Written for the Teitho Challenge, May 2009: Crime and Punishment

Penance

I killed her.

"State your name," said the headman of Lesser Greenvale.

Legolas kept his head bowed. His voice came out as a whisper: "My name is of no importance."

Murmurs ran around the town square. The headman's staff pounded on the cobblestones.

"Let the record show the accused refuses to give his name."

She trusted me, and I killed her.

Legolas rubbed his thumb in small circles against the pad of his index finger. The dry blood on his fingertip scraped against his sensitive skin. Blood all over his hands. Blood on his arms.

"What say you for your defense?"

She was just a child.

"Speak, elf!"

Legolas looked up and met the headman's stare. This time, his voice rang loud and clear. "I have no defense. Do with me as you will."

Valar, just a child.

#

Elves never feel the cold, but the chill of the prison cell permeated Legolas' soul. He sat huddled in the corner of the bare room. The blank stone walls, the stale air, the stench of faraway torches all crowded his senses until the breath stuck in his throat.

He could easily leave. He could handle the lock. He could overpower the guards.

Legolas leaned his head back against the wall and waited.

A life sentence, but Elves live forever.

Unlike her.

#

"I know this elf."

Legolas lifted his blurry gaze to the man who stood outside his cell. The glare of a torch stabbed his eyes. He blinked, and a few tears squeezed out from under his lashes. Strange; he'd thought he had none left.

"By the One, Headman, what have you done to him?"

"Nothing, my lord! We give him food and water. It's not my fault he takes neither."

Legolas felt his neck muscles burning with effort. He let his head lolled back against the wall. He was fading, graying, becoming one with the stones. A terrible fate for an Elf. A suitable end to a murderer.

"Are you out of your mind, Headman? He is Prince Legolas of Mirkwood! A personal friend of the king!"

Legolas wanted to gainsay him, but his voice had long since dried to dust in his throat. He was no friend of King Elessar. He'd forfeited that privilege the moment he'd walked into Lesser Greenvale with the small, broken body in his arms.

The Headman spoke his thoughts for him. "Be that as it may, it does not acquit him of murder. He confessed. Even friends of the king are not above the law."

A long silence, in which the torch crackled and spat.

Leave me be. Legolas closed his eyes. Let the stones take me.

They had put a plain stone marker on her grave, he remembered.

The visitor's voice startled Legolas out of his reverie. "I'm taking him with me to Greater Greenvale. Have him ready for travel."

#

"Drink, Prince."

The cells at Greater Greenvale were larger, cleaner, aired. Pale sunlight filtered in through a latticed window. But the gray stones were the same, and Legolas' spirit continued to sink into them.

"Come on. Drink."

Drink... He'd been thirsty. The river had been nearby, just beyond some trees, and he'd been thirsty. So he'd killed her. Valar, her screams...

The steward of Greenvale sighed. "The king is on his way. He'll have my head if you die on me."

I don't deserve the gift of life. She did, and I robbed her of it. Let me die too.

Legolas jerked awake from his half-stupor. Dying. He was dying. He couldn't die. He mustn't.

I don't deserve the leniency of death.

He drank.

#

"Legolas, mellon-nin... Man agorech, mellon-nin? Am man theled?"

The melodic voice rolled over Legolas like a soft blanket of childhood, comforting and achingly familiar. If there were words in that voice, he couldn't make out their meaning. There was little meaning left to him, now.

A dark shape filled Legolas' sight. Something, fingers, a hand reached for his chin and tilted his head up. His gaze lighted on clear gray eyes, alive like the sea with currents of emotion. Eyes that he loved dearly. Eyes that knew not better than to reflect that love.

"Aragorn..."

"I'm here, mellon-nin."

You shouldn't be. He couldn't say it out loud, partly because the single word he'd spoken had scratched his throat raw, partly because some traitorous ember in his soul didn't want Aragorn to leave.

A hesitant voice from farther away; the steward of Greenvale. "Highness?"

The gray eyes turned away, the dark shape backed off. The melodic voice whispered like silk: "What happened?"

"I'm not sure..."

Now steel: "What happened?"

"The – the headman, he said –"

Thunder: "What happened?"

"I killed her."

Legolas saw the two men start and turn to him, the steward with a frown, Aragorn with bewilderment.

"Legolas..."

"I was tired." Each word hurt. That, too, he deserved. "I was lost in thought. The river..."

Aragorn crouched before him again. "Go on..."

"I didn't even know her name. She didn't speak. But she understood, and she could nod. An orphan. And I promised her, do you see? Promised I'd bring her home safe."

Legolas' voice and soul broke on a harsh sob. Aragorn reached for his shoulder, hesitated, drew back his hand. Maybe he was beginning to understand.

The king's voice, however, came out ever so soft as he prompted, "What about the river?"

Legolas clenched his fists until his fingernails punished his palms. "I was tired," he forced out the words. "We just made camp. I was thirsty. The river was just beyond the trees. I gave her the water skin... I told her... I asked her... Valar, Aragorn, I killed her..." The scene replayed in his mind, in his eyes, in his ears. "Her screams... I should have felt their presence... I was tired, but I should have felt..."

"Who? Whose presence?"

"Orcs, Aragorn, I sent her right into their paws..."

Legolas shuddered, and again, overcome with memory; he clawed at his ears, but the screams wouldn't fade, and the stench of blood filled his nostrils, and the cold tingle of horror crept down his back –

Strong hands gripped his arms. He struggled, but he was weak and wasted. The hands stilled his frantic movements and pulled, pulled him off balance, pulled him into a hug which he had no right to receive.

"I promised her!" he cried. "I promised!"

Arms circled him and anchored him against the river of guilt that threatened to sweep him away. A litany of words cascaded over his ears. They were all but drowned by the memory of screams, but slowly they surged and registered:

"Legolas, mellon-nin... It wasn't your fault... It wasn't your fault..."

A dam broke inside him and he cried, cried for a nameless orphan girl who died and was buried with a plain stone marker on her grave. He cried until his body ran dry and yet more, until he sagged exhausted in the arms of his friend and lord and liege.

He felt weightless and dizzy as Aragorn picked him up. Cradled like a child. Safe, like she should have been.

"I didn't know," the steward of Greenvale was saying. "He walked into the village with her body. He said he killed her, he demanded trial. I didn't know!"

"I understand," Aragorn said. His voice rumbled through Legolas' body. "He has the right to demand trial. And as king, I have the right to name his sentence, and it is this: I find him guiltless." His voice softened to a murmur. "Guiltless, Legolas. You deserve no punishment. Let go, my friend, you have suffered enough. Let go..."

Legolas' eyelids fluttered shut, and he drifted away.

#

They stood before her grave, alone and yet together in their silence. Legolas' head was bowed. Aragorn's hand rested on his shoulder.

"Peace, my friend," the king said softly.

A chiseled stone now stood on the grave. Elven script was etched into its face, spelling out a blessing of love. Two thick locks of hair – one of a king, one of a prince – lay on the grave of the nameless orphan.

"Peace."