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Are We Not Part of This World?

Chapter Text

The mountains of Ephel Dúath on the right side were dark and barren as was the soil on either side of the road. On the left the vast plain of Gorgoroth was a disarray of rocks of all shapes and sizes preventing anyone from seeing the holes in the ground where those who were not careful could easily find their doom. There were no trees to be seen, not even grass – the land had not yet recovered from the long years of poisonous fumes and barely any sunlight. But it would, eventually. Sunlight had already found its way back and the eyes of any travellers most often looked up at the sky which usually showed the most colour that could be seen in this unhappy place.

Legolas did not venture to the land beyond the Mountains of Shadow often. Its state made his heart ache for the trees of Ithilien and he always wished to quickly return. And he has never been farther east than Gorgoroth, although he was told by the messengers that travelled regularly between Gondor and the great Sea of Núrnen that it was much better there than in other parts. Even the Dark Lord knew that he needed lands where things grow green and reasonably tall to feed his armies. Not that Nurn had been a happy place, it went through as much misery as anything touched by the darkness and the slaves who worked in the fields found little joy in tending for the plants while knowing who they were really meant for and how little of the harvest they would see in their own homes.

But now it was required of the Elf prince to come and officially make a trade agreement between Ithilien and the newly established council of the freed Men. There were a few merchants in his company and a great many more guards because the journey was still not entirely safe, even though almost five years had passed since Sauron’s defeat. Small groups of orcs that escaped the fall of their master occasionally attacked travellers who were not careful.

On a sturdy brown horse next to Legolas rode Kitwana – a frequent messenger from Núrnen. Kitwana was tall and lanky, with a head of very short black hair. He could hardly be older than twenty, yet he had seen much during his young life and was wise as are those who are forced to grow up quickly in horrible circumstances. He was born in the far South but was taken as a slave with his family by Sauron’s allies from Harad when he was but a small child and gifted to the Dark Lord to work in the fields around the Sea of Núrnen. Legolas found out all of this and much more during his first few days on the road with him. He was hesitant to ask, at first, knowing that there were many for whom such memories were too painful to look back at, but Kitwana did not seem to mind. A smile was always quick to appear on his face and his laughter loud when he recounted those memories of his family and friends that, however scarce, made his life easier during those dark years. He was also, as Legolas quickly realized, unable to be quiet for more than a few minutes at a time.

Even now Kitwana was talking, and Legolas was listening intently. At first he listened because he wanted to find out more about the people who he was about to meet, but now he listened simply because he wanted to learn more about this smart and spirited young man.

“And that is when I first met lady Tuillin. Although she doesn’t like it when I call her lady, she would kick me if she heard…”

“Lady Tuillin?” Legolas interrupted him, surprised at hearing a Sindarin name.

“That’s what she told us to call her, but I doubt that it is her real name. She is very secretive,” the last part was said in a distinctly annoyed voice and Legolas smiled at Kitwana’s expression. “Anyway, she appeared out of nowhere and knocked out the man who guarded us so we could make our escape. But I didn’t go with the others and followed her instead because, well, she is a skilled warrior and I guessed that she could take care of any trouble that I could find. She wasn’t exactly happy with me and in the end lost her patience and escorted me home to my mother,” said Kitwana, smiling at the memory.

“Is this lady Tuillin an Elf?” asked Legolas, curious. Because an Elf, in those parts? And judging by the name not one of the eastern clans? That was definitely something that he would like to know more about.

 “Yes, she is. She came from the East a few months before the big battle at the gates. She didn’t stay for long at that time, but she came back and helped us during the rebellion. None of us had any idea what we were doing so lady Tuillin helped us come up with an actual plan. Shouted at a couple of thick skulls who thought that a silly elven lady shouldn’t meddle in our things,” Kitwana rolled his eyes. “You should see her in a fight, most of us were scared out of our wits and there she was, shouting orders and slaying orcs like it was nothing.”

“I would very much like to meet this lady Tuillin. Is she still in Nurn?” asked Legolas. A prospect of meeting this mysterious Elf was certainly interesting, to say the least.

“Not now, but she should be coming back in a few days. I tried to find out where she goes when she disappears, but all that I could get out of her was that she goes east and that I should mind my own business. She says that to me often. That and how I talk too much,” said Kitwana with a grin.

“You certainly talk enough,” declared Legolas teasingly and Arod neighed as if in agreement. “I do not mind. In fact, I find that I rather like it.”

“Wait a few days, my lord, I’m sure you’ll change your mind,” said the young man cheerfully. “Look! Gorgoroth will be soon behind us,” he shouted suddenly, pointing at where the mountains of Ephel Dúath were coming closer to the road and the southern slopes of Ered Lithui were visible on the other side, signalling a border between Gorgoroth and Nurn and the start of a far more pleasant part of their journey.

*

The visit was always difficult and not even because of the travelling itself – that was the easiest part even though many miles laid between her and her destination. But the visits were important and she needed them just as much as she needed the time with the always smiling Kitwana and his family who were now very dear to her. No matter what new happiness she had found there was and always will be a part of her that needs to remind herself of the things she lost. The pain would never truly go away if she decided to ignore it, not even with time. That she now knew all too well. Someone else needed to know that, too.

She saw it even now when she closed her eyes – a twisted face now twisted again in new pain. In some sense she knew that his pain ran deeper than anyone could know but then again – who was there to measure the heart? Misery of this world was no competition.

But now that she was coming back to Nurn it was time to think about the future again and smile about it. She smiled even wider when she caught the first glimpse of the sun reflected on the water. It would take a few minutes for the weaker eyes of her companions to see it, but they too knew that they were coming close.

Half an hour later, they came by an old watch post. It was abandoned long ago since the people were now free to move wherever they wanted and the guards who looked out for the occasional orc attacks were moved closer to the city. Another half hour and they came by an older woman with a small package gripped tight in her hand, undoubtedly with a meal for someone working in the fields.

“Tuillin bibi! Hujambo,” said the woman with a smile and waved her hand to acknowledge the greetings from the rest of the company.

“Sijambo!” replied Tuillin and then asked: “Kitwana yuko wapi?”

The woman shrugged and threw her hands in the air – a gesture often repeated by anyone who was well acquinted with the young man in question. His parents have settled for long suffering looks instead – those required a lot less energy. “Mvulana hakuwapo nyumbani.”

Of course he was not at home. She had a suspicion that she would have to repeat the question many times until she found him. “Tuamwona,” she muttered to herself and then with a weak smile thanked the woman and prompted her horse to move. Perhaps she could just show her face to enough people and he would eventually come to her. After so many days in the saddle, she did not like the idea of chasing through the streets after him. Let him do the legwork.

 

Apparently, she did not even have to show herself to anyone. Kitwana was already there when she arrived at the stables. She did not even manage to dismount before he was at her side, talking at a speed that sometimes made it difficult to follow what he was talking about.

“I understand that your journey to Gondor went well?” she said at last and nudged him with her knee to get out of the way so she could get down.

“Yes, yes, it was great and I even managed not to annoy anyone too much, so you do not need to worry about that,” said Kitwana. “What about you? Has anything interesting happened? Have you brought me anything? Where even have you been?”

“Kit,” said Tuillin, clearly a bit annoyed at his prodding, but still unable to be truly cross. “Nimechoka. Can we talk after I eat something and have a minute to stretch my legs?”

“No? I am going to talk you to death. Or maybe just until you tell me where it is you disappear. As you have perhaps noticed, I am very good at talking people to death. Not that anyone has died yet, but that is because they are wise enough to give up before it can happen. Anyway, talking – my area of expertise.”

“Kusema ni kuzuri lakini kutosema ni kuzuri zaidi,” she said with a straight face.

Kitwana gaped at her and then burst into laughter. “My lady, have you been talking to my mother? Because I told her that she is absolutely forbidden to teach you anything that could be used against me. And also that she should do that meal you liked so much because you are coming back, but I do not think she listened to that either. Have you seen my sister yet? She has been asking for you constantly since you disappeared and apparently is no longer satisfied with my company. That is your fault, I hope you are aware of that.”

“And you are talking too much. Again. You should consider being quiet for a while, maybe you will come to like it. The others certainly will,” said Tuillin, but she was smiling fondly at the young man.

“You like me just as I am and do not try to deny it.” Kitwana grabbed the reins of her horse and started to lead him toward the stables, walking backwards. “I would have totally forgotten! There is an Elf who came with us from Gondor and he would like to see you. I told him that you should be coming back…”

At the exact moment Legolas came out of the house on the other side of the road deep in conversation with a short woman speaking with a heavy accent who was evidently very passionate about the topic of the conversation. When Legolas heard Kitwana’s voice he looked up at him with a smile and judging by the visible exhale he would very much like to roll his eyes at his companion but was too polite to do it. Noticing that Kitwana’s attention was directed elsewhere he followed his line of sight and laid eyes on the red haired Elf in front of him. He stopped dead in his tracks which greatly annoyed the woman beside him, but he paid her no mind. There was a long pause during which the two Elves stared at each other and then a faint: “Tauriel?”

Chapter Text

The evening was coming quickly and it would not be long before the first stars would show themselves. The sky was clear except for a few scattered clouds on the eastern horizon. Ravens were coming back now that there was no danger for them anymore and their voices rose in numbers every day. It looked like the place would again become worthy of its name – Ravenhill.

Tauriel was lying on her back on a stony ledge beside a crumbling staircase. It was not the same ledge where… where it happened. She could not stay there after the others took him, to bury him according to the customs of their people, but she did not go with them, either. One of the Dwarves, possibly the eldest, judging by his white beard, looked as if he wanted to say something to her, but then seemed to think better of it. She would not have gone, even if he had asked. She knew that they must honour him and then bury him in stone along with his brother and uncle. But that was not how Elves parted with the fallen. Elves would sing songs, beautiful and full of sorrow, deep and vast as the world itself. They would sing for days, the loss cutting deeper and for longer for those who were immortal.

She found that she could not sing.

Most Elves had years, centuries, even millennia with those they hold dear and can bring their memories with them to the Undying Lands if the world grows too dark for them to bear it any longer. She had but a few moments, a few hasty words, most of them unspoken, because there was simply no time. She had a promise, but that was now destroyed, too. The stone he had given her she returned, because there was another who had a bigger claim on it. Tauriel had nothing.

What would she even sing about? The few memories, which were almost all touched by a shadow? About what could have been if he had survived? No, it was enough that it was all in her head. If she let it out of her mouth, the wind would take it and blow it far away. So she stayed silent, looking up into the sky, still as the stone beneath her.

The first stars came out and she knew that there was still too much light for them to shine brightly, but even after minutes have passed, it seemed like there was no change at all. It was the same as the previous night, the stars that she held dear her whole life were small, only a faint light far away from her. It was a cold light, cold and distant as Kíli had told her in the cells of Thranduil’s palace. When she could not bear to look at them any longer, Tauriel closed her eyes. But she found the darkness worse, her memories of the final battle were still too vivid. And she was alone.

