Hello! Thank you so much for sticking with me, y'all. It's been a tough year, I hope you all are safe. I hope I can provide some sort of distraction for you guys during such trying times. I'm determined to finish this story. I still love Thranduil. Life just isn't what it used to. I'd do this full-time if I could. Anyways, I tried my best. I figured I wouldn't be able to conjure up anything better than this.

For people who don't want to read the past 19 chapters again (or at all), here's a summary!

Summary from Chaper 1-19:

Smaug was defeated, the Lonely Mountain reclaimed, and the lands were at peace. But that is not so farther south... Rohan is in the midst of conflict. The throne is compromised, and its people left to suffer. Fengel King became mad in his grief, but refuses to relinquish the hold of his throne. The Circle of Eorl was created, comprised of people of differing backgrounds and positions within Rohan, set to usurp the throne and place Fengel King's son, Thengel, as the ruler. A part of the Circle of Eorl is a mysterious ranger who takes on the name Thorongil, whose true name, Areth finds, is Aragorn.

Areth is a key part of the Circle of Eorl, tasked as the messenger and recruiter for Thengel's battalion. She is the keeper of the rebellion leaders' names, And Fengel King needs the information she holds to nip the bud and end the coup. In a claim to keep her safe, Thengel sends Areth through Mirkwood for the menial task of guiding a Gondorian scholar through to the city of Dale. Unbeknownst to her, the plan had been to recruit the aid of the Woodland Realm in their fight.

Areth, already wounded by the war that ruined her life, is wary the Elvenking Thranduil's interest in her. Suspicious of his kindness, Areth pushes him away, claiming that whatever affection he holds for her is due to some unresolved issue he has with his dead wife. But when King Thranduil suddenly makes the decision to stand Rohan in their war, Areth has no choice but to face the Elvenking head-on. She struggles with the reality that she might be falling in love with a powerful Elf chasing a shadow.


"Have you met the mortal woman?" the guard inquired.

It was early morning. Although the guards remained vigilant, they knew that most attacks happened at night, and that not many managed to make it past Prince Legolas' diligent scouts. The mornings were often slow with nothing to pass the time by other than conversation. The gate guards were generally regarded as novice positions who acted as decorative patrolmen.

"Only in passing," said the older guard Arphen.

"What is she like?"

The guard sighed. His companion Ciradil was young and had an insatiable curiosity that would most likely land her in trouble in the future.

But since there was not much to do, he supposed that he could indulge in a bit of gossip.

Arphen paused then admitted, "She is… nice." He thought for a moment, then said, "Some people say she reminds them of the late queen."

"Does she?"

"I do not think so," he admitted. "At first glance, she looks like one of us, eledhwen, but it is not so. She carries herself like an Edain equal with the Elvenking, which is a bit intimidating. I know Lord Ernil is rather fond of her."

"She seems very close with all the Elves in power," the elleth remarked.

"Um, not particularly," said Arphen, "Most council members want her gone."

"But she is close to the only one that matters."

"I don't think she could help that, Ciradil," Arphen said, if not a bit defensively, "So many have spent centuries trying to get the Elvenking's favor to no end. I doubt anyone can plan to chip away at his demeanor, he is rather frightening."

She paused. Then, she said, "Do you think the king is in love with her?"

Arphen hissed for her to lower her voice. Feeling rather paranoid, he looked around, seeing if there was a soul who overheard. He sent her a sharp look, as if the topic were taboo.

"Mind your questions, Ciradil," he said in a rushed hiss. His amber eyes darted around, but he saw no one. "Do you want your words to reach the Elvenking's ears?"

"I'm only asking," the guard said defensively. She crossed her arms as her eyes scanned the dense trees of the forest. "I would find that more believable than all this nonsense about dark magic."

"Is that what people have been saying?" the other guard said incredulously.

"Ridiculous, is it not? They say she's a witch who seduced the king."

He entertained the thought. Then, he shook his head. What mortal could have that power?

"Talk about it no longer, Ciradil," said Arphen. His tone held a note of warning. "Gossip can only be fun for so long. I would hate to be punished."

"We would not be punished for talking," Ciradil scoffed. "We do not live in a dictatorship."

"Have you heard of what happened to Aldurin?"

