How our bodies, born to heal
Become so prone to die?
(Sleeping At Last: Mars)
Anna stared at the door through which the wizard had left, her hands reaching for the table behind her to give her balance when her world was falling apart. Her head was spinning and her legs were like jelly. This couldn’t be happening. It had to be a bad dream, a nightmare. As if realising she had died and recovering her past hadn’t been jarring enough, it turned out that she had been a pawn in Gandalf’s games of political intrigue all along. Who was to know that such an unassuming elderly fellow was nothing but a cold and heartless engineer, the survival of Middle-earth his main concern? Of course, in the grand scheme of things the life of one single human didn’t matter, especially not when that person had literally died already. She shouldn’t even have gotten her hopes up to avoid such bitter disappointment.
Anger welled up inside her and she gripped her teacup and smashed it against the wall where it shattered with a satisfying crunch, black rivulets of tea trickling down and forming a small puddle on the floor. Aradan looked up at her, and she could have sworn that he was eyeing her with nothing short of a reproachful glare.
“What? Can’t I be upset now? This whole life here,” she waved her arms around the room, “it’s not for me. It never has been. I’ve just allowed myself to be tricked into actually believing that I might have a place here.”
Aradan angled his head and wagged his stubby tail.
“Of course, you wouldn’t understand. How could you? You are a creature of Mirkwood, born in the forest.” She scratched him behind his ears, and he looked at her wide-eyed. “You will have to promise me to be a good boy and behave yourself when I’m gone, or else Thranduil will exile you from the palace without batting an eyelid.”
The sudden image of Thranduil alone, his hopes of finding love shattered into a million pieces, brought tears to her eyes. As if sacrificing her own life wasn’t bad enough, what this trickery meant for the broken Elvenking further fuelled her anger at Gandalf. Like her, Thranduil had been fed half-truths by the cunning wizard. He was probably under the impression that Gandalf had both their personal happiness at heart, when in truth everything was just a clever charade.
She needed to make a plan on how to proceed. She couldn’t let Thranduil know about what Gandalf had told her, that much was clear. He needed his soul to be whole again and she would face whatever risk would await her, but she wanted to at least leave something behind for him, in case things went awry. Perhaps she would write him a letter that would explain everything and where she would beg his forgiveness for having kept one final secret from him.
She strode towards her writing desk, ignoring the pounding in her head that had joined the waves of cold sweat crawling over her skin. Her body was telling her that she faced exhaustion, and that she should better rest, but first she needed to get those words on paper. She sat down and massaged her temples with her fingers, watching absentmindedly as Aradan stalked to the pool. He lapped eagerly at the water, splashing around with an innocent enthusiasm that made her smile despite her dreary mood. She pulled out a parchment from the drawer and placed it in front of her, flattening it with her hand, when a sudden sharp pain lanced through her body, blurring her vision. She held on to the edge of the desk, trying to focus on the parchment in front of her, but the dull throbbing that spread from her lower back made it difficult to keep her attention on anything but the pain that felt too familiar.
This didn’t feel like a side effect of the memory spell, nor her body being exhausted, no, this was something else, something she had readily pushed aside, hoping for it to never return. But there it was, unbidden and back with a vengeance. Memories of clicking pincers, black beady eyes and a fever that had nearly consumed her, came back to her. This was going to be bad.
The room was spinning around her as another wave of pain struck her like lightning. Brethilwen’s warning words rang in her mind. The phial, she needed to take the antidote before the pain would render her unable to move. Anna desperately fumbled for the phial, but her fingers would not obey her head’s command, as if the poison had coated every fibre of her body like tar, turning all her movements sluggish. With a groan she rose from her seat to get better access to her pockets, but if she stood upright the pain only sped at an even faster rate through her body.
Perhaps she could drag herself to Thranduil’s chambers, if she walked slow enough. She took a few shaky steps, holding on to the shelf beside her, but her room was too wide and the concealed door still too far away. Her hands were clammy, her throat constricted and even only lifting her fingers made needles prick her skin.
“No, no,” she mumbled to herself, trying to keep a clear head, but she was fighting a lost battle. At this rate she would never make it to his chambers. The breath was knocked from her lungs by another stab shooting right up her spine.
She collapsed on the floor, still halfway from the door, curling up in a fetal position to be able to bear the vicious attacks that spread from her lower back. The elk calf trotted to her side, poking her with his muzzle. “Aradan, you must go… and get help,” she said, her voice raspy. Even opening her mouth and formulating words caused her pain. Instead of following her orders, Aradan lied down beside her and began licking her face.
“Go,” she murmured, “p—please, tell the king. Thranduil, you must go to him.”
This was it then. If she died here and now, she would have failed Thranduil, because how would she ever be able to heal his soul, if the spider’s venom consumed her?
