Blood-Red Rose for Legolas
Disclaimer: Written with all respect of J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of such a wonderful world. Lord of the Rings doesn't belong to me and no copyright infringement is intended.
Please Note: This story has been under extensive revision but is very close to its finalized form. The first few chapters may seem relatively juvenile, but the story becomes serious fairly soon and is intended for mature readers. It does deal with some heavy topics, hence the M rating. If you're hoping for unicorns and rainbows, you won't find them here.
At the risk of scaring off readers, I should say that the first third of this novel-length story was actually first written when I was thirteen. Quite predictably, some of it was simply terrible. Those chapters have been revised many times since then, but don't be surprised if you notice a change in the level and quality of the writing once you're further along. Bottom line is, if you give this a chance, hopefully it won't disappoint. You can always check my profile for updates on the status of the revisions.
Sariel – Sare-RE-elle. Take the name 'Ariel' and add a soft 's' in front. Sare rhymes with 'I dare you to,' RE as in return, and -elle as in Michelle.
Belderon – Bell-DUR-ron
Lorianiel – Lori-AN-iel
Lessena – Less-EN-na. EN as in brighten.
Chapter 1: Bound by Blood-Oath
The knife sliced into her hand swiftly and cleanly, delaying the pain for a few scant moments before the cut began to sting. Sariel bit her lip and tried to keep her face expressionless as Belderon repeated the action on himself, cutting shallowly across his palm. Before the blood welling from their wounds had time to spill, Belderon pressed their hands together and let the mixture drip into two tiny glass vials.
"By blood, Sariel Nightstar, I bind thee
By blood-oath you are bound to me.
As you are reborn in death's shadow
Elven blood will become its own greatest foe.
For vengeance, death shall be his fate
The son of Thranduil solely mine to assassinate.
His life now yours, as you desire to be free
In this exchange which binds for all eternity."
Despite her determination to hide her fear, Sariel shivered slightly. It was only the third time she had made a blood-oath such as this, but the last two times had been the worst in her life. This time, she was sure, would be different—but no better. This time it was the princeling of Mirkwood that Belderon wanted, and the stakes were so much higher. Her mother and sister would finally be free of Belderon, and so would she, if only she completed the task well.
Hardly sparing a glance at her, Belderon put one of the vials on a thin silver chain and gave it to her. The other one he kept and put it in his locked box, which would disappear somewhere in his rooms, not that Sariel had ever dared to enter them. With steady fingers despite her unease, Sariel fastened the necklace around her neck and tried not to flinch as the small object, shaped like an hourglass, touched her skin. It was still warm from the blood. Her hand continued to sting despite the bandaging she wrapped around it, reminding her that the blood-oath was a dark ritual and a powerful binding. After all, so were most things that involved blood.
"Please, may I see my sister and mother before I leave?" she asked quietly. Long experience had taught Sariel that Belderon was thoroughly heartless, but not necessarily unreasonable. Indeed, it was his logical ruthlessness that was far more terrifying than anything else. She thought he would not deny her this, not when the visit would reaffirm her choice, as it always did. Nothing else could have strengthened her resolve to set the life of her family above all else, whether it was right or wrong to do so.
"Yes," Belderon granted after a thoughtful silence that had tension tightening Sariel's shoulders. "I will be listening. You may not tell them of this affair, or of what else you have done under my command. The emotion born of your blood ties weakens you, my dear. Remember what I have taught you."
Sariel allowed herself a few moments of relief, but she had not yet been dismissed, and she knew better than to leave before he was completely done with her. He stared into the flames of the fire impassively.
"I will see you in the morning before you leave," Belderon finally said after he had made her wait several more minutes in oppressive stillness.
Sariel nodded once and left, closing the door behind her with the half-hearted wish that she could lock her Master out of her life forever. It was fancy, more than emotion, that was her weakness. Her imagination and ceaseless wishing had brought her closer to danger than any affection she might have had for anyone. Even her family were strangers, her loyalty to them the result more of what she wished they were to her, than what they actually were.
