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Thranduil hurried into the cabin and put Aerneth down on his bedroll, with his companions remaining outside to allow them some privacy. She fell asleep instantly, exhausted as she was, and with deep worry gnawing at his heart he examined her limp body, expecting the worst.
Only when he had ascertained she was not seriously hurt, did Thranduil begin to breathe a little easier. But instead the many cuts, lash scars, her chafed wrists and raw feet twisted his gut with rage against whomever had dared treat his wife so ill.
He removed her dirty and torn garments, careful not to wake her up, and covered her with a blanket before going out to find a washcloth. Amroth, sensing his needs, had already heated water.
“How is she?” he asked anxiously.
“Bruised, half-starved, sleep deprived… Someone has kept her prisoner.” He clenched his fists tightly. “I’m guessing orcs. It reminds me of when I… rescued Túrin.” He swallowed down a wave of nausea.
Amroth nodded, clasping his shoulder in sympathy. “She spoke of a dragon coming here. Medlin and Taurandir went away to scout the border, but… she cannot sleep too long. We need to hear her witness.”
“No. I am not going to disturb her.” Thranduil resolutely took the warm water and the cloth and returned to his wife. Gently he washed away the grime, sweat and dried blood from her once soft curves, the shape of which he still knew so well after all these years.
When he cleaned some of the deeper cuts she whimpered and shuddered in her sleep, and behind Thranduil’s eyelids tears burned. What had they done to her?
Aerneth woke up before he had finished. She grabbed his arm painfully and tried to sit.
“Stay. You must rest.” He held her down.
“There is no time! The dragon… It burned Nargothrond! I was there. And Doriath will fall. Ulmo said–”
“Amroth has sent out scouts. That is all we can do right now.”
“It is not! Take me to the king.” Her gaze was stubborn and her voice urgent. Indicating her body, she added: “There is nothing wrong with me; I’m just tired.” She looked around in the cabin. “Do you have any clothes I can borrow?”
“There is nobody in the city now; we are out hunting for the Autumn Feast.”
“Feast… What do you mean, Feast?” She stared at him incredulously. “There is a war going on right outside your borders and a fucking dragon is on its way, and you people are hunting and partying?!”
“Calm down, please! All I am saying is that it’s no point returning to the city until everyone else does.”
Slowly Aerneth relaxed somewhat and leaned back onto his bed. “One day then,” she said reluctantly.
“One day.” Thranduil nodded. “If my friends wish to stay longer I will go with you alone.”
Her eyes turned to his face, and her countenance softened. “You look good.”
“You don’t.” He indicated her scarred arms and shoulder. “Who did this to you?” He fought to control the rage that was growing in his chest.
“Orcs.” She proceeded to describe how an orc army led by the dragon Glaurung had attacked Nargothrond, killing most of the males and taking the females captive, and how she had finally managed to free herself in the river. “I was the only survivor.” Her eyes filled with tears, and Thranduil both wanted to cry as well and go kill something. He also wanted to take Aerneth in his arms and hold her close, comforting her, but he had no right to do that. He was her husband in name only.
She wiped her eyes and regained her composure surprisingly fast. When did she learn to control her feelings like that? It reminded Thranduil too much of himself for comfort.
A thought struck him. “Túrin went to Nargothrond. Did you see him there? Did he make it?” He held his breath, fearing the answer.
“Oh, he was there alright!” Aerneth made a wry face when she recounted how Túrin boldly had advertised his presence in Nargothrond, and how his ill advice to the king had led to the fall of the city. “The dragon could just walk in on that stupid bridge.” She shook her head. “The last I saw of Túrin was Glaurung hypnotising him, telling him to return to his mother in Dor-Lómin. I think it was a trap; Morgoth knew about him and wanted to punish him for his boldness.”
“His mother is here! In Doriath.” Thranduil rubbed his forehead worriedly. “She came last summer with his sister Niënor. Aye, it must be a trap. Damn boy. Always so proud; always so brash.”
“He certainly seemed proud, aye.” She yawned, and blinked tiredly. “Since I have to stay here anyway, I ought to make use of the opportunity to catch some sleep.. The orcs hardly let us rest at all.”
“Just let me finish cleaning your wounds.”
Aerneth obediently turned her back to allow him access. When he wiped the ugly gashes she tensed, but apart from that she stoically endured his ministrations without a sound, though it probably hurt a great deal.
“Are you sure no orcs survived?” he growled.
“None. The humans ambushed them effectively.”
“Too bad. I feel like strangling one.”
