Before dipping my quill into the inkwell, I reach for another strawberry and read over the unfinished letter to my sister.
I can imagine your husband did not share your enthusiasm over the arrival of the Dwarves. Poor Lindir – will he ever warm to them? Thorin Oakenshield’s company made quite the mark on him.
Was Ori among the visitors? Not a day passes when I do not open his book. It is one of my most cherished possessions…
I glance at the small oak table near my settee. Ori’s book is where I last left it, opened on a page detailing Dwarvish armor. It is accompanied by an elaborate drawing of his older brother Nori, suited up for battle in grays and blues.
My chest tightens in deep fondness thinking about Ori and his illustrations. I befriended the Dwarf during the time my sister and I helped with the restoration efforts in Dale after the Battle of Five Armies. He presented the book to me on my final day there. I have not seen him since.
I dip my quill and return to the letter.
Has Lord Elrond made mention of our new prisoner? He is a miserable--
At the sound of my father’s voice I drop my quill, a splatter of ink marring the parchment. I must be late. It would not be the first time. I stand to open the door to my chambers.
He looks down at me, his gray eyes inquisitive. His gaze slides past me to examine my writing desk, and the bowl of red berries resting upon it. His sudden smile softens his square jawline.
“I came to remind you supper is soon ready, but perhaps you no longer have an appetite.”
Relieved I am not late after all, I motion for him to come in. “A few berries are hardly a proper meal, Ada. I was finishing a letter to Faeleth. Did you hear about Imladris’ visitors?”
“The dwarves from Erebor, yes.” He plucks a strawberry from my desk and inspects it. “May I?”
“You need not ask.”
I hide a grin as he reaches for another berry after satisfied with the first. If I inherited my love of the fruit from anyone, it was my father.
“Faeleth must have been pleased to see them,” he says. “As for Lindir, I am sure he was remembering the time Thorin Oakenshield’s company bathed naked in the fountain.”
I tilt my head back and laugh. “Let us hope for his sake they kept their manners and did not behave like…Dwarves.”
“Yes, let us hope.” Gailon smiles thoughtfully. “Faeleth probably gave him proper encouragement.”
When I last saw my brother-in-law, it was in Imladris to celebrate their wedding. He had been most adamant about no Dwarves attending, believing they would dance on the tables and throw the food and wine. Without his knowledge, Faeleth had invited Ori and Dori. The Dwarves never made an appearance, but someone let slip to Lindir about the invitations.
Faeleth had threatened to cancel the wedding if he would not stop behaving like an elfling. He had calmed enough to satisfy Faeleth, but it has been her mission ever since to gently encourage him of the merits of Dwarves.
I doubt she has succeeded.
“Eventually he will learn to love their ways,” I say, as though I believe it.
My gaze flickers back to the letter, the soft glow of the candlelight illuminating it in the dimly-lit room. If only I could finish it before dinner…
“Forgive my interruption, iell nín,” Ada says, reading my thoughts. “You must not feel obligated to come every week.”
I return to my desk chair and smooth my silver robes. “Only a few words more and I am done. Luckily, I anticipated the evening and had an early start.”
As I begin to write, I hear Ada’s soft footsteps and sense his presence over my shoulder. He is always interested in everything I do, his curiosity at times bordering on being intrusive, but I forgive him for it. I am his only remaining family in the realm.
“I see you are telling her about our prisoner.”
“How can I not?”
I have had to restrain from writing too much about the topic. I have no doubt I could fill several pages.
He places his hand on my shoulder. “I shall take my leave then and expect to see you shortly.”
My quill pauses over the drying ink. I look over my shoulder at his retreating figure. “He is coming tonight?”
I return my gaze to the golden-hued parchment under the light of the candle, a small smile forming on my mouth. I brush away a fallen dark curl of hair obscuring my vision. Once the door closes, I reach for another strawberry.
A waft of smoky warmth from the hearth fire drifts from the crack underneath the large entrance of my father’s chambers, permeating the cavern hall. It is the promise of homey comfort and conversation. A hundred unfinished letters could not prevent me from missing it, even for a week.
I softly tap the arched oak door.
“Come in, Rîneth.”
I swing the door open, and there is the roaring fire, the shadows from its flames dancing on the stone walls like a performance. Near the hearth are my two closest confidantes, sharing in a jest about a smuggler from Lake-town.
