On an unrelated note, I'd like to take a moment here for Robin Williams, who we know passed away. He will be remembered as one of the greatest comedians to his fans and a man generous with his kindness to those who knew him personally.

Regarding Ernil: Haha, a lot of you guys expressed your dislike for Ernil, which kind of surprised me. I don't know why it did, because he is admittedly pretty annoying, but I'd like to take this time to defend him. Some of you guys claimed that he's so nosy, which is true, but you have to understand that he reports to Thranduil. Thranduil let some strangers stay in his palace, so it was his job to find out some stuff and tell the King. Okay, moving on.

Regarding the romance (again): I love how you guys think that it's not gonna be a happy ending. Anyways, a few of you said that it pretty much destroyed the romance for "Thranduil to only be into Areth because she looks like his wife," but friends, there is a backstory. I'm only getting started. Please trust me to make this romantic. Please trust the plot to not be shitty.

Regarding updates: It was easier to write a chapter every week in the beginning when everything was new, but now that development is starting to come along, it takes more time to write and edit. I had to delete a bunch of things I'd already written for this chapter.

Authors usually put a song with the chapters, but I don't know. I listened to "Beyond the Forest" from Desolation and "Evenstar" repeatedly.

Disclaimer: I don't own the Tolkien legendarium.

"Regard all with caution, sister. Fengel King's influence is within your circle of trust. I am afraid that I cannot tell you more, as even my knowledge on the matter is limited."

Areth's arms crossed over her chest. The knife she had drawn was once again in its sheath. Although her expression remained purposefully blank, her viridescent eyes were darkened with wariness and evident distrust.

Linden was not oblivious to it and merely responded with a smile. It was wan and insincere, but he knew that they were pawns of opposing sides. The bridge of trust that was strengthened through their experiences of childhood became a thin string that was held only by kinship.

And often times, even sharing blood was not enough to keep their ties together. It was the first time that the brother was able to fully grasp the harsh meaning, and the heavy weight on his chest suddenly felt constricting.

"You mean to set me against my comrades."

The resentment and open anger that was present during their last encounter was not there, but the aftermath that became distrust blatantly filled the forest air like an immovable blanket of ice. Linden was sure that he preferred her heated wrath than this chilled demeanor. Never had he been on the receiving end of such cold civility. It had always been Linden and Areth. Now it was as if their dependency on one another was completely severed.

How time seemed to pass.

Linden closed his eyes without caution. But she had no reason to trust him, after all. And he was sure that he could not convince her otherwise.

"It is your choice whether to take my words as truth," he said slowly, "I only implore you to act with caution, sister."

He already said more than he should.

The Elven King's Inner Garden, she would admit, would be her favorite part of the Underground Palace. Unlike the realm of Imladris, open and constantly bathed by the light of the Valar, the beauty of Thranduil's Halls did not come from the sun that shone so blatantly above, nor did it come from the stars. Rather, it came from a smaller light, hidden and carefully guarded, that was found only when sought.

Areth's green eyes, downcast and dark, glanced subtly to her right towards her companion. His pale lips moved with his words, but she could not seem to comprehend his meaning. Instead, she heard only his melodic voice, and she was content with that.

The grip she had on his arm tightened slightly, and Thranduil was not oblivious to it. He stopped speaking, though it did not seem to matter, as she was not listening either way. The King's head tilted slightly and his eyes were on her. However, her gaze was drawn to only the flowers that bloomed around them.

Thranduil felt no offense at her wandering thoughts—rather, he felt a wash of understanding and the weight of worry overcame his mind. It was evident that her companions were not bringers of good news.

The unspoken subject of Areth's departure hung over them like fragile glass, and they were careful to elude it in hopes of preventing its inevitable shatter. It was unspoken, but both were aware of it.

Only when the King stopped walking was Areth's attention forced onto him. He ceased to move, making the woman stop, as well. Her head turned to him, and though the darkness in her viridescent eyes did not dissipate completely, the question could be seen clearly.

"Mella vell, I daresay that your thoughts wander far this eve," Thranduil said.

