Ich dien – To Serve the Kingdom (by faust)

Summary:    Tauriel considers it an act of love; Thranduil is less inclined to do so: all he sees is a neglect of duty, a missing prince, and a heavy price to pay. Post DoS. “He is ready to explode at any second, but—as Thranduil is very well aware—his legendary temper is much more intimidating if visibly constrained; the quiet before the storm usually more effective than the gale unleashed.”
Category:  Lord of the Rings – The Hobbit
Genre:   Drama
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   32,625


 

1 The Messenger

Thranduil has retired to his private chambers by the time the scout returns to the stronghold. It is late at night already; and even though a king’s work is never done and Thranduil is everything but lax in his performance of duty, he has more than his kingdom to look after, more concerns, more obligations. And he has been negligent of this particular responsibility long enough anyhow. First the confounded dwarves, then the new darkness… He has wasted too much precious time already in negotiating, interrogating, punishing, being irate and erratic, when he should have been caring and warm and predictable.

He sighs when notified of the long awaited arrival and, because this is a matter that admits no delay, orders the messenger be brought to his rooms. Under normal circumstances he would not receive soldiers in his solar, for here only the family is allowed, and a few very close friends or selected attendants: Galion (who is both butler and friend—still, and despite the fact that the dwarves would not have escaped without Galion’s disastrous love for wine), the chambermaid, the healer. But this is no normal circumstance and Thranduil truly wishes to stay here right now and waste no more time, and so he pulls a regal robe over his nightdress and welcomes the exhausted member of the palace guard with a curt nod.

“My Lord,” he is greeted with a deep bow.

He waves his hand impatiently. As much as he values courtly ceremony and proper formality, tonight he prefers this conversation to be quick and to the point. He can be down-to-earth—if he so wishes.

“Speak.” He does not tap his foot. The messenger appears uncomfortable enough as it is. Thranduil does raise an eyebrow, though. And then it strikes him: the messenger is ill at ease. One does not need five millennia of experience to know that this does not indicate favourable news. He steadies himself, finds a better-rooted stand. His voice is firm. “Were you able to locate Prince Legolas and Captain Tauriel?”

“We…no…yes…”

Now the king does tap his foot. Once, twice, three times. A fourth time with emphasis. He drops his voice an octave, albeit—with more effort than he prefers—refrains from an undignified growl. “Were you?”

“Captain Tauriel left the palace, and apparently the prince followed her.”

That much Thranduil had already discerned. There had been a reason, after all, for sending out scouts—against his own orders that no one were to leave or enter the stronghold. He is ready to explode at any second, but—as Thranduil is very well aware—his legendary temper is much more intimidating if visibly constrained; the quiet before the storm usually more effective than the gale unleashed. And the guard is really trying his patience.

“And pray tell,” Thranduil says oh-so-softly, raising his eyebrow to ultimate altitude, “where are they headed?”

The guard seems to shrink into himself. Does he tremble? “It appears, my Lord, that they went to Laketown.”

Another single tap of the foot, and the guard looks into his king’s face. A slight tilt of Thranduil’s head prompts him to continue his report—although haltingly and with obvious discomfort.

It soon becomes apparent why he is so uneasy: Legolas and Tauriel evidently have found the dwarves in Laketown, or at least some of the group. Thranduil’s interest flares up mildly at that news, but soon dies down again. The dwarves are not that important. A mere annoyance. And they cannot be stopped in whatever they are about to do now anyway.

Thranduil is much more alarmed by the report of a goblin attack on the unprepared and almost helpless town. It does not surprise him to hear that Legolas and Tauriel have taken it upon themselves to defend the town—he is both horrified and proud of the aspect of his son and the captain of his guard fighting against a whole band of yrch all on their own. The horror soon outweighs the proudness, however, when he hears that Tauriel abandoned the battle as soon as the goblins had been driven out of the house that accommodates the dwarves and that she left Legolas to pursue the fight on his own.

The guard cannot say why she did that, only that she stayed with the dwarves while Legolas went after the fleeing goblins.

“Mayhap she was injured?” the king suggests—the only explanation he can think of.

The guard averts his gaze again. “No, my Lord. It does not appear so. She was seen later…whole and hale.”

“And Legolas?”

The guard shakes his head. “We do not know. No one has seen him after—”

And that is the moment Thranduil decides to unleash the storm. During the tale he has gone from angry to enraged to exceedingly enraged. He is livid. “Where is he?” he thunders. “Have you not searched for your prince?”

“Sire…my Lord, we tried, but there was no trace. We did not know what to do….” The guard recedes, carefully, one, two steps. He looks apologetically at his king, then his gaze shifts slightly to the left and over Thranduil’s shoulder, his eyes growing wide.

“We will have to search for him. He is in danger, I feel that,” it comes from the door behind Thranduil’s back; the soft voice easily drowning out the roaring inside his mind.

He fleetingly registers the guard’s low bow and stammered “my Lady” before he turns around, calm floating him already and his tightly composed features relaxing into the face that is familiar only to her.

“You are awake,” he states the obvious, amazed.

She smiles as she tilts her head and opens her arms in a mockery of a bow; but the jest lasts only for a short moment, then she is serious again. “I was restless,” she says. “Something distressed me, tore at me. I could not fathom…could not…and then I heard you, and I knew.”

“Yet you should not be up.”

“I am well enough.”

“The healers say…” He trails off as he sees her eyes narrow.

He is the King of the Woodland realm, the ruler of the Silvan elves, a Sindar royal, powerful leader and redoubtable warlord—but he knows better than to argue with his wife. Determination has replaced the tiredness of late in Eryniel’s face, a decisiveness that tells him opposition is futile.

Eryniel nods to the guard. “You may depart,” she says in her melodic voice, and smiles faintly as he gives her a look of pure relief and gratitude and makes a hasty retreat.

She waits until he has left the room, then takes Thranduil’s hand and pulls him very close. “We have to search for Legolas,” she repeats her initial words. “I fear for him. He is in great peril.”

Thranduil closes his eyes. Eryniel confirms his deepest worry: Legolas is a formidable warrior, one of the finest in the realm, but he fights alone against a horde of yrch and this might be beyond even his skills. He feels anger rising at the thought that his son has put his life in hazard so recklessly, that his captain has let him—and fear. Raw, naked fear for his only child’s life. Eryniel would know if Legolas were safe: mother and child share a deep bond, and the connection between Eryniel and Legolas has always had an almost magic quality. But Eryniel is frightened for her son, and that terrifies Thranduil.

He would wish her to be wrong this one time, not only for Legolas’s sake but also because—

I have to search for him,” Eryniel says the inevitable. “I will be able to find him.”

“You cannot do that. It is too dangerous. It is too much.” He tries, even though he knows his words will not make her change her mind.

And, of course, she shakes her head. “No, it is not too much. It is what I must do.”

“But it will cost you.” He does not add too much or more than I will be able to cope with.

She hears it anyway. She has always heard what he did not say. “Then it will cost me. It does not matter, you know that.”

“You cannot go. You are needed here.” By me, but he does not say that either.

“No, I am not. You are needed here, my King. You have a kingdom to rule, and people to guide and protect. I have to go and find my child. Our child. To bring him back to safety.”

It is no use discussing it any more. Eryniel is every bit as stubborn as Thranduil, her fast resolve only better hidden under a layer of soft, golden gentleness. This well-disguised strength had been only one of the many contradictions in the beautiful elleth that had made Thranduil fall in love and want to spend eternity with her at his side all those millennia ago. Ever since he has cherished and accursed that trait: he never stands a chance against her determination. So he confines himself to negotiate the hows and whens of her mission, and they finally agree that the queen will leave the stronghold at sunrise the next morning, accompanied by a party of six trusted warriors.

“I will find him,” Eryniel says as he leads her back to her bed to get her as much rest as possible before the morn. “I will bring him back, I promise.”

He understands the pledge is made not only for his sake.

*****

2 The Queen

Tauriel has just changed the bandage on Kili’s thigh for the third time since the previous night when there is a short rattle and then the door opens to reveal a small group of elves. The tall leader’s gesture is almost invisible, but it keeps her two escorts rooted next to the entrance while she steps into the room.

The people of Laketown do not know the Woodland queen. Nor do the dwarves from the Blue Mountains. The Lady of Greenwood has not left the King’s Halls for generations of men, and while she occasionally attends feasts, she never takes part should strangers be present. For those outside of the Woodland she has become a mere myth, a phantasy, and some do not even believe there ever was a queen in Greenwood. Yet there is no doubt about who has just entered the house. The Queen Eryniel does not need any regalia to convey she is of royalty; it is in her poise, in her regard, in her features. Even her elaborate riding cloak exudes her majesty.

Tauriel can feel Kili’s leg tense under her hand. He must assume the party has come to arrest him, and he is without his friends. Fili, Oin and Bofur have left the house only minutes before, finally convinced that Tauriel presents no danger, will not betray their trust. They had errands to run, they declared, but did not elaborate further.

They have grown close, Tauriel and Kili, after she has saved his life. She feels as if she has saved her own life, too, or at least part of her own life. Perhaps her heart. Certainly, her heart has not beaten quite so strongly and happily as it has been doing ever since Kili has smiled at her so. Ever since she has realised that fondness does not measure people in foot and inch. She could not bring herself to leave Kili’s side after she was able to force the Morgul poison out of his body and knew he would live. She has stayed with him during the night, tending him, holding him, comforting him. And taken comfort in that herself.

Now her comfort gives way to a slight unease. Tauriel cannot fathom why the queen should have left the stronghold so suddenly, and why she has come to Laketown and to Bard’s house. Of course, the king must by now know that the dwarves have found shelter here; Legolas will have delivered the word. But the king would not send the queen to lead an arrest party. As to that, the king would not send the queen out into the open for any reason. It does not make sense that she is here. Not at all. What could Legolas possibly have told the king that would urge the queen to emerge from her years-long seclusion?

Legolas. With a pang of guilt Tauriel realises that she has not devoted a single thought to him since she decided to stay and heal Kili. Since she deliberately ignored his call, twice. “Tauriel, come!” Yes, she had heard that. But she did not obey the command, chose to defy it. Him. Her superior. Her friend. Chose Kili over him.

She bites her lip. She chose Kili over Legolas, over her friend, her…foster-brother. Her brother who had stuck to her, had followed her—disregarding the king’s express orders—to protect and support her against a supremacy of enemies. “You cannot hunt thirty orcs on your own,” he had said, and come with her, had fought the goblins with her, as she had known he would.

And then she had chosen to defy his command, his call, his plea. Had left him to fight the remaining orcs on his own, knowing they were retreating already. Knowing he would not take unnecessary risks. Hoping it, at least.

She looks down at Kili, who lives and will be hale and healthy again very soon. It was the right thing that she did. Nevertheless she will have to make amends for her decision, will have to make it up to Legolas. Explain it to him. Surely, Legolas will understand she could not have abandoned Kili, could not have let him die when she knew she could heal him. Legolas might not hold the dwarves in high regard, but he is more compassionate than he likes to let people think. He will understand that she could not have followed him because Kili needed her more. That she knew Legolas could look out for himself.

“Tauriel.”

Belatedly she becomes aware that she has not yet greeted her queen. She bows her head, a little deeper than formally required. “My Lady,” she starts, but is interrupted by the usually so courteous queen.

“I take it you are well?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

The queen nods. It is curt and something in her face is awry, as if she has unlearnt how to smile. “I thought so,” she says. Her gaze sweeps through the room, lingers briefly on Kili, a little longer on Bard’s children, who are huddled in one corner and stare back at the imposing figure with blatant reverence, then settles back on Tauriel. “Where is Legolas?”

The question slices the air like a sharp elven dagger. It sunders then from now, before from after, certainty from trepidation. Legolas has not returned to the king’s halls. And the queen…

This is bad. This is worse than bad. It is a catastrophe.

“Last I was aware of him he was following fleeing orcs, my Lady,” Tauriel phrases carefully. “To ascertain they left the town.”

The moment the words leave her mouth Tauriel knows them to be naught but a fruitless hope. Legolas is not one who merely observes. He is a person of action, and his loathing of goblins is as strong as any elf’s. He will have pursued the orcs, will have sought further confrontation.

And he has not returned, neither to the stronghold nor to Bard’s house.

The queen’s face is blank. She closes her eyes for the duration of one deep breath in and one deep breath out, then looks back at Tauriel. “Why,” she says very softly. “Why did you not accompany him?”

“Kili—the dwarf needed healing. He would have died without my help. I could not let that happen when it was in my ability to prevent it.” It is a valid point. Tauriel knows the queen will not argue against it. She is not cruel; sympathy for those in need is deeply embedded in the Silvan elves and their king and queen.

“I see.” The queen’s gaze shifts to Kili, who squirms under the scrutiny. “Are you well now, Master Dwarf?”

“Aye, my Lady.”

“Very well.” Eryniel’s face remains unsmiling yet not unfriendly as she nods. She looks back at Tauriel. “And after you healed him, you did—what?”

“I…” That is the crux, Tauriel knows that. What was perfectly natural and right the night before might seem not so in the light of the new day. “I stayed with him to make sure he was well looked after.”

“All night?”

“All night.”

“So am I to understand that you neglected your duty to serve your king and protect your prince in order to nurse a fugitive captive?” Eryniel’s voice is still soft, and there is no condemnation in it. Disappointment, however; yes, certainly disappointment. And sadness.

“I did not think the prince needed protection. And I did not think compassion—” Tauriel is almost glad she gets interrupted at this point. She knows she did the right thing—but why is it so difficult to explain it?

The disruption comes in the form of an elven warrior, who bursts through the front door and, after a short, wild look around the room, falls to one knee in front of the queen. “Nothing, my Queen,” he says as he lays a hand over his heart and bows his head. “We found no trace of the prince. Only evidence of combat.”

Tauriel closes her eyes. Of course

There is a sharp intake of breath from the queen. “And no one has seen him?”

“No, my Lady.”

“And…nothing? Anything else?”

“We found warg tracks and those of a horse, leading out of town.”

“Wargs?” It is not much more than a gasp from the corner in which Bard’s children have been standing and witnessing quietly ever since the queen has entered the house. Then commotion, scuffling, “let me,” “no, stay here,” and “I want to—” more scuffling, a tussle; then a thud and a cry. “Ow!”

The weeping of a child, hushed words “It’s not so bad, come on. Be still.” More crying.

A child cries. No elf ignores a crying child. They all turn around to the weeping pen-neth: a small boy, not a babe anymore; but certainly he has not yet received his first bow. He is sitting on the floor, his hands clutching his leg. His knee is bleeding.

Two girls, one not much older than the boy, the other close to adolescence, are bent over him, trying to console him.

The Queen of Greenwood crouches down in front of the child. “There, there,” she says. “Did you fall?”

The boy nods.

“He hurt himself as we took cover under the table last night,” one of the girls supplies. “Got caught on a splintered stool. It scabbed over, but now he’s fallen on it and it’s bleeding again.”

“Oh. Let me see.” The queen’s voice is low and even in the few words there is a melody, a tune that sings of summer and brightly green moss and soft wind. It is soothing—to everyone in the room.

The boy looks up into her face, his eyes wide. He takes his hands off his leg. “Hurts,” he whispers.

“It looks painful,” the queen concords. Then she lays a pale hand on his knee, covers the wound with her elegant, long fingers. She is completely still, her face pensive, a small smile is curling her lips. Her eyes are locked with the boy’s. A smell of forest fills the room. It lasts only a short moment, no longer than it takes a leaf to fall from the crown of a tall tree.

As she removes her hand, the knee is unblemished. Where there was a wound a mere wink ago, is now only a patch of tender, pink skin.

The boy wipes away any left-over traces of blood with the sleeve of his shirt and stares at the queen who is still squatted on the floor, face to face with him. “How did you do that?” he asks.

He has witnessed Tauriel healing Kili the night before, has heard the chanting and seen the blinding halo. None of that happened this time. Of course, merely split skin is easier to heal than a wound inflicted by a poisoned arrow, but the queen’s healing powers are very subtle in any case. It takes from her—Tauriel can see it in her drawn features, the increasing pallor of her already fair skin—even this small little act takes a lot, more, probably, than she has to give anymore. But the child is a boy, he is blond and blue-eyed and tiny, and he looks at the queen with trust and affection. Tauriel does understand the incentive.

“It is a moth—” Eryniel interrupts herself, smiles and shakes her head as if trying to free herself from an image. A memory, perhaps. “It is a secret,” she says then, and an elegant movement brings the tip of her long, white finger up to touch her pursed lips for a half second.

“An elven thing?”

“Yes, little one.”

She and the boy smile at each other as if sharing something special, and most probably they do exactly that. Then he flings himself onto her surprised chest, and instinctively she wraps her arm around the lithe body.

“Thank you,” the boy whispers.

“You are very welcome, little one.”

“His name is Bain,” the older girl says shyly.

Bain.” Eryniel lowers her head so her face almost touches Bain’s hair. “Bain,” she repeats, and then she breathes a small kiss onto the blonde crown before she releases the child and rises, bracing herself briefly on the table.

Bain lets go of her only reluctantly, as if he knows what she is about to do. “Do you have to go now?” he asks.

“Yes, I am afraid I must.”

“Why?”

“I must go and look after my own boy now,” she says, and her smile touches her eyes.

“Is he hurt, too?”

“I do not know for certain…” Her smile falters. “But I am very much afraid he is.”

Her gaze flickers to Tauriel, just for a split second, but it is enough to convey the accusation. Then she looks back at the boy, her expression tender; and she nods gracefully. “Fare well, little Bain.”

She politely waits until Bain has pulled himself up enough to answer solemnly “Fare well, my Lady,” and acknowledges the boy’s ungainly bow with a rippling smile. Her piercing look sweeps over every occupant in the room, like a blessing—even Tauriel is included, and that is what makes the captain think she has not seen it rightly. Or perhaps…

“My Lady,” Tauriel tries as the queen turns to stride towards the front door. “May I offer my help?”

