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Chapter 17 ~ Reign II
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride . . .” ~ Song of Solomon 4:9
The difficulty weighed heavily on his mind all the next morning. There was no forgetting it, no ignoring it. He could feel his father watching him, and there was nothing else that could long occupy his mind. By the early hours of that afternoon his indecisive agony at last seemed to reach a breaking point.
Without waiting for bothersome second thoughts, Thranduil stopped pretending to groom the horses, tossed the brush into a corner and strode purposefully back to the house from the paddock. Closing himself in his room, he again tore open the dresser drawer and brought the portentous pendant to light once more. It sparkled and flashed green in his hand, eager as ever.
But when he turned, the impartial face of the mirror reminded him what an absolute fright he was. He had been with the horses for hours and was covered with dust, his hair pulled loosely back into a filthy unflattering mess. For a moment he just looked at himself, disgusted. He knew it would require patience and presence of mind he did not possess at that moment, but if he was to pledge his life to a woman, he was determined to do it properly, and that certainly required that he not look a wreck before her.
A quick bath and a change of clothes could only do so much to bolster his confidence. He stayed there for a considerable time, braced abjectly against the bureau, planning and rehearsing what he should say. None of it seemed at all worthy of her, but at last he scraped together all his courage and what composure would come to him, sweeping the pendant into his palm as he finally left his room.
The ladies’ wing was opposite his, and the hallway had never seemed quite so long. At that point he was prepared for most anything, but before he had even reached her door he knew with rather keen disappointment that she was not there.
What should he do? Should he wait? Could he wait?
He let himself in anyway, for now that he was actually aware of what moved around him, he realized that whole side of the house felt empty. He stood for a moment in the midst of her room, rather at a loss. All his rehearsal was useless now, and somehow he did not trust himself to work up nerve enough for this again. They had not even spoken together comfortably for weeks. But nerveless or no, he would not return to that limbo.
Fortunately there was notepaper at her desk. Thranduil sat down and seized a pen. The ink dried on the quill only once before he decided just what he would leave for her, forcibly humbling himself enough to say it.
Before he could think better of it, he left the note on her pillow with the pendant. That did not seem enough, so he reached through her window and twisted a yellow rose off the nearest trailing vine, laying it there as well.
But then he felt Menelwen returning, and he certainly had no wish to be caught in Lindóriel’s room. Fortunately the windows were easily large enough for him, so with a quick leap he dropped into the back garden once again.
Now he simply had to wait.
The apples were falling, and that meant the great gathering had begun in preparation for winter, provisions for both the household and the horses. It could have been an enjoyable chore if she had not so much weighing on her thoughts. At least it was a fine excuse to get out of the house for a few hours.
“A pity Malach does not come anymore,” Gwaelin said, thoughtfully turning an apple in her hands. “He was a fine one.”
“Perhaps,” Illuiniel conceded. “But I did not expect his suit to amount to much in the end. Menelwen sought but a handsome diversion. Unless, of course, her purpose was to make Thranduil jealous,” she added with a wry grin.
Gwaelin giggled, a mischievous gleam in her bright eyes. “Small chance of that,” she said. “No matter how she flatters herself, I have yet to see brother Thranduil so much as grant her a second glance.”
“Nor will he at this rate,” Illuiniel continued, taking an idle seat on the low-slung branch of a willow. “But why he has not had courage enough to approach you, Lindóriel, I do not know. Everyone knows he loves you.”
The casual and candid statement struck her unexpectedly. “Do you really think so?” Lindóriel asked them.
Gwaelin snorted incredulously. “How can we not? He never can put two intelligent sentences together in your presence anymore.” She paused for a moment, rubbing a slender finger over a spot on her apple. “I believe Brother Thranduil is terribly starved for affection, but he is now so accustomed to warding it off that he does not know how to seek it.”
“It would not be difficult,” Lindóriel said with a touch of bitterness.
“Of course not,” Gwaelin returned, “but I suppose he will have to discover that for himself. You will see; he cannot deny himself forever. You are the princess among us, Lin. Soon we shall be your maids, and you will be the envy of all Lindon. Just wait a bit for him.”
“Why should I?” Lindóriel asked sullenly. It was a rhetorical question, she knew, but at that moment it was worth asking.
“Because you want him,” Illuiniel answered simply, “and he is plainly drawn to you. I know you would not destroy that for mere spite.”
At last, in the sullen silence that followed, Lindóriel allowed herself a half-hearted laugh. “No, I suppose not,” she said, sinking down into the grass. “But I cannot understand him.”
