The winter air was tight with cold and its spiraling gusts were remorseless this far up the slopes of the nameless Northern Mountains. But the girl who stood overlooking Cold Pass was used to it. She adjusted the fur she huddled in and stared into the distance. Dawn was coming.
The block of mountain she stood on was nestled between two higher peaks. They were covered in perpetual snow that, when the wind was right, dusted the mountain spur on which Buckmaster Keep was built. It was doing so now. The great monster to her left that she felt sure none but the most obscure map named, was the mother-stone of Buckmaster Spur. It was called Limgoroth. Her father – the man who had taken her in – spoke a broken kind of elvish, being from the Dunedain, and had told her from her early days that the name meant swift horror. Limgoroth was the tallest of the mountains in the area, had a murderously steep incline, and terrifying avalanches. In fact, it could only be safely approached from the long, gentler grade of Buckmaster Spur. The stone rose between the Keep and the summit of Limgoroth. At the pass to the Limgoroth side, chutes of snow roared down the mountain and struck with little warning. That pass was often called The Graveyard. One of the families who lived on Buckmaster Spur lit a signal fire when the pack looked serious. Sometimes archers let off fireworks into it, but, though effective, that was a rare occurrence. Fireworks were expensive. She turned away from the great mountain to her left and looked at the smaller mountain to her right.
Bregolnag. Fierce bite. The wind from the Wastes hit it full-bore, which left its grey face bare in the dulling snow. Freezing to death up there took only minutes for the unwary. She stopped looking at the giants and reflected that fewer and fewer of them knew the old Elvish names of these places anymore. Like many of her generation, Lusis Buckmaster knew only to call them what they'd always been called. She spoke no Elvish.
The Buckmasters had lived here for about two centuries. They were Dunedain blood and powerful in the North. They had established the spur as a Northern Ranger resupply and resting place in every possible sense of the word. To that end, there was a plateau that faced the Wastes where the stone cairns of fallen Rangers mounded the snowy land. This was where many Rangers came to be laid to rest.
Soon, her father would dwell among them.
She wrapped her arms around herself and the immobile pain inside.
When someone was dying, and you stood by watching, there was nothing left of you but love and aching. The cold of the mountains was the only thing with enough power to make her numb. Nevrmen Buckmaster was seeing his last winter, and she was nothing but his defender, his security, on his way out of this world. She wasn't even his daughter. He'd never had one.
He'd taken her in.
He'd never know she was an Istari. She'd not bother him with that detail now. He had other things to think about. And she didn't believe it herself.
The sun became a smudge at the side of Limgoroth's snow-smoked peak. It rose out of the windswept hoar of the mountain, and began to light the earth.
Slowly, in the distance, she began to see, little by little, the massive trees of the Northern Woodland Realm. When the sun was high enough that she could make out the great blanket of it – as broad and gleaming in its flattery of icicles as an inland sea – she extended one hand toward it.
Somewhere. Somewhere down there and to the South there were two troublesome sisters, two great and powerful rivers: one whose currents were so convoluted as to require an expert navigator just to safely pass; and one whose beauty could seduce any who touched her into a sleep that was next to fatal. The Forest River. The Enchanted River. And where these rivers joined forces, there were ancient Halls cut from living stone and peopled by Silvan elves. And inside of them ruled the oldest King in the world.
And she would be dust. Her father, her family, the Buckmaster Keep, and everything she knew would be splinters flying across the world one day. But he would endure. No matter what. He would last. At a time like this, she reached blindly for that world.
But it had been six months now, since she'd been in the Halls of the Elvenking.
She'd been in training with Radagast for two of those months. That had been next to useless. They got along well enough, even though she really, really thought he might be crazy, but this whole idea that she was going to be able to talk to titmice and gossip with gophers – his words – had proven to be exactly what she'd thought it would be. Hogwash. If he wanted someone who could talk to an animal, she could direct him to Steed, full-blooded Dunedain horse-whisperer, or, as she'd told him, there was a terrific elf in Northern Mirkwood he could talk to. An Elfking who could hear deer.
Lusis looked at the snow piling up and the anonymous fur lumps that were her feet. They were buried almost up to her knees, and she wasn't a short girl. She blinked and glanced up at the sky. It wasn't just blowing snow. It was now actively snowing. Damn. She turned toward the Keep and found it difficult to make out the walls through the thickening weather.
Ropes. She made her way to the ropes that led uphill. They led to all sorts of places like a web outside the walls of Buckmaster Keep. She ploughed up to the nearest of the posts on which the red rope hung. The wind usually kept this path clear enough. They seemed only four feet high, but were actually ten. She was walking on snow pack. And when weather threatened to cover the ropes, they were unhooked and moved up to the next steel ring.
She gripped the line. It was as thick as her forearm. She dragged herself along to an intersection and turned to the right when the rope forked. She came up toward the ridge and was suddenly snow blind. There was nothing around her but endless white. The bells rang out in the haze. A snow storm was rolling in from the Wastes. But she felt she didn't need the bells to know that. The sun had just risen, and it was getting dark. The sunlight was short up here at this time of year – there would be a little over eight hours now, and soon, only about six. But when storms rolled in, those were called the Hours Without Days. Lusis was coming to the month that mountaineers called The Long Cold.
There were other people on the line with her. A young person – it was impossible to tell gender with such thick padding – stumbled along, unable to keep solid footing. The cold could do that. It could kill you where you stood, or hit from the inside out. Lusis put her arm around the smaller person's chest and kept the child upright. She was counting her steps. They were almost to the broad stone walls of Buckmaster Keep.
The gates would be to the left and ahead. Just ten minutes of walking separated them from relative safety. The figure she held stumbled again. Lusis linked her elbow around the rope and picked the child up. She began to speed up in her climb toward the walls. Cold was dangerous. Not being able to speak properly, or keep your feet? Serious signs of trouble.
Someone's hand found her shoulder and traced along her back. It went down her other arm and found the line. This was normal in these parts. It happened a few more times. All of the people on the line pushed upward until the ground leveled out. Now they were close, but the congestion to the line made the walk longer. The child she carried was shivering. It was a good thing. It would be bad if he or she stopped in this temperature. That was the beginning of death.
There were globes of torchlight ahead with snow melting down the side of the slatted steel, and piling on the pointed cap designed to let in enough air for them to burn without being blown out. She passed under the globe of lamp-oil and the child in her arms curled up at the sight of it. Not far now. It was less than thirty steps to the gates. They were shut, but the smaller door further up had been opened and the steps had been lowered down. She clattered up them with everyone else, and onto the wood walk that ran along the top of one of the door bars. On the far side, where everyone else walked down to the streets and buildings of the first bailey, she went straight into the stone wall by way of a riveted metal door. She wasn't just anyone. She was a Buckmaster. There was next to nowhere on the Spur that she couldn't get in.
Inside the door was a muck-room. She kicked off the snow and pushed clods of it through the little wood vents where the floor and wall intersected. The man inside the muck-room with her was a guard. Someone was always positioned here. He got up from beside his stove, laid down his book, and knocked the door to the next room in a pattern.
"The Chief's Buckmaster Miss!" he added to that.
There was currently only one of those. Lusis noted inwardly. It hadn't hit her until right then that, after her father died, her family could lose Chiefdom of the place. True, it wasn't likely. She had fourteen brothers. There was no Buckmaster line as potent as Nevrman's. But it was so strange to think of. What if her younger uncle Kirnor took over? He was a little too fond of the mead hall, Kirnor. But that didn't change the fact that things she didn't want to change… were changing.
The door opened and the next guard nodded at her. "Come on through, Miss Buckmaster."
"Gerrick, I've known you since we were both kids." She exhaled and set down the child she held. "Do you think you can call me Lusis?"
He smiled. "Nope." And then noted, "Who do you have there?"
She had no idea and looked down at the shivering bear-skin. "Who are you, child?"
A muffled voice came out, small and piping.
"Hood." Gerrick's big hand gestured at his face to indicate she needed to unhook the part of the hood that closed over all but narrow slats for the eyes.
The child's mitten-hands fumbled with that, so Lusis took off her own mitts and under-gloves and did it instead. A little pink face came out. A girl.
"Lindy Garrison, you might as well go back out there." Gerrick gasped. "Your mother will kill you if she finds out you were outside the walls this month. The Long Cold is just around the corner. What were you thinking?"
The ten-year-old pulled a face. "I wanted to go where Lusis went."
Now Gerrick gaped and pointed, "Lus, you thought of this?"
"Oh Stars no, it wasn't me!" Lusis threw up her hands. "Gerrick, do not go telling Merna Garrison I took her precious bunny out on the Spur's edge."
Somehow, his eyes got wider still. "You took Lindy to the Spur's edge? Stars, I know you flout rules, Lus, but… by gods, when Merna and Floy find out you are doomed." He clapped one hand in the other to emphasize the point. "Dooomed."
"No. No I didn't!" Lusis shook her head back and forth violently enough to splatter snow all over Gerrick, even into his mouth, which caused him to sputter, and Lindy to giggle.
"Oh, hush you," Lusis laughed at the girl's amusement and sat her up straighter. She exhaled a cloud of steam. The walls were thick at the Keep, but they weren't warm. Not at this time of year. Then she looked at Lindy again. "Listen. Whatever it is you're trying to do, following me around… you know it has to stop, don't you?"
She frowned at Lusis. "Because of my mother and-"
"Because this is a bad time for my family. And a worse time to dig up bloody bones." She set her warm fingertips on the girl's wide red cheeks. "You don't set a foot outside of this guard-wall until you've had some hot cider and warmed up." She was a little too cold to the touch.
Gerrick gave Lusis' shoulder a nudge, "We'll see to getting her home." His voice was suddenly sober, as if he'd remembered the situation. It was not natural to think of Nevrmen Buckmaster as having feet of clay. He'd been larger than life for so long. "You should go home too, Lusis. Go on."
She gave Lindy's brown curls a ruffling before she straightened. She went down the long and narrow passage until she reached the black door onto which, nearly two-hundred years ago, someone had painted the horns of a stag. For a moment, she looked at them. At the shadowy imprints of other antlers painted by other artists, ages before. The painted antlers that she knew were now twenty years old. When she looked at their slender tines, the inevitable image of the Elfking's bull-elk came to mind. The thought was painful. She pushed the door, stepped out of the wall, and hopped down to the snowpack.
It was a short walk from there to the actual Buckmaster Keep. This big, wood hall was built in a style from a bygone age. Any renovations had maintained that old look. The entire community had taken its name from this great old-style hall. It had a wall and gate of its own, and was covered in Cirth runes she didn't know how to read. When she passed through the small apse in the gate, a guard having opened it for her, she walked the snow-cleared stone flags to the broad steps of Buckmaster Keep – a huge space full of men, presently. It was large enough to act as a hotel. During storms, it was common to find people sheltering here. She went between pillars into the cedar antechamber and shut her eyes. When she looked up, a blue banner hung on the inner doors. There was an elf word printed there. Apart from being told, she wouldn't have known what it said. She knew the sound.
Cuin. It meant alive.
He was alive. She opened the door to let herself inside.
Lusis started breathing again.
She took off the thick fur she wore and went inside. It was usually something of a party in the Great Hall. Not these days. Even the small, friendly conversations of travelers along the tables were subdued. There were five fires in here, and a wall of heat made her thick fur outer boots uncomfortable. She leaned on the wall by the doors and unlaced them. Her stout-soled, well-oiled leather boots were underneath. The North was about layers. She tucked her snow boots and coat in the large cabinet marked with white antlers. Scanning the lofty room, she could see the long shelves that ran around the room between fires did have people sleeping on them. Not all of them were trappers and traders who'd stumbled in out of the cold. Some were Rangers who spent almost all their time on the land and out of doors, come to see their old friend Nevrmen off. Some were travelers the storm had caught at a bad time, or who had been either rerouted here from the passes, or rescued from them. And some were people from the surrounding towns and villages who had known nothing better than they knew the protection of the Buckmasters for the last two centuries.
And some were her family.
"Every morning. Every one. You know you shouldn't disappear like that, Lusis," said her oldest brother, Kirstmen, as he found her first. He was tall, broad, and bearded. His dark blue eyes were severe as the mountain range around them, and his temper, lately was shorter than ever before. "There are only two women in this house, beyond the staff. And there are some things they should not be doing. That is where you come in. Or why do you think you were summoned back here?"
"Because he is my father?"
Kirstman's blond brows drew down in anger, his voice was low, so that it couldn't be overheard by the throngs of people in Buckmaster Hall. "You know the truth of that."
Yes. She did. And it was painful to be reminded. He was a fool about the bloodline, in fact. He acted as if the staff weren't like family, or were somehow beneath him. Or like none of Nevrmen's many boys could pitch in – some of whom were undoubtedly doing so right now. She stepped up to him, "Kirst, it is interesting that you so regularly remind me I cannot claim him as my father, yet you won't deign to change his bedsheets. No. That's my work, who is neither staff nor family."
"You're too lippy to make a good wife." He scowled at her. "Go do your work." He turned from her and went to join some of the more prominent members of the Northern Convergence – an assembly of Northern Men who, essentially, ran everything from the last Mirkwood tree to the uninhabitable Wastes. She glanced over them and inclined her head to the aged member who hailed from the Fell family. They were on the very boarders of Angmar and deeply interested in her. She smiled at Ragnar Ayesir, tall, broad, and red-haired, who had come all the way from the Northern Hoard. He looked worn.
"If that's so, then all is going to plan," she told him flatly. It was childish, but then, so was Kirstmen. He was a nuisance. The Buckmaster children numbered fourteen. Fifteen if you included her. And some did. And some didn't.
Mellona Buckmaster had had nine. Nev's first wife, Ona, was responsible for the first five, and Kirstmen had been first of them all. He was a spoiled, entitled, bigheaded nit. In contrast, Lusis had been found by her 'uncle', Lengrmar Buckmaster, wandering the wild, and then brought here to be raised. There was a division in the ranks between those who resented her for usurping the surname, and those who welcomed her.
"You think you're glib, but you're an ignorant child, Lusis, particularly in the ways and demands of power." Kirstmen stopped rolling up a Northern map drawn on goat hide to tell her. "And you're not needed here. Go help mother."
Lusis inhaled her irritation and pushed it down under the knowledge that her father should neither be bothered by childish squabbles right now, nor could he walk out and put Kirstmen in his place with a hard look. As the only girl, Nevrmen had a deep connection with Lusis. He could tolerate no slight aimed at his daughter.
She found her way to her mother. Mellona Buckmaster glanced over her only girl-child, the one not remotely related to her family, and, by far, the most errant of her children, and she was grateful. "Ah, love," she said sadly. These bleak days were brutal on their mother. And behind that look came seven hours of hard work. Still, if there was one thing that Lusis was good at, it was getting things clean.
