A/N: Hello lovelies! I know I have been MIA for a really, really, really long time now. If you read my profile then you know I suffered an injury, and while that healed up nicely, I did have some more medical issues that arose afterward. I won't get into the nitty gritty details about it here, but suffice it to say that I was very sick for a long time, and as a result this story became pretty much my last priority. But with a newly clean bill of health, I find myself gravitating back to my writing. Anyway, life is more chaotic for me now than it was a few years ago, so I can't promise quick updates, but I will say that I have the rest of this story properly planned and outlined and I DO intend to finish it.
Huge thanks to everyone that has supported this story. Thank you for every alert and favorite, and for every review and PM! Thank you endlessly for your patience. I hope everyone enjoys the chapter!
Chapter Twelve: A Past Relived
When the dwarves awoke from the enchanted sleep, about halfway to the wood elves' palace, it was with a somber air of submission. They did not fight back against their captors, nor did they bother to mutter obscenities beneath their breath or throw about mutinous glances. They walked in a single line, heads down, all bound by rope and exhaustion and hunger, too weary to struggle.
Airemis felt her stomach roil with acid as they came ever nearer to the elves' home. Her heart seemed to be beating in her throat and her whole body had gone simultaneously hot and cold. She was afraid of seeing Thranduil again. Afraid that he would be so angry and petulant as to take it out on her companions. He already had Thorin, so what would he think when she arrived in his hall with twelve other dwarves? The wood elves were notorious for being suspicious and untrusting of strangers (not unlike dwarves in that capacity). Would her presence, after everything that had happened eight years ago, only make everything worse for the dwarves and for herself?
She didn't think Thranduil was an unreasonable elf, just very arrogant. She had hurt his pride and she didn't think he would be quick to forgive her that transgression. Airemis looked up at Tauriel's back, watching the elf's reddish brown hair sway, and thought that it wasn't just the king that was holding a grudge and hurt feelings against her.
She had made a terrible mistake leaving the way she had. Airemis knew this, and she also knew that from hindsight a bitter lesson could often be learned. She should not have run away eight years ago, just disappearing without a goodbye, no matter how disturbed and, she had to admit, frightened she was. She had acted like a coward.
The forest began to transform around them the further they walked. The trees grew taller and thinner, less choked with vines and brambles around the roots, and great spots of sunlight came filtering through, so much the brighter and lovelier since they had been so long without it. The dwarves, though bound up as prisoners, seemed to be lifted in spirits just the slightest bit, warmed by the few rays of light.
Airemis felt no relief at the change in atmosphere. It only meant that they were nearly to their destination. In fact, just ahead, still too far for the dwarves to see, she could make out the bridge that ran across the river to the king's gates. This river was deep and dark as the stream that Bombur had fallen into, except that this river was free of such dangerous enchantments.
The elves drove the dwarves onward mercilessly, taking no care for how exhausted their captives were. Soon they made it to the bridge and the great gates built into the mouth of a large cavern loomed ahead. Airemis swallowed her rising panic and turned her head back, hoping that Bilbo, invisible as he was, had managed to keep up. He would have to stick close to the group if he wanted to make it inside behind them. She was afraid that Bilbo would be their only hope once they made it inside.
Across the narrow bridge the elves drove them, and then through the gates that opened smoothly as soon as the elf leading the company reached them. None but a wood elf could enter or leave by these gates, unless one was given free reign by the king. Airemis doubted that Thranduil would ever grant her that privilege again.
Inside countless narrow paths wound throughout the elven kingdom, some crisscrossing overhead, some twisting around smooth tree trunks that grew up right out of the floor, and others encircling giant pillars of living stone. Golden light shone over all of them, and the air was so much cleaner, so much fresher that every dwarf couldn't help but to breathe deep of it in relief.
"Take the dwarves to the dungeons," Tauriel said to the other elves. "See them fed and watered, but each is to be locked in his own cell."
The elves began to shepherd them all toward the dungeons, and Airemis thought for a brief second that perhaps they would make it through this without her having to face the elven king at all, perhaps Bilbo would free them all, perhaps…
"Not her," Tauriel said, indicating Airemis, whose heart was quickly sinking. "The king will be most interested to see her."
