On the last day of the third month, a trading caravan came along the river Celduin and made for Esgaroth. Their beasts of burden were the small, wiry horses of the lands in the far East, laden with shiny saddle bags and neatly tied up canvas bundles. Tall men in green and scarlet robes led the animals. They walked with long, lilting strides and their faces under the black head scarves - adorned with copper coins - were smooth and brown like polished leather.
High above, a lark turned the sky into song with the whole land as its listener. Spring had come early this year, the second after the fall of Sauron, and all along the river bank the foamy white of hawthorn and sloe proclaimed another triumph over winter. Dandelions were out already, a million little suns smiling up from the ground. The horses' hooves stepped on fresh new grass and from the broken blades a scent rose that held all the promise of the summer to come. There was a single cloud in the sky that drifted slowly from the Iron Hills towards the Long Lake. Briefly, it resembled a flying dove before it frayed and spread into a thin veil, soon to be dissolved in the midday sunshine.
When they reached the shore of the lake, the strangers made camp. They unloaded their horses and set up a handful of bright yellow tents. Silk flags, each with the emblem of a powerful trading family, caught the soft breeze. The men unrolled rugs on the grass and on the rugs arranged their merchandise. Then they waited.
Out on the lake in the town built on stilts, Liv was one of the first to spot them. She stood by her open bedroom window, brushing her hair with impatient strokes while the maid smoothed the sheets on the bed.
"Tarin," she said, "come and see this."
Obediently, the girl came over, the pillow she had been plumping still in her arms, and peered over Liv's shoulder towards the shore.
"Looks like traders, Miss Liv. Never seen such yellow tents before, though. They're not dwarves."
"Go and tell my father."
"As you wish."
When Tarin had left the room, Liv opened the lid of the oaken chest that stood by the foot of her bed. She held it up with one hand while the other rummaged through the garments. Eventually she pulled out a mustard coloured dress of soft wool. She let her brown everyday dress fall to the floor and slipped into the yellow gown. From her trinket box, she took a belt of hammered copper discs and slung it round her waist. Then she ran, hair still flowing free, down the stair to her father's book room.
"I know you'll say I'm too young, but whatever you say, I shall go," she said before she had even closed the door. Her father looked up from his ledgers. His left leg, the one that would prevent him from going anywhere today or tomorrow or for the rest of this month, was propped up on a footstool. He put aside his quill.
"Is it the traders you are speaking of, Liv? I am going to send Will over after lunch. You can go with him, if you wish. Mind to stay with him, though. And get Tarin do to your hair, so you won't look like a savage."
"Yes, Father. Thank you, Father." Liv urged herself to smile. The company of her father's stodgy warehouse master was not what she had hoped for, but it would have been petty to argue. As long as she was sure of a space in the boat, she was satisfied. She returned to her room where Tarin braided her hair into a long plait and coiled it round her head. At the table, she finished her bread and cold meat long before her father and was ready to go the moment she was called.
"Mind your step, Miss Liv," said Will when they came to the jetty. "These boards are slippery."
"I know, Will. I've been here before."
Two grooms were getting the boat ready to go. Will held his hand out for Liv and settled her on the cushion that had been placed on the bench. She drew breath.
"The air smells of spring," she said to nobody in particular. "No matter how often I've felt it, it always surprises me again."
"In your case, Miss Liv, there can be hardly any talk of having seen many springs," said Will. Then he lit his pipe and for the rest of the journey he stared straight ahead. Liv was left to her own thoughts which revolved around the delight in being out - for the first time this year - without a heavy woollen cloak, the delight in seeing blue sky reflected on the lake's water, the delight in the sound of the oars gently splashing as they bore her, foot by foot, towards solid land.
Even without the lure of the traders, Liv would have been glad to come ashore on this brilliant day. There was nothing green in Esgaroth other than the herbs and trailing flowers grown in pots or boxes on many windowsills. The lake, though, was lined with birches and willows that had put on their delicate spring garments, and the banks were carpeted with the generous green of lush meadows. Bird song, rarely heard in the lake city, greeted her as she skipped up the path ahead of Will and the grooms. It was good to move so freely under the glorious sky.
