Disclaimer: J.R.R. Tolkien created the universe of Middle-earth; its characters and places are the intellectual property of his Estate and, in some instances, New Line Cinema. This story is written for non-profit entertainment purposes and no infringement, nor disrespect, is intended.
Set: Early-ish in the second millennium of the Third Age, not long after Thranduil's Wood-elves have moved to the north-eastern region of Mirkwood.
"It does not yet resemble the lair of a petty goblin chief, still less a scion of Menegroth," said Thranduil Oropherion, looking on the cavern that was to be his great hall.
The Elvenking of Greenwood and his counsellor, Silinde, stood amidst a clutter of stone fragments, tools and wooden props. A workman's lantern, hung from a spike, illuminated a craggy ceiling and walls scored with raw chisel cuts. The air was cold and smelled of dust. Grit and debris rolled underfoot as the two Elves slowly walked around the chamber.
Silinde picked up the tails of his robe, brushing off an accumulation of grey dust. "Cheery it is not," he agreed, "yet even Menegroth must once have looked as unpleasant as this." His eyes were drawn to the crude lantern, and he smiled wistfully, remembering the golden lamps of the palace whose ruins now lay in the cellars of the sea.
"Aye, my friend, as you are so fond of saying, one cannot build a castle without breaking rocks." The king smiled back at his trusted companion as he stepped over a particularly fine example of broken rock. "Yet it irks me that festival is now upon us, and there is no place for feasting. The dwellings in the wood are best suited neither for winter nor dances. I warrant that fair Menegroth did not lie half-built at Yule."
"You may be right, my lord," said Silinde. "But I think you have planned well. This hall could have been made a priority, but rightly was not."
Thranduil laid a hand on the wall, feeling the keen surface of the never-weathered stone. "The gates are secure," he said. "They are as strong as we can make them. We may not yet have our palace, but we have our fortress. And I believe that the children's sleeping chambers are almost finished; that will be the first and second most important tasks complete."
"There I have good news to report," said Silinde. "The masons think that they will be finished in the children's chambers by luncheon."
"Ah! Excellent," said the king. "Do we have the artisans for the - special decoration, now that the stonework is done?"
"They are here. And eager to start work, I believe; they have been cooling their heels on the doorsill for the last three days, airing the opinion that their stonemason brothers are paid more for less skill."
"They might have known there would be naught for them to do as yet," said Thranduil, faintly irritated. "As for three days cooling their heels, I suspect it was also three days enjoying our wine and board."
"They are said to be much gifted," the counsellor responded diplomatically, "and will help to beautify our hall. Indeed, tomorrow one corner of it may shine like a very small Menegroth." He held out his hand, fingers curving to measure a doll-sized palace, his warm gaze inviting Thranduil to smile.
Beside the Elvenking's concern for his displaced people, still dwelling, a few years after their removal northward, in a settlement that was more caravanserai than city, he was finding it hard to look with equilibrium on the strangers currently within his walls. Hunting and woodcraft, not masonry and mining, were the spheres of the Silvan Elves, and accordingly he had perforce looked elsewhere for the expertise to delve this key fastness. The Dwarves of Hadhodrond had undoubtedly the skill his people needed. Thranduil had no quarrel with them; the contested borders that, long before in the south, had exercised his father's statesmanship were no more an issue here. Yet their presence sometimes nagged in a corner of his mind like an omen half-seen. He knew the reason for this: the continual invocation of Menegroth. The golden palace was a promise for his people's future against the newly rising dark. It was also the tomb where his forebear and kinsman, Elu Thingol, had fallen beneath a storm of Dwarven blades.
He pushed aside those thoughts and rose to his friend's jest. "Truly?" he said. "Then we should all hold our breath and crowd in there together, to pass the watches of Yule-night with undaunted singing and thimblefuls of wine."
"A most goodly plan, my lord."
"Silinde," said Thranduil, "have the Gonnhirrim been told that they may join us, or spend the festival according to their own kind?"
"They have; and Master Galion has sent for more provisions of their liking, both for the feast and the remainder of the winter."
