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14. Tree Prison
Thranduil and Aerneth were fast asleep, exhausted after a long night’s experimenting with new uses for their mouths and tongues on one another’s bodies, when a knock woke them up.
“A messenger from the king was here, Thranduil,” said Eiriendîs through the door. “You are summoned to the palace.”
He quickly rose and got ready, kissing a sleepy Aerneth goodbye before hurrying out. What did Thingol want at this early hour?
At the palace he met more fellow march-wardens. Only a select few had been summoned, it seemed, and Thranduil saw Amroth and Beleg Cúthalion among them. Soon the king entered, followed by Lúthien and Daeron, the minstrel. Lúthien looked absolutely wretched, her face was sickly pale and her eyes red from crying.
“I have some disturbing news and an unusual request for you, march-wardens,” the king began. He too looked troubled, tired and with ruffled clothes like he had slept in them. “It seems my wife and daughter have gone behind my back, but thankfully my faithful friend Daeron intervened before a disaster came about.”
King Thingol had them all promise to keep silent of what they were about to hear, for he was anxious to avoid unrest in the city. Then he told them everything.
It had all begun yesterday, when Lúthien had felt a precognition of ill tidings, a heavy weight on her chest. She asked her mother to use her Maia powers and find out what had happened with her lover on his quest. Melian had complied. First she saw Beren, Finrod and the other ten walking through the Pass of Sirion, cleverly disguised as orcs to evade notice on their way to Angband. Then she saw Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant, when he discovered the intruders from his watchtower on an island in the middle of the river. He saw through their guise and had them brought before him.
Now followed a battle of magic, where Sauron and Finrod Felagund sang spells and enchantments, seeking to outpower each other. However, Sauron was much stronger – he had once been one of the Maiar like Melian – and thus the other was defeated, despite his valiant attempts.
Terrible werewolves roamed in the tower, and Sauron threatened his captives that the monsters would devour them unless they told him who they were and what their mission was, but none talked. Then he threw them into the werewolf pit, and there they now awaited a gruesome death.
As soon Melian had told Lúthien this, she decided she would hasten to the tower and aid her beloved. She asked Daeron to help her, but thankfully the minstrel told the king about it before she could go.
The reason Thingol had now gathered his most trusted march-wardens was that he needed them to guard Lúthien.
“It is clear to me that my daughter needs to be restrained, for she tells me she will leave at first opportunity. I do not allow this!” He was talking about her like she was not present. “She is not going to throw her life away to save a mortal from a disaster he brought upon himself. It is bad enough that this human has risked the life of my ally in Nargothrond, one of the few decent Noldor in the world!” He rose from his throne, angrily walking to and fro as he kept talking, reminding Thranduil very much of his father. “No, Lúthien must be confined here, but I do not wish to lock her up in a dungeon; one so used to roaming the forest needs light and air. Instead, you shall build her a secure prison in a tree of great height with no other trees nearby she could escape to. There you must guard her well and never once leave her alone.”
Thranduil and the others spent the better part of the day building the prison. The tree they had chosen was one of the famous beeches a bit north of the city, which had three huge branches on which they could build the house, and to reach it they made a tall ladder.
Lúthien was then escorted up to her new home and the ladder removed, effectively trapping her there.
It felt strange to lock away the elleth Thranduil had formerly courted, and he was sorry for her to be so harshly treated. Still, he could well understand the king, should his daughter be allowed to leave Doriath she would meet with certain death. What father would not try to stop that?
When Thranduil returned home in the evening, Aerneth was very curious about what Thingol had wanted, and naturally would not accept his refusal to reveal anything. During supper she did not say much, their family meals were still a very quiet affair, but later in bed she was all the more persistent.
“I’m your wife, you can tell me.”
“I’m sure the king meant you cannot tell anyone outside family. Wives do not count.”
“Let us speak of something else. How was your first water magic lesson with Galadriel?”
“It went well, she is a fast learner. I like her. Anyway, about the king’s summon, I will die of curiosity if you do not say what he wanted. And you were gone all day too, what were you doing?”
“I cannot tell.” He moved in to kiss her but she turned her face away.
“Yes you can.”
“I can but I am not going to.”
“Hm.” She frowned and tapped her chin thoughtfully.
