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5. Water Magic
The rest of that day’s guard duty was exceptionally tedious. Thranduil wanted nothing more than to be able to leave, so he could find those emissaries and ask the elleth who she was and how she knew his name. She had looked familiar, but it had been over so soon he had not been able to see her clearly. He fervently wished the visitors would stay in Menegroth for a while, that they would not have been offended enough to return home immediately. But even if they did, he would find a way to follow them somehow, he would not let that elleth disappear again.
When he was finally relieved by the evening shift and free to go, Thranduil hurried home with a clever idea about how he could get close to the elleth.
He found his mother in the sitting room, mending his and Oropher’s clothes while the latter was reading aloud to her. The scene would have looked like a perfect example of marital bliss, if not Eiriendîs’ ear had been red and swollen and if there had been no finger-shaped bruises on her arm. With a combination of anger, shame and helplessness, Thranduil recalled the fight he had overheard yesterday night.
He managed to suppress his emotions, forbidding his features to betray them. There was nothing he could do about his parents’ relationship. It was what it was. Instead he brought up his errand.
“Some important guests came to Doriath today, from Círdan Shipwright. They were not very well received by the king. Can we invite them to supper?”
His parents looked up, surprised by their son’s unusual request.
“I suppose… well, it depends on how many they are, really… what with the food, and all.” His mother sounded a bit hesitant.
“They were six.”
“That is nothing, just have Thranduil run away to the butcher’s for some extra rabbits,” said Oropher. “But why were they not well received? I do not wish to anger Thingol by inviting an enemy of his to my table.”
Thranduil explained the emissaries’ errand, stressing the fact that they were allies from Eglarest; the king had nothing against them personally, he just did not like their message. Thus calmed, Oropher decided to visit the palace guest house and deliver the invitation personally.
When his father returned with a favourable answer, Thranduil’s stomach made a nervous flip. He hurried to his room to decide what to wear, rummaging through his clothes chest and finding nothing suitable. At last he settled for a tunic in pale blue and gold brocade with tight fitting sleeves, which accentuated the shape of his arms nicely. The disadvantage was the lightness of its colour, he worried that he with his fair hair and complexion would look pallid in it. But it was the best he had, it would have to do. He reminded himself to use his next payroll exclusively at the tailor’s.
Next he brushed his hair with extra care, adding an oil to make it smooth and give it luster as well as smell nice, and then plaited a couple of thin warrior braids on each temple. Glancing in his silver mirror, he saw a tall, very nervous young ellon looking back at him. But he looked handsome, he had to admit, and he knew that if he went out like this, ellith would turn after him, and not only the unmarried ones.
When he walked down the steps to the dining area, Thranduil all but trembled, and it took every ounce of his self-control not to let it show. But then he spotted the first guest, and his heart plummeted. Who had invited Princes Lúthien?
She came up to him, smiling politely the way she always did. He wanted to tell her to stand somewhere else and pretend that they did not know each other, but instead he was forced to speak with her; it did not do for a march-warden to be rude to the king’s daughter. His only relief was that the other guests had not arrived yet.
Never had Thranduil fought more to find words, never had he felt more awkward, but thankfully Lúthien did not seem to mind. By now she was probably used to his lack of social skills.
Then there was a knock at last and Thranduil joined his parents at the door.
“You look very nice,” said Mother in passing, hastily stroking his cheek. She also looked well; she had covered her bruised ear with her hair and wore a long-sleeved dress, but he had not time to look closely because now the guests filed in.
And there she was… his water maiden. He stared at her, drawing in a quick breath in surprise as realisation dawned. No wonder she had seemed familiar!
“Greetings, Master Oropher, I am Aerneth Círdaniell. Greetings Mistress.” Her melodic voice had not changed. She bowed her head and placed a thin, elegant hand across her heart. Then she turned to Thranduil, and her smile widened. “Greetings Thranduil Oropherion, well met again.” She had barely been more than an elfling last time, but she had certainly grown up gracefully.
“Greetings, My Lady.” He wanted to say something more, but before he could think of anything the other visitors came forward and he had to focus on them.