Eryniel halts her steps as she passes Tauriel. She regards her for a moment, then says softly, “Your service is not required, Captain. I have half a dozen trustworthy warriors at my command—they will perform their duty very well.” There is a hint of blue ice in her voice. Not a match for king’s ability to spread frost with but a single word, but perhaps even more chilling because it is so outlandish for the queen to be anything but warm and kind. It is gone as quickly as it had come, and although there is still not much affection in her lady’s voice, Tauriel can hear genuine concern in the next words. “I would, however, recommend you return to the stronghold immediately—or not at all.”

Tauriel understands her perfectly well. She understands the queen is upset; but the Lady of Eryn Galen always has had an open ear for her people, has cared—and understood, too. Perhaps she will understand this as well.

“My Lady,” Tauriel pleads, “I care for…for him.” She stands close to Kili, but still feels the need to touch him, to make sure the queen knows about whom she is talking. Only much later it occurs to her that here exactly lies the problem of it all: the queen has known it all along. “I love him, that is why I had to…. Please, you must…as a woman, do you not understand I had to do it?”

The queen tilts her head. She smiles, and the warmth is back in it and the kindness that Tauriel has hoped to see. “No,” she then says, however, and shakes her head. “As a mother I do not.”

Her gaze shifts to Kili, then back to Tauriel’s face. It lingers there for a few moments, in which Tauriel feels scrutinised, soul-deeply searched and found…wanting. Then the queen turns away and with three purposeful paces reaches the door. She does not stop or look back as she says, “And as your queen, I do not understand either.”

Another long stride, then the door snaps shut behind her.

*****

3 The Captain

There is a time of almost shocked standstill after the elves have left, a stunned quietness, before everyone picks up whatever they’ve done before. Bard’s eldest, Sigrid, Kili means to remember, directs her siblings in cleaning up the mess from the fight of the night before. Still intact furniture is put straight, splintered items piled up next to the oven, some pieces set aside for repair. Household objects are picked up from the floor, broken goods separated from whole; things are cleaned, stacked back where they belong. They work silently, from time to time throwing short glances towards the dwarf and the elf. They don’t ask for assistance, and Kili is almost ashamed. He cannot help anyway. He is much better, he did not lie to the Woodland queen with that, but he still feels weak and exhausted, and his leg is throbbing and will most certainly not be able to carry his weight yet. He grunts, displeased with himself, and guiltily sinks more comfortably back into the pillows.

From his bed, he watches Tauriel busy herself with mundane tasks. So far, she has checked his bandaged leg two more times, sifted the assortment of healing herbs laid out on the kitchen desk, straightened his blanket, thrice, prepared a pain numbing tea and one to reduce a fever, accepted and eaten an apple Sigrid offered her, sliced up another one for Kili and would have handfed it to him had he not prevented her from it, cleaned her gear, smoothed a wet stone over her long knives, retrieved arrows from where they still stuck in walls, furniture, and the floor, sorted out those that were reusable, checked their fletching and stored them in her quiver. She is about to check his bandage yet again when Kili stills her hands by covering them with his own. He briefly marvels about how much broader his hands are than hers, which in comparison seem slender, almost svelte.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “It is well. All is well.”

She snorts in a very un-elven way. “No, it is not. Nothing is well. The queen…” She trails off, looks to the door as if the lady’s essence were still perceptible there.

Perhaps it is, at least for Tauriel.

She bites her lip, fiddles with a loose thread at the hem of her sleeve. She’s found it without even looking, she must have worried it a few times already this morning. There is not much left of the self-assured warrior of the night before.

“The queen…?” Kili prompts, and as there is no response he tries again with, “what is she going to do?”

“You heard her.” Tauriel blinks. “Outside. She sent a guard back to bring word to the king, and she leads the others in quest of Legolas.”

Kili has not heard any of that. He hasn’t got elven ears, he can’t hear things spoken outside. But what Tauriel says does not come unexpected. What is surprising, though, what truly baffles Kili, is that the Queen of the Woodland is leading the search party.

It is said that there have been few, very few female dwarven warriors in ancient times, but Kili is sure the talk is just that: talk. Dwarven women are protective of their families and they would not back away from defending them if need be, but they would never be part of any army or guard. Dwarven women rarely leave the privacy of their homestead. They do not participate in matters of the state, they are protected and kept from public display. They don’t take on official tasks. A dwarven queen would certainly not ride with the guards, much less spearhead them. She would not undertake a position designed for a male. Kili’s own mother, sister of Thorin and highest lady among the dwarves, would never venture far out of her halls, would never leave the seclusion of her home in pursuit of her missing son. She would never question it to be solely warriors’ work. Male warriors.

Of course, he understands elven customs are different. There’s no mistaking in that with Tauriel being captain of the palace guard and having proved to be as fierce a warrior as any male elf; but the queen…. Surely, with the queen it must be different. The queen is precious, she cannot be imperilled. She must be protected, hidden, her kindness and beauty not exposed to the dangers of a scouting mission into the lands of the goblins.

Not that he considers the queen exceptionally beautiful. Even though elven beauty has slowly grown on Kili, Tauriel’s in particular, by dwarven taste the queen is by no means attractive. Too tall, too smooth of skin, too silvery of voice. No beard. For an elf, though, she might be beautiful. Kili has to hold back a snort. If the queen is to be considered beautiful, then the prince must be, too. There is much resemblance, although the queen’s hair is of a darker, warmer gold than that of her son, her eyes moss green opposed to the icy blue of his, her gaze warm and friendly where the prince’s had been cold and dismissive. No question: he is her offspring in appearance; but his attitude is all inherited from the king.

Everything about the queen is warmer than whatever Kili has ever heard of the king or seen of Legolas: her eyes, her smile, her kind words for the boy—even her inquiry about his own wellbeing. She’s warmer and…Kili can’t put his finger on it…more delicate, perhaps. Yes, delicate. Frailer, almost…fragile. Kili frowns as he remembers the queen’s exit: there was a brief faltering in her stride, an instability, almost a stumble. But elves don’t stumble, do they?

“What’s wrong with your queen?” he blurts out before he can stop himself.

Tauriel’s head shoots up, her fingers let go of the fringe at her sleeve, her body tenses, her eyes are guarded. Suddenly she very much looks the palace guard that she is. A formidable paladin. “What do you mean? There is nothing wrong with our queen.”

Kili wishes the queen—and the king—could hear it. No one would doubt Tauriel’s loyalty at this moment.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to offend. I just…” How to put it into words? “She looks…unwell. Sickly.” Yes, sickly, that’s it. Every elf Kili has met so far has looked—despite the uncanny paleness—as hale and healthy as a person possibly could. But not the queen. Her pallor seemed even more vitreous, her features drawn and her movements a whit less fluid and light. As if she were sick. But elves don’t get sick, do they? Well, elves do not stumble, too, and stumble the queen did. “She is sick, isn’t she?”

Tauriel stares at him as if he were uttering something obscene. Something unmentionable. He’s almost apologising again, almost taking it back, and if only to erase the look of dismay from Tauriel’s face, but then she sinks down onto the side of his cot and starts talking in a low voice.

The queen, Tauriel says, is indeed unwell. She fell sick when the Shadow came upon Greenwood the Great, turning it into what now commonly is called Mirkwood. The queen, although a Sinda like her husband, is more attuned to the wood than anyone. She has loved, protected and nurtured the forest from the first day the elves had set foot into the Woodlands, has shown respect and devotion to it, and Greenwood reciprocated the sentiment, sharing its Song with her, guiding and sheltering her. But as healthy and beneficial the connection had been, as noxious and destroying it became as the Shadow fell upon the wood. What kills the wood now, is also killing its queen. Slowly, steadily, unstoppably.

Kili cannot believe there’s no cure. He has experienced elven healing, he has felt how powerful it is. What was the herb Tauriel used on his leg to banish the evil sorcery? Kingsfoil, yes, that was it. He suggests kingsfoil, as if he had any notion.

But Tauriel shakes her head, saying that not even athelas can heal Greenwood’s queen. No matter what the healers try, the queen fades. The only thing that seems to at least slow the process is protecting her from the tainted woods. And so the Lady of the Woodland, the queen who loves the forest so much, has not seen a tree, has not left the stony fortress her husband has built for many decades.

And now she has left the stronghold. Kili shudders at the thought of what that might entail. And he does not understand. “But when it’s so dangerous, why has she left the stronghold now?”

“Legolas.”

“I don’t understand…”

And then Kili learns something about the elves’ love for their children. About the strong bond between mother and child, about the ailing queen’s iron will, and about King Thranduil’s gentle affection for his family. Apparently there’s one thing in which dwarves and elves don’t differ so much: in the love for their children.

“They must be certain Eryniel can locate Legolas, easier and quicker than anyone else—or the king would never have allowed her to go,” Tauriel says. “But I fear it will cost them dearly.”

Kili also learns that the king’s compassion for his family is mirrored in that for his subjects. He would do anything to protect his people, Tauriel says, anything to keep them from harm.

Anything? Like…perhaps…arresting strangers who intrude his realm with obscure purpose? A realm that is already threatened by the dark, by foul beasts and evilness. A realm of people who have suffered great loss at the Last Alliance and just started to prosper again when the darkness fell back upon them. A realm of people who hence naturally would be wary of any presumed new threat.

Kili kneads his hands. As unreal as it occurs, suddenly he feels something akin to understanding for the Mirkwood king’s actions. Thranduil’s single-minded focus on his own people’s interests might not be meant as an offense to others but is the elven king’s way of protecting his kind. And, Kili has to allow, if Thranduil didn’t look after his elves, who would? He’s completely bereft of alliances, of help, or protection from other elven realms.

The little boy, Bain, yanks a splintered chair from below the remnants of the big table in the centre of the room. “Don’t hurt yourself again,” Kili hears one of the girls cry, and Bain’s proud voice stating “I’m fine!”

Thanks to the Woodland Queen he is fine. Thanks to the queen who has come out of the shelter of her homestead to find and rescue her only son—thus exposing herself to the darkness that slowly kills her.

Kili can’t help but feel…respect. He is not a parent, yet, but he is a prince of his folk and a warrior, and he understands what duty means and commitment, and where devotion ends and self-sacrifice starts. He also understands that sometimes that is a necessity, but it doesn’t make the consequences easier to bear for anyone.

“So,” he asks, just because he wants to be perfectly sure, “now the queen is out there, she will be…affected even more?”

Tauriel nods. “It will make her worse. The Shadow, it…it feeds on her fëa.”

“And she will die faster.”

“Yes.”

“Because you tended to me instead of keeping an eye on your prince’s safety, and now she has to chase him down.” Kili laughs humourlessly. “I’m sure Thranduil will hold the dwarves responsible for that.” It’s surprisingly easy to follow the king’s reasoning. If Kili is honest with himself, were he in Thranduil’s position, he might conclude similarly.

But Tauriel shakes her head. “No. He will hold me responsible for that.”

She is worrying the loose thread on her sleeve again. Plucks and picks and pulls at it until it comes undone—then she stares at the thin wisp she twists between her fingers, almost mesmerised.

The children are still clearing the room from the debris of last night’s destruction. There’s the sound of something metallic falling down and touching the ground with a resonating, bright clonk; it startles Tauriel out of distraction and Kili out of watching her, and both their heads turn to the noise’s origin.

“Sorry,” Sigrid mutters as she picks up a bronze tankard. “Didn’t mean to…”

Kili smiles reassuringly at the girl, Tauriel looks back at her hands, and then at the woollen strand as she lets it fall. It travels slowly down, in an almost swinging motion, dandled by the warm, dusty air.

“You have to go back,” Kili says suddenly. “I shouldn’t have asked you to stay. You neglected your duty—that’s…”

Tauriel tears her eyes from the twine and looks up, alerted and defensive. “That is what? Wrong? For you of all people does it seem not right?” It’s sharp, chiding. Not quite, but nearly as cold as the prince.

“I…no. No.” Kili tries to sit up straighter, and flinches as the movement pulls at his wound. “You know I’m… I’ve told you how grateful I am. Tauriel…” He pronounces her name like an endearment—and it is one. “Tauriel, you saved my life. How could I hold you at fault for that?”

He reaches out, manages to catch her hand. He squeezes it, holds it, rubs his thumb over the back of it. “I love you,” he says.

Her face relaxes. She lowers her head, bashfully, smiles.

“But you have to go back now,” Kili continues. “Staying here any longer will get you into trouble.”

“I am in trouble already, I assume.”

“Yes, but this you can explain. Tarrying longer you can’t.”

“No, I cannot. I will have to go and tell the king what happened. Have to make him understand…everything.”

She pulls out of Kili’s grasp and plucks at her tunic’s sleeve again. Soon she will have loosened another thread. Kili seizes her hand, again. Stills it, again.

She has to go, he has to let her go; they both know that. Yet there are things they have to settle ere they part: how they will manage to meet again; how they will be able to find each other; how they can know if the other is well. They mustn’t lose each other. They don’t know how right now, but they have to make it work. Have to make them work. They can’t imagine not seeing each other ever again.

They talk until Tauriel cannot delay going back any longer. Under the children’s curious eyes, they make their good-bye. A chaste kiss, soft and tender—and not enough, not enough by far, tasting of promises of so much more.

And then Kili’s beautiful elf maid is gone, and he almost wishes he’d held her back.

*****

4 The Prince

They find Legolas at sunset. He is in combat with a herd of yrch; he is alone, desperate, and deadly. He is a gruesome sight, and a beautiful one. His clothes are torn and dirty, there is blood almost everywhere, and grime, and injury. The front of his tunic is dark, wet, soaked through with blood that almost glints like embers in the orange glow of the dying day as he moves. And move he does—with a graceful fluidity that belies his appearance. His fight is more of a dance than a battle, every movement executed with precise, elegant perfection, smooth and lethal. There is no trace of tiredness in his whirling, no sign of exhaustion in his motions, no faltering, no misstep, no false turn. The fight must have gone on for a long time already, if Legolas’s battered form and the number of dead or dying yrch at his feet are any indication, and still there is not even a semblance of weakness in his performance. Not without reason is the king’s son distinguished as one of Greenwood’s most excellent fighters.

The close battle bereaves him of his most effective weapon, the bow; but he has learnt to wield the long knives with mastery, too, and he employs this art beautifully. He twirls and thrusts, leaps and slashes, pirouettes and stabs, sure-footed and steady, with infallible intuition and impeccable aim. The knives’ blades are almost invisible in the waning light: they are dull from the yrch’s wan black blood, and no ray of sun reflects in this wet darkness. For every fallen orch a new one seems to emerge from the shrubbery that surrounds the battle ground as if they were waiting in line. There simply is not enough space in the small clearing for all of them to barge in at once, and that might have saved Legolas until now. There is, however, enough space for very many yrch to charge at him; and they do, relentlessly.

The arrival of the small search party instantly attracts the goblin’s attention and soon those warriors are engaged in combat with the foul creatures, too. Two of the elves fight alongside of Legolas in the glade, the others seize on the yrch hidden in the encircling dead woods. The diversion relieves Legolas of some attackers, yet the putrid beasts seem to consider him their prime target: their main onslaught is still concentrated on him. And so he fights on, unwaveringly.

Eryniel is not a warrior. She is a queen and a healer; a preserver, not a destroyer. But, of course, as queen of the Silvan folk, she has been trained to wield arms. A short sword, a defensive weapon, for she would never have to use her weapon in offensive combat; she would use her blade only in immediate peril to safeguard her own life in the unlikely case an enemy made it past her personal sentinels. It is not a weapon that would serve her much in open battle, and so, although it is strapped to her horse, she does not reach for it.

She knows her place. She knows her strengths—even though there is little left of them, if she is completely honest with herself—and she knows her weaknesses. She knows that any exposure of herself to the battle would only lead to injury, or even death. Not her own injury, not her own death, no. But the guards—and Legolas—would seek to shield her, would disregard their own defence to protect her; they would willingly give their lives for her safety. The queen would be nothing but a perilous distraction to them.

And so, protected by an impenetrable thorn bush at her back and by the horses that gather around her instinctively, she stands aside and watches the fight, watches Legolas with both maternal pride and anxious trepidation. She knows her son’s skill with the long knives is unparalleled, but she is not blind to the fact that there are so many adversaries, that they have pressed him for hours now, that he is injured already—and that even Legolas will tire eventually.

She watches. Impassively, silently begging the Valar to spare her only child. She has never before longed to be a warrior, but at this very moment she almost wishes she were like Tauriel—skilled with a blade, fierce and strong—and not like Eryniel, Queen of Eryn Galen, famous for her beauty, her healing arts, and her singing.

But when an orch suddenly finds an opening in Legolas’s stance and lurches forward, his sword making a sweeping motion towards her son’s unprotected flank, Eryniel is ready and throws a small eight-pointed iron star. It hits the vile creature right in the centre of its forehead. It is not a deadly hit, the star is too small and too light and there is not enough force behind the throw anyhow. But two knife-sharp points break through the thick grey orch-skin and embed into the bone beneath; which is enough to make the creature reel back and alert Legolas of the danger. One swish of a long white knife fells the goblin, and then the dance continues as before.

Eryniel has always had a good aim, and she holds two more of the throwing stars ready in her hands. When the battle finally is over, the last orch slain, and the wood silent and…not peaceful, but resting, both throwing stars have been sent flying and truly found their targets, and Legolas still lives.

He looks a fright, though. Battered and bloodied, now that the thrill of battle abates he is swaying and he seems to have difficulty adjusting himself to the world around. He takes a haltering step towards his mother, squints his eyes and shakes his head as if he does not comprehend how she can be present.

“Legolas,” Eryniel says, “iôn-nín,” and “meleth,” and “henig.” And Legolas follows her voice to her arms.

She does not dare embrace him for she would not inflict more pain on him, and there seems no part of his body spared from injury, both mild and grave. Her hands hover in front of him while she tries to determine which hurt needs care the most, which wound must be healed first.

Then Legolas pulls her into his arms, breathes “nana” into her hair, and the endearment almost breaks her heart. He has not called her thus in centuries. He also clings to her, which he has not done since he had been a child, either, and it tells her more than anything how weak he is.