His voice, smooth as velvet, was deep with concern as he spoke. His thick brows were drawn together, causing his blue eyes to glint brighter against the amber light. Gone was the cool face he wore whilst wearing the crown. Instead, she saw only her friend—the Elf that was beneath the important title, the one that hid behind the stoic face of indifference.

The hard edge in Areth's green eyes visibly softened with fondness as she regarded Thranduil. It took her a moment to realize that he was staring at her with patient expectancy, waiting for a reply. She tried to quickly hide her moment of absentmindedness.

"I am merely… Merely admiring the life and beauty of your home," she finally said with a small sigh. When Areth spoke, her hand rose and motioned absently to the room. She then added dryly though unconvincingly, "And I was listening most attentively."

Though they stopped their turn about the room, Areth did not let go of his arm. Thranduil was slightly surprised—after all, Areth was usually the one who silently, politely, insisted on limiting any touch. Though she was hesitant, it did nothing to deter him from reaching to her, whether it was to innocently brush his lithe fingers through her hair or gently grasp her hand with his.

The edge of his lips lifted, though the tension on his brow relaxed only slightly. It was evident that he did not believe her. He said expectantly, "Would you care to answer my question, then?"

The mortal's expression was quick to become sheepish and her gaze drifted to the floor. She could deny it no longer, it seemed. Areth then admitted apologetically, "U-lastennen le. Goheno nin."

Thranduil shook his head and merely brought his palm over the back of the hand that rested on his arm. Her hand tensed slightly at the sudden contact, but was quick to relax. The King would be lying if he said he did not feel contented by the fact that she did not pull away.

"Think nothing of it," he dismissed. His pale lips pressed together for a moment as he regarded her. The tip of his tongue ran over them briefly, and for a moment, Areth's eyes followed the movement before silently berating herself. He, however, was not aware of it and merely said, "But I am not blind to your troubles."

From the start of their friendship, Areth had been quick to take note that this was Thranduil's silent way of prodding. He never asked outright—it was his own way of saying that whatever she shared with him was her decision to make. He would not press her if she decided to bypass his inquiry. It was a silent assurance of trust.

But she would not speak freely—not this time. Her chest weighed with the insistent discomfort of rue. In her mind, Thranduil had done more for her than she could ever have asked for, and that alone was enough for her. He had welcomed her into his realm with the assurance of safety for absolutely nothing in return. She did not want to burden him with anything more.

Though, a small voice in the back of her mind, distrustful and ever so wary, did question the intention of allowing her so. After all, she was of no use to the Elven King—something that she pointed out to him in the beginning. Areth would not pretend to be oblivious to the Men that hounded the borders of his realm. In the perspective of the ever-wary, the proposition of safety for absolutely nothing seemed far too good to be true. A part of her, a very faithless, almost resentful part, would question whether it had anything to do with his estranged wife.

Areth's head shook slightly in dismissal. It did not matter—or so she told herself. Her mind should be focused on the greater issues regarding the news brought upon by Thorongil and Cirion. And yet, Areth could not help but desperately wish for more time in this realm.

It was a selfish thing, this wish. Areth did not feel that she deserved such a luxury when her kin was not granted the same—when they were being ruthlessly hunted with no reprieve.

But she would utter none of these words aloud, especially to Thranduil.

They were not fated to share the same burden.

And so, she instead met King Thranduil's concerned, cerulean gaze with a small smile. It was a small gesture that was meant to give him an assurance of the state of her well-being, but it did nothing to assuage his concern. Areth realized this and turned her eyes away in an attempt to hide herself.

The shift of her green gaze, however, led her attention to wander to the flowers, opened and fully blossomed in beauty. They were pale in color, golden and shining with elegance against the gentle light of the garden. The petals, soft and even, stretched outwards with no care. It seemed familiar to Areth, but the memory escaped her.

Thranduil felt a tug on his arm and realized that it was Areth attempting to free herself from him. He felt a slight disappointment, but it quickly disappeared when he realized what had caught her attention. He touched the tips of his fingers gently over his lips, suppressing a soft smile, as he regarded her. It seemed odd that those should be the flowers she saw.

The mortal reached a pale hand towards the closest blossom, caressing the yellow rim of the lower petal with her finger. Beautiful.

"Yes," Thranduil said softly, his voice but a whisper.