The other guard paused. Glancing at her companion, she said cautiously, "What happened to Aldurin?"

"You mean you didn't hear?"

She rolled her eyes. She said, "Come off it, Arphen. Just tell me."

"Someone might have said he was sentenced to death," he said mysteriously. "Actually, I'm not quite certain. He might have been sent to prison."

"What? Aldurin? What could he possibly have done? He's one of our best guards!"

Arphen shushed his companion. "Keep it quiet, won't you? No wonder no one tells you anything, I may as well be telling the entire forest."

"Won't you stop being rude and tell me already?"

"Aldurin was sent on patrol one night. He was the one who found the mortal woman. She knew the forest well and headed towards the heart of the Halls. But before she could make it, he ambushed her. From what I heard, he took her weapons and beat her."

The elven woman looked at the other guard in horror. This could not possibly have been true. Aldurin was easily irritated, but she did not think that he would actually resort to beating someone—especially not the woman under King Thranduil's wing. Regardless of who she was, beating a defenseless person terrified Ciradil.

"Surely he was not that stupid."

"I saw her and Prince Legolas that night heading somewhere. She looked to be in pretty bad shape, bloody and all."

"So what happened then?"

"I'm not sure. I just know he disappeared. I have not seen him since," he said mysteriously. "I have heard that King Thranduil was very, very angry when he found out. It can't have been a pretty sight. The king is frightening on a good day, I could not imagine him genuinely furious."

Arphen continued, "I think the king had to question Prince Legolas about the culprit's identity. The woman would not say."

"But you cannot imply that he has been killed, surely," the Elf said incredulously, "I know of King Thranduil's reputation of being strict, but that hardly seems fair."

"He was only suspended," a voice chimed in Westron.

The two guards stiffened before quickly straightening in their required vigilant positions. So engrossed were they in their gossip that they did not notice the subject of their gossip approaching from behind.

"You were talking about the guard Aldurin, were you not?" said Areth. She made no apology for eavesdropping—not when they were speaking so loudly. Her voice was neither accusing nor threatening. More than anything, Ciradil thought that she sounded curious.

Areth was not fluent in Silvan, but the few weeks she stayed in the Woodland Realm left her time to learn enough to understand the gist of conversations. The things the Silvan elves said about her were terrible, but she figured it would be a useful skill for eavesdropping. With barely anything to occupy her time, she studied, and Thranduil was only happy to help. She was only glad to have finally put it to use.

The two guards remained silent and sent each other nervous glances.

Ciradil was surprised that a mortal was able to make her way to them unnoticed. She was born and raised in the Woodland Realm and had never met a human before, but she heard that humans were notorious for not being especially stealthy. Or perhaps she and Arphen were just terrible at their jobs.

"You needn't worry," Areth said reassuringly. "The scout should be fine. The Elvenking said that he would only be suspended temporarily from his duties."

From the corner of his eye, Arphen noticed that the woman bore a slight frown.

"I do not think your friend deserved it. His blows were a bit heavy-handed, but they are nothing I cannot recover from. Though, it could have been worse if Prince Legolas hadn't interfered."

She wore the mark on her cheek like a badge.

The guard had never seen a human. She had been ordered to stay behind years ago during the great battle. Ciradil regarded the mortal curiously and thought that she was rather beautiful, though very foreign. Perhaps it was a different beauty that was found in her people. There was a quiet command that Ciradil admired about her. She had often seen the mortal walk beside the Elvenking, and they regarded each other as equals. She was no queen, nor did she pretend to be one, but she certainly asserted herself like a general.

"He was out of line, my lady," Ciradil suddenly said, quiet and respectful. Her Westron was accented and very unlike what she heard from the Elves in Imladris. "You did not deserve the blow of his anger."

The elleth saw the slight warning glare that Arphen sent her. It was etiquette to remain silent when they were on duty.

"I might have," Areth said. Her tone was not self-pitying.

"There is no honor in assaulting the vulnerable," Ciradil said. Her voice grew more confident.

Areth briefly wondered if she were young. Her youth shone very brightly with her passion. As young as she might have been, Areth knew that this guard was older than her in numbers.

Arphen groaned quietly. Ciradil never listened.

