The Secret of the Forest - A Thranduil Romance

Tears of a King

The skies were a washed out blue with the smell of upcoming snowfall in the air and a thin layer of frost donned the ruins of Dale a fleeting veil of serenity when Thranduil pushed the curtains aside to step out into the clear winter morning. He took a deep breath and the crisp air greeted him with a reviving freshness that was like a promise of new life in the barren wasteland. His heavy cloak cascaded elegantly from his shoulders, nearly hiding the grey robe beneath from view. His bejewelled fingers rested languidly on the hilts of his swords, which were sheathed in their scabbards on either side of his hips, and the silver circlet crowned the sleek perfection of his hair. His gaze was drawn from the endless skies above to Silvermane, who pawed the ground, raising clouds of icy crystals up in the air. Delicate wisps of smoke curled up from her nostrils as she welcomed her rider. She had been given a saddle and brindle in the lightest grey, a perfect match for her silvery mane and the saddle-bags had been diligently filled with provisions to last him for several days. He was glad that at this early hour the area outside the tent was deserted save for the guards as he wished to depart quietly and undisturbed. With a friendly ruffle he greeted the horse and then he reached for the reins, mounted Silvermane in one graceful swing and was on his way, leaving behind the city and the Mountain.

He began his journey with a rare but comfortable lightness in his heart. Having been able to reconcile with his son filled him with a warmth he seemed to have lost centuries ago and he was more than glad to have torn down the ice that had separated them for far too long. And although a disciplinary talk with Tauriel would be in order once she returned to Mirkwood with Legolas, he felt decidedly relieved to have his head of guard back in his service. Despite her hot-headedness she was undoubtedly one of the most loyal additions to his court and her friendship with his son was a bond not to be underestimated.

His path led him from Dale back to the Long Lake, where the signs of destruction were only haphazardly hidden beneath some lonely patches of snow. Some Men and Elves had stayed behind to save what they could and to rebuild what was possible before the frost would render all labour futile. He passed them in a steady gallop and soon the restless surface of the lake was but a dolefully murmuring elegy behind him. Grey and bleak was the path that lay ahead, dried up lichen crawling over scattered rocks and windswept hassocks strewn erratically in between. The nascent gusts of winter wind tore at his cloak and the silken strands of his hair. And before long the last remnants of blue above were obscured by heavy clouds and icy snowflakes shrouded horse and rider in a tireless dance of flurries as the Elvenking sped on, a tall figure in ghostly white.

He had not realised how much he had longed for the welcoming embrace of his forest until he saw the familiar borders dawning vaguely on the horizon, the sea of grey and brown clothed in its wintry raiment stretching out in the distance. Not a living soul crossed their path and the few wild beasts roaming the lands for what meagre prey they might find maintained a respectful distance. Some valiant ones craned their furry necks to get a glimpse of the Elvenking rushing past them only to quickly return to their laborious task of securing for themselves a rather frugal meal before they might end up on the dinner plate of those bolder predators that hunted under the veil of darkness. Thranduil urged Silvermane on to break into a full gallop, wishing to turn his back on those desolate lands before nightfall.

Branches, roots and twigs all welcomed their king, a rustling of voices rushing through the tall pillars, the spindly dome above him humming softly in a polyphonic symphony. They spoke to him of a human that roamed the pathways and the unrest this intrusion had brought into the forest, stirring up an evil malice that had daringly crept closer in the absence of its king, the prospect of easy prey luring the foes of darkness ever deeper into the woods.

Thranduil listened intently and what he heard did nothing to appease his worries, for all he knew she might be running directly into the spider’s hairy arms. He needed to make haste if he was going to find her before they did. Silvermane had fallen into a somewhat reluctant trot, the gloominess of these woods not at all familiar to her, but his words brought her comfort and she picked up her pace again, the winding path in between overgrown stems and greyish thickets leading them steadily closer towards the heart of the forest.

They rode on all night and only when the faintest grey of morning broke timidly through the branches he offered Silvermane a much needed rest, but he himself could not find any.

