Blood-Red Rose for Legolas
A/N: Occasionally a song gets me through a lot of writing and recently, it's been Hayley Westenra's "Dark Waltz." Whenever I think about the Elves singing, I imagine that they might have voices like hers. If you listen to "Listen to the Wind" or other songs like "River of Dreams" (melody adapted from Vivaldi's Winter from The Four Seasons), I always imagine them as songs that Elves might have written for the harp or flute ;) Actually, I encourage you all to look up "Listen to the Wind" on YouTube. It's got an amazing ethereal quality and even though it's in English, I'm pretty sure you can imagine it being sung in Elvish.
Anyway, all the way back in Chapter 9, I referenced one of Oscar Wilde's short stories, "The Nightingale and the Rose." I'm sure I wrote an author's note about it, but I must have accidentally deleted the note during all the revisions, so I'm going to have to add it back in. If you don't remember anything about it, that's okay. I paraphrase the story again here, although I encourage you to read the original at some point if you're curious about that part. Otherwise, it might be a little boring and you can just skim over those paragraphs. (Yes, I'm actually saying that you can skip over what I've written—probably a good sign I should just edit it out entirely, but every time I tried to do that, I found myself holding onto it anyway. Sorry.)
Chapter 34: Homecoming
Pushing her horse as hard as she dared, it would take Sariel about five days to make her way back to Eryn Lasgalen, compared to how it had taken nearly a month just for Lianderthral and her to safely guide Brynna's family to Eastdale. Five paltry days! It was almost incredible when she looked at the results of her estimates. All along, she had felt as if she were a world away from Legolas, but the physical distance that had truly separated them bordered on the absurd.
Five days meant nothing, or so Sariel tried to convince herself. She had left Eryn Lasgalen over five months ago, so what could a few more days actually matter? But another part of her knew that five days might as well be a lifetime when measured by the merciless hourglass of the plague. Her progress felt insufferably minimal, the landscape around her remaining stubbornly unchanged after hours of riding.
For whatever reason, she had never before felt so aware of each passing hour, the trickle of time so slow that she spent every moment in the cold grip of desperation. After traveling with companions for so long, she had become too used to it. Now that she was alone, she discovered that it felt more like being lost than being free. Even when she had the opportunity to rest, Sariel lay wide-eyed and sleepless beneath a waxing moon, a hundred worries turning over in her mind. At least the skies remained clear at the start of her journey, though it was still the middle of winter and temperatures were low enough for frost on the ground.
Since she had control over neither time nor weather, she focused on Myste's health and soundness instead, doing her best to keep her horse fit for travel. It was also a way to stop herself from methodically cataloguing the frightening progression of her own illness. Sariel had expected the medicine she had made to work on herself much as it had worked on the orc she had tested on, mainly in that it arrested the plague in its early stages. But for whatever reason, likely some difference between orcs and Elves, it did not work as expected. It was slowing the manifestations of plague in her, but it was not stopping her gradual progression through the stages.
That realization would have been enough to strike fear into even the calm, cold assassin she had once been, and Sariel was no longer so adept at suppressing her emotions. The carefully proportioned poisons that made up the medicine were almost as hard on her body as the disease itself. By the second day, unexpected dizziness had forced her to stop much earlier than she had wanted to, even after securely tying herself to the saddle. The only other time she could recall ever being so ill was when the companions had taken her from Belderon's fortress to Rivendell, in the aftermath of their fight with her former master. She had been delirious for most of the journey, which she now realized had been almost a blessing.
After all, though she had nearly died back then, she truly had not cared at that point whether she would live or not. Now, however, she clung to life with every fiber of her being, wondering if Legolas was doing the same. Sariel's hazy memories reminded her that she had once regarded her existence with utter apathy. She had almost given up on life itself, tempted into a passive form of self-destruction.
This time, she found herself frustrated and angry with her failing body, angry at everything, in fact—at how she had walked away from Legolas and now did not even know if he were dead or alive; at Lianderthral too, for his maddeningly alarmist message. It had crossed her mind that perhaps her friend had been deliberately vague. Had he guessed that she would hasten back to Eryn Lasgalen and, perhaps, to Legolas? If so, perhaps he had not mentioned who was sick so that Sariel would do just that, and Legolas was in no danger at all.
It was also possible that Lianderthral did know quite well which Elves, especially those close to Sariel, had been stricken with the Blue Death. He could have left out the information to try to spare her the worry, much as she had never informed him that she had been infected herself. In the end, even if she learned that Legolas was sick, was even at death's door, what would that change and what could she do, other than what she was doing now?
