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13. White Pearls
It was the last day of the annual Autumn Hunt, and Thranduil did not look forward to returning home. The week had gone way too fast this year.
He should have anticipated that Aerneth would want to come with him and that she would not understand why she could not. She was no hunter, and besides, Thranduil’s friends always went alone. Medlin never brought his wife.
That had led to another of their heated arguments and they had parted as enemies.
Thranduil had felt like an escaping prisoner when he walked out of Menegroth with his friends. But it had been worth it, he had had such a relaxing week with them; tracking animals, shooting prey, cutting and storing the meat, all the while listening to the others’ conversation without joining in. Out here there were no bickering wives, angry fathers or drunk mothers to worry about. It had been almost like before, when he was unmarried and free.
But no more of that until next year, he supposed. At least tonight he had the feast to look forward to, and maybe if Aerneth behaved civilised he would give her the new present he had prepared. Her tenth decade was coming up, and the Feast of the Hunt would be a great opportunity to celebrate it, but if she was still mad at him he did not really feel like it.
The walk home was lovely as usual this time of year, the forest burning in a cascade of warm colours; yellow, orange, red and purple. Had he not been carrying the full barrel of salted meat, Thranduil might have lingered, taking time to gather some ripe hazelnuts and climbed a tree to eat them and enjoy the view. Instead he trudged on beside Amroth, slowly but steady approaching the hill that contained Menegroth.
After delivering the meat to the elves responsible for the city’s food storages, Thranduil went to his home cave and felt a surge of relief when he found it empty. Apparently the others’ had already gone up to the feast area making it ready for tonight, which would give him another few hour’s respite. He knew he was being silly, but he just could not muster the energy to fight anyone right now.
After a week’s camping, Thranduil felt dishevelled and unkempt, and decided to take a long, hot bath before the feast. While he waited for the water to boil on the stove, he thought up a few sentences to say to Aerneth when they met. Something to placate her.
He nearly jumped when her face showed in the cauldron.
“Valar, you scared me.” He smiled. “This brings back memories.” Since their wedding they had never called through water.
To his relief Aerneth smiled too, and he realised he missed her. Suddenly he looked forward to the evening, and even more to the night afterwards.
“It sure does,” she said, and winked. “A certain bath comes to mind.” She was holding a ladle in her hand, probably she had been cooking when she felt his thoughts.
Another face came in view, with almost the same hair colour as Aerneth’s. It was Galadriel.
“Is that Thranduil? How did you do it?” she asked, looking very interested.
“It’s water magic. The hair of Uinen connects all water, and she taught me and my mother how to use it for distance communication.” Aerneth turned back to Thranduil. “I am closing this now, see you later.” She disappeared.
When Thranduil later sank down into his hot bath, he felt much less apprehensive about the upcoming feast. Before he knew it, his thoughts drifted to what might happen later that night, and he carefully schooled them. If Aerneth felt it and reopened the connection in the middle of the feast preparations, showing him naked and bathing, it would be beyond embarrassing! But of course, not thinking about something was nearly impossible, and he had to spend the rest of the time in the bath slowly counting backwards from five thousand to zero.
Back in his and Aerneth’s room, Thranduil picked a suitable outfit. During the short call before, he had noticed Aerneth wore one of the new dresses he had ordered for her at the tailor’s, woven in similar colours as his rusty red, gold trimmed coat. It was a perfect choice for an autumn feast, and he liked the idea of wearing matching colours with his wife.
When dressed and with his hair dry and brushed until it shone, Thranduil took out his gift from its hiding place in the bottom of his clothes chest. It had taken a while to organise it and cost a fortune, but when he looked inside the pretty box he knew it would be worth it.
Thus prepared, Thranduil walked up to the feast area with uncommon eagerness.
When he arrived some minutes later, he scanned the crowd of happily chatting elves to find his wife among them, and soon spotted her next to Galadriel. They were still discussing water magic, it sounded like, their two golden heads close together. The sight gave him mixed feelings – it was positive that Aerneth finally seemed to be making friends in Menegroth, but of all ellith there were, why should she choose someone with such a masculine and dominating personality as Galadriel? Thranduil hoped she would not get unsuitable ideas from the acquaintance.
