The March of Time

24: The Halls of the Elven-king

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Halls of the Elven-King

A graveyard. That was Alison's first lucid thought, the first thing that came to her mind after—she didn't know how long. She had been floating in a suspended state, like an insect encased in amber, for an unspecified amount of time. She couldn't remember anything before now, before she was standing in a dark and haunted place, the wind rasping across her skin like the edges of a knife, and something foul, something sinister, hanging in the air like a shadow in the night, sending shivers down her spine.

At first there was only darkness, and then something rose up out of the gloom before her, a fortress concealed in shadows, except they looked more like ruins than anything; broken down walls and towers of cracked dark stone, choked with festering black vines and overgrown with other slimy, withered vegetation, and surrounded by a swirling, poisonous sky and an equally rotten forest, much like that of Mirkwood, with a smell of sulfur in the air. It was deathly silent, as well, no sign of life anywhere, which was where Alison had gotten the graveyard idea.

Despite the silence and the air of abandonment surrounding the place, there was a sense of something…powerful around the fortress, almost like magic. She had felt something like this once before, when the Company was making their way to Rivendell through the cavern, but this magic felt infinitely more dark, more oppressive and…evil, almost. And then it hit her as to where she was: Dol Guldur, the Hill of Sorcery. But how was she here?

And then, from Alison's view point, she saw a precarious, crumbling bridge, spanning over a shadowy chasm, and then a figure, making its way quickly across the bridge, not even minding the fact that there were no handrails and that they could plummet to their death any second. It was impossible to make out any details from this distance, what with the fog and the long, trailing black cloak the figure wore, with the cowl drawn low over the face.

As Alison watched, the figure was coming out of the forest and making its way to the fortress, and then, despite Alison knowing that she was in a vision of some sorts, and that none of this could possibly be real, she still uttered a small gasp and leaped back into the shadows as another figure emerged from the gates of the ruins, a figure she recognized instantly: the Pale Orc, Azog the Defiler.

To her astonishment, Azog inclined his brutish head to the figure imperceptibly, looking down at least a foot into the cowled face. There was a brief exchange that Alison could not hear, and then the Orc and the figure made for the fortress gates; Alison was so wrapped up in watching them that she had unconsciously leaned forward to get a better view, but her balance wavered and her foot slid on the slimy grass under her boots, and she let out an audible gasp that carried over the ruins below. Heart thudding wildly at the prospect of being heard, she threw herself back into the cover of the shadows, but the two people on the bridge below didn't hear her, continuing on into the gates and confirming her suspicions that this was just a dream of some sorts, and she wasn't actually at Dol Guldur in some spiritual way.

As the two passed through the gates to Dol Guldur, there was a sudden explosion of blackness in front of Alison's eyes, and she bolted upright in a strange room filled with soft, dim light, her stomach immediately roiling and cramping. Alison promptly rolled over on her side and retched, bile stinging her throat as her stomach heaved, and she was distantly aware of light, gentle fingers holding her hair away from her face as she emptied the contents of her stomach into a stone pot of sorts settled next to the cot she found herself to be on.

When she was done vomiting, the gentle hands pushed her carefully back into the pillows of the cot, where she lay, weak and trembling, staring blankly up at the ceiling as cold sweat coated her skin, though she noticed with relief that it wasn't stemming from the fever that had been burning her so ruthlessly inside and out for the past several days. Though still slightly warm, she would take this annoying discomfort over what she had been feeling before, and when a cool, silk cloth met her forehead shortly after, she nearly sighed in bliss—until she became aware that she had no idea where she was, and that there was someone else with her.

Alison jackknifed to a sitting position, ignoring the cramping protests in her muscles and the wave of dizziness that rushed through her head, automatically reaching for the swords on her back until her fingers grasped nothing but empty air, and she remembered that Bilbo had taken the blades before they were captured by the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood and taken to their Realm a second before a voice spoke.

"You do not have any weapons on your person, so I think it would be unwise to put yourself in a position where you may need them," the musical, vaguely familiar voice said from somewhere to Alison's left as she attempted to launch herself out of the bed, and she froze in place, her eyes swiveling to the sound of the voice and taking in her surroundings at the same time.

She was in an average-sized room, with no windows, lit only by a few hanging lamps of soft golden light that gave the room a warmer feel, and she thought for one wild moment that she was in a tree until she realized that it was just the architecture; the walls were a combination of lightly burnished stone, criss-crossed with actual roots from a tree, rising up to meet a vaulted ceiling of the same design where the lamps hung down from fine strings above her. She was seated upon a cot, covered with silken white sheets and soft pillows that propped her up, and the room was devoid of anything else besides a few cabinets and a table, holding things that looked like herbs, brews, and poultices, and Alison guessed she was in an infirmary as the bitter, sickly sweet smell of the medicines wafted towards her.

She was still wearing the same clothes she had had on in Mirkwood, including her armor-bodice (much to her relief), though they were damp and sticky and smelled horrible, and her hair hung limply, matted and tangled, around her face, yet all of these observations were shoved to the very back of her mind as Alison realized who was in the room with her.

Standing near one of the medicine cabinets was the captivating she-Elf that had saved hers and Kili's lives in the forest from the spiders, looking as beautiful and otherworldly in the golden light as ever.

She was still clad in the forest-green and brown armor she was in when Alison had first seen her, with two curved blades strapped to her waist, though her bow and quiver were nowhere to be seen. Now that she wasn't whirling around killing giant spiders, Alison could finally see her clearly, and she knew she had never seen a woman, human or Elf, so beautiful, besides the Lady Galadriel. She had long hair, longer even than Galadriel, hanging past her waist like a river of fire and curling at the ends, pulled back by a simple braid and highlighting her angular features; while still plainly Elven, they were slightly different than from those of the Elves of Rivendell, sharper and rougher, like that of a warrior instead of simply a maiden, and her eyes were a deep jade green, made even bolder in the dim light as they settled on Alison, with that same air of guarded curiosity.

A million questions bubbled behind Alison's lips, but the first one she blurted out was, "Who are you?"

The she-Elf raised her slender brows slightly; not haughtily, but more appraisingly, as if she were sizing Alison up.