She had expected to miss him less over time. Even if that had been false, then surely, after all the loss she had seen from the plague, she should have been too numb to miss him so much now. It was as if her decision to return to Eryn Lasgalen had thawed the frost that she had used to fill the hollow in her heart.
Perhaps she could truly have distanced herself emotionally as well as physically, with time, if it had not been for the ring. That little circle of metal sometimes seemed to mock her, sometimes seemed to encourage her, and sometimes, Sariel thought, was the only thing that could save her.
In her mind, it was a separation that had been inevitable. She had meant for it to be final as well, a clean break for both of them—in other words, a goodbye. Maybe that could have been true and she could have let go…if he had not made it so very clear that though she had left, it was not the end for him, and would never be. By sending her the ring, he had changed everything, because she could not ignore what it meant.
To him, the distance between them was not farewell. It was waiting.
Legolas had given her freedom, had abided by her wishes for him not to follow or find her. He had let her go when she had asked it of him, but he had also let her know that he would be there still waiting for her, loving her, always. It was this knowledge that spurred her on when she should have rested, when her bones ached so fiercely that silent tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes, and when she emptied her stomach time and time again of the water and meager bites of food she forced down. Fever and chills alternately racked her body, leaving her sometimes softly keening to herself as she lost all sense of time and direction, hoping that Myste would know to guide her home.
It was her home, was it not? Perhaps. She did not see Eryn Lasgalen as a safe haven or as place that welcomed her, yet she knew now that it was as close to a home as she had ever had. Legolas had given her that and more.
Sariel's head throbbed with the nonstop jarring movement of Myste's trot, but in her state, she could not handle a faster pace. Despair gripped her tight, crushing the glacial calm she had built up in the face of so much death. How could she feel anything else, when she had been such a fool?
He had given her everything he could and she had parted from him without a single word, a single sign to show him what he meant to her. More than anything, she wished that she would have another chance and that he would forgive her—but it was hard to believe he would when she could barely forgive herself. She had been so selfish and untrusting, so focused on herself that she forgot that he had been there all along too, suffering just as she had, and yet still trying to support her. She had fled from the pressures of being by his side, unable to lay the ghosts of her past to rest, and all the while she had blindly thought only of her own pain, unable to see his.
In the odd clarity she found now when facing the prospect of her own death, she knew that rather than breaking her own heart, she had broken his. And yet, even so…she clenched her hand into a fist, the hard edges of the ring digging into her finger, the abstract, leaf-like pattern etched on the band blurring in her vision when she looked down at it.
She had needed to leave in order to understand what this little piece of metal, wrought into a pleasing shape, meant to her. She had needed to learn so much more about herself and to find a way past the pride and shame, the toxic mixture of fear and guilt. All she had been able to see and feel was the censure of those around her, so much so that it had blinded her to the true depth of the love and compassion that had also been given to her.
Now she knew; she understood it achingly well. It had been the right choice to go, but also the wrong one too, in many ways, not the least of which was how she had left him and how she had not even had the courage to be honest with him. Sariel understood it almost all too well now; she feared that it might be too late to return, to say what she had left unsaid. The pounding of Myste's hooves sounded out a pattern that drowned out the soft sobs wrung from her throat, the jagged bursts of self-loathing too devastating for her to escape: you left me you left me you left me.
Once upon a time, a poor student fell in love with a beautiful young woman, who agreed to see him if only he would bring her a red rose. Alas, all the roses in the student's garden were of every color but crimson. As he lamented to himself among the flowers, pining away for his love, a nightingale in the garden heard him. She resolved to help him, for she well understood the love and passion that was the heart of her nightly song. However, the nightingale discovered that her help would come at a great sacrifice, for a red rose would only bloom if she impaled herself on a rose thorn as she sang her song of love. But of what worth was the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?
So did the nightingale sing with passion and glory all night long as her heart's blood stained the petals red, believing it worthy to give up her life itself for true love. When the next day dawned, the student brought the red rose to the girl. She coldly rejected him, for the flower paled in comparison with the costly jewels another suitor had bought for her. The student cast aside the rose in anger, knowing nothing of the sweet nightingale's sacrifice. The rose lay trampled on the streets as the student vowed to give up foolish notions of love entirely.
