Of What Might Have Been, And What Might Still Be
“You would steal from me?”
“You have changed, Thorin. The dwarf I met in Bag End would never have gone against his word…”
“Would never have doubted the loyalty of his kin!”
“Do not speak to me of loyalty!”
“The place is surrounded… our kin are dying out there!”
“Let them die… life is cheap… but the treasure of this mountain… can not be counted in the lives lost… it is worth all the blood we can spend…”
“You are changed… changed…”
“I do not recognise you anymore…”
“I AM YOUR KING!”
Dragon Sickness is not an easy thing to cure. But neither is a lethal stab wound to the abdomen caused by an Orkish blade.
Fight on, brave Oakenshield, loyal King Under The Mountain.
The battle field was a mess.
A horrible, bloody mess, with the cold bodies of brave warriors lying silently side by side, forever gone, and never drawing breath again. The metallic stench of blood wafted over the endless plains, and it was silent. Oh, so silent.
Where only moments ago screams had echoed, screams of war and desperation, yells of sadness and pugnacity – there now was only silence. A dreadful, crushing quiet in which you could only hear your own heart beat. Being alive is a rare thing, something that should be treasured, and it is only in moments like this, faced with death and suffering and defeat, that one realises how grateful one should be. There is air flowing through healthy lungs, a strong heart in the ribcage, and blood hot in the veins.
A lone figure walked over the field, carefully treading, boring his way through the fallen soldiers of Dwarves and Elves and Men. From time to time he bent low, brushing his pale fingers over the even paler faces of his people, closing their eyes gently, saying good-bye.
The cold wind blew strong and biting, tousling his long hair, making him shiver, but he did not care. He suffered, in silence, as it was appropriate for a king.
His blue eyes roamed over the battle field, and whenever the sun appeared behind a cloud rolling by, it shone down on golden armour, blinking and glittering in the sunlight. So many dead. Too many dead. He did not know how many he lost this day, but he did know that these were his friends, his people, his loyal subjects. And he had failed to protect them.
A groan behind him made him turn around. One of his warriors was still alive, but barely, a huge red splotch prominent on his otherwise spotless armour, and a thin trickle of blood emerged from his neck. “M'lord,” he groaned weakly, his voice dry and throaty. “Please.” He tried to extend a trembling hand, and the king took the cue, quickly kneeling down next to the man.
The king recognised him as one of the loyal captains of his guard, a high-ranking Silvan elf by the name of Arphen, who had been a reliable and trustworthy companion when they had still been in Mirkwood. Before the battle. Before their doom.
“Mellon,” the king uttered quietly and saw a smile tugging at the solider’s bloodied mouth. “It is over now. You have fought well.”
A cough rumbled through Arphen’s body as his eyes turned to gaze at his king. “Guren linna le cened, aran nîn.” Even so close to his death the elf did not fail to acknowledge him, and there was a bright flicker of hope in his eyes. “Tell me, did we win?”
The king chuckled darkly and closed his eyes. “There was nothing to be won, sadron. In the end, it was not our fight.” A strand of his blond hair brushed the side of his face as the wind grew stronger and he pushed it back behind his ear. “We did what we could. And I thank you for what you have done.” The king placed a gentle hand on Arphen’s cheek, wiping his thumb over his cheekbone gently in a grateful manner. There was nothing he could do for this brave elf, except for being there during his last minutes in Middle-earth.
Arphen swallowed hard. “I am glad to see you alive and well, my king,” he muttered. “I had feared… you might not be.” He coughed again.
The Elven-king smiled sadly. He did not like being alive when so many of his people had died. He did not think it fair, and the pain he felt at his loss was hard to endure.
“My lord,” Arphen spoke again, and the king could see that he was growing weaker by the second. “I have one last request. It might not be appropriate for me to ask you for a favour as big as this, but I do not want this fight to have been for nothing.”
The king tilted his head, a silent gesture for Arphen to continue. Who was he that could deny a brave soldier his last wish?
“Speak to the Dwarven king,” Arphen pleaded. “We fought his battle, we fought for his mountain. This blood-shed must have had a reason. Forge a new alliance between our two people, my king, and let the death of our people have an honourable meaning.”
