Disclaimer: All rights of recognisable characters exactly where respect is due; and the poem featured is called 'Autumn' by Walter de la Mare. In this chapter it appears with the last stanza first, and the first two further on – its just that it suited the following prose better.

A/N: Well, this is it, my friends. It has been a long and arduous journey, a trying adventure for us all – but finally, after nearly five years, this is the final chapter of Lullaby. I want to thank everyone who had the patience to stay with me all this time, even though you are few in number – this is dedicated to you, who kick-started me into motion this summer! So without further ado, read on!

Chapter Eleven –Black and Gold; Epilogue

"Sad winds where your voice was;

Tears, tears where your heart was;

And ever with me,

Child, ever with me,

Silence where hope was."

Stepping away from the lifeless body, Tirmor let it fall to the ground with a sickening thud. Estel's head caught on the wall and rested at an unnatural angle, unmoving against the cold stone. Tirmor sighed as though irritated.

"I really had hoped to keep him around for a while," he said casually, drying his hands on his trousers. "It clearly pained you to see him like that...still, no matter," he said more brightly, turning his eyes to his bound quarry. "We can still spend such quality time together."

Legolas lay unresponsive upon the cold ground. A part of him wished and begged and willed Estel to take just one gulp of air, to give any sign that he was alive...but as the seconds rolled slowly by, and the young Ranger remained where he was, realisation dawned. The would be no gulp of breath, no miraculous stirring of life within those trusting, sea-grey eyes; eyes that had followed him unquestioningly, eyes filled with so much hope that they seemed to be trying to drown out all of the darkness in the world. But his battle was over now, the darkness seeping through his veins as his life's heat gradually faded into the mist around them. In the end, there simply had not been enough hope. Legolas tried to picture the dreadful scene in which he would have to tell Lord Elrond of the death of his youngest son; the sorrow and dismay in that timeless face, the dismissal of this Wood Elf who had failed in his duty, broke his heart even further.

Yet even as despair clawed at his consciousness, another emotion flared up to counter it: defiance. Broad and pure, unflinching and adamant, a defiance of this creature before him who gazed with such manic eyes and was driven by such disturbance. If Estel must die at the hands of such a twisted being, let it not be said that he, Legolas Thranduilion and Crown Prince of Mirkwood, let his fate be in vain.

Steadying his breathing with this new resolve, he focused more clearly on the bindings about his hands. The knots were tight, but not expertly set; if he were patient enough...

A heavy, well-aimed boot up under his ribs suddenly knocked the breath from him, causing more stars to dance in front of his eyes. Again instinctively breathing sharply in, he choked on the restrictive gag.

"Such angry eyes, my Prince!" Tirmor laughed feverishly, who having retrieved a small dagger was now twiddling the point on his thumbs. "Perhaps losing one would teach you a little more respect..."

Kneeling down, he grasped a handful of the Prince's golden hair, yanking up his head and tracing the knife point over porcelain skin. "You so much resemble your mother," he whispered, almost wistfully. "She was so very beautiful, you know... But I stopped that. I ended those serene glances she said she never sent me, playing with my head, sending me secret messages that only I knew. We loved one another, and that is how it was supposed to be!" he erupted suddenly. Legolas stared straight back into his black eyes, deliberately not focusing on his words, still loosening the knots about his hands.

"But you can't look like her; she was the only one I ever loved. You are just surplus," he sneered, and digging deeper with the dagger he traced a crimson line from the corner of Legolas's right eye down his cheek, splitting the cloth gag. Gritting his teeth, Legolas just glared back as the white hot sting spread down his face. It was not deep enough to scar, but his pounding heart caused the head wound to bleed freely, sending drops of scarlet running into the gag and the bitter iron taste of his own blood in his mouth as he spat the material out. Repositioning the tip of the blade perilously close to Legolas's right eye, his mouth spread in a dour smile.

"Now," breathed Tirmor; "About those eyes..."

What happened next was so swift that it took the Prince a few seconds to register and process the events in his mind; two identical shapes erupted from a doorway hidden behind creeping ivy, blurred by their speed but unmistakably elven.

As they burst from the tunnel, the twins swiftly took in the appalling scene before them; Legolas, bound and gagged on the floor at the mercy of as yet an unknown assailant, and Estel, unconscious by a fountain.