She did not reply, but Thranduil could see a smile forming on her face. His anger faded and was replaced with affection, mingled with a remorse so strong it threatened to choke him. For the first time in years he had his wife within reach, but she might as well have been on the Moon. He had no right to have her; not after what he did the last time they met.
“There. Finished. I will leave you unbandaged for now,” he murmured, struggling to keep his voice neutral. “Hopefully the air will promote healing.”
“Thank you.” Her voice was sleepy and she regarded him under heavy lids. To his surprise, Thranduil noticed tears in the corners of her eyes. She looked equally remorseful as he felt.
“I…” she began. “I, uh… will sleep now.”
It sounded like she had meant to say something else.
Medlin and Taurandir did not return that night. Amroth, Faraion and Thranduil stayed up until late, but after a while Thranduil told the others to get some sleep. For his own part, he could not relax, so he might as well stand guard.
Faraion looked sickly pale when he walked past; all this talk about dragons had stirred up old, horrifying memories in the poor ellon. During the Battle of Unnumbered Tears he had been in close vicinity of many such monsters – including Glaurung himself, the largest of them all.
Thranduil spent the night hours taking care of that day’s spoil from the hunt; it was stupid to let it spoil. If they had to flee Doriath they would need food on their journey.
Flee Doriath. Just thinking the words gave him a bitter taste in his mouth. This was his home; he belonged here. When he had returned after his years with Túrin and the Outlaws he had expected never to leave Doriath again, but against an actual dragon they could not do anything – that much he knew after hearing Faraion’s and Aerneth’s descriptions.
Shortly before sunrise Thranduil heard the imitation of an hooting owl that was the signal the march-wardens used among themselves, and then the two scouts appeared. They looked exhausted; apparently they had been running all day and all night.
“There is definitely a dragon around,” Medlin reported after he had caught his breath. “The entire Talath Dirnen was black; burned to ashes. We obviously did not go all the way to Nargothrond, but our guess is that unless he has returned to his master, the dragon is still in there. We saw nothing on the plain itself.”
Thranduil was slightly relieved. He had feared that the Guarded Plain would be full of orcs and the dragon’s offspring, and perhaps even balrogs – like in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears – but for some reason the Dark Lord must still hold back part of his strength.
The others had woken up by the arrival of the scouts, and after a quick breakfast of lembas they gathered the barrels of salted meat and went for Menegroth.
Aerneth looked a lot better after a night’s sleep and a hearty meal. She had washed and combed her hair, and wore Thranduil’s spare clothes instead of her ruined garments. The sight of her long legs exposed under his short tunic, with only thin trousers covering them, ignited unwelcome emotions in him. He had no time for such things, even if Aerneth would be willing.
It was a long walk home, and Aerneth spent most of it talking with Faraion. By now Thranduil knew he was not the ellon she had kissed, but he did not like it anyway. They shared an experience he did not, having fought in one of the famous Battles of Beleriand, and it made him feel left out. But of course he kept his mouth shut; it was not up to him to dictate whom Aerneth spoke with.
Late in the evening they arrived, and on Aerneth's insistence they went directly to the palace. They were back in Menegroth early, two days before the Feast, and Thranduil had no hopes that the king would be there yet – but to his surprise the palace servant he spoke with told them that Thingol was both in, and awake in his throne room. They could see him directly.
As it had of late, the sight of Thingol made Thranduil uneasy. His king had changed, becoming pale and rather overweight because he so seldom left his throne. On a dias beside him the Silmaril spread a dazzling light so bright they had had to encase it in a globe carved of milky quartz; yet there was no need for lanterns or wax candles in the throne room anymore.
Had the king not left Menegroth at all during the hunt this year? It almost seemed like it.
Before Aerneth was allowed to tell her tale, the king summoned those of his courtiers and advisors who were still in the city. Soon the elegant room filled with a scatter of sleepy elves, mumbling among themselves and casting curious glances at her. Thranduil saw his father stand close to the throne; he had risen in importance over the years and was now among the king’s closest advisors, together with Amroth’s father Amdír. Oropher’s gaze rested on Aerneth, but Thranduil could not interpret his mood. The last time she was here, he had banished her from his house, but he did not look angry now. Perhaps he had forgiven her?
At last Aerneth was bid to speak, and she repeated her account of the dragon attack, the sacking of Nargothrond, how the army had been wiped out and all the females captured and then killed. She also described how Túrin had been tricked and sent away on a fool’s errand.
Her voice was clear and strong, and her face showed nothing of her exhaustion. Looking at his wife standing there, her back straight and her demeanor serious, made Thranduil feel a burst of pride in who she had become, but also a twinge of remorse over what she had lost. This elleth was not the same as the one who had left him not very long ago. She had matured, perhaps shaped by the disasters she had experienced; the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, the Fall of the Falas, the Sacking of Nargothrond.
