Chapter 1: Worth of a War
"You wouldn't actually start a war over this, will you?" Lyra eyed the elf uncertainly. She respected him, but he seemed a little... unhinged. "This is just a bluff, right?"
Thranduil turned away, guiding his long robes to flow correctly as he swanned back to his seat. The evening was growing chill, and the shelter of his pavilion provided little heat. He'd have the servants light the braziers soon.
This woman required his full attention for the moment, though. The Dragonslayer, and for all intents and purposes, the new leader of the Lake Men. He'd be lying to say she wasn't fair, in her own way, though a bit masculine for his taste with her strong jawline, dark, deep-set eyes, and grim expression. It was an observation, he noted to himself. Nothing more.
"I never bluff." The Elvenking's deep voice was calm, composed. He arranged his silver robes about him, graceful, habitual movements he did not direct and barely noticed. "Perhaps you think me unreasonable? Is it unreasonable for a king to seek the return of what is his own? Do you not, Lyra Dragonslayer, seek much the same?"
Lyra grimaced, her nose wrinkling peculiarly. "Not at the cost of more lives. My people have lost enough, Your Majesty, and so have the Dwarves. To wage war now would do no credit to you or your people." Her coat, ragged and torn, hung loosely from her shoulders, as though she had lost a great deal of weight. In reality Thranduil suspected the coat had originally belonged to a man. He didn't blame her for wearing it, though. Humans had even less of a tolerance for ill weather than Elves.
Thranduil scoffed. She was well-spoken, he had to give her that, but she gave the Dwarves far too much credit. "There are thirteen of them. It will not mean war- only the promise of it, should they prove utterly mad. So they've barricaded themselves in the Mountain. What now? They have no food they didn’t carry from Esgaroth some weeks ago. They'll starve atop their hills of riches. How long can they last without seeking parlay?"
A servant peeked in the doorway, and Thranduil beckoned him over. "Wine for the Dragonslayer and myself. Light the braziers, and bring my evening robes."
The woman's brow furrowed as the servant scurried in to serve them wine, and a second lit the braziers. As arrogant as he was, Lyra had to admit to herself that he had a point. The Dwarves had to know that, though Thorin's hostile rebuttal made her worry about the eventual outcome of this... not-bluff. She studied the Elvenking as he lounged in his throne-like chair. He was thin and long in almost every sense, wafting here and there like a large, glittery feather. Lyra looked away with a sigh, and accepted a goblet from the servant.
"For now, I'll... defer to your superior experience. I hope it doesn't come to war, Your Majesty, for all our sakes." Raising her goblet as though in offering to whatever Valar might protect them from their own idiocy, she drank.
Thranduil raised his cup in turn, took a healthy draught, and set the drink aside. He rose briefly to allow a servant to remove his glittery silver outer robe and replace it with a heavier, fur-lined one he’d taken to wearing in the evenings. Both had impressive trains, which seemed slightly out of place draping across the weather-worn stones of the old courtyard.
Thranduil spoke softly to the servant in elvish, evidently sending him off on some task, before seating himself again with a sigh.
"In truth, my lady, you have more cause to be aggrieved than my people. It is for your sake that we came so swiftly. A few gems, while lovely to admire, will not finance a campaign such as this. I wish only for things to be made right. Gold to the Men of the Lake, as promised, and those things stolen from Dale by Smaug after the great inferno. It is not right that the Dwarves should profit from the misfortune of others. You know this. I come, my lady, only to restore the balance."
Before Lyra could answer, the servant returned, carrying a small bundle. He hesitated, looking uncertainly from the Dragonslayer to his king. Thranduil made a motion, and the elf moved forward quickly.
"Lady Lyra, my King Thranduil wishes to offer you a gift." The elf's Westron was heavily accented, something Lyra was noticing about many of the Woodland folk. It seemed it came of learning the language out of books.
The elf proffered the bundle and she glanced at Thranduil, confused.
"The King," the servant continued, "has noticed the state of your coat, and asked that I provide one more suitable for the weather. It is suede, dyed with indigo." Here, the elf seemed slightly apologetic. "The fit will not be perfect, but at least it will be warmer than what you have."
For a moment, she was stunned. Then, hesitantly, she touched the suede, dark eyes softening slightly. Her whole expression, in fact, softened, and Thranduil was startled to find the woman almost beautiful in the absence of grief or grim determination. It was odd to see that in a human.
"Your generosity is..." Lyra paused, withdrawing her hand without taking the coat. "It's very generous of you, my lord, but... no thank you. My coat... is precious to me." Her fingers brushed over the open collar, butter-soft with age.
Thranduil was surprised by this, having never had much attachment to any possession, least of all a garment. When another could be had at the snap of a finger, why should one cling to anything? Well, there were a few things... no. This was no time for memories.
"Not on its own merit, I think." All too obvious, now that the Elvenking considered it. "Was it your husband's?"
The servant withdrew quietly, setting the coat beside Thranduil's seat. He seemed to sense this conversation was not one he should be privy to, even if he hadn't actually been dismissed.
Lyra watched the servant leave before answering, apparently trying to regain her former grim expression without much success. "Yes. It was his." She turned, gazing at Thranduil with an unreadable look in her dark eyes. "Now that my home and barge are gone, my bow broken and my people scattered... this coat and my children are all I have left. I trust you to do what is best for our people... but I'll not lose any more."
Thranduil was silent a moment, studying her. "Without the means to rebuild your homes, to buy food and supplies, you will lose many more in the days to come, my lady. Think of that." His voice was gentle, not patronizing. "I want the best for both our peoples. Surely you know that."
He indicated she should sit, smiling placidly. "Take your ease, Lady Lyra. I mean to know you better in the days to come. We mustn't act as strangers."
She gave him a long look, then sat down with a sigh. A servant approached almost hesitantly, refilled her goblet and Thranduil's, then retreated quickly. It seemed that the Elves were trying to give the two as much privacy as they could manage, and for the moment, Lyra appreciated it.
"I see that, and I believe you." The admission tasted bitter, and she took a drink. She didn't like to think that she, let alone her people, needed the Dwarves' gold to rebuild their homes. In a way, she felt that she ought to have been able to manage without anyone's help. She didn't need anyone! But... the defiance drained out of her again as she thought of all the people that needed her, not the least of which were her own children. Bain and Sigrid and little Tilda - they needed her. Her people needed her. The survivors from Laketown, men and women alike, looked to her for leadership and guidance, and that responsibility sat heavy in her chest like a stone between her lungs. And while she might have looked to Thranduil for help, for support - she didn't trust the Elf not to look to his own needs and desires first. That was what folk in authority did to those who were 'lesser.' She'd seen it happen too many times not to expect it.
Remembering the earnestness in Oakenshield's face that night in Laketown, Lyra silently cursed herself for believing he might be different.
The Elvenking nodded thoughtfully. "We must learn to trust one another, Lady Lyra. These are dangerous times, and what alliances remain must be treasured. The Master of Laketown may have been a selfish and greedy pig of a Man, but you are one that leads by example. One Men would follow to the death, if you asked it of them.”
Thranduil took another sip of wine, looking ever more relaxed. He looked at her, his eyes blue and jewel-bright. "Do me the courtesy of trusting me, Lady Lyra, and in days to come I hope we will become fast friends. Dale will be restored, as has been foretold, and you and I will boast the strongest alliance in the North."
Lyra lifted her dark head and studied the Elf for a long, silent handful of minutes. Her scrutiny was heavy, measuring him against an invisible standard. Whether she found him wanting or not wasn't apparent, but at length, she looked away, breathing evenly through her nose. The way her jaw tensed, her lips pressed together and turned downward slightly - the resemblance between this woman and her ancestor, Girion, was plain to Thranduil’s eye, which had seen them both.
"Trust is not a courtesy easily extended, Your Majesty," she responded quietly. "but I will try."
This seemed to satisfy the Elvenking. "That is enough... for now."
He smiled charmingly, sitting back slightly in his chair. "Your husband - Valar rest him - must have been a great man, indeed, to have claimed a spirit so strong for his own."
He finished his second cup, but didn't set it down. She intrigued him, this woman. He wasn't quite sure what to make of her. In the manner of anything he'd not encountered before, any new thing or surprise, Thranduil was enraptured by her.
Lyra let out a short laugh, made harsh by the recent cold and inhaled smoke, and other such damaging elements inflicted on her recently. "My Hal was greater than anyone ever recognized. Even me. He won my hand fairly, though, and I honored him for it." Loved him, even, but that wasn't the sort of thing one discussed with strangers, even ones who wanted to become "good friends." She turned an amused eye on the Elvenking, and relaxed a little. The woman was of strong stock, and stronger constitution, but even she couldn't withstand the effects of elven wine for very long. And now that serious topics were behind them, the alcohol worked more quickly through her, loosening the tension in her shoulders and the grim lines around her eyes.
"Oh?" Thranduil chuckled lightly, visibly pleased by the change in Lyra. "How did he win your hand? It must have taken a fair amount of work, if the effort was worthy of the prize." He set his small goblet down on the arm of the chair with a distinct metallic ring, an unmistakable signal no sharp-eared servant could possibly miss. Like magic, one appeared beneath the canopy, pitcher in hand. He refilled his king's cup skillfully, noted that Lyra's was still mostly full, and turned to go.
Thranduil spoke to him in elvish, and he nodded before withdrawing.
