Thranduil should have known what was to come the moment she stepped through the door of his private chambers.
Tauriel was sensible, and she was an experienced tactician. She would never have reported to him alone after disobeying his orders to stay within Greenwood; she would have sent Legolas to bear the brunt of his wrath, because she knew there was far less he could or would do to Legolas than her.
Even though he'd already half-guessed what she was about to say, he choked on his own spit when she told him, trachea contracting and squeezing until he couldn't breathe for the rawness in his throat.
"Legolas…he's…he…the dragon…there was nothing I could do."
She was lying. She had to be lying; it wasn't true. Not his son…not his son with the nose that had crinkled when he laughed, still did, it still would, it would, it would…
"There was nothing anyone could have done."
Thranduil looked down at his hands. One of his nails had wine smudged under it, running over the skin of the fingertip like blood. His hands should have been there, to pluck Legolas from danger as he had before, a thousand times before.
The thought came to him, dully, that his hands couldn't reach back through time.
Thranduil raised his head. Tauriel's face was smeared with ash and stone-dust, grey and red and white and more red and more grey, layers upon layers of ugly colour. There were tear tracks under her eyes. Thranduil blinked at them, stupidly. He did not cry. He would not allow himself to.
She took a step forward. "My Lord…Smaug is dead. Bard, of Laketown, killed him with a black arrow."
Thranduil lifted a hand. It was trembling with anger; she had led Legolas away from the borders, she had taken him to Laketown. If Legolas had stayed in Greenwood, as Thranduil had instructed, he would not be dead. Part of him still believed he was not. That knowledge would come later; in comparison, the pain he felt now was nothing more than feathers touching water.
She had taken his son away from him. If she did not go, he would kill her before he even realised what was happening. The chair underneath him felt like it was trembling with his suppressed agony.
She did not go. She took another step towards him.
He stood up so abruptly that the spit still half-lodged in his throat shuddered and forced its way past his lips. "You." It was a snarl. For the first time in a long while, he did not try and bring measure or balance to his voice. It radiated off the walls like jagged stone. "You…"
Tauriel took a step back. "My Lord-"
"You! My son, you led him…you!"
Incoherence. Fascinating. He reached a hand towards her, ready to kill her – he could do it, right now. He would tear her head from her shoulders.
If she had stood still, he would have. But she continued to retreat; he vaguely registered her knees bending, the balls of her feet pressing into the rug. She was ready to fight him. She was ready for anything. And she would have been ready in Laketown.
There was nothing I could do.
Legolas had grown fond of her, but Thranduil was the one who had let her know it. And, for all his anger, he could not force himself to believe that she had not tried to save him. It was he who had done nothing, because he had not been there.
His hand, still outstretched, trembled. The ring on his finger caught the light of the torch on the wall and flashed across his eye, distorting the flame and pulling it into a thousand pieces, wrapping them around his face like the fire he had seen in the North hundreds of years ago, when the dragon's breath had pounded his flesh to ruins. Legolas had felt that. He had known the dragonfire, in the end.
Tauriel seemed to vanish from the room as his thoughts shattered behind his eyes. His hands came up to cover his face as he stood, stock still, in the centre of the room; he knew he was keening, but he did not know how loudly. The air in his lungs was hollow and ringing; it was like inhaling smoke. The illusion that usually rested over his ragged face trembled and winked out of his existence. Rough sinew stung under his palms as he keened until he thought his throat would bleed, sinking to his knees so gently he barely noticed it happening.
He did not know how long it took Tauriel to take her leave; he was too far gone to hear the door closing.
Tauriel's hands were smeared in ash and blood. None of it was hers, and none of it was Legolas's – at first, the thought had been a relief, until she realised there had been so little of him left that there was nothing to bleed onto her fingers.
She had not expected Thranduil to react well to the news, but even that knowledge couldn't have prepared her for what happened. For a moment, she feared for her life. And then the noise. It was low and ragged and horribly, foully loud, like the sound a wounded Orc would make, constant and unflinching. The situation was so wrong that she almost lost her footing on the rug.
Briefly, she considered going forward, unsure what she would do or if it would work, but knowing that it was her duty as a subject, as someone with any compassion, to try help him. And then the scar presented itself to her, creeping out from under his fingertips, over the cheek and on and on until she was frozen in the spot, staring with grim fascination.