That playful, silly young wife she had been would never return; the Aerneth who would tease him, jump into his lap and kiss him audibly on the mouth, and who had giggled in happiness over the stupid crystals he had put up in the ceiling of their room – was gone forever.
He had screwed up what could have been. No, he corrected himself, they both had; she was not without fault either. Perhaps they were just not meant to be. They had rushed into a marriage neither blessed by his father, nor the Valar.
“I came here carrying a warning to the kings of Nargothrond, Gondolin and Doriath – a warning from Ulmo,” Aerneth continued. “He and his Maiar foresaw the fall of all three realms. However, I could not find the way to Gondolin, and in Nargothrond Orodreth did not heed my warning. Thus I come today before you, last of the rulers I set out to see, appealing to you to listen.” She raised her voice. “In order to save your people you must leave your kingdom immediately. And when you do so, Lord Círdan welcomes you to the Mouths of Sirion.”
Thingol’s face had grown increasingly clouded during her speech, and instead of replying he turned to Oropher and his other advisors. After a short, subdued exchange, he finally turned his gaze back to Aerneth.
“I thank you for your report, Círdaniell; your father’s concern for my well-being honours him, as does his generous invitation for my people to live as refugees in his realm. However, he has failed to take into consideration that my city is both hidden, delved underground and protected by the magic of my wife. If I leave, I shall certainly draw the attention of the Lord of Angband and his minions; my Silmaril will be a beacon to him, and his dragons will follow me south like a pack of dogs chasing a running hare.” He lay a protective hand on the white container holding the gem. “I would bring not only Doriath to ruin, but Círdan’s people also. Nay, My Lady, I do best to linger here until the Valar return to aid us. This strategy has never failed me in my long years in Beleriand.”
“You could leave the Silmaril,” Aerneth retorted, visibly dismayed.
“Leave it?” He stared at her incredulously. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“My son! Where is my son?” A woman came running barefoot into the room, with her long hair streaming after her in a black cascade, streaked in white at her temples. She had obviously been in bed and was clad only in a white chemise, and had not even bothered to cover herself with a gown.
The king beckoned to a courtier. “Fetch a cloak for the Lady of Dor-Lómin,” he said. Turning to her, he continued: “I am sorry to say it appears young Túrin has been lured away by the dragon.”
“Then I must go search for him immediately!”
“Do not be rash, Lady Morwen. Your son would want you to stay here in the safety and keeping of Melian and myself, rather than wander abroad in black peril.”
The courtier returned with a cloak and reluctantly Morwen put it on. “Rash, My Lord? Is it rashness to make sure that my son does not lurk in the woods hungry, or lingers in bonds, or that his body does not lie unburied…?” She shook her head. “If you worry for me, then lend me some of your people.”
“I do not command you; if you wish to go, you may do so – but my people I do command, and I will send them out at my own advice.”
Morwen’s dark eyes filled with tears, and she left without a word.
Sighing, Thingol turned to Captain Mablung. “If she indeed does leave, you shall send thirty of your best elves with her. I will not have it said that King Thingol let the Lady of Dor-Lómin go unguarded.”
It had grown very late, and shortly afterwards the assembly dispersed. Outside, Thranduil and Amroth went over to Aerneth, who was talking with Galadriel and Celeborn.
“I don’t like this at all,” Galadriel just said, keeping her voice subdued to avoid overhearing. “His own wife saw him getting killed over that Silmaril, and now Lord Ulmo confirms it will happen. That stone will be the ruin of us all!”
“Can you not leave without the king?” Aerneth suggested. “Those who are wise would follow you, I am sure.”
Galadriel nodded slowly. “He is not my king. I am Noldo, and though my husband belongs here, I never did – not fully. I am loath to leave my friend Melian, however,” she added.
“I would go with you,” said Amroth.
Thranduil hesitated. He wanted to say he would too, but could he really? He did not want to abandon his post as one of the king's captains and cowardly flee. It would be treason.
Oropher and Amdír joined them.
“We have to leave, Father,” said Amroth. “We cannot listen to Thingol anymore. The Silmaril has dulled his mind!”
Instead of replying, Amdír looked at Oropher. “What do you say, my friend?”
“I say what I always do; we should not be hasty in our decision. The king is wiser than you young people may think.” He cast a disdainful glance at Amroth. “If we flee to Lord Círdan, we will be more exposed than here. Morgoth is a Vala, and only the other Valar can end him. There is no better place to wait for that to happen than here.”
