Disclaimer: This story is purely for entertainment purposes. I own nothing. I bow in deference to Master Tolkien who created the world in which this story is set.

Long before the War of the Alliance, Oropher, King of the Silvan
Elves east of the Anduin, being disturbed by rumors of the
rising power of Sauron, had left their ancient dwellings about
Amon Lanc, across the river from their kin in L(rien. Three
times he had moved northwards, and at the end of the Second Age
he dwelt in the western glens of the Emyn Duir, and his numerous
people lived and roamed in the woods and vales westward as far
as Anduin, north of the ancient Dwarf-Road. (p. 293)
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales: The Lost Lore of Middle-
Earth

.when a thousand years of the Third Age had passed and the
Shadow fell upon Greenwood the Great, the Silven Elves ruled by
Thranduil
retreated before it as it spread ever northward, until at last
Thranduil established his realm in the north-east of the forest
and delved there a fortress and great halls underground. (p. 271-
2)
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales: The Lost Lore of Middle
Earth

-1-
Wine to Vinegar

"The darkness presses close, my lord." The voice was a murmur in the vast stone chamber echoing as a shout through the room. The speaker looked toward the ceiling, as if watching his words rebound throughout the intricately decorated chamber, and one lip curled upward in disdain. Glancing around for any stray listeners, the speaker moved closer to his lord, silver hair whispering over the green velvet of his tunic. He leaned to speak into an elegant pointed ear. "Everywhere do we see the signs of its rank influence. The water of our fair river is black and poisoned. All who touch it fall under a mighty spell."

"I know all of these things, Thalgaladh," blue eyes flashed with irritation, cutting off the elf's diatribe. Long fingers kneaded a furrowed brow. "Yet I have many questions that remain unanswered." The commanding tone hinted at impatience born of deep concern.

"My lord, we have been unable to ascertain either the identity or intentions of the occupant of Dol Guldur." Thalgaladh reported, his voice reflecting the disappointment he saw in his King's eyes.

The golden haired king heaved a mighty sigh. He'd known this day would come, and he'd anticipated it with equal parts dread and relief. "I suppose that it no longer matters. Everywhere are the harbingers of his ill-intent. The forest around us falls ever deeper into shadow," the king paused to meet his General's eyes "the trees grow restless and ill, the animals flee for safer ground. The shadow breathes discontent through every corner of our home and realm." The King paused for a moment, drawing himself up to his full height before declaring, "It is time."

Thalgaladh met the King's gaze squarely, seeking confirmation in the bloodshot blue eyes. Finding what he sought, Thalgaladh nodded once and questioned, "Are you certain, my lord?"

King Thranduil paused for a long moment, eyes sweeping the room surrounding him. For long years had his people dwelled in and around Emyn Duir. The glens to the west had been their homes, the mountains their fortress, and there had they had found a measure of contentment. The trees here were tall and accommodating, the valleys shallow and warm, the river fair and swift. The elves of Greenwood had dwelled here more than twelve centuries, since his father led them north from Amon Lanc. Indeed, the room in which he now stood with his most trusted General had been his father Oropher's war room. Abandoning their mountain stronghold and the surrounding glens and asking his people to once again follow his family north seemed to the Elvenking an unfair burden. His warrior heart demanded he stay and fight, to take the battle to the doors of Dol Guldur and drive this new evil from the ancient stronghold. Yet such a battle demanded sacrifices that the Elvenking refused to make.

As if sensing his King's thoughts, Thalgaladh stated, "Our people will fight, my King, if you but asked them."

The smile that split Thranduil's face contained no hint of humor. "Ah, but to fight is something I cannot ask. Too many lives were lost in the last battle and I will not willfully lead our decimated people into unnecessary conflict. Too long has it taken for us to recover, and some scars I fear, shall never fade." The mighty voice dwindled into the faintest of whispers as the Lord of Greenwood's thoughts turned towards his own fallen father. The General opened his mouth to refute, but Thranduil silenced him with a raised hand. "Nay, Thalgaladh, we must move." Thranduil spoke the words aloud as much to convince himself as to convince his General. One glance into Thalgaladh's gray eyes revealed his failure on both counts. Both elves were warriors to their bones and to abandon their long time home rather than fight for it chafed. But to allow pride to dictate policy at the cost of his people's lives was a folly that Thranduil would not commit. 'It is a fool that builds his house upon the sand'[i] his father had told him, and for the first time the Elvenking felt the wisdom of those words. The forest around them decayed more each day. The once fecund wood dwindled, its deep roots and mighty trunks eroding under the dark weight that had settled upon them as surely as the river eats its own bed. He'd be twice a fool to stay and fight for what was already lost. "Tell Belegalad to gather the people so that I may inform them of my intentions to move northwards."

