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We Were Young Once ~ I  by Conquistadora



Chapter 1 ~ Rise

A fresh calm lingered over the eastern shores of Balar.  The white sails of Círdan’s ships billowed in the afternoon breeze, and the sounds of work and laughter were carried on the air as the shipwrights plied their daily trade.  Even rain could not have dampened the spirits of the Elves who lived there in a glad daze of springtime euphoria, for who could be troubled by the old wars in Middle-earth while the trees around them burst into flower and the yellow fawn lilies nodded in the fields?

But beyond the activity of the mariners there was one who had retreated from the noise of their company for a few moments of solitude.  He lay on the weathered planks of an old pier, trailing his fingers in the water.  Had he been standing it would have been plain that he was of greater stature than the Falathrim who had originally populated those shores.  One could almost have mistaken him for one of the golden lords of the Golodhrim, but he was an exile of a different sort.  He was a remnant of Doriath, that realm that had borne the greatest lords of Middle-earth before the rising of the moon.

As much as he enjoyed the companionship of Círdan’s people, Thranduil wished to be alone today.  Beneath the sparkling ripples he could clearly see many silver fish gently teased by his fingertips, loitering without fear, knowing he meant them no harm.  It seemed the world bid him rest and be at peace, forgetting what had driven him to that place.  He longed to forget, even for just a moment, but that would not be easily done.

Last night he had dreamed of home.  He had remembered the reign of Elu Thingol, the maternal grace of Melian the Maia Queen; he had remembered beautiful fleet-footed Lúthien his cousin; he remembered his grandfathers and grandmothers, family and friends, Daeron the minstrel who had taught him to play the flute, his father’s cousin Celeborn.  He had remembered the way the wind sang in the beeches, the call of the nightingales, the flash of the fountains in the halls of Menegroth.  Then he remembered the ruin that was Doriath’s downfall, the blades and the flames and the sharp smell of blood, before he finally woke in a cold sweat.

It had been nightmare enough when the Dwarves of Nogrod had murdered King Thingol in his own halls and stolen the Silmaril of Lúthien.  Thranduil had been very young then, when their world had first begun to crumble, but in the haste and confusion he had been permitted to accompany his father, Oropher, as he and every other outraged lord of Menegroth ran down the murderers in the midst of their flight.  The first blood on his sword besides that of Orcs had been of Dwarves.  There had been little enough time to mourn his innocence, however, as Melian abandoned them in her grief, leaving all Doriath exposed to the vengeful host which then issued from Nogrod against them.  The border defenses had utterly failed and only in Menegroth did the lords of the Mithrim resist the hordes of invading Dwarves, but they had been overwhelmed and the city had been ravaged.

That had been enough bereavement and bloodshed for a lifetime.  The funerals had gone on for months and the mourning for years until finally Menegroth was restored to somewhat of its former glory.  The Silmaril had been restored, they had taken Lúthien’s son Dior for their king and begun trying to live again in a world that seemed much bleaker than it had before.  

Then the sons of Fëanor had approached King Dior to demand the surrender of the Silmaril.  It had seemed an unpleasantly proud and callous request, considering all the suffering and upheaval the Iathrim had endured in the keeping of it.  Dior, too, had his pride and had not been inclined to forsake his parents’ most glorious heirloom, so he had dared to refuse.  Dwarves were barely civilized, naturally savage and rapacious, but surely they could expect better conduct from the Golodhrim, the High Elves of the West.

How wrong they had been.

The Fëanorionnath had fallen upon Menegroth in the dead of winter, destroyed the city and killed all they could lay hands upon.  Lord Oropher had fled the flaming ruin with Lady Elwing in his custody by King Dior’s command, and their ragged band of survivors had braved hunger, deprivation, and the unforgiving cold to journey on foot to the mouths of the River Sirion and the sea.  There, with the melancholy companionship of the remnant of Gondolin, the exhausted and destitute remnant of Doriath had tried to reinvent their lives.  But the sons of Fëanor, unsatisfied and with a cruelty unheard of in all the history of the Elves, had ridden as if for war against the nascent village and razed it to the ground, putting everyone indiscriminately to the sword.  Those few who had survived that third slaughter, broken and utterly dispirited, had fled to Balar and the protection of Gil-Galad.  And there they remained.