Amdír sighed. “Wise words, I am sure, but I am too tired to think clearly. Let us meet again tomorrow and continue this discussion.”
The others agreed that it was too late for making important decisions, and after deciding on a time and place, they said their goodbyes.
When they were alone, Aerneth bowed to her husband and father-in-law. “Goodnight. I shall be going as well.”
“Go where?” Oropher’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “It is very late.”
Her face stiffened. “To the palace guest house.”
Now he lowered his eyebrows instead. “A married elleth – sleeping away from her husband after being gone for so many years? Would you have us be ridiculed in the entire city?”
Thranduil could see that Aereth was on the verge of retorting – probably acidly reminding Oropher that he forbade her from ever returning.
He forestalled the impending argument by pulling his wife to the side, purposely standing between his father and her. “Don’t make a scene…” he murmured. “I know I have no right to ask it of you after what I did, but if you would consider staying with us, I can sleep on the floor. I will not come near you; I promise.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “After what you did?”
“Are you coming?” Oropher interrupted sternly.
Aerneth’s eyes irresolutely flicked between him and Thranduil.
“Please,” Thranduil mouthed. It was not just to oblige his father or for the sake of his reputation; he really did not want to part from his wife so soon. Even if they could not sleep together, he wanted her near.
Sighing, she nodded once. “Alright then.”
Back at their home, Thranduil quickly prepared a cold supper; Aerneth was still far too thin and he did not want her to go to bed hungry.
Oropher grabbed a chicken leg in passing, and halted briefly. “I am sure you understand my real reason for wanting to stay in Menegroth,” he said, smiling smugly at his son.
Thranduil shook his head, surprised.
“The queen saw the king murdered in the future, remember? That means there will be a vacancy. And who could better take his place on the throne than his most trusted advisor?” He indicated himself. “When I am king, I shall lead my people to safety. But I am not leaving before then, and neither are you.”
“You are beyond ambitious!” Aerneth gasped.
“I do not expect an elleth to understand the finer aspects of politics,” he sneered and left them.
After finishing their meal in silence, Aerneth and Thranduil went up to their room.
Inside, she looked around, and her gaze fell on the clay seal still sitting on the windowsill. Picking it up, she pressed it against her heart. “Nana made this,” she murmured, as if Thranduil did not know that. Then she looked at the empty spot on the wall where the sea painting had been. “You took it down?”
“I still have it,” he assured her. “It’s in my clothes chest.”
“It reminded me too much of…” He could not finish the sentence.
“I understand.” She put the seal back and sat down on the bed.
He wanted to reply that no, she could never understand, but refrained. They had both lost their mothers now, that was true, but while hers had died on a brave mission, sailing to Aman to ask the Valar for help against Morgoth, his mother had been driven to kill herself. It was his fault she was dead, and he did not want to talk of that or even think about it.
“I will just take one pillow, and then you can have the bed,” he said instead, and trying to lighten the tense mood, added: “Thankfully, as a march-warden, I’m used to sleeping on hard surfaces.”
He reached behind Aerneth to grab the pillow, when a whiff of her scent reached his nostrils. He paused. She was so close, and suddenly their gazes met.
Her pupils widened and she parted her lips as if to say something. He could not take his eyes away from them.
Neither of them moved. They just stood, looking at each other with eyes full of longing.
“The Valar help me,” Thranduil muttered at last. The pillow slid from his grasp and hit the floor with a soft thud when he took her into his arms.
Their lips met with a burning hunger. He roamed over her body with his hands, feeling every familiar curve as the kiss deepened.
When they had to pause and breathe, Aerneth helped him out of his tunic. She trailed kisses down his smooth chest, allowing her fingers to follow in her lips’ wake. When she reached his nipple he could not hold back a low groan.
She fumbled with his pants, trying to untie the strings. He helped her and stepped out of them, while she did the same with the pair she had borrowed from him that morning.
Sitting on the bed, she parted her legs invitingly. Thranduil positioned himself between them, looking down at her beautiful female parts, spread before him like the petals of a rose.
She leaned back until she lay on the bed, her knees bent over the edge. It was precisely the right height for this – which was no coincidence; when they were newlyweds they had ordered it from the furniture makers to suit their needs.
Thranduil took hold of her thighs and embedded himself fully into her warmth. Sighing with pleasure, he lingered, revelling in the moment. It had been so long. Too long.
He gazed at her outstretched form, admiring how her flushed cheeks enhanced her beauty. She still wore his tunic, and he bundled it up so he could touch her ample breasts. When he fondled them she moaned and wrapped her legs around him, grinding her core against his.
“You are so gorgeous,” he breathed.