She walked down the grey stone hall, fighting the compulsion to run…because there was nowhere, really, she could run to. She only hated to be in his presence. She knew that Belderon could hear her footsteps; like all Elves, his hearing and eyesight were incredibly acute. I should know, she thought, bitterness lacing the knowledge. After all, I have the same gifts.
At last she reached yet another door and opened it, looking into a painfully austere room with cold stone walls. It was as grey as the rest of the place and all that color was unrelieved by light. Inside of the room, her mother sat placidly in a chair, giving the impression that she was always stationary, like some invalid confined to endless rest. Her sister was huddled on the bed, barely looking up at Sariel when she entered. Sariel averted her eyes anyway, not wanting to face the utter lifelessness sure to be in Lessena's otherwise pretty countenance. Her mother ignored Sariel completely.
Both had heavy iron shackles around their wrists and their ankles, as expected of prisoners. Sariel knew it was all for show. Belderon had fine wires just as capable of binding, but the room was jail enough even if his power over all of them, should there be any sign of disobedience, was somehow not. In comparison to them, Sariel seemed to exude a hard vitality, making it seem as if she were of a completely different race. It was not that there was anything too outwardly wrong at first sight about the appearance of the two Elves in the room, except perhaps the fact that their skin appeared to be fine parchment stretched over brittle bones. Still, few methods of torture could have been as effective as Belderon's for shattering the mind.
"Mother, Lessena, I will leave tomorrow. I can only tell you that if all goes well, we may be freed. I do not know when, but it will be at least several months before my task is completed." She had always made her sentences the bare minimum when speaking because otherwise her mother did not listen. Too many horrors had been whispered to her, too many truths distorted, and she blocked out almost everything around her, including her daughter.
Sariel embraced her mother gently, unsure as to what she thought might break if more force were exerted. The once beautiful Lorianiel was gaunt and haggard, her appearance as grey as the unforgiving walls around them. Golden hair had faded to wispy yellow-white and her blue eyes were clouded as if with a human's advanced age. The milky film over sapphire eyes like her own made it hard for Sariel to look at her without slight disgust, followed by shame.
Her mother said nothing, but after a while the waxen figure that was Lessena melted to life. It seemed to take great effort and the words were slow, each one painstakingly carved out of the still air.
"Sariel, do not give us hope. Let us die so that you, at least, shall be free," she said. "He allows you come ever so often because he knows the exact limits to which a soul may be punished, but still survive enough to continue in a physical shell. What does he want from us? Why does he keep you away?" Tears began to thicken Lessena's light voice, the words coming now as if long suppressed.
"Lessena—" Sariel began, but her sister stopped her with a look.
"You change every time I see you, Sariel. You seem as cold and distant as the woods of Lothlórien where we once lived. You stink of blood, and yet none I can see. You are bright with life, but no longer passionate. Something dark has twisted your soul, I feel it! You were ours once; what has he done to you to make you like this?"
Sariel could not seem to find the voice to reply, even if she had had the words. Her eyes blurred with tears but she struggled to hold them back, frustrated with her helplessness. She was letting her emotions control her, seeing the Lessena she wanted to see. The torrent of words came not from concern, but accusation. Finally, Sariel swallowed hard and answered.
"Have hope because there is hope now. How can you relinquish everything after so many years, when we are so close to freedom? You speak of Lothlórien…our true home. Think of the mallorn-trees in Lórien—remember autumn when their leaves turned russet, and rustled gently as the wind stirred them. Do you remember? If I do this—if I do as Belderon commands me to do, we can go back there. He will free us!" Sariel's bandaged hand flew up to her neck to grip the small, hard shape of the warm vial. The revulsion she felt at keeping even a few drops of Belderon's blood close to her was overpowered by what it had bought: a contract of death in exchange for freedom—hers, and her family's.
Lorianiel stirred to life, baring her teeth at Sariel like a feral animal. "What do you know of lifetimes spent in this cage? How can you know what it is like? You, at least, are freer than either of us! Go, Sariel, and leave us be. Do not give me your words of freedom or your memories of the past, seeking to comfort us with illusions. Has Belderon not taught you that it is the dreamers who meet the cruelest reality in the end? Go!"
