The Cord - Part 2
Lusis found no footsteps in the muck as she toured the perimeter of the lake. She could see the light of the elves. They’d released boats into the water and bounded across the lake on them. Their swords glinted with the King’s blessing as they went. She had a sinking feeling that none of the shades would be abroad tonight, wherever they came from. Not with such a show of power out in the land. Elves coursed everywhere with bright, terrible swords, and the land was aglow with the King’s authority.
She felt there would be no deaths on the Elfking’s land. But outside of it? Bets were off.
She didn’t know how she might tell where his influence ended, but it seemed safe to guess he knew the maps well enough to stop at the edge of town, assuming he could control such things. All the lake was his, which made hunting there problematic. But she and Redd loped from Lake Township and into a lakeshore community called Jetty. It was more of a large collection of shacks knitted into a city with long boats at the jetties. Fishermen, by all appearances.
There were a lot of men in the streets talking about the light. Many more bundled around a bar. Rumours flew – everything from an attack by the ‘treacherous’ elves of Mirkwood, fear that the widely held rumour was true and the Lonely Mountain was full of Dragon’s eggs, right down to wizards fighting abroad in Lake Township, hadn’t they seen similar lights from Dol Guldur? They gave her a hard look when she loped down their main street. They saw the elven make of her sword and kept back. What gave her no trouble, Lusis gave no attention.
The road bent inland, and she passed through a nameless camp. It was close quarters here, smelt like smoke and vegetables going bad, and looked to be populated, almost entirely, by men.
“Where are you going, little girl.” A gruff voice shouted after her.
A man just ahead asked, “Why are you running?”
All the better for them to chase her. But she got no further because he got down and leaned his shoulder into her and she literally bounced off his heft and skittered back several feet.
“I seem to be turned around,” she told the big man in a threadbare shirt. “What is the name of this place? Does it have a name?”
“It’s called Paradise,” the man chuckled. “Here. Let me show you.”
He advanced on her, and Lusis took out the sword and sliced off his beard in one quick stroke, she stepped in and cut his boot laces on the next. Whirling low, she ducked under him and knocked him off his feet. He landed with a splatter in the muck.
“No need. Paradise. Got it.”
Another man came out of her peripheral vision and Lusis only just ducked his swing. She turned and slammed her heel into his forehead. His eyes rolled before he fell down.
Redd walked through the camp behind her. “Are you done?”
“Thugs. Nothing to bother the King with, I think. On the surface of things, at least.”
The next man to come for her got pinned to a tree with an elf arrow. Nimpeth stood up in the blowing limbs up above and threw herself across the moonlit sky to the next.
“King?” Someone muttered, but Lusis continued onward with Redd after that. She’d planted the rumour, and schooled a few thugs, and that was all she had time for.
She raced on to a place called Spear Head. It was a natural structure in the land, misty because it thrust out into the lake. It was little more than a tent town. A man set dogs after her as soon as she set foot on the strand. Lusis was fast and brutal, but she wasn’t faster than an attack dog. They were hard to kill when they were close on a person. She bolted aside into the water.
The dogs fell before elf-shot, which was a smaller form of arrow, often hand-thrown.
She came out onto the spit again. The silhouette of a massive man stood with several others coming behind them. They had knives rather than swords.
“Smugglers?” she asked them. “Murderers?”
No one answered her, and she hadn’t expected them to. They just drew in toward her in the gloom, picking up speed and force. She glanced over her shoulder at Redd and said, “Here we spill some blood.” She saw, quite unexpectedly, that they had Ewon standing, quite calmly, with them.
There were nearly forty men in the tent camp of Spear Head. Not one of them came away unscathed. Ewon bounded out of sight into the water after three who fled through the shadows and then jagged into the wood to answer Nimpeth’s battle cry.
The night went like that. They went around the lake and left a mark in the criminal element there, testing how serious they might be, and who was begging to be wiped off the local map.
But there was no sign of any shade in the area. At the side of the lake closest the Lonely Mountain, her group met with the Elfking’s. Lusis was a bit alarmed by this as she’d assumed he’d have been resting after the exertions of earlier in the night, but he stood, a silver beacon in the moonlight.
“He’s like a bleeding big target,” Redd took off his cloak, rushed up to the King and threw it over the glowing outfit. He pulled it closed around the Elfking, yanked up the hood, and scolded the section with the King. “Stars, he glows in the dark. He’ll be cut down. Someone needs to take him home.”
Under the hood she could see the Elfking smirk. He had a great tolerance for Redd, thankfully. That elven head raised a fraction. “I have been out all night, Ranger.”
“And it’s time you go home. These people have spears, bows, there are harpoons out here, my Lord. Distance weapons.”
The King folded back the hood, his vambraces silvery bright. His blue-silver eyes found Redd. “Easy, Ranger. I am sound.”
“We’re grateful,” Lusis told him and glanced at random, threatening motions in the gloom around her – a bird flush here, and the glint of light on water that might have been off an edge there. She was in the teeth of that cleaver-happy state Rangers experienced after they’d run through rolling battles all night long. It made them aggressive, and overprotective. “But you are King. You’ve done much to secure the land, tonight. Let us do our work.”
He gestured at the Eastern sky. “Your work is done. The light from the Tree is nigh.” The sun began to paint the sky.
It was decided from there. The King, the second splinter of the section of elves, and the Rangers took the straightest route back. The sun rose as they arrived at Kasia’s dockyards. The King made his way into Jan Kasia’s yard, quietly. Relative to how he generally looked, he was filthy – with a splash of mud across the base of his cloak, and blood spray across his temples.
He came up the steps and into the great hall at Kasia’s to find the Council was still meeting. They looked at him, at the smoke and river-water on his silver garb, the blood splatter that dotted his cheek and circlet and clung to the blond hair at his temple, and got to their feet.
“Wel-welcome back, my Lord.” Cardoc, the Master of Lumber, made a decent bow and looked at the blood on him.
The Elfking swung his sword out of its sheath, pinched the edge, and pitched it to Amathon for cleaning. The red-haired elf caught it deftly. In fact, the Elvenking finished stripping weapons from himself only when he was halfway through the room.
He threw off the wool cloak and folded it over the couch, “My thanks, Redd.”
Redd actually stopped and bowed to him, which he noted with that practiced disinterest of his – that illusion that it all but missed his attention, when these things really never did.
The Elfking stopped at the fire and waited.
It was a matter of seconds before Ewon put a goblet of wine into his hands and Nimpeth started tugging the straps on his breastplate and pauldrons. His tall and powerful body jerked a little, once in a while, with their quick tugs. Amathon got his vambraces one-by-one, so the King could keep sipping his wine. They worked while he was talking. “There will be some… confusion at full daylight. We have had some… presence in the Long Lake area. They are aware of us. That should not slow us any. Get me the Master’s books… I suppose. Bother.” His white teeth flashed at the fire.
“What about the Master House?” Nema stopped watching him move, which she greatly enjoyed, and asked curiously. “A large manor house, beautiful, with extensive gardens and-”
Avonne trundled into the room and went to hug her father, but then she went to stand, as straight as she could, beside the Elfking and he adroitly bent to pick her up. She turned his head with her small hands, leaned back from him, and pointed at the blood on his face curiously.
His eyes widened a little, and the soft smile he gave her was, at least, not doll-like in its beauty. “It is not mine. But you are right, Avonne-iell. One cannot stand around the house, filthy.”
Lusis stifled a smile at his definition of filthy, but looked down at the Council. “I don’t think he will be going anywhere.” She glanced at the Elite guard, who were now laying out the armour they’d removed from their Lord, for inspection. “The elves have figured out how to secure this place. That’s work they probably won’t want to do over.”
The Elfking’s silver eyes flashed, “Does the Master House have staff?”
“Not anymore,” Nema nodded, “after the third murder, it has stood deserted.”
The Elfking set down his empty goblet, “It will be shocking to hear, I’m sure, but I need a staff.” The elf’s brows went up in amusement.
Kasia actually laughed at the sound of that, but it didn’t seem to bother the Elfking, who went to the man and handed him his sleepy daughter with a few rolling words in elven that he then translated as, “Here is the light of your house.” He exhaled. “I am for bed.” His clothes swirled as he turned and withdrew up the stairs.
Nema nodded, her brows slowly rising on her forehead as she stirred her tea and muttered. “There were never truer words.”
All the men in the Council glanced in her direction and she shrugged.
She chortled into her tea, “You can believe me, gentlemen.”
Avonne rubbed her eye and called out, “Happy daydreams, Thranduil-ada.”
“What did she call him?” Kasia asked nervously. “Avonne, what did you call him?”
But no one answered him, and the Elfking’s reply was a soft, low croon of elvish as he vanished from the stairs.
Lusis glanced down at Avonne’s huge eyes, aware of how very rare it was that someone would touch the Elfking, let alone turn his head to face them, and to say his given name aloud. She was a very fortunate little girl.
She also smiled, waved at Lusis and Redd, and wished them a good morning.
They had two hours of sleep.
She dreamt that Icar called to her.
But she couldn’t find him in the woods.
It made her heart hammer.
In contrast, the Elfking was fresh as a daisy.
He pulled his hair back under his circlet and stretched as he exited his rooms. Lusis had slept in her bath and dragged along behind him. He was in a golden velvet wrap over palest spring green today. She knew the clothes were new, because she’d stopped an elf from a section she didn’t know from delivering them when she’d woken up on her bench.
He sat on the bench to wait for her to get her sword rigging on. She dressed in the room that had been intended for Nimpeth, with the door open so she could keep an eye on him. She’d put on some muscle mass in the last weeks and she had had to make adjustments for the changes in her physique. No one was bringing her new clothes.
It seemed bizarre to her that he sat and waited, but he had grown used to her habit of being his shadow by now. He no longer questioned it. He looked flatly unconcerned. And superb. Particularly with the shining pin on the shirt he wore. It was an opal, as suited his colouration, in a beautiful entwining of Mithril antlers. He pushed his hair over his shoulders in that disconnected way he always had with his hair, messing with its symmetry, and she ducked out and scooped it back to place, just as one of his Elites would have done.
Her face flamed as she tucked back into the room again, and started to strap on her knives. It had been reflex. Because elves – endless numbers of elves – were constantly smoothing his clothes to perfection, touching his hair to proper position, arranging his circlet or Living Crown, their hands scarcely brushed him, but they fixated on his every detail.
He met this with indifference. But it was in her blood now. She knew how the hair was supposed to look, and she automatically put it that way.
When she turned again, he was shoving it back.
She sectioned it out and smoothed it to place.
His brows went up a little.
She gave the silken hanks of silvery hair she held gentle tugs. “Leave it.” She straightened and fished for the other end of her knife belt, “I think you’re doing it to drive me to distraction.”
Her belt tugged taut. He’d fastened it and now looked up at her. “It is rare, Lusis, that you look unhappy. This morning is the first I remember it.”
She looked at his upturned face in the sun.
He said, “I will need all of our number today to be at their best. I cannot have that if your worries about your men, afield, preoccupy your mind.”
She felt her eyes widen, “How did you know?”
“One need only know you.” He smoothed the tongue of her belt under its loops in a motion so gentle, she hardly felt it. And she allowed his silver hair to slide through her fingers. Avonne was right. His hair was blissfully soft. She felt full of light, just arranging it.
“I will give you my best, Elvenking,” she told him. “You have my word.” She stepped aside for him and he got to his feet.
They passed Redd, who was politely standing just inside his open doorway. He stepped out behind Lusis and muttered, “Morning, Lus.”
“Morning.” She fell several steps behind the King, as was proper.
He noted, “I wasn’t lurking about. I just… didn’t want to disturb you two.”
She nodded and told him between her teeth, “Don’t be stupid.”
“Why is that stupid?” asked Redd. “However it is meant, Lusis, he waits for you. He listens to you. I think that deserves some privacy and respect.”
Then they were at the staircase and met by the elves. Ewon’s head tipped to take Lusis in and give her a customary nod ‘good morning’. Nimpeth and Amathon stood at the head of the stairs. Lusis could hear a dull roar of people beyond it. Something was going on. The King stood in a quick information exchange with Ewon, all in elven.
He looked at Redd and Lusis. “Today will be eventful. Are you ready?”
Lusis did a quick check of her gear, and straightened.
Redd actually went into Aric’s room and came out with an axe strapped to his chest, which was terrifying, because Redd was taller than the Elfking as it was, monstrously muscled, and was now wearing a full-sized axe. The elves, she swore, just stared at it in blank disbelief. “Just in case of trouble.”
“Or in anticipation of a large, incensed forest attacking us,” Amathon said, and received an entertained and yet reprimanding look from his wife.
The King nearly smiled at this, charmed, which was a rare gift. He looked so young then.
Redd also handed over a bow and bow-harness to Lusis, and a quiver of arrows she slung at her side.
When this was completed, the elves armed their King. This was done by several elves that Lusis didn’t yet know. The upstairs maids stood staring as they fastened on a breastplate no one had yet seen – steel brushed to look like he was enfolded with leaves, and two beautiful leaf pauldrons, all of it silvery and veined with softest green. The vambraces matched, as did the steel greaves and sabatons.
“Stop fussing.” The Elfking said after a moment.
Deft hands folded his cloak at his shoulder, unfolded, and folded it more tightly. Seconds passed in a flurry of enjoyably scented motion.
“Ai, I’ve not changed.” The Elfking murmured, “You have the measure of me.”
“You yet grow taller,” Ewon added to this a quiet, “like a weed, My Lord.” His Elite corralled the crystal-blond hair that fell onto the King’s breastplate adroitly, hardly even touching it.
The Elfking sucked in a deep breath and opened his arms, “Leave it. Leave me. Enough.”
But there was a feeling among the elves that this was a big day, and that they would not let their King appear to be anything but a specimen of physical excellence.
And they’d done a good job of it.
He was dizzying.
Then they were done, and they walked down the stairs with Nimpeth in the lead, Ewon and Amathon next, the King, and the Rangers – Lusis and Redd.
The table had been moved aside, and the room was full of humans, all of whom either stopped speaking or outright gasped as the King came down the steps. He paused on the landing, radiant, and looked over all the humans. All could see him shut his pale eyes. He… wasn’t sure what to do with them. They weren’t elves, which, obviously, would be the thing he understood best.
What did one do when faced with a room full of elves and men? One persevered.
He exhaled, his head rising as he opened his eyes again. “Why are you all in such disarray?”
Hats swept off human heads. Men tried, hastily, to straighten. The Elfking’s blond head tipped. He’d meant the thronging of them. In the Halls, they had the good sense to line up, at the very least, so that the orderly minds of the elves knew how to address them.
Kasia walked through his double doors, calling out a jolly, “Coming through!”
He went to the table, which was now cleared, and set down a large book. The Elfking glanced at it and Kasia dusted off his hands and gave a merry bow. “Good morning, King. These are the Master’s books.”
“Sire,” a soft-spoken man at the front of the crowd twisted his wool tam in his hands. “Sire, you need to come outside. It will be easier to show you the problem than to… talk about it.”
“Thand, henig. Yes, child. I know what the problem is.” Thranduil told the boy, for this man was little more than a boy. The Elfking did, however, make for the door with a backward glance at Kasia. “Secure that book.”
The man gestured at his staff and hurried after the King, excitedly.
The yard, outside, was being vigorously cleared by men with clippers and shears. It was overrun with several types of wild strawberry runners full of white flowers. The main building for the dockyard was covered in whorls of ivy and vines that were busy making flowers. Bees shot among them.
The Elfking followed the men through their building, whose windows were threaded with growing vines, and out to the green-shot dockyards covered in birds. Lily pads floated across the lake, thick enough that one splinter of Merilin’s section stood out in them, and when he arrived, the light pushed so many of the water flowers open that it looked like the opening gestures of a ballroom dance.
Pollen whisked through air and dotted the Elfking with motes of gold.
The land leading to the docs was speared with young trees, apart from that curiosity towering where the Elfking’s sword had pierced the land. Its massive roots spread in a white circle, and the canopy shaded land and even a stretch of river. It was magnificent. Lusis knew that beech trees did not usually tend to white bark, but there were many stands of white beech in Mirkwood, and now, one here, already in bloom and dropping down silvery-green nuts. Overnight. A warm wind brushed the leaves and birds exploded through air. At the docs, a girl put down a basket and it came up flashing with the bellies of fish.
The road on his right was dotted with pretty stands of aspen saplings and flush with flowers.
Rabbits darted between them.
“Do you see, sire?” The young man asked him. “I sweep the streets, you know, the people here are the team that keeps them clean and-” he gestured at the dirt road stands of trees.
Kasia stood with Lusis, and, like her, he marveled like a child at the abundance around them. Now he laughed, “So this is why there are fresh apple tarts underway in the kitchen.” He turned to the King, “I went for a drink and the chefs had been going since the small hours of the morning, making berry jam. And they brought up fresh grilled tomato slices an hour before daylight.” He had to put a hand over his mouth to keep from babbling, or bubbling with laughter, or gaping at the Elfking.
“You were warned,” was all the Elfking said. “If you’d wanted the land the way it had been, you should have done as I instructed and chosen a Master. Not an Elfking.” Birds shot through air and whirled around his figure for a moment, before vanishing into the sky. He watched them fondly.
The girl at the doc lifted another basket of fish from the lake and dusted her hands. She grinned at the King and then squinted at the sun above.
Lusis was beaming at the mild wind and sudden tumbling of buttercup yellow and sky blue butterflies overhead – she’d last seen them in the Halls. “Maybe if you got a goblin king, this place would be more to your liking?” A trio of ladybugs settled on the back of her fingertips. She laughed and released them into the breeze.
Kuril Farna was one of the men on the Council. He was young, for their number, but very bright. He was the head of a Guild of Traders, and now he wiped off his hands and walked up the steps to the wood dock. “We can’t get anything through the streets.” Belatedly, he ducked his head to the King, his cheeks red at meeting such a glorious creature.
The Elfking pivoted, his white-gold hair fanning around him. “Redd, take your axe and cut down the silver tree. With time, that will return the land to its original state.” He glanced from Kasia to Farna and said, “Men. You do not know the hardship of what you wish for.”
The King stepped away. Birds chased behind him, tumbling through air.
For a moment, Redd didn’t move a millimeter. And then he dropped down to one knee. He looked up at the King and said, “My Lord, can I beg just one thing of you?”
The King turned and Lusis squeezed Redd’s shoulder – she had no idea what he was about to do, and wanted to protect the big man. Redd’s hands opened before him, “Please don’t make me cut down the tree. I’d rather go through town and take up every single sapling and plant them in the woods, than harm a twig on that tree.”
Now the Elfking simply stared at Redd. He glided toward the man and cocked his head over the Ranger. The silence was punctuated by birdsong, wind, and lapping waves and then the Elfking said, “That tree is a child of the same forces alive inside of me.” There was a long pause during which, Lusis swore, the King looked gentle. “You would rather take up the work of this entire town than to cut it?”
Redd told him, “My Lord, I wouldn’t even pick a leaf.”
The Elfking’s lips curved a fraction, “And what will we do for the streets?”
He thought a moment, “Well, if everyone along the stretch, my Lord, helps us to remove the trees, we can have order again. And… if they come back… well don’t the elves use stone for this reason? Is that not why you took the caverns?”
The Elfking’s brows rose, “Oh, very good. And yes. If the streets were stone the growth would not again threaten to overrun them. But caring for this garden, it will ever require effort and management. Unless the tree is broken.”
“The hell we’ll break that tree.” Kasia laughed at the thought.
Farna nodded, “We will not, uhm, Elfking. Doing that great silver tree harm wasn’t the intention. I… I don’t dislike this new… abundance, I suppose you’d say. I just need to be able to get people to trading. And… the lilies are so thick they’re keeping people from leaving port.”
Most of the water lilies were cut away and taken to the shore, though they endured in the fringes, making the air smell sweet and light. Oddly enough, one of the splinter section explained how to harvest the lily as a food plant. The roots could be dried and milled for flour. The seeds were baked and put onto bread. And the young leaves were used in salads. The humans, prior to this, had really only ever used them for healing. The elves had some of this knowledge. Lily was used during pregnancy.
Clearing the streets was a matter of digging up the small saplings. This was a huge undertaking and not all of the trees survived the effort, but the city Council had an idea of where to relocate them. They created a great stand of them in the directions that the worst of the winter blasts generally used to come into town. The opposite bank of the river was fortified with woodlands, and now they protected their flank with what they hoped would grow into a tall white forest one day.
The Elfking had felt this arrangement could never work. But struggle by struggle, human adaptability and inventiveness seemed to win out against the great differences between their races.
The boats went out by midmorning. The streets were cleared by afternoon. The Council had traded with Iron Hills dwarves in the area for carts of crushed stone, and, by nightfall, the business district was alive with people raking stone down on the streets.
And the Elfking still hadn’t eaten. He walked a long stone street with Lusis as it was finishing up and his silver-moonlit eyes scanned the night beyond the buildings. He was looking for the enemy.
“There was a lot of grumbling from the Trader’s Guild today, about the dwarves of the Iron Hills not wanting to trade with you.” She said quietly.
“They are businessmen, trade will endure,” said the Elfking, “and I care not of them.”
“They’re not too fond of you, either,” she remembered that Kuril Farna had been pale from hearing what they’d had to say about the King of Mirkwood.
He paused to glance down at her and his expression was melancholy. “You see… some of my greatest mistakes have had to do with their kind.”
“And I’m sure some of their own had to do with yours,” she told him her experience of the world as she noted. “Most are not more sinned-against than sinning.”
His voice was faint in the air as he turned away, but she made out the words, “You are kind.”
They continued along the even stones of the road, and the Elfking looked pleased. He hadn’t lied when he’d said that managing the new plenty of the land was going to be an ongoing task. But given a choice between plenty and not enough, Lake Township had chosen, she thought, properly. In fact, they’d built a small yard and circular guard post around the Silver Tree. Not that it had much to fear of being broken at the moment. It would have taken days to cut through it, and teams of horses to pull it down after it had been partially cut.
The nuts were being harvested. Kasia and the Council had kept some of the first. Lusis had one in her pocket, in fact. Part of the essence of it was his essence, and she would, she knew, prize it for that, for the rest of her days.
He looked down at Lusis. “When I claimed the land, you saw the shades with the eyes of men. I did notice that you couldn’t breathe, then. We will need to take care of you around the enemy.”
“This is a far way away from the site of my attack,” she frowned. “I felt safe here, when I first arrived in this place.”
The Elfking refused to look at her. “You are not safe anywhere.”
Lusis felt herself shrink from those words.
“You forget again,” he exhaled night air. “There are two ends to the sword, Lusis Buckmaster. There is the end that you did point to Framsberg where the Anduin begins, and the end you pointed at Erebor, no matter what I did. You were not content with the lay of the sword until you’d lined up both. Were… were you not aware?”
She hadn’t been. “So. The second problem I’ve found with thinking of a sword only as a weapon is that you weigh the ends differently. In most cases,” she lashed out the elf sword, “you only ever think of the business end – the part that does all the damage. You’re counting on it to do the damage, and it is hard, but needs a lot of care. It’s hard, but can break. You are not generally looking at and focusing on the hilt. The part you rarely use to harm others, but that is the way you protect yourself.” She rubbed her arms. She’d pointed it at Erebor, even when he tried to change that.
He nodded at her assessment and they reached a part of the road from which they could see the Lonely Mountain under the moon.
“What’s in that place?” She turned from staring at the cold, frozen peak of the mountain to the cold and frozen elf behind her. And he relented.
“I was only ever inside those great halls once,” he told her. “It would never be necessary to travel there, not for an elf King. But I had made a purchase of stones and metal work there, which was… withheld. And when I went in, they took me a long way around from the gates. They took me to a large hall to the right, which is not used by dwarves. It is for those who come to buy and sell, for men, and,” his eyes narrowed in remembered annoyance, “Elfkings. Their main hall – that long blue walk – is for their own kind in the way that Lorien is, I suppose, for elves alone. And it was a long walk. But there is no way to mind a long walk in a new place, when that place is magnificent. The whole way, I could smell the fires of dwarves, hear their rumbling and singing, and the smell of meat was everywhere. Their kitchens ran all day and all night,” he made a burble of humour, “just like their smelters. Ah, but the deeper you go, the more the nerves play upon you – whether you can trust your wellbeing… to a dwarf. When you came in the Halls, I’m sure you thought the same.”
“A little,” she confessed, “but you were such kind hosts, I got past it.”
“The dwarves are capable of great benevolence, I am told. Mostly by my son. They are capable of great amity. Such was not in evidence that day. Thrain was seized by some strange spirit.” He looked to the mountain with the wind billowing through his hair, “The Arkenstone – a stone such as one can only find if they pull out a mountain’s very heart. The very quintessence of it. But dwarves are not meant to be mountains, Lusis, as elves are not meant to be stars. And I had seen dwarves slay a King of elves before – a High King, not a beast like me – a High King who died in the very same kind of failed exchange. And so all hope of enterprise was lost in those few hours of entering, and marveling, and – stars – all the waiting. They choose things I am not good at. I was the wrong one for the venture. Oh, but when they took me to the thrones, I went by way of an elevated walk. Below me there was an ocean of gold miles deep that had run so high it was a hand’s span under the bridge. It will not be emptied. Not in this Age, and not in the next.” The elf shook his head, unable to properly explain. He stared at the mountain, “It is a place of beauty, majesty, and enticement, and it is not good for dwarf, man, or elf.” He glanced her way. “As to what’s inside there now? Well. There is gold. There are gemstones of all kinds. There are worked metals I paid for, somewhere. And, they say, the bones of a dragon, which I doubt. Once you kill a dragon, Lusis, its bones keep turning up in your way. Again and again. As long as you live.”
She looked at his breastplate and then up again, to him. She frequently saw a star in there. “You killed a dragon.”
“I killed a few.” He told her and then his eyes narrowed and he leaned in closer to her. “Only one completely on my own.” She jumped from his sudden nearness and he pulled back, amused. It was the kind of fun he would normally save for someone like Avonne. She felt tongue-tied as he continued walking, and she followed him.
“And maybe a new enemy? Maybe that’s what’s inside?” she asked him quietly, and felt along the silver necklace she wore. It was probably a bad sign that he didn’t answer her, even though she knew he heard.
They came to where the crushed stone ended and the Elfking crouched down to touch the bell of a flower. “Ah there,” his fingertips smoothed a petal, “and you can come no further, little one.” He stretched as he straightened.
“Enemies, then,” she exhaled and looked at the mountain.
He didn’t answer her, so she followed the Elfking back to their lodgings.
It was two mornings before she saw the Elfking abroad again. She was outside his room in the morning, and saw him depart for the day, and then, after that, he would dismiss her to some project taking place in the outdoors. Her dark hair began to show strands of honey-colour from the sun. Her pale Northern Ranger skin started to turn a buttery colour. That’s how long she was outside in those two days.
Much changed in Lake Township.
Firstly, they’d never had such a booming spring, and with the industry this brought on, there wouldn’t have been a need for the Elfking to expend any more energy on this place.
Except the Council kept bringing him things.
Particularly as the problem of rising crime and disorder fell away.