She stood up, abruptly, and went to stand on the edge, looking on the valley below. There were tents raised halfway between the mountain and the ruins of Dale, where elvish healers tended to those with the worst wounds. A flickering light was moving fast from the ruined gates of Erebor towards the nearest tent. No doubt a messenger – there was one almost every hour. From Erebor, from Dale – urgent news and calls for aid, or someone with supplies needed in one of those places. Tauriel briefly considered going to the tents, helping where she could, but then realized that she could not stand to look at other Elves, or anyone else dying. And there were many dying and more to come. For some, there was nothing even elvish medicine could do.

In the south laid the ruins of Lake-town. The fire swallowed what it could until there was nothing left to burn, but a cloud of smoke still lingered above the water, obscuring blackened wood and the body of the fallen beast from sight. But Tauriel rarely looked that way.

The sight of Erebor she avoided entirely.

She was looking east. There was not much to be seen in that direction and that was probably its allure – there were no painful memories that way. Above the slopes of the mountain she could see a hint of flat land that was more brown than green at this time of the year. The bareness did not bother her, even though she was used to being surrounded by trees her whole life. It was good to look at something so uncomplicated, something that required so little thought.

A lone raven landed on a crumbled column on her left and croaked loudly, wrenching her out of her stillness. She looked at the bird and moved, perhaps to shoo it away, but instead she found herself going down the stairs and stepping onto a narrow path leading from the hill towards Dale. It was the same path she took with Legolas in a desperate run after Kíli when she still thought that she could help. And now, defeated and alone, she took it again, this time without any direction in mind other than to get away from the place that she had no reason to stay at anymore.

She could have stayed, though, a week, a month. Not even Elves can live without water and food for long and she would most likely pass, eventually. The thought ran through her head a lot during the last two days and it did not seem strange or something to be afraid of. The only thing that made her move now was that it would still mean too much time of having nothing to do except thinking. But the act of moving, of putting one leg in front of the other, paying attention to the uneven path and any rocks that she might trip on or has to climb over – that meant a part of her mind was occupied. That was certainly something to be grateful for.

The descend was slow because there was no reason for haste, but at the same time it was too soon when she registered a voice shouting at her and two figures emerging from behind a sharp turn with torches in their hands illuminating their faces.

“Who’s there?”

Tauriel had no desire to speak, but that would hardly work in her favour. The men had exhaustion written deep in their faces and hard looks that spoke of caution. They would not let her pass unless she gave them a good reason. As far as she could say, they were men of Lake-town. Their clothes had seen better days and the swords hanging from their hips were clearly not of the best quality.

“I am Tauriel of…” she hesitated. She was no longer a captain of king Thranduil’s guard and she was no longer an Elf of Mirkwood. When she last spoke with the king, she did not think about asking him to revoke her banishment, it did not seem important anymore, and the king, too, spoke nothing of the matter. Even if he did, she was not sure that she would have gone back with him. “I fought against the orcs in the battle, as you did,” she spoke at last and showed them her empty hands in a gesture that showed that she was no threat.

Before anyone could say anything, there was a shout and then a familiar voice: “Tauriel!” and then “Tilda! Come back!”

Two smaller figures appeared in the light of the torches and one of them ran towards Tauriel. Before she had a chance to do anything, Tilda was hugging her waist, smiling up at her.

“Um,” she managed, not quite sure what she was supposed to do. She raised her hands to gently push Tilda away from her clothes covered in dust and blood, but instead she found herself pulling the girl closer. Her eyes closed on their own and she let herself cling to the small body in her arms for a moment. And if her breath was coming a little louder, she could always blame it on the long trek down the hill.

“What are you two doing here?” said Tauriel when she finally released her hold on Tilda and looked towards her sister, who was standing next to the nearest guard.

“We brought food,” said Sigrid and hurriedly thrust it into the guard’s hands without looking at him. She came closer to grasp Tilda’s small hand in her own, looking down at her with a fond expression.

Tilda in turn caught Tauriel’s hand and said, earnestly: “We were worried about you.”

Tauriel looked at her in surprise. It did not occur to her that there would be anyone who would care what happened to her, or where she was, and yet here were two people who were clearly glad that she was alive. It was unexpected and at the same time it filled her with warmth for the first time in two days. Tilda tugged at her arm and Tauriel winced, feeling her bruises fully for the first time now that the horrible emptiness of her mind had receded for the moment.

“Are you injured?” asked Sigrid, suddenly alarmed and looking Tauriel over, but it was difficult to figure out if the blood on her clothes was her or the enemies’.

“Nothing serious,” she said. If it was, she would have noticed sooner. She was just bruised and battered and suddenly feeling a bone-deep exhaustion.

“We heard about…” Tilda started, but Sigrid clapped a hand over her mouth, shot her a warning look and said: “Come with us.”

Tauriel let them lead her. The guards looked like they wanted to protest, but Sigrid said, loudly, before they could start: “I will come for the bowls later,” and resolutely pulled on Tilda’s arm to get them to hurry.

*

The bed, if it was worthy of the name, was not the most comfortable thing she had ever spent a night on, but she fell asleep in minutes anyway. It was not the half-awake dreamy state that was usually enough to rest an Elf’s body, but a deep and fortunately dreamless sleep that lasted for many hours. When she finally came awake with a start, sun had been shining brightly for a long while, and everywhere outside of the crumbling remains of an old storage room, where she was resting, people were moving back and forth, swiftly and with determination. Some of them were helping with the wounded located in the old market while the others were gathering supplies or repairing what they could so that people would have shelter for the winter.

The reason for Tauriel’s sudden awakening was loud clatter coming from the other side of the wall. “Ow!” came from the outside a second later and then another voice “You are absolutely useless. And actually worse than Bain, which I never thought I would say, just so you know. Show me the hand.”

Tauriel stood up and stepped out through the opening in the wall. Sigrid was kneeling in front of Tilda whose hand she was carefully inspecting. Behind Tilda’s back used to be a mountain of empty crates, now in complete disarray everywhere around her.

“It hurts!” said Tilda accusingly to her older sister and with her left hand wiped tears that escaped from her eyes.

“Well, of course it hurts, you scraped it because you pay no attention where you put your feet,” huffed Sigrid and when she was done with her inspection she wrapped the hand in a handkerchief she produced from the pocket of her blue-grey dress.

Tilda frowned at her sister, but her face lit when she caught sight of Tauriel. “Hello!” she smiled and pulled her hand from her sister’s grip so that she could hop towards Tauriel. She bent down to collect something wrapped in a cloth that she apparently dropped during the collision. “I brought you–” she paused and frowned, lifting the cloth so that she could see what was underneath it, but was interrupted by Sigrid.

“Bread.”

“Yes, bread,” Tilda levelled a glare at Sigrid but after a moment looked back at Tauriel. “Are you hungry?”

Tauriel stared at her, not really processing what she said until the pause became a bit too long. “Sorry,” she said, automatically, and tried to collect herself. “There must be many people who need it more, I do not think…”

“Nonsense,” interrupted Sigrid and then seemed to think for a moment. She came closer and gently tugged on Tauriel’s arm. “Come with us, we can have lunch with our da. That will be better.”

Tauriel could not find it in herself to protest and obligingly followed Sigrid through the streets with Tilda hopping beside them and occasionally greeting people they met on the way. Some of them spared a glance at Tauriel, but most were too busy to pay them any attention. The three of them made their way upwards and toward the centre of the town where the buildings seemed to be in a better state, although most of the towers in the area still showed the signs of damage done decades earlier by the dragon’s fire. By the time they stopped in front of the old town hall, the sun was high in the sky and other people were already gathered there.

When they stepped inside, it was clear why – there were several mismatched tables and hastily assembled benches inside, and a pleasant smell of food was coming from the temporary kitchen set in the far corner.

“I am going to help and you,” said Sigrid, patting Tilda on the head, “find da and make sure he eats.” With that she left them and headed towards a woman who was apparently in charge of the feeding.

Tilda grabbed Tauriel’s hand, which she was expecting at that point, and after looking around for a while led her to a table where her brother was already sitting with an empty bowl in front of him and an expectant expression on his face. Tilda left her there and ran towards her father who was standing aside in conversation with a tall grey-haired man. When she got his attention, she pointed in the direction of the table and spoke something that Tauriel did not hear through the loud chatter and clatter everywhere around them.

Bain lifted his head from his bowl and seemed surprised to see her standing next to him. She had thought just then that although she had seen him when the girls reunited with their father on the lakeshore, she did not have a chance to make sure that he was not injured. The last time she saw him before that was when he jumped out of the boat they were escaping in from Laketown, and although she knew that she had made the right decision, it still did not sit well with her that she left him there without any help. If she did not have to think about his sisters and the Dwarves at the moment, she would have probably followed him. As it was, she felt relieved that he seemed to be unharmed, even after the battle.

“Hello,” he said, apparently not knowing what to say anymore than she did, but they were both saved by Tilda and Bard.

“Da, this is Tauriel, she saved us from those orcs who came for our Dwarves and then she got us out of the town,” she said, with an expression that clearly said ‘she is amazing’ and ‘can we keep her?’

Bard looked fondly at his daughter and then at Tauriel. “I cannot thank you enough for saving my children,” he said, looking at her intently and extending a hand to her which she took. “I am forever in your debt. Or perhaps not that long, I am no Elf, after all,” he added with a slight upturn of his lips. The grip of his hand was strong and warm, and she wanted to say something, that she was glad to do what she did, or that there was no reason to thank her. But she nodded instead, and let go of his hand as soon as it was appropriate. She stood there, their eyes on her, and suddenly she wished to be alone again, somewhere, where she did not have to think about anything that happened that day.

The more she registered the gratitude on the faces of the family, the more she realized how little she did, how little she was able to do. And most of all she was reminded that she did not save everyone that she was supposed to. Breathing suddenly seemed harder and she found herself unable to look at them anymore. She turned to the table and sat on the bench, ashamed of herself for her weakness and at the same time not really caring for it. What did it matter? They did not need to thank her, and she did not need to accept their gratitude. She closed her eyes, tired again of the thoughts in her head and suddenly angry and wishing that she had walked away instead of sitting down.

She sensed the stillness around her, but eventually they all sat down, leaving space between them and her. She was rude and she knew it, but there was nothing to be done about it, so she slowly opened her eyes and looked at the empty space in front of her.

A minute later, a bowl full of stew appeared in front of her and a hand touched her shoulder – lightly, carefully. Sigrid was looking at her and there was only kindness in her face, and when she dared to look at the others, she found no judgment in theirs. Tilda, restless in her seat, seemed like she was about to jump at her, but Tauriel saw Sigrid shake her head and Tilda accepted it, grabbed a slice of bread and began to eat. Another slice appeared by Tauriel’s hand and Sigrid sat next to her, not quite touching, but a welcome presence nonetheless.