“You should see yourself,” she countered, reaching up to touch a strand of his hair, twisting it around her finger and pulling him closer so she could kiss him.
He straightened his back and began to move at a slow pace. She bucked her hips with each stroke, and he could feel himself losing control. But he did not want to hurry, not now; this could be the last time they did this.
Forcing himself to slow down even further, he caressed her sensitive spots with his fingers until she was squirming beneath him.
Not until he felt her release begin, did he at last let go of his self-control. He crashed down to rest on his elbows over her, making love to her with mindless abandon, and when he climaxed not long afterwards it was so intense he saw stars.
“Sorry,” he mumbled when his heart had calmed down. “I said I wouldn’t come near you.” He knew he ought to leave her but could not bring himself to do it.
“It was my fault too.” Aerneth made no move to roll away either. On the contrary; her arms lay around his neck and her fingers were buried in his hair.
Thranduil pressed his nose against the hollow by her collarbone, filling his nostrils with her familiar scent as if it were a drug.
Maybe… just maybe they could try again; try to be husband and wife. Perhaps this time it would work.
Thranduil woke up with Aerneth still nestled close against him. It was too warm, and his arm had fallen asleep under her neck, but he did not move. He could hear she was awake as well.
In the bleak morning light, he felt awkward about what they did yesterday. He ought to have checked his desire, but instead he had thrown himself over her like an animal in heat. If he could not control this, what was to say he could control his temper the next time they fought? For he knew they would; their relationship so far had proven there would always be moments when their wills clashed. Would he hurt her again when that happened?
It was hard to imagine right now, with her body soft and pliable from sleep and her beautiful face relaxed, but he must not fool himself into believing it could last.
Through the thin wall he heard his father moving around. He should get up and make breakfast, but still he lingered.
He recalled Oropher’s bold statement yesterday. I am not leaving before then, and neither are you.
It did not surprise him. His father had aspired to the throne for a long time now, and worked hard to get in a position where he had a chance to get it. He would not lightly throw all that away to become a refugee in the south.
Would Aerneth agree to stay in Doriath if Thranduil did?
Probably not, and his father would not likely budge either. As usual, Thranduil would be caught between them.
Sighing, he eased his sleeping arm out from under Aerneth and left the bed.
When he returned from the bathroom, scrubbed clean and a lot more awake, he found Aerneth up. She was combing her hair, and had put on one of her old dresses; most of her clothes had remained here when she went to battle that time.
Picking a matching outfit, Thranduil got dressed as well.
Neither of them spoke when they finished making themselves ready, and they carefully made wide circles around each other in the small room. The silence was almost palpable, and they avoided eye-contact.
At the breakfast table, Oropher cast sly glances at his son and daughter-in-law, and his smile was decidedly smug. Perhaps he had heard them yesterday, and thought their love-making was a sign Aerneth would stay and become a dutiful wife again.
All these years he had explained away her absence to their neighbours and friends, claiming she had been on a short visit to her parents when the unrest in the Falas and their exile had made her unable to return. If she stayed now, he could continue pretending their family was happy and normal.
Thranduil had just finished clearing the table when a messenger knocked on the door, urging him to hurry to the stables, armoured and with his weapons ready. Apparently Lady Morwen had done what she had warned and left Doriath, and her daughter had disappeared shortly afterwards. As per the king’s order yesterday, Mablung was taking his march-wardens to find and guard the two women. In addition, Thingol wanted news about Nargothrond and the dragon, so they would scout the area before returning.
Aerneth shook her head vigorously when she heard where he was going. “Don’t go there! One look from the dragon’s eyes is all it takes to paralyse you!”
Thranduil was warmed by her concern. “I have to,” he said kindly. “But don’t worry. I shall be careful.”
“Stay.” She grabbed his arm as if she thought she could keep him there by force. Her eyes had grown large and frightened.
“I cannot.” He pried away her stiff fingers.
When he walked towards the stables, Thranduil felt a twinge of unease over Aerneth’s strong reaction. Was the dragon really that dangerous? He remembered how scared Faraion had been when he first arrived in Doriath, and how just the mention of the word ‘dragon’ now, years afterwards, still could make him blanch. But there was no helping it, he had to follow orders; it was what march-wardens did.
The thirty elves left Doriath in a rather demure silence; it was obvious Thranduil was not the only one who worried over their mission. Only Mablung looked unconcerned, but he always did nowaday, as if he did not care what happened to him; whether he lived or died. Beleg’s death had changed him.
They soon caught up with the lady they pursued; she was walking quite openly along the Esgalduin river path, the straightest route to Nargothrond. She did not so much as greet them, but when Mablung led a horse to her she graciously accepted it and mounted the steed.