She held her breath when a new assault of pain built up. It was excruciating. Her fingers searched once more for the phial in her pocket, but there were too many layers of cloth to find the tiny glass container. It was useless. She tried to raise herself on all fours to crawl towards the door, but her muscles were on fire and hot spears pierced her back. She slumped back to the floor, the salty taste of tears mixing with the metallic tang of blood in her mouth. A sudden surge of nausea hit her and she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the floor beside her. She drew a rattling breath, her eyes lingering on the tapestry with the majestic white stag, king and protector of the forest.
“Help,” she mouthed and then she drifted out of consciousness.
It was with great reluctance that Thranduil had left Anna behind in her room. There was an insistent whisper of worry he couldn’t quite silence, no matter how much he sought to convince himself that he was being foolish. But alas, he had kingly duties that needed his attention. Perhaps these would distract him from all the things he wanted to do with Anna, which included, but were not limited to taking her to his bed. He scolded himself for his improper thoughts and decided to focus on the task at hand, not without having first served himself a generous amount of his vintage Dorwinion, and sinking into his favourite chair in front of the mantlepiece. He tore his eyes away from the crackling fire beside him, the hungry flames licking at the darkened logs reminding him of Anna’s violent death.
Swirling the blood red liquid in his glass, he exhaled a long breath, descending deep into his elven magic to assure that his own glamour would stay in place. Since Anna’s horrible revelations the strong grip he used to have on it had slipped from him, a fact that made him uneasy. If his strength waned at such a fast pace, he was running out of time quicker than what he had thought. He needed that piece of soul back in place before it was too late and nothing left of him to be saved.
He had sent Thalion to call for Tauriel, as his meeting with her was long overdue. His anger about her disobedience had somewhat faded in the light of the most recent events, yet he still needed to make a point in giving her an official reprieve. He could not let such misguided behaviour against his kingly orders go unpunished, even if he was considering reinstating her as Head of the King’s Guard. After all, she had always been most loyal to him and his son’s revelations about how much their friendship meant to him, had done its bit to sway his initial harsh anger against his hot-headed guard.
The doors swung open and Thalion appeared. “My lord, Tauriel is here.” He bowed and resumed his position guarding at the door.
Better to get this over with quickly, so he could return to Anna, although he still would need to give his attention to Galion. His butler would inevitably show up with the layout for the feast celebrating the victorious return of his army from Dale. Thranduil’s mind and his heart might be elsewhere, but he still was the king of this realm, and his people deserved this moment of happiness, so he would make sure to give them a feast to be remembered.
“Come in and take a seat.” He pointed at the chair facing him.
“Thank you my lord.” Nothing in Tauriel’s posture gave away the nervousness this meeting surely must instil in her. She sat down and kept her eyes on him, their keen alertness attesting to her many years of being in charge of his own security.
He casually crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in his chair.
“Tell me, Tauriel, what have you learned from your unfortunate episode of disobedience?”
The momentary blank look on her face told him that this was not what she had been expecting to hear.
“I—, my lord, I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question.”
“I mean exactly what I have asked.” He sighed. “I know you might have prepared yourself for a stern lecture from your king, but that is not what I have in mind. You are a smart elleth, and I am sure you will have reasoned your misplaced behaviour. So I am giving you a chance to explain yourself.”
She placed her hands on the armrests and faced him with surprising calm.
“May I speak freely then?”
“Yes, of course, otherwise what would the purpose of this meeting be?”
“I have learned more about the nature of loyalty than about anything else, my lord.”
Thranduil raised his eyebrows. This was certainly not what he had been expecting to hear, but it made him curious nevertheless.
“Loyalty? Has the dwarf taught you something you did not know before?” He couldn’t quite keep his distaste for the bearded mountain dwellers hidden, even if this was not the right moment to give room to his animosity.
“Kili has opened my eyes to the fact that our world does not end at the borders of Mirkwood, but that what happens outside must matter to us as much as what happens to our own people. We cannot simply close ourselves off and try to outlast whatever evil is lingering beyond the forest. The evil is already right here among us, festering in those ever growing spiders’ nests, and only if we seek allies amongst men and dwarves will we have a chance at survival. If we want to protect our people, we must reach out to others. Your son Legolas knows this. When we stayed behind in Dale, it did not take long for him to establish a respectful relationship with the dwarves and courteous friendships with the men of Dale. He gained respect for his willingness to leave behind our old enmities.”
“Are you by any chance suggesting that I put aside my differences with those jewel hoarders and invite them to my palace so they can get drunk on my best Dorwinion?”
“That is not what I am suggesting,” she said, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth, “but it might be time to look beyond the past.”
“It is impossible to leave the past behind. It might be easy for mortals, but it does not work that way for us. Immortality is our gift, but also our burden. Our mistakes and losses stay with us until this world comes to an end. While they have their eyes on the future, our hearts dwell in the past.”