At the mention of Thorin, son of Thrór, son of Thráin, rightful King Under The Mountain, the Elven-king felt a cold shiver run down his spine. Many a feud stood between Dwarves and Elves, two people who could not be more different.
But he did not have time to think about Arphen’s wish for he began shaking violently, his elegant lips turning blue, and his eyes were staring aimlessly ahead, not quite seeing, not quite blind. “My lord, are you here?” he asked, and the Elven-king grasped his hand. And with his last breath, Arphen uttered, “Navaer, hîr vuin Thranduil.”
And he, too, was gone.
Thranduil could not hold back a hot tear rolling down his bruised cheek. He had lost another of his people, had witnessed his death, and his heart sank with grief. He reached out to close Arphen’s eyes gently and touched his brow to Arphen’s to bid him farewell. “Posto vae,” he whispered. “Guren nallatha nalú achenin le.”
He sat back on his heels, staying at Arphen’s side for a while longer, while the wind kept blowing and the sun kept shining and the world kept turning, and it occurred to Thranduil that this pain of loss and loneliness was not known to other folks in Middle-earth. There were people who had no knowledge about the battle that had taken place not too long ago. He was alone on the field, amidst thousands of dead men. People that had families, that had wishes and dreams and hopes, and now they were gone.
And Thranduil knew that the remaining people needed to find their hope again, their lust for life, their happiness – at all costs.
Arphen’s words were still present in his thoughts, and the Elven-king realised that his last wish had been a wise one. Strengthening their relationship with the Dwarves would help the Elves rebuild their own realms, and an alliance both in battle and in trade would ensure a proper standard of living for both folks. And if that meant that Thranduil had to speak to Thorin, then he was willing to do so – for his people.
He knew it would be a difficult endeavour. The Dwarven King was stubborn and proud, and he had never quite forgiven Thranduil for refusing to help him when the dragon came and claimed Erebor. And when he and his company fell prisoner to Thranduil during their quest to reclaim their homeland, Thorin had not been silent about his opinion, denying help and insulting the Elven-king.
But there had been times that Thranduil still remembered fondly. Times when both had been younger, Thorin a prince still, and Thranduil had paid regular visits to Erebor and Thrór to discuss relations and trades, times when the King Under The Mountain had often been a royal guest to the Woodland Realm. Thorin had not been so repellent in those days gone by; he and the Elven-king had shared many an intelligent and friendly conversation about politics and music and stars.
With his heart fluttering in his chest at these joyful memories from happier times, Thranduil took Arphen’s hand in his again and pressed a kiss of thanks to the cold fingertips before rising and slowly making his way towards the healing tents that stood in front of the gates of Erebor.
“It is Meren Nuin Giliath tonight,” Thranduil whispered reverently as he stepped onto the balcony of the guest’s chamber in the Woodland Realm. He turned slowly to eye his royal guest, Thorin, who had arrived with his father and grandfather earlier that day. “The Feast of Starlight.”
The Dwarf nodded, tilting his head politely to indicate interest. “It seems my family and I have chosen a particularly convenient day to arrive, then. I expect lots of food and ale to be served.”
Thranduil chuckled. “Indeed. Though I doubt you will find our food pleasing, my Lord. I have heard that Dwarves are very fond of meat. The wine, however, could be to your liking.”
“That will suffice,” Thorin retorted. “I will need to get drunk so I can endure the presence of elves.” That snide remark was delivered with a smile, and Thranduil knew Thorin did not mean it. They had known each other for a while, both finding the other’s company enjoyable, and the constant teasing was just a mere pastime. They respected each other, very much so.
“So, the Feast you spoke of, Uzbadê,” Thorin continued. “What is its purpose, its meaning?”
Thranduil moved the fingers of his hand to beckon Thorin closer, and as he stepped out onto the balcony as well, Thranduil gracefully moved to stand behind him. “Look up at the sky, Prince Thorin,” he muttered. “Watch the stars. Allow yourself to be engulfed by their beauty.” Following an impulse, he rested both his hands on the Dwarf’s shoulders and was not met with a complaint. “All light is loved by the Eldar, but Wood Elves such as us love the light of the stars the best. And tonight, they will shine brighter than ever before, each century their light descends upon us with ethereal beauty and warmth, and that sacred night is tonight.”
