Elara walked slowly, keeping her hand to the wall next to her so as to not get lost. There it was – the graceful curve away that signaled the opening that led to a tiny garden. Beyond the open door, the air was sweet with the scent of flowers and growing things. A low bench sat just within easy discovery distance from which to enjoy the outdoors – just the thing she needed on this night of all nights. Her hand traced across the low arm and up onto the carved back so that she settled securely and could relax back, letting go at last of the need to keep herself erect or maintain a proper posture. She breathed deeply of the floral bouquet and let her mind free.
She hadn't needed to hear Míriel's concerned tone that morning to tell her what day it was. The way in which the doorway to the tiny garden had been left open more often than not lately had proclaimed the changing of the seasons. It was Springtime – and a full year had passed since she'd come to live underground with the Elves who had rescued her. A year had passed since her husband and newborn son had been ripped from her world – a year since she'd been thrust into an unending night of blindness thanks to a burning beam falling across her face. This sad anniversary had been a long one – long and lonely hours alone sewing seams on garments she would never see and remembering those who were no more – and although she was more tired than she'd been in a long time, she knew sleep this night would elude her.
From the singing about her and the fact that Míriel had already been by to bring her an evening meal and collect her day's sewing, Elara knew it was nighttime at last. In the past months, she'd learned to tell the parts of the day by the nature of the songs that echoed around her and by the identities of the Elves that visited her little world. Mornings began with Míriel bringing a light repast to break the evening's fast and some news from beyond the chamber door as well as the day's sewing. The healer would assist her in dressing and then head out to the Healing Hall – and the songs that wafted through the chamber while the healer was there were light and happy, reminding Elara of the way sunbeams used to shimmer from between the leaves in summer. Afternoons were announced by the arrival of either Wilwarin or Alfirin, both assigned to the maintenance of her chamber – and they always sang songs of love and of life in the forest as they worked. They always seemed to know the kind of song she needed most at that moment, either one that comforted and soothed, or one that teased and amused with a sly, dry humor that Elara was quickly coming to recognize as characteristic of her hosts.
But it was the evening songs that she had come to love – and dread. Whether beckoned from her lair to the Great Hall by King Thranduil himself on the rare occasion of a feast, or contentedly ensconced alone within her familiar rooms, with Míriel again stopping by with offerings from the Great Hall on a covered plate and assistance in getting ready for bed, the evening songs of legendary figures and their deeds and tragedies were enough to make her put down her sewing and listen, and sometimes weep. And then there were the hymns to Elbereth that never failed to lift her heart, even as she ached for all she'd lost. She had eventually begged her healer friend and keeper to teach her some of those hymns, and she sometimes sang along with them in a voice little more than a whisper. She had no intention of diminishing the beauty of the Elven choir with the croak of a mortal throat.
This night, however, she could barely manage to move her lips soundlessly to the words. Tears that she'd kept carefully locked away during the day now flowed in an unending stream down her cheeks. Her heart, which had been slowly learning to beat out the rhythm of a new life, cracked and bled afresh from wounds that refused to heal completely. Her hands ached to reach out to Timon – her strong and capable husband – ached to hold him for just a moment or two once more. Her arms ached for the tiny burden that had been little Beleg, a gift from the Valar that had been hers for such a short time. She sobbed and caught back the sound with a hand pressed tightly against her lips.
The hymn she'd been hearing ended with the expected lapse of quiet that came before another paean would begin – and in that brief silence, Elara heard the low knock on her door, followed by the gentle swish of it opening. "Lady Elara?"
"Sire!" Elara dashed at the flowing tears and struggled to her feet. The Elvenking was here – on this of all nights? "I'm out here. A moment please!"
"Stay where you are. I'll join you." The King's deep voice moved through the chamber in the direction of the garden door. Elara dropped into an awkward curtsey in the general direction of the doorway, wincing as her elbow hit the edge of the bench. "None of that, now! Sit, please. I'm not here as anything but a friend."
"I don't know that I'm such great company this evening, Sire," Elara stated shakily as the King's huge hand at her elbow helped her back up and into her seat on her bench.
"I feared as much. Míriel worried at me about you today," Thranduil's voice rumbled gently as he sought the empty place on the bench at her side.
"She shouldn't have," Elara stated emphatically. "You have more important things to think about than…"
"It pleases me to be concerned for all who live under my protection." She felt Thranduil touch her shoulder as he interrupted her, but his voice was kind. "You are no burden, Lady, I assure you." The touch fell away, and she felt him relax back. "I am glad to see you enjoying this garden."
