The Tale of Thranduil and Almwen
Chapter Eleven – The Shadow Falls
The evacuation hadn't exactly gone as planned. During the ninth month of Almwen's pregnancy, the Orcs began to close in on Emyn Duir and the idea of evacuating the mountains in small groups was abandoned and the remaining elves fled their home for safety in the north.
Thranduil was strung as taught as a bowstring as he sat upon his horse, glancing from side to side, making sure that their path was safe. On his right was Arthion on his own horse, and behind him in a wagon were Hérion and Almwen. Nestadriel rode on a horse of her own just behind the wagon, keeping a close watch on the Lady of Greenwood. The royal family was towards the front of the traveling elves, surrounded by archers for protection. The group was silent.
"Will we stop tonight, Ada?" Arthion asked, breaking the silence that had been long in place.
"Shortly before sunset. I want those on guard to have a chance to get a look at things in the light," Thranduil replied quietly. He would rather have not stopped, but the horses would need rest. Arthion nodded.
"Will you allow me to take a watch tonight?" His son asked. Arthion had been training with the guard for a year and was eager to test his skills. The adolescent elf was excellent with the bow, but he had not yet been tested in battle.
"No," the Elvenking replied resolutely, "You are not yet ready to take watch in the dark."
"But Ada - "
"Do not question me, Arthion."
Thranduil's oldest sighed and his shoulders sagged. Thranduil noticed, but paid his son's disappointment little mind. He would rather have disappointed son than none at all.
The king looked behind him to check on his wife. Almwen was sleeping in the wagon, her hand on her enlarged middle. Hérion was sitting next to her, playing with two wooden soldiers. Thranduil smiled. Despite the bad timing, he was excited at the thought of having another child. In the beginning, Almwen had been very troubled about being with child in such a trying time, but Thranduil had assured her that it was a burden that he would happily bear.
"My lord?" The voice startled Thranduil out of his thoughts. He turned to face Bregol, who rode to his left.
"I think now would be a wise time to halt for the night," the captain of the guard said.
Thranduil nodded. "Then we shall," he said, pulling back his horse's reigns. The white steed stopped and shook his head and snorted as Thranduil dismounted. The king patted the horse's nose, quieting the creature.
The king walked back to the wagon where his wife was waking up and his youngest son was still pitting his wooden soldiers against each other in a battle to the death.
"How are you feeling?" Thranduil asked his wife as he came around to the back of the wagon. Almwen stretched.
"I feel fine," she said as she scooted towards her husband. She draped her legs over the side and Thranduil helped her off the wagon. The queen looked around at the trees. They were no longer anywhere near the mountains. The trees about them were deciduous; elm, birch, willow, maple. They had different voices than the ones in her old home. As she listened, Almwen frowned.
"What is it?" Thranduil asked, noticing the change in her countenance.
"The trees are restless," Almwen replied, looking around. Thranduil turned his head in different directions and looked at the trees, noticing the same tension. His wife was more in tune with what was going on around them than he was, but the trees were putting out enough signals even for him to notice without too much concentration.
Hérion, upon hearing his parents' conversation, was intrigued.
"Can trees talk?" He asked, putting his wooden soldiers down and coming to the back of the wagon to join his parents.
"Yes, they have voices of their own," Almwen covering her concern with a smile and putting a hand on her young son's shoulder.
"Are they talking now?" The elfling asked. His mother nodded, and Hérion frowned, tilting his head to the side.
"If they are talking why can I not hear them?" The little elf interrogated, a pout in his voice. Almwen laughed and Thranduil smirked as he lifted his son off of the wagon and into his arms.
"You must listen carefully for them," the queen said.
"But I was listening!" Hérion protested.
"Perhaps one day, you will hear them, my little one," Almwen said softly, kissing her youngest son on the cheek. Hérion still looked as if he did not understand, but he let the issue lay and Thranduil let him down so he could go admire the horses, his most favorite animal. After their son was well occupied, Almwen turned to her husband.
"Something is not right, Thranduil. I do not think that we are safe here," she said under her breath.
"There are not many safe places in Greenwood anymore, Almwen," Thranduil sighed.
"It is less safe than normal," Almwen replied. Thranduil reached out and embraced her, pulling her close to his body and kissed her.
"I wish that I could somehow stop this shadow from falling," he said sadly.