Lyra lifted an eyebrow at her companion and glanced pointedly at his goblet. She was unwilling to share how her husband had won her hand, but she was less unwilling to pry into the Elvenking's drinking habits. It seemed like he was used to this sort of thing. He certainly wasn't drinking to be polite.
"Oh, come now," Thranduil cajoled. "I am genuinely curious as to the courting practices of Men. We of the Woodland Realm have very specific rituals in matters of love."
Noting her apparent displeasure at the amount of drink he had imbibed, he removed his hand from the stem of the goblet and folded it on his lap with the other. The posture lent him a poised, leonine aspect, and his pointed ears and angular features strengthened the association. It was clear he was alert, quite in possession of his wits.
"Perhaps I have been too forward," the Elvenking said at last. "Forgive me. I would blame the distance between our two races, but I suppose it would be rude even among my own people to question a lady on her late husband - especially upon our first meeting."
The woman gave him a wry look, but thought better of commenting on his complete lack of tact. She supposed she didn't warrant tact, being neither royalty nor nobility. "It wouldn't be seen favorably, I suppose," she agreed, and took a sip of wine to fill the silence. "You told me when you first arrived that you didn't come for our sake. What made you change your mind?"
Thranduil hesitated. "A test, if you will believe me. I knew nothing of you. In that brief exchange, I determined what sort of person you were. Well-considered. Honest. Concerned for the welfare of your people, and at the same time, more than generous with your evaluation of Oakenshield's character." He chuckled lightly. "Did you believe I was the same as him? Interested only in riches at the expense of my honor?"
Lyra swallowed more wine than she'd intended, coughed a little, and lifted an eyebrow at him. "I had little reason to believe otherwise. You told me only of the jewels owed you, and you seemed," - still seem- "intent on bloodshed in order to get them. But perhaps I can't read intent as well as the Eldar."
"It is true there is little love lost between myself and Oakenshield," the Elvenking admitted. "All the same, I do not wish senseless ill upon him. He will undo himself should he continue in his current course. I simply hope to avoid him taking Laketown's refugees with him in his downfall. If he honors his agreement with you, then he will be left in peace to do as he wills."
Thranduil absently twisted a pale, lustrous lock around two heavily adorned fingers. "Surely you know my folk are capable, even now, of scaling his pathetic wall? If I ordered it, he would be dead before an hour had passed. But I do not wish it. Not if there is any chance he might still be made to see reason." The king's tone hardened a little, his eyes focusing on some point on the canvas wall beyond Lyra.
"If he has no compassion, no decency in him - if he would let helpless refugees starve rather than parting with a negligible amount of coin - only then will I seek such a course. And only to prevent the death of innocents."
There was a beat of pregnant silence between them as the woman scrutinized the Elvenking. "Wouldn't it spare more innocent lives to provide the coin yourself, Your Majesty?" It was bold, too bold, but Lyra didn't withdraw the comment. Instead, she interested herself in her goblet and conveniently avoided his gaze.
Thranduil was clearly caught off guard. He stiffened, and did not speak for a long moment. When he did, his dulcet tones had faded and become hard-edged. "When I say 'negligible,' I mean in comparison to the rest of the dragon's hoard. Such an amount as would be required to rebuild a city and restart its economy would be far more than my royal treasury can spare. Despite appearances, my resources are not limitless." Nor is my patience . These unspoken words seemed to hang in the air, charging the silence with an uncomfortable new energy.
Lyra set her goblet aside, the gesture as smooth and measured as she could make it. "Sad times, when the world depends so on that which is neither loyal nor capable of loyalty." She stood and gave Thranduil a bow. "Rest well, Your Majesty. I trust the morning will bring all things to light." The woman didn't wait for the Elvenking to dismiss her before she turned toward the pavilion entrance. A heart of gold, she thought to herself, was just as cold and unfeeling as the one made of stone. Just prettier to look at.
Chapter 2: Going South
There are some graphic descriptions of fighting and fatal injury in this chapter. If this is something you're sensitive to, skip down to the note at the bottom, where the chapter will be summarized.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
War with the Dwarves. And these weren't even the Dwarves that had done wrong; they were only defending their kin. Lyra watched stiffly as the Elves and Dwarves advanced on each other, then turned away. Spurring her horse through the Elven ranks, she left Thranduil behind with one disgusted glance, returning to her people.
"Fall back!" she called to her pathetic group of fighting-men. Well, pathetic in comparison with these trained armies. She would risk none of her people on this nonsense. "Fall back to Dale!" Though there was some concern and confusion among her folk, they followed her as she rode away from what would soon be a battlefield. This was not her fight.
Thranduil was little troubled by the withdrawal of the Laketown forces, though he thought their leader was, perhaps, overreacting. Surely after the first wave of dwarves was routed, Lord Dain would see his folly and sue for an end to the fight.
It never came to that. Before the battle lines had closed, a loud shout and a bright flash of flame went up, all but blinding the oncoming troops. "Halt!"
Gandalf the Grey stood between the two armies, his staff upraised, tendrils of grey smoke twisting away from him on the breeze. "Do you not see your peril? Azog has come, you fools! I warned you, Thranduil, and you did not heed me."
The Elvenking laughed haughtily into the silence that followed. "Mithrandir, you must be truly desperate if you believe-"
A loud horn blast rolled over Thranduil's words, and the Elvenking's mirth faded all in an instant. A miasma of shock and horror permeated the army as surely as the wave of darkness over the black mass surging into the valley - orcs rushing rank upon rank toward the assembled armies, shaking the ground beneath their foul feet.
Lyra's horse whinnied shrilly, shying away from the noise and the oncoming enemies. The orcs were fast and the Elves were between the Lakemen and the Mountain. The Dwarves were surging forward to face this new foe. Lyra felt a cold shiver and knew she had a choice. Lead her men on to Dale, or stay and fight the orcs.
The Dwarves don't need to be protected. The wounded and young do .
"To the city! Pick up the pace, men!" As of yet, the orcs hadn't targeted them, but Lyra knew there wasn't much time. Those waiting for them in the city would need to be protected. That was her fight.
The arrival of the orcs put things in perspective for Thranduil, who wasted little time once he realized the shape things were taking. At his command, the Elves raced, impressively ordered and uniform, to make new ranks behind the line of dwarves advancing on the orcs. Thranduil spurred his horned steed on into the midst of them, blade gleaming white, poised in his hand.
Lyra was right to take her people where they would be safe, he reasoned, though he wasn't entirely sure they'd be any safer in the city than amongst the ranks of warriors he commanded.
His suspicion proved accurate. The now-allied armies had scarcely engaged the foe before another horn blast sounded. A portion of the orc force split off from the rest and headed toward the city. Azog was nothing if not cunning. Divide and conquer.
The refugees would not stand a chance. Catching the attention of his lieutenant, Thranduil issued orders swiftly, and in a few moments, two elvish companies hurried to waylay the threat, led by their king. Even urging his great elk along, faster and faster, Thranduil wondered what he was doing. This could all miscarry badly if Azog sent further reinforcements into the city. It could be a trap.
But to leave Lyra and her people undefended...? No. This Dragonslayer - however much she distrusted and scorned him - was too rare a breed. He could not allow her to flee the circles of the world so easily.
It didn't take long for the city to turn into exactly the confused battlefield Lyra had been hoping to avoid. Her horse stumbled and fell, throwing her to the ground in the midst of a frenzied orc pack. They howled and leapt on her, only to be beaten back by the men who had followed her into the city. One hauled her forcibly to her feet, another pushed a sword into her hand. Lyra didn't waste time.
"Cor, take your archers and find a high building near the square. Dago, gather the women and children and get them to the keep. The rest of you, with me."
"Where are we going?"
"The square. We might be able to draw them in, give the wounded a chance to flee." Lyra's tone was grim, but her heart twisted at the thought of forcing her son to take care of his sisters. He would lead the family well, but he was still just a boy.
Orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls. Lyra chose her battles, weaving through the streets, avoiding enemies too large to be tackled without help. Despite what she had hoped, there would be no barricade. The square was overrun.
"For Laketown," she said firmly. "For our families." Lifting her sword, Lyra charged with a fierce cry. Death would come, but it wouldn't take her quietly.
By the time Thranduil reached the hard-pressed band of refugee fighters, the situation had become all but hopeless. His mount had fallen, as had a third of his forces, and the numbers of the enemy had not decreased by any notable measure. But she was there. She yet lived.
The Elvenking fought his way to her side, twin swords flashing silver-bright amongst the dark bodies of the orcs, his banner guards struggling to keep up. "My lady." He panted, a trickle of black blood stark against his pale cheeks. "There is nothing to be gained here. The city is overrun."
Lyra grimaced, her sword arm aching, her lungs burning. She wheeled to parry a blade she thought she heard hissing in her direction, but the area about her was filled only with allies for the moment. Her sword dropped to her side and she allowed herself a blessed few seconds of rest.
"My people," she panted, "are in the keep. The ones that can't fight. I wanted to give them time." Time to build a barricade, time to escape, time to do something, ANYTHING that might offer a fighting chance. She had no idea if her children were still alive, or where they were. They had to be alive. She would believe that until she couldn't anymore.
Thranduil's escort extended the respite, holding back the newest onslaught with unexpected success. The king pursed his lips slightly, considering. "If my forces can occupy their main press for a few minutes, would you be able to get your people out of the city?"
At Lyra's hesitation, Thranduil spoke more urgently. "You know as well as I do these orcs will give your weak and wounded no quarter. They'll slaughter your young and old alike, sparing no one. If you can get them out the south gate... you may yet have a chance."
