The Secret of the Forest - A Thranduil Romance

Fire and Faith

Darkness exists to make light truly count.

(Sleeping At Last: Uneven Odds)


Darkness was Anna’s steady companion on the journey back to the palace, dense, thick and all encompassing. It was a different one than on that far away summer day when Thranduil had first brought her to his halls. This time there was no blindfold keeping her from taking in her surroundings. Not that she would have needed it anyway. The blackness of night hid paths and vegetation alike, the faint silver glow emanating from Thranduil the single source of light as they sped on through the endlessly repeating rows of trees. Sluggishly like tar the darkness waltzed through her veins and crawled into her mind, taking possession of her every thought and leaving her body a trembling leaf in the arms of the king. Salty tears trickled down her cheeks as the realisation sunk in of how close she had been to take death’s cold hand. Thranduil had come to her rescue and pulled her back from the abyss, but the skulking shadows remained and threatened to drown her in their flood of terrifying visions. The horse’s cantering beneath her and Thranduil’s steadfast figure behind her were the only comfort in her state of dread. Feverish shivers ran through her body and if it hadn’t been for the Elvenking’s firm grip she might have slid off the saddle more than once. She drifted in and out of consciousness, shreds of reality and fragments of dreams mingling in her head until everything was but a hazy blur of indistinguishable sounds and distorted images.

Voracious gorges opening wide, hairy legs lunging at her, pincers clicking frantically and webs spinning around her limbs at relentless speed kept her a prisoner of the horror she so narrowly had escaped. And through it weaved themselves ghostly visions of a life she had thought long lost, sudden flashes of broken memories, eyes that searched for whom they could not find and hands that reached out but disappeared in the mist of time. And then there was the Elvenking’s tender touch shining through it all like a ray of hope, the honest relief in his eyes when he finally held her in his arms alive warming her heart in a way she did not think possible.

Every single inch in her body was sore, her left shoulder reminding her with merciless consistency that she had recently been severely wounded and evaded death by just a hair. She sought to pull herself up, trying to relieve the pressure on her still aching injury, but her muscles would not obey her head’s command and she only slumped back sideways, burying her face in the folds of Thranduil’s robe in a rather unceremonious way. Had she been just a little less sick, she might have instinctively backed away from such sudden closeness, afraid of it being considered inappropriate. But she felt nauseous and dizzy, the fever coursing through her veins with relentless heat, and protocol was the last thing on her mind. She barely could think straight, the pain spreading now also from her lower back into every corner of her body. Sensing her clumsy attempt at getting into a more comfortable position Thranduil pulled her even closer until her head rested tightly against his chest, his arm wrapped securely around her waist.

“Just hold on a little more,” he murmured into her hair. She could feel the taut muscles of his chest flexing beneath the softness of his brocade gown, his warmth and his enticing scent enveloping her, lulling her back into an uneasy sleep, uncountable hours of travelling still ahead.

The sudden absence of steady motion woke her from her slumber and an unexpected icy touch on her forehead made her flinch and stir in Thranduil’s tight grip. Her eyes flew open but she thought herself still dreaming as her gaze was caught by two gems of starlight, so beautiful and bright it almost took her breath away. Deep like the ocean and endless like the sky, they pulled her towards their depths until she tumbled into those alluring pools of blue, a promise of eternal bliss opening up before her.

But then suddenly the brightness faded away, the starlight dwindling, her vision obscured by shadows. Rising up like clouds of smoke they built up around her and she fell back into the darkness. A voice, faint and far, called from beyond the shadows:

“Don’t give in! Come back to the light!”

But she wanted to sink into the velvety embrace of oblivion, where her pain would be gone, and she didn’t have to breathe anymore. She had to let go. Motionless she hung in Thranduil’s arm, oblivious of the words that were trying to cut through the void that was luring her in.

“Listen to me! Don’t let go!”

It was excruciating and impossible. If she drew only one more breath she would have to endure the fever and the pain. Giving in and letting go was so much easier than being brave. Urgent was the voice and frantic the hold on her face.

“Please, breathe! For me!”

For me!

The words were like a gentle whisper, a feathery touch on her soul, stirring up a feeling stronger than fear from the embers of her heart. A sweet scent of berries and forest leaves caressed her lips and suddenly that singular moment when the Elvenking’s mouth had almost touched hers flashed before her inner eye. To finally taste those lips was all she had ever longed for. Yes, maybe she could stay. Stay for him. Fight the shadows. Be brave.

