‘You know it to be impossible,’ said the Lord Aulë.
His voice had all the strength and weight of thunder, and she struggled not to tremble at every word that he uttered, though he did not raise his voice.
‘I do,’ she said.
‘And yet still you come.’
‘I had to,’ she said softly. ‘There was no other option.’
‘Would you beg for his life?’ he rumbled.
With a gentle whisper of cloth, Tauriel, Captain of the Guard, lowered herself to her knees. The floor was ice-cold, and she could feel the chill even through her layers of armour.
‘Yes,’ she said.
The Lord Aulë’s great form turned to her at last, and considered her as she would consider an ant – with a detached, distant air. Tauriel bore his scrutiny with her gaze lowered, staring at the flecks of gold running through the stone floor, and she wondered how he viewed her with such ancient eyes. She knew she was too pale by far under the layers of grime; there was ash in her hair, dirt on her cheeks, and her right side was sticky with blood. She was incongruous against the pale marble, a dark stain on the perfection of Aulë’s halls. It was a marvel that he had not yet thrown her out.
‘There are many here who were cut down before their time. Many of my children who lost their lives in battle.’
She could feel the weight of his disapproval on her spine as though it was a physical thing. ‘I understand, my Lord. But surely his was-‘
‘That is not for you to decide,’ Aulë said, and his voice had all the heft of an avalanche. He stepped forward. Tauriel’s mind could not take in the full measure of his form; instead she could only comprehend him in parts and suggestions of the whole, and so she focused on his huge, booted feet, covered in a rough grey cloth that was so at odds with the majesty of their surroundings.
‘Some would call you impetuous, to think that you could demand just one life from the multitudes, as though his life is more valuable than all the rest. Or arrogant, to think that you could change the fate that has been assigned to him.’
‘I am neither, my Lord,’ Tauriel said.
‘Then tell me why you are here, elf. I would know why you would dare petition me.’
The answer slipped easily from her lips. ‘For what other reason,’ she said, ‘than love?’
There was a pause. Tauriel took a deep, deep breath, and her bruised ribs creaked and ached with the movement. Pain that had little to do with her injuries bubbled up through her gut, through her lungs and up her throat, but she forced herself to continue.
‘I would walk in a starless night for the rest of my life if it meant he drew breath again for but a day.’ She dared to raise her chin a little. ‘For the world is without light for me so long as he remains in your halls.’
Aulë made a contemplative sound. ‘I feel the sentiment behind your gilded words,’ he said, and she could hear begrudging approval curling around his voice. ‘I see that you love him, plain as day. And yet you would ask him to forsake the peace of his eternal rest for a lifetime of hardship, toil and grief. You are selfish in this.’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ she agreed, ‘I am. I do not deny it. And I cannot protect him from all that you have said, no matter how much I wish it could be otherwise. But I do know that there would also be joy, and pride in his people’s works, and…love.’
She sensed him shift his weight from one foot to the other, and the redistribution of tension in his stance was akin to a ripple in the very plates of the earth.
‘This is without precedent. Never before in all the Ages of this world…’ he shook his head. ‘But it does not matter. You have been granted an audience. I must take heed of this, though I do not like it.’
It was more than she could have ever hoped for. ‘Thank you, my lord,’ she breathed.
‘Do not thank me yet,’ he said, ‘I will give you but one chance to prove yourself. On your feet, elf.’
She obeyed immediately, not allowing the rush of pain that flared over her side to show on her face as she moved to stand.
‘Come,’ said Aulë.
He led her to his forge. The great anvil of Aulë stood before her, so tall that it was surely the size of a hill. The dark metal was marred and worn, in testament to the aeons of work produced here, to the miracles that Aulë had crafted with his mind and hands and will. Volcanic heat poured out from the forge fires at the far end of the room, and within seconds sweat began to run down the back of Tauriel’s neck, the light spilling out from the flames so bright that she could not look at them directly without fear of causing damage to her sight.
‘There are three bows, hanging on the wall,’ said Aulë.
With these words three bows appeared out of thin air, hanging side-by-side on pegs set into the grey stone of the nearest wall.
Tauriel’s breath hitched; she recognised the bows in an instant, even at a distance. All three were identical to the bow that Kíli had once carried. Her feet drew closer of their own accord, and she saw that there was not a sliver of difference between them – they each had the same grip, the same runes carved into the wood, the same string. They even bore the same scuff marks.
‘This is your test,’ Aulë told her, ‘you must tell me which one is his.’
She made sure to look back at him and acknowledge his words with a nod, before turning to tackle the task at hand. Perhaps a closer inspection of the bows was needed. Slowly, and with great care, Tauriel reached out to take a hold of the first bow, and when no admonishment from Aulë came, she closed her hand around the weapon. But as soon as her fingertips brushed smooth wood, emotions and sensations flood her mind.
Golden days in the foothills of Ered Luin, the air scented with meadow flowers and pine and smoke and rippling with laughter like the wind through the grass. His mother’s rough hands on his, gently correcting his grip on the bow, her dark eyes warm. Pride wells up below his breastbone at being given a proper bow at last – so much pride that he feels as though he might burst from it. But best of all is his mother’s delighted, surprised laughter when he hits the target dead-on with his first arrow.
Tauriel gasped for breath, left reeling by the rush of images and feelings and the bright happiness that were all but radiating from the bow.
‘Kíli,’ she breathed, and she had to swallow around the wad of emotion suddenly welling up in her throat. She turned the bow over and over in her hands, inspecting it with hands and eyes. The dappled-sunlight happiness had dimmed to something more manageable, and she took a moment to gather her thoughts. This task was not as straightforward as it had first appeared, then.
She placed the bow back onto the notch, and reached for the second with far more caution than she had the first.
Fresh snow resting heavily in the cradle of tree branches, cold flakes setting on his hair, his brother’s golden laughter sounding in the forest when he easily ducks the snowball thrown his way. He lets out a breath as he releases the arrow notched to his bow, Fíli ruffling his hair when they see that the arrow has found its mark. The warmth of his brother’s presence, warmer than the campfire, the steady certainty that he was protected and protector in return.