If only. If only. "We have nowhere to go," she reminded him with a wince, trying to staunch the blood flowing from a cut under her left arm. "Even if I led them out through the south gate, we would be a party of wounded and elderly and children, on foot and without provisions. I might as well sentence them to death." Lyra felt each word like a leaden blade in the pit of her stomach. A swift death by the sword was preferable to starvation, but would she forgive herself if she didn't take that chance? They might... go to the Mountain, or into Mirkwood. With a grunt, she lifted her sword again, looking determined.
"If you die, I will never forgive you." Whirling, she scanned the seething mass of fighting bodies around them, chose the thinnest of the orc packs, and plunged in again. "Lakemen, to me! To me!"
Her words had scarcely processed when Thranduil was pulled back to the task at hand. A black-fletched arrow grazed his cheek, and the archer was dispatched an instant later, but it was clear the orcs were aware they had the Woodland Realm's king ensnared in their trap. The orc force surged with renewed fervor into the square, pushing back the valiant defense of the dwindling elven host, hopelessly outnumbered and becoming even more so with each passing minute.
Then something changed. A horn call, different than the others. Bolder, louder, clearer, nobler. There was only one thing it could mean. Thranduil could scarcely believe it. Thorin. Thorin must have been leading a sortie from the Mountain. He was quite mad. Suicidal. It was the last thing he should've done if he had any sense of self-preservation at all.
And yet, it made a difference. Azog's strategy changed all in an instant. The main press in Dale weakened. Thranduil shook his head in astonishment. Within a handful of minutes, the attack on the square, and he imagined, much of the rest of the city, had dissolved into little more than a few stragglers, and streets piled with dark bodies.
A scout returned, doubled over, weak with pain. Thranduil noticed an arrow protruding from the elf's shoulder. "Lady Lyra has loaded the wounded into our supply carts," he wheezed. "They've made it out the south gate and are thus far undetected."
Thranduil relaxed visibly, nodding. "And Oakenshield? What of him?"
"He has rallied elves and dwarves alike to his side, and seems to be holding the orcs back. For now."
With the dwarves holding their own, and the others rallying to the King Under the Mountain, the battle seemed to be tipping in favor of the free folk. Lyra assured her men she would rejoin them quickly, and urged them to go on without her before darting back through the gate. If the orcs were preoccupied, then she would have time to round up the last of the survivors.
The Dragonslayer's expression became grim and hard as she looked through doorways and behind piles of rubble. Bodies and death everywhere, man, orc and elf alike. Such carnage ought not to have come here again, when the city had already seen such pain. So it was that she was intent on her search, and didn't notice the party of elves until they were quite close. Without a greeting or even a nod, she moved past them, the beginnings of relief easing tension from her jaw. Perhaps they had found all the survivors already-
Lyra froze, a shiver of terror shaking her from top to toe. A second later, she sprang toward the weak form, propped against a crumbling wall.
"Mum? Is that you?"
"Bain." Lyra's heart couldn't seem to decide between stopping completely and galloping right out of her chest. It settled for lodging itself in her throat, and the woman blinked rapidly to clear away the heat pressing at her eyes. She needed to concentrate. She needed to help her son.
His arm and chest were both soaked in blood - if she could just close the wound, then maybe he would last long enough for one of the elves to help him. Lyra tore Bain's shirt open, desperate to help her son.
"You were righ', Mum. Need ta work on... footwork." Bain made himself smile, even as he shuddered, the cold air like fire on the open wound. Lyra tasted bile and saw black spots dance before her eyes. Bain's chest was torn open, from his right shoulder down to his navel, and his shield arm was curled around his own waist, holding in a wet press of bloody tissue that ought to have been safely inside his body. The woman's hands shook as she folded his shirt carefully closed again.
"After all this..." Lyra's voice broke and tears overflowed. "I didn't save you from the dragon to lose you like this, dammit. You just hold on, Bain, I'll get help. I'll make sure you get through this." She started to stand, but her son grabbed her arm, his hand slick with blood.
"Sigrid and Tilda - they're alive, Mum. Tell them I did my best." His smile was faltering now. "I promised I'd come back after I found you. But I did my best, okay?"
"No, nonono, Bain, don't say that. You'll keep your promise. I swear it. Just don't-" But his grip was loosening, his eyes losing focus.
"I love you, Mum."
"Bain, don't... please." But she knew it was too late. She held his hand, her boy who looked so much like his father, and watched him fade away. And when his chest stopped its struggle to breathe, his pulse stopped beating under her hand, Lyra's tears stopped.
Her breathing was deep and steady as she stood, eyes still wet, and turned blindly toward the Mountain looming beyond the wall.
"I'll kill them," she said softly, and one hand grasped her sword as though her arm wasn’t already one solid ache. "I'll make them pay."
Lyra Dragonslayer thinks to avoid the battle by retreating to Dale, but is targeted by a contingent of orcs, which overrun the city as she tries to form a barricade to protect the wounded, young, and elderly. Seeing her peril, Thranduil charges into Dale to fight at her side, and through gumption and luck, they manage to survive until the orc force is withdrawn. But when Lyra returns to the city to search for survivors, she arrives in time to witness her son's last moments. The chapter ends with Lyra swearing vengeance, perhaps a little mad with grief.
Chapter 3: True Heart, True Friend
Because only a true friend would stop you from being an idiot when it really counts.
Thranduil found her like this, dark as a stormcloud, eyes glassy and hard in her grim face. His entourage was nearby, searching the buildings and pathways for any orcs that might possibly be lying in wait.
She was deaf to his call, neither slowing nor turning as she passed him by, rounding the corner. Her sword was in her hand, and there was no doubt in the Elvenking's mind now what her goal was. She was trying to get herself killed.
He caught up to her, but was reluctant to physically stop her. Who knew what she might do when she was like this?
"My lady," he tried again, extending a gauntleted hand, but not touching her. "My lady, what has happened? I may be able to help. Just stop a moment, and speak with me. Please."
That last word surprised him. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd pleaded with someone. It felt strange, foreign. Confusing.
His words seemed to reach her, and though she didn't stop, her pace did slow a little and she turned her gaze on him. Four words were all she needed, uttered in the sort of calm tone one knows is never actually calm, but quite dangerous.
"They killed my son." Her explanation given, Lyra turned her eyes back upon the Mountain, knuckles whitening around the hilt of her sword.
Thranduil's heart sank. This could be even more difficult than he'd thought. "My lady, your people need you. You cannot abandon them. Your son would not wish you to do this, and you know it."
He did finally put a hand on her shoulder, pulled her around to face him. Rough handling, maybe, but she needed to listen. Meeting her gaze earnestly, he shook his head. "You may yet flee this life today, Dragonslayer. But not like this. Not like this."
"And who are you to dictate my death?" The words came out a feral snarl, and the woman stood rigidly, teeth bared. Though she didn't want to admit it, didn't want to think it, he was right. There were still folk that needed her. Just then, she hated them for it. Hated that responsibility she'd shouldered in leading the Lakemen.
"I will avenge my son - I didn't survive this long just to lose everything. I would have them know what pain is." Lyra could feel herself trembling under his hand, the weight of the gauntlet seeming to pin her in place. Everything hurt, but everything was also numb and distant. It was as though the ache in her arm belonged to someone else, and the grief raging in her chest were a hundred miles away, a mere rumor in the midst of desolate isolation. Valar save her, she was as emotional as her daughters, and ought to have known better.
Thranduil caught the waver in her resolve as it flickered across her face, and loosened his grip on her slightly. As grim a mask as she wore, she was still possessed of a mother’s heart.
"Your son would be better avenged through your continued leadership. What difference will you make, throwing your life away for a few moments' satisfaction?" He could see she was beginning to listen to reason, but there was still a dangerous, agonized passion in her dark eyes that told him she might yet lose herself to grief and fury. "Stay with me if you'll not be persuaded to return to your own. I know you do not trust me fully, but trust me in this. Your son will be avenged before the end. I swear it."
Lyra took a shuddering breath and threw a desperate look at the Mountain. Between the gates of Dale and the great twisted doors of Erebor, her enemies were waiting, all bloodlust and senseless fury, so easily killed, swept away under the feet of their own wretched kind. Mindless brutes. Would but they spill their dark lifeblood and shake in fear of her wrath, the shadow of her blade. Lyra would have cut a hundred throats to avenge Bain, would gladly have thrown her life on the mercy of the Valar if she could.
"Damn you," she hissed. "I'll live yet, and if my son is not avenged, I'll take it out of your hide, Elvenking."
The battle unfolded differently than any had anticipated, and Thranduil was content to give full mind to the small force he commanded in Dale. What combatants tested their resolve were sporadic and weakly directed, as though the city itself were an afterthought. The hottest center of the battle, it seemed, was moving off toward Ravenhill.
Still, it was challenge enough to hold the city. The elven force continued, steadily, to dwindle. A well-placed arrow here, a lucky strike there. What the enemy lacked in skill they often made up for in numbers and persistence, and more often than not there were armored trolls were among their ranks.
Ten times, Azog's forces came against the main gate, or slithered through the many gaps in the walls and came at them through ruined avenues, and ten times the little knot of elves routed them. The Elvenking kept a close eye on Lyra, seeing that she didn't separate herself from the rest or do anything uncommonly reckless.
The moment she succeeded in thwarting his efforts, though, he was less prepared than he'd counted on. She had made it almost halfway across the causeway, slaying furiously as she went, but hadn't noticed the dark shapes on the pale horizon, making toward the field with obvious intent.
