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7. Autumn Hunt
The autumn was normally Thranduil’s favourite season, and in particular he loved the yearly hunt. Every elf who could handle a bow took part, as well as those who knew how to skin and butcher. The city’s storages would be restocked with salted and conserved meat to last the entire year, food that would not spoil even on longer journeys and serve as a complement to what little fresh game they could get during the winter months.
The elves would spread out in smaller groups, dividing the kingdom between them. When they returned with their catch a huge feast would be held in celebration of the forest’s bounty. There would be bonfires, dancing, singing and of course meat aplenty, roasted over charcoal until crisp on the outside and pink and savory within.
The feast might be a good opportunity for the conversation with Oropher about Aerneth, Thranduil figured. His father loved hunting and would be relaxed and content. Hopefully that would make him more likely to comply with his son’s wishes.
As usual, Thranduil went out together with his childhood friends, Amroth, Medlin, Taurandir and Beleg. On the hunt, Beleg was no longer his and Amroth’s captain, here they were all equals just like they used to be in their childhood.
When they arrived in their secluded clearing, a flood of happy memories filled Thranduil. He loved everything about this place; the cosy wood cabin they had built on their first hunt, barely more than elflings, the small brook where they fetched their water and bathed, even their simple fare of lembas, Queen Melian’s famous waybread. Apart from the food they had only brought their weapons and one barrel of salt each to store the meat and hides in. They needed to travel light, if their hunt was successful there would be a heavy load to carry back to Menegroth.
Before taking to the trees for their first day of hunting, the friends had to make the old cabin fit to live in again. They cut fresh rushes from the creek to cover the holes in the roof and swept the earthen floor clean of old leaves, spiderwebs and mouse droppings. When they nearly were finished, another ellon surprisingly showed up, alone and dressed very simply in hunter’s green. How had Captain Mablung known where to find them?
They all turned to Beleg, who had the decency to look a bit guilty.
“I hope you did not mind me inviting another friend?” He greeted the other captain with a firm hug.
Thranduil shared a look of annoyance with Amroth. Of course they minded, this place was theirs . Mablung was much older, and whenever he was around, Beleg tended to ignore his other friends in favour of him. But there was not much to be done.
Their first day went unusually well. Together they felled one young stag, a boar sow with seven striped piglets and three hares. The boar family had been Beleg’s contribution, for which he was exceedingly proud, and rightly so – felling a boar with merely a bow and arrow was indeed a feat. The only way was to target an eye and hit it with great force. With the sow down, the piglets were easier because they would remain by their mother’s carcass.
Thranduil had only shot one of the hares but he had been very close to fell a doe. The animal had turned her head just when he released his arrow, missing her with an inch.
When the prey was skinned and slaughtered, cut up in smaller chunks and stowed away in the salt barrels, darkness had already fallen. They lit several smoky fires to keep the flies away and Thranduil went to bury the waste some way off to avoid attracting predators and scavengers to their cabin.
They gathered around one of the fires munching their evening lembas and sharing an amphora of wine that Mablung had brought. Thranduil abstained, he had tried wine once many years ago when he was very young, and that had not gone well. His father had smelled the alcohol on his breath when he returned home, and as punishment for his disobedience, Oropher had collected another bottle from their kitchen and forced Thranduil to empty it all by himself. He had never been so sick in his life, spending the night vomiting in a bucket, and the morning after with a horrible taste in his mouth while his head pounded like the Vala Aulë’s mighty hammer. Ever since, the wine smell alone made him queasy.
Medlin, who was the only married ellon among them, began a long and rather boring anecdote about his mother-in-law. Thranduil’s mind wandered to Aerneth, but first he made sure the brook was at a far away enough distance. It did not do to have her eavesdrop on the ellyn’s conversation, which could sometimes linger on subjects not fit for the sensitive ears of a lady.
He held back a smirk. Sensitive ears and Aerneth did not really fit well in the same sentence, she was actually bolder than any ellon he knew. Like that amazing bath call they had had, when she begged him to talk dirty. Unfortunately it had been a one time experience. Maybe she would agree to another bath after he had spoken to Oropher…?
Thinking of his father curbed Thranduil’s amorous feelings effectively. He ought to prepare himself, not daydream about bathing ellith.