"I look forward to seeing what they have achieved this day," said Thranduil. "After luncheon, I believe I will betake myself to the dormitories. It may inspire our prideful artisans to be overseen."
Silinde smiled. "I, too, am eager to see the first room of your palace complete. And especially to see the Lady Neldhíril's designs made flesh."
"She has a great gift of delighting children, even though our own are now grown to manhood," said Thranduil. "She is deep in a new project now, however; nothing less than winter gloves for every Elf in Greenwood."
"Ai! I must put in an order at once," said Silinde. "What do you think, my lord - an edging of Balrogs for sympathetic warmth? I am sure that would be within the queen's skill."
The two Elf-lords walked to the cavern's entrance, drawing deep breaths of the corridor's fresher air. "Where to now?" said Thranduil. "Will you repair to the building works with me?"
"Alas, my liege," said Silinde, "I have duties that call me without."
"You know you may be less formal, my friend, at this merry time of holiday. And I was not aware of having given you any duties."
The counsellor's features were a superb study of impassivity. "They are menial duties that could not possibly concern you, my lord."
"I see." A smile tugged at the corner of Thranduil's mouth, even as he tried to match his minister's solemn gravity. It was surprising how frequently, at times of festival, Elves suddenly discovered appointments that required them to betake themselves away in secret. "In that case, I would not dream of detaining you. We shall doubtless meet again later."
The dormitories for the children occupied an area of the cavern complex farthest from the gates, a small branch coiled tightly among the roots of the hill. There was room there for four-and-twenty beds, in six rounded chambers holding four apiece. Few enough were needed, Thranduil thought, as he crossed the sill of the first room. There were no more young ones among the remnant of the Eldar; and even the Silvan folk, more tied to the lands of Middle-earth, had borne few children in the centuries past. The dwindling of their people was a cause of sorrow, especially at Yule, yet it also made the children still more strongly and tenderly loved.
A circular space at the centre of each chamber was reserved for play, and would be provided with soft rugs, cushions, toys and books. The beds would be ranged along the curving wall, and separated for privacy by screens of elaborately carved and fretted wood. The deft Silvan woodcarvers had already begun work on the furniture. Signs of birds and flowers would decorate the partitions, beds and chairs. Neldhíril, he recalled with a smile, had also requested likenesses of the long-winged butterflies that the little ones had loved to chase around the feet of Emyn Duir. The walls themselves were newly dressed by the Dwarven masons, the grey stone polished to a gentle sheen. At intervals, there were flattened niches, around the height of a child's head, where drawings could be hung. Between these, lamps would be set, so placed as to allow one cantle of the chamber to be lit while children slumbered in the remainder.
While most of the fortress was as chill as stone itself, braziers glowed here for the comfort of the workmen. Thranduil doffed his cloak and carried it over his arm. He walked through the first two rooms, following the sound of a delicate hammer. In the third, he found two Dwarves balanced on wooden scaffolding, working on the chamber's smoothly domed ceiling.
The artisans were slowly, carefully cutting a pattern of tiny sockets in the rock. To one side of the floor lay a heavy velvet bag with a tied neck: a sack of brilliants that had been sent from the jewel house. When fixed in their settings they would make a luminous star field, floating amid the shadows of the roof. The stars, it was thought, would comfort the children on nights when they were taken from their own homes to wait out a battle within the walls; just as Elbereth had hung stars so that the firstborn Elves would not awake to echoing darkness.
The two Dwarves appeared, to Thranduil's eyes, much like all the Dwarves he had ever seen: one had a grey beard, the other chestnut brown, and they were stocky and well-muscled, employing the tools of their craft with a delicacy that managed not to be incongruous. Grey-beard became aware of the king's presence first, and climbed down from his perch to stand in salute.
"Greetings, king of Greenwood," he said.
"And to you both," replied Thranduil, making a short bow. "I am glad to see that work progresses well."
"This task will not take us long," said Grey-beard. His name, Thranduil recalled from the complex introductions at the Dwarves' arrival, was Darin, a jewel-master of Hadhodrond. The other Dwarf was his partner Fáin, who also now nodded in agreement.