As Oropher led the way into their dining room, Thranduil discreetly observed Aerneth. He found that he recognised her well, even after so many decades. She was still the same elleth who had been his shadow that summer, but what had been skinny and flat then had matured into enticing curves. Her waist was as thin as it had been, but above and below it… He had to force himself to avert his gaze from her shapely body, fervently hoping he was not blushing.
Thranduil had Lúthien to the table, of course, and Aerneth was seated too far away for him to be able to talk to her. He longed to get her alone and ask if it had been she who called forth the mist that likely saved his unit’s life, and if so, how she had known they needed it. He found that his eyes kept being drawn her way, and whenever she noticed it she would smile.
Why had he not realised all those years ago how captivating her smile was? Nothing like the refined, polite ones he got from Lúthien. He wondered if she still liked him.
The conversation during their meal revolved around the impending war in Hithlum. Círdan had brought most of his warriors with him when he sailed north, leaving only a small unit to protect the Falas, the region surrounding Eglarest. Unlike Thingol, Círdan had long since forgiven the Noldor for the slaying of his relatives in Valinor.
”It is unfortunate we cannot help this time,” said Oropher. ”I am as concerned as you about the new orc army, Morgoth has grown too powerful for my liking. But I agree with my Lord King – he smiled at the princess – that one cannot trust the Noldor. And Fingon of Hithlum was one of those who supported Fëanor and his sons in that awful deed.”
”In that we differ,” replied the other female of the emissaries, the elleth with the single, dark braid. ”The Noldor have proven true to us Falathrim many times, protecting us against Morgoth and aiding in the rebuilding of our cities. One must lay aside old quarrels in the face of a common foe.”
Thranduil secretly agreed with her, but would not speak up publicly against his father.
Clearly wishing to avoid a heated discussion, Oropher changed topic and asked Aerneth about her family. Who was her mother, had she any siblings? She replied graciously. Her mother’s name was Falasiel and Aerneth was an only child, but her parents talked of having another elfling when times became more peaceful.
Thranduil could not take his eyes off her as she spoke. Her voice was so mellow and her behaviour so pleasant.
“Let us have some music, son,” said Oropher after the final course of nuts and dried fruits was cleared away. Thranduil was not surprised, his father always expected him to entertain their guests. He would never be a master performer, but he played the lyre tolerably well nowadays and had been told his singing voice was pleasant.
“Lúthien, you decide what your suitor shall play.”
Thranduil groaned inwardly. Why did Oropher have to reveal that they were courting? He stole a glance at Aerneth but her face was turned away. With luck, she had not heard.
“Play something merry,” said Lúthien.
He chose a song about the sea, thinking it might please Aerneth who lived by it. Lúthien clapped her hands and stamped her foot to the beat, and very soon she was up, dancing. She loved to dance and did it beautifully, and when Thranduil had finished one song she asked for another.
Again he glanced at Aerneth. She was looking at Lúthien as if she were an orc, clearly not appreciating the other’s dance skills at all. Then she turned to the ellon next to her, the one with the very long hair, and mumbled something in his ear. He nodded, and when Thranduil began a new piece the couple rose to join Lúthien on the floor. Now it was Thranduil’s turn to scowl as he watched them twirl around, hand in hand. At least it seemed the ellon was shorter than him, but that was a very small comfort.
Thranduil would not have thought things could go more wrong after this, but then his mother rose to join the dance, her movements unsteady and awkward from the wine she had consumed. Oropher’s countenance became stony, and Thranduil feared there would be another argument tonight. When the song had finished, Oropher promptly rose.
“I think this will be enough entertainment for tonight, my son, the hour is growing late and our guests must be tired.”
The guests took the hint and made ready to leave. Thranduil tried to catch Aerneth’s gaze but she would not look at him, ever since the dancing she had ignored him completely.
The evening had not worked out at all like he had hoped. He could not let her go like this, he must get to talk to her! But how to do it with everybody around? His parents, Lúthien… They would wonder why he wished to speak with a foreign elleth alone. He feverishly tried to think of a way, but his brain felt clogged.
When she turned to him to say goodbye, he got his chance.
“Farewell, Thranduil.” Her voice was cool. Only a tiny quiver of her lip betrayed that she maybe felt more than she pretended to.