Thranduil had brought the horse to a halt and was looking down at her in shock. He held her face in his hands, his lips so close that his breath had mingled with hers, his fingers now coming to rest on her neck to check her racing pulse. She could do nothing but silently stare at him, her blood a roaring river beneath the icicles that were his fingers on her throat. He knitted his brows, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“You are burning up. This is not a natural fever.”

His words reached her through the veil of a dream, their meaning only slowly sinking in. She opened her mouth, a flood of questions ready to burst forth, but the only thing that made its way through was the one that mattered.

“Am I going to die?”

A dreadful feeling pooled in her stomach and her throat went dry when he did not answer immediately. He brushed a wayward strand from her face and shook his head slowly.

“No, you won’t,” he said, an affectionate smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “But this does seem more serious though than what I have thought, so I will need to take a look at the sting. I fear that there lies the root of your alarming condition.”

“Here? Now?” She stirred in his arms and her eyes widened at the prospect of having to linger longer than absolutely necessary in this forbidding forest, even if she was now in the safe hands of its king. The terrifying images were not so easily shaken off and she only wished to escape their haunting shadows rather sooner than later.

“Yes, here and now and not any minute later!” For a moment his voice had taken on its usual commanding manner, but he caught himself upon seeing the look of fear on her face, softening his tone again as he went on.

“We are still nearly a day’s ride away from the palace, even if I urge Silvermane to go as fast as she can, which I will not, because not only will it exhaust her and push her beyond her limits, but it will also be too strenuous for your body that is weakened by your wounds and tormented by this insistent fever.”

“Of course,” she said quietly, not daring to insist any further. After all her life was in his hands and it would not be wise to upset him with unduly objections, besides in her present state she wouldn’t have been able to put her thoughts into a reasonable sentence anyway.

Without any further ado he proceeded to dismount, lifting her bundled up body from Silvermane and carrying her over towards a withered oak of massive proportions, its gnarled bark resembling the rugged skin of an ancient reptile and shimmering dark grey as Thranduil approached it. Through her feverish haze and the pitch black of night every spot seemed just like any other, but she had all reason to assume that Thranduil, knowing his forest like no other, would choose a suitably sheltered area for his purposes. He carefully placed her on the mossy ground with her back resting against the tree trunk, a roof of low lying branches fanning out on top of her, shielding her from the icy gusts of wind that roamed the forest day and night like volatile ghosts. He wrapped his cloak tighter around her shoulders, diligently tucking it in along the edges, while his testing gaze lingered on her. She wanted to say that she was afraid, afraid of dying and of never seeing him again, but the strange heat that pushed itself through her body had left her speechless. He did not need to hear anything from her as the desperate gleam in her eyes told him more than words ever could.

“I know what it is you fear. I see it in your eyes, but I also see that there is faith in your heart. That is what you must hold on to,” he said and then he rose to his feet, quickly making his way to Silvermane. Her eyes followed him until his tall and slender figure was momentarily obscured by the black veil of night. And then it suddenly dawned on her that she had not even noticed the absence of his elk until now. She could only surmise what that meant and there was a lump in her throat when she thought of the possibly tragic fate of this majestic creature, that had brought her to Thranduil’s halls. But she did not dare to ask him about it, not yet at least, as she did not want to stir up any painful memories and with herself still in the fever’s tight grip this was something that would have to wait.

She tried to stay calm as best as she could, pulling the cloak up to her chin, suddenly feeling robbed of Thranduil’s warmth. Her head fell back against the rough bark and she lost herself in the ever darkening tangle above her while he busied himself at her feet. Muffled shuffling and rummaging reached her ear accompanied by the sound of snapping twigs. A moment of silence followed, abruptly broken by a harsh hissing sound and then a reviving warmth accompanied by the distinct smell of burning firewood filled the night air, pushing back the bitter cold around her. Thranduil had conjured up a crackling fire despite the obvious absence of dry wood or any other means to get a fire going, but of course who was she to question his remarkable magical abilities?

For a while the only sounds being heard were the spluttering of the rapidly rising flames devouring the offered logs and the occasional sizzling as twig after twig gave in to the power of the ever hungry flames. And then Thranduil opened his hands, sprinkling dried leaves and flowers into the flames that made them instantly turn a cyan blue before gradually returning to their deep amber glow. They flared up brightly as if the spirits of the forest had come to dance in within the fire, the flames climbing high into the night in an ever changing rhythm. A tangy scent of woodland herbs emanated from the fire, mingling with the spicy odour of wood and moss. Fascinated she marvelled at the unbridled power living in within the flames, transfixed by the light, her wavering senses enveloped by the fragrances, familiar and foreign alike. When she pulled her eyes away to look at Thranduil she found his gaze lost in the fire and there was a strange glow in his eyes, the flickering flames dancing like orange spectres in those mysterious depths. More than ever he appeared to her like an otherworldly being that was both ancient and ageless.