"That is well," said Thranduil, "for we have need of these halls."
"I thought Elves did not hurry."
The king heard a hint of needling in Darin's tone, but he kept himself composed. "It is this figure called the Necromancer that hurries us," he said. "If not for him, you might have the time it took to build the actual heavens."
"There has been fret amongst our lords over the Necromancer," said Fáin.
Darin's eyes flicked over the encircling walls, returning to Thranduil. "Indeed," he said, in a more sincere tone. He gestured with his hammer at the ceiling. "This is a strange work."
"For that, you may blame my wife," said Thranduil.
Fáin leaned on the ladder, turning a careful gaze on the Elf below. "The queen is an artist? We have met her, briefly, but she did not mention this. She is fortunate," the Dwarf laughed richly, "that her spouse passes her designs. Mine imposes his alongside more often than not."
Thranduil had to bite back a smile as the stern façade of Darin wavered. After a barely perceptible struggle, the moustache of the stockier Dwarf twitched in an involuntary smile. "The queen's creativity is admirable."
The Elvenking watched as the two artisans resumed their labours, continuing to etch depressions in the stone. He noticed that they were somewhat hesitant in placing their hammers and chisels. After a moment, Darin said, "You know we were given no pattern to work from. I cannot claim to understand this task, and the result may not be what was envisaged."
"The idea of stars is all that is required," said Thranduil, "so that the children may see them and be comforted on drowsing or on waking." The Dwarves' faces were no more enlightened, and he wondered how to explain the Silvan reverence for stars to creatures that chose freely to live beneath ceilings of stone.
"When the Gonnhirrim first awakened in the workroom of the Master-smith," he began, leaving out the proper name of Aulë, for he did not know how the Dwarves named him, "the first lights they saw would have been the glimmer of fine lamps and the glow of the forge. And still, your people love lamplit halls and the arts of smithcraft. The Elves had a different beginning in the world, but one that similarly continues to shape our thought. The firstborn Elves awoke far from the abode of the Valar, but were given signs of the Valar's protection and guidance, written in the heavens by Elbereth. She hung new and brighter stars so that the firstborn would not think themselves alone in darkness." He paused then, thinking of the constellations and their meanings. Since Shadow had arisen again in the south, Thranduil had looked often at the Sickle, hung as the Valar's warning to the powers of darkness, and at the yet-sheathed blade of the Swordsman. He had watched too the wedded orbits of Eärendil and Elwing, signs of the Valar's renewed covenant with Elves and Men. He did not know what these stars might mean to the Dwarves, but he sketched their significance as best he could.
Fáin listened to the story, absently teasing a strand of beard. "Is Elwing not a lady?" she asked.
"She is, aye, and my kinswoman too," said Thranduil. "It is said that the star that bears her name shows how she appears now in Aman; mayhap there is some legend mingled with history."
Their brows creased slightly in thought, the Dwarves continued to tap at the stone. Soft feet sounded then in the corridor, and a cheek was laid against Thranduil's shoulder. "Good day, Thranduil Felagund," came the musical voice of his queen, Neldhíril. "Surveying your works once more? It is several days now since you have been without."
"Within is where all has been happening, my love," said Thranduil.
"Indeed? Well, I trust your judgement, since you know all that transpires in this city," she replied, shooting him a mischievous glance that reminded him of Silinde. "Good day, Master Dwarves; Master Darin, I believe, and Mistress Fáin."
"My lady," they intoned in response. "You make some lovely things here," added Fáin. She gestured to the trestles on which the tools were laid, which had been carved at odd places with knots of flowers and leaves.
"I know the Dwarves will understand that there is little effort between making a thing and making it fair," said Neldhíril.
The Elves watched as Darin lifted the first glittering stone and set it into place near the centre of the ceiling. "It will be beautiful," said Neldhíril. "Master Dwarves," she added, "it is a form of blessing among our people to say, 'stars shine upon you', but to you I would wish, 'may you cause stars to shine upon us'. I have no doubt that throngs of little ones will come here later to admire your sky-building."
She turned to Thranduil. "Come, my love," she said, "let us go outside and see what Silinde and Galion have been doing."
