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9. Falas by the Sea
Once Oropher had made up his mind about sending Thranduil to Eglarest, things were set in motion with speed and efficiency. Through his position in the Royal Office of Economy, Oropher decided the city needed more smoked herrings, and within days he had organised a trade delegation to the Falas and asked Captain Beleg Cúthalion to assign Thranduil to be one of their guards.
Only a week after Beren left Menegroth on his quest for the Silmaril, Thranduil found himself in a group of heavily armed guards preparing to escort a moderately sized caravan of riders and pack horses.
Bringing guards with the envoys had become increasingly necessary of late, even after the latest orc army had been defeated in Hithlum. A new danger had begun to infiltrate Beleriand from the north; werewolves, evil monsters bred and controlled by a mighty lieutenant of Morgoth’s known as Sauron. So far the werewolves had only ventured into Dimbar and northern Brethil, but people feared it was merely a matter of time before they advanced further south.
The journey to Eglarest would take an estimated eight days ride. The stables were located outside the city near the training grounds, and all the horses belonged to King Thingol. If an elf wanted to ride, he had to sign a ledger and be assigned a horse by the stable ward. Today, Thranduil would ride a chestnut stallion, he had asked for it because its colour went well with his new rusty red coat with gold trimmings. Since he was going to be forced to endure a humiliating reunion with Aerneth, he might as well arrive there in style.
Many in the delegation prefered riding bareback but Thranduil always used a saddle. He hated to get his clothes covered in tiny, prickly hairs, and he liked the control the saddle gave him, making sword fighting with precision possible.
Soon everything was ready, the horses mounted and the elves had finished saying their goodbyes. In a clatter of hoofbeats and jingling of chainmail, the company took off.
Thranduil found himself enjoying the trip despite the apprehension he felt of meeting Aerneth again and the discomfort of riding. Like most elves he had always dreamed of the sea, and he looked forward to finally seeing it.
They headed west through the forest all day, following a narrow path along the Esgalduin. A few hours after they had crossed the bridge over the larger river Sirion, the forest ended, giving way to a vast heathland called Talath Dirnen. Here the ground became covered with yellowing grasses, gorse, heather and a sparse scatter of trees; mostly old, twisted pines, bent low in the everpresent wind coming in from the sea in the far west. Herds of deer and wild horses roamed the plains, holding back the expansion of the trees by their continuous grazing. Most of the other elves in the delegation had traveled this route before, they were used to the open view and boundless sky above, but for Thranduil it was disconcerting. The naked landscape made him feel exposed and small, and he hated it.
The first night, they camped right there by the edge of the forest. Thranduil, who found it hard to relax anyway, opted to take all the watches. He spent the night gazing at the stars, reconciling himself to being an insignificant dot on the flat surface of the Earth. On the morrow he was more at ease and found he could soon disregard the blue dome entirely.
Later that day the company arrived at the Amon Rûdh, a hill rising over a thousand feet above the ground. Its sides were covered in white aeglos, also called snow-thorn, and on its cap grew dark red seregon flowers which gave it an almost eerie appearance, like someone had spilled blood over a mound of snow. They rode a little way up its western slope to spend the night there, halting when it became too steep for the horses.
As Thranduil dismounted and got a better look at the view for the first time, he was mesmerised by the beautiful panorama. League after league of heathland stretched out between the hills in the north and south, until it reached the blue expanse of the mighty ocean in the far west. The setting sun was red and large as it descended towards the horizon, colouring the sky a flaming pink. Thranduil could not take his eyes from the brilliant show, enthralled by both the sea and the sunset, both of which he experienced for the first time in his life. Only when all that remained of the sun was a thin strip of red where it had disappeared, did Thranduil turn back to the others.
The evening meal consisted of lembas, the usual fare on a journey. Thranduil munched on his dry, sweet cake, still absorbed with the wondrous sight he had just witnessed while idly listening to the others’ conversation. They were discussing a rumour about this hill, saying that it was inhabited by petty dwarves. The small folk allegedly had dug out nearly all of its inside, burrowing deep until they found gold. Now they hardly ever left the hill anymore, afraid to be robbed of their treasure.
“Hold on tightly to your things tonight,” an older ellon advised Thranduil. “Or you might discover on the morrow that a sly dwarf sneaked out to mug you in your sleep!”