"No one can stop this evil from befalling Greenwood. But you can protect us from it, and you have thus far succeeded," Almwen assured him with a smile. Thranduil felt some of the weight of his worry melt away as he returned his wife's smile. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Suddenly, a horn in the distance caused both to turn their heads to the east from whence the noise came.
"Arthion! Hérion! Get down NOW!" Thranduil ordered his sons, who were disconnecting the two horses that pulled the wagon from their yolks. The startled children looked at their father in confusion.
"Ada?" Arthion asked.
"Do as I say!" Thranduil barked. He was about to order his wife to do the same an arrow buzzed through the air past his head. Before he had time to react, he heard another noise, but it was not an arrow passing by his ear.
It was an arrow embedding itself in flesh.
"Oh!" Almwen gasped and lurched forward into Thranduil's arms. To the king's horror, there was an Orc arrow protruding from the flesh between his wife's shoulder blade and spine. Around them, the forest sprang to life with surprised and angry shouts. They were ambushed.
"Almwen!" He cried out, clutching his beloved's arms. He reached forward and tore the arrow from her shoulder, causing her to cry out again. Thranduil looked to his children, who were still standing, looking on in horror.
"Arthion, help me turn the wagon on its side!" Thranduil shouted. Arthion looked at his mother in sock and then looked at his father. "Arthion!"
The young elf went to the front of the wagon as his father went to the back and together they turned the cart on its side and Thranduil carried his wife behind the wood and set her down on the ground that was covered in leaves. Arthion and Hérion dodged behind the cart also, both completely silent and trembling in fear. Almwen took her husband's hand and he looked into her terror-stricken eyes.
"Thranduil – the baby," she said.
For the first time in his life, Thranduil felt absolutely helpless. Even when his father had fallen, he had somehow carried on. But now, with his wife and unborn child in danger, he could not think of what to do. Sounds of the battle raging on behind him echoed in his ears. He turned to see elves ducking for cover, some of them were running into the woods to go meet their Orc foes in battle.
Then, from behind a rock, he saw Nestadriel peek out to see what was going on. He turned to his sons.
"Arthion, lend me your quiver and bow," he instructed his oldest. Silently, Arthion handed over his weapons to his father. Though he was still a young elf, he was fully grown and his bow and arrows were full-sized. Thranduil would be able to use them easily.
"My sons, you must stay here with your mother. Whatever you do, you must not leave this spot, do you understand?" He instructed.
"Where are you going?" Hérion asked, tears welling up in his blue eyes.
"To get help for your mother. Do not leave her side, do you understand?" Thranduil asked again. The boys nodded and then the king turned to Almwen.
"Hold on," he pleaded, kissing her lips. Almwen nodded, and took several deep breaths as her dark eyes pierced his.
With that, Thranduil leapt up and ran for the rock where he had seen Nestadriel the healer. He took an arrow from the quiver on his back and put it to the string of the bow, ready to fire if need be. When he reached the rock, he knelt down, but did not look at Nestadriel as he spoke to her; he watched the trees for flying arrows.
"Almwen is wounded, she needs help," he spoke quickly.
A few arrows flew by. Thranduil caught movement in his right eye, turned, aimed, and fired. An Orc cried out in the distance.
"I have my medicinal kit. Take me to her," Nestadriel replied in a determined voice as she patted the bag that was slung over her shoulder.
"Stay behind me." Thranduil commanded her. Nestadriel nodded and stood with the king and ran with him as he fired arrows into the trees at Orcs he could see coming. When they reached the wagon, he made sure that Nestadriel was safely behind it before running to his horse, which was rearing up in alarm. The king grabbed the reigns and stopped the horse long enough for him to retrieve his own quiver and bow. He slapped the horse's rear end, sending the steed running off into the forest. He hoped that the creature found safety.
Thranduil then dodged back under the cover of the wagon and handed Arthion's weapon back to him, who currently had his little brother sitting in his lap.
"You may need these before the night is over," Thranduil said in a low voice. Arthion looked frightened, but he nodded.
Hérion was crying, fearing for his mother. "Is Naneth going to be alright?" He asked Nestadriel, who bandaging Almwen's shoulder. Almwen was pale, and she was covered in sweat. Almwen reached out and took her youngest son's hand with her unharmed arm and smiled through her pain.