Thalgaladh shifted beneath his King's gaze, swallowing around his discomfort. He inwardly cursed the prince, bringing the total to twelve times since the dawn. Oh but he did not want to be the bearer of ill news! Iluvatar alone knew how the Elvenking would react. That's not so. You know exactly how he'll react, his conscience scolded, and he knew the voice spoke true. Steeling himself for a tirade, he forced out the dreaded words: "The prince is not here, my lord."

Thranduil's liquid blue eyes froze into a hard piercing glare. Calm resolution mutated into eerie stillness. The calm before the storm. Rage radiated from the stony king, hot enough to incinerate. The silver haired elf fought the urge to inch backwards. "What do you mean he is not here?" Voice steady, reined. When no reply was forthcoming, stillness evaporated, leaving only a quivering, muted wrath. "Where is my son?"

Thalgaladh resisted the urge to squirm beneath the king's glare, forcing himself to remain steady and unmoving. How the king could still manage to evoke such feelings after thousands of years of friendship and service remained a mystery to the General. Thranduil had long been his friend, but the persona before him, the Elvenking of Greenwood, had ever been intimidating. Thalgaladh could no more stifle the resentment for the being before him than the awe he inspired. "Prince Belegalad rode south at sunrise with a small contingent. His purposes were his own, and did not reveal them to me."

"But you have a theory," Thranduil retorted, finding his tenuous hold on his temper slipping. That his son should have done so foolhardy a thing and placed himself at such risk aggravated the Elvenking no end. Not to mention that he'd done so without so much as a word or goodbye to his family. Thranduil expected such childish mischief from his youngest son, Legolas, who had little concept of the evils that the world contained. He will learn soon enough, he thought, burdened by the shame of not being able to protect his innocent child from encroaching evil. Shaking off the dark thoughts, Thranduil hiked a fine, fair eyebrow at his General, awaiting an answer.

"Aye, my lord." Thalgaladh muttered, unnerved under the other's intense scrutiny. "I fear the prince has gone to Dol Guldur seeking the information that you requested."

Thranduil swore, loud and colorful, running long fingered hands through thick golden hair. Bony fingers snagged in his braids, and the king fisted at his tresses to prevent himself from hurling the nearest object across the room. The thought of his son riding out into such darkness without concept or care of what might lurk within sent an icy shiver up Thranduil's spine. "Foolish child," he mumbled.

"My lord, I can send my best trackers to find the prince and bring him home," Thalgaladh offered, and watched as his friend mulled over the idea. In truth, Thranduil found great merit in the suggestion. Half of him wanted to go after his son personally and drag him back by his pointed ears. Logic dictated that he could do no such thing. Abandoning his people to resolve personal matters when he should be preparing them for the upcoming migration was not a viable option. Of course logic seldom played a role in the dictates of the heart.

Thranduil debated the suggestion for a long moment. Sending trackers out to hunt down his son and drag him home like an errant knave would more than likely be viewed as an unforgivable slight, a belittlement of his abilities. Such an insult might serve to humble a son who would embark on a dangerous quest without his father's leave, not to mention a prince who did so without the approval of his king. As tempting as the offer was, in the end, Thranduil had to discard the idea. Belegalad was a fierce warrior and more than capable of taking care of himself.

"Nay," Thranduil grumbled, unable to eradicate all traces of petulance from his voice. He shook his head once to clear it before conceding, "Nay, for when my son does not wish to be found, none shall find him." Thalgaladh nodded in acknowledgement of the truth behind Thranduil's statement, a near imperceptible smile tugging at the General's mouth.

Thranduil chose to ignore his General's smirk in spite of his ever growing ire. He knew that his friend was merely basking in his pride for it had been under Thalgaladh's tutelage that the Prince had learned all the arts of war. Pushing through his annoyance at what he perceived as a plot between his General and his son, the king said, "Very well, we must proceed without him. We cannot afford delay. Gather the people together so that I may inform them of my intent to migrate north."

-----------------------

The golden arrow whispered through the air like a ray of sunlight, its path perfect and graceful, barely stirring the leaves and branches as it traveled past them before it thudded into the heart of the target. Musical giggles rose like a tide, breaking over the Elvenking as he stood just out of sight of the three young elves in the glen.

