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We Were Young Once ~ I  by Conquistadora


Chapter 14 ~ Restore VII

“An exile, saddest of all prisoners, / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong, / Seas, mountains, and the horizon’s verge for bars.” ~ Lord Byron

The early dark of evening already hung over the world, a cool and gentle curtain drawn over what had been another bright summer’s day.  It was high time Thranduil had gone home, but after several weeks’ experience Amroth had learned many ways to hold him beyond his usual hours.  Today it seemed the young manipulator had successfully extended the visit to its utmost limit.

“Go on, to bed with you,” Thranduil chided lightly, giving the boy a firm shove toward his bedchamber door.  “You will make your mother wroth with us both.”

Amroth flashed a grin over his shoulder and his stubborn resistance abruptly became swift compliance, knowing his friend would follow now that he had prodded him this far.  Thranduil did follow, dimming the lamp ensconced at the doorway as Amroth leapt into bed.  The balcony doors stood slightly ajar, admitting the soft starlight with the fresh air and the sounds of a pleasantly warm night.

“Now,” he said, “good night and goodbye.  One of these days, Amroth, believe it or not, you will have your fill of me.  Perhaps then I can return to my own family.”

“I am your family,” the boy insisted in the shadows, as though claiming a right.  “And you will not be going back home to Nenuial with us, will you?”

“No, I am afraid not.”  Thranduil extinguished the lamp entirely, plunging the room into moonlight.  “My father has other plans.”

“When will I see you again, after we leave here?” Amroth asked then as Thranduil came to stand over him in the dark.

It was a greater question than Amroth knew.  Thranduil still had no right idea where his father was at present, nor of where they would finally establish themselves.  In any event, he could hazard a guess that Oropher would be sure to give Celeborn a wide berth.  He suspected that at this point his father was too disdainful of any near association with another lord to live within easy distance of any of them.  Perhaps it was merely Oropher’s overwhelming desire to get away from it all, away from the broken fragments of hierarchies that had once been, away from the quiet contention that chafed just beneath of surface of any society where Golodhrim and Mithrim dwelt in company.

Thranduil looked down at Amroth with some regret.  What he saw first and foremost lying there before him in the shadows was Celeborn’s son.  Oropher would see Galadriel’s son, the intrusion of the Exiles into their most intimate circles.  That Celeborn and Galadriel loved one another was undeniable, but somehow it was also true that they seldom got along completely peaceably.  That, too, Thranduil left aside as something he could not understand, but his father seemed to think it still a challengeable issue that could somehow be righted by more heated argument.  Whatever the reason, the fact remained that wherever Oropher chose to plant his banner, they would certainly not be keeping the habitual company of Celeborn’s house.

“I do not know,” he said at last.  It was not a satisfactory answer, but for the moment he could say no more.

Amroth seemed to have read the fleeting conflict of emotions on his face, and did not press him further.  And there Thranduil left him, wondering what thoughts were churning now in that young mind that would soon be confided to the attentive ear of his mother.

Taking his leave of Celeborn, Thranduil returned to the grand corridor and made his habitual way to the stairs, sparsely populated at that hour.  He had descended as far as the spacious ground floor before he paused and gave any conscious thought to his direction.  The place seemed peacefully desolate in the absence of the court and all its noise, the great royal dais empty and unattended save for two quiet Falathrim maids mending one of the wall hangings.  Every sound was magnified in that regal void.  He cast his eyes once again over the vaulted ceilings, the wealth that over the years had embellished the hall.  The vague impression he had gathered earlier came strongly to him now that he stood alone in the center of it all.  In essence it was a royal cage.

Drawn by an inexplicable fascination, he strode up the long promenade to the base of the dais itself but stopped short of the trailing indigo carpet upon which only the king was permitted to set foot.  He could feel the two maids watching him warily but paid them no mind, giving thought to his own future as he imagined it written in the silent configuration of thrones before him.  Was this what he and his father were made for, the endless trials and responsibilities of an entire nation?  Those talents belonged to a select few and could not be taken for granted by all, no matter how great their ambition. 