They were not the first to arrive. A number of Long Lake merchants and well-to-do Esgaroth housewives were already milling around the stalls of the traders and a group of dwarves huddled over a display of fine metalwork. The traders, sitting cross-legged behind the rugs, observed the townsfolk with their black eyes. They did not shout to praise their goods like Liv was used to hearing in the Esgaroth market, but sat silently until they caught the eye of a prospective customer. Liv clutched her money pouch. Father had given her several silver pieces; she would be able to buy something, something more than just a trifle; she needed not stand back behind those wealthy matrons.
What should she buy, though? It was not as if she immediately needed anything. Her purchase would be a luxury. She went from stall to stall and tried to look interested enough but not overly impressed. After all, she was not some country bumpkin, but the daughter of one of the richest men in Esgaroth. She was used to delicate fabrics, dainty dwarf-made trinkets and fine Dorwinion wine. Nevertheless, she couldn't stop her eyes from shining when she saw the rows of lacquered boxes, lids opened to show their treasures of jewels or spices, of ivory ornaments or mysterious potions. The traders sat behind their merchandise in silence, following her with shrewd looks on their dark, oval faces. Only one gave her a smile that showed a row of white teeth.
"Lady?" he said and lifted up a glass jar stopped with a wide, round cork. "These are very good, good price, specially for you."
Liv took the jar and peered at it closely. It was filled with a clear liquid in which swam a couple of dozen round, pale brownish-green objects, no doubt some kind of fruit.
"What are they?" she asked before she could stop herself.
"Olives, lady, very fine olives. In my country, they are symbol of good fortune." His grin widened. "And of luck in love."
"I do not require them," said Liv haughtily. She put down the jar and moved on. The next stall displayed bales of fabric. Liv took in the intense colours, the noble gloss: it was silk. She reached out to touch and let her hand glide over the cool smoothness of a bright cornflower blue. How beautiful this colour looked in the sunshine, and even under a cover of clouds it would still bear a resemblance of blue sky. How much, she was about to ask, hoping that the price would not be too high. Oh, to have a gown of such heavenly blue!
"Oh, no, not this one, I think," said a voice beside her. "Blue is not for you, lady. Here, this olive-coloured silk will suit you admirably."
Liv looked round and took a step back. The stranger was tall, dressed in an exquisitely embroidered red tunic and had the fine features, the faint glow of the Elven folk. Swiftly, she cast down her eyes.
"You can trust my judgement," he went on. "I knew your great-grandmother. She had just such chestnut hair. Allow me."
With nimble fingers, he pulled out the pin that held up her braid. Like a silken rope, it fell across her neck and shoulder down to her waist. He seized the end of the plait and held it against the green fabric.
"Observe," he said. "Do you see how these two, the green silk and the brown hair, complement each other? Each gives to the other a shine and lustre that neither have on their own. Like a good marriage, really."
Liv felt herself blush, but she dutifully looked at her hair against the olive coloured silk and had to admit that he was right. On its own, it looked like a muddy, dull colour with none of the brilliancy of the cornflower blue, but against her chestnut hair it acquired a deep, earthy shine that made the blue seem shallow and frivolous in comparison. This, she felt, was the colour her hair, her whole body wanted her to wear.
"How much?" she spluttered. "How much for five yards?"
The trader, a wizened old man who had watched them silently until now, held up three fingers and said, in his strange, foreign voice, "Gold." He tapped the coins on his headdress to indicate the size of gold coins he wanted to see.
Liv's hand tightened around her money pouch.
"I have only silver," she whispered, mortified not so much on account of the trader than of the Elf, whose presence beside her she felt like the glow of a fire. "See."
And she dove into her pouch and brought out her whole fortune. The trader shook his head.
"Gold," he repeated and held up three fingers again.
"No, no, my friend," said the Elf. "Your silk is good, but also very thin. It'll last a year or two and then fray. These are fine silver coins, unadulterated and bearing the stamp of the King of Dale. They will buy five yards for the lady."
The trader began to shake his head again, but suddenly held still. From the corner of her eye, Liv caught a movement of the Elf's hand, a glint.
"Silver," said the trader with a toothless grin. "Five yards for the lady." He held out his hand to receive Liv's coins, then he took a measuring stick and dealt out five yards, which he folded into a neat bundle and wrapped with a black ribbon. Liv's heart danced when she received the fabric. She knew very well what the Elf had done, she knew just as well that she should not have allowed him to do so, but her desire for the silk quelled her sense of propriety and she pretended not to have seen.
"I thank you, sir," she said, "for your...advice."
"My pleasure, lady."
At last, she dared look into his eyes. A sharp, clear green met her, like an emerald. They were the most knowing eyes she had ever seen. He smiled.