The swirl of confusing emotions angered her more than anything else. She used to be able to always clear her head when she needed to. So she tried to ignore them and focus on eating, trying to discern the ingredients of the simple stew. She was almost done with it by the time she registered the commotion at the entrance of the hall. When she raised her head to automatically assess the situation as she was trained to do, she saw a man with beads of sweat on his brow and mud and something darker on his clothes making his way towards Bard, who was already standing up.

“We were attacked, when we were coming back from the ruins,” the man said and had to sit down when his legs gave under him. “Orcs,” he breathed out “twenty, maybe more. They attacked and killed most of ours. One of them knocked me out and when I woke up they were already gone. Went south, I think, along the river,” he added and raked one trembling hand through his hair. Someone gave him a cup of water and he accepted it, drinking greedily. “Balder and Hilda were injured, I left them in the market.”

“Anyone else alive?” Bard asked, his face grim and his hands curled into fists.

“No. We looked,” said the man.

Bard gripped his shoulder for a moment and then looked at the man with whom he was speaking before. “Elof, we need to send a message to king Thranduil and the Dwarves… who is in charge now?” he asked.

One of the younger men, or perhaps it was still a boy, replied: “They say that the lord of the Iron Hills is the next in the line of succession, but I guess it is a little chaotic, still.”

Tauriel stilled. Of course, Thorin Oakenshield had died and so had his heir, that day. And with their mother in the Blue Mountains, the leadership would fall to their kin. She gripped the edge of the table and felt and irrational surge of anger towards the lord of the Iron Hills who would now assume the position that belonged to Kíli’s brother. Or to Kíli, had he… but what did she care? What did it matter who got to deal with the rebuilding of a mountain bought by the blood of so many fallen? But it still felt like a betrayal. The world should not be so quick to continue, the people not so hasty to move forward. She knew she was not right and that leadership was something that only a fool sought for his own satisfaction. The lord of the Iron Hills lost as much as anyone else that day, perhaps more. Even though she knew that, she had to force herself to listen to the rest of what was being said – Bard was still giving orders.

“We have to strengthen the guards. I do not think they would be foolish enough to attack us here, but we need to be careful. And no one leaves here other than the messengers until we can send a group to bring back the dead.”

“What about the orcs?” she asked, startled perhaps as much as everyone else that she spoke.

“What do you mean?” asked Bard, who managed to hide his surprise quicker than the others.

“Will you pursue?” she asked, her face cold, her eyes piercing.

Bard looked at her with an expression that she could not identify appearing on his face for a second, gone the next. Then he said, firmly: “No.”

Tauriel clenched her teeth, but her voice was even. “So you will let them escape? Return back to their masters?”

“I do not like the idea of orcs anywhere where they may harm anyone, but I will not risk the lives of these people. Here we can defend ourselves, but if we go after them, not all of us will return. There has been enough death. I will not allow there to be more,” he said, looking at the faces of the men and women around him and those of his children.

She knew he was right. This was different than it was with her king. These people were not warriors and they had already seen more terrors than they ever should have. Those who could have done something failed to protect them from the enemy. But she was angry.

And in that moment she knew, as surely as she had ever known anything in her life, that no other orc was ever going to escape her blades and arrows as long as she drew breath. She stood up from the bench and turned to leave.

“I am sorry,” Bard said and when she turned back to him, she saw that he meant it.

She stood there, half turned to the exit, but made no move towards it. “I saved your children,” she began, her voice low and her eyes on the ground “and I want no reward, nor gratitude for it,” she lifted her eyes, her gaze intense and there was life in them as there hasn’t been for the last days. “But if you give me a good bow so I can kill our enemies, you will owe me nothing more.”

There was silence around them, everyone looking at Bard who held Tauriel’s gaze and finally said: “Follow me.”

*

The bow was made in Mirkwood, which she had not expected. It was a gift to one of the previous lords of Dale by king Thranduil, a long time ago in the eyes of Men, and it sat in the city’s armory all those years, untouched by the time. It was beautiful, the patterns of leaves and branches carved into the wood. It was also longer than she was used to, but certainly better than the longbows that the Men in those parts used.

There were no elvish arrows to go with the bow, but she found enough of suitable length to fill her quiver. Bard also gave her a short slightly curved dagger which she strapped on her belt. Sigrid, Bain and Tilda showed up before she could leave the armory and presented her with a simple brown cloak and enough food to last her for a while if she was careful with it.

“Will we see you again?” asked Tilda, her hands clasped behind her back.

“I… do not know,” Tauriel said, adjusting the quiver on her hip. She hesitated and then wrapped her arms around Tilda’s shoulders. Tilda hugged her tight and when they stood apart, there were tears in her eyes. Not a reaction that Tauriel felt good about when it came to the little one. “Keep your brother and sister out of trouble for me, will you?” she asked and Tilda nodded, her face clearing.

Bain lifted his hand in an awkward little wave and went after his father who had already left to check on something or other that required his attention.

Sigrid was gnawing on her lip, obviously meaning to say something. “I wanted to say… I’m sorry for what happened,” she said. “To Kíli. I’m sorry.”

Tauriel stilled, her heart skipping a beat. This was definitely not something that she wished to discuss, not now and perhaps not even later. But she forced herself to open her mouth to say something, carefully controlling her face and any movement. “Yes,” she agreed. It was the longest response that she was capable of at the moment and she knew, when she looked at Sigrid, that it was enough and that there would be nothing more said about the matter. A quick hug, a wish of safe travels and then she was gone, outside of the city and walking swiftly along the lake.

By the time the sun was setting, she came to the place where the bridge used to connect the shore and Laketown. There was a lone boat attached to one of the support columns and several bodies that she did not wish to examine closer if not necessary. There was one dead orc lying a bit further from them and she found a clear trail in the mud leading from him. They went south, just as the man said.

Heavy grey clouds above her held a promise of snowstorm, but Tauriel had a small smile on her lips when she covered her head with the hood of the cloak and gripped her bow a little tighter.

There was a hunt ahead.

Chapter Text

Waking was a painful thing. The cold was biting as she laid curled into a tight ball in a small alcove by the river. She had managed to get herself there before collapsing the previous night, not caring much for a more satisfying shelter. At the time she had been on the road for almost three days without stopping for longer than it took to take a bite of food or find the trail of her prey again when it disappeared in the still falling snow. She had a few things working in her favour because the orcs were unlikely to go far from the river – they were still uncomfortably close to the border of the Woodland realm and the terrain on the eastern side was too revealing and uneven for quick advance. After they entered the shelter of the woods again, it became easier to follow their advance, even when there was no visible trail on the ground – it seemed as if they could not walk amongst trees without breaking as many branches as was possible without stopping.

Still, they were moving quickly and they already had almost a day on her when she began her hunt. She was also slowing down after the second day. The ache that had been easy to ignore in Dale had been growing steadily with every mile that took her farther from Erebor. Her injuries would have healed with a few days of good food and rest, but they were getting worse instead. The most troubling one was the ribs, the feeling as if her lungs were trapped in a cage that was getting smaller with each breath. She suspected that at least two of her ribs had been cracked when she took a tumblr down from the ledge and they were in danger of breaking.

She shivered. The trees had protected her from the worst of the snowstorm but they did nothing to help with the cold that was seeping through her clothes and chilling her to the bone. It would not be so troubling under normal circumstances, she had lived through worse weather than this, but exhausted and injured, the cold weighted on her much more and she did not have time nor will to go looking for firewood. Not yet, anyway.

It was the final hour before sunrise, so she had slept at least six hours. That was too short to help much with her exhaustion and as the same time too long is she wanted to catch up with the orc pack that day.

She shivered again, this time more violently. The time just before sunrise tended to be the coldest part of the night – all the warmth from the previous day already gone and the sun not yet up to bring it again. She suspected that the cold was the reason why she was awake.

“Stand up,” she whispered to herself, clenching her teeth to stop them from chattering too much. She needed to get up and go, but she couldn’t find the strength. Firewood, she needed firewood to get herself warm, that would help and then she could continue.

But gathering firewood would take precious time that she couldn’t afford to waste, she had already wasted so much by sleeping. She wasted time in Dale, she should have run as soon as she had learned about the orc pack, she should have run and not stop once until she found those wretched creatures and now she was never going to-

Ragged breath escaped her mouth, and another, tiny and insufficient, her chest hurting more and more with every move. Her breathing quickened, her body hungry for air, but it couldn’t get enough. She knew, logically, that it didn’t make any sense, she was fine just a minute ago. There was no reason for the panic that was rising inside her, clouding her vision until she could no longer see the trees around, the river, nor the sky. Everything faded into a grey haze, he gaze flickering unseeing over her surroundings that she seemed to only registered from afar, like a fanthom vision. Only the cold ground beneath her felt real and she gripped where she could with her hands, scraping her fingers trying to hold on to anything.

How long it lasted before she regained some control of herself she did not know, perhaps a few minutes, but it felt like hours. Her face was itching where she rubbed it to get rid of the tears that she didn’t even know escaped her eyes and her throat felt dry and sore when she tried to swallow. At least the shivering had stopped, although she wasn’t sure that was a good thing. She knew she had to move immediately.

Oh, but her legs wouldn’t move, they felt like they were no longer part of her body, a dead weight under her that would not support her if she tried to stand on them. New tears came, tears of shame at her weakness. Now was not the time to sit and feel helpless, to feel so tired and to be overwhelmed but so many different pains that were battling for dominance over which one makes her more miserable, which one gets to deal the finishing blow.

It took her a few torturing minutes before it felt like the world was steady enough to stand on with her shaking legs. She took a few steps to get to the river and splashed her face. The icy water stung her raw cheeks and she was glad of the distraction. Everything became much clearer. She straightened herself and resolutely started on her way south again.

 

A slowly creeping sense of dread urged her on. The last low hills of the mountains marking the border of the northern part of Mirkwood opened a view she had not seen very often because it laid outside of the Woodland realm. It would take her another half hour to reach the point where the two streams of the Forest River came together. There was a small bay a mile from there that served the merchants from Dorwinion on their long journey home from Lake-town, although it wasn’t being used quite so often since Mirkwood became a much more dangerous place.

Everything was too quiet, ominously so. Even the river seemed to be running slower than it should. A good Mirkwood guard learns how to read the signs that others might miss and one learns too fast that when the woods are too quiet, something evil lurks nearby. Tauriel knew what the evil was, she had been hunting it for days and she was finally close enough to feel their presence. Her pace quickened and in a moment she was practically running, her face a mask of determination that hid the painful grimace that was trying to get to the surface. Not yet.

She ran and ran, jumping over fallen trees and boulders, her bow already in her hand, the other ready to reach for an arrow.

And then a scream broke the silence, high and terrifying.

She was still too far away to see, too far away to do anything but run even faster, pushing her beaten body in a desperate bout to be on time even though she knew she wouldn’t. There were other noises that she could hear now, growling and shouting in the hateful language of the dark creatures. No cries for help among the screams – nobody would expect any to come here.