Glancing aside, he frowned at the vacant chair to the right, two steps removed from the level of the royal throne, the seat Elrond usually occupied as the king’s herald and standard bearer.  That could also have been his fate.  

Standing there in the imposing silence, he could feel his mind rising again into a temper of passive rebellion.  What had become of him?  What had he made of himself? 

He felt as though he had just woken from a pleasant but indolent dream, regaining something of himself that he had never quite forgotten but had somehow lost sight of. 

This, he reminded himself, was not meant to be their home.  These were not his people, this was not his place, and already he felt that he had willfully worn too many of the bonds of this society.  His father had warned him against it, but he had not expected it to distract him as it had.  

With his mind set once again where he desired it, he turned and strode purposefully toward the doors, leaving all the empty court behind him.  He would not forget himself again.

Outside the night was clear and calm with only a gentle breeze.  Rather than proceed straight home, Thranduil turned instead in the direction of the shoreline, seeking the brief solitude it would offer.  At an unhurried walk he passed around the east side of the palace, continuing over the stately porches built onto the walls where the ravine dipped away below.  The palace was all aglow from within, the soft lights of a city that never truly slept. 

At the western face the crag that was the foundation declined sharply, affording a breathtaking view of the rippling harbor, fenced on either side by the mountains.  There he paused for a moment, leaning against the rail and looking out over the ends of the world, blue and silver in the twilight of the moon.  The quiet wind played around him, rustling through the thick summer leaves in the groves below.

Breathing deeply the fresh sea air Thranduil knew Lindon already held much of his heart, more than he would wish.  And now that he had set his mind again to leave it the land itself seemed intent upon winning him back.  He knew there would be things he would miss, the roar of the sea and the wind in the mountains, but he felt almost guilty in being as content as he had been, as though by that he had betrayed his father’s designs for him.  But what else was he to do?  He knew it had been Oropher’s explicit intention to set them apart from much of the common companionship of the rest of the haven, knowing they must maintain only a loose hold in this soil so that they might be more easily transplanted when the time came.  Now Thranduil feared that he had instinctively put down more roots than he had been meant to.

At last he turned and descended the stairway that eventually let him onto a marked path that led down through the wooded glades to the harbor below.  He passed the lingering boatmen gathered around their small beach fires, and wandered along the north side of the glistening shore. 

He had lived so long within sight of the sea, in Sirion, Balar, and now Lindon.  Though his heart was still given to the woodlands, he knew that somewhere in its deep recesses he would always remember the call of the waves, the ever-changing cadence as they forever broke upon the shore only to recede again, beckoning to him.  It had not overpowered him as he had seen it affect some others, but it had a distinct appeal all its own.  Perhaps it would be best to leave it before it slowly effaced from his memory the vivid detail that was all that remained to him of Doriath and the way the world had once been.

He looked up at the full face of the moon that shone down upon him from the east, that sovereign wanderer of the night sky defining the landscape in half-light and shadow.  Celeborn had told him of its first rising over starlit Doriath, overpowering the sharp gleam of the stars with new and near blinding light.  Ithil was dimmer now, stained by time, but had not relinquished his appointed place.  

As he went on, Thranduil began humming the old familiar melody that had begun playing though his mind, a haunting tune adapted from a traditional Sindarin ballad to suit the needs of the last centuries, a strain often heard when there was little choice but to endure or die.  He knew it by heart, as did they all.

After a moment he stopped and stood silent.  The sounds of an approaching horse were unmistakable and not far distant, the strong beat of hooves on wet sand, the light jingle of a jeweled headstall.  He stopped among the many dark rocks strewn about the shore and waited.  He was already able to discern that it was not one of his own.   None of the bridles they kept were spangled enough to make such a sound.  

The rider who stopped and alighted before him was a woman he immediately recognized to be Elemmirë.  Already he feared he knew her purpose in seeking him out.  He stiffened as she left her reins over the saddle and approached him, the gentle sea wind in her hair, a single diamond sparkling like a fallen star at her throat. 

“My lady,” he greeted her, still reserved.  It was plain to see something troubled her, much more plain than it should have been.  The cool poise that had always characterized her presence was all but gone, and her strong face now wore a more haunted expression. 