Bats. A vast, dark cloud of them, moving quickly, fanning out.
"Lady Lyra!" Thranduil snatched a bow from one of his elves and in an instant had an arrow on the string. The nearest creature fell with a shriek, but Lyra was surrounded by orcs and not capable of making it back to the walls in a hurry.
With a wondering shake of the head, the Elvenking dropped the bow, pulled both his swords, and charged into the fray. The last sounds he heard before the low bellows and grunts of the enemy drowned them out were the alarmed cries of his entourage, clearly thinking he'd lost his mind. Perhaps he had.
And yet, impossibly, it worked. The narrow causeway proved easier to clear than anticipated, as orc after orc lost its balance and plunged into the gap below, shoved or slashed or sliced by Thranduil, or knocked over by their fellows. Still, by the time the Elvenking reached Lyra, the bats were upon them in a drove Thranduil felt was a bit unfair, considering there were so many other places they could have gone on the field. Short of picking her up and making a break for the rather meager fortifications, he had few options now besides trying to defend them both, and he accomplished that with astonishing - if not entirely effortless - efficacy.
"I meant what I said," he hissed between strikes. "This isn't vengeance. It's madness."
Killing the bats was easily the most unpleasant task he'd had all day. Decapitating them midflight often resulted in being showered with dark, greasy gore, and a stench one might best describe as moldering death. They would both need a thorough scrubbing when this was over.
Miraculously, and in no small part thanks to crack archers on the walls, Thranduil and Lyra managed to reach the relative safety of the main gate once more, just in time to see more dark, flying shapes soaring over the hills beyond.
"It cannot be." Thranduil wondered at his vision briefly. Could anything so unexpectedly fortunate happen on a day like this? Indeed, it could.
The eagles had come, and with them, as it turned out, the great skin-changer himself, Beorn.
If the tide hadn't been turned before, this final stroke was more than enough to do it. In a mere handful of minutes, the enemy was routed and fleeing the field in droves, scattering like roaches in the presence of sudden daylight.
Thranduil turned away, strangely moved. His swords, dark with blood, were still in his hands, and he sighed, sheathing them both in one fluid motion. He spoke to one of his elves softly, and the warrior bowed before moving off, taking with him roughly half the remaining force.
"Your son... is avenged, Lady Lyra." The Elvenking turned to her finally, assessing her condition with a quick glance. She seemed mostly unhurt, incredible as it was. But her eyes were vacant. Revenge would never bring Bain back, and she was beginning to understand that.
Lyra forced herself to focus on Thranduil, taking a shuddering breath. After a moment, she started to clean her sword mechanically.
"Aye," she agreed dully. "Seems hollow, doesn't it, with so many dead?" Victory at so high a cost hardly felt of victory at all. Her son, dead. And what of her daughters? Lyra closed her eyes, unable to bear the thought. What if they, too, were gone? "You don't need to stay. Your people need you."
But Thranduil knew there was no leaving her alone in this state. That was something he simply couldn't conscience. "We will have news of your daughters soon," he said simply.
She continued to polish her sword, and he smiled slightly. Nothing was disposable amongst the impoverished Lakemen. Whereas he had given up his blades and scabbards as lost causes, tainted irreversibly by blood and filth and stench, she cared for hers. Loyally, as though they were old friends. It was something to admire, he decided. It was consistent in all she did.
Lyra paused in the midst of buffing the nicked blade. Though she didn't look at him, there was a palpable feeling of surprise radiating from her. The moment passed, and she shivered, rolling her shoulders tensely.
"Why are you doing this? I didn't ask for your help. I have nothing to give you in return. You have nothing to gain." Lyra's voice dropped to a whisper, and she took a minute to breathe, calming herself again. It felt as though the ground were crumbling beneath her feet, the world reeling out of control, far beyond her ability to bring back into order.
Thranduil's reply was soft. "I know it must be hard to believe, but I do sometimes act on others' behalf without expecting anything in return." Silence settled between them again, and Thranduil studied her reaction carefully. It was hard, he knew, when she was convinced he acted only in his own best interest. He wasn't really sure why it mattered to him, that her impression of him change. But it did matter, and that was enough.
"When I said I wished to know you better, my words were not idly spoken. You are like no one I've ever met, Dragonslayer, and as you must know, I have met many people in my time. Call it selfishness if you will, but I could not allow you to perish before your time."
Lyra watched him for a long, quiet moment. Her hands shook a little as she started polishing her sword again. "I..." Her jaw flexed and she swallowed before speaking again. "Thank you... Majesty." She sounded shaky. Like she might be thinking about crying.
An elf cried out, alarm and fear in his clear voice. As the two leaders turned, it became immediately apparent that his entourage was too far away to help. One of the bats had survived. Previously trapped under several of its dead companions, the creature had struggled free, and was now flopping toward them, one wing broken, mouth open, huge teeth bared. There was no screeching or screaming - the beast was almost silent.
Lyra saw Thranduil reach for his weapons, only to realize he'd already passed them off to someone else. Dragonslayer, now Batslayer. The woman took an unsteady, lunging step forward, letting the weight of her sword drag itself downward in an uncontrolled arc. With a soft snick , the bat's head came cleanly off, juddering across the uneven ground as the jaw snapped open and closed in its last throes. Lyra watched dispassionately as it twitched and flailed, right up until the slavering fangs chomped down on her ankle.
"My lady-!" Thranduil's warning died in his throat - too late. He'd been a fool to think it would all be over and done with so neatly. Lyra staggered back weakly, shaking the bat's head clear. Blood streamed from her ankle, soaking her boot.
The bats were bred for war. Panic rushed into the Elvenking's heart like ice water. The venom would spread quickly, even more quickly through human blood than elven. She'd be lucky to last an hour.
"Sit down. Now." His tone was commanding, and yet half-plaintive. No one could have mistaken the waver of fear in the latter word. He moved behind her, assisting her into a sitting position. "You must not move, Lady Lyra."
Turning to one of the elves who had called out to warn him, he gestured insistently, barking orders in elvish. They'd have to hurry. Any delay fetching his supplies could mean her life.
The pain started as a sharp, hot stab. She could feel the blood flowing down into her boot, the punctures like burning needles. Then it started to spread. Even as she stumbled and Thranduil caught her, fire was drifting up her leg, into her calf, collecting around her knee like mist in the morning breeze. Aching, burning - then twitching.
Lyra let out a soft grunt, as the muscles in her leg spasmed painfully from slack numbness to rigidity and back again. She hadn't thought it would live long enough to bite her. Even when it got close, the idea that the creature was a danger to her hadn't truly penetrated. Now that death nipped at her heels, she found it not quite as friendly as it had seemed while watching her son fade.
An elf nearly tripped over himself as he rushed to his king's side, bearing the tattered remains of a tooled leather bag and saying something in hasty Elvish. Whatever it was, it didn't sound like good news.
Thranduil looked slightly stricken, but nodded slowly, taking the bag. His pavilion had been burned, his supplies largely scattered or destroyed. This meager pouch of herbs and bandages was all that remained.
Issuing another quiet order in elvish, he turned back to Lyra. He'd settled her against a sloping piece of rubble, comfortably as possible, and now he had no choice but to work with what supplies he had. There was little time.
Kneeling beside the Dragonslayer, he put his hands on her boot, gingerly loosening the leather wrappings that held the top it together. In a moment, he had it off. The extent of the bites was made plain to him, then, the punctures oozing blood and a pale greenish fluid.
"You must calm yourself," the Elvenking advised, steady blue gaze flicking up briefly to meet her trembling one. "Slow your breathing. Do not allow your heart to race."
He hesitated a moment, preparing himself for the humble act to follow. It was not dignified. But it was necessary.
"This will be painful. Try not to move." Thranduil's strong hands tightened, one around her lower calf, the other over her foot. Leaning down, his silver cloak pooling behind him across the bloodstained stones, he took one final preparatory breath and pressed his lips to one of the punctures. It might have been a kiss, if a strange, bloody, needful one. The Elvenking's eyes were closed, his features hard with focus, long, pale hair half-concealing his face.
The elves murmured wonderingly in the stillness. The seconds crawled tensely along.
Then Thranduil drew back stiffly, turning his face away. He spat, skillfully launching a mouthful of dark liquid into a shrub some feet away, and then moved quickly to the other puncture. By his own craft, he worked to separate poison from lifeblood, though his power stopped short of removing the venom altogether. It moved too quickly for that, no doubt the result of the creature's foul breeding. What remained of the herbs, he hoped, would do the rest, if she was half as strong as he judged her to be.
Lyra was tense when he finished - tense, but not moving. She forced herself to breathe slowly, though she was still trembling. There were little dark spots flashing and dancing in front of her eyes as she watched him, listening to the pounding of her own heart. The pain had spread, drifting up from her knee to her hip, then into her stomach, where it was twisting around in her abdomen and about the base of her spine.
She considered saying something, anything - even a thank-you. But fuzzy explosions of color and wild emotions buzzed around in her head, little more. Lyra grit her teeth and breathed determinedly through her nose. There was no way she was going to give up now. Maybe it was just her contrary nature, but she was a stubborn creature, and unwilling to let anyone or anything else dictate her fate.
Thranduil finished, sitting up once more, and it was to his credit that his face betrayed no displeasure. His lips were bloodstained, the color somewhat ghastly against the unusual pallor of his skin. He wiped his mouth on the edge of his cape, and extended a hand to receive the water-flask that was quickly pressed into it by a waiting elf. Rinsing his mouth thoroughly, he pulled a handful of dried medicinal herbs from the tattered pouch and chewed them into something of a paste.
