The Price of Freedom

By Erin Lasgalen

FORWARD AND WARNINGS: R for content. This story is an AU. With the exception of the first chapter it is set post-ROTK. It will contain heavy violence, the mention of rape though no actual depictions, and sexual content—again, no gory details.

DISCLAIMER: This story was written solely for the purpose of non-profit entertainment. All canon characters and places therein are the property of Tolkien Estates and New Line Cinema.

Sundown was six hours away and counting. Eowyn trudged through the day of endless tasks, knowing she would regain strength and clarity of mind when the shadows lengthened. When Suni came to her, her face a mask of sorrow, to tell her she would take the command of the City from Eowyn's hands come sunset, Eowyn only nodded absently and continued on with her work. She knew she would be a liability as a commander if the madness took her again. She would be in no state to lead anything when the Sun set. And in truth, the question as to whether she would lose herself once more when battle was joined seemed a mute point. It would all be decided tonight, one way of the other. She had no magic, no elvish foresight, but she knew this with the same surety she knew the Sun would set in the West. She did not need Aragorn or Thranduil to confirm that she had lost most of the ground the aethelas tea had bought her. But she did not worry over this greatly; she was too busy.

It had rained all through the early morning, a gift from the gods that had saved Rhunballa from burning to the ground. But now, storm clouds hung low and unmoving above the valley, like black, becalmed ships. They turned the sky an ominous shade of darkest blue-gray, veiling the Sun, which might have seared her skin. After a short round table discussion with Suni and the Lords of Rhunballa's foreign defenders, they began the task of evacuating every child, non-combatant and all the wounded who were in any shape to be moved to the relative safety of the great storage houses that dotted the endless, water-logged soy and rice fields. The City was a flammable beacon that would draw the Hunters to it. Moreover, the enemy had shown less interest in carrying off the people who had run from the burning of the Royal Villa and the Carpenter's Guildhouse than in the warriors who defended them.

"I do not doubt they would have slain us all if they had been able," Eowyn said grimly, "but, I think she wants warriors, not children and old women."

"Aye," Gimli rumbled. "I am sure she is thinking the helpless ones can be gobbled up when all their defenders are taken or slain!"

"It is in my mind that Simiasha will lead the attack tonight," Eowyn said darkly, ignoring the uneasy looks on the faces of those around her. "In part, because her blood still flows in my veins, and though I cannot see her thoughts, I have some vague sense of her mind. But also, I believe last night was only to tenderize our defenses and force us to spend the bulk of our flammable armory. And to take as many of us as she could for her own."

Many had been slain last night. But far too many were simply missing, spirited off into the night to be changed, for Simiasha would need many soldiers for the army she wished Aragorn to lead. Lord Hurin and Somal had been lucky to die clean deaths as Men.

"She wants me," Aragorn said flatly. "I believe Eowyn is right. The Huntress will come for her true prey tonight. If I leave Rhunballa or if I am slain, she will still kill or change everyone in this valley. If I stay in Rhunballa, I draw her Hunters away from those who are sequestered in the rice fields. But I will not hide like a mouse in a hole. If I stand in plain view tonight, in the center of a gauntlet of Shards, it may be that we will prey upon them!"

"You cannot use yourself as bait!" Eomer exclaimed in outrage.

"He is right!" Suni said clearly. "There is now nowhere to hide from them. If they take him, we are lost. If he is slain, the Queen will gut us all out of thwarted rage. The only option is to fight."

All that day, she did not see or speak with Legolas. If there had been less to do, less strain to fight the steady, advancing pace of the Sun, more time to consider, she would have found this odd. If there had been fewer tasks to oversee, she might have sought Legolas out. But there was no time and no opportunity. As the day drew on, she heard from Gimli that Legolas was helping move the wounded to the relative safety of the rice fields, or from Fallah that she had only just missed him as he bore one of the last caches of fire bottles to the Square.

And so it was that, by half past five in the afternoon, with less than four hours of Sun left, she found herself standing by the stone circle of the Fountain Square, watching the City's surviving defenders who were spread out around the Square and the soggy remains of the Villa. The stagnant black clouds that covered the valley had yielded no more rain, though the distant rumble of thunder never ceased. Eowyn had watched the thunderheads all day with growing unease. They veiled the Sun so thoroughly all the long, muggy afternoon had seemed like twilight.

"Where is Aragorn?" She called to her brother.

He broke from the knot of Riders that surrounded him beneath the meager shade of the Queen's Guard half-burned porch and moved toward her. He held his helm in one hand, a water flask in another. She followed his gaze back to the gaggle of Gondorian officers, feeling a pang of sorrow when she realized Lord Hurin was not among them.

"He was here a few moments ago," he answered. "Perhaps he went off with Gimli and Legolas to look at the new piece of cleverness your Mistress Fallah has devised. Something that uses the Shards, I think Legolas said."

He grinned, watching her face closely. "You nearly sigh when I do but speak the Elf's name, sister!"

"I do not!" She snapped, frowning at him irritably as he bent and filled his water skin from the Fountain's pool. "Aragorn should not be out of sight, even this many hours from true dusk. This dark sky is dangerous, Eomer."

"You are thinking the enemy might be able to attack with the Sun shrouded so?" Eomer stood, frowning worriedly. "Well, let us seek him out and steer him hither, as much as one may steer or command the King of the West." He took a long swig of water and grimaced, wiping his brow. "This miserable heat is making my head swim! I will look for him on Physician's Street."

Eowyn nodded. "I will check the street on the other side of New Bakery."

She was already moving. There was an odd tension in her neck, a knot of terrible apprehension. A roll of sepulchrous thunder ricocheted from one side of the valley to the other. Eowyn glanced upward, her stomach coiled in a ball of inexplicable fear.

She cast about with the extra sense, the hunting sense Morsul's tainted blood had given her, searching for the blazing star that was the flame of Aragorn's life force. It outshown even Thranduil's in its raw power and brilliance, though Aragorn had yet to live a single century. A King among kings, Moussah had called him.

She found him with as little effort as one would find a bonfire in a field full of matchsticks. She did not pause to mourn the return of this power, another sure sign that she had lost a goodly portion of the humanity Aragorn's treatment had restored to her. She followed the beacon the was the King of Gondor like a bloodhound trailing a scent, weaving her way around New Bakery and onto Market Street. As she rounded the last of the abandoned vendors' stalls, she stopped. And sighed with relief, feeling a fool.

Aragorn was sitting upon the one of the clay brick benches that ringed the Market Street well. He lifted the ladle from the bucket of water he had just drawn and dumped it over his head with a sigh of relief. He glanced at her, watching her approach, and grinned like a boy.

"You are frowning at me like a tutor scolding an errant school boy," he said with a soft chuckle.

"I am?" She asked, feeling suddenly embarrassed.

His grin widened. "My water flask was empty and, unlike Eomer, I am familiar with the Eastern customer of spitting in the fountain pool for good luck."

Eowyn grinned and shook her head when he offered her a ladle full of water. Despite the sweltering heat, she had not thirsted all day. Such would not be the case come twilight, she thought with a shudder. Aragorn was watching her face, perhaps seeing the dark turn her thoughts had taken. If he did, he chose not to question her.

"I fear," he said sadly, "that Kingship has softened my stamina. I have not been in this part of the world in many years, and I had forgotten how much I loathed the summers."

"If the Sun were shining," she told him, "you would have twice the cause to grieve."

"Aye." He glanced upward, his grin fading. "This black sky is wrong, Eowyn. I think it is some malicious art of the Queen's. Sauron and Saruman were both of the Ainur and they could weave unnatural storms such as this."

"We should go back to the Square," she said tensely.

He nodded, looking almost sheepish. "I will tell you a secret, my Lady," he said, filling his water skin in the bucket as he spoke. "There are many good things about being a king. Being the constant center of attention is not one of them."

She let that draw another grin from her. "Have you seen Legolas and Gimli?"

He frowned and shook his head. "I saw Gimli an hour ago. Legolas I have not seen all day."

She fought to hide the wrench of impractical need to see Legolas, to speak to him once more before night fell. He would very probably be waiting for them when they returned to the Square. It was childish to be so angst-ridden that she had not seen him since dawn, but she could not help it.

"You will see him before sundown, Eowyn," Aragorn told her gently.

"Am I so transparent, my Lord?" She smiled tremulously.

"I understand all too well what you are feeling, my friend," he said solemnly. "None better. It is a wonderful and perilous thing to breach such boundaries in love." He paused as though considering whether to say more.

"I think you are only now just beginning to understand the price he will pay for loving you."

She clenched her jaw shut and her hands trembled as she thought of Thranduil's words, of the doubt he had set in her heart. Could it be that none of these feelings were real? A month ago, Legolas has been a sweet memory of kindness and ethereal beauty in the midst of the horrors of the War. Now, he was all the world to her and she to him. How could it be possible that they could love so quickly, so completely? Even had she been sure of her own heart, it would seem like madness to believe that one such as he could give himself, body and soul, to a mortal woman he barely knew without some sort of influence to rush him forward.

And if it was true, if he loved her as wholly and truly as she loved him---

She stayed the tremors in her hands, reminding herself that even Thranduil, who had much more than a vested interest that her love and Legolas' prove a mere bi-product of their shared blood, had not been sure. 'If your love prove true', he had said. There was no way to know, no surety to which she could cling. So, she clung to hope alone, for it was all she had, selfish though she knew it to be. She knew in her gut the King of Eryn Lasgalen spoke truth when he said Legolas might not survive her death after a mortal lifetime as her side. But, for the moment, for the duration of this struggle, she needed that hope to fight for. For the moment, she needed that hope to retain the will to draw breath.

'If you do not think it an imposition," Aragorn went on gently, "let one who has already walked this path advise you. Do not let worry for the future mar your joy in the present. Such matches have been made only a handful of times in all the long years since Beren and Luthien walked the earth. In every case I know of, a way has been made. Our destinies are sundered from those of the Eldar until the song of Iluvatar is complete. But He is the very definition of love, Eowyn, and thus He is incapable of cruelty. You must believe that a way shall be made."

She smiled, feeling good, feeling warm inside and full of hope for the first time all day. "Aragorn," she said quietly. "I am very glad you are my friend."

To this, he only smiled and raised the ladle of water to his lips, drinking deep. Then he stood, shaking his head, flinging the water from his dark hair.

"Come, then!" He said. "Let us go---" He broke off, frozen like a statue. All the color drained from his face and he swayed on his feet. Eowyn caught him by the shoulder, steadying him, her heart in her mouth.

"Something---"Aragorn gasped. "Something foul in the water!" He gagged, trying in vain to wretch.

Eowyn plunged her hand into the water pail, taking a sip, rolling the taste around in her mouth without swallowing. Cold horror suffused her, freezing her heart, as the coppery taste of blood filled her mouth. It was faint, so diluted human senses would never detect it. But it was there, coupled with the burning, tingling aftertaste of---of---

A series of images leapt to her mind, painting a picture with merciless clarity. Of Eomer wiping his sweaty face, muttering how the heat made his head swim an instant after he drank from the Fountain, of the women of the Watch and the Men of Gondor, Rohan and Harad drinking deep from skins and water pails the Rhunballani had offered them as they labored to evacuate the children, the old, and as many of the wounded who could be moved and refortify the half-burned City.

She spat out the poison in her mouth and gripped Aragorn by the shoulders. "They have tainted the water with their blood, with her blood! Oh Elbereth, Aragorn! Every soldier in the City may be infected now! Sick it up! By all that is holy, sick the poison up if you can!"

"I---I cannot!" Aragorn gasped, sagging in her arms. "Trying....but I cannot!"

Merciful Iluvatar, the Huntress had taken Aragorn and the entire City without striking a single blow! Had the attack last night been nothing more than a diversion so that they might pollute the wells with the filth of her blood?

Cold tittering laughter filled her mind. Poor, slow-witted child! Simiasha's voice sang in her head like dissonant silver bells. He is mine now! I will take him, I will change him, and I will rule the earth with him at my side!

Aragorn bent double, slipping from her arms to his knees, his hands on both sides of his head as though he were trying to block out some unholy noise.

"Eowyn! Eowyn, I hear her!" He cried in a strangled voice. "Her voice is inside me! She---she---!" He broke off with a hoarse moan.

"Aragorn!" She gripped him by the shoulders, wrestling him back to his feet. "Get up! We must get you away from here now!"

Another mocking trill of sweet malice. And where will you go, my foolish girl? Simiasha cooed. To whom will you flee for help? Every soul that supped my blood this day is now my creature, though they do not yet know it. I have but to flex my will and they will all do my bidding!

A rush of power, like that sound of mighty obsidian wings taking flight, blew past Eowyn like a desert sand storm, leaving her untouched. On every side, from every corner of the City, she heard their cries, thousands of voices, as the Queen of Blood and Darkness set her will upon them. And Aragorn cried out with them, the sort of mortal scream a man gives when a blade invades his body, tearing apart all that is good and healthy inside.

In another moment, they will give chase, my girl! Simiasha hissed. For Elessar and for you. Who among my new sons shall I command to use you first? Perhaps your comely, strapping brother?

Eowyn screamed something obscene and nearly hysterical. Her heightened senses already told her the screams were dying down, changing to low, pain-filled moans and angry animal snarls. Aragorn sagged against her, breathing like a man in a smoke-filled house, fighting with all his might. She could outrun them all if need be, but it would not matter where they went. The Huntress would find them wherever they hid, however far they ran while her blood still raged in Aragorn's veins.

She drew her belt knife and sliced open the tip of two fingers.

"Aragorn!" She said harshly, listening for the sound of running feet.

The City was still filled with sobs of pain and anger. Even the Huntress could not invade the minds of so many instantaneously. No one was on their feet yet. Aragorn raised his head groggily and she held her blood-tipped fingers before his eyes. His eyes widened, but he nodded his understanding. Grimacing with weak disgust, he took her fingers in his mouth. He swallowed once. Twice. And upon the third gulp, his hand curled into her hair, clutching the back of her neck with renewed strength. His strong arms tightened around her, bringing her flush against his body, and for an instant, her body kindled, a flash fire of molten animal desire. His lips found hers, hot and demanding, and he tasted of sweet pipeweed and dark, unbridled need. For one brief, heatstruck moment, she lost herself in the raw male scent of him, in the crackling sense of his great power that blazed in her mind's eye like a star.

And then it was gone.

He blinked at her, weak but fully alert, his gray eyes slowly widening with horror and apology. And terrible, terrible guilt.

"Eowyn..." He said hoarsely. "Forgive---"

She touched his face with both hands. "It was the blood," she said gently. "It was not you! You have done no wrong. It was not you!"

He stared at her a moment, ash-pale and shaken. And then he sighed like a man reprieved from the headsman's block. Eowyn's throat tightened as she saw the tears of relief that sprang to his eyes. His sorrow, his guilt, his wilting relief all flowed out of him and into her through the blood he had taken. In the two or three seconds before the sense of him faded from her mind, Eowyn saw the whole of his heart with a clarity that Aragorn himself perhaps had not perceived. His Arwen, the beautiful Elven maid he had loved all his life, was his North, his South, and all points in between. The mere thought that he might have betrayed her love, even with a single illicit kiss, was enough to set him weeping, enough to fell him to his knees. Arwen was the touchstone of his life.

But the blood could not call to that which had no niche somewhere in the darkest, most hidden desires of the heart. Aragorn did not love Eowyn, though she was dear to him, but a part of him had wanted her from the first. A part of him still wanted her. She was the earthborn call of his mortal blood and warrior's spirit, the burn of kindred desire that drew like to like. His waking mind did not know this, and it would crush his great heart if ever he looked this hidden truth in the face.

So she shook him lightly, one hand still on his face. "I am sorry!" She said softly. "There was no other way to free you from her will. I did not know that taking my blood would draw that reaction with everyone who drank."

"It is good to know!" He laughed shakily. "Though I think Arwen might still have my head if---"

"Go around the other side!" Cried a Man's voice.

The sound of running feet, the sense of dozens of people drawing near. Oh gods, they were on both sides of Market Street! She spun, looking for an outlet, casting about for an opening in the net that had drawn around them while they were reeling from the effects of Eowyn's blood in his veins. She could sense the flickers of scores of people on all sides now.

"We are surrounded!" She said tightly. "If we fight, we will be killing friends and those we love!"

Aragorn's eyes lit on the well. "Eowyn! It is still hours until sunset. Have you enough strength to bear us both to the bottom of the well?"

"We are about to find out," she said grimly.

She thrust her shoulder under his and they climbed to the rim of the well. They leapt, falling past brick, then stone, they red clay, to the bottom. They plunged downward, underwater. She braced Aragorn in her arms, absorbing the shock as her feet struck the bottom of what was little more than fifteen feet of water. She kicked upward, off the bottom, and their heads broke the surface. Cool air, the breath of cave air, brushed her face.

"This is no well spring!" Aragorn said. "We are in moving current."

The river! Eowyn suddenly remembered that vast black ribbon of dark rolling waters that Morsul and his fellows had followed, the unimaginably huge vaulted caverns adorned with shimmering diamonds and luminescent veins of mithril thick as a man's torso.

"The source---!" She winced, lowering her voice. Every wisp of sound seemed magnified. "The source of Hundred Springs is a great underground river."

"Then to poison the water in every well, they would have to---"Aragorn broke off as the sound of voices echoed down from the lip of the well.

"They are not here!" Someone spat in disgust. Eowyn's heart cringed when she recognized the voice was Eomer's. "My sister has given him her blood and the Mistress can no longer see him. They could be anywhere!"

"Let them hide another three hours, or four," Moussah said indifferently. "When the Mistress rises, we will butcher the women and babes until he shows himself."

Beside her, Eowyn felt Aragorn tremble with silent rage.

"Be silent!" Suni said angrily. "She speaks!" A little silence. Dimly, Eowyn heard Simiasha's voice, like a faint snatch of an eavesdropped conversation. She clenched her teeth, straining to hear, gleaning just enough to learn the gist of the Huntress' commands.

"Let us be about it then!" Eomer said harshly.

They held still as mice listening for the cat's faint tread. In the darkness, Aragorn's face was a tense agony of worry.

"If you give yourself up," Eowyn said softly, "Simiasha will still kill the old and the very young."

"I know," he said. "That does not make it any easier to bear. Could you hear her words?"

"Thranduil and his folk are still uninfected!" She said urgently. "They have simply dropped out of sight."

Aragorn nodded. "The Elves would have scented the poison in the water."

"We must find them before Eomer and the others do!" She said. Eowyn closed her eyes, thinking hard, her brow furrowed, her mouth compressed in concentration. "They did not poison the well from above," she said slowly.

"The water would have simply flowed away. You were infected from this well and it is a branch of the great river that flows beneath this valley. If the Fountain and this well and all the others were tainted, and they are all running water at their bases---"

"Then they tainted the water supply upstream!" Aragorn exclaimed. His eyes blazed with sudden realization. "It is Simiasha's blood in the water.