"Look at what you've done to my arrow," one platinum haired elf complained, raising the splintered wood for all to behold. The white feathers clung defiantly to the two halves of the arrow as if in denial of their uselessness.

Merry chuckles issued from the other two elves. "Ai, Verenaur, you asked for it, boasting as you were."

"Silence, Luinaur," Verenaur spat. Chuckles turned to breathless laughter, and Thranduil noticed the scowl on Verenaur's face twitch at the corners.

"I am sorry, Verenaur," the golden haired elf stepped forward, fighting a losing battle with his triumphant smirk. "It was not my intention to split your arrow in twain." Verenaur's blue green eyes rose from his ruined arrow to meet azure eyes dancing with mirth.

"Yes it was," Verenaur snapped eliciting peals of laughter from his two companions.

"Yes it was," the golden haired elf conceded, wiping tears from his eyes.

Luinaur strolled over to the other two elves, his gate broadcasting his satisfaction. "Well done, Legolas," Luinaur clapped the prince on the back in a show of approval. "Did I not tell you Verenaur? Our Prince is the finest archer in all of Greenwood." Verenaur rolled his eyes, his mouth curling into a secret smile.

"I would hardly go that far, Luinaur," Legolas shook his head in denial. "I still have much to learn."

Verenaur nodded in agreement before saying, "Aye, that may be true Legolas. But there is also truth in what my so oft errant brother says. That was an excellent shot."

"Indeed it was," Thranduil's voice thundered from behind them, startling the three companions. The three joking elves froze in some odd attempt at blending in with their surroundings. While their rigid stillness did bear a great similarity to the gentle immobility of the trees around them, their only real accomplishment in the act was hilarity. Thranduil smirked at the tableau as he ambled over to the three round eyed youngsters.

In the span of one heartbeat Verenaur and Luinaur dropped to one knee, mumbling a greeting to their king, while Legolas bowed his head in respect. "Ada?" Legolas questioned, tone loaded with apprehension.

Their discomfort was a palpable thing. Each one was drawn so tight that a summer breeze might knock them down. Thranduil greeted the three in hopes to put them at ease. A throbbing vein in Luinaur's forehead and a slight twitch of Verenaur's eye demonstrated his utter failure. With an accepting sigh, the king gestured for the two prostrate elves to rise before saying, "I would speak with you Legolas." Verenaur and Luinaur rose quickly, casting lingering glances at Legolas before quitting the glen.

The king watched the two retreating elves with a small smile before turning his attention on his youngest. A jumping muscle in the strong jaw caught his eye and the king wondered at its cause. The normally excellent posture that marked Legolas as both royalty and an archer remained tense and rigid, and the prince shifted under the silent gaze of his father. The slight, stiff movement was a revelation for Thranduil. His son was nervous in his presence. The thought was more than a little unsettling.

"That was an excellent shot, my son." And it was. The prince had split his friend's arrow at more than two hundred yards, through foliage and against the wind.

Pink lips hitched upward a bit revealing the barest hint of dimple. "Thank you, Ada," Legolas said, a charming blush dusting the tips of his pointed ears.

Thranduil sighed. This was not why he'd sought his son, to compliment his archery. Yet as Legolas squirmed and blushed at the simple compliment, the King found that he solemnly wished that it had been. Thranduil's chest tightened as he considered how much he had missed. In his mind, Legolas remained a child. Of course logically speaking, he knew that Legolas was a child no longer. But the knowing of a thing and its acceptance are two entirely different animals. The child in his mind had matured into a man, a warrior of exceptional skill. Years of growth and training occurred beneath his roof and notice, and now his child was a man. How many of his son's accomplishments had gone unmarked? How many more might he miss? Rubbing at his tired eyes, the king pushed past the depressing thoughts. "My son, there is something I must discuss with you."

Legolas met his father's eyes with swirling curiosity and more than a little trepidation. He could not imagine what his father could have to discuss with him. He could tell by the king's demeanor that it was a topic of great seriousness, and the prince began shuffling through his memory to think if he'd done something wrong recently. It had been many seasons since he'd played any pranks on the nobles of the court. Hadn't it? "What is it?"

Unable to bear the look in his son's azure eyes, the king turned away and began to walk, waiting for Legolas to fall into step beside him. Everything had always been easier for Thranduil while moving among the trees. Throughout his long life they'd lent him their strength and comfort, and he felt the knife of regret cut even deeper as he realized that he did not know if the same proved true of his son. With a deep breath, Thranduil exhaled his worries and regrets and waited for the tension to dissipate between himself and his son before saying, "I have decided to lead our people north."