Airemis swallowed hard as one of the guards pulled her from the line and led her up and toward the throne room. She looked back to see the company of dwarves disappear down the path that would take them to the dungeons, and her eyes locked with Tauriel's. The other elf was staring at her with something very close to pity in her eyes.
8 Years Ago . . .
It was mid-summer in Greenwood, and the wood elves' forest palace was awash in color. Verdant, green-leafed vines were wrapped around pillars and hanging from chandeliers, their soft yellow and white flowers perfuming the air. Gauzy, sky blue cloths were tied around the king's throne and draped over the living rock formations. The whole of the palace seemed to be filled with sunlight and warmth, and songs echoed through the halls from dawn until long after dusk.
Though Airemis much enjoyed the light-hearted atmosphere, she rarely spent time in the upper halls of the palace. Rather, she spent most of her days tucked away inside Thranduil's private archives. The elf king had given her explicit access to his most precious and rare collection of books and scrolls, and had been kind enough to aid her in her search for answers.
She had come to Greenwood, after all, in hopes of uncovering the mysteries of her own heritage. As the only living being of her kind, Airemis was at a loss as to what she might expect in her future. She wanted to know if she could ever hope for a normal life. Would she be able to have a family of her own one day, for instance? Or was she too strange a hybrid and would therefore be forever sterile, like a mule? The thought of spending an eternity roaming Middle Earth, alone, haunted her terribly.
So, she combed through the carefully categorized books, and pored over the many stacks of loose-leaf writings. She was, at that time, diligently perusing an interesting vellum-covered book that was part history and part theoretical magic. It told of the First Age and the marriage between the human Beren of the House of Bëor, and the elf Lúthien, the daughter of High King of the Sindar, Thingol. After Beren's death it seemed that Lúthien was so distraught that her very soul fled her body to the Halls of Mandos, and it was there that Mandos allowed her and Beren to return to life as mortals both.
The story itself would have been interesting enough to Airemis, but it was the author of the book's insistence that such magic used to return the lovers to life as mortals could be further evolved. In fact, the author seemed to believe that the very same magic could have been used to make Beren immortal, rather than to turn Lúthien mortal. After the story there was a short list of then-known Peredhil, or half-elven folk, that included Lord Elrond and Elros, and a theoretical incantation.
Airemis didn't see how such magic could possibly work, at least not without considerable sacrifice, magic was very much about balance, but that didn't make the theory any less fascinating. She read on, wondering to herself if anyone had ever tried the spell and to what results. There were more incantations, more variations of the same soul-binding spell, each as unlikely as the last.
"Still at work, I see," a cool voice said from behind her. Airemis turned to see Thranduil standing a few feet away. His hands were crossed delicately behind his back. His silver-blond hair fell flawlessly beneath his tall crown and around his elegant shoulders. "You are quite assiduous in your reading."
"Oh yes. I find I could lose myself completely here. Your collection is amazing." She had complimented his archives many times before, of course, but she knew how much the elf king liked praise. He smiled at her and inclined his head toward her.
"I'm glad you find it all to your liking. Have you found your answers?"
She shrugged and looked back at the book in her hands. "Some. But I'm afraid that every answer only raises more questions."
"Such is the way of things. Try as we might, we never have all the answers." He moved closer, looming over where she sat. Airemis shifted, trying not to let her discomfort show. Thranduil had been nothing but kind and indulgent toward her since first she had arrived in Greenwood. But of late he had also been quite a bit more…affectionate. She would find him standing or sitting rather closer than before, smiling at her more often, speaking more softly, and using any excuse to grasp her shoulder or pat her hand. She attributed this to their rapidly growing friendship, but something in her gut would always squirm when he moved closer.
"Yes, and it pains me to say that I have nearly finished with my research," she said, and turned back to face him. Airemis smiled up at him and hoped he didn't notice the way that she moved back slightly.
"And what shall you do once you have finished?"