He watched her for a moment as she munched on what little moss there was in between gnarled roots and rotten leaves and then his hand wandered towards the pocket of his robe and a thrill of anticipation rushed through him when he felt the outline of the necklace beneath his fingers. He leaned against the tree beside Silvermane and pulled the necklace out. The neatly rounded pearls shone pale white like small moons in the light of early dawn and he took great pleasure in running the smooth orbs through his fingers. They were nowhere near the exquisit splendour of the white gems of starlight, but there was undeniable beauty in their simplicity and gazing at them in his hands his thoughts travelled back to the moment when his spirit had set out to visit Anna in the Queen’s refuge. The sadness in her eyes made his heart ache and guilt claw at his heart. Guilt because of the emotional turmoil he had caused her and the possible danger she was now headed into. After all it had been him who had brought her into his palace and his life. She had not asked for it. As a matter of fact, she had not really had any choice at all, still she had come with him anyway. With a sigh he tore his eyes away from the jewellery in his hands and looked up into the net of twigs and branches that fanned out above him, their familiar creaking and rustling reminding him tauntingly of the task he had given himself: to look after her until the time would come for them both to take a decision one way or another. A promise he had intended to keep only for it to be forsaken when the prospect of sparkly jewels had dawned on the horizon.

He knew that he had a weakness for white gems. A weakness that had slowly taken on the shape of an obsession, even more so after the passing of his wife. He remembered being hypnotized by their iridescent sparkle since the days of his youth in Doriath. There was something in those jewels that captured him in a downright magical way. They seemed to contain the essence of everything he had ever longed for, flawless, pristine and a perfect mirror of the starlight he so much adored. And they were everlasting in their eternal beauty. Nothing could dim their brightness. As an elf he was blessed with immortality, but that did not mean that he or the ones he loved could not be subject to death and even if he lasted on, it was expected of him to follow the call of his kin across the sea and depart to Valinor. Something he felt no desire for.

The forest of Eryn Galen was where his heart had taken root and if it could ever be restored to its former beauty he would gladly dwell beneath its sweeping branches and walk its sunlit glades until he as guardian of the forest would fade into a mere shadow of his former self and become the spirit of the forest itself, blossoming in every new bud and fresh leaf. In tender saplings and deepest roots he would reside, humbly embracing his destiny that tied him to Arda until the end of all days. He had pondered this choice for ages and it had all but tormented his heart as it required a sacrifice either way. Refusing to depart to the Undying Lands meant that he would shut the path to his wife forever, but if he chose to sail West it would uproot his very existence and he would never be whole again, not even in the Blessed Realm. He would amble the white shores of Aman forever looking east beyond the sea wishing for his soul to linger beneath the shadows of his beloved trees.

A soft nudge against his shoulder rose him from his thoughts and when he saw Silvermane’s brown eyes staring questioningly at him he quickly closed his hand around the necklace and slid it back into the pocket. He looked around and the morning had already advanced, the feeble rays of daylight peeking through the wintry canopy above.

“You are right,” he said, ruffling Silvermane’s crest. “We must not tarry any longer. There is still much that lies ahead of us.”

Deeper they went into the woods, a greyish gloom lingering on as the hours melted into each other. The forest river’s faint murmuring accompanied Silvermane’s steady plodding like a quiet song and Thranduil’s mind wandered ahead restlessly, hoping that he would find her before the sinister forces would lure her into their treacherous webs. Tauriel had been right after all with her suspicion that the spiders had grown bolder and more daring still, venturing into areas of Mirkwood that had been considered safe until not so long ago. His beginning uneasiness only grew heavier until he could not keep the insistent voice in his heart quiet anymore. If she was indeed headed into danger there was only one way he could help her from afar. He needed to make sure that she would be able to fend for herself until he was by her side. Even if she was unaware of it, the sword she carried was not just like any elvish blade. It was the Queen’s sword, fashioned to match his own, slightly smaller and more delicate, but as deadly as its larger companions. And it carried a secret within its beautiful curves of silver, allowing the king to let his magic flow into the blade and bestowing powers far beyond their skills upon the one wielding it. But alas there was a downside to this marvellous ability. The sword had been kept sealed away for centuries, since Thranduil could not bear to look at it after his wife’s death, reminding him every day of how, despite its magic, it had not been able to prevent her from falling into the enemies’ hands. And he had refused ever since to renew the spell, having been convinced that it had simply not been good enough. But now it was all the hope he had left.