Tauriel could remember Fíli easily – he had been a steady, calming presence in Laketown, level-headed and without the prejudices of his Uncle. She tried not to think of the last time she had seen him, ashen-faced and hollow-eyed, staring out over the battlefield, his brother’s rune stone held loosely in his hand.
She put the bow back and reached for the last one.
The thunderous growl of a warg, hits her like a physical blow, but his Uncle’s voice calls his name, half-commanding, half-fearful, and ferocity fills his limbs, narrows his focus, makes his movements smooth and strong. His heart beats with utter certainty – he will protect his Uncle, he will guard his back at any cost, and, in the aftermath, Thorin puts a hand to his shoulder and smiles at him, a rare thing that makes him stand up straighter, makes his chest bubble with pride and happiness.
Tauriel relaxed her grip on the bow, allowing Kíli’s satisfaction at his duty fulfilled wash over her.
The last bow was carefully placed back on its notch.
‘What,’ rumbled Aulë, ‘is your answer?’
Tauriel looked from one bow to another, eyes lingering on the first, but then flickering to the third, and then back to the second. The answer came to her slowly, and when she had it, it was almost enough to bring a smile to her face.
She turned to face Aulë.
‘It is all of them. All three,’ she said, ‘they are the same bow.’
The forge fires seemed to burn hotter than ever. Tauriel resisted the urge to wipe the sweat from her temples.
‘That is not the answer I asked for,’ said Aulë.
‘But it is the correct one,’ Tauriel said firmly. ‘All of them.’
And for the first time, in the lofty heights were his face might be, she thought she saw him smile.
The great doors before her were greater still than anything she had seen thus far. Embossed with all manner of wondrous and precious materials that glinted and gleamed in the torch light - and so tall were they that even the Lord Aulë was small in comparison - Tauriel could not help but stare and attempt to absorb the sight of them. A story had been weaved through the panels, twisting and turning down to the floor, so beautifully depicted in every colour of the sky, earth and sea that it’s like could surely not be equalled. At a guess Tauriel thought that the left door depicted the creation of Arda, the awakening of the Elves and the making of the Dwarves, and all three Ages that followed. The right was strangely shadowed – the light from the torches angled so that it was almost entirely lost to her sight.
‘I will summon the spirit of Kíli, son of Dis, heir of Durin, from the halls of Waiting,’ said Aulë.
The doors began to open. There was no creak, no groan of mechanisms shifting – they swung forwards silently, with no sign of the force that moved them, smoothly, steadily revealing what lay beyond Aulë’s domain.
‘This is your task,’ Aulë said before she could utter a single word. ‘You must walk back to the world of the living. His spirit will follow you.’
A path lead out, into the gloom, and it had none of the elegance of Aulë’s halls. It was a ragged, twisting thing, hedged in by sheer rock face either side. This was to be her road, then. It did not look inviting in the least.
‘But it is not as simple as that,’ said Aulë, and Tauriel straightened her spine at his dark tone. ‘With every step you take, Kíli will follow. But you are forbidden from looking upon his ghost. You cannot look back. If you look back he will be lost to you a second time, and this time forever. If you resist this temptation, if you both reach Arda without one single glance over your shoulder, then I swear to you his life shall be restored.’
The torches set into the walls blazed brighter and hotter for a few moments, for a Valar swearing an oath is no small thing.
‘Do you understand?’
‘I understand,’ said Tauriel.
‘Then go forth, elf of Mirkwood.’
‘I thank you my Lord, for all the kindness you have shown me,’ Tauriel said, bowing deeply to Aulë.
The doors were open. Without hesitation and without a shred of fear, Tauriel stepped out onto the path.
She did not look back.
‘Fool!’ cawed the crows above her, ‘fool, fool!’
The rock faces either side of her dripped with moisture, the wet, gleaming surfaces covered in green-grey lichen here and there, the only hint of colour in the shapeless gloom. The cracks and crevices echoed with the cries of crows, sat high above her head. There was little light to speak of, and she could not tell if it was moonlight or daylight, but there was enough at least to make out a wing or a beak of one of the numerous feathered beasts that mocked her as she walked.
‘You’ve been tricked!’ laughed one, ‘Aulë has tricked you, elf.’
‘Tricked you, tricked you,’ mimicked another.
‘No one walks behind you-‘
‘-no one is with you.’
‘You will return to the light alone,’ said one, and she caught a flash of a beady eye and a twitching head as it peered down at her.
‘He is lost to you forever.’
‘Lost to you!’
The air erupted with their laughter and the sound of rotten wings beating the stale air, but Tauriel hardened her heart and paid them no mind. On and on she walked, her steps sure and confident. She could sense nothing of Kíli – not one of her senses told her that there was someone behind her. But she did not allow herself to give in to temptation, though her neck crawled with the need to glance back, just once.
After an interminable time, the crows quietened to a murmur, and the rock faces fell away so that the path widened, and here, for the first time, Tauriel’s stride hesitated, for stone walls were beginning to emerge from the half-dark. Before her very eyes a room appeared – at first ghostly, but solidifying with every passing moment – and a grand room it was indeed. Lavishly decorated with intricate architectural accents, open and spacious and full of light from a source she could not see, bolstered by the lit golden chandeliers that hung from the high ceilings. Wide, open doorways hinted at yet more grand rooms just beyond this one. Beautiful paintings decorated the walls, deep rugs lined the floor, and rich wooden furniture had been carefully placed around the room.
There was an elf sat at one of the tables, and she was the mirror image of Tauriel.
Though her form and features were identical to Tauriel’s, this elf was not battle-worn and bloody; her robes were lavishly embroidered and richly-dyed (through the hem of the dress was stained with mud), and her fire-red hair was drawn up and away from her face, held in a fine silver clip that gleamed with emeralds. A small section of her hair had been left down and elaborately braided, finished with a metal clip that sparkled so brightly it could be made from little else than mithril.