“It is a strange thing, fire,” he said and she was not sure if he was even talking to her. “Beautiful and dangerous, life and death seeking to devour each other in an everlasting dance.” He seemed to be far away, his voice weary of an endless lifetime of sorrows.

She was vaguely reminded of the day he had shown her his scars, and she could only imagine the suffering he must have gone through when the dragon’s fiery breath had almost taken his life. And if she looked very closely she thought that she could see their faint outlines beneath the smooth perfection of his face, illuminated by the golden light, or were this just the fire and her fever playing tricks on her eyesight? She suddenly felt the urge to run her fingers over those imperfections, feeling every single one of them with her own hands and kissing away what has caused him so much pain until that lingering veil of sadness on his soul would be forever torn apart. His eyes suddenly rose from the fire to lock with hers and there was an ardent longing in them that hit her straight at heart. In the blink of an eye the moment was gone, blown out like a candle in the wind, as he quickly pulled up the shield of his kingly composure, but they both knew what they had seen: it was a glimpse of the fire that she had kindled in his heart, no matter how much he might seek to abate it.

“But let us not tarry any longer now,” he cut through the silence, his words bringing her back to the present that admittedly looked less than bright for her. He moved to sit beside her and reached out for her hands, cold and clammy as they were, his concern carefully veiled behind measured words.

“Now I must see to this strange fever of yours. The fire will keep your body warm and your mind focused while I attend to the sting on your back.”

She looked at him through glazed eyes, fever and fire both clouding her mind, the touch of his hands providing welcome comfort.

“Will it hurt?” She swallowed hard, her hands trembling in his gentle hold.

He nodded slowly. “Yes, possibly. I will not lie to you.” He squeezed her fingers lightly. “But I must do this. Now, or it might be too late. You will have to be brave, which I know you can.”

Her attempt at a bitter laugh only made it to a crooked smile and a weary sigh. “I only hope that you are right.”

“I know I am,” he said in a confident tone and with a final squeeze he let go of her hands. “Now let us begin.”

He beckoned her to move away from the tree trunk so he could sit right behind her, making her lean forward to give him full access to her back.

“Do not be afraid. I promise you that I will be careful.” He laid his hands on her shoulders to keep them from trembling. “You do trust me, do you?”

“Yes,” she breathed, although she was not quite sure what she was to expect from all this, but she felt so sick that most likely anything would be an improvement to her current situation.

“Good,” he said and she could hear him draw a sharp breath behind her.

He slowly pulled the cloak from her shoulders, letting it pool around her waist, and then his hands busied themselves around her neck, brushing her tangled hair towards one side, his fingers taking a hold of the laces that held the bodice of her tattered tunic together. Suddenly she was awfully conscious of her more than ragged appearance. Her clothes were torn in several places, dirt, sweat, her own blood, that of the spiders and on top of everything the remnants of their clingy webs rendering her tunic a rather appalling piece of clothing. But then she scorned herself for being silly and unreasonable. This was not the right moment to be self conscious or worried about her looks, after all Thranduil’s splendid robe and cloak had also acquired some decidedly nasty stains during the fight with the spiders and he would surely have other concerns on his mind than assessing the condition of her clothing.

She tried to hold still through her feverish shivers while he worked carefully through the laces of her tunic, loop after loop, the featherlike graze of his fingers a treasured memory of something nearly forgotten. Inch by inch his fingers worked through the cloth, her muscles tensing as another wave of tremors slithered through her veins and she could barely hold back a moan. While she maintained her eyes fixed on the spitting flames in front of her, the bodice gradually came undone, and she held her breath as the pain resonated relentlessly throughout her chest.

“Breathe, slow and steady. It will help you ease the pain.” His soft spoken words accompanied the skilful touch of his hands that soon had reached the last loop, the bodice now falling open and sliding over her shoulders. He rolled up her undershirt until her lower back was completely exposed to his eyes.

“Remember: no matter what happens and no matter what you feel, do not stop breathing.”

She closed her eyes, hoping to work up the mental energy needed to focus on such a simple task that had suddenly become ridiculously difficult.

