The rest of the elves’ journey into Mirkwood passed like a dream for Thranduil Elvenking. He rode upon a borrowed steed, (for his own dear elk Bregopôd had given his life in battle.) Though his eyes were open, he saw nothing of the green trees which fluttered their leaves for him, nor the swift rivers which thundered and crashed and sparkled, (for all things in the Greenwood desired the attention of their king.) He had only eyes for the White Gems of Lasgalen, which lay sparkling across his palm.
When first the hobbit had brought them forth, it seemed to Thranduil he had strayed into a dream. This could not be! For had not Thorin Oakenshield made much of refusing to return the gems? When Thorin’s cousin Dain, new-crowned King Under the Mountain, had presented Thranduil with a single emerald, (though it was flawless and large as an eagle’s egg,) he had understood it as a slight; a way for the dwarven king to seem magnanimous whilst still withholding that which was the cause of so much enmity between his tribe and Thranduil’s. Accepting the emerald, and the slight, had felt to Thranduil like atonement.
But now, what was he to think? The White Gems of Lasgalen were once more in his possession, but they brought him no joy; rather the sight of them burned his heart like dragonfire. In his mind, Thranduil returned to the days before his wife had died, when first he had commissioned the dwarven gemsmiths to make for him an ornament worthy of the queen of the elves. The necklace was to have been a gift to her at the birth of their second child, whom Thranduil had foreseen was to be a daughter.
Such plans the Elvenking had had for them both! He turned the necklace over in his hands, admiring its delicate silver filigree; its flowers made of pearls; its silver leaves, and dainty dragonflies whose wings were diamonds. So delicate was the work that the dragonflies seemed to flutter their wings, the flowers’ pearl petals to move in the breeze.
The work was flawless, but it was what it represented that pained him, for in it lay all his happiness symbolized. His daughter would he have named after the jeweled dragonfly; his son was Legolas, the green-leaf; and his wife the flowers, the everlasting spring of Thranduil’s heart. But the heart which had been so full then, now echoed with empty memory. Though Legolas still lived, he had left the Mirkwood, perhaps forever. As for Thranduil’s queen, she had never worn the jewels; for she and their unborn daughter had perished under the foul fingers of the orcs of Gundabad.
As token of her death, the orcs had sent him her hand, still bearing its wedding band.
At the sight of it Thranduil had been consumed by the fire of a terrible wrath, the memory of which still haunted him. In rage had he led his people against the Gundabad orcs, destroying them so entirely it would stunt the might of Morgoth in the region for centuries to come. The red towers of Gundabad had run black with orc blood; Thranduil himself had dismembered the orc lord there, and strung his headless torso above the battlements for the sport of crows. So fiercely had he fought, so terrible was his might, that his own people named him Alagoroth, the Storm of Rage, and all gave way before him.
And when his rage was utterly spent? Then grief came upon him in a wave fit to drown, for there was nothing left of his queen even to bury. In grief had Thranduil returned to his halls, and in grief struck the name of the Elvenqueen from the records, hidden all images of her face, and forbidden her name to be spoken, for even to hear it was a lance through his bleeding heart. But he had caused a great statue of her likeness to be built, and this he placed at the gates of the wood itself, so that all who entered his kingdom might remember her beauty. And for decades thereafter, Thranduil left not his halls, tending to his duties by rote and finding no joy in the turning of the seasons. So deep was his sorrow his people named him Aran Cilnaeth, King of Depthless Grief, and all were silent before him.
There was no healing for him, for it was the great elvish curse that they should love only once. Yet for Thranduil was there one ray of light remaining in the darkness of his heart: Legolas, who had escaped from Gundabad and been returned home by his father’s soldiers. Legolas, who was still but a child of forty-five, and so traumatized by the torments he had witnessed that for a while he knew neither friend nor foe, but lay as though undead within the Healing Halls of Lasgalen.
It was for love of Legolas that Thranduil had returned to his right mind. For Legolas’ sake had he hardened his heart against the Elvenqueen’s memory, and begun to live again. It had been that love which barred Thranduil from speaking of Legolas’ mother to him, for fear that reminding him of her might awaken memories of Gundabad; and so the king had said only that the queen had died there, and Legolas grew to maturity never knowing that it had been for his sake she had perished.
He had striven so to protect Legolas that somewhere along the way he had begun to hold too tightly. So fierce and harsh had had his heart become that its very love had driven Legolas away.