"Galion, as I believed, has been supervising the construction of spits in the large clearing," said Thranduil, "in preparation for tonight and tomorrow's feasts. Silinde I was not aware was doing anything in particular. But clearly," he smiled, "there is some conspiracy in which all three of you are involved."
"You accuse me of plotting against my king, my lord?" Neldhíril widened her eyes and pressed a hand to her breast. "Besides, the charge is absurd; what manner of conspiracy could succeed with the participation of only three?"
"I see. Mayhap the entire realm is implicated," he said, wrapping his arm around her waist as they nodded to the Dwarves and began to walk towards the door.
"Nay," she laughed, "you know I do not think so little of your intelligence – in either sense."
"Our sons, then?"
"That goes without saying, beloved."
They passed swiftly down the rough-hewn passages. The debris of building seemed less irksome now, merely easily-traversed obstacles underfoot, and the king's nostrils were filled with the odour of soft floral perfume rather than dust. He half-lifted his wife over a pile of stone that partly filled the archway leading to the entrance hall. There followed a brief tussle with the great gates, upon which magical seals had been newly and still somewhat unreliably laid, and the couple emerged laughing into the afternoon.
The sky was darkening to a lapis blue, just beginning to be pricked by stars. Snow mantled the ground and lay piled in long drifts against the flank of the hill. The Forest River was huddled between humped, white banks, murmuring softly under a skin of ice. Thranduil took a breath of air that tingled like crisp wine in the back of his throat. "I have been indoors overlong," he said. "Lead on, my dear, to wherever it is you are taking me."
The path to the bridge had been swept clean and scattered with wood chips, the heaped snow at its sides moulded into whimsical balustrades. The Elves crossed the river hand-in-hand and walked slowly into the trees that rose on the farther bank. Branches reached above them, stark yet graceful in their quiet habiliments of white. A robin carolled from a post atop a low talan.
This grove of trees housed many of Thranduil's people, who had settled in the lee of the fortress and built themselves lodges in and against the trees. Most of the dwellings still had a temporary air, but a few were more substantial, their outlines complicated by additional rooms or elaborate constructions for children to climb. Engravings and paintwork had begun a long struggle against the hastily-cut raw wood.
The Elvenking noted that smoke emanated from fewer snow-banked roofs than one might have expected, but he did not voice this aloud, suspecting that it might be connected with the conspiracy in his realm. Neldhíril, for her part, seemed to have observed nothing amiss. She was guiding him towards a narrow path that sprang away to the north, away from the main track into the westward forest. The latter, currently ending a few miles distant, would one day be a road striking through the trees to Imladris. The northward path led to the area used for assemblies and feasts, generally called the 'large clearing', though in fact a few trees had been left to stand at intervals to give the impression of a pillared hall. The place was delightful in summer, though chill and cheerless for entertaining in the sharp northern winters. Tonight and tomorrow there was to be venison roasted there, and wine freely flowing; also song and perhaps an interlude of dancing, though the elements would probably send many back to their own firesides.
Someone was singing now, a rich note that spiralled above the treetops.
"Beloved?" he said, turning to Neldhíril.
She smiled, pressing closely against him as they rounded a dense stand of trees and stepped into the clearing.
"Good even, my lord and lady!" called Silinde, gliding from a knot of gaily-dressed Elves.
Thranduil gazed upon a colonnaded ice palace. The branches of each tree around the dell had been captured and interlaced with those that marched along the middle, forming vaults and arches as clear and intricate as sculpted iron. The major joints were ornamented with finials bearing emblems of the Silvan Elves and the House of Oropher. The structure had evidently been built with remarkable foresight as to the weather, for the skeleton roof now bore the whole bounty of the snow of three nights past, forming seamless domes and gables that gleamed with reflected light and which the moon softly limned from above. Lanterns of finely worked bronze swung the length of the hall.