“Be calm. Let me…,” she starts, pushing his body from hers, and puts her hand over a gash at his temple. She closes her eyes, breathes deep and concentrates on the gift of life. But before she has woven one single thread of healing around her son, she is virtually wrenched out of her trance.

As she opens her eyes she finds her wrist held down by Legolas’s blood-covered hand. His eyes are clear now, alert and…anxious.

“No,” he says. “You cannot…you should not…”

“I can heal you.” It is a simple statement. Perhaps he has forgotten her powers, forgotten how much amplified they are in regard of her child. She can heal him, faster than any other healer.

“No, naneth.”

Back to the formal name, she thinks, and it irritates her more that she is willing to admit.

“It will cost you too much—you know that.”

Oh, Legolas, iôn-nín… Of course, she knows that it will cost her. But she does not care—she is a mother. She is his mother, and that makes it her prerogative to do things that make him whole again no matter the toll it might take on her. But Legolas has always been considerate and gentle, and he cannot allow her to sacrifice herself. Perhaps one day, when he is a father himself, he will understand that a parent does not regard it a sacrifice to risk their life for their child’s.

“Let me at least ease the worst of the pain,” she tries to reason, but he shakes his head even as she speaks.

“There is no time, my Lady,” one of the guards breaks in, clearly uncomfortable with the breach of protocol. Eryniel can see Legolas’s relief upon the interruption, though, and perhaps the guard notices it, too. “We must flee,” he urges. “A couple of orcs escaped. They will be coming back with new forces soon. And we are in no shape to withstand another fight.”

She straightens herself, lifts her chin. The guard, of course, is right. But if they do not spare at least a few moments for tending to their wounded prince then their flight will not take them far. Her son might think she does not notice, but she sees the tremor in his legs, the pronounced paleness in his face, and the stiff posture of his shoulders. He is in pain. He is on the verge of collapse. He will not be able to stay on a horse in this condition, not for long, not till they reach the stronghold. She will not chance it.

“Legolas,” she says very softly. “I will not mount my horse before I have restored you enough so you can endure the ride.”

The horse closest to the queen flicks its ears and shies back a step. A guard reaches for its mane, murmurs something under his breath—a soft song, a calming tune.

Legolas, however, remains unfazed. “I am in no need of restoration,” he lies without hesitation. “’Tis but a scratch.” He makes a sweeping motion with his hand that nonchalantly includes his whole body. It is much less accurate than his earlier slashes with the knives, and it would be more convincing if his speech were not slightly slurred.

“We do not have time for this,” Eryniel says, still softly.

Legolas has the gall to raise a cocky eyebrow. “Then let us depart now.”

It frustrates her to no end—but she knows it is just her own brand of stubborn recklessness in regard of her health calling back to her. Still…she can handle Thranduil Oropherion, she will not founder on his son. And Legolas should be aware of that.

Green eyes lock with blue.

The fragrance of green penetrates the stale air in the clearing, the memory of a song, a tendril of vigour. Eryniel tilts her head.

Then Legolas’s glaze slips down. “Naneth, please. We must hurry.”

“Yes, we must.” She places her hand on his chest. “But before, we must do this.”

He opens his mouth—to protest, certainly. But she does not allow it.

Healing already trickles from her fingertips as she says, “I promised your father I will bring you home. Surely you will not make me break that vow?”

The shake of his head is almost invisible; his defeat announced rather by a soft sigh and a sudden stillness. He endures her healing, allowing only the merest alleviation of pain, the tiniest hint of strengthening before he breaks the contact. He takes a step back, but reaches out and lifts her fallen hand to his mouth and briefly presses his lips to her palm.

“It is enough,” he says softly, “I am well now.” Then he turns and orders, “Departure.”

The guards, relief obvious on their faces, glance at their appointed leader, and after a curt affirmative nod from the queen get on their horses.

Eryniel is helped on her mount by Legolas before he swings onto his. She notices that his movements still are stiff and much less graceful than usual, but she hopes that she has done enough. That it will make him last until they are home.

As they haste back through the mirky woods, she suddenly finds she cannot get comfortable on her horse. She has to hold fast to the horse’s mane to prevent herself from slipping; she cannot uphold her habitual regal posture. She is fatigued, she realises, far beyond her usual exhaustion. Legolas rides before her, his back taut and rigid, his body clearly not in harmony with his mount. He radiates hurt, and Eryniel realises—for all that it has taken from her—how little she has given him.

She would weep if she had the time for it, or the strength.

*****

5 The King

Tauriel is led to the throne room as soon as she reaches the stronghold. It is the first time in many centuries that she does not make the way on her own. She does not need guidance—but, of course, she understands the degradation, the loss of trust such behaviour implies.

Once she is in his presence, the first thing the king wants to know is if Tauriel bears news of Legolas. He is exasperated that she does not and he does not hide it. His concern, though, remains hidden. Tauriel is not sure whether Thranduil thinks it is a weakness to show affection, that it makes him vulnerable or less kingly or he just does not want his sharp mind be clouded by it. All she is sure about is that the king is concerned about the prince, the father about his son.

She has seen it before, this concern, perfectly concealed by cool control, by a blasé mask; but she has never let herself be deceived by it.

No, that is not true. The first time she saw it, she believed it. The first time she saw it, she trembled in fear, and in outrage, too; but she was young, almost an elfling still, and she had been under royal care only for a few months, so she just stared at the cold king and hid in the warm folds of the queen’s skirt, uttering not a single ungrateful word.

The king took her in after her parents had died in an orc attack on a border patrol. Tauriel’s mother had been killed during the ambush; her father, the captain of the guard, had brought the few survivors and the bodies of the slain back to the palace, and succumbed to his injuries shortly after. With his last breath he had entrusted his only daughter to the king.

Thranduil did not disappoint that trust. He gave her a home, clothed her and fed her, had her be taught and educated. When she showed interest in archery and sword fighting, he saw to it that her talents were nurtured. He did all that and more, and yet he always remained distant. Cold and haughty and unpredictable he seemed, his fearsome temper flaring up for the most unexpected reasons.

The queen provided warmth and concern, an open ear and soothing words when Tauriel had collided with her lord king yet again. Eryniel was kind and stern, motherly and queenly, a safe haven and…fragile. Ailing and often afflicted by crippling pains and aches and weaknesses, secluded then in her private chambers, where she would be sheltered by healers and by the king, shielded from the Shadow, from strangers, from noise and bother, and from young ellith who should know better than to disturb their lady.

And then there was Legolas. Legolas—tall and graceful and handsome, the shining prince of Eryn Galen, bright star and treasured only child of the king and queen, Tauriel’s secret idol—treated her with the distracted fondness of an older sibling who had to concentrate on his own troubles. He had been appointed captain of the guard after Tauriel’s father had died, and needed to fight constantly to prove himself a worthy successor, a competent leader and loyal comrade despite his youth, not someone given high position solely because of his royal blood. His skill with the bow and the twin knives was unquestioned, even back then, but his ability to lead and command warriors—equally level-headed and shrewd—was as yet unproven. He spent most of his time out on patrol or in the guards’ quarters with his soldiers.

When in the palace and not occupied by the king, he was usually to be found in his mother’s rooms—and often went to see Tauriel after that, awkwardly inquiring after her well-being and asking if perchance she needed anything. At first she did not dare ask for a single thing. She did not know what to make of his inquiry: her strapping hero was uncharacteristically fidgety while with her, his smile strained and his eyes almost haunted as if he wished he were anywhere but with the child. But soon she noticed that Legolas relaxed notably when she had a request, when she bade him to actually do something for her. When prompted he would read to her, craft little toys, or tell legends of the First Age or stories about his patrol’s ventures into the dark forest. And he tried to reassure her when, after another encounter with an irritable king, she admitted being intimidated of her guardian. The king, he claimed, cared deeply for everyone under his protection; and even if he did not put it on display, he was as loving a father as any.

It was the one thing Tauriel could not believe the prince. She remembered her own father well, and how she never had doubted his devotion, his affection towards her. No, she did not believe King Thranduil capable of true love—until the day Legolas’s patrol did not return to the palace at their appointed time.

The king was anxious to receive his captain’s report. Orcs had been spied close to the elf path, and the patrol had been sent out to drive them back and secure the only safe way through the forest. Tauriel, hidden in the shadows as was her wont when Legolas was expected—for she would not miss the chance of seeing the one she considered her big brother and hearing his newest, undoubtedly exciting adventure—observed how at first the delay seemed to merely annoy the king. He drummed his fingers on the throne’s armrests and stared into the empty room. Then he got impatient, frequently inquired if the outpost had spied anything, anyone, any movement, stood and paced the throne room. His strides were long, quick, and actually audible, and at the end of each length he turned with a dizzying swirl of his robe. The sound of the fabric’s swish was like that of a storm in Tauriel’s ears.

Finally the king barked out orders Tauriel didn’t understand, and told his trusted butler Galion in detail which consequences his wayward son would have to face when he eventually returned.

“It will be well, my Lord,” Galion answered to that, as unfitting as it seemed to Tauriel. “He will be well, I am sure of it.”

The king did not seem to hear him. “I do not tolerate tardiness,” he hissed.

“Sire…”

“Or disobedience.” It sounded like a snake’s snort or that of a dragon.

Tauriel ducked even lower in her hiding place. She almost wished Legolas would not return, at least not right then, for she did not want him have to face the king’s wrath.

“My Lord, the prince surely will be here in no time. He will be fine.”

The exchange went on, with the king’s voice rising a notch with every word he uttered, and it only stopped when a guard, barely able to stand, with stains of red and black all over his tunic, entered the room and announced that, no, the prince was not fine. That he had been gravely injured, and was now—

There was a blur of motion and voices, and to this day Tauriel does not surely know how she ended up in the healing halls, clutching the queen’s skirt and staring at her brother’s still form in the infirmary bed.

The king’s face was unreadable, indifferent, and he never spared his son a single look as he spoke to the healers, demanded a report from Legolas’s second, issued commands, and ordered the queen to step back and now let the healers do their work. There was a little quarrel about that, with the queen being upset and imperious, and the king imperious, too, and annoyed about her “intransigence.”

“I shall have you removed from here,” he said at one point, the anger in his voice actually laced with a hint of worry; and the queen shot him a glare that could have melted glass, but she stopped arguing.

The atmosphere in the chamber remained tense until the healers declared their work done and the prince—who by then was swathed in bandages and drugged to the hilt with healing potions—no longer in immediate danger, and then departed from the room leaving behind only the royal family—and Tauriel.

Quiet fell. The queen settled down in a chair at her son’s bedside, her fingers lightly drawing circles on his shoulder as she started to softly hum a melody that rang of green wood and fresh water, and the room filled with the smell of pine needles and sunshine. Tauriel resisted the urge to crawl on the bed, curl up next to Legolas and let herself be lulled into sleep by the enchanting tune but instead stayed enshrouded in the soft, warm velvet of the queen’s ornate robe, hidden from the king’s scrutiny.

Then, and only then, Thranduil’s gaze went to the bed, to his child, and—to Tauriel’s utmost astonishment—the tight composure of his features simply fell off. Gone was the coolness, gone was the indifference, gone was the…king. What remained was the father, and the husband. Concerned, worried even, stripped bare of his kingly façade, there stood the elf, the father of which Legolas had told her, the ada who loved and was loved in return.

Never would Tauriel forget the tremble in his voice when he sank down on to the bed, one hand resting on his son’s brow, the other reaching blindly for his wife, as he rasped out, “Oh, iôn-nín, what did I do to you? Thanks be to the Valar, we were spared this time—but what did I do to you?”

It was the first time Tauriel forgot to be intimidated by her custodian. She does not forget now. She is intimidated. More than she would have thought possible.

A sharp “Well, have you nothing to say?” startles her back to attention. It is the king who is demanding her, not the custodian, and certainly not the father. No, it is the king, the very irritated king; and Tauriel pulls herself together.

She is not an elfling anymore. She is a grown elleth, a warrior, captain of the king’s guard; and the queen’s skirts are nowhere in reach anyhow. Perhaps Legolas is nestled in their folds right now…. Tauriel almost snorts as the very idea is ridiculous—but she almost wishes it were true because that would mean Legolas has been found. It would, of course, also mean he must be grievously injured, for he would never, not even under the direst circumstances, tax his mother’s waning strength, would never seek her help; would never allow her to tend to him if he were still capable of refusing it.

She shakes her head as if getting rid of the image could prevent it from actually happening—and realises her mistake too late.

“You are sadly mistaken if you think silence will help you any.” There is a silken smoothness in the king’s voice, a benign softness blanketing his ire.

Tauriel straightens her back. “I did not mean…” She hears the tap of a kingly foot, and she knows better than to try her lord’s patience any more. “I will speak. I came here to speak. To explain.”

“To explain. Good.” Thranduil leans back in the throne. He crosses his legs, places his arms loosely on the rests. It almost looks like lounging, but Tauriel knows his posture is mindfully composed. “Then, if you please,” he continues, “do explain why you left the kingdom—against explicit orders.”

“I did consider it the right course of action, my Lord.”

“You considered it the right course of action to defy my orders?” An eyebrow rises, subtly, just a fraction. It is warning enough.

Tauriel courtly bows her head and makes sure to keep any defiance out of it as she answers, “The orcs were heading towards Laketown, my Lord. I assumed the orders were issued without knowledge of that threat.”

Thranduil brings his hands together, touching only at the tips of his fingers. “You assumed.”

Respect. Admittance of the lower rank. But no submission, no…creeping. That is how one approaches an angered Thranduil. Look straight in his eye. “I am captain of the guard. I am entitled to act as I think it required.”

The king taps his foot again, and Tauriel counts the beats. One, two, three, four, five. He stops at six.

“So you acted as captain of the guard?” He purses his lips and leans forward. “Well then, Captain, report.”

And Tauriel reports. The king keeps his features tightly scheduled while she speaks. He does not interrupt, he does not raise an eyebrow or tap his foot again.

Tauriel knows not how much Thranduil has heard already from the guard the queen has sent back, hence she tells the whole story: how she has decided to hunt the orcs, how Legolas has caught up with her and readily joined the pursuit, how they fought in Bard’s house, how Legolas pursued the fleeing goblins, how she stayed back to heal Kili. She tells how she became aware that something might not be right when the queen suddenly entered the house, how she offered her help in the search for Legolas and how that was declined. How it was Kili who prompted her to go back and explain herself, how it was not the dwarves fault that—

Here Thranduil finally does interrupt. It is also the moment his unreadable face transforms into something that is very easily interpreted: he is outraged. His voice, though, is still soft. Dangerously so. “So you are telling me that you disregarded your king’s express orders and neglected your duty as captain of the royal guard in order to tend to an injured dwarf?”

Tauriel cannot help but be faintly amused that Thranduil’s summary of the events is so similar to his wife’s. Perhaps after thousands of years of marriage people take up things from one another. It is, however, the only amusing thing in this situation. And she is not sure which is worse: the king’s cold fury or the queen’s disappointment.

“Speak, Tauriel.” Ever-so-softly, and ever-so-sharp, ever-so-clipped—ever-so-terrifying. Clearly, the king’s wrath is worse, far worse than the queen’s disapproval. Perhaps the latter is more distressing, more painful to the heart; but to incur the king’s wrath is perilous—it can break more than a heart’s peace.

“I did not neglect my duty. My Lord.”

Thranduil frowns. He tilts his head the way he does when he does not want to unleash his fury—yet. “I do wonder,” he says, and he makes big round eyes—an expression that might look innocent on anyone else but not on the King of the Woodland, on whom it is mocking, cynical, threatening. “I do wonder if, at any point, I mayhap have been unclear as to what your duty actually entails.” He leans back. “Do you know what your duty entails, Captain?”

“I do…Sire, of course I do know what my duty is.”

“Then, pray tell, what is it that you deem your duty to this kingdom?”

“I was tasked to keep the lands clear of foul creatures. My duty is to protect the realm at any cost.”

“And the realm consist of…?” More foot tapping; the beats now coming in rapid succession as the king studies Tauriel as if she were a fascinating new specimen. A previously unknown variety of spider, perhaps.

She is not sure what kind of answer her lord expects, but she is aware that his patience is almost spent. “The forest,” she says as it is the first thing that springs to her mind. It is where they fight the spiders and it is what is dear to Thranduil’s heart—because it is dear to his queen’s heart. “And the stronghold. The King’s Halls.”

The tapping stops. The king is completely calm now. Too calm. A dormant volcano. He curls his lips, briefly. “The stronghold,” he says then, and his arms open in a wide gesture that encompasses the whole palace. “The stronghold is made of rock. Sturdy. Rock does not need protection. Neither does the wood of the forest. It is the people inside who need protection.”

Oh. That is what… “My Lord—”

“That is your duty, Tauriel, to protect your people, your kin. And your…prince.”

“I did—”

“But instead of protecting him, you lured Legolas into a foolish chase—and then you abandoned him.”

“Sire, I did not…I did not abandon Legolas. We fought, together. We cleared the house, then he followed the fleeing goblins. I thought…” And here it is again: she thought he would not attack the resorting orcs; not if he was on his own. Only…she should have known better. Should have known him better. And perhaps she had known better, but just ignored—

You thought? What did you think, Tauriel? Are you certain you thought at all?” The king unfolds his legs and leans forward—like a wildcat ready to jump at its prey. “Do you know what loyalty means?”

This time she cannot help but cringe. She does not want to, but…but King Thranduil has just done what he can do best: he has found the weakness, both in Tauriel and in her reasoning. Loyalty. Oh, yes, she knows what loyalty means. Legolas proved his loyalty towards her when he followed her to make her turn and go back to the stronghold. He proved his loyalty towards her when he did not let her fight the orcs on her own—even though he thought she was doing it for the wrong reasons. He proved his loyalty towards her when he helped her defend the dwarves for whom he held no sympathy.

And then she left him to himself.

Petrified, Tauriel stares at the king. He is unmoving, but his eyes…. Impossibly, they look ready to burst into flames. As if there were fervid lava under the blue ice. She has to clench her hands into fists to stop them from trembling.

“I may have…misjudged—”

At that, the king erupts.