Here again have I failed! Thranduil's face betrayed none of his thoughts, a cold mask of elvish beauty; but inside, how he mourned! For his son, his life, his heart! Had chosen to wander the wilds rather than return to Thranduil’s halls. (That the larger part of Legolas’ decision to leave had been the loss of Tauriel’s love to the dwarf lord Kili, Thranduil’s own guilt would not yet allow him to admit. He saw only his own flaws, his own mistakes.)
A child needs to hear of his mother, Thranduil chastised himself. I could have told him of her bravery, her kindness, her clever mind and how her laugh was more beautiful than birdsong. I could have taken him to view her statue. I could have reminded him that she loved him. I should have.
It was in this somber mood that the king arrived at his front gates, and was startled to see a visitor awaiting him.
Thranduil stopped abruptly, halfway across the white stone bridge spanning the river that separated the king’s halls from the rest of the Greenwood. Before him stood one of the great white elk, whose like was not to be seen outside of the northernmost peaks of the Ered Mithrin. The animal stood over twenty hands high, not counting the rack of antlers which stretched above his noble brow like the branches of a young tree; and perched upon his back was a figure shrouded in a dark, hooded cloak.
Immediately, Thranduil’s honor guard was on alert, drawing bows and blades against the potential threat. A brief gesture from the king bade them relax their weapons. For a moment, the king regarded the elk and the elk, the king. Finally, Thranduil spoke.
“Í ná hen?” Who is this?
The figure, who had seemed to be slumped over in the saddle asleep, raised its head. Though its face was concealed within the deep shadow of its hood, this is what Thranduil perceived with his elf eyes: a lady, small of stature with sharp, fine features, a rounded nose and generous mouth, gazing upon him in startlement.
“Heruin,” said Thranduil curiously, “for what reason do you block the path into the halls of the Elvenking?”
The lady blinked. “I am come to offer aid unto mighty Thranduil and his people, my lord.”
“Indeed?” He raised one dark eyebrow. “And does the Elvenking look to your coming with pleasure?”
“That I do not know, my lord,” replied the lady, “for I gave him no notice of it.”
“Then you are not a guest of his?”
“I hope to be so.”
Thranduil considered this. “Is the Elvenking so known for his hospitality, that anyone may come a-begging to his table?”
The lady shifted in her saddle. “I would not know, as I come not a-begging, sir.”
“Then why have you come?”
“Forgive me, but of that I wish to speak with his majesty alone.”
“Well then speak!” Cried he. “For I am Thranduil Oropherion, King of the Greenwood elves, returned to my halls this day.”
The lady froze, then dropped her head briefly. “Forgive me, your majesty, for not recognizing you immediately. I am come to offer healing to those of your people who have been injured in battle.”
Of all the possible excuses, this was not one Thranduil could have predicted. “For what reason might you think my people well in need?” he asked.
“Since your majesty’s own healer was done to death by goblins in the Battle of the Five Armies,” she replied.
The king’s hands tightened upon the reins. “Í ná de firieth, that you know such intimacies of my court?”
“One who survived the desolation of Laketown, and the goblin armies at Dale,” she replied. “One who has seen much, and knows much of suffering. One who may help.”
“Enough,” Thranduil said, his voice no less commanding for its gentleness. “Our gratitude for your altruism, my lady, but we have no need. Stay here until dawn if you wish, then make your way to the borders of my kingdom.”
The lady stiffened. “Ah,” she said softly. “This, then, is the legendary courtesy of the elves.”
Not long ago, a dwarf had said a similar thing, with a similar tone. Thranduil felt his skin tighten. “I owe you nothing, for you have given me nothing; no human medicine may heal an elven injury.”
The lady put up one small brown hand and pulled back her hood, revealing bright green eyes and small, delicately pointed ears.
“What about an elf’s?” she asked.
A ripple of reaction spread through the ranks of Thranduil’s army, for an elf’s eyes can see at great distances; and even those who were at no angle to see could hear the maiden speak to the king. Thranduil suppressed a wince, for elves were loquacious by nature; in an hour every elf in the Greenwood would hear of the elf-maiden who had defied a king, and the king who had not recognized one of his own.
First the Gems of Lasgalen, and now this! Thranduil’s stomach turned over; he felt suddenly every one of his near seven thousand years. Had he not just fought a minor war? Had he not, only these very days past, made peace with the dwarves, a peace which would have been unheard of even a moon ago? Had he not lost soldiers, had he not lost his son? Did he not deserve even a moment’s rest?
