Karina scowled. This was the third time in two weeks! Stalking through the trees, her keen eyes scanned the forest for movement. She listened carefully, hoping that her prey would not be as elusive as he intended. It really should not be that difficult to find one errant elfling!
She leapt lightly over a fallen tree, hitching up her skirt to keep it from snagging on the bark. Oh, she would never hear the end of it this time. Already she had been searching for an hour. When she caught the naughty child, he was going to be locked in his room for at least a week. Not for the first time, she wished she had a GPS tracker for him. Unfortunately, the best she could do was assign him a permanent guard. But she was not that desperate yet.
"Legolas, you better come out right now or so help me, I will lock you in the dungeons where no one will hear your screams."
"Have you lost our son again?"
Karina turned and glared at Thranduil, who looked highly amused as he smiled cheekily at his wife. She started walking away from him pointedly.
"Your son is going to be the death of me. For a five-year-old, he is remarkably gifted at stealth. I would think the Valar would have taken this into account and given me at least some talent with tracking."
"Perhaps you should just practice the art like everyone else," Thranduil replied, deftly taking hold of Karina's hand and spinning her around so she was flush against his form. "You can take lessons with Legolas."
"I have quite enough on my plate without taking additional lessons, thank you," she replied tartly, attempting to pull away. Not that she had a chance. Thranduil had his arm tightly around her waist and had that look on his face that she was so familiar with. The one that told her she had a better chance of charming a warg than getting away from her husband.
"Think of all the time you would save if you were not spending hours traipsing around the wood looking in vain for the little prince."
"Do not dare encourage this behavior, Thranduil."
"Of course not, love." His lips met hers swiftly, and he successfully kissed away all her annoyance. She hated how he would always win this way. But as he began trailing his lips along her jaw line, she heard him whisper softly in her ear, "He is in the oak tree to your right." Karina glanced out of the corner of her eye and saw the tiny blonde elfling peering around a branch, watching his parents with a look of disgust on his face. Her eyes followed him as he descended from the tree—though Thranduil was doing an admirable job distracting her—and as he started off back towards the palace. When he was out of sight, Karina pinched her husband.
"He is gone, Thranduil. You can stop now."
"Hmm, too bad I do not want to," Thranduil murmured against her neck, making her shudder. Feeling her annoyance coming back, Karina jabbed him in the ribs. He grunted, finally pulling away.
"That was uncalled-for."
"I need to catch Legolas before he gets away again and your distractions are not helping."
"Very well, my love. I shall catch him for you. Did you just roll your eyes at me?"
"Of course not." Karina let out a sharp squeak as Thranduil smacked her backside as she passed him. She whirled around and launched herself at him angrily. Thranduil just laughed, dodging her attack and catching his wife around the waist, picking her struggling form up and carrying her awkwardly back down the path after their son. They looked particularly undignified for a king and queen, but out in the forest with no one around, they did not care. It was far too rare to have moments like this, and they enjoyed them immensely.
"You will have to be quiet now, love, if we are going to sneak up on our son." Obediently, Karina stopped struggling and cursing, letting Thranduil put her down. He gestured for her to follow him quietly, and the two slipped into the trees like wraiths. In short order they found their wayward offspring, leaping along tree roots, pretending to shoot a bow and making his own sound effects. Karina put a hand on Thranduil's forearm, stopping him for a moment. As annoyed as she was with her son, she adored seeing him so unguarded and happy. She could already picture him as an adult, handsome and proud, fighting to save his friends and family. Not that she could tell Thranduil any of this.
When she had seen enough, she nodded, indicating it was time to catch the troublesome child. They split up, intent on cutting off his escape routes. It was Thranduil who made his move first.
"Why you must be the tiniest guard in this forest," he said mildly, towering over his son as the boy paused in surprise. "Tell me, little archer, who your commanding officer is so I may ensure you are disciplined properly for abandoning your patrol."
Legolas looked up at his father with wide eyes, but spun around quickly at the voice that answered.
"That would be me, my lord," Karina replied, stopping several feet from her child, eyeing him with an emotionless mask. "You can be sure he will be punished properly for neglecting his duties."
"Don't let her punish me, Ada!" Legolas cried, wrapping his arms tightly around his father's leg. Karina sighed as she watched the imploring sad eyes look up at Thranduil. So much for punishment. The King was such a pushover when it came to his son. "I was only trying to practice so I can be a good guard when I am grown!" Thranduil exchanged a look with his wife.