He tried to kiss her again and this time she responded, deepening it. After a while she left his lips to kiss her way down his chest, and Thranduil forgot all about kings and locked up princesses. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth together to not make a sound as he felt her soft lips and tongue caress him. It was clear Aerneth had learned well yesterday what he liked.
And then she stopped. She bloody stopped.
“Can’t you tell, though… I think about it so much I get distracted.” The expression in her eyes as she looked up at him was downright evil.
“Valar, wife… this is not fair!”
She sniggered and gave him a teasing lick, making him shudder. He knew he was defeated.
“Alright, I… maybe I can tell some of it. But promise you spread it no further.”
“Of course!” Her triumphant smile was dazzling.
She dragged everything out of him eventually, and unsurprisingly did not at all agree with the king’s decision, calling him a cruel tyrant and a bad father. Thranduil did not mind that her opinion differed from his, but it was disconcerting that she held such power over him, and worse, that she knew how to use it to her advantage.
Thranduil leaned his back against the trunk of the prison tree, Hírilorn – Tree of the Lady – as they had begun calling it. It was only the second day, but already he loathed this place, and the sobs they occasionally heard from above did not help. Since so few of the march-wardens knew about the situation, they would be working long hours nearly every day.
“At least being out of doors is nicer than guarding the boring throne room,” said Amroth.
“I like the throne room,” he objected. Not that he disliked the beech wood, especially this time of year when the ground was covered in crispy leaves and the air smelled lovely fresh, but he enjoyed the beauty of King Thingol’s halls, the designs and patterns, the choices of metals and gems – there was so much thought gone into it.
“You are a strange elf.” Amroth smiled fondly.
“I suppose I am.”
Then he spotted someone approaching at a distance and his stomach plummeted. Damn his obnoxious wife, what was she doing ?
As she caught sight of them, Aerneth clasped her hands over her mouth theatrically.
“Thranduil! I was just taking a nice evening walk, fancy finding you here!”
Thranduil noticed Amroth raising his eyebrows. Clearly he had seen through her ruse.
“It is late, you ought to return home,” Thranduil said sharply, scowling angrily at her.
“Alright, alright.” She turned to leave. “I will see you tonight… in bed.”
Thranduil groaned as she left, glancing guiltily at his friend.
“You told her.”
“I… yes. She can be quite persuasive.” His shoulders slumped.
“I am amazed. What did she do to make you speak? I mean, silence is kind of your signum. I doubt even a balrog with a burning whip could loosen your tongue if you chose to hold it.”
He must have blushed, because Amroth peered closely at him. “Now I am even more intrigued.”
“I don’t think you want to know.”
“No, I think I do. I dare say it would be… educational. From a more experienced ellon to another, so to speak.”
Thranduil grinned then. His physical experiences with Aerneth was just about the only positive thing in his life right now and the fact she liked it so much made him proud. He did not really mind telling, and did so without further prompting.
Very soon it was Amroth’s turn to colour. “Why, I… the notion one could do that had never occured to me. Maybe this marriage thing has its upsides.”
“It does.” Thranduil smiled smugly.
“Still not worth it though, considering you get a nagging wife and the loss of your freedom in the bargain. I shall stay single forever.”
There were advantages with Aerneth’s knowing about the tree prison. Following that day, she came to keep them company whenever it was Thranduil’s and Amroth’s turn to guard it, which made the task a lot more pleasant.
Amroth, who had been so against their relationship at first, had to grudgingly admit she was nice company, easy to speak with and had a good sense of humour. Thranduil for his part felt slightly ambivalent. As much as he liked having his wife there, the growing camaraderie between her and his friend unsettled him. It reminded him too much of his walks with Lúthien and Daeron, and how the minstrel always would take over the conversation leaving Thranduil out, feeling dull and stupid.
Tonight Aerneth spoke of her recent meeting with Galadriel while they shared a bottle of wine.
“She is amazing with the water now, she has learned to do things even I cannot, although she has no control over what images she gets. Like today, when she was opening a connection with me, she began to see things that had already happened. She saw me and Thranduil walking along the beach in Eglarest on our wedding day.”
Thranduil winced. How had she known it was their wedding day, unless she had seen what they did after that walk?
