The Cord - Part 1
The Cord - by - magicbunni
It was muggy and unseasonably rainy on the day Lusis left the common woodlands for a hole in the ground. Not that it was a very untidy or unpleasant hole. Or a very deep one. Just that she hadn’t expected any race of elf to live underground.
It didn’t match with anything in the stories she’d learned as a young girl. It was alarming from the point of view she held about things that came from the deep. Underground was a dangerous space. All manner of her least-favourite beings lived there: Goblins, Orcs, trolls, and creatures that defied naming whose only purpose, as far as she could tell, was to cause mayhem and die on the end of her sword. So she didn’t yet know how she felt about these elves who didn’t live in trees. Not that she knew much about elves in particular. As a rule, they kept to their own, and it was surprising to her that she’d been permitted to cross the river onto this land at all. She’d heard of forest strongholds where all passage was forbidden, and had assumed all elf lands worked in this way.
But at least their underground was rumoured to be shallow, well lit, and, best of all, dry.
She’d been aware of an ‘escort’ since she’d crossed the river, but they hadn’t shown themselves, or interfered until she came within sight of, and then passed through, the markers for whatever elf holding was hereabouts. She didn’t know them. Lusis didn’t trouble with elves, or most any other being she deemed could take care of itself.
She was mere feet into the limits, proper, before she found herself faced with a tall man dressed in immaculate green leather, and with his long dark hair tied up at the crown of his head. She startled because she hadn’t seen him coming, and because he was so clean and fair. Even soaked to the skin, he looked tidy as a bureaucrat. No surprise that when he laid the flat of his hand over the side of the blade she’d drawn she could see there wasn’t even dirt under his fingernails.
He said, “Hello on this inclement day.”
He had a pretty voice and an accent.
Lusis, who was, in comparison, filthy, snaggly-haired, plastered with mud and in a rotten humour, spat out some of the muck in her mouth and glanced over her shoulder to the four equally disheveled men behind her.
One of the youngest of these, Aric, beamed at her, “Maybe you should hug him?” he invited. Then he wiped away a clod of syrupy muck from his stubble and tossed it down in the rain. It made a splat. His grin broadened. Her other companions rumbled with amusement.
She pulled a face and returned her gaze to the clean elf. Had to be an elf. His ears were pointed and he was so fresh and pleasant – like a man out on a sunny beach. He hadn’t moved an inch. His generally affable expression was as unchanged as statuary.
She steeled herself and lowered her sword, careful of his hand on the bare blade. “That’s a good way to cut yourself.” She said, though the elf’s pale hand was already moving away.
Aric marveled from closer behind her. “Is there a good way?”
“Maybe she meant that’s a sure way. That’s a sure way for him to cut himself.” Growled Redd. He was obelisk-like, one of the more experienced men in her band, and an avid reader. Which made him both incredibly useful in battle, and almost unforgivably conversational. Redd was one of the only men she knew who got chatty in pitched battle, though that may have been because battle and reading made him relax about equally.
Dutifully, Lusis exhaled and told the elf, “That’s a sure way to cut yourself.”
The elf had hardly moved a feather. “What is, lady?”
Redd stepped in smoothly, “Lusis, that is the wrong tense.”
She could swear that the dark-haired elf looked just a shade amused. But he let her off the hook with a question that, at least, had something to do with the matter around her. “These are not the lands of Men. Why have you strayed this way?”
Evidently, it was a form of purgatory. She inhaled. “I need to speak to the elves, hereabouts.”
The dark-haired newcomer’s chin dropped a fraction, “And so you are.”
“Preferably, I’d like to do it while dry.” She said tightly.
Aric snickered, “Come all this way to get out of the rain. Surely you’ve got enough hospitality in you for that, elf? To show a few Rangers to shelter.”
This was different. He glanced from Aric to Lusis and said, “Rangers?”
“You might have led with that.” Redd put in.
“Northern Rangers,” Lusis told the elf. “We’ve noticed something… unusual and come to consult with the elves on what it might be, and how to defeat its movements to the North of this great forest.”
The elf moved between raindrops to turn to a sudden trio of his like, flanking him. “These Rangers have also felt something afoot in the land.”
“Felt it in the land?” Aric snorted in retort. “We felt it in our camp. It tried to eat Lusis. She fought it off, and even she’s not fully able to describe it for what it was.”
Lusis felt her stomach butterfly. She fought not to spit again. The memory was stone cold. It throbbed into her mind like a lousy wound and made her insides feel coated with obscenity. When she could, she cast it far out of her thoughts, but it was connected to her like a rope to a net in deep water. Whatever she pulled up from the depths, it was tied to her. She could not escape it. And then she met the elf’s pale green eyes.
Whatever he saw when his head tipped to take her in, she didn’t need to speak about it further. A mercy. She wasn’t a wordsmith like Redd, or waggish like handsome Aric. It wasn’t that Lusis couldn’t speak her mind that made her bad at talk. It was that she did.
The elf ducked his head in a little nod. “Please walk with us,” he paused and decided to address them as, “Rangers of the Northern woods.”
She followed, mutely. Generally, her men were quiet behind her. They were worried, she knew, for no matter how she forced herself, bribed herself, or how she struggled, to the good of all, to manage some kind of a delivery, she was unable to talk about what had befallen her. She was worn, weary of the fight of finding words to say. And now she was half afraid she’d run to the elves because that’s what men overwhelmed with peril did – or so her mother had often scoffed. In Redd’s stories and histories, men very often reached embattled hands toward the heavens and prayed, and this resulted in elves marching in lines to the eleventh hour.
Here she was, a frightened fool, knocking at the door of a kingdom.
A waste of their time.
Her stomach clenched to the edge of collapse. She had to be helped through the great stone gates to Mirkwood. She prayed as she walked, Slow, heart, and be still, hand. You’ve come all this way hoping for these gates. Courage now. May I find one kind heart, here, who will take heed of us. Who will help us.
She was more than willing to trade her skills for that.
The elven court was full that day.
The land had been intemperate, and the weather unfavourable, and that led to petitions and debates in the locality. This was not just a matter of wood elves coming to settle disputes – for there was no warring, hostility, or violence allowed among their kind, as was decreed by their king – but of the encroaching human settlements, many of which were dependent on the great rivers Anduin, Forest, and Enchanted, as silt heavy as they tended to be, particularly through the forest stretch. Forest’s flooding came in spring and saturated the land, building new distributaries, lakes and pools. It brought life and fresh soil with it. But the Enchanted never flooded. This was the charge of the Mirkwood King whose will kept its weighty hypnotic powers in check, lest they infect the Forest River that ran all the way through to the plains far beyond. In fact, the Mirkwood elves controlled a stretch of Anduin down from its headwaters beside the Forest. There was much contention about the laws and rules for river use, and the tithe that the Elven-king of Greenwood had put upon it. This filled the court, yearly, with dispute
The king couldn’t be bothered with much of this.
It was mostly the burden of the Kingdom’s-seneschal, Eithahawn. He sat at a simple wood table in the throne-room, vastly aware of the empty throne at his back, not because of some woe or frustration that it was not occupied, but out of fear it would be.
You see, some of the best qualities of a seneschal were the worst qualities of A Certain King. A good seneschal was tactful, compromising, calm, and humble – prone to writing letters and drafting documents, and not to drawing swords. A Certain King did possess all of those qualities, yes, but in rather… meagre supply. Mirkwood had a proud warrior king and worse – a very shrewd one – and that meant if the Highness came by here the entire Court was going to spiral out of control in a hurry.
He had other matters. Dark and pressing matters to the North. That was the unquenchable strength of their King. Best to let him see to it.
The room in front of Eithahawn had close to a dozen people within it, and a queue along the wall benches, all under Silvan guard. Most everyone looked frightened to be in here. But… there was good cause for all of them. Only the most serious of issues landed on this particular doorstep.
“Damn elves. You sit in your sunny caves and your beech trees and try to dictate to-”
“All due respect, Mrs. Hockin,” Eithahawn said over his paperwork, and avoided eye-contact with the dwarf woman, “unless you have some rightful claim on these lands with which to approach the Elven King in contest – armed contest, I suspect – I must suggest we focus on things more productive to the issue at hand.” And the caves weren’t exactly sunny today, either. Fires roared on both sides of the room to keep out the damp. His papers wilted before him. The Lord of Greenwood had no great love of dwarves. It was best that he not face the salty trader-woman. Eithahawn rather liked her business sense, but she would have had a poor reception from A Certain King.
She fixed him with a candle-coloured eye, “The river runs free. So should transit on it be free.”
“Two issues with that Gamra Hockin,” Eithahawn nodded in her direction and finally glanced her way. Her trade was growing. Her success now pushed at its margins. She knew she was about to jump to a different tithe and was desperately trying to avoid paying a share to the monarch whose people policed this long river and kept it safe for transit. She came every spring and autumn with a new argument, but, in the end, he was confident she could be negotiated with. “This river does not run free. If it did then your holding in Lowangles would be a flooded marsh, six feet deep, with the inundations and it is not. In fact, if all of our rivers ran free as you claim the yearly disaster of travelers falling into a trance outside of memory as they wander the woodlands would resume. That is dangerous.”
“I suppose that’s problem number one, is it? And I’m to believe that?”
“Hm. How tall are you?”
The woman was well under six feet. She set her hands on her hips and pointed at him, “Don’t even try that lip with me, young elf lord!”
Her teenaged dwarven son cringed behind her.
Eithahawn turned to one of the throne-room guards and said, “Farathel, would you kindly draw a cup-measure of the wild-Enchanted? Mrs. Hockin would like to examine its potency.” His brows drew up a fraction and his pen dotted air. “Perhaps in a weak tea?”
Mrs. Hockin did her level best not to clap her palm to her forehead.
The Silvan elf woman took a step back, about to obey, when the dwarf relented. In fact, she looked down at her stout boots and chuckled. “You’re a clever one, Lord elf. But I still won’t believe you elves do squat to the river to keep it safe for us. I never will.”
Behind the Kingdom’s-seneschal, Farathel shifted weight testily. The elf beside her subdued her temper with a glance. Blood had been shed to keep this river and these forests safe. Eithahawn’s warm blue eyes glided away from looking at the noise behind him and back to the dwarf woman. She twisted her red hair braid, lightly, in thought. “So be it, Mrs. Hockin. I am not here to change belief systems, merely to settle disputes. However, if the river runs free, and the transit is free, then we might consider the prices charged for your artisan work?” He flipped pages. “Umm – they are high, yes? But then the quality of your smiths is particularly good, as are the reports of their engraving. It is rewarding when one can afford the best, is it not? And there is the fee you charge for ferrying such good wares through ‘dangerous lands by way of enchanted and perilous forest rivers’, as your advert states.”
She shut her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Something amiss?” Eithahawn smothered a friendly smile. He was required to be objective no matter how resourceful he found the dwarf businesswoman.
The younger dwarf behind her, nearly half again her small size, and doubtless the author of the advert, cringed.
“Are we at agreement, Gamra Hockin?”
She exhaled a long, low grumble of breath and then confirmed. “We are. We must be, indeed, Eithahawn King’s-seneschal. Take my gold and give it to your Elfking. May it keep him warm!” She tossed her hair, stepped out of line, and dragged her son with her.
“It always does,” Eithahawn sighed under his breath. Though, he knew that was, in fact, a common simplification. He marked her increase on the leger before him and thought about the usefulness of gold in the protection of his own kingdom. This was no game.
The only things that warmed the Elfking anymore appeared to be rage. And long dead memory.
Next came men – humans – in shackles. This time, the guard advanced him.
The elf-woman in charge of the dungeon stepped forward and placed their docket before him for consideration. He opened it, but he knew it well. Smugglers, whose camp had been detected several times in the past year. Their bad habit of poorly attending their fire had caught up with them and resulted in hectares of burn scar.
Eithahawn sat back and considered them.
Humans – saturated wet and tracking muck everywhere – entered at the back of the room and his glance passed over them at about the same moment when one of the patrol came to lean at his shoulder, “Rangers from the North.”
Ah. Just what the day had been missing. It wasn’t complicated or messy enough in here already. Rangers from the North, his eyes found the green-eyed Silvan elf beside him. “Dorondir, how urgent?”
“It is for you to decide,” he bowed a little to the King’s-seneschal. He straightened and removed himself from the room.
The response left a blank place in the seneschal’s thoughts, full of questions.
Business at hand, Eithahawn.
The business at hand looked at him, burning hatred in their human faces. He mastered himself and tapped the docket. “You have come to plead your case? Is that… possible?”
One of the young men exploded at him, his shouts ringing in the cavern. “You don’t own this land!” The yell was loud enough that Mrs. Hockin stopped on her way to the door, turned, and put her hand on her hammer.
Eithahawn extended a long, pale hand in air to waylay the sudden bristle of weapons in the room. “We have been here for Ages.” He gently corrected the man’s thinking. “If you mean to argue you can claim this forest and its mountains and rivers, and, thereby, are justified in-”
The guards had to keep him from darting forward to the table as he snapped, “Your lord is greedy and petulant, don’t you think?”
Eithahawn rose to his feet without thinking, “No, I do not.”
Silence riffled through the room, and at the very end of it, the Rangers had spread out, the lines of their bent, muck-choked bodies in quiet readiness for action. He was immediately reminded of wolves slowly encircling a man. In doing so they looked harmless. At first.
He eased back to his seat. “Let us be calm, friend. You committed a crime – two crimes, in fact. You can’t change that now. And you are caught in it.”
“The dwarf is right. You have no right to the river and no right to charge a tithe to men! There may be nothing I can do about being caught, but there will be more of us. You will have a price to pay for your greed. We will have our way.”
Eithahawn didn’t look up, “Is your way to burn down an entire winter-apple grove?”
The man laughed, “Who cares what kind of trees they-”
“I do.” A Silvan elf raised her pale hands. The younger male beside her was her son and he had his hand on a knife – none too pleased with the humans at the moment. “As it was my grove, and over half of it has been razed. I’d have lost all except for the yearly sear that removed the build-up of undergrowth.”
“What is your petition?” he flipped through the paperwork.
“That they be found guilty and imprisoned.” She glanced across at the men, but their hot gazes were fixed forward and up. “They cannot be taught away from their backward-” she glanced out over Eithahawn’s shoulder and her graceful voice stopped.
“Hold, friends,” Eithahawn said, “steady heads, please.”
But the room had ground to sudden, hissing silence.
Behind him, a suspicious creak made Eithahawn’s shoulder blades prickle. His honey-blond hair, the byproduct of Sindar and Silvan extraction, rose on the back of his neck.
“And so it shall be done,” said A Certain Elfking. His voice was smooth and low. And cold.
He’d arrived. Ideal. Eithahawn signed and closed the docket, then held on to the lip of the table with both hands.
“You! You live too long, so your ways never change!” the human man – Connul Dach by the docket – made a bitter laugh, “It’s your kind who are backward! You’ve owned the land forever. I’d venture there’s no handspan of earth your kind haven’t walked in this world! What does that leave for the rest of us?”
“You are welcome to whatever you can take.” The Elfking’s voice paused, “Outside of my forest.” The air behind Eithahawn had gone cold.
The human growled, “You’ve lived too long. That is the problem.”
“The fire was an accident,” snapped one of Connul’s men. “Do you understand that? Do you understand accidents? Do you fancy you make no mistakes, Elfking?”
Connul surged up at the narrow wood table and unleashed a curse, “You are mistakes – you should be dust! The lot of you!”
Eithahawn’s chair leapt forward. He only just caught the docket and its contents with one deft hand, and kept the table steady with the other. On one side, Connul struggled ahead. On the other, the Elfking had swept in above Connul Dach’s twisted face, his white teeth clenched. “If your argument for a fire that might have incinerated us all, yourselves included, is that my people should be ashes, I believe the threat you pose is clear. But do not dare plunge at me and imagine that I am afraid of you.”
The Elfking caught his temper and backed away. Eithahawn settled the table and chair between the pair and glanced at his tall, fiery king. Was it some fault in the Sindar character that twisted his veins into lava chutes? Everything about him was a bonfire when he was defied. Fortunately, his temper wasn’t too common an occurrence. But… he was no marble Lord. Neither was he radiated from moonlight like the Lady Galadriel. Eithahawn turned to face the human men who had been smuggling goods for the better part of a year, and had burnt hectares of woods to blackened stalks. Because King Thranduil had been cut out of the sun rather than the stars, he understood the menace of fire.
In the hissing silence of rain, the Elfking exhaled, “They shall be strangers to the sun.” He raised a disinterested voice to add, “Spare them only if they never set foot outside of their cells.”
The guard dragged the human men away.
“It was an accident!” the younger one howled. “It was only an accident! We can pay the fines!”
Eithahawn watched them disappear with a shuddering pity. But the Elfking, in the way of Kings, was harder than that. He couldn’t afford to release these men, but it was still fearsome to witness.
The shouts faded as Eithahawn looked at the smuggled goods. It made his innards twist. All of this for scrap metal, deadfall, and cooking oil. He shut his eyes in a somatic sort of pain. Cooking oil. This should have gone by way of negotiation. He might have convinced them he could be trusted. He could think of some reasons for smuggling food basics along with pilfered metal – probably from the dwarven scrap yards – that commanded empathy.
“Eithahawn,” suddenly the Elfking’s voice was patient, “what is next?”
“There used to be an elf king here,” Redd had been telling her, “an old and powerful elf ruler who came across the land and settled here. There are old books that talk about him. He was famous.”
“For what?” Aric whittled a stick to a point, “crocheting? Needlepoint?” He looked around him. “These elves have fantastic clothes, don’t they?”
“Try not to be distracted, Aric. It makes you stupid.” He paused and added, “Particularly stupid.” Before he snatched away the pointed stick. Then he looked around the golden stone of this airy cavern. Watery daylight streamed in through arches covered in fine glass, and in stations along the glass, symbols written in red and golden Elvish that he wished he could read.
He took out the ragged leather book and pencil stub, and looked around him.
This was Aric’s brother, Icar. He was very similar in appearance to his brother, only quiet. In character, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar. For example, when Icar wanted a holiday, he took his chalks and papers and went out into the wilderness, alone. When Aric wanted to have fun, it usually involved police and potential arrest at some point. And he usually took Steed with him. Which meant twice the bail. Lusis checked their archer and horse-whisperer and found the man was feigning sleep. She couldn’t tell if it was in protest or if he was up to something.
Yes. Aric and Steed were generally decent men until put together.
Aric had snatched back the sharpened stick and continued on. “Famous for what?”
Redd had laughed, “This was an old book when my great-great was in the cradle. I read it when I was a boy and it mentioned this place, ‘The Greenwood’, and its golden king.” Redd nodded at the man who forewent the throne for a high-backed chair and graven table at the foot of the dais. “Do you suppose that’s him?”
“Dunno.” Aric stopped whittling. Icar leaned to one side for a better vantage. “Was your golden Mirkwood Elfking famous for paperwork?”
Steed broke form when he snickered into laughter.
Redd chortled. “No-no. He was famous for a few things. His smarts in battle for one, and he would have seen many battles to hold onto all of the Great Greenwood. Oh, and Lusis.”
She half turned, wet, shaky, and sleepless.
“Famous for his beauty too.” Redd winked.
“Redd… I will kick you in your bean-bags.” Everyone grinned in response to that. But she glanced at the elf before her. He was beautiful. But what odds? She watched as their dark-haired elf escort went up to greet the seated blond elf. They were all beautiful. “So how would we know this famous king?”
“Oh, he’d be long gone now.” Redd nodded in reply. “He’s from the Elder Ages. He was born in the First Age, you see. So long ago that it beggars the mind to think how long ago that would be. By now he’s passed to legend.”
“Elves live a long time,” Icar pointed out to no one.
“What did the book say?” Lusis looked back at the huge man. “Just in case.”
“Uh… that he was a kind of elf – I don’t remember the name. They’re pale, silver, fair-haired, with grey in their eyes.” They all scrutinized the elf seated at the table below the throne. He was fair and golden. He wasn’t at all what one would consider silvery. Redd opened his arms and quoted from memory, “He is a crucible of notions; he has a furnace burning inside of him; that is Thranduil son of Oropher. And, from his beginning, the fire of him that burnt away gloom, reached out into the young world to consume friend and foe alike.”
“Sounds warm.” Lusis put her hand on her ribs and pictured a furnace in there. She felt like a block of ice-cold permafrost, so she spoke enviously.
Aric glanced at the golden elf, “Too warm.”
“I think the text meant fire as in,” Redd considered his words, “charisma… or the sort of fire that comes of inspiration.” Redd nodded sagely, and then frowned. “Though he was called terrible in battle.”
“Terrible, bad at it?” Steed asked quietly, “Or terrible, terrifying.”
“Let me think, man.” Redd ticked off his fingers with his eyes on the gangly Ranger, “Smart, powerful, and beautiful. The facts.”
“Won’t he be well-met,” Aric tapped the sharpened stick at the back of Lusis’ hair and drying muck flaked away like black snow. “For an example, look at how ladylike Lusis is.”
Icar tapped the stub pencil’s eraser on his chin. “Aric, remember that time the goblins decided to use your skin as a water-bag, and Lusis beheaded them?”
Steed opened an eye and tallied, “So if Lusis was a lady the way you like goblins would be filling you up at one end, and drinking out of the other.”
“Fires,” Aric swore.
“At least she wouldn’t be bothering you, brother.” Icar noted lightly.
Lusis grinned over her shoulder at Icar, and he smiled before he returned to drawing. He was a strange sort of Ranger. May the great Eagles guard him, seeing as his head was so far up in the clouds.
Redd added. “Oh yes! I do recall he was a warrior. Fought dragons and slew one by himself.”
“Which is how you know it’s a fairytale,” Aric raised the stick and looked down its length and missed it when the throne-room’s guard began to shift positions to cover him.
That’s when ruckus started at the top of the room.
Lusis moved without thinking, her knees flexed into position for attack, just in case bloodshed broke out in this law-abiding room. She’d already gotten crosshairs on the back of the head of the man causing this. He was shackled. But that didn’t mean he was secured.
That’s when the great elf made his appearance.
These caverns occurred with many passages at many levels, and glowing wood staircases extended from one to the other in a beautiful net. The warmest-looking room, Lusis could scarcely see from the bottom of the throne-hall, she was only aware of a broad staircase and buttery golden light. Long legs appeared on the way down that staircase and they emerged iota by iota into a gloriously-draped elf so pale he looked like a cherry petal, so blonde under his tall, flowering corona, that his hair looked white. And he was breathtaking in a way where looking away from him was difficult, because it meant that one risked missing out on the way he moved, or spoke.
And he was stunning. When the humans in shackles flew at him, he seethed back at them in a way so god-awful beautiful it rattled the brain. Lusis shook herself. “How much you want to bet,” she glanced back at Redd’s gawp, “that one – his eyes are grey.”
Steed uncoiled and got his hand on his short-sword. “What’s elvish for ‘furnace’, Reddy?”
“He’s got lots of ur,” Steed grimaced and snatched the pointed stick from Aric’s hand. He looked at it and then aside to Lusis. “Sure you want to prod this guy?”
She reassessed her chances of success. If the assumption was correct, and this was their First Age furnace, he very well might reduce them all to ashes, but she would not survive him for a certainty. She, who could hardly speak of what afflicted her, saw it in a hurricane of certainties: he would have no patience for her impediments then destroy her rickety shell in a series of quick conflagrations, in a total absence of mercy. “We should leave,” she nodded. And didn’t move. Didn’t look away from the tower of the Elfking. Or maybe it was a hurricane of fears? She couldn’t tell. Couldn’t remember the thin sliver of line in between fear and harm.
She hadn’t been in this position since her childhood, of vulnerability, of having taken such deep damage it left her sucking air, robbed of the ability to even cry out for help.
She hissed out a breath to convince herself she could still breathe.
He looked dangerous. He looked everlasting.
The elves moved as silently as shadows, their hands like steely cords as they dragged the shackled humans away. Lusis bristled at the tears on a shouting man’s face. It was a tragedy of timing, weeping for your sorry plight once your crime was done.
“We should leave.” She turned on her heel and her group surrounded her, hid her from view.
A straight-legged woman of the guard appeared directly behind Aric. Over him. She was slightly taller, particularly in the golden helmet she wore. “Please approach the King’s seneschal,” the brown-haired elf paused, “You are summoned by the great Elfking of Taur-e-Ndaedelos.”
Redd sped up. His hand shut around Lusis’ wrist on one side, and Aric’s on the other. “Mind your tongues. For the love of all holies, mind your manners.”
“We’d be covered in less dirt if we came out of a kiln.” Icar pointed out nervously.
“You’re all right, brother.” Aric was always quick to comfort his kin. “You’ll be fine. It’s me-”
“And you’ll shut your clappers, friend. But I’m pretty sure we can’t stick it out back here,” Steed said under his breath. “Let’s go. And… Redd, do your best with this, will you? Best to know what we’re up against here. And if this is some kind of First Age revenant, it’s better to be aware.”
They started walking.
“He’s not a revenant. Elves live a long time. Very long time, I guess,” Redd coughed a little and sounded anxious. He glanced around him, flustered before he managed to mutter, “Lusis, I read about this King many times when I was little and I was afraid of him, then, of his great age, his sword that slew dragons, and his cold, endless heart. It has seen Ages come and go. What are the lives of men to him? What is your life? Little, I think.”
“He terrifies Ranger children. Great news.” Lusis said aside. She forced herself to breathe evenly as she advanced in the room, aware she tracked sludge behind her. The closer she got to him, the tighter her throat felt, until she wheezed, “Anything else?”
They went a few paces before Redd added, “This can’t be.”
“Could be.” Aric nudged him. “Stay with us, Redd.”
“I’ll prove it’s not him.” Redd seemed to recover himself by this hypothesis.
They drew closer. The pale elf was tallest of those around him, and so still, like a hallucination of a being. His face was so indifferently beautiful it was like staring into the face of an alabaster bust, not a living being. Lusis glanced over Redd. “Thoughts, Redd?”
His voice was a low whisper, “Uh, so marginalia in one of the books said The Elfking was scarred by dragon’s fire. His face was disfigured on one side. Do you see an indication of that? I don’t. Even if this King is called Thranduil, it isn’t the old Elfking. We may stand a chance with him.”
“Really now.” Steed pulled a face. “Because there less to fear in a new Elfking?”
They were close now, and the other elf, the one with golden hair like honey and a rope-like braid over one shoulder, rose up from his wonderfully hewn beech-wood chair to observe him. His eyes were a mingling of blue and green. He was not as tall as the paler elf.
The gold-haired elf took a step toward them and cautioned, “That is close enough, Rangers.”
“Wouldn’t want to get the great King all muddy.” Aric said automatically.
Everyone looked at Aric. He belted-up, mashing his lips into a pressurized line that curved like the bottom of a noose.
“He’s here all week,” muttered Steed.
The Elfking’s crown fascinated Lusis because it appeared to be alive. She could see buds and small velvety white blooms along the crown of his head. Amazing. It didn’t look as if these were cut branches with fading leaves and blooms. It looked alive. It was thriving. Blooming.
Her eyes snapped down to his face, which was heart-breaking because it was so impassively affable – an expressionless expression. Glowing gloriously and carefully lifeless. She could compare its planes and symmetries to a glass doll’s face if any doll maker could be near as skilled. His eyes turned out to be the blue-tinged grey of metal, or the colour of distant mountains.
This Elfking was so pleasing to the eye. And it was so terrible.
He was under there, somewhere.
Lusis chased her skittering breath. “You look like ice over a mountain lake staring, my Lord.”
He moved, but such a small fraction it might have been in her mind. But then his voice pooled out around her, chill and hard. “And you are as filthy as a newborn Uruk-hai. But under your crust of earth… you are afraid.”
“Maybe,” she caught her breath, “I’m afraid you’ll burn holes straight through me with those metal eyes, oh King.” His stare did not abate in response to this.
The Elfking turned, which was a production, though she sensed it was natural to him – how he moved. He swept up the stairs and draped himself into his massive throne of wood and monstrous elk antlers. He looked out at her, around a tine.
The golden-haired elf blinked at the floor around them and then sucked a breath. “Approach the throne, Rangers of the North.” Then he helplessly watched them track mud up the gleaming stairs and across the mirror-bright dais.
The Elfking said, “You have come down from the mountains. There is great disturbance in the lands above us of late.” His head tipped a little. “You have the taste of the mountain wind on you, but also something else.”
“Good old Mirkwood silt, I’m guessing.” Aric said nervously. “We came by it honestly. We did not use the river, at all-” he endured an elbow from Steed.
The Elfking’s blue-silver eyes slid to take in Aric as though the man was a clear glass vessel full of water, and when the noises stopped, they glided back to Lusis again.
She’d shut her eyes to focus. It took a lot to fight the tightness in her throat, the one that choked off words. If only she could show his thoughts the thing she’d experienced. “I’ve come with a warning. There is something abominable, some slow power rising in the earth in the foothills North of here.”
When she opened her eyes again, his expression looked impassable as the mountain chain itself. He told her, “Of that I was aware. You have come all this way to warn me when the elves of this wood know well the feeling of darkness swelling against the borders.”
He was staring fires into the sockets of her eyes.
Was that what it was like to live all the Ages? Did you just burn on the inside?
Maybe he’d swallowed the dragon he’d killed.
“No Lord,” she had to close her eyes to think straight. “You misunderstand. I don’t come to tell you this because I sensed it. I come to tell you because,” she ran into a barrier, “I come to you because,” she looped a hand around the front of her throat.
The air around her shifted. The Elfking had leaned over her. He was close now. She opened her eyes and struggled for air.
“She’s sorry, Elfking,” Icar stepped forward and curled a hand around Lusis to keep her upright. “We apologize. She was attacked by something in the foothills and fought free, but it cost her.”
Lusis ‘eyes snapped open and she drew a deep breath. “Yes.”
“Ranger, I am aware of what it is to be left with unspeakable scars.” The Elfking’s head tipped to one side. He froze, serpentine for a moment, lost in memory that delivered him up to her powerful and unrepentant, “And to heal them. Tell me, what is this thing you saw? That I do not know.”
