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We Were Young Once ~ I  by Conquistadora


Chapter 12 ~ Restore V

“It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’  There is death.  And whatever is matters.  And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible.  You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”  ~ C. S. Lewis

Grey mist hung heavily over the foothills, veiling the elevated landscape in clammy darkness.  The winter wind whistled and moaned around the rocks, and the last lingering whispers of the recent snow remained stubbornly frozen in the shelter of crags and boulders.  There was little other sound than the passing wind that day, certainly not the most pleasant of the season.  Only a fool would be out now when he could stay by the fire with a roof over his head. 

Only a fool or a stubborn courier, Thranduil thought wryly to himself as Celebrandir steadily picked his way up the slope, the clip-clop of shod hooves on the uneven road sounding especially loud in the stillness.  Serataron had been willing to excuse him this errand, but Thranduil had volunteered his time.  What was a short ride along the westbound coast to him?  Ha; that had been easily said an hour ago, but now the task was becoming disagreeable.  The clouds above rumbled an ominous threat of rain, and he could feel the dormant wrath of a storm on the air and in the wind as it swirled around him.  

Celebrandir tossed his head and snorted in dissatisfaction, his mane draggled by the mist.  The horse was not as young as he used to be, but he had lost none of his boisterous spirit.  At last the terrain evened, sparing them for a moment the perils of a slick climb.  Thranduil spurred the horse on a bit faster, gambling his time against the impending squall.  He passed the twisted dwarf pine at the summit, the mark he and his brothers had named the halfway point between the haven and their favorite cove along the shore.  This was not the most frequented road in that direction, but the one he favored.  

He did not mind the cold so much as he did the wet.  The natural majesty of the mountains had turned gloomy and foreboding, leading him to wish he could be done with this solitary ride and back at home.  He could only look forward to it as his ultimate reward, gathered with the family around the glowing hearth, a warm drink in hand.  But warm and dry were two qualities that escaped him now, and he nudged Celebrandir into a smooth pacing trot to leave this place behind him. 

A barren vine devoid of blossoms was curled in the brake at the roadside, and the passing sight of it easily stirred up other memories.  The wall of polite silence had risen again between himself and Lindóriel, and not by his will.  She seemed to be deliberately avoiding him after that unfortunate incident several years ago.  He did not know whether to try again to bridge that chasm or to merely let matters lie as they were, though he now found this quiet estrangement irksome.  He simply did not know.

What could he do?  Apologize again and be rebuffed once more?

He continued on absently, shifting the reins in his gloved fingers, his mind wandering far from the bleak landscape.  The chill had at last numbed his nose, adding to his trivial discomforts, and he pulled Celebrandir back to a walk to give the horse a chance to catch his breath.  Gone were the days of their wild gallops together.  Before long they would have to consider retiring him, something Thranduil was loath to do.  Still, the last colt the old stallion had sired was now a spirited three year old with his father’s dapples, a fitting successor.  

A shrill scream pierced the dreary stillness, jarring his every nerve.  Celebrandir snorted and squealed beneath him, shying back from the noise as it echoed eerily from the deserted landscape over the whistling wind.  Thranduil whipped the slack of the reins around his hand in one quick turn of his wrist, gaining tighter control of his mount, his own heart hammering against his ribs.

The empty silence had descended as completely as it had been before, denying him further explanation of the unholy shriek, but he recognized it as the tortured scream of a horse.  He urged Celebrandir to greater speed along the treacherous ground, certain that whatever had just happened boded no good for anyone. 

The path drew nearer the cliff’s edge now, the original rocky shoulder eroded by the years.  Thranduil slowed his pace out of caution, though he scanned the rocky slopes below for anything amiss.  The ground offered his trained eyes no previous passage to track, for there had apparently been no one before him here within the last days.  From his place on the mountainous foothills he could see the bay, the cold grey waters lashed by the wind beneath the thunderous voice of the clouds, empty of ships. 

At last he found the place where the damp ground was plainly torn, and the rattle of freshly dislodged rocks could still be heard as they settled once more.  Dismounting and leaving Celebrandir there he balanced himself on the precarious edge, and at last he saw below a broken horse and rider motionless on the unforgiving rocks, and not an unfamiliar pair either.