She didn't work alone either. A whole troop of brother Rangers – her actual brothers and otherwise – helped her. They swept the house. They scrubbed the floors. Every dish was washed, dried, and put up in scoured cabinets. The walls were cleaned, and where there were chips or dings, paint was mixed and the walls were given a coat. Bedding was changed and cleaned, rugs were aired and beaten, and rafters and ceilings were wiped down. This house would be spotless, spotless, for the last days of Nevrmen Buckmaster.
Her muscles were burning by the time she was nearly finished. She and very many of her brothers sat cleaning and oiling boots and covetously watching the massive stew pot three of their house staff were attending. Several wild Rangers – the kind who came inside only at the direst of occasions – went to the alms bowl and dropped in coins. Everyone gave what they could when it came to getting fed. Every bit helped when the house was full.
"So…" Irin began innocently. He was the same age as Lusis, and had been gifted with the most innocent of faces. He used it to get away with murder – not in a literal sense. While he tried to imagine her life in the wild, he scrubbed his father's best leather boots. "Have you had fun? Have you eloped? Struck gold out there? What have you been up to, Lusis?"
She was notoriously closed-mouthed, and so no one really expected her to answer 'cold'.
One of her older brothers, Remee, chimed in. "Last I heard you'd been in Ered Mithrim making people fear our surname." He smiled on the end of that. Remee was handsome, and several women in the room immediately took note of him.
"We've had word from The Hoard," Irin said of the huge mountain repository of books not far from where they were situated. "The Ayesirs want their boy back."
Now Lusis smiled. "If they want Redd back," she glanced at where the man had taken down every placard of antlers in the hall and was now washing them all free of dust, "they'll have to come and take him from me. Same with the others." Icar and Aric were on wall patrol today, but would be back soon. Steed had gone to see his family – they were in the foothills, and he couldn't get back and forth quickly.
"Where have you been, little Buckmaster?" Remee tried again. "You look so well-fed, all of you."
She finished one of her mother's white boots and set it back on the rack in the cabinet. After a moment she said, "Forest River and Long Lake way."
"There was a skirmish that way of late." Elsenord said brightly. He was older than Irin, but just as irrepressible. "I heard Argus Samas and all his manpower went to fight in it. They're seeing big pay."
"Big pay." sighed Irin, dreamily.
His closest brother, Tiranord, swatted him in the back of the head with a washcloth.
"That rag's full of bear fat, you idiot!" Irin rolled to one side and the pair of them bowled to the door trying to throttle one another. Lusis picked up the boot she was cleaning to let them pass under it and roll away.
"See anything of it, Lusis?" Elsenord asked her carefully.
"What?" she took out the laces in her mother's boots and set them on the floor to scrub them with a nail-brush. Her brows went up.
"Ah," Remee nodded at this. "So you did see action there."
"Nothing big," she told them. Well. Unless you thought attack by half a dozen venomous snakes the size of a river, a thirty foot Fire Salamander, a host of murderous shades tearing out human eyes for their own use, and a devious Lammia mastermind with designs on chaining an Istari to her evil pursuits was a big deal. Which it was. And which it couldn't be here, unless she wanted to find herself with overly-excited chaperones on the way out. Because she was going back. She was.
There must have been rumours of a lot of action, because the boys looked at one another. And Lonnan, who had been leaning on the wall for a rest, now crouched down beside her. "From the look on your face… you'll be heading out again. And that might not be the worst idea for you." He kept his voice low. "None of us can force Kirstmen to be fair. He is eldest."
"I know," she said a bit hollowly.
"Stop," Remee shook his head and then extended a hand he set over her own on the brush. "You're fine, Lusis. Nothing is going to happen to you in this house as long as the rest of us live. You forget that mother would nail Kirst to the wall by his root vegetables if he trifled with you."
She looked up at her big brother, the child of Nev's first wife, and was suddenly amused. "Root vegetables, Rem?"
"You're a lady," his eyes widened as he leaned back. "Theoretically. And if that's the case, one has to be delicate."
A swell of laughter happened among her brothers beside the door. Lusis grinned and shook her head. For all their bravado, there was not a man among them, she bet, who could boast as many skirmishes in the field as she could. No. She went looking for trouble. Her brothers seemed aware of that fact.
Lonnan picked up his father's boots, discarded by the younger brothers who now chased out into the yard, and began removing the laces. "So, who is he?"
She flinched and looked up at him. Her face was instantly in that impersonal Ranger mask that gave nothing to the enemy. None of her brothers missed that.
"Remind me not to play poker with you," Elsenord said quietly. "Is it a man? Or is it a... a fixation of some kind? Some… unfinished business down in the Rhovanion?"
"No." She went back to the shoelaces. "It's nothing."
"Some people just can't sit still," Remee said gently of his little sister. "Leave her be, Else."
"You're right. You're right." Elsenord nodded at the boot he held, and reached up to scratch his dark blond stubble. "But… you know. I've seen her look out over the Withered Heath. Out at the Grey Mountains. Out at the Wastes. I've seen you looking for a way out to the fighting before, Lusis. But I've never seen you look down into the Great Greenwood like you do now. You're out there at dawn, every day. You don't look at things that way. You never have."
"What way?" She shook out her hair. "That direction, you mean? Maybe I've gone all the other ways. It's not a mysterious thing, Else. I don't like dirt. I like to clean it up. I don't want dirty Orcs and Goblins, and those filthy Uruk-hai on my lands."
"The lands." She corrected herself and inwardly kicked Radagast for his endless drumming into her head that this land was hers. Her responsibility. The protection of its Free Peoples was her onus. It was something that she'd always felt in her heart, but that he had given voice to. She couldn't un-hear his words – The rise or fall of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth also rests in the hearts of Istari, and, with time, all the world's getting and giving, living and dying, all the pleasures and troubles of Men and Elves, press themselves into your robes and wear them threadbare. You will always be aware of them, little Lusis. Which he'd made sound really enjoyable – she rolled her eyes thinking about it. He'd followed this with: Now let's have a smoke!
That man had some gruesome habits. Like never clearing the nest of mice out of his beard.
"That's not what he meant," said Lonnan. He was now scrubbing laces and didn't dare look at his brave sister.
"That way, Lusis. I mean," Elsenord took a breath and said it as gently as he could, "like you miss someone."
She jolted like he'd pushed her.
Elsenord quickly added onto this, "It's okay to miss someone." He glanced around him at the sober faces of his brothers. No one here knew what had happened to Lusis before her arrival in their house. She'd long refused to talk about it. But all of them knew her adjustment to living with people had been troubled, and that meant her early life had been lonely and possibly painful. Something had broken her ability to trust in others. Now she started in putting the boot laces back, her face shut away.
But Remee had helped to raise their little hellion, and he couldn't bear the worry he felt. "Did something happen to you in Long Lake?"
"Did something?" Lonnan's dark head came up. "If something happened… tell me who it was, and you won't have to think about it ever again."
"Quit talking like that." Lusis instructed him.
"She can fight. She doesn't need you to do it," Irin shook off clods of snow, cursed himself and went for a mop nearby. Tiranord, behind him, had had the better of the skirmish and leaned beside the door that travelers passed through. He watched Lusis quietly.
"Why are you so different then?" asked Elsenord. "What happened? And how can you blame us for worrying about you?"
"You must admit," Tiranord smiled lopsidedly from the doorway. "Of all of us, you're not only the wildest Ranger, you're easily the craziest." He glanced over her hair, and the ribbons of gold that now appeared in it. Lusis had noticed the same and wondered, sometimes, if that was part of being what Radagast the Brown called, the Yellow Istari.
She didn't know how to tell the boys she was – according to the Elfking of Mirkwood, and the Lord of Rivendell's reckoning – a wizard. It was simply incomprehensible. She didn't even know what it meant. And this wasn't the time for big news. Every second that ticked by, every breath, and every word she said, she was losing her father. Her fingers started to shake.
Lusis got to her feet and left them by the door. She walked straight up to her room and shut herself in. She'd take a bath in the bath-house downstairs. That would fix it. She loved being clean. Her hands went for supplies in the trunk by her bed. Soap powder. A robe. A comb. Her fingers pushed them all aside and found the snowy white paper packet that faintly glowed at the bottom of the trunk. She tipped it out. The chain the Elfking had given her—and that had broken in time with the shadow-noose the Lammia had confined her spirit with—tumbled into her hand. Its silver glowed faintly. Its pearls still seemed to glisten and move like arms of stars in the sky.
She closed her fist around it, and pressed it to her forehead.
Let him be well. She couldn't save her father. Nothing could, now.
So let them be well in the Halls. Stars and gods, do not let them suffer like I am.
Since nothing could bring her peace of mind anymore, she felt cursed. Fated. She sent a silent prayer through the silver. "My Greatest King, it's true we humans are made of dust. But you and your long memory of us must endure. You must do this for us." It was the part of her that longed for security and stability that begged him to last now.
She didn't want her father's memory to fade from all living thought.
Lusis paced her confines. She couldn't stand it. She couldn't stand being trapped, not even trapped inside the burning mountain of her feelings.
The door tapped. Hastily, she put away the chain and envelope and shut the trunk. She tried to calm herself, reach for her inner Ranger, before she answered, "Yes, what is it?"
"He's awake." The voice was Mellona's. "He's asking for you, Lusis."
Like a page tearing top-to-bottom at the center of a book, those passages lost forever, she felt another piece of her pull away. But this was one thing she would not do wrong. She squared herself, smoothed herself, and went to the door. She joined her harried mother in the walk to the dying room.
Her father's bubbling breathing met her before she stepped into the room.
"Hello, my Lusis," he greeted her unsteadily. "I'm so glad you could come home."
She sat down on the edge of his bed and held his weathered hand. It was snow-reddened. They'd brought down his fever with snow, earlier today. She still wasn't sure what affliction had hold of him, but then, no one was. People passed in the High North and the causes weren't often named.
His beard was trimmed back, and his brown eyes narrowed as he said, "How are the boys treating you? Are they taking care of my girl?"
"I'm like a queen," she told him and pushed back his snarl of white hair.
"You could never lie," he paused for a gurgling breath, "to me." He tapped his chest lightly, "You're my daughter, Lusis. I named you myself." His unsteady fingers gestured at the wooden top of the four-poster bed, which had a woodcut of mountains, "For the spirit lights in the sky of the-"
"High North," she smiled at him. "I know, adar."
For a moment, he struggled to breathe, and Lusis started to rise to get help from their shamans. But he gripped her hand. "No. No you don't." He coughed thickly and said, "I know… I know you remember this story, Lusis-iell. But you forget. You forget what it means."
She looked at him through a haze of tears.
"I named you, little light." He exhaled slowly and she could hear bubbles rising and popping inside of him, "You must never forget what that means."
Her father was awake for an hour. She went to her bath after that, like a shadow of herself. Nearly numb. Her mother took her from there and to the Main Hall for her meal. Lusis sat looking at it, at the hunks of mountain goat meat. "Radagast wouldn't eat you either," she poked it. "I wonder if I'm a failed person, a broken Istari, because I like pot-roast." The thought and the stress of it all made her giggle.
A platter of vegetables appeared on her left. Someone glided down to sit on the bench beside her. His body made a single graceful swivel and long legs folded up under him. His voice was soft, "My friend, you are not a failed creation. You are not broken."
Her spine straightened. Lusis' wide-eyes sought the man beside her. He wore a deep cloak whose colour was a familiar dark green. She looked, instead, at his deft, pale hands as they tried to figure out the strange human utensils.
"What… are you doing here?" She looked down at her plate to keep from exploding. So many feelings raged inside of her. Worry and pain. Desolation and longing. Love and duty. Half of her brothers had rejected her. Half were trying to smother her. And now the life she'd tried to choose, freely, for herself, had just simply appeared beside her. It was a minor miracle she didn't throw herself to the left and tackle him to the floorboards. And then hold him tight. As if she could.
"I am here," he answered her, "because you were due from Radagast in the Southern Mirkwood a month prior. But you didn't come back. Perhaps you do not know how the young Kingdom's-seneschal feels about schedules?"
She stared at her plate with an insurrection burning inside, and she prayed for some power to hold her down. One half of her wondered if this was what it was like to have a furnace in her chest. One half was afraid she would start laughing, that she would stand up and hug him around the head, or do something else that was untimely, impolite, and culturally insensitive.
Then she did it. She laid down her unused knife, slid her arm a fraction to one side, and folded her hand into his. His fingers stiffened. Relaxed. He held her hand. "Lusis-hen. What is wrong?"
"My father is dying." She managed a miracle when she said this aloud for the first time.
His hand tightened. It hurt for a moment before he eased off. "Ah, lamb. Poor lamb." His voice was a soft lulling, deep and melodic. Something inside of her eased. Lusis shut her eyes and held his hand between their plates.
She breathed deeply because he smelled like trees.
"Little one, I do not know… the protocols. I can leave. Go down to the forest and wait."
Her fingers flinched more tightly on his hand, selfish, all of a sudden. And worried. She didn't like to think of him heading back down the snow-clogged mountain by himself. It was bad enough he'd travelled up into the teeth of this storm.
Ewon said after a moment. "I will not abandon you, little one. But let me fulfil this duty I have, then I will stay by you through this dark night."
Her eyes opened, and she repeated. "This duty I have." What duty could one of the Elite guards from Mirkwood have here? She looked up and around the room. Her eyes made out her brothers in a cluster not far away, and passed over them. Redd was asleep on a bench between fires. Aric and Icar had just come in and were sweeping the snow out the door. Wait. Her eyes skipped back to the cloaked figure that leaned against the wall beside where Redd slept. Tall, broad shouldered, and lost in the hood of his deep blue cloak.
The air sucked out of her. There was no way – Amathon? Was that Amathon?
Her hair whipped when she looked aside at Ewon, or rather, Ewon's hood.
She was so confused, she didn't see her brothers' coming.
"Excuse me, friend," Conach Buckmaster sat down at the table beside Ewon, and Lusis sucked in a quick breath. Her hand bounced away from the elf.
Hastily, she added, "Ewon, go now."
The elf glided off the bench and smoothed his fine traveler's cloak with hands so graceful she couldn't comprehend that they didn't recognize he wasn't human.
Conach stood up. "I'm speaking to you, friend."
She managed not to slap her forehead with a hand, "Let him be, Conach," Lusis got up and caught his wrist tightly. It was necessary to be firm with him. He was a lunkhead. In truth, Conach was like Kirstman in his opposition to her presence here, and always had been. His problem wasn't a matter of Lusis taking the Buckmaster name, so much as he had huge issues with her role. Conach believed she'd been brought to the family to help them cover the earth with Buckmasters. She thought that sounded boring, and, all through her childhood, she'd told him so. By now, they were adversaries.