Small groups of people who had early drifted feast-ward were gathered around hooded braziers, chatting brightly. They turned to salute, raising goblets, as the king and queen walked by. At the far end of the hall a field kitchen had been set up, and there Galion, butler to the House of Thranduil, presided intently over two great spits and a slowly bubbling cauldron of wine. "My lord and lady!" he said as Thranduil and Neldhíril approached, "may I be the first to wish you a sincere blessing this Yuletide." He handed each of them a cup of the mulled wine, which was fiercely hot and rich with spices.
Thranduil could not help but glance at Galion's hands as the butler wielded his ladle; in contrast to his venerable age and near-legendary crustiness, Galion wore a pair of gloves embroidered with squirrels. "Those are strange gauntlets you bear, my friend," he said. "Do you require them to subdue your staff?"
Neldhíril smiled at the butler. "I believe our lord envies your attire, Master Galion," she said. "Even for an Elf-lord of great strength and wisdom, a goblet of boiling wine is not the most comfortable thing to hold with bare hands." She drew a small packet from her robe and offered it to her husband.
Thranduil chuckled as he unwrapped gloves of soft doeskin, decorated with the oak and beech leaves of Greenwood, together with small crowns. "My love, these are just what I have been needing. I shall wear them immediately." He drew on the gloves and then repossessed his wine, reaching out to clink goblets with his two companions.
In one corner, a group of musicians was setting out chairs, stands and instruments. Their leader, Thranduil noted, was Cúador, a gifted younger Elf whom the royal family had helped to support during their last years in Emyn Duir. He had given little thought to Cúador's music since the troubled move northward, and felt regret for that now. "Let us greet the musicians," he said.
A handful of children had flocked like insistent birds to the quintet's feet, anxious for songs and dancing to begin. Thranduil smiled as he noticed that each of them wore brightly coloured new gloves. The little ones, hopping indeed like birds in their excitement, made their greetings and blessings to the king and queen. Cúador himself made a formal bow, but Neldhíril laid a hand on his arm. "Do not stand on ceremony, Cúador," she said, "the king is eager to hear how you will sing our new home."
Catching a glance from the musician, Thranduil parted his lips to protest, but the quintet immediately struck up a lively tune, and within seeming seconds Neldhíril was leading the children in a ring dance. He could not help but laugh aloud at the spectacle. The dance involved a great deal of stamping on the snow and cedar bough-covered ground, rather as if the participants were attempting to crush spider hatchlings, and the queen was taking this quite as seriously as the youngest Elfling. As she stood outlined in the frame of a frosted archway, he took a moment to admire her anew; her mobile figure, subtly rounded by childbearing, and her soft, laughing face (now surrounded by dishevelled hair). History, he knew, would never allow that a Silvan maid might shine like one of the Eldar, but even the fairest Noldo of song could not surpass his wife's capacity for joy in places of shadow.
As he watched, Thranduil heard light, familiar footsteps approach, and he turned at the apposite moment to pull the arrival into a strong embrace. "Legolas," he said. "My blessings for Yule, mîr-nin."
The younger prince of Greenwood clasped his father's arm. Legolas was not long past his majority, and his eyes shone with sweet anticipation at the festival preparations. "Do you like your great hall?" he said, smiling.
"Very much indeed," said Thranduil. "I can scarcely imagine more beautiful architecture, nor finer architects."
"I am afraid I can take no credit," said Legolas. "It was mother and Silinde that leaned their heads together, though I was happy to fall in with their plan."
"My queen and counsellor ought to try running my realm, since everyone is so willing to obey their orders," Thranduil remarked, aiming this shaft at the queen's ears as she disengaged from the dancers and came up to embrace her son. She laughed merrily.
"Nay, beloved," she said, drawing both men close, "you are the keystone of Greenwood. I may rule you on occasion by right of marriage, but Silinde exists only to serve. After his own fashion."
Thranduil chuckled. His expression grew softer, then, as it rested on Legolas. "You have just returned from the border patrol, mîr-nin," he said.
"Aye," said the prince. "All was quiet; it seems that no dark thing will disturb our gathering tonight."
"Brethilion is there now," said Neldhíril. "I wish, indeed, that we might more often see both of our sons together, but we must value those times when the rota of the watch permits it."
Thranduil nodded. It was a wise, but sad rule of his own making that no two siblings should serve on the same patrol, in order that parents might be spared the ultimate loss.