She could not have simply poured a cup of her blood into the flood. The current would have born it away."

"She has opened a vein upstream from the City and lain herself down in the river," Eowyn said fiercely. "She cannot rise for another three hours. We must find her and kill her before she rises or everyone in this valley is damned!"

Eowyn closed her eyes and sought Thranduil. He was there, a sharply burning ember of light, though he was far away. East. East of the City and---and---

She caught the impression of Thranduil's fair face glowering down at Gimli in displeasure and the faint, ghostly sound of the Dwarf's rusty chuckle.

"Peace, Elvenking!" Gimli was saying. "I know my way around underground. Legolas is just up ahead."

She sought with all her might, scanning outward for the sweet beacon of Legolas' life-force, but he was not there. She could not sense him anywhere. She swallowed, worry knotting in her gut, fogging her good judgement of all else. He would not have drunk the poisoned water but perhaps they had taken him, hurt him. Perhaps---

No! He was well. Gimli had just said so, had he not? She tried to push the fear away but it would not depart. The only thing that would allay it would be to see Legolas with her own eyes.

"We are not alone," She said finally. "Thranduil and his Elves have gone to ground under the wells also. Legolas and Gimli are with them! They are just upstream!"

Aragorn grinned fiercely. "I think the four of us and a hundred Elvish warriors can put paid to a sleeping demon without much fuss!"

She smiled back, shifting uncomfortably as her skin crawled at the proximity of the weapon strapped to her back, the weapon that would see the Huntress dead if anything in creation could slay her.

They made their way forward, moving along the clay mud edges of the waters where possible, or working their way against the current as fast as they were able. The cavern never shrank to a crawl space and their way never descended to a flooded tunnel. They journeyed at a slow cant, Aragorn behind her, his hand clasped firmly in hers for he was blind in the pitch black. Though they were by no means in constant darkness. Most of the way held some faint sliver of light, either from other wells they passed or from small imperfections in the ground above them, little cracks in the earth that allowed light to stream downward.

Aragorn stumbled frequently and his breath was labored and harsh. His mind was free of Simiasha's power, but he was still newly tainted with the Huntress' blood. Eowyn wondered that he was even on his feet. He kept pace with her as best he could and she kept a firm grip on his hand in case he fell. Somehow, she knew he would not. Not because he possessed great, super-human strength, but because he simply could not fall. Too much---his wife, his son, his kingdom, the entire West---depended upon him. He was the bearing wall that held everything he loved upright and he could not fall.

"Wait!" She whispered finally, bringing them to a halt at the mouth of a large cavern room. Behind her, Aragorn was straining to see in the unrelenting darkness. Not so much as a spark of light flickered about them.

But directly ahead, less than fifty yards, she could sense the brilliant flames of the five score Elven warriors and Thranduil himself.

"Lass?" A gruff voice called.

"Gimli!" She cried. "It is me! Aragorn is with me. Is---is Legolas with you?"

"He is," Gimli said, stepping from behind a cleft in the wall. He grinned widely. "I knew you would find us! Did I not says so, Legolas?"

Legolas materialized out of a solid bank of shadow right beside them. "I recall it was I who said she would find us quickly, my friend," he said, raising one brow arrogantly. If gave him the look of his father, in manner if not feature. He smiled at her warmly. "I am glad you are here, meleth-nin."

Eowyn threw caution and all restraint to the four winds. She fell into his embrace, joy and relief washing over her. "I thought they might have taken you as well," she sighed. "I am glad to see you safe!" She kissed him, heedless that Aragorn, Gimli, and very probably Thranduil and all his warriors were looking on.

She opened her eyes, slowly withdrawing her mouth from his, her heart shriveling to a cold husk in her chest. All hope fled as he smiled at her, cold and mocking. "Your kiss tastes of Estel, my faithless love," he said softly, still holding her close.

"And yours tastes of blood," Eowyn whispered, tears filling her eyes. She heard Aragorn's low sigh of pain as Gimli swung his axe, striking the king with the handle. "Your father and your people---"

"Oh, they are here, just around the bend up ahead," Legolas told her, one hand resting lightly on the back of her neck. "They are all unconscious."

Simiasha would not waste so much precious Elvish blood. She would gorge herself on Thranduil and his folk when she woke. Fool! Fool! Her mind shrieked. She had led Aragorn right into their hands like a lamb to the slaughter. She raised her right arm, setting her hand upon the pommel of the bright thing Ikako had forged for her. In the same instant, Legolas struck her across the temple with the butt of his long knife.

I have failed, she thought in despair as the she fell. I have failed everyone!


She woke in Legolas' arms, wondering for a moment if it all might have been a terrible nightmare. He body was still warm against hers. His hand upon her cheek, his lips upon her brow were gentle.

"She wakes," a harsh male voice said thickly. It took her a moment to realize it was Eomer speaking.

"What of it?" Legolas asked with cool indifference. "Keep your distance, Horserider. I will butcher you, your Men, and all the Mistress' host of the Dead if you touch her."

Eomer snorted with derisive laughter. "You are resisting the Mistress' will, Elf. I will enjoy watching her break you once more when she returns!"

The sound of many feet moving away. Legolas' chest rose and fell against her, a sigh of tense relief. He was sitting cross-legged upon the cobbles of the Fountain Square. She was bound hands and feet with thick chains, lying in his lap like a sleeping child, her head upon his breast. Fire flickered in her peripheral vision, the flames of scores of torches. The babble of hundreds of voices, low and excited, like spectators awaiting a coronation, came from all around. It seemed they were sitting on the edge of a great crowd.

It was full night.

"Help me," she implored softly.

"I cannot," he said, a world of sorrow in his voice. "Her mind is within mine. I am lost, beloved. I---I kept the others from---from hurting you, for the Mistress commanded that they do so. She is not pressing upon me so heavily now, but she is otherwise occupied. She rose an hour ago, and gave her Hunters leave to slay all the wounded still left in the City."

Eowyn felt a scream of rage and grief rise in her throat.

"Oh, Eowyn!" Legolas said. "She has taken Estel! There is only this much left of what is truly me because she is bending the full force of her will toward breaking his mind!" He sobbed softly. "I will protect you as long as I may. Until she returns. It is the best I can do. I am sorry, Eowyn! I am sorry!"

She raised her bound hands, touching his face, smoothing away the tears there. "When did you drink the water? I thought Elves could sense the foulness of the tainted blood."

"I did not drink," he said. "I think---I think when Aragorn purged our blood he also purged your protection. And after losing ourselves to the madness in battle last night, she was able to push her way back into my mind. Poor Gimli never had your blood to protect him, so he fell to her will first. Then she took me." His voice dropped to a dull whisper. "It hurt so terribly, Eowyn. It was worse than the first time for I knew what was happening and could not stop it. She commanded Gimli and I to see to it that everyone in Rhunballa drank from the tainted wells, and then to gather up all the Shards on false pretense. We did this very cleverly over the course of the day. I avoided you, Estel and my father because I knew one of you would see something amiss in me."

"Drink again!" She whispered urgently. "If you---"

"I cannot," he said softly. "She commanded explicitly against it, and even now I cannot disobey. Please! Please do not try to break your bonds! If you do, she commanded that I hurt you."

Eowyn shivered as she felt the prick of the tip of his long knife. He was holding it pressed against her belly. If she moved to escape, his hand would slice her guts open of its own volition.

"What can you do?" A voice asked quietly.

Eowyn twisted her head a bit trying to see. Thranduil was ten, perhaps fifteen feet away. He was chained with his hands behind him, shackled against a fence post in a sitting position. One of Simiasha's Undead must have driven the post into the stones of the Square. Here and there, all around the Square, the rest of Thranduil's folk were bound in the same fashion. No doubt the Huntress meant to glut herself upon them when she returned. Legolas stared at his father, his face blank and unreadable.

"You have said what you cannot do," Thranduil said slowly, his eyes boring into his son's. "Test what you can do. Probe the edges of the geas the demon set upon you and help your bride!"

"Where are my weapons?" Eowyn asked desperately. Oh, Eru, if they were thrown down some dark, fathomless hole in the earth, all hope was lost.

"I---"Legolas said painfully. "They---they are---" He seemed to be trying to force his words past some locked door in his mind.

"The beast specifically commanded that you prevent Eowyn's escape," Thranduil said intently. "That you wound her if she tries to flee. Did Thuringwethil say, 'Do not tell your love where you have lain her weapons'?"

Legolas quivered against her, his breath labored.

"Please, Legolas," she said softly. Oh Elbereth, they were nearly out of time! She could feel it in her bones and blood! "Fight her!"

"You are stronger that this, my son," Thranduil said. "All those you love most in Middle Earth will soon be dead or worse than dead if you do not help her! Think what the Huntress will do to Gimli, to Aragorn, to your Eowyn, if she wins!"

"I tossed them over there," Legolas gasped, nodding at the pile of glinting metal and leathers strewn over her torn, muddy cloak just to one side of where they sat.

Oh Merciful Elbereth! Oh, Lady of Light, thank you! Eowyn's heart sang.

"Bring them to me," Eowyn said steadily, holding his eyes with her own. His face was a mask of agony, his entire form was shaking with internal struggle, like a young tree caught in a violent tempest. "Bring them to me and set them in my hands. If I try to escape, you must stop me, but she said nothing about---"

"Legolas!" A harsh, deep voice said sharply.

Gimli son of Gloin stalked over to Legolas, his face a mixture of anger and fear. "The Mistress will dismember you alive if you even entertain such defiance, you idiot Elf! Do not listen to her. Or better yet, clout her unconscious again to keep her clouding your mind. Do not let her wile you into thinking with your---"

"Foul-mouthed, baseborn, mud-grubbing naugrim!" A rich, beautiful voice sang out. Thranduil curled his lips into an arrogant, derisive sneer. "I knew you would one day betray my son! I should have clapped you in irons the instant you first set foot in my realm. Just as I did your shiftless, cowardly father and his thieving, treacherous companions!"

Gimli rounded on the Elvenking, his face an ugly, distorted mask of rage. For a half instant, Eowyn met the eyes of Legolas' father and saw the cold calculation behind the jibes. He was drawing Gimli away, giving her another few precious moments to sway Legolas. Gimli barreled forward, with every intention of dealing Thranduil a ringing blow to the jaw. The King of Mirkwood grinned nastily, waiting until the Dwarf was close. Then his foot shot up and out and Thranduil kicked Gimli in the straddle with vicious precision. The Elvenking's sweet, musical laughter echoed across the Square as Gimli uttered a roar of pain, doubling over. People began drifting over, their familiar faces twisted with eager glee at the prospect of some cruel sport. The faces of Eomer, of Fallah and Suni and dozens of others seemed bloody in the red flare of the torchlight.

"I would have thought a Dwarf, of all people, would guard his family jewels with better care!" Eomer laughed.

"You will suffer for that, Elf!" Gimli muttered thickly.

A crowd, horribly reminiscent of the ring of Hunters who that tormented Gimli to his suicidal leap from the Crags, pressed in around the stock where Thranduil was chained, blocking Eowyn's view of Gimli and Legolas' father. And now, Eowyn saw that some of the throng were indeed Hunters, mixing freely with the living. And why not? They were all Simiasha's children now.

"Do you trust me, Legolas?" She asked softly.

"Yes," he breathed.

"Trust in me when I tell you I can defeat her," Eowyn said. She gazed up into his beautiful face, so full of terrible pain. "Do it now. Please, Legolas! Your father cannot hold their attention for long. Please!"

"What---?" His face was pale with effort. "What do you need?"

"Just pull the cloak over to me," Eowyn said, her voice trembling. "And do not touch anything inside it directly."

Slowly, carefully, he hefted her bound body a little more securely in his lap and began surreptitiously inching to one side, toward the pile of her gear. He need not have bothered with stealth. No one was paying them any attention at all. There rose another mocking cheer as Gimli shouted with anger and pain once more. Slowly, his eyes streaming with tears of strain, Legolas dragged the cloak and all that was heaped upon it into arm's reach.

He set her gently on her knees in front of him, all her weapons and armor now strewn between them.

He leaned forward and touched his lips to hers, a quick, desperate gesture of all the wealth of his love. "My father was wrong to even suggest that our love is a thing born of our shared blood!" He said fiercely. "I knew I loved you when you first kissed me in the Nest. Before I ever supped Simiasha's blood or yours. If we die tonight, die knowing my love for you was real and true and born of every good and brave and beautiful thing about you!"

She sobbed, unable to say anything at all to that. So, she simply kissed him.

He lay his hands on her face and edged back a bit. "I know you can break your bonds easily. Strike hard and quickly, Eowyn, for the instant you break free I must attack---"He went rigid, his face blanched with pain, his eyes glazing over. "Eowyn, quickly! She comes!"

Eowyn broke her chains and swung in one fluid motion, striking his temple with the broken end of the metal link. He dodged backward, faster than thought, and gods help her, in half a second she knew he was better, stronger and faster than her. She lurched forward, grasping at the bright thing in the pile of weapons and armor, a hopeless leap for salvation. He back-handed her and she spun, falling upon her face. She felt his knee drive hard in the small of her back, felt him wrench her arms behind her back with cruel force.

"The Mistress is coming! You will not spoil this night for her!" He hissed in her ear, his breath hot against the back of her neck. He wrenched her arms up brutally behind her, so high she thought she could hear the bone and sinew in the elbows and shoulder sockets groan aloud, and in this fashion dragged her to her knees. He knelt behind her, his knees on either side of her, and pulled her back against him, one hand still cuffing her wrists high behind her back, the other around her waist, holding her fast.

Everywhere, she could hear the din of hysterical joy rising up into the hot night air, human voices crying out along side the breathless shrieks of the undead, a descant hymn of black ecstasy.

Simiasha rose, her wings like the black fabric of unending night between the stars, fluttering upward from the sinkhole where the Fountain had once stood. She was healed, perfect and whole after feeding upon the blood of Thranduil's missing warriors. Behind her, Eowyn felt Legolas heave a sigh of adoration as he gazed up at the Queen of the Dead.

Aragorn hung in her grasp, suspended by the scruff of his neck.

Simiasha settled to earth amidst her flock of adoring offspring, oblivious to the cries of worship. She beautiful face was thunderous with fury. And as she hurled Aragorn to the ground with a snarl of rage, Eowyn suddenly saw why. He was pale as a corpse, drained half to death. But his eyes were still clear and bright. His mind was still his own, unbowed, unbroken in the wake of the Huntress' mental assault. How long had Legolas lasted when Simiasha bent her mind toward smashing his will? Surely it had been less than ten minutes. And Aragorn was still free, still unmarred by the pollution of her mind within his after a barrage that must have lasted hours.

"Be silent!" Simiasha hissed softly.

A dead hush fell over the crowd.

Not far away, Eowyn saw Eomer and Gimli, their faces alight with love as they gazed at the creature that had enslaved them. Thranduil hung in his chains, his face bruised and bleeding, all but forgotten. Everywhere Eowyn looked she saw the faces of those she knew, standing or kneeling, rapt as the Elves in Valinor kneeling before the Throne of Manwe. Legolas murmured the Huntress' name in her ear, a sigh that held love and dread mingled.

Simiasha was glowering down at Aragorn balefully. The King of Gondor rose to his knees, his eyes locked with hers, his pale face cold and full of disgust. Slowly, he began to climb weakly to his feet.

Simiasha lashed out with one dainty fist and clubbed him to his knees once more. Aragorn wavered unsteadily, shaking his ringing head painfully. Then he spat blood and tried to rise again. The barbed tip of the Huntress' ebon wing curled inward and down and its blunt side struck him across the thigh. Eowyn cringed at the sickening crack, the sound of Aragorn's leg breaking. He cried out and went down, listing drunkenly as he tried to hold onto consciousness.

Eowyn shifted, tensing to hurl herself forward, and she felt the sharp prick of his long knife in her side. "Do not spoil my beloved Lady's game," he said softly. "It will be your turn all too soon!"

"She is not your beloved!" Eowyn said through gritted teeth.

"Every time I touched you it was her face I saw!" Legolas sighed against her neck, laughing softly as she sobbed and twisted in his arms. "Every time my pleasure peaked it was her name my heart cried out!"

"That is a lie!" Eowyn cried. "It is her filthy lie!"

Aragorn fell to the ground as Simiasha slashed at him again with her wingtip. The crowd cheered their worshipful approval.

"Stupid mortal animal," the Huntress snickered softly.

"You may break every bone in my body one at a time if it please you," Aragorn rasped. "But it will not help you overthrow my mind!"

Simiasha shot forward in a blur of motion and hauled Aragorn up by the neck. She bored into him with her mountainous gaze, her face livid. "Tell me," she asked, stroking his face gently, her voice kind. "How can a filthy frail mortal such as yourself resist my might?"

"I might tell you if you somehow manage to break me," Aragorn said painfully. "So, I suppose you shall never know."

Simiasha's eyes widened, her teeth distending, her face losing its careful glamour of human beauty as she forgot to project the illusion in her anger. She was snarling into Aragorn's face, one hand aloft, a heartbeat from delivering an angry blow that would have torn her captive's head from his shoulders. Then suddenly, she froze. She laughed, high and sweet, shaking her head with grudging admiration.

"You almost goaded me into killing you, my clever darling," she chuckled. "But there are other methods that will bend your knees. You will open your mind to me, King of Gondor, or I will bring forth every child in this land and butcher them before your eyes." Her eyes cut toward Eowyn slyly. The Huntress smiled sweetly, seeing her held helpless in Legolas' arms. "But first...shall we see what sport we can devise to make the Captain of Rhunballa's Watch scream for mercy?"

Eowyn felt Legolas' body tremble against hers, a bare hint of a shiver. Even crushed beneath the weight of Simiasha's full power, he was not completely hers.

"Oh, I think I have solved this little puzzle," the Huntress said, smiling sweet venom at Eowyn. "You gave Elessar your blood, did you not? You ruined my Morsul and pilfered sweet Legolas from my very bosom. And now you would also have this fine, strong stallion for you own? Greedy wench!"

"Your imagination is as foul and diseased as your blood!" Eowyn shouted, and all the throng of thousands shouted their rage at her blasphemy.

"It occurs to me," Simiasha said thoughtfully, "that if the fountain of Elessar's resistance is your blood, then I have but to kill you and he will be defenseless against me. How sad! I had so hoped to leave you warm and breathing for a while so that you might better savor the sensation of all the ways I mean to torture you!" She unsheathed her claws.

"Her death will avail you not at all, Queen of Blood!" A clear voice called.

Simiasha smiled with malicious delight at the sight of Thranduil hanging bound in his chains. "Why is that, lovely one? Have you a secret you care to impart? Or are you simply trying to distract me?"