"I know, ion nin, but you are still too young to be wandering these woods on your own. You know it worries your mother terribly when you do." Legolas' bottom lip trembled, and all thoughts of punishment vanished. Thranduil bent down and picked up his troublesome son, settling the boy on his hip as he held out a hand for his wife. Karina took it, and together the royal family began the short trek back to the palace.
"I am sorry, Nana," Legolas said pitifully as he wrapped his arms around his father's neck. "I did not want to make you worried."
"I do not mind you exploring, Legolas, but you need to take someone with you when you go out, alright? How do you think I would feel if you got hurt and were lost somewhere without anyone knowing what had happened to you?"
"I am sorry," Legolas repeated, looking down sorrowfully. Karina gently ran her fingers through his blonde locks, moving closer to her husband as she did so.
"We love you, Legolas, and do not want you to get hurt. Do you understand?"
Karina smiled at her son, resting her head against Thranduil's shoulder as they continued down the path in silence.
"Get her away from him! Now!" Karina heard the voices, but they sounded distant and ethereal. She glanced at Thranduil and Legolas, but neither made any indication they had heard anything. They continued on as if nothing happened.
"Check her pulse."
"She is failing."
Karina felt herself jolt unexpectedly. The voices were getting louder, yet neither of her companions seemed to notice. Nor did they make any indication that she was acting strange as she felt herself pulled away from Thranduil. They just kept walking, leaving her behind. She called out their names, but neither turned. Her vision began wavering. A haze settled over her. She screamed out for her husband and son as they disappeared into the trees.
Struggling to follow, she suddenly felt as if she was underwater, floating lazily through the darkness, her senses dimmed by the liquid around her. She could sense there were others around her somewhere, but she could not see them. Their voices were muffled and unintelligible. The pressure of the darkness around her seemed to make her drowsy. She felt as if she had never been so tired. She drifted in and out of consciousness, still lost and confused but too weary to attempt to make sense of what was going on around her. Eventually, it would figure itself out.
She really just wanted to get back to Thranduil and Legolas.
"Wake up, my lady."
She did not move. All of her muscles seemed heavy and useless.
"Please, my lady, try to wake up."
It took all her strength to open her eyes. She blinked a couple times, focusing on the concerned elleth hovering over her.
"Thank the Valar. I was afraid we would lose you there for a while."
"What happened?" Karina asked hoarsely, feeling worse than she had after she had been tended for her warg bite. She could barely feel the injury as the aching in her body consumed her. She could not move still, but the elleth beside her shifted, reaching down to help her sit up. It was a struggle, but eventually Karina was sitting upright, propped up by her healer as she attempted to pour a foul smelling draught down her throat.
"I hate that stuff," Karina coughed, some of the potion dribbling down her chin. She could not lift her hand to wipe it away, so the healer did it for her, looking at her sympathetically. But there was something else in her eyes as well. Awe, perhaps? Fear maybe? Karina was too dazed yet to reach a conclusion.
"You very nearly killed yourself," the healer whispered gently, helping her lie back down. "You are lucky Arnestad pulled you out of it in time."
"What do you mean? Did my wounds get infected? I did not think they were bad enough to do so much damage."
"Not alone, no, but you about gave all your energy to Prince Thranduil." Karina looked at her in confusion. She had no idea what the elleth meant. With the look she was getting from Karina, the elleth became confused as well. "Was that not your intention?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"You mean you did that accidentally?" the healer asked, a horrified look on her face. "My lady, how in the world did you do it?"
"Do what?" Karina asked, starting to get irritated. Her head was throbbing fiercely and this conversation was going nowhere.
"You healed Prince Thranduil," the healer whispered. "One of the healers came to check on him and found his wounds were almost closed already. It was impossible. But then he realized that you were not just sleeping against his cot, you were unconscious, your hand in his. You were barely alive. You had given all of your healing energy and then some to fix the wounds on the Prince. Arnestad thought you had passed out while healing him. He thought you were foolish and stupid to try such a thing in your state. But you are telling me that you did not consciously try such a thing? How is that possible?"