"Do not worry, my little one. Be brave for me," she said through several steady breaths. Hérion nodded vigorously, biting his bottom lip and blinking away some of his tears.
"King Thranduil," Nestadriel said, calling the king's attention to her. Thranduil looked at her. "I do not know what else I can do. The wound itself is not too deep, but the poison is already in her blood," the healer said, reaching into her medicinal bag and pulling out some herbs. She crushed the leaves into little bits and then pulled a water skin out of her bag and poured the leaves in. She shook the water skin a few times.
"Drink this," Nestadriel instructed the queen, putting the flask to her lips. Almwen drank the liquid.
"This will help, but I do not know how much poison is in the wound and how much got into her blood before I could clean it," the healer said. Thranduil's heart dropped into his stomach.
"The baby?" Almwen asked, her voice trembling.
Nestadriel pressed her hand to Almwen's middle and closed her eyes in concentration.
"The child still lives," she concluded. The queen seemed to relax a little more and closed her eyes and sighed. But Thranduil could see that Nestadriel did not look optimistic. If the poison was circulating in Almwen's blood, it would not be long before the baby was affected by it.
Suddenly, Thranduil heard an Orc's growl nearby. He loaded his bow and suddenly stood up, aimed and fired, hitting the Orc squarely between the eyes. The foul creature fell backwards and did not get back up. In the distance, he could hear Bregol barking out orders.
"Do not let them get away!" a cry came.
It sounded as if there were not many Orcs left, and if there were, they were fleeing. Thranduil turned and looked at his sons, who were staring at their father with wide eyes. Neither had ever seen their father wield a bow and arrow, much less act in battle. He was about to address them when, suddenly, the Elvenking spotted something moving in the trees beyond where his sons were sitting. And it was large.
"Arthion, ready your bow." Thranduil said in a low voice. Hérion scooted off of his brother's lap as Arthion took an arrow out of his quiver and put it to the string of his bow. No sooner had he turned around than a large spider appeared from behind the trees. The young elf nearly dropped his weapon in fright.
Thranduil wasted no time firing at the fell creature in its abdomen. The spider let out a horrid scream and charged the king of Greenwood in anger. Thranduil moved away from the wagon, drawing the spider away from easy prey. He fired again to keep the spider's interest. It charged more intently this time, and was quicker than the Elvenking had anticipated. The oversized arachnid batted at Thranduil with one of its forelegs, knocking the king to the ground.
An arrow whizzed through the air and hit the spider near where Thranduil's first shot hit.
"Leave my Ada alone!" Arthion cried, readying another arrow in his bow. The spider turned around and charged the young elf. Arthion fired another arrow, but his aim was inaccurate and the arrow went awry. By the time the young prince had readied another arrow, the spider was almost upon him.
"Arthion!" Thranduil cried. Unsheathing a dagger he had attached to his belt, Thranduil leapt after the spider and jumped on its back. He slashed the evil creature blindly. Black liquid spewed from the beast and it let out a terrible cry as its life leaked from its body.
While the battle went on, Almwen's health suddenly went downhill. She felt the poison coursing through her body, and she felt her child lurching in her womb. The poison had reached the child. Realizing what was happening, Almwen took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She blocked out the world as best she could and took stock of what was before her. She knew she had but one choice.
Tears spilled over her cheeks as she summoned all of her strength. With a cry, Almwen willed her body into labor. Her water broke.
"Lady Almwen!" Nestadriel shouted, realizing what had just happened.
"This child must survive," Almwen, wincing in pain.
"It is too early for the child to be born! You may yet live, my lady!" Nestadriel protested, taking the queen's hand and looking upon her in an overwhelmed mix of fear and frustration.
Almwen took another deep breath and steadied herself.
"I can feel it in me, Nestadriel. It is taking my life. I will not let it take my child's," she said.
"Naneth!" Hérion cried. The elfling could not fully grasp what was happening, but he could understand somehow that life hung in the balance in that moment. He crawled closer to her and put his little hands on hers. Almwen turned her eyes to her son. She reached up and put her hand on his cheek and wiped away some of his tears with her thumb.
"Fear not, little one. This will all pass soon," she said, smiling at him through her agony. Hérion quieted himself again, trying to be brave for his mother. A sudden and strong contraction caused Almwen to arch her back and cry out in agony.