"I am Tauriel, Captain of King Thranduil's Guard," she said finally, in her smooth, lilting voice. Alison racked her brains, but she knew for certain she had never heard of a 'Tauriel' in the book. She decided to let it go, though, as more pressing matters came to the forefront of her mind.

"So is this where I am?" Alison asked. "The Woodland Realm, King Thranduil's kingdom?"

Tauriel nodded, folding a pale blue cloth and setting it on the cabinet, and Alison realized that the she-Elf had been the one taking care of her earlier. "Yes, you are in the Woodland Realm, in one of the infirmaries," she answered. "You were very ill when we found you and your companions in the forest, but you are fine now. What was left of the water's poison has been expelled from your body, and your fever has broken."

At the mention of the Dwarves, Alison sat up straighter, ignoring the twinge that went through her belly as she did so. "Where are my friends?" she said, in the most dignified voice she could muster after vomiting and now facing down a very dangerous Elven warrior; but to her surprise, Tauriel lowered her eyes, looking down at the hand she had flattened on the cabinet beside her.

"They are being held," she said, and though Alison had suspected something like this was going to happen, she still felt a flash of anger go through her.

"Why?" she demanded. "They've done nothing wrong; all they did was ask for your help—"

"You are trespassers in this forest," Tauriel interrupted, meeting Alison's gaze again, and her eyes had gone harder, as if she wasn't used to being questioned. "My king would like to know why, but your companions have refused to divulge any information so far, something my Lord Thranduil has not taken to kindly."

Alison kept her mouth shut, wondering if Tauriel could hear her heart beating nervously against her rib-cage, but she forced herself to be calm and not give anything away; she knew Thorin would kick her straight back into the mortal world if he found out she had told the Elves of their quest, and she was determined to keep their journey to herself, so she stayed silent, meeting the she-Elf's eyes defiantly.

After several heartbeats of tense silence, Tauriel finally exhaled a small resigned breath, gliding over to the medicine table and standing behind it as she faced Alison.

"My king would also like to know if you are descended from the line of Heroes of Men," she continued, holding Alison's stare steadily. "He believes you are an Ashburne warrior. Is this true?"

Alison hesitated; Bilbo had taken her swords to protect her identity, but it seemed Thranduil already knew—or at least suspected—who she really was, and she mentally face-palmed herself. She was a human girl, obviously mortal, traveling with a Company of thirteen Dwarves; she was basically holding a sign that said HEY! MORTAL HUMAN RIGHT HERE! IT'S DEFINITELY NOT LIKE I'M A WARRIOR ON A QUEST OR ANYTHING…haha…

Finally, she sucked in a deep breath, and just decided to come clean, for the truth was bound to come out soon, one way or another. "Yes, it's true," she said, meeting Tauriel's gaze unwaveringly. "I am Alison Ashburne, descendant of Eleon Ashburne, one of the First Heroes."

Tauriel's expression remained neutral, but her eyes were calculating as they raked over Alison, and she tried not to feel intimidated, though she did feel a small glow of pride at how cool she had sounded introducing herself. It was just so…Middle-earth.

"Well," Tauriel said eventually. "I have no evidence to either prove or disprove your claim, so I will let my king decide his final judgment." Alison relaxed, but then she immediately went rigid and almost screamed as a knife suddenly appeared in Tauriel's hand, glinting dangerously, until Alison realized that it was her own knife, the one Fili had given to her.

"Sorry," Tauriel said, apparently having noticed Alison's momentary fright, but she held the knife up, examining it intently in the soft light of the room. "It's strange," she commented, turning the blade in her slender, deft fingers. "You claim to be a warrior, yet the only weapon you carry is this knife." She held it up for Alison to see clearer, her eyes boring into her. "Where are your other weapons?"

Alison swallowed past the sudden lump of anxiety built up in her throat, and she shrugged her shoulders in a play of nonchalance. "Couldn't tell you," she said, trying to sound bored, yet convincing at the same time. "I guess they were lost in the spider fiasco."

"We recovered nothing of the sort from the spiders' nests," Tauriel replied, equally cool, and Alison tried not to squirm under her gaze.

"Then I don't know what happened to them," she said, and to her surprise, Tauriel lifted her shoulders in a similar gesture as she had done, replacing the knife on the table, and she didn't press the matter further, instead focusing on organizing the piles of herbs before her.

When it was clear that the she-Elf wouldn't go on, Alison cleared her throat slightly of the lingering feel of retching, and, not having anything else to do and admittedly interested by this female Elven warrior, she decided to ask more questions.

"So…" she said slowly, and Tauriel glanced up from her task to look at her warily before she continued to stack the herbs. "Are you Captain of the Guard, and a healer?"

It took her a few moments to respond, obviously debating how much she should tell Alison. Finally, she came to a decision, and said cautiously, "Before I gained my new position, I often studied medicine. So, yes, I guess I could be classified as a healer of sorts, as well."

Alison nodded interestedly, but before she could ask anything else, there was the echo of a ghostly footstep outside, and then the carved wooden door of the infirmary swung open, bringing in the sweeping form of Legolas.

There was a rapid-fire conversation in Elvish between the two Elves, Legolas looking serious in the dim light, and Tauriel looking somewhat surprised, her brows arching up her forehead as she listened to Legolas. Finally, she nodded, and turned to face Alison, who had been watching blankly as none of the words made sense to her.

"It seems your…friend, Thorin Oakenshield, has agreed to speak with King Thranduil," she said, and Alison's own eyebrows shot up. "But the king has requested your presence, as well."

Alison swallowed hard, nodding despite the sudden flare of panic that spiked through her chest. "I guess I shouldn't keep him waiting, then, right?" she said, trying to keep the note of apprehension out of her voice. She thought she had done pretty well, but Tauriel looked unconvinced, and Legolas merely stoic, still standing in the doorway.

Alison made to get off the bed, but as soon as her bare feet touched the surprisingly warm floor, her knees trembled and promptly gave out, and she would've slammed face-first into the floor had Tauriel not appeared by her side and caught her by the elbows.

As the wave of weakness that had suddenly passed over her receded, Alison struggled to stand upright, managing to gasp, "I thought you said I was healed?"

"I said the poison has left you and your fever has broken; I said nothing of you being fully recovered," Tauriel said, sounding faintly amused as she helped Alison sit back on the edge of the cot.