Before Tirmor could spin around, Elladan's strong hands were about his shoulders, whipping him around to land a throbbing punch square on his nose. Reeling, Tirmor dropped his dagger and stumbled to the floor away from the Prince. As Elladan pursued him, the fire of exploding stars in his eyes, Elrohir knelt swiftly down by Legolas, his face set grimly as he pulled the gag from where it hung loosely around the Prince's neck.

"Are you –" he began to ask, but Legolas cut in frenetically –

"Estel – " he croaked; "He drowned him, in the fountain – you have to see – to try –"

Elrohir's eyes widened and he leapt away from the prone Prince to his little brother. Hauling him over on his back, he felt frantically for a pulse. Setting about clearing his airway, he demanded of Legolas in a clear, deep voice like his father's, "How long ago did this happen? How long has he been here, Legolas? He is still warm but I need to know, precisely."

"I – maybe a minute or two, perhaps three –"

Elrohir hissed in dismay, then taking a deep breath, covered Estel's nose and breathed three times into his mouth. Then kneeling higher, he set his hands on the young man's ribs and pressed sharply ten times, then returned to breathing for his brother.

Do not do this to me, little one, he begged, praying to Elbereth that if there was any good left in the world it would work in the favour of this one, desperate man. I have lost my mother; I cannot stand to lose you as well.

"Damn it, breathe Estel!" he ordered, as if he hoped to frighten his brother into breathing. "Come on, breathe, breathe..."

Elladan had Tirmor by the scruff of the neck and had aimed another powerful fist at the wood elf's temple. Stunned slightly, his eyes slid a little out of focus just as the elder twin heard his brother's desperate command. In his determination to subdue Tirmor, he had not seen who Elrohir was attending to, and suddenly felt the same icy tendrils clutch his heart. Sweet Eru, no, not him, anyone but him...

"Elrohir, what happened? What's wrong with Estel?"

Barely sparing his twin a grim glance, Elrohir pressed on. Again and again, the cycle of beating and breathing for the Ranger, five or six times over, refusing to accept any other scenario than the one where he woke up. He paused to check again for a pulse, put his keen elven ear to Estel's chest and listened intently. For all three, it seemed as if at that moment that time froze and the world stopped turning, watching and waiting, hoping and praying...

An eternity passed. And then – Estel took a great, shuddering gasp of air that rattled his ribs and shook his body. Elrohir nearly wept with joy as his gripped the young man's shoulders and, resisting the urge to embrace him, pulled him over onto his side as Estel struggled to breathe on his own and dispel the water from his lungs in rasping, wracking coughs.

Legolas felt the tension in his body release into the air with Estel's breath – he was alive, breathing and alive! Turning joyful eyes toward Elladan he saw, to late to warn the elder twin, as his former servant took full advantage of his captor's distraction and reaching inside his pocket for something, threw a handful of sparkling black dust full into his face. Crying out, Elladan's grip on Tirmor was released as he pulled his hands back to his stinging eyes and he stumbled backwards, tripping over Legolas's bound feet to land in an undignified heap.

"Elrohir, you must help him – that powder is dark magic, stay away from it!" Legolas cried desperately, trying to writhe around and see if the elder twin was still conscious.

Elrohir felt torn; in his arms, Estel was still struggling to grasp a normal breathing pattern, his breaths deep and quick – but his twin, the other half of his soul, was lying defenceless in the face of an attacker and he was unarmed. Praying he was making the right decision, he leapt to his feet and over Estel's body, taking a defensive stance in front of his brother and the Prince. Tirmor wiped the blood dripping from his nose and eyed him maliciously, as fully aware as Elrohir just how vulnerable the Noldor Elf was.

"Watch where he puts his hands," Legolas warned, as he tried to move swivel around on the floor to Elladan's side. The elder twin was groaning softly, and would not remove his hands from his eyes.

Swallowing dryly, Elrohir allowed his mind to clear of the chaotic emotions currently ricocheting within it and flooded his body with the sharp, acute agility of a warrior. His eyes never left Tirmor, but he used his peripheral vision to detect anything that could be used as a weapon.

"There is nothing," Tirmor snarled, understanding the twin's flickering eyes, and with a sneer swiftly withdrew his hand from his jacket pocket and pretended to throw at Elrohir's face. Flinching, Elrohir's arms instinctively came up to protect his eyes, but he realised to late the ruse he had fallen foul of and before he could regain his defensive position Tirmor had slammed into with his shoulder, knocking the wind from his chest. Wheezing, Elrohir fell back a few steps, mindful not to trip over his brother or the Prince. Timor laughed, a sound that held no mirth and did not reach his eyes.