This was all the most basic of healing procedure, techniques he hadn't had to use since the war against Angmar. It was all far less polished, less precise than he preferred.
Shooting Lyra a look that clearly conveyed his next action would most definitely be painful, he gently pressed the paste against her wound, securing it with a clean strip of cloth one of his elves had prepared. This would work to further draw out the venom, if all went well, and speed the ultimate healing process. If all went well. That was the tricky part. Every healer knew it was virtually impossible to save someone who did not wish to be saved. She had to be willing to fight, had to cling to life. If his knowledge of fell poisons was accurate, she would be delirious with fever soon.
"I have done what I can for you, my lady." His voice was soft, a bit tired. "You must do the rest."
A quick exchange of elvish provided the information Thranduil sought, and he turned his attention back to Lyra. "My scouts report your people are out of danger, and on their way back to Dale. A small party of orcs pursued them, but it seems they were routed easily enough." He smiled faintly. "Your daughters are safe."
Lyra's lips curved in a smile as she let out a shaky, slightly hysterical laugh. She shook, dark eyes beginning to lose focus, but the smile remained, defiant and now fearless.
"I was... I was… wrong about… about you, Elvenking. You’re a true… a good friend." Her fingers twitched as she clasped his hand as firmly as she could manage. "Was an… an honor… to fight beside you. Take care of them... Thranduil." His name seemed a magnificent hurdle to her, and with that effort spent, she let her head fall back and concentrated on breathing. The world was sliding out of focus around her, spinning hazily one way, then the other. She would see them again, but in the meantime, she was sure her Elf friend would look after her folk and keep them alive. As much as he could.
Chapter 4: Healing
Recovery from the Battle was a long, gruesome process, and in many cases, those collecting and carrying the dead looked no better themselves. Many had died in the clash with the orcs, and a portion more faded from sickness, wounds, or exhaustion. Winter set in fast and hard, locking down men, dwarves and elves in ice and snow.
The Dragonslayer, ill as she was, protested vehemently when Thranduil (and even her own kin!) insisted that she and the other wounded be moved into the Mountain until enough of the buildings in Dale could be shored up to house them. Thorin Oakenshield, himself grievously wounded in single combat with Azog, welcomed the people of Laketown and, more grudgingly, the elves that were tending to their needs.
Yet even with what aid the elves could provide, recovery could be sped only so much. Lyra remained bedridden for several weeks, her periods of lucidity unpredictable amid the episodes of delirious, exhausting fever. Those who were present, her daughters included, learned more about the Dragonslayer's many fears than any had wanted to know. At length, the fever broke for good, and while her thin and weakened body took time to recover, her spirit chafed at its perceived captivity.
"If you're bringing me any more of that tea, Galdir, I swear I pour it down your - oh. Thranduil." Lyra had the grace to look a little embarrassed, though she felt no need to explain that she had thought he was someone else. "No one told me you were coming." She sat, propped up on many pillows and looking rather like a skeleton wrapped in flesh. Her bony fingers clenched around the blankets, the only indication that she disliked being seen as she was. "I thought you would have gone back to your forest by now."
Thranduil smiled. It was good to see her lucid, despite her frail, emaciated state. "I have business here yet. My forest can wait." He chuckled lightly, the sound low and pleasant. "I see Galdir has been keeping you well supplied with the tonic I prescribed." He cocked an eye at the wooden tray beside her bed, crowded with half-empty brass cups. Evidently it was easier to fetch new cups than to wash the existing ones and refill them. "Foul-tasting, I know, but it is doing you good."
Utter seriousness pervaded his features once more, and he pulled up a low stool beside the bed, gracefully seating himself. How he was able to keep his long silver robes under control was anyone's guess. "You must be well and whole before you are fit to guide your people once more," he said, leaning forward earnestly. "Dale shall be as it was before the dragon came - so the soothsayers have long claimed - but there is no hurry. We can hardly do much with the weather as it has been." He sighed. "Frozen earth complicates things. Many dead to bury, and it is no small task to dig even a single grave."
Lyra's eyes darkened at the thought, and her bony chest rose and fell with a deep sigh. Grief made her look like a dead thing, but she did her best to shake it off. The moment had passed, and once again her attention was on the Elvenking at her bedside.
"I meant to thank you." The somber air became heavy about them, weighing on the woman's thin shoulders. "I... almost lost myself." Her gaze flicked up to meet his, and Lyra felt a curious stirring in her chest. It was an unfamiliar feeling - a mixture of gratitude and something she couldn’t identify. "I owe you and your folk a great deal, and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to repay that debt." Lyra let her dark eyes drop to the blankets again, as though relinquishing a heavy burden. It was odd to trust him so completely. Trust was a foolish thing.
Thranduil nodded, something like hope stirring in the starlit wells of his eyes. "Perhaps, Lady Lyra, when the times are less dire and your city is rebuilt, you might consider... repaying that debt. A visit to the Woodland Realm."
Lyra looked up searchingly, and Thranduil smiled. There was no mistaking the fondness in his expression now. "It would honor me. Truly." After a moment's hesitation, he reached for her hand, and for perhaps the first time, Lyra saw chinks in his seemingly impenetrable confidence.
It was a small gesture, this contact between their fingers - his full of grace and strength, hers thin and cold. And yet it expressed fully and truthfully where words would have fallen short. So it was with all matters of the heart. Thranduil knew now the reason he had gone to such lengths to save her. A bit selfish, perhaps, but not completely so.
Lyra didn't pull her hand away. Didn't dare. Suddenly, everything was uncertain. The world was falling apart again, and this time she didn't have the excuse of venom in her system or fever-induced delirium. Part of her longed for the comfort of knowing he would take care of her. The rest of her was terrified.
"Maybe," she agreed, after an interminable silence. Lyra kept her gaze on his hand. It was larger than hers, though not broader, well-formed and strong. Looking at that hand, she felt vulnerable and... imperfect. And it bothered her.
Her fear did not escape the incisive Elvenking, of course. But she was bold enough of a spirit that he was certain she would tell him if his tacit overture was... unappreciated.
"I require naught but that you think on it, my lady."
He'd scarcely finished speaking when the curtain behind him drew aside partially, and two young faces peeked in. Girls. One was significantly taller than the other, having almost reached her full height, and had Lyra's brown hair and eyes. The other was young yet, and her hair was lighter, her eyes blue and full. Lyra withdrew her hand quickly at the first sign they were not alone, but Thranduil thought it unlikely her daughters hadn't noticed.
"She's awake." The little girl grinned up at her sister, tugging on her hand to pull her inside.
"Hush, Tilda." The older one looked slightly embarrassed. "She's speaking with the king."
"Tilda, no." Sigrid held her eager sister back, glancing apologetically at Thranduil, who had turned halfway in his seat. "We'll come back later."
"It's alright, children." The Elvenking smiled, beckoning to them. If he was at all caught off guard, he betrayed nothing. "It would do your mother good to see you."
"Are you sure?" Sigrid looked uncertain. "We can come back."
Thranduil chuckled. "Family first, business after. I can wait."
Lyra shot her companion a grateful look before extending a hand to her daughters. Sigrid let Tilda go, and the little girl bounded across the room, throwing herself into her mother's lap.
"You were sick for a long time, Momma." Tilda gave her mother as tight a hug as she could manage. Lyra's face lost a little color, but she rubbed the little girl's back, making herself smile.
"I know, sweetheart. I know." The grim, cold Dragonslayer became soft, her tone gentle and loving. "I'll be better soon, my darlings. Don't worry."
Sigrid took her mother's hand, seeming almost afraid to hold her too tightly, lest she shatter the fragile bones in her mother's thin fingers. "You'll rest, won't you, Mother?"
"Of course I will. I'll rest, even if it kills me."
Thranduil stood, giving the little family some room. Hope was alive in their hearts, tiny hints of yellow-green peeking up from beneath the blackened earth.
As he watched the girls fuss over their mother, he was struck by a sense of cold distance in his own life - how of all the elves he knew, all the people he surrounded himself with day by day, so very few of them actually truly cared for him. It was their duty to serve him - to die for him, if such was their lot - but it was not out of affection for him, or any personal loyalty. Even his own son was separated from him in his own way, and had been for a very long time. This scene before him threw his life into sharp relief. Troubling.
"I must... take my leave of you, Lady Lyra," he said softly, straightening his robes. "I will return when I can. By your consent, of course."
Lyra glanced up at him, a sort of hardness returning to her face, a guarded quality that wasn't present when she looked at her daughters. It wasn't, however, the same grim expression she wore when she looked at almost anyone else. For a moment, she seemed torn.
"I... would like that. Come again soon."
As Thranduil exited the room, as gracefully as ever, he heard little Tilda ask with a quiet sort of squeak; "Ma, why're you lookin' at him like that? Is he special?"
Chapter 5: Repaying Visits
This chapter is a little longer than usual. Enjoy!
Lyra allowed the armored guardsman to assist her in dismounting, wincing as her sore legs took her weight. The elf braced her a moment, then bowed and retreated, seeming to understand her distaste for weakness. She had been weak quite long enough, thank you kindly.
Back in Dale, rebuilding was underway and as the weather became warmer, they were able to cut more stone from the north quarry to shore up buildings and damaged walls. Since her condition was still less than ideal, her newly-formed council had sent her, their Dragonslayer Queen, to finalize and strengthen alliances with the dwarves and elves.