That was an inquiry she hadn't been expecting, and one she wasn't entirely sure of the answer to. She had thought that she might remain in Greenwood for a time, perhaps to further her archery training with some of the guard. Of course, she did not wish to outstay her welcome.
Airemis considered the elf king a moment and then said, "I suppose I will go back west."
"Back to Rivendell?" Thranduil's tone was strange; Airemis couldn't immediately place what emotion she heard in his voice, but whatever it was made the squirming in her stomach intensify most strangely.
"I suppose I will pass through. Though I have another end in mind," she said carefully. She didn't know why Thranduil was asking her this, and she didn't wish to upset him. He had been very good to her, but the woodland elves didn't call him the 'temperamental king' for naught.
"Back to the halflings, then." He spoke softly, as if in contemplation, though Airemis could still detect that strange tone in his voice.
"Back to my cousin, Bilbo. It's been too long since last I saw him." Ah, Bilbo! Just thinking about her beloved cousin sent a warm rush of nostalgia through her chest.
"You don't belong there, amongst hobbits. That is not your place in this world."
It was not as though this was something she did not already know, but to hear it from Thranduil's lips made Airemis frown. "I'm not sure I have a place anywhere."
"You could have, if you so wished." There was a sudden eagerness in Thranduil's expression now. He kneeled before her, still immensely larger than her, still looming.
"What do you mean?"
"You could make Greenwood your home. Here amongst the wood elves. Here with me." He reached for her hand, encasing it within his own. There was an intimacy to this action that made it difficult for Airemis to speak.
"With you?" She wasn't imagining the alarm in her own voice. She wasn't sure her eyes could open any wider than they currently were.
"You know, I was married once. Legolas' mother was my great love, my whole universe," Thranduil said, voice low and whimsical. His thumb slid over the back of her hand rhythmically. Airemis itched to rip her hand back. "She died a very long time ago. It is said that when an elf loses their spouse, that their heart is then forever closed off to love. Some elves spend centuries grieving, while others still succumb to their broken hearts and perish. I had a son to live for, a people to watch over, and so I endured the death of my wife and believed that I, like other elves to suffer such loss, would never be able to love again. And yet of late I find that my heart is beginning to feel that which I have not known in years uncountable. I am very fond of you, Airemis. I wish for you to remain here. I admit that I want you for myself."
"…Want me?" She couldn't stop her eyes from moving around the room then, taking in all of the cherished artifacts and well cared for tomes. Each item a precious piece of the overall collection. Each token a pride to its owner. She snapped her gaze back to Thranduil and saw the same reverence there that was present when he looked upon one of his rarities.
"Be my wife," he said. His hand rose from hers then and came to rest upon her neck, his fingertips in her hair. "I will give you all that you desire. You shall wear gowns of the finest silk and gossamer, jewels unequaled. You will know every luxury, and never want for devotion."
"My Lord Thranduil," Airemis began shakily, "I don't know—"
"What awaits you outside these halls? A life of solitude and wandering? It need not be that way for you. Make a home here, at my side."
Airemis grabbed his hand and gently removed it from her neck. Her own hands were shaking. "Please allow me some time to consider. This is quite a big decision to make."
He frowned at her then. His eyes were stormy, and his expression was one of obvious offense. But he said, "Of course. We are all of us responsible for choosing the future that best benefits us. Which is why I must confess my own confidence that you will come to accept my offer. You will see that I can give you all that you have been searching for: home, family, security. But take your time and be sure before you accept." Thranduil took her hand once more, placed a kiss upon it, and then rose and glided away.
Airemis remained inside the archives for a while longer, thinking. She did not want to accept Thranduil's offer, but he had been right about something: she did yearn for a place to call her own. A place to belong. It would be only so easy to accept his offer of marriage. To stay in Greenwood forever.
She looked around at Thranduil's collection once more and shuddered violently.
Airemis rose to her feet, her knees shaking as hard as her hands had been. She was already breathing hard, panic pulsing hot in her veins. She left the archives, went up the stairs that led to the main floors, and then back to her room. If she passed any other elves on her way there she noticed not.