“My Lord, have no doubt she saw it,” Icar explained in earnest, “the problem is that she can’t speak of it. It’s like something broke in her – a yoked bell but with the clacker cut away. She can’t make a sound.”
The Elfking’s eyes narrowed. “Where did the harm come to pass?”
“She knows the place,” Steed put in quickly. “Maybe she could point it out on a map?”
Sound. Light. All drew back from Lusis. She fought to hold on to the conversation, or to feeling in her body. She could see the light of the Elfking far away, and hear the fire-rumble of his voice in his chest. His eyes swept her, and that seemed to be an audible thing too, like a voice in her thoughts, as his bright blue-silver gaze sent sparks over her cheeks. Looking at him, her throat burned.
Redd lifted her off her feet.
She sat up in bed.
Except she didn’t have a bed.
Maybe there was one in her parent’s house?
This was far from her parent’s house.
Lusis rolled up to her hands and knees and looked at the headboard, which was a huge white wood section of what had to have been a massive tree, graven through its many rings with stands of exquisitely rendered beech trees. The sheets were a soft golden red in colour, a weave so excellent it was like nothing she’d ever seen. Well, almost nothing she’d seen – she’d been here a day now, after all. She sank down on her haunches in this huge bed and looked at the embroidered pillows. The top sheet crackled when she moved, stuffed with goose down.
Every time she inhaled she smelled trees, green things.
She wore a shapeless shift that was colourlessly pale until she moved. Some of the threads were silver. They glinted a bluish colour. Only the moonlight lit the arched space in which she slept. Outside the window wind made aspen trees rattle their leaves in a steady shush. It was a soothing sound. She got out of bed and searched for her clothes, but she didn’t even find a boot. Nothing. No weapons either, which really made her feel exposed. It was dark, still, and warm though. And she was clean.
Outside of her immediate space she found a hall of similarly hollowed-out stone. There were seven rooms on the side where she lay, and she was in the first of them, her bed on an angle to the wider room beyond, and the window through which she could see the leaves waggling. She blinked at the windows because she’d never seen a casement so functional before. In the middle of the wider glass, a ring of silver housed a smaller window hinged to open. A thin mesh covered the opening.
When she looked outside, she could see that the trees were in an enclosed courtyard.
Not what she was looking for.
Fresh air blew across her bare knees and the shift billowed. She swatted at the material, but it wouldn’t cooperate with the natural laws that governed wind and wool.
Then again, it probably wasn’t wool.
Seven beds set back in deep stone arches, and all with the back wall neatly carved at the top to let the light through openings that were shaped like phases of the moon. There were only three rooms opposite, again, on an angle. They were far from her own bed. All were occupied by humans. Her humans. From the living stone wall out, Icar, Aric, and then Steed. The only other occupied slot was the bed right beside hers. In that hollowed out section of wall, Redd sat up, fully dressed, sword in hand, shield over his core, reclined against the huge headboard, asleep.
Lusis smiled at this. If he’d been outside in the open air, nothing would have caused Redd to sleep like that. She walked out into the Horn-shaped hall and found the reason it was curved as it was, narrower where Icar slept, and wider where she did. A steel filigree cage enclosed a black cairn there. She was curious to see bronze pools cut into the floor, at the foot of this stove. They steamed with heat.
Make no wonder the place was toasty.
She headed down the trio of steps that led up to where she’d slept and walked through slanting moonlight toward the far wall of the… cavern. Really, it was a central hub – a large empty wood-floored room with a thick, bubbly glass window overhead. Off that hub were more rows of hollowed-out rooms, doorless, dark, and lined with lovely beds, all of them in long curling arms. It was shaped… like a sun. A small trio of stairs led up to it.
As she kept walking, she ticked off corners on her left and right fingers. Honestly? She’d never been inside a building that required more than ten turns to find the front door.
Well, she wasn’t in the North anymore.
And it wasn’t her parent’s house. For sure.
She kept walking, now stretching her ability to map the way – the turns – inside her head. She grimaced, “How in Doom’s fires do thieves do it?” She meant, get through a rich man’s house.
She was glad this wasn’t overheard. It would be dangerous to talk this way in such a place, a place that was the very, extremely massive home of an Elfking. The shift she wore didn’t comfort her. Someone had put her into it after all. That made her itchy, as strangers touching her always made her itch. Gone was the hope that wouldn’t be true among the elves. She didn’t like it as she didn’t like being dirty, or for things in her pack to be in a state of disorder.
She yawned into the palm of her hand and tried to remember what had happened to put her in that bed under Redd’s guard.
Everything went blank in the throne-hall. She stopped before the polished wood staircase. This was where the two elves had been. The lovely golden elf with his soft features, who’d stood up to bar her passage, and also where she’d first seen the pitiless silver eyes of the Elfking.
Lusis wondered if Redd had puzzled out the King’s identity.
She found the throne-hall. Massive, empty, beautiful. She was seized by a desire to sit in the wood throne, ringed as it was by the antlers of what had to be a tremendous elk buck – she was sure they were ten feet wide. She bet the bull elk had been about seven feet tall – that was 21 hands. Bigger than any horse she’d ever even seen.
She circled the throne without daring to go near enough to it to touch even a tine.
“From here, though, I know the way out.” She whispered before she set off in the direction of her men. She loped there, back through her map.
She lingered in a long hall of archways. The spring wind blew freely through here, warm, damp, but finally without rain. Outside the familiar sound of a sword slicing air caught her attention. The caves were so shallow in places that the depressions outside became courtyards. She edged back from the sight of the Elfking’s swords arching around his shoulders so quickly it was a blur.
Two of them. Fighting proficiently two-handed was beyond her skills yet.
So he practiced his swordsmanship when he couldn’t sleep.
And that wasn’t exactly a wooden waister he was using.
She watched his form for a while and grew colder and colder. Fast. Precise. Connected.
It took under two minutes for her to acknowledge she’d never seen someone that proficient.
He was gifted with a weapon and it was a chilling gift. Which meant he was probably always armed. And he had a temper.
She sank down into a lower profile and slunk carefully along the arches.
It also meant she would always need to be armed.
It was the only way to have a fighting chance with him.
And she turned away from him then, before more observation could make plain the truth. If that silver tongue of fire ever turned his sword against her, all hope was lost. But that was too disturbing to think of when she was so desperate to share what she knew, but so powerless to do so.
She linked her hand around her throat and wondered why, with the long solitudes of her life, she didn’t just walk away.
Lusis wasn’t ever aware of the several elven guards who’d followed her out from her assigned quarters through the throne-hall and then all the way back.
“What was she doing?” The Elfking’s pale blue eyes, very nearly the silver of coinage, slid under pale eyelids. It was impossible to assign a mood to the Elfking. He was currently inscrutable.
Fond of his creature comforts, he reclined in a massive steaming copper tub, its steadily heated water pale with milk, and its area generous enough for six. This was a lot for a man who didn’t even employ a concubine. Neither the one indulgence nor the lack of another moved Eithahawn. He’d been in service here for a very long time. He was stalwart in his position. And it was his firm belief that A Certain King had earned his comforts.
But he’d been silent too long. Those orb-bright eyes opened and pinned Eithahawn to the ornate topiary of the King’s bath house.
He bowed a fraction. “Forgive me, my Lord. It’s nothing. Just thinking.”
Thranduil sank into the milk bath until his hair was covered. His farseeing eyes looked at the constellations on the ceiling of the cavern. “Are you thinking about the fact the end of the One Ring, and the overthrow of such earthly darkness should have ended encroachment into these lands?”
“My Lord, every Rohvanion tree is under your sway.”
“You misunderstand me,” Was all he said, and then sat up. Milky water sloshed out of his hair and splashed over his shoulders. He wrung out, impatiently. It was difficult to watch, because Eithahawn had been like a son to the Elvenking and -Queen, and the Elfqueen had used to pet her Lord’s glowing Sindar hair. She would have been the one to attend to this for him. But she was no more, and he treated every inch with callousness.
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” Eithahawn murmured. He bowed more deeply to hide the sudden play of emotion over his features.
Thranduil tipped his head to one side. “Are you well?”
“Yes, my Lord. Please don’t trouble yourself.”
The Elvenking made a soft under-breath sound of amusement. His existence had, at its core, troubling himself for the elves and lands of his kingdom. “Do you suppose you are the exception?”
Eithahawn maintained his bow, “I’m sorry, my Lord… I do not understand.”
“Yes, of course,” Thranduil’s pale hand swirled up through the milk-bath water so that he could remove the large moonstone ring from his index finger. He dropped it into a silver basin and stared into its misty depths. “The problem is the nature of darkness and shadow. Shadow, itself, cannot be seen until a light is cast upon dark places. It is not as simple a thing as taming a river, or damming it so that the land beyond bears no resemblance to what it was prior. A shadow is impossible to eliminate.”
“But, my King, we cleansed Dol Guldur and freed these lands.”
“Yes we did,” Thranduil finished strangling his sun-bright hair and pulled it forward, over his chest and out of the water, “along with Lorien. The challenge being that most of our foes, by their nature, lacked the valor and loyalty to fight a cause through to its bitter end.” That gave him pause to remember his people did not lack that trait. Losing so many was so painful that, momentarily, he couldn’t function. Then his mind resurfaced from those horrors in the hopes of preventing another. He blinked at the moonstone his wife had given him, “As a result, I suspect, we moved some of that taint around. There are still dangers in these woods to fear. Our patrols are still needed.”
“That… is true. They don’t lack for work.”
“What was she doing?”
“The girl simply woke, checked her troop, walked the halls until she found the throne-room, and then returned.” Eithahawn told his Lord. “She seemed curious about the throne, but no more.”
He came up the steps from the tub and down the other side, at the birch dressing table he wrapped in a long silvery-blue robe. He picked up his wet hair and tossed it over his back. “And that is all?”
“She did stop to watch you, I’m told.” Eithahawn tried not to frown. He frowned altogether too much, in his own opinion. “You were not asleep at such an hour.”
“No,” said the Elfking’s reflection in the glass. “I… wonder if peace is suited to my nature.”
“We have been so long without it, how would one know?” Eithahawn pondered only to find his King’s reflection staring at him with such a strange look – thwarted resolve best described it. Eithahawn had a sudden dropping feeling. His words had not been meant as a criticism of A Certain King’s vocation, but as a commentary on the wider world. He stared at the floor in mute horror. There were no words to say that could clear away the taint of that thought.
“She went to the throne-room.” Thranduil lifted a white comb through his mane of silvery-blond hair. It passed through smoothly. He didn’t let anyone assist him anymore. It was so strange. He couldn’t tolerate a nearness anymore. His own son could scarcely touch him. Eithahawn had never seen anything like it in an elf. But the Elfking finished and set down the comb. “I think I may understand.”
“She hid from you. She watched you. What if she means you harm, my Lord?” Eithahawn’s core crumbled away to the anxiety of losing a leader who’d fairly raised him, and whom he loved and admired. “What if that is why she is here, and is part rather than a symptom of the problem? The assumption we make that the Rangers are good, instead of powerful or rogue-”
Thranduil turned and stalked in his direction, soundless on his bare feet in the bathhouse. “She gives you no reason to fear yet.”
Eithahawn put his head down in submission to this point. Firstly, it was right, secondly, it would be impossible for him to explain that he very much wanted to protect his kingdom’s protector, and, due to the horrors of battle, the only father he’d ever known. He imagined the emotion playing over his face would be alarming so he hid it.
Thranduil stood before him, a silvery candle-flame, and then said, “You fear this change in the North and what it might mean for our people.”
The Kingdom’s seneschal mastered himself and nodded. “I want peace, my Lord. Not battles. Not threats. Not shadows in the North.”
“That is not our world.” The King said.
Eithahawn looked up. His King’s voice had drawn far away. He was gone to the other end of the cavern to rinse himself from the milk-bath, and dress.
That left the Kingdom’s-seneschal with the quelling realization that there was nothing he could do for his Elvenking. But serve the kingdom.
He was no swordsman.
Lusis’ clothes were on the narrow trunk at the foot of her bed. Her boots as well, when she woke. The major difference being that they were all clean when she pulled them on again. Everything, and the holes were sewn shut with such skill there was scarcely a sign any injury had been done to them. Her weapons were all strangely bright and had seen the whet stone too. She didn’t even mind strangers had touched everything.
Elves. They could have traded in these skills much to the improvement, she thought, of their fortune, but of course, she looked around her, they already seemed rather well-to-do. There wasn’t an easy place to change in these rooms, but it was managed through Lusis standing behind Redd’s back. He was a colossus, and better armed than a wardrobe door.
“I guess you live a few centuries and the whole prospect of being in your altogether is much less of a... thing. Less daunting, I suppose.” Redd cleared his throat and glanced around the empty hall before him. “No one yet.”
“Good,” Lusis noted. She was having a bit of a struggle with the harness-like undergarments the elves had given her for her upper body. It was comfortable and just hard enough to be protective. Inventive creatures. “I wonder if that’s true, that nudity thing. Or if it’s just seen as a natural state among these people. They are all sort of… pretty.” She actually admired how clean they were.
“But cold.” Aric called from further down the hall, waiting to pass to the greater room.
“Maybe, but they don’t seem to be any less moral than a human, at least not at first glance. With that temper, this Elfking is far from perfect, and that’s sort of reassuring considering all of Redd’s stories about them. But they do appear to be less mortified by certain things – this may be one of those things.” Lusis shrugged on her shirt and fastened the ties for her pants. Envious of the elves for their lack of shame.
She came out from behind Redd, strapping on her sword.
“You’re only easily recognizable when you’re armed,” Aric told her when she stepped into the hall. His head jerked up in her direction. “What happened to your hair?”
“I washed it.” She said flatly. “Or someone did.” A Ranger’s life was full of glamourie.
Redd, who knew her aversion to other people’s hands, grinned. “Oh, you have to be excited.”
Lusis turned around about ready for a wilting curse, but she stopped short.
“It is morning and there you are, right as the weather,” said the dark-haired elf who, she swore, had appeared at the end of the hall between glances. She’d drawn a knife at him out of pure surprise, but he remained pleasant, “Ah, hello to you too, small blade. You look fierce today. And clean.”
She put it away, blushing. “This wouldn’t happen if you stamped your feet.”
He said, “I was.” There was a sure glint of amusement in his features, though. This was the same guard from patrol the day before, and he opened his hands now. “Let’s get reacquainted, shall we? I am Dorondir Caduion and I am a patrol Captain. You are Lusis, yes? Do you have another name? One never knows with humans.”
“Lusis Buckmaster.” She stepped toward him and wasn’t sure if she could clasp his hand like a decent person. He might think her too familiar, or maybe unclean – but he solved the debate by reaching out both his pale hands so that when she linked hers into his, he could pat the tidy knot they made. She began to think you got to be Captain on patrol by knowing enough about other races of beings to greet them kindly, and not cause them to think you meant them undue harm.
“I know that name,” he released her hand. “They are the couriers of the North, yes? Buckmasters? Or that is how we know them.”
She nodded in assent. “That would be the family. They carry messages. Packages. Bring resupply across the North. Ferry the lost and the wounded. They’ve done it for a long time now.”
“Yes,” he said lightly, “I was a boy, as I recall.”
Considering ‘a boy’ summed up close to two and a half centuries of history, that was intimidating.
“And the rest? These men of yours?” Dorondir’s gestured hand was so graceful, it seemed to be in praise of her Ranger brood.
“Friends of the family. Traditionally speaking.” She turned and indicated Redd. “Redd is from the Ayesir family. You may know them because they guard the Northern Hoard.”
“He is a librarian,” he said approvingly. “Yes, the Buckmasters would have worked with them closely, I agree, ferrying all those tomes out of war-torn regions and back again. They live in the mountain.”
“Underground,” he agreed. “But a bit deeper than this, and with locked vaults of books.” He smiled as he remembered it. “It’s a bit difficult to find, but we like it that way.” When he clasped Dorondir’s hand, he had to reach down. The elf’s hand vanished, utterly.
“And you appear to be part bear.” Dorondir spoke in an approachable manner.
“You should see his mother,” Aric cracked, which got him a dark look from everyone but Icar. Icar regularly found his brother’s antics ridiculous.
“These are the Awnson brothers, Icar is the quiet one, and Aric is the one who’s wanting for a cuff in the side of the head.”
“That he does.” Redd grumbled and pointed at Aric’s smirking grin.
Lusis’ brows went up, “And the final man is Steed Roanhead. His family works with horses, as you can imagine.” She glanced at Steed’s blue eyes. He was truly one of the Dunedain.
“Used to be big enough to do trade with the Rohirrim. Well… some while ago.”
“You aren’t unlike the horse lords in presentation. We have hosted the Riddermark before,” Dorondir confirmed and then gave a small bow. He indicated they should follow him as he headed down the stairs from where they’d slept, “And this is Elfking’s great Greenwood, or Mirkwood, as most humans call this place. Though it’s not nearly as dark, of late. The forests are still quite thick and remote, which means there is a natural inclination to unforeseen dangers. Move through the wild carefully. We lay in supplies in woodland stands and cover what we can in patrol, but our lands have increased of late, and there are many ways unfrequented by our kind.”
“I need to speak to the king. I have no intention of travelling further into your land.” Lusis told him and tried not to gawp at the incredible engravings of music along the walls.
“So you do,” he agreed, “but it doesn’t seem to come to you naturally.”
She frowned, “Then I should apologize to him before I try again. But I must find a way.”
“I am instructed to get a meal in front of you,” he actually smiled, which was very lovely. “Nothing as fearsome as delivering you to the king for an apology.”
“Is he fearsome?” Redd asked the elf, curiously.
“The Elfking of Mirkwood is formidable,” the elf confirmed. He paused on the steps and turned to face Lusis. “But you are guests of the Elfking.” He led them into a clearing above which a great stone dome had been erected. As it was still predawn, the stars stared down at her from the dome’s glass.
Lusis marveled at the sheerness of the whole affair. It looked like a web. In gaping at it, she wasn’t alone. Icar was already scratching on his book. Aric nearly walked into a Silvan elf woman with long pale red whorls of hair. She looked as delicate as a patch of blushing scilla that had climbed through the last of the winter snow. The elf smiled, softly, in passing.
There were many small platforms in this clearing, they were thronged with elves in conversation arrayed around the many benches or curled on furs laid on hillocks of green.
Dorondir led them over a small footbridge under which a brook bubbled. They passed through an overarching shadow and down stairs to a true marvel. This final platform was cut into a cliff-face. A natural depression in the land – something of a discrete valley – sat in the middle of the Elfking’s cavern home. It was difficult to see until the light rose some, but the valley was closed in on all sides by the citadel. It otherwise seemed wild. The brook fell down into it leaving a fine spray in air. This platform was likewise covered in a web of glass and sealed by panels of the same. They passed down into its confines and found a long glossy table awaited them. It flickered in the light of huge fireplaces along the graven mountain wall.
It was a bit fine for a collection of Rangers. They slunk into it as if they might conceivably be doing something wrong. Lusis narrowed her eyes at Aric, seeing as he was ogling the silver laid out on the white table.
They all settled down to a meal there.
“I’d have preferred the room with the pretty elf girls.” Aric muttered when Dorondir withdrew to the door.
“Which is why they wouldn’t have preferred it,” Steed snorted in reply. “I’m sure.”
“These buildings are lovely,” Icar’s voice was wistful. “They’re ideally constructed to keep one man away from another.”
“Odds are that one man is their King. He doesn’t seem warm. Never did in the books either, but he is competent, I think.” Redd’s eyes widened over his goblet. “Ooh, try the drink here, Aric. That’ll be something that meets your approval!”
“Bacon,” Steed said minutes later. He heaved a mighty sigh. He’d finished a steaming plate of nut-butter rolls, several apple pastries, a plate of chopped fruit, and a large and delectable salad. “I like mushrooms as much as the next man-”
“Which is to say, not much.” Icar shook his head. He had stuck to the fruit and fat slices of several types of bread with butter and preserves.
“-but if they trotted in a pig, I’d clean it up and cook it for them.”
Redd chuckled, but made no complaint about his meal.
“That might turn a few heads,” Eithahawn said in a diplomatic tone. The firelight glanced off his golden hair and cast a soft glow on the warm stone walls of this place. “I am sorry. You will not often find the meat of beasts in these halls.”
Lusis rose and bowed. “There isn’t any need to apologize. We’ve imposed on you, and brought you nothing but unanswered questions in return for your hospitality.”
“Ah, but you have the information. It’s a matter of getting that intelligence before the Elfking.” He gestured at the bench and Lusis nodded her assent that he join them. He settled down across from her and folded his well-kept hands together. “May I call you Lusis?”
“Most people do,” she grinned, but then her manners caught up with her. “I’d be honoured to be known by my first name here.”
“Please call me Eithahawn. I’m the Kingdom’s seneschal – it means I can act in the name of the Elfking in simple matters of administration within the forest.”
“Big job,” Redd blinked across at the blond elf.
“I am trained to it.” The elf said simply, “It is a rather large job, I would think, to patrol the Northern mountains. What remnants we have of the darkness that choked this land, I have heard much of it fled into those places and can yet be found there. Generations will not remove it. Apart from the fact the men of Angmar have not changed their ways.”
“Both our peoples know something about holding the line against that ilk.” She told Eithahawn. It confused her that he seemed somewhat surprised by this admission. She considered this and said, “Once an Elfking from these parts fed my… my mother’s family. It was after the Last Dragon fell, so a long time back, but it’s never been forgotten by her people.”
Now Eithahawn’s expression brightened, which was daunting. He’d been dazzling enough to begin with. “Ah. Thranduil.”
“That name, I know,” Redd nodded and tapped a meaty fingertip on the smoothness of the table. “The Hoard, that’s a repository of human and elvish books in the Misty Mountains, it makes mention of him and his father, an elf named Oropher – the ‘tall beech tree’ who died in the Second Age in the Battle of Dagorlad. There was some difference between him and this other powerful elf, Gil-galad.”
This made Eithahawn break courtly form when he uttered a soft, short laugh and repeated, “There was some difference between him and Gil-galad.” The elf immediately looked down at the shining table and his dark-golden brows rose up, “Dear me.”
“Am I wrong?” Redd’s own brows drew down as if daring the elf to dispute him.
Eithahawn glanced up, “You are not. The Noldor and Sindar,” and he made an open-palmed gesture that ended in a quick circle of his hand in air. And whatever that meant was likely obvious to another elf. “It is… good that you know some of the histories. Surprising. But, I think, a good thing. I would hope,” and he glanced at Lusis here, “that it would teach you to trust in us somewhat. While our methods are limited, and we, ourselves, merely imperfect creatures, we have long sided with good.”
Lusis popped that particular soap-bubble. “Sauron was an elf, they say.”
The seneschal looked horrified. “Maiar. Whatever he became, he was Maiar. And that is a very different magnitude. It took the strength of many, many brave men and elves to defeat him for that reason.” He thought a second and then amended, “Too many.”
This didn’t move Lusis. “Anyone know what a Maiar is?”
Redd was pale. He looked like he couldn’t imagine how he was still breathing. He’d missed the question, “Did… did the Elfking know when he marched on Dol Guldur what this thing was?”
“Oh yes.” Eithahawn’s chin rose. “But he is as brave and just in the end as he is,” the elf crumpled a little, “difficult and demanding.” Now a rather friendly smile crossed his face, reserved, it seemed, for Redd. “You have read about him then? You know of what I speak?” He seemed to be looking for some form of confirmation, some fellowship between them.
But Redd shook his head clear, twice. “That Elfking? That one?”
“Is Thranduil. Son of Oropher,” Eithahawn looked charmingly confused, “But you knew so, yes?”
Redd chewed air for a moment. A look passed among the Rangers that very-much excluded their part-Sinda host.
“Bit of a temper,” Redd said under his breath, “that one.”
The lights seemed to come up in the room – Eithahawn’s smile widened until they could see his lovely white teeth. He nodded softly. Understanding.
Lusis put her head into her hands and pushed back her hair. “I think it best we beg some horses from you and ride on to Lorien. I’m eager to help. I want to help,” she told the golden elf, “but it hasn’t proven as simple a thing as telling someone else about it, no matter the pressure they apply. Force won’t help.” She knew that.
“Ride on to Lorien alone?” Eithahawn held up a waylaying hand. “Firstly, it is further than you are imagining, and more difficult to traverse than you hope. Lorien isn’t like the Mirkwood seat, Lusis, none but elves may enter those woods. You would be turned away. With force if necessary. And while it is true that negotiations have been opened between Lorien and Mirkwood, it is still not a place that Mirkwood Silvan can travel lightly. Or at all. And certainly not our king. The King of Lorien may be a Sinda, but they do not agree.”
“Maybe because your Elfking isn’t agreeable.” Aric snorted.
Eithahawn’s expression shifted from genial to suddenly sharp. “If he were disagreeable, friend Ranger, you would be floating down the Forest River full of arrows. We keep to our own in these woods, it is true, and do not involve ourselves in wider matters, but it has been with good reason. Holding a line, as you say. Yet we have good relations with the humans around us and we let others pass our lands. It is a more localized, and very different kind of diplomacy than a place like Rivendell would practice, hidden from the world in its own way, by being secreted in mountain passes, but our involvement is just as real. Kindly do not disparage my King. Certainly not in the company of the people he guides and safeguards.” Sparks fairly flew off his words.
“He apologizes,” Icar thumped his brother in the leg under the table. “He apologizes, sir elf, and he thanks you for the food, and shelter, and safety you’ve extended to us.”
Lusis, meanwhile, was seeing no signs of weapons on the seneschal.
Eithahawn exhaled and steadied himself. “Peace, Icar Awnson.” He’d clearly been briefed by Dorondir, but that was little surprise of a man vetted to act for the King. The seneschal shut his eyes, his head bowed. “I too would speak for my warrior brother, before he was lost taking Dol Guldur. We are not dissimilar. But I must warn you… here the elves are loyal, we are dedicated and grateful for the guidance of our Elfking. We know him.” He made that ineffable hand gesture in air again, but this time thoughtlessly. He hadn’t words for what he was trying to say.
Lusis noticed this, but her thoughts were interrupted when Steed reached over Icar and gave Aric a clout in the back of the head.
The steady shushes that were the only signs of elven foot-traffic outside the balcony paused with the sound of the blow, but Eithahawn witnessed this act with some amusement and he, somehow, shifted his weight to curl his legs under him with very little movement. Graceful, these elves. “But there may be another reason not to depart, Lusis. The darkness gathering has been growing more pronounced of late. It troubles the Elvenking greatly. Time would be lost, and… I suspect you could ride to Rivendell, ride to Lorien, ride even to the Undying Lands if you could. The problem will not abate. You cannot speak of it.”
She stopped picking at a pillowy-soft roll and stared at the elf. “What do you know about this?”
“You should be told what came to pass after your incident so that you may be fully aware of why we’ve maintained you.” Eithahawn’s hands clasped together and his expression became soft. “Your collapse left you airless, and so we elves had to force air into your lungs – it is a method of ours.” He paused. His expression stilled. His eyes suddenly averted downward.
Light passed through the room.
The Elfking swept out of the net of officials in his attendance. His long crimson coat fanned around him against the tableau of forest beyond. Stars winked out behind him as he went, now that day was coming. He came to drop into the high-backed chair at the head of their table. This put him in Lusis’ arm’s reach, just on her right. No one spoke.
In fact, Redd seemed to be staring at the tall elf’s wood crown, holding his breath.
The Elvenking’s graceful hand gestured the other elves away, and they retreated to line at the far end of the balcony. Lusis felt for them. If they could not speak to the King they needed, they were to go to the Kingdom’s seneschal… also at breakfast.
The Elfking eased forward in his seat and the firelight passed across his face and hair in a great wash of radiance that made his ice-blue eyes look like water. Again, his motions were so alien when compared to his own kind. Maybe it was his great age. But this close, she could smell trees and embers. “There is a ring upon you. The shadow of a rope on your neck, as witnessed when you were revived-”
“Revived?” She blinked rapidly and realized she’d interrupted the Elfking.
“-and your new master, whomever that may be, pulls it tight when you try to speak of what you’ve witnessed, or matters of equal importance, like how you evaded this dark force.”
Lusis stood up and clapped a hand to her throat, “There’s no such noose!” But at the same time she said it, she very much sensed it was true.
She just couldn’t stand containment. Tight spaces gave her issues.
His head rose slowly and he told her, “The affliction is not a matter of this world. Whatever you saw, you have been muzzled. The enigma here, Lusis, is why you were not simply killed.” For a long and airless moment he leaned onto the high back of the chair and stared into her eyes, openly. It was like having a watchtower fire in direct line of vision. The light in the room was dimmed by him. She could see sunlight inside his chest that radiated up- and outward through his veins and his skin, lighting up his hair.
She sank down to her seat again, and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. The man wasn’t glowing. That was an irrationality.
She looked up and discovered that he’d sunk to repose against wood carvings of trees decorating the chair back. His proud head turned in her direction, lost in silent consideration of her. To her eyes, he still appeared to be candlelit from the inside.
Just as suddenly, he pushed back from the table, rose, and headed in the direction of his now chattering officials. He pivoted slowly at the stair and spoke to Eithahawn, who, himself, had risen to his feet. The Elfking’s voice thrummed in elvish, exquisite, and the Kingdom’s seneschal inclined his head and made some small acquiescence aloud.
The Elfking went up the stairs amid the buzz of his people.
“Do not be alarmed,” Eithahawn’s hair slithered across silk and pooled down the front of his shoulder in buckling waves, “his agenda is eventful. He told me that he wanted to make time for you this morning. I suspect he will-”
Several bells began to ring at once. Across the great divot in the land, birds shot up from the trees. Lusis had her sword out in an instant and tossed her body across the table to the bench beside Eithahawn. She stepped in front of him and faced the only direction – barring above – that was feasible for attack. Then she was off her feet.
Eithahawn set her down on the floor. She and her men wound up running along with dozens of elves. Guards encountered them as they reached the main hall, and they caught hold of Eithahawn. They pulled him to a fork that took him right, though he protested.
Lusis pushed into them, bundled her hand in a mix of Eithahawn’s long waving hair, and his silken coat. “Excuse me!”