Aerneth laughed at his expression, reading his thoughts. “Obviously she did not know it was that day before I told her. I doubt she would want to look at us doing…” She glanced at Amroth. “... things.”
He grinned widely. “What things? No need to be shy.”
“Well, you see, when an ellon really loves an elleth...” She winked.
“Aye? What happens then?” He smirked. “I wonder why people always stop when they get that far into their explanation.”
“Oh, I am not shy. I can continue.”
This she did, and very soon Thranduil fled, not wanting his friend to see his physical response to her descriptions. Aerneth really had a way with words.
When he returned, the topic thankfully had changed to more mundane things, but later that night Thranduil made Aerneth pay for the discomfort she had caused him by having her act out everything she had spoken of. Not that she seemed to mind – quite the opposite.
The next day when Thranduil got home, he found Aerneth pacing to and fro in their room, looking very worried.
“What is wrong?”
“It’s Galadriel. She has been experimenting with her visions in the water all day, and found she could see her loved ones through it. Not the way I do, where I can communicate with them, for her it’s only pictures but she does not need them thinking about her to find them. And so of course she summoned up her brother, and saw horrible things!”
“She saw his battle with Sauron?” Thranduil spoke in a low voice to make sure his parents could not overhear.
“Aye, but that’s not all, she saw him suffer in a dark prison, while one by one his companions were eaten by a werewolf, until only he and the mortal man remained. And then she saw Finrod grapple with the monster, killing it with his bare hands, but he got so badly injured he died too. He gave up his life for a human!”
“Whyever would he do that?”
“Don’t ask me. And also, Galadriel did not know if this had actually happened, or if it was a vision of a potential future. Her words.”
“Please do not say she wants to go fight Sauron too now?” Thranduil groaned.
“Well…” Aerneth bit her lip. “I may accidentally have told her that Lúthien and Queen Melian saw nearly the same thing, and now she has gone to ask the king for warriors…”
“Aerneth! You promised !” Thranduil all but shook his wife, frustrated and angry. How could she be so disloyal? What would Thingol think when he realised the secret was out?
“It was just… she looked so miserable when she saw her brother die, and I wanted to give her hope that he still lived, because in Melian’s vision he did…”
“That was several days ago, he may well be dead now, and the human too,” Thranduil hissed. “Sauron is a bloody Maia, and he got werewolves! Do you really want Thingol to send elves there? Because it could be me , Aerneth.”
She blanched as understanding dawned.
“I am a warrior, I full well know I might be killed in action and I would not hesitate to go where my king would direct me – but the prospect of a suicide mission does not appeal.”
Aerneth shook her head. Her eyes were moist.
“Oh, please do not cry.” He turned his back so he would not have to look.
“I’m sorry I told her.” She sniffed.
His anger slowly drained off. He felt bad for making his wife worry – of course Thingol would not send out his march-wardens, not for a Noldo and a human he hated. Thranduil’s outburst had just been melodrama, he had wanted to scare her although he did not really know why. Perhaps as a punishment for betraying the secret.
Turning back to her, he drew her into his arms and wiped away her tears. “It will not happen, the king is not that stupid.”
“Don’t ever leave me, Thranduil.”
He kissed her instead of replying, how could he promise something like that? Even though it would not be now, it could happen some other time; as a warrior Thranduil would face danger and death, that was part of the deal.
After Galadriel had spoken to the king – who naturally refused her any aid, just as Thranduil had predicted – the news began to spread throughout the city, both about what had befallen the unlucky questers and that Princess Lúthien had been locked up, although nobody yet knew where her prison was. That the king would do such a thing to his daughter caused discontent among his subjects, a brewing unrest, and people were also concerned about the proximity of Sauron and his werewolves. His tower in the river Sirion was less than thirty leagues to the northwest of the Doriath border, and though his breeding werewolves had been known, it was worrying that there were such large numbers of them now.
Galadriel was wiser than Lúthien in the respect that she did not try to leave Doriath alone, instead she sent a bird to Nargothrond where her brother Orodreth ruled in Finrod’s absence, asking him to organise a rescue party. As far as Thranduil knew, she had received no answer. Perhaps Orodreth wanted Finrod to die so he could keep the crown? With the Noldor, everything was possible.
