled, bereft of men. I have no idea what I will say to them on the morrow or how I will heal us."
Alone in his empty throne room, Thranduil, Oropher's daunted son, sat and pondered the first of many words he would use to lead them through all the tomorrows and the years and the ages until Ardhon Meth.
* * *
"He had seen the horror of Mordor and could not forget it. If ever he looked south its memory dimmed the light of the sun, and though he knew it was now broken and deserted and under the vigilance of the Kings of Men, fear spoke in his heart that it was not conquered for ever: it would arise again."
JRR Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales
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