by San Antonio Rose
A/N: Thranduil belongs to the Tolkien estate. The man and his son belong to the Goethe estate, as do the italicized lines (yes, dearies, that be German; I’ll post a translation in case it’s necessary). I’ve tried to keep the stanzas whole, although explaining the progression has been a little tricky. I warn you now: this does not have a happy ending. It’s far darker than my usual style, even though I have used an opening line that has given rise to many a joke over the years. I just happened to wonder (at about 3:00 this morning) what would happen if Goethe and Tolkien had used the same Elvenking….
It was a dark and stormy night, the sort of night that Men often spent huddled together indoors swapping ghost stories based on past events that no one clearly understood. For that reason, it was on just such a night that no one wanted to be out in the Black Forest after dark, quite apart from the potentially dangerous weather. This brooding, ominous darkness could even take the heart out of an Elf.
The Elf in question this night was Thranduil Oropherion, once King of Mirkwood. Nearly an age had passed since anyone had called him by that title except out of habit, though. The Eldar of Eryn Lasgalen had begun leaving their homeland at the beginning of the Fourth Age, when Thranduil’s son Legolas founded a colony in Ithilien. It did not last long by Elven standards. Ithilien lay along the Anduin, which ran down to the sea; and when the Sea-longing awoke in the hearts of the Silvan and Sindarin Elves under Legolas’ command, it did not take many years for them to decide to follow it. Legolas himself tarried until his grief at the passing of King Elessar drove him over the Sea, taking with him (or so Thranduil heard) the dwarf Gimli, whose own people had begun to recede into legend. Slowly, through the course of the Fourth Age, the dominion of Men and the fading of Elves became more and more marked, and the stream of Eldar leaving the Grey Havens became even stronger. Lothlórien emptied. Imladris emptied. Soon Thranduil, restrained by causes he could not name, was left practically alone in Eryn Lasgalen. True, there were still a few of the Lindar and the other Avari who refused even then to seek refuge in Tol Eressëa. But the Noldor and virtually all of the Sindar were gone, and when at last Men overcame their fear of what was once Taur-e-Ndaedelos—Mirkwood, as they named it when Sauron the Necromancer still resided at Dol Guldur—and began to move in and take over, Thranduil and his small retinue were forced to go into hiding.
And so they faded, unwilling or unable to forsake Middle-earth, as the Fourth Age gave way to the Fifth and the Fifth came within a few centuries of the Sixth.
They dwindled, too. Natural disasters and stray arrows from careless Atani hunters slew most of the few Mirkwood Elves who chose to stay by their king, and more than one was caught in the crossfire of the wars that constantly threatened this land. Nor was it a simple matter to remain hidden in Middle-earth. It grew harder and harder to find food and shelter without disturbing Men, who had forgotten their existence beyond a handful of legends they did not understand. The language changed, and the Eldar had difficulty understanding it, although they did learn it slowly. The hearts of Men changed; for a time they forgot the One and the Valar, praying to gods that had a hint of the Valar in them but were as different from them as night and day, but then turned back to the worship of the One and His Son, whom they hailed as Redeemer. The little Thranduil could learn about this Son of God made him believe that Finrod Felagund had been proven right in his assertion to Andreth that Ilúvatar would enter history to set things right. Things were not yet completely right, but it was a beginning.
Just as Men forgot the One, they also forgot many other friends and allies. Dwarves were an element of tales like that of Lairelossë—or so someone rendered the term Schneewittchen—and not recognized for the remarkable creatures Thranduil eventually (and grudgingly) admitted they were. Hobbits were completely lost to both history and legend, at least in this area. And the Eldar themselves? Perhaps it was because of the ghostly appearance they acquired as their fëar slowly consumed their hroar, or perhaps it was some lie of Sauron revived from ancient Númenórean memories surrounding the Downfall, but the “elfs” of which Men now spoke in whispers were fearsome and evil… and not at all to be trusted.
Thranduil did not have the foresight of Galadriel to see what this portion of Arda—generally called Deutschland, despite the number of kingdoms that now claimed it—would one day become, both for good and for evil. Nor, by this time, did he really care. Tonight his main concern was finding a shelter where he and his band (now six in all) could be safe from the impending storm. And he wished, for the millionth time, that whatever nameless force kept him from following his sons across the sea had not delayed him so long. There was, he feared, now no way for him to follow the Straight Road to freedom from the mounting cares of Arda Marred.
His five companions gone to scout, Thranduil leaned against a linden tree near a road and brooded. The weather was conducive to such a state. His contemplation was broken, however, by the sound of rapid hoofbeats coming down the road toward him. Thranduil looked up to see who was coming.