There had been rumours of an injury, a long time ago, but she had not known the extent. No-one had known. The pinkish-grey of the flesh made her want to gag; she could smell the burning bodies in the lake. There was soot still clinging her nostrils, and Thranduil was on his knees, at her feet, screaming.
With a gasp that bordered on retching, she turned on her heel and fled the room. The guards were advancing before she could get the door shut and drown out the dreadful screaming.
"Captain – the king, is he-"
Tauriel swallowed. Her hands had left ash and blood on the beautiful, simply designed door. Ash and blood in her hair, in her eyes, every inch of her skin. She needed a wash more than anything else. But there was no time. She could not allow them to go in; not with the king in such a state. He had kept his injury hidden for so long – she could not believe that he would allow them to see it.
"He is not hurt. He is grieving."
The guards exchanged glances. Tauriel raised on her toes, almost subconsciously, to reach their height. They were both taller than her, but she would match them breath-to-breath to get what she needed. What the king needed.
"We must give him time," she went on, before they could get ideas above their rank. "There is much we must do."
The guard on the left shifted uncomfortably. "Without the king's instructions?"
Tauriel shot him a look that could have burned stone. "The king is not yet ready to confront what faces us. He has just lost his son. In his absence, others will have to take charge until he deems it otherwise. Do you understand?"
The guards nodded. Tauriel would have smiled, if she'd had the strength or cheer.
"Men will soon be gathering at the foot of Erebor, demanding compensation for what has taken place today. They will need our help and supplies if they are to last the winter; if we do not ally to them within the week they may lose any hope of negotiation with Oakenshield. I want a battalion put together immediately – two-hundred of the guard, and fifty on horseback – and I want them ready to leave within three days. Am I understood?"
The guards nodded a second time, without glancing snidely at each other beforehand. Good. Let them learn their place. She waved a hand. "Go."
"The king wishes to be alone."
The guards gave a short salute and vanished down the corridor. Tauriel let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding and pressed a grimy hand to her forehead. The walk back to her own chambers was insufferably long, with a hundred tiny cuts and burns scrabbling for her attention. A warm bath only aggravated them, but she stayed stubbornly in the water, scrubbing and scrubbing until every last speck of grey was gone from her. Getting it out of her hair was almost impossible, so she drained the bath and ran it again, drained it, ran it again, and sat in the translucent water, tugging at the locks until her scalp was raw.
Darkness was smothering the light by the time she forced herself out of the water and put fresh clothes on. She made herself eat, but food only sickened her. She swilled her mouth out with water, scrubbing frantically at her teeth with her finger. There was still soot and grit at the back of her tongue, so she scraped harder, until her gums were bleeding and tears beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes. The bowl clinked as she rested her hands on the edge of the table and let her wet hair fall in front of her eyes. Breathing was difficult – her lungs had been scorched by the smoke – and she began to cough.
It hit her then, that Legolas was dead. He had been her hunting partner, her friend, and now he was nothing. She had tried to convince herself it was not her fault; that she had not forced him to follow her, that Legolas would not want her to feel guilt when she could be doing something helpful.
She couldn't make herself believe it.
A knock at the door. Tauriel shook herself, sending water pattering onto her knuckles, which were white with the strain of keeping herself upright, balanced against the table. Now was not the time to think. There would not be time to think for days and weeks, maybe months. Good. She did not want to think.
She straightened and pushed her hair away from her face. The knock came again. Tauriel crossed the room and pulled the door open with a jerk, glad to see that her hands were no longer trembling. "Yes?"
"Captain." The guard, short and dark-haired, gave a curt bow. Her companion hovered a few feet behind, looking at his feet. "We did not know who else to report to for orders."
"The king has not yet…emerged?"
"No, Captain. Nothing has been heard from him in hours. Not since he sent the guards away."
Tauriel felt her heart clench. All she could remember was the keening, and the raw flesh of the scar underneath Thranduil's palms. He had not been well, when she had left him. What reason would he have for gathering himself enough to leave the room, only to send his private guards away?
"You are certain?"
Both the guards nodded. Tauriel's throat went dry with panic, but she did not let it show.
"Report to me until you hear otherwise."
"What of the king?"
"I will see to the king. Dismissed."
The guards bowed a second time. Tauriel let them pass out of sight before she left her room and made her way towards Thranduil's chambers, walking so briskly that the floor began to bruise her heels. The corridors, familiar as they were, seemed to loom out at her. Every wall was painted with dread. The king had sent his guards away, and she could not fathom any reason as to why.
Tauriel began to run.