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Eschewal

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When the bright light from tent’s door being opened hit the Wood-Elf’s aching eyes, he turned away instinctively, but knew just who had entered when Hannah bustled inside carrying a pitcher of water and a pair of tongs holding a smoking ember from the massive fire just outside the pavilion. “Now,” the Adan woman said, the illumination in the area dimming when the tent’s door flap fell back into place, “come on in, Hworin, and mind you don’t trip over these blankets, sweetheart. I will introduce you to our newest Elven addition. I’m told he’s an expert with a bow, just as are you.”

Apparently, the camp’s leader was not alone, and Legolas turned to the oncoming woman and new visitor upon hearing Hannah say the Elf’s name. All he knew of Hworin was his name, in fact, and so he wished to learn more. Hopefully, this Elf proves less malignant than Faelthîr. Perhaps, even, I can find another confidant in Hworin, assuming he doesn’t fawn over Faelthîr as do the Edain in the camp, the Silvan wished, though he refused to get his hopes up about it.

While he couldn’t see the visiting Elda, Legolas could hear the odd thump of a stick hitting the ground as Hworin trod carefully into the center of the tent, and again, Hannah admonished the Elf as he walked towards where his two fellow Elves were, for Hworin was leaning upon a makeshift cane to keep weight off his wounded leg, “Careful, careful. There’s a blanket just by your left foot. Take care not to get tangled up in it.”

For some reason, Hworin was moving as quickly as he possibly could to the middle of the tent, with caution for his injury cast aside, which only served to cause Legolas a bit of worry. That he knew of, Legolas had no enemies amongst his own kind – save for Mithfindl, who was dead, of course, and Faelthîr, who would have Legolas believe she had changed her ways for the better – so he could think of no reason why this wounded, unknown Elf might wish him harm, but Hworin’s hastening made Legolas sit up straighter and listen intently for any signs Hworin might suddenly confront him. Given his current series of misfortunes, the luckless Silvan thought it would not be entirely unlikely for Hworin suddenly to take his cane and begin beating Legolas in the head with it for some unfathomable reason.

As he threaded hastily around and between the blankets, mats, and other debris upon the floor so he could face where Legolas sat upon the trunk, the Ellon exclaimed hoarsely, “It is truly you. Baulgir’s balls!” the visitor added in breathless, murmuring disbelief. “I cannot believe it, but believe it I must, since you sit before me.”

Legolas settled his useless gaze in the direction from which the voice and shadowy figure of Hworin came, while wishing he could see Hworin, but as the Silvan could not, he thought to try to guess Hworin’s accent to determine from where he hailed. Legolas did not get much of a chance to do this before Hworin hobbled the last few steps to where Legolas sat on the trunk with Faelthîr crouched on her heels close by the laegel’s feet; the Ellon fell to his knees before the Wood-Elf.

A pained grunt escaped the Elf’s mouth when he twisted his injured leg in his attempt to fall gracefully, and then Hworin let loose a strange, nearly manic laugh while saying again in an awed whisper, “It is truly you. I cannot believe it.”

“Hworin, sweetheart! Are you alright?” Hannah asked upon hearing the Ellon’s groan and seeing he was now upon his knees before Legolas. In her rush to see to the other Elf, Hannah quickly dropped the ember she held in the tongs, the fiery piece of wood clanking as it fell into the small metal pan Faelthîr had ready for it, ere she rushed to where Hworin now stooped before Legolas. The Adan woman fussed, “You’ll open that injury by acting so carelessly. Did you trip over something?”

But the Ellon had not stumbled. Legolas could not see Hworin’s face, no, but he heard clearly the other man’s astonishment as he said, “I almost didn’t recognize you with your hair cut short and wearing Adan clothing, but it is truly you. Your Highness… sweet Elbereth, it is truly you. Over the past year, many were the times I wept in thinking I would never again see home, but just seeing you now is more welcome than would be walking into our King’s halls to a night of feasting and drinking! Never have I been so pleased to see another face, and your familiar face is a sight for sore eyes, it is,” the Silvan Elf chattered ebulliently, his tone somewhere between weeping with joy and shouting with excitement.

Legolas heard Hannah gasp softly. It took him a bewildered moment to realize two things: first, during her tale to Hannah about why she was cast out of Elvendom, Faelthîr had not mentioned to Hannah that Legolas was a Prince, though she now knew; and second, Hworin was not just any Elf, but a Silvan Elf of his own realm, one of his father’s subjects, and thus, one of his own. The Wood-Elf smiled widely, his dampened cheer upon finding Faelthîr in this camp now burning brightly again to discover himself with another prospective ally, and this one of his own kin. The muddled Prince could not find his voice just yet to reply to Hworin, but he found his gratitude a fine impetus to speak to his Maker, saying silently, Thank you, Eru. I could not have asked for a better boon than for Hworin to be a loyal subject of Mirkwood.

The shadowy figure Legolas recognized to be Hannah soon grabbed Hworin by under one arm, which she then tugged to try to get him to stand, chastising the Elf a bit churlishly, as if the sight of Hworin upon his knees before his Prince was upsetting her, “Up, now, or you’ll hurt yourself. Sit here beside Legolas if you wish to speak to him.”