There was a letter in her hands, held in her lap between her fingers. She was staring into space, looking just slightly to Tauriel’s left, but she had not registered Tauriel’s presence. Tauriel took in the room set out before her like the set of a play, took in the elf whose features were identical to her own, and felt the rumblings of disquiet in her gut. Was this some manner of illusion? A vision of her future?
Both the elf and Tauriel started when the door slammed open with such force that it bounced off the stone wall. A dwarf entered, and Tauriel felt as though she had received a blow to the gut.
‘Kíli!’ cried Tauriel, but he gave no sign that he had heard her.
Kíli stormed into the room, his expression tight and furious, and he did not glance at the elf sat at the table as he passed her. He set about throwing off the heavy, furred coat that sat around his shoulders, balling it up and throwing it into an armchair that sat by the fireplace. He was stood so close to Tauriel that she could easily reach out and touch him, but when her fingers found his shoulder they passed through as though he were no more temporal than mist. Her heart sank in disappointment.
‘Kíli,’ Tauriel said again, and this time her voice was matched by the other elf sat at the table.
‘Whatever is the matter?’ said the elf who wore Tauriel’s features.
Kíli took a few short, sharp breaths in through his nose, clearly trying to keep a hold of his temper.
‘Tell me,’ said the elf, rising to her feet and laying the letter on the table. She approached Kíli cautiously, frowning at his back.
‘They’ve made another attempt,’ Kíli ground out, every word heavy with anger.
How strange it was, Tauriel thought, to see shock pass over her own face.
‘Yes. Ambushed me at this morning’s meeting.’ He bared his teeth briefly. ‘“We would like to formally petition the King to disinherit Kíli, son of Dis, and remove him from the line of succession”, easy as you please.’
He slammed his hand against the nearest pillar so hard that it surely had to hurt. Tauriel flinched - the other elf did not. She watched as the other Tauriel visibly grappled with her emotions, flitting from anger to frustration to sadness, and settling on the latter after a long moment.
‘Come,’ she said gently, taking him by the shoulders, ‘sit down.’
Kíli did not put up a fight – he allowed himself to be guided to the other chair at the table. Tauriel saw that his hair had been properly braided, and that his chin and cheeks were now covered with a very fine beard indeed.
‘I am so sorry,’ said the elf, sitting across from him and taking his hands in hers. ‘Is there any chance-‘
‘No,’ said Kíli flatly, ‘Thorin will hear their petition and then throw it out, exactly the same as last time, and the time before that.’ The anger that had held his limbs tight and tense began to seep from him, and he tried to smile weakly. ‘I told you some of us were a bit on the traditional side.’
‘It is a pity Thorin cannot throw them in the dungeons and be done with it,’ said the elf, her fingers running over Kíli’s palms.
‘He’s a King, not a tyrant,’ said Kíli with a sharp shake of his head. ‘He can’t do that, as much as I wish he could.’
‘My King would,’ said the elf with a small smile, only half-joking, and at last Kíli’s face brightened in a brief grin. It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and he scrubbed a hand over his face.
‘This won’t go away,’ he said, staring out into space, ‘they’ll keep petitioning and they’ll keep undermining me. Doesn’t matter if they’re successful, they’re still showing us up and-‘
She tugged on his hand. ‘And we will deny them at every turn,’ she said fiercely, ‘and remind them of your successes as loudly as possible whenever they are in earshot. Your numerous successes – it may take a while. They will tire of it eventually.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Kíli, but he did not look convinced. His eyes fell to the letter on the table.
‘Do you have news? From Mirkwood?’
The elf sighed and sat back, her expression hardening, eyes flashing with anger.
‘News,’ she said with a hint of a sneer, ‘yes, I have news.’ She looked away from Kíli and said, ‘I am no longer Captain of the Guard.’
‘With immediate effect.’
‘Tauriel!’ Kíli cried, utterly outraged, ‘they cannot do this to you! This is madness-‘
‘They can,’ she said wearily, ‘and they have. Their – my King’s reasoning – was that they need an elf who is resides in Mirkwood all year round, not just six months of the year.’
‘We have to do something,’ said Kíli, leaping to his feet, ‘perhaps if we go-‘
‘There is nothing to be done.’
‘-and demand an audience ourselves, we-‘
‘It is signed by the King, Kíli!’ she said, raising her voice and holding up the letter, ‘Thranduil himself added his seal!’
Kíli’s anger deflated, but only a little.
‘Then he is a fool,’ he muttered, and Tauriel made a noise that was neither agreement nor disagreement.
He let out a hiss, his temper flaring. ‘By letter,’ he said, ‘he did this by letter!’
‘Of course,’ she said dully, ‘save me the disgrace of my title being taken from me in front of my friends and kin.’
He uttered something harsh and likely disrespectful under his breath in Khuzdul.
‘But it’s more than about your absence, isn’t it?’ Kíli pressed, looking as though he still might suddenly rush from the room and journey to Mirkwood at a moment’s notice. ‘It’s about us.’
‘It does not matter, Kíli. Whatever their reasons, it is done,’ said the elf. She let out a huff of laughter. ‘I am no longer even a Guard.’
Kíli sat down again heavily, taking up one of her slender hands between both of his.
‘I’m sorry, Tauriel,’ he said softly, ‘I’m so sorry. This isn’t fair. This isn’t right.’
She reached up to stroke his bearded cheek, eyes soft, hiding her anger and her sadness away in the corners of her mouth. ‘I am not sorry for meeting you,’ she told him, ‘not for a second, so get that out of your head.’ Kíli smiled ruefully, caught in the act. ‘But it does not seem as though there is a place for us anywhere in this world,’ she went on.
They were both silent for a long moment. The elf lowered her head just enough for their foreheads to touch, and her eyes fluttered shut.