“Misjudged?” he spits out his lava in a roar that is audible throughout the palace as far as the furthermost alcove; it rushes through the King’s Halls, echoes from the high vaults, reverberates from every gnarled pillar. Thranduil is fire and ice, boiling hot anger and freezing cold fury. He is on his feet—how, Tauriel does not know, she has not seen him leap up—and around his legs his regal robe billows, white gems embroidered on silvery grey fabric like ice crystals glistening in clouds of smoke. His gaze is a burning dagger, his voice cold thunder. “What did you misjudge? That Legolas would not pursue the goblins?” He laughs. There is no trace of humour in it. “You misjudged in that you thought he would not try and eliminate them, on his very own if he deemed it necessary? How could you possibly have misjudged that? Have you not fought side by side with him for centuries? Should you not have known him well enough not to misjudge that?”

Tauriel does not think she can bear the king’s look any longer. She takes an involuntary step back, then another one, deliberately, bows her head, slumps her shoulders, makes of herself a small target. She looks down, at her now shaking hands, finds a green thread sticking out of her tunic’s sleeve and desperately wishes to seize it, pluck at it, tear at it, occupy her hands and divert her racing thoughts with it—but she does not dare loosen what little is left of her stance. She has no answer for her king, no answer that would satisfy him—or herself. This is not something she wishes to discuss with the king—it is her prince whom she will have to beg for forgiveness. And so she stands, still, and listens, silently; making herself as unobtrusive as possible.

But the king apparently does not expect her to answer. “Or,” he says softly, “did you simply not care?”

He cannot mean that. Surely, he does not think that of her. He cannot think…he cannot, can he?

Slowly the king descends the stairs leading down from the throne dais. He has his fury on tight reins now, lets it flare up only briefly with each step, each swell of his robe. It is deliberate, a performance; but even though Tauriel is aware of that she cannot avert its disturbing effect on her.

On reaching the stone floor, Thranduil stops. He folds his hands behind his back, leans forward and to the side, as if to compensate for the difference in their heights—but it only enhances his superior stature. “Or mayhap,” he says, “you misjudged the severity of the fact that you were defying your king’s orders as you followed the goblins across our borders?”

This is safe ground. This decision was right, Tauriel knows that, and she will defend it to her last breath. “My Lord, the orcs were threatening the people of Laketown. The men needed protection.”

“I think I have told you not so many days ago that other lands are not my concern. Or yours.”

“But Sire, if the orcs destroyed Laketown, would it not concern us? We do trade with the men, do we not?”

“Do you deem yourself wiser than your king?” he hisses. “Is that what you are trying to tell me?”

The safe ground has changed back into dangerous territory in a blink. “No, my Lord, no. I just…I thought…I knew you would not want me to turn my back on those in need.”

Thranduil stares at her. His face is blank, his eyes cold, his lips slightly parted. His hands, though, are now at his side and balled into fists. When he finally speaks, his voice is ice-blue velvet. “So you are telling me you went to Laketown to protect those in need, Tauriel? Who were those in need? The men in town or the dwarves?”

“Both, of course. My Lord.”

Both, of course.” He smiles. Even his smile is ice-blue. Cold. “And whom did you actually protect?”

“The…” The dwarves, she realises. The dwarves, only the dwarves. Legolas went and protected the town, she did only protect the— “…dwarves.” It is but a whisper.

Thranduil’s gaze pierces her deeply; he nods. He says nothing, he does not have to. He waits.

“But I had to, my Lord,” she pleads. Pleads? She has never pled with her king, never felt the need to. But he also never has regarded her so contemptuously. “No one else would have. They were alone, too small a number and one of them deathly ill. They needed my help.”

The king does not look as if it makes any difference to him.

“There were children,” Tauriel suddenly remembers. “Surely you understand—”

And then Thranduil’s face is right in front of hers, his breath hot on her cheek. “Enough,” he says. “Quiet. Be still. Speak no more.”

He straightens, lifts his hand to conduct the gesture that summons the guards—Tauriel’s comrades—to lead her away.

She does not dare speak up. She has tried to explain herself to her lord, has tried to make him understand—not just her actions but the idea behind them. She might not have succeeded yet, but perhaps when the king’s ire settles he might be inclined to hear her again. One success, surprisingly, she can count her own: Thranduil’s anger is no longer directed at the dwarves. Of course, she has managed to draw it all upon herself—but, honestly, Tauriel does not think she could have prevented that even if she had tried.

She hears the king pronounce the charge, insubordination, and thinks herself lucky it is not treason; feels the guards’ strong grip on her upper arms, the pull.

But then everything comes to a halt when there is a commotion in the corridor, and Galion, two guards close at his heels, comes almost running up the way to the throne room and, foregoing his usual dignity, cries even from afar, “My Lord, my Lord!”

The king freezes. Only his head turns as he acknowledges his trusted friend, “Galion.”

The butler bows as he stops in front of the king. “My Lord, the queen has returned.” He reaches a hand out, hesitates, then draws it back.

Thranduil inclines his head, only by a fraction, and his eyes widen slightly. Nothing more, just that. He is trying to read Galion’s face, Tauriel realises, his pride forbidding him to ask what he so desperately wants to know.

And Galion seems incapable of continuing, as if willing to say what must be said only if given no other choice.

Tauriel knows it is not her place to intervene, but she does anyway. It is an act of kindness, of compassion, delivered to her king who perhaps does not even deserve it. And yet she owes him that. “Is Legolas with her?”

The king’s face betrays no emotion as he awaits the answer. He allows not the tiniest twitch of his brow, not a single jerk of a muscle. His features appear as if carved out of ice, his body taut as a bent bow.

“He is,” Galion nods.

There is a slight tremor in Thranduil’s face, almost unnoticeable, and a minute easing in the rigidness of his shoulders. But then the king’s cold mask shatters completely at the butler’s next words.

“He is being attended to in the healing halls—as is the queen. It does not…The healer says you might want to see to them…without delay.”

Thranduil spares a moment to motion the guards to conduct their prisoner away before he hastens towards the healing halls, towards his family—of which Tauriel obviously is not considered a part anymore.

*****

6 The Healer

Thalonael is seldom seen running. He is the senior healer in the king’s fortress, the undisputed ruler of the healing ward, one of the oldest and wisest among the wood elves—he has been in charge of tending to the royal Sindar since before the days of King Oropher. But when he is alerted that the queen’s party has been spotted close to the stronghold and that, from the looks of it, a healer will be needed in the throne room as soon as the prince will have made his report, he immediately abandons the treatise he was studying and hurries through the corridors in a manner very unlike his usual dignified pace.

What spurs him to haste is not only that the queen has been exposed to the tainted woods too long already, has strained herself far beyond what the healer would ever have allowed (but, of course, she did not see fit to ask for his opinion before she went on her dangerous quest). The prince, Thalonael is informed, seems also in need of tendance, as he appears to be barely able to sit his horse.

Thalonael knows Legolas very well. He was the first to hold the precious babe after the queen gave birth to the long awaited heir of Greenwood (a miracle that, as they all were aware, would not be repeated) and he has tended to him and treated wounds sustained in the prince’s constant battle against the Shadow ever since—whenever the queen allowed it or, for some time past, was too ill to do it herself.

Yes, he knows Legolas very well, knows him well enough to have no doubt that if it seems that the prince cannot remain mounted much longer, then his body will have lost the ability to stay on a horse long ago and only his stubbornness and determination are still keeping him upright. Once at home, however, he will not be able to continue. And even if his stubbornness and determination can still drive him on, Thalonael will not allow it. Reports can be made in the healing halls as well as in the throne room, and it is not as if it has not been done already in the past.

So Thalonael turns his hurried steps not towards the throne room but to the stables. From the gallery, he has a clean view into the court yard, and what he sees makes him hasten his pace even more.

Legolas slides from his horse and collapses into an untidy heap on the ground as soon as the rescue party has crossed the bridge to the stronghold and reached the stable yard. The queen, with a speed that belies her ghostly pallor, dismounts and rushes to him. She is on her knees and has her son’s body pulled into her lap even before Thalonael can cry out, “No, my Lady!”

His call, of course, falls on deaf ears. By the time he reaches the queen, she is already deeply in healing trance, her face white and drawn, her body trembling like a dry leaf in the storm.

It is not advisable to forcefully drag someone out of healing trance, but the consequence of not doing it to Eryniel could easily be her death. Thalonael tears the queen’s hands off her son’s chest, breaks the link of healing. “Daro,” he says softly. “Please, my Lady.”

He soothes her as he would a hurt wildcat, careful, cautious of the danger any injured animal might pose. He expects her to lash out over his intrusion, expects anything from royal indignation to outrage—but all she does is slump into herself, almost boneless, and whisper, “Help, Thalonael, save him. It is dire.”

And it is indeed dire. Legolas is even weaker than the healer has feared, although Thalonael senses traces of previous healing in the prince’s compromised fëa (he refrains from casting the queen a disapproving glare, but only because his attention is fully needed for thrusting life into the battered body of her son). That Legolas has allowed even the smallest amount of restoration at all tells Thalonael more about his perilous condition than the blood that has seeped through his clothes and makeshift bandages.

There is nothing Thalonael can do out here besides sharing his vital force with Legolas, and when he has given as much as he can afford, he stands, cradling the prince’s limp form in his arms so he can carry him to the healing halls where there will be athelas to clean and heal, geranium and calendula to staunch the blood flow, elderflower to reduce the fever, miruvor to restore strength, water and a clean bed; and time to chant songs of healing.

He sees Eryniel trying in vain to rise and curses the fact that he has hurried out alone—despite knowing there would be two patients rather than one—but then Galion appears in the yard, hastening to aid the queen. As he enters the hallway, Thalonael hears Eryniel stating that she will not be carried with a voice so thin but still so very much in command, but he hurries towards the healing halls without turning back again, certain that the butler will somehow support his lady there, too.

Once in his own little kingdom of herbs and healing draughts, Thalonael launches into well-practised routine. Orders are issued, assistant healers summoned, healing supplies brought and lain out. The prince is stripped and bathed, then bedded on soft white linen that soon is soiled with the evidence of injury and healing.

After all the dirt and partly dried blood is washed away, Legolas’s wounds turn out to be even more terrible than they seemed at first glance. Many demand suturing, some require Thalonael to cut deeply first, for not only the surface is injured: there is mutilation deep inside; organs have been torn, blood vessels lacerated, muscles and tendons damaged. Fresh blood wells up not only where the healers have to cut, but also where already crusted wounds are washed or when the patient is carefully moved to check for as yet undiscovered injuries—indeed, everywhere he is touched either by the healers or by the soft bed on which he is lying.

Thalonael is neatly stitching, layer by layer, the muscle and skin covering his prince’s abdomen when he dimly becomes aware of Galion and Eryniel entering the room. He nods at one of his assistants and sends her with a quick gesture over to the queen. Much as he would like to tend to his lady himself, Legolas needs him more. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing he can do to actually restore the queen’s health beyond the usual treatment.

Miruvor, rest,” he orders nevertheless. It is meant not so much for the healer’s as for the queen’s ears. He will allow no more foolishness. No more reckless waste of strength where there is almost none left in her anyway.

Eryniel complies, as far as she is able. She refuses to leave the room, she refuses to be put in a bed, she refuses to take a sleeping draught. She allows a divan to be brought into the room, demands it be put where she can see her son. (For now. Later, she makes it known, it will be moved next to Legolas’s bed.) She lets herself be helped out of her riding attire and into a soft, warm housecoat, and accepts a small cup of miruvor and a woollen blanket as she settles down on the divan.

There is a light touch on his shoulder, and as Thalonael glances up he sees Galion’s concerned face.

“How…?” the butler whispers, a slight jerk of his head towards Legolas’s prone form completing the question.

“I do not know yet.” It is nothing the queen should hear, so Thalonael keeps his voice down. “It is dire,” he repeats Eryniel’s words from the stable yard. “There is still much work to do. The blood loss is immense, the damage extensive. I do what I can but it might not be….” He clenches his teeth. He will not say it out loud. Can not.

But then he does not need to say it anyway: there is a sudden change, Legolas’s pained frown relaxes, peace settles on his features. Stillness suffuses the room. The air becomes saturated with the prince’s fading fëa.

Thalonael shivers. This is it then. This is it; and there is nothing to be done. It is beyond his skills, beyond anyone’s skills. There is only one service left to render now. “Get the king,” he breathes. “Quickly.”

But there is no need for the command as Galion is already on his way.

The healers’, all the healers’ hands, four sets of them, glide over Legolas’s torso, as if to prevent his life force from being poured out, as if they could keep it in place or scoop it up and spoon it back into him. It is in vain, Thalonael knows that, but he has to at least postpone the inevitable, has to keep the prince here until the king has appeared, and the father has met his son in this world one last time.

Then Thalonael feels a push against his shoulder. A slender, white hand gestures the healers’ away, is gently laid down in their place. The queen falls to her knees, her hands ghosting over Legolas’s chest, her head bowed. She cups his face in her hands, holds him, just holds him without uttering a sound, without moving, without any outward appearance of weaving her magic; and little by little, the silence of the room is replaced by the sound of the forest, the stench of blood and gore by the fragrance of leaves and moss.

When one of the assistants shoots him a distressed look, Thalonael closes his eyes and shakes his head. He will not stop the queen, not this time, not now when her unique powers might be the only thing that can save her son’s life, when her sacrifice is his only hope—and the prince’s life the only one that can possibly be saved.

She shivers under the strain; her breath is laboured, her face void of any colour. But the air of death is quietly overcome by the song of leaf-green and sky-blue, of trees and water, by the notion of golden sunlight filtered through the canopy of beeches. Then Legolas heaves a deep, shuddering breath, and his chest moves up and down again rhythmically with each intake of air; tension returns to his features, and colour; and his eyelids flutter.

Eryniel’s hands slide from her son’s face as she goes limp. She tries to hold herself upright on the bed, but she has no strength left; her hands slip from the bed’s edge, and Thalonael catches her as she begins to fall.

“It is done,” he says soothingly when she struggles against him. She holds on to his arms, with more vigour than he thought she had left.

“Wait,” she says.

She straightens, her green gaze captures his eyes, holds them fast for a long moment. Then it sweeps over the other healers’ faces, catches their eyes, too, and fixes them for as long as each of them is able to hold it.

“You will not speak about this, none of you.” Her words are just above a whisper, but the authority in them is unmistakable. “Neither to Legolas nor to the king.”

“Very well, my Lady,” Thalonael says, including all present in the agreement. He does not need their consent—they all know it is better this way, and neither of them wants the queen’s gift tainted. There was nothing else to be done, and neither Legolas nor Thranduil ought to feel guilty about it.

They help the now-compliant queen back to her seat on the divan, then continue the painstaking work of healing a patient who, a mere blink ago, should have passed beyond healing. More stitches are administered; poultices and linen pads sutured with healing tonics are laid over minor cuts and already sutured injuries, salves are spread on abrasions; clean bandages are applied.

The king arrives as Thalonael dabs at some tiny drops of blood that have welled up through the stitches with which he has just closed a particularly deep gash.

“All will be well,” Thalonael answers the question he knows the king will not ask.

Thranduil nods. His gaze flickers to Legolas—and is locked there. He cannot fully keep the horror out of his face as he takes in the too-still form of his son, the numerous bandages, the blood and bruises, the shallow breathing, the pasty pallor, the unnatural limpness; and he cannot completely hide the roughness in his voice when he finally speaks. “Are you certain of that?”

“I am.” Thalonael almost chokes on the ‘now’ that wants to come out—but he will not break his promise to the queen. Nor does Thranduil have to know how close he came to losing his only child.

“He will regain complete health, melleth. This I know.”

Eryniel’s affirmation, spoken in a quiet yet confident voice, comforts Thranduil more than any word from the healer could. “Very well,” he says. “Then I shall rest assured.” The king sinks down on to the divan on which his wife is resting. He takes her hand. “Are you well, bereth-nín? Your hand is cold.”

“I am merely exhausted, no more than can be expected.”

Thalonael feels certain that the king recognises the equivocation, but apparently decides not to take his wife to task for it. She does look fatigued beyond endurance; it will not do her any good to exhaust her further by chiding her. The healer turns his attention back to his patient, and as he finds that most of the work is done, he sends his assistants away. There are only some minor wounds left to be treated that normally would not require the senior healer’s expertise, but Thalonael is sure the king and queen will prefer his presence over any other’s. He tries to be quick and unobtrusive, as he wants to give them as much privacy as possible. He cannot help overhearing the royal couple’s low conversation, though.

“What has happened, Eryniel? Where did you find him?”

“He had ridden far into the goblins’ land. He was fighting a horde of yrch when we reached him.”

“I feared he would not shirk from confrontation, even if the odds were against him. He could not simply let them go, could he? He must have known he would not come out of it unscathed. I thought I taught him better than to take unnecessary risks.”

“I do not know what induced him to do so. Mayhap he will enlighten you when he wakes.” The queen sighs. “Be not too harsh with him, melleth-nìn, when you question him. He did not mean to be unreasonable, of that I am certain.”

“He did not heed my orders.”

“I am sure he did not intend to defy you. But circumstances might have required it.”

There is a noise coming from the king that could almost be an ungraceful “hrmpf”. But surely, Thalonael must have misheard.

The queen laughs quietly. “Be not too severe with him, meleth. He did fight well. You would have been proud of your son, aran-nín. He was magnificent.”

“He obviously fought not well enough to avoid a multitude of injuries being inflicted on him.”

The queen’s voice rises a notch, and there is a certain sharpness to it as she replies, “You will not insinuate such when you speak to Legolas. He held his own against dozens of enemies, and he came out of it the victor. I do not know if you could have been triumphant, had you been in his stead, Thranduil.”

Thalonael cringes, as, undoubtedly, does Thranduil. The queen’s protectiveness towards her son is legendary—it is a well-adhered to rule that you shall not speak ill of Legolas within the hearing of her highness—as is the warning that is encoded in her use of the king’s given name. It is rare for her to do such, and usually only when she is quite vexed.

But the King of the Woodland Realm is an experienced negotiator, a shrewd and cunning diplomat—and he knows a thing or two about diversion.