Now the woman stood before the gates of the Woodland palace, uncertainty chilling her blood. Erebor had been intimidating enough, despite the dwarves' deep respect and gratitude toward her as the Dragonslayer (and how she was beginning to loathe the title). This palace was just as impressive and even more intimidating. At least she had been able to offer the dwarves something in return. Her folk were fishermen and budding farmers, artisans and herders. They had nothing the elves didn't already have in abundance.
And none of her nervousness could possibly have anything at all to do with Thranduil's personal, earnest invitation. Nope. Nothing at all.
The gates opened and out strode the fair-haired Woodland prince, smiling warmly as he bowed to her. It was still awkward to be bowed to at every turn.
" Mae govannen , Dragonslayer. We've been expecting you."
Lyra nodded wordlessly and tried to convince herself that this wasn't a bad idea. That was just her nervousness talking. Her entourage (three warriors and a scribe) gathered behind her and together they and the elven prince moved through the tall, slender gates of Thranduil's palace.
Where Erebor had been deep and resounding, all polished surfaces and angles and clever bridges over bottomless chasms, the Woodland palace was a place of graceful curves, arches, and twisting roots. It was an odd concept, for the home of the Elvenking to be underground, but she supposed it was easier to defend than the alternative. The twisting spiral patterns of wood and stone gave the palace an air of living mystery.
It seemed a long time before they were led into guest rooms and informed the king would see them after they had a chance to freshen up a bit. Lyra nodded again, feeling poor and small. Fountains and arches and thick, luxurious rugs were all she could see in the opulent room before her. Honestly, it seemed far more than anyone could possibly need. Lyra thought back on her simple wooden home in Laketown, and wondered if these folk ever thought about the life she had come from. Noble blood or not, she was a bargewoman. A fisherman's wife. She sank onto the bench nearest the door and sighed, letting her head drop into her hands.
Trade negotiations. Alliances. Contracts. How simple life had been when she only had to worry about feeding her people, or bringing them firewood.
She was only left alone for a brief spell, time enough to bathe, change into the courtly clothes provided for her, and fashion her hair into something that resembled an up-do. It felt strange, all of it. Even she felt strange now, wearing a dress more elegant than any she'd ever seen, let alone owned. She wondered if she could even walk beneath the many layers of gold and green gossamer silk.
She was considering whether or not she might be able to simply clean up her traveling clothes enough to pass muster when there was a knock on the door.
The prince again, she thought, and steeled herself for the inevitable flood of personal inadequacy the meal was sure to be. Swallowing heavily, she made last-minute adjustments to her hair and dress and opened the door.
It wasn't Legolas, and that fact alone was enough to thoroughly undo all her preparations. The tall figure in draping silver bowed gracefully, blond hair immaculate beneath an understated crown and framing deep, clear blue eyes. King Thranduil was as resplendent as ever.
He made more sense here. That was a strange way of putting it, but it was the first that came to mind. This was where he belonged. A different world that she was briefly passing through.
"My lord," she choked out, realizing the silence had persisted far too long.
The Elvenking chuckled. "You are lovely, Lady Lyra. Truly." When she tilted her head questioningly, he went on. "I laugh only because you seem so utterly shocked to see me. I hope I don't look as ghastly as your face suggests."
"No, not at all. You look perfect." Even though her tone implied 'as always,' she turned several shades of pink, appalled that she'd actually said that out loud. Lyra could feel dark wisps of hair tickling the back of her neck, and resisted the urge to try to fix it. There was no use, she told herself. She would look shabby next to Thranduil no matter what she did. The woman felt thoroughly uncomfortable in her skin. She didn't belong here.
"It is expected of me." The Elvenking shrugged. "This... 'perfection,' as you call it. It is not as easy as it seems, but I will spare you the details of my morning torments." He moved around to her side, quick and graceful as a cat, and extended an arm to her.
"Come now, my lady. I do not mean to burden you overmuch with dread," he glanced at her sidelong, tone distinctly playful, "but we have much to discuss."
Lyra accepted his arm with a forced smile. Her fingers were digging into his forearm, she was sure, and the woman attempted to calm herself with several deep breaths.
She said nothing as the king guided her down the hall toward what she assumed was the dining room. It wasn’t really a room at all, but a veritable cavern, lit with a dazzling array of colored lanterns and large, warm fires. There were elves with instruments, playing soothing music, servants bearing gleaming silver dishes, and an assortment of graceful, royal-looking guests, all of whom appeared to be elven. Lyra nodded politely as she was introduced, and the names thrummed through her like fire, names out of old tales and songs. Galadriel of Lorien, Glorfindel, and Elrohir Peredhil. There were, she thought, two others, but by then her mind was spinning.
"Allow me to introduce Lady Lyra." Thranduil pulled out a chair for her beside his own at the head of the table, and with a further flush of embarrassment, the woman sat down.
"We have heard much about you." Lady Galadriel's smile was welcoming, if restrained. A formidable presence, if ever there was one. "Our host has told us of your valor during the battle and your slaying of the Great Worm. Do not fear. Your place among us is well-earned."
A strange thing to say, thought Lyra, only slightly comforted. Were her thoughts so easy to read?
She glanced at her host, and felt his fingers brush gently against her hand, as though comforting her. Some deeply-buried part of her mind insisted she needed no comfort. Not from him, not from anyone. On the other hand, their dinner companions were figures of legend, and Lyra wanted nothing more than to disappear into her room and stay there until this whole ordeal was over.
Whoever decided that I would make a good queen was clearly either half-blind or half-mad. Maybe both.
"You honor me, my lady," Lyra murmured, bowing her head to Galadriel. The pause had seemed much more significant than it had been. She watched as the others sat. Dark-haired son of Elrond, lord of Imladris. Glorfindel, dark-eyed warrior, visions of the endless Sundering Sea in his face. And the golden-haired Lady of Lorien, her blue gaze penetrating, reading all. The other two appeared to be fair-haired, like Thranduil, and she wondered if they, too, were as old as the trees, remembering a time before spiders and dragons and orcs.
A glance to her right told her that Thranduil was still standing, surveying the table as though it were a map of his domain. His expression, though austere, didn't seem as haughty or superior as it had when they had first met. Lyra paused mid-thought and checked the table again. She sat at Thranduil's direct left, across from Galadriel, who sat at his right. On Lyra's other side sat Elrohir, then Glorfindel across from him, and the other two. The final seat, at the foot of the table, was left empty.
Just how important do they think I am? All I did was stick an arrow in a dragon's hide and fight when my people needed me to.
The servers filed in, loading the tables with dishes of such sumptuousness, for a moment Lyra half forgot to be nervous, so awed was she by the offering. The roasted meats, swimming in thick, bubbling juices, smelled particularly heavenly, and the Dragonslayer couldn't have known such fare was not typical of the high elves.
Thranduil's palate was more in step with the human one than that of his kindred, a fact he recognized and was little troubled by. The Woodland Realm was not Rivendell or Lorien, and he had no desire to pretend it was.
There were greens, too, of course - salads of unparalleled freshness tossed with vibrantly colored vegetables and wonderfully tangy vinaigrettes - and a variety of other dishes Lyra didn't recognize, but was nonetheless impressed by. Herbed breads, fragrant sauces and pastes, even melons filled with fresh fruits. She couldn't imagine eating like this on a daily basis; or a yearly one, for that matter.
When the meal was well underway, the dorwinion served and some of the dishes cleared away to make room for new ones, Thranduil raised a toast.
"To Lady Lyra, and the end of the reign of Smaug."
The woman blushed again, resisting the urge to sink lower in her chair, as the elves raised their silver goblets in perfect synchronicity and echoed Thranduil's sentiments.
It was only after they had once again lowered their goblets that Lyra dared speak. Well, maybe 'dared' wasn't quite the word she was looking for, but it certainly took a good deal of gumption to open her mouth after such recognition.
"Perhaps it's... ungrateful of me to say so, but I don't think I deserve any of this." She indicated herself, her dress, and somehow managed to encompass the whole room in the gesture without making it seem vague or awkward. "There's nothing particularly special about me or about my deeds. I only did what was necessary, as anyone would have done in my place." Her tone, no longer abashed, became earnest.
Lyra was acutely aware of the gazes of Thranduil's other guests, weighing and measuring her as though she were a portion of grain for a hungry family. The queen of Dale lifted her chin slightly and let her eyes meet those of the elves closest to her. Her heart stopped racing, and she felt more comfortable with this subtle tension than the easy, courtly companionship of moments before.
Thranduil in particular was studying her intently, but it was Elrohir that broke the silence.
"I would not presume to speak for all my kin, but I would venture to say it takes a spirit of remarkable strength to have steady hands in the face of a dragon's wrath." The dark-haired elf exchanged a glance with the fair-haired lady across from him, and Lyra thought she saw a faint smile cross the Lady of Lorien's supple lips.
"As an archer and warrior," continued Elrohir, "I commend you for your bravery."
There were murmurs of agreement from around the table, and Lyra flushed, glancing at Thranduil again, as though seeking some sort of confirmation.
The Elvenking echoed her glance, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You are overwhelming her with your praise," he said lightly. "I sense she desires we proceed to the matter at hand."
"Quite right," said Glorfindel, nodding in agreement. "It is best we address the matter now, before the evening wears on too long and our wits are dulled with wine." A more serious mood seemed to settle over the assembly as those at the other table straightened, listening more intently.
