And Erestor would agree, to an extent.
“I would gladly oblige any order from Rivendell’s greatest lord,” Erestor thought. “But my time spent with the king was not one of a counselor. Indeed at times I wondered if I was caring for an elfling!”
But he supposed it was reasonable to assume this change in the king. With Mirkwood’s queen gone, having sailed to sea before Legolas’s coming of age, and half the kingdom either also sailed to Valinor or traveled south to Ithilien, the king had grown lonely in his kingdom. And the loneliness expanded when his own beloved son left to make a kingdom of his own.
The news of Legolas’s sea-longing had shattered King Thranduil, for he had sought to keep his son innocent forever and desired most to keep Legolas from hearing the seductive call of the Sea. It gladdened the king slightly to know that Legolas wished to create an elf realm in Ithilien. Happier still he became at the news that Legolas was to wed, and it was to this ceremony that they now journeyed.
As glad as he was that the king was merry on this journey thus far, Erestor wished Thranduil would have considered riding on a horse instead of the frivolous silly carriage he insisted being carried on. Vast and deep it was, and required to be pulled by two of the kingdom’s strongest horses. It was easy to understand why, for the floor of the carriage was filled with objects concealed under a thick sheet. King Thranduil had also filled the space about him with books, leaving barely any room for Erestor to settle down. He appeared to not hear Erestor whenever he inquired about the contents in the carriage, and after some time the counselor had grown tired of weeding information from the elusive king and hoped that Thranduil simply desired endless reading material on their journey. He only hoped whatever Thranduil had would not result in Erestor’s hair becoming engulfed in flames, such as he did on the first week in service. Erestor shuddered at the memory.
“The first blooms of spring has never been more beautiful in these parts of Middle-earth, do you not think so, my lord?” Erestor said. “I daresay the Brown Lands may even be in bloom for the first in many a year.” He focused to see what he could discern of the barren lands across the river, for none crossed it in those days. Erestor continued speaking, for ever was Thranduil’s silence bothering him. He wished the king would just speak to him. He pondered if his son’s wedding had saddened Thranduil, but no trouble seemed to plague the king’s thoughts.
“Aye, you are correct,” King Thranduil said in a cheery manner. “It is a most beautiful day!”
“Well, you are finally speaking,” Erestor thought but he did not comment. The king was strangely jubilant though no wine glass was to be seen.
With a yawn and a stretch, the king leaned back in his carriage. “Beautiful indeed! To west we now go!”
“I beg your pardon, my lord?” Erestor said. “Ithilien is east! We travel south to Anórien, and Minas Tirith will be to the east.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Thranduil said. “It is not my first journey to this part of the land. But it is to west that we now turn!” He commanded the horses to turn westward, and Erestor hurriedly ran after him.
“What business do you have in Rohan?”
“It is not Rohan I seek, but the Haunted Mountains who have not been haunted since the Fellowship entered it,” Thranduil said.
“For what reason do you wish to enter that dreary place?” Erestor said.
“I have been embarking on the dangerous adventure of reading, as you always advised me,” Thranduil said. He indicated to the books beside him. “I came across tales of the most unusual of all gems and the rarest. Only one of its kind has been reported, and those who wrote of it were only able to get a glimpse of it. The last reported sighting was from a witness who said the gem was taken into the Haunted Mountain, and of course the taker had never appeared since.”
Thranduil gazed out as one hand played with a grape-shaped gem dangling from his crown. He changed his crown according to season and this summer, as part of celebrating Legolas’s bonding, he wove small droplets of gems in violet and yellow and green about his crown, giving him the appearance of an elf hiding in a grapevine. “More dazzling than any crystal, this gem is, like a silver drop weighing more than gold whose light dims all around it.”
“Somehow I don’t believe him,” Erestor thought. “But I will travel with him and perhaps persuade him before Anor leaves us for the night.” But throughout the day Erestor changed his mind, for Thranduil was the happiest that he had ever seen him, and it gladdened his heart to see the king in such a joyous mood, speaking of younger days when Legolas was just an elfling in his mother’s arms.
“Perhaps I was quick to judge him,” Erestor thought that night as he studied the sleeping form of the elven king. Like all elves he slept with his eyes wide open, and in them was still the merriment he displayed all that day. Erestor wondered for a moment if he should pull out the ridiculous crown Thranduil wore but decided against it. Their journey was yet long, longer now that they had a new errand along the way, and the king needed every bit of rest for his son’s wedding.
Then curiosity gripped him and he made for the king’s carriage. He lifted an edge of the sheet, revealing shovels littering the ground.
“He takes me for a common dwarf,” Erestor thought with a smirk. He brought the sheet back down and resumed his watch.
But as content as Erestor was, the closer they rode to the Haunted Mountain the less sure he felt. He was not one who believed in instinct, for he was a believer that logical reasoning was the only method to steer one’s actions. Yet not even he could deny that an ominous feeling had grown thick in his stomach, swirling with dread.
“What is it about the mountains that frighten you so?” Thranduil asked. Far sooner than Erestor hoped, they had reached the Haunted Mountain. The Dark Door glared at them from the white mountain.
“Frighten me?” Erestor said. “I simply do not wish us to be late to your son’s wedding, my king!”
“We will reach Ithilien on time,” Thranduil said. “Is there something you are afraid to see in the Mountains, Erestor? Perhaps a ghost from your past, the hair that so cruelly parted from you in a fiery end?”
“Do not bring out up that incident!” Erestor sighed deeply. “I merely have an ominous feeling of us entering this mountain. I’m worried about you, sire.”
“Erestor, I am touched!” Thranduil said. “Rarely do I see you express such emotion. It is strange but not unwelcome. You know how much I treasure passion in an elf.” He gave him a quick wink before resuming his search beneath the sheets of the carriage. He tossed to Erestor a shovel, which would have sliced his toes had he not caught it on time.
“Why have you not included others from Eryn Lasgalen?” Erestor said. “If we must dig for the treasure, would it not be quicker with several elves?”