“Silvermane I need you to follow your path without fear and hesitation while I send my spirit ahead to search for her. Allow your hooves to take you where my light will lead you.”

Silvermane reared her ears as she listened to the king’s words and then Thranduil loosened the reins, allowing her to canter at her leisure while he sent his thoughts inwards and raised one hand to his heart, the familiar warmth spreading from deep within and filling every vein with liquid light. Enveloped by delicate strings of silvery white his fae floated like an iridescent orb up into the air, passing underbrushes and countless branches in its search for her.

And it did not take him long to find her, a lonely wanderer, hopelessly lost in this ample forest and struggling to find the path that would lead her to its king. Like a small beacon of hope he guided her to a nearby clearing, receiving her in its midst as white stag, the grey pillars around him bathed in heavenly light. When he saw her approaching like a timid fawn, her pitiful appearance filled him with sorrow, but he waited silently. Only very slowly she seemed to work up the courage to step closer, but still she did not dare to touch him, her eyes silently drinking in his celestial appearance like someone who was dying of thirst. But then the longing in his chest pulled him towards her and he laid his head on her shoulder, and when she finally slung her arms around his neck and wept into his soft fur, his spirit embraced her own, letting the light that lived within him soothe her pain, so she might find the strength to face whatever still lay before her. Her caress and her words filled his heart with joy and sadness alike. How much he wished that he could hold her in his embrace rather than have his spirit animal take his stead! Tears stood in his eyes and when a single one fell onto her sword it was all it took to seal the spell. For an instant the metal gleamed bright like having been dipped in moonlight and her puzzled look met his determined gaze, tying the magical bond in between them. He dearly hoped that it might be strong enough, as it was only cast by his spirit animal and to gain its full power the magic needed the unity of body and soul, but it was the best he could give her. And as much as he wished to linger in this intimate moment he knew that he had to pull away if he was going to provide the help she begged him for. So he turned away, reluctantly leaving her behind in the dim twilight as his spirit found its way back.

Excitement and dread mingled in his heart after this encounter and he increased their pace throughout the day, only stopping when Silvermane was in dire need of rest. But the shadows of foreboding would not allow him any peace of mind. He could feel the darkness creeping through the woods like a thick cloud of doom, the malice preparing to strike once it had drawn her close enough. Silvermane was nearly stretched to the limit after they had ridden on all night, bushes and twigs, roots and branches flitting past them like a hazy blur, making way for their king and allowing the horse to pass through the parting vegetation with ease. So fast they sped on that the icy breeze ruffled his cloak like a grey banner, the windswept strands of his hair flowing behind him in golden waves. Silvermane’s breath filled the air with dainty puffs of smoke, her flanks glistening with a sheen layer of sweat beneath the pale moonlight that trickled through the branches, casting ghostly shadows on horse and rider. Thranduil guided them through the darkest hours following only the compass of his heart, and the hooves’ steady cantering led them past slender birches, shimmering like ancient sentinels and over crunching leaves and frozen patches of mud. The pathways they had long abandoned and they were now cutting straight through the woods heading north west on the shortest route, the place where he could feel her presence growing stronger by the minute.