At night, Lusis noticed there were open windows, and she could hear the sounds of music, laughter, and families being themselves. Friends milled in the outdoors. The human forces that policed this place no longer minced through the streets at night, taking heavy losses on the shrinking edges of their land. Their numbers, which had been dangerously low, began to rise again, since first one section, and then two, patrolled the new land belonging to the Elfking.
A slow trickle of gratitude began. Elves from the sections were seldom spotted by men, but when they were, they were treated benignly – not in a friendly way, but not in an unfriendly way either. They were mindfully watched, and not interfered with. Some people left out flowers in the square where one section swapped for another during afternoon and at midnight.
Then there was the Elfking.
At dawn on the third day women showed up with bolts of hand-embroidered cotton and a very soft wool cloak, both in a sheer, pale green. She folded them on the steps of Kasia’s manor, nodded to herself, and walked away. A boy and his father came with a cask of wine a half an hour later. The wine was made out of apples and sunny and light – Lusis knew because she later got to have a glass. Just before full sunrise, several young girls came to the steps with chains of flowers, but there were more that came while Lusis was occupied elsewhere.
Shortly after that, the Elfking emerged and looked, immediately, to the North East, toward the Lonely Mountain. By then, Lusis had been working for four hours, and had stopped at the station set up in the yard for two things – water in a catchment with a chain so workers could douse themselves, and something to eat. It was hot after four hours of work in good weather.
She was down to her undershirt, and saturated when he came out the double-doors. She picked up her chain shirt and coat and walked in his direction. “My Lord, it’s a fine day outside if you’d like a walk.” Maybe a break. He didn’t relish the endless paperwork of rule.
His eyes found her immediately. “You never wander far,” he scanned the scars on her shoulder and midriff. Elves didn’t scar often. She felt self-conscious, though not about the knit of old wounds, she’d own every one of those, but that she wasn’t sure how she looked then – saturated, bare shouldered, and tan. Unlike herself, she thought, she doubted he could tan, or fully understood what had happened to make her more golden. It was more likely he absorbed light and then radiated it back like a pretty white mushroom. This made her grin at him. He looked like a fountain of silver and pale blue today, with the blue-silver breastplate. His head tipped, “Something has made you happy.”
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” she bowed to him. “Life hasn’t been sufficiently challenging.”
His eyes widened, his brows went up, “Be careful what you ask for, Lusis Buckmaster.”
“Some people are worried you haven’t been thanked properly.” She gestured at the gifts on the step. The Elfking went to see them and folded gracefully down to feel the wool.
“Ah, so soft.”
“They have a particular type of sheep in these parts,” Lusis sipped her drink and glanced back to the men and women she’d just been moving crates with. They seemed shocked to see her talking to The White Elf, as most of them called him.
When she returned her attention to him, his fingertips smoothed the flower-garlands with the kind of loving attentiveness that she’d only ever seen in Silvan elves before. They were fleeting, flower-garlands. Fading within a night. But the collection of petals, the softness, and fragility of them, and the links to the land, all appealed to the elves.
But the Elfking’s fingers stopped when he discovered glowing chips of metal, white as star-points, in the same basket. He rose and slipped the garland back into place and then told Nimpeth, “Take these up to my room.”
She followed his directions and Lusis thought nothing of it.
Instead, she picked up her sword from the main building on the way in and followed the King. Though the rooms were busy, no one hailed him, people tried not to look at him at all. They were afraid of him, and the great and wonderful ‘magic’ he’d done in nature had made that fear even deeper still. Failing to find Kasia, the Elfking went straight through the front and out under the awning that had been extended over part of the dock.
He made it two steps before the bottle flew at him. And, being what he was, he caught it, stared at the burning rag tucked in the top, and said of the wine. “What a waste this is.” He set the burning thing down on the dock’s sudden disarray. Work had ground to a stop. That was mostly because as soon as the King had stopped the bottle in air, Lusis had stopped the man throwing it.
All the worry she felt for her men heading back, she prayed, from the North, and all the stress, fretting about elves in such close proximity to men, day-by-day, just burst out of her. She’d taken two quick steps, caught the bar of the awning, and slammed her foot into the face of the man who’d done the throwing. He had fallen down, unconscious, and she’d landed with a foot to either side of his head, but the two men with him had taken off running. She chased one down in just a couple of steps, tripped him, and hit him in the face until he tumbled from consciousness.
The other man dropped down a few paces away. She glanced back at the dock and saw the King hand a bow back to the forces man who had been running to respond to the disturbance.
“Arrest them!” Lusis got to her feet, realized her hands were bloody and wiped them in the man’s shirt. She hopped up on the dock again. Furious. Someone who had also doused the rag poured water over her hands just moments after. The Elfking glanced her way and went back inside.
Kasia had come running and nearly slid into the Elfking. “What happened!? They said someone attacked you,” he held out both hands almost as if he would take the Elfking by the shoulders, but the King’s averted glance down at his hands stopped him from doing that. “What did they do to you?”
“They tried to set a fire,” he said dryly to the man. “Then two fell before Lusis. The third I shot through the eye.” His silver eyes flashed at Kasia, and his voice cracked through the main room. “Master of Boats, I am not built with a temper that can tolerate crude and puerile protests to my rule.”
In fact two of the men were dragged into the main room with them. They were bleeding, groggy, but awake.
“You unnatural thing! You’re the reason for the change in the land and the trouble on the mountain!” One of them shouted, “Why are you really here? Are you after the gold?”
Ewon stepped out from behind the Elfking and nocked an arrow.
“Peace,” the Elfking said and then glanced at Lusis. “I preferred him silent.”
“Coming right up.” She hopped over an intervening barrel, caught the man by the shoulder of his shirt, and swept his feet out from under him. She planted a foot on his chest when he tried to struggle up again, and pressed down. “Once we get your name, you trash, we will find out where you came from and if there are more like you, I assure you of that. Until then, stop talking to the King. You’ll be questioned soon enough. Save it for then.”
The forces dragged them through to the yard. They would be moved downhill to be locked away. Though it seemed like the Elfking would have preferred their heads for their insolence. He spent the next several hours with the Council, and, this time, Lusis and Ewon both stayed beside him.
They met in a room that overlooked the lake and incoming Forest River.
The Elfking didn’t care for a seat at the long table, since the windows were so huge, he swept over to them and paced along them for the duration. Lusis stayed on one side of the glass, and Ewon the other. They were ready to get to the King if any incoming arrows should come from the dock or waters below. But they also had to monitor the door. Ewon, therefore, spent the entire time with an arrow ready for nock on his bow. Lusis kept her sword in hand.
It was difficult for the Council to reconcile that they had essentially ‘voted in’ the power of a King. Kasia rubbed his cheek, “You see, this school hasn’t been built, not because of a shortage of funds, but because, factually, there is a land dispute over the pair of fields that abut the land we must use. There are bitter politics between two land owners.”
Cardoc growled, “We’ve been trying to settle it for the better part of a year.”
Now Nema got to her feet and smiled at the pacing King. She loved to be near him, never tired of looking at him, Nema, and considered him living art. “I sent in several girls. That’s why we’ve gotten as far as we have, getting the stone onto the site, and the lumber stored there. My girls are very good, my Lord.”
He sounded cold. “Then I am outstanding.” He walked to the table, picked up a pen, and made a beautiful elven scrawl of his name on the page. “Because it is my land. Begin building as soon as possible.” The power of a King was absolute and immediate. It did not care about settling petty disputes. It cut through debate and struck like lightning.
It filled them with both exhilaration and dismay, that power. In a day a King could iron out the problems of years. Provided the funding was present, the land and water would not be negatively impacted, and if it fit the overall fabric of what he was trying to accomplish, he could pull a society ahead in minutes.
Ewon’s bow moved for the first time in hours. It pointed at the door.
A rap sounded on the wood. “A… a message came, my, uh, Lord,” said a young man beyond the door, “should I bring it in?”
The Elfking made a small, swift gesture and then a hissing exclamation. “Confound this human obsession with closed doors.”
What interrupted the line of sight also slowed their communication, Lusis realized. She went to the door, stood by it, and pushed the latch to let the boy in. He was smaller than she was, pale, and very afraid of the Elfking. He shivered as he stopped by the table. “My Lord, this came in from a rider.” His voice cracked, which made the Elfking’s head tip to one side. Apparently, that wasn’t an elf puberty thing. It would seem odd until one thought of how very long it might take for an elf to travel through puberty. There were no high-speed changes there.
The boy set an envelope on the table. It was long and white with a beautifully ornate seal upon it. The thing was well made, and so fair it practically sparkled on the table. Lusis looked up at the King. “Green wax with gold impression. But… everything in Mirkwood is red and gold.”
The Elfking’s eyes closed, “Rivendell.” His silvery eyes opened again and his expression transformed. “Do you remember that High-King I told you about, Lusis?”
“I do.” She glanced at the Elvenking and then down at his hands. They came up to a slow attitude of dismissal. Two handed. She glanced at the boy beside her and murmured, “Boy, leave now.”
He didn’t take long getting out of the room. Like a good human, he shut the door.
“This is his blood writing to my lowly self.” He gave the letter such a complex look that she couldn’t read it apart from determining that it was beautiful, composite, and frustrated. He said a few words in elven to Ewon who simply nodded and let the tautness out of his draw.
Lusis began to push it across the table to the Elfking, but Kasia’s hand came down on the shimmering paper. “I can imagine what he’d have to say about what you’ve done here,” Kasia’s voice was critical. “But he doesn’t understand our need. We of this great forest are united in ways an outsider wouldn’t comprehend. And your friend elf, he is likely not going to understand your decision. That doesn’t make it unwise.”
“I would expect nothing else of you,” the Elfking said and a fighting knife flicked into his palm. Its long, silvery arched blade extended to the envelope between Lusis’ and Kasia’s hands. “But unless either of your names match the one inscribed, I will ask you to kindly take your hands away.”
He slid the letter over to himself and put the fighting knife away. The seal opened with a pleasant snap and he slid out the letter and opened it in his hand. It was impossible to read his expression at that moment, because he had the glass doll features he employed to deadly effect. “So, Kasia, do you argue that Rivendell’s problem is… conventional thinking?”
“I do,” the man said unapologetically, but there were sounds of consent around the table.
The Elfking set down the letter. “Though… I wonder sometimes if the spies from my land in his, and his land in mine, might not meet somewhere in between Kingdoms to weep.” His pale eyes found Lusis, and he very nearly smiled, “Trying to figure out what on earth they’re supposed to tell their Kings.”
He laid the letter on the table. It had a short series of loops on it, in handsomely exact script, right in the middle of the page. None of them in a language she could read.
Lusis knew the envelope had the given name ‘Thranduil’ on it, but the contents of the letter? “What does it say, my Lord?” Maybe it was about the poison in the Forest River? The human apothecaries had no leads.
The Elflord had turned and drifted to look out at the cold Lonely Mountain. “It says: What are you doing?”
A swell of good-humour passed through the humans at the table. They were pleased, and Kasia said, “I suppose that the last spy to report to your good friend couldn’t make any sense of your growth into Long Lake.”
But that’s not what it meant and Lusis knew it as soon as she heard what the Rivendell elf King had had to say. What are you doing? It meant that he knew very well what the Elfking of Mirkwood appeared to be doing, which was accepting kingship over humans at Long Lake, but was especially informed enough to know that wasn’t actually what he was up to. And this stranger in Rivendell was worried about the scenarios he could come up with – worried enough for this letter. Which begged the question, all of a sudden. What was he doing?
Lusis took a step back from the table. She picked up the letter and envelope and slid one into the other before she set them atop the pile of paperwork that the King would take home tonight. He’d turned to watch her with his long, silver eyes, and she remembered that Redd had told her his books said that Thranduil, King of the Great Greenwood, was crafty.
Was he being plain?
His silver eyes averted. He was listening to the Council again.
She went into his room without asking him. He was still at meetings, maybe feeding that tall, infuriating body of his, curse the man, and it was late in the night by then. Lusis was sure she should have been hunting shades.
This felt like hunting. She just didn’t like her choice of quarry.
Only after acting as security on the Council meeting did she remember this. The incident with the fire-bottle throwing human had been shocking. She hadn’t forgotten what the man had shouted either. Why are you really here? Are you after the gold? The gold she had seen. She was sure she’d seen.
As grateful as people were, they didn’t pack up a basket and give away gold.
She found the basket of flower garlands and hunted through them. No good.
She took the garlands out and laid them on the floor, checking them and the basket.
That feeling at her back. That was someone. Lusis froze as soon as she realized. Her sword was on his bed. His – the King’s. And what was she thinking? His elf-steel sword. Which he’d given to her, because she could be trusted, and she didn’t want to hurt him. She didn’t want to leave his side. But now….
Something struck her in the shoulder and slithered to the ground. A silver net – no it was a fortune in Mithril by the looks of it – with small Rowan berries and leaves woven into it. The door shut behind her. She wanted to turn around because elves didn’t shut doors. But it was him, and she knew it. He’d followed her here.
Nothing for a moment.
No one moved through a room without a sound but an elf.
And then the bed made a soft squeak as weight hit it.
Lusis was caught, and couldn’t look at him.
There was no sound. Actually, she was trying to breathe.
She figured out what she wanted to say to him in a sudden epiphany. “I don’t care what you do next. What you say…. Just don’t send me away, because I can’t go.”
The Elfking’s voice was under such pressure, it sounded like he might have shouted at her, if his pride could have allowed it, which it could not. “I am very certain I can send you away magnificently well. Rest assured you would never see the daystar again.”
His voice seethed that beautiful anger of his that she didn’t dare look at, and because he leaned over her, his white-golden hair swept the back of her neck and took her breath away.
Her ability to reason vanished from under her, and left her flailing in the chaos of emotion. She scrambled for purchase on something, anything, that might save her. “My King, I promised Eithahawn I would protect you with my life. I intend to do that.” It rushed up the back of her throat that this association had become enthralling. She didn’t ever look at the idea, and so didn’t allow herself to understand it. But she was trapped by it now.
“And does that also mean violating my privacy?”
“Privacy?” She spun around and pushed her face up toward his, “Privacy – really? You leave your doors open! The lot of you. You leave your doors open when you leave for the day, open when you dress and undress, when you’re lying here in the moonlight staring at the walls. There are hardly even doors at all in the Halls!”
His silver eyes narrowed because he knew he was beautiful. “A King is powerful, Lusis. A King does what he wishes.” He bent over her face, furious, and draping her in the silk of his pale hair on one side. It slithered against her cheek.
“Also not true,” she told him coldly. “You, of all people, do not get to do whatever you wish. Do you think I’m blind, or stupid? Or are the powers of observation reserved for beings thousands of years old in your mind?”
His head tipped, just slightly. He was angry. She could feel heat off his skin. In fact, she’d never imagined his skin as having a temperature before. It seemed he would be cool, like touching alabaster or opal. But she felt heat as if he had a living heart inside of him. Instead of an ice-cold Arkenstone. His voice was deadly slow. Controlled. “If you do not like the ways of elves, then why sleep at the door of one who is, by now, the epitome of what we are?”
At that moment, she felt she could fill a library with why.
But only one reason actually mattered. “Eithahawn begged it of me,” she raised the incredible Mithril net in her fingers. “He’s that fearful he could lose you. Of course he loves you. You – how could he not love you?”
She forced herself to sink back down on her heels and look at the Mithril net. To calm down. Her head was trying to push through the haze. It wanted to look at the ‘gold’. Inaccurate, really. Mithril was a silver that was stronger than steel. Very valuable. And… in this case very delicately worked. The small chains, she realized, could stop a blade or arrow easily. Very interesting design.
Lusis kept filling the numbing silence with the chatter of her own thoughts.
Then she heard herself add, “You should have taught Eithahawn to use a sword. He could have come here himself and saved you the trouble of taking my head off, or throwing me in those dungeons you keep under the Halls. I can’t imagine the anticipation. I can’t imagine the pleasure you must get locking someone away… where you can direct everything, or forget about them. Your self-control. And your thirst to control everything near you… your heart is like a tower of ice.” Lusis’ shook her head. Her fingers closed on the glorious Mithril and made a tight fist so that the little leaves hurt her. “But that other furnace, the one inside your head is sharper than armies of elves. If you taught him you would risk him. Fear. Pain. That’s why not.” He’d had no choice but to send his son into the War of the Ring. The Prince was a natural-born warrior. The King hadn’t thought to interfere with that. So Eithahawn couldn’t fight, and the warrior Elfking had laid siege to Dol Guldur, while Eithahawn had run the Kingdom in his stead. Home. Safe.
Then he leaned back away from her. She heard him take soft gasps for air, as if struck in the chest.
Lusis opened her hand and the silvered steel glittered. “Where did you get this and what is it?”
She shook the cursed metal, “Find the air to answer me.”
“That… is from Lethroneth, whom you do not know.” He sounded breathless. “It is something she should not have done. But she has pride, and I have pride, and we-”
Lusis got up and turned, but she didn’t look at the Elfking. “All right. Who is Lethroneth?”
“One of my finest spies.”
It was easier to talk to him, fractionally, if she didn’t look at him, didn’t try to read his body language, and didn’t have to see that face that, by now, she so deeply cared for. “She has pride.… She loves her King, I see.”
But she did look. She looked at the bed. His hair was a pool. His head was bowed. His body bowed too, as if sore or injured. Lusis stepped forward and clumsily laid the Mithril onto the back of his hand. His skin was supple. And he was warm. Not like quartz at all – she backed away. “So she did what?”
“She found this piece, which was made in the mountain at my behest … and she brought it down to put among the Lake Township tokens the humans kindly sent to me.” His airless tone became arid. “Such is Lethroneth’s sense of humor.”
Lusis could scarcely believe this. “She found it in the Mountain?”
She opened her hands and looked at his still form – so graceful, discarded on the bed, “And when I asked you what was in the mountain?”
His head rose slowly. His eyes were shut, as if he feared what he might see. “At that time, I was sure of only two things,” he said, “Lethroneth, and riches. I sent a spy into the Mountain.”
She was staggered by the incredible stakes here. “Doom’s Fires, the risk of it.” She felt cold.
“But we must risk. We must be aware of variables and, we must.” He breathed.
She swept her hands up for balance, his words had so unsettled her. “Ewon told me you were cautious. I see you are. You calculate your odds. But they’re big risks. Fires, Thranduil, if you’re caught at this, it would be war. Everyone knows the treaty of Erebor gives the gold to men and dwarves. Dwarves who hate you. If they once killed a High-King, do you think they would hesitate in doing you harm?” She clapped shaking hands to cover her eyes and pushed back her hair. “Bright gods, get that elf out of the Mountain. Let it all belong to men and dwarves.”
“My men.” His body eased up, and his teeth flashed. “These men are mine. I have claimed this place.” His narrowed eyes burned.
For a moment, all she could do was breathe and curse. “Fires.” And then she began to unravel him. “Have you come all this way to get what you paid for? Is that why you claimed them? It’s not about hardships in Lake Township. It’s not about me. It’s about your baubles.”
His head turned, and his silver eyes found her. The Elfking’s voice was soft, “Those things so long ago left my heart. It would take a catalog review to find the ledger in which they were marked down. They were so long ago replaced.”
Lusis froze. She… hadn’t considered that. She hadn’t thought he might be able to move on. It was stunning how dehumanizing that kind of thinking really was. She backed away a step. Her hand flew up to cover her mouth.
He glided closer, slowly, “I am not some single chapter from books. This paragraph. This line. They can only be reread, rephrased, translated, but they can never truly be altered. They cannot change, but if only for the sake of mercy, do not mistake me for this effigy of Redd’s.” He leaned close to her now, and his fingers gracefully opened into the web of Mithril. “And this was never mine. This was made for my son. I wanted it… to protect him.”
And she believed him. She could feel the truth in him – in the light of him shining out of the throat of his shirt. “You aren’t here for the gold.”
“I am not here for the spoils of that war.” He closed his hand around the web. “It is done.”
“Just tell me the truth.” She dropped down beside the bed and looked up into his silver eyes. “What are you really doing here?”
“Many things,” he sorted out the web in his fingers. “I am… teaching Kasia to be a ruler. I am training sections to come onto my new land without fear, even though it has humans all over it, and my Woodland elves are shy of mankind. I am… being useful to local businesses and interests that will, one does hope, help to advance the wellbeing of Lake Township citizenry. I am protecting the river, the forest, and now the lake. I fought one enemy to a standstill, and continue to teach others that we are not weak and will not tolerate raiding and piracy. I have insured the King’s Share, that the income of tithing continues, and men can safely increase their traffic on the river. Also, yes, I am sending my spy into Erebor. I believe that there is something fell in that mountain – yet some darkness.” He extended a hand, paused, and then touched the necklace on her neck. She could feel his fingertips moving. But then his long fingers glided weightlessly around her throat. His palm was warm. His hand slid upward, and for the first time in too long a while, she felt all the tightness go out of her shoulders. And she panted the fragrant air. “Something in that Mountain is involved in this affliction of yours. I know your eyes cannot see it. I see it day and night, this shadow of a noose.” He took his hand away and the tightness fell back into place.
Now that it had been noticed, she sucked air trying to loosen a rope she hadn’t realized was growing slowly tighter over time. She wheezed and fit her hand around the silver chain, fighting until she got her breathing under control again. Then she slumped by the bed and wiped her eyes in her sleeve.
“Poor creature,” he stroked her hair so lightly it felt like a breeze.
Except she wasn’t. Lusis knew she wasn’t anyone. Left on a mountain, exposed to die in a part of the world that argued she might even be the blood of Angmar, she knew she wasn’t. She was only special in that she was special to him. Like Avonne was special to him, or like the bull elk, or the basket of flower garlands that had made him smile once. She was just like everyone else.
“You are a man,” her shoulders worked as she sucked enough air to finish, “who loves his pets.”
The Elfking stiffened.
She got up and took her sword. Then she turned and bowed to him, shaking by this time.
She opened the door, left it so, pulled the bench across his doorway, and lay down on it with her back to him. She didn’t hate the ways of elves. Rather, she thought she might love them. She didn’t hate his own ways. Inside the room, she could hear the Elfking moving somewhat.
He sat up for a long time, and didn’t go to bed.
She woke in the dark. The moon told her it was close to 3 in the morning.
The Elfking’s angled ear was beside her. He curled against the door, eyes shut, but fully clothed.
As she stirred, his head turned a fraction, and his eyes opened, a very little.
The moon found and lit up the bottom of those silvery disks.
For a moment, she wondered what it was like to be an elf, and to have nature itself to comfort you, to fumble through the distance feeling for you. His eyelashes glinted.
He said to her, “You look at me from bottomless wells, Lusis. Inscrutable.”
Translation from Elven? Her eyes were dark. She couldn’t hide the smile, and rolled to sit up and stare away from him. At his close relative – or so she imagined – the moon. After a moment she said, “I hope you didn’t spend all night on the floor, my Lord.”
His silver eyes eased nearly shut, “I hope we are finished with arguing. It is fatiguing.”
“Okay. Get up.” She gently clapped her thighs a couple of times and then added a nervous, “I’ll help you get out of those fancy royal garments. Heaven knows you couldn’t get through the bedroom door in the morning without three layers on.”
Off behind her, he said. “You will not. No. I don’t believe that would be helpful to either of us."
Lusis continued to look at the moon. She thought of Nema. She thought that Nema had a point about men and that too many took that woman’s opinions lightly. Here Lusis was, and it was late. She was tired of worrying about her troop, of fearing for the good of great elves, and sleeping on a bench outside the door of a man whose light held the fascination of the moon to her beating moth. He was off his footing, and, she believed, emotionally overloaded by humans – more and more humans – all the time, buzzing around him, touching him when they shouldn’t, acting familiar with him, saying things they shouldn’t, reading him not at all, throwing things at him, all unable to properly do honour by him, which was another fraction of his nobility, as relevant to him as his power to claim land, to slay dragons, and to command armies was. He was, in a literal sense, the nearest comfort she could take. Maybe he made concession that she was the same to him. She felt scorched by the thought.
Which was an honour. Her gaze darted up at the moon.
A small, high-pitched sound reached her ears. And was choked away to nothing in an instant. She got up and hurried to the windows, but, in truth, she wasn’t sure she’d even heard it. Except he was very still in the room behind her.
“Lusis.” No, he was now behind her in the hall.
She turned and rushed to the stair. “Stay here. I need to check the yard.” She clapped her sword to Redd’s closed door. It would be enough to wake him.
Amathon’s open door was already filled with half-dressed elf in any case. “Who of us cried out?”
She ran down the stairs and found Avonne in the main hall there. She’d been asleep on the couch when last Lusis had seen her, and now she stood with one of Kasia’s security men by the barred doors. “I need to get out!”
“Someone screamed,” Avonne bounced in her flouncy cotton nightdress.
Lusis caught up the guard’s discarded cloak and ran for the servant’s exit. At least, the way it was now, nothing was getting in via the most obvious route. She charged out into the darkness and her speed alone would have caught a foe unawares. She’d twirled the cloak up around her and was running hard for the elf she saw laying on the cobbles. Woman elf. From the new section.
Who was harassed by a black shape that made it harder and harder for Lusis to breathe.
The dark-spot-men, she called them. When she saw them, spots danced in front of her eyes. Now that she was so close to the struggling, suffocating elf, and the shade above her, she could hardly see, Lusis was left with only one recourse – to tackle, which she wasn’t even certain would work. But since the shade looked at her with the disconnected eyeballs of one of the barge-victims, she thought it might have some mass.
And it did. She struck it, and the necklace she wore, and the elf sword she carried, blazed with a sudden flare between. Its body got harder as she was on her way through it. Then it blasted into flying ash and shards, throwing her against the side of Kasia’s main building so her bones rattled with impact.
The gasping elf clawed her way to her feet and made a high pitched howl – some word in elven.
The courtyard was suddenly flooded with elves. Close to sixty of them in under twenty seconds. Lusis hadn’t even picked herself up off the ground. In fact, the injured elf stepped back and hooked a trembling hand under her elbow. Then helped Lusis to her feet.
Lusis leaned against her, arm over the elf-woman’s shoulder, and both of them gasped.
The woman bared her bloody teeth. “Go in pairs, with care! Check the grounds! They are here!” She opened her opposite hand, and held the eyes.
Air. Lusis needed air.
She felt herself spinning. The Elfking pulled her erect with a fist in her shirt and a hand fitted around her neck. His voice was low and angry, “Will you come to my lands, my doors? Will you harm my peoples, and take what is mine?” His voice banged on the wood and stone enclosure of the courtyard like an explosion. She gasped. His eyes were burning halos of blue-silver and she was afraid of him. Though she tried to respond, his fingers began to emit the most intense light. It plucked her flesh with sparks that felt like acid.
The noose on her neck began to blaze. Lusis was in air in the storm of his power, more floating than suspended. More held down onto the earth by his hand than raised up from it. It was impossible to see. His skin had gone bluish where it should have been white, silver everywhere else. And his eyes burned so violently, they were like a pair of suns.
Through all of this – the terror and pain, a sudden blast of air expanded her chest and she felt her eyes shut. She could breathe again. Inside of her own body, factors hastily rearranged themselves in response to his flood of power. The blaze died away and she dropped to her hands and knees on the ground before him.
The King’s body tipped left so that one hand could brace him on the wall, his hair floated down over him.