Thousands of years of good breeding saved him from an embarrassing outburst. A smile stretched over his face, cold and sure.
“If you are an elf, then you are welcome in my halls regardless of what you offer, for I am king to all.” Thranduil kneed his horse forward, experiencing a momentary satisfaction when the much larger elk instinctively made way. The filigreed metal doors swung open and the king passed within, refusing to look at the maiden, as if to deny she was the inconvenience he felt sure she would become.
“I offer you my hospitality,” he threw back over his shoulder, “and a place at my table.”
“And an audience?” The elf-maiden called.
His stomach churned again. He wanted a bath, and wine, and to forget that he might never again meet his son. But he was king, and he had a duty to his people.
And so he said only, “As you wish, elleth.”
A bare hour had gone when Thranduil, freshly bathed and dressed in silk robes the color of polished mistletoe berries, seated himself upon his throne. With all of time stretching before them, it was not in the nature of elves to move quickly; yet they were capable of speed. Thranduil had thought very quickly in that short span, and now felt himself ready to face this strange elf-maiden.
He nodded to a guard, and a moment later the elf-maiden was brought before him. She, too, had been bathed, though her own clean garments were far poorer cloth than Thranduil had yet seen an elf don. Combined with her outland hair, (worn braided and wound tightly about her head rather than loose and flowing as befit an elvish maiden,) and impertinent temper, Thranduil was convinced he had solved the riddle of this strange she-elf.
He gazed down upon her as she offered him courtesy. “It is unusual,” he said in his smooth, calm way, “for a lord of the Sindar to be unable to recognize elven blood from less than fifty paces.”
The lady cocked her head slightly. “Perhaps your majesty was weary from battle and sorrow."
“Perhaps. And perhaps it was because you are peredhel, and the blood of the Eldar runs too weakly in your veins to detect.”
She stiffened, but did not deny his claim.
“So.” Thranduil relaxed, satisfied. “Half-elven, which explains much. Who are you, Half-Elf, and from whence do you hail?”
The lady closed her eyes briefly. “My name is Illyrea, and I was born in Dale in the year of the Long Winter. My mother was Reanen Haladin, a mortal lady of noble blood whose forefathers were named elf-friend.”
“Well do I remember the House of Haleth,” the king replied coolly. “Well do I recall that all were slain in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad in the First Age, some three thousand years ago.”
“Well may your majesty recall a falsehood,” Illyrea countered. “Though I am not surprised; for history lauds often the deeds of men, but rarely the lives of their women. Seven families of the Brethil survived that war and fled across Beleriand, where they joined other nations of men. Then did they vow to name their descendants ever after ‘Haladin’, that the memory of their fathers would not fade from the earth.”
“A pretty tale,” Thranduil said, gazing thoughtfully at her. Her skin was tawny, hair dark and eyes as green as beryls, as was common among the blood of Brethil. And yet, could their line truly have survived through so many centuries? Perhaps; who knows what these Men choose to do with themselves?
She did resemble the Haladin more than the Sindar or Noldor elves, he supposed, chiefly because of her size. She was very small, though not stocky as a dwarf, nor childlike as a hobbit.
Petite, he decided. It was as though Ilùvatar himself had carved out a perfect elf, but in miniature. Though the curve of breast and hip were far rounder than any decent elf-maiden would allow, Thranduil was not displeased by it. Were it not for the ears, he would have called her an exceptional specimen of human beauty.
But he had taken too long to respond. “And your father? I know of no elf lords who have wedded mortal women within the last two centuries, so be not afraid to admit you do not know him.” This he said smoothly, allowing the lady to infer insult if she so chose.
The lady so chose, and drew herself up to her full, if substandard, height. “Well do I know my father, as I was raised by his hand after the passing of my mother. I also know somewhat of the nature of elves, though I admit to being influenced by hearsay.”
The king found himself amused; what a fiery sprite she was! “Oh?”
“For example, I have heard much of the kindness of elven hearts.”
“And you find this to be a false telling, I gather?" If Thranduil possessed a flaw of character, it was his mercurial temper. Had he not known himself to be pure-blooded Sindaran, he might have suspected descendance from the fiery Feänor himself. Just now he felt his amusement deepen into anger. "Have I not given you the freedom of my house, and a place at my table?”
“With ill-grace and many hard terms,” Illyrea agreed. “I could spot your condescension were I blind as a human in a moon-dark night, even were you not sat upon that great mountain of a throne!”