When Lianderthral had first told this tale to Sariel, she had felt conflicted, torn between her cynical mindset as an assassin and the knowledge that because of her irrational feelings for Legolas, she had failed at her task. Worse, her mother's life had been the price of that failure. She could not fathom the meaning of the story—that love and passion were fleeting illusions? That the nightingale's sacrifice had been unnecessary, even silly? Or perhaps the moral of the story was that there was no such thing as true love in the first place, nothing worth sacrificing a life for, however small and seemingly insignificant. The nightingale's song had been nothing but a pretty lie.
As the woods around Sariel finally grew familiar, her thoughts returned again and again to the tale of the nightingale and the rose. Lianderthral had insisted on more than one occasion that the nightingale had not died in vain. It had become a strange obsession of hers to try to understand why.
Here and there, burned trees marked the path that Belderon's orcs had taken through the southern part of Eryn Lasgalen. Soon, she would cross the boundaries into the part of the forest that was inhabited by Thranduil's subjects. Anxiety sat like a heavy weight on her chest when she thought of the sentries who were sure to stop her before she reached the cavernous halls of the palace. What had happened in the months that she had been away? Would the Elves even allow her to meet Legolas, and what would she do if Legolas himself turned her away?
It was unwise for her to dwell to long on that thought, so Sariel rode on grimly, the forest around her passing in a mess of impressions. Dangerous things lived in the forest still and she was not as alert to her surroundings as she should be, but Sariel was too preoccupied to care.
There had been true love in the story, in the end—maybe not the expected kind of love, but rather, the love of a small, fragile bird. She still remembered the exact way that Lianderthral had described it, the great love and selflessness of the nightingale as she sang all night long, slowly dying from the thorn in her breast. Did it matter that the love she had died for was not as true as she had thought it would be? She had accepted that risk. She had sacrificed herself for the chance alone, because love could never be a guarantee.
Was that what Lianderthral had been trying to tell her? He had fallen in love with her despite already knowing that she was already in love with another. In another person, his love might have made him angry and bitter, might have fostered ugly and hateful feelings that would eventually overcome whatever tenderness he had felt before. Instead, he had taken that love and spun it into kindness, compassion, and acceptance, into everything good between people that she believed could be in the world.
Was the nightingale's sacrifice in vain?
It was a trick question, she finally realized. The answer lay not in the details of the story, but in the mind of the person asked the question.
The realization came on the heels of another, one that sent a cold chill through her entire being. For the first time in far too long, Sariel looked around her at the massive trees and their snow-laden branches with her full attention.
Something was wrong.
She should have seen someone by now. She had passed the boundary that King Thranduil had set between Eryn Lasgalen and the southern forest, the lands that had been given to the Beornings. The forest was too quiet…almost deserted by even the usual woodland creatures. There was a strange hush in the air that Sariel tried hard to attribute to her overactive imagination and fevered state.
The further she rode into the heart of Eryn Lasgalen, however, the harder it was to deny that something was extremely amiss. There were no Elves in sight, not even sentries, and unlike earlier, this was neither due to her inattentiveness nor to a lack of ability to discern them. As sick as she was, she could still concentrate and focus her senses enough to be sure that no one was watching her or tracking her passage through the forest. Her path toward the palace was as direct as an arrow's flight, yet even as Myste quickened her pace to a gallop, Sariel saw only impenetrable Elven abodes. Were there Elves inside, sick or quarantined? Or were these dwellings abandoned after their inhabitants had unexpectedly passed away from the plague? She did not dare to stop in order to find out.
Sariel had spent some time thinking about what would happen upon her return to Thranduil's realm, but she had not expected this. Lianderthral's message had said that many Elves had been infected, but surely he would not have failed to tell her if the entire kingdom of Eryn Lasgalen was gone. Perhaps the Elves had been gathered into the extensive halls of the palace. With so many caves, it was the logical place to put the sick, since the healers would be able to tend to several Elves at once.
Sariel's reasoning did little to reassure her. Thranduil might have made the decision to bring the sick into the palace before the Elves had realized that they were not simply suffering from the orcs' poison-coated weapons. She had seen the effects of the plague firsthand and knew how infectious it was. Worst yet, it was likely that the healers had become sick themselves long before anyone had realized the extent of the threat. Although nearly all Elves were skilled in at least rudimentary medicine, they had never before suffered this kind of disease. The healers were the most likely to be able to help her learn how to modify her human cure into an Elven cure, but they were probably among the earliest to be infected and perhaps were already dead.