He recognized the begrimed but fiery stallion, a cold knot twisting in his stomach.  At once he turned and began to pick his way down the perilous slope, throwing his hood back over his shoulders.  It was a difficult but not impossible descent.  He was particularly mindful not to loose any more unsteady stones to fall upon the wounded below.  It fell to him, of all the Elves in Lindon, to recover what he could of the disaster.  The rocks were damp and so were unreliable footing, but through skill and patience he neared the tenuous ledge where Alkarinwë lay with his horse.  The icy wind was stiffening, and he prayed he was not putting himself into an impossible position.  The collapse had left a legacy of sharp stones whetted by wind and rain, uncomfortable handholds that bit into his fingers through even his gloves.  Several were not slick only with dew, but also with blood.  After what seemed interminable groping and clinging, he at last set foot down on the out-thrust ledge, really no more than the fallen piece of the ground above that had lodged itself in the rocky slope.

Alkarinwë lay still at the sheer edge, drawing shuddering breaths through his teeth, his dark hair drifting over nothingness.  The unnatural angle of his body made it plain that his back was completely broken.  Pale shards of bone protruded from a shattered leg, and his right arm was wrenched from its proper place and pinned behind him.  Bragolach groaned nearby, crushed, ruined, partly disemboweled on the glistening rocks.  Thranduil stood silent amid the carnage for a moment, strangely stricken at heart, though gruesome death was by now not unfamiliar to him.  All the Powers above knew he had little enough cause to love the man, but even he would not have wished this upon him.

Carefully making his way over the litter of rocks to kneel at his side, Thranduil pulled off his gloves and debated whether or not to try to move him.  “Alkarin,” he called, his voice sounding low and clear over the thin howl of the wind.  “Alkarin.”  The other’s face had turned an ashen grey, his life swiftly ebbing away.  But he did acknowledge his name and turned his tortured eyes upon his rescuer, knowing full well who it was.  And there Thranduil did not recognize the undying contempt he had expected, but rather a wild and desperate fear.

“Thranduil,” Alkarinwë begged, his words coming weakly between painful hissing breaths, “please . . . I am . . . I . . . !” But stabbing pain took his words from him.  It seemed all he could do to merely breathe without screaming. 

His free hand groped blindly for anything to grasp, and immediately Thranduil took it in his own.  It was a hand that had slain his own people, that had violated the woman he loved, but now it was the hand of a fallen kinsman who faced doom enough to conquer the hardest heart.  Thranduil did not know the whole of the Curse, but he had heard enough to know that a Kinslayer may perhaps expect no rebirth, no escape from the darkness of Mandos’ Hall.  It was a doom indeed, an end from which there was no returning within the bounds of time.  Alkarinwë grasped at him with such complete and trembling despair that he suddenly pitied him deeply, all thought of vengeance forgotten. 

“My legs . . .” Alkarinwë asked unsteadily.  “They are still there?”

“Yes,” Thranduil assured him, surmising the other had by his injury lost command of half his body, perhaps a brutal blessing in the end.    Gently he tried to move him into a more natural position.

“Ai! No, no!” Alkarinwë begged in torment.  Now his eyes were vacant, but focused with dreadful intensity upon something unseen, his short cries coming now as sobs in abject fear of passing the threshold of death.  “He is coming . . . please . . . no!”

His waning cries were terrible, the pitiful flailings of a tainted spirit nearing its undeniable judgment, and Thranduil was utterly helpless to avail him.  Gently he wiped away a trail of blood from an ugly gash on the brow before it could reach the eye, then lay a steady hand against the shuddering face, offering him what poor solace he could before all was lost.  He was already cold to the touch.

“Do not let him . . . aaaaaai, no! . . . do not leave me . . . aaaai! Áni apsenë, áni apsenë!”  In his last struggles Alkarinwë fell back into his native tongue, forgetting the Sindarin of his exile.  In his last desperate plea he was again pathetically begging pardon of one he had wronged, one of the few who still lived, who perhaps seemed to have been sent by more than chance alone in that last moment of utmost consequence to represent them all.  And in his plea he was sincere, as though now in the looming shadow of death he had been forced to consider what he had become, sickened and frightened by what he had seen.