Legolas's foot froze mid step in an almost comical gesture of shock. Had he not been born an elf, he might have keeled over sideways. A thousand questions swirled through the prince's mind, firing by so quickly he only caught snippets of each. His mouth moved without sound, his brain unable to formulate words as it was still attempting to wrap around the enormity of his father's revelation.

Noting his son's confusion, the king continued talking in hopes of alleviating the shock. "Long have I thought on this, Legolas. The shadow grows and its influences are everywhere." The king paused as if pondering some detail before inquiring, "Have you felt it?" Legolas bristled at his father's clinical question, taking it as a slight to both himself and his abilities. He'd always known that his father thought him inadequate. That he should doubt the prince's awareness of the creeping shadows just proved Legolas's theory. Biting down on his rising irritation and his tongue, Legolas nodded.

Thranduil noted the sharply squared shoulders and the clenched jaw. He recognized the defiant stance by its remarkable similarity to his own. He tapped a tense shoulder to redirect the offended prince's attention. Frosty blue eyes turned on him, revealing nothing and everything of the prince's heart. The king sighed in his exhaustion. He'd offended his son. Five minutes spent in Legolas's presence and somehow he'd managed to offend him.

The king's great sigh drew more attention than all the tapping in the world. Legolas let go of his injured pride long enough to really look at his father. Crimson threads twisted through and around the ordinarily sapphire eyes, and the usually smooth ivory features of his fair face were shadowed by deep lines around his eyes and mouth. Though uncommon, exhaustion was not completely alien among elves. Certainly the prince could recognize it when it trounced across another's features, stealing the glow from skin and the sparkle from eyes. Fair eyebrows hitched at the discovery. He meant to apologize for his childishness, but the king spoke first. "We have never spoken of this before, though I have spent long hours discussing this issue with your mother and brother. I would hear what you have to say."

Legolas swallowed, his anger evaporating like dew at dawn. His father wore the burden of his decision as surely as he wore his leafy crown, and Legolas felt the tips of his ears burn at his own petulance. "I have heard the trees complain and seen the poison that has taken our fair river. At times I think the air foul, but more of taste than scent. Like it soured on my tongue."

Thranduil nodded in approval of his son's observations. "Indeed, the air is foul as are the woods around us. The trees struggle and I can hear them gasping at times beneath the suffocating influences of this darkness. The animals flee northwards as this evil rots the very heart from the wood around us. As sweet wine turns to vinegar, so too does our fair wood turn foul. Our people seem to have remained untainted, but I fear that time runs short for them. For these reasons I feel we must go north"

Legolas's brow furrowed. Again his mind shuffled questions that he felt hesitant to express, though his father's gaze remained open and accepting, inviting comment. He did not fear orcs or wargs. It was the thought of his father's disapproval that sent icy waves up his spine. Bracing against them, Legolas said, "It does not seem right to abandon our home. Where will we go?"

"I understand your reluctance to leave here." The king met his son's eyes squarely, twin blues met and held, and Thranduil continued, "Thrice did I follow my father northwards and each time 'twas a blight on my heart and a bitterness in my soul. Retreat always feels like loss or concession. Yet to abandon a weak position in favor of a strong one is sometimes a necessity."

"Our people will fight!" Legolas declared with all the passion that youth afforded. It was not the first time that particular declaration fell on his ears, nor, he was certain, would it be the last.

"Aye, they would. Yet I would not willingly sacrifice them on the altar of this evil for something as inconsequential as halls of stone." The prince poised to argue the point but fell silent when his father continued. "Once I felt as you did, my son. When first we moved from our dwellings in the south, I wished only to stand and fight what would attack us. My father taught me not to regard war so blithely for its costs are often far greater than its benefits. Oropher told me that a good king always stood ready for battle while seeking an alternative. A path of retreat, for example. He reasoned that while we cannot predict when or if adversity may strike, we should always prepare for it ." He had not planned to lecture at his son. Indeed, he had not known what to expect from this conversation at all. But Thranduil did not do things by halves, and if they were to discuss battle strategies, then he would be sure to do so completely. "To be caught unawares and unprepared is to meet your end. 'tis one thing to fight when there is no alternative. To shed blood and life for stone is little more than vanity. Sometimes the hardest decision we make in this life is not to fight."