"And you just didn't think to tell me this before I almost cracked my skull open?" Alison said, trying for a joke, and she could've sworn she saw Tauriel's lips twitch before her neutral expression was back once more.

"Is she too weak to stand before the king?" Legolas asked, gracing to Tauriel's side, and Alison found herself fervently thanking the Valar that pretty Elf hadn't been in the room when she'd hurled as he practically glowed in the soft light, his blue eyes vibrant and his white-blonde hair glinting with gold.

"I'm fine, thanks," Alison said drily, and the two Elves looked at her. She forced herself to hold their gazes, unsure of why she was being so snippy all of a sudden, but she liked it; it reminded her more of herself, the mortal girl from Earth with the sassy and sarcastic attitude that hadn't made her many friends, but who didn't care. It was comforting in this strange place, surrounded by ethereal people she didn't know and separated from her Company.

Legolas looked dubious, but Tauriel disappeared to a cabinet for a few seconds and came back, now wielding a thick-toothed comb of some sorts in her hand. "She can stand before the king, Legolas, do not worry," she said as she approached Alison with the comb. "If you wish it?" she offered, gesturing to Alison, and she nodded vigorously, reaching out for the comb.

"Very well," Legolas said. "As soon as she's ready, I'll lead her to the throne room. I believe it is your time for guard duty soon, Tauriel, and Elros is expecting you to relieve him."

At the mention of "guard duty", Alison yanked the comb through her snarled hair with a bit more force than necessary, clenching her teeth shut as she did so as another stab of anger flared within her. But she forced herself to calm down; Bilbo was still out there, not captured, and she specifically remembered him being the one to save the Company, though she couldn't remember how. They would be fine.

As Legolas and Tauriel began conversing in Elvish again, Alison finished brushing her hair; though undeniably better than what it had been before, it was still oily under her palm, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste as she pulled back on her filthy socks and boots, which had been left conveniently beside the cot. After a deep, steadying breath, Alison heaved herself back to her feet, waiting for the rush of nausea or weakness; fortunately, there was no crippling wave of illness this time, though her stomach still twinged uncomfortably and her head swooned slightly, but she managed to stay on her feet with only minimal assistance from Tauriel.

"Are you well enough for this?" the she-Elf asked, sounding genuinely concerned, and Alison nodded, giving her a faint, grateful smile.

"I'm fine," she replied to the two Elves as they stared at her with furrowed brows. "Now, let's go see this Woodland King."

She took a few shaky steps forward, Tauriel close behind her in case her legs gave out, but the more Alison moved around, the less wobbly and nauseous she felt, which she took as a good sign. After a slight hesitation, Legolas moved in front of her and led the way out of the room, Alison following behind with Tauriel in the rear.

They ascended a winding staircase filled with more golden light, which Alison thought was pretty impractical, but she reminded herself that Elves were far more nimble and stronger than ordinary humans, so they probably didn't have any problems with it, and she chose to instead accept it as they continued on.

The stairs led out into a splendid hallway, carved from the same light stones and twisted tree roots, but there were no lamps here, for one half of the corridor was dedicated to nothing but open archways which poured in soft evening sunlight from the world beyond, and Alison was surprised to feel the breeze, which was much chillier than she expected, and certainly crisper than she remembered. Upon closer inspection, she realized that the trees were not as vibrantly green, either, as the foliage had been before her and the Company entered Mirkwood, instead now taking on a more reddish-gold appearance, which didn't match up with August at all.

"The trees are lovely this time of year," Tauriel said from behind her, upon noticing her observation of the trees. "What little land that is still untainted from the spell over the forest is truly wonderful in the autumn."

Legolas shot a warning glance over his shoulder to Tauriel at her words, but Alison turned her own head so fast she felt her neck crick as she looked at Tauriel, eyes wide. "What did you say?"

"About what?" Tauriel asked, looking at her in confusion.

Alison stopped walking, facing Tauriel more fully. "You said 'autumn,'" Alison said, feeling her gut twist. "But it's only August…right?"

Tauriel furrowed her brows, stopping as well, and from behind Alison, she could sense Legolas' impatience, but Alison ignored him, focusing intently on Tauriel.

"It is the month of September," Tauriel said slowly, holding Alison's gaze, puzzled. "We are very near the first days of October, and the last days of autumn itself. Why?"

Alison felt her fingertips go numb with panic and horror. Autumn was almost over…which meant the Durin's Day deadline was any day now. They had been stuck in Mirkwood for a month, and they had lost precious time wandering around the forest aimlessly. And now they were trapped by the Elven-king, with no definite time of them leaving; what if they missed the deadline? What if they couldn't get to the Mountain in time, and the doors sealed shut? Then their quest would be for naught, and any hope they would have of reclaiming the mountain and killing Smaug would be shattered.

"Is something wrong?" Tauriel asked, as Alison stared blankly out of one of the archways, not even seeing the forest beyond. At Tauriel's voice, though, she brought herself back to reality, shaking her head slightly and looking back to the she-Elf.

"No, no, everything's fine," Alison replied quickly, trying for a reassuring smile, but Tauriel looked suspicious as Alison added, "We should get going." And she turned and continued after Legolas, hearing Tauriel fall into step behind her once again.

The three continued on through the halls of the Elven-king, and though Alison tried to keep track of where she was going, it was impossible, as there were so many twists and turns through the labyrinthine corridors she couldn't keep up. They passed only a handful of other Elves, all of them dressed in armor and robes of forest colors, their expressions sharp and serious and solemn, nothing like the peacefulness and serenity of their Rivendell counterparts, and Alison remembered Beorn's words from what seemed like ages ago: "The Wood-Elves of Mirkwood are not like their kin. They are less wise and more dangerous." And she couldn't help but to agree after seeing Tauriel and Legolas in action, and now seeing all of the other dangerous-looking Elves adorned with their armor and blades and bows.

The Elves all bowed their heads respectively to Legolas as he passed and did the same, though less enthusiastically, to Tauriel, and Alison was suddenly reminded that Legolas was Thranduil's son, making him the prince of Mirkwood, which would explain his obvious status among the Elves. They all looked at her curiously, but not hostilely, which made Alison feel like less of a prisoner, but rather more of an interesting specimen, and she kept her eyes on Legolas' back for the rest of the journey to the throne room to avoid their stares.