‘They’re not going to stop,’ said Kíli so quietly that the watching Tauriel had to step forward to hear what he said, ‘if they can’t get me they’ll go after Fili. Invent some reason for him being unfit to rule, suggest that Daín’s son is a better – more Dwarven – heir.’ He pushed his head slightly into hers, mouth twisting unhappily. ‘I can withstand the jeers, and the attempts to undermine me, and the little snide gestures when they think my back is turned. But I cannot allow them to go after my brother, Tauriel, or to hinder my Uncle’s rule. I cannot…I-‘
‘I know,’ she said, ‘I know.’
He gently ran his fingers down the braid that sat by her face. He seemed resigned to what she was about to say.
‘The thought of giving up makes my blood boil. But I do not think we can stay, Kíli,’ she said, and he grimaced as though he were in pain, though he did not open his mouth to disagree.
‘We shouldn’t make any decisions now, not while we’re both angry. But if there is no other choice, we are to leave,’ Kíli let out a long breath, ‘at least we’ll be together. At least we’ll have each other.’
But it was cold comfort to both of them, and Tauriel could see it, plain as day.
‘Exiles,’ she murmured, ‘I did not think it would come to this.’
When the vision vanished, there was not a hint of forewarning. One moment Tauriel was gazing upon two lovers taking what little comfort they could as they made a life-changing decision, and the next she was staring into the dark, with the sounds of bird cries ringing in her ears.
The crows had returned – her only companions on a path that appeared to be growing darker and darker with every step she took.
‘This is your future-’ cried a big, fat crow sat on a ledge high above her.
‘And what a sorry one it is!’
‘-turn around, turn around and spare your heart the pain.’
‘No home, no kin, no friends.’
‘Save yourself from exile. Both of you from exile.’
‘Spare yourselves. Turn around!’
Tauriel shook her head sharply, closing her mind to their words. Even if this was to be her future, she could not allow herself to falter. Self-imposed exile or not, Kíli’s life depended on her.
She strode on through mist and darkness and did not look back.
There was no end to the path, and Tauriel began to wish for something, anything to break the monotony of crow-cries and the wet grey rock that surrounded her.
Nevertheless, she could not restrain the small, pained sound that issued from her mouth when the shadows shifted and reformed into another vision. Was it not enough that she was damned to walk this path with no knowledge of whether or not Kíli followed on behind? Was it necessary for her to be dogged with these manifestations of her own worst fears?
Light fell on her from above, painting out the scene in broad brush strokes wherever it fell. She found herself stood on the crest of a hill that was covered in long grass and small white flowers like freckles across the skin. Blessed sunlight suffused the landscape, and was a welcome sight after so long in the darkness, but she could not feel its warmth on her face or her hands.
The view was of a town whose outline and shape she did not recognise. Nearer to where she stood, she caught sight of two figures making their way up the hill. The first she recognised in an instant – another Tauriel, this one dressed in far plainer clothes than in the previous vision – but the second, smaller figure was a mystery to her.
‘We are almost there,’ said the other Tauriel, ‘just a few more steps.’
There was a basket in the crook of one of her arms, and her other was linked through her companion’s, steadying his slow steps. Tauriel’s eyes wracked over the small figure, noting the bone-white hair and the way that he was almost bent double with age, the hand on the other Tauriel’s arm wizened and crooked. After a few moments they reached the top of the hill and the other Tauriel set down the basket, smiling slightly at the view. Her companion took a few wheezing breaths and, with great effort, straightened from his hunch.
All of the breath left the observing Tauriel’s body in an instant. His face was greatly changed, creased and careworn, laughter-lines deep as crevices around his eyes, but Tauriel would recognise that face at any age, in any setting – Kíli.
‘I still think you should have brought your cane,’ said the other Tauriel as she began to unload the contents of the basket, laying out a large square of fabric over the grass.
Kíli snorted. Without Tauriel’s support, he looked unsteady on his feet. His wrists were too thin, his hands stiff and frozen into claws, and all the muscle had gone from his shoulders and arms. He looked as though a strong breeze might sweep him from his feet.
‘I am not using a cane,’ said Kíli, ‘anyone would think I’m old.’
There was still a sparkle in his dark eyes, but the other Tauriel did not smile. She put her hands to his elbows and helped him sit on the rug, smoothing out his tunic with fluttering hands.
‘Are you well?’ she said, ‘are you cold?’
Kíli caught one of her hands and made sure to catch her eye. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I am,’ said Kíli firmly. His confident, smooth voice had been reduced to a low rasp, and it made the watching Tauriel’s heart ache. ‘It is a fine day, and there is good food to be had.’ He brushed back a few wisps of red hair that had escaped Tauriel’s braid. ‘And I am sat with the most beautiful elf Middle Earth has ever known.’
‘You are?’ said Tauriel, looking over her shoulder in mock-confusion, ‘where is she?’
Kíli tugged on her hand, barking out a laugh as Tauriel grinned.
‘That was a terrible-‘ he began, but his laughter suddenly shifted to deep-chested, wracking coughs, and all humour left Tauriel’s face.
‘Kíli,’ she murmured in alarm, rubbing his back. ‘Breathe, my love, breathe.’
His thin chest heaved and struggled to expand, and his arms trembled. Tauriel put an arm around his shaking shoulders, eyes creased with worry and a hint of fear. After a few excruciating moments, Kíli’s coughs subsided, and Tauriel, the one who watched but knew she could do nothing to help, felt as though she could breathe again.
‘I’m alright,’ said Kíli as soon as he could talk, ‘don’t make that face at me.’
‘I cannot help it,’ said Tauriel, ‘not when I see you struggling so.’
‘Then you should not make jokes, even if they are terrible ones,’ said Kíli in between breaths, ‘ours will have to be a humourless marriage from now on.’ He affected a serious, stern air. ‘No jokes. No pranks. And definitely no silliness.’
‘I will try,’ said Tauriel, finally allowing herself to smile through her worry. ‘Though I cannot promise anything. Here, lay your head on my lap.’