She saw Conach snatch at Ewon, which made her scoff. It was like grabbing a handful of smoke. Her older brother jerked free of her, "I deserve to know the face of the man who was insulting the pride of this family, do I not? Who are you? Who dares as much under our own roof?" He turned to follow Ewon and was forced to screech to a stop, because Ewon hadn't moved but a few steps. And now he stood, side-on to the hulking Man, the picture of deadly readiness.
And the Elite held position, long, slender, and imposing. He waited in case Lusis might have need of him in her difficulty. But she was used to the rebuffs of her eldest brothers. She told him. "Ewon, this is my presumptuous brother. Please overlook his bad manners… as a favour to me. By all means, go and see to your business."
More brothers were on the way around the table as she said so. But of course they were coming. She didn't willingly touch people outside the immediate family except – usually – to help them or to take them down a notch. "Fires," she groaned. "The problem with being a Buckmaster, friend, is that is comes with an endless tumble of overzealous brothers."
"All of them?" the hooded elf sounded a bit dazed.
"Oh, that's not all of them." She exhaled.
At least young, cheerful Irin arrived at Ewon first. He smiled cheerily. "Who are you, sir?" he extended a friendly hand to Ewon who had no idea what to do with it. His elven hood moved – she knew that gradient – and the elf looked down at that reaching blade of human hand. He was a seasoned elf and had spent Ages among his own kind, up until very recently. It was the same reason why his Westron was so formal, and so heavily accented.
Lusis pushed into the knot of tall men, but she didn't make it in time for Irin not to literally reach down and take Ewon's long, pale hand. Her brother held it two-handed and gave it a small series of shakes. The elf stepped back, his arm drawn long between them, with no idea what was happening now.
The long figure beside Redd came off the wall.
"It's a greeting," Lusis said warmly, but hurriedly, and then in a more scathing voice. "Will you let him go, Irin, you halfwit."
"You were familiar with him. I saw. And that means someone knows where you've been, and news of you, little sister," Irin beamed at the hooded man. "Or is this him? Is this the one you stare down the mountain and wish for? Who you think of while staring at the Great Greenwood?"
Ewon's hood turned sharply in her direction.
"Welcome friend," said Irin.
"Irin, stop talking." Lusis patted air as if to push her many brothers back, and then her chin dropped toward her chest. "He doesn't understand. Please forgive him, friend-Ewon."
Now Ewon inclined his head to her, and to Irin, who he did not know. His hooded head turned a fraction left before he started away. The Elf's pale fingers vanished into his cloak, doubtless to touch something dangerous. Her bet was a fighting knife.
"I'm sorry about that, traveler," Remee said.
The elf passed him on the way around the table. He was not threatening, unlike Conach, and not overly excited, like Irin. Remee was simply himself. "It's been a long year for the sons of Nevrmen Buckmaster. Of which so very many of us around are." He tucked his hands together behind his back and fell in beside Ewon, "But this is the Buckmaster Keep, and – in spite of the stupidity of Conach, my elder brother – we welcome strangers and travelers here, particularly those who need protection from the snow and the beasts abroad. If you are one such, there is nothing to fear."
The elf exhaled. His smooth, quiet voice emerged, "Le fael."
Remee paused, "Elvish, Ranger? Ah! Are you a Tatharion? Such an accent, though. And, you're welcome. Gi nathlam hi. My pronunciation isn't as fine as yours. Does it make sense to you, friend?"
"Yes. Thank you for your welcome. I am Ewon Galuion. I kindly ask you to stand aside for me and that you do not create any disturbance. Friend Lusis is in adversity this sad night." He gave a polite elven incline of the head. It was flawless politesse and would have flattered any other elf.
"Oh, he is fancy, this Ranger." Conach muttered from not far enough behind. "Not too fancy to be far too friendly with my sister. Do you damage her reputation? Answer me, man." He reached for Ewon's broad shoulder.
Ewon turned out from under that grip and inclined himself toward Conach, "Leave me."
Lusis hurried to try to insert herself between brothers and the Silvan elf Elite. She might have said something to mollify them all, but was struck silent instead.
The elf in spotless blue with whirling silver flurries along his cloak now stopped in an intersection of firelight. His long arms rose. She knew his moonstone ring on sight. His long fingers folded back his hood. Silence fell around him. It spread through the large hall like smoke. Firelight tangled in his unbound hair, and fell upon his silvery skin and eyes.
Here was the one she sorely missed.
Lusis struggled to process his presence.
No crown. Fair hair undone. One guard.
His voice was deep, crisp as lake-ice, and round with authority. It stopped all motion in the room. "What he kindly asks, I insist upon. Leave him." The Elvenking's head rose. Firelight caught his curving elven ear through strands of hair. The Great Hall backed away from the silken vision that he cut. The King glowed in the low light, as if all the firelight in the room had rushed to touch him.
There was a clear path for Lusis to reach the Elfking. She folded her arms against her ribs because she knew, given the fuss with Ewon, that she couldn't risk even accidentally touching the King. But she couldn't look away from his silver-white eyes. He was here. He was real. Where was his regalia? "Good elves, welcome to Buckmaster Keep on the mountains. We do not see the like this far North. Please forgive the… surprise. Ask anything of us, and it will be seen to, I assure you of that." Then she bowed to him.
She had no idea the Elfking's uncaring eyes followed the threads of gold that had lately been appearing in her hair, with a great deal of concentration, in fact. But then, he was very accomplished at seeming disinterested in the things that most held his attention.
His words were soft, "Your power is growing."
Lusis straightened and shook her head minutely. It was not safe to discuss, for one thing, and for another, her training with Radagast had been an utter failure. He'd told her she was too human. Too close to the world. Yet, too young.
She read this to mean that she was a hopeless case.
He pulled in a breath and maintained his patience. "I know you, Lusis Buckmaster… have you been here these many months?"
"Several of them, good-elf, and not in the forest or Long Lake," she told him. Careful about how she spoke to him, seeing as he wore no outward sign of Kingship, and didn't even seem to have his sword with him. Somewhere, Eithahawn was waking up from a nightmare.
As if elves could sleep.
"You are called the Couriers of the North," he said carefully. "There is one who might have expected a message."
That would be him. He was protective of the new Istari he'd found.
"Events overtook me," she inclined herself to him, unwilling to call him King when he wore neither the Living Crown nor the Warrior's Circlet. She wouldn't put him at risk. But, oh, she knew he must have been enjoying having his hair out free. It cared for nothing. It was a white-blond cascade that fell from its tucks behind his tall, pale ears, spontaneously beautiful.
Ewon's fingers had to be itching to bind it all up and put a crown on it to pin it down again.
That was because Thranduil Oropherion was the Elfking of Mirkwood, she and Redd had guessed, for over 70 centuries now. Maybe twice that. Or more. His head tipped to the position it used when he was angry but also controlling it. His long pale hair slipped over his shoulder. There was no other sign of temper, but she knew the sharpness of that one motion meant anger. His voice was perfectly moderate. "Perhaps I should apologize for the inconvenience of our presence here."
If he left the place where her eyes could see right now, she would chase him. She wasn't sure what she would do when she got to him. But she needed his strength, the permanence he embodied, unbending as the Lonely Mountain, no less than she ever had. And she just looked at him with her insides twisting in agony.
And he went silent, as if, standing at a mirror, he'd heard a whisper. Then his golden head turned to look upward. "There is a change…."
A muffled cry sounded. Lusis turned from him. A trio of Rangers stood at the upstairs rails and spread a black cloth over the railing. It was emblazoned with seven stars and a pair of crossed white antlers – the flag of the Buckmasters, but on a field of black, rather than blue. She made a small choked sound, and couldn't remember anything clearly after that moment. She only knew she had torn from the room and charged up the stairs. Weeping members of the Keep's staff flattened to the walls as the Buckmaster children made for the dying room.
Their mother was already at bedside in the huge and fire-lit space. She'd crumpled against the pillows where her husband breathed no more.
She knelt on the floor beside her father's hand. It had gone as cold as the weather. And all she could think of was how many times she'd tried to run away from the family she didn't understand, the rules she'd never before had, and the threat that kindness posed to her ability to survive, and he'd come and found her, small and struggling in the wild, and then carried her all the way back to the warm fireside. "Ada."
Mellona straightened and wiped her tears. "Downstairs lads. His brothers and I need to get him ready for tomorrow." She glanced at Lusis' dazed young face – she was the only one of the children whose expression was disconnected. "Elsenord, Remee, take Lusis with you and get her warm." She reached out and smoothed her daughter's lightening hair. Lusis had no awareness of the contact.
She went with them because they took her, and there was nothing left for her to do. As soon as she entered the whispery downstairs, she found Redd standing, twisting and untwisting his black cloak in his hands, wracked with sadness on her behalf, when she… she was deadened. Aric and Icar extended their hands to her shoulders, and one of them smoothed her hair like the back of a cat. She nodded at them, turned, and saw the Elfking standing quietly. His hands were joined before him.
She continued in his direction and he gently opened his arms. His golden head bent to her, "Goheno nin, Lusis-sell. I am-"
Yes-yes. She didn't even break stride. Lusis walked straight into him. She pushed her face into the chest of his cloak and the smell of the woods. It vaguely terrified her that he wore no elf-steel underneath. She wrapped her arms around the shape of his solidity. Lusis could feel him being startled by this. But he settled quickly. Then a hand curled around the back of her neck. Another stopped between her shoulder blades. As long as she stayed there, she felt sure nothing else that was bad could happen to her.
His voice rumbled under her ear, speaking Elvish to Ewon.
The Elite's hand curled around her shoulder. "We are beside you, little one," he said.
It was ironic seeing as she was focusing very hard, at that moment, on removing herself. Erasing herself. On being aware of nothing but the smell of the forest, and the warmth of the furnace beneath her cheek. Until her consciousness waned down to the slow throbbing sound that was his heart.
And shortly after that, there was only the darkness of the void.
A thick blanket of snow blotted out the world. It came on like a downpour of forgetfulness, for days, and all who had sheltered in Buckmaster Spur were sealed in by the climate and the gloom.
Lusis spent those days in the shelter of Ewon and the Elfking.
They were stalwart. The King was unrelenting. And she was enervated. The death of her father had made her as insubstantial as puffs of smoke from a Ranger's pipe.
At night, the Elfking would pace in her cramped little room, his motions as silent as settling snowflakes. And she didn't care.
On the third night, Lusis was more aware of her surrounds and she watched him, aware he was flagging. And so was gentle Ewon who, every night, stood outside the narrow door and guarded them both. Ewon did poorly with the press of unfamiliar human lives, human cares, all around him. The King carried this weight as well, sealed inside a human town, in a Keep built and meant for the comfort of humans. The lack of solitude drove them both to distraction. There was weeping in public. There was a constant stream of drinking, shouting, singing, and fighting in the Great Hall as the Rangers mourned. And even the baths were public. This was not their world, and they were thrust into it, to endure it, until it was difficult for them to imagine any of these Men had even a speck of elven blood inside. Lusis didn't know about this. She'd been deep in the woods inside her head, chasing her father's long shadow into the setting sun. Never getting closer.
But the shadow that fell across her, now, was the shadow of a King.
A neglected King.
She felt heavy. Groggy. Like waking from a sleeping draught. Lusis edged far enough to one side of the bed to make room for him. The proud Elfking saw this with an air of resistance, nearly furious, and he went back to pacing.
She opened her eyes again.
"What time is it?"
The King leaned to the tapestry beneath the tiny square of window. His head rose slowly, "Small hours." He stretched his neck one graceful direction and then the other. His throat was unbuttoned to his upper chest.
She sat up and stared at his skin, and then felt ashamed of herself and rubbed her cheek.
There were cuts that never healed. She had one of those now. How many did he have, her King? And poor Ewon, not even allowed inside the door. What about her troop? Where were they right now?
"Fires." She rubbed her forehead. "What has mother been giving me?"
"No," the King said softly. "I asked you to rest and heal, to accept, and that is what you did."
Her father was gone from these shores. She put her head down and fought not to weep.
After a moment he told her, "When she left us… Legolas also wept in his sleep."
She sucked an unsteady breath. "What about you?"
He paused and then said, "How would I know? There was no one there."
Of a sudden, a great wave of love broke over her, for her King, for Ewon, and for her troop somewhere hereabouts, all of them there for her. She was not alone.
She looked up at the pale King.
He had been.
It would be a long time before that weighty thought left her.
But for now, she stood up, determined to turn the tables. Determined to attend to him.
For days, he'd practically salted a circle around her. Ugly politics boiled in and around the Buckmaster Keep. She knew her own grace period would falter eventually and she would be called upon to take sides, or answer questions.
It could wait on his comfort. "Come with me?"
"Out there?" He set his teeth and sounded frustrated.
"My King," she stepped toward him, "I know this Keep like a maggot knows its piece of meat."
He showed his lowered lashes and beautiful profile to her. "Ghastly."
Lusis resisted the urge to smile – the gods only knew why. It felt like she hadn't smiled in months. "I know the back ways to the bath-house and the place will be empty at this hour." She felt her own hair and pulled a face. "Misery has made a filthy mess out of me." Forget laying on the bed to rest beside her, it was a wonder he was anywhere near her at all.
"Despair can kill an elf," he looked down and exhaled suddenly. "I wondered if you might speak again, Lusis Buckmaster. Breathe again, between breaths. I wondered if you might choose to follow your father. The wait has been difficult."
She bet. He wasn't known for his great excess of comforting emotion, King Thranduil.
"I have an idea." She told him quietly. "It involves a long, hot, milk bath."
The King turned his most virtuous face to her. And waited.
"For you," she added onto the end of that. "You, my King." Her face flamed.
She turned and went to the door, aware, and annoyed, she'd been so clumsy.
Lusis startled Ewon when she yanked the door open. He stopped aiming fighting knives at the bare walls, and looked down at her. "Welcome back to us, friend-Lusis. To see you is a relief."
"I'm a mess."
"A living, breathing mess." He told her warmly. "Easier to clean up than an airless, rotting one."
She glanced back at the King. "This is where you should say ghastly."
"She has a plan." The King said instead. "Hear her out."
"Please come in from the hall and wait with the King. I need my Rangers for this."
Ewon stepped inside her room, a place he hadn't yet been. "What are you about, friend?"
"I'm tired of being filthy," she told him and shut the door.
She edged to the end of the passageway. There was a general room there where she'd put Redd, Icar, and Aric. She hoped they'd retained it, even with the pressure to house people these days, and drummed her fingertips on the door a few times. Shortly, the door eased open. Redd peered out at her. "Stars, thank the gods, you're back." He reached out the door and hugged her.