When they reached the great wooden doors that undoubtedly led to the throne room, Tauriel bowed to Legolas and said, "I will return to the dungeons and take over Elros' post now. Maer calan, Legolas, Lady Ashburne."

Legolas inclined his own head, returning the "Maer calan," and Alison followed his movement, bewildered by what the she-Elf had just said, but inferring it was meant to be respectful as Tauriel whisked away, down the corridor and out of sight, heading towards the dungeons where her friends were being held.

Alison felt a small twinge of anxiety when Tauriel left; besides the she-Elf having saved her life two times in the past twenty-four hours, Alison found her intriguing, and though reserved, Tauriel had treated her with kindness despite her being a trespasser on her king's borders.

Alison looked back to find Legolas staring at her with his electric eyes, and she tried not to get too flustered under his gaze, though she could feel her cheeks heating anyway as he spoke to her.

"King Thranduil values manners and respect above all else, though he sees flattery as a form of deceit and weakness," he said, and Alison blinked, unsure of what to say to this sudden advice about Legolas' own father. "Be respectful, and be mindful of your words. Now, come along." He pushed open the great doors, and before Alison could wrap her head around what he had just told her, she was ushered inside the throne room of King Thranduil—if it could even be called a throne room.

It was at least the size of the cavernous goblin-tunnel where the Goblin King had held court, except about a million times more grand and clean than that place. Evening light filtered in through archways and pores between vine-covered pillars, and it was like being inside an enormous, hollowed tree trunk, with stone pathways arching and criss-crossing everywhere, all seeming to stem from one large platform set in the center of the room, though it was too far away for Alison to make out a lot of detail yet.

Legolas led her down one of the main central pathways, which curved and twisted every few feet, but it was a straight shot to the elegant platform nonetheless, and Alison followed Legolas obediently, taking in her surroundings but also having to watch her step; apparently kingdoms in Middle-earth did not believe in handrails, and she didn't want to suddenly fall to her death many stories below before meeting the famous Elven-king she had read about. In spite of her apprehension and panic, Alison was curious to lay eyes on the Woodland King she had read about so long ago, and to see another fictional character come to life before her.

When she and Legolas reached the platform, the first thing Alison noticed was Thorin, who was standing on the edge of the platform, still covered in spider webbing and looking distinctly unruffled, scowling the same as ever, with a few silver-armored guards standing nearby him holding wicked-looking staffs of some sort, and then the most decadent throne Alison had ever seen beyond them, large and lavish and a clear depiction of 'the Woodland Realm,' as it looked as if it was made from a tree itself. Yet all else paled in comparison when Alison's eyes settled on the figure seated in the throne.

It was really beginning to be unfair of how gorgeous the Elves were, and Alison figured that if Galadriel were to have a male counterpart in beauty, it would definitely be Thranduil of Mirkwood. There were just no words to describe him, quite simply. Like all Elves, he was tall and slender and lithe, even seated on his throne, like a lounging jungle cat, dressed in robes of a shimmering cloth that shifted from green to silver to blue and back again in the light, with another robe of rich red unfurled beneath him, matching the crown of red leaves and berries atop his head. His hair was long and silvery pale, like Legolas', but more luminous, like frost in the rays of the morning sun, creating a perfect contrast to his thick, dark eyebrows over his ice-blue eyes and the alabaster skin of his perfectly edged, angular face. When Alison stepped onto the platform, the Elven-king's cold, piercing eyes settled on her, and she involuntarily gulped, dropping into a clumsy curtsy as her knees turned to jelly.

After a few seconds of bowing, Alison straightened, feeling her heart pounding as Thranduil said nothing, and she kept her eyes focused on the floor as she saw from her peripheral one of the king's hands flicker, dismissing Legolas, and the Elf left, leaving her alone with an icy Elven-king and a scowling Dwarf king that now stood at her left shoulder, glaring balefully at the Woodland King.

"So," Thranduil said, and his voice was lilting and rich, smooth as honey and cold as steel, and Alison forced herself to meet the king's eyes, feeling like an ant as that icy gaze raked over her skin, taking her in as if she were nothing more than a whisper of wind blowing past. His eyes bored into hers as he went on. "This is the mortal girl, the fabled Ashburne warrior traveling with a contingent of Dwarves from the Blue Mountains. How…interesting."

He said it as if it was anything but, and Alison stayed silent, not knowing what to say as Legolas' advice rang in her ears. "Oh, come now, my girl, there is nothing to fear," he said. "I am merely curious; tell me, how does one such as yourself wind up in my halls?"

Alison took a deep breath to steady herself, choosing her words carefully before she slipped up and put them all into jeopardy. "I am here because the Valar have summoned me from the mortal world," she said slowly. "Whenever there is strife or conflict in Middle-earth, the descendants of Eleon Ashburne are called upon—"

"I am familiar with the legends of the Ashburnes," Thranduil interrupted, holding up a long-fingered, slender hand, and Alison's mouth snapped shut instantly. "And I have no doubt in what you say; I believe you are an Ashburne warrior. You are obviously mortal, and of the same line of the Heroes of Men; you are also not the first Ashburne I have ever met, and I am now conversant with what your kind is like."

Alison felt a flicker of surprise at this, her eyes widening. "You've met other Ashburnes?" she blurted out, then hastily added, "My Lord," as he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Indeed," he answered. "I have met only two; Johnathan Ashburne, during the War of the Last Alliance, and another, Nadia Ashburne, on a minor quest I have no recollection of anymore. But yes, I have met others, and you possess the same…qualities, and resemblance, of them. So I believe you. Yet I still do not know why you are here."

"The Valar summoned me, my Lord," she repeated respectfully. "For what purpose, it is still unclear—"

"And yet, you are found in a company of Dwarves, who stubbornly refuse to enlighten me on why they are traveling through my borders, as well," he said, cutting her off, and his voice had taken on a sharper edge. "It is obvious there is some sort of alliance between these Dwarves and you, Lady Ashburne, and I might have the faintest glimmer of what exactly is transpiring."