Thranduil could not forget the grief this murderous traitor had caused him, but now he remembered it all with strange detachment, moved even to tears by the ultimate tragedy of it all, by the irreversible ruin of such a noble being.  In the end they all suffered, and it was their persecutors who fared worse.  “Lá sangië apsenë,” he said at last as Alkarinwë’s roving gaze fixed on him again, graciously using words he knew he would understand.  “I have already forgiven you.” 

Why?  There was once a time when he had sworn he would never forgive him, and to his knowledge that conviction had not changed with the passing years.  But now righteous indignation was drowned in a flood of pity, and he wanted the strength to pardon him at last.  It was small comfort, but it was all he could give.

Alkarinwë was too breathless to reply, and soon his eyes that had once been so keen lost their light entirely.  He fought for breath against the icy wind whipping around them, resisting his doom to the end, clutching Thranduil’s hand in that last darkness with his final effort as though he would only be torn away by force, away from that last anchor of all that was bright and good.  But then death touched him with its cold embrace and his tortured spirit fled, leaving his body broken and lifeless.  The incessant trembling ceased, and all was still.  The ensuing hush was abruptly rent by a clap of thunder that reverberated from the grim mountains, and in that Thranduil recognized the complete triumph he had never wanted.  After so many years of hatred, he found Alkarinwë’s final demise nothing to revel in.  It was horrible.

Thranduil closed the sightless eyes.  Never would he die such an ignominious death as that, unreconciled and unmourned, bereft of every shred of hope and consolation.  That any should suffer it was tragedy enough.

Over the growing howl of the wind Thranduil then heard Bragolach behind him heave his last wheezing breath, dark eyes glazed as he too gave up his struggle for life.  All his beautiful legs were broken and torn by his fall, mangled beyond hope.

The stillness that fell now was abysmally familiar, the same Thranduil remembered from Sirion, the lonely, empty stillness of the dead.  The cold of rain ushered in by the rumbling clouds made it more dismal than it already was.  It was a bitter end to all the unspeakable wrongs they had known, all the misery Elvenkind had brought upon themselves.  For what?

But miserable as he was, Thranduil also knew the rainfall had now made his position all the more perilous.  Celebrandir whinnied mightily from above, his call echoing back through the storm.  The climb would be challenge enough without having to negotiate it in a downpour.  Thrusting his turmoil of emotion aside, Thranduil hefted Alkarinwë’s limp form, mindful of all the unnatural breaks it had suffered.  But after the first glance at the dark slope above he was forced to admit the hopelessness of the attempt.  Frigid rain beat against his face, driven in thick sheets against the rocks with a dull splattering roar.  There was nothing to do but wait.

Several hours passed that may have been among the most miserable of his life.  The rain showed no signs of lessening and seemed to grow only colder as the dark afternoon wore on to evening.  There was absolutely no shelter to be had on that forsaken crag of rock, so Thranduil had no choice but to sit by as he was pummeled with icy water, arms crossed tightly over his chest in a futile effort to keep warm, his only company a dead man.  The skies thundered against him, but he answered with no more than a cursory glare, too cold and sick at heart to be angered.  The runoff from above came down in rivers, pooling around him and spilling from the ledge in bloody streams as it drained the carcass of the horse.  After staring in morbid fascination for what seemed an eternity, Thranduil at last closed his eyes to the whole nightmarish scene, resigned to endure if he must, suffering the onset of the sharp chill he had managed to evade all day.  If only he could have stayed dry the plummeting temperature would have troubled him little, but soaked to the skin he was powerless to resist it.

The hail had begun intermittently in a stinging onslaught as he shrank against the rock behind him.  He did not suffer alone; poor Celebrandir waited faithfully above, but somehow that thought did nothing to lessen the loneliness of the moment.  Worn and exasperated, he shut his eyes, his only escape for the moment from that temporary prison of stone, rain, and bruising ice.