“We are not meant to,” Gwaelin confided wryly, sitting down beside her. “The more we attempt to understand the other, the more bewildered we become.”
All too soon it seemed the time had come to return to the house. Taking their baskets in hand, the three of them set off together across the grass, a gentle breeze blowing past them to usher in the coming evening. Lindóriel wished she could enjoy such simple pleasures more than she did at that moment, but still her world was blighted by a single unsatisfied desire, a hollow emptiness that was only growing more painful as time went on.
“Good evening, ladies!” Galadhmir called pleasantly as they cut through the garden to the back door. “You took your precious time, love,” he smiled. But it was Gwaelin who was the object of his affections now, Gwaelin who gladly forgot her laden basket for a moment to accept his quick embrace.
Lindóriel could not help frowning a bit. Until recently she had always been the first to receive her brother’s endearments, but now it seemed she was eclipsed by the growing love he had found elsewhere, a kind of love she desperately wanted for herself, but was still denied. She could never find it in her heart to resent Gwaelin, but she did envy her happiness, Illuiniel’s self-assured independence, indeed every woman who seemed content with her state in life. She felt her heart was starving within sight of its greatest hope.
Leaving the others to their duties in the kitchen, Lindóriel wandered into the sitting room and sat down at her unfinished tapestry. Gently arranging her skirts around her, she took the needle in hand and attempted a few half-hearted stitches, trying to ignore the content of the scene. But it was no use; the figures of Oropher and Gil-galad were all but completed, leaving the unfinished portion she had been avoiding. The deep yellow thread that was his hair waited motionless in her hand as she steeled herself to continue. In the end, she simply jabbed the needle back into its place, knowing her lack of enthusiasm would oblige her to pull the poor stitching later, accomplishing nothing.
She stood again, disinclined to join the feminine chatter in the kitchen, craving solitude. But she firmly decided not to go to her room, for she retreated there too often when these moods assailed her. Instead she returned outside to the labyrinthine garden.
Linhir went in just as she came out, leaving her alone in that vast expanse of blooming shrubbery, the work of several years of loving toil on the part of herself and her sisters. Aimlessly, she found herself nearing the center, a rounded courtyard where the paths met and branched away like sunbeams, very like what Thranduil had told them of Gil-galad’s palace gardens, a royal arrangement Menelwen had insisted upon imitating. Tall evergreen trees ringed that secluded spot like sentinels, and in the center stood a small but elegant fountain.
Gathering her bright hair back, Lindóriel splashed some of that cold water over her face, just to gather her thoughts. She wanted to shake her growing melancholy, but could not. Or was it simply because she would not? Was she imposing this upon herself, refusing to expand her thoughts beyond her own deprivation and unsatisfied wants? But, as always, the uncertainty tormented her. If Thranduil cared for her so deeply as the others assured her he did, why did he say nothing? Why did he distance himself from her?
Glancing down, her eyes fell upon the four flagstones placed around the fountain’s base, each deeply engraved with the initial of one of those who had proudly lain them: G, L, An, and there at her feet, Th. She simply stared at it for a long moment, her thoughts again in turmoil.
Curling her lip in frustrated anger, she brought her foot down angrily upon that proud stone, turned on her heel and returned for dinner.
She did not remember much of that particular family meal when later she attempted to recall it, for she paid little attention. Oropher went on and on about something, most likely what he always talked about, more plans for their leave-taking, more arrangements, more cautions. However, greatly though she tried to ignore him, Lindóriel did notice that Thranduil seemed remarkably ill at ease, apparently unable to keep his mind trained on Oropher’s lecture for more than a few moments at a time. Nor did he seem to have much of an appetite. At last he excused himself early from the table with apologies to his father, invoking the rather transparent excuse that he was simply tired.
Thranduil, who for so long had been the driving force of the entire household, was never simply tired, especially not on a clear day devoid of any demanding task. But he did look emotionally exhausted and preoccupied, a complaint Lindóriel found she could share, though she knew not if for the same reason. She tried not to watch him go. His very presence was painful to her now.
The rest of them did not linger together long without him, gradually dispersing to attend their own affairs and chores as the soft darkness of evening covered the landscape. Lindóriel helped to clear the table in silence before she finally strode back through the hallway toward her own room. She fully intended to fall into bed and remain there until morning.
But no sooner had she set foot inside her door than she knew something was different. The room itself felt odd, as though someone had preceded her. It took her only a moment to notice the rose on her pillow. More brotherly banter from Galadhmir, she thought, hardly daring to hope for more, but already she had crossed the room and snatched up the note.
Will you speak to me, my lady? Or have you closed yourself to me as I deserve?
