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20. Dragon Helm
Menegroth, Doriath, First Age 481
Oropher leaned against the wooden fence. “Elves keeping animals captive.” He shook his head with displeasure. “I do not hold with these modern ideas. Your father does not either.”
Amroth looked up from the sow he was petting. “We have kept horses ever since the Years of the Trees, why should we not keep boar and deer? Have I not provided Doriath with food in these troubled times?”
Thranduil said nothing but secretly agreed with Oropher. The deer were alright, but the pigs were dirty and trampled the ground, their pen could be smelled from miles away. Amroth was a warrior, this work was beneath him.
“We have a fine tradition of hunting for meat, if you had forgotten,” replied Oropher.
“Well, you are entitled to your opinion, and I as an adult ellon am entitled to do what I will with my spare time.” Amroth turned back to the sow.
“Come Father, Túrin’s competition is starting soon.”
They left Amroth with his pigs and went to the training grounds, where they found seats on one of the benches surrounding the sparring ring.
King Thingol was holding trials for aspiring march-wardens today. He needed more warriors; with the growing unrest near their realm he had decided to delegate a new border guard outside Melian’s Girdle to keep orcs and wargs from coming too close. Ever since Beren and the werewolf had managed to pass through it, the king had been nervous about the strength of his wife’s magic fence.
Two ellith were already fighting in the ring and the air was full of their grunts of effort, small yelps of pain and the dull thuds of their wooden wasters hitting one another’s shields or bodies, along with the cheering from their friends.
Thranduil recognised one of them; she was his friend Medlin’s wife. With a shudder he imagined Aerneth fighting like that and hoped she would never get such a horrible idea.
“When Thingol has resorted to recruiting female march-wardens, one knows the situation must be exceptionally grave,” Oropher mumbled in his ear, apparently having similar thoughts.
“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed.
“Have you thought more about joining Beleg outside the borders? I think it would be beneficial to your career; an opportunity to prove yourself in real battle and perhaps rise in grade. Doriath ought to have more than just two captains.”
“I have. But I worry about leaving you.” Thranduil pressed his father’s arm.
“Your concern becomes you, son. But you need not fear, with you guarding our country I would feel entirely safe. And I can manage the household. Last time you were gone was exceptional, as you well know.”
“I do not doubt your capability, Father.”
The sparring between the ellith was over and Thranduil clapped politely as the winner received her victory token. It was Medlin’s wife, as it were. Next up was Túrin, and both ellyn sat straighter to see better.
And there he was, his dark head easily spotted in the crowd, reaching above almost everybody else. He looked older in chainmail, like an adult despite his mere seventeen years, and his shoulders were broad and muscular. Thranduil felt a surge of affection and pride at seeing him like this, mingled with a hint of anxiety that he would not prove himself worthy in the upcoming combat. Saeros, the ellon he was going against, was a former stone worker who had helped delve several home caves in Menegroth and his biceps were impressive.
Thranduil had never liked Saeros; he had been friends with Daeron and just like the minstrel he was too full of himself for Thranduil’s taste. If Túrin took him down a notch or two it would probably do him good.
“He is a strapping young man, for sure,” said Oropher. “And stubborn. He will win, I know it.” Just like Thranduil, Oropher had taken an early liking to the human when he first arrived in Doriath. Túrin had often been a guest at their table.
“Aww, our little boy, look at him. A grown man already!” Amroth squeezed himself down on the bench next to Thranduil. A whiff of pig reached his nostrils and he fought not to make a face.
The king raised his arm and Thranduil tensed, drawing in his breath in anticipation. The combatants donned their helmets and shields, drew their wooden wasters and positioned themselves face to face. Then Thingol’s arm dropped and the game was on.
Túrin began aggressively as always, he could never compete with the stamina of an elf so he needed to beat his opponent fast. The onslaught of his hard strikes would weaken them and sometimes intimidate them as well, especially since the human often outmatched his opponent in strength – Thranduil had noticed men were generally more heavily built than elves and Túrin was no exception. He had felt the blunt force of the other’s waster many times, occasionally with resulting bruises.
Saeros was strong for an elf, however, and parried Túrin’s weapon with seeming ease, every now and then lashing in a hit of his own.
Thranduil winced inwardly whenever Saeros’ wooden sword connected with his opponent’s unprotected lower arms or legs, knowing how much the boy would suffer for it later. Túrin’s less resilient body was his biggest disadvantage; even hits over his chainmail covered torso and upper arms would leave marks. But he compensated for it with an almost complete disregard of pain during the actual encounter and would only acknowledge it afterwards.
The pair was evenly matched, it had gone several minutes and still none of the combatants had scored any points; for that they needed to make a hit that would have been mortal or crippling, such as against the torso or head. Disarming the opponent also rewarded a point.
But then Saeros feigned a hit on Túrin’s lower leg, and when he bent to parry it with his shield the ellon quickly whacked his neck just under the helmet. Thranduil winced.
“Saeros one-nil,” said Mablung, who was supervising the trials.