“You did not try and heal him, did you, Eryniel?” He puts emphasis on the queen’s given name, too, but it is not half as effective as her stress on his.

“I tried after the fight, but he would not let me,” she admits but evades mentioning later…events.

“You know you are not supposed to exhaust your strength.”

“He almost did not make it to the stronghold. He needed healing, but he preferred to suffer for the sake of keeping me hale. He should not have—”

“He should have. Obviously, he has more sense than you. I will tell him he did well.”

There is a pause; Thalonael hears rustling, the sound of fabric brushing on fabric, the king‘s low voice, “here, have a sip,” and then nothing for a while. He does not need to turn around to know that the king will have slipped closer to his wife, that he will have taken her in his arms, and that she will be resting at his chest.

The king and queen usually do not display their affection so openly. It does not fit the image of himself that Thranduil prefers to present to his subjects, and elves are discreet anyway—the royal Sindar even more so than the Silvan elves. And yet, the sight of the king gathering his wife in his arms is not unfamiliar to the healer. Thranduil has held her through many troubled, painful nights while the healers hovered above them or counselled in hushed voices in a far corner.

Thalonael does not know how many more nights the queen will live to see, how many more nights the king will be given to hold her, and so he busies himself with checking already checked bandages and cleaning already cleaned scratches so as not to interrupt the couple’s intimacy.

“He is so much like you,” he hears the king eventually blurt.

Oh, how many times has he heard him say that? A thousand times or more. Thalonael keeps his head low and smiles. It is not the words alone that make him grin. It is the tone in which they are uttered: there is annoyance in it, pride and joy, exasperation, indignation and silent admiration.

The king is speaking the truth, of course. Whilst most people believe Legolas to be truly his mother’s son in looks and his father’s in demeanour, Thalonael, along with the prince’s parents, knows it to be the other way round. Indeed, Legolas has inherited the queen’s finely chiselled facial structure, but his colouring favours his father’s: he has Thranduil’s dark brows and piercing blue eyes; and his hair is the same shade of almost silvery blonde. And even though he tries so very hard to follow the king’s example by appearing cold and distant to everyone outside the circle of family and close friends, the hard surface he displays cannot fully hide his compassionate heart. His carelessness in matters of courteous conduct mirrors his mother’s, as does his curiosity for the things beyond, his wonder in everything new, and his deep bond with the forest and its creatures.

The only difference between mother and son is that where Eryniel hides a strong will beneath her soft appearance, Legolas hides a tender and joyful heart under his cold countenance.

“Is he?” Eryniel laughs. “So this all is my fault again?”

“It is always your fault, my love. Because the king is never to blame.”

Thalonael cannot suppress a chuckle. And regrets it instantly.

“Are you not finished, Healer?” he hears the king’s voice close to his ear.

As so often, he marvels about Thranduil’s ability to move so fast and so quietly. “I am,” he says. “Almost. Just this one little…” He hastily rubs ointment on a random bruise. “There. That was the last.” He bows his head. “By your leave, my Lord…”

The king nods and waves his hand impatiently, and Thalonael turns and leaves the room with as much dignity as he can muster. The last thing he hears is the queen’s voice demanding, “I would have my seat moved to Legolas’s bed now.”

He almost turns back—but then he has been dismissed, has he not?

The king will find a way to comply with his queen’s wishes. Thalonael is quite positive about that.

*****

7 The Mother

Thranduil knows something is not right: Galion’s frantic call that brought him hurrying to see his son and wife, and then, upon his arrival at the infirmary, the healer’s and Eryniel’s quiet assurance that all will be well…it does not fit, it does not quite fit. He is no fool, he knows that there is something withheld from him; he does not know what, not yet, but he will ascertain it. Eryniel, of course, will only bestow upon him a perfectly innocent green gaze when questioned, mortally wounded at the very idea that he considers her to be anything but utterly honest. She will twist his words, and hers, until he loses his temper—and he does not want to lose his temper, not whilst she looks so frail and tired. It would not gain him much, anyway: Eryniel would only voice her disappointment in him, and then retreat to her chambers and refuse to see him until he “comes to his senses”.

So he will have to wait for Legolas to awaken. Even though his son has displayed a lamentable streak of…independence recently, he still balances his rebellious impulses with respectful conduct and an impeccable performance of his duties. Indeed, he has started to question Thranduil’s decrees—but thus far, he has not openly contradicted his father and king. Yes, he went and followed Tauriel without securing his father’s consent first…a foolish idea, born out of misplaced fondness for someone completely unsuitable…but it was done to prevent the Captain acting against orders, to make sure the king’s commands were observed—not to challenge them.

Legolas will answer Thranduil’s questions to his best ability. He will not try and fob him off with half-truths and palliations. Unlike his mother, the Prince of Greenwood is not immune to King Thranduil’s icy glare. Yet. (And unlike his mother, Legolas has yet to discover the art of winning an argument against his father by sheer stubborn insistence on his point and complete disregard of the king’s superiority in everything, which will come in useful when Thranduil will be questioning his son about disregarding his explicit orders.)

A soft cough comes from Eryniel, little more than a clearing of her throat, but it pulls Thranduil back from what he is going to do to what he is doing. He pours his wife a glass of honeyed water from a carafe on Legolas’s bedside table, watches her take a few tiny sips.

“Are you better now?” he asks as he puts the glass back.

She smiles. “I am well.”

It is a blatant lie—but she knows that as well as he does, and he raises his unbelieving eyebrow only because it is part of the ritual. He feels her hand again—still cold; how can she have cold hands in the heated shelter of the healing halls?—and then pulls the thin woollen blanket from the divan’s backrest and drapes it over his queen.

“Do not fret,” she admonishes him—as he expects her to, for it also belongs to their routine—and wriggles her hands free from the warming cover.

Her smile is but a shadow of the usual golden brightness, but her green gaze warms Thranduil’s heart anyway, as it always had and always will, even though he almost shivers from the short touch of her cool fingers on his cheek. He reaches up as her hand falls down, and their fingers brush so lightly it is barely a whisper. But they remain like that, fingers ghosting around each other in feathery touches, tender pledges, sweet devotion. The fragrance of spring flowers refreshes the air, of honey and sunlight on bare skin; Thranduil hears his song and hers, mingling, dancing, rejoicing; and time ceases to pass—immortality merges with eternity. And his heart…his heart…melts…

They emerge from it when they are called back to the present by the only thing that could possibly reach through to them, the one thing that has never failed to alert them: the cry of their child. It is but a faint moan, merely an audible exhalation, and yet it commands—and receives—both their attentions directed immediately towards what is most important to them.

Thranduil studies Legolas’s face; he seems to detect a semblance of colour on the pale cheeks. Legolas’s lips twitch, his brow furrows, a grimace of pain washes over his features, then he relaxes.

Eryniel cups Legolas’s cheek with one hand and coos, “Shhh” until he rests peacefully again.

She fiddles with the bed linen, smoothes out non-existent wrinkles, adjusts perfectly arranged blankets, inspects the expertly applied bandages. “Henig,” she murmurs as she strokes Legolas’s hair out of his face, “penneth-nín.” She traces his brow, his cheeks with her fingertips, then rests her hand on his collarbone, closes her eyes and stills completely.

“You are not to strain yourself even more,” Thranduil warns. “If I so much as hear even a single note of your healing song—”

“I shall be removed from this room, I know.” She sighs. “Do not part me from my child, aran-nín. I could not bear it.”

“I will not if you do not exhaust yourself.”

Her fingers are rubbing slow circles on Legolas’s shoulder, on a patch of unbruised skin, seemingly the one lonely spot that is not covered in bandages. The movement has an almost hypnotic cadence, but the absence of sound and fragrance in the air tells Thranduil that she, indeed, is not pouring strength into their child.

She does not stop the tender caress as she lifts her head and catches her husband’s gaze. “I have been exhausted for a very long time now,” she says quietly. “I have grown tired of being exhausted. I have grown tired of the weakness.”

Thranduil stares at her. He is very much aware of his glare’s piercing quality, of its ability to penetrate others’ wills and crumble their resolution. He is also aware of its accursed ineffectiveness on Eryniel—but she is weak and tired, and mayhap it will affect her only this once. So he fixes his eyes on her, tries to break into her mind, tries to will her not to continue, not to speak the words he has been dreading to hear for so long a time.

But she is not to be deterred. “I long for rest,” she says. “When it comes, I will embrace the repose. I will not suffer, know that, my love.”

“But I cannot endure…,” is all he can utter as he feels his chest tighten around his heart.

“You can, and you will.” She does not flinch from his stare, instead she meets his eyes with hers, melts sharp blue ice with soft forest-green light. “Our people need you. Now that the Shadow draws nearer they need you more than ever. And Legolas needs you, too, even if he might not think so.”

You are needed here as well. Did you not tell me you would not sail because you were needed in Arda?”

She smiles even as she shakes her head. “I have fulfilled my destiny.”

He must have misheard it. It cannot be. Or she errs, yes, certainly she errs. “You cannot…” He stands, abruptly. Paces the small room. Swishes his robes. Halts and taps his foot. Paces, swishes the robe. Stops in front of Eryniel, bends and hovers over her, his face close to hers. “And,” he hisses, and yes, he hisses, he is trying to intimidate her, to ridicule her, to prevail upon her to take it back. “And pray tell, how do you know that?”

Do not.” She may be weak and tired but her tone is sharp, and the push of her hand against his chest resolute. “I am not your underling. Mind your demeanour.”

He blinks, sags down on the divan. He tries again, softer, without kingly presumption, “How can you know that?” Horrified, he hears something in his voice for which he has no word. Something that, coming from another, might be referred to as…desperation…fear… But he is Thranduil, King of the Woodland. He knows neither desperation nor fear.

“I know it just as I knew I must not sail: my task is done.”

“But you knew not what your task was.”

No, she knew it not. And yet she refused to sail West, to the Undying Lands, where there was healing to be obtained and where she could be waiting until one day they were united again. Instead she remained in Arda for some purpose she could not name but persisted was more important than her immortality. It would reveal itself eventually, she always said, and that she would know it when its time came.

It drove him to distraction, she drove him to distraction. Eryniel had never been gifted with foresight, and Thranduil was quick to dismiss her conviction of the verity of this one visionary knowledge as fancy. It was difficult enough to accept the inevitability of her fading, the healers’ inability to find a cure or any means to stop the Shadow’s grasp on his queen, the truth that his beloved would not remain at his side until they left for Aman together—but it was nigh on impossible to accept her calm surrender to her fate. And so he tried to make her change her mind, tried to make her see sense, fully aware of the futility of it and yet unable to stop himself. Inevitably, his solid arguments were blocked by her solid determination: he reasoned and she was stubborn—until it was too late for her to sail, until she was too weak even to withstand the long journey to the Grey Havens.

To imagine that he will have to dwell in Aman without his beloved is unbearable, but Eryniel has promised him that once she has reached the Halls she will beg Mandos to release her to the Undying Lands. And if she pleads her case with the Doomsman as well as she argues with her king, then Thranduil knows not all hope is lost.

But it still does not answer his question, still does not make her ready consent easier to bear.

“It is true, I did not know my task then,” Eryniel says. “But I know it now, and that I have fulfilled it. And you know it, too.”

He can see how her eyes search for comprehension in his, how her mouth curls into a soft smile as understanding slowly comes to him, how her gaze shifts with his to the bed that contains their most precious treasure. He feels her hand clasping his.

Oh Valar… He cannot even rage when the reason for his wife’s sacrifice is this, their child, the only thing that would justify…and yet he can, can throw his fury at the deities that he cannot have them both, that one must be sacrificed for the other. He begins to understand, though, her graceful acceptance of what was asked of her. He would have given himself just as readily.

“Our son is meant for… for something of great importance. He must remain in Arda,” he hears Eryniel whisper.

With major effort Thranduil refrains from groaning. “I presume it is too much to ask what it is that Legolas is supposed to do for Arda?” Of course, she will not know. It would just not be irritating enough if she did, would it?

Eryniel shakes her head. “I do not know it, meleth. I only know that it is his destiny to live and to…” She laughs quietly. “…to leave the realm, aran-nìn, to leave the Woodlands after all and do his task somewhere else.”

“He will not leave the realm. Not again.” Thranduil does not know how Eryniel can suggest otherwise. “I will not see him endangered once again. He will remain within the realm’s borders as I have ordered.”

“You cannot confine him forever.”

“I will if I must. Him and everyone else.”

“It is not wise to—”

“It is not wise to disregard my orders.” He realises how uncivil it is to interrupt her so, how curt and sharp his words must sound, and that, surely, Eryniel is already composing a reprimand, but he has had enough of people trying to insinuate they know better than he how to rule his kingdom. “This…” He gestures towards Legolas. “This happened because Tauriel did not heed my orders.”

“No, that is not—”

“If Tauriel had not decided that protecting the dwarves was better than protecting the realm, Legolas would not have followed her, would not have fought and pursued the yrch, would not have been injured so badly. You would not have searched for him, but stayed safely—“

Meleth. Stop that reasoning. The yrch hurt your son. That was not Tauriel’s doing. ”

He blinks. “No, you are right. It is not. It is the naugrim’s fault. If the naugrim had not brought the yrch—“

Thranduil!”

Her voice is very loud for someone so weak, and for a moment Thranduil feels compelled to see if it has woken Legolas. But he is a wise king, and a smart husband, and he recognises the tone of her voice that commands his complete regard. He inclines his head. Just a fraction. He will make only a small concession: he listens.

“Do not walk that path. You know it will lead you astray,” Eryniel says. “Had Legolas not followed Tauriel…. Had Tauriel not followed the dwarves…. Had the dwarves not escaped the dungeons…. Had you not incarcerated the dwarves….” She smiles sweetly. “See how easily I can have you at fault?”

Had the dwarves not trespassed, had they not refused to give their reasons…. But Thranduil has abandoned this path already. He knows his queen’s advice is sound.

“The dwarves, Tauriel, you, I, each one, every decision has its part in this,” she concludes. “But at heart, it is the Shadow that is to blame.”

Bowing his head, he wordlessly concedes to her wisdom. The Shadow has started it all, the Shadow is what turns small inconveniences into catastrophes. The Shadow, the Necromancer, who is the enemy not only of the elves but of all the folks of Arda. Mayhap he should have….

But it is not wise to dwell in the past, nor is it is wise to ponder over things unchangeable. And Eryniel looks as if her outburst has cost her all remaining strength. Her body is sunken deep into the divan’s cushion, her hands lie limply on the blanket, her eyes are glazing over—she will fall into reverie ere long.

Carefully, as if it was made of delicate crystal, he picks up her hand, raises it to his lips. His kiss is tender, the touch of a butterfly wing.

“Rest now,” he whispers. “I shall watch over our penneth, and you.”

And his queen complies.

 *****

8 The Father

The King of the Woodland has never been one to sit idly. He may not be moving as he watches the slow rise and fall of his son’s chest, one hand still holding his wife’s, the other resting on Legolas’s arm, his back regally straight and upright; but the stillness is only of the limbs. His mind runs relentlessly.

The dwarves…they did not enter his realm without a reason. Greedy, cunning creatures… They lied to him, mocked his sagacity. They planned…something…. But what? Their presence attracted the yrch, creatures of the Necromancer…. What other evil will it bring forth?

And what caused Tauriel to be so…enamoured of the dwarves?

He will have to send someone to the men of Laketown. Galion, mayhap. The men need to be informed of his…discontent. Never again shall they see fit to accommodate anyone who cowers away from Thranduil’s righteous wrath.

Perhaps Galion is not the right choice for that. Someone of high rank and imposing demeanour might serve better. Legolas.

Legolas…he seems so much better already. His breathing is regular, not so laboured anymore, his colour almost normal, his skin warm and dry, his features relaxed. In fact, he appears to have healed much more than could be expected in so short a time. Thalonael must have worked a small wonder. Thranduil will bear in mind to commend the healer on his exceptional performance, to present him with an adequate remuneration. As if there were enough gemstones in all of Arda to properly express his gratitude.

If it is indeed Thalonael’s mastery alone that has brought this swift change in Legolas’s condition.

Eryniel’s hand is still too cold. But surely, she has not…. No. You did not try and heal him, did you, Eryniel? I tried after the fight, but he would not let me. He will question Legolas about that. He does not think Eryniel would lie to him, not outright, but she is a master of speaking around crucial facts if she deems it favourable. (It is an irritating habit of which Thranduil can also be found guilty; so perhaps he deserves to be subjected to that.) Legolas, the Valar be thanked, will give short, clear, and honest but complete answers, as becomes a commander of the king’s guards.

As it becomes a commander of the king’s guards. There is another commander of his guards whom Thranduil used to think of as someone who also knew to behave as it became her, and who then so tremendously disappointed him. Forsooth, Tauriel did not injure his son, Eryniel is right about that. But had she not— Yes, despite his wife’s warning he is back to that reasoning. He cannot simply ignore the fact that Tauriel betrayed his trust, failed his realm, abandoned his son. And had she not let Legolas down, had she kept him from his foolish pursuit of the already fleeing yrch (as would have been her duty), or had she at least joined him in that hazard, he certainly would not have suffered injuries so severe, and Eryniel would not—

A soft gasp interrupts his rambling thoughts. As he shifts his gaze from Legolas’s chest to his face, he finds clouded blue eyes staring back at him.

He squeezes his son’s arm. “Well, there you are back with us, iôn-nín.”

Legolas blinks a few times to clear his sight. Focusses on his father. Lets his eyes wander to the left, to the right. Frowns. “Naneth,” he rasps, and then he convulses with a hacking cough.

“Shh, do not speak yet. Your mother is resting right next to you.” Thranduil slides one hand under Legolas’s head and lifts him up a little so that he can feed him honeyed water. Some trickles down his chin, and Legolas raises a hand to brush the moisture away. He feebly paws at the glass, but Thranduil will have none of it. “Daro,” he says. “Let me do this for you.”

Legolas manages a smile around the brim of the glass, and even if it is mostly obscured, Thranduil can see that it is of the long-suffering kind.

“Indulge me,” the kingly father says wryly; and his son’s smile grows wider.