“I’m trying,” she mumbled in between some failed attempts of veering her mind’s attention away from the pain and towards providing her body with life-giving air supply. The distinctly sweet fragrance of athelas rose in the air behind her and then she felt the firm pressure of his palm against the centre of her pain. She flinched at the sudden burning sensation, stifling a cry and instinctively trying to back away. He placed his other hand on her shoulder, holding her steady, so she would not evade his grip.

“This might feel very uncomfortable at first, but I need you to trust me and follow my lead. I am not going to hurt you, but whatever is still afflicting you might do so as it puts up a fight.”

She nodded weakly, trying to keep her rising fear and racing heart in check, but she was more than unsure if she would be able to make it through this possible torture in a dignified way.

A numbing pain stabbed her lower back like a flaming sword, the force of the impact nearly throwing her off balance. Uncomfortable was a bold understatement! If it weren’t for the firm grip he had on her, she would have crumbled beneath the agony that shot through her veins like lightning. A low groan escaped her mouth, her hands digging into the ground beneath her in an effort to keep her from yelling out loud. She feared to collapse forward and pass out, the endless void luring her into its welcoming arms once again with the tempting promise of blissful oblivion.

“Don’t give in!” he said with determination. “I know you have the strength in you. I have seen you fighting. You are anything but weak. But if you give in to the darkness then I cannot pull you from it alone. I need you by my side in this.”

The tone in his voice was pleading but firm. She bit her lower lip to force back the hot tears that stung in her eyes and simply nodded again as a sign that she understood. She wanted to show him that she could do this, that she was worthy of his praise. At least she had to try. Or die trying, she thought to herself with a sudden dash of sarcasm that seemed to come out of nowhere.

“Good. Now keep your eyes open and on the flames.”

He slowly began to circle his palm on top of the sting, applying an increasing amount of pressure as he moved.

“Feel my hand and hear my voice and I will guide you through this.”

At first she struggled to comply, fearing to lose the little control she still held over her body and thoroughly embarrassing herself in front of him, if the pain got any worse, but what choice did she have? If it weren’t for him she might as well lie down and wait for death to claim her. So she took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on the flames like he had told her and leaned into his touch.

The burning pain intensified momentarily, but once she gave herself completely to his hands, letting go of all resistance and embracing the inevitable, it became slightly more bearable. Through the haze of it all she heard Thranduil mutter indistinctly under his breath behind her, the steady rhythm of his incantations setting the pace for his hand. The intensifying scent of athelas mingled with the dancing flames before her eyes and she could only stare entranced at the fiery tongues illuminating the blackness of night while his hands and his voice worked their magic on her. Needles dipped in fire pierced her flesh wherever his hand passed over it, the spiralling motion rhythmically picking up speed until he seemed to reach through her skin into her bones. A drawn out moan accompanied every single breath she took and pearls of sweat dripped down her forehead, her hands grabbing the heavy fabric of Thranduil’s cloak around her in a desperate effort to hold on to something as she feared to be swept away by the torrent of harrowing pain. His voice behind her was now loud and clear when he spoke:

Lasto beth nîn. Naur an edraith ammen!”

Suddenly the heat inside her shot to unbearable heights and he had to tighten his fingers around her shoulder even more to keep her upright.

Naur dan i naur!”

His words rang like an echo in her own head and then fire was all over her, the flames pouring in through Thranduil’s hand, burning her from inside out. She writhed in his iron grip, trembling and shaking, but he held her steady, his mouth now right behind her ear.

“Now repeat after me: fire shall come to the rescue!”

At first her mouth would not open, her lips sealed by the pain that held her captive, the flickering blaze encompassing her with its relentless power.

“Say it!” he ordered and she finally willed her mouth to form the words:

“Fire shall come to the rescue!”

The moment the last syllable had dropped from her lips her vision blurred, her body a shivering mess in the midst of a red-hot tempest, the sound of his voice the only thing keeping her from falling apart. She could not even feel his hands anymore on her back or her shoulder, as her skin just seemed to melt away like wax.

“Now repeat once more after me: Fire will be fought with fire!”

“I can’t—,” she stammered, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had reached the limit of what her body could withstand.

“Yes, you can. Just one more time.”

Anna broke into silent sobs and wished for him just to let her die in peace rather than have to endure this scorching heat that had taken possession of her entire existence any longer.

“No, no, please just let it end,” she whimpered, but she did not even have the strength to tear herself away from him and sink to the ground to let the deadly fever do its work and be done with it.