Their unguarded laughter warms me more than the fire. At least it is not about Dwarves again.
King Thranduil Oropherion lifts his gaze to mine, his eyes still carrying amusement from the joke. One of his elegant eyebrows quirks.
“My lord.” I bow my head.
“I was beginning to wonder if you would ever make an appearance.”
If I did not know him, I would think him intimidating with his mock derisive grin, the tallest elf in the room by far. With his legs crossed and his arms casually resting on the sides of his chair, he has the air of regality, the unyielding confidence which comes with ruling a kingdom for over three-thousand years.
His imposing tall-branched crown lies forgotten on the side table, its usual resting place during his visits. Though his title is never in question, with my father and I he is simply Thranduil.
“I was finishing a letter to Faeleth.”
“It could not wait until morning?”
“Of course, but I wished to finish it tonight.” I flash a smile.
For a few long moments he studies me, his blue eyes dark and glinty in the fire-lit room. Steepling his long fingers under his chin, he appears to be contemplating a grave situation and its many repercussions. No one speaks a word, the only sound the continuous soft crackle of the fire.
He is teasing me. Does he truly think I will fall for it? Perhaps he wishes me to believe he will lock me in with the new prisoner for being late. I keep my face devoid of emotion, my eye contact unwavering.
“Shall I call for the guards?” I finally ask. “I know you would not trust me to walk to the cells alone. I might escape.”
His mouth quirks, and his stern gaze softens, almost becoming tender. “Sit down, Rîneth. They have not yet called us for dinner.”
“Before or after I walk to the cells, my lord?”
My father chuckles, finding our exchange as funny as the jest about the Lake-town smuggler. “We shall save the prison cell for later, iell nín. Come and join us.”
I sit down in my usual garnet-red armchair closest to the hearth, and enjoy the feel of the fire’s warmth on my skin. “What was discussed in my absence, besides the colorful jest about the poor smuggler?”
“Gems,” says Thranduil. His midnight-blue robes have a life of their own from the flickering shadow flames.
“As ever, your fixation has me questioning whether you are a dragon rather than an Elven king.”
Though I do not have as many years of practice, I take pleasure in teasing him in return. I imitate him by crossing my legs and fashioning a smirk.
“Or I am both. I am older and wiser than you and know of many enchantments. Maybe I have fooled you all along.”
My father makes a sound of amused disbelief.
I lean forward to the edge of the seat. “I doubt it; else we would have felt fire in these cavern halls during one of your legendary outbursts. Yet all we hear is yelling.”
Thranduil does not smile, but the faint twinkle in his eyes betrays him. “I could have you banished for that.”
“Tis a good thing I am your friend, then.”
After supper we leave the firey warmth from my father’s hearth and half of a honey cake to take in the night air. A long stairwell from Thranduil’s rooms leads to a stone balcony offering the clearest view over the forest; it is not the first time we have gathered here to talk after a meal.
I tip my head back to gaze upwards. The stars of Varda glitter happily in the late March sky, as though oblivious to the dark and troubled Wood below. I wonder if the Valar ever consider our realm and its plight. If so, they keep their silence.
“I have had my fill of wine and conversation for the evening,” my father says. “I now long for dreams of the Gardens of Lòrien. Garo dhû vaer.”
“Good night, Ada.”
Thranduil bids him good night as well, and he makes his way to the spiraled stairs leading back to the lower cavern keep, an empty wine goblet in his hand.
“Lately he speaks of nothing but the Undying Lands.” I walk to the edge of the jutted rock, the metal railing cold under my hands. “I know he longs to be with my mother. I cannot blame him.”
“Gailon has stayed in Middle-earth for far longer than would be expected for one of his great age.” Thranduil joins me, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes fixed on an unknown point beyond the shadowed forest.
Our breaths make white clouds in the air. I wrap my arms around myself, hoping it is our last bitter cold spell. My decision to wear spring-weight robes was far too optimistic.
“I suppose I never shall be fully ready for him to depart.”
“If not for you and your sister, he would have left long ago.”
“Did he tell you this?”
Thranduil turns his face to mine. “Yes.”
“Faeleth is well taken care of in Rivendell with her husband and newborn to keep her occupied. She no longer needs Ada’s protection or guidance.”