"Now that the weather is nice," Elara replied, carefully schooling her emotions to a calm that was only surface-deep, "I'll be out here more often."
"Good. It isn't good for either Man or Elf to stay too long beneath the ground." A long moment of silence stretched comfortably between them. "The stars shine brightly tonight, Lady."
Elara nodded her head. She could remember nights like that. "And is the moon full?"
"No – Ithil still looks back over her shoulder at Eärendil."
"The moon was full that night," Elara remembered, and then swallowed hard against the tears once more. "I'm sorry, Sire…"
"I remember the evening one year to the day after my wife died," Thranduil said in a soft voice. "Here I had an infant son to raise and an entire Greenwood to oversee and manage – and yet all I could do that evening was sit in the garden we used to share and weep like a lost child. A whole year had gone by so fast... And that night, it was as if it had just happened." Elara heard him take a deep breath and let it go in a lengthy sigh. "It was a night just like this one – in early Spring, when the lilacs were just blooming."
Elara held her breath. She still had a hard time believing herself to be in the company of such a legendary figure as an immortal Elvenking – much less that he would deign to spend time with her now and again. But the Thranduil who sat next to her this night was far different from the grand, kind and sometimes slyly comedic dinner companion she'd become acquainted with over the past few months – and she was beginning to understand why.
"Your wife – died in the Springtime too?" she asked very carefully, her own grief set aside for a moment.
"Yes." The affirmation shimmered with a grief as deep as anything Elara had herself experienced.
"I'm sorry." The harmonies that wound themselves around the Lay of Luthien took on an ephemeral quality that made Elara's voice hitch.
Then a large hand carefully retrieved her little one from her lap and wove long fingers between her own. "Tell me of your husband and son."
A tear that wouldn't be denied began its trek down her cheek. "Timon wasn't the tallest man in the village, but he had the softest voice and the sweetest nature," Elara began, forcing her mind back to a time when her love stood in front of her. "I grew up loving him. He had dark hair that hung in rings and dark eyes that always looked like he was ready to laugh. He had a big voice and strong arms." She lifted the linked hands slightly. "His hands were large too – maybe not as large as yours, but still…"
The grip on her hand tightened slightly. "And your son?"
Elara couldn't hold back a soft, sad smile. "He was a gift from the Valar, Sire. I had lost three before him. But Beleg was so strong – and he looked so much like his father. He had a cap of dark hair, and his eyes were just beginning to turn the same dark when…" She couldn't continue – a sob had finally choked her voice.
Amazingly, Elara found herself being drawn into the arms of the Elvenking and held close. "My wife, Lalaith, was the most beautiful elleth I'd ever seen," Thranduil's deep voice grew soft with his own memories coming forth. "The first I ever saw her was deep in the Greenwood, when I stumbled upon a hidden waterfall. She was bathing there – her hair the color of spun silver in the sunshine – and she was singing her love of the wood in the old tongue of the Avari. I was certain I'd happened upon Yavanna herself." He sighed and nestled his cheek against the top of Elara's head. "I haven't spoken of her since…"
Elara felt her heart stop as it occurred to her that he needed comforting too – at least as much as she did, and for much the same reasons. Slowly her arms unfolded and then wound around the slender, hard body of the Elvenking, and the tears that ran down her cheeks flowed as much for his loss now as for her own. "Go on," she urged in a whisper.
"I had to be strong for my son – to give him as much love as he would have had if she had lived," Thranduil continued with a shaking voice. "And my people needed me. The Enemy was beginning to push hard at the borders to my realm, and the price of peace for us was constant and close vigilance. So I put away my grief after that first anniversary of her death, and I haven't allowed myself…"
"It's all right," Elara soothed, resting her head against the soft silk of his robe. "I will tell no one, I swear."
Thranduil's arms tightened. "I know. I think the Valar have put you into my keeping to remind me that all grief needs to be faced – and needs comfort eventually."
"Did you ever talk about your Lalaith with your son?"
"No." Thranduil's tone grew grave. "That is, I answered his questions as he grew up, but I couldn't face sharing more than just that. We are close, as is right between father and son, but there is a distance that I could not cross when it came to talking about her. I regret it now – but hindsight is always clearer than foresight."