"Worry not, guard, I will let you alone soon enough," said Areth, eyeing him. Her gaze was directed at the open forest. "I find it refreshing to talk to new people. I feel like your King Thranduil is the only one willing to talk to me nowadays."

Ciradil and Arphen sent each other a look.

"I hope both of you fare well," said the woman solemnly, turning her gaze to the elleth, "I wish that this terrible chapter had ended with my departure, but..."

It was the first time Ciradil really looked at her. For all her beauty, Ciradil thought it was a shame that she looked so sad.

There were quiet footsteps from the corridor behind them. Immediately, the two guards straightened. From the corner of Areth's eye, she saw the familiar tall figure of the Elvenking heading their direction. His bright hair shone against the soft, morning light. He truly exhibited the grace and beauty of the Eldar.

Areth rolled her eyes, but smiled in good humor. The tinge of sadness in her eyes lightened.

"Here arrives my escort," she said. Inclining her head, she said, "Farewell."

The Elvenking approached, his long strides purposeful and full of ethereal grace. Unlike Areth, the guards instantly felt dread. Arphen felt himself begin to sweat. He started to wonder how anyone could approach the king without feeling this way.

"Areth," said the Elvenking.

His low baritone still held its edge as he surveyed his guards, but Arphen had never heard him sound so warm. Perhaps the court was onto something about his bewitching.

"King Thranduil," Areth greeted, inclining her head.

His lip twitched slightly, as if humored or irritated. Arphen could not tell. He tipped his chin and he looked at them with narrowed eyes. Arphen gulped. There was a spark in the king's bright eyes that he did not like.

He was definitely irritated.

"Are my guards treating you fairly?" he asked coolly. His face was hard as his piercing eyes switched between the two palace guards.

Ever since the incident of Areth's arrival, King Thranduil was more commanding with his guards. It did not escape her notice.

"They are fine, my Lord," Areth said dryly. "They kept me company while I contemplated my life."

The King's eyes narrowed. "Do you mean to tell me that they broke their designated positions? It would be a shame if all that training has gone to waste. I dare hope they had not done anything untowardly, lest they land the same fate as their unfortunate comrade."

Arphen and Ciradil maintained their positions in quiet panic.

"Not at all," she said smoothly. "I was lost and asked these fine guards where I would find the Elvenking. Coincidentally enough, you happened to be the one to find me."

"Lost?" he repeated with a raised brow. The word was laced with disbelief. He found that very difficult to believe. "Is this true?"

"Yes, my Lord," they said in unison.

He regarded them each with painful scrutiny. After an agonizing moment, the King finally said, "Lies are not becoming of the royal guard. Resume your posts and thank Lady Areth for taking pity."

King Thranduil offered his arm. Areth's glare was not lost to him, but he only sent her a charming smirk in return. Areth averted her gaze quickly, almost shyly, before taking his robe-clad arm in hers. She was aware of how lean he was beneath her fingers, aware of his strength. It flustered her to be so conscious of Thranduil's very presence. A frightened part of her hoped for Aragorn and Lord Thengel's soon arrival.

The greater part of her hoped they never did.

Areth inclined her head towards the guards in farewell. King Thranduil acknowledged them no further. He led them away towards the forest for a brief stroll.

"Did you really have to be so imposing?" Areth said.

"I couldn't possibly know what you mean," he said innocently.

"I would not have done anything to disrespect you in front of your guards, but I was genuinely considering it."

The king laughed. "You need not act so differently with me when with company."

"For fear of being seen favored by the king, I would," she said dryly, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. "Do you want everyone to hate me more than they already do?"

His slight smile faltered slightly. He seemed to hold the regret of centuries of choices in his voice. His eyes turned cold, and his face became solemn.

Areth started when she felt the tips of his slender fingers brush against her hand. The way he touched her since she returned was cautious, hesitant, as if she would bolt with one wrong move. It portrayed such a different image from the man she knew before her departure.

She did not realize that they had stopped walking.

"I would not consider it so terrible for everyone to know that you are important to me," he said quietly.

His bright, cerulean eyes held a raging storm as he focused on the fading bruise on her cheek. Areth could tell his mind was elsewhere. She could see frustration, anger, written on the lines on his face. The burden of centuries of existence contrasted with how youthful he appeared. Immortality was a curse just as it was a blessing.