Thorin hummed appreciatively. “That sounds lovely indeed, my Lord. Will my family and I be allowed to attend as well?” He turned around to face the Elven-king, eyes widening a fraction, surprised at how close they stood.
Thranduil tilted his head. “Of course. You are our treasured guests, and we would like nothing better than to show you the wondrous and magical glow of tonight’s festivities.”
Thorin opened his mouth to reply, but seemed to think better of it, furrowed his brow and hesitated a moment before answering, “Le channon.” He did not meet Thranduil’s eyes after having uttered a Thank-You in Elvish but stared at the ground, fingers clenching at his sides.
Thranduil stood and blinked at the Dwarf in front of him, taken aback by his answering in the Elven-king’s language. “You are most welcome, Thorin,” he said softly, a smile playing around his lips, and finally, Thorin looked up at him. “May I ask why you decided to study my language?”
“I merely did not wish to be rude, my Lord.” Thorin smiled up at him. “I have always found the Elvish language to be intriguing, such as their king. I’m a curious by nature, you see.”
Something warm unfurled in Thranduil’s chest at these words, though he did not know what it was at the time. He simply nodded in acknowledgement, gnawing softly at the inside of his cheek before he spoke again. “My prince Thorin, it would be an honour if you were to accompany me to the Feast tonight.”
He extended an arm for Thorin to take, and during seemingly endless moments in which Thorin just looked at him, Thranduil’s heart beat faster, so fast that he feared it might break his chest asunder. But then Thorin smiled, and a small but strong arm wrapped around Thranduil’s, and together they left for the Great Hall in which the festivities took place that night.
As Thranduil stepped into the large healing tent at the foot of the mountain, three pairs of eyes blinked up to look at him but quickly focused back on the patient in front of them. A dwarf lay on a cot, moaning and writhing in pain as the healers did their best to restore his health, mend his broken bones and close his cuts. Thranduil carefully stepped closer to look at the poor man, exhaling in relief as he saw it was not Thorin.
He enquired after the King Under The Mountain and was directed to the rear of the tent, and with his hand pressed above his heart, Thranduil made his way towards Thorin’s bed. He was not surprised to see Bilbo Baggins, the brave little Hobbit, standing there and he approached quietly and respectfully.
“Master Baggins,” he mumbled as to not scare the Hobbit, yet Bilbo did flinch at the unexpected intruder, but smiled and greeted him politely.
“King Thranduil.” Then his eyes turned back to look at the still from in front of him, covered by a thick duvet.
“May I come closer?” Thranduil asked and stepped forward when Bilbo nodded.
“He’s not going to fall apart because of your presence,” the Hobbit said with a chuckle and Thranduil admired him for having kept his humour in dark times like this.
He looked at Thorin with worry evident on his face, taking in the severe battle wounds he carried, the scratches and bruises and cuts covering his serious, striking face. His hair, usually braided, was now unruly and dusty, matted and greyer than before. “Is he alive?” he asked, his throat tight, and tears burning in his eyes for a reason he did not know.
Again, Bilbo nodded. “Of course he is. The healers have done marvellous work, it’s a miracle I daresay.” He looked at the Elven-king with a frown on his face. “He survived a stabbing wound that would have been mortal had anyone else received it. He is a strong and stubborn Dwarf. If he does not want to leave this world, he doesn’t.”
A sad laugh escaped Thranduil’s throat. “Yes. He truly is stubborn.” He let his gaze roam over Thorin’s face again, so peaceful now that he was asleep. No sign of pain or worry showed on his features, he was relaxed, and it reminded Thranduil of the time when they had still been friends.
“I assume you wish you stay with him alone,” Bilbo muttered. “I will leave you to it. You have a lot to discuss, after all.”
“Wait.” Thranduil gently grabbed the Hobbit’s wrist. “He is not going to wake anytime soon, is he?”
Bilbo shrugged, a helpless expression on his face. “No-one knows. He might, he might never again. He is in a very dangerous state now, the healers said. Let us pray for the best.”
Thranduil nodded and Bilbo turned to leave again. Before he did, however, he placed a small hand on the Elven-king’s shoulder. “If he does wake, though, truly talk to him, Thranduil. Be honest. Explain, make him understand. I have spoken to him a lot, about his past. One name came up, over and over again.” As Thranduil lowered his eyes, he felt Bilbo squeeze his shoulder. “He has not forgotten you.” And with that, he left.