The gradual lessening of the cold barrage against his face several hours later woke him to a world that had improved but little.  The thin light of day had dimmed but the storm had passed, leaving a sodden marshland in its wake.  The mist had largely cleared, but the grey cover of cloud remained undaunted, and the fact that he could plainly see his shuddering breath on the air did not begin to express the cold. 

Thranduil grimaced as he climbed to his feet, his wet clothes clinging to him.  He pulled off his cloak for all the good it was doing, heavy and dripping.  He wrung it out as best he could, shivering violently in the wind despite his valiant efforts not to.  He could honestly not remember ever having been so bone-chillingly cold in his entire life, which was saying a great deal after the march to Sirion.  Now his only thought was to leave that forsaken ledge and return to the much desired comfort of his own home, his mind numbed as well.  He bound Alkarinwë’s broken body as tightly as he could in his cloak to make carrying it less troublesome.

Again surveying the vertical challenge before him, Thranduil crouched and stretched, reviving his protesting legs and shoulders, painfully aware of all the new bruises he had to show for the merciless beating the sky had dealt him.  Unfortunately he would have to leave Bragolach where he lay, but to forsake a fallen Elf was insufferable.  They had buried the kinslayers before.

For a moment he was at a loss as to how he would manage the climb at all.  He did have a length of rope at his belt, a common precaution when taking a mountainous route, but it was nowhere near long enough to reach the summit even if he had had foresight enough to tie it there.  At last he drew it out into a double length and strung it under the lifeless arms of the corpse, slipping the ends through the loop and tying the slack into a makeshift sling.

Securing the sling across his chest, Thranduil found his first hand and footholds, and at last hoisted himself up onto the incline.  He would have been glad if he had not been so numb to sentiment at that point.  The awkward weight of the body pulled back at him, requiring him to double his efforts to retrace the same path that had seemed so easy in descent. 

His shoulders were burning with fatigue when he finally felt grass beneath his hand.  It was challenge enough then to simply pull himself over the edge, though he was helped somewhat by Celebrandir, who took the shoulder of his jerkin in his teeth and pulled him up as well as he could.  That poor old horse was as wet and cold and miserable as he was, draggled and trembling and sore, but he had waited out the storm with him.  Once he had crawled onto solid ground, littered with spent hailstones, Thranduil pulled what was left of Alkarinwë up after him with a joyless sense of accomplishment.  He then hefted the body onto the horse, securing it as well as he might with the rope.  Celebrandir did not appreciate this new load, but took it without protest.

The return walk passed in a weary blur of mud and cold, frost already tracing the ground as evening fell.  Thranduil felt ice stiffening in his hair and on his clothes.  He led Celebrandir slowly as they left the foothills, the old stallion apparently feeling his age as he plodded stiffly along the sodden path, crystals of ice glistening in his mane.

It was with dull but ineffable relief that he at last saw the familiar homestead before them.  What was left in the clouds above had begun to fall as thin flurries of snow.  The last of the light was fading now as the sun set, and the glow of lamplight illuminated the veiled windows ahead.

Before he had come much further Galadhmir came bounding around the house, still pulling on his cloak against the bite in the air.  “Ai, Thranduil!” he gaped, horrified.  “What happened?”

Thranduil held up a weary hand to forestall any questioning.  “Not now,” he said, surprised by the unsteadiness of his own voice, mindful of little save how very cold he was.  “Could you?”  He indicated the weakened horse and its morbid burden, trusting his meaning was abundantly clear.

“Of course,” Galadhmir agreed at once, a bit unsettled by the corpse, but trusting in the innocence of the whole strange affair.  “Take yourself inside!”

Gratefully relieved of those last responsibilities, Thranduil rounded the front gardens and pulled himself up the stairs with an effort.  He let himself in, into the welcoming light and warmth of home that spilled out to meet him, only to be greeted with much the same reaction his condition had elicited from Galadhmir.