Somewhere above them, Nimpeth’s bell-clear voice shouted, “Men from the brigand camps, incoming at twice our number! Sections, defend the King!”
She heard the ring of the Elfking’s sword coming out.
Elves practically vaporized getting to positions along Kasia’s properties to do battle. Lusis predicted it would be a short and violent engagement. And she should go see to it. But she couldn’t quite get up. Everything moved slowly in fits and starts. Except for the Elfking who moved not at all.
Only the elf-woman she’d protected remained with them, and Kasia’s house security. And Redd. In fact, Redd caught her up from the ground, or tried to. She pushed him off with a patient hand. “Go, Redd.”
“I need to get you inside.”
“You need to go to the line in that skirmish and cut those brigands to the ground.” She explained to him. “I’m all right. Just dizzy.”
“Then the King.”
“Redd, there are humans here and they are his subjects, too. We can see to him.” She reached up and popped the clasp that covered the head of the axe Redd wore and said, “Go. See to the enemy. Top priority.” She would’ve if she could. “I’ll come when I can.”
“You rest,” he said as he hurried to his feet and told Kasia. “Care for them. They are spent.”
Actually, Lusis found that, with the help of the elf who still held the stolen eyes, she could now come to her feet on her own.
Kasia hurried to her side. “Lusis, why did the Elfking attack you?” He was baffled.
“That was a defense,” said the elf-woman. “There is some fell enchantment on this Ranger.” She glanced over Lusis, “Or there had been. If it is still there, I can no longer detect it.” Her voice sounded strained, which was strange for an elf. But Lusis understood the discomfort of being throttled.
Lusis’ head was clearing rapidly. She turned to the Elfking and, carefully, she put her hands on his shoulders. “My Lord?”
His eyes remained shut.
“My Lord, your work was good.” She glanced across at Kasia. “He needs to be taken into the house, and, by the powers, Kasia, be aware that he is your King as you do so. We protect him or die.” She gestured at the woman-elf, and, looking at her, the whites of her long eyes were red with strangling, an unpleasant vision she’d seen in her own glass a lot lately. “Take this woman with you. She needs rest and care.”
“I can fight.”
“That will be handy if any come in here and make for the King,” Lusis nodded.
The elf accepted this. Lusis made her way toward the roar of the skirmish beyond, and, as if she had read clockwork, she saw a thug come tearing around the corner of the main dockyard building and race toward the yard. She hopped to the wall and pushed off toward him. He had little time and too much momentum. His sword came up, but her knee knocked it aside. Her sword opened up his face and throat in one stroke, and he crumbled.
She stepped over him and kept walking. The next was in an equally great hurry, but an arrow felled him. She looked up to find Ewon had suspended himself between one wall and the other. He nocked another arrow and was ready.
His dark voice fell down to her, “Are you well enough, Lusis-sell?”
She shook blood off her sword. “I’m going to go plug a hole.”
Some distance above, he chuckled.
The battle was like nothing she’d seen before. The elves were beautiful, as she remembered them always being superb, but their hatred of these men coming for their King burned a fatal cold. They were nearly soundless, which was in no way natural in battle, and, though outnumbered, they were terribly effective. She entered the struggle and found Redd swinging his axe. He halved a spear and took a man straight in the chest in one blow.
“Give me a boost?”
From long practice, he didn’t question her. He just picked her up and tossed her weight up toward a placard. She caught the edge of it and swung out around a corner. Here the enemy was thicker. She impacted within a foot of Nimpeth’s flying fighting knives, and sliced through someone’s exposed forehead as she landed.
Stepping in, she found someone who actually knew the sword well, and parried his thrust at her face with a jarring blow. She was smaller with less reach than he had, but fast, flexible, and stronger in her core as well. She shot into a low arc and cut him along the thigh. Blood ran freely and as he clapped a startled hand over it, she brought her sword down on the back of his neck. Bigger problems.
“They’re running!” Lusis shouted. She could see them peeling off and heading back the way they’d come. She gave chase and braked quickly to avoid the slice of arrows. If the men made it past the elves’ final volley, they escaped with their lives. The rest lay either dead or injured on the crushed stone street.
Nimpeth bounced by her and up to an awning, and then a sill, and a rooftop. She raced to make sure they were retreating. Several elves followed in the dark, unwilling to destroy men who ran from them, and so, giving them more opportunity.
The rest hurried to picking up bodies and detaining prisoners. It was astonishing how fast they turned from dealing death and disarming men to binding injuries and detaining prisoners. The forces had been fighting near the edges of the group, and they assisted. For them, it was a pretty good showing considering none of them were dead. Lusis hurried across the yard. She hadn’t felt like this – like herself – in months, and now, she spun her sword in air. Tossed it up, and caught it again. It felt freer than air. She could breathe.
The stars above her seemed to vibrate with light.
She washed off at the spigot and went inside only when she felt able to contain herself. It was probably bad form among elves, but was surely bad form among men, to emerge from a skirmish in such good and high spirits. But she had air.
Redd crouched down and scrutinized her a final time, then grinned. “That’s a girl! You look almost normal now, instead of like you might walk on air any minute.”
“Whatever it was, I think he burned it right off of me.” She headed for the house through a yard packed with elves and forces. “Redd, this might be it for me! It might be over!”
He nodded at her, but with a small twinge of unhappiness.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You’ll want to leave, and… you know, the King.” Redd said softly, “And the elves, I suppose. I’ve sort of… grown attached to them, to being among them and learning about them first hand, instead of from books. You know? I’ve… I’ve listened to them talk, and I’ve taken down some of their stories about each other in a book of my own. Just random things. Things they’ve done. Battles they’ve won. Things here. Something I can put in the Hoard, but written by my own hand.”
“They don’t need Rangers for a guard. They have elves.” She told him.
“But we won’t have to leave them,” she disagreed, and then frowned and touched her throat. Maybe not them. But… him. The thing that had brought her to the King’s attention had been the noose, and her inability to talk about what had befallen her in the North. Her last duty to him would be to give him this intelligence, and then there would be no need for him to be near her again, or for him to speak to her, except in passing. She would, of course, fulfill her promise to Eithahawn and protect him… but…. She slowed on her way up the steps. It was like someone had reached up and unscrewed the sun from the firmament, like it was no more than a bright glass knob threaded in the sky. Something that could be removed and taken back Underhill upstream, forever away from her sight. The fiery downfall of knowing the Elfking was the glorious ride of getting to know him, of being around him and both his exasperating, and his beautiful complexities, without realizing you would soon lose the pleasure.
But it was all or nothing. Lusis quickly realized she would either decide to savor every moment of his strange company, or she would wallow sorrowfully because it would end. And she had never been much for self-pity.
She looked up at the open doors to Kasia’s main hall.
The Elfking folded into a luxurious leather chair, his red velvet cloak around him, but he bent against the wing of it, worn and wearied, his sword and sheath standing beside him so that his long fingers could sit around the hilt and rest on the guard.
He turned his elegant head to listen to an update on the skirmish outside.
She saw him explain the situation to the anxious Council, who, unlike him, looked tense.
He shifted the weight of his attention to the Rangers as they entered, which was like dawn in the room, with his long hair rolling down his chest and catching the firelight. It was out free, and he pushed it back from his forehead with a long hand. He’d set his circlet over the guard of the sword where it hung and glinted a very telling illustration of the things that made him up – Kingship; war. “I have been waiting.”
She remembered herself and bowed at once. She could see Redd do the same and then remain in the doorway.
The Elfking raised his chin a fraction. She drew toward him until his head sank again. That was her sign that she was close enough. He extended a white hand to her, and she wasn’t sure what to do, so she brought up both her hands and sort of placed them underneath. He had long, tapered fingers. For a moment he remained there. Then he reached up and cupped her chin. He lifted her head and turned it a little.
“I… I thank you deeply, Elfking. You’ve freed me,” she pointed at her throat when he released her, which was childish. But so was the swell of emotion tumbling around inside. She so hated being confined, and he’d cut her out of captivity. What had been a foggy reverie as she’d walked down from the Grey Mountains had become a reality by the work of his elven will. She set her hands over her cheeks, which felt like the sides of a full teacup, closed her eyes, ducked down and held in her emotions.
The King said nothing. He was giving her time.
She got herself in order quickly as a result. “I can tell you now, what happened to me.”
“I doubt that,” the Elfking sank back in his chair. “Though you can tell me more, I believe. The enemy still has dominion over you. There is only so much my temper can accomplish without my sword behind it.”
Kasia, Cardoc, and young Farna, the trader, sat on a hide couch on the King’s left. And now Kasia got to his feet and inclined himself before the King. “My Lord, what’s happened to Lusis?”
“I am not sure yet.” The Elfking’s head tipped to gaze up into the moonlight streaming in. “Sit, Kasia. You weary me. Believe me when I say her problems are of a more serious nature than your own, and their outcome impacts us all.”
Kasia sank back to the couch with his eyes on Lusis. “I guess it’s not by chance that he came this way with you, Ranger.”
“I guess not,” she told him in return. “And I hope I’m not the cause of these troubles.”
The Elfking made a huff of amusement. “The cause is the enemy. It is ever that way.” His great eyes averted to the circlet. The fire cracked behind him. “A ring is but a ring, but for the hammer of the enemy. And all the calamity, the partings and separations, losses and cares, all saw the forge and furnace of the enemy, and continue even after death. You are children who do not understand.” He looked up at the section heads striding into the hall. They stopped to bow and he said, “Merilin. Arasell. Tell.”
“A raid by the criminal element we stirred up hereabouts.” Merelin noted.
“Most of whom are being fitted for boxes now, my Lord,” finished Arasell in her high, light voice. Her eyes darted to Lusis, and she inclined her head a fraction. It was one of her section Lusis had saved.
“Some of whom are in the custody of the forces, if you would like us to speak to them.” The elf section head wheeled a knife around his hand so quickly that it was a blur.
“See to it.” He dismissed them.
They turned in unison and left the hall. The sections, in lines from the steps to the yard, turned elf by elf, to follow their leaders. Inside, the humans watched in wonderment.
Lusis got to her feet and bowed to the King. “If you’re done with me, my Lord, I’d like to check on the wellbeing of the silver tree now.”
He seemed charmed by this. “Ewon, with her.”
The Elite stepped out of shadows along the wall and waited for her to join him.
As Lusis reached the Elite, the elf-woman she had helped was brought unsteadily before the King. She hesitated to hear what the woman might have to say. Nimpeth and Amathon helped her through the humans gathered around the Elfking, and she sank down to the rug as she reached him.
She bubbled out a long stream of elven that the King listened to for only a moment before he shifted forward in his seat, reached out, and set his hand upon the crown of her bowed head. Lusis didn’t understand was she said, but the King’s unruffled voice was soothing, restful.
The young elf very suddenly fell silent. She continued to quake.
The rest of her report was quick and terse. She knew she couldn’t trust her voice to hold for much longer. The Elfking stayed close to her. He glanced up at the sound of Lusis’ name. Lusis nodded. Yes she’d done what she could to save the girl. When the elf finished her recounting, the King laid a hand against her cheek, his fingers extending across her ear.
She went still. He bent forward to her and whispered against her forehead, and the sound of the sibilance rushed through the hall like the muffled sound of wingbeats. Tension ran out of her body and she folded nearly onto his lap.
“She must stay here.” The Elfking sank back in the seat. “She is young and… badly injured.”
Nimpeth nodded and helped the elf away from the couches. She brought the girl upstairs to her own room. Another from her section walked behind them, there to care for, and heal, the injured girl.
“There’s hardly a mark on her,” Nema threw her dark curls and scoffed, bothered by the easy immediacy that the young elf had had to the King.
“The injuries to her person were mercifully slight,” the Elfking rose to his feet in a fluid motion and left his circlet and sword behind. “But there is more to the heart of a warrior, to her wellbeing, than the haleness of her body.” He looked up the stairs behind her and didn’t turn. “Lusis. How did you defeat the shade? Tell me. Telfeth described it as hardly having any material to it, as being smoke. Until you struck it. Then it shattered into ash and coal.” He pivoted his lengthy body her way, “and eyes.”
“She had the eyes,” Lusis told him. “She tore them out of its head as… its head became solid. I couldn’t see much by then, but I couldn’t miss that.”
“Yes,” he lifted the goblet beside his chair. “They’re here if you would like to see them.” He swirled them around in the steel cup.
Lusis suppressed a shudder that amused the warrior King.
His hands set down the cup, joined behind his back, and he stepped forward. When the moon lit him, his pale skin seemed to inhale its light. She’d seen him do the same in the sun and shook the thought of him staring up into the clear blue out of her head.
She told him, “I had problems breathing coming up to it. And the same concern. So I treated it like a group, like I needed to cover a lot of surface area, and so I leapt at it and hoped it had enough substance to be thrown aside.” She hooked a finger around the doubled-up chain on her neck and pulled it out of her shirt. It glowed whitely on her clothes, “What I can’t explain is why the chain and sword sparked together, and why that made it burst into ash.” She tapped the hilt of the elven sword.
“The sword you hallowed, my Lord. And your chain.” Ewon said at once.
Nema’s face screwed up. She shot to her feet. “His chain? You wear a chain of his?” She was outraged by this.
The look she received from the Elfking was very unfriendly. Nema fell silent at once; the King, for his part, managed not to unleash invective on her.
Then the Elfking inhaled the night air and went back to the sword as he spoke. “Lusis, do not be abroad long. I must rest tonight. I find that difficult to do with the thought of you sprinting about jabbing your sword into the general environment.” He snatched the serpent-tongue of sword smoothly and snapped the tip down and up again in a quick bounce. The circlet jumped in air and fell into his open opposite hand.
He moved up the stairs with a sigh, “Wine. And on pain of a lashing, silence.”
Amathon bowed to him, “Yes, my Lord.”
Kasia got to his feet to look up after the Elfking. There was a lot of maintenance involved with having one, he realized. A King. They were extremely powerful. They could be quite independent. But it would have been a lie to say they were self-supporting. He gestured at his staff. “Don’t bother bringing him anything less than the best we have. He can tell the difference.” The elf was uncanny.
Lusis felt for Kasia, she did, but he’d already gained so much from his association – this unprecedented alliance of his – with the proud Elfking. She turned and went to the door with Ewon, and kept her words low, “What did she say? The elf, Telfeth?”
“She feels she came too close to failing the King. It deeply troubles her. She was afraid for her life – I get the sense… that had not happened to her yet.”
At that old, dusty memory, Lusis nodded understanding.
“But she is young. She is Arasell’s youngest charge and widely held as gifted. It is said she can hear a caterpillar spinning. This is not an inattentive woman, which is how she came upon the shade. It was upon her before she could cry alarm, and began to reach down her throat with its insubstantial hands.” Ewon shuddered in distaste. “Foul and vile. And you delivered her from certain death, she said.” They came out the door together.
They checked the tree, which was in no distress. The guards from the forces there opened the gate for them and reported that Redd had left only about ten minutes before. He was to do a last circuit of the property and go inside to sleep.
“Sounds good to me,” Lusis looked up at the tree. Even at night it blew slowly in the breeze and bees and birds fluttered around in its glimmering pollen. It was full of life. Massive. Full of time. She smiled at it, and then headed inside with Ewon.
She met Redd in the big hall, where the Council was discussing the attack, and fell to a hush as she passed them. She walked upstairs in Redd’s wake. The bench at the end of the hall never looked so inviting.
The King was in his room, wrapped in volumes of silver silk robe and no matter what his intentions, from what she could make out, he was curled, all but unconscious, in the huge bed. “Lusis,” he said quietly in the darkness of the four-posts and canopy.
She got up and staggered in to his call, hardly able to see him in the dark, but that he moved and the steady light inside of him, usually gold, now burned steady blue. It was worrisome. Had using the engine inside of him cost him too much? It had been painful, what he’d done. But she felt the pleasure of breathing had been worth the burst of pain in getting there. Now she sank down on the edge of his bed with her nerves buzzing. It was prohibited to touch the bed where he lay, that was one of the things the elves had told the upstairs maids. Lusis was too tired to care. If the Elfking found it untoward he would probably very much enjoy telling her so. And A Certain King should have let her sleep. She knew where his chest was, for sure. She looked at it and sighed, “Somehow it suits you, the blue flame.”
The bed shifted. The flame rose. She could feel him in the dark, close to her, with his great silver eyes staring at her. All she could think was how terribly intimidating he would have been to Nema’s young concubines. She felt pinned and he was just looking at her. “Explain?”
“The light,” she told him and her eyes darted to him. She could see the suggestion of his vulpine features in the flame shining at the base of his throat. “Redd’s books again, my Lord. Don’t let it concern you.”
His voice drew long with irritation. “Explain.”
“One of his books, his childhood books, the ones in which you frightened him. It told that you had a furnace inside that burnt all. I can see the light of it – I venture all can see that. But changed. At rest, that tongue of flame is gold. Now it is blue.”
The cold light turned his hair silver in the dark. He’d cocked his head just enough for the lengths to tumble down over the light of it.
She got to her feet and bowed, “You called my name, my Lord?” Her eyes fixed on the light.
His hand passed over the tongue of flame. His voice drew long with fatigue. “Stay inside these halls tonight, Lusis Buckmaster. There are nearly sixty elves outside, all of them trained for battle, the youngest of which I would venture is twelve times your age. Trust in them.”
Lusis inclined her head and went back to the bench.
It would have been easier to trust to the elves if she didn’t constantly worry about them too. She knew she’d come to love them, and love was the asylum of agonizing concern. She lay on the unrelieved bench and tried to ignore it. In truth she was asleep so quickly she had no other thoughts of trust, no consciousness of the blue tongue of flame that came to stand over her in the door, and then cover her up in red velvet.
In the morning, his graceful body stood, fully dressed, chest roaring cracking fingers of daystar gold, and she realized she was in his way because she’d slept so long. Slept until daylight.
She rolled up to her feet and automatically pushed the bench out of the way to let him out. He already had Kasia in the upper hall waiting for his input.
She staggered into Nimpeth’s room for a bath in which she fell asleep.
Much to her surprise, the gifts for the elves had not stopped after the skirmish.
She would have thought they’d be blamed for the entire affair.
Lusis could see them coming as she paced. The Council had called a meeting, and the Elfking had insisted on having it in the yard. As a result, anyone bringing anything, that morning, had an unforeseen treat. It was only then she realized that the vast majority of the people of Lake Township had yet to lay eyes on ‘the White Elf’. Many of the people Lusis and Redd passed in the streets thought that he would look little different than a human and be very hard to tell from anyone else in town. They wondered, in passing conversation, how – if he were to address them – they might even realize it was him. Some hated, even despised the idea of a King. But none argued with the results.
A trio of people carried in the most beautifully hewn trunks. They were cut in white wood and decorated with carved trees. As they cleared the semi-circle gathering that had already formed, she could see some of them stop and gape at the tall king as he paced. And the yard, it had a lot of pacing room. Honestly, given the integration of open spaces into the living spaces of the elves, it had been a matter of time before this happened. It was gorgeous out, and he belonged under the sun. The wind was a mellow mix of warmth from the wooded breeze, and cool from Erebor. And he walked in and out of the shadow of the main building, where strawberry runners stretched across the pale blue cobbles in the yard, and the air drifted with hummingbirds set for the Blazing Stars and Foxglove that huddled against the walls around him. Everything was growing in earnest.
In the backdrop, the tall silver tree’s limbs stroked the sky. Now and again it sent up a muddle of blue and yellow butterflies. They also tumbled around the golden rod growing along the dockyards.
The wind picked at strands of the Elfking’s shining hair, but set them down to rights. Out under the sun, his eyes looked incredibly pale a blue. His pupils like watery vortices. No. He did not look like just anyone.
“Disorganized,” he told the Council. They had had chairs brought out for them, but the King wasn’t much for sitting around. He drifted by them in a waft of forest green air and honey. He looked up at the sky for a moment and his eyes flashed silver in the sun. “Clearly there are two problems here. There are the thugs in the camps – a problem for the forces, ultimately. They will persist as long as there is gold in Thorin’s mountain.” He turned his head to look at the distant peak, which he could see from the sunny part of the yard.
Redd nudged Lusis and muttered excitedly, “He knew the great dwarf Oakenshield.”
“Stop it and pay attention,” Lusis elbowed him, but, in actuality she was grinning and jubilant for her friend. He was so excited. To the Elfking, the mountain had last belonged to Thorin Oakenshield, and so it was, in his elf-thoughts, unclaimed and still Thorin’s mountain. She suspected it would be that way to Redd for the rest of his days too: Thranduil’s Halls. Whether he was in them or not.
The Elfking tipped his head to one side and exhaled. A bee shot around his long hair and out to the garden over the western wall.
“What are you thinking?” Kasia stopped looking at the King over his knitted fingers and got to his feet. It was a bad sign that he forgot to use an honorific now – his patience seemed strained. Or maybe it was the gathering of townspeople that kept him from politesse. He went to the table that had been set to one side. On it there was a crystal bowl full of ice water. He poured himself a goblet of it. It wasn’t cheap to bring ice down from the mountain in the spring, to be sure.
“I’m wondering how much of this is my problem.” the Elfking did something with which she was unfamiliar. He nipped his bottom lip and let it roll out of his white teeth. Very uncharacteristic of him. His face was usually very inexpressive. But something had him living very deep in his head today. Earlier, a little before dawn, he’d paced the blue stones like the Council didn’t exist. It had put much of the Council into a terrible mood. Now that he turned to face the humans there, their reactions were a mixed lot. Some looked put out with him still, and others had already forgotten. “What is preventing your forces from facing down the criminals hereabouts?”
“Money,” said Killian Wye. He made and imported fabrics. As a result, he could hardly keep his eyes off the elves’ excellently made clothes. The Elfking’s wardrobe nearly had him catching his breath in a brown bag. The blue-silver outfit the King wore today had left him agog. “There’s a problem with funding not just the forces, but with funding the training, even drawing up the criterion for the forces.”
Cardoc shook his head, “I’d say the lack of training is worse! Look at good Lusis and Redd there. They haven’t two coppers to rub together, and they could cut a fly’s hair in half with a blade.”
The air got loud. Her pulse hammered a red beat in her face. Lusis was ready to slip into the earth and vanish.
“No offence to you, dear,” Nema giggled at her. “It’s ever that way with Rangers. A poor, filthy, brave lot. Not pennies enough for fresh bread, but you could be sure of a fine blade to cut it with if they had.”
Lusis turned to Redd, her voice low. “Is it illegal to kill people on the Council?”
“Did you miss that meeting?” The huge man bubbled with amusement.
The Elfking’s cool eyes pinned them. “Kasia… the forces lack discipline and training. If you could secure the proper resources to train and select your own men, your problems protecting this place against raids would begin to disappear. I believe the local Ranger troop, represented here, has already thought of this.” He glanced at Cardoc. “Perhaps you can see fit to show future Rangers proper gratitude if they arrive, Cardoc Wence, for without them the Greenwood itself would have been overrun, we’d be rather short a King to our North West, and the quest to vanquish the Great Darkness in the land would have failed.” Steam fairly rolled off the chill in his words.
Lusis and Redd remained motionless at the mention of this. Neither of them had known Strider, or ever met him, but the man was a legend. Young people still flocked to the North to walk the routes and riverbeds he’d taken. Lusis had. Aric and Icar too. The Council considered them, and Lusis swore if Redd up and waved at them, she’d throw him on the ground and stand on him. But neither of them moved. The focus shifted back to the Elfking.
The King resumed long-legged pacing. “The problem of your lawless neighbours is one you should be able to control, Kasia. If you had added an individual to the Council whose sole purpose was maintaining order through force of arms, and application of law, then this issue might not have arisen. Also, your late Master might yet be breathing. If you know none such, I would encourage you to begin searching. This is not a matter for elves. Applying our laws here will not work for your people except in the most fundamental sense.”
Nema’s brows drew up, “Such as?”
His hair tumbled over his shoulder as he turned, “Decrees that address the most basic ethics of the people,” he said to her, “fortitude, serenity, restraint, nonexistence of interpersonal violence, and the habit of peace.” He inclined his head a fraction. His eyes looked beautiful saying it, and his chest sputtered from a yellow tongue of candle to a sudden roaring flame.
Maybe Nema sensed it in him – either immodesty, or ferocity, or rage. But she sensed a hint of something inside the King that she thought she knew from powerful men and her smile was stony, “And you consider yourself a habitually peaceful man?”
So the bloodbath hadn’t gone unnoticed. It had been too close to home. The Rangers had seen this reaction before among powerful people with clean hands. Though they did not dare openly condemn the King for it, their own lives had been on the line, there were still unintended consequences. Dead men were a net loss of business for Nema, and the sheer number of bodies and parts of bodies, overseeing the men put to work washing blood and human offal from the walls and out of the stones of streets, it was something the other Councilmen – all of them businessmen – seemed to find bestial and atrocious. All at the King’s command.
But the King’s unblinking and crystalline eyes drilled into the Madam, and Nema did not heed it. He told her in low sharpness, “I am a King.” Then he contained himself again. He returned to thinking and quiet pacing. His voice was soft. “Lusis Buckmaster. Redd Ayesir. Would you kindly see to it that any Rangers of the North who accept an offer begin to bring the local forces to par as… sections? One does not know the terms into which humans divide their numbers of warriors.” His hand began a soft gesture he muted to nothing.
Something really had him preoccupied.
“A section of elves would be a platoon of men, just as a patrol would be a squad.” Redd said easily. Too many books, that man.
The King stopped his endless pacing and his silvery eyes looked at Redd, as he usually did: Like he was entertained. Then the King turned to Kasia. “Is it clear what will be done?”
The human crowd around them had doubled. It seemed to be growing as word surged through the town that the Elfking was out of doors.
The King froze with his tremendous eyes on Kasia. He was no lord to this man.
Kasia threw up his hands, “Apparently, we’ll pay a number of Northern Rangers to make our forces more violent and unmanageable than the criminals living in the weeds around Long Lake.”
Okay. Enough of this. Lusis made a step for him, but was immediately detained by Redd. “No, lass. We do not battle to his drumbeat.”
That was… wise. It was true. She settled back and stared at the man instead. But the look she gave him left no question of how very pointless and inconsequential she found his opinions about Rangering. She wasn’t the worst nor wisest of creations, but she would not be used and abused again.
The Elfking bent so close that the light from his pearly skin cast a halo onto Kasia. “If you are not mindful… I will be displeased.” His lips made a soft snarl that was beautiful on that final word. His white teeth bared a moment before he moved away into the most sunny and hospitable of expressions.
The Rangers looked at one another, Lusis puffed her cheeks out a little. That face, that beautiful face of a doll. That’s what you got when you impressed serenity and a habit of peace onto the face of a firestorm. He wasn’t like other elves. For being so very domesticated, he was many times more feral.
But the sudden shift from a hoarfrost of menace, to warmth and conviviality jogged something in Kasia. He looked at the King differently. Carefully. As if the creature before him were set on the edge of a precipice and might fly at him, or fly the place. As if the affable and forbearing King he’d come to expect could be peeled away like a blanket, to reveal a beast underneath.