Lusis hugged him back. She reached her hand out to Aric, and gripped him tightly.
"I'm so sorry, Lus," Icar's hand closed around his brother's and her own.
"I know, you nits. Open the door and let me through?" she swallowed back emotion. "He's here."
Redd stepped aside to let her into the scant space, "I know. By gods. He carries no sign of who he is. Ewon calls him taur – one of the elf words for King. I think they take it as his name."
"He's here in secret," Icar nodded knowingly.
Aric sat back on one of the two cots in the room. Redd was too big for either, which explained the long padded horse-blankets on the floor at the end of the cots. "Problem is there's not a lot of graze for either of them here… and, though Ewon put in coins, your stingy kin doesn't seem eager to feed them. I've been stealing bread and butter at night."
She gawped at him. "Are he and Ewon going hungry?"
"Aye," Aric said.
Icar added, "I can't think of a worse fit for a pair of elves than a human Keep in the midst of waking. I believe solitude is important to their wellbeing." He glanced at Redd and his brother. "When they are outside of your room one of us is with them. There is… there's hostility for them here."
"No," Lusis denied this. "This Keep was established by the blood of elves and Men – Dunedain."
"Oh, horse piss on that. You don't know the half of it, Chief." Aric said quietly. "A pair of your brothers nearly came to blows with Ewon earlier tonight. He went for food and water. Have you ever heard of such bad hospitality? These are Dunedain Men to elves – the blood of their ancestor-kin. Or they claim to be Dunedain – I don't believe it." He pulled a face in disgust and leaned on his sheathed sword. "If it wasn't for you, they'd be ruined."
"I can't deal with… such stories, right now. I can hardly believe them, apart from the fact that it's my troop telling me. But it must wait for dawn and life in the Hall. We need to get through this, get them through it, bit by bit," she exhaled and said, "Let's focus on the now. They need our hospitality tonight."
Aric smiled up at his brother. "Yes, she's back."
She felt as if she was. Lusis felt stronger with her troop around her, and with her elves. She was more herself when she had someone to fight for. "We're going to the bathhouse and back. We'll go by the kitchen and root pantry and take what we need."
"It's not safe for them to move around the Keep anymore," Redd warned. "Something is afoot around here, Lusis. I don't know what it is. I can't even get audience with Ragnar – my uncle. We need to look to the foothills and Tatharion house."
"He's right. We need to leave. They'll shelter us there, Man and elf," Icar said confidentially. He set aside his sketchbook and picked up his sword. It rankled her that the boys were all cleaner than she was. They'd all been much dirtier than this in the wilds.
She shook her head, "No, I've never known Rangers to resent elves before."
"That's the feeling of it," Redd confirmed. "Maybe your family thinks they are intruding?"
"No excuses," she told him coldly. "And no time. Bathhouse. Supplies. Rest. And we get them down the mountain. Pack up. As I'll pack up."
"They won't make it simple, Lus," Icar pulled on his overcoat and bent to tie up his boots. "But let's start with the bathhouse. The King's been as patient as he can be."
"Meaning, not very patient," Aric chuckled gleefully. "Ewon's confined him to quarters."
The Rangers stretched and armed themselves. It wouldn't look unusual. Rangers didn't go anywhere without at least one sword. They opened the door to her room and found Ewon in conversation with the pacing King in the upstairs hall. They were speaking quietly, and only occasionally, in Elvish. The King glanced over the Rangers.
"Pacing," Lusis said quietly. "He paces day and night."
Icar glanced at her when she said it.
Lusis stared around the darkened upstairs, and, on her right at the end of the hallway, the wide open space of the main room below. The fires were low. Travelers slept against the walls and on the benches, some of them on the tables, wrapped up in wool.
Now was the time for the elves.
If anyone made a sound in the servant's quarters, it was the Rangers. The elves were like the fleece of nighttime clouds. They could have escaped this house days ago, but for their loyal natures.
Lusis had wondered if it wouldn't be wiser for them to leave that night, in fact. But she could feel the Keep buffet in a storm. She could hear the roar of wind at every wall and shuttered window. By the grace of fire and shelter, alone, did Men live this night, and she wouldn't turn elves out into that. Instead, she offered them goblets of heated and spiced milk from the kitchen, and nut-paste on thick slabs of toasted bread. She also gave them a plate of fire-baked golden beet and sweet potato, all of which she'd scavenged from the kitchen – still warm from the staff making it. No one went hungry in this Keep. It was an affront to her father's, and her own pride.
Heated water in the bathhouse was accomplished by plunging bricks into large, burning braziers and then inserting those bricks into steel tubs of water. The water vats were not, themselves, heated, as in Mirkwood. The fires had banked for the night, but they never really cooled. Lusis poked the flames alive as she entered. The King stretched his long arms before him, not nearly as confined in the spacious dimness of the bathhouse. Redd brought in the tray of food and set it on low tables beside the tubs at the far end of the room. He went to stand at the door to bar all passage. Aric and Icar were posted on either side of the corridor.
"Your family is in a kind of strife," the King spoke quietly when he knew they were alone. "There seems to be a struggle for ascendency underway. We must be clear of here soon, Lusis. I advise that you come with me."
She'd felt the conflict under the skin of the Keep since she'd come home, and Lusis knew it held nothing good for her. She was, in many ways, nearly unprotected now that her father was gone. Mellona was not like Ona had been. Mellona wasn't a Dunedain. She'd have next to no say in the matter. "I know you're right. But we're snowed in right now. Do you know what a white-out is?"
He closed his eyes and drew a steadying breath.
So he did. Lusis nodded, "One thing at a time, my King."
"Patience," he said tightly and then sighed, "They haven't worked out who I am. I… had wondered if they might. But Men are so fleeting. The few this way who would have known me, Ewon found their names written upon stones."
She took a brick from the fire with prongs and set it into a tub. The water reacted violently, hissing and boiling, shooting jets of steam up around them. She smiled. Lusis loved a hot bath, then she looked aside at the tall Elfking. "When was Ewon outside?"
"Hours before we came in," the Elfking brushed the bathwater with his fingertips. "And we have learned that the Keep has decided I am a master of some art, and that he is my apprentice. Presented with a question, Men create their own answers. It is good because there is conflict brewing here."
"Why you'd come here," she frowned at him, "why so unprotected?"
"Ewon did not believe he would be enough to convince you to return." The Elfking stopped to look at her. His head tilted a little, paused, and reversed before he could reveal too much feeling.
"He would've," she told him. "He would've been enough."
Nothing for a moment. The Elfking's long eyes blinked a staccato. He turned and walked away to look at the steel braziers, "I see."
She wasn't sure what had just happened, but she followed him. "Not very comfortable, these tubs. They're not built for you." She glanced over the nearest steel tubs. He was unlikely to fit into any of the older ones. She'd set him up in the sheltered corner among the bright tubs that would fit someone goliath, like Redd Ayesir. These were for the Buckmasters. A covered bowl of milk powder sat beside the last tub in line. That was an indulgence of their mother's, but the sight of it lifted the King's shoulders and made him sigh. The bath next to it, which she'd just prepared, was for rinsing.
It was a touch of civilization in the wilderness.
She filled a steel tub for herself, wrapped the brick in cloth, and put it into her bathwater. She wasn't tired, but worn. Both the King and Ewon had bathed and dressed, and she was still asleep with her wet head pillowed on a bath-sheet in her little corner of the High North. The wind, the buffeting against the Keep, the maelstrom was her lullaby.
"Lusis," Redd looked away from Ewon's quick and nimble hair-braiding and glanced over his shoulder at the bathhouse. "It's closing on four in the morning, girl."
She swore and crawled out of the bathtub into a long bathing sheet.
She minced upstairs to dress in her room and to pack her things. She took out the silver and pearl chain the Elvenking had given her. He'd never even asked after it, let alone had taken it back, yet she knew it was of great value to him, she realized, as she pocketed it.
The Elves were also preparing to leave the High North, only they acted as if there would be nothing more to it than to go out the front gates and walk down the mountain in a blinding blizzard so cold that the water in the eyes would freeze in seconds. Yet, for them, it was probably very much the case that a descent would pose only discomfort, not a mortal danger. Lusis wasn't sure she should protest, or debate it. But she could only head out with her troop when the passes were declared safe for traffic. The more important thing here, she decided, was to trust the King above the weather and let him have his head. She needed to get him safely to the foothills. She could tell him how to reach the Tatharions. As their name suggested, they were more elf-blooded than the Buckmaster line.
Lusis had dressed and just made her bed when the King came back inside.
He simply stated, "Men are about."
She waved at the shutting door, "No. Ewon, you come in too."
The King watched this keenly. The Elite elf eased the door shut behind him, very grateful to be away from the humans at last. He leaned against the thick wood door, head low, hand over his chest, momentarily vulnerable. It was only then that Lusis understood how taxing the Keep had become for them. She couldn't fault them. She no longer knew what was happening in her home, just that she wanted them spared from it.
But she couldn't have solved the problem overnight, even if she'd known what it was. She lowered the flame on the lamp. The room was very dim. "Rest," she told them, and then added a quick, "please rest, dear friends – the house is awake now." The window for taking them down the mountain passed with the movement of Men inside the Keep.
Although it was unlikely they'd both fit on the bed together, they were so substantial.
Lusis hurriedly brought in a padded chair. It fit in the corner of her room under the small square of window. She was unsurprised to see that the Elfking went to it. He was too much elf for the bed. He wrapped in the wolf-pelt she brought, leaned his silver head against the forest tapestry and blowing wind beyond, and his eyelids sank low. He was unresponsive within minutes. She lay on the edge of the bed beside Ewon, because he moved clear to give her space.
She could see his long storm-cloud eyes in the low light. "Rest, elvellon." He sounded faraway. His words were soft, and longer than they should have been. He'd been awake since he'd arrived here and on the advent of rest – with her troop guarding the hall beyond the door – his Westron bled into an elvish inflection.
She smoothed his hair back so that it wouldn't get caught under her shoulders, and found it was downy and soft, along with being the colour of dark chocolate – stuff she'd first seen at Jan Kasia's house in Lake Township. She smiled at him. "You first, my friend."
When he was drifting, she got up to check the outside. Aric sat beside the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't in there, Chief." He said quietly.
"You'd find a way to get arrested," she sighed and locked the door. She settled beside the old elf again, finally at peace. He was solidly in that removed place where elves went. He curled slowly to rest his forehead against her shoulder. His legs pulled up.
Lusis imagined a time when, somehow, she would have a home of her own. She decided she would need to outfit half the cells with beds that allowed for curling room. She'd honestly never seen a resting elf who didn't curl up like a fawn.
The bedroom smelled of soap, trees, and pine needles.
Time fell away from her. She passed over the landscape of Mirkwood and was blown through the beauty of the Halls like a windswept bird. She spun through a cloud of yellow-winged butterflies. They behaved like they were cut out of sunshine, clustered around pale cherry blossoms. And she drifted into the broad valley at the center of the Halls. A thought breathed over her.
Gwilwileth, Lusis-gwend. Butterfly.
She saw an image of tree tops that suddenly exploded into blue butterflies.
It was so gorgeous it felt as though everything in her brain seemed to loosen at once.
She sighed and tipped back in air, weightless in the middle of the Elvenking's Halls.
At when she woke, Lusis crept away from the Mirkwood elves still adrift in her room. She made her way down the muffled upper hall. Several of her brothers were two to a room here. She had set her sights on Elsenord as being the best candidate for what she was about to say. He wasn't very much older than she was, so he understood and felt close to her, but, in terms of maturity, he was often more adult than Remee. When she stepped in, she saw him. He sank down in a wooden chair at the freestanding table in the middle of the rug. Sitting with him was grinning middle-child, Lonnan, and the last born, and merriest of Ona's children, Remee. If Tiranord had been there with Irin, she would have had her truest brothers all gathered in one place.
Remee's hands swept over his face. "Merciful gods. Lusis. For days you've been looking through faces like you don't know who we are." His hands shook when he hugged her. "You're here again."
She squeezed his shoulder, and tugged his blond, braided hair before she went to the remaining chair at the table and slid into it. "I wish Tira and Irin were here."
"Wall duty." Elsenord said to her, and he added, "You're… you're ready to talk. I can tell."
Lonnan stopped cutting apples for breakfast. There was a large pile of them on a dish he nudged her way. She took one and munched it. Elsenord pushed the entire plate in her direction.
Easing back in his chair, Lonnan exhaled, "You've been asleep for days, little light." He used the nickname his father had always used for Lusis, and blinked away his strong emotion. "Praise the stars you're up and among us again. It felt like we lost you both."
Remee patted his younger brother's shoulder.
"I thought it might be Kirstman's doing," Elsenord set his head in his hands a moment. "Maybe Armul – he and Kirstman are practically twins."
"More like a two-headed monster," Remee said of his full brothers. He shook his head in regret.
But Elsenord didn't disagree. He exhaled and took her in a moment. "You've had us worried."
Lusis blinked at them. "That… is strange to say. But the duration of my sleep had nothing to do with any of you. It was the – my elf companions. They worried. They wanted me to heal." She did feel stronger now. She'd felt like she might have cast half a shadow for months now.
Lonnan sat up straight, "Magic?"
"I suppose…" she said. Really, she'd had many conversations with Radagast about why most elves distinctly did not do magic. Instead, they used a combination of celestial and spiritual power that worked in a way that was officially Impossible to Explain to Another Living Soul – and that was after Radagast resorted to drawings. She was the one who was supposed to have, and use, magic. Which she'd explained to him was ludicrous. No drawings needed.
Her brothers looked at one another. "They do magic?"
"I wouldn't call it that, but… they can use their will, and… their purity of spirit to make a beneficial change in others. Like when they heal."
"They heal?" Remee gasped, he looked aside at Lonnan. "They heal people."
Elsenord continued rubbing his forehead. "Find your center, big brother." And Remee smiled cockily down at him from his side of the table.
"No it's okay." Lusis had to get comfortable with the idea of talking about this sort of thing with them. So she summarized everything she'd learned about elf magic in that single line: "Magic is… something… that can be used aggressively. This wasn't an aggressive thing. So it could be magic. It could be… elves being elves. They are beautiful creatures. But they have their moods." She rubbed the back of her head only perfectly certain she was right about that last part.
"Are you healed?" Elsenord asked.
She ate an apple slice and admitted, "I'm doing better. Are you all right? Is mother?"
"We will be," Lonnan took his eyes off his sleeve and assured her. He'd always been prone to strong emotion, Lonn. She remembered some tremendous brawls his outrage had caused. If anyone was likely to climb a mountain in his sock-feet just to whack Kirstman in the head, it was Lonnan.