“I will not allow that to happen. I will not lose you now!” A streak of panic overshadowed the commanding presence of his voice. “But I cannot do this without you. I need you to stay with me! Please!”

Her lips were dry and she was running out of air, her body trapped in a bottomless pit of hot coals and her mind tormented by wildfire, but somewhere in the depths of her heart, untouched by the fever, the small but resilient flame that was her faith still flickered meagrely, and with what little resolve she had left she finally whispered:

“Fire will be fought with fire!”

Nothing prepared her though for the overpowering sea of flames that reared up within her veins, towering waves of orange and crimson crashing over her and burying her beneath their burning sea. With a choked cry she finally collapsed and fell backwards into Thranduil’s arms and for a moment everything went black, her body completely numb, the fire ebbing away like the tide and the echo of her pain floating through her limbs like a terrible memory.

Mae carnen, adaneth,” he whispered into her hair, but she was so exhausted that she barely took notice of the appreciation that rang through his words. He cradled her in his arms, gently rocking her back and forth while she came back from her horrible endeavour, her breathing gradually returning to a more regular and steady pace, her tremors receding.

“I knew you could do it,” he said, lifting up her chin so she would meet his gaze. Through her tears and sweat she could barely focus, but the affectionate glow in his eyes was unmistakable. “Don’t you ever doubt your strength again, my little lady.”

She only smiled weakly, her head sinking back against his chest, whatever strength she might indeed have had now thoroughly depleted and being replaced by the urge to simply close her eyes and doze off in his embrace.

“Now drink this,” she heard him say and when she looked up again he had produced a cup filled with a cinnamon coloured liquid seemingly out of nowhere, bringing it to her lips, while his other arm propped her up against his chest so she wouldn’t slump to the ground. A peculiar aroma rose from the cup, tingling her nose in a pleasant way, still there was a doubtful frown on her face, which he countered with a distinctly patronising tone.

“It is a herbal infusion and it will help you recover your health. So drink it up.”

The instant the metal touched her cracked lips she gulped the liquid down like someone dying of thirst. It was surprisingly refreshing despite the initial bitter taste, and she blissfully ignored the drops that spilled and trickled over her chin in her eagerness to drain the whole cup at once.

“Now, now, take your time,” Thranduil said with a chuckle, slightly lowering the cup to slow down her pace. “There is enough to quench your thirst.”

He set the cup aside and wiped her chin with the edge of his cloak once she was done, a caring look on his face.

“Feeling better?” he asked as the reviving liquid made its way through her veins, her body gradually recovering from the strain of the fever.

“Yes, I think so,” she said, her voice still hoarse.

“Good. Then let me tie up your tunic again.”

“Yes, of course,” she muttered. She had almost forgotten that she was still with her back half naked, so she scrambled as best as she could into a sitting position, facing away from him. With her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them she waited while he got to work behind her. He added another layer of cloth to her lower back for additional comfort, the sting still overly sensitive to his touch, before diligently restoring her tunic to its original state, as disarrayed as it might have been, the gooeyness of the spiderwebs still clinging to it in various places. When he reached her neck he finished the laces up with a bow, purposefully stretching the moment before he retreated his hands again, his voice soft like velvet against her ear. “There you go, you are all set.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, silently wishing that he might have taken just a bit longer so she would not be deprived of his touch again so soon.

He got up behind her and when she turned around he returned with a small pouch he had procured from Silvermane’s saddlebags. He sat down beside her, pulling out a loaf of bread, some slices of cheese and a bunch of grapes, carefully placing everything in her lap.

“Here, you should eat this. You need to regain some of your strength.”

Her initial hesitation to accept the food — after all, being sick had numbed her desire to eat —, melted away quickly when she took her first bite of bread.

“Thank you,” she mumbled gratefully, her taste buds revelling in the simple pleasure of fresh food. She had almost forgotten such wonderful things even existed. He nodded benevolently, a small smile on his face.

“You are very welcome. I thought that you must be starving.”

Nodding fervently she stuffed her mouth with what he offered her, such true delicacies tickling her palate which had been used to only dried crumbs of lembas and frozen water in those past days. He watched her with a satisfied look, leaning back against the tree and plucking a few grapes for himself to let them glide into his mouth one by one with an elegant twist of his hand, the elaborate rings on his fingers gleaming iridescently in the fire’s golden glow. Under different circumstances this would have been an undeniably sensual sight, but Anna had other things on her mind, her craving for food stronger than anything else she might have desired.