But Hworin would not have it. He pulled away from the Adan’s hold and continued to kneel in veneration upon the ground before his King’s son and heir. “I do not expect for you to know me, your Highness,” Hworin went on to tell his Prince, “but of course I know you. I have worked for your father as one of his servants since first we moved into the underground halls. I have known you since first you were birthed. In fact, I scrubbed clean the very linens upon which our Queen birthed you, your Highness,” the Silvan rambled, his enthusiasm causing him such joviality that he laughed in delight with nearly every word he spoke. “And it was part of my job at the time to keep your nappies clean and stocked!”

To hear this caused the faintly abashed Prince in question to chuckle at the thought of this Elf having washed out the nappies he had worn while a mere Elfling in swaddling clothes. The other Silvan reached out and lightly took Legolas’ hand in his own; the laegel half expected for Hworin to kiss it and pledge his fealty, or something else that would embarrass the Prince further in its well-intentioned but overzealous devotion. Luckily, Hworin merely held his liege’s hand between his own worshipfully, acting as if the younger Elf’s hand were a finely made glass chalice rather than a sturdy, callused, and battle seasoned hand of flesh and blood.

“Yes, I am so very pleased to see you, your Highness; though I wish you were not here. Does our King know you are here? Are you hurt badly? Do you need anything?” the Silvan asked of his Prince in rapid procession, which gave Legolas the very clear notion Hworin would hobble off to obtain whatever his Prince asked of him, regardless of his own injury and poor welfare. “Say the word, and I will find it, whatever you require.”

Pulling his hand free of Hworin’s hold, Legolas grasped his fellow Wood-Elf’s forearms and pulled at them, trying to incite the kneeling servant into standing, while telling him, “Please, Hworin. Come sit beside me, as Hannah suggested. Your presence is very much welcome, my friend, but there is no need to kneel upon the ground before me.”

The elder Silvan was elated to be called friend and to be invited to sit beside his Prince, and taking Legolas’ words as a command rather than a request, Hworin did as asked as quickly as he could. He sat on the trunk beside Legolas, which required him to forgo trying to regain his grip of the laegel’s hand, though he soon found another reason to touch his liege, which he did by brushing off the younger Wood-Elf’s sleeve. So much did Hworin remind him of Kalin in the artless affection of his devotement that Legolas laughed cheerily, for his heart was lighter than it had been for weeks – perhaps even since the day when he and Estel had left the lake only to soon after see Elise’s specter.

“So. You are a Prince?” Hannah asked of Legolas, her tone curious but also hard and crisp, evincing to Legolas how hearing her newest addition to her camp was royalty was displeasing her greatly. Here in Eriador, the people considered themselves free of all nobility, they ruled themselves or they elected rulers who were given only as much power as was bequeathed to them by their constituency, and thus, the people here had little use for those who considered themselves of the upper echelon by their mere birth into particular or royal bloodlines. Hannah observed Legolas with her arms crossed over her chest, saying challengingly, “You do not much act like a Prince.”

Hannah’s unexpected, blunt remark left Legolas momentarily speechless and a bit indignant. All this morning and afternoon, Legolas had thought Hannah to be the only one upon whom he could depend for safety; from how she spoke, the alliance between them and the kindness she had shown him might now be lessened if not dissolved entirely. Before the laegel could respond, Hworin did it for him, for the elder Silvan took exception to the woman’s slight, and knowing Hannah better than did Legolas, he seemed also to comprehend why. “He is a Prince, yes. He is the Crown Prince of Mirkwood, King Thranduil’s only son and heir. And he is my Prince, Hannah. If he does not much act like one, as you say, it is because you have a poor expectation of royalty and Prince Legolas has always been a humble and munificent Elf, who does not assume arrogation over everyone and everything just because of his birthright! He is not like the Overseer, as I know you must be thinking. I will not have you insult him,” Hworin warned the woman with umbrage on his Prince’s behalf.

The Overseer? he wondered to himself, desiring to question who this was, but ere Legolas could try to respond to Hannah’s misrepresentation of him or break the tension by changing the subject, he was foiled again.

Faelthîr stirred her small pot of steeping herbs and told Hannah, “Hworin is right, Mother. Legolas is not like one would expect a Prince to be. He is not even like his father, the Elvenking, but more like Hworin in purpose and culture – seeking only to do good and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, without the desire for the machinations, wealth, and politics of most royalty. And as Hworin says, Legolas is nothing like the Overseer, do not doubt it.”

At first standing firm despite the two Elves’ defense of Legolas, Hannah then sighed heavily and conceded, “Alright now. Alright. I didn’t mean any offense.” Hannah moved to stand close to where Faelthîr was stirring the steeping herbs of the tonic she would soon give Legolas. She uncrossed her arms and held her hands out in appeasement while saying with halfhearted remorse, “I’ve never met a Prince before and never thought I would. Never lived under a King or a noble, just a mayor in our old village, and she was elected by us freefolk who lived there. I’m sorry if I’ve caused you offense,” the Adan repeated, although to Legolas, it sounded as if she were saying this to Hworin rather than him. Being that Hworin seemed to be the only one around who was any good with a bow, it would not suit Hannah for her kith to lose the only adept hunter they had, and so she did not want to upset Hworin – nor Faelthîr, for that matter, since the Elleth was the only healer they had. Whether she cared if she upset Legolas was unclear to the Prince.

I hope I have not lost her as an ally, he worried. But if I have, then at least I have Hworin here, he reminded himself.