“Since when has Faeleth been his only daughter? Unlike your sister, you have decided to live alone and never marry.”
My sigh forms another visible cloud. Still my father doubts my capability to take care of myself without another’s help. His concerns over my well-being are misplaced. But my attempts to persuade him of that have never ended well.
“I can manage fine on my own. In time he will believe it.”
Thranduil’s sideways glance does not appear convinced. “Yet you still need a guardian whenever you leave the safety of the caves.”
“It is only when I reach the far outskirts of the village when there may be trouble.” I lift my chin. “And while your son may not believe my skills with bow and sword adequate, I am quick on my feet and can out-talk any situation.”
“The spiders will cling to your every word.”
My voice quavers at the edge of laughter until I can no longer contain it. His deeper laugh joins mine, and he unclasps his hands from behind his back and rests them on the railing.
I enjoy these unguarded moments, ones which betray he is flesh and blood like his subjects. A frigid wind flutters his hair, and he brushes away a few silvery strands from his eyes. He tightens his robes around himself, not unaffected by the cold.
“When my father leaves for the Grey Havens,” I start, my voice turning serious, “who then shall be your advisor? He has been so for your entire reign.”
“And who shall be my closest confidante? He has been both advisor and friend. If you believe I look forward to his departure, you are mistaken--”
“Then you must speak to him.”
“--but I shall not be selfish, Rîneth,” his voice hardens. “Would you have me keep your father from Lady Nemiril until my own departure from Middle-earth?”
The answer is as clear as Varda’s sky, yet my heart does not warm to it. Ada has not only been the King’s advisor, but mine as well. After my mother left me far too young, I have relied on his guidance more than any other’s. Now I rely on his companionship as well.
For all my talk of being capable without him, I know I would suffer from his absence until I saw him again across the Sea.
“Gailon is not my only advisor, whether I wish it or not,” he says. “I have little doubt you will take over his duty fully when he is gone, even though I shall not ask for it. But perhaps you have talked sense before.”
My eyes widen. “Are you calling me wise, my lord?”
“Not as wise as your father, but at times you have come close.”
“Then it pleases me to know you will open your ears about the Dwarves. While I realize you still believe they are a disagreeable lot, even after Thorin-”
“But some of your advice is not logical,” he interrupts, “or needed.”
“Or perhaps you are prejudiced.”
“I shall never understand your fascination with the Dwarves…”
“They showed me nothing but kindness in Dale, and helped the Men restore their city without requesting payment or service.”
After the Battle of Five Armies and the death of Thorin Oakenshield, even Thranduil’s heart changed towards them a little, though he would never admit it to me, or anyone else.
The howl of a warg echoes in the night air. The skin at the back of my neck prickles. Where there are wargs, there are also orcs.
“Do they hunt within our borders?”
“The sound is too distant. They are hunting farther south, with their masters.”
His sharp eyes scan the forest, as though to make certain. But unless the orcs have surpassed their usual witlessness and built a camp fire, not even Thranduil can see them under cover of darkness.
“The evil in our lands continues to grow every night, mellon nîn.”
I do not question his awareness of it. The hint of worry visible in his eyes even now speaks volumes. But will he not go out and face it? Does he fear we are not strong enough to defeat the army of Dol Guldur? I wish I understood what holds him back.
He opens his mouth to reply, but the sound of fast-paced footsteps climbing the stairs makes him pause.
It is Legolas. He gives me a brief nod in acknowledgement, but his focus is intent on the King.
“We have a visitor, Adar.”
“Who calls upon us at this late hour?”
“Mithrandir. He wishes to speak to the prisoner.” Legolas’s mouth is etched in a near frown. “He says he has traveled a great distance.”
“The wizard always says he has traveled a great distance, and believes his presence is of utmost importance to all,” Thranduil says, his voice laced with contempt. “But come, let us not keep him waiting.”
He turns to leave, and Legolas falls in step behind him. His tall figure reflects the moon’s light. Before descending the stairs, he casts a glance over his shoulder.
“Ollo vae, Rîneth.”
I long to follow them, and to take part in the meeting, but it is not my place. Still I cannot keep from wondering why Gandalf the Grey would travel to our faraway realm to question the wretched Gollum creature.
Beautiful artwork by hatteeho, commissioned for Stars of Varda by Maggie Shivers.