After a while a glittering between the tree trunks ahead indicated the Sirion was close. The air was chilly and damp here and the ground wet after last week’s rain. Thranduil shivered and drew his cloak closer around him.
The forest thinned out and they arrived at the beach of the river, which was wide and deep as usual this time of year. The drawbridge was pulled up; after the autumn rains it was too short to span the wide expanse. Instead they resorted to a flat ferry, big enough to allow ten elves and their horses.
Shortly before dawn, the last group had crossed. Then Morwen cried out in dismay. “You were thirty elves – but here are thirty-one now!” Perring intently at the company, she grabbed hold of the cloak of one of them, pulling down the hood and exposing a young woman with long, blonde hair. “Niënor!” she gasped. “Go back! Go back! I command you.”
The girl’s face grew stubborn. “If the wife of Húrin is not afraid, then his daughter is not either. Where you go, I shall follow. But if you return to the protection of Melian, then so will I.”
“I am your mother and you must obey me. Now, go back!”
“No. I’m not a child anymore, that you can command.”
The women stared at each other, neither willing to budge.
At last, Morwen sighed. “I shall continue. If you come, it is against my will.”
“So be it.”
Mablung looked at Thranduil, shaking his head, and mumbled: “They are just as stubborn and careless as Túrin.” He seemed uneasy for once, probably because he would be risking not only his own life this time, but that of two women. “I don’t like this errand. What should we do?”
Morwen had heard him. “You do what your king has commanded you, of course. Go to Nargothrond and find out what happened, and search for Túrin. We all want the same thing.”
“Then you must stay close to us at all times,” he said reluctantly.
The ride over the Talath Dirnen was dismal. Just like Medlin had said, the ground was scorched and black, and only scarred stumps were left of the scarce pine forest which had covered the heathland. There was no sound of any living creatures; no buzzing insects, no chirping birds, not even orcs. Nothing at all. Luckily the company had brought fodder for the horses, or they would have starved.
On the third day they reached a small hill overlooking Nargothrond, and here Mablung assigned ten guards to watch over the women and the horses while the rest of them continued on foot.
Morwen seemed unwilling to stay behind, but Mablung sternly warned her against following; she and her daughter would only make his task harder if they did. If she wanted him to find her son, she must do as told.
Then she reluctantly agreed to obey, but she looked long after them when they left.
The march-wardens walked westward in silence. When they came closer, they saw the bridge was gone and the gates torn down, leaving the entrance gaping open like a toothless mouth.
Thranduil’s heart was pounding hard at the sight. He looked at the massive pillars; the bridge must have been enormous. What monster could destroy something that big and strong?
Climbing stealthily down to the riverbank, they started to walk alongside the Narog. The river separated them from the city, so they needed a suitable spot to cross.
A sudden roar made Thranduil’s heart jump and he froze where he stood, pressing his back against a boulder. A shadow blocked the sky briefly as Glaurung lithely crawled down against them, impossibly fast for such a huge creature. His fingered forelegs had claws large as logs, black and cruel, and his lizardy body was covered in shield-like scales.
The dragon opened his gigantic jaws and a gust of fire spouted from them in a scorching cascade of blue and white. As the flames hit the surface of the river, a dense, stinking fog rose from the waves with a vast hiss, obscuring the monster. Thranduil heard whimpers of terror from others nearby and the sound of running feet.
Cowering close to the ground, he saw a dark shape pass merely yards from him. Rocks and gravel from the hillside crashed down around him as it went up it, and then the silence resumed. Only the dragon stench lingered, so thick it nearly choked him.
“Anyone still here?” whispered Mablung.
“Aye, captain,” replied Thranduil.
There was no other sound; either their comrades had fled or fallen prey to the beast.
Mablung joined him by the boulder, and they caught each other in a rough embrace.
“I am going in,” Mablung said, releasing him. “Túrin might still be there.”
“What about the women?” breathed Thranduil.
“They must have heard the dragon, and hopefully they are on their way back at a gallop. Either way, we can’t do much for them.”
He ordered Thranduil to find a hiding place further from the river and wait there for his return. Then he started out in the water, and soon disappeared into the thick mist.
Thranduil found a spot on a nearby hillock and sat down with trembling limbs. Nothing Aerneth and Faraion had said had prepared him for the sight of Glaurung. No wonder his wife was so afraid for Doriath! If that beast wanted to, he could burn down the entire forest and destroy Menegroth with hardly no effort.
Suddenly he heard pounding hooves in the distance, and a female voice, crying: “Niënor! Niënor!” It was Morwen; her horse must have become afraid of the dragon and bolted. Thranduil hoped it would run home without throwing off its rider, and save the poor woman. In the fog he could not go after her, and besides, Mablung had ordered him to stay.