Túrin grunted in annoyance and made a swipe at Saeros’ right side, then rapidly two more at his left, finally unbalancing the other and forcing him to take a step backwards. Sparring with Thranduil, who was left-handed, had taught Túrin to focus on his opponent’s weak side. This he used to his advantage now as he alternated his strikes between the ellon’s left legs and his head. Saeros was beginning to show signs of tiredness, his shield arm was trembling and he panted heavily, but unfortunately so was Túrin. He needed to score the last points quickly if he wanted to win.
The young man abruptly switched sides and slashed at Saeros’ right side, and when the other moved his shield to deflect an expected second hit Túrin jabbed his sword against his exposed heart.
Despite his protective chainmail, the force of Túrin’s blow had knocked the air out of Saeros’ lungs, and before he could catch his breath Túrin resumed his assault, now at the ellon’s right side, scoring two more points by first beating the waster out of the other’s hand and then hitting his head.
“Three-one. We have a winner!” Mablung caught Túrin’s hand and raised it. The cheer was deafening, Túrin was almost universally liked in Menegroth. Only Saeron did not smile, and his gaze was scorching as he stomped away.
Thranduil hoped the ellon would not hold a grudge against Túrin after this, but he suspected the chances were slim; Saeros was a proud fellow.
When Túrin left the sparring ring, Thranduil, Oropher and Amroth pushed through the crowd to greet him.
“Well done, my boy,” said Oropher, grasping his shoulder. “This calls for a celebration. I have a couple of fine hares prepared if you would take your dinner with us.”
“Thank you, I would have loved to, but I just promised Beleg I would join him at Mablung’s table. We are discussing my new post. I am offered leadership of my own border unit, can you believe it!” Túrin’s cheeks were flushed with excitement.
”I see.” Oropher could not hide his displeasure, but the young man was too busy with the many others coming to congratulate him to notice.
Thranduil soon left the crowd, frowning. Túrin was too young to join the border guard. And to become a leader! That would put him in the front where he would be at the greatest risk.
“This settles it,” said Oropher. “You have to go with Beleg too now – to protect the boy.”
Thranduil nodded. He did not like this at all.
Galadriel approached them. “May I have a word with you? It is about your wife.”
“Of course.” Whenever Aerneth was mentioned Thranduil felt a chill inside. Was she in danger? He schooled his face to remain neutral.
They left the training grounds and walked a few yards into the surrounding woods.
“What is the matter?” He was careful to not let his voice sound as anxious and eager as he felt.
“I worry about Aerneth. Her mother has still not come back.”
Thranduil nodded. Sailing west had been a vain attempt. Círdan had built seven ships after the war and sent them to Aman to ask the Valar for help defeating Morgoth. Falasiel had been aboard one of those, having long wished to see the island again. But nothing had been heard of the ships in several years, and by now everyone assumed they must have perished at sea.
“Why do you worry?” he asked. “You said before that Aerneth was coming to terms with the situation.”
“Aye, but today she talked of following them.”
“She cannot go!” Thranduil’s feigned calmness instantly disappeared. “If the first ships could not make it to Aman hers will be lost as well. The Valar has closed that route.”
“Call to her. If anyone can persuade her to stay in Middle-earth, it is you.”
“I most certainly will! How could she even think such a stupid thing?”
“Calling her stupid will not help, though.” Galadriel frowned slightly.
But Thranduil did not pay attention to her, he was already striding towards the Esgalduin to make the call.
“Reckless elleth!” he muttered to himself.
He sat on a stone by the river, trying to calm down. When he felt sure his face again was blank – although he knew she would hate that – he thought her name.
Thranduil had not spoken to Aerneth in over nine years and he was not entirely sure she would answer now. When her face formed, he felt a surge of relief and a painful stab as he realised how much he still missed her.
She looked wary.
“Oropherion. You called?”
Another stab. He was not his father! Not exposing how much that simple greeting hurt him, Thranduil answered impassionately: “Wife. I heard your mother has gone missing and I wanted to offer my sympathy.”
“She sailed years ago and you only heard it now?”
“I had been aware of it since it happened,” he admitted.
“Seeing as it obviously did not bother you before, you need not concern yourself now either. Anything else?” Her face showed no emotions at all. When had she learned that?
“I was told… are you really planning on following her?”
“I might. Why?” Her cold eyes were like glass marbles.
“You must not go. It is stupid. You will get yourself killed!”
She did not reply. Thranduil wished she was there in person so he could shake her, get a reaction out of her.
The thought instantly sobered him. That was precisely why she could not be here, because of such notions; he was clearly still not safe to be around. And he had not even apologised for hurting her.
A sentence surfaced from his memory, words spoken by the now late Falasiel. Forgiveness is the cure; learn to forgive, learn to ask forgiveness. He had been terrible at it.
“About last time…” He broke off, searching for words. Then he noticed Aerneth’s almost terrified expression.
“I have to go,” she said, her voice strained.
“What?” Her lip trembled. Now he wanted to hold her instead. Had he scared her so badly that time? He was a monster.
“Please stay.” He had lost his neutral appearance and voice completely. Why did her tears always unwind him so? “I cannot lose you too.”
“You don’t actually have me, do you?”
“You are alive, at least. If you go… what if there is no rebirth?”