“How long are you staying in Menegroth?” he asked.
“We leave tomorrow.” The quiver was more prominent now.
“I shall be exercising tomorrow, at sunrise. With my weapons. At the training grounds, you know, where I always exercise.” He lowered his voice to a murmur. “I remember finding someone in a tree there once, perhaps I shall find someone in that tree again tomorrow? I hope I will. I really, really do…” He was babbling, he knew that, but he hoped his eyes would convey the message if his words failed. He wanted to talk to her. He had to talk to her before she left.
Her eyes widened slightly. They were big, their shade a deep blue, framed by long lashes.
“Please,” he mouthed.
“One never knows what can be found in trees,” she said, lifting her pretty nose haughtily. “We shall see.” And with that she left him, his heart beating fast from a flutter of hope.
The night passed slowly, and Thranduil turned restlessly in his bed, wide awake. At first he had to endure his parents’ fight, and afterwards their usual reconciliation lovemaking. He hardly knew which was worse. Now it was silent, with only light snores sounding from the other side of the wall, yet sleep would not come to him. Instead he turned the evening’s events over and over in his head.
At first Aerneth had seemed to still like him, if he interpreted her smiles correctly. But then Oropher had ruined everything with his revelation about Lúthien. Had he done it intentionally? Not much went past that ellon’s sharp perception, maybe he had puzzled the pieces together; Thranduil’s unusual request to invite the emissaries to supper and his repeated glances at the elleth.
What would Thranduil say to her if she came to the training grounds tomorrow? He pondered this for a while, using his old trick of constructing the sentences beforehand in his head, repeating them until he felt sure he could say them without hesitation.
He did drowse off eventually, but awoke long before the lamplighters had begun their morning round, when Menegroth was still cloaked in shadows and the only light outside his window came from the red night lanterns. He checked his hourglass by the bed. Two hours until sunrise. With open eyes he laid back again, just waiting, willing the minutes to go faster. Would Aerneth come?
When at last it was time to rise, Thranduil dressed in his guard clothes that were more suitable for training than the finery he wore yesterday, but he took extra care to brush and plait his hair. He forced himself not to run when he entered the deserted street, he might encounter Aerneth on the way and did not want to seem too eager. But he did not see her. Instead he met Amroth who had city gate duty this morning, and Thranduil tried to look innocent as he changed a few words with his friend before continuing out.
On this early hour the training grounds were equally empty as the city had been. Again no Aerneth in sight. He moved his gaze to the tree he had found her in so many years ago, but its bare branches were empty too, this time of year he would have spotted her easily had she been there.
He could not hold back a sigh. She had not come.
But he did not want to give up. She could be late, maybe she had overslept. And there still was a while left until the sun would rise over the treetops.
He began to pace to and fro, his hands behind his back.
He spun towards the sound, his heart beating faster. Aerneth stepped out from behind the thick tree trunk, a cheeky smile playing on her lips. The rising sun made her hair shine like fire.
Mutely he closed the distance between them in a few strides. This was it, his chance. But now that she was here no words would come. His mouth felt dry, his tongue thick and unwilling to cooperate.
Aerneth saved him.
“You still look the same,” she said.
“You do not.”
“Nay?” She smiled. “Changed for the better or worse?”
“Better.” He swallowed.
“Your sweetheart is very beautiful.” Her eyes narrowed.
“Lúthien is not my sweetheart! We… our fathers want the match, but she means nothing to me.”
“I see.” Her smile was back. “So, were you not going to exercise? I had the impression I was coming to watch you practice.”
He jumped to grip the lowest branch of the tree she had hidden behind, pulling himself up by his arms and then dropping, up and drop, up and drop.
“Impressive.” She observed him with apparent interest. In a surge of delight and pride he made a dozen more pullups, nearly bursting with energy.
“Walk with me,” she demanded after a while. Thranduil happily obliged, dropping from the branch to offer her his arm. He loved the feeling of her hand on his forearm as she took it.
“The Esgalduin is beautiful this time of year,” she said. Thranduil had led her onto the river path he often took on his morning run.
“This is its nice part.”