“Thranduil,” she began, her voice also uncertain.  “I saw you pass beneath my window.  Forgive me, but I must speak with you.”

She seemed almost to be begging him not to dismiss her out of hand, something she must have known he would never do.  Perhaps she guessed he would if he knew her purpose.  He successfully resisted the urge to draw back, but he did not invite her nearer.  “Very well,” he consented, guardedly.

She drew nearer of her own accord, fighting to contain the teeming emotions he could read on her face.  Recognizing her lovelorn desperation for what it was, Thranduil felt his heart sink.  He had been afraid of this, had tried to avoid what seemed inevitable ever since Lindóriel had confronted him.  Elemmirë knew she was losing him, knew her quest was without hope, but driven to this extremity she had to try.  He would regret having to refuse her this way, but she left him no choice.

“The past days have been barren,” she said at last, “while I saw nothing of you.”  Her voice wavered, though she fought to steady it.  Thranduil could understand her discomfort as he watched her defy every standing tradition of courtship honored by her race.   “At first I thought it fortunate that you were removed from Father’s house, that you could torment me no longer, and that I could go on as I was before, without you.  But I cannot.” 

That final word at last wrung a glimmering tear from her dark eyes, a suppressed sob in her throat at her own helplessness. 

He felt a pang as well, knowing her suffering was entirely on his account.  But at the same time he did not know what else he could have done to prevent it.  “And what would you have me do, my lady?”

She just gazed at him for a long moment and slowly shook her head, the fair pride of the West sickened by unrequited desire, but still her magnanimity remained.  “I would have you do nothing against your will, my lord,” she said, the sorrow of defeat already upon her.  “But know that I love you.  I have loved you in silence since first I saw you.  I am forced to confess it now lest my silence be also my ruin.  Tell me, please, and spare me not the truth.  Is it true that you care nothing for me, as my father says?”

So prepared was she to suffer the final blow, he was more reluctant than ever to inflict it.  Thranduil already knew they could never go on as they had been after this unfortunate turn, but he had no wish destroy their friendship as well.  And though she loved him now, he feared she would soon learn to hate what she could not have.  Fortunately, her turn of phrase made his task less brutal.

“Of course I care for you,” he answered her gently.  She looked up then, eyes bright with uncertainty.  She seemed so distraught that at last he could not resist taking her hand in his.  “You are one of the few in this world I can call a true friend.”

She drew nearer and lay her head against his chest, seeking the solace he offered, that she so desperately wanted.  His forbearance came of pity, allowing her a last indulgence before he deliberately distanced himself from that point forward.  Even if it meant at long last officially leaving Serataron, he could not go on torturing her day by day with his very presence. 

But was that not exactly what he continued to impose upon Lindóriel? 

There he was at a genuine loss, and not without a twinge of guilt sharper than what he felt for Elemmirë’s adversity.  Perhaps it was merely because he felt himself paralyzed to act one way or the other until he had the counsel of his father, denied him when he needed it most.  But it was not long before his wandering mind was jarred back to the present moment and its difficulties.  He could not deny she was indeed beautiful, the starlight accentuating the deep blue gleam on her dark hair, the shimmering expanse of the sea behind bringing out the tearful sparkle in her eyes, begging him to pity her.  But that was not his concern.  Nor could he in good faith allow much more of her love-starved fawning, not with the sleepless thought of Lindóriel tenaciously gnawing at his conscience.  

“You command a share of my affection,” he clarified, “but my love is given to another.”

Once again she seemed to wilt.  “You say that, yet she is no happier than I!” A hard shudder passed through her, whether an expression of frustration or aversion he could not know.  For a moment she said nothing, the Sindarin of her exile failing her in her agitation. “How can you be so cruel?” she asked at last, her voice deepening into its old strength but still with a passionate tremor.  “Why must you be so heartless?  Why must you go on and on through the wheeling years alone, making pitiless sport of us?”