Waiting blindly was agonising; at least Mablung was doing something, even if that something was horrifyingly dangerous. Thranduil’s stomach churned and made noises, and he feared the dragon would hear it and come to devour him. Of course, such thoughts only increased his distress.
An immeasurable amount of time passed; it felt like hours but could be minutes too, Thranduil had no way of knowing.
Then he heard something again; a booming voice much too close for his liking, so low pitched and loud it penetrated his body and made his heart beat irregularly.
“What seek you here?” it said.
A female replied, sounding completely calm and undaunted: “I seek one Túrin that lived here for a while. But maybe he’s dead.”
It was Niënor! Thranduil was both shocked and awed by her boldness.
“I know not,” rumbled Glaurung. “He was assigned to protect the women and the weak here, but instead he cowardly ran away.” His great voice was matted with contempt. “Why seek you such a craven?”
“You lie! The children of Húrin are no cowards! We are not afraid of you.”
“Then you are fools, both you and your brother,” sneered the dragon. “For I am Glaurung!”
At his words a wind appeared and the mist dissolved. Now Thranduil saw the two of them; an enormous dragon standing face-to-face with a small woman, her blonde locks fluttering in the breeze he had stirred up. She was staring into his lidless eyes with an empty gaze.
The dragon looked almost like he was smiling. Leaving her paralysed form, he crawled down to the river, waded across it easily on his long legs and went back up to his lair. Before entering, he looked at a spot across the water and laughed evilly.
“There you lie like a vole under the bank, Mablung the mighty! How ill you run Thingol’s errands. Now, hurry back to see what happened with your charge!” With that, he disappeared into the ruined city, his long tail slithering behind him.
All through the night Thranduil and Mablung walked in silence, leading Niënor with them. She had become a lifeless statue who would not talk, nor eat, and only if they dragged her along by hand did she walk.
After a while, two more elves made them company. Of the thirty that had set out only the four of them remained, and all the horses were gone.
The journey went very slow, and it took many days until they finally neared the dark shape that was Doriath. They were almost there when another night came upon them, and since Niënor seemed weary they laid her on the grass to sleep while they stood guard around her.
After a few hours, Thranduil perceived a nasty smell. "Orcs!" he hissed, warning his comrades.
Sure enough; soon a dozen of them charged out from the surrounding darkness. Screeching obscenities in their shrill voices, they clashed their bent scimitars against the elves' swords.
In the middle of the ruckus Niënor suddenly sprang up, crying out in fear, and bolted away into the night. The orcs turned to chase her, and the elves after them, but the young woman in her terror outran them all.
The march-wardens soon overtook the orcs and killed them, but by then there was no trace of their charge. Niënor had disappeared.
Captain Mablung was deeply ashamed when he returned before the king, after having lost most of the warriors he had brought with him, and both the women he was tasked to protect.
The king and queen graciously forgave and comforted him, however. He had done his best; nobody could beat a dragon, not even Mablung.
Thranduil felt a little better than his captain when he walked home from the palace. He had survived, and though the worry for his lost comrades was a raw wound, he still had hopes they lived and would find their way back eventually. For all he knew, the women might be alive too.
In addition, Mablung had described the dragon's lair which he had seen when he went into Nargothrond. Glaurung had gathered all the gold, silver and jewels of the city and made a huge pile of it; a veritable hoard. With such a treasure, was it not likely he intended to stay there and guard it? Thranduil was certain he would, which meant that if Doriath would be destroyed, it was not by the dragon – and that in turn meant there was no hurry to leave. This would buy him time to persuade his father, and hopefully he would be able to bring both him and Aerneth to safety.
However, when Thranduil opened the door to his home, he walked right into a heated argument.
“…not going to let you ruin mine or my son’s only chance to the throne for absolutely no reason!” Oropher’s face was pale as ash except for two crimson spots on his cheeks.
“You’re a power-hungry tyrant! For years, you have terrorised your family, and if Thranduil is unhappy the fault is yours, and only yours!” Aerneth stood opposite to him, her jaw stubbornly set and her shoulders squared.
The scene reminded Thranduil of Niënor and the dragon the other day, but his wife was far from dazed; her eyes sparkled with anger.
“How dare you imply that I…” Orpher suddenly noticed Thranduil in the doorway, and broke off. “You are back! Good. You need to discipline your obnoxious wife!”
“Oh, you did that quite well on your own,” she sneered, absentmindedly rubbing her cheek. Thranduil’s stomach churned when he saw how swollen it was.