After he has obediently emptied almost half the glass, Legolas endures a cloth dabbing at his chin, a hand testing his temperature on his brow, a strong arm holding him upright and turning him so he can see his naneth. But when Thranduil gently lays him down, and pulls his blanket back up, he protests and insists he be helped to sit up again. It is less struggle than Thranduil would have expected, and more than Legolas’s pride would prefer, if his exasperated exclamations are an indicator; but eventually he sits propped up, a thick pillow cushioning his back against the headboard.

He is breathing audibly, the only sign of exhaustion he is unable to conceal, and his gaze slips to his right, where Eryniel rests.

“I did not let her heal me,” he says the most important thing without even being asked.

“I know. You did well, iôn-nín.” Thranduil cannot supress a smile. Clear, honest, complete; to the point. As expected. A true warrior, his son, in every aspect.

A true warrior in every aspect, yes: honest and valiant, deadly skilled in the arts of fighting, cunning and far-seeing—and at times stupidly too much focused on the annihilation of the enemy and too little on self-preservation. A leader of warriors, Thranduil still has to ingrain into his son, a leader knows when it is time to retreat; a leader does not only look after those whom he leads but also after himself.

He did not mean to be unreasonable, he hears Eryniel’s voice in his head. Be not too harsh with him when you question him.

Not too harsh… Thranduil studies his son. His cheeks are flushed, his breaths a little laboured, his lips tightly pressed on another. There are fine lines of pain on his brow and around his mouth. But his eyes are still clear and alert; and mayhap now is a better time than ever.

Be not too harsh with him. He will not. Not while Legolas is in pain. Not while he still has to heal.

Yes, now is a better time than any other.

“Well,” Thranduil says without preamble. He can be to the point, too. “Would you care to tell me why I should not arraign my son for insubordination?”

Legolas stares blankly at him.

“You do remember I ordered that no-one leave the kingdom?”

“Yes.”

No-one. What made you think that would not include you?”

Adar…”

Thranduil raises an eyebrow. Legolas should know better.

My Lord, I did not intend to leave the realm. I merely wished to inform Captain Tauriel about the new orders.”

That is…intriguing. A new tactic, exactly the brand of tampering-the-facts his mother would deploy. This shall be interesting. Thranduil inclines his head. He speaks very softly—Legolas will know to read it correctly and heed the unspoken warning. “Then what happened to make you change your plans?”

His son’s narration of the events is short, clear, and in agreement with Tauriel’s version. When asked, he delivers a sound explanation for…bending his king’s orders when he decided to follow her to Laketown.

“I needed to keep her safe,” he says. “I could not let her fight a band of yrch on her own.”

Apparently, Legolas’s desire to protect anyone is significantly more distinct than Thranduil already assumed. He even feels compelled to protect Tauriel, an accomplished, well-practised warrior—who, as a matter of fact, is tasked with protecting him.

Thranduil does not point out that Legolas would have done better to use his newly found silver tongue to persuade Tauriel to return to the stronghold, thus effectively protecting both her and him.

“You are very fond of Tauriel,” he carefully prods instead.

Legolas frowns. “Of course I am. She is the closest to a sibling that I have.”

Oh.

Ah, well. That…is a relief.

Thranduil bestows Legolas with a scrutinising look. He makes sure to put some ice into it—it is as much of a glare as he thinks his son can handle in his current condition. Legolas holds his gaze, his face is guileless.

Yes, definitely a relief.

“So you left the kingdom to protect Tauriel and the men of Laketown,” the king eventually sums Legolas’s report up. “After you defeated the yrch—and in passing protected the naugrim…” Thranduil is pleased to see that Legolas has the good grace to wince at that statement, “…you went after the fleeing goblins to…?”

“Make certain they did not turn against the citizens.”

“Very well.” Thranduil forms a triangle with his hands, the tips of his fingers rhythmically tapping at each other. “Then, in the streets, you went into combat with their leader, who escaped when you were assaulted by a group of his underlings…”

Legolas nods.

“…against which you eventually prevailed, too.”

“Yes.”

“Then you noticed the leader had summoned the remaining yrch, and they were fleeing the town.”

“Yes.”

For a brief moment Thranduil rests his brow against his steepled fingers. “Why, pray tell,” he says with only the hint of a groan as he lifts his face to look at his fool of a son, “did you not simply let the goblins go? Why in Arda did you follow them?”

Legolas looks at him as if he does not comprehend the question. Or as if he does not have an answer. “I needed to make sure they would not come back,” he finally offers. “To find their lair and…”

Alone?

Legolas looks down. He sighs.

He must feel very poorly, Thranduil realises, and he almost breaks off the interrogation, but then Legolas admits softly, “He had drawn blood. I was…enraged. Furious.”

“You followed them although you already were injured?”

“I was not injured.”

“You bled. How can you not have been injured if you bled?” Thranduil reaches out to feel his son’s brow. Perhaps he is feverish?

“I…” Legolas twists his head out of Thranduil’s touch. His gaze goes down to his hands again; he inspects them as if they were the most fascinating thing as he mumbles, “’Twas only my…”

“Your…?”

“My nose.”

Thranduil stares. “Your nose. You were furious and endangered your life because the orch bloodied your nose?”

Legolas casts him a sheepish glance. “At the time,” he says with a small smile, “it made sense.”

Oh, iôn-nín. What a fine example of a royal Sinda you make. Thranduil shakes his head. He glances at Eryniel, who is still deep in reverie. He is very glad she has not witnessed this conversation, for she surely would have a few words to say about misplaced pride and about how the acorn does not fall far from the trunk.

As he looks back at Legolas, he sees his son trembling under the strain of remaining upright. His face has taken on a ghostly pallor, and the pain lines around his mouth are more pronounced than before. Clearly, he has reached the end of his endurance.

The fact that Legolas does not put up any resistance as his father manoeuvres him back to lie down, painfully confirms Thranduil’s assessment. That, the clamminess of his skin, and the rapid pace of his heart.

“I do not understand why she is so infatuated with the dwarves,” Legolas mumbles between raspy breaths as he slowly sinks into sleep. “The dwarves…they…brought forth the yrch…will…unleash…flames…war…”

“The dwarves are unimportant. They will meet their fate soon.” Thranduil brushes over his son’s hair. “Shh, sleep now, penneth. Be at peace. Heal.”

And whatever darkness will be unleashed, we will fight, he thinks as he rises to summon Thalonael so he can tend to Legolas and make him rest more comfortably.

The Shadow will not worst us. We shall prevail.

*****

9 The Warrior

After that first, slightly embarrassing conversation with his father, in which Legolas almost feels like a green recruit again, barely past his elfling-years, he sleeps. It is not a restful sleep, not at first, for his dreams are haunted by the images of attacking yrch, of scimitars red with elven blood, and of long white knives slicing into empty air where an enemy has charged at him a moment before. Anguishing noises accompany the pictures, shrieking goblin war cries, the screech of metal grinding across metal, the squelch of flesh tearing open.

Pain assaults him, the piercing shock of fresh injuries and the dull burning ache of old, mending wounds. He is certain the hurt belongs not only to his dreams, that it is also part of the waking world which does not cease to exist only because he is not currently a part of it. But he cannot always tell which pain belongs where.

There are times he feels hands holding his head, brushing over his brow, his cheeks; gentle hands that surely do not belong to the nightmares—they are too kind. He hears low voices then too, soothing and familiar, they speak tender, welcome words.

Once or twice—or more often?—he is aroused from his sleep, helped to drink—sometimes sweet water, sometimes bitter potions—and his face is washed with a soft, fragrant cloth. Then, before he can ask to be helped to sit up, he is raised and held upright, and broth is spooned into him. Afterwards, he is too tired to remember why he ever wanted to sit and gratefully allows himself to be laid back down to rest.

But rest does not come instantly, for hands set to work on his body, and this time they are not gentle. They prod and poke, and pull and push, and hold him down when he fights back, and it hurts hurts hurts hurts hurts until his senses blur and then—the dreams begin anew.

He does not know how much time passes in that way, but eventually the dreams cease to be so violent and so terrifying, and every time he wakes he feels more alert, and by and by the pain subsides to a dull memory.

Naturally, he wants to leave the healing hall and return to his own rooms as soon as he can stomach solid food (granted, it is only a fluffy omelette, but it is not broth), wants to go out on patrol the very next day.

Naturally, the healers forbid it. Thalonael in particular acts as if Legolas has been standing at the gates to Mandos’s Halls a mere moment ago. The senior healer eyes him anxiously when Legolas stands and flexes arms and legs, carefully bends this way and that, rotates his shoulders. Thalonael’s hands hover in mid-air, they flutter closer whenever Legolas winces because a movement pulls at the healing wounds. He reminds Legolas of a blue tit that supervises its fledgling’s first attempts at flight—wary, ready to catch it if it might fall. But Legolas will not fall. He has healed swiftly; his wounds cannot have been as severe as the healer’s fussing implies.

Naturally, adar sides with Thalonael. He scolds Legolas for not appreciating the healer’s efforts enough, and for recklessly ignoring his body’s need to fully restore its strength.

“What use would you be on patrol in this shape?” he brushes off the request to be allowed back to duty, pointedly looking at Legolas’s middle, where bandages still can be seen through the tunic’s loose lacing. “Do not be ridiculous.”

But Legolas will not be dismissed so easily. He does not want to remain in the healing halls, there is no need for that. He is perfectly…well, admittedly he might not be in perfect shape to return to duty yet, but he will be soon. The only thing that keeps him from full restoration is being confined to the halls, being subjected to Thalonael’s tight scrutiny. He will recover in no time once he is allowed to go out, feel the sun warming his skin and the wood’s song filling his mind. Surely, his father will understand that.

But then the debate is abandoned when they hear shouts echoing down from the ramparts. “The serpent, the serpent is dead! Smaug is dead! Bard the Bowman has slain the dragon!”

Busy noise fills the King’s Halls after that, for a day and a half, hurried bustle and urgent voices, as the king prepares for departure. Thranduil, well aware of the legendary wealth of Thror that the dragon has hoarded, is gathering the elven host, intent on securing a significant part of the treasure for himself. A significant part, if not all of it. Thorin and his company of dwarves—whose purpose in trespassing upon Woodland realm is no longer a mystery, and who have unleashed the dragon—surely cannot have survived the beast’s fury; and therefore, so the king reasons, the hoard is left unguarded and free to be taken by whomever reaches it first. And he fully intends to be the first.

Legolas does not want to take part in the quest; he takes no interest in the riches that might lie hidden in the depths of the Lonely Mountain. But his mother insists, begs him to go along with his father.

“Go with him,” she says. “Go with him and watch over him for me. And make certain he takes no more from the treasure than his due.”

“But he will not listen to me.”

“He will. If you find the right words, and the right tune.”

“I am not you, naneth.”

She laughs at that, silvery and full of mirth. Then she takes his hand, waits until he allows his eyes to meet hers again, and she lets her gaze pierce into his soul. “Do not underestimate yourself, iôn-nín,” she says. “Have I not taught you differently? Have I not taught you to have better esteem of yourself?”

“You have. And you have taught me to not delude myself. If adar wants those riches, he will take them by any means.”

She smiles. “Our Lord King desires silver and gems greatly, I do know that; but your father is not deaf to the voice of reason, Legolas.”

But the host has not been on the move for very long when it turns out Legolas does not have to be the voice of reason.

Not when the king receives a plea for help from Bard, and immediately redirects his march, hastening to the Long Lake and the ruins of Laketown, the nothingness that is left after the dragon has spit his fire into the streets, has smashed and crumbled the houses with a sweep of his tail. Not when he orders food and tools and other goods to be brought to the town. Not when he leads the host to aid the men in their need, and help them cut trees and build huts to give them shelter. Not when he leaves behind skilled artisans to further aid the men in rebuilding the town as the rest of the host, along with every man-at-arms still able to fight, sets out to march north again, to the Mountain, and the treasure.

The dwarves—Legolas takes the trouble to find out, for he is certain Tauriel wishes to know but might not dare ask—left before the dragon appeared, as soon as the young one was fit to walk.

Tauriel, on whom the King pronounced judgement while Legolas was still confined to the healing halls, is back with the royal guard on probation, stripped of her rank, demoted to a common soldier under Legolas’s command.

Legolas would like to apologise to her: he is at fault for her falling into disgrace; he should have made a better effort, should have found more convincing words, should have tried harder to make her abandon the pursuit of the goblins and instead return to the stronghold. Should not have jumped all too willingly at the chance to fight the loathsome creatures. He is the Prince of Greenwood, he should hold his allegiance to his kingly father and his Lord’s commands in higher regard than his very own wish to prove himself in battle against the realm’s vilest enemies.

But Tauriel is evading him whenever her duty allows it. She does not seek his company when they make camp, does not look into his eyes when she is taking his orders—as if she were suddenly shy of him.

He will have to find out why she would feel so. He also will have to help her regain the king’s grace, and to forget about the dwarves. The accurst naugrim whose greed and selfishness have caused this mess, all of it, and who did not even bother to stay and help the people that so kindly sheltered them.

He still does not have to be the voice of reason when on reaching the Desolate Lands they learn that, against all expectations, Thorin and his companions still live and have barricaded themselves in Smaug’s liar—and Thranduil does not issue any claim of the hoard for himself but allows Bard to approach the dwarves alone and demand a share of the riches as recompense for the destruction the dragon has brought upon Laketown.

Disgustedly Legolas hears Bard’s account of how Thorin has rejected the men’s justified request, even though Bard is not demanding anything unreasonable. The people of Laketown aided the dwarves in their time of need—Bard himself accommodated them, fed them, sheltered them—and it brought naught but devastation to the town, death and ruin by the dragon’s fire. Yet Thorin, who calls himself “King under the Mountain” now, refuses them any compensation, any restitution, any help. He even refuses to parley any further unless the elven army marches back to Mirkwood—an ultimatum to which no one will accede, for both Thranduil and Bard suspect the dwarf will not keep his word if the host retreats.

Legolas cannot believe the dwarves would repay the men’s hospitability so badly, cannot fathom why Thorin shows no pity for the townspeople who earned themselves nothing but death and destruction for their kindness.

“The dwarf’s greed knows no bounds,” his father says, and Legolas can only agree.

Legolas does not have to be the voice of reason, either, when a messenger, sent to try to negotiate with the King under the Mountain for one more time, is shot at with an arrow and King Thranduil does not repay the dwarves in kind but calmly orders Thorin’s fortress be besieged. Not when, after days of patient but fruitless waiting, Bilbo, the hobbit, approaches the camp one night and brings them the Arkenstone—a gem of unparalleled beauty, a family heirloom of Thorin’s and his greatest desire—and the news of a dwarven army, less than a two days march away from the valley.

Not when they use the Arkenstone as leverage in parley with Thorin, and Thranduil still puts no claim for any part of the treasure into the deal, even though the dwarf finally gives in and grants Bard a fair portion of the hoard, to be surrendered the next day.

Not when eventually everything culminates as the dwarven army reaches the camp demanding to be let through to the Mountain but is refused to pass, and the messengers Bard sends to the cavern for the promised gold come back empty handed but with the news that, again, they were met with arrows and then Bard proposes to attack the dwarven army that he finds pressing forward along the eastern bank, for he deems a victory within easy reach—but the King of the Woodlands stands tall and straight and declares, “Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold.”

If Bard is surprised at the king’s wish to wait and see if reconciliation is still attainable, Legolas is not. Because his naneth was right, the king does desire silver and gemstones, but he is not unreasonable—and there is one thing the King of the Woodland cares for much more than for treasures: his people. And while his father has never shown restraint when it came to defending the realm, to fighting against spiders and yrch that endangered the kingdom, he will not risk the lives of his subjects simply to amass wealth.

And finally Legolas does not have to be the voice of reason when his father’s hopes for further negotiations are shattered by a sudden advance of the dwarves; when the first arrows whistle by, Bard swears, and Thranduil shakes his head cursing silently and motions Legolas to get his archers in line; when the sky is darkened by a cloud of bats coming up from the North. No, Legolas does not have to be the voice of reason then, because it is Mithrandir, the wizard, who suddenly appears between the lines and raises his voice. His words of reason, and his ill tidings of an army of goblins and wild wolves advancing on them, change alliances instantly.

Within moments, Legolas finds himself attending a war council with his king, Bard the Bowman, and the dwarf lord Dain. There is no thought of gold or silver or gemstones anymore, only of tactics, of battle formations and movements, and how they are going to lure the goblins into the valley where they will be trapped between the mountain’s arms and can be attacked from the high ground. And when everything is settled and positions for all troops have been agreed upon, he is taken aside by his lord father and instructed further and in detail.

It is not the kind of detail he would have expected, though. “You will not,” adar says, “do anything foolish. You will not charge headless and with no regard to your own safety. You will not lead your company from the front line.”

“But I cannot hide behind my soldiers. I am not—I have to set a good example.”

“You have to lead them.” The king turns around, he gestures to the camp, to the men and elves who prepare for battle. “Those are accomplished warriors, they will need no instruction as to how to fight. But they need orders, they need to know of our plans, they need someone who is responsible for them, someone who makes certain they operate as a host, not as single combatants.”

“I do know—“

Thranduil silences him with an impatient hand. “How are you going to lead them if you fall at the first attack?”

“I will not fall at the first attack.” How can adar assume—

“No, you are right, you will not.” His father inclines his head and allows the tiniest of smiles curl the corners of his mouth, but Legolas is not so foolish as to mistake that for agreement. “Because you will not charge from the first line. Because you will act as a true leader and see to it that you can lead your troops till the very end of this battle.”

Legolas opens his mouth but then thinks better of it. Now is not the time for defiance, anyway, and there is something in his father’s eyes, something peculiar. He cannot fathom what it is, but…

“Trust me,” the king says softly. “Trust me, iôn-nín. I have seen the ills of war. I know how a leaderless host disintegrates. I know…I know the price of war.”

And now Legolas can fathom what is in his father’s eyes: horror. It is not what you would expect in the King of Greenwood’s eyes, and someone less close to Thranduil might not even recognise it, but it is there. It is old horror, a mere memory, and Legolas knows for certain from where it origins.