When the blackness of night gave way to a dim grey morning veiled in mist he knew that they were getting close. Silvermane’s muscles flexed beneath him with depleting strength, so he allowed her another short rest before they would make for what he hoped to be the final spurt. He looked around and the dense fog surrounding them forebode nothing good for it most likely accompanied the stealthy onset of something evil, shrouding its skulking approach from view. But his eyes would not be so easily deceived. He could see right through this masquerade and one look told him that this was not any product of nature itself. He would head straight to where he suspected that the beasts had made their lair, where the fog was at its densest. That is where they would also be leading her and her human eyes had no shield against their deception, making her an easy victim. They could not tarry any longer, so he spoke to Silvermane in a beseeching voice: “Be strong and brave as we are heading towards the darkness that seeks to invade my forest. You must not let yourself be intimidated by its malicious doings. None will dare attack us as those beasts fear my powers. May your pace be light and swift and may confidence lead you through the blinding mist.”

He stroked her gently on the forehead, filling her body with renewed strength and her dark brown eyes gleamed with determination. She pawed the ground impatiently as if she was telling him to hurry already.

They delved into the greyish clouds gushing out in between branches and spilling onto the forest floor, obscuring the ground beneath them, the horse wading through the mist that pooled around its hooves like a treacherous stream. An eerie silence lay on the invisible trees beside them and when the fog had become so dense that it closed in like an impenetrable wall of sickly grey he suddenly felt a sting in his chest and he knew that her sword had awoken from its slumber. This could only mean one thing: they had found her first.

This was what he had dreaded all along and now the moment of truth had come at last. He urged Silvermane to go faster and tightened the grip on her reins to make sure she would not falter on those last important steps. The stirring in his chest had risen to a powerful call when the sword trembled in her hands, eagerly awaiting its master’s command. He would be guiding her blade’s every motion, but only if she allowed herself to be guided. He felt her initial hesitation to put her trust in a weapon that seemingly had a mind of its own and when the first blow hit her he only barely managed to keep her from being overpowered by the enemies’ relentless onslaught. She staggered and stumbled, her motions erratic and unfocused, but she was a quick learner and when he sensed her breathing falling in sync with his and her hands allowing the sword to lead her, he was with her every minute of her desperate fight.

Turn around. Faster. Don’t let go of the sword. Raise it up again. Higher. There, you got another one!

As if by an invisible string he pulled her through the vicious attacks, evading when possible, parrying when needed and killing when unavoidable. While he made her blade dance in her hand he unsheathed one of his own and guided Silvermane with one hand through the haze that slowly filled with repugnant sounds, abhorrent voices which might have stalled any other horses’ movements and freeze the blood in their veins. But with the king’s comforting words the noises lost their threatening presence and ever closer they drew, the air darkening as the light of day dwindled and Silvermane’s hooves treaded more often than not on sticky threads sprawled across the forest floor.

Left. Right. Don’t trip. Hold your ground.

His guidance was steadfast and precise, geared towards keeping her defence up and hopefully conserving her energy by avoiding unnecessary outbreaks. He knew that her one weakness would be the lack of endurance, so he needed to avoid those spiders getting too close to her at all costs. The webs thickened ominously along his pathway, and it would not be long now until the evil beasts would show themselves, the invisible multitude of their feet darting from tree to tree and hidden black orbs eyeing them suspiciously. His body was taut in concentration, his eyes on the pathway before him and his mind focused on every one of her motions.

Keep your guard up! Watch out!

And then he saw her from afar, a small shape surrounded by an army of arachnid mercenaries with seemingly more hairy legs than there were branches in the entire forest. She was hopelessly outnumbered, sticky white webs closing in around her from all sides. A small but fresh and juicy bite of human meat was a veritable delicacy well worth fighting for. Merciless were their attacks and then she stumbled and fell, her muffled cry drowning in the wave of frantically clicking pincers, the time it took her to get back on her feet lengthening dangerously.

That was a close call.

And he feared that it might be the turning of the tide, her exhaustion beginning to show beneath his unerring guidance. Thranduil reined Silvermane in, bringing her to a halt at a safe distance. He dismounted swiftly without taking his eyes off the scene that brought the blood in his veins to boil. Hateful invaders of his forest were those despicable creatures, their obvious sadistic delight in torturing their defenceless prey fuelling his anger. Faster and faster he made her sword slash through the nets, her blade magically flitting through the air with unwavering aim.

