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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 16 ~ The Darkest Night

The Elvenking thundered into the woodland clearing astride a silver-dappled stallion, accompanied by a dozen mounted guards.  The expressions on their faces would have inspired fear in even the most hardened. 

Six other grim Wood-elves stood in the clearing, each holding a bound and kneeling prisoner by a noose about his neck.  They stood even straighter to receive their king, and a bloodthirsty roar rose from the crowd of spectators which surrounded them.  That crowd contained not only Elves, but also a significant number of those Woodmen who also populated the forest.  The prisoners were six of their own people, yet it seemed they had been universally disowned.

Thranduil dismounted, fully armed and draped in a blood-red cloak, an enormous figure before the Men on the ground.  One tried to jump to his feet, but was thrust ungently back into his place.  The most brutish of them spat in Thranduil’s direction, earning himself a sharp cuff across the head from his keeper.

“These Men, my lord,” Baradhren began, “have been found guilty of heinous crimes against your people on the western marches, including theft, ambush, assault, preying upon travelers, wanton destruction of property, and several attempts to ravish Elvish women.  They await your sentence.”

“What say their own lords?” Thranduil asked formally.

“We also judge them guilty,” the rugged chief of the Woodmen declared.  “We abandon them to the mercy of the Elvenking.”

They must have been guilty of similar crimes among their own people, because another vicious cheer rose from the crowd, making it abundantly clear they wanted mercy to have no part in it.

“I do not answer to the Elvenking!” one of the condemned shouted, worked into a frenzy of either fear or rage.

“You have broken the Elvenking’s laws,” Thranduil reminded him darkly, “attacked his people and abused his guests, and for that you will answer.  You forfeited your right to live among us long ago.”

Two of the King’s Guards dismounted and stood just behind him.  The one on his left held a bundle of six strong rods and a branding iron.  The one on the right held a naked sword.

A rumble of suspense rolled through the crowd as the king stood betwixt the instruments of exile or death.  As cross as he was, Thranduil contained his anger in an unnerving calm.  He held the gaze of the most obdurate prisoner until the other’s defiance was exhausted. 

Finally, he held out his left hand.

The men wilted with relief, while the crowd had a mixed reaction.  Thranduil took the bundle of rods and handed them to Baradhren.  “See that they are severely punished, but not crippled,” he said.  “Brand them, bind their wounds and take them to the border.  To reenter the forest will carry the penalty of death.”

As the prisoners were led away to face their sentence and the crowd gradually melted into the trees, one observer caught Thranduil’s attention.  He might have mistaken him for an especially tall Woodman in brown robes, but something about those deep and gentle eyes made him look again.

“Good day to you, my lord,” the stranger said, bowing slightly over his staff.  “Among Men I am called Radagast the Brown.  I trust my friend Gandalf the Grey advised you to expect me.”

“Ah, yes—Mithrandir,” Thranduil nodded.  “Yes, he did.  Though, as he is wont, he neglected to give me your name.”

“The Elvenking showed admirable mercy today,” Radagast observed.

“Had they succeeded in ravishing any of our women, my judgment may have been different,” Thranduil admitted.  “But welcome, Radagast the Brown, to Mirkwood.  I understand you wish to establish yourself here.”

“I anticipate settling on the western border,” he said, “with your permission.”

“Beyond the border you have no need of my permission,” Thranduil assured him, gathering his horse’s reins.  “But I give it all the same.”

“I had hoped to speak to you at some length, my lord,” Radagast said, seemingly dismayed that Thranduil was mounting already.

“Yes, please be my guest in my halls,” Thranduil asked.  “I am afraid urgent concerns call be back immediately, but you will be always welcome.”

Radagast’s face assumed a knowing expression.  “Do not overtax yourself, my lord,” he warned, “or there may come a time when even you have nothing left to give.”

Somehow he knew.  With no time to frame a reply, Thranduil turned his horse and galloped back up the path.

He had not forgotten Mithrandir’s warning last year.  He actually felt much stronger than he had for a long time, but that was doubtless because he had already been away for several days, and Lindóriel must be that much weaker.  Once again it was proving impossible to balance both obligations.

When at last they arrived back at the palace, night had fallen and their horses were frothed with sweat.  Only a frail sense of decorum prevented Thranduil from running through the corridors to his chambers.  At last, he burst into the room, and the queen’s maids scattered leaving only Legolas seated on the bed beside his mother.

“I am sorry, love,” Thranduil apologized, coming to join them.  “I returned as soon as I could.”  He stopped short as he saw Legolas' face was streaked with tears.  It must be worse than he thought.  “Ai, Belain, I should never have left you.”

Lindóriel did appear to be on the verge of death.  Dark circles had grown under her eyes and her breathing was labored.  They had had close calls before, but never as near as this since the night she had taken the wound. 

Legolas relinquished his place to his father.  Drawing a few deep breaths to calm his nerves and focus his concentration, Thranduil carefully gathered Lindóriel's limp form in his arms and prepared to revive her yet again, whatever the cost.  But before he could, she found strength enough to turn her head away.

“No,” she whispered.  “No.  They need you.  Legolas needs you.”

“But I need you,” Thranduil protested, seized by panic.

She smiled weakly and stroked his face, though tears welled in her eyes.  “You can be strong without me,” she said.  “You always were.”

“She has already decided,” Legolas said miserably.  “She was only waiting for you.”

“No!”  It was too soon.  He was not ready.  “I cannot simply watch you die.  Lin, I cannot!”

She placed a hand over his mouth.  “Promise me you will not abandon them,” she pleaded.  “They love you, too.  Promise.”

Tears escaped him in a flood as he at last accepted the hopelessness of it all.  He held her close and buried his face in her hair.  “I promise,” he choked.  “I will promise you anything!”

Lindóriel shushed him gently.  “Stop making me cry,” she said with a quavering attempt at humor.  “You know I cannot breathe when I cry.”

But there was no stopping it now.  There was not enough life between them to sustain them both, and they would be cruelly parted at last.  “I love you,” Thranduil gasped, knowing it may be the last time he could tell her.

He held her as she fought for each rattling breath, every moment a heart-rending struggle simply to do nothing as her lungs filled with blood and she began to choke.  It was by far the most difficult thing he had ever done.

Hours passed.  Or was it only minutes?  At last, when he felt he could bear it no more, her grasp on his shoulders slackened, her lovely head fell limp, and she was gone.

Thranduil continued to hold her in the sudden stillness, insensible to everything but the crippling feeling that some vital part of himself had been torn away with her, something he did not yet know how to live without.  A violent trembling seized him as though the chill of the frost outside had clutched his heart, and an overwhelming well of grief rose to drown him.  There was no mercy in the world, no pity.  Nothing was sacred.

A raw howl of rage and despair reverberated through the halls of Arthrand Lasgalen.  Then it was swallowed again by profound silence.

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