Thranduil laughed. “I did so because, in the rare event should I be wrong about this gem, I have only you to share my embarrassment.”
“Ai, I am touched!” Erestor said. With a small sigh he followed Thranduil to the entrance of the cave. Before the darkness swallowed them completely Erestor turned back to see the horses regarding them solemnly. And perhaps it was Erestor’s imagination, but it seemed they tried to step as far back as the ropes would allow them.
The cave was everything as Legolas had described it. They first walked on a wide road for quite some time. Thranduil stopped when the road had just begun to narrow, and he pointed at the flat surface of the cave wall on their right. “It is here just as the stories have told. For many years anyone who dared to travel down would miss this wall, thinking it merely just part of the path.”
“How precisely do we enter it then?” Erestor asked. He walked up behind the king, close enough that he could strongly smell the sweet scents of grapes and vine, and he placed his hand flat over the dark surface, feeling for any crack in the hard stone. But there was naught a thing that was different from any part of the wall. Then he banged his knuckles on the wall, listening for any change in the sounds. “And how do we enter this secret path?”
“With song,” Thranduil said as he playfully brushed Erestor’s hand away. He rested his hand where Erestor had touched moments before, and a low hum came from his lips. It was of an ancient tongue no longer spoken in all the lands of Middle-earth for long gone was the tribe that first spoke them. Erestor listened closely for he was drawn to the strange words. They were thicker and heavier than the soft language of the Elves, yet there was much passion in each sound, much so that Erestor continued to study the handsome face of the elven king long after the song had ended.
“Did the song please you?” Thranduil asked. His smile was full of amusement.
Erestor shook himself back to the matter at hand. “It was quite intriguing to hear. I would much like to pour over the book which gave you insight into this lost tongue.”
Thranduil laughed. “Now I see the manner in which one could sway you into their arms. Perhaps there is passion in you after all. Come in!”
Not a single shard of light reached the secret passage, so much so that Erestor momentarily forgot that when they had first entered the cave it was still morning. Erestor searched around himself, realizing then that they had no wood about them to use as a torch, but before he could mention it to Thranduil, a brilliant light suddenly filled the passage.
“How did you steal the phial of Lady Galadriel!” Erestor cried out. “A lover of treasure you are, but never have I thought you a thief!”
“There are plenty in her stock,” Thranduil said. “Lady Galadriel had no reason for it when she sailed West, so I helped myself to a few. I would have used my own phial to guide me, but it is much dimmer than Galadriel, for after all she was an elven Lady full of light. I would not trust the direction my own phial would lead me.”
He gave Erestor a wink before leading down the passage. Erestor was glad for it, for a smile had formed on his face and his cheeks had flushed. But on and on as they went down secret passage Erestor began to wonder again at Thranduil’s intentions. Perhaps they were not brought in here for seeking such an impossible gem, but as a means to lure Erestor into the king’s arms. Though Erestor didn’t show it, the thought of being alone with the king for a couple nights in the empty cave thrilled him.
“Ai, but that would not explain why we must go such measures,” Erestor thought. “Surely a night on the side of the road would suffice. Ai, Erestor, what madness are you thinking! King Thranduil would never think of such things, especially not when his own son is about to bond!”
He shook himself from the thoughts and continued on the strange path to unknown treasure. They walked endlessly, it seemed, mostly in one direction and occasionally having to choose between two new paths to take. And the new paths would often lead them down in a spiral path then back up to seemingly endless roads. Not one scratch or dent could be seen on the smooth surface of the walls, and soon Erestor wondered if they had been walking in circles all this time.
“Perhaps we should look for the door from whence we came,” Erestor said. “It does not seem we are anywhere near the treasure, my lord.”
“The treasure is around, I am sure of it,” Thranduil said. “The book was meticulously detailed in describing the path to the gem.
“What precisely did the book say?” Erestor said. “I wish you had given me the source before we set out on this impossible mission.”
“I will tell you all at another time,” Thranduil said. “But for now, we enjoy the fruits of our effort, though it seems there was no need for shovels after all!”
Before them a bright light marked the end of the long tunnel. Erestor had expected to be surrounded by dozens of torches, but not one single torch did he find in the vast clearing they entered. Treasure reached high in the rocky ceiling, large clumps of gold, and silver, and mithril, and crystals and bright emeralds of every color.
In the very center of this, standing erect, was a statue of obsidian and gold. It was in the form of a man or elf but with beast-like demeanor in the way its cold golden eyes regarded the world before him. The moment Erestor stepped close, his eyes were drawn to the gem. It had to have been the legendary gem, for it provided all the light in the vast hall. And to his amusement and shock, the gem protruded out between the legs of the statue.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” Thranduil cried out.
“I must confess it is smaller than I imagined,” Erestor said.
“It does not matter for it holds great power within!” Thranduil said. He gripped the gem and gave it a hearty tug but no strength would release the gem from the statue. “It is not a wonder then why no one has sought this gem before. The gem cannot be removed. I could cut it off but I have no sword of such power.” He tried lifting it then with a wince he put it back. “It would be impossible to lift this back out of the cave. Perhaps if I just broke the entire statue and took what we need, then we can resume our journey to Legolas’ wedding.”
Erestor made to protest, for he was a lover of antiques, and felt the statue deserved respect, but Thranduil had already shoved it. Erestor paused, anticipating the resounding crash, but it never came. The statue had fallen back till it was just an inch from the ground, then suddenly it rebounded back to its feet. And as it uprighted, Thranduil and Erestor could now see that the face of the statue had changed into a demonic face full of rage.
“This is most odd,” Thranduil said. “Erestor, do you see this?”
But Erestor did not reply, for his attention had shifted to the many ghost-like forms that were emerging from the thick black walls. He could not make out their shapes, but he did not need to see them to know the mistake Thranduil and he had made.
“My lord, please, we must leave at once,” Erestor whispered in Thranduil’s ear.
“Is it ghosts that frighten you?” Thranduil said. “They are only dead. They cannot harm us.”