As the other Silvan had assumed of his Prince, Legolas did not know Hworin personally. There were a hundred or more servants in his father’s halls, all of whom were always busily cleaning and cooking and such, and though Legolas knew quite a few of them by name, he knew the rest only by sight. Silvan who elected to work for Thranduil often did not last long in their occupation, for the Elvenking was by nature and by reputation very exacting and meticulous, while requiring the same traits in his servants. Legolas only ever managed to learn and recall the names of those retainers who stayed in his father’s employ for long periods of time. If he could see Hworin, Legolas thought for certain he might remember his face, at least, but he had faith that in a few days’ time, this might prove the case.

While he might doubt Faelthîr’s sudden good will, he did not doubt Hworin’s in the least, and having another Wood-Elf here was better than anything for which Legolas could have prayed. I think I will need to prove myself to Hannah now, to show I am not some conceited, pampered Prince, when before she accepted me easily when thinking I was just another poor refugee as are the Edain with her, the laegel rued.

Again finding some reason to touch his Prince, and perhaps doing so to ensure himself Legolas was indeed seated beside him, Hworin picked something off the laegel’s trousers’ leg – dirt or a leaf or something – and asked, “What has happened to you, your Highness? Why are you here? And what happened to your hair? Are you sure there is nothing you need?”

The reason Legolas had first called out for Hannah upon his awakening was because he had desired a drink of water and did not want to fumble about looking for one, but he dared not ask this of Hworin, lest Hannah believe he was ordering the other Silvan about; he did not want to give the Adan woman the impression he used his royalty for inane purpose, as it was unlike Legolas to do so even at home, and often, his sentries and servants had to force their Prince into accepting their assistance. And so, Legolas decided he would wait for Faelthîr’s tincture and hope it soothed his dry and aching throat, or afterwards ask the Elleth for water after drinking the medicines she brewed. From how Hworin’s umbral figure flitted about with the elder Silvan’s head moving around his own, Legolas realized Hworin was inspecting his Prince’s shorn scalp. Legolas became somewhat amused, as amongst the Eldar, it was highly uncommon for any to have such short hair and he knew he must be an odd sight.

“I am fine, my friend, or as fine as can be expected,” he assured Hworin. “Faelthîr has seen to my injuries and she is making me a tonic even now to aid my recuperation. As for how I came to be here, it is a long story – one I will gladly tell you later, if you do not mind to wait. Right now, I have my own questions, such as how you became part of this camp, Hworin, and who is this Overseer of whom you all speak?”

A gravid silence fell over the two women and man. Unable to see them, Legolas relied upon his hearing and his perception to determine how their reluctance to answer him was not because they did not wish for Legolas to know in particular, but because none of them wanted to be the one to explain it.

And yet, again taking his Prince’s question as a command for the relay of this knowledge rather than a request for it, Hworin took it upon himself to begin. “Just before the winter festival, it was, when I and about twenty others of us travelled from Eryn Galen to Lothlórien with your father’s advisor, Lord Nessiëre, on a diplomatic mission for our King. During our return home in early spring, we were beset by a group of mercenaries just outside the forest of Lorien, near the river, where some of us became separated from the rest. Two others and myself, in fact, were separated from our kith. Of the others’ fate, I know nothing, but myself, one of our sentries Lirion, and his lover Phresia were taken by the mercenaries. For weeks, we travelled with them, chained up with humans who were also taken by force during their travels or as the spoils of raids upon outlying farms beyond the protection of any patrols. South they took us, evading all villages and major thoroughfares to avoid being confronted about their abductions, and led us chained and on foot through the Gap of Rohan, avoiding Isengard and the North-South Road. We followed the Misty Mountains north once away from Isengard, not going quite north enough to be close to the old Dwarven mines of Moria, but not staying too close to Isengard, either, such that we were away from all civilization and amidst only scattered groups of Dunlendings who did not care for our plight.

“Lirion, Phresia, and myself soon found ourselves in a large encampment of other suffering, captive souls such as were we. A massive place it was, with a large tract of farmland upon which we saw women and children working. We later learnt all the men were in the mountains, where they mined for gems and ore. Our captors kept the three of us Eldar chained together, with locked, sturdy cuffs on each foot with stout chains linking each to the other, Phresia in the middle and myself and Lirion on either side. We were compelled into working in the mines, lifting the heavy objects, pushing carts filled with rocks and ore, and performed other tasks for which the Edain lacked the strength. We three slept chained together, ate while chained together, and when the rebellion happened, we three fought chained together – at least, until Phresia was killed. To free ourselves of her corpse, poor Lirion had to cut her feet off,” the Silvan servant told his Prince. As he spoke this awful tale, Hworin’s already soft voice grew ever quieter. “It wasn’t until we managed to encounter the others at the meeting place for the survivors of the rebellion that someone managed to break us out of the chains. By then, with Phresia’s blood on his hands, Lirion had little reason to continue, but he lived at least until he saw to it that all of us who made it out of the compound were safely in the woods. Still, he died of sorrow a few days later. Since then, we’ve been travelling north,” Hworin explained to his Prince, which succinctly told Legolas the elder Silvan’s own account of how he had become, endured, and overcome being a slave.

Sweet Elbereth. That is horrific, he thought but did not say aloud, as he didn’t want to offer Hworin any condolences that might sound like platitudes.