He shifted with great care to lie down on the rug with his head pillowed on her lap. She ducked her head to kiss him on the lips, her long fingers combing through his white hair.
‘I meant it,’ he said softly, gazing up at her with warm eyes, ‘you are the most beautiful thing I have seen in all my long years. If my hands were better, I would weave daisies through your hair, though you deserve to wear only the finest of jewels.’
‘Shush, you flatterer,’ said Tauriel. ‘And you are still as handsome as the day I first met you.’
‘It’s not flattery when it’s the truth.’
‘Those who have looked upon the face of the Evenstar would say otherwise.’
‘Not a patch on you,’ said Kíli, and though he was smiling as he said it, he clearly meant every word.
Tauriel let out a soft breath through her nose. ‘If you continue with your sweet words, then you may find yourself married before you know it,’ she said teasingly.
‘Fancy that,’ mused Kíli dryly, and he shifted a little in her lap. ‘I’ll have to stop at once, then.’
She tugged at one of his braids in admonishment, and his expression settled into something much more sombre. Tauriel, who stood at a distance in her battle armour, watching them both with her heart clenching in her chest, felt a chill sweep over her, and a shiver run down her spine.
‘You are beautiful,’ Kíli said, ‘you’ve barely aged a day since we first met. And look at me in comparison.’
‘I’m so sorry, Tauriel. I’m sorry I’m leaving you.’
‘Kíli,’ Tauriel hissed, ‘do not speak of such things.’
‘Why not?’ said Kíli with a touch of defiance, ‘it’s the truth. I fight it every minute of every day, but I am still dying. I can feel it. You can see it, I know you can.’
‘It is a fine day’ Tauriel said. ‘Do not darken it with talk of death. You have not left me yet.’
‘I thought we might grow old together,’ continued Kíli as though he had not heard her. ‘I dreamed of us taking care of each other in the last years of our life, surrounded by our children. But I knew it was just a dream. There was no other ending to our story but this.’
‘We still have time,’ said Tauriel.
Kíli gave a small shake of his head, eyes flicking back to Tauriel’s. ‘I’m sorry I’m such a burden,’ he said.
There were tears brimming in Tauriel’s eyes. She wound her fingers through the front of Kíli’s tunic, as though she could keep him there by will alone.
‘You are not a burden. You are many things, but you have never been a burden.’
‘But I am,’ said Kíli. His words were growing softer, his eyes becoming distant, looking at Tauriel but through her, too. ‘I am weighing you down. I have doomed you to this, and it will be no better when I-‘
Tauriel laid her fingers on his lips, stilling him.
‘I do not regret it,’ she said even as she trembled, ‘and you have not doomed me. You have been my star in the night, Kíli. My life would have been far less without you.’
‘But far longer.’
‘It does not matter,’ said Tauriel, her voice breaking over the declaration.
‘But I am still sorry,’ Kíli said, reaching up to press the palm of his hand to her cheek. ‘Because we will not escape this, even in death. We may hope and pray that it is otherwise, but I do not think the Valar are kind enough to grant us this one boon.’
Tauriel shook her head, tears running down her cheeks, putting her hand to Kíli’s.
‘We do not know for certain what happens after we depart this world,’ she told Kíli. ‘Perhaps the lands of Mandos and Mahal are not as separate as we believe.’
But was a lie, and they both knew it. Tauriel, who watched this exchange with head bowed and hands clenching at her side, felt all the breath leave her body when the scene vanished like a candle being extinguished.
The wrenching shift left Tauriel standing stock still in the middle of the path, taking in small, shallow breaths. The wound in her side throbbed and ached.
This time, when the crows came, their voices were silken-soft.
‘Turn back,’ whispered the nearest. It shifted on its perch, rustling greasy black feathers. ‘Turn around.’
‘Send him back,’ murmured another.
‘Send him back while there’s still time.’
‘Does he deserve this end? To see his strength whither, and weakness fill his body?’
‘Doesn’t he deserve his rest?’
Tauriel all but snarled at them. ‘Do not speak to me with false kindness,’ she said. ‘You cannot trick me. You will not trick me!’
She longed for a stone to throw at them, for all the good that it would do. The simple act of violence may have helped calm the stormy waters of her mind, at least, but she would not lower herself to their level, or show them that their tricks were creeping their way under her skin, under her fingernails.
She hardened her heart, deafened her ears strode on through mist and darkness, and did not look back.
Tauriel did not dare to speak to Kíli’s spirit. She would not risk his life out of her need for one small scrap of comfort in this murky underworld. Instead she whispered to him in the privacy of her mind, fervently hoping that this, at least, did not break the rules of her task.
Hold on, Kíli, she murmured, over and over until it became a chant in her mind, spoken in time to the beat of her footsteps. Stay with me. I swear by the Valar that I will bear you back to the light, back to your brother and Uncle and your mother. Hold on, Kíli. Stay with me.
Tauriel was bone-achingly tired when another vision emerged from the ever-darkening shadows, and she resigned herself to this fresh torment. Familiar pale gold stone started to form, shaping out a room in front of her eyes; if she was not mistaken, these were her private quarters in Mirkwood, and she was stood in her own bedroom, if the messy desk and even messier book shelf were anything to go by. Light, heavy with dust motes, fell through the window bay, and Tauriel knew without looking that the view would be of Mirkwood’s main thoroughfare. Upon being granted the position of Captain, she had been told that the view was one of the drawbacks of the Captain’s quarters, but Tauriel had always liked the noise, the hustle and bustle of the street below, and, when she could, she would take a moment to look out the window, to watch her fellow Elves go about their business, each of them working for the prosperity of their Kingdom.
Another Tauriel was sat on the bed, staring out of the window at that same view. The image was so normal, so commonplace that for a moment Tauriel wondered what there was to fear from this vision. She was not given much time to wonder, though, for two elves made themselves known over by the doorway.
‘She has been deteriorating,’ said a voice, and with a blink Tauriel recognised the speaker as Aeglos, one of her friends from the Guard, and he was stood by the unmistakable figure of Prince Legolas.