"Why are you doing this? We have told the King all about you, your story is known! You cannot hope to run from his justice. Give yourself in," Elrohir bluffed, trying to buy them some time. In truth, he did not know whether the King would know yet, or what Rómen had chosen to tell him – but he was running out of options.

"Do not lie to me, elfling," Tirmor said, dismissing the bluff out of hand. "Thranduil will see what he wants to see, he always has, the fool. I will finish you all and no one will ever be the wiser for it. Your attempts, while pathetically noble, amount to nothing. You merely delay the inevitable."

"Is this what she would have wanted?" Elrohir demanded, deliberately keeping his voice steady and rhythmic, deep and calm. "Is this what your Queen would have desired? More innocent blood spilt – the blood of her own son – here, in this place of such beauty?"

Tirmor fixed the twin with a look of rage. "You are not fit to speak of my love," he spat. "You would not understand how much I have scarified – what I was willing to sacrifice...She brought it on herself – as have you!"

Without warning, Tirmor lashed out at Elrohir again with the small dagger he had used on Legolas – but this time, Elrohir was ready. Spinning deftly, he met the force of the blow on his left shoulder and deflected the blade with a swift knock to Tirmor's arm. As the knock shifted Tirmor's balance and he was propelled forward by his own thrust, Elrohir stuck his leg out and sent the wood elf sprawling across the marble floor. The dagger clattered away over towards Estel who seeing it began pulling himself along, coughing and wheezing all the while.

Following his adversary, Elrohir knelt on his chest and pinned his arms to the floor above his head. "It is over," he hissed. "You must yield. Thranduil may yet show mercy. This need not end with more bloodshed."

For a moment it seemed as though Tirmor might even have heard Elrohir's words – that somewhere, deep inside his unconscious mind a fragment of goodness that had not been twisted by bitterness reacted to the compassion. But it was too little too late – wriggling one arm free, he blew what he had left of the black powder from his hand straight into Elrohir's face. Then squeezing his legs up underneath him, Tirmor unleashed them like a spring and now it was Elrohir's turn to go sprawling backwards onto the floor, landing across his twin's legs. Elladan gave a cry of pain even as golden stars swam in Elrohir's eyes as the potent mixture attacked his senses. The world seemed to lurch around him even though he remained still, swaying beneath him like the deck of a ship.

Taking advantage of the reprieve Tirmor span up onto his feet and grabbed at the knife, mere inches away from Estel's fingertips. Stamping on the human's hand for good measure, he quickly advanced on Elrohir. Dazed though he was, Elrohir kicked out at Tirmor's knee before the dagger could get into range, and cursing he fell once more to the floor. Elrohir struggled to regain his feet, but could not right his skewed senses and suddenly a blazing pain seared through his upper left thigh. Looking down, his saw Tirmor's manic grin and the blade of his dagger half-buried in his leg. Shock seemed to clear and freeze his senses for a fraction of a second, but it was all Tirmor needed to rip the blade from the soft flesh, tearing from Elrohir's lips an unbidden scream of pain. As blood pumped from the wound, Tirmor clambered up his body, resting the bloodied blade against Elrohir's throat. The whites of his eyes were clear to see and veins were almost popping from his neck, and the Noldor elf tried desperately to shift his head away from that fearsome grip – only to find himself trapped by his twin's legs.

"Goodbye, son of Elrond," Tirmor breathed –

THWACK! From nowhere, a white fletched arrow landed squarely in Tirmor's right shoulder. Crying out in pain, he released the dagger and fell backwards. Suddenly all around them were uniformed members of the Royal Guard, long knives drawn and arrows notched to bows.

Caught somewhere between joy, relief and blinding pain, Elrohir could hardly believe his eyes. Within moments, Tirmor had been subdued by no fewer than four members of the Guard; a few heavy kicks and punches seemed to quell any spoiling he had for a fight.

Twisting around to his brother, he tried to pull his hands from his eyes.

"It's alright Dan, all is well – we are safe, the Guard are here." Gently he tried to coax Elladan's hands away from his face, to find them unfocused and bloodshot, tears desperately trying to weep away the black substance that tore at their fragile surface.

"You four," a regal voice ordered, "Keep hold of him, do not tend his wound. Rómen, see to the young Ranger - the rest of you, check the twins' injuries, and see if you can get them on their feet."

