Elara turned her head as she sensed someone approach her chair. "Who's there?" she asked, her hands stilling in their task of slowly stitching a seam.
"I came to see how you were doing," a deep and unfamiliar voice replied in a liltingly accented Westron, and she felt the air in the room around her move as someone stepped closer. "I'm told you are much improved, Lady Elara."
"Just Elara, please – and I do well, thank you," she answered, giving a nod in the general direction of the newcomer to her small but, to her, unseen world. She lifted the soft material in her lap for a moment. "I have discovered that I can be of some assistance here, at least, to repay the kindnesses given me."
"Indeed," the deep voice commented from somewhere considerably closer – close enough to be studying her work – the resonant tone colored with a hint of approval. "But I have been remiss in not making certain that you are as comfortable as possible, or that all your needs are being met in the time you have been here."
"I have few needs now other than food, shelter and a purpose," Elara answered as her sensitive fingers found once more where she had left off stitching and carefully inserted the needle into the soft material. A twist of her head encompassed the room around her. "And as you can see, those needs are well-met. The healer, Míriel, has seen to everything for me since I was released from her care. I am most content." Indeed, she was wearing a gown softer than anything she'd ever worn in her life; the room that had become her entire world was warm, familiar and comfortably furnished; and the platters of food and drink that found her over the course of her days were ever tasty, fresh and most satisfying. Under any other circumstances, she would consider her life now to be one of luxury; and considering her previous circumstances as a poor wood-gatherer's wife, how could she be other than content?
"Have you anyone whom you would want to know that you are safe here?" the voice asked kindly. "Anyone at all – distant family or friends – who need to know where you are?"
Elara shook her head – as much to shake off the ever-present cloud of grief as to answer the kind, deep voice. "None – unless you know of some who survived in my village, as I did?"
There was a short moment of silence in which Elara imagined that the owner of the voice was remembering the scorched and ruined settlement where she had been found half-buried beneath the fallen timbers of her home on the very edge of the Mirkwood forest. She could only remember the fear and the screams that came before she'd run back inside the burning hut to rescue her newborn son, only to have the hut fall in on her. She knew her husband, Timon, had battled the flames threatening their home in the small human community, even as the ugly, dark orc-beasts swarmed and slaughtered everything that moved.
When the voice finally did answer, it was soft with sympathy and sadness. "We found a few other mortal survivors of the battle scattered through several locations, but none alive in your settlement save you, I fear. All the others there had perished to flame or sword." The voice tightened. "That was a terrible battle, and many of both your kind and mine died in that blaze, which threatened the entire forest, Lady. I assure you we searched very closely for any possible survivors, once the fire was no longer a threat, wherever we found ruined settlements."
Elara's lips tightened. She was an only child with parents long dead; her husband and baby had been the only ones she cared about in the world. And the both of them were gone now too. "Then I am quite alone in the world. No one will miss me or notice my absence." She hadn't dared ask the questions of the calm and capable Míriel, healer and lately her keeper, before now. She supposed she should be grateful to the owner of the deep voice for finally stripping away the doubts and futile hopes that cluttered and distracted her thoughts by day. Perhaps, finally knowing for certain would help dispel the nightmares as well – although the grim reality made an already dark world seem just that much more desolate.
"You do know you will be welcome here for as long as you wish to remain," the voice informed her gently, and a fleeting touch of fingers whispered on her shoulder. "I assure you that none here would see you turned out to fend for yourself."
"I appreciate that, for I have nowhere else to go," Elara commented dryly. "Here, at least, I can sew a relatively straight seam and try to earn a portion of my keep, rather than live entirely on charity." She carefully took another stitch. "I am content, truly. Please tell whoever is in charge here of my gratitude, and that I will repay the kindness I receive as best I can."
The deep voice rang with amusement. "I'm certain the one in charge will be glad to hear that."
Elara carefully drew the needle and thread through the material several times and made certain each stitch settled properly, but finally grew restless with the silence that had grown. The air hadn't moved, so she knew her visitor was still there. "Míriel says that the Great War is over?" she asked hesitantly.
"It is," the voice replied firmly, the tight tone used before when describing the scenes of the past returning, although easing very slightly. "The Enemy is defeated and the fires of Mirkwood and Lorien are long cold. Already the forest here begins to renew itself. It will take time, but the Greenwood will recover."
"She also tells me that I was found by… that you all are… of the Fair Folk from the forest itself?"
The sudden chuckle that erupted was as musical as it was contagious. "Aye, we are Edhil… what you call Elves. You know where you are, then – that you are in the heart of Mirkwood, in the halls here?"
"Yes, so Míriel told me." Elara's answering smile didn't last long. "How long have I been here?" she asked quietly. "I've lost track."
"Half a year," was the gentle response, and the air moved as the speaker dropped down to be more on a level with her. "The first month you were here, our healers despaired of your recovery at all. Of all of the ones we found alive, your body was the most gravely damaged – the healers wondered that you survived in the first place. And then Míriel told me that you grieved most profoundly once you awoke, and she despaired for you for yet more months after – that you would barely speak to her or assist in your own recuperation. She worried that your kind could fade, as ours does, when sorrow grows too deep."
"I lost everything that mattered to me in the fire," Elara said in a very soft voice, the mere necessity to mention her family making her hard-earned composure more than insecure. The darkness of an unending existence without them was a burden only recently shouldered. "A son – and a husband – everyone I knew. My sight..." Her voice broke.