Thranduil just smiled at the other, he was not so easily scared. This night he only had one watch and he slept through most of it, resting well under the protecting eaves of a crooked pine. All his belongings remained when he woke up.
Later in the day the sky clouded over and a persistent summer rain came over them, rolling in from the southwestern hills. Combined with the strong wind across the open plains, the moisture easily penetrated the elves’ clothes and soaked them to the bone. Thranduil braced himself against the torrents and ignored the chill. As a march-warden, he had experienced prolonged periods of rainy weather many times when patrolling the borders of Doriath. He had long ago learned to accept the weather, be it rain, snow, or scorching summer sun. He would not let it bother him, in the same way he endured pain, hunger and lack of sleep. Not allowing one’s body to take control over one’s mind was part of being a warrior, and one of the first things a young novice had to learn.
After a miserably wet, but otherwise uneventful night, the trade delegation continued southwest. In the evening they passed another tall hill, the Amon Ethir, which Finrod had built as a lookout for the guards of Nargothrond. The march-wardens were careful to hold the banner of Doriath aloft as they passed, knowing for certain they were being watched, and had probably been so for the past two days.
Not far from the hill, the wide river Narog cut south through the heathlands. The ground became increasingly damp as they neared it, and the horses periodically sank to their knees in wet holes, treacherously hidden by thick carpets of green moss. Thranduil tried to steer his chestnut to the more solid areas, where tufts of grass grew together with scrawny pines, fighting to survive in the hostile environment.
Two Noldor ellyn came to meet them when they finally arrived at the riverbank. A timber ferry was tied to a post behind them, and in a wooden shelter next to it a bored looking elleth sat cross-legged. All three were clad in chainmail and armed with swords.
“State your errand, Sindars” said one of them.
“Trade. We are on our way to Lord Círdan of the Falas,” said Sadoreth. She was the leader of the trade delegation.
“From Doriath?” he nodded at the banner.
The elleth left the protection of her hut and joined them. “That is where that human came from, he who started all the ruckus.” She frowned. “I cannot believe your king went and did something so thoughtless! Sending a human after the Silmarils.”
“Beren Barahirion went here?”
“Aye, he arrived a few days ago, and because he is Barahir’s son, now our Lord Finrod must follow him on that mad mission!”
When perceiving the others’ surprise at this, she recounted how Beren’s father had saved the life of Finrod, a story Thranduil had already heard part of. Afterwards, Finrod had been so grateful towards Barahir that he vowed eternal friendship with the man, and as token had given him a silver ring with his House’s emblem; two serpents and a flower crown.
Now Beren had come before Finrod and explained the quest King Thingol had sent him on, asking the other’s aid and providing the ring as proof that he was who he said. Finrod had readily agreed, much to the annoyance of many of his people, in particular two of them – his cousins Celegorm and Curufin.
“Celegorm and Curufin!” exclaimed Sadoreth. “What are two sons of Fëanor doing in Nargothrond?”
“Morgoth defeated them in Aglon during the Battle of Sudden Flame, they have been staying here since.”
The Battle of Sudden Flame was what they called the war following Morgoth's breaking the Siege of Angband ten years ago, when he first brought forth his dragon and balrogs. It was during this war Barahir had saved Finrod, and it was in its aftermath Thranduil and the rest of the march-wardens had fought orcs in the Brethil Forest.
The elleth continued to describe the unrest Celegorm and Curufin had caused when the Silmarils were mentioned. They were still bound by the oath they and their father once swore, pledging to kill anyone who laid hands on those precious gems. That now Finrod, their own cousin, would become one such thief was naturally not something they could accept.
“And I agree with them,” stated the elleth. “Thingol has no business stirring up trouble in the north, when the Lord of the Dark is relatively calm for once!”
“Thingol was wrong, aye, but Finrod had to stay true to his promise to Barahir,” said one of the ellyn. “Because of the meddling of Fëanor’s sons, hardly anybody will go with him now!”
“An oath to a mortal means nothing. Besides, Barahir is dead and Finrod doesn’t owe his son anything!”
A heated argument followed between the two, with a word here and there added by the second ellon. Thranduil and the others did not understand much of it because they had switched to Quenya, their own language, but it was apparent the quest had created a rift among Finrod’s people.