Areth turned her head slightly and met his eyes, glazed and undeniably content, in surprise. She did not realize that she said it aloud. She blinked quickly and looked away. The intensity of his gaze never did falter from when she first met him.

"I once gave you the same blossom only a few moons past."

"How do they manage to grow without light?" she said absently, running her finger repeatedly to feel the soft petal.

"It is a type of flower native here to my kingdom," Thranduil said, his voice not rising above the level of serenity, "It grows within the forest, blooming even at the darkest of corners." He brought his pale hand forward and caressed it slightly before drawing his hand away. "It is known for its endurance and beauty, and shows that there is light even in the deepest shadow."

Thranduil placed his warm palm on her shoulder, and with the other, he grasped the stem of the flower she brought her attentions on, inadvertently brushing his fingers over hers. She held her breath in surprise when she felt his chest gently touch against her back. Her heart beat faster. He was far too close.

Her thoughts on the matter shifted, however, when she heard a soft crunch, and realized that he had gingerly snapped the head of the flower from its stem. Being one to prefer them thriving, Areth's head turned to him in protest, but then she was silenced when the tip of her nose touched the skin of his cheek with the small movement. He was so close.

But even after, Thranduil did not move away like she expected. Instead, from behind her, he placed the flower on her palm. He touched his large hands against the back of her smaller ones and drew them together. Her hands were cupped, resting on his palms, while the golden flower merely lay still on her hand. And still, he did not move away.

"In the Common Tongue, it is called the Jewel Star, for its light can only be compared with the gift of Elbereth," he said gently, quietly, and Areth could feel his warm breath, sweet with wine, touch the side of her face. She felt the stray wisps of his golden hair glide smoothly over her skin.

His star-like eyes glowed when he finally said, "But in the tongue of the Eldar, it is called Mîrdómiel."

Her brows drew together and her eyes closed tightly. She breathed in a halting breath. For a moment, she was reminded of the other night as she repeated the question, "What would you have me do?"

"Dartho ah nin," he said slowly, softly.

Stay with me.

"Escorts to Esgaroth are unnecessary," said Cirion as he brought the cloak to cover his front. "While we truly appreciate my Lord's consideration, the distance from here to Lake-town is short."

The Elven King's half-lidded eyes remained cool and impassive as his hand rose as a short sign of dismissal. He then said, "I insist. While the Northern Realm remains to have a resilient defense, travel became more dangerous as of late."

Cirion's grey eyes shifted quickly to his left, catching Thorongil's gaze, who merely nodded in solemn understanding. Thranduil was not oblivious to their exchange. They all knew of what it was he spoke of.

"Then we stand by our gratitude," said Thorongil, inclining his head in great respect, "and gratefully accept."

King Thranduil nodded, and he motioned his hand towards the open gates. He paused, and his eyes flickered with unspoken emotion when he caught sight of golden hair from beyond the doors, but she did not turn her head in his direction. He desperately wished she would.

Thorongil's brow narrowed slightly. The tension was impalpable, but it was evidently there.

The King continued, "Very well. The guards' keen eyes are ever watchful, but my son will lead you towards the safest route. I can guarantee nothing more from your journey beyond Esgaroth."

"And that remains to be more than enough, my Lord," said Cirion.

Thranduil inclined his head slightly, his light hair following the movement, and it was the first time Cirion had caught sight of the impassive king's fleeing façade.

"Navaer," he said. His eyes once again strayed towards the open door, and when he caught the gaze of viridescent eyes, so very similar to the Great Forest, his voice softened. Cerulean shifted again to see grey. "I wish you the best of luck."

Amidst the great chatter of the drunken men of Lake-town's smaller taverns, not many took a note of the two strangers that hid in the shadows. It was not uncommon, after all, for the Esgaroth to attract all sorts of travelers that wandered the North. The merry gathering of maids and men alike occupied the tavern's space, and they danced, sang, and drank to their hearts' content, distancing themselves from their lives' troubles, if only for a small while.

But it was not so for the two figures of the Southern Territory. With not but a small candle to illuminate the vicinity of their lonely corner, a little away from the merry people of Esgaroth, their words were heard only by each other. Still, they insisted to speak in a different tongue as a precaution.