Thranduil was left staring after the little Hobbit who seemed to know so much, so much more about the world they all lived in. The Hobbit who had stolen the Arkenstone, and used it in such a clever manner. The Hobbit who had bravely confronted a dragon, who had fought against orcs and wargs, who had stolen the keys and helped the company escape from Thranduil’s dungeons. And he was only a little Halfling from the peaceful Shire so far, far away.
Bilbo was not afraid. He confronted danger and fear and uncomfortable situations – and Thranduil decided to take some strength from that.
He looked at Thorin who was still fast asleep, and softly brushed the back of his hand over his arm. “When you wake,” he promised, “we will talk.”
Once, talking had come so easy to them. So long ago. Why should it not be the same still? Thranduil hoped, and he remembered.
He had never expected the night to turn out the way it did.
Thranduil and Thorin had a jolly time at the Feast, and the Dwarf got on surprisingly well with the other Elves, charming them with his knowledge of their language. He did enjoy the food, and especially the wine, which pleased Thranduil immensely since he had pressed and produced it himself.
All evening, Thorin shot him hidden glances or soft smiles only meant for him, and Thranduil’s heart began to flutter anew each time. It was a feeling that he had felt once, long ago, when he married his wife, but it had gone when she passed away. Elves only love once in their lives, Thranduil had been taught, but his reaction to the Dwarf’s presence was making him question that.
“My Lord,” Thorin said as he approached him with a second glass of wine. “I have hardly seen you drink all evening. Have you, by any chance, poisoned the wine and are you now avoiding to drink it?” A playful smile tugged at his lips and Thranduil replied in kind.
“Indeed I have not, my Prince,” he said, “I just merely did not have the time to take a sip. Being a king can be awfully stressful.”
Thorin drained his glass. “Well. I know what I am looking forward to, then.”
Thranduil patted his shoulder. “You will make a wonderful king, I am sure of it.”
With a tilt of his head, Thorin thanked him. “How long will it be until the stars are coming out in their full beauty?” he asked, and Thranduil angled his head to look at the firmament above them.
“Not too much longer,” he answered, standing up. “Let me show you the best place to watch them.”
Thorin happily took the offer, and after refilling their glasses, he followed the Elven-king up some stairs and up, up, up, high into the tree tops. Thranduil led him to a small patio in one of the tree crowns where they sat down and watched the sky in companionable silence.
Soon, it began: the stars started to glow so bright and warm that Thorin gasped out “M’imnu Durin” in awe, their light illuminating the mighty Greenwood and beyond. From below, beautiful Elvish music echoed up to their place high up in the air, chatter and song and laughter mixing with the traditional tunes.
And for once, maybe for the first time in his life, Thranduil found himself not looking at the stars but at the Dwarf next to him, at his features softened by the glow, his eyes gleaming, his mouth opened in an amazed smile, and he looked so happy. That was the time when Thranduil felt his heart was about to explode, and he knew for certain what this was, why he was so drawn to Thorin, though of course, he did not dare act on it. He did not even know if Thorin felt the same.
As if on cue, Thorin turned his head, caught Thranduil staring, but smiled fondly instead of getting angry. He raised his glass and touched it to Thranduil’s with a soft clink. “Here’s to you, my King. May your beauty never falter and your trees be always green.”
With trembling hands and shaky voice, Thranduil toasted Thorin as well. “And to your health, my Prince. May your axe be ever sharp and your beard as soft as silk.”
Thorin smiled at that and drank, and so did Thranduil, and the rest of the Feast they spent up in the tree tops, sitting close to each other, chatting away, stealing looks and exchanging soft smiles and chaste touches.
They were an odd pair, a Dwarf and an Elf, but that night they knew there was something more to their friendship.
Something deeper, something richer.
Thranduil did not notice the tears falling down his cheeks, leaving small trails on his skin, a salty witness of his emotions he was going through. Remembering one of the most wonderful nights of his life had overwhelmed the Elven-king that usually was so distant and collected. Death and sickness all around him, and the prospect of having lost the love of his life due to his actions almost made him miss the gasp coming from the person on the cot next to him.