The formal entrance to the palace was usually guarded by both Elves and a large stone gate, but as Sariel crossed the bridge over the Forest River, she could see that the gate was down and that there was no one in sight. Praying under her breath, she guided Myste to a stop in front of the gate anyway, dizzily sliding out of the saddle and almost falling before she grabbed the rungs of the gate to steady herself.
There were a few other entrances to the caves, but the nearest one that she knew about was not really near at all. Worse, she thought she might not be able to make it there. It was all she could do to stay upright; the muscles in her calves were trembling so much that even mounting Myste again might be an obstacle. Her whole body ached and she leaned harder on the gate, trying to breathe deeply and block out the bone-deep pain as she went over her options.
The lock on the door within the gate would be nearly impossible to break open and it was designed to prevent any sort of tampering without a genuine key. She could still try it anyway, or try to get to another entrance. She could also return to some of the Elven homes that she had passed in the forest. It was possible that they had inhabitants who would help her.
"Who are you and why have you come here?"
It was a sign of how thoroughly her nerves had been shaken that Sariel had to stifle a scream at the sound of the voice coming from right behind her, though the question had not been delivered in a particularly loud or forceful way.
She turned around in careful movements so that her back rested on the gate and looked into an unfamiliar, but clearly Elven, face. A wave of relief flooded her when she met the Elf's grey gaze, despite the glinting tip of the arrow pointed at her. However irrational it was, the insidious thought that they were all dead, an entire kingdom vanished into thin air because of the plague, had crept into her mind. The gate guard looked at her, taking in her obviously plague-stricken state, and took a few steps backward.
"You should not have left the quarantine," he said, voice roughening with anger and fear.
"I did not leave," Sariel began, and then realized how futile it would be to try to explain everything. She chose instead to be direct. "I need to see Legolas."
There was a brief flare of surprise in the guard's expression and then he frowned, looking at her face more closely. She saw the moment of recognition. She did not know who he was, but that hardly mattered—from her informal address of Legolas by name and her general appearance, he had guessed exactly who she was. Slowly, he lowered the bow and arrow, her obvious weakness overriding her past reputation as an assassin.
"You cannot visit him," he told her shortly, without addressing her by name. "The prince is too occupied with important matters right now."
"Help me get through the gate," she told him, though her tone was closer to a plea than a command. "Legolas will want to speak with me."
It was the Elf who shifted his eyes away, finding the intensity of her stare to be too much. "Many things have changed since you left, my lady." He hesitated, sorting out what he was willing to tell her. "The plague—"
"I may be able to provide assistance on the cure," Sariel interrupted. She gritted her teeth to stop herself from saying more, from asking questions he would not answer. "Elves are dying and I can help stop that. Even if you do not take me to him, just open the gate to let me through. I will find him myself."
His doubtful expression told her that he clearly did not think she could make it that far, but still the Elf wavered, unsure where his duties lay. There were usually at least two pairs of guards at the gate, but no one else appeared to be present. If he escorted her, he would leave it unguarded. If he did not, he would be letting a former assassin walk into the palace looking for his prince while carrying a contagious illness.
Yet many things had changed in the kingdom…
Everyone knew how she had brought a war to Eryn Lasgalen and then had fought in it for them, how she had killed Lord Caranfer and seduced their prince. Her abrupt disappearance had divided the kingdom, half whispering of the king's shaming of her and half sympathizing with a tale of romance and redemption.
Then the plague had come and the Elves knew a fear they had never known before. Too many had died already. Too many were ill, with no hope of surviving. Yet one heartbroken prince still held the unraveling threads of their kingdom together, forced to make the cruel decisions about quarantine that left some to die, but protected the lives of the rest.
Without saying anything, the guard unlocked and opened the door that was framed within the gate to let her through.
Sariel walked into Thranduil's halls without a backward glance and drew up her hood with shaking fingers to hide her face. The lack of footsteps echoing behind her told her everything she needed to know.
The great stone halls and caverns of the Elvenking's palace were in total disarray. She had planned to at least try to stealthily make her way to Legolas, but Sariel quickly realized that she could have walked straight through almost all the passageways, and no one would have stopped her. It was possible that no one would even notice, whether or not she attempted to hide her distinctive features.