“There has to be. I will meet Nana again.”
Thranduil changed the subject, hoping to calm her. “How is the town building going?” Círdan and his people had recently left their refuge at Isle of Balar to build a new city at the mouth of Sirion.
“You knew that too? You certainly keep yourself updated.” She wiped her eyes. “It goes well, I guess. Becoming a bit more than a few houses scattered in the reed now. Nothing like Eglarest of course, but… it is better than the barren island we first came to. Galadriel told you this?”
“And about my plan to sail, as well, I assume. Got a loud mouth, that elleth.” But she did not look angry.
After a short silence she spoke again, her voice serious. “You know… I think we should keep in touch like this. I mean, more often than every nine years. Despite…” She faltered.
Thranduil only nodded, at loss for words. She wanted him to call her again. That was something, at least...
“I ought to leave this shore after what I did,” she continued. “But I will stay if you want me to.”
“I do.” Thranduil was a bit surprised at her words. After what I did . Did she mean the kiss? But surely that was not reason enough to sail to certain death?
Having seen it happen in Galadriel’s mirror, Thranduil felt a lot less bad about the whole kissing situation. At least they had both been fully clothed and the ellon was a stranger that she would hopefully never meet again.
Aerneth looked like she would cry again but then composed herself. “So, what have you been up to then?” She smiled weakly.
“I have helped raise a human boy.”
“You what?” She stared at him incredulously.
Thranduil told her all about Túrin and how the boy had captured almost everybody’s heart in Doriath. “But now he wants to join the border guard, which is worrisome. There are so many dangers around our kingdom now. Father wants me to go with him, to protect him but also try to make a name for myself. I like the idea; I want to be useful for once.”
“Oh, so now it's suddenly a good idea to leave your cosy, safe forest? Because Ada says so.” Aerneth’s mouth was a thin line.
“This is the first time my king wants it. I am his subject; I owe him my allegiance.” Thranduil frowned.
“Whatever you say, Oropherion.” Then her countenance softened. “I have to go now. But do call again soon, I meant what I said. And… be careful out there. Don’t get yourself killed.”
“I shall try not to. Promise to stay in Middle-earth?”
When her image had disappeared, Thranduil stayed a long time watching the rippling surface.
She wanted to keep in touch. Despite how unsatisfying these calls were, they were better than nothing, and maybe… just maybe, if he practiced controlling his temper, they could be together again in the future? He felt a sliver of hope.
That night in his lonely bed, Thranduil recalled some of his favourite intimate moments with Aerneth and used them to bring himself to climax for the first time in years.
It was a cold morning when the new border guard made ready to leave Doriath. Oropher had come to send Thranduil and Túrin off, and after a while Amroth joined them from his animal pens. He would remain in Menegroth with Captain Mablung and the palace guard.
Mablung was there too, looking emotional and giving his ‘friend’ Beleg an extra long hug. It was clear their parting was not easy; from now on they would only see each other a few times per year.
Túrin came sauntering, late as usual. His chin was covered in dark stubble that Thranduil secretly envied. When he had first seen a bearded human he had found it strange, but somehow it suited Túrin well, giving him a masculine and exotic look. Especially in combination with his round human ears. It distinguished him, making him different in a good way.
The young man was carrying a large bag slung over his broad shoulder.
“What are you bringing?” asked Thranduil.
“Thingol gave me new weapons for my assignment, along with this .” He picked up a bulky item wrapped in cloth. “My mother sent it to me; it was my father’s and his father’s before him, and he got it from the High King of the Noldor.” The boy proudly unwrapped a large steel helmet with a golden crest, shaped like a dragon.
Thranduil’s breath hitched. He had seen that helm before… in Galadriel’s mirror. The man in his vision – was it Túrin? Would he fight a dragon?
“Is it not amazing? Mother says the dwarves forged it hundreds of years ago!”
Swallowing hard and arranging his features to hide his fear, Thranduil said all the right things about the value and quality of the item and how well it would look on the young man in battle. But it was with a bitter taste in his mouth he watched the boy pack it back down. Surely a combat between a human and a dragon must end in disaster? Disturbing images of the boy burnt into a crisp came unbidden before him; Faraion the Gondolian had told enough such stories for them to become permanently etched into Thranduil’s brain.
When they finally set off towards the border a while later, Thranduil tried to turn his mind in a more positive direction. It was a glorious spring morning, the air was crisp, the trees were covered in swelling buds and the flowers smelled nice. The chainmail covering his chest and upper arms jingled cheerfully and on his hip hung the shiny, new longsword his father had bought him.
He was going into battle for the first time in three decades and he might return as a famous ellon.
Orcs beware, the march-wardens of Doriath are coming for you!
Hm... why did Aerneth want to sail? Was it just the kiss or something else? Hit me with your thoughts. :)
On practicing fighting: I always find it amusing in stories where the characters spar with sharp weapons. Not only is it dangerous, it’s also very ineffective training because they obviously can’t practice potentially deadly strikes. In my stories they either use wasters – wooden replicas of swords (which is historically correct, and how you practice fencing today as well) or blunted metal weapons.
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