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Fic: A Minstrel of Gondor, 3
The next-to-last piece of this story, in which the minstrel makes a choice.

He plays that evening for the Men of Dale and Laketown who have brought the first trading boats up the river and into the Greenwood, and with it word that the ice has broken on the lake and that spring is surely in the air. It has been a hard winter, venison and more venison, root vegetables stretched thin in soup and stew, and they are all glad of the change of season. He sings songs of Gondor tonight, not the tunes he has learned here, and indulges in the familiar small talk that marks such meetings. He has missed that meandering conversation — Elves, though voluble enough, speak quite literally a different language, and one that is not suited to commentary that does nothing but reaffirm one’s home and place. For that, the Elves have song, or silence, where Men would chatter.  His winter in Mirkwood has taught him silence, too, and he is feeling his way back into the rhythm of the talk when the king’s steward appears.

“Arthen.” He goes on in Sindarin, for all he speaks perfect Westron.  “The king wants you to play for him in his rooms. You can take him his wine, too — if you would.”

Most of the Dalemen understand enough Sindarin for that, and there are raised eyebrows and nudging elbows, though under Galion’s censorious eye no one will speak aloud.  Arthen doesn’t mind.  If anything, it will improve his status to have those rumors running before him, and he cases his harp and takes the pitcher with a bow to both Galion and the Dalemen.  Their leader raises his own glass in salute, his expression somewhere between amusement and envy.

He makes his way put the back stairs from the cellars toward the king’s chambers, the harp whispering against its case, and he shifts it to mute it, to move more silently. He has never been able to take the Elvenking by surprise, and he is unable to keep from trying.

He comes around the last curve of the stair to find the pool and antechamber empty, voice and laughter rising from the levels below no more distinct than the waterfalls. The lamps are shuttered, and the only light comes from the bedchamber, where an encircling root holds the bed of horn and an old streambed makes a stair to climb to the piled white furs. Arthen makes his way carefully through the shadow, and stops in the opening that serves as a doorway.

Thranduil is standing between the shadows and the light, a wreath of white flower for a crown, his favorite silver brocade gown falling like water from his shoulders.  A shadow mars his perfect face, hollowing his cheek to a skull — yet not a shadow, Arthen sees, frozen in the dimness. The hollows are real, ridges and runnels of scars that consume his cheek from jaw to hair, red and twisted and horrible still, for all they are clearly old. Beneath the untouched, imperious brow, the eye is white and blind.

A thousand small things, half noted, come together in an instant to prove that this is truth, the perfect beauty the illusion:  this is why Thranduil rules everything from his throne, where no one can come upon him unaware; this is why he has never permitted Arthen to touch him except as he himself directs, and this is why he circles ambassadors like prey, to keep them from his blind spot. A hundred stories of maimed and terrible kings crowd Arthen’s mind, dreadful tales only whispered among Men. Surely an elf so marred would retreat into the West, and yet Thranduil is still here.

He was not meant to see this, does not want to see it, and he steps back, scuffling his feet on the stone. Thranduil turns, illusion flowing like water to cover the scars, and motions Arthen to set the pitcher on the nearest table.

“Galion said you wished to hear me sing,” Arthen says, and his voice is passably steady.

“That is not precisely what I wanted,” Thranduil says, with a hawk’s smile, “but you may pour us both some wine first.”

This night is different. Thranduil has drunk deeply already, and seems in no mood for the slow unfurling of his pleasure. Instead, he sends Arthen to the bed before him, and pins him gasping against the furs, riding him to their mutual satisfaction. Afterward, Arthen sprawls, spent, and it is only after some minutes that he realizes the shoulder beneath his hand is ridged with scars as well. Thranduil says nothing, does not move, and after a moment Arthen moves his hand away, resting it instead on the smoother, safer skin of the king’s hip.

“The roads will be open soon,” Thranduil says, after some time. “I expect you will be leaving then.”

His tone is utterly neutral; Arthen cannot decide if it is merely observation, or dismissal.  That means he must choose, and he wonders for a moment what Thranduil would say if he begged to stay.  But Gondor beckons, his new songs, his hard-won knowledge a promise of certain fame, and he nods.  “I will.”

“Some of my men will be going south themselves,” Thranduil says. “You may travel with them if you wish.”

“May I return?” Arthen feels himself flush red with shame, not having meant to beg, but Thranduil only smiles.

“You will always be welcome. If you return.”

“I will,” he says, but they neither one believe him.
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Oh, Arthen, not unaware. Not at all unaware, though I do not know quite why Thranduil let you perceive so much.

Not unaware at all. (And there is another piece coming. :-)

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Thank you! It's a complicated choice.

I love the bit about language too, the differences between them, the hard-won knowledge of the difference between men and elves.

You have perfectly captured that they are not of the daylight world, that Thranduil is fey. Why has he let him see? His motives are as obscure as those of elves seem to the mortal world. Splendid and strange and different, this is an elven king Shakespeare would recognize. (Marlowe's Midsummer Night's Dream?)

Thank you! Arthen doesn't see the why, and probably never will, and without it can only make the choice he makes.

Oh, Arthen! And, oh, Thranduil. Who will go this far toward answering the question of whether there's something real beneath the dream -- and Arthen really doesn't want that question answered.

Yes, that - if this is the reality, then Arthen doesn't think he wants it. And he has fame and - if not fortune, at least a very nice living - waiting for him in Gondor.

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