‘It has grown worse in the last week,’ Aeglos said, ‘until…well. You can see for yourself.’
‘Why was I not informed?’ said Legolas. They were both keeping their voices low, though surely the Tauriel that sat on the bed could still hear them from where they stood.
‘You were on the road, and you were already turning towards home when we began to notice,’ Aeglos said, mouth pressing into a thin line. ‘Forgive me your highness, but there was little you could do to help.’
‘But a messenger bird would have sped up our return,’ said Legolas, and then in the same breath waved away Aeglos’ apology. ‘It does not matter, now. Tell me how she is. Do not leave anything out.’
Aeglos let out an audible sigh and shot Legolas a side-long look; he seemed to be choosing his words with great care. This was not like him at all – bluntness was usually his preferred form of communication, not hesitation.
‘She sits, and she stares,’ said Aeglos, ‘as if lost in her own world. She eats and drinks less and less with every passing day, and I do not know if she has rested at all in the last month. Her strength is waning.’
‘Have you not attempted to bring her out of it?’ asked Legolas with a hint of accusation in his tone.
‘We have. We continue to try every day. She is our friend, too,’ Aeglos added blandly enough, but Legolas’ scowl still lightened a touch.
‘With no success?’
‘No. His Majesty visited last week, and his presence seemed to help, but as soon as she left, she…withdrew again.’
‘I understand,’ said Legolas quitely.
A heavy silence settled between them. Tauriel, on edge from all that she had heard, took three small steps sideways, so that she might see this Tauriel’s face.
‘She is too young,’ murmured Aeglos in the same moment Tauriel looked upon her own features. ‘It has been barely two hundred years since the dwarf left this world.’
Ghostly was the word that Tauriel would use to describe the elf that sat before her, quickly followed by thin and weak. Her skin was too pale by far, her eyes heavily-lidded and dull, staring out into space without any sign that she was aware of the world around her. She could no longer be called a young elf-maiden; there were strands of silver running through her faded red hair, and her limbs were devoid of the strength and the surety that had helped make her one of the Guard’s fiercest fighters.
‘Kíli,’ said Legolas. ‘His name was Kíli.’
Tauriel tore her eyes away from the aged version of herself to look at Legolas. ‘You said his name,’ she said aloud, though she knew he could not hear her. ‘You have changed, my friend. How many years did that take, I wonder?’
Aeglos, meanwhile, gave a little shrug. ‘Whatever his name, he has killed her. She is Fading, and there is little we can do.’
‘But we can still try,’ said Legolas, ‘thank you for watching over her, Aeglos. You may leave.’
Aeglos bowed and did as he was told.
There was a peculiar look on Legolas’ face. Tauriel could not place it, and she had little time to contemplate it as Legolas came to stand in front of the Tauriel that sat on the bed, blocking her view of the window. He knelt gracefully, looking up into her face. Hands that had slaughtered hundreds, thousands of evil creatures gently took a hold of Tauriel’s.
‘He did not kill me,’ said the Tauriel who stood and watched, the Tauriel who was weary and exhausted, and battle-worn, and tired of these visions. ‘He did not kill me, Legolas. This was my choice.’
Her voice sounded weak, even to her own ears.
‘My friend,’ said Legolas, ‘my friend, will you not look at me?’ No response came from the elf. ‘Tauriel,’ Legolas tried, and at last her eyes moved from their fixed point and she blinked, slowly and with great care.
‘Legolas,’ she said, catching sight of the Prince. Her mouth creased into a small smile, and Tauriel saw that there were lines framing her mouth. ‘You have returned early.’
‘I have,’ said Legolas. He let out a long breath of relief. ‘My business concluded earlier than we thought. How are you feeling today?’
‘I am well, as I always am,’ she said with a slight frown, ‘but you looked so troubled, Legolas. Is someone ill?’
‘No. No, no one is ill.’
‘Did your trip go well?’
‘Then why on Arda are you scowling so? I have told you before, Legolas – you look like you have constipation when you scowl like that.’
Legolas snorted through his nose, ducking his head. ‘I will endeavour to look serene at all times,’ he said, coming to sit next to her on the bed.
‘Good,’ she said with a nod and a smirk tucked away at the corner of her mouth.
‘But I have not come here to be teased, Tauriel. I find myself with an abundance of free time. Would you like to take a walk with me, in the forest?’
‘No, I cannot,’ said Tauriel.
‘Why ever not?’ said Legolas, ‘we could take our bows and-‘
‘I cannot,’ she said again firmly.
‘It would not take you long. Some fresh air might do you well.’
‘No, Legolas – you should know better than to ask.’ Tauriel shook her head, giving him an admonishing look.
‘Yes!’ Irritation had now joined confusion on Tauriel’s face, ‘Kíli is coming today, and I would like to be at the gates to greet my own husband.’
And, as though a curtain of cloud had suddenly covered the sun, the light went from Legolas’ eyes. For a few moments it appeared he could not bring himself to speak. His eyes drifted away from Tauriel, his expression becoming strangely fragile as he grappled with what had just been uttered.
‘Tauriel,’ he said eventually, ‘Tauriel, you…’
Legolas smiled, though it looked like it took great effort. ‘You are right,’ he said, ‘forgive me, I had forgotten.’
‘It is nothing,’ said Tauriel, brows drawn together in confusion, ‘you have had a long journey. I know how muddled you can get after dealing with merchants and aristocrats and diplomats for such a long stretch of time.’
‘Yes,’ said Legolas distantly.
Tauriel nudged his shoulder with hers. ‘Another time.’
‘Of course. I will hold you to it.’
‘I am sure you will.’ Tauriel let out a little noise of contemplation. ‘It is a funny thing, but I have been sitting here all morning trying to think of how to braid my hair.’ At Legolas’ look, she continued, ‘there is one particular braid that Kíli told me about when we were courting, but I cannot seem to remember it.’