The words fell harshly into the gentle spell Sariel had sought to weave with her words and hurt her as if they were knives. Sariel sucked in a breath that was almost a gasp, closing her eyes briefly. Lorianiel's voice had lifted in melodic song, once. But as she said, that was many lifetimes ago.
Sariel blinked away hot tears when she finally looked at two sets of indifferent eyes, knowing that she had given everything to save them, only to be constantly faced with her powerlessness and failure. She called them her mother and sister, but were they, in any way other than blood? Their stinging rejection of her now seemed like a betrayal, but the knowledge that it was also her fault, the thought that she had ignored reality for too long and had built up a fantasy in which the remnants of her family loved her—all of it was too much for her to accept. Belderon's repeated lessons echoed in her mind and she clung to it.
Despite everything, Belderon was an elder Elf who knew much. However much he was a monster, he was still right. Emotion had made her weak, but knowing her own flaws did not change anything. She turned blindly and stumbled out of the room without another word, sick with misery.
Lorianiel's words were true, and Sariel could only numbly wonder how much worse it was for her mother and sister to see her. Each day, she longed to see them, and yet every visit was the same reoccurring nightmare. Belderon let her roam in the woods as she pleased, knowing that she could not leave him while her family remained. She watched her family die a little more each day, until the days stretched into endless seasons and years, and they watched her enjoy all the things that they had been deprived of—there was no irony more merciless. Over the unending course of an Elf's life, how could that hate not build, until all the bonds of family had worn away?
There was the certain knowledge that they were all she had left, and this kept Sariel in her own invisible chains. She would not let them die, not even if it meant fate had to be appeased with another innocent's death. Nothing was worth more to her. She could kill five strangers, five hundred strangers, if that was the price. This time, freedom was so achingly close—all she had to do was kill Belderon's hated princeling of Mirkwood.
It was unclear why Belderon had offered her freedom at long last, after all her killings. Perhaps he had grown bored of his game and had decided to end it with one last task. Perhaps this was the culmination of his grand plan, one that Sariel had never fathomed, since he sent her to finish seemingly random targets. It did not matter; for Sariel, the end was near, as near as the rib bones were to the heart.
Yet Lorianiel and Lessena refused to hope for anything, and deep down inside Sariel screamed and raged against their unwillingness, because she could not remember the last time they had seemed alive.
Back in her own rooms, Sariel lay awake, calming herself by reciting the simple points that Belderon had taught her, to focus her mind before an assassination. Gradually, the anger and grief subsided until only a mild irritation was left over the damning evidence of her feelings: the salty dampness of her pillow. Her heart hardened as she thought about what the start of her journey tomorrow would mean. She would be back in Lothlórien, back where her home used to be. Despite herself, a few tears still silently slipped out of her eyes as she remembered the charred ruins of the beautiful tree where her family had lived in almost idyllic joy. They had only been one family amidst many others, until evil came and changed everything.
As usual, her last thoughts before sleep claimed her were of her father, fallen by Belderon's hand. He emerged from her memories, pristine and unchanged, unlike the living remnants of her family that she had seen earlier that day. Even his ghostly embrace seemed solid and reassuring, though she knew it was all a trick of her mind. "I will avenge you," she promised in a whisper, the sound quickly lost in the dark. It had been an empty promise for too long. She could not even free herself, or her mother and her sister.
The ghost of her father still waited, calm and wise. He reached for her, as loving as always, without shadows in his eyes like those in Lessena's, when she sensed the death that shadowed Sariel's soul. Sariel closed her eyes, pressing her face to his chest, listening to the steady heartbeat. "After we are freed, I will come back and Belderon shall live no more." She had repeated these words so many times that she fancifully thought that perhaps the room would have a memory of it, even when she was gone, and passersby would hear her whisper when even the Elves had returned to ashes and dust.
There was a chance now to make them true.