It was Cardoc who stood. “Elfking, we will find a leader to join the Council who can wisely wield the forces. We have heard you and I promise you this will be done, and you will have my own reporting upon the effort, you have my word. But please… what are these shades? How can we stop them?”
“Shadows,” his chest seemed hollow for the word. “They are the real problem here. The real foe of men. But neophyte – a fire so new we might extinguish it with greater fire still. They are almost assuredly the souls of men. They are called from the grave and yoked to service as spies.”
“That’s why they need the eyes,” Lusis muttered and looked up at Redd. “Anything in your books that can do something like this?”
He nodded at her. “Few things raise the dead, or create some mockery of the living as I’ve read about. Some witches. Necromancers. And Maiar.”
There was that word again. And again, as Lusis stared across at the Elfking, she didn’t like any of those answers very much. She watched him. He seemed delicate with his long silver hair in the wind, when she thought about vast evils like Necromancers. How strong was he, really?
His silvery eyes found her looking at him. She was no King of Gondor in secret. So as his head tilted to one side, as she saw him against the backdrop of humans, who had now tripled their number, he might have been asking the same of her.
By the time the sun was declining in the sky and the shadows were long, the yard was so packed with people from Lake Township that the King looked up and around him at one point, and went silent mid-ruling. The men in charge of moving the earth embankments at flood stage were arguing about where the soil would do the most good – should half be used to build an embankment against the closest of the brigand camps? Watch towers could be set on top of it, they argued.
But the Elfking did a slow pivot. There were so. Many. Humans. And so very many children.
He stepped back from a small, teetering one who jogged out and nearly across his boots.
His head tipped. A small child. Perhaps a boy. The boy smiled up at the King. He clapped his hands.
The King started in elven but quickly translated. “A henig – hello child, did someone lose you?”
The child liked the sound of the White Elf’s voice and was thrilled. He pointed at either the King’s hair or his pointed ear, it was hard to say. In any case, the Elfking stooped to pick up the child. His eyes combed the crowd for the most panicked-looking parent. He picked them out quickly, since the father appeared to be hyperventilating, and carried their little boy over to them.
“So sorry, my Lord,” the man said of his son. “He’s just… a playful little thing.”
The child was patting the King’s crystal bright mane of hair.
“Yes, that I can see,” he wore that most standard expression of elves. Flat and slightly curious. He gave the boy over with an expert hand. His eyes scanned the crowd. “All from Lake Township? And so many?”
“Oh, many more than this,” the woman said, and then, when his eyes darted to her, hastily added, “my Lord.”
The King lifted his head and turned slowly to the argument behind him. His eyes narrowed, and he turned away from them, sighing. “And why have you come here?” He wouldn’t have been there if he’d had any choice in the matter at all.
“I never seen… an elf before,” said a boy somewhere in his indeterminate adolescence. He crushed and twisted the wool hat in his hands and stared at the King’s blowing hair.
The Elfking’s brows went up. “Ah… I see.”
“King of Mirkwood,” another woman pushed through the thronging crowd. “May I… may we… Great Elf? This overgrowth in the city. It’s… the fish and the lambs – there are a lot of lambs this spring, an amazing bounty of lambs, Forest King. Hives are dripping honey in puddles. The flowers are springing up right through the… the floorboards of my home. And… many of us are wondering if,” she swallowed hard and took a frantic breath, because she was increasingly afraid. She didn’t know how to go on.
The Elfking leaned over her a fraction, his head cocked with such slowness it was unsettling, when, in fact, he’d seen that she looked distressed and was trying to sort out what the matter might be.
“Do you think he means you harm?” The new voice was soothing. “Do not be afraid.” Eithahawn came to a stop in the enclosure behind the Elfking.
“Eithahawn,” the Elvenking turned just enough to see his cherry red-clad seneschal. His eyes widened a little, for though he’d sent for the seneschal to come take stock of the books in this new reach of their land, Eithahawn had arrived quickly. “Are you well?”
The elf bowed, “My King, my one hope is that you are.” Which meant both yes, and thank you. He straightened and looked at the vast number of humans. More than even he – who managed the queue – had seen in close proximity in a very long time.
But administering meant the golden-haired elf was also more accustomed human thinking than his King would likely ever be. He guessed, “Are you afraid of the growth in the land?”
The woman nodded at him, “Some of the talk is that this is a sign of sickness in the soil and water… and that there is danger in it. It will be followed by a sultry summer and… plagues, they say.”
“Ah, they,” the Elfking glanced away and actually huffed amusedly. He quickly controlled himself and returned his most mild face to the crowd.
He looked aside to Eithahawn, who could not miss his King’s clear delight. He suggested an alternate premise – the one elves knew to be true across the Ages. “It is a natural process in the land you are observing. It will settle over time, but, yes, this place shall not be the same. It is work, you will find, to have a King in the land. You must endure it, this… bounty.” He glanced through the air, the wind making buckling tendrils of golden hair move in slow waves.
“It’s a natural process in elf-lands, I’m sure, sir,” a man spoke with great earnestness, “but we’re not elves, sir.”
Eithahawn corrected this thinking with logic. “I do not think it cares what kind of subject and what kind of King, the land. The White Tree of Gondor did not bloom until the return of the King. You must know this. The tale was sent far and wide – the King’s Writers saw to this.” He reached out a hand to stroke the petals of a flower a young girl offered to him, and then took it, and tucked it into her hair. “There is great promise here. Do not waste it on unfounded fears.”
This seemed to mollify the humans who stood staring between them as they turned to the summons of Kasia and his Councilmen. The King turned and sun glinted on the Mithril circlet. Its pale gem threw sparks of light across his silver skin and great shiny eyes, and painted his white blond hair when it poured around him in the breeze. Beside him, Eithahawn, whom only very few of them had ever seen, was a warm figure, with eyes of sunny blue and orange-gold hair that tried to free itself from both its braid, and the silver wire cluster of leaves that marked his station. The arrival of the new elf cast the far harsher light of the King in a more welcoming manner.
“It seems I have a job for you that you won’t soon forgive me for, Eithahawn.” The King led him away from the humans pressing in on one side and brought him to the other – which was no less crowded by now. When he saw them all there, the Kingdom’s seneschal smiled in the placid way of elves. The humans watched their every move.
“Have you not even introduced yourself to your new peoples?” he pulled an uneven breath and added, “Such as they are.” And they were all very outlandish to his eyes.
“What good is that?” asked the Elfking, this time in elven. “We shall not linger. The Halls are our home. There is simply something here that I need to do.”
“That does not mean they do not want to meet you.” Eithahawn said lightly. “This is not a nursery, my King, and these people deserve to hear your voice – know your face.”
Someone reached from the crowd to touch the edge of the seneschal’s red velvet robe and he got the very distinct sense these people had no idea of the King’s intention. Eithahawn was more aware of their time. The King could not go away under-hill for tens of years and expect these people to remember his power. He had, by then, seen the first of the Silver Trees that claimed this place, but the humans came and went like rain, and there would not be one alive who remembered he’d planted its seed here, if he didn’t attend to the humans who had become his subjects. Which – and Eithahawn looked aside at his King – he meant to do, did he not? Surely? He’d been devoted and also advantageous to the Silvan.
The Council stood and stared. Kasia nodded softly at the approach of this new elf. “I know you.” He said and inclined his head to Eithahawn.
“And I you,” said Eithahawn in proper reflection of human pattern, “Master of Boats.”
“King’s seneschal, Eithahawn.” Kasia nodded in the direction of the tall elf. “I suppose I could call you Master of Kingdoms.”
“I am my King’s servant,” Eithahawn said genially and his hair spilled around him like a sunlit corona when he looked aside at his King.
The King’s fingers curled against the elf beside him, nearly touching his chest, as if he meant to tap there above Eithahawn’s heart. “I give to you another member of Council, this time, from the side of the Halls. And he shall represent my will while I am at other matters.”
The men arguing about embankments looked the slender elf up and down and scowled. They hadn’t tasted, yet, the elf’s steely resolve, or felt the ceaseless power of his reason in negotiation. The entire Council, however, fell quiet when the elf closed his blue poppy eyes and inclined his head to them. “It is good to meet you. Please let me facilitate agreement.”
The yard had become such a jumble of men, it was at that point that Dorondir, who had travelled all this way with Eithahawn, stepped up to Lusis and Redd in greeting. “We have to get them away from this press of people. It is not safe for either party, particularly with the King here. Where is best, Rangers?”
She smiled up at him. “No issue there. We’ll take them into the upstairs of the main building, the building closest to them, and guard the doors to the back room. When the citizens clear out, we’ll find Eithahawn a room.” Her sheath rang out as she yanked out her sword and held it in air. She shouted to the crowd. “Make way for the King!”
The King’s head did that quarter tip of utter confusion, the little tip where he wouldn’t allow it to go any further, though she guessed he was itching to.
“You heard the lady,” Redd barked over the dull roar of so many people in quiet conversation.
People fell back from Lusis and the distinguished elves she walked to join. “My King, myself, Redd, and Dorondir would like to see you inside.” Now she did that thing she’d seen elves do before, where they tilted their head, just a fraction, in the direction of action – toward the main building.
The King pivoted at once, and glanced at Eithahawn. “Come. I warn you, most of the halls are tight and most stairs and ceilings low. It is very closed off from the elements.”
Redd went first.
Dorondir being chiefly an elf of the woodlands and of patrol, and never having been so close to so many humans, particularly not while protecting the hot-house flower seneschal, let alone in the gilded presence of the King, was naturally restless. He turned into the back hall, pressed his hands to the narrow walls and then pushed, muscles bunching in his broad chest, back, and long arms.
The King paused, one hand on Eithahawn’s shoulder, and the other on a knife hilt, on alert.
“It’s normal. They’re not closing in. You’ll be all right, lad,” Redd told the dark-haired elf. This made Lusis, who was walking in front of the King and Eithahawn, grin out of sight of the elves. But she also felt for the elf. She didn’t like tight places much either. Or dirt. Or disorder.
But then Dorondir was probably far older than Redd could even figure. Not a lad.
Still, it took a moment for them to collect Dorondir.
A few elvish words from the Kingdom’s-seneschal soothed him, and they could move on.
Eithahawn was to be briefed on the members of the Council, while pacing in the upper hall.
That was the thing about elves. They didn’t sit when they could stand. They didn’t stand when they could move. They were seemingly immune to the elements, and utterly tireless.
Nimpeth’s room beside the King’s had now been emptied and prepared for the Kingdom’s-seneschal. In point of fact, the only person without a proper place to sleep and bathe was Lusis. However, though it wasn’t discussed, Nimpeth spent all of her personal time either reading in her father’s rooms, or settled for the night in her husband’s, so, with that extra place, there was no friction.
It was shortly after dark when the Rangers brought him to Kasia’s guest rooms.
The seneschal inspected the human space they brought him into, with uncertainty.
Eithahawn was definitely not the diamond rampart that was the King, though the younger elf had certainly not been shorted when it came to his portion of the golden ratio. But when the Elfking had entered his rooms, he had done the slow pivot of the sort of which only elves seemed capable, and, ice-cold in demeanor, he’d simply started using up all the space. He treated it little differently than as if the King had stridden into a bivouac on campaign. In that sense, he wasn’t very particular at all, and one place was as good as another if it was spotless, secure, and served his purposes. The seneschal walked in and looked at the ceiling, common of elves. He glanced over the walls and bedding, and the claw foot tub, and then glanced at the exit as Redd blocked off all the light into the room. “It’s very blue in here…. It’s like visiting someone’s storage. In Lothlorien.” He tossed his pack onto the bed and watched it bounce with alarm. He crept over, pressed a hand into the mattress, and pushed down. When he eased back, the mattress sprang up under his hand. “Spongey.” He did it again.
Yes, the Elfking might have raised him, but he was very much his own elf, Eithahawn.
“You’ll be comfortable,” Lusis smiled at him. He was a day-brightener, even at night. Elves passed in the hall outside, their nearly silent footsteps drawing Redd into the hallway.
Eithahawn realized they were alone, and summoned her closer to him at once. He bent over her, “Please forgive me, Lusis, for I know you to be an honorable friend, though not a Sinda or Silvan. But there are so many humans, so close. Is he safe?”
“He’s very safe,” she told the elf, “and you might have told me that he had the strength of an Eagle, Eithahawn, and ice-water in his veins in battle.”
“So you’ve been with him?”
She shook the sound of that out of her head, and replied, “As much as possible.” She reassured the elf, took a few steps to the right, and touched the white bow he’d set against a post of the bed. “You know how to use this?”
“Since a child. I’m part Silvan, after all.” He waved it away, “Has he seen anyone here? Have they been respectful?”
“Seen?” she didn’t know what that meant and then she nodded and lowered her voice. “Do you know an elf called Lethroneth?”
His lips parted, and then shut for a moment of thought. “I do. Are… are they in some way engaging with one another, again?”
“I’d say. She brought him something from Erebor.” Lusis left out the part where she’d blown her top at an Elfking so far her elder that the accurate math would take an hour to figure, a direct superior, and, bizarrely, he’d forgiven her audacity. She was still puzzling that one out.
Then she thought about it no more, because Eithahawn’s smooth elven face – like all elven faces, very subdued in emotion – suddenly transformed into one of deep worry: his forehead wrinkled between his brows, and his lips frowned delicately. “If Lethroneth is here the matter is serious.”
“She’s that big a deal?”
“She is a Sinda infiltrator who served Late King Oropher. Her skills are so great that Lorien requested her presence rather than have her sneaking in and out of their lands undetected as she had been doing. And has been. That is where she is supposed to reside. She is a very accomplished warrior, and shrewd after the way of the Elfking – they get along.”
“Get along,” Lusis’ gaze bounced to the floor and she nodded over her crossed arms. “Right. Get along. Of course.”
Eithahawn exhaled slowly, “And now he’s had Lethroneth steal into the mountain.” The elf shook his golden blond head. “You must not let him in there alone. Understand that our lands are exposed like those of our good kin of Lorien, but unlike them, we are without a Ring of Power to protect us. We have been two Ages under attack on multiple fronts, Lusis. And he is very sharp. So he devised a way to protect the land with stores of jewels. He has risked much to obtain them before, and by that means developed a desire for the power and security they confer upon us. And now… now the mountain is full of dragon-sickness.” Eithahawn’s head bowed so that his thick golden braid bundled on his shoulder like a comforting cat.
Dragon-sickness was a term she’d heard of only a few times in the North. “What is it?”
“Dragons are full of malice, Lusis. But their great eyes are full of beguilement. They are born to confuse. Born to delude. They love gold and riches, and their great lust for wealth can pass to the ore and stone around them. That is dragon-sickness. Some races are too short-lived to suffer it and die of sorrow and longing. And some,” he looked up at her, “are not.”
“I told you,” she glanced at the door and her voice lowered to a whisper. “I’ll safeguard him.”
He pressed his chest, above his heart, reached out a pale hand and actually touched her, lightly, on the upper arm. “My thanks.” His low-lidded eyes looked very soft.
“It’s – you don’t have to thank me. I’m honoured. ” She inclined her head to him.
Eithahawn turned to look at the room and his broad shoulders rose and fell, once, under the shiny cherry material he wore. “Yes. This will do.”
She backed toward the door. “Settle in. Rest, Eithahawn. There’s a lot of work here.”
She paused at the door to what was now Eithahawn’s room.
Ewon swept by without looking in her direction, which was a clear notice.
The Elite stopped to stand outside the Elfking’s door, and, she swore… simply looked at the bright King. In his room he was surrounded by elves, some of whom stood along the walls, and some who stood beside the King himself in companionable silence. He was dressed in new clothes that they had brought to him. The clothes were deep gleaming blue, so dark that it looked like the sky before sunrise and with threads that glinted like stars. Now he looked pale as bone. There were more packages on the bed and she could imagine the fineries inside were exquisite. The living crown sat upon one silk case, its foliage alive, and small, pale flowers closing to blooms for the evening.
The silence was perfect, such that she could hear the faint sizzling snap of power as these new elves handed over their swords for the might of his King-Light. Because there seemed to be yet another section present, which raised the local population of warriors to ninety elves. Enough to turn an army. The King’s keen head rose to take in Ewon. He just seemed to look at the Elite with an expression both agreeable and impassive. Then his gaze deflected toward the fighting-knives he held. A white light raced across blade and blood groove.
No one seemed to speak. She had no idea what was taking place and backed up until she could whisper to Redd beside the rows of windows.
“One of the books say that the true name for the Eldar – the elves – is the Quendi. It took a while for me to learn it means The Speakers, and not just because language is important to them, but because in numbers they talk up here.” He tapped his forehead. “I imagine it’s more efficient when there’s a lot of catching up to do.”
Her eyes widened. They must have been huge. This was well beyond body language. How many conversations had she missed out on? How frustrating was it to an elf accustomed to elves, to look at a human Ranger and not have her hear him? How irritating.
Redd glanced down at her. “There are many things you don’t know about them, and that I,” he looked up and swallowed hard, his hands tightening on one another in the hall, “didn’t know were true.” There was a long pause and then a hoarse whisper. “But how fortunate are we to be here? How very few have ever seen the elves like this?” He was almost teary-eyed with excitement.
Strong emotion attracted the attention of elves the way blood in water did eels. The Elfking’s head turned, his chin rose. He was charmed by Redd and his hunger for knowledge of the Fair Folk. Now he waited, but Redd smoothed himself and inclined his head. The Elfking turned away again.
Beside the huge Ranger, Lusis’ eyes narrowed. “Redd. They’re dressing him for battle.” She glanced at the coming of true darkness outside. “We’re going out.”
This new breastplate was a dark luscious metal graven with the head of a dragon down the front. The glow of his skin reflected in its luster. When they finished, which they did in a remarkably short amount of time, they handed over his sword in a dark steel sheath.
Since Nimpeth had pulled the long forelocks of the King’s hair, which usually fell before his ears, and pinned them behind his head, he looked sleek and feral as he crossed to the doorway. Elves fell away before him, until Ewon, who dropped to a knee.
He stopped and said to the Elite, “No. You will not.”
It was the end of a conversation.
“Yes, my King.” The elf rose and moved to stand with Nimpeth and Amathon. It was impossible to read his expression, but that he keenly watched the King.
And the Elfking’s chin rose slightly. “It will be the Rangers. It is a gift of man, the power to forget.” He turned in Lusis’ and Redd’s direction and said. “Will you ride out with me?”
Ewon’s head bowed of a sudden, as if he couldn’t face the moment and the King watched her closely. Very minutely.
Lusis saw this and steadied herself. She considered the honor of her elven comrades and immediately told him. “Without question.” She had a bad feeling she already knew their destination.
Beside her, Redd added, “Even into fire, Elvenking.”
Not the reception he’d expected.
From his doorway, Eithahawn looked on with hope.
A black cloak of light fine material dropped around her shoulder – this was Nimpeth’s, and it was Amathon who took his cloak and gave it to Redd since he was the only elf nearly large enough. Unless they wanted to drape him in what the elk wore. Ewon went to his room and came back with his longbow and quiver and gave them to Lusis. An elf gave Redd a belt of small axes, perfectly balanced for throwing.
They didn’t go through the front room, but out through the back hall to the maze of streets at the end of the yard. In the dark, the elves put them onto horses, and the King’s bull elk waited. They went right, to the river, and started toward the Halls.
Merilin’s elves met them, and, with a white ship that was clearly of elven make, his elves ferried them across the river. From there, they were out of sight of Lake Township. And they headed up through the forest toward Erebor. For that place reared out of the land before them, its heights glowing with cold fire under the moon.
She rode up and held the King’s gaze a moment. “I think I told you….”
He reined the elk closer to her and breathed the words. “Patience, Lusis Buckmaster. I swear to you, we are almost done with this accursed place. But there is something in there I must see. Something Lethroneth could not remove, and I should not touch. Will you stay with me?”
Of course she would. He knew she would.
The way got colder. They were on a steady incline coming to the mountain. And then the King spoke from deep inside his hood. “We have reached the Desolation. The ruined city of Hale.”
“But I heard it had been rebuilt?”
“Not here.” Said the Elfking. “It is too close to the very source of its own devastation. Too close to squabbles over gold and jewels. And directly in the path of the sickness in the mountain.”
Redd told him, “I heard it cost half the gold to make it over again.”
At that, the Elfking only smiled.
Rumours that all that gold was gone – out in the world – in exchange for a town, Lusis gathered, would’ve been helpful enough to commit to paper.
They rode through its cold outer reaches. Further in, fires could be seen from humans squatting in the wreckage of this once proud place. The building materials were all stone and the architecture from a bygone Age. Lusis’ skin crawled, coming through this old and forgotten place. But then, she had been abandoned in old and forgotten places herself – an enclosure of stones so weathered they had passed from all meaning. And recently, she had been attacked near them. She had no reason to love ruins.
Their animals jogged and then walked toward the gates of the mountain. When they could see the tremendous front gates that had been built by the dwarves of the Iron Hills, and the dwarf sentries there, they dismounted into trees.
“There are other ways in,” the King said.
A silvery voice breathed into the darkness, “I know them, my King.”
Lethroneth was slender, slight, and pale. When she took down her hood, she was so fair and smooth, and her eyes so grey, she didn’t resemble a thing of the earth under the moon. Her hair was a thick blonde tidal pool of ripples she clipped at the back of her head. Lusis would have said she was twenty one and no older. “Mind him, Lethroneth.” He said of the elk. “That mountain is no place for him, or these horses.”
“Of course,” she barely spoke above a whisper and her eyes, which were identical to the mist around her, fixed on Redd and then locked onto Lusis. “Do you swear to protect him?”
“I have many times,” Lusis reassured her while she dismounted. “I will.”
Redd was already on the ground. “We will.”
Lethroneth stepped up into the stirrup of Redd’s massive horse and put a hand onto his mane. She whispered a few words in Elvish at the white-faced horse’s ear and it turned with her still dangling there. She motioned at Lusis’ horse and the bull elk and they turned to follow her into the thick mist of woods. “My Greatest King,” her grey voice breathed down the slope and eddied around them, “I have marked it. You will not lose your way. Return to us, safe.”
There had to be a mile of distance between them, but that shivery voice came down like a breath, and curled them up, Westron, yes, also somehow Elvish underneath.
“She’s beautiful,” Redd said quietly.
The King paused, looked back at him, and held his peace.
Lusis tried not to mind it. Lethroneth was a Sinda, like her Greatest King. Notably, she also didn’t braid her hair, and that made Lusis wonder if it was a Silvan practice. Either way, his spy was a good match for the King. She could easily see them together. And she tried to be at peace with that.
They went further and further up the slopes following a trail of signs that Lusis couldn’t see, until, finally, the King seemed to vanish into the shadow of a stone. Lusis felt along the granite with her teeth bared. Close spaces didn’t rank high among the things she abided well. Her booted foot slid downward, and that was where they went for the next hour. In. Down. And the air became ice cold.
Until, finally, the gas lights that burned, eternally, in this place, began to glimmer ahead, and the solid darkness that was the Elfking stopped before her. He turned in the dimness and pulled his hood back. The distant firelight outlined his proud features and the slide of his jewel-bright hair, and he exhaled vapour into the cold. “You must prepare yourself for what you are about to see.”
“What does that mean?” Redd whispered.
Lusis remembered that they’d been walking the stone business district at night, very much on their own, when he’d told her about what was in this mountain. Now she laid a hand on him. “There are riches in here, Redd. And beauty. We shouldn’t take a coin of them, or move out of one another’s sight.”
The King pulled his hood up around his white golden face again, and then he stepped forward and eased out of what looked to be a solid wall. The ledge onto which he stepped was dim and very narrow. It overlooked a great drop of indeterminate distance. Taller than the silver tree, at least. Lusis flattened to the tunnel walls. “Redd it’s a big drop and a ledge only two feet wide. Be careful.”
They flattened to the wall outside and began to mince along it. The Elfking went along it easily, and with no discomfort. At the end, there was a corner with a thick cornice and the turn there was a three foot negotiation over a drop that was now twice the height. The ledge narrowed to a hand’s span on this side, but it didn’t matter. They could leap across to a landing.
They were in a large blue-stone staircase. And, when they turned the corner, they went onto a long promenade with a grand railing that showed off the incredible stonework of the dwarves of Erebor. Lusis stood, agape. The far wall of the mountain was lit by glassed-in gaslights in the shape of massive arrowheads, and the entire inner surface she faced was cut into halls, rooms, walkways, and huge balconies that glittered with uncut gemstones. Each span of the mountain wall was carefully hammered and polished to a glistening sheen so that the light made it seem to move. Like an ocean. An ocean of stone. It was a Kingdom.
“As I told you.” The Elfking said.
The King brought them to the rails and stood, staring fondly at the far wall of this cavernous place a long moment, before he sobered and looked down.
They all looked down.
Into a massive inland sea… of gold.
Lusis caught hold of Redd. He leaned heavily on the rails. “Did your books say anything about this, Redd?” Her words were gasps.
For a long moment, Redd only stared and breathed, unable to speak. Then he sputtered. “The… the dwarves pressed coins in the mountain. More coins than could be counted. Good dwarves pressed coins in the mountain. More coins than any need. And more still. And it fell – a casualty of greed.” He breathed, “It’s a song. Poor creatures.”
The Elfking’s hooded head turned in their direction. “I warned them. It is nearly impossible to hear the truth over the rush of blood through the ears, seeing this great, vast…” his voice petered away and Lusis reached out her hand and curled her fingers around the arrow design on his dark steel vambrace.
The Elfking stirred. He turned his head enough that Lusis could see the heavy lids of his eyes. “Come with me.”
They did. The staircase led down into what once might have been a counting room, and the case had no bottom, it just vanished into gold. They walked along it as carefully as they could, and the Elfking seemed to glide over it as simply as if the ground was covered in new grass.
It was nearly five furlongs away over the sea of gold, and, at times, given the dark walls of the mountain, they were so far out in the wealth she felt like she stood in the middle of the Northern Wastes. A golden wasteland. Then they began to see something altogether different in the gold.
Scales. Colossal scales, scattered here and there.
Redd slipped and nearly fell to his knees, and he gasped the name. “Dear gods, Smaug.”
The King’s hand gestured at one of the thick, shield-like scales that stood upright in the gold. A shield for the stone Kings at Argonath. “The dragon, itself, is a thing of the past, and yet these survive.” His gloved hand looked so small beside it, and when Lusis tried to imagine him killing one of these, it made her feel queasy.
Redd edged close to the black and red geometric perfection of the thing. “They’re beautiful.”
“They beguile,” the King told him with care. “As long as they are here, so is the sickness, and there are many buried here, Redd, many in this gold…. They all belong to the line of Bard, like the dragon’s bones.”
They moved through stands of scales, pushed to one side, and then saw a white glimmering, like water, on the living stone wall of the mountain. The Elfking stopped and stiffened. “We are here.”
They walked around a large stair and, between it and the wall of the mountain, found a place where the gold gave away to an upwelling of crystal-clear, white, stones. The elf between them shifted weight, he took his next few silent breaths so deeply through parted lips.
He stepped forward. “Yes. I had heard of this place. Rumours of the eastern stair to the Lake of Light.” He pulled back his hood and stepped into the radiance around him, all lit up by the eternal torch at the corner of the eastern stair, and the glow of white stones.