Still deep in thought, Thranduil’s gaze fell on Beleg and Mablung who were talking intently in subdued voices, ignoring the rest of them just as he had anticipated. Mablung’s fingers were touching Beleg’s knee in a rather intimate way. What was that all about? His curiosity piqued, Thranduil noticed other cues, such as how close they sat and the way their gazes locked. It reminded him of when Medlin was courting his then future wife. Were they lovers?
He hurriedly looked away. If so, it was none of his business.
The conversation had left Medlin’s mother-in-law and moved on to the hidden city, Amroth’s favourite topic.
“We really should have done like Lord Círdan wanted and sent aid to Hithlum,” he said. “If we had helped them protect their country, the humans might have been willing to tell us where to find the hidden city. One of those boys who disappeared is lord there now, young Húrin.”
“Why do you want to find it anyway?” asked Medlin. “Let Turgon hide if he wants to. Sooner or later he will come forward.”
“It is just so intriguing to imagine a whole city full of elves that nobody knows about.”
“I find it more intriguing with the mortals, how resourceful and talented they are despite their short lifespan,” said Taurandir. “Húrin’s skill as a commander is said to be one of the reasons the orcs still have not broken through the Hithlum border.” Taurandir worked as a professional hunter all year, and often roamed the forests outside Doriath. He had lived with the Men of Haleth in Brethil for extended periods, learning about their ways.
“Aye, like that wildman in Dorthonion. The one remaining Outlaw,” Amroth agreed. “He who killed a host of orcs all by himself!”
Thranduil smiled at that, but as was his habit when in company, he said nothing. Amroth would believe any rumour however ill-founded, and he had a thing for heroes.
“What was his name again?” mused Amroth. “Beleg, do you remember?”
“Who?” Beleg looked up rather guiltily and Mablung snatched his hand back from the other’s leg.
“The Outlaw, what was his name?”
“Beren, I think. He is said to be Barahir’s son.”
“Barahir sounds familiar,” said Taurandir. “Was that not the man who saved Galadriel’s brother?”
“Aye, he did.”
”Men really are remarkably brave.”
As Amroth returned to the topic of the lost boys and the hidden city, Thranduil thought about Barahir and the mentioned deed. It had happened early in the war, a few years before Thranduil’s own first battle in the forest of Brethil. Morgoth had just broken the siege and come out of his fortress Angband with his dragon, balrogs and orcs, burning the Noldorin country Ard-galen to the ground. Finrod, Galadriel’s brother, had left his city Nargothrond and marched north along the Sirion to help his kin resist the onslaught. But when he reached the marshlands near Hithlum, he was cut off from most of his army and would have been killed if Barahir and his men had not surrounded the fens, forming a wall of spears and thus detained the enemy long enough for Finrod to escape and be reunited with his forces.
It was rather surprising, really. What had processed those short-lived beings to risk so much just to save one elf? But maybe it was because of Finrod himself, he had always been special, becoming friends with both dwarves and men. He had taught the mortals to speak Sindarin, and as far as Thranduil knew, he was the only elf who could speak Mannish. It was also he who first arranged lands for them near Doriath, after convincing King Thingol that men were useful allies.
Thranduil had met Finrod a few times when the ellon visited his sister in Menegroth. He looked like her, blond and very tall, but there ended the likeness. While Galadriel was fierce and strong her brother appeared wise and kind, more inclined to make music than war. Thranduil could not say which he preferred. Perhaps both kinds of elves where needed to make the world safe and beautiful?
That night Thranduil rested well in their cabin, lulling himself to sleep with sweet thoughts of Aerneth and a selection of the more interesting of their water calls. Before he drifted off, he spotted Mablung moving his mattress closer to Beleg’s. He imagined their situation must be a lot harder than his, and was grateful that his own troubles only concerned wanting to marry the wrong elleth in his father’s eyes. At least she was an elleth.
The following days of hunting were less productive than the lucky first, but on the fifth afternoon they had finally filled all their barrels and could drag their haul back to Menegroth. Since the bow was not Thranduil’s favoured weapon, he was glad for the few hares and quails he had shot and the stag he had felled together with Amroth.
Thranduil was beyond nervous when he went to the Feast of the Hunt the evening after their return. This was where he had decided to break the news to Oropher that he no longer wanted to court Lúthien.
The festival was held just outside the city in a clearing near the training grounds, one of the few places where the sky was open above, allowing the stars to twinkle down on them. In the outskirts of the area crude tables were set up with long benches to sit on, and in the center several bonfires spread their light and warmth. Around them elves joined hands to form dance circles, moving in beat with the cheerful music produced by Daeron the minstrel and his fellow musicians. The wine flowed freely from many barrels and soon the ambience was merry.