The man, bigger and broader in shoulders than his smaller companion, insisted on remaining hidden by pulling on the hood of his dark cloak, and Areth kept her hood down. Only the lower part of Thorongil's unshaven face remained visible by the fading, yellow light, and the wanderer's lighter hair seemed to burn with the candle.

Thorongil paused amidst speaking as he breathed the smoke from his wooden pipe, releasing the breath from his nose. Areth took a small sip of mead from her mug, dark and worn from its extensive use. This was the most leisure they could afford given their present situation.

"We must move quickly," Areth replied, bowing her head slightly. She brought her leather-clad hand, curled and tense, to cover her mouth. "I do not doubt that they will know of our departure from King Thranduil's Halls."

"Aye," said Thorongil solemnly, placing his pipe on the table, "With Linden as their captain, I do not doubt it."

The woman was silent for a moment.

"I am worried, Estel," she admitted softly. Her eyes were drawn to the flickering flame of the candle.

She did not have to utter a word for Thorongil to sense the distress she carried. He had seen it in her eyes since their departure from Mirkwood. Something was amiss.

Thorongil's grey eyes softened with compassion as he regarded his friend. He had known her since before he pledged his service to Thengel, since she was mended in Imladris. In the short time that he knew her, this horse rider, this exile of Rohan, was quick to become a dear friend.

"I know you are," he said somberly, meaningfully, "but as are we all. They will persist to come after you. Fengel now knows that you are the Circle's keeper."

Areth's brow narrowed over her shadowed green eyes.

"The mole," she muttered bitterly, turning her head to the side. To think that after all their work, a traitor ran amidst their group to drag them all to ruin. "I would rather burn than reveal my comrade's locations to that filth."

"I know, but we prefer if you would not," said Thorongil, smiling wearily. He brought the pipe once again to his lips and bit the mouthpiece gently, contemplatively.

In the shadows, Thorongil saw that her hand, the one bare of the leather glove, was caressing something small and light. It looked to be a golden flower. A flash of question came to his face—one that the woman missed, for his eyes were hidden from her— but he did not voice his inquiry.

Areth gave a dry chuckle, one that was barren of humor. She then said, "Worry not, Estel. I am not planning to do anything rash. But I am starting to think that perhaps it has become far too dangerous for me to continue my duty as the keeper."

Thorongil's grey eyes quickly shifted around them warily. "We should not talk of such things so openly." His deep voice then lowered and he moved closer to her. "I will say only this regarding the matter. I do not think that Gildhel would be keen to this plan. His trust is given only to a selected few since the darkening of Rohan."

"Fengel is quickly gaining the upper hand," she said lowly, moving closer, "Secrets are no longer safe if they know that I am the one to deliver it. It would not do well for our plan to be hindered should I in any way be detained."

Detained. Captured. Killed. It was all the same. They both knew of the situation's severity.

Suddenly, another cloaked figure emerged from the crowd and abruptly took a seat on the only vacant chair. He did not have to remove his hood for them to know that it was Cirion.

"Were you followed?" said Areth. She leaned back against her seat and sipped idly on the mead.

"No. I did not stray far," he sighed. Cirion pulled his hood back and ran a hand through his brown locks. He then said with a great sigh, "I had to travel to Dale for the horses, but they are ready. We need only to gather our supplies before we are set to depart."

Cirion paused then, regarding Areth with hard eyes, before quite abruptly reaching behind her and roughly pulling her hood over her head. Areth instinctively brought her hand up for defense, but was quick to remind herself that she was amongst friends. Instead, she sent him an irritated glare—one that was concealed due to the shadow. Thorongil suppressed a small chuckle as he puffed on his pipe.

"I did not walk all the way to Dale for you to be spotted, fool," Cirion said, snatching the uneaten bread on the table and taking a bite. "Please have a care."

Areth shook her head, but said nothing. In any case, Cirion was right. She must learn to be more careful in the future.

"Where are we going?"

So quick was their pace that Areth had forgotten to ask them. She had blindly assumed that they would make their way once again to Gondor, but seeing the amount of precaution they had taken to retrieve her from the Elven King's Forest, it was unlikely that they would travel somewhere so risky.