“Is there a bad part then?”
“Aye, after the city.” He grinned. “All of our waste water empties in it.” He picked a flat stone from the riverbed and threw it across the water, satisfied when it bounced two times before sinking.
Aerneth picked another stone and threw it like he had, with the addition of a short wordless song. Thranduil gaped as the stone bounced all the way across to the other shore, at least fifty yards off.
“How did you do that?” he asked. “And the mist that saved me, that was you, was it not?”
“But how ?” He had to know.
“Uinen taught me how to make the waters obey, a long time ago. She is friends with my nana. But the mist was her work, I asked her to do it.”
“Uinen…” he breathed. The Lady of the Seas, helper of the Vala Ulmo. He had actually thought it might be her he had seen in the water that time. “But how did you know I needed help?”
“You thought about me.” She shrugged. “When someone is near water and thinks about me, I can pick it up. That is how I communicate with Ada when he is away sailing.”
“Really?” He did not remember thinking of Aerneth then, but perhaps he had?
“Look into the river and think about me,” she ordered, walking a few yards upstream. He obeyed, peering into the clear water. As soon as he pictured Aerneth before his inner eye, her face formed on the surface, looking so real he had to glance over his shoulder to make sure it was not just her reflection. When the image spoke, he heard it in a strange stereo, coming both from the water and from her physical person.
“Hello Thranduil, you look surprised.” The image and Aerneth both laughed.
“Can you hear and see me too?” he asked the image.
“Aye. When I create the connection it goes both ways, until I end it.” The image disappeared.
Thranduil moved his gaze back to the real her. “When you leave… can I talk to you this way?”
“If you want to.”
“I do.” He took her hand. “Ever since I saw you in the river I have thought about you.” He wanted to add that this would probably get even worse, now that he had seen her in real person. She was the loveliest elleth he had met.
“I’ve been thinking about you too.” She suddenly looked very young, her cheeks colouring.
“Aerneth…” He pressed her hand to his lips. “You saved my life. All of our lives. It means a lot.”
“Oh. So you were grateful? That was why you thought about me?” She sounded disappointed.
“Not only.” He met her gaze, drowned in it, again at loss for words.
She stepped closer, so near he could smell the oil she used in her hair, something fruity. Lemons? Whatever it was made him giddy.
His eyes were drawn to her lips. He wanted to taste them, and it took all his self-control not to bend down and kiss her. Just being alone with her like this was inappropriate, he must not take advantage of the situation. Kissing her would be unpardonable.
“Why else did you think of me then?” she asked, her voice low and silky.
“I could not forget your beautiful face.”
“You think I’m beautiful?”
“Aye. Oh aye…” His head moved on its own accord, and her face turned up to meet his. Her lips were soft, sweeter than honey. He never wanted to stop.
With huge effort he managed to break the kiss. “I’m sorry!” he burst out, guiltily taking a step back.
“Why? Did you not like it?” She licked the lip he had just kissed, tasting him.
“I did. Very much. But I should not… it is not right. We are not even courting…”
“True.” Her smile waned. “You ought to end things with her first.”
“Besides, I have to go now. We were planning to leave shortly after sunrise, and the others are probably waiting for me. Call me through the water in ten days from now, when I’m sure to be back home. Then I shall know I can trust you.”
“Ten days. I promise.”
Guys never call when they say they will. But maybe Thranduil is different?
The suffix ‘-iell’ after a name means ‘daughter’ in Sindarin, and ‘-ion’ means ‘son’. Thus, Círdaniell means Círdan’s daughter and Oropherion means Oropher’s son. ‘Nana’ means mum and ‘Ada’ means dad.
On elves and sleeping with open/closed eyes: Tolkien is not very clear about this subject. Legolas slept with his eyes open when he chased orcs in the Two Towers, but that was an exceptional situation, where he was in a great hurry. The drunk guards in the Hobbit seem to have slept normally since they did not spot the fleeing dwarves. As Tolkien left it so vague, I let the elves in my stories mostly sleep normally like humans do, but they can enter a sort of meditative resting state in case of wartime or hurry. They can also go without sleep entirely for many days because of their greater stamina.
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