They spoke of trade, of alliances, of borders. Of the responsibility for patrolling and repairing roads, which Thranduil seemed displeased with, but agreed with Galadriel on almost every point. The talk turned to the dark and foul things of the world, and what to expect now that the Dragon and the Necromancer had so stirred the creatures of Morgoth.
The Lady's gaze landed briefly on the Dragonslayer, and Lyra found that her mouth had gone a little dry. She wasn't afraid, though - this was war. This was something she could handle.
"What should we watch for?" she asked, her tone steady and strong. "And who should we contact, should a threat materialize?"
Another tiny smile flickered across the Lady's face, and she allowed Glorfindel to answer. "Unusual concentrations of foul creatures. We do not expect anything... conspicuous. Still, keeping a watch would not go amiss."
Thranduil answered her second question, which brought a crooked smile to her lips. She swallowed it hastily. It wouldn't do to let her host know how... endearing it was, to see him jump in like this. Nothing undignified was said, the air of grace not broken, but he seemed somehow young in comparison to the others at the table, which was an odd thought.
"Should you see anything amiss, my lady, I trust you'll alert me immediately."
"Of course, Your Majesty." And if Lyra's smile had reappeared in her tone, that was no one's business but hers.
Thranduil gave a nod, eyes closing briefly in a gesture of gratitude. "Dale is in capable hands."
Even as he spoke these words, his fingers again brushed past hers where they were resting on the edge of the table. It had been a natural movement; a stretch, perhaps. And yet, no accident. That much was clear. The Elvenking's face betrayed little, though the knowing look in the starlit eyes of Lorien's queen was, perhaps, more telling.
A moment passed, and then Thranduil signaled for more wine. With it came desserts, and other delicacies Lyra had never seen before. Talk of the rising evil went on for a time, but was ultimately drowned in drink and fine food. Anyway, the message had been given. There was no point in having it darken what remained of the feast.
The meal concluded in due course, Lady Galadriel the first to announce intentions of retiring for the evening. Lyra assumed Thranduil would dismiss her when he no longer required her presence, and therefore lingered until the last guest had gone. The Elvenking didn't seem intent on sending her away, though, as his blue eyes lit on her with a spark she'd only seen bare hints of over the course of the evening. She couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"Did you find the meal to your liking?" he asked mildly, fingers wrapped absently around the stem of his goblet. Rather habitual, that. "I hope you were not put off by the manner of my guests. Some elves are not given to revelry, and turn such feasting as they allow into affairs of business and council. I often wonder if the very concept of celebration confuses them."
He laughed softly, the sound of it warm and comforting in the silence of the room. Or maybe she was simply more at ease away from the incisive gazes of so many elves. Hard to say.
Lyra smiled hesitantly, not entirely sure whether she was being entertained as a welcome guest or if she ought to have excused herself when the others left. The dining hall felt oversized now, without the rest of their party, and she felt again that unidentifiable tension vibrating between them. She remembered it from Thranduil's final visits to her while she was recovering in the Mountain after the Battle. It had confused her then and it confused her now. She really didn't know what to do with it.
"I don't think I've found anything here not to be to my liking, Your Majesty," she consented with a slight nod. "I never doubted that you kept an excellent table." And for now, she would just... not comment on the other elves being confused by celebration. In truth, she was confused by it, but admitting so seemed somehow like contradicting him.
The silence that followed was not as uncomfortable as she feared it might be, and Lyra relaxed enough to reach for her cup (which was filled with water, as she had learned her lesson about elven wine some time ago).
"Might I... ask a question?"
Thranduil's eyebrows twitched upward ever so slightly, and he gestured invitingly for her to continue. Lyra hesitated a beat before speaking again.
"Could you tell me... the true reason for your invitation? Surely it wasn't simply to applaud my small feats in battle." Lyra felt herself relaxing a little as she spoke, slipping back into the role she was most comfortable in - the cynical tradesman, the woman who would tolerate nothing more or less than the respect she had earned with her own two hands.
"You are, of course, correct." Thranduil nodded, looking as though he'd quite expected the question. "While you doubt your value as an ally, you doubt even more your value as a friend." The Elvenking graced her with a smile. "I enjoy your company, Lady Lyra. You seem to have forgotten that."
He stood, gathering his robes up in that perfectly fluid, graceful manner he'd doubtless cultivated from thousands of years of draping himself in shimmering finery. "I am going to walk. Would you care to accompany me, milady?"
Lyra let out a sigh that made her sound a bit like a horse, and stood, frowning at him. "I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or frustrated. You're a terribly frustrating person, you know." His grace was only serving to remind her of how much she really didn't belong here. Looking down at herself, the woman shook her head at the yards of fabric hanging about her legs. Completely impractical.
If her words troubled him, Thranduil didn't let on. "You are not the first who has said as much. Come. It has grown stuffy in here."
He led her from the room, and once they'd passed the arched doorway, offered her his arm. She took it, but not without the slightest bit of hesitation.
The kingdom was beautiful, details worked into every inch of wood and stone, and many of the walkways overlooked channels of the swift-moving underground river, or passed over it in curving stone bridges. Bridges with no railings, Lyra noted somewhat uncomfortably, reminding herself that a people as graceful as the elves had no need for such ‘mortal’ precautions.
"You are ill at ease," the Elvenking said presently, his voice languid, echoing mutely off the stone. "After all you have endured this past year, such small things as social pleasantries and impractical clothes are enough to discomfit you?"
Lyra shot her companion a glance, and resisted the urge to tell him to mind his own business. For one thing, that would be rude, and for another, there was no point in telling him to be less observant. It would be like telling the Lake not to be so wet.
"Perhaps it's a mark of how resilient I am, that such small things can still affect me," she retorted, and regretted letting her tongue grow sharp. She looked away, stepping off the bridge they had just crossed and pausing on the landing to peer down at the river far below them. The water frothed, coursing over rough stone with wild abandon. She almost wished to join it, rushing haphazardly back down to the Lake and beyond to the River Running, to lands she had never seen.
"This isn't my world," she confessed quietly, hoping to make up for her previous comment. "I don't belong here. All the posturing and posing - my ancestors may have known how to do this, but I'm just...." She trailed off, words failing her. What was she, anymore? She didn't know. Maybe that was her problem.
"Just what?" Thranduil nudged her logic along a little. "Just a dragonslayer? Just a woman who has ensured the survival of her people? How many Elves have done as much?" He glanced at her pointedly, his eyes glimmering in the diffuse light. Where it was coming from was anyone's guess. "If you were not worthy of my company, you can be assured I would not have granted it to you."
The distant rumble of the river filled the space between them as they watched each other, and at length, Lyra looked away. He didn't understand. Or maybe she just hadn't communicated clearly enough how completely out of place she was here.
"In any case, a visit cannot be so very taxing," Thranduil assured her, and extended one slender hand to her, indicating they should move on. Lyra hesitated before taking it. She said nothing, however, as they continued on their way through the apparently deserted, not to mention endless Woodland Palace.
Chapter 6: A Simple Misunderstanding
I think this was both my favorite and least favorite chapter to write, since it's such a heart-wrenching experience. Ugh. I love them so much, though. Such drama. Such words!
My thanks to Lady Loki for being willing to craft this with me. It's been a lot of fun.
At length, they came to a circular area paved with flat, gray stones. The ever-present murmuring of water grew to a low roar, and Lyra could see the rolling white mist of a waterfall a little beyond the level of a waist-high hedge. One of the widest channels, it seemed, cascaded through an iron grate high above, plunging down to regroup some seventy feet below. It was a stunning sight.
Thranduil seemed to recognize precious little would take her mind off how out of place she felt here. This might at least temporarily distract her.
"Beautiful, is it not?" He leaned over the hedge to catch a glimpse of the water below. "Here. Have a closer look. That's what these hedges are for - so you can look down without fear of falling in."
"That's... thoughtful." Lyra leaned forward, gripping Thranduil's arm for support as she peered downward. It was an awesome experience; the plunging, rushing water, the cold spray flying into her face, the wind whipping about her like a wild thing. Again, that odd longing to join the free, uncontrolled torrent stirred in her. With some reluctance she rocked back onto her heels again, unaware of the loose strands of hair sticking wetly to her face.
She turned back to Thranduil, realizing with a start that he was standing closer to her now than he had been. With a smile, he swept the strands from her face and tucked them behind her ears, nimble elven fingers barely grazing her skin.
Their faces were very close now, eyes locked, she craned her neck a little to compensate for their difference in height.
"There is longing in your gaze," Thranduil whispered, his dulcet voice nearly lost to the roaring beside them. "But not, I think, for me. What do you wish for, Lady Lyra? I would grant it, whatever you would have."
The space between them was breathless, the whipping, roaring, spraying water seeming suddenly muted. Lyra shook her head slightly, uncertain whether it was the pounding of her heart or the sudden feeling of light-headedness that prompted her to renew her grip on his arm.
"I... wouldn't ask it of you, my lord." Even with his excellent hearing, she wondered if Thranduil would be able to hear her over the waterfall. She shook her head again. He wouldn't understand - she hardly understood it herself. It was just the desire to be free. Perhaps she was noticing it more here, where she felt trapped in a mold she didn’t fit. On the other hand, it was possible that her new position as Lady of Dale was what provoked the feeling of confinement.
"And why not?" Thranduil pressed, lifting her chin slightly. "Do you believe I am incapable of helping, or simply that I wouldn't understand your request? How will you know for certain until you speak it?"