“Thranduil!” a voice bellowed. For the first time since seeing the statue Thranduil’s smile faltered. He turned around slowly, as if hesitant to see what his mind anticipated.
Erestor’s gaze shifted from Thranduil to the ghost who had called out the king’s name with such wrath. The being was in the form of an elf but distorted, as though the breath of a Balrog filled it and gave it life. But there was no denying the tall elf that regarded him with fires in his eyes.
Thranduil stood straight and cleared his throat. “Father?” Erestor winced at the high-pitched squeak that came from the king. Like a terrified child he suddenly looked, immobile in his terror at meeting his father.
“Never was King Oropher this way,” Erestor thought. He had never met the king for he was just an elfling when the elvenking took the army to fight in War of the Last Alliance. But from stories he knew that the former king was the perfect image of his son. “Something else must be at work,” he thought. The little piece of logic was enough to free him from his frozen state. He quickly checked around the room, and there between two other ghosts was a spot blacker than the rest of the wall.
“This way, my king,” Erestor pleaded to Thranduil in a hushed voice. “Do not speak with him. Come!”
But King Thranduil ignored his counselor. “What reason are you here, father?”
“What reason are you here?” Oropher said. “Searching for more gold for your filthy hands to fondle?”
“Lord, please!” Erestor pleaded. But again he was ignored.
Oropher opened his mouth but it was strange words that now poured from his ghostly lips. At first Erestor thought it was the local dialect spoken in Thranduil’s elven realm, but they bore no resemblance to any language he studied. However there was a familiarity, but it was the last of Erestor’s thoughts. He scanned each face of every ghost that filled the room; there were beings of races he had never encountered nor ever read about. There were men and elves and dwarves, and occasionally the odd hobbit here or there, but also were large beings whose heads scrapped the ceiling, or elven-like creatures with ram horns curled about their ears. And scattered around were small pale shapes of hobbit-sized creatures with thick short hair and beaks for nose and mouth.
Erestor turned to Thranduil. The king’s face had turned sickly pale at his father’s words, as though the former king held the power to drain life by use of the strange tongue.
The other spirits around him inched closer, their eyes boring into the two intruders, and even Erestor could feel his energy leave him.
With a great push, Thranduil was thrown from Oropher’s gaze and his mind returned. Erestor squeezed Thranduils’ arm, but no words were exchanged between them. They made for the tunnel Erestor had indicated, and they did not need to glance back to know that the ghosts were close behind. Their terrible screams filled the tunnel, drowning the sounds of hearts pounding in their chests. Unlike the previous paths they took, their feet fell softly on the uneven earth. A few times Erestor felt his foot slip lower, nearly lodging into a small ditch. And once his ankle scrapped against something sharp and he felt warm blood trickle down his foot.
“Quicker, Erestor!” Thranduil yelled as much as he could, for the ghostly screams nearly deafened them. Erestor gave a short nod though the king did not see him in the dark, and he picked up speed in each step. With his arm outstretched on either side he felt for any new tunnel in which to turn.
A sudden hard snapping sound met his ears, and the king cried out sharply in pain. One second later his weight fell upon Erestor. At that same moment Erestor felt the wall give away, and without a moment’s hesitation he slipped into the hole before tumbling to the ground.
The ghosts did not follow but their cries still rang in the elves’ minds.
“What is the matter?” Erestor asked as he searched frantically for Lady Galadriel’s phial of light. When he found it he rose it up to see the king huddled on the ground, his fingers gripped around his right knee; the lower half of his leg stuck at an odd angle. Behind him a door hard and black stood wide open where it could have easily been missed as part of the wall had the light not shone on it.
“It is merely dislocated,” Erestor said. He slammed the door shut, lest light drew attention of ghosts or any other dweller of the cave, and he set the phial next to him before setting to work. “It will not hurt if you lie back and let me do what I must.”
With a curt nod of his head Thranduil lied on the ground with one arm supporting his head to allow him to watch Erestor as he raised over his robes to expose the injured leg. Hands cool with nervousness rested on his flesh. The contact gave the king a chance to tap into his counselor’s thoughts, for such intimacies allow elves to exchange their thoughts. But little did Thranduil gain from Erestor’s mind. The elf regarded the king with an amused smile before returning to his work. Sighing, Thranduil rested his head back.
The air grew silent, mingled with the soft voice of Erestor’s healing chant. The song’s power slipped up his leg and over Thranduil’s body, bringing about him a sense of peace and calm. The elven dreamscape was calling for him to enter, to forget the turmoil of their current situation. And Thranduil smiled, ready to slip into that glorious world, when suddenly a terrible jolt of pain shot through him.
With a scream he yanked out his leg from Erestor’s grip.
“What madness possessed you to do this!” he said.
“Would you have preferred it if I fixed you without putting you in a state of comfort first?” Erestor said. “You leg is completely healed. I hope you are happy, lord.” He turned his back and scuffed off, tending to his own wound. It was then that Thranduil realized Erestor was bleeding but had put his own ailments aside to help him.
“Forgive me, Erestor,” Thranduil said. “Elves of royalty could give you more pain than a cut.”
“A royal pain you are at times,” Erestor said. “But I do not regret my time spent with you.” Thranduil laughed. “I mean it, Thranduil!”
“Would you then not complain if your head ended up in fire again?” the king asked.
It was Erestor’s turn to laugh. “That I perhaps don’t miss.” The last line faded from his leg, leaving behind smooth white skin. Before Thranduil could see more, Erestor dropped the hem of his robes. “It was not kind of your father to assume you only sought the gem for yourself. I thought your relationship with your father was on good terms.”
“That is true,” Thranduil said. “But he is not far from the truth. I have thought of taking the gem for only myself. Yet ironic is it that between us he had the bigger love for treasure. Perhaps that is why he is even here in the cave! There would be no other explanation! We must return back to him!”
“Two against hundreds, I do not think that would be a wise strategy, my lord!”