Cirion glanced at Thorongil, who only blew the smoke from his pipe. He would take a wild leap and say that his companion had not told her much of their current plans.

"To Dorwinion, of course."

Upon hearing his words, the woman felt a dull pang in her heart. She was suddenly reminded of someone she had left behind—someone who held a great preference for finer wines.

The sweet mead suddenly tasted bitter in her mouth.

Stay with me.

The Elven King's brow furrowed slightly, and though his cerulean eyes shone with sincerity, Areth could see a cunning spark that was carefully hidden. It was the same glint that she had seen, but had always dismissed and ignored when she spoke to him about leaving.

In her mind, Areth saw a faceless figure in her place, foreign and a stranger in her eyes, but existing so naturally in the arms of this Elf. She imagined Thranduil saying those words to another. It was then she became convinced that such words were not meant for her. She would have fallen prey to his tricks had she not awoken quickly enough.

Oh, what a cruel king. To twist his words to his purpose, to make her resent even the idea of bidding him farewell. This silver tongue, manipulating the minds of others to its master's bidding. He had done it before— Areth was not oblivious to his tactics when she had first spoken of her idea to depart. It was a sly manipulation, cunning and subtle in its intention, but suggestive enough for her to have fallen prey. She suddenly felt like quite the fool.

Areth's green eyes stared at him with awareness evident in her gaze before she abruptly turned her head away from him. She took a few steps to the side to widen the distance between her and Thranduil, and as she did so, Thranduil's expression morphed into mild confusion. It was plain that she set up a barrier that ran deeper than distance.

"Why do you do this?" she said quietly.

Her face did not change, but her eyes spoke of a sudden distrust and wariness that was so familiar to the gaze she wore on the fateful meeting in his throne room so long ago. Thranduil's brow furrowed in bemusement. He did not know how he could have found such amusement from it before, but now he knew that he did not like it at all.

"You coat your words with sweetness and deceit, coaxing me to see only you and your world," she whispered. Areth brought her hand—the one that gripped on the soft petals of the Mîrdómiel—close to her heart. "You refuse to see the world beyond your own, and so you force me from mine."

To Thranduil, forest green eyes glinted with accusation. His cerulean orbs were quick to flash with the anger the Elven King was known for, which was fast to hide away the emotions he did not wish for her to see. His heart warmed with the familiar feeling of displeasure.

But still, he forced himself to suppress it. The King drew a silent breath, softening his features to wear the forced mask of calm. It would not help to get angry in this situation.

"Where is this blame coming from, Areth?" Thranduil asked carefully, but with evident constraint, as his eyes narrowed. His chin lowered and his fingers clasped before him. "I had not forced you do anything that you yourself did not wish for."

Areth's eyes held his for a moment longer. However, the intensity of his gaze overwhelmed her and, for the first time, her eyes slowly shifted away from his.

"You are not careless with your words, Thranduil," she said softly, her viridescent eyes shadowed and meaningful, "You bend it to your will and purpose, but I refuse to be manipulated."

"Manipulated?" he said, his voice raised and affronted, replacing the forced calm he wore.

Thranduil stood straighter, looking taller than he really was, and for a moment, Areth wished that she had kept her troubled thoughts to herself. This figure before her merely had to change his mask before he maintained the countenance of Mirkwood's king. However, the wanderer did not stand down, for her pride did not let her. She could not stand down. After all, Areth followed only one king, and he was not this Elf that stood before her.

"Tell me, how exactly do I manipulate you?"

The way he spoke suddenly changed, for his voice became smoother, silkier, colder, and his words were said with a harder edge. He clasped his lithe, jeweled hands behind him and he regarded Areth with his chin raised.

This regal countenance that Thranduil exhibited angered Areth. Regardless of his position, it felt insulting to her that he should take a step above her whilst claiming that the bond they shared was of friendship. While she was no expert on the matter, Areth was led to believe that friendships would make them equals in their eyes. Now, it felt rather like he found himself higher than her.

The mortal's face hardened. Had Thranduil been in a finer mood, he would have found himself displeased by the familiarity of the situation from their first encounter. As it were, his indignation at such an accusation brought his ire aflame.