It was a voice so familiar to Legolas that it was as almost indistinguishable from his own – but he cannot be here, he thought wonderingly, he could not have come

The face of his father appeared suddenly in his field of vision, concern etched into the lines of his eyes and brow. A gentle hand wiped away the blood trickling down his cheek. "Oh Legolas," he barely breathed. Their identical eyes met and Legolas smiled weakly up. There was nothing else that either could, or needed to say. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Thranduil took a knife to the rope at his son's wrists, cutting through them as though they were butter. Pulling Legolas up into a sitting position, he knelt on the floor beside him and pulled him into a fierce embrace. Welcoming the warm touch, Legolas sighed and relaxed into the strong arms. He could not remember the last time his father had held him like this...it must have been decades ago.

"I am sorry father," he whispered, "I should have told you everything, but I did not know – you were so occupied –"

Thranduil growled deeply and breathed in the smell of his son's hair. So occupied... "There is nothing to forgive, my son –" he paused, not knowing how to continue. There was so much left to say between them, so much they would have to come to terms with...but not yet. For now, it was just enough that they were both there.

"Come – do you feel strong enough to stand?" Thranduil asked, pulling away to look at his son's face. Legolas nodded, wiping at the superficial wound to his cheek. Holding it gently, Thranduil bent for a closer inspection. "It is not deep," he concluded, satisfied. "It should heal quickly enough. Now come, I will help you up."

Rising to their feet, Legolas leaned heavily on his father's shoulder. Her garden...how could such terrible events take place in this sanctuary? Thranduil wondered, his blood beginning to boil. The fountain sang its continuous song, the water twinkling like stars, constant and unaffected by the scenes around it. Last years lily pads floated gently upon the surface. Thranduil had forgotten all about the tunnel to this garden – Nimlothnen had often used it, but time and sorrow had wrought their work upon his memory. It would need tending, his noticed absently. Pulling himself back to the present, they surveyed the scene before them

Rómen was on his knees next to Estel, who was sitting upright and leaning against the Captain. Offering up a shaky smile to Legolas, he allowed Rómen to fuss over him, checking the wounds that Tirmor had dealt him. His body felt so exhausted, so entirely drained that the thought of standing made him feel queasy, and his back still ached from the lashings he had received. In a fortunate twist of fate, the icy water from the fountain had both cleaned and numbed the wounds a little, although as shock set in he was beginning to involuntarily shudder. Noticing this, Rómen removed his cloak and carefully draped it softly around his shoulders, rubbing his arms to try to warm him a little. But there was no cloak that could dispel the cold in his heart, he reflected darkly. He had been close so death that time, too close...he could still feel the ever-lasting darkness, the nothingness that had appeared before him. Despite Rómen's efforts, he continued to shiver.

Elrohir was sat on the fountain's edge with his brother, using the water to try and wash the stinging from Elladan's eyes. The elder twin was leant so far over that his head was practically submerged, but the pureness of the fountain was working and gradually the pain lessoned. Sitting back up, he blinked what he could from his eyes and though his vision was still not perfect, he gave a small smile to his twin. They were surrounded by another four members of the Guard, two of whom were tending to the wound on Elrohir's leg. He felt a somewhat light-headed from the blood loss, but it was not enough to put him in danger and he seemed to have been fortunate in having only the remnants of Tirmor's dark substance in his eyes as his vision was almost entirely restored.

Thranduil's gaze shifted finally to Tirmor, who was knelt sullenly between four members of the Royal Guard, two with arrows notched and trained on his back. The white shaft of the arrow in his shoulder swayed slightly in the breeze, but Tirmor pursed his lips and made no sound. Thranduil stared hard, still disbelieving that someone whom he had trusted for so long had betrayed him so utterly. Tirmor, however, would not raise his eyes from the flagged ground.

Clearing his throat, the hushed tones that hovered in the air ceased. "Captain, please escort the sons of Elrond back to their chambers and see that the healers attend to them immediately," he ordered. His tone brooked no argument. Rómen nodded in acquiescence and beckoned for the remaining two members of the contingent, who had been standing sentinel near their King and Prince, to come and help him get Estel to his feet.

However, torture wounds or no, Estel had other ideas. "Your majesty, please – I want to stay. I need to hear this out...see it through to the end..." He hissed in pain as one of the Guards unwittingly gripped a wound on his back. The haunted tone in his voice did not go unchecked by the twins.