Their destruction had been so complete that it was still surreal to remember it.  Everything and everyone was gone, smashed and swept away like so much glass.  More unsettling was the thought that it had not been some random catastrophe but rather a deliberate massacre wreaked by those who knew exactly what they were doing and would do it again given the chance.  

Thranduil shuddered despite the warmth of the sun, repulsed by those mad princes of the Golodhrim and the black curse that haunted them.  They had heard rumor in Doriath of the Kinslaying of Alqualondë, but it had seemed impious even to speak of it, surely a terrible misunderstanding or accident that would never happen again.  Thranduil, like many of his family, had been wary of the exiled Golodhrim, but never in his darkest imaginings had he expected to to be so completely brutalized by the blind savagery of those who boasted to be Elves of Light.

Worse than the physical wounds the Kinslayers had inflicted was the taint of their own degradation they had thrust upon their victims.  Forced to defend himself and his people, Thranduil and his surviving companions were now among the only Elves who knew what it was to drive a sword through the living flesh of a long sundered kinsman, to be elbow-deep in warm Elvish blood, to maim a foe with a kindred face and hear him scream.  There was no guilt, but it was a shadow they would carry for the rest of their lives.

Something that had once been soft and untried in Thranduil was hardened now as adamant, cold and woefully disillusioned in the ideals of his youth, rendering him older than his years.  Much of his laughter had died with his innocence, and even now had not fully returned.  He used to thrive on fellowship, but now he was given to pensive solitude.  Mirth that before had come easily to him now required greater effort.  No more was he boisterous and easily befriended; rather he had become distrustful, suspicious, violated.  He wondered if he would ever be able to truly trust again.  What had been so thoroughly broken could never be fully mended, nor all the flaws buffed away.

By now he had learned how futile it was to attempt to guess his own future, but he could not help but wonder where life was leading him.  Was this the end of them?  Would the Iathrim remain in the dust, unfortunate victims in the tragic drama of the Silmarils?  That would be a disappointing way to be remembered.  Perhaps they would not be remembered at all.

Lifting his eyes, Thranduil looked out to sea, back toward the unseen shore that had been his homeland. A primal desire stirred in him to return, even as he wished to forget.

In this moment of weakness he felt familiar footsteps reverberating through the planks of the pier, and a kindred shadow was cast beside him in the afternoon sun.

"Would you object to my company, Thranduil?"

Pushing himself up to his knees, Thranduil turned toward that well-beloved voice with a genuine smile. "Of course not,” he said.  “I think too much when I am alone."

Oropher gladly sat down beside him, letting his feet dangle just above the rippling water.  With his gleaming silver hair and his heather gray tunic, he still looked like a lord out of the old starlit era.  The world was all of color now, surely very different from how it had been when Oropher was young.  "What was it that you were thinking too much about here at the feet of the sea?" he asked.

Thranduil had settled cross-legged at his father’s side, grateful they shared so intimate an understanding.  He could tell him anything.  "The past," he answered, quite frankly, "and the future, if we are to have one."

Oropher grunted and nodded, tossing a pebble into the shallows.  The distant crash of the surf and the lapping of small waves against the pier filled the silence.  "I must confess that it has been of some concern to me as well.  Balar is pleasant enough, but it is not home."

"Nowhere will ever be home," Thranduil said ruefully.

Oropher turned, as though he regretted hearing that tone embitter his voice again.  "It will not be Doriath, no," he said.  "But you need not despair of ever finding a place you may call your own. You are young yet, Thranduil," he insisted.  "Your entire life lies before you.  I would not have it on my conscience that I left you here to atrophy unchallenged."