An elf closed his hand over her elbow so quickly it was difficult to see.
“Release her!” Dorondir emerged, dark hair saturated wet against his hastily clad shoulders, and throat of his shirt unbound. He hurried to the Ranger band and caught Eithahawn’s elbow. “Where would you go?”
“I follow the King,” he said to the guard, and the seneschal’s hand sightlessly found its way around Lusis’ forearm.
That was all that was needed for them to resume their headlong rush amid the bells. Lusis kept close to the Kingdom’s seneschal. She only left him when she recognized that they were in the gatehouse of the massive elven Halls through which she’d been brought. She leapt over an elf that crouched to lift up a crying human child in the queue of petitioners. She crashed down onto a seemingly discarded dwarven shield on the other side and it straightened suddenly, an action that vaulted her high in air. She saw one of the fine, filigree light fixtures that dangled on a silver chain closer than she’d ever thought she might, and then landed in front of many of the guard that had gone before her. Her boots barely kept purchase on the marble and she went soaring for the steps.
Best thing to do there was to fold up her legs and allow the motion to take its course. She sailed over the stairs and smacked into elegant wood hoardings at the wall-walk. It hurt and knocked out some of her wind, but moments like these were why she had plate metal sewn into her leather. Now she sought out Redd’s legendary Elfking. Her eyes found the closing gates. She didn’t see him in the pre-dawn gloaming until he hiked himself off the wall-walk and over the rampart. He dropped to the shallow edge of the river below. Elves followed.
“Do you see him?” Aric shouted from just below her vantage. It was reflex to protect a King.
They were Rangers.
“Gate’s closed, we can’t easily get up there.” Icar called out afterward.
She pointed her blade at the monstrous man who strode through the clot of petitioners with Steed and several elf guards. “Redd, get them up!” Redd reacted by snatching Steed up and practically tossing him at the wall walk. Somehow, Steed seemed unsurprised by this action. Not so for the utterly amazed elf guard who caught him.
Lusis wasn’t aware of this. She’d gotten up to leap from rampart to rampart, and then throw herself out in air after the Elfking. Hitting the shallow end of the river rattled her teeth. She was the only human out in the ice-cold current. Elves encircled the Elfking, and he stood with a terrific sword in hand. It was beautiful – worthy of him.
The rising light at the bend in the river… that was not dawn. The Elfking shouldn’t be out here to greet it, she bet. Lusis sloshed through the spring run-off with her teeth gritted, and made her way to where the elves stood stock still, their eyes fixed on the river. She only just reached the Elfking when the first detritus flowed down, all manner of ropes, wooden fragments, and many barrels among the general wreckage. And then the first of the bodies.
The Elvenking reached a pale hand and started forward. This was a bad plan. Lusis surged through the water, “No, let me, Elvenking.” She barked. She waded out into ice-cold, chest deep water, and caught a floating body with her fist. The spring-melt swelled this river, and its current was strong, and she was pulled along, her feet struggling for purchase until her heel hit a submerged branch. Then she heaved her muscle into it and pulled the dead man from the current. Teeth gritted in the growing light, she walked back toward the elves.
The nearest elf guard caught hold of her. His steely grip pulled her until he could lay hands on the body. They turned it over. Pitifully, it was a young man – just more than a boy. Lusis glanced over his injuries – empty eye-sockets, but no other sign of distress.
She fought through the current for the next man. His injuries were similar. Such a horror those blank sockets. The next three were the same. She raised up her hand from touching one of the bodies and noticed a soft green tinge.
“The bodies are…” she raised her voice, “Take the Elfking to shore! There is poison in the river!”
“Lusis!” Steed shouted from the wall. He had an arrow with elven rope tied to it. It shot past her, lodged in the dead man, and pulled him to shore.
She raised her hands before her, suddenly queasy, suddenly infuriated at the repugnant thought of the water being despoiled. She turned around to look up at dawn slowly cresting elven ramparts, the great blue-stone gates sealed closed, and the guard lined along it. For all their self-sequestration, havoc coursed through the veins of the land down to this peaceful place.
She balled up fists and smacked them against the water around her ribs.
Who dared? She looked into the darkening current.
She took a step and almost ploughed into the Elfking in all his soaking fineries. He sheathed his sword and took her faintly green hands for inspection. It was, indeed, a poison.
“Listen to me, my Lord, you shouldn’t be in this water.” she began. He released her.
He stared into the water and bowed his head in concentration. But she’d expected him to be persistent in nature. He was a King, after all.
Lusis ducked her head, “Elfking, please listen-”
His hands spread in the water, and his deep voice murmured in elvish.
The radiance she’d seen – like that of a candle inside him – increased itself. It spread across his chest and limbs, climbed up into his throat, bubbled into the back of his mouth, and shone out of his lips and eyes. His hair floated, lit up a white-gold, but wherever it still touched the river she saw that the light didn’t merely reflect, it also spread out from him, through the water. His words had been soft, but they’d grown as inexorable as wave-after-wave against shore – tides that were as endless as the elves themselves. Then a turning point where the glow flowered out around him like an opening bud. Light encircled him and then rushed through the river in both directions. Exhausted in this place.
And it was blinding. Lusis blinked in the sudden darkness, and clutched the Elfking’s hand for balance. When she realized what she’d done, she quickly released him and backed away. The river slapped against her shoulders when she stopped. But she still stared at the tall King.
Though she couldn’t see his expression, the Elfking remained still as an effigy.
A throaty roar at her left captured her attention. Her dazzled eyes saw the first of the barges, engulfed in gusts of flame. She scarcely registered what it was before it leapt an outcropping, shoved along by what came behind it, and thrown aloft by the melt.
Lusis remembered yelling, “Go!”
He was quick enough to evade the missile this barge had become.
She dove down into the river. The light of flames above her only guide in this current-torn world of silt and darkness. She kicked and sank down into the deep, feeling branches snag her, suffering impacts with the bottom, with rocks she couldn’t see, and the ever-present current hurling her along. She surfaced for a breath of air and had no idea where she was. A tremendous crack sounded behind her. The crunch of wood on stone, and the shouting of elves.
And Lusis went under a second time.
There was a third.
Then she caught hold of the snake-like roots of a colossal beech tree. She sank her fingers into the spaces, and hung on against the whip of current turning her body around. Slowly, at first, she dragged her body upward. Her head cleared the water and she lay panting. Gasping. It was hard to catch her breath in such numbing cold.
“Aiya, Lusis Buckmaster!” velvety voices cried out along the river.
She couldn’t find her voice to shout back. It took minutes, until they were almost past her, for her to suck enough air to bellow. “Here!”
There was no sound of crashing through bushes or undergrowth, the green bank around her was suddenly studded with Silvan elves. Dorondir, shirt still undone at the throat, caught a branch and leaned out over her. He pulled her out of the water.
She scrambled up to her feet, numb with cold and looked at them.
Then she turned and raced on heavy, chill legs, back in the direction of the gates. What had she heard? Were the elves there safe? Were the petitioners?
Dorondir caught her about the waist and threw himself up into the nearby trees. They climbed upward until they were within reach of the wall.
He tossed them both at the blue stone ramparts above. A golden-haired elf in green swung out from them and scooped both Dorondir and Lusis to the wall-walk. Elves hurried in behind them.
She could see that the barge had collided with the gates of this place, and fire streamed up toward the trees that bordered the Halls of this kingdom.
Thranduil stood atop the ramparts in the firelight. He seemed consumed by sun now. His hands rose. The river roared up along wreckage like a living thing. Like a pair of watery hands feeling for heat. This repeated until both the fires quenched.
The Elfking’s head tipped back in relief. No fires in his forest. No deaths in his Halls today.
The white-hot crucible inside of the Elfking banked abruptly – from star to candle flame – and Lusis, panting and wretched as she was, felt a great surge of loss sting her throat. Lost in this curious world, she missed the inquiries from the elves that flocked to her, trying to judge her wellbeing.
Steed reached her. She stepped around him.
The Elfking tipped from the rampart. He fell in a long graceful arch, and it was his seneschals who caught him, Eithahawn, she saw, chief among them.
They’d been delivered.
He’d saved the river. That meant the groundwater hereabouts too.
That meant the trees, and everything that relied on the water in the area.
Sound rushed in right behind relief.
“Lusis, you’re bleeding.” Steed turned her head by the chin.
“Give her here!” Redd bellowed from below.
Lusis turned on her stiff, numb legs and dropped herself over the side of the wall into Redd’s waiting catch. He, in turn, spun in place and hurried back to the first bailey. “Hurry up, you lot! Open the passageway! She’s been in the river, she’s cold as ice and bleeding.”
But as numb and cold as Lusis felt, she knew the Elfking had just spent himself defending his Kingdom. She would have to wait behind his wellbeing.
The light of the Elfking was reported travelling the length of the river from Long Lake to the Grey Mountains. Its faint evanescence passed down the Anduin until the Old Forest Road, utterly spent by the time it reached the forlorn span of Gladden Fields. It bounced off the Grey Mountains so that its echo rolled to a stop at the gates of the Elvenking’s Halls again at midday. The Mirkwood elves paused in cutting away the wrecked barges and floating them down the river to watch the light fade.
Lusis was aware that the Elfking was still recovering from the expenditure of what she figured she could call ‘his magic’, though it seemed to be more of a raw force from within his very spirit. The King was still in his rooms at noon, which, apparently, was simply unheard of. All around her aching form, officials milled in throngs, conversing in low tones, and the work of the government was down to Eithahawn, the series of other seneschals, or it went undone.
Given the disruption in the citadel, it wasn’t difficult for Lusis to slip out of the sick rooms and wander. She stretched to loosen her stiffening body. Elves were fine healers, she felt. She’d have been in worse shape if that hadn’t been the case. Eventually, she went outside into the overcast day. The barge pieces were being ferried or carried downstream to an encampment where they were laid out as if the elves might rebuild the boats. But no effort was made to do, so at least not while she watched. And, eventually, put her back into assistance. Though cautiously.
“You should be resting,” Icar told her. He and the other Rangers had come to support this effort, though, admittedly, they hardly seemed to understand what was taking place. They’d have as soon chopped the remnants up for firewood and sold the rest as salvage. And maybe that would be the ultimate fate of these boats. But this hadn’t come to pass yet.
The bodies had been rescued from the river as well, and she was aware they’d been brought somewhere inside the Halls. She’d heard they were down deeper in chill rooms for preservation. She hoped they awaited identification and return to their loved ones – surely elves understood that. She didn’t like to think of the families down-river waiting for these boats to bump against the docks.
Instead, they got the ghost lights of the Elfking’s will along their river by dawn. It was an omen.
It took three days for Lusis to recover fully. This was a testament to the great power of the elf women who bundled around her bed several times a day to heal her. She was on her feet the second morning, if stiff, and urged to walk the stiffness out of her muscles. This is when she saw how busy Eithahawn was, learned how Dorondir and his like were on constant patrol in the woods, and witnessed the removal of the barges. Her own Ranger confederates had put their backs into the effort. They’d been grave when they’d seen the bodies wrapped in elven fabrics, carried by on ladder-like planks, in solemn procession down into the deeper stores. The elves had sung a threnody for them that she’d heard from her bed. Especially for the boy.
There were some, but not a lot of children here.
Three small children appeared on her bed on the second morning, full of chatter, and terrible at anything but elvish. A little curly-haired girl with huge pale eyes, and the sweetest little face. Her voice peeped. Lusis had hugged her, which seemed agreeable, and then praised her altogether too comprehensive drawing skills – odd for a little one, though perhaps not for an elf child. The two boys were much more active, climbing on things, or tussling on the end of her bed like velvety puppies.
The healer women had been horrified and carried them away for, Lusis thought, a scolding.
On the second day, she felt well enough to join her Rangers at the ‘reconstruction’ site. She was astonished at how complete the barges looked as they were being laid out. There she met a master-builder named Amondir. He was tall, lean, and handsome with hair the colour of cooked sugar. His eyes were a crisp blue, and he quickly assessed her and assigned her work. She was to move the smaller pieces to place in the puzzle-work of the larger wreckage. If he was able to figure out which ship belonged to which piece, then the piece had a small slip of paper she affixed with a drop of beeswax, and marked with elven numbers.
This was also the first day she ate meat among the elves. There was this delicious fish stew, thick with vegetables, doled out of vessels onto toasty, dense flatbreads that steamed in the predawn air. She ate three. Steed and Aric looked like they’d died and gone to the Clouds to live. At lunch they had a simple, but delicious hot meal with hunks of a different type of fish smothered in cheese. They washed it all down with fresh water and some stripe of thick ale.
The elves were very efficient workers. They were so coordinated in their motions, used to each other’s manner of work. At lunch they grouped up and talked about the ‘reconstruction’. They especially walked along sections where Lusis, and the crew of nimble elves she worked with, reconstituted the most damaged bits.
After lunch, Icar was moved into the crew to help with this. He had an eye for detail.
It was a long day’s work. She started at daylight, and worked away under lamps until she lay down beside a particularly tricky piece, and woke up in her bed.
On the third day, she had no more bruises. Her cuts had healed. Her body felt stiff, but hale. She felt ready for the tough-stuff. But she was set to work on the small pieces rather than the heavy work most of her men were doing.
The master-builder in charge, Amondir, told her, “You have a sense for it, friend. Great advances came yesterday as you and your Ranger-friend, Icar, worked with our crew. Your perspectives on human ship-building are a welcome boon.”
They particularly liked Redd for the heavy work. Something in elf constitution – maybe because they chiefly ate only plants supplemented, as far as she could see, with some fish-meat – kept them from getting truly burly with muscle. No such limitation on towering Redd. He and Steed, who was used to handling massive horses, were rested and watered most often, along with the largest elves, for they were called on to move the heaviest bits from place to place.
Lusis went where she was needed.
On the fourth day, she’d just reached the site when the candle-bright hair of Eithahawn standing in the gloaming damp of morning, caught her attention. Beside him, further from her, was the Elfking. They stood in the site with several of the elves in charge of various parts of the effort.
She went to her fish stew, relieved that she no longer saw a roaring fire or an oversized candle flame inside his torso whenever she looked at the King.
It was three more days of work before they were done.
The next day dawned. She woke in her bed, very early, to quiet. The spirit of Mirkwood had settled around her. There was uneasy peace of mind. The Elfking had left his apartments and walked – more appropriately, stalked – his Halls again. He was a collection of intensities, Thranduil.
She got up, bathed in the brass tub closest her, then dressed and wondered at the years of her life. Had he haunted the predawn halls this way, since her first breath? Probably since before. He would long after she was gone, and that was reassuring to her.
She tailed him, silently. He was swinging his sword as he went soundlessly through empty halls. Its white steel flicked like the tail of a cat behind him, occasionally making a whoosh as he moved the sword around him. It orbited him. She’d never seen anyone who could join their hands behind their back, and yet turn a sword so expertly. She tried it clumsily, and only just kept her sword from hitting the tiles.
The Elfking turned in place, far before her, looked her straight in the eye, and waited. When she didn’t move, he raised a cupped hand and simply tipped his long fingers toward himself a fraction. She’d seen that subtle elf gesture on the reconstruction site before, and it was ‘Come here’. If an elf made it with both hands, she’d found that meant you should really hustle.
Lusis minced up to him, painfully embarrassed. She bowed. “I apologize. I was up early and-”
His voice hummed through that furnace-room chest. “If you want to turn the sword, to truly understand it as it moves, you must stop persuading yourself it is a weapon.”
She looked up at him curiously. His imperious face with that wick of truth behind it. “Why?”
“A weapon is for cutting, hewing, a rigidity for bringing peace through harm and death,” his nearly immobile face tipped in her direction. His sword eased between them, a line of silver he held point-down. “A rigidity of purpose. But it was fluid once – a genius of fire, not earth. It would have run through your fingertips. It should be fluid in your thoughts as well.”
Then he handed her the sword.
Her eyes boggled. She took the thing. Her first thought was that it was heavy. Very heavy. But he flicked it around like it was made of dream-stuff. She used a lighter sword, and shorter, to very deadly effect, in fact. It was a struggle to even lift this one. She clutched the pommel and got ready to turn it in air. His hand flickered out as she did so. She could feel the sword go from heavy, to weightless, when he briefly stalled its motion.
“This sword…” she turned it again, and felt the muscles in her arm, shoulder, and torso try to get used to the weight, “… is magnificent. And… weighty.” She offered it back to him.
He took it. The blade flickered in air behind him and lay along his long back. He turned with his silver eyes averted, “The sword is light as vapour. It is the crown that is heavy.” He drifted away from her, but then paused because she wasn’t following him. A simple look in her direction fixed that.
With elves, she’d come to know, a lot was said without words. The elusive language of their moving bodies was so intricate that she thought it befitted an undying race. To the human eye their faces betrayed little. Only being among them for a time taught her to really mind them. This inarticulation got worse with age. His was worst of all. She could not escape the unsettling sensation that he wore a waxen mask throughout daily life. The words and conversations were elsewhere. Physical. And in looks.
She followed his broad shoulders upward until they reached a place very near the surface. There she passed through archways into broad rooms – what looked like a sitting room with a roaring fire in the center. There were thick pile rugs with scrupulous renderings of spring trees and new leaves on the floors. Long white wood benches padded with down cushions and swathed in furs. She slowed to look at the dome of ceiling.
The lights were suspended from silver chains, lamps mounted on the massive white bones of some beast, though she didn’t know what it might once have been. The glass in the lights was comprised of many hues that mixed into a very natural light, like daylight.
At the side of the room, large windows let out onto plum trees and an eddy-pool of river. She could see the constant slow churn of leaves and blooms in the water. Just below the sheer glass there was a long row of wood cabinetry with tiny drawers, like one would see at a high-end apothecary. He went to one and folded down in one glib motion. And he took something from inside before gliding back to her.
“I received this,” he said quietly, “from a friend. It has not the power to deliver you. As you see, it’s a small and uncontrived thing, like its maker, but there is much virtue and gentleness in it. Even now, it retains benevolence in every part.” As he spoke, he also fed a silvery necklace out of his palm. It came through his fingers, silver span by span, flawless pearl by pearl. Lusis’ eyes enlarged. The King’s voice slowed to a lulling cadence. “Against things that seek to wrench away your power, that sue to suffocate your voice, set this simple chain, cast of a good and worthy heart, the gift of a ring-bearer’s resolve. May it give you occasion to breathe freely, to think freely, and be free.”
Suffuse lights rotated inside the pearls. The metal seemed blue for a moment. It slithered into her hand like the down of a bird, lighter than a moth-wing.
The Elfking stared down at her palm. He laid his hand over the necklace there. “Wear it in health, Ranger of the North.”
Lusis backed away from his touch, from the steady burn inside him when he exerted his will.
She bowed and lifted the fine thing before her eyes. There was no telling how old it was or who had given it to him, but she couldn’t contain the honour of having been presented with it by the King. The door behind her tapped.
The Elfking’s expression smoothed to waxen cool. His head turned in that direction. “Enter.”
Eithahawn came in. He carried a long velvet coat with him, embroidered with vines and birds, deep cherry in colour. The Kingdom’s seneschal saw her in the room and paused, perfectly motionless, as horses can be motionless, but deeper, as if even his vessels had been given pause.
Lusis turned and stalked across the room. “Eithahawn, good morning.”
“Good morning, Lusis Buckmaster,” he laid a hand over his chest and stepped aside for her. She could feel his sea-blue eyes follow her as she minced away. Those were the King’s rooms then.
She held her hand up as she walked, and marveled at the necklace. At that moment, walking in the Halls of the Elvenking, she found the thing inexpressibly lovely. Too beautiful for her to wear. Except he’d literally told her wear it in health.
So she put it on. He was a big elf, Thranduil, and this would have run down the thickness of his chest. The chain was long on her. It swayed in air far below her breasts, which made her laugh. She doubled it up and tucked it down into her shirt. Nothing proved the Elfking wanted the intelligence she carried like this gesture. He’d thought about how to get it, and his evaluation had come down to the chain. He needed her to unplug her throat, and Lusis wanted the same.
A chain against a rope?
She’d bet on the chain.
Let it work.
She plumped her memory for the stories Redd had told her. Ring-bearer. She hoped she was wrong about what a ring-bearer was.
On her thirteenth round of the guest hall’s open center, Icar jogged to join her. “There you are! We’re all about to head to the, uh, cavern where everyone gets breakfast-”
Lusis glanced over him. He was so scrubbed and proper. His clothes clean and mended. His hair was clipped into a semblance of decency. It made her smile. “Those rooms are the Sunrise rooms. The elves gather there when the weather’s bad, so they can see the dawn come over the Lake of Leaves.”
He looked baffled, “What’s that? And how do you know about it?”
“The Lake of Leaves is what they call the valley in the middle of the Halls. It’s full of fruit and nut trees. Edible plants. It’s sort of like a breadbasket, seeing as most of the bread is made out of nut flour.” She raised a hand in greeting to Redd and Steed. Aric was already picking at leafy greens seeing as, for the first time in his life, he’d been forced into the position of learning to have a preference among them. A tall healer strolled by, carrying the curl-headed little artist girl with her and the little girl bubbled at Lusis and reached for her. Lusis waved back. “And I know it because I asked Eithahawn, the seneschal.”
She was surprised to see Redd talking to Dorondir.
“Lusis,” he greeted her with his genial face. It was warmer and more mischievous than the expression he used when in formal greetings in the field. She’d discovered that the elf was just friendly.
“Starving,” she nodded in his direction.
“I’ve heard the kitchens have something for our Ranger guests today.” The tall elf scanned their faces with his too-pale eyes. They were all so eager. “It is gratitude for your willing help in the last days and for Lusis, who threw herself into the river after the King.” He seemed pleased by this.
She nodded up at him, “He’s bold. Picking up the bodies is something he should consider delegating in the future. I’ve seen them set as lures, or traps – full of poison – before.”
Dorondir inclined his head to her. “The poison has yet to be identified. It is a good thing that the Elfking’s great admiration for the river allowed him to counteract it.”
“Oh gods,” Aric cried from the outcropping that was known as the Elfking’s Table. “There are ham steaks down here!”
Lusis felt a large grin stretch her face and she nodded to Dorondir before she raced down the steps to see if it could be true. In fact, all the Rangers vanished down the stairs to the King’s Table in record time. Lusis among them. Dorondir’s musical laughter could be heard behind them.
They got down to denuding the platter of ham. It was close to forty minutes of silence, apart from the clank of knives and – for those who used them – forks. And munching.
“I’m not a fan of indoors, and not of cooking indoors either… but not bad at all!” Redd laughed and cocked his head at the slab on his plate. “They cooked it in honey and apples.”
“Brilliant,” Aric said around a mouthful of ham and flatbread, “every last one of them.”
Lusis nodded in agreement. Apple was a bit unorthodox, but it was a very tart and tangy apple, whatever it was. It suited the ham. She licked a finger. “What’s happening on that reconstruction site?”
“The Elfking will be going out there today,” Icar pulled a face. “I’m supposed to go too.”
“Why?” Lusis cocked her head at him.
“I know about ships. I mean… I don’t in another sense. Just I’ve drawn so very many. But they seem to think this is some kind of actual knowledge, these elves.”
“It is,” Redd reassured the young man. “What an artist knows about the way things should look, that is a special form of knowledge. Relax.” He’d read about it in the past.
“The Elfking, though…” Icar looked across at his brother, who was chewing on a hambone. His brother spit it out on the plate and wiped his mouth in his sleeve.
“What are you worried about?” Aric chuckled at his brother. “Don’t you think he’s a bit fancy to be giving you nerves? He’s not going to do you harm, Icar.”
“He is intimidating,” Steed wiped off in a cloth napkin and was considerably less messy. “Even when he pitched off the wall after he did that… whatever it was, I guess, spell on the river, he looked, I’m not sure how to put it, but it is overwhelming. So. Do I think he could hurt Icar? Fires, he could kill Icar and Icar would take a few seconds to figure it out.”
Icar sat upright and looked stricken.
“Do I think he would?” Steed’s brows went up. “I think that is extremely unlikely.”
He wasn’t even twenty years old, Icar. Lusis wasn’t much older, but she did feel more experienced than Icar was. She felt for him. He was positively gifted with a sword, like a painter with a brush, but he was otherwise a gentle creature. As usual, she felt she had to help him.
“Don’t be afraid of him, Icar,” Lusis cut into her third ham-steak. She sucked air and nodded, “When he’s staring at you, he’s listening. Or thinking. In my experience, he is not trying to threaten you, or, say, burn your eyeballs out of their sockets – which is how I feel sometimes. Uh, when his face shows nothing, he’s probably giving you… space to answer him honestly, rather than say something to please him, or so I’ve noticed. And watch him closely. He’s got a lot of self-control. These things other elves do,” she demonstrated a low flat-handed motion in air, which she now knew meant ‘leave’, “they do by accident sometimes, they do it without thinking. He doesn’t do things like that unless something snaps.”
“I have a feeling if he’s angry at you, you’ll know it,” Redd clapped the younger man on the back. “But maybe you should take Lusis. She’s had the most time with the Elfking. She can,” he cocked his head, “read him pretty well. And there is the fact he’s given her a gift, so she has his favour.”
All eating stopped.
Aric mangled the word, “Gift?” around a hunk of ham. Then spit the hunk out in case he needed to say anything further. Which he did. “Gift, Lusis?”
Icar glanced. “Brother, she did go in the river to protect him. Maybe he was touched by that?”
“No,” Lusis waved the idea away. “It’s a chain that will give me a chance against the shadow-rope around my neck. It was a gift given to him once.” She tugged her shirt down and let it slide out from her skin. It shone against the dark fabric and proceeded to look whitely bright and extravagant.
“That’s… that’s a fortune in gold and pearls,” Redd told her calmly. “A queen’s ransom.”
Aric bared his teeth, “He gave you that and you just took it? Are you a fool? What do you suppose he’s going to want in exchange for that kind of opulence?” Aric threw down the napkin he’d begun to unfold. “Lusis!”
“Nothing?” Lusis’ brows drew down.
Now Aric rubbed the spot between his eyes and sighed heavily. “You hapless… he’s male.”
She saw what he was suggesting and sputtered, “It’s unthinkable. I’m not even his kind, and look at me, Aric. As you’ve pointed out before, I’m a mess. He’s a living, breathing, daystar.”
He just shook his head, “You really are senseless.”
“One does not earn a woman like goods, Aric. You don’t work hard, stash away your pay, and put it against the purchase of a person’s essence.”
Aric pointed at her. “Did you tell him that? I don’t know if he’d agree.”
“I suspect he already knows,” Lusis snapped, unkindly. “Given his great age, he probably picked it up along the way. He was married, after all. Women don’t like being treated like possessions. I doubt he would have gotten away with that. Elf women tend to stand on equal footing, I’ve noticed.”
“She’s such a child,” Aric told Steed in an aside.
“It’s not a gift between a man and a woman.” Lusis fumed. She could laugh at the thought, but found she was too furious and made too self-conscious by it.
Aric snorted, “Be sensible! What is he if not first a man?”
“A King,” said Redd. “So keep your voice down and don’t forget it, Aric. It’s a dangerous thing to disregard. But I don’t understand how a necklace is going to help in your situation, Lusis, I admit.” He leaned forward and stared at the chain. “It’s finely made… elvish construction, maybe?”
Well, she wasn’t sure about that either. “It’s supposed to help me talk about what happened in the shadow of the mountain.” But she hadn’t tried it. She pressed her hand over its warm weight. Nothing seemed to have changed. But she breathed deeply and tried it from the top. “I was actually attacked outside of the camp we set. You were sleeping, but I was restless that night. Something about the land was bothering me. I felt almost… guided, and so I decided-” She gave a cough and stopped quickly. Her fingers wrapped the necklace.
“That was better,” Icar noted.
She stood up.
“Still not great.” He rose to catch her by the shoulders.
Blood poured into her face – she could feel it go red. Honestly? It did feel like a noose. She reversed the grip she’d taken on the necklace and pulled outward. The pressure let up. Lusis bared her teeth at the table. She resolved that whoever stood at the other end of this rope was going to suffer.
Her fit was causing a great deal of distress among the elves.
Their cool hands travelled over her back. She heard elves calling out above her. When she managed to sit back, Dorondir pressed a hand to her cheek. The healer she’d seen just moments before appeared and set her little girl on a chair. The tiny elf held very still, her pale eyes watching.
“I’m okay,” Lusis gasped and laid a hand on the healer’s upper arm. “I’m okay.” The noose yanked at her. She fought her way through the discomfort and, abruptly, she could breathe more easily. “I got it. I got through. I’m okay.” She couldn’t help but grin. The chain worked.
Dorondir set both hands on her bent back and muttered a few elvish words. Then he added, “May we find the one responsible for your torment soon, Lusis, and deliver you from this torture.”
She sank into her seat again, and glanced around the table. Redd was up with his sword in hand. Steed had pulled Icar out of the way of the elf healers, and Aric stood, graven. The most unusual being at the table was the small elf girl whose face was very serious. She promptly extended her arms to Dorondir and he picked her up with the unthinking naturalness of a relative. Maybe that was how the elves treated elf children. She tucked her serious face against his neck, but her unblinking eyes followed Lusis alone.
The healer came to fetch her from the patrol guard.
When the room calmed, they returned to their meal. Dorondir departed for his several hours of patrol. None of the Rangers felt terribly hungry anymore, but there was no way they would waste this meat after days of having none. In the end, they wrapped slices of the ham into bread and bound them in napkins to take the rest, and, since Rangers weren’t very good at being inside, they resolved to go to the reconstruction site.
The queue to the throne-hall was long as they walked along it for the outside. Several people were sobbing. Lusis glanced over the humans and realized, “They’ve come down the river from the human towns.” She glanced up at the slanting sun on Redd’s craggy features, “Relatives.”
“The family had arrived.” Redd’s lips compressed into a line. “May they endure.” His head bowed. Likewise, Lusis lowered her head to them as she passed.
They arrived at the reconstruction site to find it empty. This meant that it was under careful watch of the elven guards hereabouts. Lusis had witnessed this studied neglect so often she felt she could never be fooled by the appearance of elven indifference to a place or thing again.