Alison's mouth went bone-dry at the Elven-king's words, and she watched, in a sort of panicked daze, as Thranduil got to his feet in one fluent, elegant motion, and extracted from within his robes a folded up piece of parchment, worn and travel-stained, and with a sinking feeling in her chest, she watched as Thranduil unfolded it with a flourish and held it in his pale hands.

"A map," he said clearly, and Alison felt Thorin stiffen beside her, tension coming off of him in waves. "A map of the Lonely Mountain…of Erebor."

Alison watched Thranduil as he turned the map towards them, and she instantly recognized the map Gandalf had showed them back in Bag-End; it had obviously been taken from Thorin when the Elves searched them in the forest, and she could see from the corner of her eye Thorin clenching his fists as Thranduil descended from his throne, gracing down to their level on the platform and beginning to pace around them in slow, languid movements.

"Such a plain map on the surface, yet I imagine it harbors secrets of its own," he mused from behind them, circling until he was facing them again, his robes trailing behind him in a river of shifting hues. "Undoubtedly you have disclosed them; else you would not be taking such a journey through my borders to reach the Dwarven kingdom."

Alison and Thorin said nothing, only stared defiantly as Thranduil flicked away the map, letting it flutter and settle on the stone ground, the painted red dragon looking like a puddle of blood compared to the lightness of the stone around it. Thranduil circled the two once more, stopping behind Thorin and facing out over his halls, his back turned towards them as he gazed, seemingly lost deep in thought.

After a few moments, however, did he deign to speak again, and Alison felt a shiver down her spine from his next words. "Some may imagine a noble Quest is at hand, a Quest to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon," he said, and he turned to face Thorin's back, his lips curved in a slight smirk. "But as I have already said, I suspect a more prosaic motive. Attempted burglary, or something of that ilk."

Thranduil approached Thorin, and Alison silently applauded the Dwarf king for being so calm and collected about all of this as Thranduil stooped, leaning over Thorin's shoulder and searching his face carefully as Thorin gazed back, as stoic as ever. "I know you have found a way in; your map tells me as much, even if I cannot see beyond the magic concealing it. You seek that which would bestow upon you the right to rule."

Thranduil backed away, and Alison's and Thorin's eyes followed him carefully as he indulged in a knowing smile, his icy eyes still firmly latched onto Thorin, not even bothering with Alison anymore. "A King's Jewel," he guessed. "The Arkenstone."

Alison started, blinking in shock, though she shouldn't be so surprised; if the Elven-king could know who she was without a second glance and piece two and two together, it was a small wonder that he would be clever enough to figure out their whole quest in one fell swoop. Thorin remained expressionless, but Alison saw his jaw clench slightly, something that Thranduil did not miss, either.

"Oh, yes, it is precious to you beyond measure," he said to Thorin. "I understand that." And then, his smile was gone, to be replaced by a serious look that made his eyes icier than ever, and his eyebrows rose in an imploring manner as his voice took on a more wistful tone. "There are gems in the Mountain that I too desire. White gems, of pure starlight." He bowed his head, his expression solemn, and what he said next surprised Alison beyond anything else she had heard so far from him. "I offer you my help."

"Wait, what?" Alison exclaimed, looking back and forth between Thorin and Thranduil incredulously, but they paid no attention to her, staring each other down as Thorin's eyebrows rose, and his lips curled in a sardonic half-smile.

"I am listening," he said, and Alison looked back to Thranduil, baffled, as the Elven-king raised his head, lifting his chin haughtily.

"I will let you go, if you but return what is mine," he said, and Thorin pondered over Thranduil's words, his jaw working thoughtfully.

Bad idea, Alison thought, but she said nothing, instead worrying at her lower lip as she watched Thorin think, glad he was the king and not her; politics and negotiations never stuck well with her, and she figured any of her input would get them locked up for sure.

"A favor for a favor," Thorin said eventually, clasping his hands behind his back in a regal manner and pacing to the edge of the platform.

"You have my word," Thranduil replied. "One King to another."

Thorin gave another one of his sardonic smiles, turning away from Thranduil and Alison and facing out over the halls. He said nothing for a short while, but Alison saw his shoulders stiffen and his muscles tense, and she knew something bad was about to happen.

"I would not trust, Thranduil, the great king, to only his word, should the end of all days be upon us!" Thorin suddenly burst out, and Alison stared in dismay as Thorin swung around, rage outlined in his features clear as day and his stormy eyes hard as stone. Alison had never seen him so angry, not even after her river stunt, but it was anger under-lied with something else—grief, an ancient burden that was coming to the surface as Thorin faced the completely shell-shocked Thranduil, who could only stare as Thorin went on.

"You," he snarled, pointing a finger at Thranduil furiously. "You, who lack all honor! I have seen how you treat your friends. We came to you once, starving, homeless, seeking your aid; but you turned your back. You, turned away from the suffering of my people, and the inferno that destroyed us!" And then, his voice choked with unsuppressed fury and emotion, he shouted, "Imrid amrad ursul!"

In a heartbeat, Thranduil was upon Thorin, and he leaned in, their faces only inches apart, and, if it was possible, he was even whiter with rage, his eyes blue fire as he hissed, "Do not talk to me of dragon fire! I know its wrath and ruin."

And then, Alison watched in riveted horror as Thranduil's cheek began to melt away, revealing a hollowed out cavity in his face where his cheek would be, except now there was only marred flesh and tendons, as if he had been burned, horribly, and one of his icy blue eyes turned into a blind, milky white remnant, unseeing and unblinking. And just as quickly as it had come, the glamour Thranduil used, to either keep the injury covered or to use as an elaborate illusion, was gone, and his face returned to normal as he backed away from Thorin, looking at the Dwarf king with undisguised anger and disgust.

"I warned your grandfather of what his greed would summon, but he would not listen," the Elven-king said emotionlessly, and Alison saw a shadow pass over Thorin's face at the mention of Thrór, but Thranduil pressed on ruthlessly.

"You are just like him," he said, ascending back to his throne, and with a casual flick of his hand, two guards stepped forward and seized Thorin by the arms, hauling him off the platform and down the pathway as Alison watched, still too shocked by what had just happened to speak. She met his eyes, blazing with anger and something infinitely sorrowful, and Alison's heart twisted as Thorin was dragged further away from the throne.

"Stay here and rot if you will," Thranduil called. "A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I am patient; I can wait."

