Thranduil straightened his back, heaving a deep breath. Greasy black bile dripped from his hands as he wiped his brow with his forearm. The foul substance coated his hands and wrists.
"The sun is setting."
The elves around him looked up, and wearily straightened their backs as well. Just like the king, their long hairs were pulled back and bound behind their shoulders. The elves were all covered up to their calves in the black grime, arms and legs bared with their sleeves and leggings rolled up carelessly.
The king turned, and waded his way out of the sticky black stream. He shook out the remaining muck from the heavy trellis in his hands, and tossed the apparatus onto the cleared ground. Once he was on the grass again, he turned, and scanned the progress. They had dug out a wide path by staking the oily black substance onto the side of the road; he wished he could clear this foul shadow away completely, but did not dare. They did not know what it was or where it came from; they could not dump it just anywhere without any knowledge of it. He would wait to clear out the rest. For now, all that they concentrated on was clearing a path for horses to travel swiftly without hindrance, so that they could run back even if attacked, whether on trees or horseback.
As he began to walk back to the castle, an elf approached him from the side. Thranduil noted with a mild sense of humor that this elf was still moderately clean. Trying to shake off the grime from his elbows, the elf bowed slightly before falling in pace with the king.
"It seems to be a part of the river, sire."
Thranduil raised his brows. "The river?"
The elf nodded. "Polluted beyond measure, poisoned by means of ignorance or hostility – or both."
The king stopped, and turned toward the scholar. His eyes glittered strangely. "Dol Guldur does not have access to our waterways."
"No, it does not." The dark-haired elf glanced over the king's shoulder, toward the south. "But somehow, the river did get polluted and poisoned."
Thranduil was silent as he turned to start walking again. Wordlessly, the scholar followed.
A distant call elicited a swift turn away from the castle. Thranduil's eyes narrowed toward the forest, and then widened. He and the other elf broke into a run toward the muck again.
A dirtied horse trotted wearily down the path, obviously glad to see its home and a clear path once again. The muddied elves, who were getting ready to return to the castle for a rotation, were running toward the horse, shouting and waving. Atop the horse slumped a bloodied form of a warrior, his body barely hanging onto the mount. As the elves ran forward to meet them, the injured elf slipped off of the horse and fell onto the ground. One of the guards, who reached the horse first, quickly caught the body in his arms before it could hit the ground.
Thranduil reached the scene swiftly, bare feet flying on the oily forest floor. "Tillion," he breathed, bending down to gently place a hand on the elf's misshapen arm. The warrior opened his eyes wearily.
Thranduil let out a relieved breath. "Do not speak. You will be well soon." Gently wiping the blood off of the warrior's brows, he glanced back, and saw two elves approaching with a horse laden with medical apparatus. The king and the warriors carefully lifted the injured elf and rested him on the bedding of the carrier.
"The prince...I could not..." the broken voice was hushed once again by the King's hands. Thranduil stroked the elf's matted hair, and quietly ordered the horse to return to the gates. Two elves mounted their own horses and trotted beside the injured elf, who lay limply on the carrier pulled on the forest floor.
Thranduil stood rooted in place, his grim countenance glowing with quiet, even breaths. That made two.
The sun was setting. Legolas sighed, and buried his head onto his knees.
"Uh, sorry. Shall we take a break?"
He nodded, stretching out his legs on the bed. Roloth stood up from the chair and approached, an apologetic smile on his rugged face. "I had been so enraptured – I forgot that you were uncomfortable."
The elfling shook his head with a slight smile, and began to massage his neck. That man was sure strange. Ever since he came home with his art equipments a few days ago, he had been spending day and night with his canvas, flipping page after enormous white page, drawing away. And all of the drawings were of him.
Not that he minded much – the man seemed smitten with his work, and Legolas did not find cause to refuse his requests. So now, they spent almost all of their waking hours rooted still in place, one of them drawing, and one of them posing for the artist. If this was what made this man happy, Legolas was content to comply.
After all, this man was kind to him, and had given him shelter, and continued to protect him from prying eyes...
"Here, let me help you."
As the elfling squeezed his neck with a groan, the man gently rested his hands upon the shoulders of the child. Legolas leaned back and moaned as strong fingers delved into his skin.
"You are tense," said the man, frowning slightly. The elfling continued to moan and purr. "Are you worried?"
The child did not answer. Roloth wanted to press further, but decided against it.
"Don't worry," he assured him encouragingly, giving an extra strong squeeze, "your father will come soon."
His eyes caught an imperceptible nod from the child. They fell into silence again, as the man soothingly massaged the child's sore neck and shoulders. His hands worked their way down the shoulder blades, eliciting a flinch from the efling, and soothingly drew circles into the taut muscles until they were relaxed. Then his hands traveled up higher, into the neck area. "Bow your head," he instructed, and the child complied. Skilled fingers traveled over the slender neck, pushing gently against the smooth skin.
At last, Legolas pulled away. "Thank you," he said quietly, and smoothened out his unruly hair. Straightening his tunic, he gracefully returned to the position he was in before they took their break. "You may continue."
With a shaky smile, Roloth rose to his feet, and moved back to the table.
Legolas resumed his pondering. Why did that old man tell him not to reveal his identity? Would the men not wish to get a sumptuous reward by returning him safely to the castle if he revealed his status? It seemed illogical to hide the fact that he was a prince. Men, he had heard, showed enormous deference to royalty – and money.
After a moment of more scratching sounds, Roloth threw down his canvas. "Would you mind," he said, voice strangely thick, "if I concentrate on one part of your body in particular?"
The elfling frowned in confusion. Instead of answering, he got up in one fluid movement, and swiftly approached the man. Before Roloth could react, he whisked the canvas away from the table and flipped through the pages of drawings. His eyes widened. Roloth froze.
"You are very talented," he whispered, awed. Roloth let out a shaky breath.
Legolas hardly blinked, enraptured in the art. Page after page, there he was, alive and breathing on the parchment. A few pages contained full paintings of him, sitting and looking out the window or sleeping on his small makeshift bedding on the floor, but most of the pictures were rough sketches in coal. Sketches of the elfling hugging his knees with a watchful expression, the elfling bowing his head as he whittled his arrow, the concentration on his face as he fingered his bowstring.
He tilted his head, and cast a broad smile toward the man. The man sucked in his breath.
"What do you mean by what you said?" asked the elfling. He sounded, all of a sudden, very young and innocent.
Roloth let out a nervous breath. "Like...a part of your body that stands out. Like, your hands, or your feet, or your knees..." he faltered.
Legolas creased his eyebrows, perplexed. "Why?" He couldn't see anything unusual about hands and feet and knees.
The man let out a nervous laugh. He took the canvas back from the elfling's small hands. "Most people do not see it, but an artist sees beauty everywhere. The greatest beauty lies in the living body. The curves, the lines, the volume, texture..." he stopped, when he saw the elfling still held the same confused expression. "What I mean is," he explained hastily, "artists see things that escape another man's eyes. Bodies are very beautiful."
The elfling made a strange face. "Really?"
Roloth nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes. Do you mind?"
The child shook his head, to his great relief. "No, it does not bother me. Do what you will." He returned to the bed, and plopped down. "What do you want me to do this time?"
A slow grin spread across the man's face. He reached out across the table and lit a candle. As the golden light threw a dancing shadow across the room, he leaned back, coal ready in his hand, eyeing the elfling hungrily. The child tilted his head, his lovely frame glowing in the golden luminance.
"Turn around, and pull your hair out of the way, and..."
The night was deepening.