“Lonely, this bend in the river.” Icar swished his sword through air and cut a black fly in two. He was really good, Icar. Lusis wondered if he’d stopped thinking of the sword as a weapon, like the Elfking. If so, what did he think it was? She took out her own shining sword and spun it in her hand. She realized she’d begun to think of it as an extension of her will.
They’d come here to help Icar, to give him time to sketch.
It was also a comfort to her when she felt unsettled. She slid it home and looked to the North. She didn’t see a single elf nearby. “I want to get a better look at this stuff.”
They scaled a tree at the top of the site. Icar got into a comfortable fork and began drawing the barges from the wreckage site, but as they would have appeared when whole. Lusis stood behind him, one hand hooked over a limb above her as she compared his work to the barges below.
Her head tipped to one side. They were so badly burned, these wrecks, but there was something odd about the pair of them that she couldn’t quite bring to the surface of her thoughts. She lifted herself up to higher branches and then worked her way down, aware, unlike most people, that even small shifts could cause an artist trouble when drawing, and also aware that a shift in concentration was just as detrimental. She dropped from the tree and into a crunch on the ground, one hand down in the grass, and the other on a knife at her side.
She’d heard something.
It turned out to be the Elfking’s procession who swept into the field light as a breeze.
“Don’t bother stabbing at us, Ranger,” one of the King’s personal guards brushed by her. They were fleet, fast, and they didn’t bother trying to seem genial or move in ways that humans might not find alarming. They were old. They were hunters. Perfect companions to the King.
The Elfking passed the tree, his hair tucked under an ornate silver circlet, steel-clad, wearing birdwing pauldrons and a long cloak whose shoulders were sculpted into feather-like embellishment. He looked stately and imposing, and Lusis instantly pitied Icar, who was still in the tree, for the armor did nothing to make the Elfking seem more approachable. Without the softness of the flowering branch crown, he looked sleek and razor-sharp, something that the steel vambraces underscored.
She followed his soundless greaves and the broad shoulders of his floating cape.
“Are we fighting?” Aric hustled up to her and whispered. “Are we fighting today, Lusis?” He looked excited and uncertain at once.
“I don’t know,” she exhaled the sudden nerves she felt. “Be ready.” She raised her sword above her head and saw the notion strike Steed and Redd at once. They shifted their body mass. Steed took down his bow, at the same time Redd put a hand on his sword.
The Elfking slowed, and even stopped. His head turned a fraction. Lusis knew that meant she was to join him, but she wasn’t aware whether that meant her, or Icar. She looked back at the tree-line and scooped air toward herself, waving Icar in.
Then she stepped shoulder-to-shoulder with the King.
“I heard that you had an episode this morning.” His voice was subdued. Calm. Or exhausted.
She didn’t confirm or contest. “The necklace got me through it. Thank you for your help.” She turned her head and gave a small bow at him.
“Stop that,” he told her tautly. “Listen to me. You were able to tell your men that the assault happened outside of your campsite, after you felt drawn into the wild. Is this so?”
“It is.” She didn’t take her eyes off his pale profile.
His straight hair fell across the metal of his fitted breastplate, which made the shape and depth of his upper body so cruelly clear. She wondered if she would be able to see the candle-flame of his life through that steel as she had in the past. An odd thought struck her, that none of the others mentioned the light in him either. Did they take it for granted? The Elfking had no idea she thought of this, and nodded at the wreckage laid out so neatly around him. “You helped to reconstruct this.”
“Some of it.” She half-turned at the sound of Icar arriving behind her. “Icar and I both worked on the smaller fragments, the parts with the most damage.”
Thranduil’s tall body pivoted.
Icar shrank back from the Elfking, which, to Lusis’ mind, was a very natural reaction to the King.
The Elfking stared down at Icar with the force of a burning sea-wind. It was no wonder that Icar’s cheeks reddened. His skin might have peeled away under such consideration. The Elfking’s head tipped. “Were you drawing?”
Now Icar stammered, “I… I was. That is what I was doing. Yes.”
“It’s true, I was.” Icar handed over the leather sketchbook. A guard stepped in and took it. He rifled the pages, his expression utterly flat. Icar wilted back, he glanced across at Lusis, whose chin rose in response, and her lips curved up at the corners. He should be proud of such an aptitude.
“My King. The ships.” The guard turned the book and directed it to the King. His pale head cocked. His long hair slid on steel.
Icar stepped in and cleared his throat. “So… this is how it works, here. If you…” he carefully reached into the pages. “If you flip the thin paper down, you can see... how the damage would look if we could just pick these ship pieces up and put them back together again. The shaded areas are the burnt parts.” He turned pages. “I’ve been out here a lot, so I have it from all sides. Here’s the stern. Here’s the bottom of the boat. I just finished the barge on the right from above. That’s here. What’s missing… I dotted the lines for that.”
The Elfking straightened and turned to take in Icar. He actually looked pleased. “You have your uses, Ranger.” And his hair spilled into a flaxen sheet from his pauldron, snagged by the rising breeze that carried it over the book, and elf and Ranger hands alike.
“You purified the river, my Lord,” Icar took his hands back and looked at them. His fingers curled, “That was astonishing to witness. And your people have been so welcoming. It made me realize that I wanted to be of use to Mirkwood.”
He looked at Icar, “If that is true, we have the same goal. Show me what you know of this wreckage, Icar Awnson.”
Amondir stood, quite out of nowhere, along the path they were about to travel. He bowed when the King came to view, and then joined the procession of people along the reconstruction site. Lusis remained in the King’s wake, just close enough for his silvery-blond hair to billow out and brush her on occasion. At least that might give him a sensation that his back was covered.
“This is the second barge,” Amondir said to the king. “The first is just across the field.”
“But there’s a lot to be learned from the second,” Icar said on the end of that pronouncement. “I think it was disabled in much the same way as the first, but it’s less damaged, not having suffered a collision with the great gates.”
“This is quite true,” Amondir agreed and then gestured at the stern of the boat. “Let us begin.”
Now Lusis began to see the world in a slightly tilted manner. A world in which the trace of something stretched back up a chain of postulations and permutations to a specific action, and the absence of something else could prove even more damning. It reminded her of tracking a kill in the wild, or following the papery sign of the passage of orcs over stone. That’s what Icar and Amondir were about. But the quarry in this case was much more nebulous, and the signs of passage were obscure.
The Elfking processed this information without a word. He didn’t look at either elf or human during his walkthrough. Just the ships. His pale eyes seemed in a reverie.
“-where the man steering the boat would stand. Looking straight back, you can see that this rudder should extend out from the stern into the water and this chain,” he showed the king a rusted chain that dangled over the side, “should follow to the rudder for steering.” Icar crouched down and tapped the wood that had been placed near the port side, roped off and marked as the stern.
Amondir offered a hand to help Icar up amid the dodgy footing of pieces of boat. “On the ship that collided with our mighty gates, my Lord, that rudder impacted with the riverbed. It took a long time for us to recover it from the water. It was buried deep in the silt and soil. We found that rudder was demolished to an extent that the story it tells is now misleading to us. But it seems we can infer from this one, in its more pristine state, that the chain and rudder there may have suffered similarly.”
Icar nodded at Amondir. “Yes, it’s the bow that took the heavy damage on the second barge. Both bows are in really poor shape. We wouldn’t have much detail on them if the first hadn’t smacked the gates, uh, my Lord, but since that wreckage fell into the shallows, Lusis and your other elves were able to get almost all of it over. Some of the second barge is halfway to the sea.”
They passed Redd, who bowed to the King and endured a moment of the elf’s great blue-silver indifference passing across him. Lusis smiled at the huge Ranger. He feared, nearly revered, this storied Elfking. He was pale, quiet, and grave whenever the Elvenking was in their company. She found that kind of wonder sort of endearing in brusque, tough Redd.
“This is the strange part.” Icar and Amondir both stooped to the rudder bits. Amondir spread his hands over the wooden rudder pieces.
“Eyelet for the chain on the rudder. It’s the anchor-point that pulls the rudder in one direction or another.” He tapped the deformed, broken eyelet.
“The connecting eyelet is in normal condition on the stern.” Icar pointed out. He lifted a chain now threaded with a black rope and extended it to Amondir. It didn’t reach.
The Elfking cocked his head, “Problem.”
“Yes,” Amondir agreed. “We thought, at first, it fell away into the river. But it’s significantly heavy, and wouldn’t have floated for long. We raked through the riverbed for it. No sign.”
The Elfking dropped to a crouch, his blue eyes scanning the end of the chain. His head tilted and took in the rudder. It was made of hardwood with steel encasing the harder edges, riveted in place. But it was also badly blistered. His expression was empty as he straightened and looked toward the river. He returned his gaze to the elf, and then took in Icar. Impassive.
“This damage is not accidental, particularly not if it occurs in both barges. Was the chain located for the first barge?” It was strange how patient he seemed at the moment. It wasn’t a characteristic many would associate with the Elfking. Or so Lusis thought.
“Some portion of it was. It was snapped into several pieces. In fact, it was down to single links in places,” Amondir noted.
“Was any of it connected to the rudder?”
Icar and Amondir exchanged a glance. It was Amondir who answered. “No, my King.”
“Compare this to the chain from the first barge and report,” he told them. “And there are humans from Long Lake in the field, I should tell you.”
Amondir shot to his feet with his eyes narrowed in a way that was almost threatening. “If they disturb even a splinter of this thing we’ve done for them, my Lord, I may have to-”
“Peace.” The Elfking told his stormy compatriot. “It is done for us all, Amondir. So should we all be able to review it.”
Amondir inhaled deeply, steadied himself and bowed to his Elfking, but greatly this time.
Temper-temper, was all Lusis could think to herself. So they weren’t made of moonlight, elves.
The humans numbered close to twenty and walked down the field together. Lusis sucked air seeing them coming, because the signs of their woe were like screams after being surrounded by elves as she’d been. She shook herself and began looking for weapons. A soft gesture of her right arm, and Red moved his position out further. She turned her head toward the river bend to their left without moving her eyes off the thronging humans and Aric eased along a copse of trees, nearly lost in his green cloak, ready to flank them. In a crowd, trouble always leads, so Lusis stepped away from the Elfking and put herself in the way of the advance, though the action was understated.
People in pain could be unpredictable.
The people in this procession were led by a handsome and tall man with sandy brown hair and a day’s stubble. He was neat, well-dressed, and furious. He came just inside human earshot in the field before he shouted, “What is this? What’s the meaning of this? Is this a salvage?”
“It is not,” Amondir stepped forward and told them with a gracious bow of his head.
The man balled a fist, “I’m not talking to you, sharps, I’m talking to the big bloody Elfking.”
Sharps was one that Lusis had heard before. It meant the shape of an elf ear and belonged in the same class of increasingly derogatory remarks with hooks, for the hooked ear-tips, fancies, and ladies. She winced when she heard it.
The Elfking’s fine-looking countenance had gone to that practiced nothingness, the thing she called his doll face, which Lusis hated. That pleasant mask wasn’t a comfort. It was chilling. The humans before him began to fan out among the ruins, all the better to be away from him. But they could only go so far. The guard, previously ‘ignoring’ the field, were now in an extensive line along it from one side to the other, just mere arm’s spans apart. Their line extended to either side of the King.
“Are these to be your spoils, Elfking?” The man shouted at the King of Mirkwood.
“No,” Lusis warned him as he came upon her.
“Are you to pull all the nails and melt them down for elf armour!?”
The Elfking said back a dry, “Dear me, no, I’d die under such pitiable steel.”
Lusis actually looked at him, but Thranduil’s inexpression hadn’t changed a jot.
“You have no care for these people! You dare drag our boats to salvage – they aren’t yours! Isn’t the river tithe enough for you, oh King of Greed?” the man sucked in more air to snarl at the King. “Ah, but what odds? It’s only us humans who died. We all do in time, yes? Human lives are the blinking of lightning bugs in the dark to you! You scarcely see a difference in the world, since one of us is as trifling as the next. Now, no more of your nonsense. I demand that you release these boats to us.”
Redd bared his teeth and started forward.
“Don’t you dare,” Lusis told him, and he staggered to a halt. But in many ways, Thranduil was his King, someone he’d discovered as a child, who had filled up his lonely imagination with a being larger than life. Which, as it turned out, was not a bad description of the real thing. By now insulting the King Redd had found was as tolerable as insulting his line.
“My Lord,” said the guard to the King’s right. “Jan Kasia – Master of Boats. Lake Township.”
“I see,” the tall Elfking’s body scarcely moved. He was like a silver-gilded sculpture, apart from his hair, which flicked about his shoulders coasting on the wind. “You will have your broken vessels, Master of Boats. I have no care for them. But you will get them when we are ready to release them to you, as they were used in an assault on our gates. Your request for salvage is of secondary importance to the Kingdom’s needs.”
Jan Kasia pulled a face. “Well isn’t that shocking?”
Behind Kasia’s back, a woman in partial armor retorted. “You have no right to dictate to us.”
The Elfking’s head began to tip, “I am King in these woods.” His tone had taken on the weighty sharpness of a man with whom it was dangerous to wrangle.
Lusis watched until the woman’s hand squeezed her short-sword’s hilt before she lashed out her sword and shook her head. Her voice was hard, “Lady, this is about to pass from one tragedy into two.”
“Girl, put that down,” said the Master of Boats, “You’re men, not elves! Know your place.”
“I do know it,” Lusis snapped. “Do you? You are quick with accusations, but your wits are dull. Why would the Elfking do all this? Why put such manpower into laying out these broken boats with such painstaking care? In a salvage, wouldn’t you pile the wood with the wood? The metal with the metal? But they look like boats instead.”
“He did it because he wouldn’t want to miss anything of value,” the swordswoman with Kasia moved around to the front of the Master of Boats, her short sword out between them.
“Don’t try her,” Icar called out, at once. “Lady, don’t try her! You will fall.”
An armed man joined the swordswoman.
“No, that won’t help,” Icar winced.
Lusis made certain her voice would carry, “He does this because if you want to prevent something from happening twice, you need to understand it once. How does that harm you, I ask you? How does that show disregard for human lives?”
But her words had hit Jan Kasia and cut through his blind anger. He glanced over Lusis, with her sword at ready, yet unwilling to engage the Lake Township guard, and then up at the cold glassy face of the Elfking. And as much as it plagued his ego to do so, the Master of Boats said. “Allar, Carin, stand down from this woman.”
“Woman Ranger,” Lusis told them. “Northern Ranger.”
Both the Lake Township guards blinked at her, and backed away.
Silence fell between them. The motionless statue that was Thranduil suddenly turned his head, “Move out the guard. I have no need of them.”
“My King,” said the elf guard. His lack of ease wasn’t obvious in anything but the way in which he lingered on the word King. But the elves turned in splendid precision and walked to either side of the reconstruction area. They could cut the humans down with arrows in a twinkling from so close, but Lusis didn’t bother mentioning this. It wasn’t going to come to that. She was determined.
“I tire of explaining,” the Elfking sighed. He closed his eyes for long enough to gather his fading patience, “When I say this to you… choose to believe. Like the forest, the river is in our custody. We safeguard traffic upon it.”
Kasia bit down on his ire. At the same time, surprised that he felt such blind resentment for the King of Mirkwood, he did air some umbrage when he growled, “Well, you did a poor job protecting it.” But he didn’t say the angry and insulting things he might have.
“Such a lapse is a… it is an unusual circumstance for my people,” the Elfking turned, his long cloak billowing out around him. He took a few steps, hesitated, and glanced backward.
Lusis stepped aside, “You can join him.”
The Master seemed surprised. “Carin, come with me. Allar, remain with the families.”
“They may come,” the Elfking said, “simply mind where you step. It is days of work, to lay these ships out, Master of Boats.” The King was very calm.
Lusis fell in behind the Elfking with Carin on her right. Both of them eyed one another balefully. Icar and Amondir walked, with the elf beside his King, and Icar beside the Master of Boats.
“I… I don’t understand the purpose of this spectacle,” Jan looked at the wreckage beside him. “We lost good men here. It is hurtful to humans to have this on display.”
The Elfking stopped to consider the man, “It is our failure.” He was blunt. And was clear that the words cost him, and Lusis could hear the whoosh inside her head as the King’s wide chest – that bright furnace of his – began to burn with a white-hot ferocity. She imagined the love he must feel for his Silvan elves to so hate speaking a word that conjectured they had failed.
And that he had failed them.
Icar glanced at the man, “The point is to learn what happened to these barges. Let me explain to you how this works. Amondir is in charge of this site,” he indicated the dark-haired elf. “The rest of us work under his direction. Please believe me, these barges have been handled with care. We spent days and nights, in shifts, bringing them here, and even the smallest of pieces were recovered. Then we tried as best we could to reconfigure them. In the end we have a record of the damage that was done to them. In some limited ways, the ships show injury over time. We’re looking for signs that lead back to the earliest damage.”
They walked the boats around with Amondir and Icar giving the full explanation. This was further fleshed out by the Master of Boats. Lusis and Carin forgot their animosity by then, they were both too curious about the findings to think about one another. For his part, the Elfking was perfectly silent. A pillar of white jade. His face was as blank as the face of a mirror as he listened.
Eventually, they all stood by the rudder. Jan knelt and touched the thing with careful fingers. He studied the chain when Icar handed it to him. And then looked up at the mirror-like eyes of the King. “No. We inspect the boats. This one was in perfect working order. It was launched only six months ago, but when I look at this, even the steel on the rudder… it’s corrupted. The colours are… wrong. There’s blue through this still and purple. It’s blistered – bubbles of steel chipping off.”
“The barges were burning,” Icar explained, “at points parts of the ships left the water.”
“For that long? The rudder, and these steel caps are at the lowest point of the boat.” Jan told him. “It would have had to turn upside down to burn this badly.”
“To blaze intensely enough to burn away the rope and break the chain,” the Elfking tapped the chain with the toe of his boot.
Icar looked up at the Elfking for a moment and then dove for the chain again. “But…” he stared at the links, and then handed the chain over to Amondir.
“Discoloured… and the break itself is relatively smooth. This is a slice. But the chain is burnt and warped there as well as if it was subjected to great heat.” Amondir also stared up at the King. “But that would mean there was a fire… underwater, my Lord.”
The Elfking’s face was grave, and his voice was dry. “Yes, it would.” He began walking back up the line of humans. They scattered out of his way as he went.
Jan Kasia stood with the chain in his hand, “Elfking. What do you know?” his voice stammered and the chain clanked as he released it to the ground, “For mercy’s sake, my Lord. If this had happened further up the river, or closer to Lake Town-”
The Elfking turned in a swish of cloak. “It does not matter where on the river such an atrocity happens, Master of Boats.” But he waited with his proud head tipped up, for the rest.
The man tried to marshal his forbearance in dealing with the ageless monarch. “Elfking, if we know what we face, we would be safer.”
“You know what I know.” He paused when he found himself faced with Lusis. She’d been listening too hard to move out of his way, and now he looked at her critically.
She hurriedly stepped aside.
“But that’s not quite true, is it?” Kasia nodded in the direction of the white-golden elf. “You remembered something when you looked at that rudder and chain. You saw the damage to the metal and wood, and you heard me say the boat had seen six months of service, and something came to you, did it not?” It was true. The Master of Boats was right.
The Elfking’s smoothness melted into something very near a smirk. His head tipped to one side as he observed, “Clever-clever, young Master of Boats. But more needs doing, yet.”
“We need to know to be safe.”
“So you shall.” The Elfking turned to face the wreckage. “Merilin, take your section to the banks of Long Lake and encamp in their woodlands. Mind the waterway and passage into Long Lake.”
At that, close to thirty of the armored elves on the field stepped out of line, turned, and marched straight off the green, no questions asked. The King stopped beside the thing that had distracted him to begin with. A human woman crying as quietly as she could, into her shawl. She sat in the grass with her hand over an edge of a snapped splinter of railing, no bigger than a hand-span.
“I’m sorry, Lord elf,” said the young girl kneeling beside her. She gently eased the woman’s hand aside from the charred wood. “Arnuh. That’s her son’s name. He got in trouble on his first day because he carved it into the boat rail.”
The Elfking stiffened, silent for a moment. “We will answer this wrong.” He looked to Amondir before he turned and stalked off the field in a cloud of his elf-guards.
The elf, Amondir, took the fragment of railing from the wreckage, wrapped it in a pale green scarf, and handed it over to the grieving mother with a gesture at his chest and out to her. “I am sorry, lady.”
She curled her gnarled hand over his, which made Amondir jolt a little, but Icar gave a quiet nod in the elf’s direction.
Humans clung to one another, touched one another, more than grown elves did. Humans were spectacular fires that snuffed themselves in terrific explosions of life. And their time was short.
She thanked him, and then released him again. Amondir’s elven face was solemn as he rose. He turned to Lusis where she stood with Jan Kasia. “Ranger, this field should be emptied now. To be clear, these ships will be returned to Lake Township at the King’s command. Can you help?”
Kasia exhaled pent-up frustration and looked over the wrecked barges, “She doesn’t have to.”
Lusis was, by the end of that day, utterly exhausted. She could hear the soft sound of crying from the guest rooms across the hallway. The people of Lake Township had been down to see the bodies of their loved-ones. They’d arranged to bring them home for burial. The misery was more than the Rangers could easily endure. They went to the other hall to supply what assistance and comfort they could. It was nearly light when Lusis staggered to her sleeping area. She didn’t undress, didn’t take off her weapons, she simply sat on the rug and leaned her back against her bed. That was where she stayed until morning.
The warm body beside her turned out to be Eithahawn. He sat on her bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles beside her – elves were tall creatures. He smelled faintly like arnica and blackberries. His eyes were shut, and though she saw he was sitting erect, he seemed to be asleep. She gave his knee a gentle nudge and his head tipped right.
He smiled, quietly.
She nudged him again, and his long eyes opened to take her in. He said, “You cannot have slept well there, Ranger.”
“Sleeping on the bare stone flags in this place is better than the thickest blankets in the outdoors, Eithahawn.”
Still taking her in, he stretched his back a little. “Then we shall get you elven blankets.”
“Why are you napping on my bed?” she managed to get around enough to prop one arm up on the mattress. “You can’t have slept well either.”
“Sleep?” He seemed puzzled, but then curled up his legs under him. “Forgive me. You see, this was the only place I could find where no one would know to look for me.”
Lusis stood up and patted the pillow. “It’s all yours.” When she looked at him, he leaned on the footboard of the bed. His eyes half-shut.
“I actually came to speak to you, Lusis.”
She sat down by the pillows, thought it through, and handed him one. He set it in his lap and sank against the wood post at his back. Beyond him in the horn-shaped hall, the large heater and its hot water made the rooms comfortable. The glow of the fire through slats made his gold hair glow. “I’m listening,” she rubbed her eyes and felt the heaviness of her body on her pillow.
“The king interviewed the section head who should have been at the point of the river where the calamity happened. She reported that she saw the boats pass. She stood in plain view of the crew to watch the ships. She raised a hand to hail the captains from shore, but they were in no distress and, for the most part, they ignored her. With no call to be there, she withdrew into the forest to continue her sweep. She estimates it was a mere three to five minutes before she saw flames.” Eithahawn’s fingers smoothed the pillow case in his lap. He looked at the embroidery and then his fingers traced it.
“Didn’t she or her section see anything in the forest?” Lusis asked in confusion.
“Nothing before. Nothing after.” Eithahawn still stared at the pillow. “She and her section went for the wreckage. The men were all dead by the time she arrived.”
“Three to five minutes to kill eight men and burn two loaded barges.”
“Most of the barrels had pressed oil. Flammable.” His fingertip traced along a large stag on the pillowcase, rendered in red and crimson thread. The rider was in a gradation of silvers and pale blues with golden hair. “But she heard no cries, just the huff of a fireball. The men were overboard. The barges were out of control.”
Lusis looked at the same pattern he traced on the pillow she lay against. There was a long moment of silence as she pondered this. The men died in the first minute to two or three minutes, all eight of them. The boats were on fire between three and five minutes in. No one had uttered a sound.
No normal adversary could do such a thing.
“Jan Kasia, the Master of Boats, reported seeing the light of the Elfking. They didn’t know what it was until I told them. The poison hasn’t been identified, and the King’s light left precious little of it behind. Some was salvaged from the extremities of the men. Far too little to be virulent. We supplied this to the Master of Boats to bring to their apothecaries, lest they know it.”
“But the elves don’t know it?”
“Not that I know of. Not from the Silvan elves. A courier has been sent to Rivendell with the remainder of the sample we have. We shall see what comes of that.” His expression went dim, “I’m sure we shall have a warm welcome from Elrond there.”
“People don’t like him,” she assessed, “do they?”
“It is because he is exhausting.” Eithahawn’s eyes closed.
“Is that why you’re so tired?” Lusis got up from the bed and folded her comforter down until she could cover his long legs.
“That is because I haven’t slept for days,” Eithahawn said. His blue-green eyes opened as he watched this action curiously.
Lusis paused. “It’s a human… thing. It’s supposed to be comforting.”
He blinked a few times, “Among elves, such conduct would imply we are close.”
Gods, what did ‘close’ mean? Lusis felt like a foolish child. She released the blanket and backed away. “And we aren’t. I’m sorry.” She clasped her hands together behind her.
“No, we are not.” He agreed with this, “But I would like to consider you a friend.”
“I would too. Please forgive me, Eithahawn.” She bowed.
“Friends don’t often bow to one another.” He patted the bed and said, “Sit with me, Lusis.”
She sat down on the bed and said, “What now?”
“I’m not sure,” he turned the pillow around so that the embroidery faced her. “It seems the King is prepared to go afield to find this thing. He has been in this place since the flames of Dol Guldur faded. He has been in these Halls and forests,” Eithahawn indicated the figure on the deer, “and safe.”
Lusis brightened, “Is that him? Riding a deer?”
“That is a royal elk.” Eithahawn corrected her. But then his fingertips smoothed the fabric and it seemed to have changed some, the top of the pillow looked to be the Halls rather than the woods, with elves within. “I am not trained for fighting, Lusis. Not like you. Not like A Certain King, or his lofty royal son. I am trained to fulfil the purpose I serve now, and I have served since I was a young man. I function well in my role. The King is pleased with my work.”
“You must do,” she said to him, “the others speak highly of you.”
Eithahawn’s gaze remained on the pillow, “And now he is riding afield into some danger or… another. That is his role. First, he is a warrior King, Thranduil.”
She’d never heard any other elf speak his actual name. It was always ‘my Lord’, ‘my King’, ‘Elfking’, ‘Elvenking’ – what was it like to scarcely be touched by a loving hand, and not hear someone speak your name, for so long? She shook herself. “Something about this troubles you…. You’re worried about him. Worried for his safety.”
The seneschal didn’t move. “He has a son – Legolas, the ‘green-leaf’ as his name means. This means Thranduil does have an heir somewhere out there in the world. Though Legolas is loath to return here, it is not for lack of love. His father is just so prevailing a force. A nearly suffocating energy. All-consuming. He’s like fire in a book-room, devouring all, drinking all the air, burning brighter still.”
She touched her throat at the nagging thought of suffocation. “Are you worried about the line of succession to this Legolas person?” Elves were confusingly hard to interpret.
“Only in that he loves the fire that is his father, but must be apart from him, and his legacy, to breathe. I do not think he will ever again dwell among us.” He shut his eyes as if it was terribly painful to say these words. “I would not dare tell this to my Lord. It would…” now the elf lowered his head and shook it. “But that aside,” his green-blue eyes opened, “the Lord is loved here. You will be with him, I suspect, Lusis. I’m here to ask you-”
“To protect him?” she asked the elf. “To safeguard him?”
“To be willing to die for him,” he sat up to face her. “As I am. Without a right to ask it of you. But for my people and the Ages – he is a Sinda, yes, but he is our King.”
She looked at him a long moment. “I’m like an infant child fighting with a table-spoon compared to your Lord.” She chuckled at the comparison, “But, Eithahawn, I have risked my life for peasants and nobles since I was a young woman. You don’t have to ask me to do this. It’s what I do.”
He nodded at the pillow whose pattern had returned to the embroidered elf and his massive bull elk riding in the forest. He seemed terribly grateful.
Lusis smiled at him, “You and the Elfking are close.”
“No. No one is close to him.” Eithahawn’s brows went up. “Not even his son. And I am no great son of the Elfking, but my father was also one of the Sindar, and the young Lord’s friend. My parents were warriors. First, my father, and then, my mother, fell. I was alone. My Lord raised me from early days.”
Lusis’ smile wilted. “I see.” She got to her feet and walked even with his shoulder where she settled a hand on his silken clothes. Lusis looked down at his bowed head. “Then I swear to you I’ll protect your father. And you. Now stay here and get some rest, Eithahawn. He will need you sharp.” She lifted her hand and walked out of the hollow that was her assigned guest room. She headed down the trio of stairs thinking about how it felt, what it must be like, when your sensations said, in every part, you were a man’s child, and he had forgotten to be close to you, to see you as a son.
“And… and also me?” he called after her.
“We’re friends now,” was all she said in reply. He had no sword of his own so she would protect him as she protected all innocence. Or tried to.
She went to visit the people of Lake Township. She bathed with the few women who were awake over there, and listened to their plans and needs. She dried and dressed, and checked on her sleeping men.
Redd was heavily asleep, half-dressed and with a sword beside him. Icar had fallen on his bed fully clothed after the stress of his day. Only Steed and Aric had made it to bed properly. Eithahawn curled like a cat at the foot of her bed, a fortune in brushed and pearl-seeded silk fanned around him, off the bed and onto the floor. Maybe it was expected of a Kingdom’s-seneschal to wear clothes with silver and pearl tracery, or maybe the King actually did care for his vassal-son more than the seneschal knew. In any case, he was soft-faced and eternally young, and his golden hair fell around the pillow in a maddeningly even pattern of buckling waves. His head was cushioned beside the embroidery of his King.
It was light out. The Elfking was abroad by now, either in practice with that silver tongue of flame he called a sword, or at the work of solving the puzzle threatening his people. Lusis settled the life-giving necklace on her neck.