With a final leap she emerged from the trees and let an arrow loose towards the nearest orc even before her legs touched the ground. The orc fell with a surprised shriek that had the rest turn in her direction.

The biggest one who stood farthest from her roared: “Gorash! Kod golgi obkhurg!”

With a growl three of them ran towards her and she managed to shoot two before the third collided with her and the both tumbled to the ground. One of his filthy hands reached for her throat and squeezed. Long experience had her draw the dagged Bard gave her even before she could realize she was doing it. She stabbed the orc in his side and drew the dagger coated by black blood back for another attack. Two more steps and she kicked him off, leaving him on the ground.

Quickly retrieving her bow from where it fell from her hands, she started running closer towards the river where most of the people were, trying to escape to their boat. She managed to get almost halfway to them before another orc got in her way and almost took her head off with his sword. She moved under his arm and kicked him in the back of the knee. One more step had her turning around and she shot an arrow through his neck before he could stand up.

There was another scream and she turned to see a man falling to the ground, the big orc standing above him, licking his hand that was covered in blood.

Hot anger turned her vision red and she ran towards the orc, her bow forgotten in her hand even though she could have made the shot from where she was standing. The overwhelming urge to kill with her bare hands this creature that had destroyed her promise to not let anyone else die had her disregard all else. It would have been frightening to her not a long time ago. That thirst for blood was how dark creatures think. A member of the guard, and Elf – they do not fight like that. Their fight is precise and they are not seen until the last moment. But it didn’t matter anymore. All that did was to get to the creature, to end its hateful life, to break its bones and let it be forgotten by the world.

The orc grabbed her arm before she could do any damage and slammed her to the ground, her head landing on a hard rock. Everything went black.

*

The first thing Tauriel registered when she regained was pressure on her chest and steps and soft voices coming from some distance from where she was lying on something that was definitely not rock.

“It is not polite to poke an unconscious person,” came a much clearer voice near her and the pressure disappeared though it made way for a stab of pain coming from her left side where the cracked ribs used to be. They were not just cracked now.

“Not poking, I’m checking her injuries,” came a reply from above her. It was annoyed, a male voice by the sound of it.

“Which is the same, just with a clearer purpose,” the first voice said. This time there was a sound of steps coming closer until they stopped next to the other voice. “And what did your poking uncover?”

“That she is, indeed, injured,” came the dry reply and Tauriel huffed a breath that had her wincing as pain spread all over her chest. “And conscious!”

Tauriel opened her eyes and promptly closed them again as a wave of nausea came over her. She breathed through her nose for a few precious moments before opening them again. Two faces came into focus above her – a man and a woman so similar in their appearance that they had to be related. The man crouched beside her while the woman was hovering over his shoulder. Both of them were looking at Tauriel with clear concern, but the man was also smiling, his eyes curious.

Ignoring the protest of her whole body she tried to sit, but the man held her gently down and the woman looked ready to help him if she had to. She didn’t – Tauriel had no strength to fight the man, her shoulders sagged. She concentrated on her breathing again.

“You shouldn’t move much for now, that was a nasty hit you took. Your head, I mean,” the man said, touching just under the tender spot above her temple.

“The orcs,” breathed Tauriel, her voice hoarse and weak. “What happened to the orcs?” There were still at least two standing when she fell. It was all too possible that her foolishness cost more precious lives.

“All dead.” The woman’s face twisted in an angry grimace and she looked away. Her hands were in fists by her sides, knuckles white with strain where they were not splattered with mud and dried blood.

Tauriel looked up at the clouded sky above her and waited for relief. None came. She saved some but was still too late for others even though she had been pursuing the orcs for so long. If she had just caught up to them earlier she could have–

“Thank you,” said the man and she met his eyes. His face was serious, his look piercing and his voice honest.

She looked away. She couldn’t bear to look at him knowing that she did not deserve his gratitude. “There is no reason,” she said. “I came too late,” her voice fell into whisper and she lifted the hand on her uninjured side to cover her face. She couldn’t cry, she knew that her tears were good for nothing. They were for those who could find relief in them, but she couldn’t do that. She already tried.

“If you didn’t come, all of us would be dead,” he started again. “Thank you.”

Tauriel stayed silent and the man said nothing more for a while. The woman was looking to the river where the remaining merchants were packing what few things haven’t already been on their boat. The dead were nowhere to be seen. “We are leaving, soon,” she said and finally looked at Tauriel again. “But you can’t stay alone, not when you are injured like this. Are there any patrols nearby that we should wait on?” she asked.

Tauriel shook her head. “No. There is no one,” she said.  The pain of her body was enough to distract her from thinking too much about that sentence and she was glad of it. She could be swallowed by her despair later.

“Then you have to come with us!” said the man resolutely and the woman frowned at him.

“What are you on about? Surely there is someone waiting for her, so we have to think how-”

“There is no one,” repeated Tauriel, her voice like gravel. She swallowed and promptly began to cough. The two helped her to sit as she shook with the violent coughs and she managed to get herself under control after a few minutes.

“You really should come with us then,” said the man once again and gestured at the boat behind him. “The journey will be long, but at least you will have time enough to recover and…”

“I would be of no use to you,” Tauriel interrupted him, her expression blank as she was looking at the merchants. They were almost finished with their work and by their occasional glances in their direction it seemed that they were moving more slowly so as to wait on them.

“Use has nothing to do with anything,” scoffed the man “not until we arrive in Dorwinion anyway. And by then your strength will be returned. Then you will be of plenty use if that is what concerns you,” he said fiercely, glancing at the woman who nodded at him.

Tauriel sighed, no more eager to put up a fight than to do anything else. She was tired, more tired than she could ever remember being. But why should she go with them? It held no more appeal to her than simply staying here, lying on the ground until her last day. The orcs that she gave her last resolve to hunt were dead; there was nothing more that could keep her going now. No one to fight and no one to protect even if she had the strength to do so. These people were no longer in danger. “I have no desire to go anywhere,” she said in a small voice.

She startled, grunting with pain, when the woman growled and affixed her with a glare. “That leaves us in quite a difficult place. You cannot move perhaps for days in this state and we cannot simply leave you here to be an easy prey to animals or what else lurks in these parts. Those nasty spiders, I presume. And we can’t wait until you recover because we are already late as it is. Our boat is half empty because the Lake-town is now in ruins. We saw and I think that is where you are coming from. So unless you produce someone else to take you to safety, you are stuck with us. I will let no one else die today, not even a nonsense talking Elf,” said the woman. All that was left for her was to stomp her feet.

Tauriel found herself speechless for a moment and the woman seemed to take it as acceptance.

“That would be it, then,” the woman said and stalked back to the river, shouting at someone or other to get moving.

“I apologize for her,” the man said “but I think she is right. I don’t know what happened that you…” he trailed off, obviously uncomfortable and seemed not to know where to go from there. Then he offered his hand to her. “I’ll help you stand if you can.”

She laid there for a moment, motionless, and then she nodded. What did it matter anyway?

Chapter Text

The last of the trees disappeared from her sight behind the curve of the river and with it all that she had ever known. It was strange. She did not know when or if she will see Greenwood again. Though if she was honest with herself, even Elves were slowly accepting that their home was with every day more deserving of its darker name and no longer looked like the beloved and lively dwelling that they carried in their minds like a precious treasure. Even leaving Mirkwood, such as it was, was painful for her, more so because she had sworn to protect it. But it was the second time that she had betrayed her duty and she could not bear to return.

So it was painful to watch it disappear from her sight, yet it made her heart a little lighter and her breathing easier. There was nothing here to remind her of recent memories. She was not yet ready to face all of her failings.

Turning herself around in her seat on the raised rear of the barge, she almost jumped when she found the man from earlier standing right in front of her. The woman was standing at the helm, her eyes searching the river banks like a hawk.

“So. You are an Elf,” said the man, his bright brown eyes wide and curious under his pale hair, his mouth slightly open on a question he no doubt could not wait to ask her.

 “What a brilliant observation, brother,” said the woman as she looked over at them. Her eyes were the same brown as his, but her hair was a few shades darker and plaited in a simple manner at the nape of her neck. Tauriel had already learned from their talk that those two were siblings, the woman perhaps a bit older than the man. “I have never known you to have such keen eyes. I shall tell everyone.”

He ignored her in favour of sitting down across from Tauriel and scooting closer. “What is your name?”

The woman rolled her eyes at the sky. “It’s polite to give your name first, you half-wit,” she said, her gaze back on the river banks. “My name is Alfreda, daughter of Léofwyn and the captain of Léofara, this beautiful barge that you found yourself on. This one here,” she pointed at the man without looking at him “is Alden, my brother. He has no rank here,” she finished, her mouth twitching.

“You are so bitter, sister. No wonder everyone likes me better,” said Alden, catching the sleeve of a short man with a ragged grey beard walking by him. “Isn’t that so, Esmund?”

The man only growled and yanked himself from Alden’s clutches. He stalked away, muttering under his breath until he disappeared under the deck, Alden’s eyes following him with a wistful expression.

“Ah, he loves me, but he is not big on words, that one,” Alden smiled. “Brilliant with numbers, not so much with people. Me, on the other hand–”

“–not so brilliant with anything unless one counts being a constant annoyance as a quality,” interrupted the captain slyly. “And the only person who Esmund has a problem with is you.”

Tauriel watched their bickering with bafflement, but she was glad for the distraction. She had no desire to talk about herself at the moment, much less with someone who would undoubtedly needle her with yet more questions if she seemed willing to talk. Before Alden could return to her with his questioning, she quickly asked: “Could you tell me about Dorwinion?”

The captain looked at her with a look that told Tauriel that she was not fooled, but didn’t say anything.

Alden smiled and clasped his hands in a gleeful gesture. Tauriel would have been surprised by his liveliness so soon after the orc attack but from what she had seen, these Men were a rough company as far as being used to danger went. It wasn’t that strange, after all the journey from Dorwinion was a long one and who knows how many dangers these people faced until they could finally come back home. Still, most of the ship’s crew were in much gloomier spirits than Alden. By a long shot. “Where do I begin...” he scratched his chin “You surely know that we are famous for our wine. There are vineyards that stretch on forever everywhere, but we produce other things as well, wheat, corn, all kinds of grain and vegetables as you have never seen anywhere else. We have great orchards with trees bending under the weight of fruit. Most people are either working on the fields or trade with other lands like we do, with the Woodland realm and Lake-town, but also with the Iron Hills and the great warclans that live on the plains of the East.”

“Léofara is rather small compared to the ships that sail across the great Sea of Rhûn,” added the captain with a proud smile on her lips.

Tauriel was trying to find a position to sit that most favoured her ribs. It seemed that none made it much better, so she at last stopped moving. At least that way the pain was reduced to a dull ache that could be easily ignored. “Who rules over the lands?” she asked next, intrigued in spite of herself.