Thorin's struggles against the guards receded into the distance, and then faded away entirely, leaving Alison alone in the wake of what had just happened with Thranduil and two other guards, who remained as motionless and silent as ever.

With some trepidation, Alison turned to face Thranduil, who had resumed his seat upon his throne, and she found his eyes already on her, scrutinizing her carefully. Then he gestured for one of the guards, saying in his flat voice, "Take the Lady Ashburne back to the infirmary. She can stay there until temporary lodgings are arranged, for I have a feeling she will be here a while yet."

The guards started forward, but Alison took a step back, looking at the Elven-king in disbelief. "No," she said, and Thranduil raised his eyebrows at her. "I'm not going back to the infirmary, or anywhere else. I'm going with my friends; and if they're locked in cells in the dungeons, then so be it. But I won't be separated from them; this is our quest, and we're in it together."

Thranduil gazed at her with mild amusement for a few moments, as if he was determining whether she was being serious or not. Apparently something in her face told him she was, and his lips curled in a smirk as she held his gaze. "Very well," he said finally. "Escort her to the dungeons, where she can be reunited with her Company."

The guards made to grab her arms again, but Alison shook them off, still staring at Thranduil. "Thorin's right," she said, clenching her fists at her sides and standing firm. "You care nothing for the lives of others, unless they are entwined with yours. You're a selfish king with loyalty to only yourself; you have no honor."

Alison had been ready for another outburst from the Elven-king, but he continued to merely smirk, gazing down at her with those cold eyes. "I care for my own people, and what is best for them," he said simply, and Alison scoffed, shaking her head. She made to move off the platform, but paused when she noticed the map, still lying on the ground only a few feet away from her.

"Take it," Thranduil said, and Alison looked up at him, startled, as he watched her predatorily, his eyes shifting from her to the map. "Take it," he repeated, at her puzzled look. "Give it to Oakenshield as you pass by his cell; I'd love to see how he suffers when he realizes that there is no way he can continue on his quest now, all because of stubborn pride and twisted greed."

Alison stepped forward, hesitantly bending down to pick up the map, expecting Thranduil to only be joking, but he said nothing, just watched with that same cold look as she folded it back up and placed it in an inside pocket of her jacket.

"You're a heartless bastard," she said, before turning away and allowing the guards to lead her down the pathway and out of the throne room, away from the smirking Elven-king on his throne, and she could feel his icy eyes on her back until she had exited the room, the great wooden doors shutting behind her with a final resounding boom.

Her audience with the Woodland King was over.

When Thorin reached his cell in the Woodland Realm's dungeons, the guards shoved him unceremoniously inside and locked the door, marching away back to the halls above as Thorin's rage continued to burn inside of him, and he kicked the stone wall of his cell angrily, biting back a growl of pain as his foot now throbbed. He could sense the others' eyes on him from their own cells, anxious to hear how the audience with King Thranduil went, but how could he tell them that he had failed in his negotiations, and that now they would never reach the Mountain, all because of him?

The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth, and Thorin pressed his large hands against the wall, touching his forehead to the warm stone as fury and grief, long since buried, roiled around inside of him, making his fingertips prickle as he flashed back to an image of Thranduil, astride a huge, great-antlered elk, standing over Erebor with his army as they watched Thorin's kingdom burn, and then turning away, like the cold-blooded cowards they were as Smaug unleashed his might upon the halls of Thorin's forefathers.

Once the guards' footsteps receded, Thorin looked up from the wall to find Balin, who was occupying the cell across from his, staring at him worriedly, his dark eyes searching Thorin's face carefully from across the dungeon.

"So?" Balin asked quietly. "Did he offer you a deal?"

Thorin tried to swallow the anger, the sour taste of betrayal, from his mouth before answering, growling, "He did. I told him he could ishkh khakfe andu null. Him and all his kin!"

This last part Thorin shouted at large, but if any of the Elves on guard heard him, they ignored him, and Thorin slumped against the bars of his cell, his fingers curling around the cold metal in a grip that turned his knuckles white as he bowed his head, feeling Balin's scorching gaze upon him.

"Well, that's that, then," Balin said resignedly, and Thorin heard the older Dwarf sigh. The sound sent a stake of blazing pain through his heart; he had been the one to do this, it was him that had kept them in the mess—and now, because of his wretched pride, their quest would fail. All because of him. "A deal was our only hope, but now…"

Balin trailed off, but Thorin felt a bolt of lightning arc down his spine at the other Dwarf's words, and he looked up quickly as a flame of memory lit in the back of his mind, meeting Balin's gaze, who looked at him curiously at his sudden movement.

But Thorin had just remembered—yes, how could he have been so stupid? They still had one chance left to make it out of Thranduil's halls, and the image of a curly-haired, hairy-footed Hobbit came to mind, making Thorin's heart feel lighter than it had in days. Bilbo was still out there.

"A deal is not our only hope," Thorin said in awe to Balin, and the older Dwarf began to catch on, his eyes widening as he realized what Thorin had, as well.

"Bil—" he began, but he cut off abruptly as the sound of more footsteps echoed down the dungeons, and Thorin saw through the bars of his cell two guards entering the dungeon, with Alison walking between them and looking angrier than Thorin had ever seen her.

The three stopped once they reached the cells where the Company was being held, and one of the guards gestured to Thorin's cell, saying to Alison, "Go."

"I know what I have to do," she snapped at the guard, and she stalked towards Thorin's cell, passing the silent Company as they watched her warily, but Thorin could sense their relief at seeing the girl again, alive and well as she came to a stop before Thorin, her pale green eyes hard as she extracted something from her coat.

"Here," she said quietly, and slipped the folded map of the Lonely Mountain through the bars and into Thorin's fingers. When the parchment touched Thorin's fingers, she shifted slightly, until her face was obscured from the watchful eyes of the guards, and Thorin stared at her, keeping his expression neutral as she breathed, "Do you still have the key?"

Thorin nodded imperceptibly, and her eyes lightened fractionally with relief. "Good," she whispered. "We'll need it soon." Thorin looked at her blankly as she said, "Just keep an eye on the horizon." And then there was the barest trace of a wink, and she moved away, back down to the guards, and Thorin watched as she was ushered into Kili's cell at the end of the block, having to double-up like some of the other Dwarves due to lack of so many cells.