She’d made a promise. There was no time like the present to begin living up to her word.
The Elfking was doing just what Eithahawn feared.
He was organizing for a journey.
In fact, the Master of Boats, Jan Kasia, was with him, and they were talking about general conditions in the wood to the North East. There were a total of seven roads that were frequented by people passing out of Lake Township. Only two were acceptably passable this early in the spring. A mix of snow melt, flooding, and snow pack made the others undesirable for any kind of journey, while the two that could be traversed were still a difficult proposition. Elf woods grew, it appeared. With so many Silvan elves in this place, the spring meant heavy growth.
“It’s a wonder we’re not cursed for that as well,” The Elfking mused coldly.
“You won’t hear anyone complaining who has a field growing between here and the Lonely Mountain,” Jan shook his head. His mood around the Elfking was much improved, though they were still very stiff around one another. And very blunt. When Jan had realized that the elves had recovered all the crewmen from the wreckage, and then bound them in cloth, and preserved them for their families, things had gone more smoothly. The elf who cared for the dead – a truly aged Silvan woman who looked, of course, no older than Lusis – had offered to insert glass eyes for the humans, seeing as their own were missing.
The offer still stood.
“About the Lonely Mountain,” the Elfking glanced up from the map he lounged beside, his hair falling in a shining pool over East Bight, “How is the distribution of wealth proceeding?”
“Well enough. It will take generations to clear it out. Management is down to the Dwarves and Men together,” he paused. “I know some of your people died in that battle. But the rumour has it you have only a trunk of emeralds and a handful of smith-worked white gold and diamonds for your losses. You should have a greater share.”
“We have what was agreed upon,” the Elfking exhaled. “Trust that I do not deceive my people.” He bristled a little, but then smoothed out like a large white fox. “I have heard rumours that there are men flooding into the area. That the existing towns are expanding, and new communities – some lawless – are being founded.”
Jan nodded, “Yes, they call it a gold rush.”
“Hm.” The King considered aloud. “There is some risk to us in that. If the gold travels by river, then there is abundant risk of attack.”
“But if we moved it by river, the tithe would be much larger.” Jan said uncomfortably.
“Indeed, as suits the material being shipped and the security required,” the Elfking reclined. “My, my, how are you all making out shipping it to the rest of the world by way of those roads?”
Like any King, Thranduil was aware he was being cheated at every opportunity, but it wasn’t often he had occasion to inquire to the man at the top of the racket about it. Now Jan Kasia blanched. Then his brows drew down. “Who’s to say… maybe you attacked the barges. And it was you looking for gold-”
“Who slammed them into my own gates and nearly set my woods on fire? That is much more likely than an ambush by those of your new neighbours smart enough to know it is both easier and safer to get the gold from transport, than to go into the Lonely Mountain,” Thranduil elaborated with a flippant hand gesture, “Carry on – you were saying?”
The man gave up with a sudden exhalation. “Lake Township is about to build a library, and there are plans for two schools and an amphitheater, and several projects are underway in Hale’s Mooring, many more than we can boast, and they have no intention of using stone from Hale’s ruins – it’s a shrine to those people. The river is about to see a rise in traffic. Some of that is getting the payment out, Elvenking. Getting it out safely.”
“It must be.” He nodded in the sunlight off to his right. “That might be assured with a section of elves to escort you to the Greylin, but not inexpensive.”
Jan tipped his head to one side. “How much, do you think, to get them to escort us to Minas Tirith? A long way, and a long journey.”
“No journey is long.” The Elfking replied without looking up from his map. “Just costly.”
Now Jan Kasia actually smiled. A harsh and unreasonable Elfking, well, that was a demoralizing and infuriating difficulty. But an ice-cold King who was all business? That a man could work with.
Lusis had taken position among the elf guards in the room, and found herself watching closely.
A moment later the Elfking said, “Lusis, are you feeling up to riding out?”
“To do what, my Lord?”
“To go hunting.”
Odd. They hardly ate meat. “Whenever you’re ready.” She said.
Jan glanced over her curiously. “You’re really a Ranger? The men don’t mind you?” He laughed.
She didn’t. “The men who mind me? I change their minds.”
The Elfking rose and smoothed his cloak beside him. “With care, Master of Boats, unless you mean to become the Master of Bruises. No Ranger is weak in the North.”
But he couldn’t help the grin on the end of this sentence. “Don’t they find you distracting? I mean, what do you do? I just think the Rangers would not allow a woman among them. That’s all.”
The Elfking was now beside what looked like an armoire in white wood, but turned out to be more of an armory. Rack on rack of beautiful and terrible weapons hung inside, and on the doors he opened, short and long elven bows. Nothing could have been more apt, to Lusis’ mind.
She felt elf-like in her slow turn to face the human man. “Tell me, Kasia. Exactly who is going to prevent me from doing as I please?” She stepped out, as long, solid, and honed to deadly sharpness as any weapon in the room at that moment. He had a woman guard and should have known better.
Kasia’s smile wilted.
Now the Elfking strapped on his sword with an expert hand. “Humans,” his brows rose. He returned to the collection of weaponry to select fighting knives.
The Master of Boats couldn’t prevent a smile, “You have a comment, Elvenking?”
He strapped throwing knives over his chest and raised a restraining hand to the guards around him that seemed eager to poke Jan Kasia with their spears. “Some things seem to be beyond men.”
In fact, one of the human guards, Allar, had appeared at the door of the Elfking’s map-room. He bowed, sketchily, to the king, as if not sure how it was done, and then spoke to the Master of Boats. “They’re up and asking for you, sir.”
Kasia glanced in the Elfking’s direction and inclined his head. It was a concession to the authority of the proud old elf, at least. “Excuse me, Elfking.”
Thranduil’s long hand flicked in graceful dismissal. He didn’t even look. Once the humans were gone, he glanced at the elven guards. “Leave us.” He considered a moment and added, “And, alert Rochiril that her section may be called to escort men to Minas Tirith in the next months. Make certain she and her daughter are prepared for this eventuality.”
“Yes, my Lord,” an elf woman of the guard said in reply.
Lusis began to head out of the room.
“Lusis,” the Elfking’s tone was quiet with authority.
“You are the other half of ‘us’ to which I was referring. Remain.”
“Oh,” she shuffled back in. “I didn’t mean to cause problems between you and Mr. Kasia.”
“By all means. We are born of the same light – men and elves – thus roughly half their number are daughters, are they not? Perhaps they would be further along if they did not reckon their own kind as one-half a lower form of life.” The Elfking just sort of smoothed the branch crown out of his hair and set it on the map table. And there he was, almost an elf like any other, with no hardware on his head. “Aside from which, his discomfort is of no consequence to me.”
“I see,” she reevaluated him and nodded. Things were different among the elves. A person’s true skill, the thing they were born to do, was what it was.
“He is being truthful – it will take many, many human lifetimes to move the gold out of the Lonely Mountain. But he is not confessing that the human settlements have had an increase in criminal elements and activity since the fall of Mordor. Many of the new Northern towns are a law unto themselves – there is much work for you. However, there is no chance that these barges were ambushed by men.”
“Not unless they can noiselessly kill eight, pluck their eyeballs out, and set fires underwater.” She nodded, “In under three to five minutes.”
“I see we are in agreement.” He reached across the map table and pulled her sword out of its sheath so fast she scarcely saw it coming. She reached for it belatedly. “No.” he said. She avoided cutting her fingers on her own blade, narrowly.
He checked her blade and then replaced it with one of his own which was of the same general size and shape. Then he tossed her sword in air, testing its weight, and it turned over into his hand. It was light in his fingers, like a knife.
Lusis watched it travel. “And it will be okay if I leave it here, my Lord? And the crown just-”
The Elfking cocked his head, concerned. “You think my subjects are thieves?”
“Uh, no, just… maybe organizers of things who… can’t stand to see, say, a random crown just-”
“Thieves who have some use for the Living Crown of the Elfking of Mirkwood and a Ranger’s sword of only moderately decent steel?” He was highly amused, she could tell, because his cheeks dimpled slightly.
“It’s a very good sword!” she fired back at once. And then stopped and gaped in dismay.
He turned the sword in his hand, fast. “I’m sure it is.” He took no offence. In fact, his expression dropped to one of keen curiosity. “Now, I will hand this weapon back to you and ask you to lay it on the map. Think carefully.”
She looked the map over, reached up, and immediately cupped her fingers around her throat. Her gaze darted up to his blue-silver eyes, their pupils in a soft, nearly catlike oval, something that made his stare even stranger. His face was that pleasant flat nothingness.
First she set the sword onto the map table – on the bare wood of it, which had been etched with fire, so that Middle-Earth as she had never seen it, stretched its surface. “Is this of a scale?” She marveled at it.
“Yes,” he said and he set his hands on the high North to bend over the table. “These marks, here,” he indicated what looked like small bolts, “Indicate where a distance is shortened and by how much.” The Elfking waited.
She stared at the North and tried to reorient herself, “Where are you from on here, my Lord?”
“It’s not on this map.” He indicated, and she bent over the table and reached.
He was from off the map. That suited him perfectly. Lusis explained, “I was found here.” Her fingertip came to rest on the mountain chain between Carn Dum and Mount Gram, near where the Grey Mountains escaped the Misty. “One of six babies exposed on the mountain on a spring night. A fur trader heard someone crying in the darkness. Only I survived that night, in the end.”
The Elfking heard, processed, and had to exhale the pressure of knowing this. Elf children were a rarity – she’d come to understand that – and it was like when the Mirkwood elves had brought the boy’s body into the Halls and there was great distress amongst the elves. Children were sacrosanct amongst them. Life was sacred.
“That makes this ironic.” Lusis caught the necklace in her hand and moved the sword along the table’s surface. She made a small grunt of discomfort as the noose drew up its slack, but she stayed calm through the rising suffocation. She pushed through the sudden black spots on the edge of her vision, and trusted in the white gold and pearls, imbued with power – the Elfking’s goodwill, and someone else’s. The tip of her sword tried to veer. She shook out her hand. “I can come no closer.”
She knew she sounded throttled.
The Elfking’s brows rose. He first looked at the whole table. He looked at the lay of the sword on the map, inhaled deeply, and then let the breath slowly out again. He moved it, slightly, and watched Lusis shake her head and set it back to rights. He made another adjustment, this time at the pommel and she quickly returned it to the original position.
“I see,” he said. Then he murmured, “And the tip is in Framsburg and the ruins of the Éothéod among the ancestors of Riddermark.” His pale eyes darted and found hers above the wood map. It was like looking into the eyes of a massive white cat. A wild thing.
And he was correct. She never told people about the ruins. That place was full of private memory, for one thing, and now something sealed her new story inside of her. Now she shut her eyes in relief that someone, someone with a very long memory of the world, knew where this had all begun. “Is that what those are?” She managed. “I never knew. They were just stones to me.”
The King’s roving attention abstracted to elves in long dark robes on their way to see him. Finally finished arming himself, the King took a silver filigree circlet, complex in its design, from a case at the bottom of the armory. He slipped the silvery thing onto his head adeptly. He could do it one-handed. “Go, Ranger. I will send for you when the time comes.”
She bowed to him. “Yes, Elvenking.”
But Lusis fairly skipped down to the guest rooms. Only the presence of the Lake Township families prevented her from bursting in with whoops and hand-clapping. She passed Jan Kasia, threw a sympathetic look to Carin, his woman guard, and then made her way to her own soaking troop.
“So, there are things we can do together, and things we can’t,” Redd said tensely. “Lusis.”
“I could get used to this elf-cave though,” Icar beamed. He was using the tub out of her line of sight, and sounded quite comfortable. “I didn’t do too badly with the Elfking, did I?”
“Told you it would be easy for you,” Aric surfaced from the pool he was curled in.
“You did great,” Lusis told him. “Your work with Amondir was really critical, Icar. Seriously, I’m not always sure that you’re cut out to be a Ranger, when I see the way you think about things, but I’m glad to have a generalist like you aboard.”
“Icar likes all the weapons,” Steed droned, and then yawned. “Where have you been?”
“To see the King.”
“Really?” Steed began to grin, “That’s interesting, seeing as you have the King’s man sleeping on your bed. That must have been one hell of a conversation.”
No wonder everyone was speaking so quietly!
Belatedly, she checked. Eithahawn was still there, and still solid. “He’s been awake for days. I think he was at the end of his rope when he came to see me.” She ignored the sloshing of water behind her and said, “He’s a good man, Eithahawn. Overworked though. This is one of the only places he could think of where no one would think to look for him. So don’t say a word. And don’t let on to the people from Lake Township. Let him rest.”
“You found yourself another baby-bird,” Icar said from one of the brass tubs.
Redd came into her sleeping area, his hair damp, but at least he was dressed. He covered the elf in one of the blankets that had been folded at the foot of his bed. “That’ll make him harder to see, and more comfortable.” Redd’s rumbling voice was quiet. “Are you thinking of adding an elf to our band? I’ve never seen an elf Ranger, but I imagine it would be terrifying.”
“He doesn’t live by the sword.” She smiled at the ripples of hair and smoothed one against the wood of the footboard. So silky.
“I don’t understand men like that.” Aric complained.
“What?” Icar pulled a towel around himself. “Men of peace? We should be grateful for them.”
Steed just got up naked and prowled to his room. Lusis didn’t care. She’d seen the sideshow before on the road, many times. Aric leaned around the oven and pointed at her, “I insist, if you’re going to adopt an elf, you get one who’s good with a sword.”
“Done,” she stepped away from her bed and went to lean on the sculpted cavern wall between her room and Redd’s. She glanced at Redd when he came to rest opposite her.
“What baby bird would that be?” Redd asked.
“Big one. Big silver sword he lashes around so fast it’s like a snake’s tongue.”
Heads poked out further up the hall.
“Blond? Large wooden crown full of cherry blossoms? Know him?”
Steed stepped out of his room, now dressed and hunting for his sword. They’d set up one of the empty rooms as a cleaning station. The weapons got a good inspection and cleaning there daily. Steed also used the space for making his arrows. “You’re an idiot.”
“I’m not kidding,” she told them. “Pack up. We’re going on a hunt with the King. While we’re there, we’re watching out for him. Understand? Nothing happens to him on our watch.”
Aric came from his room pulling on his boots. “I doubt he’ll need us.”
“I’m aware of that,” she told them, “but we’ll be a failsafe, understand? Anyone with a different opinion should tell me now.”
Icar swung up his sword. No one spoke. “Pack up. Quietly. When he calls, we will be ready.”
“Kings.” Aric exhaled at the end of the hall, “A spoiled race, Kings.” He groused.
“You’d best keep that to yourself,” Redd mused, and then thought aloud, “I wonder about Queens. The books said he had a wife and son, but he seems alone now.”
“Fitting fate for such arrogance as he has,” Aric packed up without complaint. They were all eager to get out of doors again.
Redd actually barked with laughter, which was very unlike him given the mourners next hall over. The elf seneschal stirred in his sleep, but did not wake. The huge warrior lowered his voice at once and told Aric, “If you share the flaw, Aric, do you deserve the same fate?”
The young ranger looked up suddenly, startled by these words.
The Rangers had their packs together in under fifteen minutes. They went outside and got the feel of the weather after that. One had to become hardened to weather over time, and even a short interval of living inside made changes in that state. But it was a solid five hours before word came, and by that time, the Rangers had made their way back to Mirkwood’s Halls to assist the people of Lake Township. They were leaving, ferrying the dead to the barge they’d anchored against towering beech trees in the deep water of the Forest.
Lusis helped to bear the dead to the barge. They were cold and stiff, like early spring air in these parts ought to have been, now that the muggy and unseasonable fogs had fled. She helped to lay them out on the cold bow of the boat and checked their wrappings with care – fine elf silks in leaf green, tied with thin white rope. Once they were all laid down, the head of patrol who was about to go on his tour came down to the barge’s deck with a trio of elves, and they spread a long white sheet over them. They carefully tucked this around all the bodies to anchor it. Then, stood and laid their hands on their breast-plates, finally extending them down over the dead in salute.
They departed the ship in silence, their brave eyes downcast.
This, they felt, was very much their failure.
The section coming in from patrol stood along the shore with the elves departing. All bowed to the people of Lake Township before they advanced, half for the Halls, and half for the woods. After that demonstration of regret, Lusis and her Rangers bowed as well, and left the barge.
She glanced up at the huge stone gates to Mirkwood and saw that Jan Kasia stood on the wall-walk in the company of the Elfking. They exchanged a few final words before Jan Kasia sketched a bow at the Elvenking, which Thranduil met with a nod of acknowledgement. Lines of soldiers stepped aside for him, and the Master of Boats made his way down the steps which reached the wall-walk.
Amondir detained Lusis as she headed inside. “Rangers, you ride out with the King.” He said this with a clear air of pride.
“We just need our packs,” she told him, and then smiled up at the tall elf. “Also, a thanks and well-met, in case this is where our ways part.”
His head ducked. “One hopes that is not the case. Now, come with me.”
The Rangers had experience listening to and following Amondir. He brought them inside.
Eithahawn was inside a room just off the wide gatehouse entry. He sat on a bench beside their bags, as if he wished he could travel unseen, among them. His expression was pleasant and absolutely inert – the first time Lusis had seen him shut off his nerve-endings as the King did. She deeply disliked seeing that agreeable blankness on his face. And she slowed before him, his expression was such a pleasant fiction. Her men took the bags. She laid her hand on the belts of her own, but then bent over the shoulder and golden waves of the Kingdom’s seneschal and whispered, “I promised you.”
His head bowed.
She squeezed his solid shoulder and lifted her bag. As she turned and walked into the light, she pulled out the elven blade the Elfking had given her, and spun it around her hand. It distracted her from her sadness for him. But she remained grim even as she waited among the noiseless elves marshalled outside in the crisp spring air.
She asked Redd, “Do I really collect little birds?”
“Well…” he rocked heel to toe. “Aric was pneumatic when you met him, and Icar going hungry, trying to care for his brother. I remember we spotted Steed walking for the Weather Hills across the wide-open barrens, fighting with pain, left to his own devices with a broken arm.” Redd looked down at her and smiled, “And I had no friends.”
She continued to stare at the departing barges. “Impossible.”
He set a hand on her back, right below the necklace at the back of her neck. “Possible” He patted a moment and then said a quiet, “He’ll be all right.”
She looked up at the King as he descended the wall-walk and didn’t know which one she was more care-torn about anymore. “He will be. And I promised he would be.”
“Well then.” Redd released her and looked at the Elfking. “I’ve never met anyone more serious about a friend.”
The wind came up. Birds jetted over it like falling stars.
The King’s hair swirled around him, light as down.
When the barge was gone from sight, forlorn tower bells began to sound. The elves stood thinking their long thoughts, remembering their own fellows, their own loved-ones, now in the Undying Lands, and they eventually drifted into the Halls.
The King stood and watched the gates shut. When they were closed he found the Rangers waiting with a small number of elves. His gaze simply locked on them. Armoured and ageless, he passed them by in an airless moment.
Icar properly interpreted this as, “We should follow.”
They did. And when they emerged in a lower part of the Halls, they found themselves in stone stables, with horses waiting. An elven woman held out the stirrup for her, and Lusis leapt aboard. Horses were a rich-man’s way to travel. Almost everyone walked or ran from place to place.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw Red get aboard a large silver horse with a white face.
Steed was on his horse before the elves had a moment to steady it. He turned it in a tight circle and thanked them with a nod of the head.
“Like a man of the Mark,” one of the elves said approvingly. “Care for them well.”
“Lusis, hurry.” Icar spoke with quiet wonderment, “Come here.”
She turned her horse and urged it ahead. Then her hands fell quiet on the reins.
The King had passed through the stable and into a deep green arbor thickly shaded by the spreading limbs of green trees, all covered in moss. He stood waiting in the wood-glow and a huge red elk made its way to him. Everything about it was great. Its ruddy body, its burly neck, its legs were thick, sound, and ended in such beautifully balanced, cloven hooves. It cleared the screen of trees.
Its antlers were mammoth.
It reached down from its great height and pressed its head to the King’s chest, the fork of small tines at its forehead clattering on elven steel.
Whatever the Elfking said was lost. He stepped around the side of it. Reached a hand into the thick ruff of its neck, and bounded aboard. This looked as easy as jogging up steps. Lusis looked across at Icar, wide-eyed. “You can draw that for us later.”
Icar grinned. “That’s a challenge.”
The Elfking’s bull elk snuffled a tree limb of cherry blossoms.
They set out. Five Rangers, a trio of elven personal guards, and the King of Mirkwood.
They rode along the banks and the shallows of the river, just out of sight of the barge the people of Lake Township had set off in. This explained the need for the Rangers and King to travel via horses. Or bull elk. As they passed over a buckle in the stone hereabouts, the river current became faster than they could’ve run along the shore, and with the stars out and the moon high, the barge made its way even through most of the night. At some points the ship outpaced the horses used to tow it. When the barge was at its fastest, there was no need for horses on the shore at all, and they were taken aboard.
The Forest River itself was a puzzle. Its headwaters in the Grey Mountainss fed it, but so did the run-off from the highlands around Erebor. Due to the rolling geography of the land through which it wound, it could fold slowly downward along its length, only to ease back up again and head toward Long Lake. This made the water subject to strong convection in places. Its course passed from indolent to brisk, according to the underlay it ran upon. It was no more inclined to be one way or another than the mind of the man its guardians called King.
They made camp only when the barge reached a second tie-up. The first evening, no camp was made until after the height of the moon, and the Rangers and elves had reached a thick, wild growth of wood, full of the croaks, rattles, and chirrs of unfamiliar creatures.
The woods were dense and thick with life, and it was a simple thing to get lost in them. The Rangers were careful about where they set things down, and marked common paths from and to locations with white nicks in the trees.
Their camp was staggered. The Rangers were along the foot of a hill, close to the water. The King and his elves were in a hollow just below a large outcrop that overlooked the Forest River. This wasn’t an intentional separation. The Rangers had scouted their own best location for defense, escape, and sleep. It was different than what the elves found ideal. To the Rangers’ eyes the lush tree growth by the top of the hill was nearly impenetrable, exposed to greater fire-risk, and harder to defend.
“It’s the trees,” Icar whittled wood, since it was too dark to draw and the fire was too small to give much light. He sipped spruce tea from his cup. “They feel safer in the trees.”
“Funny,” Redd speared some of the elven flatbread over the fire to warm it. It took on some of the smell of the dry wood they’d carried out of the Halls with them. “If my books are right, the Elfking is a city boy. Sinda from the First Age, yes? Not a Silvan. Their ways are different.” He also had a full flask of honey that he used sparingly to tip onto the dry fruit-and-nut mix the elves had packed into their saddle bags. He crushed it into a paste and scooped generous amounts onto each steaming flat of nut-bread.
“Not after so long, I suppose,” said a voice from the dark. One of the elves emerged from shadows. She was one of three Elite guards the Elfking had brought, and they weren’t known for their warmth. This woman looked as young as any elf, and she was rare among their kind, her hair wasn’t in the range of reds, golds, or warm browns, it was very nearly black.
Her eyes, in contrast, were a crystalline blue that looked nearly colourless. Her name was Nimpeth. They knew that much. She folded down on the moss beside their fire as if her joints might be greased. She made next to no sound, this one.
She began unfolding a packet wrapped in thick cloth.
“Like his father, my Lord was invited to rule. Unlike his father, he had long ago adopted our ways.” She unwrapped the bundle and set it on the edge of the fire. “Lachnath. Flame cloth. When you live in trees you also learn to weave metals and materials that prove difficult to burn. It keeps fire from flesh.” She glanced back into the darkness at a change in the rustling there.
Aric had stopped pruning the nearby brush for wood and kindling they could dry and came back to the gathering. “What’s the smell?” Steed looked uphill from his shadowy watch by the river.
Lusis swallowed hard at the smell of spices, “I believe… Nimpeth brought some dried meat.”
Icar smiled at her. “Thank you so much, Lady.”
“Compliments of the Elfking,” her lips compressed at the pong of cooked meat and waved the scent away. “Enjoy it if you can.”
“Oh, I can,” Aric snatched up a piece and tucked it in his cheek. “Dried meat. Delicious!”
Nimpeth got to her feet and Lusis hurried after her. One thing she’d learned was, as fast as a normal elf was, the Elite Guard did that and better. They were honed and seasoned warrior elves. Deadly with many Ages of war. And they moved like the King did.
“What are we hunting?”
She pivoted in place, a peculiarly elven motion that looked dreamlike. “What does it matter?”
Well, it mattered a lot if you, say, didn’t want to die of a total lack of preparation. “I would like a straight answer, Lady Nimpeth. Please.”
The woman’s chin rose and her reply was a chilly, “You may ask him yourself.” Then she darted up into the trees and, like a black crow, vanished along the branches. Lusis staggered back with her sword out, purely from shock. She’d never seen anyone move like that.
“That woman is really going to make me walk up this forsaken hill and look for their bloody camp?” Lusis’ teeth bared. She glanced over her shoulder and headed up the hill in spite of the meat. There was enough for a couple of nights, and Redd would save some for her. She rooted through trees in the pitch dark, dead tired, and in a foul mood. “Probably they’ve erected a couple of stone towers for the night. Knowing elves. Oh, and they’ve build a bathhouse for a Certain King for morning. They’re sitting around plaiting one another’s gorgeous hair. And His Nibs is probably in the midst of a four course meal-”
The elf camp was small. Much smaller than their own. The fire was at the bottom of a depression surrounded in cut pine-tree limbs woven into a half-circle. It was warm. Nimpeth didn’t look up from the rounded metal cup of vegetable stew she heated on embers pulled from the fire.
“Hello again, Ranger.”
“She’s noisy.” Amathon’s cool voice drifted from overhead. He lay with his dark auburn hair dangling down, having made a kind of platform-hammock of pine boughs along two stout branches. The fire-heat rose up from the crescent and directly onto him. He rolled to his stomach and looked down at Lusis with his cat-green eyes. “Nimpeth, did you give her the spiced meat?”
“Mai – yes.” Nimpeth smothered a smile.
“Then why is she here?” he teased.
“Where is the Elfking?” Lusis growled. It was going to be pretty hard to guard him at this rate. “How is it you’re comfortable letting him out of your sight?”
“Do you see Ewon among us?” Nimpeth moved away from the cups of stew and poured a spare cup full of steaming drink. It smelled divine. “Here, Ranger. Calm yourself.”
Some kind of floral tisane. Lusis took the cup and asked again, “You said I could ask him, Nimpeth. Where is he?”
The elf woman’s dark head tipped toward the top of the hill, or maybe the taller trees. “Up.”
Grumbling, Lusis made her way, carefully, up the hill. She sloshed some of the tea on her fingers, but was inured to small hurts. At the top of the outcropping the trees had been cleared away. The Elfking leaned against an ornately carved stump. He was entirely swathed in a dark red hooded cloak of velvet. His knees were up, arms around them. He watched the barge below, and the humans setting up their wood and wool shelters on the deck. She noticed the older woman the King had met in the field ignored all offers of food and water. She didn’t try to sleep or seek shelter. She simply sat beside the bodies and stared into space. That much was visible from the lamps on the deck.
Lusis crouched down and offered him the tea she’d been given.
The Elfking took it and set it among the roots beside him. “Honey tisane,” he told her.
She didn’t care. All that mattered was that her hands had been freed to run over the smooth white stump of the tree. It was engraved with a multitude of curlicue beeches and horses with elves on their backs. The top of the trunk had been carved with a spiral of elvish.
“My King… what are we hunting?” she asked in a distracted way.
“Whatever hunts us,” he made a small and graceful shrug of his shoulders. “Aside from that, I cannot tell you what I do not know.”
“You have a theory, though,” her finger smoothed the antlers of the bull elk on the stump. She’d both expected and found it.
“You would like me to speculate. I’m not often asked to do that,” his fingertips hovered in the steam from the tea. “But the problem in this case is that the evidence is too broad yet. I have theories, but…” small hand gesture that meant nothing to a human. “Aside from which, Ranger, speculation leads one to hidden assumption, and that can put a mind at ease. When the evidence at hand contradicts, we must be alert.”
In other words, he had several theories, and she wasn’t going to be privy to his short-list.
She focused on something more concrete. The graven tree stump whose surface was so faintly gritty and yet strangely even. She began to realize that it had been coated with resin and carefully sanded down. “What is this for?”
“Watch-points are engraved so. Patrols check them regularly. A lost traveler or one in desperate circumstances need only remain with one a half a day to find assistance from my people. My father had them carved.” He said tonelessly. His hair riffled in the wind, but his hood stayed up. “Why are you here?”
He sounded drained.
“My Lord, maybe you should reconsider watching them as they mourn.” She sat back on her heels and suggested quietly. “Human emotions are not filtered. Just witnessing them can be taxing.”
His head turned. She could see his lips part in a sudden baring of teeth. But he turned from her rather than say whatever he’d been thinking.
Lusis stood up and walked over to his tea. She picked it up and sank into a crouch beside him, “I don’t know if you’re an expert on humans, Elvenking, but… when in the depths of a terrible loss, say the loss of a son, or the loss of a dream, some can fall into a moribund state. They wane. They waste away until they’re hollow, until there’s nothing left of life in them. Some die. Some end their own lives.”
He looked in her direction. From this angle, she could see his ice-blue eyes shining in the starlight. He looked just this side of distraction, frustrated by the pitiful helplessness of loss.
“If it’s in their power, a being must fight not to allow sadness to grow to that level. But there’s little you can do for them, in the end, from the outside, until the will to live comes from them.” She offered him the honey tisane again, “Watching a person suffer is suffering itself. I know it’s said that compassion is a gift in the powerful, and I believe that. But you should guard against too much grief.”
“A lecture,” he grumbled. “From a Ranger.” But he took the mug from her and settled it on one palm as his fingers slid around the vine pattern in what she suspected was silver.
“Not at all, my Lord. Just the words from someone to whom your wellbeing matters.” Lusis edged back and looked around her. “Are you staying here?”
“It’s not very secure.” She exhaled.
“As long as I’m here,” he sipped the tisane, “it is.”