"Young man, you can barely see anything at all," Thranduil replied looking pointedly at the Estel's swollen black eyes. He admired the Ranger's resilience, but that he should have suffered such a fate within his own grounds was shameful enough – he would not see the same neglect shown to his healing process. "What I owe you..." Thranduil struggled for words, a rare event for the monarch. "You can never know how indebted my Kingdom is to your bravery. Please, do not let me see you suffering more than you need to."

"Your majesty," Elrohir said, "With all due respect...my brother is right. What you do now with this elf is as tied to our fate as it is to yours."

Elladan growled his agreement. "I would see justice done," he said, scowling hard at the bent form of Tirmor. Rising to his feet, he dropped back down next to Estel and held his face in his hands, peering through his watery eyes deep into his little brothers. The open, honest fear he found there sent a flame up in his chest. No one hurt his family like this and got away with it.

"There is no justice you could serve him that would not be too merciful," Elladan said bitterly. Estel sighed and closed his eyes, leaning forward into the twin's shoulder.

Thranduil hardened his gaze. "You voice the thoughts of my own heart, son of Elrond. Rest assured this traitor will pay dearly for what he has done. But you will not be here to see it."

"Father, let them stay," Legolas urged quietly. The King glanced at his son, their eyes almost of a height. Now we are not the only ones seeking revenge for a loved one, those eyes said. Let them stay.

The King paused, unsure. This was no longer a private matter, and he could feel the need for retribution radiating from the twins.  

"Very well," he grudgingly nodded in assent. Turning his attention to the elf kneeling before him, Thranduil reined in the beast of vengeance roaring in his heart. "Look at me, traitor," he spat. Tirmor remained unresponsive. "I said, look at me!" One of the Guards gripped Tirmor's hair and pulled his head back, forcing his eyes to meet Thranduil's. A sly sneer tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he remained silent.

"Tell me that our suspicions are mistaken," he said. "Tell me that you have not deceived me all these centuries...tell me you did not kill your Queen."

The words hung like a lifeline in the still air if only Tirmor would grasp them – but he would not. He remained resiliently silent, still looking at Thranduil with that half sneer ghosted across his lips. "Will you not speak at all? To explain or defend yourself?" he demanded. Still, neither defence nor a confession was forthcoming.

"There is evidence, your Majesty," Elladan spoke up, squinting at the King through hazy eyes. "Your Queen's diary..." He trailed off, unsure as to whether he should voice those private thoughts.

"He is right, Ada," Legolas nodded. "The last few entries – whilst she does not name him, she refers to a Dark Watcher – "

"The same Dark Watcher who threatened us," Estel added.

"Is – his name mentioned?" Thranduil could not bring himself to say the word, it was too bitter on his lips.

"No, Ada," Legolas admitted. "But before you arrived – he confessed to me of his guilt." The Prince's eyes clouded with pain, just avoiding his father's gaze. Thranduil paused, staring deep at his son. Finally, understanding what had come to pass, he turned to Tirmor.

"Dark Watcher," he echoed. "Your name betrays you, even if your words will not. How could you do it?" he asked, his voice beginning to shake with anger and other emotions that had not threatened him for centuries. He had lost his wife, seen his son held captive and now here was the twisted creature responsible for it all.

Still, Tirmor would not speak. Thranduil resisted the urge to stride over and tear him apart with his bare hands. "Take him to the dungeons," he ordered. "I cannot stand to look at him any longer – but wait. Tell me one thing." Thranduil fortified himself, gripping Legolas's hand so tightly his knuckles went pearly white. "My wife's body...where does she lay?"

The grin that had threatened to spread across Tirmor's face now did so, beaming white mocking teeth at the King. Slowly shaking his head, he spat at Thranduil's feet. The impulse became too much, and stepping forward Thranduil used all his strength to back-hand Tirmor, wiping the smile from his face in a sudden fit. Tirmor snapped his head back around, and spat a bloodied tooth out at the King's feet. Drawing back disgust, he nodded at the Guards. "You will want to tell me the truth before I am finished with you, I promise you that. Take him away."

As soon as Thranduil removed his eyes from his prisoner, Tirmor sprang with unexpected force to his feet, knocking the two Guards by his side to the floor. Estel and the twins watched helplessly, as if the scene passed in slow motion; lunging to his feet, Tirmor drew another blade from within his boot and plunged across at Legolas. Seeing this, Thranduil pulled him aside, wrapping his son's body in  his own, preparing to take the fatal blow – then with a sudden whistle of air, the two archers behind Tirmor let their arrows fly to land with sickening thuds side by side in the back of Tirmor's neck. Thranduil watched with guilty pleasure as the metal head's protruded from his throat, the force of the thrust having sent them through bone and flesh. Tirmor stopped, his eyes wide as though surprised. The knife fell uselessly from his hand as his limbs went limp. He seemed to stand there for an eternity, before his legs crumpled underneath him and he collapsed to the floor, unmoving and dead.