"I look forward to seeing you in your green gown," he said and with the faintest hint of a bow, he walked away.
Liv stood and watched, the silk bundle in her hand like a fledgling bird. She felt the unseasonable sun singe her neck. This stranger had been very...strange indeed. What was that peculiar jubilation? Oh, it was the sky lark. What an odd little bird. Charming, but odd.
Down by the jetty, she saw Will waving at her. She walked across the grass as if it were a dance floor, step after step infused with all her grace.
Will stood by the boat while the grooms stowed a couple of crates under the seats.
"What did the Elven King want of you, Miss Liv?" he said.
"The Elven King?"
"King Thranduil of Mirkwood, or Greenwood as they say now. I saw him talk to you. What did he want?"
"Nothing. He said he knew my great-grandmother."
"He may well have."
Will helped her into the boat and made sure she was safely seated before he told the grooms to take up the oars.
"You've bought some very fine silk there, Miss Liv."
"A bargain," she mumbled. The tune of the sky lark slowly faded.
In the days that followed, Tarin could do nothing right. "Why do you tarry so?" Liv would scold if Tarin took her time and placed each stitch with care, but as soon as she began to hurry, "Don't rush," came Liv's reproach, "you shall ruin the silk with your carelessness." Then again, when Tarin shook her head and sighed, Liv would wrap her arms round her. "Tarin, dear," she said, "what a frightful pest I am about this gown. You are so good to put up with me. But you must, must make it wonderful, and soon! Oh, Tarin!" And she flung herself on the bed and stared wistfully at the carved ceiling.
Two weeks later, the gown was finished. Three weeks later, the chance came to wear it. The Esgaroth spring fair brought folk from all round the Long Lake into the town and her father, while still unable to walk and join the festivities, saw no reason why she should not go.
"Take Tarin with you," he said and dropped a number of coins into Liv's hand. "And see if you can strike another such bargain – perhaps a trinket to go with your gown. You're looking like a mighty fine lady today."
"Thank you, Father." Liv ran her hands down the sides of her dress. She had resisted the temptation to trim it with ruffles and flounces and all sorts of embellishments. Instead, she had told Tarin to make a simple gown that hung loose and softly played round her figure. The only adornment was a copper coloured cord that followed the neckline and the hems of her sleeves. Her copper belt had been polished by Tarin the night before. Yes, she believed she looked beautiful, but her father was right, a trinket for her neck would crown the glory, and there was nothing in her box fit for the purpose, for even the priciest did not match the style and colour of her silk.
"Well, run along then, my child. And don't be late back."
"I shall not, Father. Come, Tarin."
Though the hour was early, the streets were already crowded. Esgaroth, built as it was on stilts, had little in the way of open spaces apart from the market square, where Liv and Tarin now directed their steps. Liv basked in the smiles and admiring glances of those she passed, many of whom friends or neighbours who nodded their heads in greeting, but she kept looking for something else, for a gleam of golden hair. Hush, she told herself, don't be so foolish. It was hard, though, not to be foolish whilst wearing such a splendid gown.
"Tarin," she said aloud, "we shall look for some bauble to go round my neck. It mustn't cost too much, mind, as Father has only given me some pocket money, but it must be smart enough to go with this dress. Let's see that stall over there."
Obedient, Tarin followed. Liv handled one necklace after another, silver chains, jet beads, bronze pendants, and finally chose a single smooth drop of amber on a black silk cord. She made her purchase and put it on immediately.
"Lady," said a voice that made her neck tingle, "I believe I have something that belongs to you."
There stood Thranduil, in silver robes today, and held out her hair pin.
"Thank you, sir," said Liv and took the pin with fingers that trembled only slightly. He inclined his head and gestured with his hand for her to step aside.
"Young woman," he said to Tarin, "you will enjoy a display of jugglers and acrobats that will commence this instant at the other end of the square. Your lady and I will have some talk."
Tarin, too awed to make a reply, bobbed a curtsey and disappeared in the throng. It seemed strange, but then again perhaps not so strange, that around Thranduil there was peace and calm. The pushing and shoving of the crowd passed him by. "Shall we sit here?" he said, and Liv was only half surprised to find a wooden bench, perfectly free, not three paces away. They sat down. The very noise of the fair seemed softened. Liv looked at her hands folded in her lap.
"I congratulate you, lady, or perhaps it is your maid who is due the compliment. The gown has turned out very well indeed."