Thranduil's face was taught with arrogant rage. He spat in disgust. "You will not break the King of Gondor! He is of the line of Luthien, who was daughter to Melian of the Maiar. Luthien, who defeated Sauron in songs of power. Luthien, who charmed Morgoth himself to steal a Silmaril and left him facedown on the floor of Hell in a puddle of his own drool! Luthien, Thuringwethil, who by her arts of song skinned you like a fat fall rabbit and wore your mantle as a disguise to penetrate Angband! Now and then, the mortal branch of that line breeds true, hearkening all the way back to Luthien and Melian before her. Aragorn's body is mortal and he will not live the many centuries it would take to realize his full potential. He knows nothing of wizard craft or the arts of the Wise, save healing. But the full measure of his fore-mother's power burns within his mind. My son has told me Aragorn bested Sauron in a battle of wills as they vied for control of the Palantir of Orthanc. How do you hope to crush Elessar's will when you yourself could not have done this?"

"You lie!" Simiasha spat, stalking toward the Elvenking, leaving Aragorn and Eowyn forgotten for the moment. "I was Sauron's equal and more!"

"Say you so?" Thranduil asked with a mocking sneer. "It is said among the Elves that after Morgoth tired of your charms you fled to Tol-in-Gaurhoth in a huff and served Sauron as errand runner---though you may have been his scullery wench and doxy as well for all I know!" He threw back his golden head and laughed like a silver bell as Simiasha shrieked with inarticulate rage. "You were no match for Luthien. You were no match for Sauron. And you are no match for the King of Gondor." As he spoke, each word dripping with contempt, the Huntress continued to advance upon him, each step taking her another precious foot away from Aragorn and Eowyn, each taunt drawing ever more of her attention to Thranduil. "What will you do, Thuringwethil, when he is fully changed and you wake to the realization that instead of a consort, you have set up a King of the Undead to rule over you?"

"There are many ways to break a living thing, Oropherion," Simiasha said with a sly bow of her lips. "And it will be my great pleasure to show you all of them. And as for Elessar, if I cannot crack his mind by brute force, I will kill everything and everyone he loves while he watches. I will ride him until he breaks to the bit, be assured!"

"She is going to kill your father, Legolas!" Eowyn hissed desperately.

"He will goad her until she kills him out of hand!" Legolas tensed behind her but the knife against her kidney did not waver.

Simiasha was directly before Thranduil now. Slowly, she knelt before him and drew one hooked nail down the Elvenking's cheek. Thranduil met her eyes with cold antipathy, but as their gazes clashed, as long seconds drew out, his face began to darken with blood as though his heart were pounding, straining behind his breastbone. And very slowly, Thranduil's eyes grew wide with terrible fear. He swallowed, as though he were choking back a cry. He pressed his head against the ungiving wood of the post he was shackled to as though trying to shrink away from the gentle caress the Huntress was drawing up and down his face.

"Stop it!" Thranduil whispered, his face flushed, his voice shaking.

"Not all of my tortures involve pain," Simiasha said softly. "There is nothing that arouses my ardor so much as proud defiance. And as you see, I can make your body burn for me with nothing more than a touch."

Thranduil bit back a sob. His hands twisted against the chains, but the rest of his body was so rigid with strain he seemed frozen. Simiasha laughed lightly and leaned forward, her lips half parted. Thranduil uttered a growl that was a tortured mix of agony and desire. He leaned forward, pulling his chains taught, and kissed her hard upon the mouth.

"Adar..." Legolas whispered in Eowyn's ear, a soft note of horror.

The Huntress drew back, looking well pleased. "You are delicious, Oropherion."

Legolas' father sagged, shaking off the spell the instant the Huntress ceased touching him, and Eowyn saw that his face was streaked with tears. Slowly he raised his head, straightened his back and thrust his chin out defiantly. Then he spat in the monster's face with a hoarse sob of horror and disgust. Simiasha gaped at him in frozen rage.

"I," Thranduil said succinctly, "would sooner bed down with Sauron himself, you rotting, shriveled, boney-arsed, uncomely harlot!"

"Strike now, Eowyn!" Legolas gasped painfully, lowering his knife's point from her back.

And three things happened then, in the space of a single heartbeat. Simiasha raised her hand with a howl of maddened anger, preparing to slice the Elvenking's throat open to the bone. Eowyn wrenched free of Legolas' slackened grip and brought her elbow around. She slammed it against the Elf's temple with all her might and drove her fist into his sternum a half second later. Legolas coughed, bending forward as the wind was forced from his lungs. And Aragorn hurled a stone with deadly precision at the back of Simiasha's head.

Eowyn sprang forward, diving for the cloak where her weapons lay swaddled. Her hand locked about the thing she sought and she rolled back to her feet, dashing forward.

She stopped, placing herself directly between Simiasha and Aragorn.

Behind her, she felt Legolas climbing painfully to his feet, saw Eomer, Suni and Moussah flanking her on either side, knew Gimli had moved in behind her. Around them, the Hunters edged forward in a wide ring, cutting off any possible escape. As she beheld Eowyn, standing alone against her, the Huntress let loose a bray of hideous laughter.

"Stay your hands, my pets," she told her slaves, living and dead. "So...does the brave heroine think she can vanquish a daughter of the Ainur unaided?"

Legolas continued moving, circling around Eowyn to stand on Simiasha's right hand. Oh Elbereth, she will use him as a shield!

"You are no longer of the Ainur!" Eowyn said. "You are nothing more than a monster! And I am going to kill you."

"Are you now?" Simiasha strode forward with slow, amused arrogance, and Legolas kept pace with her. His face was completely blank, but his hands were clenched and shaking. The Huntress smiled like a girl with a secret love. Her teeth were clotted with gore. Perhaps it was an aspect of the Change working upon Eowyn, but this close, the mirage of the smiling beautiful woman seemed like a transparent, threadbare veil, only marginally obscuring the horror that lay behind. Simiasha moved to stand behind Legolas, threading her long nails through his bright hair so that he shivered visibly. "Still resisting, my love?" She murmured into his ear. Then she shifted her gaze back to Eowyn and her lips bowed prettily, covering the bloody, wolf-like fangs. "I have thought long, Eowyn of Rohan, upon what manner of torment I might devise for you." She shook her head regretfully. "I have so many delightful games in mind, and few of them will be as amusing once you are dead."

Eowyn stood tensely in an agony of indecision. She should attack, she should not hesitate. But she could not, would not, while the monster stood so close to Legolas.

Simiasha watched her eyes, saw her tense each time Legolas flinched under the Huntress' touch. Her smiled widened, baring her long, deadly canines, and she gently pushed Legolas aside. "But it seems I must now be merciful and slay you if I would have Elessar or the Prince of Mirkwood as my servants."

"Come," Eowyn said coldly. "Come and slay me yourself if you are not too weak and cowardly to do your own butchery!"

With a deep, guttural chuckle, the Queen of the Hunters leapt forward, clawed hands extended to tear Eowyn's flesh to bloody shreds. Eowyn stood firm and watched her come, talons bared, wings lashing. To Eowyn's skewed perception, the Huntress seemed like nothing so much as a drowned bat, flailing toward her through deep waters. Simiasha bore down upon her without care, unguarded, without a shred of fear. Eowyn waited until the Huntress was upon almost upon her.

And then she drew her sword, unsheathing its bright blade from it's the dull, black scabbard Ikako had died to complete, the veiling shroud wrought from the Daegond stone Moussah had given her.

Legolas and Gimli had gathered the Shards or Elwing's Orb and disposed of them all. All except for the three Ikako had taken from Eowyn's bedside table and ground into the steel from which she forged her masterpiece.

Shard, Eowyn had named it. Though, perhaps the sword had named itself. It seemed the shining blade had spoken to Eowyn's heart as she first took it in her hand, singing its own name in the whispering ring of steel as she tested its weight and balance. Cloistered in the obsidian sheath of the Daegond's iron, its power had remained invisible. The Daegond had been the final piece of the weapon, the shield that let Eowyn bring Shard close to Simiasha, so there would be no escape for the Huntress.

The light flared in a crystalline halo, unleashed from the Daegond's fetter, ten times more brilliant for having been confined in the presence of evil. Everywhere the sound of screams erupted, thousands strong, as tainted humans and Hunters alike were washed in the purifying light.

Simiasha's eyes widened in horror as her forward momentum drove her into the heart of the holy light. Eowyn stepped forward to meet her as she came. She drove the blade of solid light deep into Simiasha's belly and cut upward in a slicing stroke. Shard tore through sinew and bone, unseaming the Huntress from belly to breastbone like a threadbare garment.One mighty arm swung round and swatted Eowyn back through the air. Eowyn hit the ground and rolled back to her feet, head spinning from the blow. Shard was still in her hand.Simiasha reared back her head and howled. The Huntress' claws had grown larger, her arms and legs shifted into something thick, sinewy and elongated, almost reptilian. Her back sprouted a row of gray, sharply spiked
ridges. Her jaw distended like a shark's maw, and her nose and cheeks pushed forward, framing themselves into a vulpine muzzle. Her shimmering garments fell away to ash and her ivory skin melted into a gray-green, mottled color, pocked and ugly as the soul it encased.

All the while she burned, as her façade was seared away in Shard's light. She wailed in pain and surprise, staggering, staring down at the jagged, smoking tear in her midsection. She might have still had the power to fly away, she might have escaped at that moment. But foremost, always and ever, it was hate and spite that ruled every other emotion and impulse. Simiasha leapt at her enemy and lashed downward in spitting fury, burning like an oil-soaked tree but heedless of her own peril.

Eowyn leapt back, barely in time to avoid being hewn in half by the massive, flaming claw. They circled, each stalking the other, each taking the other's measure as best she could. And as Simiasha blurred toward her once more, as Eowyn leapt nimbly aside and slashed the edge of one black wing open, Eowyn's heart leapt. Theoden's voice rang in her mind. More oft than not, her Uncle had said, it is not the stronger warrior, but the more skilled warrior who wins the day. Simiasha was stronger and faster, but like most bullies, great and small, she had always relied greater strength without honing her skill.

Around their tense, vicious duel, the Square had dissolved into hellish chaos. The Hunters were all ablaze, shrieking as Shard's silver sheen burned them to ash. Every living soul infected by the Huntress' contagion wailed as well, falling to writhe upon the ground. Through the blood, they felt their Mistress' pain and burned with her, if only in their minds. But the Huntress' pain and distraction, her weakening wounds and the holy fire that was slowly reducing her body to a charred, animate cinder, had another, less universal effect on those she had enslaved. Some of the stronger minds had broken free of her thrall. In the corner of her eye, Eowyn saw her brother had crawled toward the stock posts where Thranduil and the other Elves hung chained. He was weakly hacking at the Elf King's shackles with his sword.

Eowyn forced her mind away from that, focusing solely on her enemy, looking for an opening, a space to attack through the blur of flaming claws.

She dodged in and out once more, missing the tearing sweep of one great wings by an inch. Simiasha spat bloody gore and hissed at her like a serpent. Her outer shell had burned completely away, revealing the flat horror that lay beneath. Simiasha was wounded and in horrible pain, but her furious, slitted eyes held cold calculated murder.

Eowyn never saw the stones that flew from the crowd, never saw the hapless living souls that Simiasha still held in her power as they hurled a score of rocks at her back upon the Huntress' command. Eowyn stumbled as she was struck in a dozen places at once. She had the single dazed thought that she had been a fool the assume her enemy would play fair, even in a duel Simiasha still believed she could win. Then the Huntress' wingtip whipped down, driving its spiked talon into the earth as Eowyn barely managed to side step in time. Before she could move again, Simiasha twisted and the other wing descended. It struck home, slicing Eowyn's left shoulder open to the bone. She staggered, reeling with the shock of the wound, but she did not fall. She did not drop her sword.

Simiasha's mouth drew wide in a long-toothed smile. She stepped lightly around Eowyn and bent to pick up the black Daegond sheath. As she lifted it, the flames that were burning her body without engulfing it, guttered out and were gone. The Huntress' mouth opened in soft wonder, her yellow eyes full of worshipful love.

"This has been touched by Him, my dearest, darkest love and my God!" She kissed it as a young bride would kiss her wedding band. She cut her eyes back to Eowyn and sneered. "It constrained the power of the Shards in your little sword, but it has also weakened their radiance temporarily. It is what allowed you to sneak your weapon into my presence, but it is also the reason they are too weak still to do more than give me this nasty sunburn. The treasures of the Dark One always find a way to aid His servants!" She hefted the scabbard in her right claw and advanced upon Eowyn. "Your sword will not regain its power quickly enough to save you, girl." A deep-throated, rasping chuckle. "Every soul in the accursed vale is mine! All shall change and fall beneath my wings!"

Eowyn leapt backward just in time, her breath short in her throat as more of her own blood soaked her breast each time she moved. Her hair stirred in the dank, humid breeze as the Huntress' wings lashed past her face.

The ragged tear in her shoulder was draining her strength away like a sieve.

Simiasha loomed before her, tittering merrily. Her wingspan was nearly forty feet from wingtip to wingtip. Eowyn would have to make her way through those deadly wings to deliver a death stroke. She realized with cold, pragmatic clarity that such an attack would most likely cost her life.

Let it be so, she thought. She must end this while she still had the strength to stand.

She dodged forward, through the Huntress' wings, slicing at the outstretched claw that rose to greet her. She whirled Shard about as Simiasha snarled in pain and raised the sword to drive it into her enemy's breast. Simiasha swung the Daegond sheath around and slammed it against Eowyn's shoulder wound. Eowyn screamed, falling backward. She had just enough strength to hold onto Shard and none left to support her own legs. She fell on her back. A leathery, scorched foot pressed down upon her chest, pinning her to the earth.

"This is not the end, my dear," Simiasha gloated. "You are too far gone in the Change to simply die. When I tear your heart from your breast, you will rise again. Die, mortal woman, knowing that your torment in my service is only just beginning!"

A bowstring sang and Simiasha cawed like a wounded raven, stumbling back, clawing at the shaft embedded in her left eye. As Eowyn tried to sit, tried with all her might to rise, she saw a battered Aragorn sitting beside Moussah. Somehow, between the two of them, they had managed to draw the crossbow and fire, despite the mental barrage the Huntress was projecting in all directions.

"One eye left, O Westron Dog!" Moussah laughed weakly.

Aragorn was trying to lay a second bolt in the crossbow's cradle with shaking hands. "Aye! Let us see if we can blind her!"

Eowyn managed to crawl to her knees and saw Fallah across the Square kneeling beside Eomer and Thranduil, picking at the Elf King's chains with a hair pin.

Simiasha tore the bolt from her eye with a rasping grunt and whirled, rounding on Aragorn and the young Emperor and bowling them over with a sweep of one mighty wing. Eowyn tried to stand and fell on her face, the world tilting on its side. She imagined she could hear the earth shuddering under the Huntress' feet as she advanced upon Eowyn, ready to deal her the deathblow she had promised.

And then Gimli and Legolas rose, their long knives and axe twin blurs of speed. Gimli cried out in his own tongue, a bass battle cry. He clove downward, shaving the Huntress' right wing from her body in a single powerful chop. In the same instant, Legolas sliced the other wing with viscous surgical precision, his eyes bright and fierce, free of Simiasha's power once more. The monster swung drunkenly, catching Gimli a solid blow. The Dwarf went flying over Eowyn's head and she struggled back to her knees.

"Fire at will!" Thranduil shouted stridently in Sindarin. Eomer and Fallah had managed to free the King of Mirkwood and four of his warriors. His ringing voice sang out in chorus with Suni's as she ordered her archers to let fly their arrows. But the arrows never met their mark.

Simiasha tossed back her head and roared.

It was not a sound born of vocal chords or anything as insubstantial as flesh. It was a mental shout, a standing wave of power hurled outward in every direction. What she had done moments ago in pain, she did now with cold purpose. It felled every thinking being in its path, driving the Elves to their knees with simple raw force and bombarding the infected mortals through the conduit of her blood bond. Though the light of Shard and Simiasha's weakened state had freed the minds of a few of the living mortals in her thrall, it did not shield them from this assault. All around the Square, all throughout the City, every living thing shackled in blood to Simiasha fell to the ground and shrieked in agony.

Eowyn stood, rising to her feet unsteadily, alone before the creature the Haradrim called the Queen of Blood and Darkness. Eowyn could feel her wounds closing, healing themselves. She knew Morsul's blood still flowed in her veins. She knew Gandalf's spell would guard her mind from Simiasha's influence while she still drew breath. But strangely, the weight of the Huntress' will, which had pressed down on her like a falling mountain in the Nest, was only a painful buzzing inside her head. Had the Change drew Eowyn completely into its icy embrace, Simiasha would have lost all power to harm her in any way. I will have one queen in this little hive, the Huntress had said, And I will not suffer pretenders. Had Simiasha understood even then that the Change in Eowyn might create a free-willed, undead rival rather than a slave?

Eowyn smiled grimly, gripping Shard in her bloody hands. She strode forward. Simiasha's lips pulled apart in a snarl and she bent and hefted something off the ground, holding it before her like a shield. Too late, Eowyn saw that it was Legolas' half-conscious body. He had fallen almost at Simiasha's feet when she hurled her power at those around her.

Eowyn stopped, her heart in her mouth, her eyes on Legolas' pale face as the Huntress lifted him up, her hand around the back of his neck so that he was facing Eowyn. He shook his head minutely, silently begging her not to stay her hand for his sake. But Eowyn could not move for fear. She stood frozen, helpless, forgetting her danger and all the lives that hung in the balance.

"I shall punish you for long centuries, woman of Rohan," Simiasha said softly. "But at the moment, I think I know what will hurt you most."

Legolas gasped, his eyes widening in pain and surprise as the Huntress drove one clawed arm forward like a spear, through the Elf's back and out his chest. For an eternity that was surely only a few seconds, he hung impaled on the monstrous claw, suspended between life and death, his rent heart pouring his life away upon the uncaring ground. His eyes never left Eowyn's. There were tears of pain and shock in their sea gray depths, but also of sorrow immeasurable for a parting that would be everlasting, until the end of Time.

Eowyn watched, mute and paralyzed as Simiasha smiled and lashed her arm, flinging Legolas off her claw with casual brutality. He fell on his face at Eowyn's feet and lay still, unmoving, a widening pool of red spreading out beneath his body.

"You look so stricken, my girl!" Simiasha snickered, her words cutting into the numb cold that was encasing Eowyn like a prison of ice.

Eowyn knelt, heedless of Simiasha's gloating danger. The Huntress would not attack, Eowyn thought distantly. She would want to revel in Eowyn's pain. Gently, she rolled Legolas onto his back, and a soft little sigh escaped her lips as she saw again the finality of the wound her enemy had dealt him. His eyes were closed, but breath still rattled wetly in his ruined breast, growing fainter by the second. She touched his face, numb within, cold and seemingly unmoved without. She was frozen once more. And never shall I thaw again, her mind whispered. How could she walk again in the Sun when he who had rekindled light and warmth in her body and heart lay cold and lifeless? Oh, she would flee the bonds of flesh and the living world this moment and fly to his side if she could! But it would avail her naught. He was leaving, going where she could not follow, to the destiny prepared for the Firstborn. And there in Mandos or Elvenhome he would dwell beyond her ken, beyond her reach. Forever and ever and ever.