He waited for the words to sink in before continuing. "My father taught me that there is no shame in retreat, nor weakness in regrouping if each were used to preserve life. He taught me to use our strengths to our advantage. As an elf, the trees will always aid you, my son." Thranduil paused for a moment, remembering when his father had given him this speech. A vivid picture of his father filled his head, golden and great, battle cry whooping, fierce eyes flashing as he made his final charge. He wished that the last memory of his father, always told his children that it was. The true final picture of Oropher, mangled and blood soaked, ruined almost beyond recognition haunted him still. His heart clenched as the memory of his ruined father flittered through his consciousness. A thousand years and the grief could still wring the breath from his body! Taking a steadying breath, the king spoke again, "It is the trees that have been whispering to me that something ill approaches. I have trusted in my father's teachings. This position is difficult to defend at best and vulnerable at worst. I have been anticipating this move for many winters, and have prepared a new home for us in the mountains at the northeast corner of our fair wood."

Years! How could he not have known? Legolas wanted to be bitter that he'd been excluded from such a large decision for so long but knew he had no right. The young prince had never been interested in the affairs of government or leadership, and his father had always indulged him, allowing him to slip away to sing and frolic with his friends amongst the trees when such topics were discussed, a fact for which he'd ever been grateful. What right now did he have to resent that indulgence? Certainly he'd been excluded from this decision, as he had a thousand others.

You are included now! His mind reasoned, and Legolas released his annoyance. To cling to it would serve no purpose. Reflecting on the matter, the prince conceded that his father's logic was sound. To leave a position of weakness in favor of a stronger one, even if it was abandoning their home, was a wise move. "When will we leave?"

"As soon as the people are able. Within the month, I should hope."

So soon! Feelings and thoughts burned bright, warred with each other for dominance. His father stood placid, prepared for whatever his son might hurl at him. Again the bitterness rose within him so sharp it left a foul taste on his tongue. With a swallow and scrape of tongue on tooth, the blossoming ire faded to aching acceptance. "What can I do?"

A small smile pulled one corner of the king's lips. He had expected a tantrum, or at the very least, opposition. He had, in fact, seen the warnings of it play through the flashing blue eyes. The prince had dealt him a pleasant surprise, for he'd anticipated the encounter to run along the same vein as those he'd had with his eldest. He'd underestimated his youngest son's wisdom and even temper. Nay, he corrected. Not underestimated. Misjudged in ignorance. Again Thranduil felt regret rise within him at just how unfamiliar he was with Legolas's heart and attitudes, and made a silent promise to rectify this lapse after the journey north. Now was not the time for indulgences. "After I tell the people we will need to prepare quickly. I would ask that you stay close to me to help with the preparations."

Shocked by the implications of such a request and pleased by the amount of responsibility his father placed on him, Legolas beamed. His smile seemed to light the whole area with its radiance. "Of course, Ada."

Satisfied, Thranduil turned to leave the glen. He took two retreating steps before he paused and faced his son again. Legolas stood tall and golden, the waning light lending aura to the ethereal beauty. The Elvenking felt full to bursting, nearly choking on an unnamed emotion. He wanted to say so many things! To express the haunting regret or the seldom mentioned love. He dug down within himself for some word that might undo the negligence of the past few centuries. Of course, such words only existed in children's stories where the wicked are always punished, the righteous triumph and all 'live happily ever after.' His father had told him that to fill the heads of our youths with such tales did more harm than good, for then are they left to discover the ugly of truth that there is no 'happily ever after.' Needless to say, Thranduil grew up with a sword in his hand and the ubiquitous shadow in his mind, not having heard a tale of 'happily ever after' until he met his wife. And while his father and then King had scorned the relaying of such fluff to his grandsons, (Foolish nonsense, all!) Thranduil could not deny his sons the joys that such innocent stories would provide. He'd indulged his wife and sons both, but never partook of the tales themselves, and some deep part of him wondered if that might not be why he now stood dumb before his beloved son. A shame, really that the father and man had never quite adopted the king's eloquence, and when he longed most for the perfect words, all that poured from him was a trite, "That truly was an excellent shot, Legolas. You're friend Luinaur did not exaggerate overmuch." Despite their pallor, the words created the most magnificent smile with which the Elvenking had ever been blessed, and thought perhaps there might still be something of the old elven magic left in their fading days. With thoughts of magic and wonder at the forefront of his mind, the Elvenking strolled from the glen, leaving a beatific, beaming prince in his wake.