Thranduil gripped the arms of his throne. “I sit here that I might clearly look upon my subjects, and they on me.”
“You mean that you might clearly look down upon them,” the lady muttered, then shook her head. “O Great King, forgive me. I have been too long without rest or food, for I have traveled night and day to greet you upon your return.”
“Ah yes, your selfless offer of help. Tell me, Haladrin’s daughter, why should you wish to help me? Surely not some misplaced loyalty from your human ancestors?”
To his surprise, the lady grinned. “Human memory is far too weak for that. No, I come because you need me. This I have foreseen.”
Now he was startled. Though ostensibly a gift all elvenkind possessed, true foresight was mostly restricted to the noblest of elvish bloodlines. And yet the lady spoke with such confidence, as though others of her visions had come to pass.
Rising from his antlered throne, the Elvenking paced silently down the curving steps until he stood before this most perplexing guest. She straightened, bringing the top of her head in line with his chest.
Not quite as small as a hobbit or a dwarf, he decided. But not near as tall as a true elf.
Slowly he bent at the waist until he was looking her in the eye; and with the gift of his grace, looked into her soul. Now, stronger elves than she had been unable to match the Elvenking’s piercing blue gaze. But though Illyrea trembled to her toes, she did not look away.
Finally, Thranduil blinked and stood back. “I believe you,” he said. “So your vision says you are needed here, but as what? Surely not as a healer! You have heard the phrase, 'Ú ben sui alwara i Nestaron'?” There is none so useless as an Elven Healer. “Of what value is a healer to a people who are never ill?”
For the first time, Illyrea looked uncertain. “Well, but...but there are more ways to death and injury than illness!”
“And you would know the cures?” he scoffed. “You are but two centuries old, a mere child!”
The little elf drew back her shoulders. “Perhaps here, but not in the human world. Nor am I one to sit idly by, playing a lute while the seasons pass! Every day of my life has been devoted to my calling, and I am quite learned enough for the purpose.”
The king merely turned away, unconvinced.
“Wait!" She reached out a hand, but stopped short of touching his sleeve. "Let us make a wager, then!”
Thranduil paused. “Of what sort?”
“Take me to your most grievously wounded warrior, and let me try to heal him. If I succeed, but grant me a place in your house and access to your libraries, and I will study until renown of the healing halls of Mirkwood is spread across all Middle-Earth.”
Now both the king’s eyebrows rose. “A kingly prize, indeed. And should you fail?”
The lady caught her breath. “Er, what...what would you have of me?”
Clasping hands behind his back, the Elvenking paced the floor beneath his throne, deep in thought. Finally, he turned to her. “Here is what I shall wager: should you heal my most terribly injured soldier, I will give you a place in my house, and seat you with all honor at my table as the healer of Lasgalen.” He stressed the name, preferring that his kingdom be called Greenwood. “In return, you will pledge to me your life, and obey me in all things.
“But! If you should fail, you shall still pledge me your life,” he smiled coldly, “to dispose of as I will.”
For a moment, she could not speak. “And what...what is your Majesty’s will?”
“I have not yet decided,” Thranduil purred. “Perhaps I shall keep you on as chambermaid, or to serve in the kitchens? But perhaps,” he paused. “Perhaps in failing to save my subject it will seem to me as though you have killed him yourself. In which case I shall have you executed for murder.”
The king paced around her in feline delight. “Does this suit you, my lady? Or are the stakes of such a a little wager too much for your human heart?” He leaned close. “Perhaps you should flee the Greenwood while you can,” he murmured in her ear.
She shuddered delicately. “I will do it,” she said, though her voice was high and breathless.
He stepped back. “As you wish. Now tell me, who is your father?”
"That I shall not reveal, for well I know the passions of elves. I should not like to be discounted or distrusted because at some time, long before my birth, you quarreled with my father.”
“Have I?” The king asked interestedly.
“Not to my knowledge, but better to be safe.” Again, she risked looking him in the eye. “I would have you take me as I am, my lord.”
“And so I shall,” Thranduil promised. “You have my word that should you win our little wager, your place here will be assured no matter your kin-ties. But in return, I will know your father’s name.”
“As you wish, my lord. After I win.”
Thranduil shook his head, fair silken hair whispering across his broad shoulders. What a difficult child! How delightfully distracting her arrival had turned out to be. “Very well, lady. After. Follow me, if you please.”
And if she loses? I shall have it from her still, He promised himself. Before her death.