Sariel woke up early next morning before the dismal skies had brightened with sunlight. She scrambled into a plain, dark green shirt and soft brown leggings before the light fog of dreams even cleared from her mind. Letting loose a sigh, she started to pack, economical movements ensuring that she finish with plenty of time before the sun rose. Everything had to be organized so she could find it easily. She took time to meticulously clean all her weapons and to store in her saddlebags the sweet, light brown journeycakes wrapped in leaves that she often made in preparation for Belderon's assignations. As sustenance went, Belderon left herself to her own devices, and she had fumblingly attempted to recall what she could remember from her childhood, with varying success. This time, they were too dry and would not be sweet at all, as she had misjudged the amount of honey necessary. Still, even her failed experiments provided nourishment, and that was enough.
Along with various other items, she remembered to pack two heel-length cloaks, one deep blue and one black. She wore the third, a forest green cloak with an intricately designed clasp of silver. She had stolen it a long time ago, when her Master had sent her own on her first tasks—spying, rather than assassination.
Belderon was waiting for her in his rooms, but at her arrival he rose and left, expecting her to follow him outside. To her surprise, he told her to bring all her weapons, most of which she already carried on her.
"A little test, my pet." He smiled at her beguilingly. "Now, you did not expect me to let you go so easily, did you?"
Sariel had indeed thought so. After all, she had completed assassinations many times before and was quite experienced. Neither had she been slack in her training, as Belderon well knew, since he often observed her at it.
"No, Master," she still said deferentially, because he was waiting for an answer. Despite it all, she needed to please him.
"Show me what you have learned. Take your bow and be prepared to aim for that piece of cloth fluttering in the wind on that tree."
Sariel looked where he was pointing. She was surprised at the target he had chosen. Even she, with her already keen eyesight sharpened by practice, could barely see the tiny piece of red cloth, and it furled and unfurled with the gusts of the wind. Belderon's sudden, uncharacteristic penchant for testing her gave her an odd feeling. She had already known that this was a special case, considering the fact that he had offered her freedom, as if he would no longer have use of her afterward. So who exactly was the princeling of Mirkwood? Why was he so important that Belderon, who had never doubted her abilities—because, after all, he had personally trained her and she had never failed—would want to test her?
Sariel put aside all speculation when Belderon handed her three arrows. They were not the perfectly fletched ones that she had made, but slightly battered, though useable, old arrows. She would have to compensate for their flaws and for the wind. Sariel needed all her focus here, not in idle thoughts.
"Three arrows, consecutively. Start when I clap my hands," Belderon said simply, and walked away from her.
She listened for his signal, knowing that it in itself was part of the test. When the soft sound came, she reached behind her to take an arrow, almost instinctively adjusting as a cloud passed over the sun, barely pausing to note that Belderon had deliberately waited to test her with this, too. The movements of aiming and firing the first arrow were as natural to her as breathing, smooth although not quite effortless. She did so twice more, her speed and attention to detail essential for accuracy. The wind presented no great challenge, although the third arrow had a weakness in the wood that threatened to send its flight awry, so Sariel judged the distance and aimed not at flag, but a little to the left.
When she finished, she looked at Belderon. He motioned her to come, and they walked together to the target. The small piece of cloth was pinned to the trunk by the three arrows, the third somewhat farther from the other two. Sariel pulled them out carefully, hoping that they could be reused. The first two seemed undamaged so she put them back into her quiver, making a mental note to check more thoroughly later. Even a hairline crack in the shaft or slightly damaged feathering would compromise the effectiveness of the arrow. The third she would discard.
Belderon had no comments for her, instead returning to their original place, leaving the piece of cloth on the tree, now with three holes. He moved closer to the target, counting his paces and looking up until the distance was exactly as he wanted. "The dagger," he said. There was something in his voice that implied that Sariel had better be perfect this time, and she wondered what she had done to displease him. The third arrow still would have been lethal. The red flag had only been a hand's width.