“Ai, Fanuilos!  You are frozen!” he heard his mother exclaim, her shocked concern mirrored by Gwaelin and Illuiniel.  She gathered him at once into her warm and now fiercely possessive embrace, heedless of the frosted mud and blood that covered him.

A fire blazed on the hearth nearby, and he could feel himself thawing.

“Shed those wet clothes at once,” Lóriel said, releasing him to go clean up.  “I already have a hot bath waiting for you, though you need it now more than we anticipated, you poor thing.  Go on, before you fall down.”  She kissed him softly as she sent him on, obviously concerned by how cold to the touch he still was.

Thranduil gladly left and shut himself in his own room, where he found it just as she had said, bathwater still steaming.  It was touching to think of just how many hours had come and gone before he had finally returned, and how often she must have changed the water just to have it ready and waiting for him.  In that moment, there was nothing he could have appreciated more.

As she had expected, Lindóriel found she had very little attention to spare on the half-mended gown in her lap.  The fire crackled on the hearth, and together with the lamps bathed the room in a bright golden light.  They were all gathered there, and it was largely out of their anxious solicitude for Thranduil that they all found something to occupy themselves as an excuse to share his company.  He now sat on the floor comfortably near the fire wrapped in the furs from his bed as he was petted and doted upon by all of them in their turn.  If he found their attentions bothersome, he endured in gracious silence.

He looked much better now than he had when he had dragged himself through the door a few hours ago, drained of all living color and crusted with ice and mud, plainly exhausted.  He had thawed out and was again his healthy self, though he was not at all inclined to leave his place by the fire, and none grudged him that.  Even so, it seemed something still weighed uncomfortably upon his mind.

Lindóriel watched as Gwaelin brought him a warm mug of cider amid the idle conversation.  She immediately suppressed the inevitable twinge of petty jealousy, though she would have given much to have their places exchanged.  The silence that stood between them was irksome, and at times she hated herself for alienating him, but she could not force herself upon him if he would not have her. 

She remembered the kindly meant but condescending words of Elemmirë, that her fortunes had improved somewhat in being adopted into a noble family.  But that meant nothing to her now.  If Thranduil had been the lowliest drudge in Menegroth she would have felt no differently toward him.  The memory of her own parents was bittersweet, Dorlas and Linaewen, happy in their anonymity.  Certainly they had dealings with the nobility from time to time, for they were not unknown.  Notable among these was their son’s unexpectedly fast friendship with the young and rather dashing Lord Thranduil.

She pricked herself, jarred painfully from her thoughts by her errant needle.  She was prepared to consider the misfortune fitting to her sullen mood, but Thranduil immediately looked up as though he had felt her pain, or was at least aware of it.  But in the same moment he looked away again as though he was not supposed to have known, as though such awareness implied too great an intimacy to be admitted.  His reaction was a surprise, to say the least, his thoughts betrayed, and she felt herself flush a bit. 

“Thranduil,” Galadhmir spoke up at last behind her, commanding the attention of them all.  The uncomfortable tone of his voice cast a sudden pall of foreboding over the room.  “I, for one, do not doubt you, and will take you at your word.  But how did Alkarin meet his death?”

A shocked hush fell, but was short-lived.

“He is dead?” Gwaelin exclaimed, the first to voice the thought of them all.  “How?  When?  And how do you know?”

“As to how and when, I had some hope that Thranduil would elaborate for us,” Galadhmir said dryly.  “But the grim fact of the matter is that the body is lying in our stable.  Nor is it a pleasant sight.  I did not press the matter before, but it begs an answer now that Thranduil does not seem to be on the threshold of death himself.”

Lindóriel knew not what to think, torn between relief and chill apprehension.  The same grave concern was mirrored on the face of their mother, and indeed in all of them.  It was said that the act of kinslaying became easier each time it was committed, but she could not believe Thranduil would have allowed himself to be corrupted so far as to resort to murder.

Thranduil turned to face them all with a slow and deliberate air.  “If you imagine I had any part in it, you may perish the thought,” he said tersely, knowing their fears.  “I merely came upon him after the fact.  His horse had fallen on the high road and it was there on the side of the mountain that the storm held me.  I brought him back out of decency.”