The days following Galadriel’s audience with the king, Thranduil feared Thingol would summon his march-wardens and demand to know who had leaked the secret. Even if Thranduil held his tongue, Amroth might not – he knew that Thranduil had told his wife and that she had spent time with Galadriel, and it did not take a genius to put the facts together.
During their next guard duty together, Amroth thankfully calmed him in that department.
”Really, Tharan, who do you take me for?” He gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. “I would never betray a friend, even one as foolish as you.”
“Thank you.” He returned the punch, smiling awkwardly. The other’s loyalty gave him a warm glow within.
“Don’t mention it.”
A bit more at ease, Thranduil raised the ladder and climbed up with Lúthien’s supper. As always, he knocked once before entering her house, but this time the door seemed stuck.
“Do not come in,” came her voice. “Just put the tray outside.”
“Are you alright?”
“Aye!” she snapped. “Go away.”
“Just go! I do not want to see anyone for a while. Can you at least respect that wish, if you cannot respect my freedom?”
“Aye. Of course. Well, good night then, My Lady.”
As he climbed down, Thranduil pondered over the princess’ odd behaviour. Had somehow the rumours reached her too? Maybe she was mourning her dead lover. Either way, she had the right to be alone if she wanted to.
Lúthien isolated herself for several days, but since she ate the food they brought her and always answered through the door, nobody worried about it.
After about a week, Thranduil and Amroth had the night shift, and as usual Aerneth came along with a basket of food and wine to keep them company during the evening.
“What if she is fading? Mourning herself to death, just pretending she is eating to fool you,” Aerneth suggested when Amroth returned down with Lúthien’s empty tray.
“Her voice sounds as strong as ever, and she blocks the door if we try to enter. If she were fading she would be weak by now. I think she just wants to be alone.”
They shared a pleasant meal of venison, rounding it up with almonds and dried berries. The strong blueberry wine cheered their spirits and made the hours go by much faster, and when Aerneth returned home well past midnight the ellyn felt both relaxed and sated.
Thranduil picked up a piece of wood and his knife and began to whittle. He was making a seagull pendant for Aerneth, thinking it could be a good Yule gift. Since he had spent all his earnings on pearls for her begetting-day, it would have to be something inexpensive.
There was a movement behind him, and the unfinished gull fell from his limp fingers as Thranduil sagged to the ground, fast asleep.
When he opened his eyes, it was dawn. Bewildered and afraid, he scrambled to his feet. Why had he slept? He never slept on his guard.
Looking down, he saw Amroth just waking up as well. How could they both have fallen asleep like that?
“What happened?” The other looked as confused as Thranduil felt, and a chill trickled down his spine. The wine . Had Aerneth put something in the wine?
That was when he saw it. A shiny, black rope hung in the tree, from the now very empty prison. The ellyn stared at each other in horror.
Lúthien had escaped.
When Thranduil entered his home a few hours later, his fear had turned into white-hot fury. How could she? How dared she?
Storming inside, he yelled Aerneth’s name. She was in the sitting room with his parents, and they all jumped up in surprise at his sudden appearance.
“Why did you do it? Why? Why ?” he growled, clenching his hands into fists to stop himself from wringing her neck.
“What did she do?” Oropher’s face had quickly clouded over.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Aerneth’s lip trembled and her eyes were wide with shock.
“Of course you do, you lying little witch. Was it the wine? Or the food?”
“Calm down and tell us exactly what happened.” Oropher took a step closer, piercing him with his stare like he used to do when Thranduil was young. Like then, it helped him focus.
Forcing himself to breathe calmer, and turning his features into an expressionless mask, he told his father everything; how he had been guarding Lúthien on the king’s orders when Aerneth had brought food and wine to him and Amroth, sedating them, and then helping the princess escape. As a consequence, Thranduil had now lost his place among the march-wardens, his good grace with the king and his income.
When he had finished, Aerneth and Oropher both looked like pale ghosts, the former with fright and the latter with rage.
“ You ,” said Oropher, slowly advancing on Aerneth.
“It’s not true,” she whispered, vigorously shaking her head. “I-I-I went home. I’ve been sleeping. I put nothing in the wine or food, I promise!”