“A council of the wealthiest merchants and holders of the greatest fields,” answered Alfreda, her face schooled into a neutral expression. “They make decisions that most profit their businesses and then the rest of us wait to see what is left.”

“That is blasphemy, dear sister,” said Alden and then his voice was rising an octave as he began to gesture exaggeratingly. “All of those poor ugly peasants are my children and I hold them at my bosom with all my love and generosity. Unless they want something, filthy scwyrmas, with their requests and petitions! Nonsense!”

“And you call my talk blasphemy,” his sister shook her head at him. “Don’t let Beswic-daichir hear you say such things.”

“Daichir?” Tauriel repeated the unfamiliar word, her eyes moving between the two.

“The Daichir are what the great masters are called,” the captain shrugged. “Beswic is the name of the master in whose name we trade. Everything on this ship is his property.”

“But he does not own the ship,” said Alden, smiling up at his sister.

“That he does not. Léofara is mine,” nodded the captain, a mischievous glint in her eyes as she regarded her brother.

“Now wait a minute–” Alden started, but was cut off by Alfreda.

“Did you say something, brother mine?” The captain turned an icy glare in his direction and he fell silent, though his face spoke volumes about what he would like to say if he did not appreciate all his appendages where they were.

Tauriel, quite unsure of what to say, used the time to inspect the cloth that was winded around her head. It felt dry enough, no new blood seeping through it. She looked at her battered hands instead. They yet bore the marks of where she scraped them on the rock two days ago. That was not a good thing to remember, so she turned her hands around on her lap and looked back at the captain and her brother. They were still glaring at each other.

“What about the people? What kinds of people live there?” she asked when it looked like none of them planned to give up any time soon. Even amongst a relatively small company on the ship, she had seen differences between the Men. The pale hair of the siblings contrasted with the dark hair of most of the crew. Some of them seemed to be similar to the Men of Lake-town and Dale, while others looked more foreign to her, most likely belonging to the various clans of the Easterlings.

“All kinds!” said Alden, taking his eyes away from his sister at last. “There are those that are brethren to the Men of Dale and other Northmen. But there are also those who have the same ancestors as the Rohirrim in the South. It is said that long before the days of Eorl the Young, they have lived in the eastern Rhovanion and some fled to the Great Sea of Rhûn when the Wainriders drove the rest to Anduin,” explained Alden, his sister looking with amusement at his enthusiasm.

“I heard that the Rohirrim have pale hair,” Tauriel suggested.

“Yes. It seems that we might share the same ancestors,” Alden smiled at her and returned to his lecture. “Then of course there are those that you would call Easterlings; those who have been there for centuries and newcomers from the lands of Bojan and Vuk who are there for trade. Zharkûl’s people are there mostly to cause unrest,” he sighed and stretched his legs in front of him. “Some claim that they have Elvish ancestors,” he said with a glance in Tauriel’s direction “but I wager that most of those who claim such things have no Elf blood whatsoever. There are no more Elves who dwell in Dorwinion, although it is said that they were the founders,” he said and fell silent for a moment. “Ah, and the Dwarves, of course,” he added and Tauriel froze “from Orocarni, mostly. They don’t let us come into their mountains so they come to us for trade and occasionally stay for a few months.”

Tauriel lowered her eyes. That a mere mention of Dwarves who are strangers to her would make her heart skip a beat… what would she do if she were to see any of them? Would it be better or worse if they were different from the ones she knew? From him?

“For all that we are of different origins, our lives are all bound to the same lands and that dictates our way of living. Oh, but we should arrive in time for the Solstice celebrations! That is a marvel that you have to see!” he proclaimed.

“Not that you would know much about what it looks like. Do you remember last year?” asked the captain, her tone much more innocent than her eyes could ever hope to be.

With an air of indignation, Alden stood up and left, muttering something about shameless sisters and their wily ways.

“I guess that concludes the lecture,” the captain said as she watched him disappear under the deck. “I suggest you take the time to rest, until he comes back to resume it. Or ask the questions that he forgot about in his enthusiasm,” she added. Her tone was light but there was something deeper in her eyes, and kindness also. This was a woman that was no stranger to misery, Tauriel realized suddenly, and it spoke to her even through her own grief.

She lowered her gaze to her hands once more, looking without flinching at the scars she brought onto herself in her moment of weakness. She had been Tauriel, Forest Maiden of Greenwood, the captain of the Elven Guard of king Thranduil. But now she was a captain no more. A maiden she still might be, but there was no forest that would welcome her back amongst its living trees. She had no place she could call her own, no one who would take her hand and chase the evil away. Alone, forsaken.

“I cannot return to where I was,” she began softly, her eyes still upon her hands. “And my name is not my own anymore. But if you need something to call me, you may call me Eglanel.” Her eyes once more found the captain’s and they looked at each other for a moment.

“As you wish, Eglanel. You may call me Freda,” she said and turned to face forward.

“Freda,” she repeated and pulled the blanket tightly around herself. Together their eyes followed the water as it carried them swiftly through the changing land.

*

Alden threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “You are still recovering from your injuries!” he exclaimed loudly, which earned him several unimpressed looks from the few crewmembers walking around them.

Tauriel crossed her arms and tried not to wince at the sharp pang of her protesting ribs. “So is half of the people on this craft and yet everyone is doing something. I will not be sitting idly when I can help with the load and you have fewer hands to manage everything than you would have otherwise.” And it was because she had not arrived in time, but this was not the time for guilt. Later.

The man pinched his nose and huffed an annoyed breath. “What then? Can you cook?”

“Only what can be done quickly on the watch,” she answered. Her interest never laid that way and the guards either brought food with them or managed with what animals they could hunt down in the forest, not bothering with anything finer than salted and roasted meat if they had to.

“Do you know anything about ship maintenance?” Alden continued.

“No,” she answered. “But that does not–”

“Can you read and write, lass?” came a gruff voice from behind Alden who turned to discover the small figure of the bookkeeper, Esmund.

“Yes, I can do both,” Tauriel said with some satisfaction.

“Follow me then, you can help me with the manifest,” the man said and he slipped away without waiting for her.

Tauriel wasted no time and followed him through the low door under the deck and through a narrow corridor to where all the ship’s freight was stored. A young boy was sitting on a crate with a stack of parchment in his hands and he was chewing on a pen with a confused expression.

“Give that here, you fool!” cried the old man and snatched the parchment from the boy’s hands before he could so much as turn. “Stop making a mess of my work and go tell the captain to give you other work.”  When the boy disappeared through the corridor, Esmund shoved the parchment into Tauriel’s hands and motioned towards the now vacant crate with a grunt. “Go through the items and write down the numbers as I tell you.”

“Yes,” Tauriel nodded and bent her head to see the, thankfully, precise writing in the dim light of a lamp hanging from the low ceiling.

They slowly went through the list, Tauriel soon falling into a steady rhythm. She had done inventories like this many times in the king’s armoury and the familiar task was soothing. But the man’s face was growing more and more troubled with each crate and package that he inspected and when at last he sat down on one, he sighed and rubbed at his eyes with calloused fingers. “That is way less than I expected.”

Tauriel remained silent.

The man sighed once more before lifting his eyes and levelling Tauriel with a questioning look. “I only guess, but I think that you have seen what happened in Lake-town,” he said and Tauriel blanched. He held his hands in a placating gesture. “I won’t ask for details, I will only tell you what I saw. We were still there when the winged demon came. We had heard that there were folks marching on the Mountain, but none had foreseen what would come and it was–; I have never seen such horror in my life. So we fled,” the man slumped in his seat, his voice regretful. “We fled and when at last we decided to go back to see what became of the people of Lake-town, the army of orcs came. And so we fled once again and since then we were waiting where you found us, trying to decide whether to turn back or continue on our way home. So please only tell me this – what became of the people? Have they all been slaughtered or–”

“The orcs were defeated,” Tauriel breathed. “The Men have taken refuge in the ruins of Dale.”

“Ah, that is good news,” the man said, slumping in relief. “Good news indeed. But how did it happen? Such army, how could it be defeated when soldiers are so few in Lake-town? Did the Elves come to aid?” he pressed.

“I…” Tauriel began, but could not go further. “I am sorry, but I cannot speak of what happened, it is still– Please do not ask,” she pleaded and fought desperately against the panic that threatened to overcome her.

“I see,” the man said. “I apologize, lass, you do not need to say more. Thank you for the news, still.” The man was silent for a moment and then stood. “Let’s finish this.” He opened another crate and Tauriel picked up the pen again to write down the numbers.

When they were finished she handed the parchment to the Esmund who took it and flicked through the pages. “The Master won’t be happy about this. We have managed to load nigh a third of what we should. This will be trouble.” He carded his fingers through his thinning beard and tapped on the parchment here and there. “Trouble indeed.  But no use crying over barren fields, better get to work. Come, we shall see what is there for hungry folk,” he motioned for her to follow him back on the deck.

The sun had already set when they came out and most of the crew was sitting in a half circle on upturned crates and blankets around a steaming pot. The cook, Mirche, was handing them cakes to go with the stew. Esmund motioned for Tauriel to sit down and he took a place next to her, accepting a bowl and a cake. Tauriel got the same a moment later. She eyed the thin cake before taking a small bite and discovered that it was, fortunately, not cram, and was actually rather tasty. Small mercies.

“How does it look, Esmund?” asked Alfreda from her seat in the middle, nudging her brother’s knee out of the way so that she could stretch her legs in front of her.

“The Master had paid for the wine and we have most of the empty barrels, but we were still waiting for the goods, so we have about third of what we should. The Daichir will be furious no matter what explanation we offer, but you know that,” he answered bleakly and turned to his stew.

“Aye,” she said, her face solemn as she took another cake from Mirche. “But leave that to me, I will take responsibility for our actions.”

Cries of protest rose from the others, but she halted them with a motion of her hand. “I will hear none of that now,” she spoke sternly and then with a glint in her eye in a stage-whisper said to the woman on her right: “Can you bring the ale? The stew is too salty again.”

The cook snorted and pointed a ladle at her as if it was a weapon. “If you were not the captain, I would ask you be thrown to the river, ungrateful witch.”

“Good thing then that I am and you are not. I say bring the ale already!”

“Yes, bring the ale!” shouted Alden and ducked in time to avoid being thumped on the head.

“No more than one tankard, you lump, I’m watching you,” she said, finishing her cake and leaned back.

“Would you care for a tankard, Eglanel?” Alden asked her, paying no mind to his sister and her threats, more than used to them by now.

“No, thank you, water is good enough,” answered Tauriel and tasted the stew. It was, indeed, too salty.

“I could offer you wine, but the drink of the gods is unfortunately not for us peasants,” he said, his face mournful and he hurried away before his sister could throw something at him.

“Don’t let him drink– Oh bother, he will be drunk before they manage to bring the ale for all of us,” sighed the captain, but made no motion to actually stop him, instead turning her eyes to the sky where the heavy clouds were gathering, promising snow through the night.