She placed a palm on his cheek. He was so smooth to the touch- so foreign to her experience with any human. His darkened eyes darted quickly to meet her eyes. She could see the brewing turmoil within them. She always knew Thranduil to wear his heart like a crown. And truly, heavy was the head that wore it.

"Is it not enough that I know?" Areth asked. She tilted her head slightly as she looked up at him.

King Thranduil has certainly done enough to prove it. To disregard his council's advice to take his place beside her was more than she dared ever ask for.

His eyes flashed and he leaned down to reach her height. For that moment, he looked almost dangerous.

"But do you know, really?" he asked, his voice low.

His face was only inches from hers. His breath, a taste of wine and honey, whispered a breath on her face, and Areth dared not breath. Her heart raced against her chest, and she did not know what to do.

"N- no, but let it be so," she said in a stutter. Areth's face turned away from him, and with a tug, she urged him to move forward. He reluctantly did so.

It frightened her. He frightened her.

Ever since her return, Thranduil acted differently. His wit remained, but the underlying manipulation hidden beneath comforting words were gone. His slyness, his ease with words, was the only thing that kept her at bay, but now that it was gone…

People who wanted things, who lied and cheated and manipulated to get what they wanted, were predictable. Areth knew how to handle those.

But here, she was at a loss. What do you give someone who asked for nothing?

Areth was not stupid and she did not think Thranduil was, either. But there was a change in him that she did not know what to do with. It was a dangerous game they played.

A beat of silence passed. They continued to walk at a lingering pace.

Suddenly, Thranduil said, "Does this petty court gossip bother you so? Tell me now and I can end it all."

"What gossip?" Areth said.

"Acting coy does not suit you, Mirdomiel," he said, eyeing her from his periphery. His tone held a bit of warning. "Don't think me stupid enough to be unaware of the happenings within my own court."

Areth smiled.

"Why, does it bother you to hear that a lowly Rohirric mortal managed to bewitch the Elvenking?"

"Certainly not," Thranduil scoffed.

He could not help but think that perhaps that statement rang with a bit of truth. He was not unaware of the irony within those words. Thranduil regretfully remembered telling someone something very similar. So blinded was he by his pride and greed that he didn't quite grasp the sting of those words at the time.

"I pay them little mind, Thranduil. It proves to be a distraction at times."

"Have they said anything untowardly to you?"

Areth waved her hand. "It matters little."

"So they have," he said grimly, "Tell me."

"The Woodland Realm is hardly welcoming to outsiders, Thranduil. Are you truly surprised?" Areth said exasperatedly. "The land has been closed off from the rest of the world for as long as I've known, you cannot mean to tell me that their hostility towards me, an outsider- a mortal!- struck you as shocking."

His jaw locked with agitation. It was clear that the reminder upset him. Areth could hardly be faulted. These had been his laws placed on the land for centuries, perpetuated even further by his father, tracing back farther to the policies placed by King Thingol unto Doriath. Perhaps it helped them survive from passing wars for a time, to hide and silently endure the turbulence of the land, but the prejudiced mentality and rejection of outsiders would only be a natural consequence.

Areth sighed, frowning. She laid a hand on his, brushing against his skin and the jewels adorning his long fingers.

"I didn't mean it like that," she said softly. She attempted to smile at him. "Can we continue the rest of this walk without disagreement?"

There was still a quiet storm that raged behind his bright eyes.

"Only if you tell me what they said," Thranduil said slyly.

Areth sighed exasperatedly, "Won't you let it go, you stubborn elfking?"

"No, I don't think so."

She tugged impatiently on his arm. He did not move.

"You will regret asking if I give you the answer."

"No, I will not."

"Thranduil, please, let this be," she said, close to begging.

But the Elvenking was unyielding. He knew Areth felt unsafe in his Halls, and that was his fault for taking for granted that she would be spared from his people's anger. And if Areth was truly insisting to hide it from him, he knew that it couldn't be good.

"I have indulged you in many things, Mirdomiel, but this will not be one of them," he said. "It would not be difficult of me to find the truth from another source-"

"They say you're in love with me."

There was silence.

Areth's eyes did not, could not, meet his. Her face, darkened by her travels in the sun, was warmed by shame.

"And that is the only reason why you've agreed to send aid to Rohan."