As the evening proceeded, Thranduil kept postponing the moment he would speak to Oropher. Lúthien loved dancing and he told himself it was not right to ruin her evening, instead he joined her, keeping up the pretense of being her partner a little longer. His heart was not in it though, and whenever their hands joined in the ring of dancers he felt guilty, like he was cheating on Aerneth.
“You seem tired,” she said at last.
He thought about what to answer, and when he finally did his lie made him feel even more guilty about his double dealings.
“Aye, maybe I am. Please, do continue enjoying yourself while I sit down a little.”
As he left her, he knew he could not delay it anymore.
Oropher was talking to his friend Amdír, Amroth’s father, at one of the nearby tables. Thranduil joined them, silently listening while waiting for an opportune moment. The older ellyn were discussing the war and trying to predict the outcome, a popular topic these days.
Thranduil’s opportunity came when Amdír’s wife walked up to them, pulling her husband with her to the dance circles. Finally alone with his father, Thranduil asked if he would join him for a walk. This conversation was one he did not want anyone else to overhear.
“Was it anything in particular you wanted to speak of?” asked Oropher as they had come away from the fires. They were walking on the edge of the clearing, under the yellowing leaves of the beeches and oaks. Lanterns hung from their branches, emitting a warm, pleasant light.
Thranduil drew a breath, steadying himself.
“Aye. It is about Lúthien. I cannot court her anymore.” He knew his father prefered when he was direct, not beating around the bush.
“Why?” Oropher stopped abruptly.
“Because I love another.” There, it was said. He felt cold with anticipation. How would Oropher react to the news?
“Tell me everything.” Oropher’s forehead was creasing slightly, but apart from that he seemed calm enough.
Holding his carefully prepared speech, Thranduil recounted how he had met Aerneth when she was very young, and how she later saved the life of him and his company in the Ford of Brithiach. He told of when he had recognised her among the emissaries from Eglarest, which was why he had wanted Oropher to invite them home. He also mentioned his and Aerneth’s meeting outside the city the next day, wisely leaving out their kiss.
“Since then we have been speaking several times through her water magic, and decided we want to marry.” He withheld what else they had done during those calls.
Oropher nodded slowly when he had finished. “I noticed your interest in her during that supper and wondered what was the cause of it. She seemed not so special to me. Beautiful, aye, though very inferior compared to Lúthien. But now I better understand your infatuation.”
Thranduil opened his mouth to object to his father’s choice of words, this was more than an infatuation ! But Oropher stilled him with a motion of his hand.
“Thranduil, at such a young age one cannot discern between love and desire, and a marriage begun without love is doomed to bring misery and grief only. You are grateful to this elleth, flattered by her continued interest in you for so many years, and her mysterious appearance in the water that time must have intrigued you. This sounds to me like an obsession, powered by your youthful urges and your inexperience.”
“Father! That’s not it at all!”
“You cannot possibly know her well enough to love her after such a short time – and that meeting in your youth does naturally not count. Love takes time to build. It is hard work. For ten years I courted your mother before we were wed, not until then had we built the foundation on which our marriage now firmly rests.”
Thranduil thought of his parents’ repeated fighting and secretly wondered about the quality of that foundation, but it was not his business to meddle in their affairs.
“Son, I am not asking you to wed Lúthien if you do not love her, a loveless marriage with her is no better than one with Círdan’s daughter,” Oropher continued. “I am just saying you must be patient. Lúthien might grow on you yet. The two of you have so much in common, and you look stunning together. A couple others envy.”
“It is Aerneth I want.”
“I have no doubt your body wants her. I am not blind, I saw how you looked at her that time, nor am I too old to understand the physical needs of an ellon.”
Thranduil felt his cheeks heat up and could not think of an answer. His father had hit too close to the truth for comfort.
Oropher placed his hand on his son’s shoulder, in what he probably intended to be a comforting gesture, but his grip was a little too tense and the frown remained on his forehead. He was angry, but for once he was managing to control his feelings.
“These are troubled times, and no weddings will be held until we know what happens in the north,” he said. “Even if it turns out in the future that you really do love this other elleth and wish to spend your life with her, you still have plenty of time to marry her then. But it is unwise to turn Lúthien down prematurely, you should not close that door too soon.”