“Father, how could you!” he hissed, closing the distance between them and taking Aerneth in his arms. She allowed it, but her body was stiff and her back straight as a young tree.
“I didn't mean to hit her, but you have to know what she has done! During your absence, she has gone behind both my back and yours, conspiring with several important people in the city to rebel against the king. Even if we stay, there will not be much of a kingdom left to rule if she has her way!”
“Oh, I will have my way, Father,” Aerneth spat. “This is already in motion, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. We will leave this sinking ship, and we’ll do it tomorrow!” She turned to look at Thranduil, her gaze sharp. “You should come too. For once, let go of that toxic ellon and follow your heart.” Her countenance softened slightly. “I came to Doriath to warn you. The only reason I stayed in Nargothrond with an army of orcs on their way, was the knowledge that my husband was here, unaware of the impending disaster. I did it for you.”
Thranduil looked from her to his father and back again, feeling torn in halves.
“I’ve had enough of you both,” growled Oropher. “Do as you please, son; abandon me if you will. See if I care.” He stomped upstairs.
“I’m going to bed,” said Aerneth curtly. “Let me know when you have made up your mind.” And then she was gone as well.
Shakily, Thranduil sat in one of the chairs and poured himself a glass of wine. This was not the reception he had hoped for.
The hours went by, and he remained motionless, not even touching the wine. Again and again he poured over the alternatives. To leave – or to stay. To abandon his father – or his wife.
He recalled the last time he had left Oropher, shuddering at how devastated the ellon had been, and how poorly he had managed on his own. Thranduil knew the same would happen again. And then Oropher’s aspirations to the throne would come to naught, for who would put a wrecked ellon in charge; one who could not even run his own home? If his father was to become king, he needed Thranduil by his side.
But how could he allow Aerneth to leave alone on a dangerous journey south, with a dragon lurking not far away and the woods full of orcs? And even if she survived, he would be separated from her again just when they had become reunited.
Besides, Doriath would fall; he was not so foolish as to think the visions of Queen Melian and Ulmo false. What if he was caught in the kingdom’s ruin and killed? Or what if he survived, but was taken captive and brought to Angband to become a thrall like poor Gwindor? Bile rose in his throat at the memory of the ellon’s grisly wound, where he had been forced to chop his own hand off to escape the torture and plight of Morgoth’s mines.
If Oropher managed what he intended and became king, perhaps they could escape Doriath before it was too late? Then they could travel to the Mouths of Sirion, and found a new kingdom there, and Thranduil could move in with his wife…
Who was he trying to deceive? If he let go of Aerneth now, choosing his father over her – and knowing all the risks she took to come and warn him, at that – she would never take him back. Such a betrayal would have been hard to forgive even for a normal, loving couple; the way things were between Thranduil and Aerneth, it would be impossible.
He sighed. There was simply no good option; whatever he chose, he would lose someone dear to him.
Shortly before dawn Aerneth padded into the room on silent feet, and sat down in the chair next to his. Her cheek looked horrible now; puffy and tinted with blue, and he reached out to stroke it softly.
“I am sorry he did that,” he murmured.
She shrugged. “He doesn’t frighten me, and I can take pain.”
He did not reply. His finger strayed to her hair, and he pushed a strand of it behind her pointed ear.
“You have made up your mind,” she stated. Not angrily; she looked quite calm. A bit like himself when he hid his feelings.
Something flickered across her eyes and he could see her swallow. She knew what he had chosen.
“I still love you,” she said.
“I love you too.” Tears were burning behind his eyelids now, but he knew his face showed no emotion.
“Keep in touch.” Her voice was steady. “At least then, I know if… when it happens.”
“Well, then.” She took his still untouched glass from the table and emptied it. “I had better go packing. Goodbye, Oropherion.”
He let his mask fall, and allowed his face to convey exactly what he felt at that moment. “Goodbye, Aerneth.”
Her eyes grew blank, and she bent forward to give him a chaste kiss on his lips. She tasted wine.
“Goodbye, Thranduil,” she whispered.
Not long afterwards, Aerneth left Doriath with Galadriel, Celeborn, Amroth, and many others, never to return.
But Thranduil stayed with his father.
Translations: Círdaniell = Círdan’s daughter, Oropherion = Oropher’s son.
Ah… more sadness. Sorry about that… Also sorry for the long delay. This is a busy time of year for a teacher, and because of the effort it takes to write each chapter (what with all Silmarillion research etc) I tend to prioritize my other ongoing work, such as my popular Cat of the Fellowship (which is not posted here because 'Modern woman in Middle-earth stories' apparently are not allowed).
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