Nestadriel turned around to see Thranduil climbing off of the giant spider, which was now dead. He was walking towards Arthion to ensure his son was unharmed.
"My lord!" She shouted in an angry and desperate voice. Thranduil's attention immediately snapped back to his wife. He saw that her knees were bent and drawn closer to her body, and that the ground around her was wet. It took him only a moment to realize was happening.
"Almwen!" He cried out, running to her. He collapsed on the ground next to her and ran his hand over her sweaty forehead. "Meleth nín, what…?"
"This was my choice," Almwen said. She looked at her husband through her labored breaths, but held his gaze steadily.
Arthion ran over to his family fell on the ground beside his brother. "What's going on?" he asked, confused.
"Your mother's having her baby," Nestadriel said softly.
Another contraction started and Nestadriel began to coach Alwmen through it. Just as the queen let out a cry, Thranduil heard someone call his name.
"King Thranduil!" It was Bregol. Thranduil stood up to see many elves coming back, many covered in the black blood of the Orcs.
"My heart sings to see thee alive," Bregol sighed out of relief. "We must not tarry long, the Orcs that were not killed fled the forest. I fear they will return with reinforcements."
"Almwen has gone into labor," Thranduil said breathlessly. Though there were a thousand thoughts whizzing through his head in those moments, he felt as though he had never been able to concentrate better. His body buzzed with adrenaline from his battle.
Bregol looked alarmed at the king's words. "I did not think she was due for - "
"She was hit with a poisoned arrow. She willed herself into labor to save the child, and I do not know how long she will be. If need be, I will remain with her while the rest of you go ahead. She cannot travel. Not now," Thranduil interjected. His voice held no emotion as he reported the news to the captain.
"We cannot leave you here!" Bregol protested.
"I will not allow the entire company to be in danger. If it is necessary to move on, I will stay behind with my wife," Thranduil repeated. The determination in his voice made what he said impossible to disregard. Bregol nodded hesitantly and then turned to an elf that was standing behind him.
"Prepare to leave."
The elf nodded and ran off to put Bregol's order into motion.
Thranduil turned back to Nestadriel. "You must leave with them, and take the children," he said.
"I will do no such thing while my lady is still alive!" Nestadriel protested adamantly. "The child is not yet born!"
"I can deliver the child, Nestadriel," Thranduil said. The healer opened her mouth to protest more, but the king silenced her. "You must take the children. That is an order."
Nestadriel set her jaw and stared at the Elvenking. It was clear that she did not wish to leave, but she could not disobey an order from her king.
"If you need anything, you will probably find it in here." She said, sounding defeated as she handed the Elvenking her medicinal pack. Thranduil nodded. Almwen, who perceived what was going on, beckoned that her children come to her side. Arthion and Hérion went to her and she hugged them and kissed their foreheads.
"I am so very proud of both of you. You are so brave…. Arthion, you saved your father's life. You fought valiantly…I want you to know love you very much. I know you will grow up to be a great prince." Almwen whispered to her firstborn. She pulled his head close to hers and kissed him again. Tears brimmed in the young elf's eyes, understanding all that was happening.
"I love you, Naneth," he said.
"Hérion," Almwen said, turning to her youngest. "Thank you for staying by my side and protecting me tonight."
"Nana…I will see you again, won't I?" Hérion asked. His eyes were wide and threatening to spill tears. Almwen paused, not knowing how to answer. She reached out to him and caressed his face.
"You will always see me in your dreams, little one. I love you too much to stay away." She whispered, kissing his forehead.
"I love you too, Naneth." Hérion said, crying.
Once Almwen had said her goodbyes, Nestadriel had returned with three horses, one for herself and Hérion, one for Arthion, and another for Thranduil. The king hugged his children and helped hoist Hérion onto the horse. When the rest of the company was ready, they left. Thranduil watched his sons until he could see them no more.
An hour and a half later, Almwen's labor was nearly over. In the past, she had taken much longer to deliver a child, but the queen knew that she could not last that long with poison coursing through her body and she would not give up until she gave birth. Thranduil knelt next to her, occasionally moving in front of her to check her progress.
"You are almost done, beloved." Thranduil comforted, running his hand over her sweaty face as he returned to her side. Almwen's eyes overflowed in tears. She could not speak for she was in so much pain from the birthing on top of the poison. Thranduil kissed her and then took out a cloth that Nestadriel had left with them and wiped his wife's face with it.