For a brief moment, Legolas’ traitorous mind strayed to asking himself what he would do if in the same situation – that is, if in an identical position, whether Legolas could cut Estel’s feet off to free himself of the man’s deadweight so he could fight. The laegel quickly turned his mind away from this unwelcome imagining without answering the question he put to himself, but not before an aching pang of sorrow lanced across his chest with the thought of suffering through what Phresia, Lirion, and Hworin had suffered.

The Prince recalled Lirion’s name, and though he could not currently come up with the face belonging to said name, he assumed he might have known or seen the guard in the stronghold. Since Lirion was one of his father’s sentries, though, it was unlikely Legolas had much if any interaction with the guard, for Thranduil’s sentries were standoffish to those outside their ranks and loyal to their King beyond reproach, usually forsaking family and friends other than their fellow guardsmen, so as not to have conflicting interests in the goal of protecting their liege.

He waited to hear more of the story from the two women, speculating, If what Hannah and Faelthîr tell me is even half as appalling as what Hworin just told me…

Lost in his thoughts for a few moments, Legolas roused himself by shaking his head to clear it of the lingering, horrible image of a dead Estel chained to him. Neither the Elleth or the Adan had yet to continue the conversation by relating their own tales, and so Legolas asked of Hannah to prompt her, “Were all of you captured and led to the mines as was Hworin?”

“No, some of us were duped into joining the Overseer’s scheme,” Hannah admitted. The elderly woman sat down upon the other trunk – the one she had earlier pulled close to Legolas while he ate so she could be of assistance should he need it. Hannah fell into sitting as if the effort to stand was too great because the heavy burden of bearing her story was too great; she took over the telling of the account, “Nigel, myself, and our three sons were once a part of a small village, having moved there when the last of Nigel’s sisters died. We went to start fresh, and though we did well the first few years, our farm failed for four years in a row – bad seeds, Nigel used to say, but I think it was bad soil. We did not have enough land to let our tracts run fallow, as we ought to have. And then these men came through the village, telling tales in the tavern of how they were coming back from Rohan after selling off ore and jewels mined in a great encampment and getting rich doing it. They were dressed in fine clothing, rode beautiful horses, and threw their coin around as if they could never possibly run out. Told everyone they were looking for families to come join them. Said they were starting a community there at the mining site, where the women could help on the farms and the men would mine, and we would all be rich. They said it would be a good place to raise children, with a school to be built with a teacher at ready for the young ones, and an apothecary already there, and they claimed it was safe, with a militia to roust out any raiders or dangerous sorts, and walls to keep out any threats. It sounded like just what Nigel and I needed – another fresh start somewhere else, where we could raise our boys and give them all the things we never had.”

Hannah paused and hung her head. Having finished brewing her tincture some time ago, Faelthîr climbed from where she sat on her heels upon the ground. She reached out to touch the Prince’s hands to get his attention, and once she had it, she handed Legolas the tin pot with the medicines she had made inside it. The laegel had nearly forgotten about the tincture, so engrossed was he in Hannah and Hworin’s turbulent tale. The Prince’s stomach was already roiling from the story he was hearing; just smelling the potent remedy added to his discomfort and made his gorge rise. Hannah was not in here to watch her make it, he suddenly realized as he held the small, warm metal pot in hand, peering down into it without truly being able to see it. Who knows what she has put into this.

If he wanted any hope of his vision returning, then he must take the chance, he knew. Without further vacillation and before anyone could doubt whether he intended to take it at all, Legolas tipped the bowl to his mouth and swallowed the bitter medicine in one long draught. Without speaking and after taking the pot back from Legolas, Faelthîr first patted the Prince upon his shoulder as she might a horse who had been good in accepting his treatments ere she then settled on the trunk beside Hannah. The Elleth wrapped her arm around the Adan woman’s slim waist to hug her.

With this comfort and encouragement, the taciturn human continued, “And Maker help us, we fell for their ruse. Nigel, myself, our sons, and a few other poor families took the bait. We packed up what we could, loaded our carts, and travelled with the men, stopping a few times in other villages to recruit more folks, all of whom were fed the same lies, just as were we fed. There were no chains amongst us to force us there – just a bunch of fools with more hope than common sense, I suppose. Had we seen any hint of chains or of the tragedies to come, me and Nigel would have taken our boys and fled long before we reached the compound.” Hannah looped her arm through the limb Faelthîr had wrapped around the Adan’s waist, hugging it to her as she spoke. “As soon as we got there, though, we could tell something wasn’t quite right about it all. Sure, we expected the going to be rough at first, since the men had told us there wasn’t housing built for everyone and it would be hard work in the mines, but Nigel and my sons were used to hard work, and I’ve been farming since I was a toddler, so I knew I could make my way on the farms with the rest of the women. They told us any who were willing to stick out the rough times would be rewarded tenfold in riches, so we were willing to endure the hardship at the chance for prosperity. But little did we know. So little did we know.

“The moment our little caravan of fools passed through the outer gates set in a log fence twice as tall as are you, Legolas, men with bows and swords came up to us and told us we’d have to hand over our possessions. There was fighting right then. None of us had much but what we had was dear – small tokens of family life, things handed down from generations past, and a few coins. We were forced to give it all up – our goods, food, bedding, dishes, carts, and horses. Those who didn’t want to or wanted to turn back, those who fought, ended up bloodied and bruised. A few ended up dead. Those brave souls were a warning to the rest of us, as it were, and those who hadn’t fought handed over everything we had, leaving us with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Right after, before we really knew what was happening, the mercenaries took Nigel and my boys away, along with all the other men and male children, while all the women and girls were herded off towards the fields.