Her hands started to twist in her lap. She chuckled. ‘I swear I have done it a thousand times before, and yet now I…I cannot…’
‘I am sure he does not care what braids you choose to wear in your hair,’ said Legolas.
‘No, he does not,’ she agreed, ‘but this particular one is significant. It has meaning - he told me so. And I like to surprise him with these things, sometimes.’ Her eyes had become misty and distant once more. ‘He always smiles so brightly when I surprise him.’
Legolas reached out to put an arm around her shoulders, drawing her in so that her head rested on his shoulder.
‘Daisies, too,’ said Tauriel faintly, ‘he always likes threading daisies though my hair.’
‘Of course,’ said Legolas.
‘Legolas, I cannot…I cannot remember how to braid my hair. I cannot remember-‘
Legolas laid his cheek atop her head. ‘It is alright, Tauriel,’ he lied, ‘we will work it out together, you will see.’
If she replied, then Tauriel did not hear it. The vision faded, the golden room dissipating into nearly pitch-black darkness.
‘I had always thought…’ said Tauriel slowly, inwardly reeling, ‘I had always thought…that I would die in battle, defending all that I hold dear.’
‘Not so, not so,’ called a crow, hopping closer to her. ‘This is to be your end.’
‘This is what becomes of you,’ said a crow pressed close to the first. Its beak clacked shut noisily after it had said its piece.
‘He will leave you, and you will be lost to the world.’
‘Turn back, turn around,’ called a crow to her left. ‘Look upon the face of the one who will kill you, who will rob you of any hope of a noble end.’
It was this last cry, out of all the rest, that stung her, startled her out of her reverie. She turned over the insidious words in her mind, and anger began to boil in her gut, setting alight her blood. She seized a hold of it, let it drown out the melancholy that weighed her down.
‘Is this all you have?’ she sneered to the air. ‘Is this all you can throw at me?’
‘You do not have the strength to carry on,’ said a crow softly, kindly. ‘You know it in your heart.’
‘So much fear in your head.’
But Tauriel was done with their mocking. She snatched up a rock from the path and flung it at the nearest crow. Though her aim was true, the crow proved to be faster than its ragged wings would have her believe, launching into the air in an explosion of feathers and indignant squawks. That she had missed did not dampen Tauriel’s anger in the slightest.
‘I do not fear this!’ she cried at full-voice to the rocks, to the path and to the crows – to Aulë himself if he was listening. ‘I do not fear Fading! I would endure all the Ages of this world alone if it meant I had but a hundred years with him!’
Then, in a lower tone full of the weight of her determination she growled:
‘You will not take him from me again.’
She strode on, and did not look back.
Anger propelled her forward, giving strength to exhausted muscles and strained joints. So clouded was her sight by the fog of fury that, when the first arrow came, she flinched so badly that her whole body shook with the force of it. The arrow pierced the mist, flew over her shoulder, and it took every inch of her self control to not follow its path and look behind her. Her hands immediately leapt to her belt, grasping for the handles of daggers that were not there. Another arrow narrowly missed her hip. Her breath stuttered in her throat. Both arrows had felt real to her – her instincts screaming at her that danger was near, her body readying for battle before her mind had fully caught up with the near-misses.
But nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.
An orc burst from the darkness, an axe held high above his head. Tauriel’s chest heaved with the effort of forcing herself to stand stock still and not strike out. But he paid her no mind, tearing past her, and he was followed in quick succession by a warg at full charge that so narrowly missed her she could have easily stabbed it as it passed and brought its miserable life to an end.
And in the blink of an eye, she was standing in the middle of the Battle of Five Armies. Her ears were filled with the screams of orcs, the clamour and crash of weapons, the harrowing cries of the dying and the war-cries of her people. Everywhere she looked death was being dealt out in brutal strokes, red and black blood staining the ground below the grey, gritty sky above, where the clouds hung heavy over their heads.
Her mind blank, her limbs weak, Tauriel could do little but stare at the carnage around her, a nightmare so recently finished with brought to life once more. An elf staggered into her line of sight. She watched, numb, as an orc leapt upon him, sinking its jaw into his throat, wrenching its head away. Its sharp teeth were bloody, bared in triumph, and the elf crumpled to the ground without a sound.
‘I have to keep walking,’ Tauriel found herself muttering, ‘I have to keep walking. Kíli is depending on me. I have to save him. This is not real. It is not real.’
A flurry of orcish arrows flew over her head. Unwillingly, she tracked their arc through the sky, and saw them fall upon the ranks of Men defending the western flank. Dozens of figures collapsed under the onslaught.
‘This is not real,’ she told herself again, wrenching her eyes away. She dredged up every last scrap of energy in her aching body, and forced her leg to move, to take just one step forwards. ‘I will not stop.’
One foot, in front of the other. She gritted her teeth, bile burning the back of her throat as she walked past another elf who lay dying, crying out for help with his last breaths.
‘You cannot help them,’ she said, her words lost on the wind, ‘they are already dead.’
An Elven battle-cry rang out to her left – a push forwards, she remembered, shoving Azog’s forces back down the hill. She did not wait to see the results – she knew that the push would prove to be futile, that many of her Guards would die when fresh wargs from the wing of Azog’s army tore into their ranks.
She walked on, over the crest of the hill, hardly caring if she was still on the path. There was now only one thought in her mind and heart: keep going, and do not stop.
The howling of wargs reached her ears. A dwarf from the Iron Hills was speared in front of her by a mounted orc, the blade point protruding from his chest as he fell. Another dwarf launched himself forward in a vain attempt to help his friend, but his weapon was wrenched from his hands in seconds by the warg's fearsome jaws, and the orc’s sword opened the dwarf's belly a moment later. Still she did not stop.
Dwarves, fighting shoulder to shoulder, refusing to allow the orcs to gain even an inch of ground, lay ahead of her. Their masked faces showed not an inch of fear as they made their stand, even as orcs tore at them. She walked on, through their ranks, trying not to flinch when an axe or a sword was swung too close for comfort. She felt as though she was walking through cloying mud, dragging at her feet. Every step was a struggle, every moment a battle with her instincts, with her deeply ingrained need to fight, to slay the evil that crawled over the lands of the Lonely Mountain.