Thranduil looked up with some measure of interest, catching what he thought was his father’s true underlying motive.  "You wish to leave, then?"

"I am yet undecided," Oropher admitted, his gaze distant.  "The hospitality of Gil-galad leaves little to be desired, and he is an admirable lord in his own right.  I fear only to lose what little remains of our kind to the rather overpowering influence of our foreign brethren.  Even among the ‘Remnants’ we are no longer distinguished from the Gondolindrim."  He sighed heavily, his mind turning to another matter that touched him near.  "In any event," he said, "I would not see you wed to some lovely Exile and entangled in her doom, as Celeborn is now."

Yes, Celeborn.  Both fell sullen for a moment as they recalled the rift that had divided what remained of the family, a rift by the name of Lady Nerwen Finarfiniel. The love that had united her to Celeborn had been strong but unquestionably tumultuous, and Oropher had warned rather vehemently that it would always be so.  Thranduil had stood by as his father had quarreled with his cousin for the last time, uncomfortably torn between them.  There had been bitter words, and not long afterward Celeborn had quit Doriath in the company of his formidable wife, unreconciled.

Beside him Oropher heaved another sigh as though to banish useless regrets, watching the seagulls dip and swerve.  "It seems Celeborn, or perhaps rather Nerwen, eventually saw Doriath as I now see Balar.  Though it be gilded, it is a cage nonetheless.  Young falcons must be given a chance to spread their wings if ever they will learn to fly, and there is little enough room here."

"Where would we go?" 

"I do not know.  We are pinched in a corner here if Morgoth is never overthrown.  Perhaps we could at last follow Celeborn into the East, to the lands beyond Beleriand.  The unknown intrigues me of late.  Daeron went often to Ossiriand, but I wonder now what lies beyond the Ered Luin, whence our forebears came in the Years of the Stars."

"That is quite a long way to go," Thranduil said, thinking of the trek across merely Beleriand itself. 

"What does distance matter, so long as we go together?"  Oropher asked, a warm smile lighting his face.  But then he sobered once again.  "There is nothing left for us here, Thranduil.  Nothing but fading and domination.  I am not ready to be pushed into the West, and I suspect neither are you."

Valinor.  Eldamar.  Once those names had meant the land of Melian, the Realm of the Blessed, the Elven Paradise.  Now it seemed to imply a kind of oblivion, the End none could see, the land of the Exiles, rife with treachery and contention.  "Of Valinor" had become almost a label of dishonor in Middle-earth, little though the crimes of the Exiles reflected on the land itself.  No.  They were Iathrim, Elves of Beleriand, of Ennor; they had wronged no one but had been grievously wronged themselves.  Not yet would they suffer to live among those who would patronize them with self-righteous pity.

"It seems a clear choice of East or West, and I am not particularly fond of either," Oropher continued, interrupting Thranduil’s errant thoughts.  "But I would sooner make a commitment to one or the other than abide here forever.  Besides, often our decisions are made for us if we tarry overlong.  I would follow my own mind before I am forced.  There are many lands yet that answer to no master."

Thranduil’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as he recognized the distinct air of ambition about his father.  "Is the title of lord no longer grand enough for you?" he asked pointedly.

"It is not that which chafes me," Oropher insisted, taking no offense.  "It is that I have naught to be lord of.  We are noble still in name, but in truth little more than alms-guests."  He glanced aside to his son.  "I can easily see a prince in you.  A crown would suit you well."

Thranduil gave a half-hearted smile.  "You think so?" he asked incredulously.

Oropher smiled broadly.  "I propose we seek a realm of our own.  What say you?"

At last spoken plainly, the idea was jarring.  It was true that all their rightful lords were dead, their realms disbanded.  Gil-galad held no claim of obligation or kinship upon them beyond the service they had already rendered in return for his aid.  They owed nothing to anyone.  A consequence of having everything forcibly reft from them was a new freedom so complete it was difficult to comprehend.  