He nodded at her now. "Why are you friends with elves, Lus?"
"It's a long story." The apples were tasting good, even though she knew they had come from being frozen solid in the root cellar. She'd packed two dozen away for the elves. But the Buckmasters could afford fripperies like apples in the heart of winter, even a massive plate of them. "Why don't you tell me why it's a problem to have them, and I'll tell you why they're here."
No one spoke.
"I think you accused Kirst and Armul of drugging me." Lusis pointed out. "Ona's kids have always had their issues with me-"
"Okay, with us, Elsenord. Remee, you excepted-"
Her blond brother gave an officious bow and whirl of his fingertips.
"But they've never gone mad before." Lusis knotted her worried fingers on the table before her. "We are… relentless guides, trained warriors from childhood, and souls so honed to the land that we are unshakable messengers of the North. This is Buckmaster Keep… and they won't feed elves? What's happening to us?"
"Said elves are living in your room, little light," Remee said delicately. "You understand that is a little… disconcerting."
But Elsenord rejected this, "Those two can't have a room of their own. We tried that. There was a sword fight in the hallway one night, and, by morning, Durry and Conach were having them sealed in."
Lusis cocked her head. "What?"
"They nailed the door shut."
On the King.
"These differences between us… they're coming to a head now, Lusis. Sometimes I believe there will be war in this house. Blonds to brunets. Ona's children to Mellona's. And you've been gone a long time. You don't know how serious Kirstman is about these things, about his power here, our lofty name, having allies, and ruling the land. The Garrison family has every right to have a difference of opinion with them. They've been here as long as we have. They were half-elven brother and sister when they came to this mountain. Remee's the only one of the first five – of Ona's children – who stands with us."
"You're welcome," Remee sighed and leaned back in his chair.
"Shut up you great dandy," Lonnan clucked his tongue at his older brother, and then grinned.
"This is about power in the land, then," Lusis said. "And…? And what? We don't have enough?"
Elsenord sighed, "We don't want change, Lusis. We don't need a Kingdom. We are…" he opened his hands, "simple, humble, messenger men, and our world is one of deliverance."
"I'm not humble."
And Elsenord nodded in agreement, "Shut up, Remee."
For a moment, it was impossible for her to react. "Are you saying… he wants a crown?" She shook her head at the thought. "We're common men. Even the elf-blood is quiet in us. We do our jobs. We do them better than any other boot-heel in the North. We're not…" she groped for words, "we're not Strider."
"Tell him so," Lonnan leaned his elbows on the table and frowned at the apples. "I miss father. He would have slapped the utter tosspot out of Kirstman. Enough of his foolishness."
Lusis bared her teeth. "I may have someone for that." Her hands had curled into fists.
"You?" Remee clapped a hand on the table. "That's a cause I could back. Of course you'd have to succeed where the rest of us have failed. To slap some sense into him, I mean. You'd have to get through his Loyals now. He has a steadfast circle of Men from all over the North, as far as the Dagnir-Rim and all the way back."
"I have something you don't have," she said without thinking, and then equivocated. The worst part of being what she was had to be not being good at it. Or, no, she found something more terrible still: having everyone else but you believe in it. She switched gears and said, "I have elves."
"Well, you have two, anyway." Remee agreed and added a delicate, "In your bedroom."
Lonnan couldn't quite hide his frown, "About that. Who the Fires are they? What are they doing in your room at night?"
"They're pretty, particularly the tall blond one – he's outstanding," said Remee. "I don't suppose that they're together."
"You didn't make it safe for them to be anywhere else but in my room." She sighed. "Since when is this our hospitality? These are my friends."
Lonnan asked, "If we start guarding them, you'd move them out?"
"If you and my troop did," she admitted. "Instead of just my troop alone, I suspect. And the elves had a haven. Something good. Not the closet I'm in." She scratched her cheek. "I… I might sleep across the door to safeguard them."
Now Remee chuckled and clicked the leg of her chair, "Her room could fit in a tea cozy. It's probably full with just the big blond in there. He's a tall lad."
A tall lad. Lusis' eyes opened wide a moment.
"Maybe we could muzzle him?" Lonnan ate a fistful of apple and stared at Remee as if he was actually designing a big-brother muzzle as he chewed.
"People don't have friends who are elves by chance, Lusis. There aren't that many to be had to begin with, and those who remain seclude themselves and disavow Men."
"You sound… angry." Lusis told Elsenord.
Her brother shrugged. "We Rangers are aware that all the evils of the world have not withdrawn from it because the One Ring is gone – that is forever constant. Instead, it's the wholesome power of the elves that is withdrawing."
She glanced at her brothers' faces.
Leaning to the table to join them, Lonnan twiddled together his guilty thumbs and confessed, "They are more than stewards of the land. I think they do not understand the political instability that they leave in their wake. They are like the pillars of the earth, Lusis. Our ultimate arbiters, here. They built the peace, they defend the woods, and they are sentries over rivers and dells. Our peacemakers are leaving without a backward glance. And we cannot follow them, as certain of us are wont to do."
"Men are torn. Your friends are not safe in this Keep. And can we get back to the fact you're a young woman and there are two men in your bedroom? Elves or not, they're men." Remee nodded at the apples. "And I've told you many, many times that men are dodgy sorts."
"I'd be all right, Elsenord, if you stuffed a sock in Remee's mouth." Lusis said.
"I wouldn't want to soil my hosiery," said Else. "Who knows where that mouth's been?"
Lonnan chuckled and threw some apple slices into Remee's much celebrated golden hair.
"Elves." Lusis sat back and thought to the first day she'd woken up under Radagast's roof. She'd sat at his wood table with his animal menagerie around her. And he'd looked up from his bowl of milk to tell her, 'Elves. Elves and men are siblings. The elves were born first. In their construction they are made to stand beside Men… and Men to stand beside them. Elves and Men are compliments. Timeless? Mortal. Celestial? Earthly. Burning steady? Volatile. And you are like I am. You can see the flame of them all. They are so very' – he'd sat up, and the golden-brown star of light embedded in his chest had made her gasp – 'beautiful. Who better to entrust with the world'?
And as they departed, they expected Men to be content with it.
The Buckmaster boys at the table had fallen silent. They were watching the unfamiliar light of tenderness warm her smile and dark eyes. She was thinking: Such impractical, romantic notions among those tall-eared halfwits. But she loved the elves. It was in her bones.
But then Lusis sighed and added. "Man is about to lose… that touch of the divine. By that I mean, their touch. The elves. Their cultures are like mother and father, both. The dwarves use their writing, as do we. We fell from their language. They've rushed in to save us since… always. I can see why there would be resentments. But it's time to grow up," she remembered a dread she'd had when the Lammia had been defeated and she'd realized that her King was urging her to go to Radagast the Brown. "Even if, when they go, they suck all the wonder out of the world. Then the bees are just what they are, and the cherry blossoms too. They won't be dance-partners for someone's long fair hair."
Elsenord said, "There is something to be said for cherry blossoms, Lusis. And bees. These are things that, on their own, are beautiful, and should be appreciated for themselves."
"I know that," she told him. "It's a pity that humanity can't figure that out."
"Kirstman would never admit to such deep feelings." Remee said. Like all the others assembled there, he'd just lost his father. The idea of losing the elves was too much for him to dwell on. "But he is angry, Lusis. He is very angry. I'm afraid he's not alone in that."
Elsenord tapped the table with his index finger, "And, coming or going, they need to be out of your bedroom. We know their virtue – gods, we'd never doubt yours – but it puts the family on edge. Mother's going to have fits if it keeps up now that you're awake."
"Yes, I know." Lusis said.
Then Remee said, "Then fine. Your pretty elf friends are here. Why?"
Because they've given up on protecting the Woodland Realm with jewels and King's Light, now they know I'm a wizard.
That would not settle their qualms any. It sure as fires didn't settle hers.
She looked around the table. "This can go no further than this room. We can't tell Irin. He's a chatterbox. Tiranord either. He's never kept a secret from Irin in his entire life. And you have to swear to be quiet about this as well. Lives could be lost."
"Tell us, sister," Elsenord, his voice a bit pinched with worry, now opened his hands on the table. "We've always stood beside you."
And that was the truth.
She nodded at them. "I came to work with them a short time ago. The elves see something in me – something I do not. They are convinced of my importance."
"Good," said Remee with a satisfied nod. "That's a good start, anyway. No one saw anything in that little Hobbit boy either, I'm sure."
"Not so," Elsenord said, "the wizard Gandalf did. It is a matter of record in Gondor."
Lusis tried to ignore the fact that wizarding elite had come up in the conversation, and here she was, the underachiever of the lot. She cleared her throat. "The tall, blond elf, he is from the Halls of the Elvenking. And I promise you that if Kirst lays a hand on him… our Keep will burn to the last stick and Buckmaster Spur will be erased from the mountain. Because he is the Elvenking."
There was nothing for a moment.
She asked, "Do you understand me?"
Remee laughed and hugged his ribs. Her remaining brothers just stared at her. Elsenord, particularly, seemed shocked at the implication there was no punchline. But he couldn't bring himself to laugh because her face was so grave.
Elsenord's voice sounded pallid. "Lusis, my sister, who… whose word do you have for this?" He spoke gently as if reluctant to tell her she'd been deceived.
"I've been there," she told them. "I walked to Mirkwood. I lived through something fell and went into the Halls for help. The Elvenking felt pity. He helped me. He's sure I'm of some importance, Elsenord." She sucked in a shaky breath, "He's, uh, very sure."
"And you," Remee nodded at her, certain of one thing, "You're sure you're not. How could you be?" He didn't need to add anything more. Her brothers knew a secret of Lusis. She'd been left for dead as an infant, exposed in a pile of rocks along with several other babies. This had happened on the edges of Angmar territory, and she could not forgive herself for that possible taint. She missed the fact her fierce heart had survived what had killed the rest.
She shook fragility aside and squared up. "If we want an Eldar to stand with us… he's the one. He rode up to Long Lake and claimed the land there. You should know that we brought in Rangers and they opposed him, at first – though their rudeness makes more sense in light of what you've told me. But the Elfking showed restraint, and now the Kingdom pays those Rangers their keep. We can fix this. It's the truth."
"Kirstman would ask how long it will be before he runs out on us too." Lonnan got up to push back the draperies at the window and look at the smudge of colour that was the sun behind the snowfall.
"If that's what you're afraid of… ask him." Lusis said. She was suddenly afraid of the answer. "He's just doors down, being harassed by the same people who want his power to protect them. The same people who want to adore him." It was insane.
Lonnan exhaled and opened his hands, "Elfking. And you believe him?"
Lusis' eyes narrowed, "Lonnan, I stood in the Great Hall in the Woodland Realm and saw-"
The commotion in the upstairs interrupted Lusis.
Angry shouts. One guess who that would be.
"Fires," Lusis knocked over her chair on the way to the door, and nearly jammed the frame trying to get through it with Elsenord. She shoved him back at Lonnan and shot past, immediately horrified to see Kirstmen and several of his closest Ranger brethren, at the open door of her room. One of them had dragged out Ewon by the front of his green shirt. The Elite's arms were open, his hands ready, but empty. The elf's expression was even.
Lusis drew her sword first. "What are you doing to the guests of this house, Kirstman?" She strode toward him.
"You have no more say in this, Lusis. Considering this mortification to our name is your fault." her brother snapped and caught a fistful of Ewon's shirt in his fist. "I've decided they must leave this place. And do your already soiled reputation no more damage."
"Into the teeth of this storm?" she barked at him. "Have we ever done that?"
"I've never had as strong a need before." He swung around and his dark blond hair fanned around him. "And since you cannot contain yourself, I'll put them out without even the cloaks they came in with. I'm tired of your impertinence."
"Fine." Lusis gasped and lowered her swords. She hoped to encourage him to remain calm, seeing as she thought he was no longer in his right mind. "Let them collect their things, resupply, and go." She backed a few steps away and aside, so that she could see Ewon's calm, still face. His eyes never strayed to her. They never left the Man who had hold of his clothes.
"No," Kirstman shook the elf at the end of his hand. "They go out into the weather, right. Now. Everything that they brought remains with us, and they take nothing from our community. I want them to vanish."
Around Lusis in the quickly filling hallway, there was a rumble of concern. Northern Keeps didn't operate this way, and travelers were seeing their own sorry fates before their eyes should they somehow prod Kirstman Buckmaster's ire.
"You can't put him out in the storm, good Buckmaster!" Someone cried.
"What's a storm to an almighty elf?" scoffed Kirstman, and then he growled down into Ewon's face, "Or that's what they say."
As if summoned by threat of violence, the King leaned in Lusis' doorway. He looked calm, but it was clear in the way his head dropped to one side that he was running out of patience.
"Then let him go. Let him leave," Lusis tucked her sword away and gestured at Ewon with her open hand. "Leave this place." Her insides twisted at the idea of her good friend, whom she'd fought shoulder-to-shoulder with in Lake Township, facing the killing cold without as much as a cloak.
The King stepped out beyond where Redd stood blocking the door. Redd's eyes widened.
"Oh no," murmured Lonnan. Things began to move very quickly.
Lusis flexed her knees and rushed forward.
The Buckmaster boys surged up the wood flooring behind her.
Kirstman began to turn, and Redd began to block for the King.
But Ewon was closest. His palm shot upward and with a tap of an open hand he disarmed Kirstman and took the knife. He swiveled up to the wood railing, darted up to the rafters, and was back in the corridor. It seemed one single motion, and so fast most people hadn't had a chance to move.
Ewon fell in beside Redd and before the King, now armed.
The Elfking stepped up and extended a hand to Ewon. The Elite handed over the knife and bowed. The King passed it back to Kirstman with a cold admonition. "If you persist in waving these at people, Kirstman Buckmaster, you will be injured." He glanced over his shoulder at Redd and the Ranger followed the Elfking to Lusis and Ewon.
"Where are Aric and Icar?" she muttered to Redd.
"Downstairs getting supplies for," and Redd jerked his head at the Elfking.
"Get in Elsenord's room. All of you." She hoped Elsenord would have the sense to guide them. And she saw Redd look to the King, who gave a stately incline of his head.
"Lus, let me," Remee stepped past the knot of Lusis and the elves in the hall. "I'll speak to Kirst." His eyes swept over the tall, blond elf's hauntingly agreeable face, so affable and devoid of a single living emotion. It was like looking into the eyes of an apex predator. "Fires."
"Remee, why would you involve yourself in this?" Kirstman opened his arms in frustration at his youngest full brother. "I've had my fill of elves-"
Lusis lost the rest in getting the King and Ewon to Elsenord's room.