She was trying to stare straight ahead and not allow herself to be distracted by what was happening, but she could not help it when her head turned at the sound and sight of a monstrous enemy.
Azog, atop his white warg, had smashed his way through the front lines of Daín’s army, leaving devastation in his wake. Tauriel looked on, heart blazing, as the one that had taken Kíli’s life dismounted and carelessly swung his cruel mace, swiping away the Dwarf that had attempted to block his path. The orc looked up, over the battlefield, pale eyes scanning the hoards even as his riders dove into battle around him. Searching, searching for something. Or someone.
And, impossibly, his eyes alighted on Tauriel. No, not quite on Tauriel – on someone standing just behind her.
‘No,’ she whispered, ice filling her veins, ‘not, he cannot-‘
But Azog was already stalking forwards, his vicious features twisted into malicious intent, heading unerringly for Tauriel – and for Kíli.
‘It is not real,’ she gasped. Azog was almost upon them, bearing down on her, tall enough that he towered over Tauriel. The slash of a mouth on his face moved, formed words, so close that Tauriel could smell the stink of his breath.
‘No!’ cried Tauriel as he lashed out. She started forwards again, staggering on unsure legs. A sob wracked her frame, ‘I have to- I have to keep going. This is a trick. I cannot look back, I must not look back.’
A strangled scream reached her ears. Still she walked forwards, though the sound pierced her heart.
‘Tauriel!’ shouted a far-too familiar voice, ‘Tauriel, please!’
Her hands were trembling. She could see nothing but the rock below her feet, her head bowed, her hair like a curtain about her face.
‘Please, help me! Help me!’
She heard Azog’s barking laughter, the impact of a mace on flesh, and a pained, gasping cry drew another sob from her. Azog, she knew, would his time to kill Kíli, to draw out his death and make it as long and as agonising as possible.
‘I cannot,’ Tauriel mumbled under her breath, ‘I am so sorry, Kíli, please, I cannot, I cannot do this. I am sorry. I am sorry.’
There came the wet, soft sound of a blade piercing flesh. A scream was all but torn from Kíli’s throat, raw and an edge of finality. A death cry.
‘No,’ spat Tauriel. Tears were running down her face, making tracks through the dirt and the grime on her cheeks. ‘No!’
Strength surged up inside of her. She brought the image of Kíli to the forefront of her mind, forced herself to think of how he would smile in the light of the sun, let the love beating in her heart drive her forwards through the chaos.
A final cry from Kíli, a broken, whispered, ‘Tauriel, please.’
But she would not allow herself to be taken in by this illusion a moment longer. She bared her teeth savagely as she marched forwards.
‘You cannot trick me!’ she cried to the skies, ‘I will not look back. The only way is forwards. I will save him, one last time!’
The sun broke through the cloud cover, gilding the battlefield in pale gold. Behind her, Azog roared in triumph, his bellow echoing over the foothills of the Lonely Mountain. His forces screeched and screamed and howled in turn.
But Tauriel’s voice rang out like a battle cry of her own, her fierce words burning her throat,
‘My love is a sword! My faith is a shield! You will not take him from me again!’
And the light blazed brighter than ever, so brightly that Tauriel had to throw up her arms to shield her eyes. Like a curtain being dropped over the world, the sounds of battle vanished from one breath to the next, and Tauriel was left in a silence so complete it rang in her ears.
Cautiously, she lowered her arms. Every ragged breath she took seemed too loud, too noisy. The ends of her hair were moved by a gentle wind that brushed against her fingertips. Slowly, she opened her eyes, squinting at the hazy sunlight. In the far distance she could see several strains of smoke, winding their way up lazily from the foothills of the Lonely Mountain. It was as quiet as the grave.
There was someone stood behind her.
Every inch of her being froze. She forgot how to breathe. Her hands slowly uncurled from their fists, fingernails dislodging from her palms. Was this one last trick, one last attempt to get her to look back? Her throat convulsed around a sob.
‘Tauriel?’ said a voice cautiously.
At the sound of her name she could not restrain the next sob that worked its way up into her mouth. She pressed a hand to her lips, digging her fingers into her jaw.
‘Tauriel,’ said the voice again. ‘Where…where are we?’
He sounded so alike the Kíli she had known; she could so easily picture the expression that accompanied his tone. But hesitation held her in place. Could she trust this? Her vision was swimming, and she could feel delirium lightening her head and body. Logic and reason dictated that this had to be another trick – perhaps the cruellest one yet. But her heart…her heart was all but screaming at her that it was real.
She spun around, her heart in her throat.
Kíli was stood a few paces away, a puzzled frown knitting his brow, his hair as messy as ever. Tauriel breathed in and out, and he did not vanish before her eyes, and it was too much, far too much - she staggered towards him on unsteady legs, reaching out to wind her fingers into the front of his tunic. Her knees gave out - whatever strength had kept her going until that moment vanishing like smoke on the wind. Kíli’s confusion immediately shifted to outright worry, but Tauriel barely noticed. She drew him down, into an embrace so tight that she heard the air leave his lungs in a rush.
‘Tauriel,’ he exclaimed when his hands found her sides. ‘You’re hurt!’
The absurdity of the statement, after all he had been through, caused her chuckle into the crook of his neck. He gently started to comb his fingers through the length of her hair. She breathed him in and clutched him tighter.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘you’re here.’
‘Well of course I am,’ said Kíli with a snort, and she could hear the bravado in his voice, carefully covering up his confusion. ‘Where else would I be?’
Laughter, edged with hysteria, bubbled up through Tauriel’s chest. She grinned, bright and full of so much gladness she thought she might burst at the seams.
‘I have such a tale to tell you,’ she whispered into his shoulder. ‘But it can wait. We have time, now’