Thorin was waking up, slowly, but he was coming back, and Thranduil swirled around immediately. “Thorin,” he breathed, feeling his heart beating in his throat. “Are you well?”
Thorin drew a shaky breath before coughing once, twice. He did not answer Thranduil’s question for it was rather obvious that he was not too well. “I did not expect to see you here, my Lord Thranduil,“ he said. “What business do you have with me?”
Thranduil looked into Thorin’s face, shocked to see him so broken and sad, wounded and … lonely. Thranduil desperately wanted to reach out, grasp Thorin’s hand or cup his cheek or pull him into an embrace that would convey his grief and regret, but he held himself back. Instead, he forced himself to talk, to tell Thorin the reason why he was here. “Edewin le,” Thranduil gasped. “I have failed you, and I am sorry I did. I came to apologise, and to explain, and to possibly start anew.”
Thorin raised an eyebrow. “I do not believe that you can make up for the things you have done, elf,” he spat, and the fierce anger in his voice made Thranduil realise how betrayed Thorin must have felt when he had left him and his kin to their fate that one doomed day when Smaug attacked.
Thranduil had seen the desperation on the young Dwarf’s face, the hurt as every hope he had left crumbled when Thranduil turned his elk around and marched off with his army. No help came from the elves that day, and Thorin had never understood.
“I did intend to help,” Thranduil heard himself speak, his voice shaking and uncertain. “I truly did. I would not have had my army prepared, we did not just take a walk. We were there to help you, Thorin, you must understand.”
Thorin scoffed and looked away. His voice was heavy with hurt pride when he replied, “Yet you did not come down to help.”
“It was a dragon that attacked!” Thranduil exclaimed. “I could not risk the lives of my men for a mountain that was already lost! We would not have made a change had we fought.”
Thorin blinked. “But now you did. When it was the same situation. You risked the lives of your men now, and lots have lost theirs.”
Thranduil squeezed his eyes shut, a wave of grief rolling over him again. “Yes. Indeed. And it pains me to have lost them, but it was for a good cause.”
“Getting back your precious gems?” Thorin asked, disgust in his voice. “If that was the only reason you came to my tent, then you can leave now. Ask Balin to give them to you, and ride off. We do not need the presence of greedy elves here. Ozodl khulm!”
This time, this remark was meant to hurt. It was not a playful tease like it had been all those ages ago in the Woodland Realm. A painful pressure clenched around Thranduil’s chest and he breathed out shakily, brow furrowed in disbelief. “Thorin,” he began, “I… I never…”
The gems were important to him, yes. They had belonged to his late wife and he had meant to gift them to Legolas so that he would have a token to remember her by. But after having seen Thorin so determined and resolute, standing in Thranduil’s halls and arguing with him about the sake of his people, he had truly wanted to help this time.
Behind a mask of greed and lust for wealth, he had veiled his true desire: to help Thorin reclaim his homeland, and to maybe put the pieces of their broken friendship together again. But it had seemingly failed, and Thorin did not believe a word of what Thranduil was saying.
“I truly meant to help,” Thranduil said, a last try, a desperate one. “I formed an ally with the Men of Dale because I knew we would need as many strong warriors as we could get. I never once fought only to get back the gems.” He rubbed a hand over his face, aware of his hair falling over his face like a veil, but for once, he did not care about his appearance. “I only wish you would believe me, Thorin.” Thranduil could not help the sob that escaped his lips for he thought that all was over now, that there was no chance of fixing what they had.
But then, Thorin’s raspy voice reached his ears. “I wish I could, too.”
Thranduil’s head snapped up to see Thorin, so strong and cold, on the verge of tears. A gentleness was now evident in his features, a sadness but also hope, and it reminded Thranduil of the looks they had shared at the Feast of Starlight.
“But it is a fact that you did not help out, no matter what reasons you name,” Thorin continued, holding up a hand. “And it also is a fact that you locked me in your dungeons for trespassing, when we evidently did not mean to.”
Thranduil stayed silent. Saying that he had only wanted to protect Thorin and his company would have been a lie as he had become increasingly alert to any suspicious movement in his forest. He wanted to erase the evil in his Realm, the kingdom that had once been so beautiful. And he had been informed that Thorin and his friends had awoken the spiders once more, so it only seemed logical to him to lock them away for a while.