Not a soul moved. All eyes watched the growing pool of blood seeping from the mortal wound across the grey flagstones. Thranduil tore his eyes away from the body to the faces of the archers. Their eyes seemed to ask forgiveness but were set in adamant; their duty was to protect their King. Thranduil knew that having done exactly this, he could not have asked more of them. And yet...his one chance of ever finding his wife, of ever knowing her true fate had fled with the life essence from Tirmor's body – as had his one opportunity to make this monster suffer. So quick a death had been a mercy he would not have shown. In the end, it was his voice that stirred them all.

"Take the sons of Elrond to the healing chambers," he asked, his voice emotionless but as hard as diamond. Estel stared in horror at the body on the floor. Everything he had seen and dreamt, it all led up to this moment – and it suddenly seemed flat and anticlimactic. It was over, and he was free. But it was a hollow victory and as Rómen and another Guard pulled him gently to his feet, he realised that for the King and Prince, resolution was only just beginning.

EPILOGUE

"There is a wind where the rose was;

Cold rain where sweet grass was;

And clouds like sheep

Stream o'er the steep

Grey skies where once the lark was.

Nought gold where your hair was;

Nought warm where your hand was;

But phantom, forlorn,

Beneath the thorn,

Your ghost where your face was."

Elrohir stood waiting quietly by Summer, his hands entwined in her long, soft mane. She leant into him, her head lowering and her eyes drooping at the gentle touch. Beside her, Flame snorted and tossed his head as Elladan secured a blanket and food supplies to a strap around his belly. The stallion was most unimpressed, pawing at the ground with his front leg and baring his teeth in warning at his owner, who for his part utterly ignored his steed's tantrum. Elrohir rolled his eyes, even as Summer stepped away from the high spirited animal.

It had been over a month since the terrible events in that secluded garden. In truth, Elrohir did not know what gnawed at his heart more; the death of Tirmor, or the sudden burst of selfish victory he had felt at that moment when he had breathed his last. The guilt had come swiftly after, and had plagued him ever since, an almost constant torment that he knew his twin felt too. The sooner they were back beneath the healing eaves of Imladris, and with their father, the better. Yet their departure had been delayed by a number of things, namely Estel's injuries. Whilst the superficial bruises and cuts had been two weeks cleared, the Ranger's back was still tender. Riding the distance home even now would be harrowing for him, but they had to hurry before the mountain paths became impassable. Unseasonably warm weather in the past couple of weeks had delayed the snows, and if they were quick enough they could be only a few days' ride from home before they set in.

Stretching out his leg again, Elrohir tested the healing muscle. It was slightly stiff both from lack of use and from heavy bandaging for support, but he thanked his lucky stars for the swift healing abilities of his race. Estel's recovery had been a much more painful process, and he was not so naïve as to believe that it was only his physical wounds that distressed him. A shadow had been haunting his looks of late, and whilst he ate enough to ensure his recovery, he was often silent and pale. Both twins had often found him staring blindly across a room or out of his window. More than either of them, he needed the cheery warmth of the Hall of Fire and the kind words and embrace of their father – Lord Elrond would know how to dispel the ghosts that haunted his youngest.

He knew healing would not come so readily to their hosts. They had barely seen King Thranduil or Legolas since that day. They had found themselves wanting in nothing, their every need attended to swiftly, but both twins had noticed that Rómen seemed to be sleeping little and shouldering the burden of the kingdom. When they had asked tentatively after the health of King and Prince, the Captain had smiled wanly. "Physically they are fine – but..." He paused, sighing. "They spend much of their days with each other, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. It pains me to see them like this, more than I can say...but the only healer here can be time, I think. They are both relieving an ache they thought long since healed."