Dagorlad. The plains before Mordor, where Thranduil took part in the last battle of the War of the Last Alliance. He does not speak of it often, but, of course, Legolas knows the tales, knows what the Battle of Dagorlad has done to the wood elves, what it has cost them—and his father. Two out of three Silvan warriors were slain there, and their king, Oropher. And now Oropher’s son is King of the Woodland, and about to lead his people into another battle against the Darkness.

His people, and his son.

“I will try and stay in the second rank—if you bid fair to do the same.” There is no challenge in his words—Legolas would not make that mistake—but no cushioning, either. It is a statement from one leader to another. Or perhaps this is the voice of reason speaking after all, Legolas muses, and he hopes that Thranduil is as open to it as his naneth claims.

It earns him a genuine smile from his father, a wry “very well, Lord Silver Tongue,” and an almost affectionate wave of a kingly hand as he is dismissed to go and pass orders to his warriors.

It does not take long to summon his troops, lead them up the hill, bring them into position. And so, a fortnight after the birds brought the tidings of Smaug’s demise to the king, Legolas—by now hale and hearty despite the long march through the Desolate Lands, thankfully fit for any duty just in time—finds himself crouched low behind a boulder, well up the southern spur of the Lonely Mountain.

A tense calm has settled over the warriors. Quiet, anticipation, concentration. They are listening intently into the misty air, even though there is no other sound but the soft susurrus of the wind. The crows that accompanied the elven host from the time they left the stronghold have retreated from what will soon become the battlefield they so eagerly await. They hide somewhere safe, just as all the animals of the mountain and the valley do. There is not a single hare to be seen, not a single field mouse’s rustling to be heard, not the chirrup of crickets or the buzzing of bees.

Legolas reaches deep into his fëa, listens to the golden green tune that has been within him for all his life. The song is muted, almost to the point of complete stillness; and as he prods deeper he meets resistance at first—as if his mother is deliberately blocking him from their bond—then calmness washes over him, and warm assurance. It does not completely ease his nagging worry about her but enables him to put it aside to be dwelled upon later.

Then he shifts; he cranes his neck, lets his keen eyes wander over the stretch of the valley below him, but he does not see the vanguard of the goblin army. He lifts his eyes up to the crest of the eastern spur, where Bard is positioned looking out to the north. All is quiet there, too, no movement, no signals. All is…quiet.

He waits.

Waits, and for now, for these last moments before the storm, he revels in the silence, indulges in it—although he knows it is deceptive, naught but an illusion: there is no peace in the quiet. Only…anticipation.

He waits for the moment quietness will end, tension will be released into battle’s rush, conscious thought will be replaced by instinct, experience, training. Soon, he knows, soon.

And then soon has come. A shout from the east of “They are coming!”, the air fills with shouts and war cries and howls, and then yrch and wolves round the mountain’s shoulder and pour into the valley.

Legolas lifts his arm. “Wait. Be ready, but wait,” he cautions, and only when the valley is crowded with overeager, disorganised goblins does he let his hand fall. “Release!”

Volley after volley of arrows swishes through the air, each and every one finding a target. The yrch reel under the onslaught and search for cover in the waste land, but find none. Their anguished cries re-echo from the confining embrace of the mountain and grow louder, more frantic as spearmen charge down from the slopes towards them. Soon, black blood stains the ground, saturates the soil, oils the rocks.

Cries of “Moria!” and “Dain, Dain!” sound from the eastern spur as the dwarves plunge into the battle swinging heavy pickaxes, and with them the men of Laketown, who wield long swords.

Legolas sends his last arrow flying, and as he sees that all their quivers have been emptied, he orders his men to charge. Unsheathing his sword as he leaps down the rocks, he remembers the pledge to his father, and falls back from the front line into the second rank—but it is the last conscious decision that makes it through the rush of battle.

Easily he glides into his usual combat routine, following the neat pattern of strike, leap, parry. Even though this battle is nothing like the skirmishes Legolas has experienced as a commander of the border guards, the inconceivable mass of enemies and the vast expanse of the battlefield do not change the way he has to conduct himself, for the sheer number of fighters makes the ground cramped, and all combat is confined to a space almost as narrow as if it took place in the forest. Unlike the fights he knows from forest patrols, this one does not seem to ever end, though: every orch he slays is soon replaced by two others, or three, or four, and the circle of strike, leap, parry; strike, leap, parry repeats itself time and again.

He loses track of how many yrch he has slain; Tauriel will laugh at him when they compare their tallies after the fight, as is their wont. It will be worth it to see her laugh again, flashes through Legolas mind, and he allows himself to be distracted for a short moment to glance around and see if he can find her auburn hair flashing somewhere.

He cannot.

Strike, leap, parry. He cannot. Strike, leap, parry. He briefly considers the possibility that Tauriel might fall, but…that cannot be. She is a skilled warrior, and she is his sister in all but the name, and he will not let that happen. He only has to find—

A scimitar catches him at his right side, slices through his leather armour and nicks his skin. The pain is stinging but not crippling, so he knows it is only a minor wound. He twists, brings his sword down on the goblin’s arm and then up in a round swing that neatly divides the orch’s head from his body.

Focus, he scolds himself. Strike, leap, parry. He has to—strike—stop distracting—leap—himself with—parry—this folly—and there she is. Tauriel. Fighting as fiercely as ever close to his left, her dance not unlike Legolas’s. Strike, leap, parry. All will be well.

Strike, leap, parry.

What at first looks like a certain victory turns into a desperate fight for pure survival when more yrch swarm into the valley, goblins of huge size, and with them a host of wargs; and suddenly Legolas is faced with the orch leader he has fought in Laketown, Bolg, as Mithrandir has identified him. Legolas’s dance of strike, leap, parry loses rhythm; this is another kind of opponent, one who compensates his lack of agility with sheer strength. Legolas finds himself almost incapacitated by the numbing impact of a mighty blow from Bolg’s gigantic club to his arm. He knows his sword is lost forever the moment it slips out of his unfeeling fingers. There is no time to recover it, and soon it will be stamped into the blood-softened soil, never to be found again.

Legolas reaches back to his quiver with his good hand and draws one of his long knives. In close combat it might even be of better use than his sword; he will only need to slash out before Bolg gets a chance to wrestle him and restrict his movements. He whirls, brings his foot up, slams it into Bolg’s chest. The giant reels back; Legolas pursues, his knife high, ready to strike down—but then Bolg blocks the blade with his club, twists it out of the way, and as this opens Legolas’s defence, he grabs out to catch the quiver strap. With a sharp pull the massive orch folds him like a rag doll into a close, constricting hold.

There is no leverage on the barren ground, nothing Legolas can use to break out of the tight clutch. He desperately strains against the hold, rocks back and forth, tries to work his arms free—but his sword arm is still not fully functioning, and his left one alone no match for Bolg’s superior strength.

“Like a little fly,” the orch-leader whispers in his ear, almost tenderly. “I will crush you now, elfling.”

The pressure increases; pain spreads through his chest, breathing becomes a task almost too laborious to be worth the effort, the noise of battle mutes to a distant hum, the world fades from his sight…

…and comes back with a blinding light, a cacophony of sound, freedom of limbs, and air—air, air, air! Reeking, foul, thick with the vapour of sweat and blood and fear, but air, and plenty of it. Staggering, he fills his lungs with a few heaving breaths, and brings his knife up again, briefly wondering how he managed to keep hold on it; but Bolg is not where he expects him to be.

The goblin lord is far out of reach already, hurrying towards the mountain, and Legolas immediately sees why: the dwarves have finally left their fortress high up the mountain’s ridge, the wall they constructed is crashing down into the valley like an avalanche, and Thorin Oakenshield, in full armour, wielding his axe with mighty strokes, leads his companions down to join the fray.

“To me!” he cries. “To me, elves and men! To me, oh my kinsfolk!”

Legolas sees dwarves and men streaming towards him, he sees a flash of red moving with them, and he shouts, “Tauriel! No!”

She looks back, briefly, but her face is blank, she shows no sign of recognition; then she hastens on towards the mountain, towards the dwarves—towards the dwarf.

But the battle continues in the valley, too, and Legolas is assaulted from front and back, from left and right, and he dances again, twists and whirls, slashes and strikes.

Strike, leap, parry; strike, leap, parry.

It is not enough. They are losing, he realises. Wargs and yrch still outnumber them by far, and even though many lie slain on the blood-soiled ground, ever more seem to be streaming into the valley from the north of the mountain.

Among the fallen Legolas sees many a corpse of elves and men. He sees familiar faces, comrades of many years, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sees what should not be. Dagorlad.

No, he shall not think of that, he shall not—

Strike, leap, parry, that is it. He shall not—strike, leap, parry—worry—strike, leap, parry…

But he does.

With one sweeping blow he disposes of three attackers at once and uses the split second that it wins him to look for his father, who, no doubt, has left the side lines long ago to fight beside his warriors. He spots the magnificent form of the Woodland King near the foot of the mountain, slowly advancing up the slope where Thorin and his dwarves are defending themselves vigorously. A ring of elves shelters the king from side attacks as he slashes his long sword through the horde of goblins, cutting them down by the dozens; and this is not his adar—it is an intimidating king of ancient times, an avenging force of nature.

Higher up, amongst the dwarves, Legolas can see Tauriel, her fluid whirling in sharp contrast to the powerful but broad movements of the naugrim. The dwarf lord’s flanks are exposed, his men are even more outnumbered than the forces in the valley, the circle of enemies closes around them. They need help.

He tries to fight his way closer to his father, closer to Tauriel and the dwarves; but in the thick of battle it is nigh on impossible to maintain an intended path, and Legolas drifts hither and yon with the waves of the conflict. All he can do is strike, leap, and parry, and deflect as many yrch as possible from attacking the warriors defending the lords of elves and dwarves.

He hears a shout of “The eagles, the eagles come!” Suddenly the battle slows down, and in the general disorientation appears room and opportunity to sprint, almost without hindrance, to where the dwarves from the mountain have been surrounded.

And there is Bolg again, and a half a dozen of goblins almost his size with spears and scimitars—his personal guard, Legolas assumes—advancing on Thorin Oakenshield. A dwarf throws himself between the yrch and his lord—Legolas recognises him as the one Tauriel has healed, Kili; a second follows. And Tauriel, who seems glued to Kili’s side.

In comparison to the towering goblins they appear almost childlike, tiny and vulnerable; but they stand firm, axes and sword poised, chins defiantly raised.

A guttural growl comes from Bolg; he swishes his club as if to shoo off annoying insects as he closes in on Thorin’s last line of defence, and his bodyguards follow his example. Like battering rams they are, with their scimitars raised and their spears ready to jab; and Legolas can see that Tauriel and her companions stand no chance.

He spots a small opening in the wall of goblins, a narrow opportunity to reach his friend and mayhap make a difference, and he leaps

But it is too late. The gap closes before he gets through; he collides heavily with one of the goblin backs. And although he manages to dispose of this one attacker with a quick cross thrust of his knives, the remaining goblins charge, their attack still in surprisingly harmonised unison. Kili goes down first, in a splatter of blood, then the other dwarf, who, trying to shelter Thorin with his body, is pinned to the ground by a lance; and at the last the dwarf lord falls with a spear in his side.

Tauriel twists in time to avoid a deadly strike, losing her sword in the process. Long knife unsheathed, she launches herself towards Kili as he struggles to get up, trying to shield him from further onslaught, heedless of the fact that her fixation to the ground makes her even more vulnerable, her weapon even less potent—as the knife’s advantage can only be exploited in movement.

Legolas strikes out at everything that moves, every orch that stands in his way, desperately trying to break through to where Tauriel lies across the dwarf, when time suddenly seems to slow to a crawl as he sees a scimitar descending on his little sister. But he is close to her, and he is swift-footed and nimble, even his damaged arm is functioning again; and he can reach her in time to block the blow, he knows he can do it. He is almost there, his arm is already stretched out towards the falling scimitar, his body almost between the orch and Tauriel, when suddenly his back erupts in pain, piercing, crippling agony, his vision is washed in red, and he cannot move, cannot go further…or even remain upright…he falls…falls…falls…

Is the ground truly so far away?

He falls, and as he goes down he sees the scimitar strike home and Tauriel collapse. He tries to push himself up, but his arms cannot support his weight, they slip on the blood-soaked soil; and the feeble movement sends hot daggers into his back. All he can do is roll on to his side so his face is no longer pressed into the dirt, and he can see, though his vision is blurred and unsteady. He makes out a huge bear-shaped form—Beorn, that must be Beorn the shape shifter—that appears out of nowhere, picks up Thorin’s battered body and carries him away, Legolas wants to shout out to him to come back and rescue Tauriel from the carnage, and mayhap her dwarf, too, but he cannot find breath enough for even a whisper. And deep inside he begins to realise that Tauriel and Kili are beyond saving already.

That he has failed her.

Darkness approaches him, dulls the weariness in his bones and the searing pain in his back, and he almost welcomes it.

Almost.

But the battle is still not over, and he is a warrior—he surely can continue to perform his duty. If he just can get up and—but he cannot. As he rolls to his stomach and tries to push himself up another wave of agony washes over him, he feels something break and gape, and his arms crumble under him. He finds himself flat again, unable to move, unable to focus on anything but the pain.

And so he finally gives in to the alluring pull of oblivion.

When he comes to himself again, it appears that the battle has moved. The absence of the sound of combat is what strikes him the most; all is quiet around him, and only from afar can he perceive faint war calls and muffled cries of pain. The close vicinity is thick with the silence of the dead. He takes a brief inventory of his hurts, which seem considerable but not incapacitating anymore. He knows not how long he has lain insensible; it certainly cannot have been long—but long enough, obviously, for his body to start healing itself already.

He tries wiggling fingers and toes, carefully moving arms and legs, and as he learns he can make his limbs work without being punished by spikes of pain, he slowly pulls himself up. It is arduous work, but possible. A staggering step takes him to his fallen knives that miraculously have not been trampled too deeply into the muck; he bends down to reclaim them—and the pain that motion unleashes in his back nearly discourages him from straightening up again. He breathes through it, shakes his head to clear it from the fogginess, then lets his gaze sweep over the plain.

Far off, smaller skirmishes are still fought, but on the rest of the battlefield men and elves are wandering about, following meandering paths…almost as if drunk. They are searching for survivors, he realises.

Tauriel. He must retrieve her from here, must take her—

She lies, pale and still, next to Kili. Their hands are entwined, their faces surprisingly peaceful; the dwarf’s eyes are closed, Tauriel’s clouded and dull; they do not breathe—and Tauriel’s song is silent.

He wants to kick the dwarf, punch him, mutilate his body; but nothing, not even that, would bring Legolas any kind of relief or would be a vengeance even remotely equalling what Kili has done to Tauriel—and to him.

There is no recompense for that.

He tries to pry Tauriel’s hand from the dwarf’s, but finds he cannot. This untoward…liaison has brought naught but misery to all of them, has disgraced Tauriel and will forever taint her memory, and yet…her face looks almost content, as if she knew that she did not belong on Arda anymore, as if she embraced her parting from it. She and Kili will meet in the Halls of Waiting and be beyond caring about the ills of their former lives. And mayhap, for a short time, they will be able to stay together before Mandos will separate them forever.

He leaves their hands as they are. It is not for him to break their connection. He will not disregard his sister’s last wish.

As he will not disregard his father’s wish. You will act as a true leader and see to it that you can lead your troops till the very end of this battle.

He has lost track of his troops long ago, but in hand-to-hand fighting that seemed unavoidable. Now that the close combat is over, he must reorganise them, must pass new orders, must lead them through the aftermaths.

But first he needs to find his father. Needs to make certain…

Getting up from his crouched position proves to be as painful as before; his head swims, his legs wobble, he stumbles groggily and might have fallen if not for the strong hands suddenly gripping his elbow, the small of his back.

“My Prince,” says a steady voice. “I am glad I find you alive. I shall bring you back to the camp now.”

It is a soldier of the king’s personal guard. Even though he looks calm and collected, he exudes a certain air of urgency, and he gazes into Legolas’s eyes imploringly.

That is no reason to meekly comply, of course. “No, I cannot…I must…the battle…”

“The battle is over, my Lord. Beorn appeared and joined our ranks; he killed the goblins’ commander. The goblins are fleeing.”

“We cannot allow them to run freely. I must—”

“They are pursued. All warriors still fit for it are hunting them down. Others are searching the battlefield for survivors.”

“I need to—”

“You need to follow me to the healers’ tent,” the guard says with a voice as patient as if talking to a child. “The wounded are to be gathered there.”

“But I am not in need of healing. I am well.” He sees the guard‘s lip curl and offers a small smile of his own. “Almost.”

A sigh. “My Lord.” The guard releases his hold on Legolas’s back, then shows him his hand. “This is not my blood,” he says.

It is a valid point, even Legolas sees that. But still…he has an obligation, he needs to see to his people, needs to be a leader, a prince, a—but then he is presented with what he cannot disobey.

“It is the king’s order. Come now.”

And he comes, lets himself be led from the mountain, down to the camp and into a healers’ tent.

He is seated on a cot, and someone brings him a bowl of fresh water and a clean cloth. He stares at the items, at a loss for what to do with them, until a healer gently takes them from his hands again. He feels someone carefully pulling at his armour, probing at his back but stopping immediately when he flinches from the fresh pain the soft touch causes.

Then a goblet is pushed into his hand. “There, now,” he hears. “Drink that. It will help you through this.”

“What is it?”

“Something to ease the pain.”

He tries to hand the goblet back. “I do not need it. I can deal with the pain,” he says.

“Yes, I know,” the healer smiles. “But I cannot. Drink it.”

Suddenly too tired not to comply, he downs the goblet with one swallow—and realises the tell-tale flavour too late; the pain relief is laced with a sleeping draught. He is out almost immediately.

He does not come fully awake again until two days later, well rested and almost pain-free. A healer catches him before he can sneak out of the tent, clucks around him, insists on renewing his bandages, and offers him another healing draught, which Legolas rejects. He has slept enough.