“And what then? This journey would have all been for naught!” Thranduil stood up, wincing at the crack that came from his right knee. “I will return to my father and -“
Erestor pushed Thranduil back to the ground. “You will remain here!” Erestor yelled louder than he had meant to, and the words reverberated in the walls.
“You are content to scorn a king?”
Erestor sighed. “I apologize. I did not mean to scorn, only to advise.”
“Advise and to save,” Thranduil said, sighing. “One needs a good friend like you to bring them back to sense every once in a bit.”
He stretched his neck and gave Erestor a soft kiss on his cheek.
“I merely do my job, lord,” Erestor said, failing to hide his smile.
“And you do it well.” King Thranduil turned his gaze to the opposite direction and said no more. His face grew pale again, and his eyes became unfocused, as though there was a danger he could see that Erestor could not.
“What troubles you, lord?” Erestor asked after the silence dragged for too long. “Could it be the words your father spoke to you?”
“Aye,” Thranduil said simply. “It was a language I have never heard in my life yet I seemed to understand each word. And yet now as I sit and speak with you I cannot recall what my father said to me. I wonder what the meaning of it all was. I fear the words were wicked and somehow I had glimpsed into a dark place, become one of them for a short time.”
“Do you recall what was said? Any of it?”
Thranduil shook his head.
Erestor bit his lower lip before replying. “We have both heard the language before. If I am correct in memory the language was similar to the words you spoke when we entered this pathway of the cave.”
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
“My interest lies in language,” Erestor said. “The words your father’s spirit spoke had the same speech patterns and vowel stresses as your incantation. I daresay the entire population of this mountain knows this ancient tongue, though for what reason I do not know.”
“And you were able to discern this with only a few words to go from?” Thranduil said. He studied Erestor with wide eyes. “I am truly impressed, counselor. You have such magnificent gifts.”
“I was taught the art of healing by Lord Elrond,” Erestor said. “But language remains my dearest passion.”
“Your passion comforts me,” Thranduil said. “I had worried I was turning into one of them. But thankfully that is not the case! Ever am I glad Elrond sent me you to be my counselor.”
And his lips were upon Erestor’s, who opened them slightly in surprise before quickly responding to the king’s kiss. His shock was still felt by Thranduil and he moved apart.
“I hope you were not startled by this?” Thranduil said.
“No, my lord,” Erestor said. “I truly mean this. I do not mind at all.”
They shared a smile before moving for another kiss, which lingered longer and deeper than the first. Erestor’s hands slipped through the luscious waves of the king’s golden hair, hoping he did not find a bump on the king’s head that would indicate that the kiss was a result of madness rather than genuine love. He found none to his delight, and the massaging of his fingers against Thranduil’s scalp earned a contented moan from the king.
A rustle of sounds against the door brought an end to their moment. Without a word Erestor crawled towards the door, squinting his eyes to locate any shadows or hint of ghostly forms in the cracks.
“There is not a thing I saw,” Erestor said upon his return. “It seems Lady Galadriel’s phial keeps them out, though it is best if we keep its light far from where they can see. Perhaps we should rest to gain back our energy.”
They stripped off their outer robes and laid them underneath themselves. The memory of their lips against one another was still vivid in their minds, but none moved to continue where they had left. In Erestor’s case, his mind was filled with the strange adventure they were now entrapped in. His mind stormed for ideas on how to get them out safely, and so lost in his thoughts was he that he did not look up until a heavy sigh broke his train of thought.
He looked up to see the king studying him intently. He was propped up by one elbow, still wearing that frivolous crown, and his eyes held intensity.
“Apologies, lord,” Erestor said. “I was in deep thought about our peril and -“
Thranduil smiled. “You are not required to apologize. I was merely thinking of how kissing you fools me into thinking I am yet a young elf first discovering love.”
Erestor laughed. “Never is anyone too old for love. Good night, my lord.” He reached out and caressed the king’s arm, leading him gently back to the ground while avoiding letting Thranduil’s head rest on any of the small grape-like gems, for the king refused to have them removed when Erestor attempted so.
His quick small kisses brought a light chuckle from Thranduil, who had long missed such intimacy of another. But to take their newfound love further didn’t seem appropriate in their current state, for he did not think it would be simple to run if they were discovered in a compromising position, not to mention the look on his late father’s face would not be something he’d want to remember, or forget any time soon. And right before he fell into elven slumber Thranduil grinned at the thought.
“What mischief are you thinking?” Erestor said softly, more to himself than the elven king. It was his turn to study the king. He felt the blissful tranquility that always filled him right before sleep came, but a thought that been growing in his mind had become too great for him to now ignore.
“Why does this thought possess me?” Erestor thought. “Never am I to dare such a foolish and reckless task. Indeed I have been ever the proper elfling, especially after the time I tried feeding my aunt’s undergarments to the creature that lived in the river - by the Valar, why has that memory come to haunt me now!”
He sat up. There was nothing he could do to abate the idea. They had come for this gem, and nothing would please the king more than to acquire the gift he had set to bring to his son. And so Erestor got to his feet, checking to make certain the king still slept, before slipping back on his outer robes. Then he slipped Lady Galadriel’s phial into Thranduil’s hand before heading out into the darkness.
The door was left slightly ajar, just enough for him to spot the area in his return. He could barely see beyond his nose, even with his sharpened sense, but he did not like the thought of leaving his beloved king without the protection of the phial.
In time, Erestor relocated the hall. He searched around for any ghost that may have remained, but there was none. Tentatively he made his way straight to the statue. He walked around the obsidian king in deep contemplation: how was he to remove the gem? He avoided touching the statue as much as he could in case it was the touch that alerted the ghosts, though he would have enjoyed a chance to admire the handiwork of the sculpture. Rarely did he get the opportunity to study the craftwork from other lands. There was much one could glean about another people simply from their art, but the chance to do so would not be appropriate in this situation.