"I know what you mean. I've tried not to think of Timon or Beleg so that I can get on with my life here," Elara admitted. "I keep fearing that if I open that door, I won't stop crying – and that I'll stop being of any use to anyone at all."
"And yet, I tell you truly, the tears will remain there, no matter how long you stave them off," Thranduil added in a knowing whisper. "Be it a single year or a thousand, they wait patiently for you to let down your guard."
"A thousand years?" Elara whispered, shocked into remembering the very different natures of their two races. "You've been grieving for a thousand years?"
Thanduil sighed and loosened his hold on her. "Almost two thousand, actually. Sad, isn't it? You would think that I would know better by now."
Elara reached up a hand bravely and touched the face of the Elvenking, finding it moist with tears of his own. "What would be sadder would be if you don't take the time to speak to your son of her now, Majesty. After all this time, if you can tell me – a stranger and a mortal – of your love for her, how much more you could say to one whom she loved as well?"
The Elvenking was silent for a long moment. Then: "My son faces great grief of his own – and soon. He has thrown in his lot with mortals, who will be gone all too soon. I would not add to his burden." He sighed again. "Besides, he has the sea-longing; he will eventually have no choice but to go West and yet I will never leave the Greenwood. I have already lost him, Elara!" Thranduil's voice cried out with a new grief so great that Elara feared it near to overwhelming him.
"You have not lost your son yet, Thranduil, and you would not be adding to his burden by telling him of his mother." Elara forgot for a moment she was speaking to a King in her sudden desire to give comfort to one who had been so generous to her in her time. "Do for him as you did for me – tell him of the good that was your Lalaith. Do not hide your grief, but don't make it the issue. After all, it isn't you he seeks to know better – but her. Surely you have enough good memories to share with him that you can bridge that distance." Suddenly the enormity of the social fumble she'd made crashed about her, and she slipped from her seat on the bench to her knees, her head nearly bent to the ground. "Apologies, Sire! I didn't mean…"
"Stop that! I told you I came to you tonight as a friend and not as a King," Thranduil chided gently, his hands lifting her up bodily and setting her back into her seat as if she weighed nothing. "Sometimes friends have to scold each other – and I treasure those who can see their way past my position to do so when I need it." He fell silent for a moment. "And I think, Lady, that while your eyes may no longer see sunlight and shadow, your heart sees clearly enough. What's more, you have the courage to speak the truth when it needs to be given voice. I think I begin to understand what my son sees in mortals."
Elara felt the heat of embarrassment flood her face and was at a loss for a response. "At least I'm no dwarf," Elara finally managed lamely, and she gave him a small smile with her quip in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Her efforts bore fruit – a half-hearted chuckle. "I'd say not – I hear that dwarf-women wear beards, as do their men-folk. Your cheek, on the other hand, is quite smooth." Elara felt a fleeting touch along the edge of her face before his hand once more interwove its fingers with hers. Her jaw dropped open at the audacity of both the statement and the touch, and Thranduil's chuckle became lighter, more infectious. "I tell you this truly, Lady – although I've never seen a dwarf female myself. This is what my son's heart-brother told me of his kin, and I've no cause to doubt his word." His words paused for a moment, and then she heard a true laugh bubble up from deep within him. "Can you imagine kissing such a one? All that hair…"
Elara shook her head as she laughed, relaxing a bit to hear more of the Thranduil she knew returning. Her success in moving him away from dangerously dark topics warmed her. "You're feeling better now, Sire?" she asked with a small smile.
"I think I like it better when you call me by name when the setting, as now, is private," the deep voice told her gently. "But yes, to answer your question, my heart is much relieved, oddly enough."
"Mine too." Elara could hardly believe it – she had thought moving past the grief that had been given such freedom that day would be a battle hard to fight and harder to win. All it had taken was the shoulder and the confidence of a King – no, not a King, a friend. "Thank you, Thranduil," she said with simple and unadorned gratitude.
"Thank you, Elara," the King replied warmly. Elara felt him stand. "I know it's late, but would you consider accompanying me? I think I would like to show you my garden. It is most beautiful in the starlight." His hand in hers pulled gently, and she rose to her feet.
His garden – he was talking of taking her to his garden, the one he had shared with his wife. "Will you tell me more about her?" she asked quietly.
"If you will tell me more about your Timon." Thranduil returned.
Elara nodded. "I would be most honored to visit your garden."
"Good." Thranduil's hand squeezed hers one more time before relinquishing it to rest on a high arm. "This way, my Lady."