“Alfreda,” said Esmund quietly and her eyes snapped to him. “The battle… the army of orcs was defeated and the people found refuge in Dale,” he said, his eyes darting to Tauriel and back to his captain.

She studied them both for a moment before breathing a sigh of relief. “That is good to hear,” she said and inclined her head in Tauriel’s direction. “Thank you.”

With that both the captain and the bookkeeper accepted a tankard of ale from the young boy who had been in the storage earlier. This one was clearly descended of the Easterlings with his small nose and a pair of dark eyes under strands of straight dark hair. He stopped in front of Tauriel with a cup of water that she gladly took from him. Even then he continued standing in front of her, apparently not aware that his mouth was hanging open. Tauriel looked back up at him and was about to ask if he needed something when Esmund cleared his throat.

“What did I tell you about staring, Enebish?” he growled and the boy snapped out of his reverie, his cheeks slightly colouring.

“Not to do that,” the boy mumbled, his blush growing.

“Right. Now off with you,” Esmund snapped and the boy practically vanished, so fast was his retreat. The bookkeeper sighed and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “Sorry about that. I’m trying to teach the boy some manners, but he has never seen an Elf up close and he’s as curious as a cat but far less subtle.”

“No need to be cross with him,” said Tauriel and took a sip of the water, satisfied when it chased away the saltiness of the supper. A single snowflake landed on her hand just to melt the next second.

“Ach, I’m not cross with him. Just– I am the last person who should be entrusted with a child and yet here I am, trying to raise one,” huffed Esmund swinging the ale in his tankard, careful not to spill. “It’s rather–”

A clear voice rang over the chatter of the crew then and Tauriel turned around to find the captain singing with a small smile on her lips.

“The autumn ends the snow is falling
on the barren fields.
When the work is slow but wine is plenty
cold is not yet fierce.”

Across from her Alden’s voice joined in and soon the whole crew was singing, their voices carrying over the dark waters and into the night.

As the year is failing cold seems growing,
creeping are our fears.
When the fire seems dim, northern winds blowing
hope is gone it seems.

On the sleeve it tugs under cloaks crawling,
taking as fit deems.
Laugh and breath and fierceness glowing,
looks it never leaves.

The Sea of Rhûn is harsh and freezing,
deeply vineyard sleeps.
But in heart it knows just what is coming –
the end of all bad deeds.

Do you see the brown? Then green it’s blooming,
thaws the ice of seas.
After every winter a bird starts singing,
spring it again sees. 

The snow was falling in earnest when the song ended and as if on cue all who didn’t have the night duty made their way inside where they would be protected from the harsh winds. Tauriel was the last to get up from her seat and she watched as Alfreda made her way towards the helm, her head covered with a blue hood.

“I thought you don’t have the watch till morning,” said Tauriel, pausing at the door.

Alfreda put her hand on the mast and she stared ahead into the darkness. “I have much to think about,” she said. Her expression grew wistful and she inclined her head to the side. “Care to join me?”

Tauriel stared at the captain for a moment before coming to stand next to her. She pulled her own hood over her hair and waited for the inevitable.

“I hate to do this because I know what it means not wanting to speak about painful things, and I would not ask, if this was only about my curiosity. Still, I would ask you to tell me what happened, perhaps not today, but at least before we reach Dorwinion. For the sake of those I need to protect, I need to give the Master more than just what I saw, returning as we are. He is a harsh man and tolerates no failure. It doesn’t matter that our lives were at stake.”

Tauriel looked at her pained expression that spoke of her desire to protect and her anger when not being able to do so. Ah, but it was familiar! How could she refuse such a request when she knew all too well how this woman felt? Even though her heart was hammering in her chest at the mere thought, her expression no mirroring the one on Alfreda’s face. And wasn’t that curious, that the moment when the Elves and the Men and all the other races seemed most alike was when they hurt?

She closed her eyes and nodded.

*

A week or so the waters of the River Running have been carrying them. The trees gave way to sturdy shrubs and leafless bushes until even those grew scarce. Plains stretched on as far as the eye could see, brown, grey, and more and more white, disappearing under the snow until they looked like a sea, quiet and unmarred: only the silhouettes of low hills threw shadows here and there, like great waves that the wind blew over the surface as it saw fit.

Some two miles from them, the white perfection was suddenly disrupted by rocks sticking like jagged teeth from the earth beneath. The river seemed to be flowing faster alongside them, rippling with small waves and splashing and licking the banks, laughing in its race.

“There Celduin meets the red waters of Carnen that runs from the Iron Hills, and together they go on to the Great Sea,” said Alfreda in a clear voice that rang in the crisp morning air.

Tauriel turned north whence the Red River came. The Iron Hills where Dáin Ironfoot ruled and from where the Dwarves came to the aid of their besieged kin. She wondered, briefly, what would become of them now that lord Dáin inherited the kingship of Erebor?

She was distracted by a shout from Alfreda, who raised her voice so that it carried all the way to prow. “We make way to Hwinnen, see if there are any messages!”

“Aye!” came the reply in unison from the crew. They took positions and occasionally shouted warnings that had Alfreda adjusting the course where the bottom of the river turned treacherous.

Not long after they entered the joint waters, Enebish, who was sitting in the bow waved his hands excitingly and whooped with excitement. “Captain! There is a ship anchored right ahead! And it’s painted red!”

“Carfân,” breathed Alfreda and a smile slowly crept on her face until she was laughing openly. “I feel lighter already when I know that the impertinent arse is here.”

Tauriel shot her a surprised look but didn’t ask, instead watching the other barge with interest as they were swiftly carried to it.

There were people on the red barge and on the bank, now waving and shouting at them and it was an extremely noisy greeting, though everyone was still focused on their assigned task as they carefully manoeuvred Léofara along Carfân, tossing thick ropes to the people on the shore who fastened them on great wooden poles in no time.

A man pulled himself up onto the deck. He was surprisingly tall for a Man, with long dark hair in a low ponytail. His grey eyes were shining with delight, a great grin appearing on his handsome face.

Esmund, who stood behind Tauriel, sighed and gestured to the heavens as if asking the Valar for intervention.

“My shining sun, Northern beauty, how I missed you!” came the man’s solemn declaration as he made his way to Alfreda who was frowning somewhat viciously. He paused when he noticed Tauriel standing close to the captain, but did not actually stop until he was standing right in front of them. “Don’t say that you replaced me with an Elf, dearest Freda!” he clutched his heart in feigned hurt. “Unless you would share,” he added, winking at Tauriel.

She stared at him blankly and thought that she was quite unsure if he was making a joke or not.

Alfreda groaned. “Shut up, you witless oaf, and go bother someone else!”

“Oh, but I can’t, beautiful Alfreda, for I have longed–” he paused and threw his hands in the air. “Alden! My favourite drinking companion!” roared the man and embraced Alden in a bear hug.

Alfreda rested her head against the helm. “Sweet Araw, what foul deed did I do that I deserve such punishment?”

“There now, no need to be so dramatic,” said Esmund, patting her on the shoulder compassionately. “At least there are no costumes this time.”

“Whatever ails your sister so? Come Alden, I have a barrel of Dwarvish ale, we shall drink to your sister’s health, what say you?” said the tall man merrily and without waiting for a reply pulled Alden with him. Not that there was a great deal of persuasion needed, the blond went willingly enough.

“Don’t you dare, you two–!” shouted Alfreda, but they were already gone from the deck, the wind carrying the tune of a hearty drinking song.

Chapter Text

The barges on the western river trade route were all similar in build – smaller than the ships sailing the vast waters of Rhûn, but sturdy to endure the difficult and often treacherous route to Lake-town and the Iron Hills. An untrained eye would have difficulties distinguishing the two barges waiting in the swirling waters of Hwinnen, were it not for the red colour of the vessel coming from the Iron Hills.

Tauriel, having made her way onto the deck of the red barge, immediately noticed other, subtler differences. Where captain Alfreda’s Léofara was all simple and smooth lines without much in the way of adornment, Carfân had ornamentation on almost every available surface. There were swirling lines of greenery and flowers, and the stark lines of the Iron Hills landscape, though unfamiliar to Tauriel, were as good an indication of its frequent destination as the colour was. Beneath them, right in front of the door leading under the deck, was standing Carfân’s captain with a relaxed smile on his face. That, as much as the ships, was a good indication of the captains’ characters, Tauriel thought, even without knowing either of them for a long time.

It was clear enough by the urgency in her step that Alfreda wanted to have a serious talk with the other captain, and that was why Tauriel was surprised when she was asked to follow her onto the other barge. When they arrived, Alden was already gone and the captain of Carfân’s was waiting for them with a wide smile and a cup in hand.

“I knew you would come after me,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. When he noticed Tauriel he took a small bow and motioned around him. “Welcome, my lady, on Carfân. Me and my humble ship are at your service.”

Alfreda paid his theatrics no mind as she strode straight towards him, her mouth set in a thin line. “We need to talk,” she said, pushing him aside and quickly disappearing under the deck.

The captain looked after her and then turned back to Tauriel. “She is just like the plains of the North – beautiful and yet so harsh. What about you my lady? I didn’t have a chance to ask you for your name yet,” he said, blocking her way into the ship so she was forced to stop. His expression was playful but Tauriel caught a hint of caution in his eyes.

She opened her mouth to speak when Alfreda appeared behind him and poked him in the ribs. “Introductions when we are all inside, I am not in the mood to wait for you,” she said, clearly struggling with her irritation.

The captain sighed and motioned for Tauriel to go inside, following her through the first door on the right. She found herself in a small cabin with a single pallet on one side and a writing desk on the other. The space was lit by a narrow window high on the wall and a lamp standing on the desk. Alfreda was already sitting on the only stool in the cabin, her legs crossed under it to make space for Tauriel and the captain to get inside. Tauriel, not seeing any other option, sat down gingerly on the edge of the pallet, looking around her at the various knick-knacks strewn on the table or hanging from the low ceiling. It was obvious that whoever occupied the space spend a lot of time there. Judging by the single pallet it was most likely a captain’s cabin.

The captain in question grabbed an empty crate from the corner to sit on and looked expectantly at Alfreda.

Alfreda sighed and rubbed at her forehead, her irritation dissipating and leaving her with eyes circled by exhaustion that she must have been fighting for days now. After a moment she lifted her head to look at Tauriel.

“I believe it’s time for the introductions,” she said finally and motioned with her hand to the captain. “Eglanel, this is is Thal, we have been friends since we were both children. Carfân is the main ship of our trade with the Iron Hills,” she explained and cast a glance in the captain’s direction. “Which, I believe, is where you are coming from? I did not expect to meet you here, you should have already been gone by now,” she said, lifting an eyebrow in question.

“We would have been, but there was a landslide and some minor damage we have to repair before we can continue. It should be done by the morning, if you want to wait for us,” said Thal.

“We will wait,” Alfreda said with a sigh, running a hand through her hair. “I’m not in haste to get home this time,” she added, frowning. “Have you heard anything strange in the Hills?”