“They had poorly built, doorless, and drafty shacks lined up along the edges of the fields. Thirty or forty women and girls in shacks that wouldn’t normally hold ten people comfortably. At night, when we slept on the bare ground without a blanket amongst us, there wasn’t room to walk between the tired, cold bodies of our fellow slaves, so tightly were we packed together. We women and girls worked on the farms from sunup to sunset. At night, they gave us a bowl of something that was edible, but was long past delicious. It kept us alive, I suppose, which was all they wanted from us – our lives and our work. The supervisors, as they called themselves, had whips, bows, swords, clubs, with sharp eyes and mean spirits. Any woman who wasn’t pulling her weight in the fields was laid into hard. And that was most of us on some day or another. A woman can’t survive on gruel and no sleep and still be expected to work the whole day through. Most every one of us took at least one beating or a lashing, myself included. If anyone spoke out or complained, or Maker forbid tried to escape, then they would be whipped right in front of everyone as an example of what would happen to the rest of us. Sometimes, the supervisors hobbled a woman so she couldn’t try to run again,” the Adan explained. Hannah’s voice reminded Legolas of his own voice when he had been asked to repeat the details of his torture at the hands of the merchants or Mithfindl – that is, detached and indifferent, as if she were distancing herself from the vileness through which she had lived.

Legolas’ mind boggled at this shocking account. He had heard before of the awfulness of slavery, of course, but never before had the Prince been witness to it or its aftereffects upon the slaves. Being he couldn’t see much except Hannah’s imprecise, shadowy outline, he depended upon his ears to tell him how the woman was weeping softly as she spoke her story. Had not Faelthîr already been sitting beside Hannah to offer her comfort, the Wood-Elf might have moved to be near Hannah, for hearing the strong woman weeping caused Legolas’ heart to ache on her behalf.

After a few moments pause, Hannah sniffled, wiped her nose upon a handkerchief she pulled from the front pocket in the skirt of her dress, and soldiered on, “I didn’t see Nigel or my boys for months. The whole time I wondered if any of them were even alive. But there was always that hope they were, and the supervisors used our hope against us women. If we stepped out of line, they would threaten to beat, maim, or kill our men or boys. I later learnt the men were kept in line the same, by telling them their women or girls would be beat, maimed, raped, or killed. And it happened often enough for all of us to know the supervisors were not making idle threats. I watched women die from exhaustion and starvation. Some of them fell over in the fields and were left there, or if the supervisors were particularly mean that day, they would have fun flogging their dying bodies until there was nothing but a bloody mess of skin and flesh. During the summer, when the sun burnt hot as a forge, we would lose two to three women a day. They kept bringing in more to replace the dead ones, though, so the supervisors never cared.

“Some of the women and girls – the young and pretty ones – were taken to the Overseer’s house. I can only imagine what horrors awaited them there, as we never saw or heard from any of them again. Ilúvatar help me, I thanked the Maker time and time again that he never saw fit to give me any girls, as I would have lost my mind had the supervisors taken one of my children to the Overseer’s house to endure whatever perverse pleasures the supervisors and Overseer took from them. And Maker help the poor souls who lived in that house with that vile bastard,” she spat, sounding as vindictive and hateful as ever the Prince had heard another being sound. Given why she seemed so upset, it was entirely worthy of her to call the Overseer this and to feel this way.

Hannah stopped speaking and stared off into the far corner of the pavilion, where there laid nothing but glooms – or at least, Legolas could see nothing but shadows. Legolas could only imagine through what these people had suffered, but he knew all about resigning oneself to pain and torment to keep loved ones safe. Hadn’t he done this very thing when handing his rhaw over to Cort and Sven in the forest, when they had Estel’s life in their cruel hands? Hoping he would not upset the Elves and Adan around him, he asked while trying to keep judgment from his voice, as it was not his intent to criticize them or belittle their efforts for liberty prior to the successful effort which had brought them this far, “And no one ever tried to form a rebellion before the one in which you escaped?”

“No. No, I don’t believe any did. Or at least, none tried a concerted endeavor for freedom during the time I was there, though many tried to escape alone or tried to free their loved ones, and then escape,” the woman answered resignedly. She rubbed at her face to wipe away tears, while beside her Faelthîr again hugged Hannah around her waist. The Adan seemed to take great comfort from Faelthîr’s presence, which made Legolas all the gladder he had not acted rashly earlier by demanding penance from the Elleth, even if not her life. Hannah explicated in way that evinced to Legolas she had thought about this many times over before this moment, in a way that told the Elf Hannah had tried to appease her husband, fellow refugees, and perhaps even her own conscience using this same tired excuse, “We were all farmers. Not a one of us was experienced in fighting, except for Hworin and his fellow Elves, and the couple of Dwarves they had captive. And as Hworin told you, the Elves – as well as the Dwarves – were always chained every moment of every day. We were all helpless, trapped, and because we feared for the family members from whom we were separated, we were cowed into obeying.”