She threw her things hastily into her traveling bag. She wouldn't stay. Wouldn't let the temptation of Thranduil's offer eat away at her resolve. She would not let herself become another of his collected oddities!
Airemis all but ran from the wood elves' palace; she was disgusted at her cowardice, and ashamed of her own weakness.
Airemis stared wordlessly up at the elven king, and Thranduil stared wordlessly back; it seemed that the events that transpired eight years past stretched between them as long and terrible as the silence.
What was there for her to say to him now? Apologies were long overdue, and uttering them now would only serve to deepen the offense. So she stood there in her torn and tattered and ill-fitting clothes, with spider webs still clinging to her skin, and exhaustion pulling heavily at her body, and waited for the king in all his pristine elegance to finally speak. She didn't wait long.
"Airemis Took," Thranduil said in his most magnanimous tone. "I must express my profound surprise in discovering you returned to my kingdom, and in the company of one Thorin Oakenshield. It seems a strange coincidence, if one were to believe in such concurrences."
"Please my lord," Airemis said, "we did not intend to trespass. We meant only to find our way out of the forest. We were on the elven path—"
"The path used by my people. The path protected by our magic."
"We meant to merely pass near your palace."
Thranduil smiled now and took slow steps forward, finally breaching the cold distance that had sat between them until this moment as resolutely as an iron wall. "You meant only to pass near. How I expected such apostate words from you, yet the sincerity behind them is extraordinary."
Airemis swallowed hard as he circled behind her. She hadn't anticipated a warm welcome, but it didn't stop his words from stabbing deep; she didn't need him to tell her that she was despicable for running away as she had. She knew the depths of her own cravenness well enough.
"Tell me about this journey you have embarked upon," Thranduil said, his voice very close to her ear. "Where does it end? What is its purpose?"
He moved back from Airemis, coming around to stand before her again. "Some have imagined a noble quest to slay a dragon and reclaim a homeland. I suspect something more prosaic. Attempted burglary, or something of that ilk. Am I correct in my assumption? Does Thorin Oakenshield seek that which would bestow upon him the right to rule: the Arkenstone?"
"I know not," Airemis said. "And even if I did, Thorin's purpose is his own and not for me to say."
"Such loyalty," Thranduil said. "Does he appreciate such devotion, I wonder? Perhaps I should warn him of your fickle nature, lest he come to rely on you too much."
"Lord Thranduil, I know that I handled things rather poorly—"
"Rather poorly?" Thranduil's expression and tone of voice remained calm, but Airemis could sense his incredulity. "I asked you to become my wife, offered you a home and kinship, and you repaid me with insult and deception."
"I did not wish to insult you," Airemis said, her head bowed in shame. "But your offer frightened me. I was afraid that I would become another of your curiosities, just another piece in your collection. And I was afraid that the lure of belonging somewhere would be too great for me to resist. So I ran."
"I offered you a throne," Thranduil said.
"You offered me a pedestal from which to be displayed." Airemis looked at him then, beseeching him to understand.
Thranduil didn't say anything for several long minutes. His brow was knit in contemplation, and his lips were tugged at the corners into the barest hint of a frown. When he did finally speak again, it was not to Airemis, but to the guard that stood just off to the side of the dais.
"See her cleaned, fed, and properly clothed. And then place her in a cell with the rest of her friends."
Thranduil turned his back as the elf guard took Airemis by the shoulder and led her away. She didn't look back, and neither did he.
When Thorin heard the voices of his comrades he felt a strange and horrible mix of relief and despair. He was happy that they all seemed to be safe and unharmed (and very obviously angry from the sound of their cursing and grumbling), but he had been hoping that they would be able to elude capture and figure out a way to break him loose. With Bilbo's unusual disappearing abilities it had seemed possible. Now that seemed like a distant fantasy.
"Thorin, are you there?"
"Balin? Yes, I'm here. Is everyone all right? Is everyone here?" Thorin had to stand on the tips of his toes to see out of the small window in his door, but he could just make out the long row of cells across from him. The other cells did not have heavy wooden doors like his, but metal bars so that the captives within could look out at their prison. He could see the top of Balin's white head.