As soon as the door was shut. Ewon walked the King to the back wall before he turned and came to her, "Why, friend-Lusis? Are you not all Rangers? Why would he endanger peaceable elves?"
The Elfking leaned on the stones of the wall and turned his head to take in the small cube window beside him. "Well, these are certainly not elves, as evidenced by their seeming inability to build a proper window," he remained coldly patient, "why would you expect elven reasoning from them, Ewon? Look at how differently their minds work – as narrow as these windows." The King began to pace.
Ewon inclined himself somewhat desperately and said, "They are beyond my limited ability to fathom." He stepped back toward the door, to guard it.
For his part, the Elvenking's head tipped to the precise point where his rage was on a knife's edge. He glanced to Lusis, sharp and bright. "Are all mornings to be this eventful, do you think?"
"Please ignore my fool brother," she spoke through her teeth. "He's friendless and wouldn't understand the dedication that the elves feel toward a companion. And I should also thank you for taking care of me. I'm not worthy of-"
He'd reached the back of the room again, and his tone was dry with the desiccation of Kingly ennui. "I swear to you, if one more person in this house tries to tell me who is, and who is not, worthy of attention-" but he caught himself, and shot a narrow-eyed glance back at Lusis.
The King was in a terrible mood and seemed to miss his sword.
"The actions of the Buckmaster Men are deeply shameful at this hour. I'm… I am so glad you weren't injured when you were accosted, friend elves." In fact, Redd was so relieved that he stood up and wrapped his free arm around Ewon and the elf stiffened with the unfamiliar contact. Redd was taller than even the Elfking, so Ewon, who wasn't terribly taller than Lusis, was essentially enveloped in human. But he remained calm until Redd moved away again.
Ewon retreated toward the King, who had turned a familiar, vaguely smiling expression toward Redd Ayesir. Now said to his Elite, "It's like watching a child embraced by a forest Ent." His voice burbled with amusement.
The dark-haired elf's head cocked. The King had to look away. The motion was unusual in Ewon, who was generally extremely even-tempered and unquestioning. He set his fingertips on one cheek for a moment, and then glanced back at Lusis. "Friend-Lusis, I believe it is wise to take your brother up on his offer. The weather is turning, and it has become too dangerous for him here."
The Elfking hated to be spoken of rather than to so Ewon's revenge was immediate.
"I know," Lusis stepped aside and motioned at her brothers, "My Lord, I'm not sure you've met Lonnan and Elsenord-"
He gave a small nod, his expression so lissome in that moment of greeting that the light of it should have been captured in oil paints. He crossed back toward Lusis, "These are more of your endless supply of siblings, I presume."
"Yes, they are," she reached up to tug Lonnan's shirt sharply at the throat, and her older brother remembered to duck down, as Elsenord did, into an uncertain bow. "The difference being these two, like Remee in the hall, are trustworthy. They're going to get your things before we steal out of here."
"Hurry up about it," he looked up at the rafters and around at the windowless walls. "It is like being on the inside of a keepsake box, this place." He stopped moving, and then went to the window, which he hinged open, though it let a frigid breath of air into the room. "Lusis. Bells. What do the bells mean?"
Elsenord took out his sword at once.
Aric hammered on the door to the room. "Coming in, Chief!" As ever, Aric was more prone to use her title when she was most likely to be dismissed without its being said. He pushed through with Remee and Icar behind him. "If ever there was a time to sneak him out, this is it." He shoved a traveler's bag of supplies at Lusis. "Hurry."
Ewon glanced around him and spotted a long silver-fox fur on a hook behind the door. He strode over, snatched it, and threw it around the King. As he pulled the hood up around the blond, he said, "It shall be replaced," he added a hasty, "Mind him." And he was gone.
Lusis got the pack Icar had brought and dispatched her troop to collect all of their gear. She glanced over Lonnan and Elsenord. "See us out?"
Lonnan shut the door, hastily. "He's really the Elvenking of the Woodland Realm?"
"I really am," said Thranduil lazily from inside his hood. He sounded amused.
Lusis frowned and looked back in her brother's direction, "I can take care of him. You don't have to come with-"
Now Lonnan turned to Elsenord. "Get my halberd."
Her brother blinked a few times, and then was decided. "Lonn, the travel bags are under the beds." He turned to the King but spoke to Lusis, "And if he's the Elfking, he can have the fox cloak, to hide him out there." He hurried through the door.
They were in gear and ready in minutes.
Ewon came back with a bag on his shoulder and bowed to the King. "Please."
"There is no need," the Elfking waved this gesture away. "You would have to beg me to stay, Ewon. Let us leave this place and its strangeness behind."
Outside the door, chaos had broken out in the Keep. Women and children were herded to the Main Hall and crowded in the back corner. The rugs there had been rolled back, and a trapdoor had been opened. They headed down into a set of caverns under the Keep.
Lonnan paused. "Gods, where is mother?"
Lusis' face twisted with pain and she said a silent prayer for her Mellona, that she stayed in their defense, deep within the Keep, but she also remembered herself as she turned for the door. "Mother is a warrior, Lonnan. You forget."
They passed through the Main Hall, part of a flood of Men to the wide doors. They crossed the yard in silence. She hurried them the short distance down to the cold and crowded gates. She snatched a hold of the Elfking's wrist to slow him when he started for the thick stone ramparts. His hooded head looked down at this, and her action had the desired effect. He didn't leap up to them.
Kirstman strode along the top.
"Hoardings and gatehouses! Archers to arrow-loops!" Kirstman bellowed from the wall-walk and steam jetted around his broad, powerful shoulders, it frosted his short, blond beard. In answer, men shot in every direction around him, and rushed into position. Lusis sucked in a chokingly cold breath: how tremendous her eldest brother was when he rose to meet crisis. How like her father Kirstman was when he rallied. Now he raised his sword, "There are Rangers riding hard with horns sounding, mad for the gates of Buckmaster Spur! How will we answer them?"
Weapons stabbed air and a tremendous roar of voices rattled the stones.
The Elfking backed up a step, unarmed, and uneasy at the raucousness.
Kirstman's sword wheeled in air. It was a massive cleaver of steel called Greybuck, and the same her father had held just months before. The men of the Spur saw it and knew it for what it was. Good Nevrmen Buckmaster was gone. But Buckmaster steel would resound in this cold vault forever. Kirstman was the living embodiment of that continuity. "Rangers come to Keep, hard-pressed, and we do not know the enemy. How will we answer them?"
Another deafening cry, swords clapped to steel targes, and Ewon set a hand on the chest of the man he protected. His other hand worked his bow free, and let the quiver drop on its belts, to hang at his side, in easy reach.
"Lines along the road, and attack at will!" Kirstman pointed his longsword over the walls and the big gates howled open with terrific report, since the ice over the hinges had exploded from the steel.
The long downward slope of road was blindingly snow-blown, it was only possible to see grey shapes coming, yet, but the Rangers had been hard at work grooming the way in and creating white ridges of snow to use as cover. She knew from experience, those snow ridges were invisible from the road up. Kirstman's voice bellowed above the blasting wind, "They ride to their brothers! Bring them home!"
The roar made Lusis plant her feet, because she was so used to sweeping out over the snow, fleet and fast, a terror with the quick surety of her sword. Her heartbeat accelerated against her even breathing, so that she could feel it in the back of her tongue, and she tested her joints in the cold and squinted into the onslaught of blowing snow.
Rangers and warriors poured out of the Keep like blood from an artery. They flooded onto the spur and found their way into the drifts just as the first of the men with horns stumbled, bloodied, out of the storm. She knew his tattered blue flag with its black hawk. He held it in his fist. The pole of it was gone. Shock passed through her. Lusis felt herself unhinge. Her feet were moving. She picked up her sword and howled. "Men of the North! If you are Men, bring them in, safe!" Dozens of warriors heard her. Their feet began shuffling forward until the crowd of them broke apart and half a dozen went tearing down the road.
She started to pick up speed to follow them, because come fires or floodwaters she was bringing the sons of Bregor Arad into Buckmaster Keep alive and she would not stand back and watch her brothers fall.
"Lusis!" Elsenord caught up with her. He yanked her shoulder the motion turned her around.
The King stood some distance behind her, without steel, without mail, a peaceful traveler. Tall, beautiful, swathed in fur, and unarmed. It was physically painful to step away from the gates, but she turned and rushed to him, and she was panting with the effort not to run after the Rangers, "Come with me, Elvenking."
He reached a pale hand and rested his fingertips on her blade. She felt the charge run through it. She still carried the very elf-steel he'd given her, which she called Ial. Cry. And he'd just passed his fire through it. Her eyes could see what no one else here could. King's-Light. King's-Fire. It was that force inside of him that subjugated evil.
He knew how to pass some of it into elf steel.
Redd hurried out behind her and turned left. "Come on, lass! I have a feeling your brothers have this one covered. Let's hustle the King down the gap!" Right on his heels came Aric and his brother, Icar, the latter of which threw a heavy fur cloak over Lusis' shoulders, and threw the strap of her bag around her shoulder and chest.
"The gap is looking good for us, right now, Lusis," he puffed in the cold. "Or so Remee said of the weather hereabouts. Let's get him to the Great Greenwood before your brothers lock him out."
She glanced at them, at the world she knew, boiling and frenetic, all around her.
The Rangers had several of the Arad troop in hand and were tearing back toward the Keep.
"They don't need you, Lusis." Icar said nearly into her ear. "Not this time. The King does"
Ewon's bow-work was so quick that it was a smudge of motions, but he'd let off several arrows fletched in the red and gold of Mirkwood. A howling yelp sounded among the indistinct shapes hurtling up at them. "Wargs," his lips pulled into a quick snarl of disgust.
He'd felled two. He shot the third through the eye before it was really visible. Wargs with goblin raiders astride broke through the snow and Rangers seemed to 'appear' out of their dug-outs.
"We need to go," she caught the King's hand. "Stay with me. Close."
They hurried into the storm as the gates began to shut behind them. But there hardly seemed any need. There were eight Warg raiders left, chasing a troop of ten battered Rangers. There were close to two hundred hardened warriors in wait in the snow. Wet and steaming webs of blood began to ripple and freeze across snow. The attackers were being cut down. Redd reached a guiding hand that did not touch the King and went down along a narrow path in snow, ahead of him, but just behind Ewon.
"At the fork, go left!" Lonnan bade them all. "We clear the rope lines around the hours during storms. With the snow so high if you duck into them, you will leave unseen. Here. Follow me! Follow!" He passed into the bank of snow on the left.
Elsenord directed her troop and the King. "Put your hand on the second rope and follow it no matter what comes to pass, and it will take you down to the gap we speak of – a fissure in the stone into which we have cut broad steps. We will lead you, but watch your step."
Aric shot ahead. "That last part – unnecessary for him. Trust me."
Icar smiled as he lugged their packs past.
Redd shot a glance at the Elfking as he paused to look at the falling Wargs. "Pay no mind. Just dogs, my Lord. And goblins. They arrived late for the funeral of great Nevrmen Buckmaster, now their skulls will decorate the walls." The King stepped toward the ropes on his left.
Lusis grinned wolfishly and followed, "Well, they're right on time for their own." Her dad would have loved this. She pressed her hand to the rough, cold rock face and they started downward, two steps, then ten. The stairs were built long and shallow in case one slipped, highly unlikely of the Elfking. And a great, shuddering shriek, like every horn in the North, but terribly high in pitch, juddered above them. Everyone in the tight pack of Rangers making the King's escape turned and looked up the stairs.
The King's back stiffened. He stopped and reached forward to slide one of Ewon's long swords free. He turned and started upward.
When she realized what he was doing, Lusis scrabbled to grab him.
The white fur cloak came free in her hands because he'd reached up to unhook it from his chest.
Ewon's eyes were huge at the shadow that passed over them in the snow.
Lusis charged up the stairs and hammered her gloved fist on the gatehouses. "Arrows! Archers!"
"Oh, Lusis-sell," said the Elite.
It seemed everything was moving too slowly, even her voice, and the steam of her breath in the frosty air, when the first dragon came down from the flurry, a dark mottled blue with grey, and white eyes. She fell back against the stone walls and sucked air, her eyes frozen wide open. It was between forty and fifty feet long, with a narrow body, a long neck, stubby head, and massive wings. The King walked down the middle of the road to Buckmaster Spur, and the light of him that her wizard eyes could see – that golden flame inside his chest – climbed to a white-hot blaze. He spun the borrowed sword. His ice-blond hair rode in the wind. The dragon leaned left in air. Wind whistled around its wings, and the tip of the lowest entered the snow and shot it up in air in a huge fan, like a wall, behind it. It banked hard around the walking King and climbed into the sky. The next dragon did much the same, but coming in on the right.
It was like her life passed before her. But it wasn't her life. She saw the Halls and Eithahawn's poised face; Legolas with his buttery hair flying as he stood in the flowery field beside Lake Township. Comforting memories. She heard herself make a hoarse sound that might have been a scream as she tried to get righted. Her body seemed locked to the stone wall.
Ewon's hand clapped against her upper chest.
Somehow, she tore out from under it. He caught her running form. "No. No, Lusis-sell."
Redd clapped his monstrous arms around her on one side, and Lonnan on the other.
It was lost to the loud blare of a dragon, when she was unable to struggle free, and then screamed his name.
The dragon dipped right for him, and the King didn't change a whit, right up until the last instant, when he suddenly lashed the sword around, slammed it into the dragon's open mouth, and cut it open far, far down its throat. His shoulder rolled over the wing and came up standing when the dragon hit the ground in an explosion of blood, and slid until it smacked into the gates. Dead. And shocked about it.
The other dragon made a furious noise far overhead.
Rangers came up to the road, Kirstman with them. "Retreat under the walls!" he shouted and then pointed Greybuck at the arrow loops. "Fire at will! Fire at will!"
Ewon sucked a deep breath in disbelief.
"No you'll hit him!" Lusis shrieked and tore out in front of the gatehouse she leaned against. She gestured at her brother. "Kirstman, tell them no! You'll hit him!"
But Kirstman just looked at her in passing.
Ewon flew down the road at his King, but he wasn't going to make it before the dragon did. Arrows started raining from the Keep. Lusis went numb. She watched one clip Ewon's ear. Another smacked into his shoulder. She just screamed and wasn't quite able to break free from Lonnan, Redd, and the others.
They took her to the ground and Redd pinned her.
She could hear nothing but bowstrings and dragon blares until the cries of many, many Wargs sounded in the hills.
Kirstman spurred the horns above her somewhere. "Rally! Rally! Many Wargs! Many!"
Her family of Rangers let up.