Suddenly he noticed the tiny words written around the feet of the statue. The bright light from the gem sent a bright glare against the words, shielding them from view. And only when Erestor was standing at a certain angle, casting a small shadow over the statue’s feet, could he read the words.
His heart leapt as he got on his knees to take a closer look. He recalled every language he learned, ready to decipher the message. But to his surprise, the passage was written in Tengwar, and the words formed were Quenya. But Erestor was certain he did not see elvish letters when he first caught sight of the passage.
“It is as though the words change according to your native tongue,” Erestor thought. “But this is absurd. The makers of the statue wouldn’t want an intruder to take the gem, would they?” He decided to put this worry aside and focus on the instructions, which were brief and brought a slight blush to the elf’s cheeks as he became aware of his position.
O Thief! If it is your wish
to strip me of my treasure,
the answer is quite clear,
And it be my pleasure!
Erestor looked up, noting that he was staring right at the protruding gem, and he laughed as the realization struck him. “Thranduil and I have been together for barely an hour and already I must commit an act of disloyalty against him. But it is with love for him that I do this!”
Then he set to work. He had believed it to be an easy task, but never did he expect the loud, contented moans from the statue, which seemed to have come alive from the first contact of lips on jewel. To keep himself focused, Erestor turned his mind to Thranduil, but that quickly proved to be a very bad idea.
From the corner of his eye Erestor continually checked to make certain no ghost would return to protect their treasure. But thankfully, none returned. And after what seemed too long a time, Erestor pulled back and spit out the gem that was finally freed from the statue.
He pocketed the gem, and instantly all the light in the hall went out. He waited for the quick second before his sharp elven eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. Then, hoping the thick robes would hide light as well as it hid his own arousal, he slipped out back to the tunnel where Thranduil rested. Not one creature disturbed him in his travel back to their hiding place, but Erestor was uncertain how to take the news.
“If they are not chasing me, then they must have come for Thranduil!” Erestor thought aloud.
“Who is chasing who, Erestor?”
With a painful cry the two elves collided.
“My lord, my apologies!” Erestor said.
“Where have you been?” Thranduil asked. “I awoke and did not find you beside me, and a sound most terrible had filled the mountain. I thought the ghosts had dragged you away and brought upon you great torture!”
“I am perfectly fine,” Erestor said. “I went back to the statue and was able to retrieve the gem - here!”
Thranduil’s eyebrows shot up the moment the gem left Erestor’s pocket. It filled the tunnel with its brilliant light, and illuminated the hungry look in the king’s eyes.
“This is marvelous!” Thranduil said. “How were you able to do this?”
“Just a simple procedure,” Erestor said, and he hoped Thranduil had not seen his erection twitch at the memory. But Thranduil did not seem to notice, nor did he ask any further questions. His contentment at gaining possession of the gem was enough. He embraced Erestor tightly and crushed their mouths together, flinging his tongue in playfully to show his gratitude.
Erestor gasped, though not because he did not wish for the intimacy. His body was reacting more painfully, and he wished for nothing more than to shed his robes, and be damned any ghost that sees them, for they would get a fright of their very own. “But no, Erestor! Such swift procession is never good for any relationship!” he thought.
“Does something ail you, love?” Thranduil asked. There was a concern in his voice that Erestor haven’t heard before. But it made him glad to know the king cared deeply for him, and that he still did not notice his arousal.
“I am well, thank you,” Erestor said. “I am merely still a little stiff from my return to the hall.”
“I can help you, I hope,” Thranduil said. He curved his arms around Erestor, rubbing his shoulder blades.
“Aye!” Erestor cried out. “I did not mean that stiffness!”
“Then what were you referring to?”
“Never you mind!”
Again they kissed, lost in their passion, and Erestor fought not to submit to the fiery desires which clouded all sense of reasoning. He would be ready for a deeper level of intimacy if Thranduil wished it.
Then suddenly they heard heavy breathing that belonged to neither elf. Turning back they caught sight of a ghostly form of a fat old man, grinning at them and his eyes large and white. He panted as he bobbed in his place.
Thranduil laughed heartily. “I believe this departed man has been delighting himself in the wake of our lovemaking!”
Erestor gave a cry of horror.
“Do not worry about him, I am certain he only means to enjoy himself,” Thranduil said.
“That is not what troubles me!” Erestor said. He indicated to the shadows behind the lewd ghost. A pair of bright yellow eyes were watching them from the shadows, and the moment Erestor had given away its hiding place, it slipped out.
It too was a ghost, though its eyes burned golden. Erestor recognized it immediately as one of the strange creatures with a duck bill-like snout and thick black mane. He recalled from his readings of creatures around the world and found the word: kappa.
The ghostly creature raised a finger, pointing at Erestor. Its eyes never left him. Erestor thought it strange for he was not holding the gem at that moment, but then he realized where the kappa was pointing.
“What does he mean by this?” Thranduil asked.
“He knows I was the one who stole the gem.”
“And how does he know that?”
“It matters not! The others will be here at any second!”
And sure enough, cries shattered the wall as thousands of souls poured into the tunnel. More terrible they had become since the last the elves had seen them. Several souls had fused, forming massive shapes of beasts bizarre and terrible at once. Had the situation not been of one so grave, Erestor would have laughed at the sight of a ghostly duck with large teeth. But it was the swiftest from the rest and its long teeth shone like dozen swords.
“Do not fear, I have a sword,” Thranduil said. He threw the gem back at Erestor before pulling out a long cylinder scabbard from beneath his robes.
“You had no sword upon entering the cave!” Erestor said.
“That I didn’t. Yet I realized my mistake and so I grabbed one from the hall before catching sight of the statue.”
“And would this work against them?”
“Not all are ghosts, if you look closely.” Thranduil grabbed the hilt and gave a mighty tug. And out came not a sword, but a long scroll. Thranduil’s face fell as the scroll’s papyrus sheet rolled to the ground, revealing bright illustrations depicting young children at play.
“Ai, this is grave indeed!” Erestor cried.