She went back to the Ranger camp to eat, clean up from the journey, and collect her blankets.
“Where are you going?”
“To watch the King.” She said resentfully, and not of them.
“Heavens, Lusis. What kind of promise did that elf boy extract from you?” Icar looked up from the vines he was carving into the branch he held and frowned. “You know. The one who slept in-”
“And he’s probably thousands.” Lusis pointed out to them.
Redd shrugged at this, “He’s a wise elf, one can see. In his emotions, he’s… young, I think.”
She exhaled and looked down at Icar. “If I hadn’t put myself out for you and your brother, where do you think you’d be right now?”
Aric didn’t hesitate. “He’d be dead.”
“Think of that before you scold me over the promises I make,” she sighed.
“And don’t worry so much,” Aric chuckled and looked at his brother. “Spending time with the King is its own punishment, I would bet.”
True to his word, the Elfking stayed on the windy bluff, away from the fire heat, company, and shelter, to watch the barge. This was his river, after all, and more than his pride had been hurt by the death and destruction that had come to the gates of the Halls. So Lusis bundled in her blanket, with only her promises to keep her company. She was unable to huddle with him for warmth, like a sane person would. No, that would be unseemly. He didn’t move, as if frozen to the stump on which he leaned.
She kept watch until she fell asleep in fits and starts. It was too cold for real comfort.
It was down to walking up and down the bluff to get her body temperature up enough to sleep again. At one point, the moon was so large and bright she walked to the front of the bluff to marvel at it. The barge was still and quiet. The lamps were out.
When she turned, the Elfking was looking up at her, curiously.
Lusis shook her head in wonder, Don’t they get cold? Don’t they sleep?
None of that was his doing. She bowed to him and circled back out of his sight.
It warmed as the sun came. She felt the brush of long hair over her and realized it was an elf. The quick and secretive one – the spy, she called him. He was by far the oldest of Thranduil’s elites. Ewon’s dark brown hair and stormy blue eyes appeared above her briefly. He covered her in a sheer wool blanket whose underside was dense shirred fur. She slept until the motion of the King woke her. He sipped steaming tea. She knew it wasn’t the same flower tisane, but actual tea, by the smell of it. He handed the cup over to Amathon and glanced down at her as an afterthought.
“We leave in minutes.”
Lusis blundered up and folded her things. She bolted down the hill, every step of which she knew well, by now. And into her camp. There, everything was packed. She handed her roll of blankets to Redd, who tied them at the back of her saddle and then went to the river to splash enough water on her face to come around fully. It was ice cold in the water.
She sat astride sipping hot spruce tea and chewing dried meat for breakfast.
The day passed as the first had. She followed the King’s seven foot deer and they followed the barge closely through the river. The land was wilder still here. They rode in the river a lot. Dark came early, seeing as the winter had only just passed. Steed took her reins and let her sleep on horseback. He did the same for the other Rangers through the day.
Someone on the barge was playing a threnody on strings, and that had the elves solemn. The Rangers too. Redd knew the song, which was associated with the death of a boy trying to tame a white horse. He explained the whole affair, and Lusis liked to think even the Elites listened and were impressed by Redd’s storytelling prowess.
The barge got to a particularly deep part of the river before it anchored for the night. It was only shortly after dark, this time. They wasted no time getting supper. The elves camped in a position not terribly acceptable to the Rangers, lit their fire on the ground, and took to the trees. Early in the night, the King stayed in the crescent of boughs Nimpeth built. He bundled up and seemed to sleep against the soft wall of green. Lusis knew this because she sat on the other side of the fire, her back against a tree. She stretched out her legs, crossed her ankles, and slept soundly while the elves moved around them.
When he started stirring, she did as well. Then Lusis watched as Nimpeth swept in on him with a hot cup of tisane, and to comb his hair. He gave a glance at her that made her back away and bow.
No one rushed her with teas and offered to care for her hair. Lusis grinned as she got to her feet and tucked mint into her cheek. She stretched herself. “Is it time to watch the barge, Elfking?”
He eased upward and sighed, “I have Amathon at early night and then Ewon. You are not needed, Lusis.”
“That’s great news,” she said, shouldered her blanket roll, and waited for him.
The Elfking didn’t try to dissuade her again. He found a great large tree and vanished up into its branches. Standing back, she could see the flicker of his blond hair in the wind, find his silhouette in repose against the trunk, completely at ease. But finding him in there took work.
She approved of the location he’d chosen. It was a hill of trees overlooking the river. Lusis spent the night sleeping at the bottom of the massive tree the King stood in, with regular intervals where she walked through the forest on quick patrol. The moon, which she happened to consider an enduring friend of hers, was huge and stunning as she jogged. She checked her troop and greeted whomever was on watch there – seasoned vets of the North, they didn’t need her help scheduling their awake times. There was a particular staccato to sleeping in the North and they all knew it well. She found Thranduil’s giant bull elk grazing in a meadow down by the water, as it was, apparently, allowed to wander around free. But it never failed to answer to his summons.
She checked the horses. They slept curled together for added warmth. It was odd to see horses so confident that they lay on the ground in groups like this, but though they opened their eyes to see her, they didn’t get up.
Lusis walked the shore by the barge and found that they had only a single man on watch who was awake. She didn’t pass in front of him and he failed to take note of her. That was fine. She meant no harm to him.
She turned around, nearly walked into Ewon, and about fell in the grass in the last stretch of the night, shortly before dawn. It actually almost made him laugh, but he handed her a flask of hot tea instead. He also gave her a small paper packet of fire-roasted nuts, sprinkled with sugar and salt.
Her last jog in the area was near dawn. She looked up at the tree and saw that the Elfking stood on a branch with his cup of tea as easily as one might a staircase. He raised the cup to her and she smirked. The Elvenking was the very quintessence of the word cocksure. She put her head down as she walked up the hill toward him, in case he was still up in the towering tree, and there might be some risk he could see her grinning at his impressive grandstanding.
They left quickly after their breakfast. There was no meat left and that had the Rangers grumbling. How the elves accomplished so much running on tea and undergrowth, as Aric said, no one was sure. Lusis handed her reins off to Steed and slept for a couple of hours in the morning.
She forged ahead in the afternoon and passed the trio of elves, who rode perfectly shoulder-to shoulder, unsurprisingly. She let her horse gallop along the grassy shore. She seemed pleased with that. Darkness came quickly in the valley the river had cut through forest.
“They’re tying up,” she noticed aloud as the band came over a swell in the land. It was nearly dark and she was just ahead of the King’s bull elk. Her eyes caught a blink of red light in the water. She cocked her head at the figment.
The Elfking joined her. His eyes watched her closely. “You have come to alert. It is written in your spine. What is it?”
The nimble bull-elk gamboled aside of her horse with no need for stirrups or saddle. Its big, intelligent eyes studied the woods and river. Lusis made no attempt to answer him. She simply tried to listen to the tension in her body and determine if it had reacted to an imagining from there. The King glanced down at the small bend in Forest River. It was deep here. They’d crossed the water a furlong back because he knew the tie-ups were on this side. From here, the river headed slightly North-East until it reached Long Lake.
Steed’s horse tore through the elves to the front of the line. “Lus, what did you see?”
She was very aware of the Elfking on her right. “I’m not sure I saw anything.”
But Steed knew her too well. He pulled her horse around with a quick tug. “Remember who you’re talking to, Lusis.”
That snapped her out of her indecision. “I saw a curve of red underwater. Near the middle of the river. Glowing. We need to go down to Kasia and warn him. Now.”
When she started her horse ahead, the King’s great elk rode even with her. But it picked up speed on the way down. People on the deck stopped what they were doing, astonished that the Elfking’s mighty elk was bearing down the hill toward them. There was little warning before the water began to steam. Mist began to build like a sea-fog.
The elves sounded horns from the hill. The Rangers charged down the hill beside them. By this time Lusis’ horse was at speed with Steed beside her. The elk crossed their path ahead of them, bounding along as if weightless. The King shifted to a crouch on its racing back, and vaulted from its shoulders, to the roof of the stout deck house at the back of the barge, and leapt outward.
Because of the blunted black and orange serpent that had risen from the water. Its red, lustrous eyes saw the Elfking too late, and its maw opened in a jet of orange flame that missed him. His silver sword ploughed into its wedge-like head and held fast. It roared, and vanished underwater.
There was chaos on the barge as Lusis leapt aboard. “Kasia! Jan Kasia!”
The man raced from the deck house, white as blowing snow. “What was that? Did you see it?”
“Evacuate the ship and get them all uphill!”
“But the bodies are-”
Now she bellowed it, “Evacuate the ship! Go uphill!”
The thing had been huge. She estimated it at 30 feet at this point. With stubby red legs and red claws. “Where is the King!?”
Steed swung up onto the deck house roof, bow out and aimed at the water. “He went in the river with it!”
“There is only an escarpment of two fathoms at the foot of this hill – only there is the water shallow. Then the river goes another ten fathoms down.” This was Nimpeth as she plunged from her horse into the water.
Amathon took out fighting blades. “It rises!” The water around them steamed, painfully hot. The creature broke the surface again and showered everyone in the aft of the barge with water and blood.
Steed let off a quick volley of arrows. The creature had no scales and they penetrated its thick skin, but not deeply. This made it handy that Amathon was able to duck in under it and slice it along the ribs. It issued an earsplitting cry and a ball of smoky fire.
“Doom’s-fires, it’s a dragon.” Redd sputtered, astonished, and then raced across the barge, out of Lusis’ reach. She ran along in a diagonal until she reached the edge of the aft and could launch herself at the thing. It was sinking back into the water. She was dimly aware of the patter of drops as the Elfking stepped off of the back of the monster’s head and onto the deck house again, easily, and then she was sailing through air with the elf-sword out.
She was in a compact ball as it opened its mouth. She passed just through its opening jaws as it worked to make a fireball, and her borrowed silvery sword cut off the tip of its tongue. She rolled forward in air so she could look back at it right before she hit the water. Under the water, she sank while putting the elf sword away. She was lucky for its lightness in comparison to her own sword, which was heavy enough to make swimming hard.
Arrows – both elven and Ranger – sliced the water and hit home in the flank and belly of the beast as Lusis kicked away from it. She angled for the surface but the river was getting painfully hot around her. All she could see was fire. It clawed at her, agonizingly close. Almost at the surface, she began to lose consciousness. She couldn’t get ahead of the boiling, flaming water.
A hand fished her out. Someone had cut the lines from the draft horses, and the barge now lay out across the river, beginning to turn with the current. Ewon braced his boots on a boom that wheeled out over the mist-choked Forest River. One hand held the rope and chain secured there. The other had hold of her. As soon as she was out of the water, Jan Kasia shouted a command and the four men controlling the ropes ran for the opposite side of the ship so that the boom sailed through air.
She dropped into Icar’s arms on the deck. He was saturated wet, his leathers were scorched, and he had an angry burn on the side of his neck. He set her on her feet. Ewon touched down beside her. “The open water is dangerous. It exhales fire through its skin and water nearest it boils – a peril when its tail lashes.”
“Got it,” she coughed river water and got her hand on her sword, relieved she hadn’t lost it.
Ewon sprang away, tirelessly.
Icar held her upright until the world stopped spinning and Lusis sucked air. She assessed the situation. Steed and Nimpeth were lobbing arrows at its head. Aric was in the shallows. Ewon joined him just in time to dodge a lash of the red-hot tail that sought, and missed, the quick Elfking. His fighting blades were out and he slashed first one side and then the next as he passed under the tip of the tail. It was the Elfking who was keeping the beast busy. Whenever it came to play, the King kept the burning head occupied. His focus was perfect. He alone was fast enough to dodge and slash at the endless darting strikes of its head.
Redd charged by with an armful of fishing harpoons.
“Go!” Lusis gave Icar a push and nodded.
In terms of sheer muscle mass, Redd was terrifying. His throwing arm was something like a catapult – he could pick up people and cast them into air. His aim could be iffy, but a thirty foot lizard is hard to miss. The first harpoon caught the creature straight on in the shoulder. It howled. Its head came around into a hail of arrows, one of which caught it in the eye.
It crashed down beside the boat. Everyone in the river darted away. The Elfking caught Aric and leapt from water to the deck where he deposited the Ranger while remaining crouched on the wooden rail, sword in hand, and eyes on the mist. His entire saturated body shifted with his breathing, but he was unhurt.
He launched away right after the second harpoon struck the beast and he saw an opening. It had started to rise out of the Forest River again. He slammed into its side, just under its short clawed forefoot, and his silver serpent’s tongue of sword went deep. He bounced back, tearing it free, cutting away the leg.
Lusis fell into step with running Ewon. They darted up to the rails and arced through air at the back of the beast’s head. Lusis had only one thought – blind the other eye. She landed on its hot and slippery skin and had to roll forward or fall off. Heat chewed at the soles of her feet, then her shoulder and back as she went. She put a knife in its eye and dragged down. Once she was in the water, she endured a sharp moment of burning pain to plant her feet into it and shoot away, fast.
Its tail came up. Amathon spun into position and cast a crooked blade at it – this elven weapon was on a long silvery chain. “Get out of the way, fool-Ranger!” he shouted. The chain wrapped the tail tip, the curved blade closed in and Amathon’s cast cut away two feet of flesh and bone.
The beast released a tremendous cry. The Elite elf slammed into her in time with it and they soared out over deep water and sank down under gouts of fire.
It was Lusis who righted them for the surface as soon as the flames passed. Amathon was too busy, still trying to control the chain he held. Ingenious. The beast’s balance was affected by their momentum and the drag of the current they were in. The only problem she saw was that the line of chain was still attached to the monster, and that meant – she got an arm around the elf’s broad chest. They both shot through the water at incredible speed.
Then up in the burning air, so high she could easily make out the barge end-to-end, in one glance. She snaked a leg around Amathon and let go of his chest, stretching away from him so that, suddenly, they slowed in air. His hand slapped against her shirt, bundled in the front, and pulled her in. Their spin sped. Jaws snapped air just short of her face, which splattered blood all over her. A spout of fire gave them updraft, and, she suspected, a decent good char. Ewon hit the chain and they jerked right and down, suddenly free of the beast’s tail. And falling. She pieced together that the barge’s tallest boom was coming at them. Nimpeth raced up along it and leapt. She caught the chain and arched for the deep river. They struck it seconds after.
Lusis shot to the surface right behind Amathon.
Nimpeth was already out of the river and staring at the Elfking. She was frozen in her tracks.
Silver blade out, wet to the skin, he slunk back through the water with the great blunt head of the serpent before him. Nearly above him. Because, somehow, he was so absurdly close to it, now, that its heat was drying his steel. Closer than he’d allowed before. He eased nearer still, almost under its chin. And he watched it and moved so warily. Part of this was surely that it couldn’t see well anymore. So the Elfking stayed in its blind spots. It couldn’t taste the air for him, at all. Yet it heard the slow glide of the river water around his soft motions, but didn’t attack. It just wasn’t sure. And in those margins, the King put his faith. In those margins the King endured.
“Make noise,” Lusis shouted for the Rangers.
Nimpeth skidded to a stop in the stony shallows and stood silent. It was a kind of fit of helpless motion. There was nothing she could do but distract.
Aric bellowed at the creature. “Are you done yet, you ugly beast!?”
Redd joined him, “Can’t you find us over here, monster!?” and, just behind him on the deck house, Steed threw down his exhausted quiver and pulled his sword into ready service.
Lusis’ eyes found Icar by the shoreline, guarding the escape of Lake Township mourners to the shore. He panted, a hand plastered to the burn on his neck, and directed them to head out of the monster’s easy access and along the shelter of Kasia’s barge.
Then she broke for shore as quickly as she could, her eyes never leaving the Elfking. His slow motions were like some summoning magic as he eased around the massive head of the creature, he went further up onto the shallows. His concentration was absolute. She watched the steady flame inside of him build with a kind of fascinated horror, afraid for him. Afraid he would burn. But the King was entirely calm. He was beautifully poised as he extended his silver sword out beside him. The great lizard limped a final step, pulled in a deep breath of air, and released a stream of flame.
And the King did not move as it billowed out.
For Lusis, the world slowed down. Her feet reached the stones of the shallows. Her sword came up, she ran for the King, but she could not make it to him in time.
As the flame reached for his clothes, he caught the edge of his cape and spun aside. His long hands met on the grip of the long silver blade. River water shot up along its grooves as it cut an arch in air. It became a silvery scythe. He lopped the creature’s head clean off.
The fire died in a gout of steam.
If she hadn’t been in such a battle-fueled state she knew she would have failed to see it: that graceful evasion that had morphed into a deadly cleave. He kept turning out of the way and then leapt through air onto a boom. Fire poured out of the severed body and shot up the side of the stony hill.
Icar plunged in the water to avoid it.
The people of Lake Township were frozen in the shallows, safely out of reach.
The Elfking dropped into water up to his sternum and whispered at the hill. Water swelled on his side of the river. It flowed down into the belly of the monster to put it out, and it flowed up the hillside.
Then it was over, and he stood with the white-hot flame inside his breastplate slowly sinking down to the steady tongue of fire that it generally embodied. He took steps back into deeper water that Lusis characterized as involuntary. Exerting one’s will over nature was taxing, she gathered.
But he recovered himself before Ewon – who’d nearly hacked through the beast’s spine – leaped to the river, and the blood, to assist his Lord.
Blood lapped on the shore. There was quiet, except for the trickle of run-off downhill and the slosh of legs through water. Lusis reached the Elfking and scanned him for any hurt, but he seemed untouched, apart from some scorching on his cloak where he’d collided with the burning beast.
He paused in the shallows, picked up the heavy head of the lizard, and carried it to where Icar and Jan Kasia stood. There, he dropped it at the Master of Boat’s feet and kept going. The great Elfking walked along the huddle of humans on his way to shore and the shock-white face of the young boy’s mother pushed through the crowd to him. Her hand pressed to his steel breast plate.
“No.” Nimpeth hurried along to tell her quietly, “No-no.”
This dissuaded the human woman not at all.
The Elfking nodded in acknowledgement, and kept walking. The woman behind him, bowed her gratitude. She looked stronger. Satisfied.
The Elfking continued along the starboard until he found the cut ties in the water, and whistled up the bull elk. He wrapped the ropes in those huge horns. The beast pulled the drifting barge to rights against the tie-up. He was keen to get the humans seen to, so that he could see to his own fatigue and wet steel.
“And the barge horses will have their heads in a Long Lake manger before full dark,” Amathon said in what had to be elven humor, or so the Rangers thought. They were the ones laughing.
The Elfking glanced in their direction and smirked. “Then you can pull the barge to Lake Township.” He took the rope from the elk’s head and looped it along the stone anchors at shore. Then straightened and stretched. His gaze fell on Jan Kasia. “Once the flesh rots from that Fire Salamander’s skull, you can mount it at your dockyard.”
The Master of Boats blinked at the Elfking. “We are… obliged, my Lord. We are… in your debt.”
“That is a matter for the Kingdom’s seneschal.” The Elfking shut his eyes and raised his head into the moonlight that broke over the ridge. “Take it up with him. The rest you owe to the Northern Rangers.” His voice was cold.
With the dark on them, the water was, once again, freezing. Lusis limped behind the King, and shivered. His hair was so wet it was plastered to him in one long line. He paused only to take off the circlet and toss it to Nimpeth, which she caught one-handed and folded into cloth to dry. He smoothed his hair into attractive disarray. He glanced at his elves, “Why is there a Fire Salamander in my river?” As if they could produce it’s paperwork to be there.
“Elfking,” the Master of Boats hailed him. “Come aboard by our fires.”
He was exhausted, the King. He glanced over his Elites, “Shall we?” But it wasn’t a question. He was telling them to follow. The people of Lake Township were hustling things around, and had pulled out braziers they now hurried to light.
Lusis glanced up to see Steed, Redd, and Aric aboard, and rounded up Icar. She was spending the night drying off somewhere warmer than the woods, and Icar was getting a salve on his burnt neck. That was for certain.
She sat aboard with her men on one side, and the King on the other. His Elites had to cut the Elvenking’s breastplate off. Impacts with the serpent had both fused the buckles holding it, and collapsed it into his ribs. He gave a hiss as the knife Nimpeth used touched his pale skin. Redd heard this and got up to help. He was massively strong, and, could keep the steel plates compressing the king open enough for the elves to work. In the end, he caught the steel sculpted to fit the King’s long back as it dropped away. It was a broad piece in very good metal, patterned with small feathers, and Lusis hoped they could fix it.
The King was saturated, his clothes and hair sticking to him, but he could breathe easily again, so he folded his long legs up toward him and leaned on the wall of the barge, just drinking the free air. Nimpeth carefully set the circlet beside him on the deck. There was great reverence there.
Lusis got the impression only the Elfking had the experience to behead that beast.
Maybe owing to the fact they were all soaked, they were very subdued. This wasn’t exactly a problem on a ship ferrying the dead. The general excitement circled around getting things and handing them over to the Elites. Wool blankets. Flasks of wine the Elfking waved away. He got out of his long coat and it was set out to dry by the brazier. The shirt underneath gaped open to just under the nest of his throat, which was simply not proper for an elf. His shoulders were bare. Tremendous shoulders – beautifully formed as if by some great elf artisan, just like the wet shadows along his breathing torso.
Lusis cocked her head at the massive bruise that painted his otherwise cherry-petal skin blue. How much force did it take to collapse a pauldron of such high quality the way this creature had?
“Fire Salamander.” The Elfking drew the words out, rolled his eyes, set his head back against the wood, and sighed. “How is it we can slay the greatest evil of all the Ages and not find peace? It is tiresome.”
Jan Kasia sat down among them. He offered them a flatbread with savoury meat and thick rice folded inside, seemingly to soak up the juices. Lusis dug in and found the stuff fragrant and delicious. In fact, all the Rangers went between the wine and the meat bread. And she tried not to stare at the King just to watch him breathing.
Kasia extended a flatbread to Nimpeth and she refused him.
“They don’t fancy meat,” Redd detained the man’s hand and smiled. “Don’t let it bother you. They just don’t eat a lot of it.”
Aric groused over his second glass of wine, “They didn’t seem to have a problem with fish stew.” He looked up at the four elves whose backs were against the wood wall of the ship, and who – with the exception of the King – all seemed very strained on the barge. “My question is… what’s that about? Are the fish not your friends?”
The Elfking’s icy eyes darted over. “Your Ranger friend is in his cups.” He seemed mildly amazed, “Already.”
“Come on,” she took away his mug and replaced it with her water. “That’s enough for you, Aric.”
“I don’t get it, though. Fish is meat, right?” he shook his head. “And I’m fine.”
“Well, you see, we had a rather long Eastward voyage across the open ocean at one point, and one thing you may notice about the open ocean, Aric Awnson,” his hand gestured a flat sweep through air, “no land, but an ample supply… of fish.” the Elfking’s tone was exactly the sort one used with a child.
Aric’s lip curled. “What? Were you there?”
“Hit him again,” the Elfking indicated Icar.
Aric ducked this time, and then swung out his hands, “Do you see, Lusis? Why are you putting your neck out for this Elfking? He’s sharp, and cold. He’s arrogant-”
Lusis elbowed the young Ranger, hard. This mightn’t have been so bad if Icar hadn’t also smacked him in the back of the head with the flat of his hand.
“Well, it’s not untrue at least,” Jan Kasia scoffed. “You are haughty. You are ruthless.” He said.
“Might as well complain ‘You are King’.” Redd growled a warning.
“If we’re to enumerate my flaws we will be here a while, Master of Boats,” the Elfking sipped a mug of tea that Ewon had boiled, and then cooled, for him. He finished with a dry, “I’ve been alive for a while.” And no apology in his silver-moonlit eyes. His head tipped. It was an entirely different alchemy when one could see the pale column of his white neck. Lusis had to look away.
The bruise darkened on his sculpted shoulder. He stretched his back slowly.
Lusis glanced across from the Elfking to Kasia. If they were sharing, she was obstinate and uncompromising. Many people had told her so. She’d still helped to save these Lake Township citizens tonight. And so had the King. “He gave you a Fire Salamander’s head. Come on, man. That used to win a lady’s hand.”
Redd and Steed started to laugh. Aric would have joined if he hadn’t been fuming.
“Romance is dead.” Lusis’ tone was wry.
Kasia frowned disdainfully in her direction, but she fretted little over displeasures that came without threats, shackles, or bladed weapons. In her opinion, both these men were of breeding, powerful, and well-off. Both were handsome or beautiful and headstrong. Pride may well have been a failing they shared. Like having hot tempers. She set down her cup.
Lusis swept water beads off her lap and noted, “It’s clear to me that we did well working together. We did better than we would have done apart. And I can only smile at the notion of nit-picking when we all might have gone up in flames if we hadn’t pulled together.”
The Elfking’s head tipped. Whatever cutting remark passed behind his moonlight eyes, he managed to throttle it to submission. “Peace,” he said, caught his long hair – blue-silver under the moonlight – and twisted it ferociously. Water ran down the bruised muscle gliding in his shoulder.
He released his hair into artful disorder. And glanced down at the circlet as if it was too much bother. Lusis shook her head as she looked at him.
“Sincerely. He is not of this earth,” Aric muttered. Annoyed, he tore into another flatbread.
Ewon opened a fur-lined blanket and draped it over his King’s long legs. Then he pivoted around the rail – rather than pass between the King and his conversations – to examine the bruising. Thranduil continued to drink his tea, his long arms an artistic marvel. “Your problem is not my avarice, my vanity, it’s not me, Master of Boats,” he shot a hot glance at Ewon, who, after causing him pain, inclined his head at the King. “It’s no longer about the Fire Salamander who burnt through your rudder chains and set the boats in flames. Though… she may have a brood of eggs hereabouts. My patrols will clear them out.”
“And what do you suppose my problem is?” Kasia scoffed.
The Elfking actually had to breathe deeply to keep from snarling. “It’s that eight men are dead, but they didn’t appear to die of burns or drowning. And that Fire Salamanders have no need of a man’s eyes. Do try to pay attention.”
Kasia cocked his head, “How… do you know it wasn’t drowning that killed them?”
The Elfking’s eyes averted under thick lashes. “We know.” His gaze bounced up, “Aside from which, I would assume you insist your barge workers know how to swim, yes?”
“It’s required,” Kasia cocked his head.
“Required,” the Elfking’s brows rose a faction, and he glanced at Ewon’s hands. They moved his long arm to test the function of the bruised shoulder joint. The Lord’s pale eyes widened a moment, “Careful, Ewon. That one is connected to the tea.” He lifted the cup a fraction in demonstration.
“Sorry, my King,” Ewon tried not to smile and failed. They were very old friends. He’d served Oropher well, and known Thranduil when he’d been a stormy and headstrong Prince, not yet a fiery and proud King. He sat back on his heels and nodded, quite serious now, “It must be attended to. And you must rest. Also your hair is a state, my Lord.”
The King’s voice was spent. “Oh, the world will end.” He sipped tea.
Redd burbled with laughter, “Did you miss that little row his Majesty had with a flaming lizard?”
The Elfking tipped his head back a little so his silvery gaze found Ewon. “Did you?”
“I did not,” Ewon exhaled. He wasn’t known for speaking much. “You are injured, my King. You must rest and be healed.”
This didn’t seem terribly entertaining to the Elfking. He curled up his long legs. “There is the matter of what killed the men, what took their eyes,” he looked aside at Lusis, “Master of Boats.” Now he looked back at Kasia. “We must remain vigilant.”
But that wasn’t for the king that night. He curled against the side of the barge in the moonlight, still as a statue for Ewon’s healing work. The bruise ran far enough across his back that the back of his neck was purpling. In spite of the discomfort, he remained still and looked dreamily asleep.
And Ewon’s fingertips had that same steady glow, connected back to his elven chest, which was illuminated by a steady tongue of flame.
Magic, Lusis thought as she watched blearily from her wool cocoon.
The sort of forces that had allowed the Elvenking to douse the burning hillside before it had become burning furlongs, the power that let Ewon heal, it was wearisome.
Her eyes skipped down to his back as Ewon’s precise fingers planted light in the King’s flesh.
She felt reassured because the flame she saw in the King was as golden and constant as ever.
She shut her eyes, her promise unbroken.
Downriver, the forests thinned and fell to tree-dotted fields still thick, in shadows, with snow.
The Rangers looked at one another and, almost as one, unfolded the reins. Their horses blew by the elves. The King’s great elk spooked aside. It took the Elfking a moment to realize they were racing. He set his elk into a leg-stretching canter.
The canter ate ground steadily, even though the land was slowly tilting up in this area.
Their new draft horses from the barge weren’t fast enough to keep pace, but they smelled their pastures at this close distance, and that brought them from a trot to a canter all their own. The barge surged toward home.
Lusis crested a final bending hill and could see the Long Lake before her, and a plain, and a massive, solitary mountain. It was positively beautiful under the spring sun. And the land around the lake was dotted with so many settlements!
“The Lonely Mountain,” Redd called out to them all. “Home to Thrain, his good son, Thorin, and the bones of a dragon, it’s said. Or… it should have been the home to Thorin. If the powers played fair.”
Lusis looked at the sky and frowned, “They rarely do.”
They stood at the bend with the barge coming up to the final swell. Beyond it was the great eddy of convection that led into Lake Township. It sat on the mouth of the river, a new city, mostly of salvaged stone and wood. It was an interesting character. Prettily painted in colours that complemented the land and spring. The elk belted by. The King was relaxed as he watched the river, his hair bone white in the sun, and flying.
“You gonna let him beat us?” Lusis got her horse around and chased him. Then they rode in a line of Rangers stretched out beside the Elfking.
The Master of Boats had an extensive dockyards, with many storage buildings, tie-ups, jetties, and booms for hoisting smaller boats for repairs. Many ships were at dock. The Rangers slowed. But the King’s elk sprang onto the extensive wood quay and kept to a rolling canter. People shot in all directions to clear a path.
A wharf ran along the bottom of the quay, just above the surface of the water, and the horses pulling the barge vanished into this space. The ropes to them were freed from the barge, and workers shot out to intervene with the coasting ship. Long staves came out to slow them, both from the dock and from the barge.