He shuddered despite himself and stared impassively at the hearth tile, discouraging any further questioning.  Lindóriel knew him well enough to recognize that it would be best not to press him yet for the details of his ordeal, not until he was willing to share them.  His word was enough to suffice for now, and there were other more immediate concerns.

“Well, we cannot just leave him there with the horses,” Linhir said at last, stating the obvious.  “And the somewhat dissonant relations of the deceased with this house are no secret to the rest of Lindon.  I believe we may expect there to be some who will be inclined to believe otherwise than you have explained it.”

“What can I say?” Thranduil asked irritably, expecting no answer.  “I have told the truth of it and I can say no more.”

“And if they do not accept that?” Linhir asked doggedly.  He obviously hoped Thranduil had further proof of his innocence than his word alone, for he was the meticulously thorough one of the family.

Thranduil leveled a grim glare over his shoulder, plainly too tired and exasperated to care much for malicious calumnies of Linhir’s imagining.  “They must,” he said tersely.

“Would Serataron know what should be done with him?”

“Lord Serataron need not be troubled with so unpleasant a task,” Lóriel insisted, still plainly disturbed.  “How would he know more than we?”

Lindóriel paid no heed to the grim debate.  She had attention only for Thranduil, seated at the hearth while faint tongues of firelight played over his desolate face.  It stirred other older memories of biting cold and misery, when often the only warmth to be had was what she had found in his arms.  Thranduil had pitied her in his own grief and taken her and Galadhmir as his own, securing their adoption as Oropherionnath.  She looked to him as a savior, the last golden straw she had clung to when all else was swept away.  Words could not describe how much she loved him, how much she was frustrated by him!

“We gain nothing by wasting time,” Linhir said at last, moving to leave.  “Anárion and I will go now to see if we can unravel this chain of events.”

“You will do no such thing!” Lóriel protested.  “The sun has long since set and the snows still fall.  I doubt any ill will come of letting the dead lie until morning.  He was trouble enough for us while he lived.”  She swept from the room then, resuming her housekeeping, her proverbial patience worn thin.

Lindóriel said nothing, feeling the strain in the air, the voiceless discontent.  It was at times like these that she prayed Adar Oropher would not tarry much longer, little hope though she had of that.  The interminable years of waiting were beginning to tell on them all.

It was darker now, dark and warm, and finally he could be alone.

Thranduil still lingered were he had been all that evening, save that now he had pulled aside his father’s large upholstered chair and sat cross-legged in its inanimate embrace with his furs, somehow reluctant to leave the firelight for his own room.  Regardless of what his mother had said, he did not like the idea of leaving Alkarinwë a frozen corpse unattended all night.

But why?  Why did he care at all?  He remembered when the very sight of the man had been enough to make him bristle, when he was forced to share his company out of courtesy but all the while tried to place that pernicious face amid his memories of the murderous confusion at Menegroth and Sirion.  Now he was dead, gone to suffer whatever punishment awaited him at the hands of the Lords of the West. 

Why did that thought haunt him? 

A pale light moved in the shadows, and Gwaelin emerged then from the hallway.  “Thranduil,” she asked softly.  “Are you not going to bed?”

“No,” he replied in the same tone, an emotionless expression of fact.

“Why?” she asked, her gleaming eyes wide with childlike innocence as she sank gracefully to sit at the foot of his chair, folding her hands on his knee.  “You know we would do anything for you if only you would ask.”

He regarded her thoughtfully.  The firelight dancing over her silver hair made her look more like the offspring of Oropher than he did.  She was most like Galadhmir in her forthright honesty, gentler than Menelwen and brighter than Lindóriel had been of late.  He had long known the truth of her statement, but it was touching to hear it spoken.

“Perhaps I do not know what it is I need,” he answered at last, his own manner softening considerably for her.

She smiled demurely, a gleam in her eyes of blue-green.  “Well, I know,” she said, taking his hand in her own.  “And I will give it freely if only you will allow me.”  She rose and kissed him on the cheek with the chaste but boldly casual affection of a sister, wrapping her arms about him in a warm and simple embrace.  He was rather surprised, but it was not unpleasant, and he conquered his first impulse to pull away.  Indeed, his mere surrender to her fond familiarity proved to be a real relief.