"Do not fear, child!" Simiasha said with bright malice. "He is bound by my blood to his flesh and cannot seek Mandos. He will rise again within the hour and you and he may have a sweet reunion." She tittered. "Though you may find her embrace a tad cold."

Eowyn blinked. Her head whipped up, her blue eyes meeting the Huntress' yellow, slitted orbs. She was still frozen in a world of cold, comfortless grief, but she was no longer immobile. She bent and kissed Legolas' bloody lips. Then she stood, Shard in hand, the unfeeling, dreamlike daze she had been submerged within fled and was gone. She stood before her enemy, eyeing the Huntress with chill, implacable purpose. Simiasha would not have Legolas' soul, Eowyn thought icily. Nor Aragorn's, nor Eomer's, nor that of any other in this land.

Eowyn planted her feet, washed in a terrible sense of familiarity. For the second time in her life she stood alone, barring the horror before her from the fallen loved one behind her. The loved one she had again been to slow to save. They called her fearless, a slayer of demons that crushed the courage of lesser warriors. Fools! It took no courage at all to fly into the maw of Hell when that which you loved most in the world lay in a bleeding wreck on the field. It needed no brave heart to rush upon the barbed talons of nightmares when the souls of her beloved, of everyone she knew, lay in mortal danger. Stupid beast, Eowyn thought unfeelingly, to have pushed her once more to that cold, silent place where nothing mattered but the death of her foe.

Eowyn sped forward in a white arch of speed, heedless of the Huntress' readied claws. Shard flared again, bright and beautiful, as she drew nearer her prey, filling the world with its holy, silver light, blotting out all other things. Simiasha slashed wildly, blind in the halo of Shard's radiance, and Eowyn dodged through her claws effortlessly. She swung, a clean, even stroke, feeling her blade slide through flesh and bone as easily as if her target had been a dry strawman. Simiasha's head flew from her body and bounced unceremoniously, rolling on the cobbles like a child's ball.

Eowyn watched the decapitated body flounder and fall. She limped toward the Huntress' head and stood staring down into the misshapen face dispassionately. All in all, Eowyn decided, she much preferred Simiasha's bat form. It showed her as she truly was. Simiasha's eyes were wide and still aware, her lips bitten through in her rage like a rabid thing. She was still trying to speak. She had spewed bile and hatefulness to her last breath and beyond. Eowyn raised Shard and, without a word, clove the head of Simiasha, the Huntress, the Queen of Blood and Darkness, Thuringwethil of old, asunder. The monster's head fell in two neat halves like a ripe melon. A moment later, all that was left of the Huntress' carcass crumbled to brown, dirty ash.

Eowyn turned away, joyless and gray, deaf to the weak cries of relief on every side. She stumbled, falling to her knees beside Legolas. She bent and brushed back the bloody strands of his golden hair and kissed his lips softly. And as she did, she felt his last breath sigh away. His lips were still warm, but no wind now stirred in his empty lungs. She paid no heed to the shouts about her, the running feet and the voices that seemed to be speaking her name. She lifted his limb body and held him, her cheek against his.

"Fly to your rest, my love," she whispered. "You are free of her and all evil things forever."

Dimly, as though from a great distance, she might have heard Gimli's deep voice breaking in tearful denial, Aragorn's harsh intake of breath, Thranduil's beautiful baritone hoarse with cracked sobs. She held Legolas close. His heart, the strong drum of his life that had always beat so fiercely against her breast as they lay in each other's arms, was quiet now, torn and stilled forever. She held the fair, empty shell that had housed her lover's soul and tried to picture him, beautiful and whole, flying to his long dead mother's embrace beyond the Sundering Sea, across the Straight Way. But she could not see that far, even in her imagination. There was nothing now in the gray, frostbitten world but the cold, solitary bitterness of her loss.

Someone tried to take her hand gently, but she shook her head in silent, adamant refusal of any feeble attempts to give her comfort. People were shouting now, some were singing, all lost in the euphoria of freedom, of victory when all had seemed hopeless. Eowyn did not care. She realized now that she could have born the loss of any other soul in the vale, even Eomer, and recovered in time. Any soul except Legolas. For with him, there would be no reunion in the untold hereafter. He was gone and nevermore would she see him again.

"It is not fair," she whispered. She raised her head, gazing up at the star strewn sky. The lights in the deaf heavens seemed dimmed of all radiance.

All but one.

Earendil shone like a far distant lighthouse, overly bright tonight. Perhaps the Mariner could see them from his mighty ship and wept for the death of the son of Thranduil. She wondered dully if Thranduil had known the half-elven prince of ancient Gondolin, the man who had become a star, and called him friend.

What did it matter. She lowered her eyes, deaf to Aragorn's soft words.

"Eowyn," Aragorn said. His large hand covering hers felt warm. She wished he would not touch her. She did not want warmth. "Eowyn, you must let him go. His father and Gimli will see to him." She did not answer.

"Let his father hold him, Eowyn. He will care for Legolas while I see to your wounds." She knew she was behaving unforgivably. She knew Thranduil's grief was as great as hers, if not greater. But she could not seem to move. If she let Legolas go, let his father and kin tend him, bathe him, wash the blood and dust from his face and hair, then he would be truly gone.

"Please," she said again, though she had no idea who it was she beseeched. "Please, it is not fair!"

"Eowyn---"Aragorn began.

"Let her be a moment," Thranduil said softly. He was weeping. But it was not grief for one lost forever, only parted untimely. And somehow, even in the midst of his own terrible sorrow, he understood the difference in her loss and his own. His hand closed over hers and he bent his fair head over his son's still face and wept the tears she could not.

The babble of voices around them had grown noticeably softer. A faint glow, a silvery sheen of muted luminescence, bloomed in the corner of her eye. Lying at her side, almost forgotten, Shard had begun to glow softly once more. Eowyn frowned in tired confusion, drawing her hand from Thranduil's to grip Shard's pommel in a firm hold. How in Arda could Simiasha still have an infinitesimal speck of like left in her foul ashes to trigger the sword's power? Eowyn had no will left for anything but revenge, but that would more than suffice here.

No one else seemed to have noticed; not Thranduil, not Gimli, not Aragorn. The hushed murmur of voices around them had fallen away to dead silence. Belatedly, Eowyn saw that the Square had brightened considerably. The shimmering, pale nimbus of Shard's power that seemed to be growing stronger by the second was not the solitary source of radiance. Everyone in the Square sat suspended in stupefied wonder and not a little fear, gazing upward.

The Star of Hope was growing steadily brighter. It hovered in the firmament, directly overhead. It had somehow grown as large as a second Sun. But this Sun was not golden. It washed all things in pale, silvery blue, like twilight's magic hour reflected upon the aqua-hued waters of the summer seas.

"How low he flies!" Aragorn said softly, almost fearfully.

"He does not fly," Thranduil said in a hushed voice. "He descends! By the Bright Lady, Elessar! I think your kinsman means to pay us a visit!"

They watched, thunder-struck in muted awe as the star that was not truly a star grew ever brighter in the night sky. The pale blue light waxed in strength but it did not hurt the eyes to gaze directly upon it. It had obscured the other stars in the heavens and now occupied a quarter of the sky. Eowyn glanced down at her sword in amazement, for it seemed now that she held a second, smaller star in her hand. It was...

Shard was honing to the source of its light, the Silmaril that had first imbued what had been simple crystal glass with it holy power. Each second the Silmaril drew closer to Middle Earth Shard seemed to flare all the brighter, as a child might leap with joy to see its mother approach. Far, far above, still riding higher that the tallest peak of the Misty Mountains, Eowyn imagined she could just make out a flash of gold, the glittering prow of Vingelot, and the shimmering ivory of ghostly sails of solid light fanned out above.

Take up the sword, my son.

The voice was very like Aragorn's, and yet it was not. It was deeper, stronger, like the tolling of a far sea bell. Every note was like the sweetest song Eowyn had ever heard. It rang clear and fair in the silence of her mind and each word seemed to warm and soothe the aching cold in her tired, beaten soul.

"I will, Lord," Aragorn said. He sounded as though his mouth had run dry of spit. "Eowyn," his eyes met hers, as dazed as her own, she was sure. "Will you lend me your sword?"

Do as he asks, child, Earendil's voice sang again in Eowyn's mind. Thy beloved is not beyond saving, but thou hast not the strength for this healing.

Eowyn all but thrust the sword into Aragorn's hands. Hope and fear reawakened inside her, so sudden and fierce and unlooked for her heart stuttered with the shock of it. She caught Gimli and Thranduil's eyes and saw there the same flash of vertigo and fearful pain. Desperate hope was agonizing coming so close upon the heels of despair, but it was infinitely preferable.

Lay the sword upon his breast, son of Elros, the voice from above reverberated in their minds. It is a conduit to the star upon my brow. Draw what thou dost require for the healing and no more lest its power consume thy mortal flesh.

"This is cruel and fruitless foolery, thou arrogant Noldoli bastard!" Thranduil cried suddenly, sliding unconsciously into the same archaic dialect. He raised a fist to the sky and turned his tear-streaked face upward. "That holy bauble upon thy brow hath great power, but it cannot raise the dead!"

Congenial as ever, old friend, came the wry reply, but it was tinged with gentle fondness.

Aragorn had not paused to listen to this exchange, nor had Eowyn. He lay the blade of Shard upon Legolas' torn breast and Eowyn and Gimli held him. It did not need two pairs of hands to prop up Legolas' limp form but Eowyn did not begrudge Gimli's help in the least. She felt his rough, warm hand cover hers as they watched, not daring to breathe. Aragorn's face was lined with tense concentration as he poured every ounce of his strength into the task before him. Shard became a blazing fire of radiance, a world of light and thrumming power. It eclipsed all things above and below and did not fade. Eowyn watched, her heart stumbling through an unsteady rhythm in her chest, praying as she had not prayed since the winter long vigil at her mother's sickbed twenty years past.

It is done, the voice of Earendil said at length with soft satisfaction. Withdraw thy hand and will, Aragorn, lest it burn thy own heart to ash. Thy strength is greater than that which thy mortal body can longer sustain.

Slowly, the light within the blade began to slip away, not fading so much as dispersing, washing outward to fill the Square and the darkened streets and houses beyond with a luminous shimmer that would not dissipate for many weeks.

Eowyn paid this no mind. She gazed down at Legolas' face. His tunic was torn where the wound had been, he was still covered in his own blood, but the flesh beneath the jagged hole in his cotton shirt was whole again, showing no hurt. His skin was warm, his color was high. But still he did not breathe. Aragorn saw this as well and leaned forward, laying two fingers on Legolas' neck.

"His heart is strong," Aragorn murmured. "But his lungs are empty---as though he were drawn half-drowned from a river!" He glanced sharply at Thranduil. "He needs cuilthul!

"I know the method!" Thranduil snapped urgently. He pushed forward, rude in his haste, all but tearing his son from Eowyn and Gimli's arms. He lay Legolas flat on his back, kneeling beside him while Aragorn moved with a hiss of pain as he jarred his broken leg and bent over the Elf's head. "I will press upon his breast, Elessar! You must breathe the wind back into his body!"

Eowyn edged back, her hand still tightly wound in Gimli's, her own wounds forgotten. They counted in fours, Thranduil pressing rhythmically upon his son's chest as Aragorn placed his mouth over Legolas', breathing air back into his empty lungs.

"Breathe, lad!" Gimli was murmuring, gripping Eowyn's hand to tightly her fingers went numb. "Breathe!"

Torturous moments crawled by in this fashion. Eowyn barely noticed that Fallah now knelt beside her, clasping her one free hand, that her brother, and Shaeri and Suni and a dozen others were gathered about them in a silent circle. Beside her, very softly, Eowyn heard Fallah praying in her own tongue.

Legolas bucked suddenly, his back arching as he drew in one great gasping of breath and began coughing weakly. Eowyn moaned softly and began to weep. The world wheeled drunkenly about her, but she held onto consciousness with joyous tenacity. Thranduil was bent over his son, kissing his face, speaking softly to him, his words choked with tears. Aragorn held Legolas' other hand, but his gray eyes were turned upward in exhausted wonder.

"Elrond told me there is a shadowland between life and the death of the body, a point where the heart has stopped and breath is stilled, but life yet remains in the brain. And thus, the fea has yet to take leave of its house.

He told me that if healing could be wrought with sufficient strength a patient might be saved, even in this extremity." He swallowed and the hand that held Shard trembled the slightest bit. "Is---is that what we have done this night, Lord?"

It is, his forefather replied. Do not fear, my son. Thou hast not raised the dead, nor made any affront to the laws of Creation. The child of Thranduil has great work before him. His refrain in the Song of Arda is far from finished. A choice, both blessed and bitter, is upon him. But neither road will skirt his destiny, nor that of his bride. Eowyn felt a chill of low, foreboding terror sweep through her at those words, though she could not have said why.

I shall say no more, Earendil intoned. The rest is for him to tell. As he spoke, the Star above began to recede, rising quickly toward the heavens. Fare thee well, Thranduil! We shall meet again, by and by. Farewell, Aragorn. Elrond bids thee kiss the face of thy wife and son in his name. And I would ask the same boon for my Lady and myself. Farewell, Moussah of Harad. And at this, Moussah, who stood just behind Shaeri, started, looking pale and shaken. Thou art also a son of my line. Listen to the wisdom of thine own heart, my son, above the teachings of thy fathers, and thou shalt be a great king. Earendil's words grew fainter, a distant echo, like a voice calling across the glassy plane of a wide lake. Fare thee well, Eowyn of Rohan. There are great deeds behind thee, but greater still before thee. Be brave, and do not fear to love. In the end, it is what matters most...

He was gone.

The twinkling glint of Gil-Estel journeyed onward through the arch of the night. Eowyn craned her head back, gazing upward in dizzy wonder. She did not realize that she was falling until Gimli caught her as she toppled backward.

She never quiet lost consciousness, though some moments of the hour that followed would be fuzzier in her memory than others. She dimly remembered being carried in Eomer's strong arms, away from the low, awestruck murmur that quickly built to a roar of cheering voices. She caught a brief glance of Legolas' sleeping face as Thranduil bore his son along as well to the relative privacy of Queen's Guard Watch House. It seemed she drifted away for the few seconds between the front door and the rear barracks' common room. Her own quarters were too smoke damaged to enter, but miraculously, most of Queen's Guard had escaped the fires of the previous night's battle unscathed. Eowyn remembered bits and pieces of the next little while. She recalled her brother and Fallah stripping off her tattered mail and leathers, washing and tending her wounds. She remembered Aragorn's sharp cry when Gimli and Thranduil set his broken leg. She drifted in and out of sleep listening to Fallah and Thranduil argue over the best way to splint a leg broken above the knee. But her clearest recollection, the image that brought her back to full awareness, was of Legolas' smooth, gentle fingers threading through hers and the sweet, verdant smell of his skin as he pressed his lips to her brow. She roused, rising to meet his kiss. He was half-sitting, half-laying beside her upon a makeshift sleeping pallet, smiling down at her.

"Good morning," he said softly.

She sat up with a wince and buried herself in his embrace. He was warm and solid and blessedly, wondrously alive and well. She withdrew, mute with too much emotion to voice. Her fingers pressed through the weave of his clean, soft shirt, to touch his chest. It was unmarred, as though he had never taken any hurt at all. All conversation in the small barracks hearth room had stopped. And then everyone began talking at once, converging in from every side, their faces alight with joy. Thranduil lay a hand on his son's cheek, staring deeply into Legolas' eyes. The King's face was happy, but something he saw in his son's gaze gave him pause. He drew back a bit, his fair face troubled and apprehensive. Gimli and Aragorn pressed forward, taking Legolas's hands, while Fallah and Eomer hung back, their faces full of happiness, yet mixed with something incongruous. It took Eowyn a moment to realize they were over-awed. And a little afraid.

But as ever, it took Fallah's curiosity less than a minute to override her fear.

"How do you feel?" She as eagerly.

Eowyn saw with an odd mix of fondness and outrage that the crux of her friend's question had little to do with her friendship or worry for Legolas.

Legolas saw this too, but it seemed to amuse him. Eowyn withdrew from his arms just a little, staring at his face. He seemed unchanged, but...

"Do you ask how I feel now?" He said with a quirk of one corner of his mouth. "Or how did it feel to be dead?" And he laughed silently at the mortified look on Fallah's face. "I cannot say. I did not die. Though, I was..." He paused, considering his words. "...elsewhere for a time. I spoke with him for a while. With Earendil." He eyed his father, mischief flickering in his bright eyes. "He told me he was amazed that the line of Oropher had produced such an even-tempered youth as myself."

Thranduil grunted something that sounded like, "Pompous Noldoli princelet!"

Legolas' eyes grew solemn. "He told me many things in a short space of time as I hovered between life and death. He said---"He broke off, his face creasing with an indecipherable expression. A little silence drew out. He turned his eyes to Eowyn after a moment, seemed to draw strength from nothing more than the sight of her face. "I think perhaps I am a little overwhelmed at the moment."

Eowyn nodded, watching the play of emotions across his features. "That is no great wonder."

He studied her closely. "How do you feel? You were sorely hurt!"

"How do I feel?" She smiled at the absurdity of such a question from him. She flexed her wounded shoulder, feeling only a sharp twinge of pain. But she had been sliced nigh to the bone! Now, it was little more than a pang of discomfort when she moved. Either the healing rays of Shard's power had somehow spilled over into her or----"

"Oh, no..." She lay one hand against her mouth, an angry knot of despair forming in her chest. You are bound in blood to my darkness forever, Simiasha had told them. "We are still unclean!" She said, her voice thick with tears. "We---we are not free---!"

"Not so!" Thranduil said sharply. "She is dead, glorfinniel! The source of your malady is no more. "Long ago, I was part of the band of warriors who cleaned out the nests of Thuringwethil's scions that sprang up on the outskirts of our settlements at the Mouths of Sirion. On one occasion, we found living Edain, Lord Tuor's kinsmen, who we rescued from the burning. The were alive, but half changed. When their master was slain, they slowly returned to normal, though not instantly. It took a bit of time for their bodies to purge the poison completely."

"Would aethelas tea speed the process along?" Aragorn asked.

"Not as far as Galadriel and the Lady Elwing were able to discern," Thranduil replied.

"How long?" Eowyn asked tensely. "How long until we---we are whole again?"

"I think---or my heart tells me---that the Silmaril washed the stain from Legolas' body as it healed him." Thranduil studied her, his expression unreadable.

"How long for Gimli and Eowyn?" Aragorn repeated her question with a frown.