She met his gaze then, looking fierce. Her hands were tight fists at her sides. Her green eyes darkened with anger, but with something more akin to regret.

"That… that if I hadn't manipulated your heart so, then the Woodland Realm would not be risking lives in account of a war that is not your own."

Thranduil was quiet. He stood as tall and proud as ever, but there was a quiet change in him. His dark brows furrowed, and his eyes were like the turbulent waves of the ocean.

"That if your guard had successfully killed me, then the Woodland Realm would not be a part of the petty wars of Men."

There was a beat of silence.

"Blades are cruel, but words are not any less painful. You need only say the word and I will end their talk," he pledged sincerely. "I know you well enough to see that you are not unaffected. You don't need to maintain this farce of strength. Not with me."

He brought his hand to her cheek and encouragingly tipped it upward.

"You are so strong," he said with conviction. "Even when you do not need to be."

It made Areth smile a little. Thranduil truly meant well. She was sorry to have ever treated him poorly. In her distrust, she had villainized one of the only people who truly tried to earn her friendship. In her mind, Areth attempted to portray him to be a manipulative Elfking who cared little for the affairs of mortals. But in truth, pledging himself to be their ally was one of the most selfless things anyone could have done. Their hostility and gossip was a small price she must bear compared to the loss they would have to go through.

She raised her hand to hold his for just a moment. Then, she let go.

"I will wait in Dale for Lord Thengel's message. You need not come with me."

Even as she said this, Areth looked at him expectantly, as if she knew he would go regardless.

"I will not leave you," he said.

Somehow, those words sounded like an oath.

Together, with no disruptions to their morning, Areth and King Thranduil made their way towards the great city of Dale.

Hidden within the high branches of Mirkwood, there crouched a scout. King Thranduil met his eyes and lifted his hand slightly in a silent command. He pointed towards the north, to the city by the Lonely Mountain. The scout nodded in understanding.

"Is everything alright?" Areth asked.

They would remain hidden from Areth, but they would remain vigilant.

"Everything is fine, mir nin. Shall we head to Dale?"

It never occurred to Areth that Thranduil denied none of the rumors.


Areth did not think her invitation through. She was so used to going about Dale unseen. It never crossed her mind that Thranduil's company would attract so much attention from the locals.

"They act as if they've never seen you before," said Areth. She felt awkward holding the king's arm when people gawked at them so openly.

"It is rare that I would visit the city of Dale without a personal invitation from their king," said King Thranduil. He faced forward, but his eyes were watchful. He remained vigilant for anyone suspicious in the forming crowds.

In this setting, Thranduil carried himself differently. The pride remained, but there was a tension in him that she only began to notice. Areth supposed it was to maintain the airs of the haughty Elvenking.

It reminded Areth of a time in the past when they first met, a time when she thought him unyielding, cunning, and terrible. And perhaps it was true sometimes, but Areth learned that Thranduil was capable of more. It all seemed so distant a memory now that she walked as equals with the Elvenking.

"Sometimes, I forget that you hold actual authority," Areth said teasingly.

Thranduil glanced at her from the corner of his eye, sparkling with mirth.

"Do you need a reminder?" he said mischievously, his voice but a low rumble.

"Please. As if you could command me," she scoffed. The tinge of pink that dusted her cheeks did not escape Thranduil. His smirk widened into a smile.

"Is that a challenge?"

Areth laughed. She bumped against him slightly in jest.

"You're unbelievable. Take care that none of your subjects hear you least they think you have a sense of humor."

"Oh, we wouldn't want that," he said fondly.

Areth hated when he said things like that. She never knew what to say. All she could do was turn away and pretend like he never said anything that made her heart stutter.

Areth couldn't meet his gaze. Instead, she awkwardly said, "There is a local tavern here called Dragon's Fire. It's an odd choice considering the recent, er, events of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain. That's where I usually wait for their word."

They stopped in front of a large building bearing the symbol of a dragon.

Thranduil regarded the tavern critically. His lip curled slightly in distaste. He said, "This is where you've been hiding in the past few days?"

"Yes," she said. "But I'm sure you knew that already. Your guards are an extension of your reach. Don't think I haven't noticed them trailing me."

"I won't deny it," he said without shame. "I would rather face your ire than see you hurt."