"Aside from Master Baggins and Mistress Took, we are all accounted for," Balin said.
Alarm curled in Thorin's gut. "Where are Airemis and Bilbo? Did anyone see what came of them?"
"I didn't see Bilbo at all after we were captured," Bofur called out.
"And Mistress Took was taken to Thranduil by the guards," Balin said.
Thorin cursed then. On the one hand, it seemed that Bilbo had managed to evade capture, which gave him some hope that they would all find rescue soon. But on the other hand, Airemis was facing the elf king, perhaps at that very moment, alone.
She had told him that she had had a bad experience when last she visited the wood elves, and she had confessed to being ill at ease the closer they ventured to Thranduil's kingdom. Whatever was happening to her in the upper halls, Thorin feared, would not be something that Airemis enjoyed.
It was odd that what seemed to bother Thorin most at that moment was not his own imprisonment or that of his comrades, rather it was the thought of Airemis at the mercy of the elven king that fed the fire of rage within him. Without thought he lashed out with his fist, striking the door of his cell so hard that the hinges rattled ominously, and a long crack spider-webbed across the wood from the point of impact.
The door was too solid to break through completely, but damaging it gave Thorin a sick sort of satisfaction. How he wished it were Thranduil's face instead!
Thorin slid to the floor, ignoring the startled inquiries from the other dwarves, and flexing his now sore and bleeding fist.
Why hadn't he demanded to know more from her? Not knowing what was becoming of her made him anxious and restless and beyond furious.
Thorin hated the image that came unbidden to his mind: Thranduil standing like a menace above Airemis; her prostrate, and helpless to the elf king's whims.
It was a silly thought, of course, because he knew Airemis well enough by then to know that she was more than capable of handling herself. But despite this knowledge, Thorin couldn't stop the hot, grasping anger that clawed inside of him. He couldn't abide the thought of Thranduil alone with Airemis. Talking to her. Perhaps touching her.
Thorin clenched his fists tight against his sudden boiling desire to place another crack in his cell door.
Airemis was loath to admit the gratitude she felt for the scented bath and hot meal she was given. But the warm water had done wonders for her tired, aching body, and the supper of roast meat, sweet bread, buttery vegetables, and honeyed wine had filled her stomach to near bursting. Physically, she felt more content than she could remember since leaving out of Bag End. Mentally, she felt strained and exhausted and confused. She had no idea why Thranduil would insist on giving her such hospitable treatment after she had so offended him; she was certain none of the dwarves had been given baths or new clothes to wear.
Her ever-present elf guard handed her a folded dress and soft slippers when she finished with her bath. She hadn't worn a gown in several years now; they simply weren't practical for the type of travel she usually partook in. But this gown was really something to behold. It was spun from durable golden cloth that shone iridescent beneath the warm lights inside the palace, and all across the bodice and encircling the flowing sleeves were leaves stitched from glittering silver thread.
That the dress fit Airemis perfectly disturbed her a great deal. It had obviously been tailored for her, which raised the question of exactly how long Thranduil had kept it stowed away. Or exactly why he had commissioned it made in the first place. Still, there was a relief to be had in clean, fitted clothes, and Airemis felt that now, even as her guard led her down to the dungeon.
She wore no chains, despite the fact that she was an obvious flight risk, but she imagined it mattered not. Thranduil must have been certain that she wouldn't try to escape without her comrades, and that was true.
For all of his faults, Thranduil was very intuitive. He had already guessed at Thorin's purpose, after all. She had neither denied nor confirmed his suspicions, but Airemis had a feeling that Thranduil had already made up his mind. That could prove even more troublesome for the company; she would need to warn Thorin, somehow.
It was at the top of the stairway leading down to the dungeons that Airemis saw Tauriel again. The other elf was sitting outside one of the cells and…talking to Kili? Airemis blinked several times, but it was no illusion borne from sleep deprivation. Tauriel and Kili were speaking to one another in low, but obviously friendly tones if their matching smiles and soft eyes were anything to judge from.
Well, that was an interesting development.