"Two of the four we saved were butchered, defending the Havens when the son of Feanor---"He stopped, his face gray with old horror and old rage. "Of the two that survived the massacre, one was a young woman, the other a girl child of ten." Thranduil eyed Eowyn again with that odd, inscrutable stare. "While the taint still flowed in their veins, they did not age, but remained locked in stasis, unchanged from the moment they first tasted of darkness. The child, Gilian, remained a child---in body, at least---for five score years before she began to grow again. The woman conceived and bore a child one hundred and twenty years after she was infected. That is how she knew she was free of the malady at last."

Eowyn stared back at him, dumbfounded. One hundred years. One hundred years or more to live with this black vileness inside her. She began to shake her head, willing it to be a lie. Her eyes filled with tears of helpless sorrow and rage. Legolas' hand gripped hers, warm and strong.

"I---I do not think I can bear it!" She sobbed.

"You can," Thranduil said flatly. "You can and you will bear it, daughter. For my son's sake, if not your own!"

"Adar---"Legolas began, his face darkening with anger.

"Will we lose ourselves in bloodlust as we did in the battle two nights past?" Gimli asked suddenly. "Will we crave blood? Will we dream of darkness and murder? Or will we simply live on unchanged until the last of the poison works it way out of our bodies?"

Thranduil was silent a moment. "The woman and the child were stronger, faster and more durable that Man or Elf. They healed in a day after taking grievous hurt. They—they wrestled at times with a kind of fell leaning toward violence when roused to anger, but I do not know how much of that was their own anger at the evil around them coupled with their added strength. The woman found she could sense when dark things were nigh and she became a hunter of evil creatures. But otherwise, they were true to their own innate natures."

Gimli pondered this for a moment. Then he finally snorted. "Well, then! There's no use fretting if there's no help for it. I had worried about living long enough to see Algarond finished anyway. It seems I shall have more time to labor upon my life's work than I thought!"

Eowyn regarded him with mild amazement as he mentally set that matter aside as though it were a mild annoyance in which he had just found some serendipitous benefit.

"You heard my father," Legolas told her intently. "You will not lose yourself in darkness while the effects of our ordeal linger. You will simply live a bit longer than is natural for a mortal of you lineage."

"You will know the last dram of poison has departed when your monthly courses return," Thranduil told her, speaking more gently than before. "Until then, you shall not age a day. But neither may you conceive."

"That---!" Eomer said with an embarrassed sputter. "That is an unseemly subject to broach in the company of a maid, my Lord!"

Thranduil eyed him with displeasure and mild pity. "Your sister is the bride of my son and therefore, most notably, not a maid. Mistress Fallah is a physician among her people, not a sheltered child. Moreover, I imagine, as women, they both have more than a nodding acquaintance with these matters." Fallah made a noise that sounded like a muffled giggle. "But I beg your pardon, my Lord of Rohan, if I have trod upon your own delicate sensibilities."

Eomer turned red, but before he could utter and angry retort, Thranduil had turned back to Eowyn, regarding her kindly. She wondered if she had passed some sort of final test in his mind in her failure to be pleased at the prospect of lengthened years at any cost.

"If---if Gimli and I can live our lives without a press of darkness upon our minds and hearts, then---"She sighed, feeling so tired she felt as though she could sleep a year. "Then, I will endure it. I suppose I have no choice." But still, her heart caught in a little stitch of sadness. "But---but you have said that until I am wholly cleansed, I will be—be barren?"

"But not forever," Legolas said softly.

Thranduil snorted, eyeing Eowyn and his son in turn. "Such woeful faces! Most newly wedded couples prefer a decade or ten to themselves without children underfoot." His lips curled minutely. "I supposed I must forego the hope of dark-haired grandchildren altogether."

"Adar," Legolas said suddenly. "Maniel and the others may be injured or worse, for they were chained and beaten as you were."

"And I should see to them," Thranduil said. He drew one hand down his son's face as though to reassure himself once more that he did not dream. He smiled, but a shadow of gnawing worry still dimmed his bright eyes.

"I will go with you, O King," Fallah said shortly. She was already gathering up her physician's bag. "You may need another pair of healer's hands."

"Aye," said Eomer shortly, rising. "I should look to my own men."

"I thank you, harwen," Thranduil said with a polite nod. His eyes did not leave his son's. "You should rest, my son. We will speak of many things later, I am sure." He rose and left without a backward look.

"What does 'harwen' mean, my Lord?" Fallah's voice grew fainter as she followed the Elvenking out into the early morning light. Thranduil's rich chuckle echoed back through the empty forward barracks.

Eomer bent low and kissed Eowyn's cheek. "I will see you after you have rested, sister. Sleep well. Eru knows you have earned it!"

"Your lord father's parting words sounded almost like a threat, my friend," Gimli snorted.

"A promise, more like," Legolas said solemnly, his bright eyes troubled.

Aragorn was regarded him curiously. "Aye, he was not fooled by your less than subtle ploy to get him to leave and see to his warriors. He was fairly dancing from foot to foot with curiosity. I confess, so am I."

"He will press me until I tell all," Legolas said softly. "And I shall. But not now, and not with other eyes looking on."

"Tell what?" Gimli frowned, looking profoundly confused.

"Earendil told you more than he revealed to us," Eowyn said. As memory flowed back, she began to better understand Thranduil's apprehension. "He spoke of a choice and a destiny from which you could not turn aside."

Legolas was silent, his eyes turned inward.

"My friend," Gimli began, "you need not say ought if you---"

"Nay, Gimli," Legolas raised a hand. "I must speak. I fear I will burst if I do not, for it is too much to keep to myself." He sighed. "Oh, but my father will grieve so..."

"Is it so terrible?" Aragorn asked hesitantly. He sounded, almost, as if he did not wish to hear the answer.

"Terrible and wonderful," Legolas replied. "And frightening. But I suppose true prophesy always is." And at these words, Eowyn felt a tangible chill pass through all those present. Legolas set his hand in hers and paused a moment before continuing. "Let me speak of the most urgent news first. Earendil and Mithrandir petitioned the Valar themselves and won leave to warn us of our danger. Sauron is overthrown, the Mariner told me, but another power---one equal in cunning, though less in raw strength---will soon try to rise in his place. He bade us remember that the Ainur have power and craft beyond our ken and may rise again in another form should their bodies be slain. This message Mithrandir bade Earendil carry to us all. 'Be watchful, my young friends, but do not jump at shadows. I cannot say with utter surety, but I believe the dark power we have sensed stirring in Arda may already be known to you, at least in part. He will come in a form that is pleasing. He will not strike with brute force for he is yet weak. He will seek to destroy Gondor and all his enemies in more subtle ways. Be ware, and trust your hearts in discerning friend from foe. Do not refuse the hand of those who seek redemption. Make haste to Gondor, Aragorn, for this enemy will make himself known within the year. Do not fear for Arwen and the babe. They are already under the wing of a strong protector, though they do not know it. Farewell! I send my blessing and my love! If I could, I would return to aid you, but my time in Middle Earth is finished.'" Legolas paused. "I will have some pivotal part to play in this matter, though what or how Mandos did not reveal."

"Well, that is marvelous!" Gimli growled into the long silence that followed. "How many times must one of the Ainur be slain to stay decently dead?!"

"More than once, it seems," Aragorn murmured darkly. "These are heavy tidings. I find myself remembering something Bilbo Baggins said on the eve of the War. 'Don't adventures ever have an end?'" He sighed, sounding as tired as Eowyn felt. "Is this tied to the choice Earendil spoke of?"

"No," Legolas said. "That is another matter entirely and my burden alone." He paused and inhaled slowly as though to steady himself. His hand in hers tightened, but Eowyn could feel the minute tremble that passed through him. "I hardly know where to begin."

"Let me help you," Aragorn said. "Does this concern your mother's father? The one who was called Taurion?"

If Aragorn had suddenly grown a pair of horns from his forehead, Legolas would have looked less surprised. But shock faded slowly into an odd, wounded frown. "You knew?" Legolas asked softly. It sounded almost like an accusation. "How long have you known, Estel?"

"I knew nothing," Aragorn replied. "The year we met, when you first summered in Imladris, I overheard Elrond and Glorfindel talking."

Legolas' lips twitched, though his body radiated a stunned, hurt sense of betrayal. "Aye, you were a champion little eavesdropper."

"I was crawling beneath the floor, pretending I was spying upon the counsels of the Enemy," Aragorn said. "Elrond himself knew nothing with surety. He only had suspicions which he was never able to confirm. Long ago, before the Last Alliance, he questioned your mother about her father, but as she had no memory of him and her own mother was also dead, there was nothing she could tell him. And he did not trouble her mind with half-wrought suspicions."

Legolas nodded in acceptance, but the tension in his body did not relax as he gazed on his friend. He turned and, seeing the patent confusion on the faces of Gimli and Eowyn, smiled. "My mother's father was called Taurion. He was a foundling of sorts. Silvan hunters came upon him in the deep woods, a half-grown lad, almost completely feral. This was long ago, before the War of Wrath, when Morgoth still ravaged Arda unchecked. The Silvans took him to be an orphan of the wars and many evils of the Great Enemy. They taught him speech again and he learned, in time, to be an Elf once more. But of his own origins, he remembered almost nothing, save that he once had a brother who was slain by wolves. Those who knew him, say that he had the look of the Sindar and that he was the greatest archer since Beleg Strongbow. He wed young, to a Silvan maid who bore him a daughter---my mother, Alothlas. He died before his child learned to walk, slain fighting Orcs." He turned back to Aragorn, his face blank, veiling the anger he was trying to contain. "Tell me if you know, Estel---what was it that drew Elrond's attention? What did you overhear?"

"He told Lord Glorfindel that when he beheld your mother in the court of Oropher for the first time he nearly cried out with shock. He said she was the living image of his mother." Aragorn was somber, his face pulled into a pained frown. "You are angry with me, my friend. I am sorry for that, but being a child, I did not weigh of puzzle the matter out for long years. And then---what should I have said, even if it had been my place to speak? If you had gone searching for the answers to the questions Elrond's words would have raised, where would you have found them? It would have gnawed at you, a mystery three ages old with no answer to be found among the living." Aragorn lowered his proud head at the unconscious reproach that still lingered in Legolas' eyes. "And I thought also, if it were true, would not word have come from the Valar? If not before, than surely after the War of Wrath? Would they not have known your father still lived and offered him and his daughter the same choice that was offered Elrond and Elros?"

"What?!" Gimli fairly exploded. "What say you, Aragorn? You both discuss the matter while dancing around it at the same time, without passing a single direct word between you! Aragorn! Stop being so Elvish---for I

know Legolas cannot---and tell us plainly what has been discovered!"

Legolas turned his bright, troubled eyes upon his friend and smiled again, a little sadly. "I am less Elvish than you think, my dear Gimli." And when Gimli growled aloud in confused frustration, Legolas raised his hand. "Peace, my friend! I will tell you all, I swear it."

Legolas turned back to Aragorn and regarded his friend in sudden quiet dismay. The King of Gondor was sitting a little apart from them with his head slightly bowed, regret and sorrow bleeding from the light of his great spirit. His expression made her think of Eomer as a boy when he had done something to displease Theodred. "Forgive me, Legolas, if you can. I did not mean---"

"There is nothing to forgive, Estel," Legolas told him. "I am sorry! I understand your reasons for keeping silent. I am not angry with you, only---only a little overwrought, in general, I think. I cannot recall ever having been so unsettled, so full of fear and great joy and sadness, all at once." He was silent a moment, as though gathering his thoughts. "Gimli, Eowyn---the Mariner gave me my grandsire's true name. His name was Elured and he was the child of Dior Eluchil, who was King of Doriath. Dior, who was the only child of Beren and Luthien." He regarded Aragorn with a small wistful quirk of his lips. "I was filled with nothing but joy at first, for I was happy to call you cousin, Estel, and Arwen as well." And at this, Aragorn lay a hand upon his arm, a wordless gesture of love such as men exchange when words seem inadequate.

"Well!" Gimli said with a perplexed scowl. "That is certainly news! Now that I think on it, your father said something touching on this bit of knowledge when we last journeyed to Mirkwood."

Legolas stared at him. "What did he say?"

"It was late and you had wondered off with your old friend Ambaril to see his new baby son---the first child born in Mirkwood since the War. Your father was a tad in his cups by that time and more talkative than on my first visit. He told me your grandsire's lost lineage must have been high indeed, for you mother had been fairer, brighter and nobler than any daughter of the Silvan people or his own Sindarin kin."

"He always says so when he speaks of her," Legolas murmured, with a faint smile.

"I still do not see why this is such a great and earth-shaking revelation," Gimli went on. "Surely, it is a fine thing to learn you are of the line of Beren and Luthien, but---" Gimli suddenly stopped speaking. His mouth slowly fell open in abject shock. "This choice you have been speaking of..."

"Aye, Gimli," Legolas said. "To leave Middle Earth and dwell in Elvenhome forever. Or to stay and choose a mortal life. Earendil told me the Sea Longing which took hold in my heart at Pelagir would be laid aside for me so that I could choose with an unfettered heart."

Eowyn stared at his face and lowered her eyes, feeling a slow-witted fool for understanding only now what Legolas meant. Her heart seemed to have shuddered to a halt in her breast, her breath had stilled. Her whole world stood motionless, balanced upon the scale of what Legolas would say next.

"I have chosen already," Legolas said. He took her chin beneath his hand and gently raised her head, smiling into her eyes. "I choose this world that I love, this time, this place. I choose you, Eowyn. I choose Gimli and Estel and Arwen and Sam and Merry and Pippin and---" He kissed her, caring not at all that Gimli and Aragorn were looking on. He brushed the tears that had begun to leak from her eyes. She felt as though she would shake apart with joy. "Shh! Hush now, meleth-nin!"

"I cannot!" She hiccuped, and laughed in weepy embarrassment. "I cannot stop!"

Gimli was peering at Legolas closely, though his own face and beard looked suspiciously damp. "You do not seem any different. And you certainly don't look a wit let Elvish."

"I shall not change magically into a Man, Gimli," Legolas grinned. "I shall never be a Man---I shall be an Elf who is mortal. But you are right. I have made my choice and yet nothing has changed. Time washes past me, leaving me untouched as it has since I left my childhood behind."

"Arwen made her choice thirty years ago when we plighted our troth in Lothlorien," Aragorn said quietly. "But she could not relinquish her immortal birthright until there was not a shred of doubt in her heart. I think, as it was for her, that which stays the change is not hesitation, but love. You fear, as Arwen feared, to bring such a terrible grief to your father whom you love."

Legolas regarded him with wide, horrified eyes, and it seemed the full realization of what his decision would do to his father struck him again like a hammer blow to the chest. He nodded and closed his eyes against the tears that were gathering there.

"That is the true choice of the peredhel, I think," Aragorn said. "The bittersweet choice that must leave you bereft of someone you love forever, whatever decision you make. Until your heart makes peace with what you have chosen, Legolas, you will remain suspended between both worlds as Arwen was."

"Aye," Legolas breathed, a sighing note of sorrow.

Much more was said thereafter. Words of love were exchanged, words of thanks and undying friendship. They spoke of the past and the uncertain future, and of Gandalf and Earendil's warning. At some point, Eowyn decided to rest her eyes as she sat with her head upon Legolas' shoulder, listening to the Elf and Dwarf bicker about the number of Hunters each of them had slain since arriving in Rhunballa. Gimli was arguing adamantly that the burning of the Nest could not be added to Legolas' tally as Eowyn had most likely done more than half the work in that endeavor. Eowyn fell asleep smiling.

She woke briefly as some indeterminate hour to the sound of Aragorn's soft snores. It was night again, she sensed. She had slept the entire day away. Legolas lay beside her, singing softly, almost under his breath. His gaze seemed fixed upon her as he stroked her hair, but his face bore a peculiar expression, as though he were immersed in a sweet daydream.

"You should sleep," she whispered.

"I am sleeping," he said, kissing her lightly.

She was asleep again herself before she could puzzle long over her words.

When she woke again, it was morning. Legolas was gone, but Aragorn was sitting beside her, his splinted leg stretched out before him. He was sipping gingerly on a mug of what smelled like Fallah's willow bark tea.

"Last night I conspired with your brother's help," Aragorn told her with a wry grin, "to leave for a while and see to my men. But now Mistress Fallah has imprisoned me here until midday."

"Even a king may not gainsay a physician," Eowyn said with a small smile.

"Hmm," Aragorn mused. "Being both, I had hoped for some special clemency. Fallah was unmoved by my pleas." He sobered and regarded her for a long moment as though carefully considering her words. "Earendil said that neither Legolas nor his bride might turn aside from the task fate has set aside for him."

"I am very tired of fated tasks," Eowyn said softly, almost angrily.

"You are not alone, my friend," Aragorn chuckled without mirth. "Gandalf said that this Enemy will strike Gondor from within, and soon. I shall leave tomorrow morning if I must ride in the back of a carter's wagon or upon a litter. Tell me, Eowyn---what are your plans?"

"I---"She shook her head. "I do not know. I must help Rhunballa rebuild, at least for a month or two. But...I cannot set aside this warning or my obligation to the safety of Rohan and of Gondor. And there is now Legolas to consider. It is as though the pieces of my life have been hurled aloft and I cannot yet say how or where they will land."

"Will you come to Gondor?" Aragorn asked simply.

Eowyn studied him. And slowly, she drew a deep breath and released the sense of belonging and of home she had felt in this land. Rhunballa would go forward to a better future, but Eowyn would not be there to see it. She must leave. For a host of different reasons, she must leave and return to the West.

"I suppose I must," she replied hesitantly.

Aragorn nodded grimly. "Whatever is to come will begin in Minas Tirith. Earendil has prophesied that you and Legolas and shall be instrumental in defeating this evil."

"And we should be there to meet it head on," Eowyn agreed softly. She lowered her eyes. "How should I come to Minas Tirith, my lord? In what capacity?" She saw the confusion in his kind gray eyes and sighed. "I cannot even think how I will bear the stares and whispers of my own countrymen when I return to the West. Let alone the proud folk of your realm. Surely the rumors have reached your ears. Aragorn, if I come to Gondor at your invitation, an unwed woman in the eyes of Men----"She shuddered lightly. "Even were I to arrive with Legolas at my side, still it would bring a storm of gossip that would shake the Citadel to its foundations. I would not be the cause of a scandal that would bring grief to you or your beloved, for all that it is a wicked lie."

"I neither heed nor fear the slander of idle fools, Eowyn," Aragorn said quietly. "Nor does Arwen. Nor should you. Though I know it is more difficult for you to ignore. It is a shame upon the race of Men that I should suffer no more than an oafish chuckle or wink among my courtiers when your name is mentioned, while you---"He sighed, shaking his head, and spoke almost to himself. "It is hard to live among Men sometimes. Even after four years I often feel like a stranger among my own kind. Though we have it in us to aspire to the heavens, too often we stumble into the gutter. Eowyn, I cannot tell you what to do, or how you will be received by my people at first. But I can say with surety that all who come to know you will see naught in you but a noble, brave, and virtuous woman to whom they now owe their lives twice over. I will tell you as one who is thrice your age that running from this sort of thing only gives it leave to grow in your absence. If my people knew you, I think they would love you. And all rumor would be born out as blatant falsehood."