Cut, cut the net! Now, or you will be lost! Rolled up into a cocoon of juicy dinner.

Thranduil unsheathed his other sword, his fingers wrapped tightly around both hilts, the smooth metal a perfect fit for his hands that were itching to cut down those evil beasts by the dozen. He treaded with quick and silent steps, carefully avoiding the trailing webs while the twirling steel sliced through the unaware spiders that had the misfortune of getting too close to the sharp edges. Hoping to make up for her waning strength Thranduil increased the ferocity of her sword’s motions, Anna’s hands frantically trying to follow his lead.

Faster now, cut the other side loose! Move your sword, swing it high and slash through once more!

He could not have her slowing down now! She needed to hold on for just one more moment until he was by her side! But he sensed her staggering, the will to fight trickling from her veins with every hit she took. The cord in between them both thinned out as the light inside her grew dim until she drifted out of his reach, swallowed by the shadows of despair. And despair now also clawed at his heart. He was going to lose her! Ever faster he advanced, a forceful storm ripping through the hostile ranks, wiping out everything in his path, relentless and fierce, but he could not prevent the inevitable from happening. A last flicker and then suddenly the flame in his chest died. The sword had slipped from her hands.

This would be her end.

He rushed forward, closing the distance as fast as he could, anger and wrath leading him on and then he called out with a clear voice:

“Stand back, servants of evil! And if you do not, you shall all perish for I am the king of this forest and its master and you have no place in my lands!”

With every word he cut down foes left and right, the spiders wincing under the dazzling light the Elvenking brought among them. The ones that had escaped his blades scuttled away as fast as their eight legs would carry them until the undergrowth had swallowed their black shapes for good.

“Go back into the shadows! Crawl back into your filthy lairs and do not show your hideous faces here ever again!”

He pierced their misshaped bodies and sliced them open, littering the ground with their limbs, the silver blades gooey with dark blood. Bulbous eyes stared in fear and shock and their gaping mouths contorted in horror at the merciless vengeance that rained down upon them. But their webs around her were thick and sturdy and not all had fled the scene, some still hoping for that bite of fresh meat.

“Do not dare to touch her!” He called out to the beasts that added layer after layer to her deadly cocoon. There was a silvery glow on the ground where she had dropped her sword. He picked it up to stow it away in his scabbard, reinforcing his efforts to cut through the webs that still blocked his path. With determined slashes he made his way through the sticky threads, crushing one of the spiders that lunged for his leg with the heel of his boot, sending it flying backwards with a stifled screech. And then he caught her gaze through the webs and the black bodies busying themselves around her, her eyes glazed like one that is caught in a lucid dream, and her voice weak and far away: “Thranduil, I am sorry…”

He was almost by her side, inflated black bellies bouncing off the hilt of his swords as he struck them, leaving the webs around her empty and abandoned, when her heart-piercing cry shook him to the core. One accomplice of evil had stayed in hiding and wrapped its legs now around her body from behind, the force of its sting reverberating through her limbs. Her face went blank, her eyes unfocused and he only could witness helplessly as the poison took possession of her body, spreading rapidly until she was but a limp piece of flesh, trapped like a butterfly.

No! No, not this! He had been so close! White hot rage flared up in his chest, a menacing fire burning in his eyes.

“Death is what you are asking for, beast! And death is what I will give you!”

The spider reared its ugly head behind her and hissed at the Elvenking, a foul stench emanating from its voracious gorge.

“If we cannot have her, you won’t have her either,” the spider rasped, an odd clicking sound in between each word.

“You do not tell me what I can and cannot have.” Thranduil’s voice was full of contempt as he edged closer, his eyes never leaving her face that seemed as grey and dead as stone. “And she was never yours to take. Now step aside!”

He pointed his swords at its matted eyes that were not black but a milky white, like they had lost the ability to see a long time ago. The spider dropped to the ground, crunching the leaves beneath it with its sagging belly and a ghastly laughter rang through the trees.