She saw nothing but red, and she tore over bloody snow, unable to find King or king's man, so she ran for the Wargs with her arms open and bristling with elf-steel. She'd killed many Wargs in her day, but never like this. She slammed into the first and hung on like a cat as it fell, then her upward stroke took off the head of the very surprised goblin riding it.
Lusis walked through them, incensed. Outraged. And she cut away bits and pieces. When a goblin aimed a cleaver for her head she smacked its blade aside with the flat of her hand and shrieked at him, "You cannot kill me today!" before running him through.
She was busy. She had a job to do.
Her brothers and troop were hard pressed to keep up with her.
Redd appeared on one side, swinging a monumental axe. Lonnan's halberd sliced off the top of a goblin's head. She saw Aric step up on a fallen Warg and get up behind a goblin he stabbed and threw down. Icar slammed a spear into the Warg and caught his brother as he leapt off. She scanned the sky, walking through burning bodies and a rainfall of flaming arrows to her right.
The dragon was gone. Where was the dragon? Fires.
The world rushed at her. Kirstman had caught her by the arm. For a moment, she saw he was talking to her, but heard only fighting, dying, and the kind of white-hot rage that came from being betrayed and losing people she loved. She threw his arm aside with such undisguised distaste that he backed away from her. She roared at him, "You fool, Man! What have you done?!"
He was wind buffeted. The gates behind him jumped free of frost.
He snatched her clothes and pulled her along behind him, "You're a fool, Lusis! You girl. You're betrothed! There is no hope. It has no purpose. Only a fool loves an elf!" He pulled her back toward the Keep, both bigger and stronger than she was, and so much like her father in his appearance that she felt close to tears. The battle haze could no longer protect her.
She started to hear the sobbing of her own breaths. "You are a fool."
"Redd," she caught him as Kirstman dragged her through blood, bodies, and snow. His hand fastened on her wrist.
"Lusis?" Redd glanced from her face to Kirstman's, and he was shocked, and unsure what action was right here.
Lonnan stepped in front of his brother. "Kirstman, easy now. She's not travel baggage to be dragged over the steps, she's a Ranger. She's our sist-"
"She's neither!" Kirstman snapped. "She's a spoiled girl that our father indulged. Now she's at the point of ruination. I will make her an anchoress in this house if you don't step aside!" He yanked her so hard that Redd either had to let her go, or pull her arm out of its socket. Lusis realized at once that she would have preferred the latter.
"Lusis," Icar rushed at her through the snow.
"She's not your troop master – not your Chief," Kirstman set a hand on him and, with his great size, cast Icar to the bloody snow. "Not anymore. She wants to be a Buckmaster? There are sacrifices that come with that name. She has duties here."
It was true that she thought of her father. She thought of his proud eyes when he saw her handle a sword, of his joy when she adapted the craft to her different body and began to excel beyond her brothers. She remembered the day he laughed at the suggestion she was too wild, and he he'd told the disgusted man that it mattered not at all, because she was utterly fearless. And her mother, who had given her everything she could of the hodge-podge of women's swordsmanship – this rag-tag, half-remembered art that transformed a girl into a weapon. And who had stood up for her, and never once against her. She thought of years gone. But no matter what she thought of, she couldn't go inside that Keep and be the kind of woman Kirstman quite honestly needed her to be. She set her heels into the snow and gasped, "I will renounce the name before I call you my master! You are unworthy!"
He looked back at her, stunned, and then laughed. "Oh, Lusis, you clever little thief, stealing in, and stealing out." He shook his head, "I am your only master." When he turned again he faced the beautiful, white-steel arrowhead of Nimpeth Ewonien.
Still. Silent. Lethal.
Nimpeth stood tall, utterly motionless, with her feet planted. Her black hair was hidden under a silver helmet in the design of the Woodland Realm, under her hood, and she was girded with steel under her white shirred-fur cloak. Her bow was silver and her long arms did not tire. She was like a carving.
Kirstman's eyes widened. "The Rangers will cut you down," he said faintly.
"You will never know." She said calmly. "For you will be in the next world."
"Oh, but I can promise you," Kirstman had to control his breathing now, "if you loose that arrow, you will be joining me there, sharps." He gritted his teeth on the insult.
"Human…" Nimpeth stroked his eyelashes with the arrowhead, "do not find that… a comfort."
Neither of them moved. The wall was silent.
It was possible for those nearby to hear the elf-woman's next words. "You will release Lusis Buckmaster." She fixed him with a stare so soulless that he slowly let up on his grip on Lusis.
Lusis bolted out into the snow and stopped when she stood with Redd, Icar, and Aric. The younger men looked horrified by what they were seeing, but Redd was stalwart. He straightened her cloak and told the others, "Shoulder her bag. We leave."
After a moment of stillness punctuated by blowing snow that was already hiding the evidence of a battle, Aric picked up the pack. He spat in the snow almost on Kirstman's boot. Lusis turned and followed Aric blindly. Numb. Behind her, Aric's brother, Icar, stepped around to walk backwards in the snow. He stayed in front of Lusis so that she was hidden from view as she left.
"Mark my words: Better the wolves," he shouted angrily, "than this Buckmaster Keep."
"Lusis!" Kirstman shouted at her. "Lusis you cannot walk away from this." When he turned to glare at the elf woman, she was gone.
Decades of truce between the full-blooded Dunedain in Ona's line, and the half-blooded of warrioress Mellona's, was dead. This life spun through her fingers like snowflakes on the mountain. The memories melted to nothing wherever they touched her skin. She couldn't even feel cold.
Lusis felt nothing.
She only burned to find the King and Ewon.
They broke into a run as they passed from easy sight of the Keep. The snow closed in. Nimpeth appeared as they ran, simply materializing in front of them in the wall of snow. And the tall elf beside her was Amathon, her husband and fellow Elite. Her voice was low, "Friend-Lusis, come with us."
She shook her head, "No. Where is your father?"
"As I said, please come with us." Nimpeth stepped forward and opened her arms. She inclined her head, "It is not far."
It was far. Particularly in light of the fact the elves could dart along on the surface of the snow, and that included Amathon, an elf nearly as tall and broad-shouldered as the Elfking. So, of course, they could not gauge the distance properly for humans.
Lusis didn't care. She fought her way through with her men behind her, and followed Nimpeth into the shelter of a rock cairn that was often used by travelers. It had been built, a long time ago, with a long slab of stone to cover the two principal outcroppings, so that anyone inside was sheltered from the snow. Ewon curled on a fur inside, covered in a thick wool blanket. He lay before a small, dry fire. The arrow was out. It made Lusis queasy to see the blue fletch of the Buckmasters, each with a white 'horn' included near the end of the vane.
"Oh gods," Icar clapped a hand over his mouth when he saw the wounded Elite.
Aric inhaled the ice-cold air to control his reaction. "Well…. When I saw that rainfall of arrows I thought he would die." The Ranger used the side of his sword to knock snow off his boots and then stepped into the man-made shelter. "Goes to show you what I know."
Ewon's damp eyes opened at the sound of approach. He seemed groggy, but his hand was on a knife. A wounded Elite was a deadly Elite. But Lusis was swept with such relief when she saw he was alive that she walked into the shelter, got down on her knees, reached out a hand, and stroked his hair. She didn't know what to say.
"I'm staying with him," Aric grumbled.
She looked at him, because he'd ever been critical of the elves. Then she said, "Aric, show them how this shelter is meant to work in the snowy season. He can't get warm."
Aric distracted himself with feeding some of the winter-dried twigs he'd been pulling from the gorse into the fire, "I will…. What happened back there – all of it – was wrong. You've got to find the King, Lusis. There are Wargs and goblins, and, it seems, big blue dragons out here. I'm staying with Ewon." Prior to this, she hadn't been perfectly sure that he knew the Mirkwood Elite Guard's name.
None of them had seen a dragon before and she had the King's slow, calm approach locked in her head, and how he'd split one of them from mouth to chest, with a single stroke. She squeezed Aric's shoulder. "I only ask one thing. If any of my brothers come by, just… please avoid maiming them."
Now he looked at her, his breath puffing silver trails in air as his lip curled. "Sorry, Lusis. But they won't mind a single thing if they're dead." He snatched up the Buckmaster arrow and snapped it in his hands, a feat that took considerable power, given the construction. Icar made a soft gasp.
And, with that, he broke his vow of allegiance to the Buckmasters.
Lusis sat back on her heels. His hand chased her and came to rest on her shoulder. "You will have new fletching, Lusis. Something fitting for an Istari of gold. I'd give my life to that."
She clapped a hand over his on the front of her shoulder. "It would be my honour." And, as for the safety of her Keep under Kirstman Buckmaster, it was enough answer for Lusis. She prayed his men hadn't pursued her, because Aric wasn't one of the type of Ranger who went between camps and saw occasional battle. He was, like Icar, born in the wild. And like Steed, who was not yet among them, his childhood had been spent in a protracted war that had rolled across the top of the world like a great, ancient gear, wetted in blood. Lusis very much featured in the landscape of his young adult years, and, if anything, she had been still more battle-prone.
Icar's hand came down on her shoulder as well. "My life is yours."
Redd muttered the same, from the mouth of the man-made cave.
When the hands pulled back, she bent to Ewon's ear. "Aric will stay with you, friend-Ewon. You can trust in his sword and his heart. He would die to keep you out of harm's way. He is a Ranger of the North and… and vowed to this Istari." She added, "He will keep this place safe and warm."
Ewon's head turned a little, "The young… prince… Thranduil."
Nimpeth dropped down beside her father and fellow Elite. "He's feverish." She pulled back the pale blanket. The arrow had passed through Ewon's flesh at a downward and inward angle. It had exited him at just shy of the center of his chest and oozed blood down his flawless skin. She smoothed her father's cheek with one careworn hand and set her fingertips in a tent-like shape above the injury. Slowly, she began a chant.
"I've got this covered," Aric swore to her. "Go, Lusis."
"I'll find him." Lusis stood up under the blackened stone, "I will fix this."
She stepped out to where Amathon stood with his white hood up, and his proud head bowed. He was the husband of Nimpeth. Ewon was his family.
"Amathon," Lusis pulled him a little apart from the others. "Wargs can smell blood on the wind for many miles. This mountain will be thick with them by morning. You have to range. Do you know what that means?"
"To an elf, I do. You are a Ranger. What does it mean, friend-Lusis, when you say it?" His great eyes blinked, and a hank of his deep auburn hair leaked out of his hood and billowed over her shoulder. He had very long hair, Amathon.
"You cannot sleep. You need to walk great circles around this stone, and kill as many Wargs as you can. Hurry to do it. The stink of their own dead is sure to push them away. Goblins don't like it either. If you fail to do this, and to be diligent about it, they will come as one force, together, and they will get to friend-Ewon." Her face was grave. She'd seen packs of Wargs tear men apart in seconds.
He said, "I must find the King." And he looked back at his wife and father behind him.
"No, I will find our King," Lusis told him and added, "I am an Istari, Amathon, and I know this land and all the sheltered places he would go if he could. I will go to them. He is my King as he is yours, and I have no intention of returning without him." She'd do anything to help their odds of surviving on the flatlands. They would be in great danger staying here. "We may be gone a night or two. These places are stocked with wood and weapons in the back. That should tell you something. If you dig down into the gorse, there are bilberries that can be safely eaten. Stay alert."
He inclined his head to her. His hand touched his breastplate and came out to face her, palm up, and slightly cupped. "Le fael, malen-Ithron." He translated at once, "You are generous, yellow-wizard."
She put a hand on his breastplate to feel the warm red fire in him. "In the gods' names, be safe."
Lusis walked down from the sheltered hill and stood in the blowing snow. Her eyes scanned the distance for any sign, but the snow blew thick, and was still falling in places. She had said she would find him, but it was a big North. She set off along the path of least resistance, pushing hard.
But it wasn't the way he'd gone. She knew that within hours. When light was half done for the day. To a dragon, no rill or peak was off-limits. She looked up from the flank of Bregolnag. There was one excellent place for dragons. Redd sucked air in the high elevation and they had to rest him. He was huge and his large body suffered the shortness of air this high up, greatly. He was very nearly sick, but he refused to turn back.
"We… cross the ridge of Bregolnag-major and walk to Bregolnag-minor before heading for the Cave of Broken Steel." She looked aside at him. "You should go back, Redd."
His lips compressed into a stubborn line. Redd had a long history in the Northern Hoard, that library of last-resort for the peoples of Middle Earth. It was to that mountain vault that books were brought from Kingdoms under assault, or in peril. It was said they had books from Doriath locked deep in the troves. And when he'd read of the First Age son of warrior King Oropher – Prince Thranduil – as a child, he'd feared the great image of the ageless elf. But the man Redd had become loved the King and the Woodland Realm. He would not be turning back.
It was close to dark when they passed from Bregolnag-major to the minor peak. Much of that time was spent creeping and crawling across a wind-pushed arch of rocky escarpment so narrow they called it Blade Ridge. This was a crossing that shouldn't have been done lightly in good weather. Goats died here. Only desperation made her push onward with her men.
The incline was sharp into the setting sun.
Redd suffered this silently, stripping off the fur he wore rather than to break a sweat that would freeze onto him. His body steamed in the plummeting temperatures. They rounded the peak along an old goat trail. A drop splattered against Redd's shoulder and he swatted at it. He seemed surprised when his fingers came away bloody. "Everyone okay?" he turned quickly with his blade out.
Icar rushed forward and glanced around him, looking upward. "It… it's windblown blood." His mind did math in the cold. "We need to go toward the summit, Lusis. Something is bleeding near us-"
A powerful gust dotted their travel clothes in snowy red.
This thirty feet of climbing was the single worst ascent Lusis had had to undertake alone, on this journey. It was sheer and cold, the mountain bent outward where she eked her way, and Lusis nearly lost fingernails trying to hold on. At one point, her flesh ached like a pulverized bruise, and she could hear her heart, out loud, in air, thundering. When she got to the shelf above, she cast down a rope and lay back in the snow with her powerful legs braced against stone. Icar came up next, and she took the full force of his weight as he chose to climb the rope rather than risk the outward angle of rock. He fell in the snow beside her and held the rope with her for huge Redd.
When he made the shelf they all lay panting for a time, and Lusis' heart began to slow. The wind began to bury her. She made her way to her feet and folded rope around her arm. She didn't dare look down the way she'd come. That way lay madness.
Redd pulled Icar to his feet, and he shook the winter air off his cloak. They went around the side of this shelf of stone, and Lusis thought it was no larger, in places, than the docks at Lake Township. Redd started to run along the cracking frost. The world was red here, not just with sunset, but with dragon's blood. Great pools of it that they navigated around until they were forced to leap the neck of a blue dragon. It was cut into three pieces, away from the body dangling on the edge of this rock shelf, and slowly freezing on. The mangled wings were in broken tatters along the peak. They'd fallen in such a way as they sheltered the mouth of the Cave of Broken Steel, but Redd wasn't running toward that. He swung his fur cloak off and collapsed into bloody snow.