He could understand this well enough. Had the Prince been in the same situation, he might have done the same, which was why he tried to take care not to sound as if he were censuring the Edain for accepting the slavery forced upon them. Yet, if it had only been Legolas caught in a slaver’s trap, he knew he would fight to the death to free himself, and so realized, The mercenaries were experienced in catching and keeping slaves, it seems. Had they merely taken individuals without families, they would have found themselves with a riotous group of solitary people with nothing to lose, but since they recruited and took families, they ensured they had leverage against their captives. It is a good way to ensure compliance, he decided, before promptly feeling contrite over how he had complimented the mercenaries in even this begrudgingly slight way.

“What changed? What made you rebel?” he asked when after a while no one spoke and it seemed no one would. As much as he did not want to dredge up ill feelings or memories for Hannah, Hworin, or even Faelthîr, Legolas wanted to know as much as possible about the situation so he could use this knowledge to the refugees’ advantage when it came time to recruit the Rangers into aiding them in rescuing the remaining slaves at the compound. “Something must have changed or worsened to make the risk worth it.”

Her laugh not at all mirthful but self-deprecating and harsh, Hannah turned back to Legolas and nodded. “Yes, you’re right of that, dear. Everything changed for me when my boys died. All three of them at the same time. A mineshaft collapsed on them, along with twenty other young men. I wouldn’t have heard about it at all, except one of the women who took the men their nightly meal of slop was told of the passing of the boys, told their names, and came back to the rest of us women and girls with the news. When I heard my boys were dead, I lost all fear of the supervisors and Overseer. I didn’t care what he might do to me. I wanted to be gone from there, one way or another, and I hoped to take as many of those despicable men with me when I went. Luckily, Lirion, Phresia, and Hworin here were already laying plans for their escape. I merely added to it and recruited others to join us, so we would have a chance. I had every woman and girl there ready for rebellion in a week’s time,” the Adan woman murmured. Legolas wished he could see Hannah’s face when she added in a voice little louder than the sough of the breeze outside, “I didn’t care about anything but making those men pay for what they did, and nothing stops me when I’ve set my mind to something.”

For some reason the Prince could not name, a shiver of dread ran down his spine to hear Hannah say this. It seems she no longer cared for her own life, and while I wouldn’t argue that the rebellion was a bad idea in and of itself, when she talked the other women and girls into joining her, it was not for their own good, but for her own revenge, the laegel understood, plucking out this one particularly gruesome insight from the entirety of the woman’s odd recollection. It disturbed him to think this about the woman, for thus far, Hannah had given him the impression of being entirely benevolent and trustworthy; however, from her own account, she had willingly risked and used the lives of her fellow slaves to suit her own purpose in finding revenge. I am making too much of this, he argued. The rebellion she helped to lead freed many of them. They might have died had she not done so, he aimed to convince himself, though this did not work to settle his mind.

Hworin took Hannah’s prolonged silence as his cue to pick up the thread of the tale again, since he was personally involved in the planning and implementation of the Elves’ plan to free themselves, which with Hannah’s involvement had been amended to free as many of the slaves as possible. Beside Legolas, Hworin shifted how he sat to stretch out his wounded leg. “Like I said, Lirion, Phresia, and I were always chained together. Until Faelthîr was captured and brought to the camp, we were the only three Elves there, as far as I know. The few Dwarves they had were consultants of a sort, for the supervisors to ask about the best way to mine, to gauge the quality of ore and gems, though they were treated no differently for having this knowledge and had to work as hard as the rest of us. But the three of us – well, Lirion was at his wit’s end, as was I, because every day the supervisors would taunt and torment Phresia, saying awful things of what they wanted to do to her. They never dared, though, because the Overseer forbade it done, as he knew enough of the Eldar to know it would kill her faer. The three of us were valuable possessions to him, being that we could do work the Edain could not. But Lirion always feared it happening anyway, and despite the brave façade Phresia kept up for Lirion, it began to eat away at her soul, until she was barely living. It ate away at me, as well, having to listen to all those vulgar, licentious threats they made to her. And poor Lirion, he couldn’t protect her from having to hear it.

“So between the two of them, they came up with a grand plan. Honestly, your Highness, I was merely along for the ride, being that I was chained up with them. But I wanted the same as did they, as did Mother here – to be gone from that place or die trying. When they decided to start a rebellion, I was game for it. Once Hannah sent word by one of the women who brought the food that they were looking to rebel, Lirion and Phresia came up with the strategy, which we spread word of to all the menfolk at the mines. Soon, everyone knew of what was to be done, and all we needed was a favorable time to see it completed,” his fellow Silvan told his Prince, though here he left off in his explanation and did not continue just yet.

Thinking perhaps Hworin and Hannah needed a moment to calm themselves, for the Prince could tell by the slight shaking of the trunk upon which he sat that Hworin was weeping, as well, Legolas instead turned his attention to Faelthîr, asking again now what he had asked earlier, “How did you end up amongst the slaves?”