The kappa was still pointing at him, and the ghosts screamed their victory upon reaching them, but the elves were at a run again, willing their legs to take them at incredible speeds.
“Why hadn’t you checked to make certain the scabbard carried a sword?” Erestor yelled over the loud din of their pursuers.
“Why were your foolish enough to think of taking the gem without consequence?” Thranduil yelled back.
“I was merely trying to help you!”
“We should have never come here!”
“You should have thought of the danger before - Ai!”
The ground suddenly gave away beneath them, and down they fell for how long, none knew. Erestor was the first to land, and a sickening crunch met his ears but before he could discern which bone had broken, Thranduil’s body fell on top of him, adding another sickening crack.
“Erestor, are you hurt?” the king asked. He slipped off his counselor and tended to his body.
But Erestor was still angry with him and he shoved him away. “Leave me!”
“Don’t be a child,” Thranduil said. “I found it! Your shoulder is disconnected! I’m afraid I do not know the incantation to make your rest.”
And before Erestor could protest, the intense pain shot through him as his bones were rearranged back to their proper position. He slipped away from Thranduil the moment feeling returned to his arm. He further healed his shoulder with a gentle song. He didn’t speak for a long time, for he was uncertain what he now felt for the king. It wasn’t until after a few moments that he realized that the mixture of fright from the chase and their argument had brought one good thing.
“Thank the Valar I am deflated!” he said aloud. “I can think clearly once more!”
Thranduil gave him a funny look but he did not question him.
“Now he thinks I have also injured my head!” Erestor thought. “Are you hurt in any way, my lord?” he called out.
“I am well,” Thranduil said, “thanks, again, to you.”
Erestor chuckled. “Though not directly. But I am glad to be of help to you.”
“As am I,” Thranduil said.
Erestor walked around the tunnel they were now in, studying their surroundings. “Do you still have the gem?”
“It was with you, wasn’t it?” Thranduil said. “I threw it to you before fending them off with a scroll.”
“Oh, yes,” Erestor said. He reached for his pocket. “Thank you.” He made to raise his gem over his head then quickly decided against it. “They could find us, and we are unarmed. We need Lady Galadriel’s phial.”
“That I still have with me,” Thranduil said. He handed it to Erestor.
“We are trapped deeper in this cave than I can calculate, and there is no sign of food or fresh water in sight! Ai, this is grave!” Erestor sighed deeply. “Even if we find a way out, it would be far too late to reach Legolas’s wedding in time, though perhaps he will put a search for us the moment he knows we are lost.”
“Perhaps so, if I know my son well enough,” Thranduil said as he settled on the ground. “Till then, we relax.”
“But, ai! What of food and drink? Though I do not like to think it would take us months to find the exist, we have already worn ourselves. Graver our situation becomes, and graver this place will be to us!”
Erestor fell to the ground opposite the king and sighed deeply. Thranduil was no where near as troubled as Erestor, for indeed he seemed most amused. However he kept toying with his crown, plucking gems one by one and popping them into his mouth.
Erestor blinked and took a closer look at Thranduil. What he originally perceived as gems were really grapes that only took their true form when plucked from the frivolous golden crown. Each piece was large and plump like the fruits served in the king’s hall.
“All this time you had food and you did not think to inform me?” Erestor said as he jumped to his feet.
“Yes,” was Thranduil’s simple reply.
Erestor growled. “Do you have any idea how much grief this would have saved me?”
“Aye, I do, my lovely Erestor, but I do much enjoy watching you make a spectacle of yourself.” Thranduil laughed heartily as he bit down on another grape. He closely watched Erestor’s reaction. “Come! Enough of your drama. Sit with me and enjoy this meal!”
He tugged Erestor by the sleeve harder than he had intended, and dozens of grapes rolled off the ground after Erestor crashed over the elven king. Erestor made to apologize, for he was quite certain his elbow had met Thranduil’s jaw, but there was instead joyous laughter coupled with Thranduil plopping a grape into Erestor’s mouth. Along with the fruit slipped in his finger, and Erestor got a taste of his king.
He was glad the cave was dim for his cheeks had turned hot at the contact. Even up close Thranduil did not seem to mind his counsellor reacting to his touches, for he kept stuffing one piece after another into Erestor’s mouth.
“You are such a delight to behold with your cheeks bursting with food,” Thranduil said. “Were we still in my Halls I would have you punished for your lack of manners.”
Erestor swallowed the thick chunk, almost choking, and weaseled himself out of Thranduil’s arms. He planned to scold Thranduil for his lack of severity but suddenly pain spread up his spine and over his ribs.
“What ails you?” Thranduil asked, and his merry tone was gone.
“I believe I injured more than a shoulder,” Erestor said. “But I will be fine. I mustn’t make any strenuous moves.”
“Lie down. I can help.”
“This is far too much like before, in another part of the cave,” Erestor said. He couldn’t suppress a smile, and Thranduil returned it.
“Then we are both even, mellon,” Thranduil said. “Let me heal you.”
Thranduil helped him onto the ground, lying on his stomach. Then he rested beside him and massaged his back. And with each stroke he put a different degree of force. The soothing effect sent Erestor in a state of great ease. He thought of protesting for fear of being discovered, but the light from Lady Galadriel’s phial provided the needed protection.
He did not stir when he felt Thranduil lay on top of him. The weight helped soothe him further, to know Thranduil was so close to him. In Erestor’s right hand Thranduil slipped the phial, and he covered his hand over Erestor’s.
“Rest,” Thranduil said softly next to his ear. “Our journey has been difficult. But for now we are safe, and it is time for you to get your energy. Galadriel’s beautiful light will protect us.”
Erestor rested his head on his other arm and allowed sleep to take him. He could still feel Thranduil’s hand over his, caressing his thumb with his own, slightly sticky from the grapes. In the elven dreamscape the two souls walked with their fingers entwined, through mists of silver and past rivers of woven emeralds. The hum of a beautiful song spun between them. And when Erestor’s mind brought him back to the waking world, Thranduil’s hands were still caressing his, though he slept. And this brought a smile upon Erestor’s face, who felt warmth fill him.