She knew that hand, the strong loops and curves of each word. She stared at it for several moments more, as though to be certain they read as they did. So this was the reason for his discomfort that evening. How long ago had he left it? What did he mean by it?
She saw the pendant there as well, the brilliant silver strand of chain lying over the contours of her pillow, dependent upon her ultimate decision. The petty voice of pride urged her to brush his plea aside, but it was hopelessly drowned by the renewed clamor of her affections. Slowly she took the gem in hand, the familiar facets flashing green, scarred but impressive in its remembered perfection. She knew full well the origins of that gem, and what it meant to him.
A nervous excitement had come over her now, but surprisingly she still retained enough self-control to remain rational in that moment, and that rational thought quickly turned bitter. Yes, he deserved to be spurned, he deserved to beg her pardon. But first she must ascertain just exactly what he meant. Closing the pendant in her hand, she went out to find him.
The dark of night had already fallen, and bright pricks of light glinted in the sky. The waning moon shed little light, but Lindóriel had no need of his help. Following her instinct through the shadows of the garden, she swept lightly over the path. She knew she would find him, but was not certain exactly what she would say when she did. The lightheaded giddiness was growing upon her amid the conflict of so much resentment, uncertainty and desperate love; she could not seem to steady her heart as much as she would like before attempting such a confrontation as this.
She stopped beside a dark holly bush and drew a deep breath before rounding the next bend. There he was, sure enough, sitting on the bench in the solitary company of his hound Argeleb.
“What am I to make of this?” she asked him, forcing her voice to be steady. He was absolutely beautiful, his eyes gleaming beneath dark brows as he looked up, silver starlight tracing the strong line of his shoulders. She wanted to be severe with him, but began to doubt she would be able to retain enough of her composure. She had not yet worn the pendant, and so had not yet strictly accepted it, but all the while the voice of her heart screamed at her for deliberately fraying her one thread of hope.
Thranduil stood to receive her, half a head taller, still aloof for courtesy’s sake. “What do you make of it?” he asked in return.
She did not answer.
“You once asked me if I cared at all for you,” Thranduil continued softly. It was a comforting tone she well remembered, stirring old memories of endless snow and ice, of wounds and devastation, of pouring out her griefs to him. “My answer did not satisfy you then, though I could have said no more.”
Still Lindóriel answered him nothing, standing silent in such a way as must have seemed cold and unfeeling. She simply looked at him, unable to speak, a thousand emotions flooding back to drown her in that moment.
“Belain, Lindóriel, do you think me blind?” Thranduil asked at last, pain rather than impatience in his voice. “Forgive my silence, if you can. Whatever I did, I thought only of you.” He paused for a moment, more resigned. “None would blame you if you want no part with me now,” he said; “but at least know that I do love you.”
She could see a change in his manner. All the severity was gone, softened to the point of real vulnerability. As always, he put as brave a face on the matter as he could, but she knew that if she tried to inflict her own selfish revenge now it would indeed wound him deeply. How could she bear to do that?
“We were great friends once, not so very long ago,” he went on. “I have been very slow to realize it, but I do not think my life can ever be whole again without you. I will be content to remain your friend if I must. But if I have not yet forfeited all the love you once bore for me, I should be very pleased if someday you would accept me for your husband.”
A single tear escaped her as she drew her first shuddering breath in far too long. Thranduil gently pulled her against him and simply held her close for a moment, then reached back and ran a fond hand through her hair. His every movement was deliberate. She could feel the rapid beating of his heart, betraying his nervous excitement. Before she realized he had taken it from her, he was reaching back to fasten the pendant about her neck himself. Their eyes met for a moment, a long sweet moment, then he leaned in and kissed her.
It was gentle, almost experimental, but it transfixed her as though to heal old wounds with new ones. She no longer felt the ground beneath her feet. He would not let her draw back afterwards, holding her even closer against his body, breathing deeply in her hair. She tasted tears on her lips, but now did not know whether they were her own or his. It was almost too much to bear all at once.
For a moment it seemed he wanted to say something, but instead he kissed her again, deeply. The force of it stole her breath away, and she was helpless in his arms. Again and again those glad wounds shot through her heart until she felt she could have easily died of joy.
Here was the unwavering strength she had craved, the same that had taken her up when her parents had died, the same that had gently but firmly nursed her through the pain and anxiety of her first serious wound. This was the Thranduil she remembered, the one she had idolized all her life as the prince of her dreams, then as a friend, a guardian, a brother, and now as he who would forever be her most intimate companion. She did not know what had built that wall between them for all those years, how those centuries had somehow been lost. But all that was past them now. Now the entire world lay before them.
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