"I have dreamed of it often," Oropher said when Thranduil did not answer.  "There should be many of Lenu’s following still east of the mountains, the woodland people.  Perhaps we could seek them out.  If they will accept new lords, I believe they will be more willing to trust one of their nearer kindred than a fell prince of the Golodhrim."  He paused a moment in thought, considering the silvan Elves they had known in Doriath, a rustic race without the refinements of the Mithrim, but not without their own charm.  They were not savage, merely simple.  "Perhaps we could bring a bit of our world to them.  Theirs is a simpler life, and blessedly so.  It could be the living echo of Doriath without the troubles which beset us here."

The thought was not without appeal, but still Thranduil was reluctant to accept such an astounding challenge as this.  In his younger years he may have jumped at the chance, but what remained of his enthusiasm now burned at a decidedly low flame.  "That will not be easily accomplished," he said at last.

"Rising to new challenges is the only thing that renders life bearable,” Oropher insisted.  “Come," he said, digging a paternal fist into Thranduil’s shoulder.  "Shall we take flight again, or sit here on our tails like fat peacocks, nothing but bluff?  While such as we endure, Doriath shall never truly die."

Thranduil arched one brow at him, elbows on his knees, the very picture of disenchanted apathy.  "You really believe that, Father?"

"Certainly, I do," Oropher said.  "Our heritage is too precious now to be lost, for it survives only in memory.  We may be crushed and scattered to the wind but we are still who we are.  Take a lesson from the sea-star.  If it is crushed and scattered it does not die, but instead each piece grows into its own whole, and then there are more than there were at first.  Why then should we not leave his place behind and foster our own portion of Doriath anew?"

Thranduil was tempted but still reluctant, the future stretching away before him with new and frighteningly boundless horizons.  "You do realize what it is you are taking upon yourself?" he asked, finding his father’s unbridled enthusiasm a trifle unsettling.

Oropher rose to his feet with a new air of purpose.  He had been as dismal as any of them when they had arrived, but his new aspirations had worked a startling change.  He had become again the full-blooded lord that burned in his core with a pride that harkened back to the days of Doriath’s glory.  Tall and unashamed, his spirit flew in the face of the disgrace they had suffered.

Yes, they could be proud again.

"We are too strong yet to admit our defeat," he said imperiously.  "We may be barely breathing, but I daresay we are far from dead.  The world will hear our names again before the end."

All had begun to move too fast for Thranduil to follow.  He looked up at his father with consternation akin to fear.  He had never imagined his family as anything more than lesser lords of a king’s household, the highest rank he had ever known or expected.  The thought that they might claim a crown for themselves seemed shockingly presumptuous.  "Is it our place to simply assume the rule of others?" he asked.  "It is not a role I imagined we were suited for."

"There was once a time when none of us had seen or imagined such a wonder as the rainbow," Oropher said evenly.  "Not until we saw the world in a new light did many natural things manifest themselves.  The world is changing, Thranduil.  We cannot go on as we were, but neither can we go on as we are, thrown to the gutter of passing time.  It is for us to pull ourselves out if we wish to walk free once more.  Will you come with me?"

The question itself was exhilarating, a demand and a challenge.  Quite in spite of himself, Thranduil felt the stirring of old passions he had thought dead, a swell of the audacious panache for which they had once been infamous.  "You believe we can?" he asked.

Wordlessly, Oropher offered his hand.  It was more than a gesture; it was the offer of a father to pull his son once and for all from the darkness in which he had lost himself, and from there across the threshold into a new and unprecedented walk of life.  Ruin lay behind, but an entire world waited ahead.

Thranduil’s own hand started upwards of its own accord, but hesitated.  Again he saw their future reflected in his father’s eyes, the immeasurable horizons no longer daunting, but beckoning.  Alone he could do nothing, but together it seemed there was nothing they could not achieve.  He took his father’s hand at last in a strong filial grasp.  Oropher smiled roguishly, and pulled him again to his feet, righting his shoulders to bear again the dignity of yesteryear, shadows thrown aside, humiliations spurned.

"Now I know we can."


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