Jan Kasia watched the Elfking from the prow of his ship. The great elk was fast and agile. It leapt onto the main quay so that when the ship came to a stop and the plank came out to its starboard, the Elfking was there to meet it.
Sighing his frustration with so excellent a deed, and so vexing a river overlord, Kasia had the boom swing the head of the Fire Salamander from the deck to the dock. It was in a crate now, but, with its delivery, and their return, it was clear that the King thought this one matter settled. He backed the great elk up several steps and then turned him to look back the way he’d come. It was a sea of human faces.
Three horses came down the stairs. Amathon rode along in front of Ewon and then Nimpeth. Amathon’s blood bay was in an elevated trot as that gave the most warning to people who had to get out of the way. Nimpeth stood up on the hindquarters of her roan mare, bow in hand and sheath of arrows at her side, the better to see the King. Ewon’s dappled horse was quiet and fleet. He spotted a pair of children on the dock, both gazing up at him excitedly, and smiled down at them.
Beyond the wind over the ships and distant birds calling, there was no sound.
Kasia stared at the velvet ripples of white-gold elf hair, which was the only thing in motion about the King, and he realized that this vexing river King was a being of great and excellent deeds. Which gave him an idea.
“Elfking,” Kasia stood on the dock and hailed the man. The elk turned in place, nimble, like all of its hooves had stood on a platter that, itself, had turned. “You can rely on the hospitality of Lake Township for the night. It’s been a long way.” He left it at that, and stood his ground as the great elk drew in on him.
The elves reached and ringed their King.
Lusis and her Ranger brethren had tied up their horses at a post and left Steed watching them. She, Redd, Aric, and Icar walked the way that the elves had passed and came to a stop with them. She looked around her excitedly. “It wasn’t like this last time I was here. It’s built up in the last five years.”
“I wouldn’t mind being around human company again.” Aric smiled at the prospect of human women for company and Icar rolled his eyes.
The King tugged his right rein and the huge elk turned in Kasia’s direction. He said nothing, which was probably difficult for a human to interpret. Lusis peeked around the flank of the deer and nodded in Kasia’s direction to help. The fact the King had quietly turned to face him meant that the offer had been accepted. It was all in the body direction and little changes in posture.
Kasia glanced from her up to the King – the sun glinting off his circlet and sword hilts. He backed up a few steps, and the King drew ahead. So it was he decided that Lusis was right, and he turned and walked toward a large complex of wood buildings. They had tall, angular rooftops to avoid the crush of snow at winter. The architecture was foreign to the Elvenking. It lacked elven intricacy and delicacy, but it didn’t want for its own stamp of grandeur and beauty.
The range of colours interested him. There was little weathering inside the Halls – most of them were not exposed to open air like these houses, and the weathering changed colour intensity. Here, the stains used on houses didn’t resemble the natural colour palettes the elves favored. He found it curiously appealing. He overlooked the township rising from the banks behind him. “Like a bed of flowers,” he said softly.
The families from the barge were around him, and seemed pleased with this assessment. They followed him inside huge double doors when Kasia turned them all toward a central building.
In fact, Kasia’s last command was that the crate with the ‘Serpent’s head’ be brought inside and down to cold storage.
There was much chatter after that. Such a massive crate that it needed to be moved via booms, and a team of draft horses was needed to drag the sledge on which it sat.
The King didn’t dismount going in either. The bull elk walked carefully over wooden floors. The inside was clean, bright, and orderly. Men looked up from their ledgers and stared. The front section was a cavernous warehouse of crates and storage, but the back was not. The King, who, doubtless, cataloged all these numbers of goods, slipped from the bull elk. All the elves dismounted as one.
“We have stables.” Kasia looked at the elk in speculation.
Now the Elfking’s lips curved in amusement, though it faded quickly. “Do you have fields, Master of Boats? I don’t believe he will relish a stable.”
Arrangements were made for the King’s elk, who was then told where to go by the King, and released – something so baffling to Kasia that he had men follow the elk to make sure it went to the proper treed pasture. Which, they reported in amazement, It did.
Jan Kasia wound up giving a tour of his facilities. On the surface of things, it didn’t seem to be something that the Elfking would care about, but he was a very shrewd man when it came to the business of his kingdom and good with numbers. He followed all of this well, and seemed content with the balance sheet in his head.
“Humans are an industrious lot, given to progress.” He said quietly. He was overlooking the floor of the building where shipments were tallied and payments were made to the ‘King of the River’. Lusis watched the men below closely. There was no hostility to be seen among them, but they were pale with fright that the previously invisible ‘Elfking of the wilds’ that they paid tithe to – and half of them expected this had been Kasia’s personal cut, she suspected – had actually appeared in the flesh. She could see the value of having King Thranduil come here. It put a glorious face to the tithe, clearly the face of a King, and that let the pressure off of Kasia. It must have stewed there, from time-to-time. When men shot him dark glances and whispered about his cut, his greed. It gave the men someone else to blame. The King must have been aware of this too, because he kept his Elites close to him here. It wasn’t just that these were humans, she’d seen him at ease with them, but that these were humans who had a very longstanding dispute with him. Even though they’d never seen him before. No trouble came of it at that point, and they made their way to Kasia’s lodgings.
Kasia’s daughter was named Avonne. She was seven, quiet, and sweet natured. She saw the Elfking as he came from the business and crossed the large courtyard to the Kasia lodgings. Properly, it was a rather large wooden lodge. As soon as the King came through the door, the small girl began following him. Her father and the King were still talking about business as Kasia greeted his staff and led them all to a massive fireplace.
As soon as they were seated, Ewon started tying cats-cradles of thin, silvery elven rope in air for the girl. She mangled the other end of his rope into knots. By the time Kasia and the Elfking had finished, and Kasia looked to his daughter, he found her sitting with Ewon, Redd, Steed and Aric, learning how to tie knots. Close by was Nimpeth, whose features were soft at last.
“Elves like children, I think,” Lusis told their human host quietly. “I mean they’re good with children, or they seem to be. Not like them to eat them or anything. Just in case your wife comes in here and panics.”
“Ah,” he nodded and his smile faded. “My wife will never come in here again, Ranger. Or go anywhere in this world.” He gathered himself and turned to the wide-eyed head-butler of his home. “Rooms for the guests. Spare nothing. This is the Elfking of Mirkwood, and he’s had a long journey here, though not a far one.”
He stepped aside to arrange for their stay and was unaware of the Elfking’s eyes following him. They turned to take in the grand room from there, and the painting on the mantle – a blonde woman with large grey eyes.
Kasia’s wife had died. Lusis purposefully didn’t look at the Elfking. His wife had been killed. These two had a lot in common between them, but she suspected their handling of these losses had been very different.
Avonne, though, proved to be absolutely in love with Thranduil’s long, pale hair. She was a blonde herself, but her hair was much darker. She snuck every opportunity to touch the Elfking’s hair that a little girl could dream up. It made Lusis’s fingers itch. She wondered if it was really that wonderful.
It proved very hard to explain to the staff that the elves did not eat meat, and that this was not a matter of their believing that humans couldn’t cook the stuff. Therefore, they snuck it into dishes, which had the net result of making the Elfking, at one point, chuckle at their inventiveness.
She didn’t think he had that setting.
Kasia, on the other hand, slapped his forehead with the flat of his hand. “Tell them fish. White and pink. No more rabbit. Or bird. Or, for the love of the Stars, no deer.” He gestured roughly toward his collected serving staff, well out of sight of the elves, and admonished, “He talks to deer, for pity’s sake. He rode in here on a massive elk.”
Lusis had this second hand from Icar, who’d almost been unable to relate it, he’d been laughing so hard. Tears had run down his face, and Nimpeth had worried he was in some distress.
The other thing giving Kasia grey hair was the fact nothing on earth could dissuade Avonne from climbing on the Elfking. She sat beside him and leaned against his arm when the adults curled on hide couches and had aperitifs. She got up in his lap at dinner and helped him identify the meat squirreled away on his plate. She explained the different dessert selections – elves were almost wholly unfamiliar with this extension of a meal – and, when the sweetness didn’t agree with the elves, she volunteered to sit in the King’s lap and show them how to eat dessert – the reward for the rest of the meal – properly.
“She likes you,” Kasia said some time after. Avonne had fallen asleep while the Elfking talked business. “She usually only sticks to me that way.”
The Elfking swirled his wine, “There is some hope in this acceptance. If only for the future, should she follow the natural order and come to run this place. Perhaps. I will know her face.”
“And she’ll know your hair. Aside from which… I don’t hate you,” Kasia sighed. “You are a terrible inconvenience to my wealth.”
“I run a Kingdom,” the Elfking curled his long legs up under him without shifting the child much at all. “Tally that on your blotter.” He stretched out his arm, still stiff from healing.
“You strike me as a bit fierce for that. Before I got you into the offices, I didn’t reckon you to have a head for this sort of thing. Not like Eithahawn, your seneschal. I actually feel… bad,” he raised his glass, “at times, giving that one trouble.” Then he chuckled, “He has such patience, such grounding in the law and reason, and such huge innocuous eyes when he needs them.”
“Ah, yes. Eithahawn. I’ve known him since he was born,” the King smothered a smile and glanced down at Avonne. “A long time, I suspect, in your years…. His family was massacred. He could find no rest after that, unless it was like this.” He indicated the child sleeping on him, “My own son. For a long time after his mother passed from this shore, he – we – could not stand one another’s company. I suspect Elves do not mourn the same way. I am sorry for your loss, Master of Boats.”
That had come out in a fragmented jumble. The Elfking’s face, now so solemn, never shifted, never betrayed anything but a mild distress, as he watched the girl’s blonde head against the fine silk of his jacket, perhaps imagining others.
The Elfking finished, “You have not failed in this. She is a happy little creature.” His expression softened. “Peacefully adrift.”
“It’s past her bedtime,” Kasia smiled and had the governess come and take her away to bed.
It was snowing as the King walked the upper floor to the room that had been assigned him. The hall there was very wide, and windows ran the entire length. His footfalls sank into rugs, and the entire arrangement agreed with the Elfking. He felt closer to the outside where it was… late winter in this elevation. He stared out at the stables and cobbled yard and the business buildings. Walking up the hall, he could see the city beyond and the Lonely Mountain, and was made simply happy by the gentle snowfall.
“The Dwarves chose a lovely place,” he said aloud, “but harsh. And now these humans…. Look at all these doors.” As they wound down for the night, the elves pinned theirs open, and the Rangers shut theirs. The staff marveled at the difference in them. But to Kasia himself, it was just a reminder of how open the guest halls were.
The Elfking had the grandest of guest rooms – massive, well ornamented, with a huge claw-foot tub, and even larger fireplace – and was unlikely to forget it. The bed was a four-posted monster, carved in pale wood to resemble pillars from the Lonely Mountain. “Goodness, it would fit scores of dwarves. Maybe all of them.”
He undressed and let Ewon fuss with his injured shoulder and arm. The bruising crossed the broadness of his pale back almost to the other side of him.
The healing made him heavy. The heaviness made him curl up on the bedding. Maybe all elves slept like cats? Lusis, who sat on a bench in the hallway and looked in the door, was listening, but pointedly stopped looking at the King in such a state of undress.
She found the nerve to turn her back to him to avoid temptation and slowly fell asleep herself.
A cry rang out. It ricocheted through her.
Lusis was in motion. She rolled to the floor and ducked under the bed. Bench.
Where was she?
Jan Kasia’s place.
And she’d dreamt someone screamed.
Yes. She slid out from under the bench. Ewon, fully dressed, held a hand out to stay her. She could only just make him out in the dark. Nimpeth slunk from her room and into the King’s in one low and boneless motion. The King wasn’t in his bed anymore.
Aric was crouched in the doorway of his room. “Damn windows.” He muttered.
Lusis stayed low and loped down the hall. She tapped the door to Redd’s room. “Did you hear that, Redd?”
“I did. If I open this door, it will be obvious I did.” He added, gruffly. “There’s an inside hall. I’ll see you shortly.”
The cry rang out again, and the clopping of boots.
“It’s outside,” the Elfking said. He was clothed again, his circlet in place, and his hair spilling over the armour that Nimpeth and Amathon had spent half the night at Kasia’s forge repairing. He loped out into the hall and was down the stairs before any lamps came on in the area.
They stepped outside into a night cold enough to make Lusis muffle a few coughs against her sleeve. Crisp air took a moment to absorb.
“Hang back,” the Elfking cautioned. “Lest we be blamed for this calamity.”
Lusis and Aric were already through the yard by the time he’d finished the sentence. Most of the Rangers were close on her heels. Icar hung back – as she’d discussed with him that, in her absence, he was to safeguard the Elfking.
The Elfking gave a soft hiss and followed the young and disobedient Rangers, which brought his elves along. They were through the yard and rounding the building when Kasia, cloaked in a huge fur, and the security who toured his properties appeared – Kasia from the house with a trio of swordsmen, and the business’ security, from various directions ahead.
“Sir,” the men recognized Kasia right away. “The Rangers are already on the docks.”
Kasia pulled his hood around him, still fastening on the long fur, “What’s happened?”
“We’re not sure.” One of the larger men came around the back of the main building with a huge spear in hand. “Stay back, sir, and away from the-”
The Elfking brushed past the spearman and Kasia followed the elf, fearlessly. When the white-steel flickering of sword came out, the light of the lamp that the house-guards carried ran across its lines. It looked like a tongue of fire, long and merciless, from the Elfking’s hand.
As one, Amathon and Nimpeth pulled blades – a sword and two fighting blades respectively.
Icar, not to be outdone, had his sword out and was just ahead and to the left of the King, seeing as the white snaking sword was on the King’s right.
In the darkness ahead Ewon’s low voice spoke a few rolling lines in Elvish.
“What was that?” Kasia asked.
“He said,” the Elfking’s graceful head lifted in the dark. “It is bad.”
“Oh,” Kasia rolled his shoulder and looked at his head of security. “Sounded like more.”
“I’m sure it was,” Lusis stepped out from the shadows of the main building’s wall and inclined her head to the King.
He wasn’t surprised, the Elfking. “Lusis Buckmaster, do not run off again.”
She was startled to find him so adamant. His tone was colder than the night air.
And then it moderated, “Now take me where it is.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
He followed her through shadows, Kasia with him.
The Master of Boats reached out to point at the water. “Those crest shaped lamps? That’s the local forces, hereabouts – Aimes’ Men, since they were hired to patrol town by Master Aimes. Not that there are many left who still carry out that service, with Aimes in the ground. He was the man in charge in Lake Township. They’re already there. There’s no reason for us to-”
“Dead woman,” Lusis frowned back at the Elfking. “Eyes are missing. Redd and I found her first. We can answer any questions.”
Redd and Steed stepped around the mouth of the alley. Their presence on the docks wasn’t unusual. There were people starting to gather from other parts. The Elfking walked out into the gentle snowfall. He could easily see from the edge of the dock the body of the woman stretched in the small vessel below. Her blank, red sockets steamed in the cold.
Kasia set a hand over his mouth to keep from swearing, but the elves didn’t change a whit.
“We are not needed here.” The Elfking agreed, and as he turned, his quick hands slid sword to sheath in one lambent movement. But he didn’t walk away. Instead, he glanced over his tall shoulder to Lusis. It held a moment longer than it generally would, and was considerably colder. When he set off, she knew he expected for her to follow him. And since she was aware, it was precisely what she did. This specific means of death in the snowfall of this vivid little town had disappointed him. He was now angry and on edge. She needn’t rub salt into that.
They made their way inside as a mismatched group – Kasia’s men, the Elfking’s, and her own. Inside the door, he glided through the foyer into the main room beyond, and his long cloak buckled in the heat from the fires there. Many of the staff stood, having seen the lights and heard the commotion outside. The elves were quite intimidating coming in.
Kasia looked stricken and nearly collapsed, but that the King deigned to catch hold of his elbow and lower him into a chair. It was easy to forget that many people had never seen this kind of death before. Kasia’s hands shook as he cupped them over his face a moment. He looked out and up at the tall and beautiful Elfking, “Was it the bodies? Was it that I brought the bodies from the Halls to be buried?”
“No such deaths happened in the Halls.” The King stood over him, cold, and unamused. Lusis might have warned Kasia that this was no time for trying the King’s patience, but there had been no time. Now the Elfking’s voice came out with the sharp crack of a whip under its tones, “What aren’t you telling us, Kasia? What is the real reason you insisted we stay here? I doubt it was for my wellbeing as you care nothing for the Kingdom but to refute the idea you should pay for the safety of the river.”
“I was wrong,” he said airlessly. “I thought with the dark powers gone from that cursed burning Mountain and stone ruin in the South, the woods and river would be safe. But there are yet troubles in the land. Monsters, like the head in that crate. And there are men coming this way on word that travel is possible without legions of orcs and goblins abroad, men such as I’ve never seen. Even trying to get the loaded barges to the river, we have need of guards nowadays. And yet we cannot seem to find enough.”
The Elfking’s long stare didn’t abate. His head tilted in the firelight, and he listened to the troubles of a man who was not a King.
“We need help.” Kasia shook his head and looked up at the King. “You took that beast down, just a small handful of you, in minutes. It would have climbed in this Long Lake and lived for years among us, a blight.”
The King’s brows went up. He sounded somewhat mollified. “We are not Lake Townships forces to patrol your people, Master of Boats. We are wood-folk and our charge is the long river and deep forests. What services you need for a human town are far better served by hiring Lusis and her men than my elven guard. You need Rangers. One of them is worth a section of human men.”
Redd exchanged a glance with Steed, who managed to look pretty proud of himself and then hid it by looking at the floor. Aric and Icar looked to Lusis instead. If there was call for them and she was amenable, it was clear they would work here. The area was bustling, and Icar had already reported that there was an old library whose books had survived a dragon and been moved here. Though Hale’s surviving books and records, Redd reported, were in the Hoard.
“Your elves are out there,” Kasia exclaimed. “It’s only that they’re outside the town. I’m told they will not come in it. The Master of Forests was greeted by one – a woman stood at the side of the river in plain sight of him. They are out there.”
“I am aware.”
“Why do they not come in it?” He got to his feet. “How did they let such a thing in? Didn’t you charge them with protecting this place?”
“Their charge is ever to protect the wood and river,” the Elfking’s body pivoted to the fire, which lit his hair brilliant white. “They are not yours to command, Kasia. They are mine.”
He walked to the King in challenge. “How could you let a monster in here!?” The house staff clumped together at the mention of the word.
The Elfking circled Jan Kasia. He spoke slowly, each word like a drumming drop of blood, “I am not your King.” His silvery eyes were agleam and it was impossible not to notice that his pupils, swollen in the firelight, retained an alien, slightly oval, shape. “I am not your kind.”
He shut his eyes, “You have so much power. And this place is badly in need of a King.”
Thranduil stepped back from him and glanced around himself, almost as if lost, or woken up in an outlandish place. His next words came out in a little hiss of air. “Kasia, this shock has left you unwell. I can pardon it in light of the fact civil men do not see what you have seen. But I remind you there is a Master of this town, and that I tax the people of these lands for use of my river, and punish them for misuse of my forest. Knives are turned at my back here.”
“You really aren’t aware?” Kasia watched the Elfking pace before the fire.
“Oh,” the Elfking’s teeth flashed. He bent in at the man, his head tipped, and looking, in that moment, truly vicious. “What. More?”
Lusis’ hair stood on end. He was one of those wonders that was as terrifying as it was beautiful, like a vast glacier, or a deep ocean. An old and formidable thing with the power to destroy. She held a hand out to stay Aric in case he breathed a word. But he didn’t. He merely stared in fascination.
Kasia sucked air to speak, “The Master here. He’d been Master for weeks. Like the forces, the Masters keep meeting with misfortune along these shores.” He caught the Elfking’s eyes. “Authority is crumbling along the Long Lake, King of the River. The population is swollen with men from prisons broken open during the war in the enemy’s hopes of creating chaos, and now they come to raid the gold of the Lonely Mountain.”
“Dwarf gold. Men’s gold.” The Elfking shut his eyes. “Go to the dwarves with this.”
“How?” Kasia laughed harshly. “Their cut goes through long, deep tunnels that lead to the Iron Hills. They want no truck with men. They are hardly ever seen! Perhaps you could speak to-”
The King’s hair fanned he turned away so sharply, “You would not want that.”
“Oh, we would.”
“The last dwarf King from among the Longbeards of Lonely Mountain that I did business with, he withheld my goods and ignored my words of warning. His Prince shot an arrow at my elk while I was on it. My help would be no help at all.”
“And you laid an elven sword over his grave, my Lord,” Amathon interjected quietly.
The Elfking’s eloquent lips snarled, “He would have spit on me for the kindness.”
Ewon made a soft hiss between his teeth. As far as Lusis could tell, that was, set on its own, very emphatic among their kind.
“Like elves, dwarves are a proud race. It is often forgotten that they are. And that they do not relent.” Now Thranduil looked at the doors to this human place. His chest worked the steel plate overlying it so the leather bindings creaked, but his temper held.
Kasia sucked a deep breath in through his nose and exhaled slowly, “Chaos is coming, Elfking. There will be lawlessness in these parts. Nothing will protect the Halls from these raiders. And I know, now, that I can try to accept you as my Lord. You saw the awe in people’s faces, and there was hope. They can accept you, I swear it.”
“My army will protect my Halls from these raiders,” the Elfking said softly.
Hearing this, Kasia looked nearly bereft. He couldn’t speak. But no one could. Lusis was breathless, planning – which Rangers she could reach, if she could impel them to leave their fighting in the North and police the land here, if they would be enough, and where was most strategic for her own force of men. And the unspoken words in the room weighed the air like toxins, suddenly.
If the Elfking would not help them, then the good people of Lake Township and other towns in the area would be overwhelmed. The vandals would roll down the Forest and the elves would kill them, yes, surely. But it would be too late for the people of Long Lake.
“This empty world,” the Elfking exhaled at last. “It asks so much. It takes so much.” He turned from the fire and the room and walked to the doors, thinking. “I said to Merilin to go to Long Lake and encamp in the woodlands thereabouts. His section was to monitor the waterway and passage into Long Lake, not to interfere with men.”
“Into Long Lake. To an elf I bet that means into Long Lake from Forest River,” Lusis said aloud. She’d caught the Elfking’s emphasis.
The pale King turned toward the Elites with him. “Ewon, summon Merilin and his section.”
The elf bowed and darted out into the night.
“Nimpeth go with him.” The Elfking told the black-haired elf woman, and she simply vanished from the room, she moved so quickly. Now he turned to Kasia. “I am not a King of men. Men cannot accept one such as I am. I promise you that.”
“The section is coming here?” Kasia got up from where he’d collapsed into a seat.
The King noted, “A section is a mere thirty elves.”
Kasia laughed a moment and then wiped an eye, “Mere.”
“They are here to report to me.” The Elfking said, “They are not going to become a part of your human forces, Kasia. I am not a deliverer. Not of elves or men.”
Amathon glanced at the King sharply when he said this, and stared at him. Clearly, there was a passionate difference of opinion on that matter.
The Elfking glanced to his right, not at Amathon, but at Lusis. “Wake me.”
Which was all the direction she got on the matter. Not when or why. He trusted her to know, baffling creature that he was. But he was far overtaxed by now, so all Lusis did was say, “I will, my Lord. Rest well.”
And she looked at Kasia. An Elfking cannot command men, is that right?
He did well enough commanding a band of Rangers, since it was the Chief Ranger’s will.
What Jan Kasia was asking was insane, but… desperation was the mother of innovation.
So she hoped he found her willingness to follow the Elvenking promising.
It was shortly before dawn.
For Lusis, horribly enough, the tension had been cut – she couldn’t help her nature. So she slept well on the bench outside of the Elfking’s open door. But there was much weighing on the Elfking, and he’d slept for two hours before the upset at the docks, and four hours fitfully, afterward.
When she woke suddenly, her sword sliced thin air.
Morning. Nothing more.
And she had to get him, which she’d thought nothing of until she’d walked into eyeshot of the bed. Dawn’s light streaked the sky, but the moon still dominated, flooding the sheets, barred with the shadows of the grilles. His flesh was silvery blue. He should have been entirely pale as cherry petal, but was a great elasticity of abused flesh. Yes, the bruises were no longer fresh, but his silver skin was mottled with fading offences made against him. His hair. It tumbled along the sheets in crystalline disarray, like frozen water. It had lost all formal shape and was just a cascade falling behind him. She could see the expanse of his curving cheekbone up to one fascinating elf ear. It was so delicate-looking. One long and well-formed arm curled below his chin. That hand bunched a sheet. But the other extended into the sheets to the naked sword.
She froze, instantly.
His tapered fingers were loosely around the grip. All the better that he could behead her with before he even awoke. She eased out of the reach of the sword and tried to ignore that the entirety of him was radiating light right through the white cotton. The Elfking was a vision… but he was also a living nightmare. It was a mercy he was also, for the most part, still lost amid a pile of sheets. But for those long… terrific. Legs. Like his shoulders, and sleek arms, they were ruthless. His face turned to the sheet, soft and deceptively young. His features, which she’d have sworn she knew well now, and had hardened herself to, were revolutionized by the unsophistication of sleep. This is how he looked before the world had flattened him with the death of a father, the murder of a wife, and the estrangement and flight of an only child, with a kingdom, enemies, armies, massacres, and a dragon or two on top… for good measure. Like virgin snow.
For several moments, she couldn’t look away from him, his long eyelashes, and that vexatious blossom mouth that didn’t know when to quit. So comely, to get him in so much trouble.
Lusis reminded her overheated brain that Thranduil was also famed for his beauty.
He could no more help what he was than she could.
One side of his face, she remembered from Redd’s stories, had been disfigured once.
It was like the side of his personality that was set on viperine and was… damaged.
Light fingertips could likely establish the scar.
If she got too close he might cut her in half.
She didn’t try to stir him until she could feel, with her fingers, that the heat had left her face. Also, she forced herself to bring her breathing back down to normal. She would not stand there like an idiot in a ballad, and gasp his name. Fine – gasp his title. She could never call him by his name in this life.
The last to return to her control were her own thoughts. That was most important of all. The elves were ridiculously good at body language. They could tell things about its life from the posture of a deer. She wasn’t getting a pass.
Finally her voice pulsed, “My Lord. It’s time.” and she cursed herself.
His head rolled on that long neck and his half-lidded eyes looked at her, silver, damp, and soft.
She turned, stiffly, and walked out, shutting his door and leaning against it.
“Miss? Is something wrong?” Asked one of the two curly-headed upstairs maids. They were strong girls, and practical, wheeling along a cart with large pots of steaming water. They angled the cart toward the Elfking’s room. “We’re supposed to start filling the tubs at dawn.”
Lusis brightened without warning, like a girl. “Mine too?”
“Yes, of course,” the opposite housemaid beamed at her.
As usual, she could forget anything when faced with the prospect of being clean. Her ambition was to own a house with a large, gravity-fed tub like at the Halls. “Oh,” she remembered herself, “Nothing’s wrong. He’s just… in there.” She nodded, stepped aside, and popped open the door for them. They could only understand if they understood – no harm done. She shivered. Lusis headed next door to Nimpeth’s room. That would be their very next stop with hot bath water.
The girls brought her water and filled her tub and she swore they were torn between general delight and dazedness. Lusis sank into the tub a bit perplexed. She often swore to herself that the Elfking’s beauty drove pure hearts straight to sin, and minds into lunacy. But the pair of serving girls looked hopeful. They were happy.
She’d been in the bath a long time.
Outside her door. Amathon was fully clad in green leather armour. The elves recovered hide from dead-fall, often, rarely hunting for the sake of clothing and meat. His leather was sturdy, but he wore a breastplate and pauldrons this morning. The breastplate had one long etching of an antler around its circumference, and the pauldrons were engraved with small whirling chains that extended onto the horn’s tines. Such artistry. Out in the sun, his long, dark auburn hair cast cherry-red light along the hardwood surrounds. He’d braided some of it back. She shut her door behind her and his brows went up as if he’d placed a bet rightly.
It made Lusis smile. She didn’t have to look to know his door was wide open.
“Good morning, Amathon,” she gave him a small bow. He was already on a mug of tisane. She could smell the Rowan berries from her bedroom door. That was her favourite. He gestured at the window and light glinted off the steaming cup and his chain-etched vambrace.
The section was in the courtyard in a long line of green cloaks. They stood stock-still, boots planted slightly apart with their hoods hiding their faces, and their bows lying across their thighs.
“Nimpeth was not amused that you took her bath,” Amathon said to Lusis and then nodded as if that was just the greatest thing she’d done to date.
And who knew? Maybe she’d climbed in his. They were close, somehow.
She grinned, “Glad I could help.”
He actually laughed, and then found even greater enjoyment. “Oh look.”
Down in the courtyard, Avonne, in a fur cloak, was marching along the line of fierce elves. Her Nanny and her Governess were in a fit behind her, trying to get her to come away.
Aric, who rested against the frame of the window further down the hall, started to chuckle to Icar. Steed gave a yawn and stared, wet-headed, and not yet awake, dully amused at the little girl, the yard dusted in snow and lined in elves, and the humans coming to their morning’s work.
Kasia appeared at the end the upper hall at about the same time Redd pondered out of his room. His shoulders were just about as wide as the frame, she figured. Barbarian. Lusis grinned at him.
Then Amathon brought his cup back to his room and returned with his weapons.
“That’s as far as I’ve seen you get from them – your weapons I mean,” Redd gestured at the bow and sword. “It’s a proud day in Lake Township, Master elf.”
“I am ignoring you,” Amathon told the Ranger indisputably, “because you are silly.”
This reduced the Rangers to gurgles of true amusement.
Ewon stepped into the hall with his dark hair slickly wet. He looked sharply attractive, with a vulpine face. He gave a nod of greeting, but was mostly lost in the wonder of watching Avonne inspect the section. He bubbled elvish at Nimpeth when she joined him at the windows.
“Easy now, father,” she dropped from elven to say to him.
“Not at all. The heavens love a little girl,” Ewon disagreed with her. He set his forehead to the side of her head in an adroit motion and shut his eyes. “They are magical.”