And the stones responded to him, immediately, to his presence.
Their rippling light flickered over him, over his dark armour, touched the shining threads in his blue fabric, so that he was suddenly opalescent. The Rangers stood behind him, unable to move in the sudden quickening of the light – it knew him. It chased the steam of his breath, blue to white, in and out, licked against his bent shoulders. It recognized him. He sank down into the rays, and, Lusis swore, it lit him straight through his skin. It turned his hair into strands of starlight and made his half-lidded eyes flash and flicker like oceans under the moon.
“What in all the stars?” Redd exhaled in disbelief.
The Elfking took off a glove and lifted a handful of stones he then let trail through his pale fingers. Some of the stones stayed with him, winking constellations in his hand. And then his face shifted from longing to sudden pain. His lips curled in a silent hiss. He shut his eyes and pushed that studded hand out from him.
Lusis’ joints suddenly unlocked themselves and she ran. She rushed through the brightness and skidded to a stop, spraying the stones out in all directions. She brushed the things away from his hand with an angry whisper of, “Get off him, you shiny maggots.”
His weight struck her and she went to one knee with his cheek pillowed against her. He blinked a few times, with glittering seas rolling through the silver domes of his eyes, rapidly. He looked at her, and calm descended. His head cleared.
He straightened away from her, but remained in her gaze. “There are more precious things,” his hands closed. His voice was a breathy pulse of emotion. He looked around him with new eyes, keen eyes, his upper body shifting with breaths. And then his focus caught on something, and he nearly smiled at that point, “And, things more intriguing.” He was off the stones in a moment.
“Redd!” Lusis scrambled up, slipping in the glassy brightness. The big Ranger caught her, but she pushed his hand aside, “No – go with him! Don’t let him alone.”
She got herself upright and hurried after the two men, reaching a point where the white stone rippled, so that she could leap from one dune and glide down the next. She found the King with Redd. The huge Ranger tugged a scale from the Lake of Light.
Long, narrow, dark. It was a small scale compared to the red and black obelisks they’d already passed by, and she thought, perhaps, it had come from the very face of the dragon. Or maybe its tongue. If their tongues were scaled. Redd lifted it up slowly. It looked like a targe against him. “This?”
“Yes,” the Elfking murmured the words. “Take it in your pack, Redd. I can scarcely stand to look at it, now.” His eyes were glittering with white stones as he turned to take in Lusis, “And this is not a good place for me to push matters.”
Lusis spoke slowly to him. “You need to leave.”
His eyes shut in a cloud of reveries for a moment and his teeth bared in a hiss as he came out into the world again, “This place. This place is sick with dreaming.” He shook out his starlight hair and they started back, shoulder-to-shoulder, with Redd tucking the dark scale into a bag.
They did not come out the way they had gone in.
The horses were in the foothills. Lethroneth stood in a moth-grey cloak, in the mist, nearly invisible and so still that, for a long time walking from the mountain, Lusis thought she was a statue set to mark the way. But she was an elf, and as soon as the Elfking came in sight of her, she turned her moonlight face away. “My King,” she whispered and had to pause, “you are much affected.”
His voice purred, “Then I will leave you, Lethroneth. You have done well.”
She refused to move, even to acknowledge his words. She held her hand over her heart and did not dare to look at him. So Lusis did. And even clamped down tight under the elven mask of civility there was something manifest about him, some catalyst laid open in him and honed to a barefaced luster that was magnetic.
Lusis thought he was more beautiful than ever, having walked into that vault of his sorest temptation and come away victorious.
She got to her horse and followed him down the hill.
Redd pulled apart to ask her, “Could you believe that wealth?”
She shook her head, in awe. “Wealth, yes… but did you see what they’d built? The blue halls. The plumb lines for furlong on furlong in every direction. Dwarves are an outstanding race of beings.”
He grinned at her before he looked back at the King. “Trust you to see the forest.”
“What does that mean?” she glanced aside at him and then curled her lip. “Never mind. You read too much, Redd.”
“There is no such thing.” He chuckled in response. “You could do with more reading.”
“At least reading’s value is more enduring to me than that gold would be,” Lusis chuckled. “The Hoard is worth more, I think.”
Redd suddenly looked proud, and smiled at her.
She nodded at the road before her. “Maybe so. But my life found another road, Redd, and it has lessons and histories of its own.” She suffered a fleeting memory of her thin arm twisting slowly, until it snapped above the sound of shrieking she had no longer even been sure was her own. That was before she had ever met the Buckmasters.
But Redd didn’t know about that life. He didn’t suspect.
He looked down the hill at the King dismounting from the elk. “We’d better see what’s going on.” Redd’s hand found a throwing axe with incredible ease, just in case something came at the King.
Lusis stood in her stirrups. “He doesn’t look distressed. Just tired. Or… afire. Both, I think... I believe that was a battle for him back there. The Lake of Light wanted him – wanted to claim him like he claimed the land, but darker somehow. It’s bad news wrapped in glorious packaging. Or maybe just bad news for him.”
“Yes. I’d like to write it up… but I can’t figure out why the white stones did as they did. It’s like they were aware. They loved him. And hurt him.” He shook his head, “But they are only stones. Still, did you see their light become changeable when he went to them?”
“I think the light changed because it was following his heartbeat.” Lusis cocked her head at the straight back of the King. “Eithahawn said the Elfking figured out how to use gemstones to protect the forest – because Mirkwood has no Ring of Power, am I right?”
Redd looked grim. “Yes. It does not. Those rings are powerful, but they’re bad news in glorious packaging, as you so adeptly put it, Lusis.”
“Well, adeptly put or not, it means he knows how to use those stones. And, this mine being nearest, that he’s used their like to safeguard his people. Given he invented the means, I bet he knows the method deep down in those silver bones of his.” She said to Redd. “When he went to those stones, they were already sort of… tuned to him. Do you follow?”
Redd straightened and then warmed. “Like reading. Like when you learn to read and you can’t look at words again without knowing what they mean. Reading the stones. The stones being read. The words know us, because we know the words.”
“Yes. They’ve met before.” She murmured, and had smoothed the conversation off like raindrops by the time she reached the King. “Did you need a rest, my Lord?”
“Not at all,” he looked at the night, his hood down around his tall shoulders and his hair flickering in the breeze. His eyes blinked slowly, for long enough that he could enjoy a breath of fresh air before they opened. “The deeps of that place are lovely, but they are cold, dark, and sterile. How much better is the warmth and open air?”
“Much,” Lusis slipped off her horse and looked out into the night. The great elk had already wandered down to a brook for water, and she wondered if the horses were cool enough to drink. Then she looked up at the stars, lovingly. “Much better.” She turned to him and nodded her head, “Put those ugly stones behind you, Elvenking. They are common. You are not.”
His head tipped, and, for a moment, before the evenness overtook it, he looked astonished.
It occurred to her that there was a reversal in his thinking. He was valuable, but did not see himself as nearly as invaluable as that Lake of Light. Not to his people. Maybe not to himself. She, meanwhile, couldn’t count the vast number of stars in the sky. But there was one King of Mirkwood.
She turned to lead her horse downhill and muttered, “You misunderstand.”
They stood in silence for a long moment.
“Lusis Buckmaster,” his voice drifted after her. “Your human eyes cannot see them in the night.”
She froze and spotted Redd walking his horse behind the King. He had stopped moving as well. Her hand went to the sword. It would serve her better than the bow and arrow in the gloom.
The King went on, “But your Rangers are back. They will pass below us soon. Very soon. I thought we might stop to greet them.”
Redd hustled his horse downhill and hurried, with Lusis, toward the road. Their efforts spooked the bull elk, which charged up to stand nearer the King. He caught the ruff of its neck and glided up to his seat there.
Aric’s horse came into view first and, when he sensed a presence, he took out his sword and a spill of close to fifteen Rangers spread out to cover the land beneath them. They knew which side of the road to suspect, because Lusis and Redd were making enough noise, coming.
Icar wheeled his horse around and raised his sword.
“Icar, easy!” Steed called out.
Lusis laughed, “Don’t you dare stab at me you great pair of bollocks.”
“Lus-? Lusis! Are you unbalanced?” Aric barked at her as Lusis appeared out of tree shadow and pulled her horse with her. “Too much sugar? Or didn’t you get enough potato in your childhood to be able to make decisions properly?”
Redd opened his arms and walked towards them, “Who runs up on Rangers in the middle of the night?”
“We were going to ask you,” Steed laughed and rode over to greet them. “Come to see us back to the dockyards? Well, there are a few more of us now,” he gestured at the Rangers around him, “and they might need to make camp in the yard. No doubt the man in charge is going to have all kinds of grievances about that.”
The Elfking’s elk glided onto the road. He shone a spark of sudden silver in the moonlight as the elk turned a circle. His voice was chill and crisp. “Have no fear, I am content.” His colourless eyes scanned the collected and he raised his head, “Welcome to my lands.”
“His lands?” Icar’s horse edged closer to Lusis’ as she mounted.
“A lot has happened, Icar.” She told him and checked the stars again, “It will be dawn in less than four hours. We’ve had a long night. There are walking shadows with stolen human eyes out here. I think we should go home and rest.”
“Uhm. No,” Icar whirled a fingertip in air, “back up? What’s out here, right now?”
The Elfking chuckled as he turned the elk. “I am weary. You will follow me.”
There were twelve Rangers. As Rangers went, it was a huge number.
There weren’t that many Northern Rangers yet in the world. And four of them had more experience than Steed, who was the one of them whose life had been most knit into being a Ranger. They seemed pleased with the prosperous town of Lake Township. The roads were being developed now, with rocks being crushed and put onto streets. There were even cobbles going into some locations. Dawn was coming when they ambled into town. Speed had necessitated the hiring of horses as they’d passed some of the Northern outposts. There were heavily armed Rangers walking down, even now, over miles of ankle and knee-height brush, coming for the horses. They were likely Buckmasters, or fellows of the family crest.
It was expensive doing anything in the North.
The expense would go before the Council, and it would be paid, or she’d hammer some heads until money came out the other side.
They ambled through town.
The King took the front way in. Arriving with the Rangers gave him the perfect excuse to have gone out with Lusis and Redd. It wasn’t far, and he was often up late. She began to wonder if he ever really slept, or if he just lay, eyes shut, lost in thought. She could believe that of him.
Once the Elfking reached the yard, the elk darted in one direction and he glided to the ground without a backward glance. The rest of them had to stop their horses and dismount. The Elfking waited for them. He was tall, the King, and stood with the human Rangers slowly lining before him.
One of the dark, gruff Rangers waited until the King walked along the line and passed him to say, “I never heard of an elf taking over human lands. I never heard of an elf who cared enough for our kind.”
The Elfking’s brows bobbed up at that, “That may be true in this Age. But we are all Erusen – the Children of Iluvatar.”
The grubby man spit onto the stones, “Who’s that?” he feigned.
The Elfking looked from him to Lusis and she shut her eyes, elf-like in her mortified disbelief. When she opened them again, the Elfking’s serene face was at the edge of cracking into an actual smile. She could tell. When he passed too close to actual mirth, he developed the light impressions of dimples. He turned. “Are the rest of you similarly uninformed?”
Lusis swung out. “Listen, I’m in charge of the local troop. Are any of you anything but solitaries? Because you’re going to be answerable if you stay.”
“So Steed told us,” the man speaking to her had straggling brown hair and blue-grey eyes. He glanced over her. “You’re a small one. Pretty one for a Ranger. There are better things you could be doing with your time.” He motioned at her face negligently.
“This life is my choice,” she told him calmly. “Not yours.”
“Bad choice,” he actually smiled at her this time. “I’m in charge. Name is Argus.”
“All of them?” her brows drew up. “There are twelve of you.”
A heavily muscled redheaded man grinned at her, “All that, and she can count too, boss.”
This was more like it. She was used to the good-natured digs of Northern Ranger men. They were, in general, used to privations, and desperate hardship. It made them hard men on the outside, but the tempering inside was gentler for most. They came to appreciate companionship, peace, and to see each person as a rather unique creation. Difference wasn’t a threat to them. The failure of different parts to pull together was.
Right then, Argus’ eyes jumped to follow the King. Lusis could see the mistrust there, not of elves endemically, they were known to be good friends to men, but of the Mirkwood King. He did have a reputation for being crafty and rather maverick. But Rangers also respected power and strength. Lusis straightened and said, “So, we’ve had a few problems here. First is that there is a very large collection of men of questionable purpose hereabouts. They raided once to try to drive out the elves who have given their protection to this town. Lake Township, by the way, is right on the edge of Mirkwood territory, so I see the Council’s asking the Elfking for help as a rather natural decision.”
“You’d probably be the only one,” Argus told her. Rangers didn’t mince words.
“The Council acted with courage, Argus.” She said flatly. Because there should have been no question about that. “And it’s probably going to save their town.”
Argus nodded in grudging agreement with this. He could imagine, it seemed, the kind of worry that would drive a man who couldn’t just pick up stakes and travel out of the way of trouble, to then go to the great unknown Mirkwood and seek the infamous Elfking.
“Our first problem – the Fire Salamander and her nests.”
All of their heads rose and turned in her direction. One of the younger Rangers, not much her senior, stepped out to ask, “Does it yet live?”
“No. My troop, a trio of elves, and the Elfking slew it.” She nodded at the young Ranger. “He cut off its head, if you’d like to see it. Maggots are having at it right now, but I doubt that would bother you.” Rangers used live maggots to keep open wounds from rotting. She’d done it herself. “The other problems are a bit more difficult to nail down. Spirits, with just enough substance to do harm, have begun to walk the night out here. Anyone they find alone, they will not hesitate to kill.”
Redd added to this, “Then they steal your eyes.”
Argus’ brows went up. “This is a new beast to me.”
“And they attack man and elf. They can be killed if you carry enough King’s Light.” She held out her sword, “elf steel holds it well.”
“Bad luck for us,” Argus said to her. He drew a long and vicious-looking sword of human make and looked at the sunrise along its steel. It was patched in places, but patched well, and heartlessly sharp. He slid it home in the scabbard again.
The Elfking asked, “Do you oppose the idea of carrying a sword or fighting knife of our handiwork, new Ranger?”
“Argus,” the man tapped his blood-stained leather cloak and remembered to add, “my Lord.”
Lusis felt her patience worn after a night without sleep in the vast, lonely, pit whose eerie silence made haunting the beauty of Erebor. She set her hands on her hips and barked at them, “Will you take on elf metal or not?” The Rangers actually jumped. Hell, people in their beds in the house probably jumped.
Argus looked from Steed to Lusis and back and muttered, “Fires.”
“You should see her gut an orc,” Aric started to grin mightily at the other Ranger captain. “She splits them open like a cooked turkey and all the steam coming out.”
Now the Elfking’s eyelids fluttered, and he exhaled, “Fires, indeed.”
“And you listen to her?” The Dunedain rolled his shoulders and peered at Lusis. “She’s one of us? It’s rare a woman in our number chooses such a life.”
Icar shrugged at this, “But do you doubt the blood of the Buckmasters? Nevrmen Buckmaster is her father. I suppose that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it? Or that her uncle was Lengrmar before the War of the Ring took him, fighting with his brothers for Gondor.”
Argus started to smile. “Is she belonged to Nevrmen and his own? The messenger men?” Few things were consistent about the North, but resupply, letters from home, and a quick delivery of horses? No army could endure without them, and they came at great personal risk.
And the truth was, Lengrmar had found Lusis barely surviving in a broken hunting shack in a Northern town raided by orcs. This was back when she hadn’t really had a name of her own. The grizzled man who’d been staying there had died to kill the orc with designs to eat her, and she’d covered him in the one blanket they had, and guarded him with his own knives as he froze onto the floorboards. She hadn’t even known his name. But Lusis would never tell them any of this. Who in their right mind gave up the pride of the Dunedain for the near certainty of the blood of Angmar? Who was that foolish?
Likewise, she would never even indirectly sully the Dunedain blood of her father and kin.
She felt herself avert her gaze, slide her eyes to one side, and realized it was something she’d come to by way of watching elves. In point of fact almost as soon as she moved, the Elfking’s voice found her. “She is weary with long work. Decisions must be made by the time the Daystar rides high, but trouble her no more this morning.” He raised a hand, and Lusis crossed over to stand by his shoulder.
“Please rest until then,” Lusis told the cagey Rangers. “My troop will see to you.”
The Elfking’s extended hand dropped slowly and two sections stepped out from the dark shadows of the main building. “They have not yet accepted an offer of elf steel. Their fealty is yet in doubt. But they are Northern Rangers. See to their comfort.”
Merilin and Arasell glided out of their sections and bowed.
The Elfking took leave of them all and went to Kasia’s in the company of waiting Nimpeth.
Lusis hung back to catch up with her troop. She could feel the new Rangers staring at her as she walked up the stairs to Jan Kasia’s, so tired by now that her entire body felt numb. Very likely the King was already deep in his room, and she envied him. Today… today she could have used a bed. Her brain felt disconnected. Paper wasps buzzed in the space between her ears.
Once they were in the door of Kasia’s manor, Steed’s hand extended to rub the middle of her back. He was, of all of them, the one most closely related to the Dunedain, with blood strong and pure enough that he could talk to horses. He nodded at her, “Rest, Lusis. I will talk to them. They must remember they didn’t come here for the elves, they came for the men.”
“How large was their camp?”
“Forty strong,” Steed stretched himself and glanced back at Aric and Icar in the doorways. “It’s good to be back to troop, and in warmer climes. Perhaps half their curiosity was that they wanted to see tall trees again, and in bloom, these men. We’ll lose them if they see no action.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Steed. We don’t even have them yet.” Lusis tried to focus. Rays of light broke into the room and dazzled her. She’d been operating on so little sleep. “If they do agree, get them to walk a circuit of the town, and around the lake in pairs. Buy us time until the Council can call a meeting of the forces, put them in units, and draw up assignments between the Rangers and the men they will train.” Her hand circled in air, “Feed them and rest them in the evening. They must accept elf steel soon, or we put them in deep danger, Steed.”
“He’s… he’s not the elf they expected to see, I suppose. Not from their distant blood. There is one in Rivendell of which the Dunedain can only approve… you may not know this.” Steed noted to her, as ever, somehow tactfully closer to the truth of her bloodline than was comfortable. “They’ve had occasion to work with Rivendell in years past.”
“Rivendell? This is Long Lake. Nothing so fancy. We are fortunate that he is a hardheaded being, the Elfking, to be here at all when its needs are not the size of Gondor, or the Quest for the Ring.” She glanced back at the fire where the King reclined in the lush white chair that was now considered his own. Ewon stood silently by him, and she put out of her mind the idea he had come at the call of the Lake of Light, but then, somehow, withstood it. But he had refused it. It reassured her. “Steed, elves are good. By their most basic nature they fight to be good. And we are lucky in our cousins. He’s no different.”
“He’s very different. Very. Look at him. What other elf would come here? And now Redd said he’s King of these people and added this land to Mirkwood holdings? He’s good, yes. But also good and clever.” Steed kept his voice down. “He’s not like any elf I’ve met on the face of it.”
Icar drew in close. “It’s that cunning inside of him that causes those Rangers to fear.” He nodded his concern to her.
“May the Stars save us all,” Lusis rubbed her forehead, “if men come to liken brilliance with wickedness.” She blinked at the floor. “If they don’t accept the steel, thank them, supply them, and release them, but do not allow them to think cooperation with the Elfking and Mirkwood is not an obligation here. It is his own land, and he, and his elves are protecting it.”
“There have been a lot of changes here, indeed,” Icar said aside, wide-eyed at her dedication.
“You need,” Redd squeezed her shoulder, “to sleep, little Buckmaster. That head will overheat. Think of this when you wake.”
She nodded in agreement, swiftly becoming too tired to bother with speaking. But she did note, “You need to sleep too, lug. That leaves you in charge, Steed.”
“Understood.” He nodded at Aric and Icar, who had gathered close together to Lusis and Redd. He waved them out the door. “Maybe they’ll be happier after we feed them. Go.”
When she reached the hide couch, Lusis handed over the borrowed bow and quiver to Ewon. She waited on the King, who, in fact, was speaking elvish to Ewon in fits and starts. Ewon looked patient, quiet, and kind. This was probably a good thing. The King’s eyes still occasionally glittered with white stones and he sighed deeply. Lusis slumped on the hide couch, and then sank into the pillows… and then picked up her feet and lay out on the give of the wadding, so different than the bench upstairs.
Close to an hour later, she woke suddenly, and found Avonne eating boiled eggs and staring at her from the floor. Lusis found herself covered in a fur throw. She stumbled up and around the hide couch, then back to retrieve her sword, and blundered up the stairs.
The Elfking was in his rooms curled like a cat, his eyes lightly closed, and his hair in a long tumble over the edge of the bed where it glowed in the morning sun streaming through the window. His eyes opened as she moved her bench into place across the door and lay in the unforgiving rays of morning. Slowly, he sat up on the bed. He came to the door and got her. He tugged the bench just inside and against the shadowy front wall, and set her down on it.
“Even I am not that hardhearted.” He said to her, and his eyes blinked slowly. He was spent.
She put her head in her hands, trying to focus, to make enough sense to deal with the King’s wits.
The rustle of fabric made her look to him. He’d sunk down before her. “No one will think less of you if you choose to sleep in comfort instead of on this wood.” His fingertips touched it.
She looked up at the king. “No, you’re wrong. I will.”
The silken robes he wore made a soft whoosh of noise as he stood, and she looked up at him. His face was flat, wintry. “Is there some perversity in the nature of Rangers that makes it impossible for them to listen to me? Or is it yet another failure of my character?” His tone was hard and tired.
“It’s not you,” Lusis suddenly felt like she blundered to wakefulness too quickly. She shook her head. “It’s not you. You have so much weighing on you, Elfking, so many responsibilities, and flawlessness is the demand. Too much. But if the Rangers turn away, you aren’t to blame.”
His eyes shut to her, “If they turn away.” His voice was a low growl. “Then who is,” his lips curled as he leaned to her, “are you finding fault with the Dunedain? Is that a possibility? Are they not the men of Etain? Am I not from the blackest pit?” His eyes glittered.
Lusis stared at the Lake of Light burning out from his gaze – the white gems that were from the blackest pit – and that she now hated, and she was steady. “If they leave this place and refuse to work for you, my Lord, I will call on the Buckmasters themselves to come down here and train these human forces. We have crisscrossed the North for generations, seeing to the wellbeing of our brothers. You can believe that the Darkness fears us, our arrows, and our blades. Our blood is as good as any Dunedain. We will not fail man or elf,” she paused a breath, “and we will not fail you.”
The Elfking straightened and closed his eyes for a long moment. She stood and waited just to be there for the sake of being there for him. He hadn’t failed her. Hadn’t failed the Master of Boats on the way in. Hadn’t failed Lake Township. Her esteem for him had gone well beyond promises.
His long body listed away from her, and he exhaled the words, “There is much amiss with me,” at last. A pool of dove grey silk slithered away from her to the bed. “Lethroneth’s words are true.”
Lusis threw up her hands, too tired, and stretched thin by her disagreement with the actual blooded Dunedain men. She made a growl and barreled after him. “Forget Lethroneth. Forget them all. What a pretty torture it must be to love them, when you love even their scourges. It seems no one ever told you that those who live in the shelter of the powerful and are delivered by their sacrifice can crush a man with their reproach.” She pointed at him, “Your father left you unprotected. But we Rangers know it – to those we champion we are often disreputable, or disgraceful. Seedy. Can you believe it? We die for them. Or maybe you do not allow yourself to think how those who take no wild risks, can never be wildly mistaken. When you need only follow, you do not know the wounds of command. And those whips. You shouldn’t care for them so much that you strike yourself with them. Yes, you have done things wrongly in your life.” She set her foot on the wood box at the end of his bed and shoved it into the footboard with a crack. “That does not mean the wrong is you, and the good is less good.”
“You know nothing.” He snapped the thick gold coverlet from the bed in a massive swirl of fabric in air. It settled around him, dangling from his hands. He didn’t look at her. He was trying to contain his temper, which blazed out of the furnace in his chest like a white-hot firestorm.
She bared her teeth and turned to fetch the bench, grumbling, “I know every time I set foot in this blasted room we have a fight. I know that.” She shoved the bench at the open door and stood bolt upright when a large number of stunned elves scattered back.
She stared, suddenly aware of who he was and where they abided relative to one another in the world again, and she blanched with horror at herself.
“Lusis,” Eithahawn whispered. He was pale as a kettle of milk, his blue-green eyes darting from her to the King, and back. “Lusis, my friend.”
That soft whisper cut through the King’s reserve and his head snapped up, “Get out.”
Elves backed away, Dorondir’s long arm extended, and the door was shut.
Then the King bowed his head and collected himself. Lusis stood by the door, afraid to move even to apologize.
The Elvenking crossed the space to her and raised his head. He drew the golden coverlet up and slipped it around her shoulders.
“I am tired,” she bowed to him and used a time-honored line from her rather stormy childhood. “My behavior… was inexcusable.”
“Tell me,” his voice was chill, “how did I come to command such fiery loyalty in you?” His expression was cold, even aloof, but given his pride he was allowing her much.
She tried to think of an answer to that question, and hit on something. “Elfking, would it interest you to know that I’m not a Buckmaster at all? I’m probably some girl of Angmar who was exposed on a mountainside to die? If people knew, do you think they would expect me to be wicked? Naturally? I do.”
His head tipped. “I… know what you are. You are not wicked.”
“Great,” she went toward the bench. “Then I know what you are too. Also not wicked.”
“You will take the bed.”
She redirected herself. The bed looked inviting. And huge, “Where will you sleep?”
His voice was calmer now, “We do not sleep, Lusis. We simply reflect, lost in waking dreams. One day you will come to understand the difference.” He settled into a thickly padded chair and pulled the fur coverlet there around himself. His eyelids sank. “And you shall take the bed.”
It was the most genuine and most sustaining sleep she’d had since leaving the Halls. She lay down wrapped in his woodland scent. She woke only twice, once to the sound of the King in soft conversation with elves in the broad daylight. He was far across the room, at the door. Once again when he came in and his fingers brushed her shoulder. “It is nearing the decision of the Rangers. I will have need of you soon.”
In other words, it was time to sleep in the bath.
The hot water was its own timer.
When it cooled, it would wake her.
Five of the Rangers were playing cards. The rest had nothing to give, and looked on. She scarcely recognized them after they’d bathed. They still looked rough, but clean, with even their leather washed, and they smelled a lot better.
Lusis shoved her way in among them and glanced up at the sky.
“Hello again, Buckmaster,” Argus said around the long pipe in his teeth.
“Well hi,” she glanced over the cards around her. The elves didn’t have games like this as a form of entertainment. She could see that Merilin, atop the wall overlooking them, was dead interested in the progression of the game. She glanced over the pot, which was a pair of new leather gloves, a couple of pieces of coloured sea glass, an antique coin out of Angmar. She nodded. That was about the extent of a Ranger’s wealth. “Sorry to interrupt you, but I was wondering if you were interested in earning a few of these,” she dropped coppers into the pot, “or not.”
Several of the Rangers sat forward so fast they nearly clocked heads together.
“Do you think you can play me for my troop,” Argus sighed at her, “and win?”