"I'm not angry," Areth said hesitantly. "You've done so much for me already. But my life is my own, and I don't want anyone else risking their lives for my sake. I won't allow it."

"Then it's fortunate that I don't seek your permission," he said coolly.

Areth glanced at him from the corner of her eye. Arrogant as ever, she thought fondly. His generosity was always masked by some sort of attitude. In the centuries he spent in this existence, Thranduil was not versed well in showing generosity.

"I apologize," Areth said graciously, "I am used to taking care of myself. I didn't mean to sound ungrateful."

"If you don't want to sound ungrateful, then stop questioning my actions."

"I thought you liked it when I fought."

"I said I liked it when you spoke your mind," he said dryly. "Now, I'm not so sure."

"Oh, enough of your bite and take a seat, you irascible king."

Thranduil regarded the tavern with only the slightest bit of interest. It was a standard one that could be found easily by the roadside of travelling. He could hardly recall the last time he set foot in a place like this. Though plain and small, there was a sort of simple comfort that Thranduil had forgotten. He considered that perhaps being hidden in the Woodland Realm atop his throne has made him lose touch with reality.

The Dragon's Fire was warmed by the flames of a roaring hearth and made merry by the bard's songs. It did not bustle with life like it usually did in the night, but there was still a decent amount of patrons looking for a hearty meal during the day. A few of them regarded the pair enter, if only for a moment. Anyone who stared longer was met with King Thranduil's icy glare, and it was enough to send them to their own business.

Areth could not keep her eyes from her companion. King Thranduil seemed so foreign in such a bland setting. Even when donned in his most humble travelling gear, he looked as if he didn't belong. There was no hiding the fact that he was not normal. He was too… beautiful for such a place. He was far too attractive for a place so plain. Though I would never tell him that, she thought.

"You look like you don't belong here," Areth observed.

"What makes you say that?" Thranduil asked ironically. "Is it because I am a king in a commoner's tavern? Or is it because I am an elf in a human establishment?"

Areth averted her eyes. "That's not it."

His brow rose. He rested his elbow on the wooden table and leaned forward. He said, "Then what is it?"

Areth smiled.

"I can't say. Your ego is big enough as it is."

"Ah, then it's a compliment," Thranduil said, his eyes twinkling.

"It is known to happen," Areth said. "Though it needn't be said every time."

"So be it," her companion said with humor.

They stayed in companionable silence. Areth took this opportunity to ask the passing barmaid for a drink- she knew that it could possibly be a long wait. She asked Thranduil if he wanted anything. He did not respond, and she had to repeat herself again. He noncommittally told her that her order mattered little.

She stole glances at her companion, and she knew at once from the furrow of his brow and the stormy stare directed at the window that his mind was elsewhere.

"What ails you?"

For a moment, he did not answer. He seemed to contemplate what he was going to say next.

"Blades are not often what I truly fear during times of war," he began. "A sword can only take you so far when crossing paths with an unexpected enemy."

"What is this about?"

"The centuries I have spent in this world have left little else to surprise me," said Thranduil. " But while you were away, I crossed blades with someone. Out of all the invasions, he came the closest to the palace gates. But he did not enter, did not attack. He only watched in the shadows, plotting. But hardly any of it mattered when I saw the face beneath his hood."

The look of alarm on Areth's face morphed into one of grim understanding.

"Who is he?" said Thranduil.

"He is-" she hesitated.

Nobody? A traitor? An idiot?

"-my brother," Areth admitted finally.

"I thought as much," Thranduil said darkly. "What use are familial ties when they break with a swift command from a king?"

Areth smiled faintly. Perhaps there would have been more traces of bitterness years ago, but Areth was tired. The remnants of anger were replaced with a heavy pang of sadness.

"Whatever regret he may have about his choice will remain unchanged. We must all live with the consequences of our decisions, even if we made the wrong ones."

Thranduil's eyes were piercing.

"And does he?"

"What?" said Areth.

"Regret his decision."

"I'd like to think so," Areth scoffed. She leaned on her chair and crossed her legs before taking a swing from her tankard. "If choosing the crown meant abiding by the exile of his only sister, I should think there would be some sort of regret."

"But not enough for him to stand by your side, even after all these years."

There was an almost imperceivable shrug from the woman.