"Thank you, sir." Oh, how she wished to say something else, something charming or witty, but all she could think of was this Thank you, sir, as if she were a little child. She was a little child beside him.
"And this amber necklace, too, is a very good choice. I salute your good taste."
"I had a model, perhaps," she ventured and stole a glance at him. He smiled.
"Indeed. Now tell me, Miss Liv," - She barely wondered that he knew her name; it seemed quite natural to her that he should know everything. - "tell me what the best thing is about this spring."
"Oh, sir, I don't know." What could she possibly say? "There is the sunshine and the flowers and leaves, and the joy still, I suppose, that the Enemy was overthrown, and there is this day here at the fair and this gown, and to me there is a great relief that my father wasn't killed when that beam came down in the warehouse but only broke his leg, and then...I think...the best thing is the same best thing as every spring, that there is a spring at all. Though I suppose to you, who have seen it so often, it is not so thrilling. The green on the trees just comes and goes, comes and goes..."
"It is always a new green, lady, always a new green. I never get tired of the green."
"I am glad."
He laughed. It was like a breeze rustling through long, lush grass. "Why are you glad, lady?"
"Oh, I hardly know. Perhaps I was worried that after, you know, after so long a time, life would become bland. That it would wear thin and become burdensome."
"Only if you let it."
"They say that you are -" Oh, but it was not proper to speak like this.
"That I am what? Come now, out with it!"
"Well, that you are very ancient." Liv wrung her hands for fear that he would be angry, but there was that softly rustling laugh again.
"Oh, I am very ancient indeed, lady. All the years of your life – seventeen, is that right? - seem just like a nod of the head to me. But still, every year a new spring, a new green." He put his hand on her shoulder. "How much do you love your father?"
What questions he asked! "As much as a daughter should," she replied, "and then a little more."
This answer seemed to please him, because he nodded slowly.
"Do you miss your mother?"
"I don't remember her."
"Look at me."
She lifted her eyes and met his, that same emerald gaze that had unsettled her that day by the lake shore. There was power there and wisdom and a whole new kind of force which she had never before considered but which took hold of her whole body like a cool wave. She wanted to look away, and yet she felt she ought to hold her own and so she returned his gaze, not steadily, but with a quavering courage that was born anew every moment.
At last he rose and, looking over her head into the crowd, lightly touched the amber on her neck.
"I believe you should find your maid," he said, "or let her find you. We shall meet again. Farewell for now."
When Liv had found Tarin and the two made for home – because really, what else was there to expected from the day now? - a very different kind of meeting took place elsewhere in Esgaroth. There was one particularly fine house, not overly large, but exquisitely carved and furnished, that stood in a quiet street beyond the market square. The house itself was usually quiet, too, since it was kept by its owner for the sole purpose of giving him a place of retreat, suited to his needs and tastes, on his rare visits to the town. Today, though, the owner had claimed it and a small retinue of servants busied themselves downstairs about a meal for their master. He, meanwhile, sat in an upper room and refreshed himself with a goblet of wine, one of two that were poured, because he had received an unexpected visitor.
The visitor had much to say for himself and the goblets were half empty. "This is, of course, only a recommendation," he concluded. "They are a good family. Healthy. Honourable. Clever, too, each and every one of them. That is how they made their fortune. No dodgy dealings, ever, just shrewdness and foresight and a good head for numbers. The older brothers are doing good trade in the South. A remarkable family indeed. I can vouch for the girl. She has no fault of either temper or person."
"Still, I am not sure," replied the owner of the house. "It seems a strange thing to do."
"It is the way these things are done, as you well know. You cannot hide away forever. You owe it to your people. They need to see that there will be a future. Think it over. I am sure you will not regret it."
"She might not like me."
"She will." The visitor took another sip of wine.
The other hesitated. The afternoon sun shone through the stained glass window and cast a greenish sheen on his left hand, where two gold bands sat on the fourth finger. It was a sad sight on a hand still so smooth and strong. The green light made his flesh seem ghoulish.
"I suppose I will think it over," he said at last. "You have always given sound advice to my father."
"And his father, and his father's father before him, yes," said the visitor, not given to false modesty. "Trust me. I count on an invitation by midsummer."
"Make that harvest time."
This was met with a smile. "Harvest time it is then. Farewell." As he walked away, he stopped to open the window. Another light fell into the room. It was green still, but a different green, quivering with the luminosity of fresh leaves. No house in Esgaroth had lusher window boxes.