Thorin's heart had begun to pound as the guards swept away, but the Company had to stay silent as a watchman swooped in shortly after, looking utterly bored as he paced around the dungeon, which gave Thorin an opportunity to mull over Alison's words.

"Keep an eye on the horizon." The only conclusion he could think of would be to watch out for Bilbo, but how did she know the Hobbit wasn't here? She had been so consumed from the fever she hadn't noticed anything earlier, and then she was locked away in an infirmary where she couldn't possibly know if the Hobbit was with them or not, yet she seemed confident in the fact that he would be the one to come rescue them—which begged the question of how she knew that.

But Thorin would save those questions for later, after Bilbo helped them escape, and he settled down on the floor of his cell, holding the map in one hand as he reached deep into the folds of his coat, where the Elves hadn't thought to search, and extracted the key, keeping it at an angle so the pacing guard could not see it.

Holding the two items in his hand, Thorin was forcefully reminded of his vow he had made in Rivendell, so long ago, and memories of Erebor, no doubt brought on by his facing of the Elven-king, played out in his head over and over again, until finally exhaustion caught up to him and he settled for sleep, his eyes staring up out of his cell and to the ceiling high above, where shadows coalesced as night fell upon the Woodland Realm.

Comforted by the fact that Bilbo was still out there, looking for a way to rescue them possibly as he even laid there, Thorin's eyes watched the shadows grow deeper, until the blackness of his own shutting eyelids was the last thing he saw before slipping away into sleep.

Tauriel sat alone in the guard room, listening to the rhythmic scrape of her blade against the whetstone as she sharpened the curved knife. A small plate and a pitcher of water sat on the floor beside her, remnants of her meal still on the plate from when she had eaten earlier, and she was glad that her stomach was now comfortably full; she hadn't had a chance to eat since returning from the forest with the Dwarves and the Ashburne warrior, too busy healing the girl and running around organizing watches and increasing border patrols in case the spiders returned, which they always did. The creatures were determined to defy the Elves, and Tauriel knew it was only a matter of time before they crawled back once more.

She was enjoying her small moment of isolation, away from the bustle of the other guards and the inhabitants of the halls; seldom were her chances of relaxation, but it was a small price to pay for her position, which Tauriel had worked hard to reach for centuries. Most thought she would never obtain it; after all, she was merely a Silvan Elf, who studied medicines and trained with her bow and blades when she could, and Tauriel was strangely reminded of the Ashburne girl when she thought of this. The human hadn't seemed very surprised when Tauriel introduced herself as Captain of the Guard, which Tauriel had been slightly taken aback by; most people looked at her strangely or scoffed when she said what her position was, disbelieving that a female Elf, and from a class as insignificant as hers, would be the Captain of King Thranduil's Guard. But Alison Ashburne had taken the news in stride, and Tauriel figured that coming from a female warrior such as herself, the Ashburne wouldn't be surprised at Tauriel's station, which just made the girl so much more intriguing to her.

Tauriel had never encountered a Man up close before, and her curiosity had been stirred when she had first seen Alison Ashburne in the forest, after the spider attacks on the Dwarves, though she tried not to show her interest too much; she had been a trespasser in Thranduil's borders, and traveling with a company of Dwarves, at that, and Tauriel knew she couldn't show preference to the prisoners, no matter how fascinating Tauriel found her—or the Dwarves. Or rather, one Dwarf, in particular.

Examining the edge of her blade, Tauriel allowed herself a grudging smile at the memory of what had happened two days ago, when the Dwarves had been brought into the dungeons to be held until their king spoke with her own, and Tauriel recalled walking down the dungeon steps until reaching an empty cell, leading the dark-haired Dwarf—the taller, younger-looking one—in front of her as he entered the cell obediently, much to her surprise, for she had been suspecting some of the same resistance the others were giving their guards from him, but it never came.

Instead he had looked at her innocently, and asked, with a hint of mischief, "Aren't you going to search me?" She had been fixing to close the cell door and lock it, but she stopped halfway through the motion, looking at him in puzzlement as his lips, surrounded by only dark stubble, twitched in a crooked smile with that same innocent look as he said, "I could have anything down my trousers."

Tauriel had stared, shocked by the blatantly open innuendo, before she had regained her wits and replied emotionlessly, "Or nothing." And then she had shut and locked the cell door, whisking away to only be stopped by Legolas, who had been observing the whole exchange, much to her embarrassment.

"I Nogoth…amman e tîr gin Tauriel?" he had asked her, and she looked to him sharply, her voice coming out a bit more forceful than she meant it to in response to his suspicious tone.

"Ú-dangada?" she had replied, meeting his gaze boldly, but she immediately floundered for something else to say, not wanting to sound so disrespectful. "E orchal be Nogoth…pedithig?" she added hastily, as his brows raised in surprise, and then she had turned and made for the upper halls to care for the human girl, silently cursing herself for her stupidity and praying Legolas wouldn't answer her. Which, of course, he did.

"Orchal eb vui…" Legolas called after her. "Mal evanui en."

There came a knock on the door, interrupting her flashback, and Tauriel got to her feet, discarding the whetstone and sheathing the blade as one of the other guards, an auburn-haired fellow by the name of Galion, entered the guard room and inclined his head respectfully to his captain.

"Lord Thranduil requests your presence at once, Captain," he said, after Tauriel had inclined her own head and bade him to speak. "He wants a detailed report about the spiders, and wishes to speak with you on other matters. You will find him in his chambers."

"Thank you, Galion," she said, following him out of the room and into the halls. "Is Feren watching the Dwarves right now?"

"He is, Captain," Galion replied, and Tauriel nodded.

"Will you take over his post near dusk?" she said. "I'll resume my own watch tomorrow evening."

"And miss the feast?" Galion asked in surprise, and Tauriel gave him a small smile.

"Come now, Galion. You know I have no inclination to those sorts of things."

"Very well," Galion said, bowing his head once more. "Maer calan, Nikerym."