Thus had their last five weeks in Mirkwood passed. The only time they had been with either Royal for any lengthy period of time had been during the service held in the Queen's memory, just last week. Pale and regal, King and Prince had stood side by side before the congregation of household staff and commoners who had known Nimlothnen in any small way. Many others besides had flooded the grounds of the Palace in silent reverence. Thranduil had spoken of Nimlothnen's love of her people and of her appreciation of the small delights in her life, the words safe, expected and impersonalised. Afterward, more words had been spoken, wreaths of autumn flowers had been laid and the people had dispersed as silently as they had stood, contemplating the tragedy. Legolas had lingered with them a while, exchanging a few quiet words in a tired voice. Though his wounds had healed, his face was drawn and colourless. Elladan had offered the deepest condolences from themselves and their father, feeling bitterly that the words had empty meaning; but Legolas, ever the diplomat, had smiled gracefully and thanked them for their kindness. It was as though a wall had been erected between by the Royal Family between them and the rest of the world, even between Legolas and themselves as friends. Perhaps it was only to be expected, Elrohir thought, leaning back into Summer and remembering a darker time in his own life not too long ago. Rómen is right – time must be the best healer here.

It was Estel emerging from the Palace doors that stirred him from his reverie. The young Ranger limped slightly, and was relying on Lómë to help him down the steps. Her flaxen hair was bound up in an elegant multitude of knotted braids, her dress of simple brown spun wool as she offered her shoulder to him. As they approached, Summer too was roused from her rest, her keen ears flicking towards the sounds of hushed voices headed towards them.

Lómë's emerald eyes smiled kindly as she helped the Ranger to Pilgrim's side. The ready saddled bay mare stood nibbling at tufts of grass poking through the flagstones of the courtyard.

"I was just confessing to Estel," Lómë smiled at Elrohir, "I will be sad to see you leave – all of you. You must promise to return to us when...in happier times." Her smile was morose but genuine. They all knew it would be a few years before that would be possible.

"I should like that," the young man nodded. After a short pause, he added, "We take good memories with us of the Greenwood too, Lómë. Do you remember the first night we arrived? The feast and dance in the Great Hall?"

Lómë smiled wider, her emerald eyes shining with a light of their own. "How could I forget? The twins could not hold their wine –"

"And we had that awful hang over; I felt as though I had fought a balrog..." Elrohir reflected, grimacing.

"And Rómen forced Legolas into a dance –" Elladan chipped in.

"And you could not dance at all!" another familiar voice joined. They all turned to see Rómen striding towards them, his own smile mirroring his sister's. "And we cannot forget our battle in the orchard."

"We all had leaves in our hair!" Elrohir laughed lightly.

"And Estel would not stop complaining of the cold," the Captain winked.

"Yet as I remember it, it was you that lost!" Estel rejoined.

For a few moments, there was a comfortable silence as each of them wandered through their memories of the last few months. It had not all been darkness, Estel admitted to himself. He had made lifelong friends here, he knew – and one day, he would return to them.

In the end, it was Rómen that pulled them from the past. "Have you everything you need for your journey?" he inquired, eyeing up the supplies on the three mounts. Elladan nodded graciously. "And you are sure you do not wish for an escort to the forest eaves?" the Captain checked. Again, Elladan assured him all was well.

"We will travel faster alone, and we know the paths. Besides," he added, "Any danger that might befall us will only do so long after we have crossed your borders into the wilds. But I think we shall fare well."

Rómen nodded sighing. "Then there is nothing more to keep you," he said. "Let me help you mount, Estel – Lómë, steady his other shoulder for me..."

Between them, the siblings managed to get Estel comfortably into the saddle. Pilgrim raised her head, the long strands of grass sprouting from her black muzzle swaying in the breeze. The twins nimbly followed suit, adjusting the cloaks about their shoulders. Rómen grasped each of their hands in turn, followed by Lómë's soft kisses to their cheeks as they leant down towards her.

"Namárië - No in elenath hîlar nan hâd gîn," Rómen bade them in perfect Quenya. "Farewell – May all stars shine upon your path."

"I Melain berio le, a ná gweth ú-athrado i ven am drevaded lín," Lome added in Sindarin, "May the Valar keep you, and no shadow cross your path during your journey."

"Le hannon; I ad gevedim, until we meet again," Elrohir nodded, raising his hand in salute and turning Summer towards the yawning forest gates.

Rómen slipped his arm around Lómë's shoulder as the three horses made their way out of the deserted courtyard, shod hooves echoing over the cobbles until they reached the soft autumn leaves of the woodland path.

For some time they travelled in silence, Estel sadly thinking on the difference in the manner of their departure to that of their arrival. He wished he could have seen and spoken with Legolas before he left, but he understood why it had not been possible. His friend had been to see him a few times during his recouperation, but not many words had passed between them. In a way it felt as though not many words were needed – or at least, that they were not ready to be spoken yet. The wounds were still too raw.