Thranduil felt a flicker of doubt, either she was a very talented actor or she was telling the truth. But who else could have done it?
Oropher had Aerneth trapped in the corner. “Ever since you snared my son, you have been nothing but trouble.” He grabbed her arm, shaking her. “Can’t you see what your actions have brought upon us? Ruin. Disgrace. I will lose my position at court, and our family will be blackened forever.” He shook her again.
“Father.” Thranduil tried to pull him away but was forcefully thrown aside and nearly lost his footing as he stumbled over a chair.
Aerneth said nothing, she was staring at Oropher like a trapped animal.
Hardly believing his eyes, Thranduil saw his father lift his hand.
“No!” He jumped forward but was too late to interrupt the strike. Clutching her jaw, Aerneth tumbled to the floor, with blood from her cut lip trickling between her fingers.
“What have you done?” Now it was Thranduil’s turn to shake his father, pushing him into the wall, trapping the other with his body. “She is my wife! If you ever touch her again I’ll…” He broke off. He wanted to say he would kill him, but knew he would never do that.
Beside them, Eiriendîs helped Aerneth stand and led her out of the room.
“Sorry Thranduil, I did not mean to hit her.” Oropher looked ashamed. “I lost my temper. You know I struggle to control it, but sometimes one just cannot…”
“Stop making excuses.”
“But look at what she did! She has crushed our family.”
“Just shut up.” Thranduil let go of his father. He felt the other’s arms encompass him but evaded the hug. “Don’t touch me.”
Turning his back to leave, he suddenly felt sick with worry. Was Aerneth badly hurt?
He dashed upstairs and found the ellith in his room. His mother was hugging her sobbing daughter-in-law, the shoulder of her dress blotched with blood and snot. Eiriendîs’ gaze was locked on the sea painting and silent tears streaked her cheeks.
Thranduil gently pulled Aerneth from her, tilting her chin to assess the bruise. She whimpered when he felt along her jaw. It was swollen, but not broken, and her teeth intact. He breathed out with relief.
“I’m going home.” Her voice was thick, and when she moved her lips they began to bleed again.
“Shh, don’t speak.” He pulled her to him, stroking her back soothingly.
“I am coming with you,” said Eiriendîs. Her eyes never left the painting.
“Don’t… let us not be drastic now. We can settle this. And Father will never touch you again, I will protect you.”
Aerneth suddenly stiffened in his arms and pushed him away. She stared at him with flaming cheeks, anger and pain filling her eyes.
“Like you have protected your mother?”
He did not know what to answer. What did she mean? He could not go between his parents, their arguments were theirs to settle, he had no business trying to meddle in their affairs. But now he felt a twinge of insecurity. Had he been wrong? Should he have interfered?
Eiriendîs began to sob, loud, ugly sobs that felt like daggers in Thranduil’s heart.
“Mother, I… I’m sorry.”
Her weeping grew louder and she hurried out of the room, burying her face into her hands.
“This is sick.” Aerneth’s eyes were hard. “This family is just wrong. You act like it’s normal for an ellon to beat his wife and fight with her every day, and then bloody fuck her afterwards! I am going home, and I will take her with me, and you can choose. Either you come with us or you stay with that monster you call father.”
He stared at her mutely, feeling his eyes burn with tears.
“What will it be, Thranduil?”
His eyes spilled over and with a strangled sob he turned away, biting his lip to regain control.
“I will come with you.”
I’m adding this A/N a while after this chapter was published. Some readers have taken Thranduil’s part and become angry with Aerneth despite what just happened to her. But remember this is written from Thranduil's perspective, and as a reader you only get his version. He suspects Aerneth of poisoning him without any evidence at all, and even tells his father she has done so, not listening to her objections. She has never lied to him previously. And in consequence her father-in-law beats her up...
Still, I hope you are not too harsh with Thranduil either. Children who grow up in abusive homes often become codependent with the abuser, finding excuses for his behaviour, adapting to it and not always understanding just how unhealthy the environment is. Especially if nobody outside the family knows. In this case, both the mother and her son suffered from codependency with Oropher.
Laying part of the blame on Thranduil like Aerneth did is not right either. A child is not supposed to protect their parent, it’s the other way around.
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