“But the world is ever changing and we must change with it.”
Thranduil threw a glance at the fire, observing the dancing flames before he continued.
“You are young and I know that you are passionate about seeing the good in men and dwarves, but don’t let this blind you. Do not forget where you truly belong. You are one of the Eldar and when generations of mortals have lived their lives, you will still linger. What you might have done for one of them thousands of years ago will have long been forgotten.”
What he chose to omit was that this insurmountable divide was the very thing tearing his own heart apart. However, this was not the moment to give way to his own emotions. This was the Elvenking, the leader of his people, speaking, not Thranduil, so deeply in love with a mortal, willing to face the gaping abyss of being alone yet again, if it meant some moments of happiness for both of them.
“I am aware of that,” Tauriel said, “and I have not forgotten where my true loyalties lie, even if my behaviour might have made it seem otherwise. I am forever grateful that you have given me a home when I had lost everything and it was foolish of me to have betrayed the trust you have placed in me. It shall not ever happen again.”
“I see that you have reasoned your behaviour and while I remain strongly opposed to anything remotely akin to friendship with the dwarves, they might indeed be an ally to be considered, if it ever came to another war against Sauron.”
“That surely is true. They fight with bravery and honour.”
“Spoken like a true warrior,” he said and raised his glass to her. “Your actions have been hot-headed and foolish and have lead you down the wrong path, but I am willing to see beyond the past. As of today you will be taking up your position as Head of the Guard again.”
“Thank you, my lord. I assure you that you will not be disappointed and—”
Tauriel suddenly stopped, as if she were having second thoughts about what she had just said.
“And?” He urged her to go on, but Tauriel looked at a spot behind his chair. He turned around following her line of vision. Aradan was cantering towards them so fast that he was nearly tripping over his skinny legs.
“Don’t pay any heed to him,” he said slightly annoyed. “He must learn his place, if he is ever going to be my royal mount.”
Aradan skidded to a halt right in front of Thranduil and ostentatiously laid his head on his lap, looking at him in a way that would usually get him what he wanted from Anna, and from him too, even if Thranduil didn’t like to admit to it. But today he wasn’t in the mood for the animal’s unruly call for attention. He was in the middle of a conversation that had taken an interesting turn and Aradan would have to learn to behave himself, if he valued keeping his privilege of sharing Anna’s room.
Thranduil directed his attention back to Tauriel, who observed Aradan with an expression he could not quite place. His attempts at ignoring the elk calf were floundered by Aradan beginning to nibble and pull at the hem of his robe. The stubborn animal wouldn’t let go, even when Thranduil swatted him away with his hand.
“He seems restless, my lord,” Tauriel remarked.
“He is just spoiled, because Anna allows him too much freedom and does not enforce the rules like I have told her to.” He pushed away Aradan’s face and looked sternly at the animal. “Be a good boy and go back to Anna’s room. As you can see, I’m busy.” He pointed at the concealed door, but when Aradan only jumped back and forth between him and the open door, it dawned on him that the elk calf might be trying to tell him something.
“What is it?”
Aradan nudged at his fingers and then sped back towards Anna’s room.
A sudden sense of panic rose within him. Had something happened to Anna? A myriad of terrifying scenarios unfolded in his head. What if there were unexpected side effects of the memory spell? He hadn’t left her in the most stable emotional state. A dreadful sense of foreboding filled his chest.
He jumped from his seat and dashed towards the door, ignoring Tauriel’s surprised stare. He couldn’t care less what she thought of his unkingly behaviour. If Anna’s health was at stake, protocol was the last thing on his mind. He only hoped that Aradan was just being the playful and spoiled elk calf Thranduil thought he was and that there wasn’t actually anything to worry about. But when he stepped through the door he knew that he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Anna!” he called out. There was no answer and then his eyes shot to the slumped shape on the floor. His heart stopped in his chest. No, no, this could not be happening!
With two long strides he closed the distance and sank to his knees beside her. He rolled her onto her back, his hands gripping her shoulders. There was a puddle of vomit and blood beside her face.
“No, no, Anna!” He shook her frantically, but she did not move. Her breathing was shallow and irregular.
“Please, no.” His voice was a choked whisper as he brushed the messy strands of hair from her pallid face. A sheen layer of sweat covered her forehead. Her rosy lips had turned a sickly blue and there was a trail of dried blood along the corner of her mouth. The sight brought tears to his eyes. Thranduil scooped her up into his arms, her small body hanging limp in his embrace. He buried his face in her hair and wept. If he lost her, he had nothing left. He couldn’t keep his lips from trembling when he sent a prayer to the heavens.
“Please, Eru, have mercy. Don’t take her away from me.”