There was a stir above him, and the elven king said, “Perhaps it is time for us both to move.”
“Yes, my lord,” Erestor said. “And to where?”
They spread apart. “Our only path lies in the outside,” Thranduil said. “However, we have long lost sight of that path. Our journey out may be long, or if Eru wills it we may still reach the wedding in time.”
“Aye,” Erestor said. “And perhaps it is best to never bring out the gem till we leave the mountain. Though I wonder if the ghosts would come for us if we reveal it before all the court in Ithilien.”
“Ai, that would put my son’s marriage on a memorable beginning!” Thranduil grinned. “Come!”
They set off in the direction that seemed best fit. Galadriel’s phial they carried before them, keeping close to her light for safety. Not one moment did they ever stray from one another, for though of elven blood they were, the journey was slowly draining them of their strength. They ate only when their bodies ached with hunger and rested only when their legs no longer could carry them. Up circular stairs of ebony they walked, down more tunnels, and always deciding which path to take next.
“Never have I heard of such a cave crafted in this level of minute detail,” Thranduil said. “I begin to think it is not by any living hand that this was made.”
Erestor’s only reply was a faint moan before collapsing against the wall. They had long lost count of time and thus knew not how many days had passed. But each time they rose from elven sleep their hopes sunk lower. There was no end in sight of the caves.
“Perhaps we could make a kingdom in here instead,” Thranduil said. “Never again have the ghosts haunted us, and never will they so long as Galadriel’s phial is by our side.”
“But we would need many more of us for this kingdom to exist,” Erestor said weakly.
“The two of us will suffice,” Thranduil said. “Enduring you is enough test of my patience.” They shared a laugh, which was quieter than any they shared.
Thranduil reached up to his crown where the last gem gleamed emerald from its place beside his temple. He plucked it and brought it to Erestor’s lips.
“No!” Erestor said. “I would not take the final meal from a king.”
“The king wishes nothing more than for you to eat this,” Thranduil said gently, slipping the grape into Erestor’s mouth and watching him savor the last of their rations. He kissed Erestor’s mouth before slipping to the hard ground. Erestor joined him, and in that moment both knew fear of death. Though elves normally walked the world without thought of dying, Erestor and Thranduil finally felt the pangs and terror of a looming end.
“It was a curse coming into this cave,” Erestor said.
“Aye, I will agree my actions were foolish,” Thranduil said. “But it brought to light the greatness of your companionship.” He smiled at Erestor before turning back to his pocket where the gem lay hidden.
“Do not enter sleep, lord,” Erestor said. “I fear you won’t return.”
“I will return,” Thranduil said. “Mandos won’t claim me, for ever am I a stubborn bastard.” He tapped the gem in his pocket, and with a small laugh, his eyes became unfocused as his mind left to the dreamscape. Erestor touched his cheeks, fearing they would turn cold.
“I love him,” Erestor said. “I pray no ill will befall him. Ai, this gem was a curse and to destroy it is my wish!”
He looked up and was startled at the appearance of two brilliant yellow eyes. Moments later the ghostly kappa approached. Erestor glanced at Galadriel’s phial, and as if the kappa knew what he thought, it shook its head.
With no means of protection, Erestor could find no way to fend off the ghost. But he slipped closer to Thranduil and said, “Please, spare us. I would return to you the gem if it meant my king’s safe return to the light!”
“Would you?” the kappa asked in Quenya. Its velvety, feminine voice startled Erestor, whose eyes had grown wide and watery in disbelief. “You are not imagining this, Erestor of the Noldor. I speak many tongues. Take the gem and come with me.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Erestor said.
“Your king will die if you do not follow me,” the kappa said. “Your weakness is linked to the stolen gem. Your path has been endless for your greedy hearts still lusted for the gem. Only when you both have given up your desire for it will I then have the chance to lead you to freedom.”
Erestor hesitated. He reached over the king and slipped his hand into the pocket. In his mind he promised himself he would destroy the gem if any tried to harm the king. He got up and showed the gem to the kappa, and the gem’s light lit the dark tunnel brighter than Galadriel’s phial.
He turned his head back to Thranduil in worry.
“The king will live,” the kappa said. “No one will hurt him. Follow me.”
The path they took was very short, and in no time Erestor was once again in a room full of treasure, only this place was smaller and the obsidian statue was not present. Other ghosts and other ghoulish beings were present. In fear Erestor raised the gem, ready to throw it against the ground, and the kappa said gently, “None here will hurt you, fool. Look around you!”
Erestor studied each ghostly face in the room. Again he saw the strange races that lived far from the realms in the West, but he also caught sight of familiar peoples. But what captured Erestor’s attention was the intense sadness in everyone’s eyes. They all stared at the gem, their faces forlorn.
“What is this gem, and why do you hold it in such esteem?” Erestor asked. “And how have you all come to this mountain? I can see there are many others that haunt this cave than the army that King Elessar freed many seasons past. Why have these ghosts remained, and from lands near and far?”
“This mountain is known to all departed souls,” the kappa said. “We come from every part of the world seeking the comfort it brings, and it is this gem which draws us to this place.”
“King Thranduil told me Men had taken the gem into the mountain, but he never knew why,” Erestor said.
“That is correct,” the kappa said. “They were of the Harad, and it is in their realms where more of the gem’s legacy is written down, though the extent of knowledge has dwindled in the years. Not even the longest inhabitants of this mountain can recall all lore of this gem. But we know that the Haradrim learned much about death, enough to understand that not all souls pass to the Halls. This gem was crafted as a light to feed all souls who in misery, famine - or some, for reasons unknown - could not pass on.”
Erestor’s heart leapt in his chest, but he controlled his excitement at the new knowledge. He would have to learn more at a later time, if Eru willed it. “Then why was it taken to this mountain?” he asked. “If the light attracts all beings from every corner of Middle-earth, why not keep the gem in their land?”