In a matter of minutes she had devoured everything, the feeling of being truly sated comfortably settling in her stomach. The only thing missing now to cap it all was a drop of this divine Dorwinion she had tasted on a few special occasions in Thranduil’s halls. But of course she did not think that he would actually have brought some with him. And besides she was in no state to be drinking wine now anyway. He seemed to have read her mind, offering her another cup of the herbal beverage with an apologetic look on his face.

“I am sorry that I do not have any Dorwinion, but I am afraid my servants thought I would not be needing such a luxury on my journey. I promise you that I will make up for the lack of it once we are back home.”

Home

Hearing this word from his lips was strange and exhilarating alike and accompanying it there was the small and seemingly insignificant word we that made her heart flutter in the strangest of ways. She wordlessly took the cup, scolding herself for her foolishness. She did not have any home. None that she knew of; not yet at least. Staring silently into the cup she was sorely reminded of the empty space in her heart that was longing to be filled. But with what? There were so many pieces missing of the puzzle that was her life.

“I know what you must be thinking. That my home is not your home.”

She looked up to him again, his crystal clear eyes looking straight into her soul, and there it was again: the beautiful light that could chase away all darkness. And so much more if he offered it and she accepted. She clung to her cup, trying to hold on to whatever shreds of calmness she still had.

“I am afraid that I can only ever be a guest at your home.”

She might not know what was her place in this world, but she knew that it did not do well to dwell on illusions. He leaned closer, so close she could have sworn he must have heard her hammering heartbeat through her clothes, his hair cascading like rays of moonlight around his shoulders.

“While that remains true for the past it does not need to be for the future.”

And with those words he picked up his own cup and brought it to his lips, inviting her to drink with him. He watched her silently over the rim of his cup, the crackling of the fire the only sound filling the night air, while they downed their cups together. She wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve like she was used to do in her recent days in the wild, breaking off abruptly when she saw the corners of Thranduil’s mouth twitching almost imperceptibly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, lowering her gaze as well as her empty cup. “I must have forgotten all my manners.” She quickly handed him the cup, reminding herself that she was sitting beside a king after all.

“You have no reason to be embarrassed,” he said kindly. “This is not the right moment to be concerned with manners or protocol.”

The crease on his forehead deepened momentarily, her still rather worn out look not escaping his attention. The delightful drink had filled her with a cosy warmth and now she could barely keep her eyes open, a laden heaviness spreading through her limbs.

“As a matter of fact, I am still rather concerned with your frail condition. That is why you must sleep now before we head out. I will wake you when the morning dawns.”

She peered anxiously into the darkness that still loomed beyond the fire’s protective ring, torn in between wanting to escape the possible dangers of the forest and her body’s obvious desire to rest.

“Are you sure this is necessary? I think I could go on.” An unsuccessfully stifled yawn blatantly undermined her halfhearted attempt at sounding convincing.

He arched his eyebrows ever so slightly, her persistent stubbornness eliciting a sigh from him.

“Yes, I am sure and no, you are not prepared to go on. I know you are tired and your body needs to rest.”

“And what about you?” she asked, seeing the slightly strained look on his face. After all, the magic he had worked must have also cost him some of his strength.

“I do not need to rest. I will watch over your sleep and make sure the fire does not go out.” He put on a stern face that would allow no further dissent. “I command it: not as your king but as your healer. And I do not take no for an answer. Healers must be just as rigorous as monarchs for the sake of the one’s that are entrusted to their care.”

She blushed, moved by the fact how much he actually cared for her wellbeing, so she nodded obediently.

“Fine, if you insist then I will sleep for a short while, but not too long. I have never been really fond of sleeping outside.”

Without another word he went to fetch a thick blanket from Silvermane’s saddlebags and spread it on the ground in front of the tree. He indicated for her to lie down while he resumed his sitting position against the tree trunk. Overcome with exhaustion she accommodated herself as best as she could, stretching out her aching limbs on the blanket. The moment she touched the invitingly soft surface she realised just how sleepy she really was. She curled up beside him, allowing him to pull his cloak over her body so she would be shielded from the cold, the fire holding the wintry frost at bay with its merrily crackling flames.

“I assure you there is nothing more beautiful than to sleep under the cover of the stars,” he said, looking down at her with fondness. “When the time is right, I will show you and you will see.”

She nodded drowsily, drifting off almost instantly into a deep slumber. Besides every inch of her body being sore and strung out from the fever, at this very moment there was peace in her heart.

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