"Priorities," she said loftily. Shifting her gaze towards the window, she took another gulp from her beverage.

The storm in her eyes betrayed her emotions. After all these years, it became easier to pretend that she no longer cared. But truthfully, beyond all the turmoil of anger and betrayal, she missed her brother desperately. But Areth would be a fool to think that he was the same person as he was when they were younger.

Thranduil did not pry, but he looked at his companion expectantly. He wanted the whole story.

"I think sometimes in my life, how different it would be if I stayed in Aldburg," she said quietly. "I would have kept the farm. Most likely, I would have been married off to a merchant with a few children of my own."

Areth's eyes turned from the window and met Thranduil's.

"Everything I had experienced, everything I had learned, would simply vanish," she said. "The person I am now would not exist. And my path would not have led me to you."

Thranduil smiled slightly. His eyes softened, and in the light of the morning sun, Areth knew in her heart that if she could choose again, she would make every decision that would lead her back to him.

These were dangerous thoughts she would keep close to her heart. These were never meant to reach him.

"I do not doubt that I would have found my way to you eventually," he said quietly, but with a fierce certainty.

Areth almost dropped her tankard. She had no words, and when Areth searched his eyes, deep and blue like a raging storm, she found no traces of lie nor uncertainty.

She didn't know what to say, so she said nothing. She looked away as she quietly reached to place her palm over his hand. As quickly as she did, she withdrew.

"Blades are not what you fear," Areth said. "What is it you fear during war?"

"Lost. Regret. Betrayal," he said. Thranduil took a delicate sip from his mug. "It is a terrible thing, mir nin, that you were not exempted from it."

Areth was silent for a moment. Then, she said, "His name is Linden. He and I were inseparable. But I suppose that is how it always starts." She was silent for a moment. "He chose his path, and I will see through mine."

Areth knew she could say very little in their public space. Her time travelling made her very wary of her surroundings.

"How came you by such a task?" Thranduil asked with genuine curiosity.

"A simple farm girl becoming a general for the Rohan's disgraced army?" Areth said quietly. There was a hint of a laugh in her voice. "You must think Lord Thengel to be desperate. And you would be right. My position would be better suited for someone like my brother, someone with experience and proper training."

"You hold yourself with very little regard," said Thranduil.

As desperate as Lord Thengel might be, Thranduil did not believe he was a fool. He knew exactly what he was doing by giving Areth the task of recruiting allies. King Thranduil felt his mood darken, knowing that he willingly played into Thengel's hands. And he knew that if he were to come again to the choice, he would make the same decision willingly.

"And what of this Lord Thengel?" Thranduil said loftily. "What has he done to have deserved your loyalty?"

"He is not Fengel King, for a start," Areth said grimly. "He is a good man. He chose to follow us into exile."

Chose? Thranduil doubted that very much. He knew little of Thengel of Rohan, but he was certain that no man on the line of the throne would be so willing to walk away from his birthright. It seemed Thengel was given little choice but to leave.

"He took your people to Imladris?"

"No, that had been my decision," said Areth. "Lord Thengel's path to exile came not long after mine. I was not meant to join him until a few years after my arrival to Imladris."

But Areth was finished talking about herself. She didn't enjoy this, rifling through old wounds. The ache of old memories had dulled, but remembering old hurts made her heart throb. She would tell Thranduil all, but in her own time.

She took another swing of her tankard. Before Thranduil could ask any further, she said, "And what of you?"

A dark brow rose questioningly.

"What of me?" Thranduil said, his words drawn, if not a bit warily.

Areth smiled.

"Am I not allowed my own questions? Or have you accompanied me for a proper interrogation?"

"I apologize. I hadn't meant for this to seem like an interrogation," said Thranduil, his voice softening with sincerity. "You arrived in my halls a mystery, and there are still questions that linger in my mind that render you so."

"In due time, Thranduil," she said. "But won't you tell me about you?"

"What would you like to know?"

Areth paused. She hesitated.

"Tell me about your wife."

Areth saw him stiffen. She knew that he was not accustomed to talking about the late queen. Every time she breached the subject with Ernil, he seemed reluctant to say anything. Thinking about the queen soured her mood. The thought that Areth was a phantom of this long-dead woman did not sit well in her heart. She felt the gross crawl of trepidation as she waited for him.