“And it was during Meren Nuin Giliath, too,” Thorin concluded, his voice a mere throaty whisper. “I had hoped you had remembered.”
Thranduil swallowed. So Bilbo had been right – Thorin had truly not forgotten him. He did not know what to reply, which words to offer that would make both their pain subside, that would tell them that everything might be alright between them. He did not find any, and Thorin took Thranduil’s pause in answering as a bad sign.
“You haven’t, then. Remembered, I mean.”
Thranduil groaned silently, biting his lower lip. There was so much he wanted to tell Thorin, but couldn’t, and there was that warm feeling again, the one he had felt during the Feast of Starlight, the magical, magnetic draw to the Dwarf. “Oh, I do remember, Thorin,” he whispered. “But I am afraid everything is too late now.”
“Is that so?” The question was asked with a hint of sadness tingeing Thorin’s voice as he, too, thought about what might have been. “Well then.” His features set with determination, Thorin glared at Thranduil. “We’d best end this talk now so that you can return to your kingdom.”
Thranduil tried to protest, but what could he say? He had tried to convince Thorin of his proper motivations, of his urge to help the dwarves, but not one explanation was believed. Maybe the Dwarf King was right. Maybe it was best to end things here.
“As I said,” Thorin spoke, clearing his throat, “go to Balin for the gems, ask him for a mount to take you home, and I will return this to you right this instant.” And with that, he reached behind him, drawing Orcrist from behind his cot and carefully held it out for Thranduil to take. The elf gently took it and held it in his hands, admiring the steel and the way it had been forged.
An Elvish blade had helped a Dwarfen King to reach his goal, kill his worst enemy, and bring peace over Middle-earth again – and he suddenly knew what to do.
“No,” Thranduil said with a shake of his head. “I gift this to you, King Under The Mountain. It has fallen into your hands by pure chance, but it has served you well. I have watched you fight, and you are more than worthy to carry this sword as your rightful own.” Thranduil averted his gaze, watching his fingers curl around the hilt of the sword intently. “Accept this as a present, a gift for your upcoming coronation.” He looked up, hesitant to meet Thorin’s eyes. “And as a token of my friendship.” He still held the sword in his hands, and following an impulse, he knelt beside Thorin’s bed, placing the tip of the blade against his skin.
“What are you doing?” Thorin exclaimed, but Thranduil silenced him with a shake of his head, eyes still staring at the ground.
“Hereby, I not only gift this sword to you,” Thranduil began, struggling to quickly and properly translate the Elvish loyalty oath of his people, “but I also pledge my service to you, Thorin son of Thráin. My service, my loyalty and my undying love for you and your kin. And should I ever break that promise, I swear that this blade shall pierce me, and bring me the death I deserve for parting with you.”
With weak knees, Thranduil stood back up, ignoring the awestruck look on Thorin’s face and waited for a reply.
“Dorok…,” Thorin whispered, staring at the blade that Thranduil had placed in the Dwarf’s hands again, his fingers momentarily closing tighter around it. It had become so precious to him, and to have and hold it as his own truly gave joy to him. Then, he looked up. Those blue eyes locked with Thranduil’s, looking at him, into his soul, suddenly grew so warm and soft that Thranduil feared his knees would buckle underneath him.
Thorin’s gaze awoke a warmth in him, familiar yet unknown, so different to what he had felt before. Heart beating loudly, blood rushing through his veins, he sat down on Thorin’s bed, careful not to hurt him. “Thorin,” he uttered, only his name, and nothing more.
“We could have been something good, do you agree?” Thorin asked sadly as he looked into the Elf’s eyes, thanking him for the oath and all it entailed with a gentle tilt of his head.
“We can still be,” Thranduil whispered and rested one hand on Thorin’s chest lightly. “If you want us to be.”
Thorin glanced at the hand on his body, then up into Thranduil’s face, and a smile played around his lips, a genuine and honest one, and he nodded. “I do.”
And as his hand came to rest upon Thranduil’s, they both felt it: a promise of something more, a promise of continuing where they left off, a promise of what might have been and what still will be.