The effect of his eyes, radiantly blue and star-bright, so close to hers was that she could scarcely think. Her thoughts had been muddled before; this wasn't really helping matters.
"Open your heart to me." His voice was halfway plaintive now, and very tender. None of the cold detachment he employed so often with others. "I am not so stern a judge as you seem to take me for."
Thoughts slipped away like cold fish through numb, fumbling fingers. For some reason, breathing was difficult, too. The space in her chest seemed to be taken up by a claustrophobic sparrow, fluttering wildly.
"I don't think you're stern," she blurted, feeling entirely unintelligent. "It's just a mask." Lyra prayed the flush of heat in her cheeks wasn't visible, and knew the chances of that being true were slim to none. It was the truth of her thoughts, even if it wasn't the information he'd asked for. This wasn't necessarily an improvement over the last topic, though.
Hastily, she cast about for words that might possibly harness the desire she'd not wanted to express a moment before. "I just - I want to be... free." The words sounded so inadequate compared to the aching, pulsing roar that shuddered through her, the cold sting of the wind on her face.
"You feel trapped." Thranduil leaned down a little, his hands seeking hers with the gentle grace of elvendom. "You do not desire the position you now hold. It is a heavy burden for anyone, no matter how strong."
His gaze darted to her lips once more. Lyra shivered slightly and hoped he hadn't noticed.
"And what if," the Elvenking said softly, tilting his head a little to the side, "you no longer bore this burden... alone?"
And for a moment, his offer hung in the air, suspended by its own boldness. Or was it bold, coming from a king? Perhaps it was generous.
"I don't understand," answered Lyra faintly, dizzy with the possible implications of his words. "What are you offering?"
"Search your heart." Thranduil’s gaze was beseeching now, flickering with the barest hint of disappointment. "If you do not know, then my offer was misplaced. I did not wish to offend, only to be truthful."
"But... but you're an elf ." This was such a drastic, pathetic understatement that Lyra started to laugh. "I don't know what sorcery you're working in me, but if I tried to search myself, I'd probably lose my way."
She shook her head and pulled away, mind spinning, her slightly off-kilter laugh dying on her lips. This was so completely unlike her first courting - her husband had been all quiet strength and awkward endearments. This put her off guard, off center, off balance. It was as though her own heart were completely beyond her control. Was this the influence of Thranduil, or of the elves, so foreign and graceful and utterly alien?
"My lady-" Thranduil's voice held deep hurt, and Lyra again felt the insane urge to throw herself over the hedge and into the wild water beyond.
"No! No, Thranduil, I'll not stand for it! I don't know what you're doing, but by the Valar, I'll not make a choice when you say nothing of your purpose." Strength returned to her, and Lyra felt steadied, though the power was heady. She turned to face him again, coiled, ready to throw herself into a fight. "King or no, I'll accept no suit unless you've won that right. Prove yourself, as my husband did, and then we will speak of who is to shoulder this burden."
Thranduil's hurt seemed tempered by shock. It was clear he hadn't expected such an outburst.
"I am not, and will never be the man who was your husband," he said at last, his face gone slightly paler than usual. "To expect that of me is fair to neither of us." He took a step back, his gaze and hers leveling off slightly. "I did not mean to cause offense, but I see that I have. You must excuse me, Dragonslayer. I sense you no longer desire my company, if indeed you ever did." He turned to leave, his hair flashing pale gold as it settled back over his shoulders.
"So first you refuse to state your suit, then you put words in my mouth. Are these the deeds of an Elvenking, or of a man who thinks himself snubbed?" Lyra was taking refuge in her caustic wit, and she knew it wasn't wise. Indeed, it was unnecessary and hurtful, but she didn't know what to do, beyond goading him into action. This was what she did, what she had always done. It worked with her husband, with the Master, with the dragon, with the orcs - why not with an elf? "I respect and trust you, Thranduil, but this smacks of cowardice. Prove me wrong."
Thranduil rounded on her, eyes flaring with sudden anger. "What could I prove to you that I haven't already? What more do you desire of me that I have not offered?" He circled her slowly, features twitching with the beginnings of rage. "I will not beg! Nor will I be manipulated. You think me a coward and a man snubbed, but in truth it is a coward who flings insults without thought, who wounds when a man is at his most vulnerable."
Lyra bristled, and silently blessed Thranduil for giving in to her, letting her have this fight she so desperately needed. Her hands balled into fists as she tracked him with her eyes, shoulders thrown back, head up. She was a wild thing, cornered and rebellious.
"You have yet to state your purpose, Elvenking. Hints and gestures and vague offers - tell me, where is the proof when you take no risk? Perhaps you have all of eternity to perform this dance, but life for me is short. If you haven't the courage to risk your pride to win my hand, why is it worth winning?"
"A pretty question," Thranduil spat. "One I may long consider." His eyes were piercingly dark now, it seemed, his brows knit in displeasure. It took an equally fearsome constitution to long withstand the formidable weight of his wounded fury. The Elvenking's voice sunk to a low hiss. "As for there being no risk, I suppose you must think it easy for me to take on a human consort before the eyes of my equals and court? To risk the support of my people in following the leadings of my heart? You know nothing ."
He turned away once more with a swirl of his robe, and this time did not hesitate. "Well, I'll not make this mistake again. Fare you well, and free of me."
"You never asked me to be your consort. You've not said a word about your heart, only of mine." Lyra knew she really ought to have been quiet, but her pulse raced from the weight of his gaze, and she was starting to feel a little nauseated. What if she was truly driving him away, ruining a necessary alliance? "You speak of these things as though we'd discussed them at length, when you've made nothing apparent! If you think me some courtier, a fine lady who plays with hearts and minces words, you know nothing of me at all! Tell me what it is you want, be frank, be blunt!"
Lyra pursued him, unwilling to let this rest, not until she'd exhausted every chance, every opening. She needed to know, for sure. His consort. He wanted her to be his consort. She refused to dwell on it. Her mind would go blank again if she did.
Thranduil didn't slow, though she didn't have much trouble keeping up. "I wanted nothing from you but your honesty," he said tersely. "Instead, I received insults and attempts at manipulation." He did not look at her now, but kept his gaze straight ahead. "No, Dragonslayer. I want nothing from you now. Only to be left alone."
Lyra felt his words like a dart. He wasn't willing to ask. He refused. Well, if he wouldn't ask, then he would receive what he wanted.
"Then... farewell, Elvenking." She stopped and watched him continue to stride away, robes billowing, hair rippling. In a way, she felt as though Bain were dying again, though her son came to mind only in connection to the feeling. Barren loss, that's what it was. He had chosen to abandon her, decided that asking for her hand outright wasn't worth the risk.
The stone beneath her feet was smooth, cool. Lyra turned and went back the way Thranduil had brought her. In short order, she was hopelessly lost in the maze of twisting pathways and arching bridges, and had to request directions from an elven guard. By the time she had returned to her chambers, her feet ached. These silly slippers hadn't been made for such extended walks. Swiftly shucking the elaborate dress, Lyra pulled her traveling garb on once more, briefly noting that the garments had been cleaned and patched while she was at dinner.
In no mood for sleep, the woman prowled out into the hall and wandered until she found the stable where her company's horses were being kept. Oh, how she longed to mount up and fly away. Responsibilities enough to sink her barge anchored her to this place, and Lyra ground her teeth, hating the helpless, trapped sensation.
"My lady?" The voice belonged to the young servant assigned to care for her mare, and she didn't need to turn around to know he wore a worried expression.
"Don't call me that. My name is Lyra, and I will not be addressed by any other."
"Is... is there something wrong?"
Lyra didn't answer for a moment, pressing her forehead to the strong, warm neck of her dappled grey mare. "Yes. Yes, there is. We shall be leaving on the morrow, after I finalize trade agreements."
"My lady, er… Lyra?" He sounded confused, now. "I thought we were going to-"
"It doesn't matter what we were going to," snapped the Dragonslayer, feeling almost guilty for taking out her frustrations on the boy. "What we will do is leave on the morrow. Go alert the others."
The morrow came more quickly than Lyra wished. As much as she wanted to leave and have done with the whole ordeal, her duties as Queen of Dale required other business of her ere she could put the Woodland Realm behind her.
The meeting with Thranduil went about as expected. He spared her only the briefest and coldest of glances, spoke to her through one of his trade advisors, and signed the agreement, his quill biting away at the parchment in a script she suspected was very unlike his usual handwriting.
She was tempted to say something to lessen the anger he doubtless felt toward her, but decided in the end saying nothing was probably the best course of action. And anyway what did it matter? They were unlikely to cross paths again. This... spell he'd worked on her would fade, and she could go back to the way things were. Back to the familiar. The things she knew and was accustomed to. The work she had come here to do was done, and things were returning to normal.
The thought only occurred to her as she was saddling her horse that she might have been making a mistake. But that was ridiculous. Probably just guilt at having done what was necessary. A brief exchange with the scribes she'd brought along pushed this from her mind, and soon her entourage was on its way, the tall, narrow gate in their sights. On a strange impulse, she turned in the saddle to look back. Did she imagine he might be there somewhere, amongst the gardens and statues and fountains, watching her go? No. Why would he be? Surely he had better things to do.
In truth, Thranduil did have better things to do. But that didn't stop him from peering out the vine-camouflaged window above the outermost courtyard. She couldn't see him. Nor did he want her to. All the same, he found himself mastered by the sudden urge to catch one last glimpse of her before she was gone from his life forever. It would be the last he would need, he assured himself.