The Elleth removed her arm from around Hannah’s waist, sat up straight, and began, “I was in a village in the south, trying to make coin from the Edain there by plying my trade of healing, when the village was attacked. It was a poor village, with no militia, no walls, and no one to protect them. But many of the men and women there died trying to protect themselves and their families. Everyone assumed the raiders were there for their goods, but while they took anything of value, as well, they truly wanted the people themselves, not their paltry possessions. They rounded up every able-bodied person in that small village who lived past the fight, myself included. We were chained together the whole way farther south to the encampment. When I arrived, it was just a week after Hannah’s boys died,” Faelthîr told the Prince. She had hinted at some of this earlier, but apparently not wanting Hannah to know she had spoken of this private matter with Legolas already, she said now as if she had not mentioned it before, “And when I got there, Hannah took each of us newly captive women and helped us to bathe, fed us food the women had managed to pilfer from the gardens, and put us in clean clothes. I was put to work in the fields the same as the other women for a while, but like Phresia, the supervisors kept at me, taunting and humiliating me. By the time Lirion, Phresia, and Hworin had their plan laid out, I was ready to go, and the potential of dying be damned,” the Elleth said with bitter conviction.

The flap of the tent suddenly opened, and from the doorway came a voice that spoke as if he had been a part of the conversation from the very beginning, “We needed a distraction,” Nigel said as he entered. “So my lovely and brave Hannah crept off in the night, risking being found out by the supervisors, and set fire to the Overseer’s manse,” Nigel explained with great pride for his wife while walking so he could be near to the rest of those in the middle of the pavilion. “Be damned if it didn’t work wonders, too. All the supervisors who were supposed to be guarding the shacks and huts at the farm and mines took off towards the house to put the fire out, to save the goods, coin, ore, and gems stored inside as their bounty.”

“I’d say a good quarter of us made it out of there alive, while probably a quarter of us died in the rebellion. When the supervisors saw us running for the gates, they gave chase, of course, but only because by then the fire was contained. As for the rest of the slaves, they are still there, if they weren’t all killed in punishment for the escape of the rest of us.” Hannah bent low at the waist with her hands upon her knees, her face turned down to the ground. “I think about that every day. I think about what the others are suffering while the rest of us are free.”

Nigel strode to stand beside his wife. He gently pushed her aside to make room for himself on the trunk upon which she and Faelthîr sat, and once beside her, he pulled the woman into his arms to hold her while she wept into his chest. The doubts Legolas had earlier held for Hannah were somewhat ameliorated to see her regret now, though they were not entirely eliminated. Hworin took the lapse in conversation to fret over his Prince again, which he did by brushing at Legolas’ borrowed clothing to remove dirt or leaves once more, though the laegel began to think there was nothing upon him needing to be brushed off, but rather that Hworin needed his own comfort and found it by caring for his liege. Faelthîr laid her head upon Hannah’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around the Adan woman, as well, such that Nigel, Hannah, and Faelthîr were a mishmash of arms embracing each other for the scant consolation this brought them.

Legolas remained quiet and let the others relieve their grief. He could find nothing to say that would not sound trite in its attempt to comfort, nor could he offer false promises of freeing the other slaves, when in the end, it would not be his decision to see it done, but would be up to Estel and the other Rangers to decide whether or not to aid these refugees. Still, it burned him to see Hannah, Nigel, Hworin, and even Faelthîr’s heartache, and he wanted more than ever to do something to ease their minds and sorrow. When finally Faelthîr rose back up, Nigel released his tight hold of his wife, and Hannah sat upright, as well. She brushed the tears from her face, turned to Faelthîr, and then used her handkerchief to wipe at the tears upon the Noldo’s face, as well, as one might do for her child. The last vestiges of hate he held for the Elleth vanished in this moment. It was hard to hold any loathing for Faelthîr when seeing her weep over the misfortunes of the Edain with whom she had cast her lot.

“Faelthîr told us about the good works of the Rangers,” the Adan woman eventually continued, her despairing tone turning suddenly into a hopeful one. “It has been a hard journey north. We’ve had to scrape and beg. When we fled, we managed to get back some of our possessions from one of the storehouses not connected to the Overseer’s mansion, from which we stole what we could of their coin and food, supplies, ore, and gems – call it wages, I suppose, that we were owed for the work we’d done – and we have sold everything we took or we used it up along our way. But onwards to Bree we go. I’m praying the Rangers have the heart and good will to aid us. There are still good people left on that compound, and I for one could not live with myself knowing we’ve left them to their fate.”

Hworin had been missing for quite some time; that is, he had been on his way to Lothlórien before Legolas’ first encounter with the merchants in Lake-town, knew not of the younger Silvan’s subsequent torture and exploitation, and had no inkling of the more than platonic relationship between Aragorn and his Prince. However, he knew of his Prince’s close friendship with Estel, and thus assured Hannah now, clapping his liege upon the shoulder as he said, “We will have no problems getting the Rangers to aid us, Mother. It is guaranteed.”

“And why is that, sweetheart?” she asked the elder Silvan, not sounding convinced of this at all, but exhausted and wary of what Hworin might say. “Faelthîr says she is not on good terms with one of the Rangers, named Estel,” the Adan alluded, giving Legolas the clear impression that Hworin did not know of Faelthîr’s misdeeds against Aragorn and himself. Of course, if the elder Silvan had known, he might have lopped off the Elleth’s head long before now on principal alone, so devout did he seem to his King and Prince. Hannah disputed to the elder Silvan, “She says they are good men, but fears they might not because of the one of them she wronged. We can’t be sure they will aid us.”

Showing that in fact he didn’t know anything of why Aragorn might refuse to aid the Edain because of Faelthîr, Hworin laughed and told the Adan, “It doesn’t matter what Faelthîr has done to upset any of the Rangers. We are blessed beyond your knowing, Mother, for you to have found my Prince in the bog this morning. The Chieftain of the Rangers, Aragorn – or Estel, as he called among our own kind – is my Prince’s closest friend.