Lusis stared down at them, flat-faced. “Enough games. Are you soldiers of the North or not?” The man on her right began to move his hand toward his sword. Lusis picked up a foot and stomped on his hilt. With her foot so close to his crotch, the man’s whole body jolted. She leaned over him. “Did you know that, among the elves, violence towards the group is a no-no? You should consider that your new credo. And be truly glad I do.” She put her foot down and looked at Argus. “I need a decision.”
He was trying hard to smother a smile. “I’ve never met a Buckmaster woman before,” he said, “and, meeting you, I think it’s a miracle I’ve ever met a Buckmaster man.”
“They prefer us this way.” She said dryly.
“She forgot to add Or else,” said the youngest of Argus’ troop – who looked younger than Lusis. Not quite yet a man, in fact.
Lusis was imposingly well fed, well built, cut out from the sun overhead and she told him. “When the Captains are talking, children should mind their tongues.”
Argus set down his pipe and fragments of burning ash made black spots into the white wood of the low table they’d gathered around. “Sit down, Lusis Buckmaster.”
She sat down and they dealt her in. She knew the game, and glanced over her hand indifferently, the same look as was generally used by the Elfking when he seemed not to care about a thing, but was actually watching it quite closely.
She won on her third hand, which was a bit of a stroke of luck. Aric. He was the one you wanted for cards. He bluffed and swaggered, and overpowered other players. Lusis smiled at the gloves. “What the fires am I supposed to do with these? Wear them on my feet? They’re huge.”
Laughter sounded around her.
Of the people at the table, the youngest was likely the poorest, so she chucked them at the young man who had quipped about her earlier. He caught them with a sudden bubbling of excitement. She didn’t protest when two of Argus’ men reached out and took the coppers either. They had greater need than she did.
Argus saw this with compassionate eyes. And then he looked at her. “They will pay?”
“They will pay you.” She had no doubt of that, and nodded.
“Buckmaster,” Argus laid down his cards and knitted his fingers. He stared at her, his grey-blue eyes like a pair of rivets. “I’m one of the blood. I’ll know if you’re lying. So tell me… do you trust him?”
She’d had more than one occasion to think about this, and she was ready to answer. “You can trust in the good in him. Yes. You can trust in him.”
He hadn’t looked away from her, “Then why don’t I believe that?”
The light changed and Lusis glanced at one of the house servants bringing a pitcher of water to the table from across the yard. Lusis waited for the girl to finish and draw away before speaking. This was standard behavior for the secretive Rangers so the group remained patient. “This King… almost everything that he does is a layer over layers. He’s experienced and canny, but he is as insolent as he is elegant. He can be… abrasive, and in his mind you’ll find he has angles in his angles. I think your problem is that he is neither plain nor straightforward. But if you trust that, at his most basic, he’s a force for good, you will learn. Time will teach you the true meaning of my words, when I say this to you…. He must be watched, but he can be trusted.”
There was silence among the Rangers.
Lusis got to her feet. “Those who are willing to follow him need to go straight through the doors to Kasia’s keep and sit at the table. But don’t delay. By my reckoning, it will be noon in only a handful of minutes,” she finished her water and got to her feet, “and you can be replaced.”
Argus actually laughed on the heels of this. “Buckmasters. So superior.”
She walked away from them, “Time is wasting.” But, in actual fact, she was hoping that this goad, and the money, would be enough of an impetus to have some of them come aboard. It would not be possible to teach human forces with elves. The wondrous bodies of the elves threw off the elements. They were lighter than air, agile as a flying bird, and stronger than several men. Humans would not be carrying out their nightly patrols by spilling over the rooftops as fast as swallows, with eyes that could all but see in the dark. Human forces needed to learn human methods. And as wondrous as the elves, in fact, were, she knew the answer to their grandeur was lounging in the sun and playing cards in the courtyard. And they could not be replaced.
Inside, the Elfking stood in statuesque stillness. He had been that way since she’d come downstairs. He was perfectly motionless, the silvery threads of his pale golden clothes not even glinting to reveal small motions, like humans made while breathing. His long red cloak was draped over a chair. This one had a deep hood with dark gold lining – the colours of his Kingdom at last.
Lusis joined Redd, who was both guarding the King and watching Icar draw. Lusis brightened when she saw that Icar was actually drawing the Elfking now – it was a very good likeness. “Redd, is this your book?”
“It is,” he smiled eagerly. “Icar put Nimpeth and Amathon in there this morning. And we’re all there. Show her the picture you drew of her, Icar!”
“Shush and don’t disturb me now. Elves are hard.” He ignored the fact he was blushing, so Lusis kindly did the same. “With elves so much of their emotion is buried.”
“I just got done writing down what happened with Steed and Argus’s troop up North, the work of gathering those Rangers. That Argus man…. He’s something worth having, Lusis. Icar ran into a band of orcs on the fourth night, and Argus charged them with half his band. He ran them into the other half. There were a good thirty orcs of them.”
She shuddered. “They all died?”
“He half skinned one, dried the hide, and we came down the mountains under that flag on the way back as a warning.” Icar said and glanced up at Lusis. “Have you ever heard of it?”
She nodded soberly. “We do what works.”
Steed came out of the back with a basket of fruit – there was fruit everywhere these days – and set it down. He tossed an apple to Aric, who walked in from the servant’s quarters, looking pleased with himself. Which couldn’t bode well.
The youngest of Argus’ troop peeked in the door and Redd looked at Lusis.
“Oh boy,” Aric’s eyes widened as he sank down on the hide couch.
Redd pointed directly at Lusis. “No, mother. We already have enough mouths to feed.”
“Shut up, ninny,” her lip curled and she looked out at the young man. She thought he might be between sixteen and nineteen, if she was being generous. She nodded at him as he picked up a basket full of folded silk, and topped with a bouquet of luscious peonies.
He brought the basket to the table and set it down there. “Captain Lusis… someone left this outside. There’s more stuff there too.” He glanced back at the doorway.
“Those are offerings to the King.” She stood. “Just how some of the humans of Lake Township choose to give their thanks. What’s your name?”
“Elow Thoms.” He glanced at the motionless Elfking and ducked his head a little. His voice dropped, “I’ve never met a King before. I didn’t think he would be so….” His hands gestured in air, about his face, as if indicating light coming out. Or beauty.
Lusis couldn’t help the chuckle from her lips. “He is that. I suppose, very,” she glanced at the elf and back to the boy, “spotless.” She gestured at the couch. “Come sit down, Elow.”
He picked up the basket and brought it over with him, setting it on the small, narrow table there. He picked up a loose peony. “I guess this will suit him after all. I thought it was an odd thing to give to a King – a flower.” He snuck a glance at the Elvenking’s tall figure, “But he’s sort of like a flower himself.”
“He is,” Icar said patiently above his shading, “if you dipped one half of it in blood, and the other in molten elf steel.” He didn’t look up from his drawing.
Steed chuckled and threw an apple at the boy, which he caught without looking. He might have been little more than a child, but he was a Ranger child all the same. Like Steed, he was blooded, and he’d been born to it.
Three more men came in and settled on the hide couches. As they came to rest, one of them joked, “Fires. Someone said there would be fresh bread, but all I see is a basket of daisies. Odd diets, elves.”
Argus brought the rest with him. They came to the end of the hide couches and the King’s pale head turned to glance over them. He gave no indication of whether they were welcome or not. His silver dome eyes simply glided upward toward the stairs as Eithahawn came down them. He was in dark red with gold threads, his leaf clip in his hair.
“I will see to arrangements, my King,” he inclined his golden head to the Elfking and then walked to greet the Rangers. His head tipped forward to one side, a setting that elves seemed to consider a warm hello. “I am the Kingdom’s seneschal. It is down to me to welcome you. It is also down to me to ensure you are properly supplied and compensated. If you will follow me, I will make record of you.”
Argus stood and stared at the Elfking for a long moment, but then followed the Kingdom’s seneschal and his elven guard, Dorondir. Eithahawn was tall, golden, and to all outside appearances, affable and warm. He was considered more effortless for human interaction. Dorondir, his dark-haired opposite, was so very new to humans that he hardly trusted the Rangers at his back, and he certainly wouldn’t allow them at his Lord’s.
The Elfking’s brows rose as they departed. He seemed in a decent humour as he told the banked fire, “Dorondir has quite a lot to tell his Lord in Rivendell… supposing he survives the rudeness of the Northern Rangers.”
Lusis’ troop looked at him en masse. She blinked, “Is… is he a spy for your friend in Rivendell?”
“Lusis, the problem with planting an elf as a spy is that they do so often come to love the places and peoples upon which they are to report,” the Elfking stepped into the light and his paleness cast a halo through the room. “In my experience, if you put an elf anywhere they will find the good in it. Good is attracted to them. How much more so when placing a Rivendell elf in Mirkwood? My people are good. They are, I would venture, best, in fact. He is well thought of here.”
“He’s a spy,” she said slowly, and thought of Lethroneth. How loyal was she? How torn?
The Elfking suddenly threw himself into the white chair and he actually smiled in amusement, if briefly – so suddenly young and gorgeous with mischievous crinkles aside his nose. “It is wrong of me to surround the child in so many humans. He is unfamiliar with them. He has little interplay with men in Mirkwood, and was accustomed to only the most blooded of Dunedain, and only rarely in Rivendell.” He had to look away, shield his face a moment. “When I imagine any of Kasia’s lot in Rivendell. Ah. Why they might break a phial of tears Glorfindel balanced on a spec of filigree Ages back, or drink from the bathing well. All manner of howling grievance would break loose.” The King’s silver disk eyes pondered the ceiling to give him a chance to pull his humour under control again. “He is not ready for these humans. No elf could be. What will he tell good Lord Elrond?”
There was a pregnant pause during which Lusis twitched and tried not to laugh, imagining Dorondir penning a letter to his Lord comprised entirely of one long shriek.
“You’re a bit of a rascal.” Redd blinked, his fingertips on the pages of his Chronicle.
“You should have met my wife.” He said reflexively, and his lightness vanished. He went ashen and froze in that painful moment. The mask of emptiness slid to place over him.
“She would have been a good match to your wits, if she was mischievous.” Redd said softly.
He shut his eyes and pulled back into the chair, away from the words. His voice was lifeless, “We have many things to do, Lusis Buckmaster. Many. Your troop must be brought up to speed on last night’s activities, and there is the matter of the scale.”
“What scale is this?” Icar looked up from his drawing at last.
Redd and Lusis glanced at one another and Redd told the younger Ranger, “We might have something for you to draw at that, Icar.” He wouldn’t believe them if they told him.
The Elfking rose slowly, “And I can spare you no longer, Lusis Buckmaster. Your pain must begin. I must know what happened to you, for my theories are dark, the evidence, darker.”
There was suddenly the silhouette of an elf in the door, slender, long, with a step so light it was noiseless. His bearing was flawless. He came into the human hall, to its high closed spaces, without undo alarm. He passed out of shadow and into rays of light, pale, with a lovely face and large blue eyes. His hair was long, sunny blond, and artfully braided back. He was dressed in Silvan green.
The King saw him and backed away a series of steps, his eyes wide.
The elf by the door bowed himself down somewhat blushingly. His voice was so light and melodic that Rangers straightened, and Lusis felt herself smile upon hearing it. The young elf’s head eased to one side. “I… had rumour of this… but my heart could not believe.”
The Elfking stood, rooted, with his face artfully blank. He stared.
The young bowman tried again, “I know it has been… long… not in time, but in parting. One can feel the passage of an Age not at all, but one single absence… keenly.” He glanced to check the King.
Kasia appeared in the door to his keep and eyed the bowman, and the young elf’s pale blue eyes glided at the noise, but he didn’t draw on the Master of Boats. Kasia ignored the newcomer and bowed to the King, something he tried to do at least once a day. “You should come see this, Elfking.”
The Elvenking didn’t stir.
“He will come, presently,” said the gracious young elf. “Forgive my interruption.”
Kasia seemed surprised by this etiquette.
But Eithahawn swept up the outside stairs, paperwork in hand, already speaking to his King in a beautiful burble of Elvish. He made it two steps through the door before the young elf turned and opened his hands in greeting, “Eithahawn.”
The golden elf stopped. It was a struggle for him to pull emotion under control, and strong emotion was a thing most un-elven, so his body caved, his shoulders bent, he looked down, and pressed his hand over his chest. He froze as tightly and completely as the Elfking had. It was like a magic spell.
The sunny-haired elf advanced the room, his expression suddenly taking on a heartbreakingly genuine atmosphere of apprehension. He spoke a few musical words in elvish and then said, “What is it? What have I done?” to the King.
The Elfking’s brittle cold snapped. He swept down the room and passed the young elf with the flat admonishment, “This is not a good time, Legolas.”
The young elf turned, his King was so quickly by him. “But I have-”
“Hear me, child,” the Elfking turned. “Ride to the Halls. Await me there. There is pressing business and you must not distract me from it.” He swept out the door and down into the yard, lit up with sun on his fine robes, his white-blond hair flagging. Kasia was forced to run after the tall elf.
By now, Eithahawn stood staring at Legolas.
“There is never a good time,” Legolas’ great blue eyes found the plank floor, “is there?” He looked up and aside at Eithahawn. “And how have you been – I would call you brother, but it’s already in your name, hanar.”
“You are well travelled, I see. Is that some humour you learned from the dwarves?” Eithahawn’s soft and breezy voice had a sudden bite of winter in it.
The sunlit elf half turned. He looked alarmed, and not in the close way of elves. Seeing the earnestness in his expression left one hurting. “Eithahawn, what has happened? Why do you believe I would treat you so poorly?” He extended both hands before him and was ignored.
The golden elf glided closer, suddenly serpentine and perilous, his teeth gritted as he drew in by the new elf, “Because I was raised beside you does not make us kin. You know that. He doesn’t love me. But here you are. For now.”
The blue-eyed elf huffed in a moment of strange entertainment. “Ah, hanar, he doesn’t love me either. He loves the debris of her he can see. And hates it, as he hates feeling.” He exhaled, “Her, alone.”
They stared at one another, and while Legolas was still amused – hauntingly like the Elfking in the moment he talked about such ruinous emotions – that unpleasant mirth faded to the slow dawning of shock around what they’d spoken aloud to one another.
Eithahawn sank down onto the stairs that led into the room. Legolas stood by him. “You are my Prince.” Eithahawn said breathlessly. “I apologize. I was foolish. Unwise.”
“You are my brother,” Legolas’ lips curved into a smile. “And all is forgiven.” The Prince of Mirkwood settled his slender body on the stairs and cocked his head at the back of the room, at the salt and pepper shakers – the statuary – that the Rangers had become. His head tipped, his features so compact and lovely, almost girlish as he said, “I do believe we have Rangers.”
Eithahawn, who now settled shoulder-to-shoulder with his ‘brother’, slid his aqua eyes across to the sunny elf. He said, “Yes. You like Rangers.”
Legolas glanced at the other elf, and they both looked away quickly as if resisting the urge to laugh. “You have been gone since the beginning of the War of the Ring. Much has happened in the Kingdom, errant Prince.”
“If father got Rangers,” Legolas gestured at them. “It can’t be all bad. Much better than another dragon’s bones.”
“Yes, well, they’re for you, actually,” Eithahawn noted brightly.
After that Legolas took a moment to inspect the wooden floorboards between his boots to keep from laughing. He stood up, “You were missed, hanar.” He bowed to the Kingdom’s seneschal and then helped the golden elf up, “Stars, what an outfit. Every time I see you you’re grander still. What is your position now?”
“Oh,” Legolas nodded up at the taller elf. “I should have brought a bottle of wine.” His brows went up.
It was rare, but Eithahawn’s expression broken into the most delighted of smiles and he put his head down. “That is comical, coming from a hero of the War of the Ring. A guardian of the ring-bearer himself.”
“All I did was kill some things. I’m good at that,” Legolas reassured. “Let’s talk to the Rangers.” He glanced over them, and though he was smaller than either of his father and Eithahawn, that made him easily the size of Steed – more than the human average. “Who of you is in charge?”
Everyone looked at Lusis and she said, “Hello… my Lord.” Nothing underscored the age of the great Elfking like meeting his grown son. She hadn’t felt this way with Eithahawn. This Legolas ‘hero of the Ring War’ and ‘pure Guardian of the ring-bearer’ made her feel like a silly child. “I serve your King.”
The elf, Legolas, tipped his head slowly, suddenly like his father again. “How is he?”
She felt herself redden, “Ah, a lowly Ranger cannot tell you much about that.”
“I’ve never known one,” he told her. “How is he?”
“Well enough,” Lusis felt gratitude for his steady esteem of them. “Creative.”
A spark lit in the young elf’s eyes. “Creative… is generous. He is crafty, my father. Some consider his independent thinking to be dangerous.” He glanced over their collection.
Redd laughed at this, “We tend to respect that kind of a thing.”
“And it will be useless to ask you,” he looked over their faces, his harmonious voice growing quiet, “what he is really doing here. If you know.” Silence fell over them for a moment and Lusis shut her eyes and heard him say, “There are few things in the world as loyal as a Ranger.”
Lusis could do nothing but open her eyes and nod at this. What she knew – having gone into the mountain with the Elfking – she wouldn’t disclose to anyone. And Redd, beside her, was just as stalwart.
Eithahawn was called from the door by Merilin, who saw sunny Legolas and suffered a moment of complete elven amazement. He gasped. He set a hand over his lips. He couldn’t speak. He made his way into the room with his wide pale eyes locked on Legolas. “Friend,” he said, “I did not think I would see you again in this world.”
“Merilin,” Legolas half turned and went to the section head. Merilin bowed as a matter of course – this was his Prince. Legolas clapped the section head on his shoulders and then stepped back. It was a lot of contact for an elf. “How is the section?” He glanced around him as if they might fall from the rafters, which, Lusis realized, was possible and had happened before.
“Adjusting. They do miss you, young Lord.” Merilin bowed.
“And I them.” Legolas nodded, “but my ways are varied now. I have to be out in the world.”
“In that way, you are like your father, green-leaf,” Ewon spoke at the doorway, the courtyard’s sun falling over his shoulders and filtering through his dark hair. “You make a path outside of all rubric, Legolas Thranduilion, from a line of rather maverick thinkers.” The Elite inclined his head.
“Ewon!” the Prince smiled, opened his arms, and bowed his body forward. One of their distant embraces. “Tell me, did father really just take over a human town?”
“He was invited. Once again,” Ewon actually smiled on his way down the stairs. “You know how that goes, Legolas. He’s the picture of a King, that one.”
“He is like his father,” Legolas replied on the end of that. “Though, I hope… not too much.”
A meeting of the elves began to converge on the room, as more and more of them rushed to see the beautiful and sunlit prince. In the midst of all this, Eithahawn came through the thronging, a sort of impromptu celebration that now included wine and fruit, and collected Lusis’ Ranger band. They walked through the bright yard and across busy dockyards now decorated in new carvings of lilies – just as the quiet parts of the lakes now teemed with them and the life they brought.
The town had begun to spruce up in that regard, with etchings of beech trees full of nuts, and carved flowers – stained in bright colours – sprouting up everywhere. They charmed the King, but did more. They seemed to somehow dignify and unify the Township that, prior, had struggled to keep above the violence on its borders. Now, the town was growing with others from around the lake coming in to look for a decent place to live.
They went down the two sets of stout wood steps off of the docks and onto thick grass overgrown with buttercups and clover, and humming with bees and tiny birds. The land was rich here. Lusis followed Eithahawn. He seemed lost, for a moment, in the blue sky, the sun, and the field of wildflowers, but then he made his way to the broad horseshoe of wood offices under construction under the mound that contained the silver beech.
“These offices are for the guard, but also for inspection of barges,” he explained to her. “Such lovely woodwork,” he insinuated his long hand between the human carpenters and touched the white wood. “It will do this place justice, and safeguard the tree.”
The humans there seemed pleased with his assessment. One of the men straightened, opened a basket and wordlessly handed Eithahawn a silvery beech nut.
“Ah, my thanks,” he told them. It lit up with a soft radiance in the palm of his hand. His fingers closed over it and he led them onward. “I feel the King’s power in this seed. As they melt into the land, they enrich it.”
“The locals have been making these into butter and eating them,” Lusis tapped the back of Eithahawn’s hand without thinking, but he didn’t mind. “So nothing that romantic.”
“Not at all,” the elf said. “We use them for healing internal ailments, and they are very rich and filling, so all to the good. I hadn’t expected the humans to seize on that so quickly.” He tucked the nut away into an inner pocket and led them to the open end of the horse-shoe shape of buildings. There were two standing stones to either side, marked with the date, and city name, each explained that the land had been claimed by a great Elfking. She only recognized the elvish from watching the King sign off on documents. The name was translated underneath, and Kasia’s name was there too. Metal gates painted white yawned open to the field of wild flowers. Men stooped, laying white stone along the path that the King had taken on the night he claimed the land. It was nearly done. And the Elfking himself stood at the circular end of it.
He looked up at the tree.
“Here they are, my King,” Eithahawn said softly.
The Elfking turned and walked by his borrowed son, straight to Lusis. “Gather your strength.”
“What’s going on?”
He swept in and by her with a glance that said to follow. Lusis and her band did so, going out into the field of sweet grass, bees, and flowers in his wake. They reached the first stand of white aspens whose leaves clattered softly in the wind. A circle of wood benches had been brought here and laid out in the middle. The elves loved such arrangements and the gratitude of the townspeople was great.
The Elfking gestured to the center of these seats and Redd and Lusis saw what stood in the middle with its narrow end shoved into the ground so that it resembled nothing more than a huge black spade in the earth.
Icar blinked and said, “Oh. Now I get it. The scale.”
Steed nodded, “Not for weighting. But protecting.” He frowned at it, startled, “Apparently for protecting a dragon?”
Redd was the only one unsurprised by its appearance here – clearly he had brought it and set it here by the King’s command – but now looked up at the King. “But is it not Smaug’s, my Lord? And Bard of Dale destroyed that beast.”
“Which was quite a job to do,” the Elfking said at once, clear commendation in his tone.
For the Rangers who had not been in Erebor the night before this was a stunning moment. They looked at Redd as if he’d just proclaimed himself King of Rhovanion, right in front of the Elfking.
But the Elfking, himself, was not perturbed by the question. He tucked his hands behind his back, loath to risk brushing the thing.
Lusis frowned, “Is it evil? Will it do us harm? You don’t have to look at it, my Lord.”
“No. Not in itself. But it has a taint upon it. This ground is sewn with the tree’s power, and that is quite enough to overwhelm the potency of one wicked scale,” his silvery eyes glinted up at Redd, “And it is not Smaug’s.”
“But there was no other dragon,” Redd went pale and said. “Smaug was a male. There were no dragon’s eggs to speak of either. That is true, yes?”
“That is accurate as I remember it,” the Elfking told him. “I was a bit busy at the time…. Small, male dragon. A deep red in colour. The females are not. They are the true horrors. Larger. Smarter. Cryptic in colour.” His fingertips touched his left cheek right below its curved dome of cheekbone. “And to fight them and destroy their nests, one must be eloquent and cunning enough to outsmart them.”
Aric gawped at the description, “You had to talk to them?”
“Of course,” the Elfking spoke of it dryly. “They are more proud and vainglorious than Kings, dragons. Believe me. Superior to the point of overconfidence, which is a failing we will not repeat. To defeat it, you need to be able to talk to a dragon, and avoid the swell of fascination from its jewel-like eyes. They mesmerize and enchant.”
“You’re good with words.” Lusis agreed, though not, notably, with what he said to his sons.
“Elves are.” The King reassured. “I am no special case there. And as to how Bard managed his kill, he shot the dragon straight out of air, which is very difficult to do. Easier, if you happened to know where, prior, it took damage to the throat, though. A line of thrushes flew about its neck, and Bard remembered the long ago story. They’d spoken to him.”
This was almost too much for Lusis, “He shot it out of the sky?” She paused. “What?”
“Bard was a singular man,” the Elvenking looked at the sole black scale. “A King.” It sounded like the Elfking rather missed his compatriot, though his practiced features gave no indication – they were smooth and contained. Still, it was not difficult to imagine that two Kings could see eye-to-eye and might have much in common to commiserate about. “A dragon slayer.”
The King circled the spade-like scale. “But this is not the right shape for a dragon. Not even a dragon’s tongue, which is patterned with deadly spikes. This scale is too dark for that dragon as well. Black and not red. The underbelly, legs and head, and the massive hands of a dragon, are fused armour plates with an underlay of bone. There are scales, as scales can be understood, but they are long and flow down its flanks, its neck, back, and tail. Any wings, if present, are also armoured rather than scaled. But I have never seen a dragon with keels on them.” He indicated a mild ridge down the scale’s length. “This is no dragon.”
Steed opened his hands, “What is it then?”
“Snake,” said the Elfking. “And that letter out of Rivendell did explain that the toxin that was pulled from the murdered men was viperous.”
Lusis shook her head, “My Lord, Icar and I were over it. There were no signs of anything but the Fire Salamander and the shade at that site. No snakes. No snake bites.”
“None,” agreed the King, “but the river was sick with venom. Their water barrels had been tainted with poison. When the barrels went into the river, many were quickly crushed on the rocks, broken open, or lost in the inundation. The men were doomed from the outset, dying of slow poison as they sailed.”
“You… that letter you got from Rivendell,” Lusis’ eyes widened. “I recall you asked them to identify some of the venom. But… I don’t believe there was any answer.”
“There was,” the Elfking said, “behind the seal of Rivendell, the word serpents. In elvish, such a word also means dragons, and certain among them were full of poison. But as this is no dragon, it must be a true serpent. A snake.”
“You might have said.”
“The men of Council were about.” The King exhaled. “Such exhausting beings. But they have their role in this as well, it was their barges that were so hastily redesigned as weapons, their water tainted, the cargo a mix of oil and poison, set as fire-bombs against the Kingdom of Mirkwood. The question is why?”
But Lusis shook her head, “I would think the question is How do we find the one responsible?”
The Elfking stopped circling the scale when he stood with his shoulder facing her chest, and his head turned to take her in, his silvery blond hair lifting in the breeze around him, nut-scented, and full of light. “I know how. Tell me, do you know why?”
“I don’t,” she confessed to him, and wholly resisted the temptation to reach up and smooth his drifting hair with her hands, though she knew he saw her looking at it. His hair was the softest thing.
“Look at me.” His voice was nearly a whisper, “Are you telling me the truth?”
Lusis’ attention bounced from threads of glowing hair up to his blue-silver eyes. “I would not lie to you. Fires – you know I tell you the truth even when you don’t like it.”
Beyond them, she missed her Ranger band’s curious exchanged looks.
She was too panicked by the thought he was doubting her of a sudden.
“You have done. You have in the past, and you have recently.” his head angled a little right and his brows bounced upward. “Loudly.” He stepped around her and wandered out of the stand of shivering Aspen. His long legs and coat sent up a cloud of pussy-willow froth in air. “You need to be strong now, Lusis Buckmaster. I will have need of you by nightfall, and you must rest and be ready.”
“Why? What’s happening?” she followed him. “Will I be telling you? Trying to tell you-”
His long back stopped.