A messenger from the king approaches him, and he learns that the elven host will mourn their fallen and then march home the coming day. He learns that his father has been a frequent visitor in the healers’ tent, but only to sit at Legolas’s bedside, for the king has come through the battle with only minor injuries.

He learns that Bilbo has reappeared (he did not even know that the Hobbit has been missing, but he does not tell that to the runner). He learns that Thorin asked Bilbo for forgiveness, has made peace with men and elves, too; that the dwarves have granted Bard the fourteenth share of the dragon’s hoard, as Thorin promised; that from his share the bowman presented to Thranduil the emeralds of Girion (“gems the colour of the queen’s eyes,” says the messenger, and Legolas understands why his father would not reject them); and that even Bilbo received a part, albeit a small one, for he did ask for such only.

He learns that Thorin finally succumbed to his numerous wounds the day before, and that the elven king expects his son, properly attired, shortly to be present at the dwarf lord’s funeral.

The place the dwarves have chosen to lay their lord to rest lies deep beneath the mountain, making Thorin forever what he so desperately desired to become: the King under the Mountain.

The ceremony is held with much dignity. The dwarves are proud folk, and they honour their lord with stately words and solemn gestures. Bard places the Arkenstone on Thorin’s breast, voicing the hope that the jewel will bring good fortune to all folk that will dwell in Erebor here after.

The elven king stands tall in front of the tomb, inclines his head just so—it is a minute movement, but many a gasp from the naugrim tells Legolas it is observed and gratefully received—and then lays Orcrist, the mighty sword, upon the stone coffin. “It shall remain with the one who rightfully owns it,” he says, and that evokes another murmur of approval among the dwarves.

Thranduil steps back, but shakes his head as his son gestures subtly towards the cave’s exit.

Legolas briefly closes his eyes. He wants this over and done with. He wants to be out of the confining, oppressive stone tomb. He wants to return home, wants to look after his naneth. The golden green thread that connects them still feels compromised, damaged, not right. He is no fool: even though both the king and queen have not spoken of it, he knows that his mother’s long ride into the woods and beyond to find and rescue him has weakened her greatly.

He wants to blame the dwarf for it, or Tauriel, or even Mithrandir for leading the dwarves into the realm in the first place, but he cannot. He is to blame, he alone. If he had not lost his composure over a few drops of blood, he might have realised how featherbrained pursuing a herd of yrch was and refrained from it, and then his mother would not have left her sanctuary.

He knows she would scold him for those thoughts. Would tell him it was her choice to go after him. Would act exasperated and imperious, and ask him what makes him even consider that she was not the autocrat of her decisions.

Still, he cannot help feeling guilty.

He glances at his father, searching for a sign as to how much longer they are expected to stay at Thorin’s tomb. He expects impatience and finds—grief.

It is not grief for the slain king, of that he is certain. King Thranduil does not grieve for the dwarf. There is respect, certainly, from one king to another; recognition of Thorin’s strength as a warlord, approval of his effort in making amends with Bilbo, with everyone including the king himself. Enough of it even to restore Orcrist to him, but grief? No, most certainly not. And even if the king felt grief—he would not show it.

But there is one grief the king cannot hide, could never hide, only one grief…only one…

Legolas closes his eyes. So he feels it, too. Feels that something terrible happens to their beloved queen while they attend this memorial for a mere stranger.

The bond whimpers. Thread by thread it is severed—no, not severed. It is as if every fibre is withering away, charring. Something is weakening, is disintegrating the bond. Something.

Something.

His naneth’s light dims, her song fades away; and she is alone. Their bond is almost gone, almost…

He desperately wishes to reach for his ada’s hand. He cannot do that, of course he cannot. King Thranduil will never allow such a display of weakness, of need, of…unseemly…

Before he can finish the thought he finds himself tightly locked to his father’s chest.

“I have sent the birds,” adar says. “She will have heard that you are well.”

“That we are.” It is no more than a breath on the neck into which a firm hand presses his face.

“We.”

***

Uncomfortable, Galion shifts from one foot to the other. He bows low, not only from propriety, but also because he wants to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. He knows he should not enter this most private of all rooms, but he also knows that the news he bears is greatly desired and must be delivered instantly. In the dim light of only a few candles the queen in her bed looks fragile and pale almost to translucence, as if made of threads of gossamer or thin glass—it is painfully obvious that she cannot get up and receive valets in the anteroom.

“My Lady,” Galion addresses her carefully. “I bring good tidings.”

She lifts tired eyelids, revealing opaque green eyes and smiles. “Good tidings. How fortunate I am.”

“The battle is over. We were victorious.”

“That is good news, indeed!” And her face lights up for a moment—then her joyous features crumble and her eyes glance around the room before they fix on his and hold his gaze, almost beseechingly. “My child?” she asks so softly he can hardly hear it. “My king?”

“They live, my Lady.”

“Are they…well?”

He hesitates, albeit only for a moment. He will not lie—and there is no reason for it anyway. “They are not entirely unscathed, but they will be well.”

Eryniel will know it must be good enough; will realise that there are many families that will not receive news as good as this. She has witnessed the aftermath of Dagorlad, tended to many a wounded and grief stricken elf, joined with her husband, as newly crowned king and queen, to rebuild their realm. She knows that even glad news often comes with a stain on them.

She nods; her smile brings a ray of starlight into the dim chamber, and her whisper an inkling of rippling spring water. “Thank you, dearest Galion. Now my mind is eased.”

He hears the unspoken dismissal and bows. Before he turns to leave the room he sees the queen sink back into her pillows and hears her whisper, “All is well, all is well. I shall rest now.”

Then she closes her eyes and exhales audibly and long, and the twilight of the room brightens briefly before the candles flicker once more, and then perish.

*****

Deep within the Lonely Mountain, as he feels the extinction of the last golden green thread, Legolas buries his head into his father’s shoulder, and under his son’s hot breath, the King of the Woodland trembles.

*****

10 The Son

Bain frequently inquires after the elven lady. It takes him several weeks to eventually accept that “the queen is dead” is the answer to those queries.

(He never asks about Tauriel, even though she stayed with them for far longer than the queen. But perhaps that is to be expected, for the elven captain’s attention was pinned to the dwarf Kili, whereas Bain can still feel the soft, cool hand of the beautiful Lady of the Woodland on his knee. )

He doesn’t dwell much on the revelation that the elf-mother will never come back. It’s not the first time a mother never came back to Bain, and, sadly, he’s getting used to that. It stings only sometimes, at night when Bain can’t sleep, or in the daytime if he’s fallen and hurt himself. Then he wishes he had a mother to reach out for. He has no memory of his own mother, but father has told him she was kind and tender and very beautiful. The queen was the most beautiful person Bain has ever seen, and kind and tender; he’s certain his mother must have looked just like her. And surely, her hands must have felt the same as the queen’s: soft and kind and tender. He aches for that touch—but only sometimes, at night when he can’t sleep, or in the daytime if he’s fallen and hurt himself. For the rest of the time he’s a big boy, brave and strong as it becomes the son of Bard the Dragon Slayer.

Then one day his father brings home a sad, tall blonde elf and introduces him as “Legolas.” Bain doesn’t need the further explanation that this is the Prince of Mirkwood, the missing son the elven mother had been looking for—his resemblance to the queen is striking, even to a boy’s eye. The prince has the same quiet, regal poise, the same soft lilting voice; Bain wonders if his touch is just as tender as the queen’s, and if he can heal sore knees, too. Since Legolas looks unhurt—not really healthy, true, but Bain suspects the reasons for that are of a different nature—he believes that his mother must have found him unscathed, or maybe she healed him as she healed Bain.

Legolas is friendly enough, and Bain’s older sisters can’t seem to stop smoothing down their skirts and their hair. It makes Bain roll his eyes, but they ignore their little brother and continue fussing around and giggling under their breaths as they see to the elf’s every need—which exists only in their imagination, for Legolas never ceases to assure them he is fine. He’s very polite but also distanced, his smile somehow restrained; and for some reason that makes Bain’s heart ache.

“I knew your mama,” he finally blurts out, just to make the mask crumble.

And crumble it does. The smile wiped from his face, Legolas crouches down in front of the little boy and furrows his brows. The frown looks more genuine than the distracted smile from earlier, and more like something Bain can relate to. “You knew her?”

“She was here. I fell, and she healed my leg,” Bain says and shows his unmarked knee.

Legolas nods and smiles, really smiles this time. His eyes look glazed-over. But surely, elves don’t cry, do they?

There’s more Bain has to say. He has no way to put it properly, for there just don’t seem to be the right words for it. “She was nice,” he says. “Kind.” Many years later he will cringe about the inadequateness of those words, the incompleteness. Considerate would have been better, caring, or maybe just loving.

But Legolas seems to understand him anyway, for suddenly Bain finds himself in a tight embrace, its warmth and sincerity very reminiscent of the mother’s. There is something shared. Bain isn’t sure what it is, but it’s real and it’s important—and tender—and it’s just between the two of them.

“That she was,” he hears a breathless whisper as Legolas lets his face rest on the top of Bain’s head—also so very much like the mother did—and then a shudder goes through the prince’s body, and it almost seems as if after all elves do cry.

Almost.

And in this tumbling world of shadows and dragons, of war and death, Bain takes a surprising lot of comfort in that.

*****

Over the years, Bain meets Legolas on a regular basis. The people of the new-built Esgaroth have not forgotten how graciously the King of Mirkwood aided them after the dragon had destroyed Laketown; men and elves still remember how they fought side by side at the Lonely Mountain; careful friendships are formed, trade connections developed.

Once a year King Thranduil comes to town with his entourage. An official banquet is held in his honour, there is much talk of business and politics; and quite often the king meets Bain’s father in private before he returns to his stronghold in the forest. Bain and his sisters see to it that they stay out of the king’s scrutiny. They prefer to take up the attention of Legolas, who is ever patient and willingly lets himself be taken aside and prompted to tell them ancient elven myths or wild stories about hunting giant spiders. He is very gifted at carving, and soon Bain has a collection of exquisitely crafted wooden animals. (His favourite is an oliphaunt, and Legolas seems delighted when he tells him so.)

Then Bard and his children move on to their ancestral home of Dale at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. After rebuilding the town, Bain’s father becomes King of Dale, and Bain a prince like Legolas. The people of Dale maintain good relations with the residents of the Lonely Mountain, and trade is high between men and dwarves. King Thranduil still visits occasionally, but his calls are entirely of a private nature—he sends delegates to attend business assemblies, councils, or any other gatherings in which dwarves are also expected to take part. Legolas usually accompanies him, and from time to time he drops in on his own when he “accidentally passes by”. He always brings tidings from Esgaroth and from Mirkwood—sometimes even from Rivendell— tales he has heard from wizards and wandering minstrels, and small, well-chosen gifts of elven craft. He is unfailingly polite, kind and quiet, carefully distant and shy—but around the children he smiles readily and after a while even starts singing to them, soulful little songs in his fair elven tongue.

Initially, Legolas is almost like a much older, greatly admired brother to Bain. But what starts as a little boy’s hero worship for an idolised sibling, slowly evolves into a solid, mutual friendship as Bain grows up, a companionship that becomes still deeper and sounder after Bard dies and Bain takes up the crown. While Thranduil ceases visits entirely, Legolas remains a frequent guest in the King of Dale’s halls. There are many things they share, not just being the sons of two illustrious, greater-than-life fathers.

The closer they grow, the more Legolas opens up. With increasing frequency, his serious, reserved elven prince-façade cracks open to reveal relaxed cheerfulness, easily inspired curiosity, deep compassion, and great love for things of beauty. The Mirkwood prince’s wit, Bain discovers, can be sharp and biting, shrewd and sarcastic—and playfully gladsome, almost childish at times. After a while, it’s not always possible to tell who’s the older of the two.

They are both gifted archers—even though Bain will never reach Legolas’s superior marksmanship, for a man his skills are extraordinary, and the elf never fails to honour them—and they both love to demonstrate their ability in deer hunts. They are both not averse to a goblet of a choice vintage from Dorwinion, and they both love a good, mirthful song with their wine—or a wistful story of old.

Legolas’s songs have also changed over time: the mournful tunes are now often replaced by joyous melodies. At first it strikes Bain as odd that Legolas sometimes bursts into a song at seemingly random moments, but he easily becomes accustomed it, for the elven songs, as well as Legolas’s pleasant baritone, are of rare beauty. And so Bain begins to enjoy the sudden outbursts, even to wait for them.

When asked about the songs, Legolas confides that he learned most of them from his mother, who was a singer renowned among her people, and that he could not bear singing them while the grief of losing her was still so near. It is rare for Legolas to share memories unprompted, and even when encouraged he seems reluctant to go into detail, and mostly remains vague about family matters. Elven discretion, one might think, but Bain suspects it has more to do with the raw pain in Legolas’s eyes whenever conversation turns to his deceased mother. However, Bain can’t help but ask about her from time to time: as short as their acquaintance was, the Queen of the Woodland still occupies a cherished place in his heart, and he relishes the rare moments when Legolas’s brief tales let her come alive again.

The elven prince is not only a friend to Bain but also a representative of Mirkwood to the men of Esgaroth and Dale. As his reserve breaks he becomes easily approachable; a kind, dry-witted ambassador and sought-after consultant. To men.

Dwarves are a completely different matter. They remain a subject of disagreement between Bain and Legolas, the one thing about which they cannot come to an understanding. As much as Bain tries, he cannot soften Legolas’s aversion to them. On the days they argue about the dwarves, Legolas does not sing, does not drink Dorwinion wine, and does not smile; and so Bain eventually learns to avoid that topic completely. He does not want to risk a friendship over it, and nothing will change the elf’s set heart anyway. It’s a lost cause.

  *****

Epilogue: The Friend

Thranduil has retired to his private chambers already when his indulgence in a glass of Dorwinion is interrupted by a tentative knock on the door. It is late at night; and although a king’s work is never done and Thranduil is everything but lax in his performance of duty, he has only just returned from another week-long foray into the darkest parts of the Woodland, leading his elves in their fight against the spawns of the Darkness. After days and days of battle, even he has eventually tired, and now his body and mind demand rest.

Rest, so he can go forth again the next day and continue the battle. Even though the Shadow, Sauron, has been defeated, his dark creatures still infest the forests of the realm. Thranduil makes war against them relentlessly, this time not to drive them out of the woods but to eliminate them forever. The king knows how much of a difference it makes to have a royal leading the warriors, so in the absence of his son, Thranduil takes on the role of commander of the guard, and his formal robes lie abandoned in his study.

It is his sole aim to rid the realm of the evil and then to restore the suffering forest, to turn Mirkwood back into Greenwood; and he knows he will succeed, he must succeed. And then he will rename the forest—as Eryn Lasgalen it shall be known, Wood of the Greenleaves.

He feels that with every orch he slays, with every spider’s nest he destroys, he is honouring his stalwart, loyal, and stupidly brave son’s contribution to the destruction of the One Ring, that with every foul breath he chokes forever, he avenges his beloved queen.

His elves are aware that fighting these enemies is the only thing exhausting enough to allow him to find any kind of reverie at night, when he longs to be with those who are dearest to his heart—of that Thranduil is certain. Thus, when he is disturbed in his rest, he knows it must be a matter of great import, and he pulls a regal robe over his nightdress and bids whoever has knocked to enter.

The door opens to reveal Galion, with a peculiar expression on his face: a strange mixture of rapture and bewilderment. “Sire,” he says, “my King, I bring good tidings! Your—”

And then the butler is shoved aside, and there is Legolas.

His son.

Legolas.

Smiling. Grinning. Beaming.

Straight and upright, strong and hard muscled, and yet his little leaf.

Warm and familiar, clinging to his father as Thranduil clings to his son.

And he is back.

His son.

Eryniel’s child.

Their penneth.

How he wishes the door to his wife’s chambers would open right now, how he wishes the room would fill with the golden green scent of her delight. He imagines her soft voice, imagines her warm light, imagines her mirthful smile as she becomes aware of the dwarf at Legolas’s side.

The dwarf?

There is a dwarf standing next to his son. A slightly uncomfortable-looking, slightly irritated dwarf.

Who defiantly raises his chin as the king frowns at him.

“Legolas.” Thranduil gestures towards the naug. “Legolas. Iôn-nín…”

He abandons the attempt of putting his…consternation? astonishment?… into speech. A king does not struggle for words.

And a naug does not approach the elven king’s private chambers.

This must be an illusion, a dream. He must already be asleep. The picture before him is only a figment of his fatigued imagination, whatever folly has brought it forth.

Adar,” one figment says. “May I present you my friend, Gimli Gloinsson.”

And the other figment bows awkwardly and says, “Your highness.”

And now Thranduil is certain he does hear Eryniel laugh, a rippling, silvery sound of merriment. And mischievousness. He bites back a groan. Although Eryniel’s laughter is the one thing in this room which he can be sure is an illusion, it makes him realise that he is indeed awake and that those figments before him are very real.

The King of the Woodland wouldn’t be a greatly dreaded negotiator if he weren’t able to adjust to the most bizarre situations in no more than a blink of the eye. But he is. And he does. In a blink.

“Welcome to my realm, Gimli Gloinsson,” he declares.

Then the endeavours of the day finally take their toll, and Thranduil sinks down on to a nearby chair, gesturing to Legolas and his dwarf-friend to do the same.

“Well,” he says when they are all seated, and he has ordered Galion, who still lingered in the doorway, to bring more Dorwinion, and lots of it. “I do expect a full report of all your exploits. This,” he shifts his gaze from Legolas to look pointedly at the dwarf, “is bound to be a most absorbing tale.”

***The End**

___________________________

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. ~ J. K. Rowling

___________________________

A/N:

Sindarin, just in case…
orch/pl. yrch = orc = goblin
elleth/pl. ellith = female elf
penneth = young one
Eryn Galen = Greenwood
fëa = soul, spirit
nana/ naneth = mama/ mother
ada/ adar = papa/ father
iôn-nín = my son
meleth = love
henig = my child
daro = stop (imp.)
athelas = kingsfoil
miruvor = restorative drink
bereth-nín = my queen
aran-nín = my king
penneth-nín = my little one
naug, pl. naugrim = dwarf

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