For one thing, the entire palace had been divided up and organized into something like an improvised hospital. She estimated that as much as one fourth of the kingdom's population had taken refuge—or had been forced into quarantine, it was difficult to distinguish—here, in the very heart of Thranduil's realm. The healers were easy to identify in their crimson robes, but as had been the case in Eastdale, there were far too few compared to everyone else.
Every room she passed presented another harsh onslaught to her senses, full of sounds that had probably never before echoed so much in these majestic halls—sounds of sickness, of coughing and crying, of pain and suffocation. It brought back terrible memories that five days' worth of journey could not begin to erase. She knew exactly how the lungs filled with bloody fluid near the very end, producing terrible wet sounds as the patients gasped for breath. The smell in the air, too—it was thick with the scent of old blood and more, bitter herbal medicines combined with sweat and sickness.
There were rows and rows of cots in room after room. If there was an actual system of quarantine, Sariel could not make out what it was. There were so many critically ill patients that she could see that some of the healers themselves were already succumbing to the plague, yet were still continuing to do their best to provide care to others. It looked as if whoever was in charge had already given up on trying to keep the ill separated from others. At this rate, it was only a matter of when, not if, the plague would overtake everyone in the palace.
Even with so many incapacitated victims of the Blue Death, the whirlwind of activity around her reminded her of the days before the war, when everyone had prepared to defend their homeland. Eryn Lasgalen was under a different kind of attack now, but the response was just as urgent. Elves passed in and out of the rooms, shoved past each other in the hallway, the aura of frantic desperation exactly like what Sariel had already experienced in Eastdale. But Eastdale had been a town—a mid-sized one, but still nowhere near a city—and everything here was on such a bigger scale, the scale of a kingdom.
She was reminded of the history of pestilence and disease that she had read about, but had only understood in an academic sense. In the Third Age, the Great Plague, also called the Dark Plague, had killed half the population of Rhovanion. The Elves that lived in Greenwood and Lorien were spared, of course, for they were immune to disease. However, the plague had laid waste to the lands of Gondor, Eriador, and more. It had taken more than two centuries for the kingdom of Gondor to regain its strength—perhaps not so very long for Elves, but several lifetimes for men. In its weakened state after the plague, Rhovanion had been invaded and its people enslaved.
With a jolt, Sariel realized that Thranduil would have been king during the entire time that the Dark Plague had come and gone, leaving so many dead in its wake. Many of the Elves around her, too, would have borne witness to that part of history—or would they have? The Elves did not concern themselves with the affairs of Men, although in those early days, the races of Middle-Earth had mingled more with one another.
The suffering around her drove her on relentlessly, a sense of certainty filling her and guiding her toward the throne room, though she feared what she would find. Legolas was alive; at least she knew that much. The sentry at the gate had indirectly confirmed that, although as soon as she had left him behind, Sariel had cursed herself for not asking the most important question of all. Had he been infected? Was he, too, dying a slow death?
The main hallway of the throne room loomed before her forbiddingly, but at the end of it, she could see that the doors had been left open and the throne room was unoccupied. Instead, Sariel came to an abrupt stop in front of the closed door to the side assembly room. She could hear his voice beyond the door, a steady and strong sound, even though she could not yet make out his words.
For a moment, the room spun around her and she almost sank to her knees, convinced that she was just caught in the grip of another hallucination. Relief was mixed in equal parts with trepidation. She closed her eyes, struggling to breathe and to work her way through the intense pain in her chest that grew and grew, as if an iron band were squeezing her heart to pulp. Through it all, the murmured sound of his voice did not change. It was real and so very, very close.
There was no one to stop her. She grabbed the heavy handle of the door on the right and pulled with all her strength. The heavy oak swung open soundlessly and she stumbled through, the words suddenly loud and clear—
"—healers will work to make the human cure so that they can alter it to aid…" Legolas was saying authoritatively, and then something made him look up, over the dozen or so Elves that were seated in front of him around a magnificent, gigantic table.
He stopped abruptly, his face paling with shock as he saw her. In that moment of frozen silence, Sariel let herself drink in everything about him: the crown that graced his head, the newly sharpened angle of his jaw, the slight hollows of his cheeks, the tender straight line of his mouth, even the dark shadows beneath his lapis blue eyes.
She drew in a sharp breath. The expression in his eyes, beneath their dark brows—her gaze met his and Sariel forgot herself, forgot that she was sick and that there were a dozen others in the room, forgot everything but the shattered look he gave her. The breath was sucked from her body as she stared back, immobile, his feelings entirely engulfing hers. Surprise, disbelief, and pain surged through his eyes in bare moments before being overwhelmed by a longing so deep and intense that Sariel's own vision blurred in instant sympathy, awash with tears.