Tauriel nodded and continued down the halls, letting her feet carry her through the passages after decades of practice until she reached the winding staircase leading down into the lavish quarters of the king, a place she had been only one other time, years ago, when the dark spell eating away at the forest had first come to their attention. Tauriel took a deep breath, gathering all strains of what had happened in the forest and pulling them together to form a cohesive report, and she started when she suddenly heard Thranduil's voice echoing up from below her.

"I know you're there," he said, almost lazily, and Tauriel snapped to attention, even though he could not see her yet. "Why do you linger in the shadows?"

"I was coming to report to you, my Lord," she replied evenly, descending the staircase and coming to a stop before the Elven-king. She thought she felt something warm brush against her sleeve as she came down, but she ignored it, entering the king's chambers and bowing.

Thranduil regarded her emotionlessly, his expression closed and his eyes equally blank, dressed in robes of fine gold silk and wearing his pale hair unadorned as he scrutinized her.

"I thought I ordered that nest to be destroyed not two moons past," he said without preamble, and Tauriel began to pace, already knowing this argument and how it would end, but she stuck with her beliefs, hoping this time would be the time Thranduil finally listened to her, if only she knew he would.

"We cleared the forest, as ordered, my Lord," she said carefully, choosing her words with tact. "But more spiders keep coming up from the south. They are spawning in the ruins of Dol Guldur, if we could kill them at their source—"

"That fortress lies beyond our borders." Thranduil cut across her words, and Tauriel closed her mouth with difficulty, letting her clenched fist fall loose at her side. "Keep our lands clear of those foul creatures, that is your task."

"And when we drive them off? What then?" Tauriel asked, resuming her pacing, and she tried to ignore the patronizing look he was giving her, already familiar with her arguments and yet as unbendable as ever. "Will they not spread to other lands?"

"Other lands are not my concern," Thranduil said, and his voice now carried a hint of warning as Tauriel stopped pacing, facing him incredulously. Thranduil stared back impassively, silently testing her to see if she would challenge his words, but she kept silent, only staring as he continued. "The fortunes of the world will rise and fall, but here in this kingdom, we will endure." He paused, turning his head sharply to the left, as if sensing something, but after a few moments he turned back to face her as if nothing had happened. "Surely you value the safety of our own people, Tauriel?"

Tauriel hesitated, wanting nothing more than to push the argument, but she held her tongue, swallowing hard and nodding her head stiffly as she said, "Of course, my Lord. There is nothing I hold in higher regard."

"Good," Thranduil said, as if proud of her answer, and Tauriel jerked her head once more, taking that as a dismissal, and she made for the stairs, trying not to let her frustration show. She stopped in her tracks, however, as Thranduil's voice came from behind her once again.

"Legolas said you fought well the other day," he said, and she turned slowly, meeting his gaze as he crossed over to where a clear pitcher of water sat upon a shelf and poured himself a small glass. Tauriel watched, not sure where this was going, as Thranduil took a sip, then went on. "He has grown very fond of you." He gave her a meaningful look, and Tauriel's lips parted in shock, feeling heat rush to every pore of her body as the full implication of what he was saying hit her.

"I assure you, my Lord," she said after a weighty silence, and she couldn't bring herself to meet her king's eyes, instead staring at the pool of crystal blue water in the center of the chambers and watching the light from the lamps refract off of it, suddenly feeling jumpy and nervous. "Legolas thinks of me as nothing more than a Captain of the Guard."

"Perhaps he did once," Thranduil said, and Tauriel swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat, looking back up to Thranduil as he watched her, gauging her reaction interestedly. "Now, I am not so sure."

"I do not think that you would allow your son to pledge himself to a lowly Silvan Elf," she said haltingly, wanting nothing more than to leave this room but knowing she couldn't unless Thranduil dismissed her, which he did not seem keen on doing yet.

"No, you are right. I will not," he said, draining his glass and turning to pour another as Tauriel's gut pinched. "But still, he cares for you. Do not give him hope where there is none." Tauriel listened to the water pouring into the glass as if through a pillow, and she felt her muscles relax considerably as Thranduil flicked a hand towards her, saying, "Thank you for your report, Tauriel. You may go now."

Tauriel bowed once more, and all but fled up the stairs and into the upper halls, her head swimming. Keeping her eyes on her feet, Tauriel began to walk in an aimless direction, letting her feet guide her as her mind spun from the revelations of Thranduil's unexpected announcement—that Legolas, her companion, her friend, the Crown Prince of Mirkwood, harbored feelings for her. The idea was so absurd she wanted to laugh, but she couldn't find the humor in it, not yet, not after Thranduil had sounded so serious.

But as Tauriel walked along, she kept thinking—had he been? Thranduil was known for his cold and calculating demeanor, and he was an expert at entering people's minds and picking apart their deepest, most concealed thoughts with ease. Was he just manipulating her, causing her to doubt herself and her own emotions, as well as Legolas'? And if so, why? What did she mean to the Woodland King?

Tauriel felt a crisp, cold breeze float across her face, and she looked up, not that surprised to find herself outside of the halls, standing at the opening of the gate as the woods stretched out before her and the Forest River rushed far below her feet on the bridge. Whenever she was troubled, she often found herself out in the forest; the more open air and the sky always seemed to clear her head, and she looked up, disappointed to find that the stars were veiled by the clouds tonight, and she hoped that tomorrow night would be clear for the Feast of Starlight, for she yearned to see their light again.

Nodding at the armored guards standing watch at the gates, she crossed the bridge and into the woodlands beyond, letting the forest swallow her into darkness as she whispered through the trees, the rays of a single radiant star breaking through the clouds to light her way.

Maer calan – 'Good day'

Imrid amrad ursul – 'Die a death of flames'

Ishkh khakfe andu null – Basically something involving 'excrement;' unclear of literal translation

Nikerym – 'Captain'

*No translation of Tauriel and Legolas' conversation in the dungeons because that's already subtitled in the movie*

Well this was a roller coaster to write, to be honest. There was just so much to convey, but I had a lot of fun writing this chapter, especially with Tauriel's POV, because it gave me a better idea of where she seems to be coming from in the movie, and I really enjoyed that. And making this more of a character-driven chapter really worked, in my opinion, which was also pretty great.

Anyway, thank you so much for reading and reviewing! You guys truly rock, so please keep them coming! And thank you for your patience, as well, with this chapter.

Thanks again, lovelies. Until next chapter...

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