Thranduil thrust her back at arm’s length, tearing away from her and whatever feminine fascination had inspired his misplaced pity in allowing her to touch him so freely in the first place.  “Have you not in the midst of the misery you have chosen stopped to consider that I have sentiments of my own, Elemmiriel?” he demanded, nonetheless trying to contain his growing indignation.  “Perhaps I want to be alone; perhaps other obligations demand my concern.  No one but I will decide when I will accept the intimacy of a bride.  No one but I!  Do not call me heartless when it is you who would punish me for what you have brought upon yourself.”

It was something he had to say, for it had been building for years, and he realized it was not intended solely for her.  Elemmirë drew back, silenced.  There was little more to be said now that they had both vented their frustrations upon each other, but already he knew they both regretted the vehemence of their words. 

“Please,” he said then, more softly, “do not ask of me what I cannot give.  You will only grieve us both.”

His plea stopped her three paces away.  “Forgive me,” she asked for lack of anything else to say, her eyes downcast, her voice thin with what he recognized to be the stricken calm before the inevitable flood of tears. 

Thranduil felt a stab in his own heart at the sight, for he had not overstated the truth in saying that he had indeed grown to care for her, even if only with that patronizing brother’s love that had once been all he had harbored for Lindóriel.  As it was, he could only distance himself from her, and he would be playing her false to allow her now what he would refuse later, wrenching though it was to stand by and do nothing.

She seemed to understand that at least, though it was difficult to accept.  Again she drifted back over the glimmering sand, back to where her steed patiently awaited her.  Thranduil said nothing, stood utterly motionless there among the rocks.  Though every instinct implored him to assist her as he had often done, he made no move, for at that moment he did not trust himself to remain as aloof as he should.  He wished they could have parted on better terms.  He could not even look after her as she sorrowfully turned her horse and rode back toward the palace, leaving him alone again on the barren beach.

Only gradually could he relax his rigid hold of himself, a hollow pit of unmerited guilt gnawing at his gut.  Another heart broken, another friendship lost. 

Why did this always happen?

At last Galadhmir slowed Laegolas at the edge of the bluff overlooking the harbor, his own mount following close behind.  Picking his way along the ridge, he looked down from his wondrous vantage point in an attempt to spot Thranduil on the moonlit sand.  He knew and could feel he was somewhere near. 

Thranduil’s habitual absence from the household was a growing annoyance to many of them, and a nagging anxiety to Naneth Lóriel.  It would have been good of him to return at least for dinner now and then.  Nevertheless, they let him go his own way, for apparently he knew his own business best.  But tonight Galadhmir had gone out after him.  Naneth Lóriel had several domestic affairs she wished to discuss with her son, aside from the fact that they all simply missed him.  Over the past decades it had become commonplace for Thranduil to be gone all day and often all night, attending whatever duties occupied him beneath Gil-galad’s spires.  The house was disturbingly calm without either him or Adar Oropher.  One empty place at the table was unpleasant enough.

Galadhmir did feel a twinge of guilty pleasure astride his lord brother’s horse; he knew Thranduil would probably not appreciate the liberty, but it seemed easier to have the dominant stallion lead rather than attempt to make him follow.  Laegolas himself had objected at first, but had since willingly accepted him.  Now the keen-eared steed was on the hunt as well, prancing lightly over the bluff and searching out his errant master.

Galadhmir had first inquired of Celeborn, but apparently Thranduil had taken his leave just ahead of him.  Another of the king’s household had recognized him as one of the Oropherionnath and rightly guessing his purpose volunteered that he had observed Thranduil descending the back stairway to the sea path.  So Galadhmir had retrieved the horses and mounted the jutting shoulder of the broken land to obtain a clear and swift view of the shore below. 

All at once Laegolas halted of his own accord, pawing at the ground.  There indeed was Thranduil, his distinctive form defined in moonlit detail on the pale sands of the shoreline.  But he was not there alone.

His eager anticipation suddenly gone deathly chill, Galadhmir dismounted and peered over the cliff himself.  His jaw clenched as he recognized the dark woman coiled around his friend.  The intimate scene bore all the marks of a guilty lovers’ tryst.

Was this what always called him to the palace?  Was this what held him from home, night after night?  Had Thranduil, too, willingly fallen prey at last to the insidious charm of the Exiles?