She released him when she deemed he had received the full benefit of her immediate remedy, the soft smile still illuminating her face as she rested her fair hands on his shoulders.  “And may that settle your mind,” she said knowingly.  “Good night, Brother.”

She turned to leave as she had come, but then the door abruptly opened to admit a rush of frigid air, banishing whatever warmth the room had enjoyed.  Startled and more than a bit annoyed, Thranduil turned at once to see Galadhmir quickly shake the snow from his hair and then look up, his face grim.

“Thranduil,” he said, his voice as cheerless as the winter wind, “Celebrandir is down.”

Thranduil walked briskly with Galadhmir through the dark of the night, still securing the clasps on his hastily-donned cloak, the bitter cold a rude shock after the warmth of his seat by the fire.  Even so, the sinking chill in his stomach had nothing to do with the inclement weather.  Celebrandir was old, and it did not bode well that the ordeal had weakened him so far. 

Soon they gained the shelter of the stables, away from the icy gusts and powdered snow.  There was the old mare dozing idly in her straw bedding, the young dappled Elostir peering at them curiously over the rails across from her.  But Thranduil took notice of nothing save the absence of the last familiar set of pricked ears.  He anxiously pushed ahead of Galadhmir and looked down to the floor of the stall, wanting to see for himself and yet regretting what he knew he would find.

Celebrandir lay motionless in the shadows.  His dark eyes, once so full of life, were now glazed and distant, his breathing shallow and rough.  One look sufficed to see he was fading, exhausted and beyond hope.  With difficulty Thranduil swallowed the rising wave of guilt that afflicted him at the sight.  Why had he not taken Elostir?  What misplaced affection had compelled him to drive the old stallion to his end this way?

Disdaining for a moment to bother with the latch, he swung himself over the gate and sank to his knees beside his dispirited mount.  There were no signs of recognition, no glad greeting as he had been accustomed to receive, only a low and guttural moan of feeble protest as he ran his hand along the bruised and battered limbs.  It seemed there was nothing to be done to further postpone the inevitable.  He sat down and lifted Celebrandir’s head into his lap, determined that so faithful a horse would not die alone and neglected.

Galadhmir recognized the scene of hopeless resignation, and he graciously left it unmarred by empty consolations.  Thranduil felt all thought of time lost to his mind, slowly and monotonously running his fingers time and time again through the limp mane that had once been so vibrant. 

He did not know when at last Galadhmir left him there; nor did he care.  He did not count the hours as they passed.  He scarcely noticed the night wearing on to its end, or the dawn when it came.  He gave small heed to Linhir when at last he came to attend the horses as he did every morning.  The other went about his duties in uncharacteristic silence.  Thranduil knew when finally he lingered there before him, knew the futile protests that must be growing within the household against his vigil.  But in time Linhir turned and left as he had come, unacknowledged, without a word.

The cold morning hours passed.  Celebrandir lingered still, gone but for a fading heartbeat.  Dimly he knew when they came to take away the broken body of Alkarinwë and resolve the matter before the king, but again they left him undisturbed.  

The horse had gone noticeably cooler now despite the blankets thrown about him, drawing his last weak breaths as long as he could, obstinate to the end.  

Looking up with a bit of a start, Thranduil discerned the figure of Lindóriel standing there at the stall door in respectful silence.  She said nothing for a moment, but she unbarred the gate and stepped inside bearing a covered plate.  “Mother sent you this,” she said simply, setting the plate aside atop an overturned pail.  “You have not eaten.”

Her tone seemed not meant to convey any further implications, but Thranduil gathered his mother was somewhat wroth with him.  He knew full well she did not like him sitting up in the stables in the dead of winter, not after yesterday.  Lindóriel left her own opinion of him unspoken, perhaps for the best.  She merely knelt in the straw opposite him, pulled off her glove and ran her own capable hand over the great motionless shoulder, combing her fingers through the thick winter coat that now held little warmth. 