“What will happen now, will Finrod go to Angband with Beren?” asked Sadoreth when she finally managed to cut in again.
“Aye, he plans to leave in a month or so, but only ten warriors will follow him, myself included,” said the first ellon. “His brother Orodreth will rule in his stead.”
“Ha, not for long, I’d say. He is weak.” The elleth said, contempt tinting her voice. “I think Celegorm would be a much stronger ruler, one not so easily swayed by stupid promises made to humans .”
“Well you certainly make it clear where your loyalties lay. You are just attracted to him.”
“And if I am, what is it to you?” She scowled at him, and then turned back to Sadoreth. “Sorry about all this. Come, I will help you operate the ferry.”
The elleth untied the wooden vessel and showed how they could pull themselves across the water by the aid of a rope stretching from one side to the other. It took a while, only two horses at a time could be ferried over, and while they were busy the Noldor continued arguing in subdued voices.
Thranduil wondered how the quest would go. He had been certain Beren would be killed instantly, and poor Lúthien left to grieve him, but now it would seem the man’s odds had improved. Finrod was a peaceful elf, but that did not mean he could not fight if he had to.
The company left the river Narog behind and made camp about a mile further west where the ground once again was relatively dry. It still rained, but at least it was soft to lay with springy heather under their blankets, and Thranduil slept better than he had expected.
After another day and night, they finally reached Eglarest on the eighth morning since they left Doriath. The surroundings were even more open here, with dry grass and patches of soft sand under their feet, and in the air a fresh, tangy scent that Thranduil could not quite describe, but that he knew must come from the sea. The entire day yesterday they had seen it ahead, and now they could also hear it through the pervading wind; a rhythmic surging of rolling waves.
Eglarest lay just south of where the river Nenning met the sea and was larger than Thranduil had expected. The houses were made of stone, nearly white from being exposed to the sun and wind, built in rows along trampled sand roads. A great wall surrounded the city, with a tall lookout tower right by the shore.
The tower must have been manned, because they were clearly expected. A small group of elves waited for them outside the city gates, greeted them kindly and escorted them to a guest house with a lovely view over the many stone piers, to which elegant swan ships were moored.
“Lord Círdan will see you once you have refreshed yourself. Take all the time you need.”
Thranduil gratefully used the full bathtub already prepared in his room, not minding the coldness of the water. Now that he was finally here, he felt increasingly nervous. Would Aerneth be with her father? What would she do when she saw him? He picked out clothes with care, and brushed his hair until it hurt, fighting to get all the tangles out. Riding and sleeping in rain for many days tended to have that effect, despite his attempt to protect it by plaiting it in a single, long braid. He would wear no braids now, the way Aerneth prefered it.
As he walked with the others towards Círdan’s house, Thranduil arranged his features as best he could, hoping he would look casual and unbothered if she was there. He would not grovel, he would not beg. Just calmly convey his father’s wish that they would begin courtship, and ask if she allowed it.
The Lord of the Falas lived in a house looking exactly like the others, not bigger, not prettier. He greeted them personally at the door, bowing to each of them with a hand over his heart.
Thranduil watched Aerneth’s father with curiosity. He was very tall and had golden hair a shade darker than Thranduil’s own, braided in a pattern he had never seen before. He looked kind and wise. When the turn came to Thranduil to present himself, he noticed a certain look in the other’s eyes, followed by a knowing smile. He realised Aerneth must have mentioned him to her father, and wondered what she had said.
They were shown into a large dining room, much more airy than was common in Menegroth, where thousands of elves lived in a rather confined space and the home caves were sized accordingly. This room had several windows, sharing the same beautiful view as the guest house. One was open, letting in the now familiar smell of the sea, mingled with the wet scent of rain. A long table was laden with refreshments, many of which seemed to originate from the sea. Several of the dishes were unknown to Thranduil.
“I hope you will take your lunch with me and my family, even if you come in business and not pleasure. We do not often receive guests from Doriath, and I would love to hear the latest gossip.”
Thranduil was both pleased and surprised as he seated himself. It was generous indeed for the lord to invite so many strangers to his private table, even lowly guards like himself! Would Aerneth come too? He had said my family , surely that must mean his daughter? Thranduil’s heart beat too fast for comfort, and it took all his strength to pretend calmness.