At some distance, Legolas waited in the wildflower field, his long hair billowing. He looked up from the sweet grass his fingertips stroked and peeked into his father’s eyes.
“He’s your child,” Lusis whispered. Maybe it was hope driving her. But this elf, Legolas, was just so beautiful and shy standing there waiting for some time with his father. It made her remember her own shyness as this strange little girl dropped off among the Buckmasters.
The Elvenking continued through verdant tall grass under the sky and sun. When Legolas fell in beside him, silently, the tension in the Elfking’s long back drained and he detoured toward the long wood docks. Lusis stopped by the horseshoe building around the tree and watched them. Stepping over old deadfall, the Elfking extended his pale hand toward his son. Legolas took the offered support, even though he had no need of it – no physical need of it – and stepped over to follow.
“How do you not love your son?” Steed reached her and asked sadly.
To this, Lusis nodded, “You don’t.” She watched Eithahawn come to the stairs of the dock and step aside for his King. The princes closed behind Thranduil and followed.
She headed off in their direction, but didn’t encounter them again before she reached Kasia’s house. He nodded at her as she passed him by. She went up to the room that had been designated for her and finally slept on the bed there.
Eithahawn was with him, and they could have no better guard than Legolas – the son of legend.
And that was enough evidence that she could finally get off to sleep.
The river was sick with venom.
Their barges were redesigned as weapons, fire-bombs against the Kingdom of Mirkwood.
She looked at the ceiling and thought about the King’s question.
Do you know why?
Lusis had been awake in her room since sunset. Now she got up, and went to the washstand with its bowl and full pitcher. She poured out water and washed her face, hands and arms. Should she know why? Whether that was true or not, she had to be ready. She brushed her hair back into a braid. She lay on the floor and stretched her body, many times more flexible than her counterparts because she lengthened her muscles and tendons every night.
Then she put on her elf-sword, fighting knives she’d been given by Ewon, and she walked out into the hall to look down at the dimming light in the yard. Forces were collected around Rangers of the North. It put a smile on her face.
Her steps were light on the stairs. She’d eaten, met up with her troop, and they’d gone out in the courtyard with the curious elves, watching the forces training begin. Lusis spent close to a half an hour sparring with the forces men. They could fight, but their experience was patchy, and they tended to be slow. Repetition of proper forms and speeding up would be critical.
The elves seemed to like the sparring.
Afterward, Ewon gave Lusis a few rounds, which was the single most pressing fight that she’d had in her life to date, and she badly lost. Bloodlessly. The old elf wasn’t even trying hard, but, in spite of that, he was impressed, most of all, because she learned very fast, and did better in each successive practice.
“You are good,” he told her. “You are meant to hold elf-steel, friend-Lusis.”
She put her hands on her knees and panted, “Well, thanks. And so are you, friend-Ewon.”
The soft bubbling of elven laughter sounded around her. And Ewon smiled. He went and brought her water so that she could recover more quickly.
Merilin’s section went out as the third section came in. Legolas appeared in the yard, standing like a slender green shadow beside the door.
The Elfking had entered from the main building, and was walking with the massive elk just behind him. The forces scattered before him. He raised a hand and tipped his fingers toward himself. Lusis knew that was meant for her. She fastened one hand on Redd’s gloved wrist, and the other on Icar’s thick wool cloak.
“We’re with you,” Redd patted her hand.
She released them and crossed to the Elfking. He was ineffable in the growing blue glow from overhead. Moonlight tangled in his long and pale eyelashes as he looked down at them. His gaze leapt to Aric and Icar, then to Steed. “Tonight will be… eventful.”
The Rangers pulled out blades, all softly white with King’s light.
The Elfking was content. “Follow me.”
They went out of town, and Lusis knew, almost with her bones, they were on their way to Erebor. The mountain loomed larger and larger in their view. They stopped in a wide field in the foothills. Its grassy face was cut low by herders, and by men collecting hay, it gave the field an odd stubbly look. It was rare for Lusis to see entire fields of grass cut this low, even with grazing.
Midway through the field the King let the elk go. The massive deer had no graze here, and bounced away to the trees so quickly that he seemed like something she’d imagined.
After a moment during which they all stared at the star-studded sky above them, and Lusis felt close, once again, to her old friends, the King turned to her and said, “Lusis, it is time.”
Her fingers curled around the necklace. She didn’t know what that meant, but she could easily intuit that she would be strangled tonight by that shadowy noose. Strangled, perhaps, to the point of death, and so she stepped forward and put a hand on the fire she could see beneath the King’s steel breastplate. “I know you are my King.” She straightened. “If this goes wrong, I want you to understand that it is by my will that you do it. I want to be free.”
No one moved.
The Elfking surprised her. He suddenly covered her small, tanned hand, scarred at the knuckles, with both of his immaculate own. She felt a pressure of his gaze on her, and openly looked up at his timeworn silver eyes. She willed that he know her to be strong, proud, ready, and that he never doubt that she cared for the elf, this creation of silver and sunlight before her. Her fingers squeezed down on his steel. The fire she could see leapt in him. She smiled at it, imagined its bright yellow light reflected in her dark brown eyes.
“Lusis Buckmaster, tell me what befell you, until you can tell no more.”
She sucked a deep breath.
“Come on, Lusis.” Aric shifted weight and took out his sword. Me muttered, “We’ll do right by you.”
“I walked out of camp, and I went into the foothills. Long ago… I had been found there,” her eyes darted to her Rangers who had no idea about this. “Found there with the other children, lying in stone depressions on the ground so old they had lost all meaning. In a way, I felt at home. I went that way because I knew it was close by, and because the stars,” she had to stop to cough, “were like a fire, and they,” she coughed again, “they were my first friends. But I found a dark pillar there, like a shadow with nothing to cast it. And, as soon as it sensed me,” she reached up and pulled on the silver chain.
Aric urged, “Come on, Lusis. We are here.”
Beside his brother, Icar noted, “If you could save us when you were but a girl, you can do this.”
She pulled a breath in through her clenched teeth. “I took out my sword to fight. The pillar extinguished itself, like a fiery explosion, blowing itself out, but it had blasted its force outward, over the top of the foothill, and I was struck with a wave of,” she stopped and started sucking for air. Spots danced in front of her face. She crashed to one knee. “A wave of despair. Just darkness. I breathed it in, and soaked it in my hair and skin. I blinked it out of my tears – until crying didn’t mean anything. It was everywhere,” her shoulder crashed to the ground. She had no idea how she’d gotten there. It seemed between heartbeats. But Lusis pulled herself back up to her knees, heaving.
Tears ran down her face. She pulled on the silver chain with a growl. The faces around her blurred and smeared. The Elfking above her seemed cut out of the darkness, a glass full of firelight.
Redd barked at her, “Fight, lass! Tell us all! Free yourself!”
Steed’s bowstring made a report in air. “They move in the dark!”
Now Aric turned in place, and brought his sword down. Sooty debris blasted into air, amid the sudden flare of King’s Light. “Look sharp, Redd!”
The Rangers moved quickly to encircle her. Lusis wasn’t going to let them go through all this for nothing. Lungs burning with pain and face wet, she found the thread of her story again. Her shallow breath was unsteady, so little air was getting in. Her body began to ache with want, but she wheezed. “Then I drowned. The flood of it smothered everything. And it went black and… I was… beyond pain. And… I was like a silver branch in the sea…. I floated… into light … to hands-” At last, she began to asphyxiate, not the coughing and shortness of air of before: the sudden shutting off of her throat. Nothing made its way in or out of the neck that she clawed. She couldn’t properly feel pain.
Layered darkness drew close over her, like being wrapped in blanket on blanket at night.
Her eyes soon began to forget seeing, so while she still could, she looked to the spinning cylinder of flame that was all there was of the Elfking – so vivid and alive. She felt herself dropping uselessly away.
The whirling fire crashed down on her. The night air went white.
Air sucked into the vacuum of her lungs so hard and so quickly that she felt her ribs might crack. Lusis’ first few breaths were great gasps. A cry ground out through her abused throat.
Steel crashed overhead. There was a white blaze of light. Soot and stone struck the side of her head and threw her to one side. Aric shouted, “Redd, she’s screaming!”
“Screaming is better than dying.” Redd bellowed, “Better than what she was doing!”
“Lusis Buckmaster!” that roar was the voice of the King, its force backed by a furnace blast. “You are freed!”
She rolled onto her back in the short grass, her ears ringing. All around her, everything was clear. She could see Rangers fighting the shades. The King’s serpent-tongue of silver sword arced in air, releasing its devastation in a steady blaze of light. But she simply lay in the grass, supine, and listened to herself breathe. The blinking of her eyes seemed slackened. Between flashes, she looked up at the stars with such love for them, as if they might be the faces of those she held, in all the world, closest to her heart.
“Where are they?” She asked.
The Elfking’s body was one suffuse sun above her. He bent down and put his hand under her shoulder blades. She could hear his voice, but more than that, she could hear the soft low purr of elvish words inside her head as he pulled her slowly from the ground. “I am sorry, tinu-sell, this is no place for waking dreams.”
It was like surfacing from water. She could hear again, see – all of it with normal human sensation, as soon as she sat up.
She felt her throat. The silver and pearl chain of the Ring-bearer was broken there, and she suffered a pang of great regret. As soon as she touched it, “I think I broke it.” Her voice sounded hoarse and breathy with throttling.
“The one who gave me that would have prioritized your life above the state of a chain,” the Elfking turned her face around in his long fingers. “Are you steady enough to endure?”
Lusis wasn’t sure, so she got to her feet. It was a woozy feeling, but, unfettered too. Solid.
Redd impacted her for a hug, which was quickly followed by Icar and Aric. Only Steed, like the King, kept watching the darkness. It wasn’t a matter of being less than glad she was alive, but a matter of keeping her so.
“Shades attacked us,” Icar told her. “We need to get out of here.”
“What did he do?” Lusis found her sword and took it out. “Why can I breathe?”
Redd shook his head, “He turned and cut air. I thought he was about to take off your head, but the sword passed your throat with just the best intentions between its tip and your flesh. Then you gasped and fell over, but you were breathing again.”
“Help her,” Steed said calmly. “Get her moving.”
They started down the foothill with the Elfking before them. His hair was brilliant as a candle-flame in the strong moonlight. Lusis found her strength again, and soon, she could run. The thing that had held her breath in check was gone.
A wide field and bend in the swollen river stood at the base of the foothill. There, the Elfking stopped and faced the mountain across the low swells of green trees. The Rangers stopped some feet behind him, confused at his inaction.
“Will I have to come in and get you then?” he murmured at Erebor. “Perhaps you want it so. I am… weaker in the mountain. I am surrounded by my sins there. But, then, I will not be alone.”
The wind rose wildly, threw his golden hair, and died away to stillness. Nothing else.
The Elfking raised the tip of his sword and pointed it at the mountain, “I am not so weak that I failed to take her from you.”
The trees above them began to rattle.
The King’s head rose. “Come to me.”
At first, it was distant under the blue moon, and they saw only some small motions, but it became violent, and the cracks of limbs breaking began to sound like massive bones snapping.
“What is that?”
“Retaliation,” said the Elfking. “Lusis Buckmaster, it is time for you to go out into the world and far from here. The mountain festers like a sore. It is infected with the very darkness that sought to wring the life out of you. Leave this place.”
She got into position on his right. “That I will not do.”
Bright scales glinted above the trees. A towering head, so large it was the size of a four-man boat, climbed out of the darkness and into the moonlight.
“What the fires is that thing?” Steed asked quietly. He took aim and shot an arrow at its eye, which bounced away, harmlessly.
“A great snake. They have scales on their eyes. Clear ones. You must know the how of taking them out.” the Elfking said. The elf sections, one after another, dropped down beside him. Now the foothills had nearly one hundred and twenty Mirkwood warriors in line against the coming of the snake.
The archers in the woods stepped out to the fore, drew back arrows, and sent them soaring into the woods. A long hiss sounded. A second head appeared above the tree-line, but this one was writhing with dozens of arrows through its tongue and the roof of its mouth.
Lusis looked at her blade. It was useless here and she put it away. “Redd,” she clutched two of his elf-crafted throwing axes and he nodded.
“Redd Ayesir,” the Elfking’s sword made an arch in air. “Take her from this place.”
“No!” was all that Lusis had time to say. She was flying backward on the way down the hillside with little energy left to resist. She was still recovering, and had no desire to do harm to Redd, who carried her over his shoulder. She remained upright, staring at the snakes as they broke from the trees and lashed at the elves so fast that it was like falling lightning. Her next protest was a prolonged howl.
They crashed through trees and found the young elf, Telfeth, that Lusis had once saved now nervously awaiting them with horses. “Fly from here,” she said and pushed the reins at them. “Ride from here and to your freedom, Lusis-nith!” she handed the reins of Lusis’ horse to Redd.
They left her standing at the foothill. Lusis glanced back and saw the young elf hurry up into the tree line. A long, strident hiss sounded, the undergrowth shifted and crackled, and she glanced back to see the shrubs give way to a sluice, a sudden river of blood that began to follow them down the slope.
“Go!” Steed shouted, “Just go, all of you! The blood is making the horses mad with fear!”
They reached and charged down the river, four across, galloping for Lake Township. She could see trees falling in the foothills, hear cries in the wind all the way from there.
Kasia was on the docks with a growing crowd of people, “What is it?” he shouted as they arrived at the far side of the river. He pointed up at the mountain, and a spray of blood that flew up like a geyser. He’d sent a river-crossing raft over for them. It took all their horses, easily. He shouted into the darkness, “What is that? Where are they? There’s not an elf in the place.”
Lusis’ blood froze, “Where is Eithahawn?”
“Not here.” Kasia called out to her. “There is no elf here.”
It was like being hit in the belly. “Oh Fires. He’s not a warrior.”
“Answer me!” Kasia bellowed. “What’s happening?”
“Snakes!” Lusis shouted back. “Massive ones. Snakes as big as trees! As big as towns!”
Kasia wasn’t the only one to fall silent in horror.
She tried to snap him from his shock with a shout, “Evacuate to the Halls! Find Eithahawn!”
The boat jumped. The horses spooked with it. Lusis got off to calm her shying horse, and noticed that the water eddied beside them. “Steed, see to these horses!”
He climbed down, as did the rest of her troop, and gathered the horses’ heads to him.
“Pull us in!” Redd called out to Kasia’s men on the shore.
“You must be hung up on something!” one of the longshoremen’s gruff voices called back to him, “We’re hooking up another draft horse. He’ll get you over it.”
“Those Rangers we hired,” Kasia called out through his cupped hands, “they’ve run out on us too. I can’t find a man of them.”
Redd called back, “Or they may be on patrol, or interested in the battle snapping off trees in the foothills of Erebor! Maybe they expect that if that force isn’t stopped, it will be too late for Lake Township?”
This being Redd, the conversation wended on. Lusis watched the eddy-pool beside the raft. It had a pale smudge inside of it, rippling. She thought she might be imagining it into being. But it got brighter. It rose suddenly, to become a long mane of golden hair, trailing out behind like orange-golden silk dropped in fresh water. And it rolled slowly over, along a seam of white to a pale face. A woman’s face that floated just below the water in a flowering of golden hair.
Lusis shot upright, “King’s-Fires, Redd! Look here.”
The woman rose up out of the water, slowly, her long wet blonde hair falling in rings as she did so. Her pale hands swept it back over pointed ear-tips. She wore a long, shimmering, green shift, simple, but threaded through with silver so that it was patterned like stars, and she stood on the water with her hair full of crystals and light.
No one spoke. The shore was silent with Kasia staring in open disbelief.
Redd stayed his hand. “It’s… it’s an elf Lady from… the lake.”
She was wildly beautiful. She was as fair as a water lily, with bright golden hair, with large blue eyes, the violet of bluebells at center going to palest blue. She smiled at them, softly, and her head tipped to one side.
“What – and who are you?” Lusis managed the question, for the feeling of magnetism was nearly overpowering when she looked at this lovely person.
“I am Ithileth,” her voice was like soft music. She opened her slender, pale arms and said, “A thing forgotten. A friend.”
Lusis drifted over to the edge of the raft. “Why are you here, Lady Ithileth?”
The elf-woman glided closer. Her hair was drying into large, full rings around her long, slender body. The sparks in her hair came from a diadem that dripped white stones all the way down to the small of her long back. She stepped out of the water with one small bare foot on the wood of the raft.
One of the horses screamed and plunged over the side. It started swimming for shore.
“I am up from the deep,” the woman blinked slowly. “They are afraid of me, of the smell of the water.”
The deep. Lusis glanced over her.
The raft began to cross the river smoothly. The horse that had spooked was already on the shore and being led clear of the dockyards. The rest rushed off as they arrived.
Kasia stood back from the golden elf woman. “My Lady…. Are you with the Elfking’s sections?”
Her skin looked covered in tiny beads of dew. She glimmered when she stepped to the docks and glided to shore. “I have come a long way for your safekeeping, Lusis Buckmaster, as is the will of the Elfking. You must come away from the dark slopes of Erebor, and cold teeth of the Northern Waste, to safety. To me. We shall be close, flower of stars. We have a King in common, ninimiel.”
She smiled so gently, so sweetly that Lusis felt her bones might melt. But the battle on the mountain had spread down into the waters. Shades shot along the far shore, cut down by the arrival of further sections of elves from the Halls.
Ithileth reached her pale hands to Lusis. “You will be free of this place. Such wonders will I lay out before you that you will be Ages fixing them in your mind.”
But Lusis was more tightly focused on protecting the elf-woman from the shades she could see darting across the water. “I don’t have Ages, Lady-elf. I’m human, and I don’t want to live under the sea, or wherever else your Kingdom may be.” She launched at the first shade to arrive on the docks.
Kasia howled at the misshapen sight of it, with its stolen human eyes. Lusis leapt across the docks and turned it into a pile of ashes. Steed’s arrow reduced another into a splatter of gelatinous eyeball amid a cloud of smoke.
“King’s-Light,” the woman’s melody said, “in elf steel? I had not known it could…. It is like making mithril into ithildin, so that the silver glows when the right words are spoken. But not the same. Did he do this?”
“Yes, he did,” Lusis spat out ash. And it was like protecting an entire land of elves, Lusis thought to herself, with the purest of gemstones. A new idea.
“How… clever,” Ithileth decided.
This was not the place for ruminating. “Get the Lady off the docks!” Lusis bellowed at Kasia.
“No, come with me, ninimiel!” She reached for Lusis’ hand, but looked to the increasing number of elves darting along the shoreline, destroying the shades.
A green-clad elf darted halfway across the water and stood staring at the docks. He spun his fighting knives home to sheaths. As he stood, the perfusion of lilies under the dock reached out to him and he began to make his way to them.
“Now,” said Ithileth. “Come – I shouldn’t be alone.”
Maybe she was unfamiliar with men? Lusis had met Northern Ranger troops like that. They were so steadily in among their own deadly sisters that they didn’t trust or abide men at first. She stopped shouting for the longshoremen to clear the docks and barges, and glanced at the elf-woman. “Lady, follow me close. You need to be elsewhere – somewhere safe.” She caught the woman’s cold, pale hand and ran with her, passing off the docks, and going toward the yard.
She wanted to put the elf Lady with Avonne. The little girl and young women staff were in a cellar room, under Kasia’s keep. It had been fitted with a lock that worked from inside.
Something moved in the space between buildings and she saw the wet glint of an eye at nearly the last possible moment. Lusis slid low and slashed through the groin of a shade. It blew out in air, not a spec of its filth marring the elf-Lady as she halted in the alleyway.
The Rangers rounded the house and pounded into the yard, fighting, their sanctified steel flashing with King’s Light as they fought.
Lusis hadn’t known there were so many shades. The evil in Erebor had been picking away at the increase in human population for some time, and there had been no way of knowing. There was no census. She saw the young Ranger fall, gasping under a shade, ran into the yard and slashed through the shade’s forehead to free him.
“Doom’s Fires, there are a lot of them!” Redd barked. “Lusis, take the Lady away. Fly for the Halls and pay mind to the Markers – the Kingdom must be told!”
Steed rushed by her, and then Aric.
“Take her,” Icar shouted. “Take care! Go!”
Lusis caught the elf-woman’s slim hands and turned them both. She raced through the last few streets of houses, slashing any shade to come close, and then ran into the open field of wildflowers beyond the docks. Nothing came behind her. But then, it had taken several minutes to cut down the shades she’d encountered on the way, and during this time, she learned their touch was sticky and cloying, hateful, and it burned with cold.
She pulled the pair of them behind the cover of an oak tree and checked herself for injuries. She put her sword away and ran her hands over the woman’s arms. Damp. Not bloody. “Are you well, Lady Ithileth?”
She gave a slow, graceful nod, “Do we go to the Halls of the Elvenking?”
“It is too dangerous for you here,” Lusis told the woman. She nodded and panted, “It is bad timing. Some ill has come from Erebor-”
The Lady elf extended a hand and touched the silver and pearl chain now broken and looped about Lusis’ neck. “He is clever, the Elfking, more clever than one might expect an elf to be. They can be impractical in their righteousness, perfectionistic and frozen in time. This one, though….”
“He’s stayed in contact with Men, and the miracle of Men is that they change rapidly, they also change the world around them. So their genius is added to that crucible of fire inside of him.” Lusis took off her cloak and threw it around the girl’s shoulders. She was still wet from her swim to the raft. She curled her fingers around the elf Lady’s shoulder, “Yes, a good heart will be safe in his Halls.”
Lusis glanced at a darting motion beside them and came around with her sword out. It was easily knocked aside, and Legolas stood in the wagging sweet grass. He stared at the Lady elf, “He said… you were dead. He said….” His voice died away. “Where have you been?”
“Ah, ge melin, Legolas!” The Lady elf gasped. “Of all the agents of the Elfking… I am best.”
The sunny blond elf made a small inarticulate sound and Lusis had to drop her sword and catch his shoulder to keep him from crumpling to the grass. “What’s happening to you!? Legolas?” The more out of control a situation the more likely it was she would have to take unpleasant action about it. More than one Ranger had killed because of chaos. She looked at the elf-lady, uncertainly.
Legolas sank to the sweet grass with his head bowed, and his breath came out like drops of fire, “I will not… forgive him… for this.”
The golden woman sank down with her arms around him.
A long shriek near the dockyards pulled Lusis out from behind the oak tree. She’d snatched up her sword and gone to look. She could see that the fighting had reached the dockyards in earnest now. Snakes were in the water. Massive long snakes. Her eyes followed the sudden spark of flaming arrows flying aloft. A tremendous hiss grated through air. The head of a large black snake rose over the buildings, and elves of all sections skittered across the rooftops as quickly as thought.
The long neck jolted thrice, struck by tremendous sword blows, and the serpent hissed. It coiled further down the mouth of the river toward the silver beech tree and snapped at the darting figures of Ewon and Amathon, the latter of which put a burning arrow into its tongue. It moved blisteringly fast, but so did the bull elk that cleared the dock and shot under the snake’s strike at the Elite guard. And as it ran, the Elfking’s white blade reached up and slashed a line of red through about the only vulnerable spot the massive snake seemed to have. He cut away its jaw. Gouts of blood shot out of the snake and it seemed like a waterline losing pressure. It sagged down to the water’s edge as Ewon stabbed it, expertly, through its eye.
Shades seemed to course straight out of its bloody mouth. The Elites flew back into action.
If there were more where that snake had come from, Lusis didn’t know if she could protect the Lady from them. Or the Prince. “Legolas, we have to go.”
But when she looked, he was utterly motionless in the grass, with the Lady elf now rising to stand above him. She reached her white arms. “Come with me, girl. Come with me….” The words blurred into a soft chant Lusis could hear in her bones.
Her sword came up as a matter of habit, but stayed.
To Lusis’ ears, her own voice sounded slightly stretched. “What did you do to him?”
She swung at the elf woman, but it seemed so slow. The woman easily ducked the blow, and scooped up one of the Prince’s fighting knives. But Lusis also saw the elf’s strike coming – oddly enough. She turned the attack and backed up into the field. She took a small turn left to put her closer to the Prince. “Who did he think you were? Who are you?”
The woman said lightly. “Why do you fight me, Lusis Buckmaster?”
Lusis swung her sword in a quick arc that turned into a slash, and the elf Lady backed away from injury at the last moment. “Because I don’t think you’re Ithileth. Whoever that is.” She kept up her fight until she had nearly turned around the tree, so that her boot came down just under Legolas’ leg.
Ithileth said to her, “Think of the King. Think of what he said to you. To leave Erebor. You are meant to come with me….” This sounded inside her skull, and blurred her vision. Ithileth started over like a woman in a round, “Think of the King-”
The one that the Prince would never forgive?
Her eyes widened, “Stars.” If Redd had been here, or had been thinking of his Books on hearing it, he might have recognized the name of Thranduil’s Queen. Lusis nudged Legolas. Then kicked him. He wasn’t cooling, but he didn’t stir. Lusis felt her head clearing around the inner roar of outrage, and she felt her lips snarl, “Oh, Lady, there is no way that woman would’ve done this to her son. Or watched what I just did.”
Ithileth’s voice drew out in a hiss that grew increasingly sibilant and deep. “I said… come with me!” And a black gout of fire roared up inside of her, so dark and powerful that it tore the oak tree off its roots and cut it into bits. Lusis hit the ground, rolling with Legolas in her arms.
Well, he was awake now.
“Mother,” he coughed and shook debris out of his bright hair. “We need to go back for-”
“No, we don’t need-” Lusis didn’t get to say more. She was lifted off her feet and thrown downhill in the field, by the slender seeming of an elf-woman. It drove the air out of her. She ended up on her back in the grass, gasping. She needed to stay awake, and a few seconds to think.
“You will come, if I have to cut your legs off and carry you.” She raised Lusis’ sword and smiled coldly, “Don’t worry, you filthy mouse, you will survive it.”
“Give me that!” Lusis’ teeth bared. She struggled awake and rolled onto her shoulders, her hands pushed the ground mightily. She kicked the sword out of the woman’s hand. She turned over onto her feet and snapped the sword from the ground. “You’ll cut yourself, you fake-Silvan lunatic. Of course, who cares?!” She lunged in slashed at the woman, but the elf seemed made of water.
Lusis couldn’t land a winning blow. And the woman’s hands darted, too fast, and too hard. She could turn a blade without a single cut, and hitting her arms sounded like striking armour plate. The throwing axes sailed out into air, like they’d hit a shield, but they hadn’t. They’d struck the elf-Lady on her shoulder and her head. She seemed impervious. It was bizarre.
The woman stepped in close, her two-tone eyes twinkling with waywardness in that borrowed face, and she reached for Lusis’ throat.
The white blade that passed through the elf-woman’s chest was unmistakably the Elfking’s. It drove in so fast and hard that it nearly cut Lusis, but she cried out and only just managed to block it with the flat of her sword.
It was only when the Lady-elf began to fall over backward that the Elfking realized what he had done. He saw, first, that he had killed another elf – which appalled him. And then, in a great rush of cold, he saw the face of his Queen.
He let go of the hilt of his sword and backed away as she fell. He grew frighteningly pale.
Lusis got to her feet, gasping. She extended a hand. “No. It’s not her. Listen to me!”