During the meal, Thranduil noticed the ambience between his family members was almost neutral for the first time ever, as if they worked hard to be polite, even Oropher and Aerneth. Galadriel and her husband Celeborn sat together with them, which might be a reason, but still it made Thranduil cautiously optimistic about the future.
At the head table the royal family looked the more morose, Lúthien was practically drooping like a wilted flower.
“Poor soul, she must be worrying sick for her lover,” said Galadriel, who had noticed Thranduil’s gaze. “I worry too,” she added, sadness filling her clear eyes.
“I am sure Finrod will manage. He is a powerful warrior,” said Thranduil, but he did not even believe that himself. Galadriel’s brother would go against Morgoth, the very Lord of the Dark, bringing only ten elvish warriors and a human. If there ever was a suicide mission, this was it.
“I wish there was a way of knowing how he fares,” Galadriel sighed. “Aerneth, you must teach me water magic so I too can see my loved ones from afar.”
“Certainly, I would love to.” Aerneth shone with pride, honoured by the much older elleth’s interest in her abilities.
Soon after, dance circles were forming in the open area in the middle of the clearing. Celeborn pulled Galadriel with him to one of them, and the couple was soon followed by Oropher and Eiriendîs. Aerneth looked expectantly at Thranduil, but he only smiled secretively and took her to the edge of the glade where they could be alone under the shadow of the trees.
“Shall we not dance?” she asked.
“Soon. First I want to do this.” He pulled her close and kissed her, not caring about who saw them. On this night married elves would do a lot more than kissing in the surrounding woods. She responded eagerly, clinging to him.
“I missed you,” he said when they had to pause and breathe.
“All your fault.” Her soft voice took the edge of the reprimand.
“Do not bring that up again. Let us be happy tonight and forget our quarrels.”
“Alright. But only because I missed you too.” She buried her fingers in his hair and tugged him down for another passionate kiss, teasing his tongue with her own.
He pulled her further in among the trees and their kiss intensified. He fondled her shapely curves through the fabric of her lovely red dress, wanting badly to lift its hem and take her right there and then, but restraining himself with some effort. There would be plenty of time for that sort of thing later.
“I got something for you,” he said the next time they came up for air, taking the elaborate wooden box from his pocket. It was round, with a relief of fish swimming around its lid, and in the centre a starfish. “Happy tenth decade in advance.”
“Thranduil, this is beautiful! Did you carve it?”
He nodded, pleased over her reaction. He had finished the box in the cabin during the evenings of the hunt. He was no expert woodworker but enjoyed a little whittling now and then, it was a good pastime in the wintertime when they often were snowed up inside Menegroth for long periods of time, or when out on longer field drills with the march-wardens.
“Open it,” he prompted.
She did, and gasped when she saw its contents. “Pearls,” she whispered, almost reverently taking out the creamy white, iridescent necklace. “But… how?”
“I purchased them from your father, and he sent them here with the latest trade delegation a couple of weeks ago. Do you like them?”
“I love them, silly.” She covered his face with enthusiastic kisses. When she had calmed down, Thranduil helped her put on the necklace and a matching set of tear-shaped earrings.
“I wanted you to wear them tonight, outshining everyone else, or I would have waited until your real begetting-day.”
“We will make people jealous,” she agreed smugly, turning her head this way and that to make the earrings dangle, using a small puddle as a mirror. “I’ll make you something pretty too.” She ripped off a few colourful branchlets from a nearby maple tree and nimbly twisted them together into a wreath, placing it on Thranduil’s head. “There. An autumn crown.”
He looked at his reflection in the puddle and grinned. “I like it. Looks better than King Thingol’s even.”
“Of course it does, his is made from dead metal. I prefer living things.” She made another, smaller wreath for herself and stood beside him before the pool. “Perfect! King Thranduil and Queen Aerneth at your service!”
Thranduil straightened his back, trying to assume a kingly pose. “Shall we join our subjects, my queen?”
“Aye, my king, we must not keep them waiting for the guests of honour!”
Arm in arm they returned to the festivities to join one of the dance circles.