Eowyn was silent, considering.

"There is an old law in Gondor," Aragorn said. "A concession in the codes of heraldry. It was written with the princes of the House of Eorl in mind. The Fosterling's Oath, they call it."

"I know of it," Eowyn said. "Theoden swore this oath in his youth."

"It is an oath of knighthood in service to Gondor for the span of three years," Aragorn explained. "To be released from service before that time at the discretion of the King or the Steward should the throne of Rohan fall to the boy untimely. The title of knight of the realm is forever, though your service would be temporary. In this way, I would honor you with my right hand while shielding you from the snares of impropriety."

"This would shield me from gossip, you say?" Eowyn shook her head. "Aragorn, you propose to knight a woman who is commonly regarded as your---"She clamped her mouth shut before she said something that was truly improper.

"It will cause more talk at first, I know," Aragorn said. "But it will give you a standing in Gondorhim society that does not want for a man at your side. It has never been done before, but as the young Emperor of Harad pointed out several days ago, a king may always make new law. As a knight of Gondor, you would have a proper place in my court." He paused. "And a measure of autonomy from your brother who is still, by the laws of Gondor and Rohan, your legal guardian."

"Until I am decently wed," Eowyn said softly, her hands clenching in impotent anger at the way of the world. At the end of the day, East and West were not so very different in their regard of a woman's status. "I will come, my lord," she said formally after a moment, "and trust your wisdom in this, though I am less optimistic than you in my own ability to win the hearts of your folk. Four years of freedom have made me intolerant of the constraints the world places upon women. You are right. I can absolve myself of nothing unless I return to the West. But none of this matters in the grand scheme. I will come because you ask it, Aragorn. I will come because I will be needed. I would fight my way through all the demons of the Outer Night to come to Legolas's side and aid him in this task. I will do all in my power to keep your realm and this world safe from what it coming. Whether the Gondorhim like it or not."

To this, Aragorn responded with a fond smile and a nod of acknowledgement. And thus, their bargain was sealed.

Eowyn rose two hours past noon and went to seek Legolas. Aragorn was gone and Fallah had left no guard to confine her to Queen's Guard. She wandered the streets, taking note of the odd shimmer that lingered in the air, chasing away every shadow. The City seemed brighter, cleaner somehow, for all that a quarter of its standing structures were smoke-damaged or burned outright. There was music and snatches of song everywhere, both joyful celebration and mourning dirges for the dead. People wandered about in the strange phantom glimmering left by the Silmaril, looking as though there were unsure as to whether they were lost in some fair dream or walking in the waking world.

Eowyn passed a cadre of Riders who bowed as though she were a great queen, and their faces---

Oh, good gods, they looked like men praying at the feet of Elbereth herself, Eowyn thought with an internal wince.

She found Suni standing in the ruins of the Royal Villa, hefting her youngest son on her hip. Rhunballa's new queen was sad-eyed as Eowyn approached. Eowyn saw that she was wearing Ikako's sword, Shin-kun, on her hip.

"We have lost much, my sister," Suni said softly. She stared down at her boots which were ankle deep in soot and ash. "I cannot think how to begin again."

"We might have lost all," Eowyn told her. "But that thought has never made grief for those lost easier to bear."

"Aye," Suni agreed. "The sages would say the greatest honor we can give the fallen is to live a good life, and thus, their deaths will not have been for naught. I know this to be true. But I mourn, nonetheless." She fixed Eowyn with a searching eye. "Your brother and your king shall depart on the morrow, Elessar says. What will you do, my Captain?"

"I must go as well," Eowyn said. "Though not tomorrow and only by your leave. I will stay a month or two."

"You have my love and do not need my leave," Suni smiled sadly.

"You have sworn no oaths to me. But should you return, this is your home, for all time."

They embraced as closest kin. Eowyn left Suni standing straight and tall as a spear, solemnly contemplating what manner of kingdom should would raise from the ashes about her.

Eowyn found her brother with the bulk of his Riders down in the fallow soy fields where they had made their camp since arriving in Rhunballa. He greeted her with pleased joy, guiding her to his own tents, for he knew her well enough to knew she would find the near-worship of their countrymen unbearable.

"If you do not wish them to stare at you so," Eomer remarked lightly, "you should refrain from saving the world the next time the opportunity presents itself."

"That is not funny," she said, taking the cup of cold mead he offered her.

"I do not jest, sister," he said. "You did not have that---" His mouth twisted as though he might wretch, "---that thing inside your mind as the rest of us did. My recollection is mercifully foggy. But Bright Lady, sister! I do not have words to describe the---the evil and sickness she woke in my mind and heart. In those few hours, I would have laughed as I butchered my sweet wife and unborn child had she commanded it!" He shuddered, and suddenly his face paled as another memory rose up in his mind. "She---she made me want---Oh, Eowyn, I remember now that she commanded I hurt you, that I---I---" He broke off, his breath coming short.

"You did not hurt me," Eowyn said gently, taking his hands in hers.

He sagged, wilting with relief. After a moment, he frowned and visibly shoved the dark memories aside. It had ever been his way to deal with horrifying experiences by simply not dealing with them. He put them away and thought of them no more. Eowyn had always envied him that ability.

"She would have covered the earth with her foul kind and made cattle of every living thing. You stopped her, Eowyn. Do not doubt the truth of my words when I say you saved us all." His frown deepened and paused. "Aragorn and I have spoken."

"And?" She braced herself for a row, but he surprised her.

"And I disagree with his decision to bring you to Gondor, but I will trust him in this, as in other things. It would be easier if Legolas came with you." He glowered unhappily. "It would be even better if the two of you were wed." He studied her closed face and gave a low growl of exasperation. "What ails you, Eowyn? He loves you and you are utterly besotted with him. Why do you hesitate?"

She was silent a moment. "In part, because of Earendil's words. Aragorn has no doubt told you all we know of our present danger. The Mariner imparted a warning and a prophesy. And upon Legolas, he bestowed a double-edged gift. I will not say more. It is for Legolas to tell you the rest if he will. Trust that there are reasons to delay, brother, and they are not light."

He nodded slowly. "Will you come with us on the morrow?"

"I must stay a while yet," Eowyn said. "Duty and friendship demand it."

"Be it so," he said resignedly. "But one day soon, you must return to the Riddermark. I will be a father by the time the leaves fall. When the...whatever it is has passed, I would ride beside you across the grasslands of our country as we did before Saruman darkened our land."

"I would like that as well," she said, her eyes stinging.

She took her leave of him and sought Legolas among the Gondorhim and the Elves of Mirkwood. She found the King of Eryn Lasgalen sitting beside Fallah in New Bakery. It had apparently been reconverted into a House of Healing once more. The worst of the wounded, those who could not be moved to the rice fields, had been slain outright be the Hunters. But there were still hundreds of wounded soldiers and civilians who had been moved from the storehouses in the rice paddocks during the course of the previous day. Beside Fallah and the Elvenking, an Elvish healer sat pouring over the list of Rhunballani and Somalani herbal remedies the Apothecary's Daughter had furnished him. The scholarly looking Elf, whose name Eowyn could not recall for the life of her, was leaning forward excitedly, nearly elbowing his Lord aside in his enthusiasm.

"...and not one of these herbs have I seen since before the world was broken!" The healer exclaimed. "I had thought they were lost forever when Beleriand was drowned. And this one grew exclusively on the isle of Numenor---and yet you say they all grow wild throughout this valley, Mistress Fallah?"

Fallah nodded, a pall of grief shot through the brightness of her kind smile. "I will show them all to you, Master Gaernell. If you wish, I will send seedlings back with your folk when you depart."

Thranduil eyed Eowyn as she approached, remaining silent as Eowyn and Fallah exchanged greetings. "Legolas is with the son of Gloin, preparing some bit of mischief I doubt not, for he would not tell me where he went or what he meant to do." He rose, towering a full head taller than Eowyn, his face a curious mixture of affection and that same terrible gnawing apprehension he had shown after Legolas woke in Queen's Guard. Elbereth, he saw too deeply with those twin delving spears he called eyes. She lowered her gaze for fear that he might somehow ferret out the secret Legolas alone should tell him. The secret that would surely break his great heart beyond mending.

"Will you walk with me a bit, my Lady?" He asked simply.

"As you wish, my Lord," she said as casually as she was able.

They moved through the rows of bunks, passing the bed where Shaeri sat beside Insis, holding her unconscious sister's hand. Moussah of Harad stood at Shaeri's side, proud and coolly reserved. But something in his pose conveyed comfort and caring though he did not touch Shaeri at all. Insis' color was good. She appeared to be sleeping soundly.

"She will be fully healed in time," Shaeri told Eowyn. "Insis was one of those thought too badly hurt to be moved when we evacuated the City. When darkness fell upon us all, Moussah grabbed me and shook me so hard I thought my neck would snap, and brought me back to myself for a short time. We kept our wits just long enough to hide Insis before---before the Hunters began killing the wounded."

Eowyn unbuckled the black scabbard lashed to her hip and removed Shard from its shadowy bower. She lay the flat black scabbard in Moussah's hands. "I thank you for the use of the Daegond, Moussah of Harad," she said formally. "I return it to you and your people."

Moussah bowed low. "Mak-liazg," he said. "For so you shall be named in Harad while I live, Lady. The Golden Lioness. I was right. You are she."

She gazed curiously into his dark brown eyes, seeing for the first time that there were little flecks of gold and green there, a lingering remnant of his Numenorian blood. He was looking her straight in the eye. He smiled. "She who is my firstwife calls you sister," he explained. "And thus, you and I are kin. All of Harad owes you a blood debt, Lady of Rohan. You have but to ask and I shall repay."

"I have yet to say I will be firstwife to you, presumptuous one," Eowyn heard Shaeri tell him archly as they moved away. "And it shall be 'onlywife' if you know what is good for you!"

And to this, Moussah only chuckled. "The same applies to you, my cat. Stray from my bed and I will likewise be avenged."

"They shall either make a passionate, loving marriage or die upon each other's blades," Thranduil commented. "I would cast my wager in the girl's favor as to who would prevail."

"Shaeri knows nothing if not how to handle Haradrim men," Eowyn told him.

They made their way to the porter's entrance, and Eowyn followed his lead wordlessly as he led her along Shop Street and into the Launderers. He stopped just short of the large wash basins, breathing in the clean scent of sinisi blossoms. Thranduil turned to regard her intently and she returned his piercing stare a little sadly.

"I fear to learn what secret fills your young eyes with such pity when you look upon me, glorfinniel," he said softly. "Nay, do not speak. I would not have you reveal what is not yours to tell. I will know all too soon." He sighed heavily. "It would be a wondrous, impossible thing to achieve a victory just once in my long life that did not feel like a defeat. That was not stained with the blood of those I love."

"I do not think such a thing exists in Middle Earth, my Lord," Eowyn said sadly.

"You speak the truth," he said. His eyes were dark and sorrowful. "My heart is full of prophetic dread. Legolas and I have spoken. He has told me a portion of what the Mariner revealed, of the danger that Mithrandir and the Valar themselves have spied looming before us. He was recalled from the very threshold of Mandos' Halls to face some terrible destiny, a threat which he was apparently born to oppose." He shook his fair head sadly. "I knew he was special. All his life. He is fairer, stronger and...higher somehow.

I have always been overly proud, not fearing there would be a price to pay for the blessing of such a son. Now, I find myself wishing he were a bit more ordinary. It is a terrible thing to see the gods touch your child upon the shoulder. For as with Frodo Baggins, those the Valar chose as their instruments are too often consumed by their destinies."

Eowyn's skin crawled with dread. It was as though he had just defined and crystallized the terrible fear that had lain lodged in her belly all day like a cold stone.

"What do you wish of me?" She asked. Had she gazed in a looking glass, she was sure she would have seen Thranduil's taut, fearful expression mirrored in his own face.

"According to Earendil's words, you shall me as enmeshed in this struggle as Legolas," Thranduil said steadily. "He has said he will return with me to Eryn Lasgalen for a short time, perhaps a season." He saw her face fall, saw the pain in her eyes at nothing more than the thought of Legolas' absence, and gave her a small, bitter smile. "Do not grieve, child. The Huntress is slain and Legolas' blood is purged of her darkness by the Silmaril. His love for you is as strong and true as it was yesterday and the day before, and did not fade with Thuringwethil's power. He may return home with me for a space of time, but he will fly to your side ere long, for I do not think his heart will bear a lengthy separation. I will send him to you laden with bridal gifts, late though they be. Should the two of you set a date for a mortal wedding ceremony, I will attend. Though I do not understand how the two of you could be more married than you already are." He took her hands and stared deeply into her eyes, and his gaze seemed to pierce the darkest niches of her soul, laying bare every selfish, petty thought and impulse. She bore his scrutiny and did not flinch away, though she wanted nothing more than to sun screaming away from that all-seeing, ancient stare.

In the end, however, it was Thranduil who lowered his proud, bright eyes.

"I am sorry. That was an unpardonable intrusion. Like a selfish, bitter wretch, I hoped to find something in your heart that was unworthy of my son. But you---" And again, he sighed. "If I could have fashioned the perfect bride for him, it would have been you."

"Save than I am mortal," she said.

"Aye," he replied. His voice was like a soft rumble that heralds a downpour.

"I tell you in plainest truth, I would to the Valar that you and he had never met, glorfinniel. For I have a terrible, cold fear that what ere betide, he shall be lost to me forever."

There was no answer that would not betray the weighty choice Legolas now faced. Her heart ached like a broken bone for this good man, this good father. He had lost everyone he had ever loved except his one dear son. Now, he would lose Legolas as well. And he knew it, sensed it, though he did not yet know why or how it would happen. She stood on tip toes and kissed his cheek.

"The Valar make a way, my Lord," she said gently. "For all good souls. We must trust in that Truth."

"Wise child," he murmured. "I have spoken to Elessar and the son of Gloin already. Stand by him, daughter. Give him all your strength and all your love. The four of you are all bound up in this threat that hangs above Gondor even now like the blade of a suspended sword. But I foresee that if he has the three of you to guard his back and either side he may yet survive the doom fate has decreed for him."

"Nothing could dissuade me to do less, my Lord," Eowyn said. Another swell of guilt rolled over her. Thranduil would very likely hate her more than Morgoth himself when all was revealed. But for the moment, he smiled on her.

"Come," he said, changing the subject with an audible sigh of relief. He took her arm paternally and guided her through the laundries. "The women among my company have prepared a bath and fresh clothing for you. Elessar asked that you be made presentable for your knighting. There are no others who have suitable raiment after the fires and battles of the last two nights." He sniffed arrogantly. "My daughter in marriage shall not stand before the King of Gondor in blood-stained rags or the garb an Easterling heathen."

"Presentable?" She asked, her brow creasing into a frown at his offhand slur upon the people of Rhunballa.

He only smiled haughtily in answer and ushered her into the custody of two Elvish women who emerged from the inner courtyard of the laundries. They guided her to the open-aired basins to set to work upon her.

It had been longer than she could remember since she had been attended or pampered in any way. Rohan disdained the idea of ladies in waiting and the closest thing to a ladies' maid she could remember was the governess who did little more than see she was clean and fed after her mother died. One would never say such a thing before foreign ears, but the women of the North were of the opinion that a gaggle of ladies' maids to look after her every need made for a rather useless lady. Let the high ladies of Gondor call the women of Rohan wild and uncouth, Eowyn remembered her mother saying. At least the Rohhiric noblewomen knew how to dress themselves unaided.

The two Elvish women soon gave Eowyn a new definition for the word 'pampered'. And the word 'clean'. And the word 'presentable'. They stripped her with friendly, unobtrusive efficiency and corralled her into a large basin tub they had filled with bubbling soap and sinisi petals. They bathed her as she had not been bathed since her childhood nurse had passed away during her thirteenth winter, scrubbing with dainty little brushes under her fingernails and toenails. They washed her hair first in a rinse of hot oil, then soft soap, then another type of oil that seemed to magically unknot every tangle. Perhaps that was why she had rarely seen an Elf with mussed hair. Better grooming tonics and soaps. But no, that was not true. Legolas' hair had been matted and supremely dishelved in the Nest, though it had seemed no less beautiful.

A soft, feminine chuckle sang in her ear. "Your smile says you are day-dreaming of the Prince, cousin." And they gave her chorus of merry laughter when she blushed to the roots of her damp hair.

They toweled her hair and limbs dry and began to help her don what Thranduil had called 'presentable' raiment. She gasped in soft wonder when she saw what they meant for her to wear.

"Your Eastern armor will never wear so well," one of the Elvish women told her. "It was fashioned for a man's form. This was designed with a woman's body in mind."

Eowyn stared at the glittering garb, humbled by the gift for she was certain that few queens of Rohan or even Gondor had worn anything so fair and---and valuable. Over a blouse and breeches of while silk they slipped a mithril mesh shirt that fell about her frame as though it had been cut to her exact proportions, and with it were matching vambraces, ornately tooled with the patterns of autumn leaves and Elvish runes.

She stood passive as a doll as they braided her hair into intricate designs, weaving silver ribbon through the weft of each coil. When they were done she stared in shock at the stranger in the looking glass. She looked like some mortal fosterling of an ancient Elvish realm, eerily beautiful and deadly as the gleaming sword at her hip. Shard they had given a new sheath, a house of glittering mithril.

A little sob caught in her throat and her eyes filled as it finally struck her what Aragorn must have meant when he asked that she be given fitting clothing. This would not simply be a ceremony of oath-taking. He meant to honor her as one would a great hero, probably before the entire City. And that thought alone nearly sent her fleeing for the hills.

"Oh, my brave girl! Do not weep!" Said one of the women in a kind, motherly tone, though her face appeared years younger than Eowyn's. She dabbed at Eowyn's eyes with a damp cloth. "We have won the day, and if all is not well, it shall be made so in time!"

Eowyn only shook her head, unable to put into words the emotions churning inside her heart. A moment later, a quiet knock upon the courtyard door produced Gimli. The two Elvish women took their leave, each leaving her with a light kiss on the cheek.

"My goodness!" Gimli said after surveying her in silence a moment. "Aren't you shiny!"

"Do not make me laugh!" Eowyn said weepily. But she found herself smiling at the simple sight of his dear face nonetheless.

"What ails you, Lass?" He asked kindly.

"I cannot do this, Gimli!" She said desperately. "I cannot stand before these good people who have lost their homes and families and play the heroine! I will not be---be honored or praised while half the City lies in ashes and half of the wounded from the first night's attack are slain. I will not be lauded when Fallah has lost all her family in the world, when Indassa lies dead, and Lord Hurin and Ikako and Somal and---and---" She broke off with a jagged little sob.

"Here now!" Gimli said with gruff kindness. He sat her down on one of the blackwood benches that ringed the courtyard. "There will be no great to do, Lass, no celebration. There will be scarcely more than two dozen people present and only those you love best."