Thal leaned forward. “Strange? That is one way to tell it. We were supposed to leave in a few days when suddenly the whole settlement is in an uproar, no one can tell me what is going on, only that they are preparing for battle. We did not even see any messengers coming from anywhere – and then lord Dáin himself leaves with five hundred of his soldiers, all of them in full armour and with heavy provisions. All I know is that lord Dáin did not even call for a proper meeting of his council because a few of them were grumbling about authority, but you know that they would never tell us anything important. But the lord never goes to battle without the approval of his council if they are not attacked first. What in the name of Araw happened?” he said, looking at Alfreda expectantly.

Alfreda looked at Tauriel who lowered her eyes. They had not yet talked though she promised. It seemed like the time has come. Steeling herself, Tauriel opened her mouth to speak. “The King returned to Erebor,” she said and watched their eyes widening in surprise. “A small company of Dwarves made their way to Esgaroth and asked the Master for help to retake their Mountain. He gave them provisions and sent them on their way – I think he thought they were lying but could not refuse them help when his people were citing prophesies about rivers of gold. They went… and woke the dragon.”

Thal paled and Alfreda closed her eyes, undoubtedly seeing the memory of that night as vivid as if she was still there. Tauriel did. She doubted that it was a sight anyone would ever forget. Even her, who have been fighting the spiders and other dark creatures of the forest could feel the heat and taste the suffocating smoke in the air, still hearing the screams of people trying to get on the boats only to be crushed by their falling homes that the vicious beast destroyed in its rampage. She could still see the lone figure on the bell tower firing arrow after useless arrow at the monster. And then…

She shook herself out of the memory, her breathing quicker than it had been then, when she had to stay calm for the sake of those she was supposed to get safely away from the fiery ruins.

“When the dragon attacked we were still in Lake-town, waiting for our shipments. Two of mine were in the tavern that was among the first to be destroyed and there was no way we could get to them afterwards,” said Alfreda with a grimace and Thal winced in sympathy. “The rest of us made it to Léofara and we were forced to make for the open water because of the waves the beast was causing. But,” she said, her eyes cast down, shame visible on her face “we should have waited. We should have taken more people with us when we were fleeing, but I was never that scared in my entire life-” she paused and visibly fought to get herself back under control. Thal leaned forward in the small space and put his arm on her shoulder.

“You got your people away, Freda, and that is all that anyone can do when faced with such terrible things as beasts from legends,” he said, his voice firm. He glanced at Tauriel for help.

She nodded. “Me and-” she paused for a moment but pressed on “Me and my companions barely escaped ourselves. I could not even go back for a boy I was supposed to protect when he ran away to help his father,” Tauriel said, her pragmatic Leave him! We cannot go back. echoing uncomfortably in her mind.

“We left for the river,” Alfreda said, her voice barely audible even in the quiet of the cabin. “We should have come back.”

“One ship would not have made much difference, not with all the chaos and confusion afterwards,” said Tauriel resolutely. “Even with the dragon slain-”

Thal looked at her sharply. “Slain?” he repeated. “Who could have done such a thing? The Elves?”

“No. Bard of Lake-town struck the dragon with a black arrow and it now lies on the bottom of Esgaroth. They call him Bard Dragonslayer now and he rules over what is left of the people.”

“Why? What happened to the Master?” asked Alfreda, frowning. “Not that I particularly like the man, but he is the official authority there.”

“The master is dead,” said Tauriel, her lips curling over the words with distaste. “The dead dragon fell on his ship when he was trying to escape with the gold from the treasury with his henchmen.”

Both Thal and Freda looked at her in shock slowly turning into anger.

Alfreda spoke first: “I should say that I cannot believe he would do such a thing but that would be a lie. Still-” she looked at where her hands were clenched into tight fists in her lap. “I am not one to talk.”

“I think we can all agree that fleeing for your life and those of your crew is not the same as letting your greed make you abandon your duty,” Thal said sharply.

Everyone was quiet for a moment and then Thal spoke again, visibly unhappy with it. “Though I have to ask , and do not think that I put any blame on you – Araw only knows what I would have done were I the one there – why did you not go back afterwards?” he looked regretful as he said it but did not take it back.

“We did not know that the dragon was slain at the time, we must have been already too far, the river was carrying us quickly away. When we finally decided to go back, it took us a long time to make our way back against the current. But we did go back, eventually. By then the shores were crawling with orc scouts.”

Thal swore.

“They tried to follow us when we turned to flee, but they had no boats so we escaped and made for Kyf where we waited until… Until Eglanel found us,” she said, looking at Tauriel. “And now I would like to know how that came to be,” she said gently.

Thal looked at Tauriel with renewed interest, but they were interrupted by some of Carfân’s crew coming back on the ship, judging by the footsteps that could be heard from the deck outside. A moment later a tall lanky man with a distinctive scar on his chin stopped in front of the doors to the cabin looking at the three of them before turning to his captain.

“Barab and Mirche are finished with the lunch. Not sure if it’s edible because they were trying to one-up each other, but it’s not like I have the energy to prepare something myself, so if you want…” he trailed off, the invitation clear.

Thal stood up, an easy smile on his face and pointed at Alfreda and Tauriel behind him. “Thank you, but we have important things to discuss,” he said “Save us something if you can.”

“As you like. I’ll leave you to your… discussion,” the man said, leaning over Thal’s shoulder and winking at Alfreda before going away.

Thal snorted and closed the door to the cabin sitting on the crate again. When he looked up Alfreda was glaring at him but he seemed unfazed. “Something to say, dear?”

Alfreda glared some more but eventually sighed and turned to Tauriel.

The combined interest of the two captains would have made her nervous but Tauriel faced worse scrutiny even on a good day as the Captain of the Guard and the dread she was feeling about what she was going to say was much worse than that. With the centuries of practice she managed a neutral expression and a level voice, deciding that she was going to treat this as any other report after the numerous battles and scouting missions in the past.

“As I’ve already said, after the dragon was killed, those who could do so made their way to the shore, me along with them. The provisions were scarce and with the winter coming people decided to follow Bard who led them to seek refuge in the ruins of Dale. I would have probably gone with them, at least for a time, but my- my friend found me there and asked me to accompany him to the North. He was pursuing a group of orcs that followed the Dwarves to Lake-town. My friend got into a fight with the orcs, but their leader escaped. So we followed their trail as far as Mount Gundabad.”

“I thought that place was long abandoned,” interrupted Thal.

“So did we, but that was where the trail was leading. Just as we were trying to find a way to sneak inside the fortress a great army of orcs came out of the gates and began marching south, for the Mountain. Me and my friend hurried back to warn whoever we could – but when we came back there was already a battle in front of the gates.”

“The Dwarves from the Iron Hills,” guessed Thal, nodding to himself.

“Yes. A second orc army came from the opposite direction and they found armies already in front of the Mountain – king Thranduil and the Men of Lake-town.” She never got to ask how they were able to get there so quickly and she suspected that she wouldn’t like the answer. Thirteen Dwarves barricaded in a mountain full of gold and their closest kin coming with an army at the same time as the orcs? They could not have been summoned to help with that threat, there had to be another. One could almost be glad that the orcs had come, because otherwise they would surely be fighting each other to the delight of all the servants of Darkness. Not that she was glad. The dead would not be any less dead had they been slain by a different enemy. It only mattered to the survivors.

She did not feel like one.

“We were losing. The Dwarves were being pushed to the Mountain and the Men were desperately trying to hold Dale. Both were failing. And they hadn’t yet known about the second army that was descending on them,” she continued, falling quiet for a moment. And Thranduil was prepared to leave them to their fates. As if the army would not turn right on his forest when they were finished with the Dwarf kingdom, thought Tauriel bitterly. She did not regret for a moment pulling her bow on her king. His pride would be the doom of all. Still might, but that did not have anything to do with Tauriel anymore.

What a strange thought. Her whole life she was fighting for her home, and of course she still cared what became of it. But it was out of her reach now and she would not return. She felt lighter and more uncertain at the same time.

Alfreda cleared her throat. Tauriel focused on her and tried to organise her thoughts. This was not the time for soul searching.

“That sounds like an impossible situation and I have trouble believing that they have won,” said Alfreda, her unease clearly visible.

“They won?” Thal gasped. He was leaning forward through the whole speech and now nearly jumped from his seat. “I thought that with you here, well–” he paused, embarrassed.

Tauriel looked at him sharply, well aware of what he was implying and even more aware that even with her banishment and the fact that she did stay until the fighting was over, it was still at least partially true. That did not mean that the thought itself haven’t offended her. “I did not defect, if that is what you are trying to say,” she said curtly, and her icy glare forced Thal to lower his eyes. A glance in Alfreda’s direction told her that he was not alone in thinking that. Which stung her, a little, even though Alfreda didn’t know much more about her than the other captain. It was on her for not telling anything earlier.

“I apologize for assuming,” said Thal at last and at least he sounded sincere. Tauriel decided to take it as such, at any rate.

She sighed and decided that she could afford being magnanimous. Not one minute ago, she was thinking about the doom that was king Thranduil’s pride; it would be hypocritical of her to hold onto her own. “I suppose I would be thinking the same in your place,” she allowed. Another deep breath and she returned to her story.

“The Iron Hills Dwarves were preparing for their last stand when their king burst out of the Mountain.”

“You mentioned this king before,” Thal interrupted her to which Alfreda responded with another glare. Tauriel was beginning to understand that to be a standard occurrence when those two were in proximity of each other. “But there is no King under the Mountain since the dragon came. I thought the Dwarves of Erebor vanished.”

“King Thorin was the grandson of King Thrór,” explained Tauriel desperately trying to keep her thoughts away from anyone else in the royal bloodline. “He was the one who led the company from Lake-town.

At that point in battle, it was obvious that there was no victory by force – there was none on our side that would be enough against the hordes. The only chance to turn the battle around was to get to their leader, the Orc chieftain. The King and a few from his company managed to get through and…” there she fell silent. How could she have thought that she was ready to tell anyone about it? As clear as if she was still there she could see the mountain goats with their riders on the steep slopes of Ravenhill, the sharp tang of ice and blood in the air, the sense of urgency such as she had never felt before, not registering the ground beneath her feet as she desperately raced after the Dwarves, after him… though long since healed, her body ached where it met the hard rock in the last battle against the giant orc.

Alfreda’s voice saying her name brought her back and she was suddenly made aware of the tears streaming down her face and Alfreda’s hand on her back moving in soothing circles. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t… you don’t have to continue if you don’t want to. I’m sorry,” she repeated, her voice gentle.

Tauriel hated it.

Anger, pain and shame rose in her. Anger at herself for her weakness then and now, anger at them for making her think about it. Anger at the woman who was now trying to comfort her for making her talk in the first place. What did it matter that she had to find an excuse to give to her Master? She should have been grateful that she wasn’t lying dead on a riverbank hundreds of miles from her home. Tauriel had done enough and still–

Pain. As if no time at all had passed since she left the rocky edge on Ravenhill. She had perhaps hoped at the time that she was leaving it there with all the memories, but that was obviously wrong.