A playful breeze crinkled the surface of the Long Lake and made the morning sunshine glitter. Liv stood by the window looking towards the shore. There were no yellow tents now and the banks were fully clad in the green of new foliage. Soon they would cut fresh twigs of birch to deck the maypoles in the villages all along the Western shore, and she would go, she would once more have reason to go ashore and Father would surely let her. And she would wear her olive silk that made her hair shine like a polished hazelnut and who knows…? No, silly Liv, don't indulge in such delusions! It had been nothing but a strange chance and the whim of a powerful immortal. She did not even like him, not as such, he daunted her too much and his mien was so commanding. His eyes were beautiful, true enough, but she could not bear their gaze without much effort. No, she did not like him, not as such. Perhaps, though, he would happen to drop in on the May dances, just as he had dropped in on the spring fair, and he would see her in the olive silk of his choosing, of his giving (as she could not help admitting to herself), and then, and then –
There was a commotion at the front of the house, which looked eastwards; she couldn't see the street from her window. She heard voices and then the servants rushing to the door. Moments later, Tarin burst into the room, panting.
"Quick, Miss Liv, your father says you have to come downstairs as soon as you can!"
"What is the matter? I am not yet dressed."
"We'll get you dressed with haste then, Miss Liv. Here, take the olive silk."
"My best gown! What is the matter, Tarin, who has come?"
"I don't know. I wasn't at the door and your father did not say, but it's someone mighty fine, and you're to be down quick, and looking your best."
"Braid my hair in a crown then."
"No time, no time, we'll just brush it."
And so Liv was turned out in haste in olive and copper and amber and with her chestnut hair flowing down her shoulders, silk on silk. She ran down the stair not daring to guess what the matter might be, and there in the hall stood her father and held his arms out towards her.
"Do not be startled, Liv, my love, I'm sure all will be well, but I am startled myself. This is so unexpected. I don't quite know how to tell you, since I'm sure you have not the faintest idea, in short…" He grasped her hands. "Liv, my child, how would you like to become a queen?"
The shock nearly knocked her over. It could not be. Such things did not happen, not outside stories. Yes, stories, like the one about the King down in Gondor and his Elven wife, but not here, not for real. It could not be true, and for all her idle fancies she did not really want it to be true, for she feared him as much as she craved him, his forbidding eyes, his boundless superiority, and she knew she could not, would not -
"Father," she whispered. "Father...?"
"I know this is a surprise, Liv. It is a surprise for me, too. But it is true enough. In the next room, right as we are speaking here, awaits King Bard of Dale and he has asked me for your hand in marriage."
Liv felt she ought to have been speechless, but instead her tongue ran ahead of her mind.
"King Bard? King Bard of Dale? But I've never met him in my life!"
"This is not strictly speaking necessary, my dear," said her father gently. "We are a family of high repute and he says you have been recommended to him."
"By whom?" she said but even as the words left her mouth she knew the answer.
"By a mutual friend, he says," replied her father, "though I cannot imagine which friend of ours would be a friend of his."
"But they say...they say he is still mourning the -"
"It would seem that he has taken off his mourning robes. He is clad all in green today. Now, my dear child, will you go and speak to him? I will let you make up your own mind, but I will say this, I feel you should make it up soon. A king mustn't be kept waiting too long."
"But, Father, if I go to see him, will that be taken as consent?"
"Only as your consent to hearing his proposal. Your answer is all your own."
"How can I choose so quickly?"
"You have your wits about you. Make use of them."
He pulled her into a hurried embrace, then he ushered her towards the door.
"Go in," he said, "and say what you will. I shall not blame you one way or another."
Her hand did not tremble when she reached for the handle, not as it would have if it had been the other king in there. Nevertheless she could feel the anxious gallop of her heart.
It was a large room, the best in the house with carved and painted rosettes on the ceiling, with tapestries on the walls and polished oaken furniture. If anything, she had expected him to sit on the bench by the window, the one upholstered with amber brocade. But he stood right in front of her as soon as she came in, not two yards away, tall, upright, with short black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. She lifted her head and looked right into his eyes.
They were green, but a different green, softer, less like emeralds and more like olives. It was as if she could see herself reflected in those eyes, her hair shining like a polished hazelnut.
"Sire," she said and curtseyed. The olive silk made a rustle barely loud enough to be heard.
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.