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in den Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
The Elf spied a man urging his horse onward as if in extreme danger. The rider hunched over something bundled in a blanket; on closer inspection, Thranduil could see a boy’s face peeping through the wrappings. It looked flushed and sweaty, signs of a fever that had been plaguing the area with deadly results.
Ordinarily, Thranduil kept out of the affairs of men. Yet tonight something within him yearned to help this poor boy and his father. It might have been nothing more than the longing he felt for his own sons, now far away in the Blessed Realm; still, if he could help this father keep his son beside him….
He didn’t quite know how to finish that thought. So instead he concentrated on the speeding horse to see if he could match its gait if he had to give chase. As he stood there observing, the boy peeked out of the blanket again… and immediately hid his face and cringed against his father.
Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein
Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif? --
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.
This exchange struck Thranduil in a number of ways. It pleased him that the boy could see him; he had faded (literally) so much that very few except his own people could make out the form that had once commanded the armies of Mirkwood. The father took him for a patch of fog, which was embarrassing. Yet it pained him that the boy both feared him and saw him in a manner that was untrue to his current state. “The Elvenking with crown and train,” the boy had said. Well, Thranduil had not been king of anything for several millennia, and he certainly was not in his regal robes.
The boy could see him, though. That was a start. So Thranduil decided to call out. “Can you hear me, young one? I wish to help you! Come with me and I can bring you to a healer, one of the few remaining from the Golden Wood who learned from the Lady Galadriel!”
Thranduil then used what little telepathy he had to check to see how well the boy had heard. His heart sank when he discovered how it had registered in his fever-addled mind, and it sank even further when the boy cried out to his father again.
„Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.“
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du
Wie Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht? --
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürrene Blätter säuselt der Wind. --
Promises of games and golden clothes. This is what he hears from me. Ai Elbereth, help me get through to him… it is no wonder he fears me, for he takes me for a kidnapper! Thranduil thought unhappily as they rushed past him, and he took off after them. Dry leaves rustling in the wind is all the father hears. Perhaps, since I am closer, they will understand better….
“Please come with me!” he pleaded. “My hospitality is meager, but I can help you… and afterward I will treat you both to such sights and sounds as you have never heard and never will again!”
„Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.“
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort? --
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau;
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. --
Thranduil’s frustration mounted. Spiders and orcs… verily, this illness is worthy of Sauron himself. So far the poor lad’s mind has twisted every word I’ve said into a temptation. This time, though, it is the father whose eyesight is clearest; it is the willow trees that he saw. I have no daughters, and the wives of my sons are now far away, over the Sea. “Oh, Legolas, Legolas, why did I not go with you?!” he began thinking aloud, without realizing that he was doing so. “Ai, my son, surely I love you more than you knew… would that we could have overcome this nameless force of desire that binds me here so that I could have joined you!”
The boy heard this… or rather, fragments of it drifted into his delirium. It only made his fear greater. And when Thranduil finally got close enough to gently lay a hand on the coverlet to try to get his attention, he screamed, and his words made both his father and his would-be benefactor shudder in shock and terror.
„Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.“
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan! --
Hurt him?! That was the last thing Thranduil wanted to do! And he had never said anything about trying to take the child away by force! Bewildered, the Elf faltered in his gait, allowing the galloping steed to pull ahead of him as the father urged it to move faster. Thranduil was now mercifully out of the boy’s line of sight, though that did little to quiet his moanings. Still, something within him stubbornly refused to let these mortals go without knowing their fate and helping them if at all possible, so he continued to pursue them.
Less than half a mile later, the horse clattered across a drawbridge and into the courtyard of a small castle. Thranduil suddenly remembered that this was where the owner of all the surrounding lands lived; presumably this man worked on one of his farms. The Elf halted in the shadows just inside the gate, however. Even as people poured out of the surrounding buildings with lanterns to see what the matter was, the father slumped forward in his saddle.
“Mein Sohn… mein Sohn…” Thranduil heard him sob.
Something deep down in Thranduil’s heart broke. Somehow, this mortal father’s loss reminded him of how he felt the day word came from Ithilien that Legolas had fled the Hither Shores for Aman. The last Sindarin ruler slid deeper into the shadow of the gatehouse as the tears began to flow.
As the sounds of mourning mounted, another mostly-faded Elf slipped into the gate’s shadow. His keen ears quickly pinpointed the quiet sobs of his liege, and he knelt beside the hazy figure.
“My lord?” Rúmil of Lothlórien prodded softly, gently placing a hand on Thranduil’s back. “Lord Thranduil? We heard the noise, and I sought to follow….”
But Thranduil heard nothing that was said to him. All he could do was weep and echo the cries of the man whose son he had hoped to save. “My son… my son….”
Dem Vater grausest, er reitet
Er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.