She would not look at him, yet Thranduil found himself gazing at her.  He saw the sheen on her hair as it was gathered in soft curls in the fallen hood of her cloak, the gleam of her eyes half veiled by dark lashes, the fragile mist of her breath on the air, the inherent strength and yet the vulnerability of her form.  None of it was unknown to him, but now it was brought unassumingly to his attention as they sat together in the shadows.

All the qualities that had endeared Galadhmir to him were echoed in her, as they had always been.  Beleg had been proud of her, his sister’s daughter.  It was that quiet strength that appealed to him, though it also brought a twinge of very real regret.  His regard for her had certainly not dwindled since their early years together so much as it had grown.  Yet how often had he condescended to speak to her within the last days?  Twice?

He was strongly tempted to speak now, to apologize for he knew not what, to do whatever he must to pull down the unseen barrier that had grown between them.  Was that his doing?  He had not thought so, but he could not otherwise account for it.  Whatever the cause, he wished to clear it from the air once and for all.  But a strange hesitance kept him silent. 

They had once been so familiar to each other. 

He gently slid his hand around hers over Celebrandir’s motionless form.  She was still warm, or he was colder than he had thought.  “Lin, I – ” he began, only to falter there, leaving the greatest part unsaid.

She seemed to understand his thought, at least.  She looked up, her eyes bright in the shadows, treasuring his every word.  But no more words came.  What he felt for her now, he was forced to admit, was certainly no longer the mere patronizing affection he had known on Balar, the insurmountable reason he had reluctantly but firmly set her aside then.  What had begun as only a fond regard was now bourgeoning into a very real devotion well beyond his power to restrain.  Now he did love her, and it was no longer a brother’s love.  He had not initially singled her out of his own will, but looking at her then he knew that she was somehow already well established in that deepest and most jealously guarded recess of his heart.  The past days had been an incredible strain on his emotions, and it was no surprise that it had brought him to this point at last. 

She slowly entwined her strong fingers with his, leaning closer, begging him to speak.  He felt at once hopeless and helpless now that he had surrendered his last conscious reservation, though it was also a strange relief, intimating that he need no longer suppress those sentiments when they arose.

With hardly a conscious thought he knew they had moved closer, drawn together by a growing force that had enthralled them both, all else forgotten.

But the loud and staccato stomp of shod hooves shattered the intimacy like glass, and they both drew back with ragged gasps.  Gone was the strange but blissful oblivion.  Gone was the new warmth of that hitherto unexplored passion, leaving them cold and unsteady.

“Thranduil,” Linhir addressed him from astride Elostir, his clear voice still solemn enough to acknowledge Celebrandir’s fate, “the incident is thankfully closed for the moment.”  Galadhmir rode in behind him and proceeded to duly attend the mare.  “There were indeed many who would have readily blamed you for the whole affair, as I thought there would be.  It seems we are still rather unpopular in some corners of Lindon.  But Gil-galad was incensed by such accusations, and is willing to accept your word as the truth of the matter until it can be investigated further.  He would, however, like to speak to you as soon as possible.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, his voice still weaker than he would have liked, his heart drumming wildly.  “He will find little enough to investigate after the rain.”

“He will find enough,” Galadhmir assured him grimly, turning the mare into a stall removed from the one she usually occupied beside her mate.  “How does he fare now?” he asked gently, meaning Celebrandir.

Only then did Thranduil realize the final struggle had ended at last, unnoticed and unmarked after all.  The final frail spark of life had gone, tranquilly, while for once he had looked elsewhere.

He merely shook his head in answer, and it was enough.

When the others had gone, Thranduil sat a moment more in the growing dark, lacking at first the will to make effort enough to stand.  Lindóriel still lingered with him.  They could say nothing, but whatever overpowering impulse had possessed them mere moments ago had fled, leaving them again in awkward silence. 

Finally he climbed slowly, uncomfortably, to his feet.  She allowed him to take her by the hand and pull her to up, still unable to look at him.  They left the stall together and turned to follow the others to the house.  

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