No.  Galadhmir deliberately seized upon that one last voice in his mind that could not believe the circumstances were as damning as they seemed, indeed refused to believe it.  He could not imagine how else to explain what he saw, but while the slightest chance remained he would try.  The least he could do was to reserve his judgment and wait a moment to see what the outcome may be.

He was not disappointed.  He heard voices raised, though the words were lost in the slow crash of the surf.  Whatever she had said must not have fallen lightly upon Thranduil.  The rest followed quickly upon that, the drifting apart, and then what must have been the last regretful apologies, giving the whole episode the air of a forced farewell.  Thranduil was now his familiar unbending self, the posture he always seemed to assume when either his pride had been affronted or his mind was in turmoil.  In this case it could perhaps be both.

Leaving his post, Galadhmir remounted at once and ran the horses back along their track to the cleft in the ridge.  What had once been a creek bed before the breaking of the world had now been widened by long years of rain to become a sloping shortcut to the beaches.  He then rode back along the bright stretch of the coast, Laegolas surging ahead over the sand.  They found Thranduil just where they had left him.

Galadhmir slowed the horses and let the silence hang for a moment.  Thranduil still made no move to acknowledge him, though he was certainly aware of him there. 

“I am sorry,” Galadhmir began at last, cautiously.  “That was difficult to watch.  Do I want to know what it was about?”  There was no use now in pretending he had not seen, for Thranduil would immediately detect such obvious pretense.

Thranduil finally turned to look at him, relieving his formidable stillness.  His dark eyes shone with their sharp but passive glint, too wearied to be angry.  “You know already,” was his curt reply.  He sat down heavily on the shadowed rock behind him, staring blindly at the sand at his feet.  

“Perhaps,” Galadhmir granted him, “but a moment ago, this encounter of yours could have easily been misinterpreted.”  

Thranduil recognized the insinuation.  “Ill-planned marriages have overthrown entire realms, Galadh,” he said flatly.  “You must think very little of me.”

“I think everything of you,” Galadhmir said instead, dismounting at last.  “I still do.  You know that.”

There was an empty moment of silence before Thranduil would acknowledge him again, swept back into his own thoughts.  “So what am I to do?” he asked then, not demanding an answer of Galadhmir in particular, but simply revealing the cause of his unrest.  “She loves me.  Am I to blame because I am not equally enamored of her?  A friendship of nearly two centuries has been capsized in one night because I would not lie to her.”

His frustration was evident, and it seemed he felt keenly betrayed by he knew not what.  Galadhmir truly did not know what to say that would help him at all.  “There is no more you could have done,” he said at last, offering his sympathies if nothing else.

“I know.  And that is what galls me.”

The surf seemed to swallow the languishing conversation at that point, and Galadhmir let his brother sulk in peace for a moment.  He could truthfully offer his condolences for Thranduil’s sake, but in another sense he was not sorry to see that particular association end.  Even from the first day that he had seen the two of them meet in Gil-galad’s stables he had known that either way Thranduil was setting himself up for a fall.  It had been merely a question of who would be hurt most by it.  Overall, it had played itself out as well as could be expected, but this was no time to lecture him.

At last Galadhmir stirred Thranduil from his quiet brooding.  “Come on,” he said, dealing him a gentle jab in the shoulder and handing over Laegolas’ reins.  “Naneth is waiting for you.”

Thranduil did accept his horse, resignedly and without spoken protest. 

It was during the dispirited ride down the beach and up the winding path that Galadhmir ventured to mention a point of interest that would perhaps be of some concern.  “Thranduil,” he said, by the by, “Menelwen is turning Malach a cold shoulder of late.  She maintains that she has tired of him and seems very decided about the whole affair despite his vain efforts to convince her otherwise.  So I suppose you need not burden your mind on her account.”

“Good,” Thranduil grunted, still too distracted and dissatisfied with his own concerns to give her much thought.  But after a moment he did seem to stop and turn that development over in his mind, for Galadhmir recognized the slight but thoughtful tilt of his head.  And all at once he glanced back to the towers of the palace behind them.

“I know what you are thinking.”

“Well, it certainly cannot hurt to introduce them at the very least, can it?”

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