But he was beyond all help. His expression shifted. Disbelief. Misery.
Legolas rushed by Lusis with a broken shout, “What have you done?”
His voice drove splinters of grief into Lusis’ throat. But she had to get to the King.
“Wait, wait. Don’t,” Lusis said to the Elfking. She had to get to him. He was on the very edge of flight.
He struggled for air, swaying where he stood. Horrorstruck.
On one side, her fingertips brushed his bloody hand. On the other, she hooked her fingers into the steel of his breastplate. “It’s not her. It’s not your wife.” There was an utter lack of comprehension on his shocked face, and she feared even elvish couldn’t reach him now. “Thranduil, listen!”
The woman behind her began to speak, painfully, her high voice wet with burbling blood, “You are… like a sword blade… folded for an eternity in fire… thrust into Aule’s forge… and then-” she coughed bubbles of red froth.
“Peace, mother,” Legolas told her, unsteadily. “Peace.”
“And then… plunged in the cold ocean… again and again, my Lord of the Mirkwood. You are… fragile!” This last word was a long, hissing shout. The elf woman moved with incredible speed and power for one so injured.
Lusis turned. The Elfking was already by her. He’d torn Lusis’ elf-steel sword from its sheath and it arched through air in a great stab. Legolas glided aside, out from the blow that Ithileth had aimed at his chest, without seeing it. He was only aware of his father, and pulled out his fighting knives with a broken cry. Lusis found herself leaping for the last weapon not accounted for. The sword of the Elfking, which she stepped up onto the rising body of the elf-woman to grasp. She took the blade itself, along its back and pulled hard, and by way of that blocked Legolas as he tried to stop his father’s attack.
The Elfking put his weight behind his next blow. The sword slammed into the woman’s open mouth, and came out the back of her head to pin her, nearly beheaded, to the field. And her too-sharp hands, which had laid waste to the King’s breastplate – scored it with deep gouges, and nearly torn it free of his body in a quest for his heart – fell limp.
The King’s hand darted to the hilt of his sword and he pulled it free from the woman’s chest. Lusis got her fingers clear of it just in time to save them all.
Legolas stood, panting, beyond himself, staring at his father. Lusis was afraid of that look, and dragged the King back from the body that was twitching and shuddering on its knees, bent backward in the field. She pulled him clear of his son and scanned the Elfking. His eyes were like glass. His face and hair were now doused in elven blood.
His voice was ragged, like a broken sob. “Let her cut out my light. But not you. No.” He looked at his son.
The woman on the ground gave a last shiver.
And she changed. She split out of her silvery skin.
Her body thickened. Her new skin was a mottled gold and black. And her hair vanished into the plate-like scales of a snake. The pupils in her wide open, now orange, eyes grew into slits. She had fangs. Her arms and hands were plated, and on her fingertips were long, golden blades. Her lower body extended and melted to one, great, long, scale body – a viper’s body.
She was half-snake, and the other half was the body of a woman. Lusis gasped.
She was huge to have hidden as that slender elf. Her great long tail spread out over the field. And those ridged black scales. She’d seen their like before.
But the King didn’t notice any of this, because he didn’t look away from his son, Legolas, who took in every tiny alteration in detail. He stepped forward with his fighting knives in his fists. Brought up the knife on the right, and struck off the snake-woman’s head with one blow.
Then he walked to his father, very close to his father, and stood before him. His smooth voice, so melodic, was now very soft. “It’s all right. It’s all right. Adar. Father. Hear me.” He had to say this quite a few times before his father seemed to start to breathe again.
Thranduil’s hand was unsteady. It found his son’s chest, above his heart, felt the beat there, and then slid up into the younger elf’s hair. He pulled the boy onto his ruined steel plate, close to him.
Lusis backed away, her eyes on the two of them together.
“Not so far.” Dorondir told her from just a few feet behind her.
She spun to take him in, and he offered her a fighting knife of his to use.
“Do not retreat so far. There are snakes and shades about yet. Work to be done.” He stepped up beside her.
Lusis spoke between chattering teeth – shocked by what she had witnessed, and straining at the edge of restraint due to the strong emotions of these elves she held so dear. “Where is Eithahawn?”
He exhaled unsteadily as he scanned the scene, “You do love your royals.”
She pulled him aside and said, “Tell me where. I need to make him safe. Now.”
Dorondir leaned over her shoulder and said, “He is safe. I’ve spend an Age training him up to be that way. He will never be a warrior, Lusis, but he will also never be a victim.”
Now she ground her teeth. “So is that… in the kitchen cellar? In the basement? Where?” Bloody elf spies and their inability to give a straight answer.
“He’s with Jan Kasia in the business,” Dorondir noted. “The fighting is further down Long Lake now. Heading back to Erebor. The snakes won’t be happy with the reception there.”
“Eithahawn drafted a letter days ago and sent it to the Iron Hills.” Dorondir’s blue eyes lit with undisguised approval. “Trouble. Trouble in the mountain. Really, he has such ingenuity, that one.” There was clear affection there. But then, the King had said to expect as much.
Lusis caught sight of Ewon and Nimpeth arriving. Amathon and several other Elites whose names she didn’t know came onto the field, but kept their distance from the Prince and King.
She lifted the fighting knife Dorondir had given her and found the weight was ideal for her size. Lusis nodded at it. “I’ll get this back to you.”
“Where are you going?” he turned to ask her unsteady retreat. But she was growing stronger.
“Shade hunting.” She said coldly.
Without a word, Ewon chose to join her.
The next day began early.
She woke up on the bench because the too-radiant-for-predawn Elfking was standing on the bedroom-side patiently saying, “Get out of my way. Ranger. Out of my way.”
He was magnificent. Wearing a green so pale it was very nearly white. He wore leaf pauldrons, and matching white vambraces, no gloves, and no breastplate. Clipped at his throat was a green and white opal as large as an eyeball – and she was a very good judge of eyeball size these days. It sat in a nest of complex white gold branches that were not unlike a shining nest.
His hair was swept into flawless arrangement. He bent over her with those cherry-petal lips and said, “Get. Up.”
In the hall golden Prince Legolas was looking very amusedly at his father. “So maidens sleep on wood benches outside your door, now? Ah. Is this a new thing, or has it been going on for a while?”
The King told his son, “You are not helping.”
Legolas smothered a grin, “Is this… some endurance test you’ve set her to, father?”
“Impertinent,” the Elfking shut his eyes and exhaled. He shook out his white-golden hair. “She has her own reasons for blocking my way,” he looked down at her with a stern expression, “Every. Morning. Of late.”
“Yes,” she rubbed her eyes. “I’m exhausted.”
“I suppose you could jump over her. I saw you with those snakes last night. You are limber.” Legolas demonstrated with one hand laid flat and his running fingertips, and the Elfking on the other side of Lusis had to immediately bow his head to collect himself. And she had a good view of that. For one thing, he did have dimples. For another, it was a certainty that he loved his son.
She rolled off the bench and pushed it out of the way, conditions inside her head split between foggy and muddled. Her last memory of the night had been washing off the blood, ash, eyeballs, and river water in the stables. Then she’d wrapped in a long wool cloak and just barely gotten the bench in place before she’d collapsed on it. And the dreams. The wild dreams of stars, and flying over the land and water, and coming to another shore. They felt like visions. She was shamefaced as she bowed to the King and picked up her sword from the floor. It wasn’t like her to be in such a state. She was still wearing the wool robe from the night before. But she’d breathed so deeply. Slept so well. She felt remade.
The tall elf paused in the hallway to accept the bows of Ewon, Amathon, and Nimpeth. As Amathon was pale with injury, the King reached his hand and cupped it over the back of Amathon’s neck. He whispered in elvish, and King’s-Light flowed across the elf’s skin. Amathon bowed as much as he could, given the hurt, and the small family that included him seemed very grateful as he moved aside.
Lusis stared at Amathon in passing, at the low burn of light inside of him, as the King’s-Light poured into it and fortified its brilliance. Nimpeth’s long arm threaded around her husband. She was helping him back to his room.
Lusis was glad to see they had all survived the snakes. She hurried to her own room to dress and left the door open by habit.
By now she followed the King in an unthinking way. She trusted only Princes, Elites, and Rangers to secure him, and herself most of all. The King walked the hallway, receiving updates on the Lonely Mountain while she got herself in order and rejoined them.
Minutes later, they approached the main hall. She was distracted by the smell of a type of spiced apple the elves cooked and generally spooned out onto their most cake-like of breads, the one with a dice of raisins and cinnamon swirls. She peeked around the bright shoulders of the Elfking and down the stairs. It looked like elves served a mingling of Rangers, humans, forces, and their own kind. The good wine was flowing, even that early. The room was packed. She made out Kasia standing with several of the Council. Nema glared her pretty glare up in return.
Then Lusis’ eyes flicked back to the Elfking’s long white golden hair, many times whiter, and far less buttery in colour than the Prince’s, beside him. Darker still was Eithahawn’s – an orange-gold fire. But… she hadn’t seen him. Not since riding out last night. Not since, she slipped a hand around her throat and inhaled deeply, then smiled. Not even the chain was there. She was free again.
But she trusted no one would be this calm if Eithahawn was hurt.
The Elfking started on the stairs. Dressed in his palest green, with a cloak lined in gold, and for the first time in Lake Township, wearing his tall spring crown with its blossoms about to open to daylight – the same crown that Eithahawn had brought from the Halls. He was glorious, and, to make matters better still, his son, in pale gold and wearing a white-gold circlet embellished with quartz Rowan leaves, was just as blindingly superb.
The King came down the stairs in an unhurried way, Ewon before him, and two things happened. The Mirkwood elves in the room below looked up at the Prince and King, set aside everything they were doing, and bowed. They held their position, which was a high form of esteem. The humans in the room raised their glasses and gave a glass-rattling cheer – once, twice, and the third time they dissolved into applause. The Elfking stood frozen as his people rose to look at him, unaccustomed to human reactions. Legolas set a gentle hand on his shoulder, which made the King look to his unworried son. In turn, the Elfking spoke a calming word to Ewon. The Elite stood with a blade out, and an arm across the railing to bar access to the royals of Mirkwood.
Lusis thought she couldn’t help laughing at their response. She could just imagine what was going through Ewon’s head, having heard some of the debate she liked to call, I think I told you to wear all the armour – all of it – my King as she’d been drifting in the morning. However, when the Elfking shot her a harassed look she found she could, in fact, help it, and she could, in fact, pull her face together and pin it down to the elven composure that dominated the crew on the stairs.
The Elfking exhaled and went to the first landing. It was everything Ewon could do not to swing his sword at the sudden thrusting of wine goblets in the King’s direction. He managed.
The Elfking extended a hand to his son, and Legolas took it and pivoted around toward the railing. He looked downward, amused by the human hubbub. His father joined his long hands before him and silence finally began to fall in the room.
“This is not the last disruption we will face from the Lonely Mountain.” He said, “That forsaken Kingdom is both a relic of past iniquities and a haven of broken reveries. Its riches flourish in the quiet darkness, and in the imaginations of men. Thus, it must remain one focus of our efforts. The creatures we slew-”
A great cry rang out among the humans and much applause. Many had seen the Elfking and his son fighting beside the sections. The power, speed, and skill of the King’s blade was now a quantity known to men, and they wanted to make him aware they were impressed by it. But this meant little to an elf. Skill came with time and practice, and he was from the First Age. To the King, it was simply to be expected. Still, the Elfking held his calm – these were not elves. No. His people stood still and soundless. They waited with gracious hands folded for him to speak on.
“The great snakes, the shades, and the woman called Lammia – are artefacts of Mordor. You may expect more to come from that dark and inhospitable land, attracted to the wealth and solitude of the Lonely Mountain. You may also expect that no disorder will be allowed within the Kingdom.”
The next cheer was deafening, and the elves, whose hearing was quite sharp, winced back from it. The Elfking’s eyes narrowed and he furtively looked to Legolas to be sure the noise was not causing his son distress or discomfort. It didn’t seem to be. The butter-golden elf wore a gentle smile.
It was important to watch Thranduil. She’d said so before. To watch him closely was to see that there was a great, secret love inside of him – something he wanted to keep hidden – that was one part love of the people and land that made up his Kingdom, and one part love for his child.
For his children. She corrected herself. Where the fires was Eithahawn? Her stomach was feeling the beating wings of butterflies over his wellbeing.
The King noted, “Make merry, but remember that parts of the Township suffered fire, there are carcasses to be separated, salvaged, or burned, and there is much we need to set to rights about the land and river,” he amended, “my river.”
The human crowd laughed. Once, ‘my river’ had been everything they’d known of the Elfking.
The elves raised their glasses to him and their voices hit air like a rush of music, “Melda-tar.”
She knew that one. Beloved King.
“My thanks,” said the Elfking into the lull afterward. “My son and I must attend to business.”
Humans stepped aside from the tall, broad-shouldered King as he passed through the room. They had never met the Prince before, and they were surprised by his warmth. Rumours of his greatness were already spreading through Lake Township – though he hadn’t fought in Gol Dulgur, the battle they knew best, they knew he was a hero of the Ring War, and they’d seen him taking snakes apart the night before. They were curious about him. Lusis wished him luck with Madam Nema. Her red-lipped smile followed the pair of them through the gathering hall.
As to the Elfking, there was an air of veneration for the sword he carried, which, prior, many of the humans had believed to be, like his armour, ornamentation. Likewise, there were many wonderful glances at the branching crown he wore. The humans seemed fascinated with it, and how the blossoms had been gently opening through the King’s address. They were small white stars now, against the pale wood and green leaves.
Icar fell in beside her, and Lusis wrapped an arm around him for a brief hug. When the King was afoot, she considered herself on-duty. She wondered if that was a necessity anymore. “Where are the others?”
“They’ve been in and out.” Icar told her. “Redd was late at the river, removing snake scales. Maybe he’s still asleep? The scales are to be set in a phalanx pattern and laid against several of the docks to help keep ice break-up from doing so much damage, or so Kasia said. The Kingdom’s Seneschal said there is nothing inherently evil about them. They are to be cleaned with King’s Light and used.”
“Sounds tiring for the King,” she worried. “We’ll need to oversee.” She looked in his direction, “Thank you. All of you. I wouldn’t have gotten through that mess last night – that getting free from the noose – without you there.”
“And without you,” he smiled at her. “I’d be dead. You can consider us even, if you like.”
“Then there’s nothing binding you to me anymore,” she said a little sadly.
“Yes there is.” He told her, smiled, and said nothing more.
They went into the business across the yard where even more humans were packed. Just getting through the yard had not only been deafening – given the cheering – it had been nerve-wracking. Two sections had been called in to stand between the Prince, the King, and the press of people. It was madness. Even Kasia had been overwhelmed by it.
Four Elites controlled the door into the main business. Kasia led them that way.
The Prince and King were met with the cheering of grateful workers once they got inside. They stood on the balcony and rained flower petals down onto the procession.
This, at least, had the effect of making the Elfking glance up at them. He loved the touch of flower petals. Maybe they intuited as much. No one knew how they reminded him of the touch of his wife, the feel of her skin, and that they made him feel close to her again in some small away. But that was a personal thing, and not for anyone else’s heart. All that mattered here was that today, especially, he really appreciated them. His lips curved. A dimple flickered for a moment as he looked into the rain of them, and he moved on to the offices.
It was quieter there. Argus had secured the area. He looked very pleased this morning, having seen giant snakes, rampaging shades, and good pay for all his men. “This way’s the way, King.”
Eithahawn sat like a lone rose on a bench at the end of a wood hall. He gazed at double-doors beside him, lost in thought. Perfectly unhurt.
“Oh, I’m going to skin him. Thank the Stars he’s okay.” Lusis exhaled, and the King and Prince actually glanced at her.
Legolas showed a flash of teeth. Mischievous, like his mother, as he told her. “Well, his skin is lovely. Have you felt it?”
Icar tried not to laugh at her and flatly failed. He had to cover his mouth with one hand and Lusis still whacked him in the back of the head.
Eithahawn’s outfit was green today. His fire-bright ripples of hair shimmered against it as he rose and bowed to the Elvenking. His eyes passed over Lusis, and she heard the strangest thing in her head. Words. ‘I cannot thank you enough. With naught but skin to separate them, Ithileth could yet pull him closer. He was her possession. That might have been his destruction. But you protected him.’
She blinked, shook her head, and stared at Eithahawn. He was already looking at the Elfking.
And the Elfking was staring at him. “I am happy to see you well, Eithahawn.”
Legolas stepped up and actually embraced his brother. Eithahawn looked shaken by this, and the fact that the tall King slid a hand over his shoulder and glanced back at the two boys, quietly. The King’s night had been a long one, and he had not shut his eyes to rest for fear of seeing his wife’s dying face again. He hoped to replace that memory, or at least challenge it, with more memories like this one.
After a moment, Eithahawn regained his composure and told them, “He is within.”
Then they all turned to look at Lusis.
“What?” She glanced over impassively happy elven faces and said, “Should I go?”
The Elfking’s brows drew up. “I suppose… it will have to do.” He extended a hand and took her fingers carefully in his own. “Come with me.”
She glanced from their joined hands, frantically, to the door, and, though her arm extended, she didn’t move when he stepped forward. The Elfking paused and gently released her.
He revised, “It is for you to choose. Will you come with me, Lusis Buckmaster?”
The door before them opened to the height and beauty of another golden elf, this one dressed in green and gold, and wearing two swords. She wondered if he was another Sinda. His voice was low and dry, “Thranduil.”
Oh. He of ‘the phial of tears’ and ‘filigree’. He was huge. Beautifully elegant, with large, slanting, green eyes that were similar in colour to a green apple.
Glorfindel stepped aside and said, “Thranduil, Legolas, and Eithahawn with assorted Rangers and Elites, my Lord.” He glanced back, “And the girl.”
She stepped into the large wooden room and found a tall, severe-looking elf waiting. He was very handsome in his golden circlet, dark-haired and tall, in his ornately patterned green and gold silk, but looked intimidating and stern. Dorondir stood just inside the door, and brought Eithahawn to a seat directly.
The Elfking inclined his head. “Lord Elrond.”
Lusis recognized the name of the letter-writer and Dorondir’s Other Master.
The other elf mirrored this, “Lord Thranduil.”
“Ai,” Legolas said simply. He moved to the long, polished table and picked out a green apple. He glanced back at the door and Kasia standing anxiously there. As soon as Icar and Lusis were inside, he shut the door, himself without. He wasn’t eager to know the business of such an intimidating group of elves. Dealing with the King was bad enough.
Lusis was interested to see that her troop sat at the table, all of them looking anxious.
“Welcome, welcome all, and let us begin,” said Lord Elrond. His voice was resonant and beautiful in timbre. But it was weighty and solemn, like his great eyes. “You… slew seven great snakes and a Lammia? It didn’t occur to you to write me back?”
Thranduil’s chin rose. “Your healers confirmed what my healers proposed to me. Once that was beyond doubt, with all due respect, I didn’t need you to help me kill some snakes, Lord Elrond.”
Elrond held up both hands to make a point. “They are really rather large snakes.”
Legolas hid a chuckle in biting an apple and gesturing at the Lord of Rivendell while looking at Lusis’ anxious troop of Rangers. Large snakes. That was a fact.
The Elfking’s head tipped to one side, “Regardless, I assure you, they are completely dead. We are hunting out the last of the shades – they will not last the week. Mirkwood had some injuries, no deaths, and the new territory-”
Elrond added, “Full of Strangers.” He used it in the way elves did when they referred to the mortality of human beings. In that sense, humans would always be Strangers to elves.
Thranduil continued, “The new territory is safe under our care.”
“The one thing that great snakes have over their dragon kindred is fascination.” Elrond paced at his end of the table. There was ample room in here for it. The Elfking didn’t move. “If you had been overwhelmed by the beguilement, what then? I had no idea what the situation was here. No one was ready to send support.”
“Perhaps you mistake me for Elladan or Elrohir?” Thranduil told Elrond. He also glanced across at Legolas, and Eithahawn, who sat together in relaxed composure. Legolas munched his apple and looked harmlessly on, and beside him, Eithahawn made the Elfking’s parallel between Elrond’s twins, and himself and Legolas. He studied the glossy table at the jump of excitement inside of him. Whether the King had meant it in that glance or not… it was as close as he had come to claiming Eithahawn as his own among other elves. He was smiling when he glanced up, a little more brightly than decorum would mandate, and entirely missed Legolas’ contented glance in his direction.
Lusis didn’t miss it. Her chin rose. She didn’t know Legolas very well at all, but already liked him. She felt on better footing in here just because he was so unceremonious. To him, it seemed a gathering of family and friends, and there was no more to it than that.
“A Lammia is a treacherous creature, Lord Thranduil. They are masters of illusion, bursting with beguilement, scheming and poisonous, and difficult to injure. Not many know how to kill one.” Elrond exhaled. “While I’m not surprised you are among those who do, there was too much risk in this venture. If she’d taken your mind, this enterprise would have fallen into chaos.”
“I had Eithahawn here for that,” said Thranduil. “I hope we come to the end of these questions soon, Lord Elrond. It is late to find fault with my methods in this.”
The great elf Lord’s blue eyes narrowed, “There is a way… of doing these things. A way that keeps us all… notified.”
Elrond of Rivendell compressed his temper, “If you know that, why must you be difficult?”
“I have no answer for that,” Thranduil said quite seriously. And nothing more.
At the end of the table, Legolas slipped and actually smiled. It made the troop of Rangers, particularly Redd, relax visibly. Now Redd looked eager.
The dark-haired elf shut his large eyes a moment and exhaled. When he opened them again, he also opened his eloquent hands, “I am glad to see you unharmed. All of you.” His glance also took in Dorondir where he stood by Ewon at the doors. “I sent Legolas as soon as I could reach him.”
“Well,” the Elfking half-turned toward his son. His eyes narrowed. “It is reassuring to learn he can listen to the directions of certain elves and actually obey.” Legolas sank back in his chair, easing himself further from sight behind Eithahawn, who wore his most blameless expression and assiduously ignored this time-honored move of his little brother’s.
Elrond’s brows went up in curbed amusement. “Now, if only we could teach you the same.”
The Elfking turned back toward Elrond, his long eyes averted, “You should give up on that impulse, Lord Elrond. It is doomed to failure.”
Now Elrond very nearly smiled. “As challenging as you are, I am relieved to see you are well, Thranduil King of Mirkwood.” He inclined his head.
The silvery Elfking matched the motion in time with Rivendell’s esteemed Lord.
Elrond exhaled and much of the tension left the room. “Do you agree you should have told me the full extent of this?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ah. Reassuring.” Lord Elrond’s serious voice was enjoyable to the ear. “Then I expect the thought crossed your mind many times?”
The stress building up in the dark-haired elf was nearly a visible thing. How anyone of the Elfking’s magnitude could know all these things should happen, and yet willfully fail to carry them through – clearly it wasn’t something the Lord of Rivendell could cogitate. “It would have been to your advantage, and you are a man who does not miss his advantages, Thranduil. Which means you saw that some greater advantage lay elsewhere for you.”
There was no hesitation. “Not at all.”
“Then please explain to me,” Elrond leaned on the back of a wooden chair, and it gave a squeak of complaint under his strong fingers, “I do very much care to know.”
“The advantage was not for me, or not directly,” he nodded. “It has served me well, I do freely admit.”
Elrond rounded the table and came to stand before the tall Sinda. They were very nearly of a height, and looked impressive together. The sunrise painted the pair of them in light, both imposing and powerful. And alike in their apparent serenity. Lord Elrond asked, “Why risk so much, my friend?”
For a moment the Elfking’s silver eyes did nothing under the steady pins of blue. But then those long lids rolled shut and Elrond’s chin rose.
“Lusis,” the Elfking said.
She looked at his closed eyes, at his profile in the sunrise, more beautiful than anything under the Lonely Mountain, or anywhere else she’d seen. “Yes, my King?”
His blue-silver eyes found her. “What colour?”
For a moment she was lost. Utterly lost, and he stared at her, expectantly. She looked back, afraid to fail him… and the light in his chest rose from gold to white. She stared at it burning into his throat, shining out his eyes, and looked around the room. All the elves. They all had a fire, and so did her Rangers’ chests, but the human candles flickered. The elven candles did not.
She looked down at her own chest and saw a point of light. A single golden star, so unlike anyone else’s share of light. Lusis blinked at it, never having seen it before.
She looked to the Elfking again, and his head tipped toward Lord Elrond.
Lord Elrond’s flame of light was a deep burnished colour, a ruddy gold at a steady burn.
“Red-gold. Steady.” She told him. “No flickering. Unlike yours, which is white right now.” That furnace was shining out of the nest of his throat. She scanned the room and found Eithahawn’s gold flame, and Legolas’ silvery.
Elrond stared at her a moment. She didn’t blame him for the lack of comprehension. The Rangers of her troop were lost. Ewon made a small gasp behind her, and then it seemed to strike the elves all at once. Eithahawn rose to his feet, Legolas with him. The one called Glorfindel clapped a hand over the blue flame inside of him.
Dorondir came around into her line of vision, amazed, and she glanced back to see the yellow flame of Ewon staring at her, just as warm and friendly as the first day he’d given her tea.
Elrond did that elf-pivot that seemed all but motionless. His voice was quiet, almost as if he spoke to himself. “But… they are all old men. This… this is a girl.” He gestured at her.
“Just when you allow yourself to imagine,” the Elfking turned toward her, silhouetted by the rising sun, “that all quantities are known. That the world is wholly quantified, and the powers can make nothing new… along comes… a new idea.”
“What is?” Lusis asked them.
The Elfking’s brows went up in amusement. “And the Lammia knew. She put a rope of shadow onto this girl. The dark powers lost their god.”
Elrond looked weak with revelation, and he peered up at Lusis. “Yes. I see. So they reasoned… why not make another?”
“What colour are you, Lusis?” the Elfking asked.
“Uh, yellow, I suppose.” She glanced down at the star lodged at the base of her throat, and then up again to him. “Like the sun. Does this mean something to you?”
“Istari.” Elrond’s head cocked. “We must take you to Galadriel and Celeborn.”
“If by ‘we’, you mean you, I’m sorry, Lord Elrond, but I’m not going anywhere,” she looked to the Elfking. “My place is here. I serve the Elfking, and Mirkwood, and this new land full of Strangers.” She looked into Thranduil’s blue-silver eyes steadily.
Elrond glanced aside at Thranduil, wide-eyed, and he suddenly understood. Two Ages under constant assault. One son sent to battle. Adopted son yoked with the weight of a Kingdom. Wild risks taken to protect the Silvan of Mirkwood. No Ring of Power. What did you do?
Well the impossible, of course.
You found a wizard and made her your own.
He inhaled deeply and asked, “Thranduil Oropherion, King of Mirkwood…” he gathered his patience, “do you agree to arrangements that would bring this one, Lusis Buckmaster, who can see the Light of us – the Secret Fire of us all – and who we both believe is a Yellow Istari, to Lothlorien to Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn?”
The Elfking’s cheek dimpled up briefly. He didn’t look away from Lusis either. “I cannot.”
Lusis cocked her head at him, loving his smile in the sun.
“The decision is not mine,” said the Elfking. “It is up... to Lusis.”
Thanks for reading! End