"Legolas," she heard herself say, half gasp and half cry. A great and terrible need opened up in her, leaving her shaking with the force of it, feet rooted in place but every part of her feeling the hollowness of who she was when she was without him. She had made it back all this way and yet all of her resolve left her when she stood before him.
Sariel was vaguely aware of the commotion around her, of the whispers and outright exclamations. Someone, she thought it was Runya, was ushering other familiar faces out of the room out of consideration for her and Legolas. She could only be grateful that neither the queen nor the king was present. She felt sure that Miluirin would welcome her return, but Thranduil…
With a sudden deep sense of shame, Sariel looked away from where Legolas was now standing at the head of the table. Her heart seized with the thought that it had been a mistake to return. She was infected and no amount of denial could overcome that. No matter how much she wanted to see him, she had no right to put him through the pain of losing her again.
Gentle hands cupped her face briefly, uncaring of the tears that smeared across her cheeks, and then he was holding her hard against him, enveloping her in his arms as she buried her face against his shoulder. Incoherent words of apology spilled from her but he said nothing, only holding her so tight that she could feel every ragged breath that he took. Her attempts to speak subsided to nothing until he finally released her enough to look at her.
"You came back," Legolas said, and she knew he had not really known that she would, had been hoping against hope with nothing from her to show him that he was not waiting in vain. His face crumpled and he drew her to him again, the scent of his hair like fresh rain, cool and light against her skin. Sariel ran her hands soothingly up and down his back while he shuddered against her, his shoulders shaking with what she realized in astonishment were suppressed tears.
"The king is dying," he told her, voice sounding strange and flat. She stared at him, the formality of the words causing the meaning to escape her at first. As it sank in, she saw anger war with anguish. "Sariel, my father is dying."
"Does he know?"
Runya asked a second time before the question registered with Sariel. She was hanging on to consciousness by the skin of her teeth at that point and any careless mistake on her part would be fatal. Along with a mere dozen others, she was replicating the medicine she had used on the orcs and herself. She and Marian had needed Elise for a reason, despite the older healer's betrayal; the concoction required a skillful hand following a complicated set of steps. It was beyond what most untrained people could do, but at least nearly all the herbs Sariel had used were fully stocked here.
The truth was that Sariel did not know the answer to Runya's question herself. She had not seen Legolas for long and though her condition should have been obvious, she was not sure whether he had just been in denial or too much in shock at her return to think clearly. She had given him the entirety of what she had left of her medicine, urging him to take it to Thranduil and explaining that while it did not stop the progression of the plague as it had in orcs, it at least slowed it.
As imperfect as her cure was and as dangerous its side effects were, it was still the best option that the healers had and was greeted with renewed hope. It bought the sick some precious time while they continued to unravel the mystery of why the human cure worked so poorly on Elves. She had already explained all that she knew to Runya and every healer that could be summoned.
The liquid before her began to boil and Sariel accidentally inhaled the noxious fumes, barely backing away before she was consumed by a fit of coughing. A strong hand gripped her elbow and led her even farther away.
"You have done enough, Sariel." Runya left to tend to the bubbling mixture on the open flame and Sariel sank into the chair, still coughing. A few minutes later, she tried to take her place again, only to be quelled by Runya's scowl. "Sit down before you fall down."
She obeyed, staring down at her trembling hands and realizing that she would be more hindrance than help. "How long ago was the king infected?"
"Weeks," came the grim reply. "The plague spread before any of us knew what it was. Thranduil is in the last stage but by some small miracle, he has lasted longer than anyone has thus far. We tried to separate Miluirin from him but she has not left his side."
"But why is everyone else mingling? The infection will be impossible to stop." Sariel rested her head in her hands. Her throbbing headache was probably a withdrawal symptom. She was hours overdue for another dose, but all she could think about was the responsibility that had been thrust on Legolas' shoulders.
"From the news that we received from you, all the humans become infected with contact. With Elves, the patterns are almost entirely random. It seems that some are more resistant and some succumb easily. The queen, for example, and I have yet to be infected despite nearly a month of close contact. Legolas, too."