Ever since he was very young, Thranduil had been slightly jealous of the married couples during the four annual holidays; the Feast of the Stars in the summer, the Hunt in the autumn, Yule in the winter and the Spring Festival. Married elves always had a dance partner, and then of course their stealing away into the darkness later at night had intrigued him. For the first time, he was now one of them.
Thranduil felt other elves’ eyes on them as he and Aerneth twirled around, circling one another, their feet moving in the age-old pattern elves had known ever since the Awakening, when they took their first steps under the newborn stars.
Whenever their legs grew tired they rested at the tables, refilling their plates and goblets, before returning to the circles for another round, and a third, and a fourth. The hours rushed by as they enjoyed one of the best evenings of their lives.
On their short breaks, Aerneth drank wine as was her habit, and late at night when Oropher and Eiriendîs had disappeared into the forest, Thranduil let her persuade him into trying it again. For once, the taste did not remind him of the time in his youth when his father had made him drink too much. Perhaps the many times recently when he had tasted it on Aerneth’s lips had waned him, or maybe he had just grown out of his bad memory, for this time Thranduil found himself enjoying the rich flavour very much.
Well past midnight, Aerneth and Thranduil sneaked away into the shadows like so many had before them. They had to cling to each other for support, swaying not only a little and nearly stumbling over other couples who lay soundly asleep in tangles of arms, legs and dishevelled clothes.
Finding a spot where they would not be disturbed was not easy, but finally they came to a densely overgrown hollow with a sea of butterburs, their round leaves large as cauldron lids. Underneath, it felt like being inside a tiny, cosy house.
Aerneth eagerly crawled onto Thranduil and kissed him hungrily, pushing him down on his back. He pulled up her dress to feel her smooth skin under the palms of his hands, too tired and drunk to bother with uncovering more than was necessary to make love. Sliding a finger between them he made her squirm with want, pressing down hard on him.
She fumbled with his pants, touching him through them. “Hurry,” she moaned. Her eagerness was almost enough to make him come prematurely, but somehow he managed to hold back long enough to ease his pants down and push into her.
Once he was inside she seemed less urgent, grinding herself against him agonisingly slowly.
“May the Valar help me,” he mumbled. “You are a cruel elleth, Aerneth.”
“Say my name again and I shall reward you,” she teased.
He promptly complied, murmuring her name in the tempo he wanted her to move, which had the intended effect. Neither of them lasted very long after that.
“I think I prefer beds,” Aerneth murmured afterwards, resting on Thranduil’s shoulder.
“Oh, aye.” Thranduil rubbed his back where a stone had chafed him.
“The advantage of this place is that we are alone, though.”
“I know somewhere else where we can be alone,” he said, and explained his plan to spend some time just the two of them in the hunting cabin, celebrating her begetting-day.
“Perfect!” She kissed him. “That would be just perfect.”
“So, how does it feel to have lived ten decades?” Thranduil was leisurely stretched out on a deer pelt on the earthen floor, supporting his weight on one arm and holding his wine cup in the other. The only light in the windowless cabin came from the lantern they had brought, and Aerneth looked unusually lovely in its reddish sheen. She sat cross-legged by his head, leaning her back against the crude wall.
“I feel very old. Soon I shall be as wise as you.” She poked him in the ribs, trying to find a ticklish spot and failing. Or, not failing actually, but he kept his features smooth so she would not know she had found one. “Thank you for this,” she added, becoming serious and moving her fingers to lightly touch his cheek. “I had forgotten how nice it is to be alone with you.”
He replied with a smile, it had indeed been very pleasant so far. Downing the contents of his cup, he set it aside and rested his head in Aerneth’s lap, gazing up into her eyes. They looked dark in the dim light.
She followed the contours of his face with her finger, up to his eyebrows and down over the bridge of his nose. Her eyes filled with an emotion he could not quite interpret, her gaze becoming unusually intense.
“Thranduil, I...“ She hesitated, and began again. “I like you. A lot.” It sounded like she had meant to say something else but changed her mind at the last moment.