Shame that she would try to place any blame on people who had nothing to do with her own failure and her inability to deal with her own emotions. She shouldn’t have gone with them after all.

She took a breath, trying to control herself for a moment more. “They succeeded. But the King fell before the Eagles of Misty Mountains came and turned the tide of the battle,” she forced through her teeth, standing up abruptly. “I have nothing more to say,” she said and ran out of the cabin, almost sending Thal crashing to the floor when she yanked the door open.

Both the vessels’ crews were busy with their lunch when she dropped on the shore. A few heads turned after her as she ran towards the trees but she paid them no mind. She ran until she couldn’t see the river or the people anymore and when she finally stopped she only remembered how to get back because it was ingrained in her by rigorous training to pay attention to her surroundings in any situation. The snow and mud would certainly help her find the way, too.

Surrounded by trees and alone, her hands felt empty without a bow and her hip light without a quiver. Even, or maybe especially because the trees felt foreign to her – it felt almost as if they were less alive than they should be. The trees in Mirkwood were always whispering and stretching their long branches towards each other, and with patience and time one could almost understand their voices, each unique as that of any Elf. And they were always wary of things on two legs, some of them even of Elves in parts where Darkness reigned for as long as their long memories served. The trees here were silent and did not care even if she decided to go around breaking twigs.

That did nothing to elevate her mood at the moment. She would have much preferred them trying to trip her to the unnatural silence.

She found a spot on a pile of leaves clear of snow and mud and sat down, folding her legs under her and tucking her cloak closer around her shoulders. She wasn’t cold at the moment but there was a false sense of security in being enveloped in something warm.

She scoffed – it wasn’t as if there was anything out there that she had to protect herself from. Everything was right inside her head.

With nothing better to do she grabbed a piece of wood from the ground and unsheathing the dagger from her belt she started carving without a clear idea in mind. Only after she scratched the third mark she recognized the runes from a smooth blue-green stone, the weight of which she could still feel in her palm when she closed her eyes. She stared at it, eyes blinking with unshed tears that were threatening to show if she let them. Dropping both the piece of wood and the dagger on the ground she put her head in her hands trying to not think about anything for as long as she was able to.

A loud crack had her jump up with the dagger in her hand. She had no idea how long she had been there and was ready to throw her weapon at the intruder before she noticed Alden coming her way from the direction of the river.

He hadn’t noticed her yet and she was tempted to just disappear as silently as she was able to. But by the time she decided to do so, he was already too close. Relief was clear on his face when he noticed her and he quickened his pace until he was standing right in front of her.

“I am so glad to have finally found you, I was starting to worry that you really left. But you didn’t take your bow and I thought you wouldn’t… well,” he stopped, embarrassment creeping onto his face.

Tauriel hadn’t spoken up, still contemplating just getting up and leaving, but by the Valar, she was tired and in no mood to escape anyone, even a Man who would certainly have no chance of catching her if she didn’t want him to. Maybe she could stay there sitting on the ground for a few more hours. Or days, possibly. Determined to ignore him for as long as possible, she grabbed the piece of wood she had been carving and turned it over to see the markings. Picking up the dagger she crossed them out and threw the piece away.

“Freda said,” started Alden, and his voice was enough to have Tauriel muster the energy to interrupt him.

“I find that I do not care much,” she said. That was perhaps too harsh, but she had no intention of being particularly friendly at the moment. She figured she deserved at least a few hours when she could be impertinent.

Nobody said anything for a while then, Alden standing awkwardly in front of her. At last he dropped to the ground, sitting down on his legs in a similar style as she was. Tauriel braced herself for… she wasn’t quite sure what she expected him to say. Apologize? There wasn’t really any reason, more so because he wasn’t even there for the drama. Or maybe demand explanation?

When Alden started speaking he wasn’t looking at her, he was staring in the direction where he came from. His voice was quiet and calm, not at all like his excited rambles that she learned to expect after the short period of time that she knew him. “It’s traditional, when one introduces himself, to mention your parentage. You offer your name and you offer the name of your mother or father, whoever is of more important status, because you are offering your services and those of your family to your acquaintance,” he paused for a moment, but when she said nothing he continued with a sigh. “I should introduce myself as Alden, son of Alger.”

Tauriel glanced at him, unsure where he was going with this. She remembered, naturally, that Alfreda introduced herself as daughter of Léofwyn, but it was common for a daughter to use her mother’s name even when her brothers used that of a father, and still, these practices could be much changed in Dorwinion for all Tauriel knew about the place. It also looked like an unimportant detail to mention, but unwilling to actually expend the energy necessary for a two-sided conversation, she didn’t point this out.

Alden, however, looked as if he was expecting some kind of response, but when it became clear that he would not receive one, he continued with a slight frown. “My father was the Master of the Shipbuilders’ Guild. I have only a few memories of him, but I do remember that me and Freda used to watch him work, because even as a Master, he continued building ships with his own hands. He didn’t have to, we had more than enough wealth to life off, but mother said that he loved his work and wouldn’t bear to be idle. I was never good at sitting and watching, but Freda loved watching him work and learning the trade from him when he had the time to teach her. He started building Léofara for her when she was ten, well, I should say that they started building her together, Freda would certainly insist on that detail,” his face cracked in a smile for a second before it gave way to a more sober expression.

“There are always struggles for power and wealth in the Guilds. People conspire and cheat and everyone who has any means in Dorwinion know this, that’s how you know that a Guild is wealthy. And I know that my father was not different. But then his biggest opponent in the Guild washed up on the shore with a knife in his back and my father was arrested. Two days later he picked a fight in the cell where he was being held before the trial and died,” said Alden, his teeth clenched and eyes closed. “Father was dead and we lost all his property because it belonged to the Guild. We would have ended up on the street if it wasn’t for Master Beswic who took us in and when Freda grew up he hired her as one of his merchants. Or I should say,” he reconsidered “she hired herself is more accurate, Master Beswic had no intention of letting her set foot outside the house. But mother insisted,” he added with another frown. “When I came of age I wanted to…”

“Why are you telling me this?” Tauriel asked at last, her voice betraying none of her emotions.

Alden looked at her with surprise, perhaps at being interrupted, but then his expression softened and he gestured with his hand in the direction of the river. “Freda told me what you were talking about and was sorry for upsetting you, so I…”

“So you decided to show me that you could relate with whatever had upset me,” she said and sighed. She was no longer feeling angry and had already regretted getting angry at Freda and Thal in the first place, and there was no real reason to be particularly polite at this point. Other than basic decency, that is. Still, she made the effort to be gentle when she spoke next: “I understand what you are trying to do and I am sorry for your loss,” she said, though not entirely sure how genuine it was, but pressed on. “I lost my parents when I was not yet of age, too. But,” and with that her voice grew stronger and more sure “I was – am upset, but that doesn’t mean that I want someone to understand or make it better, not yet. So I thank you for telling me that, but I’m most certainly not going to return the favour,” she finished.

Alden was quiet for a long moment before he looked at her again, looking embarrassed. “As you wish,” he said, then added “but I hope you do not wish to remain here much longer, my legs are freezing.”

Closing her eyes for a second, Tauriel stood up and offered a hand to Alden to help him get up. Then, without a glance in his direction, she began to walk back though she thought she saw him bend down for something before he followed.

***

Contrary to what most people might think, when two cooks meet it often leads to a less than palatable result. Especially when they are the particularly competitive sort which was in a way an unofficial requirement when recruiting a cook for a merchant ship in Dorwinion. They were often required to be creative with very little, depending on how well a particular expedition went.

It was indeed a good thing that an unofficial requirement of a sailor’s position was the ability to eat and digest almost anything thrown their way. One couldn’t afford to be picky when there was no variety to pick from.

That did not mean that there were no complaints, only that everyone was aware that by the end of the day there would be no food left and the next day would proceed in much the same manner.

Even so, every single sailor in the vicinity was filled with dread when they saw Mirche emerging from Léofara with a mysterious box, presumably full of spices, before he engaged in a battle of skill with Barab, the cook on Carfân. No one said a word – there was an instinctual fear in everyone, no matter how old, of a person holding a ladle in the threatening manner as the two cooks did.

To no one’s surprise the resulting mysterious food was spicy in a way that made every single one of them glad for the proximity of the icy river. They weighted their burning throats against the threat of losing a finger or two to the freezing waters a lot more seriously than they were comfortable with.

When Tauriel and Alden finally arrived back at the temporal camp the dinner was already over. Alden’s face crumbled at the realization and for a brief moment it seemed to be a real possibility that he would shed a tear for his poor stomach. Fortunately, that was when Freda appeared at his side with a bowl in each hand and Thal at her heels. She pushed the bowls in their hands and looked at Tauriel with a small smile.

Tauriel accepted the food and even managed a small smile herself, which had the effect of Freda’s own smile growing luminous on her face.

“Where did you…” started Thal but Freda, not at all trying to be subtle about it, stepped on his foot.

“When you are done with your meal, you are welcome to join us for a card game,” she said pointing in the direction of a glowing fire where most of their sailors were doing their best to get drunk. “Not you, I’m not lending you money,” she growled at Alden who was starting to look excited.

“Why is she being so mean, Thal–”

“Thal won’t lend you money either,” Freda said resolutely and walked to the fire without looking back at her brother.

Carfân’s captain shrugged and went after her. Alden, who was silently fuming, followed a moment later, leaving Tauriel to decide whether she wanted to spend the evening with them or alone.

She had spent long enough with her own thoughts as company that day, and so after a short deliberation she walked the short distance and chose a spot not quite amongst them but still close enough to feel some of the warmth from the fire. She sat down and took a first look at the contents of her bowl. She squinted at it, trying her best to determine what it might be, cautious after a week spent with Mirche’s very specific cuisine. A quick glance around told her that no one seemed to be in visible pain or dying, which was encouraging. She dug in – and promptly choked.

Her only coherent thought while she was trying to work through her dinner was that she sincerely hoped the fondness for spices was specific for Mirche and not for the whole of Dorwinion.

She spent the rest of the evening watching game after game playing out and the lively banter that accompanied it and before she realized it, the sailors were standing up and heading back to their respective ships for the night. She was one of the last around the fire along with Freda and Thal who were arguing about one thing or other before Carfân’s captain retreated, too.

The two of them alone, Freda headed cautiously in Tauriel’s direction. Stopping at her side with her hands clasped behind her, she looked up at the clear sky with its myriad of stars. Tauriel did the same and they stood facing in opposite directions until the chill of the winter night made Freda shiver. She huddled in her coat for warmth and took a step in her ship’s direction and stopped again.

“Will you be alright?” she asked quietly and looked over her shoulder.

Tauriel breathed out and straightened where she stood, her eyes on the familiar and beloved lights in the sky, shining eternal with all the memories of the world. “Someday,” she whispered.