“You won’t save her, Elf. She is only a human, and a weak one too.”

Parading in between her and Thranduil it showed off the stinger smeared with fresh drops of scarlet red blood. The sight nearly made him lose his temper, but he only said: “She is not weak.”

“You are wasting your time with her!” The spider revelled in the pain it was causing the Elvenking. “The poison will claim her. I made sure of it by giving her a little extra dose.”

The ire in Thranduil’s heart consumed his last shreds of patience and without another word he raised both swords, charged forward and with a furious stroke and two perfectly clean cuts he clove the spider in four, the animal’s legs twitching in denial of death as its useless parts fell to the ground in dull thuds. He kicked the carcass aside and was by her side in an instant, his sharp blades slashing through the thick threads that glued her sticky prison to the branches above.

He caught her in his arms, a bundle of prey, lifeless and cold, and he had to pull himself together not to let his agony overwhelm him when he looked at her face. The face he had been looking forward to receive him with a sweet smile was now a picture of misery. Wounds of her fight with the spiders as well as her struggle with the forest’s vegetation were blossoming on her skin, her lips parted in a soundless cry, her empty eyes half lidded beneath her furrowed brows and her features frozen in shock when the pain had rushed through her veins. He sank to the ground, her body so small and fragile in his arms like a little bird with broken wings. No words would come across his lips, everything that he had wanted to say silenced by this cruel twist of fate. Guilt and self-accusation knocked on his heart’s door, threatening to overthrow the confidence that had brought him here. How was it possible that he had failed once again? How could he have allowed this to happen? She was his to look after and now he held the result of his broken promise in his arms.

But her journey would not end here. He would not allow it. He would not give those beasts the satisfaction of having claimed victory. But whatever he was going to do, speed was paramount. There was not enough time to get her to the palace, so he had to make do with what little he had at his disposal. Her body was as cold as ice and if it was true that the spider had purposefully injected her with a lethal dose it would require all his healing power to halt its deadly work.

With a graceful wave of his hand he unfroze the ground in front of him, the mud coloured patches of snow melting beneath his fingertips, the roots slithering underground like twisted snakes, wilted leaves shuffling aside obediently and making way for a fresh layer of moss that sprung into life at his whispered command. He then slid his cloak from his shoulders and spread it on the ground before him, all the while maintaining a firm grip on her body. With utmost care he laid her down on the soft surface that would hopefully shield her from the bitter cold. One glance at her left shoulder told him where she had been dealt a severe blow, the dark red of her blood oozing through the webs that held her prisoner. Staunching the loss of blood needed to be his first priority, otherwise her body would be too weak to fight the poison. He tugged at the gooey strings that clung to her limbs and had made a mess out of her already dishevelled appearance, freeing her left shoulder from the encrusted mixture of blood, mud and spiderwebs. With nimble fingers he carefully exposed the area where her cloak and tunic had been torn by the vicious claws. Like he suspected, the slash was deep and blood still steadily trickled down her side, soaking her clothes and his hands. He reached into his pocket to pull out the remains of athelas and held them in between his hands, muttering indistinctly under his breath. A vague vapour emerged from the dried leaves as he pressed them onto the gaping wound, his hands gliding over her shoulder in a subtle pattern, the blood receding and beneath his skilled touch the marred flesh began to heal seemingly of its own accord. He followed the delicate line of her collarbone with his motions, the bruises vanishing as he passed over them. All remnants of brutal slashes faded away when he gently grazed the crook of her neck. His fingertips trailed along, soft like a feather, finally coming to rest on the hollow of her throat and for a moment there was more than just a healing touch to it. His gaze was caught by the pleasant way the curve of his thumb fitted against the rounded valley, a sight so delightful that he lingered just for another instant before he slowly retreated his hands. He took a deep breath to recompose himself for the difficult task that lay still ahead of him. If healing Faeldir had required all his strength, wresting her from the shadows was no less of a challenge.