Her concentration shifted to that small, fluttering piece of cloth far ahead of her and she threw. The dagger hit right on the mark, buried almost halfway into the trunk. She pulled it out with difficulty, grateful that the blade remained always sharp, and inwardly wondered what other tests Belderon would require her to perform. She rarely used the dagger, preferring her lighter Elvish knives instead, or of course the stiletto. Still, her skill with knives exceeded her other abilities. Not only had she had a natural affinity to the smaller, lighter weapons, but Belderon had also spent twice as much time drilling her in that aspect. Of course, she had not done sword work yet, but this was a rarely called upon area of her many talents.
Sariel could not help but wonder whether this was truly to test her, or only some strange way Belderon had devised to reassure himself that she would be effective. Not that she had ever failed; he had always demanded the absolute best from her. Why would this have changed, simply because her target was different?
Belderon made her cut yet another piece of cloth into eight equal pieces before it dropped to the ground with her two knives, testing not only her skill, but her dedication to caring for her weapons and ensuring that they were frequently whetted to perfection. He then engaged in swordplay with her. Sariel performed well, but diffidently, until Belderon's glare injected her with a healthy dose of fear. Try as she might, she had never reached the point where she could defeat Belderon with a sword. He was a consummate swordsman and he gave the art a new cruelty that was almost savage.
The stiletto remains, Sariel thought. Of all the weapons, it was most suited for an assassin. Sword for heavy combat, bow and arrows for distance-work, knives strapped to her forearms for close work and defense, and the dagger as a general all-around weapon. The stiletto was small, deadly, but the keen blade was hardly an inch wide and perhaps seven inches long. It was useful for finding its way to a heart and wonderfully subtle, but hardly good for anything other than assassin's work. Despite the special properties of the silver-white Elvish metal, the thin blade could still snap, given the right pressure.
With a start, she realized that Belderon was looking at her again, waiting with a serpentine patience. He instructed her to approach him while he was unaware—he wanted her to touch the tip of the stiletto to his neck, just enough to make one drop of blood.
This was a true challenge. Of the assortment of different knives and daggers she carried, the stiletto was not her favorite, but it was the truest to her profession. She had been told to use it to kill the two Elves that she had been bound by blood-oath to kill, before. The rest of the assassinations were open to her choice and she used a variety of methods, from poison to even the exotic garrote. There were an infinite number of ways to kill and she had simply picked the ones she thought were most efficient. Sometimes Belderon wanted to show his revenge, but more often than not he wanted her to leave no trace of her passage, so her victim needed to mysteriously disappear.
She was as adept at using the stiletto as she was with the other weapons, but to silently approach an Elf with the same abilities as herself and cause just one drop of blood on his neck was a rather terrifying prospect. Belderon would be on guard for her attack, whereas most of her victims were taken by stealth.
This was the time to prove to herself that she could surpass her master, and Sariel felt darkly determined. She had clung to her vow to avenge her father as if it were her lifeline. This test meant more to her than Belderon would ever suspect.
She disappeared into the woods, keeping a steady eye on Belderon, who was sitting with his back to a tree, bright eyes looking for any sign of her. An instant attack could surprise him, as he probably thought she would wait and assess the situation, but Sariel didn't want to chance it. It would be difficult to sustain a high level of constant awareness, so she waited.
Finally she slipped behind him, close to his right side, praying that the leaves under her feet would not crackle as she stepped on them. No amount of skill could bypass the advantages that nature had given Belderon. Luck, however, was on her side. The forest loam swallowed the sound of her actions, even as Sariel chided herself for the tension in her hands. What skilled assassin succumbed to nerves in the middle of an assignation? She took a few breaths, deliberately relaxing her muscles so that her movements would be loose, and then stepped carefully close to the tree that Belderon was leaning against.
She studied the scene intently as she became closer, seeing the small gaps where she could evade Belderon's gaze at least temporarily. In a few quick steps, she had reached him, stiletto in hand. Belderon shifted and she froze, but the rustling of the wind covered her and she knew with a peculiar certainty that he would not turn to see her. Her hand darted forward and descended, the point of the stiletto just barely touching his neck. It cut so gently; she had the utmost control over the blade. She darted away before he could capture her and reappeared in front of him as Belderon put his hand to his neck.
There was a single red drop welling from the tiny wound, not a pinprick, which would have hurt immediately and alerted him to her attack, but a precise surface cut.