Areth licked her lips slightly, and her head moved subtly in a small act of impatience. He dared to speak to her as if he did not know what she spoke of. As if he was utterly oblivious to the fact that his reason for befriending her was because she was the image of his departed wife.

Areth had tried so, so hard to ignore the fact. In her mind, she had told herself that Thranduil's business was his own—that he was honorable and he would not do something so foul. But Melhros had planted the seed of doubt in her mind, and it was far too late to suppress the idea. She saw the great shift in countenance whenever he spoke to anyone else besides her, and the strict, commanding King differed greatly from the Elf that she grew to care for. It was simply unnatural for him to regard her so preferably over the Elves that he had known for centuries before she was even born.

She could not seem to erase the thought from her mind. Thranduil himself had told her that their friendship honestly did not grow from bias, but perhaps it was an unconscious decision on his part. Yes, she was bothered by the fact more than she should be, and yet-

And yet she knew that her concerns were not to be dismissed. For the basis of their friendship to have grown upon the fact that she was a mere reminder of his wife made their relationship a meaningless imitation.

And perhaps that was why it hurt her so much. The friendship became strained on her end. The fact was that it all became so real to her, but it seemed that it held a different meaning for the Elven King.

Areth was painfully reminded once again of why she surrounded herself in stone walls.

"Why did you befriend me, Thranduil?"

His expression flashed with bemusement, with great confusion, at the sudden turn before quickly returning to anger. His mouth opened to dismiss her question, but he quickly stopped when he saw a glint of something he had never seen yet in her eyes. Distress. The ire of his expression slowly melted.

"Please, tell me the truth," she implored quietly, desperately, as if looking for any substantial words to tear down a horrid illusion.

Gone was the bleak face of calm that she so insistently wore, replaced only by nothing but distraught sincerity.

The ice in his cerulean eyes suddenly melted as he understood exactly where these troubled thoughts came from. He was so quick to dismiss it when he first told her—it was as if he merely assumed that she would understand his thoughts so quickly. However, he was not an ellon who spoke his emotions with ease.

Thranduil found that he could do no more than answer her with silence. His eyes were wide and his thick brows furrowed, and when his mouth opened to speak, he did not have a proper grasp on words that coherently depicted his thoughts. Perhaps he did not know the answer himself.

His lack of response, however, only brought her disappointment. Areth felt that she was more disappointed with herself than at the Elf before her.

"I am not her. I am not your wife."

"Do you think that I do not know that? You were never her," Thranduil said with restraint. Emotion seeped through his voice, as if pleading for her to trust his mere words alone. "Nor could you ever become her. But after all this time, you think so little of me."

"Do not play the part of the victim, Thranduil. It does not suit you."

And quite suddenly, the notorious ire of the Elven King returned. "How dare you," he said loudly, his voice but a restrained shout, "You are so quick to conjure a reason to think treacherously of others. Perhaps you were given reason to in the past, but it is entirely inexcusable that you should accuse me of such…" Before he could continue, he forced himself to stop. He took a deep, calming breath.

"You once told me that you despised deceit," she said. Her voice was calm and impassive, but her green eyes were as fiery as his. "You cannot deny that you only want me to stay because I remind you"—it was here her voice faltered— "of her."

And that was it. Thranduil's anger was extinguished, and it left only his distraught and weary countenance, hiding away the pain inflicted by her words.

"You think so little of me," he whispered. His voice was hoarse, and though his words were repeated, they were said this time as fact. You do not trust me.

"Did you call your wife Mîrdómiel, as well?" she said quietly.

She wished she could take back her words upon seeing the absolute hurt in his eyes.

For a moment, for the first time, Thranduil was the first to turn his gaze away from her. His heart felt heavy. Areth truly was unaware of the power she had.

Areth attempted at a smile, but it was evidently wan and insincere. She shook her head slightly and said to him, "We must face the truth of the matter, Thranduil."

She shook her head slowly. The wanderer took a few steps backwards towards the open door, clutching as gently as she possibly could onto the golden flower, and said, "I am not who you are looking for."

I love Aragorn. I had to cut out a lot of scenes from this chapter, sadly.

Thank you all for reading, thank you for your support, comments, alerts, faves, everything. Thank you so much.

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