Runya came to stand before her, a bitter laugh escaping her. "We tried to test everything to see if something might come from the possible immunity. Nothing has come of it. Even Queen Miluirin has given up hope for a cure and she no longer attends to anything but her husband. Legolas will be king of the survivors…"
He does not want to be king at all, Sariel thought, and knew that the other healer understood this as much as she did. But none of them had been given a choice and Legolas would not leave his people leaderless when they needed him most.
"Some think this is our punishment," Runya continued, "for being so arrogant in our ways. We have never before been touched by disease. People feared you because you were a symbol of the changes that have come, but rather than accept and prepare for change, we denied it. Now we bury our dead and mourn."
Sariel understood the sentiment. The Elves had existed nearly frozen in time and always looking to the past, for centuries upon centuries. Now it looked as if they had never prepared for a future where things were not what were expected. "Everything is different," she said hollowly. "This kingdom is withering."
"You should rest, but before you go, will you do something for me?" Runya's voice trembled and she did not give Sariel the time to answer. "Emelin always believed you would return. Can you go see her?"
Remembering Runya's young daughter, Sariel was touched by her faith, but did her friend truly want Emelin to see her as she was? "I gave the last of what I had to Legolas for his father to use, Runya. Even with so much more of the medicine being made now, it is probably too late."
In fact, she had though of an idea on the journey here, but had not dared to contemplate it much for fear that she would give in and do it without ever seeing Legolas again. But now, Sariel realized, when she had little else left to lose, it was time to try.
Her friend was still insistent. "Please go see her. I want her to know that she was right to believe in love, in hope."
Despite everything, Sariel felt a flare of anger. "But how will she feel when she realizes that I have come back only to die? Will you use me to teach your daughter that hope is a lie?"
The blonde healer shook her head in denial. "Emelin will never have the chance to find out. She is very sick, Sariel. As sick as you are."
"No… Not her, too…"
Sariel muffled her scream in her arms, unable to control her anger and pain. The plague destroyed everything that she had found beautiful, everything that was innocent and good. Runya had already lost her husband and Emelin her father—why must they suffer this, too?
When she looked up again at Runya, she spoke with more confidence than she felt. "Help me do something first. The key is to finding a cure is to find something that will kill the plague in the body fast enough without killing the person. That is the basis of how I created the cure for humans—by mixing poisons and administering the antidote at intervals during a precise timeframe so that the poisons would be eliminated after the infection had receded."
"Yes," Runya agreed, still puzzled. "Without having your depth of knowledge about poisons, our healers would never have tried that strategy."
"What if the problem is that our bodies are too strong for the poison to take effect on the plague before the antidote counters it?"
Runya stared at her with shocked understanding. "You mean the human cure halted the infection's development in the orcs but did not cure them completely because the poisons you used were not effective enough to combat the plague."
Sariel did not know whether she was comforted or terrified that Runya was following her logic. "And the poisons in my cure slowed but did not halt the progression through the stages in me because Elves are even less susceptible to the poisons than orcs. So if we were to use an even stronger poison like strychnine—"
"But that would kill you in hours!" Runya paced a few steps away before turning back in her agitation. "We do not know if your theory is true. There could be another reason why the human cure is not helping Elves. It would be far too dangerous to try."
"Is it not worth the risk?" Sariel demanded. "Runya, I am dying anyway. If this works, it could still save Emelin, it could save Thranduil and half the kingdom with them. You must help me do this."
"If it does not work, then—"
"Then I die quickly, instead of lingering on for another day or two at most. You have seen what it is like to die of the plague and the suffering the victims go through. Will you try to convince me that suffocation from the Blue Death is any different from dying of poison?"
Runya was still looking at her in horror, refusal written all over her face. It was a plan that was conceived in desperation and madness, they both knew, but what else did they have left? They were all running out of time. Elise's gamble had been justified by the results—no cure could be found without risk and now she understood how that older healer had felt and why she had done everything that she had done.
"You must help me," Sariel repeated, locking gazes with her friend. "And we must start before Legolas comes looking for me." It was just desperate enough that it could succeed.
Runya finally nodded her consent.
Author's Note: Strychnine is a real poison that doesn't quite work the way it's described in this story (it's one of the most painful ways to die), but does come from a tree that is in the same genus, strychnos, as the plant that is used to make curare, the poison that Sariel used in an earlier chapter. There are actually various deadly toxins that have been discovered to have curative effects on diseases such as cancer. If you're interested, you can watch "The Venom Cure" episode from PBS online.
Please review, but be gentle? This chapter was pretty hellish to write and I still feel like I should delete half of it, but well…I said I would post.