Again there was a moment of silence, during which she could hear through the evidently open door and in the distant background the sound of sweet voices singing intricate harmonies. The ever-present melodies, always beautiful with a hint of sadness, only managed to bring home the very alien nature of her new surroundings. "I grieve with you, Lady," the voice stated finally.
Elara nodded her thanks, her throat too tight to form words. Half a year! Timon and little Beleg gone so long, and already the leaves of the forest would be turning yellow and gold over their graves! She swallowed hard against the threatening tears – crying nowadays only made her throat sore and might stain the fine fabric she stitched, and did nothing to ease the emptiness in her heart. She had cried too many tears already into the unrelenting darkness of her present existence and had no desire to make herself any more vulnerable to any deep-voiced stranger, however sympathetic he might seem.
The air in the room moved as the owner of the voice evidently straightened once more to a rather tall height right next to her seat. "But then Míriel came to me again just a few days ago and told me you were much improved, although still very quiet and withdrawn; and I decided the time had come for me to see for myself how things were with you, as you are the last of the survivors to still remain within our care. And now that I have met you and seen how it is, I have decided the time has come for you to learn more of your new home. So come now – set aside your work and solitude for a while. You will accompany me to the Great Hall for the evening meal and something other than silence and stitching for an evening's company."
"But I need to finish this… Míriel said…" she complained, startled.
"Míriel will understand, and she'll see to it that you find where you left off in the morning," the deep voice stated firmly. "But I deem you have had far too much time alone with your grief without respite since you have recovered – and that is my fault, for I too have been distracted with grief and care these past weeks to see if you needed ease before now. But no more moping, for either of us – I have spoken. Life goes on, and we must as well." The statement was firm and made with a tone that implied the speaker was accustomed to being in charge. The voice softened, "Come with me, and with luck we both may find a reason to smile again."
The fabric she'd been working was carefully removed from her keeping, and then two very large, long-fingered hands took gentle hold of both of her own and pulled her to her feet, supporting her as she worked to catch her balance. Whoever it was that stood next to her towered over her, she could tell, taller even than the healer Míriel.
She could remember no visitors other than the healer since she had arrived here, and she was now thoroughly confused and a little concerned at being the center of attention of an unknown person of evidently no small amount of authority. "May I at least know your name, since you already know mine?" she finally asked the one who now claimed her right hand and settled it on a high arm, holding it firmly in place with the hand that had captured it to begin with. Beneath her hand, she could feel the soft richness of crushed velvet, along with stitches that spoke of some intricate embroidery. And beneath that rich fabric was an arm that was as muscular as that of her husband. She would ask Míriel about him by name later, once she was back in her safe, familiar surroundings…
"My name is Thranduil, Lady Elara," came the deep voice, obviously ignoring her previous instruction to keep it to just Elara. "Come now – I am hungry, and I would imagine you are as well." Elara started and tried to pull her hand back, to no avail. The elf's hold on her hand was as unrelenting as it was gentle. "What is the matter?"
"But…" Elara sputtered, embarrassed beyond measure and completely undone. "But you are… you are…"
"Hungry, as I told you," Thranduil's voice smiled down at her, "and desirous of your company this evening. Come with me."
She moved her feet instinctively as Thranduil drew her forward while her mind spun dizzily at the idea of being escorted by the legendary and feared Elvenking of Mirkwood himself. "Please, Majesty, I'm no lady, to sit at a fine table with you. I'm merely a wood-gatherer's wife your folk rescued from the fire," she protested weakly, dragging at him slightly in an attempt to slow the pace, "and not even an elf… I know nothing of fine manners or being at any court. I'll only embarrass you – and myself."
"You are a guest and now a subject of mine," Thranduil reassured her gently, bending to keep his words for her ear alone while still implacably pulling her along; the fact her hand was trapped on his arm keeping her close by his side. "Besides, I find myself with a need to practice being a good host again, now that our world is at peace once more and Taur-na-Fuin would become Eryn Lasgalen. My son writes to tell me he returns home with a dwarf – a dwarf! – one he names a brother of the heart. You would honor me if you would let me practice my rusty skills on you, so that my son doesn't disown me for my ill manners. Please believe me when I tell you that this evening will be good for both of us, for a number of reasons."
He straightened then and spoke a little louder and with more conviction, as if others were around them. "And if I say you are a Lady, Elara, you ARE. No one here will question my word on the subject, and I seriously doubt you will deliberately embarrass either of us. I have faith in you, even if you have little in yourself. Come now, steady on – we're almost there."
Elara could hear when they entered what must be a massive hall, but she barely paid attention to the way the voices that surrounded her echoed or the way Thranduil's large and gentle hands found her elbows to help her take a step up toward him onto a raised surface before aiding her into a comfortable seat at the table. Deep inside, the desolation that had shrouded her heart had cracked slightly with this unexpected turn of events she never even dreamed possible before. She, the daughter and wife of wood-gatherers, was the guest of the legendary Elvenking, eating at his table, honored by being called "Lady," and being introduced to the place and people she would call "home" by the king himself. By his word, she would be able to stay where she was, in this new arrangement, for as long as she wished – perhaps even as long as she lived.
The possibility of a new life beckoned now where only one of desolation and despair had loomed only a little while ago, and a tiny light began to glow in her heart where all had been blackness and solitude for so very long. "Life goes on – and we must as well," Thranduil had said, and it had long been said that the mighty King of Mirkwood was very wise.
Shaking herself from the sudden epiphany, she turned a newly attentive ear to Thranduil, who was now patiently guiding her hand and explaining where things were on the table ahead of her. And as she did, the very beginnings of a smile tweaked at the corners of her mouth.
She could do this…