"Well done," said Belderon as he smeared away the blood with his fingers. "Go, then, and kill the prince of Mirkwood."
Fear mingled with a quick flash of irritation. Sariel hated his condescension. She was not the forgetful, brainless child he had kidnapped so many years ago, but he thought her a total puppet still. That it was blatantly true did not make it any easier to accept.
"I will contact you at night every other day. Do not even think of escaping, my pet. A single misstep and your mother and sister will suffer for it. Fail, and they will pay the price."
There was only one ultimate price Belderon ever demanded of anyone-death.
Sariel was hesitant to speak up but she had too many misgivings about this assignation. Why had he not given her more information? Instead, he had focused only on her target's title, as if that mattered the most. He was never so vague about her tasks.
"Master…his name?" she prompted.
"All you need to know is that he is the prince of Mirkwood." The finality in his voice was clear.
Sariel asked nothing more though she had to bite back the questions. Giving her some background would only aid her, and Belderon had made it clear that this was not an ordinary case. Facilitating the assassination should logically be a priority. An undefined target meant that she would have to stay for a while and to get to know his habits. At least, as a prince, her target would be fairly well known. For a moment, the thought of multiple princes disconcerted her, but Belderon would never make that mistake. Princeling or prince, there had to be only one son of Mirkwood, if that was his title.
In the next instant, Sariel's mouth was suddenly dry underneath her Master's colorless gaze, and she felt almost sick with fear. So many years, and it was always like that when he scrutinized her in that way, as if to him it was perfectly clear exactly when she would die, and as if he were contemplating whether it would happen under his blade.
"Go to the stables and take Myste. She will serve you well enough." The last was meant as a slight, and she again wondered what she had done to incur his displeasure. He turned abruptly and walked away.
Sariel stared at his diminishing figure for a moment, her knees suddenly feeling like they were too weak to support her. He was angry, she was sure, yet he almost never showed emotion. It was part of what he had taught her, but the heat in his eyes showed that he was not as dispassionate as usual. So why was this assassination so different? Why was this the last?
She tried not to think too much while she entered the stables. Belderon would be furious if he knew how much she indulged her fondness for horses, but even so, she took a lump of sugar to Myste's stall. The smoky white filly nickered a greeting and she almost smiled.
Myste had been her only companion since the day the filly had been born. Her mother had died during the birthing and Sariel had cared for Myste since then, developing a strong bond with the gangly foal. Other animals avoided Belderon's citadel and the other horses were not true horses, but rather Belderon's steeds, bred for their temper and savage nature. Whatever he had done to them, they only resembled horses, but even their appearance gave them away as something other.
Housed next to those hellish beasts, Myste had developed a tolerance for fright, endearing herself to Sariel, who needed a mount that would not easily spook. The filly was also obedient and sweet natured, and though Sariel had no comparison except for her hazy childhood memories, Myste seemed to be much faster than others of her kind.
It took just a while for Sariel to ready the saddlebags. Aside from food and clothing, she needed little. She had only a few personal possessions and she did not have the courage to ask Belderon to see her mother and sister again. Part of her knew that it was because she dreaded facing her family, but another part simply did not care. She wanted to be free—free from Belderon, free from all the ties that bound her soul, even those blood ties that justified her killing. Yet Lessena and Lorianiel were the only reasons she had to live, the only things that mattered to her in her existence, even if they were not the mother and sister of her imagination. There was nothing else left.
It was a bittersweet feeling that washed over her as she mounted Myste and rode away, refusing to look backward. She was free of Belderon's hated prison for at least a few months, but she would always have to return. The freedom was but mere illusion when she had to leave what mattered the most to her behind—two Elves that continued living because of her actions, no matter how lifeless they seemed. She had made such journeys before, but this time there was the forbidden hope that this would be her last.
With Myste, she journeyed away from Lake Evendim, and toward the life that awaited her—toward the Golden Wood, Lothlórien.
A/N: Please take a second to review! First chapters matter a lot, so although there are many more for you to read, I would love to get your first impressions.
Finalized June 2008