He closed his eyes and laid a hand upon her brow, the warmth of his body battling the frost of her own and a stillness enveloped them both. Not a leaf in the forest dared to move as he bent over her, his other hand resting on her heart, the leaves of athelas nestled in between. There was a tingle in his fingertips as he touched her and his spirit called out to hers through the darkness that held her captive. And with a soft murmur he began his enchantment, his voice never rising beyond a whisper.

Adaneth, telin le thaed. Lasto beth nîn, tolo don nan galad.”

A faint silver glow emanated from his hands as the power of his words flowed through them and a refreshing breeze rose from the leaves on her chest.

Lasto beth nîn, adaneth,” he said softly, bowing down even lower and bringing his mouth to her ear. “Tolo don nan galad.”

Small pearls of sweat were forming on her forehead, a reviving warmth descending on the frozen features of her face as he fought the poison in her veins and pulled her body steadily out of its venomous prison.

“May the grace of the Valar in their everlasting light lift the darkness from you.” A small sigh heaved her chest, her heart faintly answering his call and her pulse slowly coming back from its deadly silence.

“I call upon the spirits of the forest to release you from the shadows.”

The branches shivered and the ground trembled when the forest answered the king’s summon. An eerie melody arose, faint like a rustle in the wind and deep like a rumble in the earth, the otherworldly glow that emanated from Thranduil now radiating around them both, blinding and bright, the sweet fragrance of athelas filling the air with memories of summer flowers and azure skies and then he whispered once more: “Tolo don nan galad, adaneth.”

Like liquid jewels the light trickled from his fingertips onto her skin in pale gossamer threads, slender veins of silver drowning the blackness in pure starlight. Every pore filled with renewed life and the numbing paralysis melted away beneath the powerful magic of the Elvenking. Shivers ran through her limbs as they were being freed from the spider’s venom and the lifeless grey of her skin faded away with the warmth returning to her body, his hands guiding her through the valleys of darkness with their healing light.

When he opened his eyes his mouth hovered above hers, the heart-shaped bow of her lips so close that it took all his kingly composure not to give in to the temptation of sealing them with his own. Just like on that first day so long ago his self-restraint would have to hold; as it did. Instead he watched her silently as her breathing became more regular, his fingers stroking her hair that was still tangled with the remainders of her sticky cocoon.

“I am sorry that I was not there to protect you,” he said and tears rolled down his cheek and onto her face. “Goheno nin.”

With a sudden gasp she opened her eyes and there was a frantic look in them as if her mind was still reliving those terrifying moments before he found her.

“They are everywhere —,” she mumbled, her gaze feverish, “I — their eyes…” She struggled to move, trying to flee from the nightmare that was still haunting her.

“Hush now,” he said, his voice soothing and calm. “The beasts are gone and they will not return for as long as I am here with you.”

He took her hands in his, caressing them gently, and they had gone from stone cold to a burning fever.

“We need to get you back to the palace as swiftly as possible. Your body is still weakened by your wounds and the poison. The evil shadow has fled from your veins, but the aftermath of what has taken possession of your body is still lingering on. For how long, I cannot tell. But you must rest to recover.”

Her eyes were wide in horror, staring blankly into space and only very slowly they focused on his face. “You came for me,” was all she managed to say. The gratefulness in her words brought a sad smile to his face.

“Yes, of course I did.” He nodded. “And I should have never left you in the first place.”

With those words he bundled up her shivering body in his cloak hoping to keep her warm and safe. He carried her to Silvermane, who had trotted up to them both, lifted her up and she slumped into the saddle, too weak to sit up on her own. He quickly took a seat behind her and when she sank against his chest with an exhausted sigh he could feel the feverish heat spreading through her body at an alarming rate.

“I will not let you go again,” he murmured, brushing her forehead with his lips, “ever.”

The ghost of a smile flickered across Anna’s face and then she drifted back into unconsciousness.

With one arm slung around her he took the reins and his call could be heard through the thickets of Mirkwood.

“Silvermane, show us the meaning of haste!”

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