They had been riding for some hours, their pace leisurely whilst still within the forest. Elladan wanted to make their first camp at the forest edge, so their was no use in travelling faster than was necessary. Suddenly, Elladan pulled Flame up short, spinning him around to peer through the forest behind them. Elrohir heard it too and mimicked his brother's stance. Estel, who had long since accepted that the keen elven hearing of his brother's far surpassed his own, drew Pilgrim to a halt and looked at them questioningly.

"A rider approaches," Elrohir replied to the unspoken question. They did not believe they had any reason to fear the oncoming stranger, not when they were still deep in Mirkwood, and so sat waiting. Finally, even Estel's ears picked up the steady rhythm of a galloping horse punctuated short gaps as it leapt over fallen trees.

"Someone seems to be in a hurry," Elladan observed mildly.

From around the turn in the road behind them burst a coursing white stallion, and the precious load upon his back non other than the Crown Prince of Mirkwood. Estel could not prevent the smile creeping across his face as his friend drew up alongside him, slightly breathless and windswept.

"Rómen told me you were leaving today, but I did not realise you would go so early!" he gasped. His stallion pranced beneath him, as exhaulted as his rider by the sudden burst of speed. The colour that had not graced the Prince's face for weeks now flushed across his cheeks and his eyes glittered in the autumn breeze.

"We did not want to disturb you, Legolas," Elrohir said tactfully.

"But now look at him, coming and disturbing us!" Estel replied, his deep laughter ringing through the trees. It felt good to laugh and to really mean it – it had been so long since he had done so. Legolas could not resist the infectious sound from this indomitable, impossible man and was soon laughing with him. Elladan grinned and chuckled to himself, whilst Elrohir rolled his eyes, struggling to contain his own laughter. It wasn't even that something funny had happened – it was the sudden release of weeks of tension, a natural healing that no herb could administer. Clasping Legolas's arm with one hand and wiping tear from his eyes with the other, Estel beamed at his friend.

"Oh look, now I've made you cry," Legolas winked, whilst Estel snorted indignantly.

"You'll have to try harder than that, prissy elf," he retorted.

"Yes I should imagine I will, you stubborn mortal," Legolas replied, his smile still wide.

"Will you ride with us to the border?" Elladan asked.

"That was my intent in following you," Legolas nodded. "I am glad I caught up with you before you reached it. I had meant to ride with you from the Palace but as I say, I did not realise you were leaving so early."

"Well you are here now," Estel said. "Come; let us take our final ride together."

Setting off, the horses set their own brisk pace, cantering through the trees as though spurred by the risen spirits of their riders. Even the clouds seemed to part for them, the weak autumn sun shining with dappled light through the evergreen boughs. Legolas revelled in the freedom of it, his senses tingling with the sights and smells and sounds of his beloved home, of the easy footfalls and the heavy breathing of the horse beneath him, his silken mane flowing like mist. He felt the shadow that had captured his heart begin to fade, its strong sway over his state of mind beginning to fade as he listened to the forest trees humming alongside him.

He knew – they all knew – that true release from the events that long month ago was not yet come; but it was beginning. And he knew that when the sons of Elrond made camp that night, he would sit with them by their fire and watch the stars of Elbereth with a lighter heart than he had felt in weeks. With the rising of the sun, he knew they would leave Mirkwood for good, and that he would return to his father, but it would be with a new resolution. Perhaps sometimes we must come through darkness to discover our own strength, he pondered. That darkness was fading, and with new hope he would dispel it from every corner of his home. In time, even his father could learn to live again – to truly live, and let the memory of his wife rest at last in peace.

The past was behind them, whistling through the bare branches as the horses raced along; and ahead lay life, and adventure, and love – but most importantly, with every strengthened step, there lay hope for them all.

Well, there we have it! Its all over, and please pride yourselves on being the first audience to read my first ever completed full length fic! Only one more thing to add, just as an expkanation really; I sort of came to loosely base Tirmor's condition on de Clerambault's syndrome as it is protrayed in Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love'. If you have read it, you'll know what I mean – and if you've not, you definitely should! I am genuinely not sure if I'll be writing again, or if I do whether it will be LOTR – but I've enjoyed myself more than I can say. So all that is left to say is: I'll see you in the Prancing Pony – drinks are on me!

Loadsa love, Estel xxx