Hannah now straightened up and turned her gaze to the Prince. He could not see her eyes upon him, but he felt them keenly. She repeated Hworin’s words, saying, “Your Prince’s closest friend? Estel and Aragorn are one and the same person?”

Not catching the undercurrent to the Adan’s question, Hworin assured the woman, “Oh yes. Whatever ill will exists between Faelthîr and Estel, I do not understand, but one word from my Prince, and the Rangers will be on our side, Mother, I assure you.”

This was true, of course, though not exactly for the reason Hworin insisted. The Rangers would be of aid because they were righteous, good men who would take up the refugees’ cause to free their kith and kin and dismantle the slavery occurring upon this encampment in the south; that Estel was Legolas’ closest friend only meant the Prince could ensure Aragorn would not dither about being of aid because of his mistrust of Faelthîr, though Legolas could not imagine his human lover would do this because of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary of all of this being some part of a scheme on Faelthîr’s part.

No, what had just occurred to Hannah was that the Estel she had learnt of from Faelthîr – the one whom the Elleth had admitted to hurting by hurting his Elven lover, Legolas, was also Aragorn, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain. Either Faelthîr had omitted this information or it had not been clear in her explanation, for Hannah only just now realized that since Estel and Aragorn were one and the same, the Chieftain of the Rangers was Legolas’ lover, and thus, staying on Legolas’ good side would be advantageous to the refugees, as it would ensure the Rangers’ compliance.

What followed was a short silence in which Legolas spent his time trying to discern the meaning behind the wordless exchange Faelthîr and Hannah held between them. He found to his amazement that the constant pain he had endured over the last several days was lessened greatly. His head no longer felt as if a hammer were walloping the inside of it with every beat of his heart. The telling of this story might have taken an hour or so, during which he’d had his medicine; in this time, and to Legolas’ amazement, his vision was already somewhat improved, such that the Wood-Elf could actually see more than mere shadows, and thus could tell how Faelthîr and Hannah were looking at each other, with the Adan giving the Elleth some rather pointed glares at having misled or misinformed Hannah. His ability to see even this much precluded the laegel’s interest in the actual content of the two women’s interchange, however, for his delight to be able to discern color astounded him.

Of Hannah he noticed, Her hair is silvery brown, in a single long plait. An hour ago, he would not have been able to distinguish this simple detail. While the people and tent around him were still mostly blobs, he was buoyed to see color once more. She has eyes that are green like the leaves. And Nigel’s hair is black as night and he has what Estel would call a beer-gut. Feeling like a child discovering the world for the first time, Legolas then turned to Hworin, who unsurprisingly was looking at his Prince with adulation. His hair is auburn, as are many of my kith in the Greenwood. Unable to view the finer details of his fellow Silvan’s face, though, the Prince still could not recognize the Elf just yet.

“I should see to it the rotations are made for the watch tonight,” Hannah told them, interrupting Legolas’ wondrous observation of the people around him. Whereas since finding out Legolas was a Prince the woman had been standoffish towards the Wood-Elf, she now no longer cared; or perhaps she saw his being a Prince as a boon, especially now that she knew Legolas’ lover Estel was in fact Aragorn, the Chieftain from whom they sought aid. Hannah stood and cleared the few steps to where Legolas sat on the trunk. She leant down to hold the Silvan’s face between her work-roughened hands, planted a motherly kiss upon his beaten brow, and told him, “Why do you not rest for a while longer, dear. When it is time for the evening meal, we will wake you.”

“I should go, as well. I’ve other patients to attend,” the Elleth made her excuse, seemingly eager to leave now that her purpose here had been served, but perhaps also to speak to Hannah, who seemed peeved at Faelthîr. “I will make you another dose to drink before sunset,” she promised Legolas, ere with Nigel, the two women left the tent in a hurry.

“Now,” Hworin said to Legolas, garnering the younger Wood-Elf’s attention, “what can I do for you, your Highness?”

He could not help but to smile at his fellow Elf’s indomitable desire to be of service to his Prince. Despite the awful tale he had been told this afternoon, Legolas felt better than he had in days, for his sight was already improving, he had another Wood-Elf with him, and he was certain he would soon see his Estel – both figuratively and literally.

“I think I will do as Hannah suggested and rest for a while more. If you could merely point me in the direction of a bed,” he asked of Hworin, then thinking he had not had the chance to ask Faelthîr or Hannah for a drink for his desiccated throat, added, “And perhaps, if you might, find for me a glass of water?”

“Of course, your Highness. Please,” he prompted, hopped to his feet, placed his cane under him, and then held his hand out for Legolas. The Prince took this aid gladly, allowed Hworin to lead him to the nearest bed – which happened to be the very one in which he’d earlier slept – and then plopped down upon it. “I will be right back with your water.”

“Thank you, my friend,” he told Hworin, feeling the Silvan’s smile of pleasure to be called friend by his Prince once again, ere Hworin hobbled off to do as asked.

An undefined fear skirted the edges of his conscious thinking, worrying at his current peacefulness, but he pushed it aside for now. Legolas sat upon the meager mat and blankets, his mind awash with all he had been told, and waited for Hworin to return.