"Truly?" She sniffled. She suddenly felt a fool. She wished she could sit and cry for a very long time, but Aragorn was most likely awaiting her arrival. He must have sent Gimli to collect her. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Truly!" He said emphatically. "You and your brother are reconciled, Lass. The King is alive and this land is freed from the evil that had plagued it for millennia. The Elf is alive and well and shall not depart across the sea. He will live a long mortal life beside you and the two of you will have a dozen little tow-headed rascals to call me uncle!" He smiled as she laughed weakly, squeezing her hands. "We have lost those we love and that is the way of war. A new danger lies ahead or us, but that is the way of the world. All we can do is take the love and happiness we have been granted in this time an place and treasure it as the blessing that it is."

She hugged him impulsively and sighed as he patted her hair. "I do not know the Fosterling's Oath," she said worriedly.

"Aragorn said it will not matter," he told her.

She stood and took a deep breath as the Dwarf climbed down off the bench that was just a tad too high for him to dismount easily. "Let us go," she said simply.

He led her through the steam rooms that faced Bright Street and back around into the soapery that looked down on the flowering summer fields of Hundred Springs. The soap-makers had always paid children half a shekel for each bushel of wildflowers they picked, so there was an old, well worn trail leading up from the valley to the Laundries. The soap-makers workroom was untouched by fire and smelled of a hundred years of brewing blooms.

They were gathered like guests at a wedding or a birth-naming. Every surviving captain of every Watch House stood in full armor, flanking the path she was to walk like an honor guard. On either side, she saw the faces of many others, though there were surely no more than three dozen in all. Fallah and Thranduil stood side by side on her left, Eomer and Gambold were on the right. Moussah and a the handful of men who had survived South Pass were here. The young emperor's face was cold and haughty, but his eyes were warm as she passed. Suni stood tall and effortlessly regal, with Shaeri at her side. And Legolas---Legolas was nowhere to be seen.

But then there was no more time to worry over that for she had reached the end of the human corridor and Aragorn was before her. He smiled on her as she knelt, feeling awkward as a mummer thrust into a play he had not rehearsed.

"Eowyn, Daughter of Eorl," Aragorn said formally, his silk and whiskey voice carrying easily to every ear though he spoke softly. "For a second time you have slain with your own hands that which would have rent our kingdom asunder. Gondor is late in giving thanks. With the blessing of your lord brother, I would ask you to accept the title of Knight Defender of Gondor under the auspices of the Fosterling's Oath. What say you, my Lady?"

"I will," Eowyn said, hoping fervently her voice was not shaking.

"Wilt thou, Eowyn Eomund's daughter, swear fealty and service to Gondor for a span of three years, to be released at the King's pleasure or should the throne of Rohan fall to thee by way of untimely death?"

"I will," Eowyn breathed.

The King unsheathed Anduril and held it before her, the blade in his hand. "Lay your hands upon the hilt and repeat after me," he whispered.

She had to keep reminding herself to breathe as she repeated the oath verbatim, as each stanza took hold in her heart and became a tangible, living thing. To speak and be silent, to come and go, in need and plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying...

A shaft of light caught the blade of Anduril and it gleamed like liquid silver as Aragorn reversed the sword and lay the blade upon her shoulder. "Then rise, Eowyn, Knight of Gondor."

The words resounded eerily in her head as though some vital piece of an intricate puzzle puzzle had just fallen into place. This was another link in the chain of Earendil's prophesy, she thought with a chill. The prophesy to which she was now irrevocably shackled. Yet she stood, smiling bravely, seeing the answering flicker of unease in Aragorn's eyes. Whatever had just passed he had felt it, too.

Take the love and happiness you have been granted in this moment, Gimli had said. Surely a wiser Dwarf never walked the earth. So, she smiled and took the hands of her friends, embracing each of them in turn. She would take all the joy she could glean from each moment and face the dangers ahead when the hour of reckoning was upon her. As all those assembled began to depart to see to this task or that in preparation for the morrow, Shaeri drew Eowyn aside, her eyes bright with mischief.

"Do you remember the luxurious little hunting cabin my father built at the fork of Rising Fawn Spring? It is half an hour's ride from the City."

"I remember," Eowyn said.

"You Elf Prince awaits you there," Shaeri said, smiling wickedly.

Eowyn smiled and her heart skipped a beat. She left behind care and the weight of the thousand things that needed doing. She rode through the slanting afternoon sunlight and it seemed the wind sang beneath her horse's

hooves. She came to the doorstep of the little cabin, finding it with little trouble, and wondered absurdly if she should knock.

She lifted the latch and entered the cabin almost hesitantly. It housed a single room with wide windows that faced each point of the compass, all now open to the encircling forest. And why not? There was no longer any need to fear the night in Rhunballa. At the center of the cabin room was a stone heart pit. Something that smelled heavenly, an intoxicating stew of sweet and savory, of spice and sugars, was brewing over the little fire. Legolas knelt beside the hearth, upon the soft furs and cushions strewn about the floor. He was removing a tankard from the flame's heat and glanced up at her as approached.

"Have you ever tasted mulled Elvish wine, Eowyn?" He asked with a hint of a smile.

"No," she said. She sat beside him, obediently accepting the cup of wine he poured her. It was sweet and heady and it tasted of red berries brewed with honey. She watched in bemused silence as he removed the kettle of food from the fire, setting it on the hearth's stone rim to cool.

"I thought we might have an early supper," he said, stirring the stew once before giving her his full attention.

They sat in silence a moment, each facing the other. "I must leave with my father in the morning," he said quietly.

"He told me," she said.

He frowned faintly. "I am sorry you did not hear it from me. It was not my father's place to tell you that, but I beg you to forgive him. He is hurting terribly right now. And---and when we are in Mirkwood, I must increase his pain a thousand fold." He sighed and bowed his head. "I must return home with him and tell him all. And I must stay with him after I deliver this terrible blow to be sure his grief does not overcome him."

"You need explain none of this to me, Legolas!" She said, her heart twisting as she imagined, unwillingly, what Thranduil's reaction would be on learning of Legolas' choice. "I do not regret anything that has passed between us. But I am sorry to be the cause---"

"You are not the cause!" He said emphatically. "I will not have you blame yourself and carry the guilt of my father's grief on your head. That burden is mine alone. Had you and I never met, meleth-nin, still I would have chosen the mortal path. When the Sea Longing took hold me near the end of the War, I was at first swept up in the euphoria of the Call to cross over the Valinor. But within a few short months, the Longing began to seem to me a kidnapper that had stolen me away from all I had ever loved. It came to me that I had fought with all my might to save Middle Earth from Sauron...and lost it for myself. I do not wish to be parted from this world or from my friends that I love. And the hard, cold truth that will not be lost on my father is that I have chosen this world and my friends over---over him." His eyes were suddenly full of tears. "I cannot find words to make it sound less cruel, Eowyn!"

She leaned forward and put her arms around him. The raw sorrow in his voice tore at her heart. And there was no way to make it better for him. This gift of the gods was bittersweet indeed, for every dram of its joy was balanced with an equal weight of grief. He lay his head on her shoulder, taking silent comfort in her embrace. "When do you leave Rhunballa?" He asked after a short silence.

"Before Harvestide," she said. "I must stay a while and help them rebuild and prepare for winter."

"I will come to you in Minas Tirith by Mid-winter," he swore. He drew back and smiled though his eyes were still damp. "If you will have me, I will wed with you then in the mortal fashion as quickly as your kin may be summoned."

"Yes," she said softly, smiling. Her chest felt too full, as though it might burst from joy alone. Gone was the crippling hesitation of doubt, gone was her fear of the sudden, overwhelming birth their love. It was real. It was true. She would love him and leave fear to the faint-hearted. Whatever peril lay before them, they would face it and defeat it and live to see many happy years thereafter. The gods could not be so cruel as to give her the gift of his love and then snatch it away. "Yes!" She said again and kissed him.

They ate in leisurely companionship and he somehow managed to divest her of her armor and regalia one surreptitious bit at a time by the time she was finished eating. Before the wine was gone she found herself bare as the day she was born, though she could not say how he had contrived this. Elvish magic, no doubt. Though the mulled wine might have aided him in some small fashion. Smiling, her head humming happily, she stripped him with delicious, slow deliberation until there was no barrier between his naked skin and hers.

"It has not been three days since I held you last," Legolas murmured as they lay side by side, content for the moment to simply hold and be held. "But already, I ache for you, meleth-nin---heart and body. I do not know how I will bear long months without you."

Her lips trembled like a child's at the thought, but she thrust it aside. She would not let sorrow intrude upon this night. "It will be all the sweeter when we are reunited."

"Aye," he said softly, stroking her hair. His hand paused, as though a stray thought had frozen him in place. "Your brother will be angry with me in the morning. He told me today that should I lay with you again before we are decently wed---though 'lay' was not precisely the word he used---that he would wring my pretty Elvish neck." Eowyn felt her smile begin to slide away to an angry frown, but he kissed her mouth softly. "I do not wish to offend him or besmirch your honor in the eyes of your people. When I come to Minas Tirith, let us save our love until the wedding night. As you say, a little wait will make our next reunion all the sweeter. And after, we need not be parted for all that remains of our lives."

Something in that turn of phrase struck her as odd and her soft, happy smile wavered again. "Does it seem very short to you---the prospect of one mortal life? Does it seem to you as it would to me if I knew I would grow old and die within a year?"

He was silent, considering her question. "Yes and no," he said finally. "Do you remember when you were small, how a week seemed to last an age and a year was an eternity?" She nodded. "For each year you live, your perception of the passage of time alters in proportion to the amount of time you have known. So, in one sense, the idea of only a hundred fifty years, perhaps two hundred, seems heart-breaking in its brevity. But the other side of the coin is that I have lived entire centuries where absolutely nothing of note happened."

She stared at him and he laughed at her doubtful expression.

"Among my people," he said, "I trained with bow and blade, I laughed and sang beneath the trees, I ate and bathed and dreamed, I fought and guarded our borders from the Shadow of Dol Guldur and the horror that slept in the belly of the Lonely Mountain. But decades bleed together in my memory in this fashion. We can rouse to swift action in an instant when danger is nigh, but lacking immediacy, the life of Elves moves in slow motion. Our speech, our gestures, our...everything slow to the movements of sleepwalkers. Our debates over such mundane matters as whether to build an apiary on one side of a glen or another can last for scores of years. For what need is there to hurry? I will tell you the deepest reason I would be mortal, Eowyn. When I befriended Aragorn a second time, I rode for a year or more with he and his kinsmen, through town and village vale, all the way to the plains of Rohan, in fact. The reason for our journey and the tale thereof is a lengthy one and I will not tell it tonight. But by the end of our quest, I had fallen hopelessly, helplessly in love with mortal kind. Among your folk, every day matters, every breath is savored. And when I have been among you, my perception of time shifts, and I can, in a fashion, revel in each second, each beat of my heart, as you do. I want to live my life with you in this manner, fierce and joyous and all the sweeter because it shall end."

She smiled at him, gazing into eyes that were older than the House of Eorl in the face of a boy of twenty. She kissed him as though she could gift to him the sighing song of love that swept through her. Somehow he seemed to hear it, feel it, though perhaps it was only his heart echoing hers. They melted into each other's arms, worshipping with hands and mouth and body, and the love that strained at the physical cage of their souls found it sweetest expression in flesh. She cried out at the end of love as though her heart would burst, gazing up into his eyes, watching his face as the wave of pleasure swept him up on its crest a moment later. He sighed her name breathlessly, lying above and within her, his strong heart hammering against hers. After a long moment, he seemed to regain the breath to speak and laughed softly.

"Have I waited long enough?"

"For what?" She asked, trailing fingers down the smooth line of his bare back. He shuddered happily and moved against her once more so that she gasped with pleasure.

"It---I---" And incredibly, he began to blush. "I have been among Men and listened to their talk. I know mortals must wait a space of time between love-making, but I do not know how long I should---"

He broke off as she began to laugh in a manner that sounded suspiciously like a giggle even to her own ears. "It is mortal men that must wait a space of time," Eowyn said. "To recover their strength, I suppose. Women have no such limitations."

He grinned sheepishly, but his eyes were warming with renewed desire.

"Nor do Elves," he said. He began to laugh softly then. "Now, I feel a fool."

"Never," she said firmly, kissing him soundly.

"So much to learn," he murmured thoughtfully, running his fingers up the line of her body to thread them through her sweat-damp hair. "While I am

home, I will commission a copy of the Melmaenas for us. It is an instructional text for betrothed couples."

She frowned, a little put out. "You think we need instruction?"

"I think," he said with a slow smile, "that there is much I do not know and never cared to learn until now. Young Elves are given tutelage in the basic mechanics and forms of love before they reach physical maturity. I vaguely remember the lecture was greeted with a certain amount of giggling on the part of my peers and myself, but there was a great deal of yawning as well.

We find the subject dull and uninteresting until heart's love awakens desire in our bodies. The Melmaenas is a gleaning of millennia upon millennia of accrued knowledge on every way imaginable to please one's mate. I thought we might pour over the text together when I come to Gondor." He was moving within her now, very, very slowly, as he spoke, turning whatever coherent reply she might have phrased into a jumbled disarray of pleasurable thought. "It is a lengthy, complex tome," he breathed. "We would have to be vigorous in our studies."

"And perhaps put these---these lessons into practice to be sure we understand them aright?" She laughed through the happy fog that was quickly enveloping her poor mortal brain. "What is a form?" She gasped.

He smiled, his eyes avidly watching her face as she tried valiantly to focus on his words. "This is a form. With me above and you beneath. I think this must be most common among mortals." She made a high, un-warriorlike noise of surprise as he scooped her up and rolled them so that she was now above him. "And this is a form," he grinned up at her. "This is most common among my people. We have tried one or two others, you and I, but there are many, many more. There are also scores of techniques of touch and pressure and---" She leaned down and stopped his words with her mouth. They did not speak again until much later in the night.

She woke in the cool, pre-dawn, chilled to the bone. Something, some sable-winged specter of doom, had brushed her by as she slept, caressing the guarded borders of her mind with icy fingers. Legolas caught her as she bolted up with a harsh cry. He wrapped her in his warm arms when she would have shivered away with a half-waking moan of fear.

"It is gone, meleth-nin!" He said gently. "It is gone now! What did you see in your dream?"

"Did you---?" She shook her head, shuddering lightly. Whatever it had been, the memory was already fading quickly. "Did you sense something also?"

"Aye," he said softly, his face troubled in the half-light of the hearth's dying coals. "Something...something dark was seeking us from afar. It is gone now."

She lay her head against his chest, wanting to rail at the heavens suddenly. "I do not want you to---to do whatever it is Earendil said you are supposed to do! I want it to go away and leave us in peace!" She knew she sounded like a child, but she did not care. "I do not want to lose you," she said in a softly, her voice hollow with dread.

"You will not!" He said fiercely. "Whatever comes to pass, whether we are slain or live happily to old age surrounded by dozens of grandchildren, we shall be together in the summerland where mortal souls---"

"No!" She cried angrily. "I do not want to be reunited in the land of Hereafter! I want you in this life!" And she wept then, shedding all her pent up tears of fear, all she had held in through the nightmare of the last few days, squeezing her eyes shut against the image of Legolas hanging impaled upon the Huntress' claw.

A long while later, she lay in his arms, all cried out as her mother would have said, tracing invisible patterns on her bare chest.

"We must go back to the City soon," he said unnecessarily. "My father will want to leave at first light."

"I will say farewell here," she said softly. "I do not wish to watch you ride away."

He buried his face in her hair, breathing in her scent as though he meant to make a memory to last until Mid-winter. "I love you, Eowyn. I know I sound like a songbird, repeating the same strain over and over. But I cannot say it enough to give voice to what I feel. Believe that. Believe that the Valar are loving and just and will not see us parted untimely in this life."

"I will," she said. She smiled and his sorrowful face brightened. She could weep again when he was gone, but she would not let him carry the image of her tears with him to Mirkwood. "I love you," she said with a smile that belied the ache in her heart. "And I will see you soon."

After he was gone, she wept again, for a very long time. She sat long in thought after the Sun rose on the new day. At midday, she rose and washed her face and let Windfola carry her back across the water-logged fields. As she drew near the City, she began to hear a tap-tap like the sound of hundreds of wood-peckers. Hammers, she thought with a small smile. She quickened her mount's pace and rode to help her friends rebuild their City. There was much to do.


Once more I leave my home behind and ride to an uncertain future. But it is immeasurably different this time. I am returning to all I have known, not fleeing. I will face the demons within and without and, by the Valar's grace, defeat them. I will face the whispers and knowing smirks of the Gondorhim as well. For me, that is more daunting that a host of Hunters. But like the monsters, it will hound me until I confront it head-on.

I feel a constant tug on my heart, the bright place in my soul where Legolas now dwells. I imagine I can sense his smile as his thoughts turn to me, even two hundred leagues away.

The days have grown cooler and the harvest moon hangs bright and full in the night sky. Like a summer bird, I am filled with the restless, instinctive sense that it is time to depart. But I shall not journey alone. Gimli son of Gloin stayed behind when Aragorn and Legolas departed, ostensibly to help the Rhunballani rebuild. He has been invaluable, over-seeing the resurrection of structures that would have taken thrice the time to complete without his skill. But, in truth, I think he stayed at Legolas' behest, to bolster my spirits. If that was his mission, he had succeeded, for his warm, good humor and steady presence have been a constant comfort to me and to Fallah as well.

Fallah will come with us tomorrow. At first, she told me she had asked and been granted leave by Aragorn to study in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith. Though I think she truly only wishes to learn all Aragorn will teach her. I imagine she will show the Healers of Gondor a trick or two they have not seem before. Or as Gimli put it, "She will fright the skullcaps off of them!" She will learn all she can and give back new knowledge in equal measure. But she has told me there are other reasons to leave. Fallah does not forget her oath to Lord Hurin, and she says she will serve the people of Minas Tirith until she has saved as many lives as her skylighters took in the fiasco as South Pass.

"Rhunballa," she told me last night, "is haunted for me, though all its monsters be slain. Everywhere I turn I see a ghost. My family is gone, Eowyn, and too many of my friends. I must leave this land, at least for a while, or die of grief."

And to that, I can offer no comfort other than my friendship. Only time and distance will close some wounds. I know that better than most. The three of us will journey together. Though perhaps I should say the four of us. I am not sure.

Last night, I sat up late with my friends. I drank my fill of wine, something I rarely do. I listened to Suni speak of her eldest son's new antipathy for the word 'prince'. It has caused the mothers of some of his rough and tumble playmates to forbid rough housing with Aram for fear of bruising or scraping the heir to the throne.