--------------------------

The underbrush he sprinted across remained unmarred, lending no clue toward of his homeward path, yet his pursuers relentlessly tracked him. They were so close! So close he could almost feel their moist breath across his flesh. Hot blood trailed into his eye mixing with the steady flow of tears. Rapid blinking failed to clear the ever blurring vision and he wiped a shaking hand across them to aid. A tiny stone beneath the grass very nearly undid him as his foot caught its edge. He teetered blindly for a moment before reasserting his footing. That little misstep had cost him precious seconds of lead. Deciding on a different path, he leapt up and caught a hold on a low hanging tree branch, swinging himself up into the trees. The new vantage offered a bleary glimpse of his pursuers. His lead diminished more by the heartbeat. For each step he took his hunters seemed to take three, and they had closed the gap on their quarry so much and so astutely that all hope of outrunning them faded into uncertainty. His thigh burned and throbbed where he'd torn the arrow out, the blood pouring freely down his leg. The injury needed binding, for a certainty, though logic told him that to slow at all meant certain death for him.

The elf pressed himself beyond his endurance, hoping that his new path through the trees might slow his attackers' pursuit. With each step his head grew lighter, his eyes blurrier. Insistent darkness gnawed at his peripheral vision and unconsciousness stood somewhere to the side patiently salivating. The loss of blood coupled with his labored breathing made the siren song of sleep all the more alluring, and he dragged huge gulps of air through a limply hanging mouth to quiet the rhythmic lullaby. His skin burned with fever and his stomach roiled as he pressed for greater speed. His tongue adhered to his teeth when he tried to swallow, and a bitter taste lingered at the back of his throat. Some tiny unexhausted crevice of his mind grunted 'poison' at him, before the tornado of thought and agony sucked it up and away. Later! All worries had a time and place and the poison, if poison it was, mattered little compared to the hunters at his back and the life that gushed from his multiple wounds.

He leapt again, outdistancing his pursuers in the trees. How he wanted to stop! His body demanded it of him, demanded breath or rest, but he could not afford to concede to either demand. His thigh tensed and burned in alternating fits of hellish pain, punctuated by bouts of complete, tingling numbness. And while the numbness provided reprieve it was also his greatest concern, for a deep wound gone numb means more damage than originally thought. Yet he used those small and alarming mercies to their fullest, pressing his already overwrought body harder, further. Gritting his teeth, he ran on, ignoring the swirling head and rising gorge. If he could only lose them! He was less than three hours walk from home! If he could but..

The thought died as sharp pain blossomed between his shoulder blades. He registered neither his fingers' failing grip nor the abrupt and harsh plummet until he landed with a solid thud on the moist ground. The air erupted from him with no less force than lava from a volcano. The dampness seeped through his tunic and for a flash he thought that not only wind had been forced from him under the impact. He shivered in helpless misery as the blood crusted skin grew dewy from the cool earth. The cursed black had devoured his vision until all that remained was a single, wavering point, and even that was peppered with offensive spots danced as he panted. His body twitched with the effort to stand and run, the thought obliterated as something clamped down on his calf, sharp pain giving way to numbness. The pressure relented, and tore and he heard his scream before he could choke it down.

His head was swimming, nay, drowning under the onslaught of so many sensations. What could be the harm in resting, just for a moment? He pushed his hot forehead into the cool earth, praying for reprieve from the pain. Something massive pounced on his back, shifting the embedded arrow and driving it deeper. His shout of pain disappeared into the ground as his face was pressed deeper into the foliage.

The weight on his back vanished with only a deep scratch as farewell. Growling at his ear trilled his heated flesh, raising goose bumps. The creatures would have his throat in a moment, but he couldn't muster the energy to roll over and fight. His eyelids felt twice the weight of his limbs. The blood poured out of him at an alarming rate, he knew, and if he didn't bind his wounds he would be dead within minutes. A cold like he'd never known devoured him from the inside, and his tense, stone body could do little more than tremble. He willed his arm to raise, his knees to bend, yet remained as immobile as the mountains themselves. His body no longer heeded his mind's call and he knew that his life was nearly spent. The chill that settled upon him had little to do with the temperature as he shivered and shuddered on the blood soaked earth.

Voices came over a distance. Harsh voices in foul tongues and Belegalad knew he was caught, knew he would die as his comrades. Regret filled him that he had not bid his family farewell before he departed, and he whispered an apology and prayer before pain and darkness claimed him.

----------------------- [i] Paraphrased from Matthew 7:26-27. "But anyone who hears these words of mine and does not obey them is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain poured down, the rivers flooded over, the wind blew hard against the house and it fell. And what a terrible fall that was!"