"Aah!" Almwen cried out as another contraction racked her body. She was at the end of her energy. The elleth knew that she did not have long before her strength would run out. She pushed harder.
"Ssh," Thranduil ran his fingers through her damp hair, trying to offer her some comfort. He knew that her death was inevitable, but he was trying not to think about it, he was occupying himself with delivering the child. His heart ached as he'd never felt it ache before, but Thranduil did not show emotion to his wife other than support and love. He could not let her see him falter.
The contraction passed, but Almwen did not relax.
"Thranduil," she gasped, "it – it is time."
Her husband moved to deliver the child. He took off his outer tunic as a substitute for a blanket.
"You are almost there, my love. You will to make it, Almwen," he coaxed.
Almwen took several deep breaths and suddenly went rigid. She bent forward and pushed as hard as she could. She let out a loud shout, and the child was born. The familiar sound of a baby's first cry flooded her ears as she relaxed her muscles and tried to catch her breath. She could not. The poison was now thick in her body and paralyzing her lungs.
"A son, Almwen. You have given me a son," Thranduil said softly as he cleaned the crying babe and wrapped him in his tunic. The little ellon was smaller than a normal elfling, but other than that appeared to be healthy by some miracle. Thranduil moved to his wife's side again and presented her with their son. She had very little strength left, but was able to hold him with her husband's help. The elfling opened his eyes for the first time and looked up at his parents.
"Oh, Thranduil…" Almwen said, her voice breaking as she gazed into their newborn son's eyes. He had bright blue eyes and blond hair, just like his father.
Almwen, unable to hold back her grief, began to weep. She caressed the little elfling's face with her finger as he yawned.
"The last green leaf to fall from the tree…" Almwen whispered between her tears, "I love you, my little one. I love you."
The little child burbled as he gazed up at his mother, looking quite in awe of her. Almwen leaned down and kissed her son's forehead, and then turned to her husband.
"You must take care of him, Thranduil. You must take care of each of our sons," she said, her voice hoarse.
"I swear to you, it will be done, meleth nín," he promised. Almwen handed the child back to her husband and then reached behind her neck and pulled the necklace that she had received so long ago off of her and handed it to Thranduil.
"Give it to him…to remind him of me," she said, her breaths now becoming labored.
Thranduil's wife reached up and touched his face with her cold hand. "You have made my life so wonderful…" she said in a whisper, "I love you more than I can express in words."
"Almwen, you completed me, I don't know how I shall do this without you," Thranduil said, cradling their child in one arm and holding his wife's hand in the other.
"Remember…keep me in your heart and I will never leave." Almwen told him, a faint smile upon her lips as she spoke the words he had once spoken to her the morning before leaving for battle.
"You will always be in my heart, Almwen. I love you," Thranduil replied, leaning down and kissing her through his tears.
Almwen smiled and sighed as she closed her eyes. Finally, the elleth succumbed to the poison and her spirit left her body and flew to the halls of Mandos. Her hand went limp in Thranduil's grasp, and he knew she had gone.
How long he wept over her body, he did not know. His newborn son, who suddenly let out a murmuring noise, shook him out of his mourning. As if coming out of a dream, Thranduil blinked down at the small child who was looking up at him. He hugged his son to him and pressed a kiss to the top of the child's head.
Thranduil gathered himself together and wrapped his tunic around his body, creating a safe place to hold his son while he rode through the night.
Before he left, Thranduil turned the wagon right side up and placed his wife's body on it. Not wanting a troop of Orcs to defile Almwen's body, he set it aflame and then mounted his horse and rode off with as much speed as his horse could muster. Thranduil, for the safety of himself and his child, tried to rid his mind of utterly debilitating sorrow he felt and instead concentrate on his road.
He looked down at his son and saw that the elfling had fallen asleep in the pouch his father's tunic created. Thranduil thought about Almwen's first words to the little elfling.
"The last green leaf to fall from the tree…"
"Legolas. My little green leaf."
TO BE CONTINUED.
Thank you all so much for your encouragement and feedback! ... and sorry for the rather dismal end to this story; I promise, not everything about this trilogy will be this depressing.
THAT SAID... Please stay tuned for the next installment: The History of Legolas: The Last Green Leaf, which I'll be posting shortly, and Merry Christmas!