Shaeri consented to be firstwife to Moussah only under the condition that she remain in Rhunballa. She will not go to Harad, and that, I think, shall be the salvation of their marriage. They officially consummated their union after a loud, drunken festival during which Harad's new Emperor told me rather tipsily that he and Aragorn had tacitly agreed that neither should lay claim to Rhunballa. It would, with Suni's leave, become a neutral ground to discuss matters of state between Gondor and Harad when negotiation at the point of a sword seemed inappropriate.

"It is, after all, a no man's land," Moussah said with a perfectly straight face.

My jaw did not drop open, but it was a near thing. The Emperor of Near and Far Harad, the Scourge of the West, Lord of the Servants of Mordor, High Priest of the Black Order of Morgoth, had not merely made a joke. He had just made a very, very bad pun. No more will I say anything is impossible.

As the conversation waned, I lay back beside the fire in Queen's Guard commons and dreamed. Or I think I dreamed. I am not sure. In my dream, Morsul sat beside me, helping himself the last of the redberry wine. He looked solid and real, very unlike the transparent shades men always describe in ghost tales. But as I sat up and watched him sip the wine with slow relish, the fire caught him in such a way that I saw he cast no shadow.

He was an Elf once more. Even dead, he shown in the faint light. His coal black hair was swept back from his forehead, bound in a single warrior's braid that fell down his back. He took another brown clay cup from the hearthside and filled it with the dregs of the wine. Then he turned back and smiled at me wickedly.

"I have been summarily ejected from Mandos' Halls," he said. He handed me the wine cup and I took it, wondering how a shade could lift a solid object in the first place. "Apparently, He has had no traffic with a soul as tarnished as mine in some time."

"How could the god of death spurn a dead soul?" I asked softly. "Especially one who sought redemption in the end?"

"He had not seen an Elf who willingly gave himself over to Darkness

since Maeglin of Gondolin darkened his doorstep," Morsul murmured. "I am unfit to Wait. I am unfit to be reborn. And yet, because of my repentance, I am also unfit to be cast into the Outer Darkness. His judgement was that I return to Arda houseless, to make peace the hate and rage that still blacken my soul. And to atone for millennia of murder and atrocity. I am to aid you and my Lord Dior's great-grandson in your struggle against the Stormbringer."

"The Stormbringer," I repeated and shivered. And suddenly, the full meaning of his words struck me. "You are to---no! NO! You will not---"

I searched for a kinder word but could not find one, "---haunt me! I will not allow it!"

But he only laughed. The sound echoed strangely in my head, as though it were rebounding inside the corridors of some giant cavern room. "Is that any way to speak to a warrior who nobly laid down his life for you?"

"You were already dead!" I nearly shouted. It was one thing to remember him with pity and sigh sadly for all that he had lost and all that had been ruined by Simiasha's foulness. It was more difficult to think kindly of him and mourn his tragic fate when he sat smirking before me, somehow solid and insubstantial at the same time.

"Do not frown so, love!" He said, watching with amusement as I ground my teeth. "We are on a great adventure, you and I! I will guard you and hover o'er your every more. I have done so since the moment you slew Thuringwethil." He smiled lovingly, watching with dark mischief in his silver eyes as my face turned red as a rose in bloom.

"You---!" I hissed in utter horror. "You have been at my side without cease since---" I stopped speaking.

"Yes, indeed," he said slyly. He frowned thoughtfully. "All in all, I thought you and your Legolas performed rather admirably, even without the aid of the Melmaenas to---" I uttered some unintelligible oath and lobbed my cup of wine at him. It passed through him and shattered on the hearth.

His mirth faded then, as though blown away by a sudden wind. He eyed me, sober and serious as a hangman. He reached forward and took my hand. His flesh was solid now, neither warm nor cold. I froze, too shocked to react at all.

"Hear me," he said solemnly. "My true name is Laersul son of Olwe. I will serve you and Elured's grandson to the end of my strength and beyond. You have but to call my name, dearest, and I will come."

And he was gone.

I woke just before dawn, a little amused by the odd path my dreams had taken. As I searched for my boots in the dark, I pricked my finger on a sharp fragment of broken pottery. The cup I had hurled at Morsul in my dream lay scattered in broken pieces around the edge of the hearth.

I have decided I will not dwell on the possibility of divinely sanctioned hauntings unless Morsul---or Laersul---shows himself to me in the waking light of day. If I do, I may never bathe again for fear of the watchful laughing eyes of voyeuristic Elf spirits.

It is past dawn. Windfola is saddled and the jenny mules are laden with all we mean to carry with us to Gondor. I have said my farewells to those I love. I hear, even now, Master Gimli asking Fallah if there is anything in her bags that will blow us sky high if it is laid near the fire tonight.

It is time to go. I will brave this new danger and the noble folk of Gondor with as much courage as I can muster, though I would rather face a host of sword-wielding enemies than a single snickering courtier. I will aid my beloved in every way against this unknown threat that seems to be his burden. I will do all in my power to protect my King and his realm against the new enemy. I will dream of Legolas and pine for Mid-winter's Eve like a sighing lovesick maid. My body is still tainted with darkness, but my heart is whole and strong again. I will go forward, not unafraid, but unbowed by fear, to face whatever the future holds.


Author's notes:

Well, as you can see, this is the end of one story and the beginning of another. The next fic in this series will be called "Knight of Gondor".

It may be a little while before I am able to begin it in earnest, but be patient and it will come. I thank you all collectively for your support and encouraging words for my first LOTR fic. Drop me a email if you want

At .

Aenigmatic----I planned to go chronologically, in order of appearance, so to speak, in thanking all those kind enough to review my first fic on

But Aenigmatic deserves special thanks for having erected a beautiful fan site, The Awakening, for this

Please stop by and give her thanks for this wonderful page.

And from me personally, Aenigmatic, I thank you for your faithful reviews and patience with my slow response time and busy schedule. Your words of praise helped me to keep making time for this fic when very little time was available.

Felian----Thank you for your consistent, beautiful, and often long reviews! You are the kind of reviewer that every author dreams of. I look forward to your response on each chapter because you seem to see so many fine details that only comes of having read something with great of the material.

Frosta----Thanks so much for your comparison to "A Game of Thrones"!

It's very flattering to be compared to such a wonderfully written series of books. I'm glad you liked the pacing of the story and the romance. The one thing I wanted to accomplish in this was to make the relationship seem as though it was happening gradually and keep it from feeling rushed or unbelievable.

Dark Pheonix----Glad you liked Morsul! As you can see after reading this last chapter, he's far from gone. He'll feature prominently in "Knight of Gondor" and perhaps beyond. His name is kind of ugly, but Simiasha gave it to him, so go figure. His original name was Laersul, which is Sindarin for "Summer Wind". When he became a Hunter, Thuringwethil renamed him her "dark wind." The bitch. The stake didn't dust him immediately partly because stakes aren't full proof against Thuringwethil's children. Also, he was sort of holding onto a few more minutes of life (or whatever) so he could tell Eowyn what she needed to know. The real thing that killed him was re-awakening to his true self. As an Elf, he lost the will to go on as a Hunter once he'd remembered himself. In a sense, he willed his own death. Dark Wanderer----Sorry to have blown you away so violently! I hope the hole in the wall behind you wasn't too expensive to fix! Thanks for your kind words and your recommendation is already under way. I am trying to get published in the short story market at present, mostly in the fantasy genre, but I have submitted one or two science fiction shorts. We'll see if anyone bites.

Mormiriel---I'm glad you thought this take on Eowyn was original! I had looked around and didn't see any fics that took this direction with her, so I stepped up to the plate, as it were. As for Faramir...I love him, too. The question as to whether she would have been caged as his wife or a treasured partner is going to be addressed in "Knight of Gondor". You and I know he would have treated her as the most precious friend of his life and as an equal, but at least in my fic, SHE didn't know that. At least not in the state she was in when she ran away from Minas Tirith. She's going to have to deal with the fact that she ran away from him and her feelings for him when she ran away from everything else. She'll have to deal with the fact that she wronged him seriously, though no promises or vows of love had been exchanged at that point. And, most angsty of all, she's going to find that loving Legolas doesn't make the feeling she had for Faramir magically disappear.

Mistress Natalia----I'm glad this touched you. There were parts of this that were hard to write; though it was not quite the most painful thing I've written to date. Hope you enjoyed the end.

Elwe Singollo----I wanted to keep the pacing unhurried and the characterizations true to their literary/movie originals even though I was venturing into the shadowy vale of AU. And you are right in that, from this point on, anything can happen.

Kitty----Glad you liked this AU! There are always twice as many pitfalls when writing fanfic that deviates into the realm of 'what if this one thing had happened differently.'

Lynne---I am happy you stumbled upon this story. I've found some of my favorite fics by 'trolling' through rather than going the more sure route of word or mouth. Hope the end was satisfying!

Amy Lee----I feel the same way about Eowyn in the books! I loved her character, I loved that she did what everyone said she should not and could not and that, in the end, did what no one else was able to do. I love Faramir and I believe that they were very happy both in cannon book and movieverse. you, I was always sad that she said she would become a healer and no longer take joy in songs of war. Even as a child, I blinked during the scene where she and Faramir pledge their love, when she calls him her 'Lord.' Uhg! It seemed she just bowed to custom when she found a good man who loved her and stopped being the wild, rebellious shield maiden that was so interesting.

Katsuhito Sage----"Yay, Eowyn Power!" indeed. I wished there had been more of her when I read the book and I wished the same thing when I saw the films, even though her role was somewhat expanded in the movieverse.

She is, for that reason, a fanfic writer's fondest dream, a terribly interesting and complex character that just cries out for more story.

Erewyn----I have never drawn a "great googly moogly!" from anyone before. Thanks for you enthusiastic praise!

Terriah----Thanks so much. I hope the successive chapters lived up to your expectations!

Pommelkitty----First of all, I have to tell you I love your name....Pommelkitty. I think the two scenes you mentioned, where Morsul infects Eowyn with his blood and the scene where Eowyn lets Legolas bite her, were two of my favorites to write. The Morsul scene was great fun because it was, in a sense, the beginning of the real action of the story. And the Legolas and Eowyn scene...heh heh. I loved writing the 'spilling the beans' monologue where you finally get a glimpse of what has been going on in Legolas' mind all this time.

GoddessByline----Well, Eowyn didn't quite become immortal, though she did emerge from her ordeal with an unnaturally lengthened lifespan. I've seen so many fics where Legolas' lover becomes magically immortal that I wanted to take the opposite tact and give him the option to chose a mortal life. In some ways, he seems the saddest member of the Fellowship in that he won Middle Earth and lost it, ultimately, for himself. And then, he had to watch his closest friends grow old and die. Sad.

Malva----I loved writing Thuringwethil! She's so bad! It means a lot to hear that something I wrote brought someone to tears. If you can move someone emotionally like that, it means you've succeeded in your quest to write a good story. Which I hope this is. Too often, I can only see where something I've written could have been better.

Reviving Ophelia----I was amazed how many people thought Gimli was dead for good. I thought I had been sort of had been too transparent in letting him die so unceremoniously. He and Legolas and Eowyn were always my favorite characters as well.

Me----I hope the long wait was worth it! Thanks for being patient! KarboardKate----Thanks! Carrie12----I actually liked Eowyn more in the movies than the books.

Like Arwen, she had a lot more to do---and a lot more modern sensibilities---than her counterpart in the books.

Misanthropiclittlegirl----Hope you enjoyed the last chapter! Kelly----Thank you for the Anne Rice comparison! I can't say what the inspiration for this story was, at least to pin it down to one thing. I know that when I saw Van Helsing and the look of the vampires in that film, the transformed half-bat thing they had going on, it made me think they had pretty much nailed how I envisioned the Hunters in their winged state.

I think I started with the idea of Eowyn on her own, fighting Tolkien-esque vampires somewhere in the east. In the first outline of the story, Legolas and Eowyn did not become lovers. But as I wrote the first draft, as Legolas and Eowyn 'met' for the first time, the romantic element seemed to write itself.

Angel of Kool----Glad you enjoyed! Glenda Finke----If I had a single idea in the initial concept of this fic, it was to create a very strong, independent Eowyn who could stand toe to toe with anything that came her way, and yet still keep her vulnerable and emotionally complex.
Kitty----The initial outline of the story, before I ever put pen to paper, didn't have Legolas and Eowyn developing anything more than a sweet, lifelong friendship. I had originally intended to have her return to the West and hook up with Faramir---on more equal terms---but Legolas and Eowyn had other ideas as I wrote the first draft.

The Earth Guide----I wanted to stay on track with the cannon descriptions of Elvish love. Tolkien Elves are, for the most part, incapable of desire---with rare exceptions such as Maeglin and Celegorm---without the catalyst of love.

I wanted to show the turmoil going on in Legolas' head as he slowly realized what he was feeling for her and why. But I had made the decision to stay with her point of view consistently through the entire story. I may switch out between Eowyn's and Legolas' point of view in 'Knight of Gondor'.

Nemo----Thank for the encouragement!

IceWhiteLady-----I hope you liked the grand finale! And there's more to come still!

Scealai----You put me in some pretty flattering company! Thank you!

Fildork----More is here. But it's not really over.

Innocence----I am trying!


Pipsthief----Trust that, though new chapters may arrive sometimes with the speed of Methuselah on an afternoon jog, I won't abandon a work in progress.

April----This one is finished, but there is still more to come.

Troylover----I'm a Troy lover, too. Or maybe I'm just an Orlando, Eric Bana and Brad Pitt (in their various states of undress during the film) lover.

Rashaka----I'm sorry to have complicated your shipper life. But just think what I've done to my own. I wanted to show the East as a place full of good and bad people rather than the faceless generalization we get in the books.

A lot of the OC's were very real because they were inspired by real people, I think. Shaeri, for instance, is based on a friend I had in from high school, who, after her conservative Saudi parents dropped her off at school, would run to the bathroom, remove what she referred to as her 'headgear', and whip out a change of clothes, her makeup and curling iron. Her mom, who was very sweet and nothing like Obari, was always so pleased her daughter liked school so much that she wanted to get there half an hour early every morning. Heh.

You're right in that Indassa kissing Legolas was sort of my homage to all the teenaged girlcough and not so teenaged girls, who would have killed for a chance like that.

I'm glad you appreciated the time it took to Eowyn and Legolas together. In the initial concept of this story, I have them becoming fast friends for life, but nothing more. This story, as I began to write it, had other plans. His speech in the Nest would have never happened if not for his when his being infected with the Huntress' blood, which made him say what he felt without restraint.

I wanted to truly make the Eowyn in this story the woman who killed Angmar, a woman who is and will be a warrior all her life, and yet keep her very feminine. Your comment about the plot and characters' actions all making sense made my heart soar, by the way.

The Change warping their perceptions after Eowyn and Legolas escaped the Nest was very hard to write. I wanted to keep their first night together separate, to make it clear that they were in their right minds when they made love and to keep anything violent of twisted away from that part of their natured, even after they began to Change. Which was harder to do than it sounded.

I was happy when you asked in your last review exactly what the weapon was that Eowyn had in store for Simiasha. I was afraid I had not been cagey enough in dropping hint but not giving the secret away. Shard is going to figure prominently in "Knight of Gondor".

Unplugged----Let's hear it for true love! A lot of people were thrown and disturbed by Thranduil's theory about their love. You've now been proven right in your faith; Legolas and Eowyn are as close as ever after Simiasha's death. Though that doesn't mean the road ahead will be without any obstacles. Stay tuned.

Merit Somnia----I know I teased you with the previous chapter, saying it was the end. Now, the end is yours----at least, the end of this particular fic.

Rogue Solus----All done!

Siryn----I have one thing to say to you, Siryn. Please update your EowynLegolas fic 'The Edge of an Uncertain World'! Thank you for your kind words and encouragement through what has been almost a year of writing the fic from start to completion.

MJLuvsPolar----I am glad you liked the original mythology I added into the considerable pantheon of the Tolkien universe. This fic was a joy to write, but I would be lying if I didn't say that my favorite scenes were the ones between Legolas and Eowyn and the development of their relationship.

Sensei----Glad to gain another convert to this extremely non-cannon shipdom! I hope the ending was all you dreamed.

Ithilwen of Mirkwood----Don't stay on your toes---they'll cramp up!

I hope you enjoyed the grand finale as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Pallas Athenal----Here's to hopeless romanticism!

Larania Drake----Happy to kick ass all day long!

Luthien Tinuviel18----Thanks!

Anlei----Wait no more.

GitaMerah----I wanted the love scenes to have the difficult balance of being 'hot' without being untasteful. I try to give a cursory description of what is going on physically and dwell more deeply on what is going on in the lovers' heads. THAT's where the real romance lies.

Emgee----There is much more to come.

Drawing Lots----Sequels are in the works, but won't be immediate. And Morsul...oh, he'll be featured prominently in "Knight of Gondor".

Eedoe---I'm honored to be in your favorites! And trust that there will be more.

Leonsalanna----I'm happy you took the recommendation and gave this story a chance. I think the pairing has put a lot of people off it that would have otherwise given this story a try.

Ann—Not related, but I thank you for the compliment! Angelic Lawyer----I'm glad you found Simiasha scary. Female villains are always more fun to write, I don't know why.

Terriah----Thank you!!

Cathy----Abandon? Never! "Knight of Gondor" may take a while, but it will come.

Saturnpyroprincess---All done!

Lady Miriel----My rough drafts are all in long hand, unfortunately.


Tracey Claybon----It is also on and on

LJ----I'm glad you gave this fic a try. Who on OpenScrollsArchive recommended it?

Impatiently Anonymous----Heh heh, short chapters are against my nature. But I will try to update sooner from now on.

Amateur Storyteller----I'm glad you enjoyed it so far! I hope this last chapter lived up to your hopes!

Lady Mariel----It is finished. Sort of. Unfortunately, all my rough drafts are in longhand. But there will be a sequel in due time.

Ruth----No published works as of yet. But I am trying.

Sezza----Thank you for you kind words! I hope I don't disappoint here at the end.

Kiertsi----I want to be part of an anti-defamation league for Thranduil. You are so right that he is too often portrayed at a great prat instead of the King who held off the forces of Sauron and the Witchking without an Elvenring to help him.

Molly----Thanks for your double review. I have actually been using a beta for this chapter and this previous one. I want to go back and re-do the typos and such in the previous chapters soon.

Kitkat----I plan to keep writing these characters, though it may not been immediate. But I am already finished with the initial outline for "Knight of Gondor".

Evilsquirrelscientist----I'm glad you took a chance on this fic!

Angela----Check out my new author page, much better than the blank author page I had yesterday. My address is .

Please write!

Phoenixalpha----I love Thranduil! Too many people write him as a simply bastard. I think Eomer said it best when he tells Eowyn that Thranduil is a good man---or Elf rather---and also a right bastard.

Niko----AU mean alternate Universe, generally when something in the cannon storyline went left when it should have gone right----and everything that followed fell out a little (or sometimes a great deal) differently. OC means original character. OCC...hmm, I'm not sure what that means.

Star4----Thanks for the kind words! I will keep on writing, I assure you.