There was a shuffle at the door, and then two ellith and an ellon entered.
“Ah, there you are,” said Círdan. “For you who have not met them before, allow me to introduce my wife Falasiel, and my daughter Aerneth. And this is Galdor, her good friend.”
Galdor. Thranduil easily recognised the ellon with the unusually long hair. He had been one of the emissaries Aerneth had come with to Doriath the last time, the one she had danced with. Why was he here?
The meal turned out to be exactly as exhausting as one might expect under the circumstances. The conversation lingered on Beleg and the quest for the Silmaril, as well as the news they had just received about Finrod’s intention to join him, but Thranduil paid very little attention to it. All his focus was on the elleth sitting at the other side of the table.
Aerneth had not looked at him once, but the way she so pointedly ignored him while talking with nearly everyone else, made it obvious she knew very well he was there. Mostly she talked to Galdor, but with some relief Thranduil noted the ellon seemed slightly uncomfortable by her attention. So, they were not courting then, that was something at least.
Thranduil had not been prepared for the effect the mere sight of Aerneth would have on him. Valar, how lovely she was! How could he have forgotten? The flat image in the water calls had not done her justice. If only she would look at him! He wanted to kiss her again. Would she forgive him if he begged? Only a little begging would perhaps not be so bad...
But how could he beg if she would not even speak to him? He morosely moved his shrimps around on his plate.
“Try them,” encouraged Círdan. “They are fresh from this morning.”
He smiled politely and picked one up. It looked back at him with its peppercorn eyes. It could not be healthy to eat something with that many legs.
With a sigh Thranduil put it down, taking his glass instead, suspiciously sniffing the purple liquid. Blackberry wine, Círdan had said, and it smelled different than the variety served back home. Perhaps he should try some? Oropher would never know, and besides, Thranduil was an adult now. If he wanted to drink wine he could do so.
Resolutely he swallowed a mouthful. Not bad! He took another, and then a third. It tasted very good actually, and brought a warm feeling with it.
When the lunch was over, Thranduil had emptied two glasses and felt unusually brave. He figured he ought to just do it, go talk to Aerneth and try to make up. This could be his only opportunity and he had to take it. Who knew if he would see her again during his stay? Círdan might not invite them a second time.
Before he could change his mind, he quickly rose and went straight to where Aerneth sat. He bowed. “May I have a word, My Lady?” She could not avoid looking at him now, and so she did, albeit haughtily down her nose.
“Can you wait for me, dear Galdor? I will just see what this ellon wants, it should not take long.”
Thranduil winced. This did not start well.
She walked with him a little way off, her arms firmly crossed over her chest.
“Aerneth...“ He had thought of what to say before as he always did, but with her so close, his mind went blank. He had forgotten everything. Instead he just stared at her dumbly, feeling like the worst simpleton alive. His throat tightened and his eyes burned. He wanted to hold her close and never let go, but now he feared he would lose her for good.
To Thranduil’s huge surprise his stupid behaviour did not make Aerneth stomp off angrily with the other ellon. Instead her gaze softened as that unnatural coldness melted away from her.
“You are such a fool.” She sounded tired.
He nodded vigorously, a twinkle of hope fluttering in his chest. His voice returned. “I’m sorry.”
“You hurt me.” She was looking at him now, meeting his eye. He could have drowned in those clear pools, as if they were the nearby sea.
“Don’t do it again.”
Will she really forgive him so easily? What will happen next? Let me know! Comments often give me ideas. :)
I have borrowed the elf Galdor from Tolkien’s lore, you may remember him from the Council of Elrond in the Lord of the Rings (as the messenger from Círdan). Another canon character named Galdor in this story, was the late human lord of Hithlum, father to present Lord Húrin and his brother Huor, a.k.a. the lost boys.
I also borrowed some lines from the movie Pretty Woman. ;)
On elves and riding: Elves have an ability to communicate with animals and plants, more or less strong in different individuals, so they don’t need reins to steer. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that some elves prefered riding bareback (e.g. Legolas) but that others used saddles (e.g. Glorfindel). They use bridles without bits, if they use any at all.
On admiring the view: In the First and Second Ages, the Earth was flat, which meant elves with their improved eyesight could see incredibly far when standing on, for example, a hill.
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