More Elves were arriving in the hall as it grew fully evening and the Yule-eve feast began in earnest. The musicians had begun a statelier melody, and a number of couples joined the children in the impromptu ballroom. Crackling and rich scents announced a surge of activity around the roasting spits, and the king saw Galion wearing the expansive smile reserved for those feasts and celebrations at which he could exhibit his quartermaster's skill. "I think we are invited to meat and dancing," he said.
Beneath a sky of dark blue, snow caught and returned the light of stars and lamps, creating a perpetual clear dusk in which the Elves, who shone softly with their own light, circled among the braziers. Thranduil stood with Neldhíril and Silinde beneath an arch, watching the dancers moving gracefully to the strains of a lilting pavane.
"They look well together, do they not?" murmured Neldhíril, gazing at one of the courtly couples: Legolas and Gaeriel, the daughter of Silinde.
"It is festival, my dear," said the king. "No matchmaking. Though I admit, counsellor, that your daughter is exceeding fair."
"As is the prince," chimed Silinde. There had been numerous variants on this conversation since the sons of Thranduil had come of marriageable age.
The three leaned companionably together. After a few moments more, they noticed the arrival of the two Dwarven artisans, Darin and Fáin, together with a handful of other Dwarves, at the fringes of the gathering. "They came," said Neldhíril. "Beloved," she continued, turning to Thranduil, "shall we slip away from the feast? I am eager to see their handiwork."
"Of course, if you wish it," he replied.
Hand in hand, half-stepping, half-dancing, they wended their way through the swirling dancers. At the edge of the hall, they paused to greet the Dwarves, who had been well provided with roast venison and beer (though they showed only amused curiosity in the Elven dances). "Wishing you a blessed Yule, Master Darin," said Thranduil. "We are returning to the palace now, to see what Mistress Fáin and yourself have wrought."
"May it please you," said the Dwarf, lifting his goblet in salute.
Leaving the sounds of the feast behind them, the king and queen made their way swiftly to the palace. The dome of the hollowed-out hill, softly gleaming beneath the heavy sky, was arrestingly beautiful. They passed through the gates, nodding to a solitary guard on duty, and walked carefully along the debris-littered and now largely darkened corridors.
Thranduil plucked a torch from its sconce and carried it before them as they approached the dormitories. "Are you ready to see the stars, my love?" he smiled.
Neldhíril laughed, folding her arms around him. They stepped across the doorsill, and gazed about them as the torch lit the room in leaping flickers.
"By Elbereth…" Thranduil murmured.
The curved ceiling was a perfect image of the night sky. The Swordsman, Menelmacar, held his blade protectively above the small beds, seemingly poised to strike at any threat. The Sickle of the Valar shone its old and changeless warning to the ministers of Morgoth. Eärendil and Elwing were bright clusters of gemstones, angling towards one another across a field of lesser stars, caught in one figure of their bridal dance. Directly above the play circle fanned the white wings of Wilwarin, the Butterfly.
"My love," Thranduil said, "with some help from our comrades, we may just have our house." He laughed softly and embraced his wife beneath the shimmer of stars.
A/N: This was written in response to Soledad's 'Elven Christmas' challenge. All criticisms/canon corrections are welcomed.
Possibly unfamiliar references:
- Emyn Duir
- Mountain range in the centre of Greenwood the Great, where the Wood-elves had their capital before they moved north in response to the founding of Dol Guldur. (Later known as the Mountains of Mirkwood.)
- "cave-hewer", the sobriquet given to Finrod, Elven king of the First Age who built the mountain fortress of Nargothrond.
- Elven term for Dwarves (means "masters of stone").
- Elven name for Khazad-dûm, before it fell into darkness and became known as Moria.
- Underground palace of unsurpassed beauty and magnificence, built as a stronghold by Elu Thingol, first lord of the Sindarin Elves. As the result of a complicated series of events, Thingol was eventually murdered in his own house by Dwarves.
- "my jewel".
- Walk-on Mirkwood Elf from the movie-verse whom I appropriated for my own purposes.