Nimpeth’s head lowered a fraction. Moved in spite of herself.
Ewon was her father? He was a very old Silvan.
They parted quickly, but the feeling of their connection did not die. Lusis watched it extend between them like a scattering of stars. She’d never seen the like before.
Kasia came down the hall with a horrified glance out the windows at his child. “She’s taken leave of her common sense. It’s something about your kind, I swear. Elves, please forgive her.”
“Done,” Ewon said quietly. And immediately.
The Elfking stepped out, didn’t look at a soul of them, and swept down the hallway in a fragrant wash of wintery forest air. He was entirely in silver today, so that his armour looked like white ice over it, and he, himself, washed of all but the faintest watercolour of eyes and lips. Delicate. Elegant. With a sword strapped over his back in a pale steel sheath.
Kasia fell back from the figure he cut and blinked.
He gave no sign that they should follow, but everyone did.
In the main room, the upstairs staff waited in a throng of nervous spectators pretending to be busy. Although perhaps they were, Lusis thought. It was possible that they were about to have thirty more bellies to fill. The huge table was fully appointed.
The silver Elfking made them all fall silent as he passed.
Nimpeth and Amathon opened the two doors at the front of Kasia’s lodgings and the King set foot out onto the granite. The section moved in unison, pulling in their stance, swinging their bows to their sides and inclined their bodies toward the King.
By now, the windows of Kasia’s shipping company were full of workers staring at the display. The Nanny finally caught and snatched up Avonne’s little body. The section of elves straightened and followed the Elfking’s slow turn inside. Their line started for the door in a bird-like V that merged into a straight line up the granite stairs.
By the time they all came in and lined the room, there was silence, and the Elfking curled in a leather chair by the fire.
“Merilin, there was a murder on the docks last night. A woman. Her eyes were missing.” The Elfking rose to his feet and walked down the huge human room. He was scintillating with quartz.
The elf, Merilin, twitched back his hood. His hair was a very dark brown and rippling, and his eyes were a sunny blue. “Yes, my Lord. We heard the alarm and came along the dockyards to see to your wellbeing. We established that you were well. The woman was dead by then.”
“Did you happen to witness what killed her?”
“We were monitoring the waterway into Lake Township from Forest River.” Merilin said. “If it passed us, we remained unaware.”
“Yes,” the Elfking stretched. “We also had no sense of it. For such dark actions, that is alarming.”
Lusis frowned, “Unless a person did it, right? There will be rumours all over the city about the condition of the bodies.”
“Investigation will bear that out,” the Elfking assessed. “Report, Merilin.”
“Six nests were detected along the banks of Long Lake. Clutches of eggs that were being consumed by several newts, two of which were four to five feet long. The rest, perhaps sixteen, were under two or three feet.”
“Fire salamanders.” The King pointed out.
“It seems you killed the mother.”
“We killed the mother. It was done by coalition – humans, elves, and Northern Rangers. We need that message to be clear outside these doors, Merilin.” The Elfking shrugged, “I just beheaded it.”
Just like that, one of the women on Kasia’s staff hit the rugs. The Elfking turned at the muffled sound, perplexed, but she was out of sight behind the silverware laden table, and no one else moved or even looked at her, so he missed her presence. He turned back to Merilin, who didn’t draw attention to the human out of elven politesse, and several staffers slowly sank to the floor to give the fainted woman aid. It was everything that Lusis could do to keep from slapping her forehead with the flat of her hand. Humans. Unless it was chef to kitchen maid, there wasn’t casual talk that included beheading.
“Are they dead?” the Elfking asked. “Not just dismembered?”
It was just as good that she was down for the count at that point.
“Their heads are harvested, and their bodies have been skinned, cut to parts, and burnt.” Merilin noted with a nod, “One did remember that Salamanders will regenerate limbs.”
“Well done,” the Elfking glanced at the table. “Anything else?”
“The venom and intoxicant present in the newts, tadpoles, and eggs are inconsistent with the poison load in the unfortunate victims of the barge attack.” Merilin told the King.
The Elfking didn’t seem surprised by this. “Yes. Same can be said of the mother. So there is something else out there. Something full of poison. The venom load of a Salamander, even a large one, is not as potent as one might expect. Certainly not enough to turn a body into a weapon in minutes. At the same time, Fire Salamanders do not coordinate, so we are currently under attack.”
Silence among the elves.
They bowed as one, even the Elite guards.
Lusis looked around her. It wasn’t a declaration of war. Was it?
Now the Elfking said, “Send word to Eithahawn.”
“Yes my Lord,” Merilin and the others straightened. “Your orders for this section?”
There was a very long pause. He weighed things.
“Break camp. You will become our escort. We leave for the Halls in the hour,” he turned to Kasia. “Good luck to you, Kasia. Perhaps you should consider Mastery of this place. Better than noble blood, you have the funds to maintain your power and safety.”
Kasia blanched and looked at the floor. The entire room became subdued with its grand table set in hopes the elves would remain. The Governess and Nanny hurried up the stairs with Avonne.
And the elves carried on. Merilin inclined his head, “It shall be done.” He straightened, clearly pleased with the idea of leaving this human settlement.
The elf-king turned with the low flattened hand extension that meant leave. It might have looked surprising to the humans when the line of elves split and walked out into the crisp morning air. They moved out into the yard. Merilin went down the stairs, tugging his hood up, and the avian V of elves melted into one line behind him, leaving through the narrow alley, under the eyes of throngs of humans.
First Aric and Icar, but then Steed, looked aside at Lusis. She frowned and went to the Elfking’s side as soon as the section cleared down and he was not occupied. She glanced back for guidance, to Redd. The big man looked at the floor, flummoxed and plainly disappointed in his King.
Behind him, Kasia was in motion, and he looked determined.
She slid the silver and pearl chain off over her head and held it pooled in her hands, “I won’t be able to leave with you, Elfking. These people are in trouble, and I have to do all I can to bring Rangers here, and be among them.” She felt a sinking inside as she offered the chain. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me, my-”
He didn’t even look her way. His hand simply rose to cover the cupped chain and pearls she tried to return to him. He applied a very small pressure toward her. Lusis read that as an indication that he wouldn’t accept the chain.
She stepped back from him and, lacking anything else, she bowed and replaced the chain.
She felt watery, for some reason, emotional, which wasn’t her way. “Thank you, my Lord.”
His hand dropped, he stepped forward, and she read his fingertips: Leave.
She walked back to Redd, off balance, and her Rangers grouped around her. “I was dismissed.”
Icar nodded at her, “I saw that. That time.” He’d been practicing reading the small motions of elves. It seemed like his studies were about to come to a close, and he was dismayed.
“But he had you keep the chain?” Redd reached up to turn one of the pearls, which still appeared to be full of stars and colours to Lusis’ eyes.
“He did.” She touched it and looked back at the King. Her voice dropped to a very low mutter, “I wonder why he did this. Leaving. It’s like… it’s not what he wants, but what he should do.”
Everyone just sort of looked at Redd, but it was Aric that snarked, “Anything about that in your history books?”
“Nothing but that he was hard, proud, and… why didn’t you talk to him, Lusis?”
“I was…” she lowered her hand in an inexact replica, “dismissed.”
Aric’s brows went up, “Then why did you go?”
Excellent question, that one. Her jaw clacked shut and she glanced at the sun-drenched elf who stood with his arms tucked behind his broad back. She wondered at him. His ambition seemed wholly to be to get his people to the much sung-about land of elves – the Undying Lands as they were called – and to have them reach it alive. She had a sense that he’d given up on dwarves and was losing his faith in men.
“We need to pack up,” she told her men. “We won’t be living on Jan Kasia’s hospitality. Steed? I need you to rent a horse – we can’t keep the elf horses. You need to ride out for Rangers.”
“There’s a spring camp in the Grey Mountains not far from here. It’s days of riding to reach and days back – be aware.” He nodded. “I’ll find out about a horse.”
She turned to Icar and said, “If you could stay with the King, would you?”
“I’d stay with my brother,” Icar exhaled his disappointment and got an elbow from Aric. He ignored this with a cheerful smile, “Where would you go? Would you stay with him?”
She actually felt her head begin to tilt and stopped the motion, “I’m asking the questions.” She turned to Aric and Redd, “If we wanted to know about the most dangerous people in the new towns that have been cropping up, how best to tease that out?”
“Fist fights,” Aric popped his fist into his palm. “Paid ones.”
“Research, find out who everyone’s afraid of,” Redd suggested.
“In bars,” Aric added to this.
“Don’t get killed,” she sighed and told Aric. “Don’t get cocky. Try not to get hurt.”
“Listen to her,” Icar gave his brother’s head a push. “No fighting, unless there’s no other way.”
The Rangers packed up, Lusis with a heavy heart, but she’d decided herself. They brought their packs down the stairs and Ewon extended a hand to each of them as he saw them and placed it on their shoulders. When he reached Lusis he also stepped back from her and said, “You must remember my name if you need to send for support.”
She hugged him, which wasn’t something he was used to, but he wasn’t entirely unaccustomed either as he naturally got along with children, and small animals. Ewon was a nurturing sort.
The King paced before the fire in restless rings. Graceful and grave. Lusis looked at him longingly. It was a strange feeling, realizing that she would very much miss the company of a King. But when she’d been desperate he’d tried to help her, and instinctively, without real reason.
And the doors opened to Kasia coming in from his warehouses. “My Lord, if you would come with me? Before you leave there is one last thing on which I could use your opinion.”
The Elfking spun in place, his steps sure and almost angry as he swept out the door with Kasia. Lusis saw Ewon’s brow wrinkle and said, “I don’t like it either. We should follow.”
Kasia led the King straight through the cobbled yard. In the sun, he looked like a white pillar of fire, lit up, and in a very serious bent. The main warehouse was packed with people. They lined the walls, and the balconies that overlooked the hall below. People everywhere, and almost silent. The Elvenking slowed to look up at them all. Lusis wasn’t the only one to put her hand on her blade. Ewon had his bow out. It would be easy to fill them all with arrows here, but none of the humans were armed. They simply lined the rails and stared down at the silver figure that was Mirkwood’s King. At the very front doors of the big warehouse’s storage area stood a line of six men. A tall woman paced along their number and looked at the King only rarely.
“It’s fine. There’s no threat here.” Kasia told the sudden ring of armed elves and Rangers.
“Stand down,” the Elfking commanded, and the Elites lowered their levels, but deceptively, still ready to launch into action. The Rangers didn’t stand down a whit, and they wouldn’t until Lusis gave the order to. The King paid that no mind, or may have been relying on it. Or both.
“Hello,” the eldest man among those at the door stepped forward. He was finely dressed in black furs and expertly riveted dark golden leather. His red beard was trimmed neatly, and he wore a cap on his otherwise hairless head. He was, to the eye, like a handsome, human-sized dwarf. He spoke slowly. It was as if he didn’t expect to be understood by the tall and silver King.
The King’s head swiveled into a soft tip. That was very difficult to interpret in him.
The human laid a hand over the star-shaped rivets on his chest. “I’m Cardoc Wence. I run the lumberyard in Long Lake. I am the one who does controlled harvest of the deadfall North of Forest River. I hold a contract with you and have never been in bad standing. Do you… know me?”
“I do,” the Elfking replied, and nothing more. He’d never seen this man, and knew him only because Wence never resisted tithing and never violated agreements. Likewise, Cardoc knew the King only by reputation, but found him fair and easy to work with because he was vigilant never to flout the rules and charges the Elfking handed down.
“It is an honour.” Wence told the tall, radiant elf.
The Elfking’s blue-silver eyes averted, which, at least, showed some modesty. Lusis wasn’t sure if it was real or simply politesse, but it did make her relax a little.
“I’m here to represent our interests – that of Lake Township and several other legitimate communities.” He gestured at the other finely dressed men, and the waspish woman whose pacing was drawing the Elfking’s attention. She was a tall and beautiful human woman with arched brows, brown eyes, and black curls, and a very cold expression on her face. Her bodice was so tight that Lusis began to suspect she might have had some ribs removed.
Elves tended to be fascinated by dark eyes. Dark colours, like very pale colours, were infrequent among their kind and that was cause for excitement. Lusis had caught more than one of them staring at her eyes, which were so dark a brown as to be nearly black, before. This new woman’s dark eyes, ceaseless pacing, and unnatural figure combined to distract the King.
Cardoc Wence named out the strangers before the Elfking and his colourless eyes took them all in with a remarkable calm, given the inherent danger of the situation.
The Elfking’s chin rose, “What do you want?”
“We want to offer you a deal,” Wence told him. It was as if he’d been training on this speech for a while, acting in ways that were inoffensive to the King as gleaned from people who stood in petitioner queue. Not that they very often got to speak to the King himself, but Eithahawn was very good practice. “We would like you to lead us through this unsettled time, and to help us restore order.”
“These are the lands of men,” his hand dropped as he turned, “I am an elf. I cannot help you.”
“You’re a wise and astute King-”
The Elfking nearly laughed, but caught himself in a sharp rush of humor. “Ah, my. Whatever happened to King of Greed, Kasia?”
Almost as one, the collection of fine gentlemen stared at Kasia in alarm. Only the woman, who still paced, disclosed a different emotion. She was entertained.
“I was mistaken.” Jan Kasia amended his statement to add, “And angry. I didn’t understand. I hadn’t had any time in your company, Elfking.” And then stalled, because even after saving the men and women of Lake Township from a fiery death, he’d called the Elfking arrogant and uncaring.
The Elfking looked up at the balconies full of human faces, packed to capacity with onlookers staring down at him. “Is that what this is to be, then? There is some risk that order will collapse, that your businesses will be overcome and fail, you cannot resolve these problems on your own, and so you turn to the very people whose laws you are loath to observe?”
At that point the red-lipped woman stopped pacing and answered outright. “Basically.”
He looked in her direction, not sure what to make of her. “You are asking an elf… to lead you. I have an entire Kingdom of my own. My responsibilities are many.”
“Well,” she flounced up to him, “Thanks to the King in Gondor and a Fellowship of many races, Sauron is dead. You, yourself, held one of the keys to the defeat of the Ring, and your army went to Dol Guldur and ended the enemy there…. Trust me, I’ve had to sit through ‘A Modern History of Thranduil’ with these men for months, I know what you did, shrewd one.”
The Elite elves stiffened and Ewon made a hiss.
But the Elfking very nearly chuckled.
“It’s Elvenking.” Lusis growled at the tall, curly-haired woman. “Or King works.”
“Ah, I pity you,” the Elfking told her as if no upset had occurred. “It is a bitter story.”
The human beauty made her way to him.
“Trust me on this, beautiful one, I know that no man is perfect. No elf either. But perfect is not good, because to be good is to be imperfect. You are smart, resourceful, and not new to power. That is what we need here. There are things we would trade you for those skills, white dove.” She stopped straight in front of him and looked up into his face. “Many delightful things.”
His too-pleasant voice was smooth and glossy as silver box chains, “I am also harsh, unfeeling, and not interested.” He told her. His hands tucked together behind his back, his head tip was brutally unsympathetic.
The woman didn’t wilt under his withering gaze, but she did fracture. She was cold underneath, like the watery vein of a glacier. “You can help us. And we can reward you, Elfking,” she shot a look at Lusis and her sword, and then smiled at the King, “richly, be assured. I can find something that you like.”
Lusis felt her teeth flash in distaste.
The King moved. He straightened his spin and raised his head. His silvery eyes shut. The spark within him grew in intensity until he radiated a blueish-white light. It was like his bruised body had absorbed the moonlight he’d slept in the night before, and now it discharged out of his flesh. Lusis blinked at him, amazed, and the woman fell back several steps. The Elfking had breathing room again. “I suppose you are here to offer me gold and gems from the mountain?”
“That’s some of it,” admitted Cardoc Wence, he blinked the afterimages out of his eyes. “But there is more that we’re willing to negotiate. Favorable contracts. Local enforcement of tariffs.”
The Elfking’s lips curved and he pointed out, “Cardoc Wence, I would be your King.” He turned in a flickering of his long coat, and then looked up at the rafters. Glowing in the falling sunlight. He called out to the humans, “You are free men. You do not understand. A King is not like a Council. He is not like a Master. There is no debate. A King is law.” His sword rang out as he drew it, so quickly many could not track the movement. He looked at the blade. “To resist him is treason. When he tells you to go to war, you go to war. Even your lives serve his will. Tell me, why would you bid for a King who is not even human?”
“Why did we bid for a King who is not even Silvan?” Amathon walked to bow in front of his startled Elvenking. “You are a Sinda,” he straightened, “as your father was. But in you, my King, there is a fire of ascendency. You are a sovereign. I cannot scold these humans for taking note of that.” He glanced around him.
The Elfking closed his eyes and searched for forbearance. He seemed to stop breathing.
Lusis felt herself begin to smile. Amathon had been quietly aboard this idea for a while now.
Kasia stepped in and noted, “The Fellowship worked because so many with different skills came together, yes, from their worlds.”
The Elfking told him, “You do not need a Fellowship. You need proper human governance. Whatever that looks like. I do not know.” He had no real idea.
Cardoc added, “Did you not send your own son on that adventure? You both fought to end the Ring by portioning these challenges. It is the thinking of an experienced leader.”
Now Kasia nodded at him, “We are under siege, Elfking. Seven men have gone to the Master house and all seven have died in the last half year. One with his entire family. We must have a leader in the next days, by the time of appointment. Or peace itself, stability, is at risk.”
Something in the Elfking snapped, “Do you have any idea what you ask? There are things that cannot be undone, Master of Boats. Would you see your people on their knees to an elf?”
“Better than seeing them on their knees being cut down by an army of criminals.” Said the ice-water woman. “And he will have his concessions as King,” she turned to the men. “Men. In exchanges you are forever dangling things in front of the beautiful, and then whisking them away.”
It was rare for the Elfking to be speechless, but his lips parted now and he stepped back, wordlessly. He exhaled and looked to the doors of the massive facility.
Merilin’s elves dropped from the rafters, graceful, bristling with weapons, and they did as he requested. They opened the great doors for the King, so that the outside brushed over his figure and lifted his bright hair. The sunny morning air was chill as he stepped outside and toward the unblinking blue eye of the lake. Birds wheeled above it, chattering on the breeze, but the docks were still. No one was working. Barges bumped to port, moored, but nothing more.
“Go away and debate this,” he told the humans. “Come to a different decision, I urge you. For if you do not, I will claim this land and lake and act, for some duration, as King in this place.”
Merilin’s section stepped to line and bowed as the King passed them. He went straight to Kasia’s house, up to his rooms, and paced until sunset.
During this time, Steed secured a horse. This was made simpler because Kasia was eager for as much help as possible and, during a break of the Council of Lake Township, Kasia worked with the local business leaders for both supplies and two horses for him.
He was ready to go by nightfall, and Icar elected to go with him.
Lusis blessed this in the end. She’d been fearful of Steed’s being alone, and yet had visions of him stumbling across frozen heath with his arm splinted and bound to his chest and a sword, naked in his other hand, waiting for orcs to descend, to make a final stand.
They departed just before dark, and Lusis saw them off.
“Is that the King?” Steed stared at Kasia’s uppermost halls.
It was. He stood in the windowed hall and watched them. Perhaps he’d come to think of them as extensions of his will. It was too far to imagine he worried about their wellbeing. Though it might have been true that he did. They had helped him kill a Fire Salamander, and he’d very much come to peace with their company since then. In that aspect, he was something like Redd, who had issues in trusting new Rangers until post-battle.
Steed inclined his head to the King, as did Icar.
“We’ll be quick about it, Lusis.” Icar squeezed her fingers before he rode out.
“Eyes open. Be careful.” Lusis called after them. “Be out of sight by full dark.”
“We’re going the woods way,” Steed told her with a nod. “The Wood-elves will know us now.”
They’d never been able to say that before. Lusis smiled and looked aside at Redd and Aric. Redd was just as amused as she was, but Aric’s face was drawn. He already looked pale and agonized. Within an hour, he’d taken what he could from the kitchen and an elf horse after the pair. This was no surprise when Lusis considered the boys. They’d been orphaned young and, without one another, neither would have survived. They were young and deadly by now. And they would probably never be parted in life.
That left her with Redd.
They went inside and sat together in the grand room. It was almost sunset.
“They’re along the woods now.” Redd soothed her. “That elf horse is faster than the wind. He’s overtaken them by now.”
The doors opened. Kasia and the Council entered in solemn quietude. There were very many people in the yard beyond. One thing she’d noticed among the people hovering around Kasia’s establishment was that they had high hopes for the King.
The three Elite elves stepped into the path of the Councilmen.
Amathon stepped toward Kasia, “Master of Boats, there is some concern. Do you, in fact, know how to serve a King?”
“I would like to think I do.”
Ewon looked away and chuckled.
Nimpeth’s brows drew up. “If there is occasion for other elves among us, even Merilin’s section, and you do offence to the King, you will endanger yourselves and your standing amid our kind. Do you understand?” She looked at her father.
“The Elfking, Thranduil, was born in the First Age. He is a King. He is the son of a King, it is a long way back before you find anything but the blood of warriors and Kings in his bloodline.” Ewon said to them. “This affair stands against his better judgment, but I believe he will help you if you ask it of him. He will tell you he is cold. He will not tell you that he is also good. You will not do damage to him. And be aware… he has a temper.”
The tall curl-headed woman was named Nema, and she laughed throatily. “A man. With a temper. Never happens.” She gestured in air.
Nimpeth’s teeth flashed in a hard smile at the woman, “Little girl, a man with a temper is a rather small problem. A thousands of years old King with a temper is beyond your ability to reckon.” The pearly fangs vanished behind her lips again. “What gifts you have to offer him, do not bring before him. It will try his patience. Have them sent to the Kingdom by ship.”
“I’m not sitting my girls on one of those barges!” Nema stomped a booted foot.
The elves glanced amongst themselves. Amathon blinked, “Girls?”
“I’m in the service industry,” Nema’s smoothness had returned. She smiled at them in a fashion that was considered seductive among the humans. “I’ve selected four girls for the King.”
“You know. Professionals. For his use,” Cardoc gestured at Nimpeth, “Women.”
Amathon crisply told the man, “Associate such with Nimpeth again, and I will cut off your head.”
Ewon, who was Nimpeth’s father, nodded softly.
Cardoc froze. “Don’t they have professional women among the elves?” He paused, thought, and asked the elves gathered before him, “Or would he prefer young men?”
Elf heads tipped in all directions. Mass confusion had broken out.
“I am a professional woman. Of the Elite guard of the Elvenking of Mirkwood.”
Ewon said something in elvish. Both the younger elves looked at him, suddenly expressionless.
After several heartbeats, Nimpeth answered carefully, “We may have trouble here, it is clear. You must… avoid speaking with the women of Merilin’s section. They are young… and well-armed.”
“None of which addresses the problem of my putting my girls on a boat to elf-lands.” Nema shook her head. “It’s too dangerous for them.”
“He will have no use for your concubines,” Ewon told them. “Send them home to their mothers.”
“Like hell,” Nema bubbled. “I’ve never seen a powerful man in my life with no use for concubines. Well… beyond Kasia,” she actually looked sad as she said so. “But he has reasons.”
“The King has too,” Kasia realized and glanced at the madam. “Leave him be, Nema, I warn you. You think he’s beautiful – he is – but he’s a terror. I’ve seen him fight. He’s no one for you to toy with. I suggest, given what we’re about to ask, we work with these kind elves to keep ourselves out of trouble.” He turned to Nimpeth. “I’m sorry for the insult to you, Lady Nimpeth.”
Now her eyes brightened. She almost smiled. “Master of Boats, have no fear, I am well defended. Amathon is my husband, and Ewon is my father. There is nothing you could possibly say to me that you could get away with.” Then she actually did smile at him, and even inclined her head.
“You must consider working with Lusis Buckmaster – the Ranger woman. She does very well among our kind.” Ewon gave a grave nod and the elves, almost as one, glanced up to the stairs. The King came in a wash of blue-silver. His step was effortless, if listless. He crossed the room straight to them.
Lusis rose to her feet, as did Redd. She stepped out to flank the King, which he’d come to expect by now. His Elites melted back out of his path.
“Hello Master of Boats, has your sense returned?” the King’s velvet voice asked.
“Thank you for agreeing to remain on here for long enough for us to make this decision.” Kasia lowered his head in a grateful nod. “I understand better, now, how gracious a thing that is.”
“Good,” the King nodded. “We shall be gone by morning.”
Cardoc shook his head, “No, Elvenking, you misunderstand. Our decision is the same. Our minds are not changed. We just realized we should have thanked you for giving us your time.”
Finally, the Elfking shut his eyes. Some number of heartbeats passed in silence. Then his long silver gaze found the floor. He turned gracefully aside from them. “Humans are fools.”
“You said you would claim us,” Kasia reminded the Elfking.
For a long moment, the Elfking stared at him. And then he set off for the door. “Remember that you wished for this. This… was your will.”
Lusis hurried after him, unwilling to miss what would happen now. She gestured at Redd, seized by a sudden excitement to see what the Elfking would do with a Township of humans in his power, a tiny fraction of his Kingdom, yes, but a real part. She’d never heard of an elf leading humans before, and there was no prohibition that Redd could think of, all day, that stood against it.
Except common sense.
The yard was packed with milling people who shrank back from the silver creature that was the King. He drew his sword with slow grace, ringing on the scabbard, and turned it in air in a dignified arc. He lay it across his back as he walked. It was bright on his silvery breastplate and colourless hair.
He went through the buildings and to the docks.
He was followed by a bewildering mass of people, all of whom were from the Township. A girl nudged Lusis and she recognized this as one of the mourners from the barge. Her head was up. She was proud, whatever was to happen. Finally, they passed to the stone shore.
The Elfking looked at the rising moon, visible though the sun was still low in the trees to the West. His trees. He brought the sword around and took it in his curled hand. Lusis winced from nearby him, because there were few ways in which he could do that without cutting himself.
She backed up a step because the furnace began to rise from steady yellow candle-flame to leaping fire, and slowly, inexorably, to starlight as he spoke in elven. None but the three elves in his company understood. They collectively took steps back from him. The sun sank deeper in the trees.
The Elfking held up the sword, for it seemed lighter and lighter, as if pulled heavenward by the moon rise overhead. Its steel was brighter by the moment, until the Elfking shut his eyes, his voice echoed across the waters, and called Merilin’s section from the trees. They stood on the shore to watch. The sword glided up through his hand. Lusis wasn’t the only one clambering back from him. The sword had become so bright it had more in common with a fallen star than a thing of this earth, and, of course, to her dark eyes, the star inside of his chest fed that light.
When the blade’s tip left his fingers, the sword hovered in air above his hand. His sibilant voice was now in the water and woods, it filled the air around him with a deep music. He glowed with bright moonlight, now lit like a pillar, rather than an elf. And he opened his fingertips a fraction. The sword slammed down into the ground, and all that light, which had gathered like ice crystals in the moon, collapsed down into the King and the blade, and shot out into the ground and water. It ran out in all directions with a crack like a thunderclap. And in that sudden rush of light, Lusis saw something awful burning in the whiteness rolling through the lake.
As soon as her eyes hit them, she was in a struggle to breathe, and had to fight the squeeze at her neck. But it was far, far less terrible than it might have been. The power of the King burned the worst of it away.
But not all of it.
The King yanked his sword from the shore and spun it in air. He had become his normal self again, but the sword was white as a lily petal when he slid it back to its scabbard. Vines of wood grew out from where the sword had struck. He walked away with them climbing higher and higher in air.
Lusis followed him closely. “What was that, Elvenking?”
“My will.” He said.
Her voice dropped, “My Lord, did you see what I did out in the water?”
“Shadows standing on the waves,” he told her quietly. “You saw?”
“Shadows like buoys, just standing in the water.” Lusis couldn’t clear her head of the image. “Your light obliterated some of them, but the rest fled.”
“Yes,” he told her. “Shadows. Shadows with the eyes of men. They did not follow us. They were already here. Someone neglected to tell us so.”
Kasia was in a daze when he reached the Elfking. He gestured at the silvery threads of light fading in air, “My Lord?”
“I have claimed the land and water hereabouts.” The Elfking told him. “I am granted not just the rivers and forest, but this lake, this land, and the leagues between here and the wood.”
Cardoc stood stupefied a few steps on. “That was astonishing.”
“I have seen astonishing things,” the Elfking exhaled his prickliness, “that was not one.” He passed through a very large throng of humans who didn’t seem to know how to act now – not how to react to what they’d seen, or to the great pale creation that pushed through them. He found his way to a hitching post in the packed yard.
He swung up onto it, and stood on top with ease, even though the top was only slightly wider than a man’s open hands. “Hear me,” he told the humans. “There are beasts like men abroad on the water. Creatures out of shadow and nightmare. In the day, it is possible they may be detected, but a shadow in the night is a hard thing to perceive. I suspect that this is how they took the barges in the dark. So it is my command that you depart from here, quickly. Lock in for the night and whatever sentiment you have for what has come to pass tonight, trouble me no more with lingering in this dangerous place.” He stepped down and cut through the humans, a silver scythe.
There was a sudden eruption of muttering in the crowd.
“Gather the splinter of your section.” The King instructed Merilin as the section head arrived. “We hunt tonight.”
“How do we kill a shadow, my Lord?”
“They did not survive King’s Light.” The Elfking caught hold of Lusis’ cloak and pulled her along with him when there was danger that town’s people would push her aside. Or she would wander away. “Bring your swords to me.”
Inside Kasia’s manor, the King laid all the swords out on the well-appointed table. Elven steel so beautiful and bright it took the breath away. He pressed the flat of his hands onto them two at a time and gave them a blessing of his grace. He circled the table to Redd’s sword and replaced it with elven steel in comparable size. “It must hold my favor. Human steel is not as good for that, as elf. Will you accept this Redd Ayesir?”
“It’d be an honour,” Redd smiled, “as it is to hunt with you, Elfking.”
The Elfking handed over a sword to Redd and swept past Kasia and his Council for the night with a quick, “Don’t wait up.” Before they escaped into the emptying yard.
Part 1. Continued in Part 2.