He brought her fingers to his lips and kissed her fingertips, one at a time. Had she meant to say she loved him? He felt a warmth in his chest at the thought, but then a slight worry. Did he love her back, if so? Being honest with himself, he did not know. What did love feel like? When he looked at her now, he felt desire, and when she was not arguing or nagging him about things, she could be quite lovely. It was safe to say that he was fond of her, but more?
Aerneth’s features had changed while Thranduil pondered over his feelings, she was looking slightly disappointed. Was he supposed to say he liked her too? But she must know he did, he had given her pearls and taken her here to the cabin and everything.
“You know I care about you too,” he said just to be on the safe side, and was rewarded with a relieved grin. Did she really need to be reassured like that? He hoped she would not mention love then, because he would not lie to her, and it would likely not sit well with her if he gave her a hesitant answer.
“I wish it was just us in the whole world,” she said. “No matter how hard I try I can’t… I can’t like your father.”
He frowned. Why would she bring Oropher up now?
“And when he is around, you… You can be quite like him, at times. But that is not you , it’s as if you change when he is near. Like he is your shadow. Or you his, I don’t know.”
“Don’t do this.” He rolled out of her lap, feeling irritation building up. Of course this bliss could not last, of course Aerneth had to go and ruin the moment.
“Why cannot we move back home? There are plenty of houses in Eglarest. And we could visit your parents from time to time.”
Thranduil turned his back to her and refilled his cup. She just could not let matters rest, over and over again she would bring up the same things. It was enough to drive an ellon insane.
“You know why we can’t move to Eglarest and can you for once give up?” He drank half his cup in one go, not tasting the wine.
“I don’t agree with your reasons. My father needs warriors too, he could hire you. Thingol does not own you.”
Thranduil paced a few steps in the confined space, forcing down his annoyance. He could not lose his temper, not on her begetting-day. Still with his back turned he closed his eyes, drawing several slow breaths, imagining his face was sculpted in ice.
Turning back towards her, he was completely calm.
“You can move if you wish it. I don’t own you either, Aerneth.” He sipped his wine with feigned nonchalance to get an excuse to break eye contact. He was not exactly lying, but naturally he did not want them to live apart. He just needed her to understand there was no middle way in this, he was not leaving Menegroth, so the only way for her to move to the Falas would be if she did it without him.
“You don’t mean that.” Her voice had become insecure.
“Of course I do.”
She gave him a long look then, screwing up her eyes. “Nay, you don’t,” she finally stated. “You just said you care about me.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Can I not care about you at a distance?”
“Don’t use that face on me,” she said accusingly.
“What face?” He took another sip. He knew exactly what face she meant, his father hated it too, but sometimes hiding one's emotions was the only way.
“The one where you look like you’re coated with glass.”
He raised his eyebrow again, purposely refraining from an answer. That would wind her up, but she started it after all.
“Thranduil Oropherion!” She actually stamped her foot, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek not to laugh. Somehow his mood had changed from anger to amusement, and now he saw the corner of her mouth twitch.
He was not prepared for her next move. Quick as a warm lizard she jumped onto him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and gave him a long, wet lick all the way from his chin to his eye.
“A-ha! Glass face gone,” she said smugly.
“You are such an elfling.” He wiped his cheek with the sleeve of his tunic while trying – and failing – to banish the smile from his lips.
If you ever wondered how Galadriel got the idea for her water mirror, now you know. ;)
A note on elvish birthdays: Elves celebrate their begetting-day, e.g. the day they were sired (which indicates that elves can control if and when to create a child). To complicate matters further, there are two kinds of elvish years, the coranar (solar years) and yén (144 solar years).
Since elves live such long lives, I’ve decided they don’t celebrate their annual begetting-days very much, but rather the decade days when younger, and when older soon only their yén-days. In this chapter Aerneth turns 100, which is her 10th decade day, and in another four solar years Thranduil will celebrate his first yén as he turns 144.
To you who left comments so far: I’m so grateful for your support! When writing a long, complex story like this, it’s easy to lose faith in the project, doubting if it’s any good and if anyone still reads.
I don’t think many readers understand how important feedback is. Even a short comment can be reason enough to continue writing – and I think lack of reader interaction is a common reason for many abandoned stories out there.
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