“Inside this mountain is where the spirits could feel the promise of the Undying Lands the most,” the kappa said. “Here our souls are most at ease.”
Erestor nodded slowly. “It makes sense,” he thought. “King Oropher and his army slain at Mount Orodruin, the Dead Men of Dunharrow cursed to roam till their oaths fulfilled.”
“The ancient tongue that used to enter this path is spoken by all,” Erestor said.
“All who reside here eventually know it,” the kappa said. “For the gem sings in that tongue. You would hear it too if you join us.”
“The gem keeps the spirits feeling well?” Erestor said. “And when we took it, you chased us not out of rage but out of concern for your own wellbeing.” All the ghosts nodded their heads, and the eyes of some flashed bright; the portly short man who Erestor recognized gave a loud content belch as agreement. “How can I be certain you will ensure Thranduil’s safe return out of the mountain?”
“As I said, the path was altered so you would not find your way with the gem in your hands. There are many more secrets to this mountain than you can bear to comprehend. Rest assured, that once the gem is safely back with us, you will find your path bestowed with light. It will be only a few strides before you are free from this place.”
Erestor turned back his head, and sure enough the first few rays of light fell on his lord. The entrance could not have been far, and from the tone of the light his mind conjured images of daybreak.
“You are free to leave us whenever you wish,” the kappa said. “We ask only for what is rightfully ours.”
“I will give you anything, so long as Thranduil is well,” Erestor said. “I only hope there is no ritual for me to perform in order to place the gem back on the statue.”
The kappa’s laughter was strangely like a duck. “You have nothing more to do. We will take care of all that remains to be done.”
Erestor’s grip on the gem tightened and slackened repeatedly, but his decision was made fast. He held out the gem for the kappa to take, and she cupped the bright jewel in her hands in fear of breaking it. All eyes turned to the gem, and Erestor felt a painfully heavy burden lessen from his shoulders.
“Thank you,” the kappa said.
“No, I must thank you,” Erestor said. “We did not realize how much one gem could affect the souls of the beings who stand here. And I must thank you for sparing our lives.”
The kappa chuckled. “May it be, we do not wish to kill, for there are enough of us as it is here. Now go!”
Erestor bowed and made to leave when the kappa called back.
“But your devotion and love for the elven king touches us,” the kappa said. “It would be unfair to come so far and leave without a parting gift. Take any treasure you wish from this room. We have no need for any of them.”
“Could I trust them?” Erestor thought. “Perhaps this is a test.” And he said to them, “I am heartened by your offer but I cannot think to take any more of what is yours.”
“The treasures here are but junk thrown by men wandering into our caves,” the kappa said. “We will not let you return to your king till you take one.”
Erestor wished to go back to Thranduil as soon as he could, when his eyes caught a beautiful golden necklace with emeralds woven about the length. The emeralds’ deep forest color reminded him of Thranduil’s beautiful eyes.
“Would I be permitted to take this?” he asked.
“Certainly,” the kappa said. She indicated for another spirit to retrieve the necklace, and when the spirit approached Erestor he realized he was looking into King Oropher’s eyes. He spoke not a word, but with a curt nod of his head he offered up the necklace.
“We wish you well, Erestor of the Noldor,” the kappa said after Erestor thanked them once more. “Learn this lesson well, and never return to this cave!”
Erestor bowed again and left. He found Thranduil exactly as he had been when he left him, except now the king’s face radiated with color. With a smile full of affection Erestor slipped the necklace around the king’s neck and settled beside him to rest once more.
In almost no time after waking from their reverie did Erestor and Thranduil find the exit to the Haunted Mountains. The Midday sun blinded them for only a moment before their eyes adjusted to its much missed light. They left the Haunted Mountains by the same entrance they had entered in. Upon seeing them, their horses gave great whinnies.
“There is yet still time for us to reach Ithilien,” Erestor said. “Though the rest of our people have perhaps reached there by now, I do not think we will be terribly late.”
“You are correct, Thranduil said. “The Dead were intent to torment us till we handed over the gem.”
“Nay, it was the Dead’s love for the gem that prevented us from ever finding our path back to the light,” Erestor said. “I am ever glad they spared us both, for we never meant to harm.”
“And it was a lovely parting gift, this necklace you’ve given me in memory of our adventure.” A mischievous glint was in his eyes.
“I did not intend to give you a gift,” Erestor said. “It was merely something that came as parting from my talk with the Dead.”
“I was offered to take any of the other treasures,” Erestor said. “I did not wish to spend more time in their presence, so I took the first my eye was drawn.”
“And so you picked a gift for me, not for the son whose wedding we now journey to. Though I must thank you for this gift. The color suits my eyes.”
No reply came from Erestor, who suddenly realized his mistake. “Oh, I did not think of picking a treasure to present to Prince Legolas! You have my apology, lord! I was selfish in my thinking!” He studied the necklace around the king’s neck. It was beautiful, but the color of the gems would not suit the Prince of Ithilien. For not only was it too extravagant for the simple prince, the dark color would remind all who saw it of the other elven lord who lived in Eryn Lasgalen. “Forgive me, lord.”
“There is nothing to forgive. I would gladly give your gift to him, but I agree the style suits me more. But there is still much time before we reach them.”
“By the Valar, you are not thinking of entering another cave!”
Thranduil gave another laugh. “Ai, of course not, my Erestor! I can see our party just a day or two ahead of us, and I do think that is more than plenty time for us to celebrate our safe return from the cave. Perhaps in a place far from the any curious eye, horse and Dead alike.”
Erestor mounted his horse in one elegant movement. “Tempting your offer is, but as much as I dislike turning down a king, I must remind you that your son is getting married soon and we must hurry before it is late!”
And off he went at a gallop, his laughter carrying merrily through the air. King Thranduil set the horses loose from the carriage before mounting on one. The other he gave the command to follow pursuit.
“And do you not think we should at least stop to wash before our lord sees us?” Thranduil called out, and he set off after his counselor.