Her guard took her to a small iron-barred cell that sat near a closed wooden door, but a little away from the other members of the party. Perhaps this was because all of the other cells were full. Or perhaps it was done intentionally to keep her separated, even if only slightly, from the others.
Airemis entered her cell quietly, and after the door was closed and locked and her guard had wandered away, she slid down the wall and rested her head on her knees. The soft fabric of her gown felt cool against her face, and her eyes were heavy and dry behind their closed lids.
Airemis' head shot up at the familiar, deep voice. She scooted to the barred door of her cell and looked out at the dwarves that she could see. Most were busy throwing themselves at their prison doors, or trying to pick the locks with the metal pieces from their belts or boots. She didn't see the face she was looking for.
"Thorin?" She tried to peer further down into the dungeon. She could have sworn the voice had been close to her.
"Next to you," he said.
"Behind the wooden door?"
"Yes," he said, and though his voice was muffled somewhat by the door, she could make out the unmistakable worry in his tone. "Are you alright? What have they done to you?"
"I'm fine. I've been treated well, all things considered. And you? The others?" She curled her fingers around the bars of her cell eagerly.
"All fine," he said, more than a little impatiently. "What do you mean 'all things considered'?"
Airemis frowned. "I mean that I've been treated as well as any prisoner could ever hope to be. Why do you ask?"
"You were taken to Thranduil, were you not? What did he want from you?"
"He wanted to know why we were so near his palace. Thorin, he already knows about your quest. I don't know how he pieced it all together, but somehow he has," Airemis said urgently.
Thorin muttered something then and there was a sudden loud bang, as though he had kicked the door to his cell. His curses grew louder, and Airemis blushed when she heard a few choice words in Elvish. She'd had no idea that Thorin could be so profane!
"I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Every word that treacherous snake spoke. Leave nothing out."
Thorin sounded downright dangerous in that moment, and Airemis didn't want to incur his wrath. But, to tell him all that had transpired would mean confessing something that she had told no one before.
"There are things I have never spoken of, not even to Bilbo," she said, her voice very small. "I fear what you will think of me if you hear it."
"I need you to speak those things now."
"You will not like what I say."
"Say it anyway."
And so she did, albeit reluctantly. She recounted for him all that had transpired in the throne room when she had faced Thranduil again, and she told him of what had happened between them 8 years past. While she spoke, Thorin remained blessedly quiet, never interrupting. Somehow it was his silence that gave her the nerve she needed to continue in her tale. She didn't embellish, didn't try to make things sound better than they were. It was nearly a relief in itself to finally tell her secret shame to another, though her stomach was on fire with anxiety. She didn't want to imagine that Thorin, who had only just started to warm up to her, might judge her harshly for her past weakness.
When she finished, she half expected for Thorin to start in on her with a barrage of questions, most of which would be certain to further her discomfort. But he surprised her by sighing instead, almost wearily.
"Well that's that. If he suspects the truth then there is little to be done now," Thorin said.
Silence stretched between them for a moment. Airemis worried her bottom lip between her teeth, unsure of what to say. She had just confided her greatest secret and gotten no reaction from it. She wasn't sure whether she felt allayed or disappointed by this.
"I think no differently of you now than I did before."
"Truly?" Her voice had gone awfully small again. If he had been standing before her, she wasn't sure that she would have been able to meet his eyes.
"Truly," he said.
"Thank you, Thorin," Airemis said. "You've no idea what it means to me to hear you say that."
"Well, now that Thranduil has us figured out, we must devise a way out of here," Thorin said, his voice a bit gruffer than usual. Airemis smiled. "We have precious little time before Durin's Day, and we can't reach Erebor if we're locked up in here."
"Which means we'll have to get you out, then," a voice said from just outside Airemis' cell. Bilbo suddenly poofed into existence the same way he had disappeared in the forest.
Airemis let out a small noise of surprise and then said, "Bilbo!"
Bilbo held up a ring of keys. "Let's hurry, before the guards come back."
A/N: Well that's it for this chapter. Sorry for the incredibly long wait on this, and thank you again to everyone that has read Unexpected and Unintended. You are all amazing. :)