"I have you. I have you, my King." Redd muttered. "I have you. You are safe."
Lusis rushed toward him and then froze. Rooted.
The Elfking was prone in his fine Kingly traveling garb. He curled in a pool of blood that had formed under the severed throat of the dragon. It still steamed. He was red, from top to bottom. His skin and hair all soaked in blood. Lusis made a strangled sound and backed away as Redd fished him out. Ewon's borrowed sword slid from his hand and stood upright in the snow.
Icar wrapped it in his cloak and took it up with a soft swear. "Doom's Fires. He's all over bloody. Is he whole? Is he breathing, Redd?"
"This way!" Lusis hurried to the cave. Long ago, its mouth had been covered in leather cloth that hung in tatters now. She'd been here once before, and knew that Rangers stocked wood and strikers in the back of the cavern. She felt the need to slow her breathing by force of will. "Careful with him."
In shape this cave was like a hook. She turned immediately left in through the door, and through a narrow passage the cave opened up. The space was marked with human habitation. Old blankets lay in piles by one cold wall. There was a truly archaic wood bowl and blackened steel basin. She spread old blankets over granite and set the fire in the circle of blackened stone that held the ruins of fires stretching back centuries. "Put him here."
Redd carried the King against him, and as tall and great as the King was, he was like a child in Redd's arms. Icar hurried behind with handfuls of snow he thrust into the steel bowl and set on the fire. He rushed back out for more. Lusis knelt beside the Elfking and pressed her hand over his bloody chest. He… wasn't as cold as he might have been.
"The blood," she turned to Redd and laughed. "He got into the blood to keep from freezing to death."
She could feel his heartbeat.
Redd's shaking hands pulled Thranduil's blood-red hair out over stone, "Doesn't dragon's blood burn? I read in a book that it could be cold as ice, sharp as acid, or hot as…"
"Hot as fire. In this temperature that would be like a hot bath." She laughed again, because she was unable to keep the relief from bubbling out of her, and she leaned over the ear of the King, "Thank you, you brilliant man."
Icar was melting water. "Sun is going. I'd like to get some of those blankets over the door."
"I'll help," Lusis grabbed a handful of them and glanced back at Redd, "check him for injuries. Carefully, Redd, all right?"
Lusis and Icar brought in snow for boiling, several times, and set some snow aside by the mouth of the cave for later. It was easily cold enough there to preserve it. This work, and anything that involved going outside, would be taxing as it got darker. It would be next to impossible if the wind didn't let up. Getting warm and staying that way was more critical as the sun went down.
It took work and clever use of some of their climbing ropes to keep the blankets they used to bar the cave from blowing in. Icar and Lusis, in the end, managed to make two barriers. The one leading to the outside was well anchored, but drafty and prone to fluttering. A webbing of rope and the relentless pressure of the wind outside held this barrier, flimsy as it was, in place. Where the cave curved and narrowed, they set up a more solid barrier. The blanket here hung on long steel pegs someone had driven above the door long before. During this last bit of work, they had to strip off their winter cloaks. It was becoming warm inside. Icar hung both of their cloaks over the same pegs as held the blanket. Skin and fur were much more effective than wool and as soon as it was in place, Lusis felt the heat rise in the dry cave, and her body's energy sap. "Tea?"
"I think so," Icar rubbed an eye and went to his pack.
"Can you get out of the bottom flap of the door outside?" Lusis asked Icar. "We may need more snow for water." She felt parched as it was.
"Yes, there's a bit of a trick to it, but then, you really just need to reach a hand out," now Icar stretched, because the exhaustion of effort in the extreme cold was finally leeching into his joints. He took down his cloak and made to push the blanket aside. He'd been about to say, 'Let me show you' when the soft noise that rose from the inner cave made them both stop.
Lusis pulled Icar into the cavern with her. "Look at him?"
"It's okay," Icar chuckled over his shoulder. "He's decent." He turned to hang his cloak up again.
"Shush, both of you," Redd said to them, and he turned back to laying out the King's bloody hair on the stones. "Come in here and make tea. Something he'd find familiar if you have it. He's in and out."
They walked toward the heat together. Lusis was so tired she felt wobbly. She picked up Ewon's sword for cleaning. Redd had been pouring the cast-off water onto it in one corner of the cave, so, essentially, it was bloodless now, but cleaning it would relax her, and she knew it. She knelt down beside the King and sat on her heels. Part of her panicked that he wasn't already awake. She tugged the blankets up around him. "What are you doing?"
"He's uninjured, so-"
Icar fumbled the small bag of spruce needles and rowan berries he held and only just caught it before it all spilled. "Are you serious?" He bent to picking needles up off the floor of the cave.
"Very serious," Redd exhaled his relief. "He's unhurt."
Lusis found his bloody hand, "Why isn't he awake?"
"I'm unsure," said the goliath Ranger. "Maybe it's that he's fatigued. He wasn't resting in Buckmaster Keep."
"Don't mention that place," Icar scowled and looked at the craggy entrance to this cave as if Aric might come through it at any moment. "You're putting me in a sour mood." He smiled apologetically and picked up the steel cups they all carried. He dipped some of the steaming water from the bowl and set the rowan berries to soak in the cups.
"I'm washing the blood out of his hair is what I'm doing." Redd volunteered of the King. And he proceeded to do just that. He combed out the dried clotting, soaked the lengths, and then combed water through the rest. It wasn't perfect, but it was a clear improvement.
Redd smoothed his wet hair with his fingers to squeeze out water and traces of blood. She cleaned the sword and watched Redd daub trickles of blood from the King's skin. As soon as she was done, Lusis held his long, pale fingers curled over her own and felt for the steadiness of his pulse. He would be okay if he could wake. She smoothed the pad of her thumb through his eyelashes and felt the heat of his skin. "Is he feverish? He seems-"
"Adar," he said in a quiet tumble, "baw-adar." A moment later he burbled. "Hir vuin."
"I'd say feverish. Dragon's blood may be warm, but I read that it's not terribly good for a body. To be exposed to it, at all, one must go by degrees." Redd glanced at her hand holding the King's.
"He took a bath in it," Icar handed over mugs of tea.
"Save mine for the Elvenking. I'd like water," Redd shook his head and looked across at Lusis, to where she doggedly clean swords. "I wish I knew what he was saying. I… I don't suppose you can hear him in that Istari head of yours?"
"You know I don't believe in that." She shook her head at him.
"That you can hear him?" Redd was amused.
She drew a warm wet cloth down the white blade. "That I'm a wizard, you big forehead-lump. I don't believe that. I have no power but the power my sword, my wit, and my strength grant me. That's enough. So there's no chance I can hear him. There's a better chance for you two, in fact."
Lusis steeled herself. "There's no guarantee I have a drop of Dunedain blood. In you two it is assured, and that means somewhere in those big, feckless tubes of yours is a speck of probably very exasperated elven blood."
Icar chucked and curled up on his side by the fire, he set his head on his pack and laid his sword out before him on the stone floor. "And there's no evidence that you don't have that exasperated speck of blood, either." He blinked for a moment too long. "Haven't you heard an elf in your thoughts before, Lusis? Sometimes, in the Halls, I would overhear a sigh, or a laugh, emotions they keep inside."
She looked at the Elfking. "Let's just see him through the night, safely. That's my goal. Don't expect any miracles from me." She sipped her tea and then nodded, "First watch is mine."
They huddled around the fire, covered in blankets. Icar and Redd tumbled into sleep with the abandon of children. Lusis was horribly exhausted, and unaware of the hour. She got up to pace until the fire grew low. She set small amounts of fuel on it three times, and was so tired, by then, that she woke Redd, and lay down on the bare stone. Her head pillowed on the edge of Redd's fur, which now covered the Elfking. She brushed against him.
"Adar," he breathed and curled vaguely. He shifted to indistinct Westron. His voice so accented that it took a moment for her to process the word. "Cold."
On hearing this, Redd got to his feet and whispered that he would put a branch on the fire. He was back in the jumble of detritus at the end of the cavern and missed the King's next words.
"Your skin is… like ashes." His fingers worked on the dirt and stone floor.
"Easy. Rest easy, my King," Lusis sat up and tucked the furs around him. She lay against his side, with her face pressed to his ribs, and hoped that the heat inside of her would leak into his flesh. Dread filled her that he might never wake again. But exhaustion sucked her under nonetheless.
She became aware of the stink of blood, offal, and burning flesh.
In the distance, noise and confusion – cries, the crack of steel on steel, and the roar of many voices. A great battle was raging nearby. She could smell fire inside the dream. Distant fire. She, herself, stood in a pavilion whose lights were dampened. The moon flowed in through rips and blackened holes. It was in sad shape.
Figures lay in the dark.
She knew Thranduil on sight. She knew his long hair, and his eloquent hands, clenched in fists. He wore steel. His face was hidden. He lay over the bloody breastplate of a great tall elf, maybe a foot taller than Thranduil himself was. The stranger's hair was a magnificent mane of white waves tucked under the silver circlet and white stone she knew well. That pale hair was slowly absorbing a spreading pool of blood in which they both lay. This elf… his long and upswept silver eyes were open and dull, he was stunning. And he was blank. She'd never seen such nothingness in an elf before, and drew closer.
She jolted when she saw that half the big elf's breastplate was missing, along with half his chest, a shoulder, and an arm. Thranduil lay over this gaping wound like he could replace what was missing with his own flesh. His fingers slid in blood. They climbed the breastplate and left fingermarks through which the white steel shone. The low, quiet sounds that began to grind out from Thranduil's chest were pitiful. She felt her throat go tight, and her teeth set with agony.
"Please. No." He gasped the way that most elves repeated spells of healing.
Several elves lined the walls.
Ewon stepped from the dark and knelt in the expanding circle of blood.
He took the circlet from the fallen elf's waves of hair.
Thranduil remained in a slow agitation of begging and clawing on his father's steel. Even so, Ewon set the circlet onto his straight, pale hair. The Elite's words were as numb and unresponsive as his thin, drawn face appeared. "You are my own. You are my King. Long may you live." But he reached down to stroke the fallen elf's hair. He didn't touch Thranduil.
The elves in the room all bowed.
Thranduil wasn't conscious of his coronation. He was King of the Woodland Realm and his first words as a monarch were panicked whispers. "Father, no. No."
And here he was, thousands of years later, locked in this torment.
How had he come to be here?
How had she?
Lusis looked down at herself. Old, stained Ranger leathers dusted in golden specks, like she'd run through a cloud of Mirkwood pollen. And a light as large as an egg blazed at the base of her throat. She pawed at it to get it off, realized what it was – her Istari 'star-point', which was usually no larger than a grape-seed – and hissed out air. She put her hands on her knees and bent until she calmed down. When she straightened, Ewon stood staring, not at Thranduil, but at – that was Oropher. She clapped a hand to her mouth. Of course it was. Who else could it be?
She glanced around her. Shocked. Unable to explain to her own mind what was happening. She saw Ewon. He was clearly suffering as he looked at the man he'd dearly loved and served. He'd already forgotten about the newly crowned King. Indeed, the elves around the walls of the pavilion began to come close and lay flowers on the fallen King's hair.
Noiseless, feverish emotions had overcome the Elfprince… so the elves 'didn't see' him.
He might as well have cried out for help from the bottom of Long Lake.
Lusis turned away, she struggled through the darkness, and felt the steel and flesh, and braids of smooth hair for a way out. She'd just lost her own father. She knew what this grief was, and how it felt. It was a bottomless pit and she could feel the inborn instinct of it in her own middle, as structural to her humanity as breathing. She had to get away from him. His emotions were a vortex. Too desolate. And he was too powerful to run out of control.
She glanced over her shoulder, back at him.
Two of his fingertips caught on the jaggedness of broken breastplate and began to bleed.
Lusis froze. That blood gleamed in her mind, more precious than rubies.
He's trapped here. He can't get out.
It was torture. Lusis began to hate dragons as she'd never despised an animal before. Then the sonorous voice of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, came to mind. It was like a cool wind over the fever of her fears: If you had been overwhelmed by the beguilement, what then?
That thick, hot blood had kept the Elvenking from freezing to death, but it came with a price. What had saved him had flung him into fires, alone. And an elf could die of grief.
Dragons were insidious. And he was besieged. But he was not alone.
She scowled at her spinelessness, which was, she reflected, no way to honour the memory of her own father. Lusis turned. She bared her teeth and went to the Elfking. Hadn't she sworn that she would be his protector? She knelt down behind Thranduil. She lay over his broad, bowed back and stretched her arms along his. The power of him, though. The unthinking dominion of those grief-stricken muscles. Had she been like this?
Lusis couldn't move him. She tried once, twice, on the third time she pushed her face into the back of his bowed neck, against his callously soft hair, even in this awful extremity. "We cannot alter what's done, my King. I could curse that the nature of such good beings does nothing to prepare you for death! Listen to me. One moment he is there, and in the very next just his things are left. His armour. His Kingdom. His blond hair and crown. His son. He's gone. And you have to get up and leave him behind." She fastened her hands around his wrists and straightened.
He came up with her. Quiet. She could feel him panting for air. He fought for self-control.
"I'm sorry," she pressed her forehead against his cold armour. She struggled for words, and found what Mellona had told her. "There's a great gulf between you now, and all the love, all the warmth, all the years… are nothing beside the truth. You stand on opposite shores. He's left you behind."
The voice she heard next wasn't the whispering voice of the youth he'd been. It was the slow, sad voice of the King she knew, the one who had lost much. He extended a long hand, this one wearing the rings his wife had given to him. He stroked his father's hair. Laid his hand against the great-elf's smooth cheekbone.
Lusis' hand chased his wrist. "No, Thranduil."
"I only want to touch him," the King said, "one last time. Even if only… in this nightmare." His fingers stroked his father's smooth cheek. After a moment, he reached out and shut his father's grey eyes. Then the Elfking's voice was sorely quiet, "Le melin, adar."
The apparition broke like a fever dream. Lusis' eyes opened in the dimness of the cave. She was colder now, bundled against the King's side. Icar was behind her, feeding the fire. Slowly the King's hand came up to rest against her hair. His fingers curled and pulled it gently back from her face.
She sat up.
Icar pulled his sword, "Damn!"
The King's long silver eyes were open. He looked very unsteady at that moment.
Redd leaned over, awake now, and saw the King was back among them. "Tea," he said with quiet urgency. "Tea, Icar. Hurry."