“Can I at least go visit Aerneth?”
“That is not for me to decide, ask your king. But I would be surprised if he allowed it when war rages so close to our borders. He needs his march-wardens around.”
Thranduil nodded, realising his father was right. He could not travel to Eglarest yet. And as for breaking up with Lúthien, he did not dare to push that matter further. At least Oropher knew about Aerneth now, he would need time to accustom himself to the idea.
It took another two days until Thranduil finally mustered the courage to call Aerneth. He had a strong feeling she would not be happy when she learned he had not spoken with Lúthien. He debated with himself beforehand whether to lie about it but decided not to, sometimes it was best to boldly grab the warg by its tail and deal with the situation.
He chose the river to call her through; now that Oropher knew about their water communication he did not dare doing it from home. When she appeared she looked happier than last time, more like her normal self.
“I like your clothes,” she said by way of greeting, grinning cheekily. It was warm despite being late in the year, so he had taken off his tunic and wore only his shirt.
“I figured you would,” he said, returning her smile. He was relieved she was not crying this time, it must mean her father was yet alive. “Is Lord Círdan all right?” he asked, just to make sure.
“Aye! They beat the orcs. They won!” Her smile broadened. “That human lord Húrin chased half of them out into the Anfauglith desert while Ada and Fingon hunted the rest of them up north to the Iron Mountains.”
“Really?” Thranduil felt his shoulders lose some of their tension. If the orcs were beaten, that would mean the war was finally coming to a new standstill. Unless Morgoth had another card up his sleeve, that was.
“How did those conversations you promised to have go?” She turned serious, businesslike almost.
Thranduil had already thought out exactly what to say about that, weighing his words extra carefully. He had to convince her to be patient.
“Oropher was not against it as such, but he cautioned me – us – to take things slowly and get to know one another better. While there is still a threat in the north I cannot leave Doriath anyway, but we will keep in touch until things calm down. And then I shall court you properly.”
Her beautiful eyebrows drew together and a crease appeared on her forehead, but she did not say anything, allowing him to finish.
“As for Lúthien, my father wishes me to stay in her good favour, to still be her friend and not drive a wedge between my family and hers. The king’s goodwill is important for my father and his position in the court. I will stay only friends with her,” he emphasized. “We never were more than that anyway. She does not love me, nor do I love her and never did. It was all out of convenience and respect for our fathers’ wishes.”
Aerneth was silent first, mulling over his words.
“I disagree with your father,” she said at last. “You and I have known each other for years , what’s there to wait for? Morgoth’s orcs have been defeated. This is a good time to marry.”
Thranduil let out his breath, unaware he had been holding it. Aerneth looked displeased but not angry, she would probably fret about the necessary waiting some more but then accept it. He was fairly certain she did not actually want to end things, considering how long she had liked him.
“Do we really, though? Know each other, I mean,” he countered. “We haven’t actually talked very much.” He smiled inwardly as he recalled what they had been doing instead of talking.
“Talking is overrated.” Her expression told him she thought about those calls also.
“I agree.” He had lowered his voice, meeting her gaze challengingly. “Aerneth.”
“You drive me crazy with that voice, Thranduil. It’s not fair.” Her lips were slightly parted.
“I know,” he said smugly. And it was fair, she drove him crazy too. Those lips… he imagined feeling them all over his body.
Their call developed very interestingly from there, involving a fair deal of stripping off clothes on either part. When Aerneth much later closed the connection, they were again on friendly terms and Thranduil went home with an unusually hopeful feeling about the future.
The Noldor’s victory against the orcs was a good omen. Perhaps Morgoth was not as impossibly strong after all. Hopefully he would be completely defeated soon, and then life could finally go back to normal, with no more threat of a Dark Lord and his monsters to cast their shadows over everything.
Soon. Thranduil was patient, he could wait.
On elves and age: Elves are considered adults around the age of 50-100 and can marry at that time, although it seems from Tolkien’s books many are thousands of years old when it happens (like Arwen was when she met Aragorn).
On elves and sexual orientation: It’s never stated anywhere whether they could be gay, but presumably they could, being fairly similar to humans in most ways regarding love. Since there are no known cases of same sex elf relationships in Tolkien’s canon, one could also assume that just as in our past, it was frowned upon and nothing one announced publicly. Like back in the days, they would probably pretend to be just very good friends.
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