"I…I have no idea," Karina said, baffled by the story. She had never used the innate elven magic to heal before. She had never even attempted it. Yet somehow she had tapped into her reserves and subconsciously used it to bring Thranduil back. No wonder she ached all over. She had used unguarded and wild magic without thought or direction. Duross had warned her about the trouble with healing in a war. Apparently it was not just hyperbole.
"Where is Thranduil?"
"Meeting with his commanders," the healer said gently. "Would you like me to send someone to fetch him?"
"Just make sure he knows I am conscious. I am certain he is busy."
The healer nodded, standing and disappearing out of Karina's range of vision. She stared at the black, cloud-covered sky. Her questions answered, she could now return her thoughts to the vivid dream that had seemed hauntingly real at the time.
Propped against her armor, Karina looked around at the sound of her name. She smiled in relief as Thranduil knelt beside her, showing no signs of his recent brush with death. For once, she did not care as he publicly kissed her; she was simply grateful to have him healthy again.
"Are you alright?" she asked immediately once they broke apart. Her eyes went to his shoulder, her fingers reaching up to undo the ties on his loose tunic, intent on seeing the damage herself.
"I should be asking you that," Thranduil said, stopping her roving fingers. "From what I hear, you very nearly killed yourself trying to save me."
"While it was unintentional, I would do the same again," Karina said firmly. "I am just glad you are well."
"Thanks to you. My wounds are virtually closed now. You have been asleep for two days, though, after your ordeal."
"May I see?" she asked, glancing at his shoulder again. Thranduil sat beside her, carefully undoing the ties on his tunic, pulling the fabric to the side just enough so she could see the ends of the healing wounds across his chest. She ran a finger along one of them, amazed at how well they were healing. It should have taken weeks to heal that far. She could not believe it was her own healing magic that had done that.
"I would ask you not to try that again, my love," Thranduil said, redoing his shirt as she pulled her fingers away. "I was terrified when they told me what had happened."
"I will do it again if I have to," Karina repeated. "Now tell me what I have missed. What became of our assault?"
"Ah," he said, shifting again and putting his arm behind her head so she was leaning on him instead of her armor. "Well there is quite a lot to say on that subject. I have only just been informed of most of it myself. The short version: Gil-galad got his wish. We have not one, but two orc captives. The one is not cracking, but the second is spilling everything like a sieve."
"Have we learned anything important?"
"Numbers of battalions in the mountains, the names of leaders, that sort of thing. Helpful, but what Gil-galad is after are specific details on the Morannon, and neither of them are talking on that subject. I have sent Commander Brandorn to assist in the interrogation."
Karina remembered the Commander. Apparently her face showed her disapproval.
"He is the best I have, Karina," Thranduil said softly. "We need answers, and quickly."
"I am guessing by 'the best' you mean he is the most skilled at torture?" Karina asked.
"He will get answers," Thranduil said, evading the question. "While we have them in custody, is there anything you wished to know for your plan, should it become necessary?"
"I am certain there are a lot of things that would help our planning. Perhaps I should go interrogate one of them myself."
"I am not sure that is wise," Thranduil said doubtfully. "You are still recovering and I do not think you should see what is being done to get the information we need."
"While I do not approve of torture, if any creatures deserved it, these orcs do," Karina said with a sigh of resignation. "I want to know what they are doing. I want to interrogate them myself."
"I am not going to let you do that, Karina."
"Help me, Thranduil, or I will get someone else to do it," she said sternly. "You know I will."
Thranduil groaned. He was silent for some time, as if contemplating how to deter her from this course.
"Fine, but I must go talk with Gil-galad first. They are his prisoners, so if he does not want you there, then there is little I can do."
"Make a good case for me," Karina demanded.
"I will try," Thranduil said unconvincingly. Karina rolled her eyes. She had a sudden flashback to her dream, when Thranduil had quite shockingly spanked her for rolling her eyes at him. She had thought a lot about that dream. The fact that it had seemed so real, so familiar, made her think impossible thoughts. She had been waiting for a sign from the Valar, something to explain why she was here. Had that dream been it? Were her secret wishes and hopes going to come true? Her heart ached, glancing sideways at Thranduil as she imagined him holding their son. How desperately she wanted that little child. She curled up tighter to Thranduil, the vision clear in her mind. If that was her future, then it was worth all this pain and suffering. But first, she had to tend to the pain and suffering of the two orcs that were going to tell her exactly how to get into Mordor.