Thranduil took so long to respond. Areth almost regretted asking.

"What have you heard?" Thranduil said quietly. His hands were clasped together, gently touching his chin. He seemed to struggle with himself.

"Conflicting things," said Areth reluctantly. That she was Areth's image, that she wasn't Areth's image. That she was the epitome of beauty.

That her death broke the Elvenking.

"Tell me," he urged.

For a moment, she stared unseeing at her hands. Her touch, callused and harsh, the bloodied hands of a pawn playing into the games of politics. Areth imagined the healing touch of an elven maiden that, although everlasting, maintained the gentle kiss of the stars. Her life was fleeting. She was dying even now as they spoke. The irony that his wife, although dead, remained immortal through memory. And then she stopped because thinking about it made Areth hate herself.

How could she tell him that the thought of him loving another ruined her? That the possibility that Areth's mere presence only served as a reminder of a dead woman would pierce like no blade? She could not stand it. She would not stand for it.

Areth decided that she would not be able to handle that truth.

"Do you doubt me still?" he said, hurt.

She could not describe his eyes. But she didn't know what to do. Whatever he was feeling was not hers to fix.

"I don't know what you want from me," Areth whispered.

"I am asking for nothing more than what you are willing to give," Thranduil said.

Areth decided that this was not the time to talk about this. She regretted asking him about his wife in the first place. This was not the time, and definitely not the place, to be asking such private questions. Perhaps she should change-

Fuck it.

"Do you see her when you look at me?"

His brow furrowed, and he visibly recoiled.

There was something dangerous that flashed in Thranduil's eyes. Masking every other emotion he felt was anger. His entire being was a storm. Abruptly, Thranduil stood up and exited the tavern. Areth was so startled that she faltered for a few moments. By the time she gathered her bearings, he was already halfway out the door.

Thranduil was quick to get away but Areth made haste to follow him.

"Thranduil!" she called.

The light had faded. The city of Dale was lit only by the glow of the walkway lanterns. She scanned the faces of the busy streets, searched for the tall figure with the bright hair, but she could not spot him. She parted her way through the crowd, but to no avail.

Areth sighed in frustration. She was a fool. And he was dramatic.

She glanced back at the tavern. Briefly, she contemplated returning and waiting for Aragorn's messenger. On the other hand, she wanted nothing more than to follow Thranduil and assuage her own guilt.

Her desire won over.

Areth ran towards the forest path. There was no other place he would go to other than back home.

"You're here," said Thranduil. The frost in his voice sent her chills. And yet despite that, he had waited for her. "I expected you to have returned for your messenger."

Areth caught her breath.

"Thranduil," she breathed. Then, her irritation showed. "What is wrong with you?"

"With me?" Thranduil said incredulously. The mask of chilling indifference cracked, and Areth could see the plain fury. "Did you really expect me to sit idly with you after such disrespect?"

"I asked you a question!"

"No," his voice boomed. He strode toward her. Thranduil's presence was powerful, but Areth was determined not to falter. "You implied that everything we have been through was forged on a lie."

There was nothing that would stop his ire. Thranduil continued.

"If I said no, would you believe me?"

"Yes," Areth said. No.

"No, you would not. If my actions did not speak loud enough, then my words would never reach you."

"You seemed so eager to befriend me when I first entered the Halls," Areth said in accusation. "After everything, I thought there must be a reason why you act the way you do. And then suddenly, Melhros makes such remarks and- and then it all suddenly makes sense."

Thranduil's eyes flashed. Taking her arm in a firm grip, he pulled Areth close enough that their eyes were level. Areth stumbled forward, her other hand instinctively reaching for him to balance herself. She felt his heart beat so quickly from his chest.

"Is it really so hard to accept my love for you?" he hissed, pained. "Must you really conjure so many obstacles, so many excuses, to invalidate how I feel? I have moved an entire army to prove myself, what more can you ask of me?"

"...what?"

Thranduil seemed to deflate. He let go of her arm, lightly pushing away from her. He turned, making his way back towards the Woodland Realm.

He didn't expect her to follow this time. And Areth didn't have the courage to.


...

This probably won't be the last time Thranduil's wife will be brought up. It's my only source of angst. Anyways this chapter was supposed to be longer but... I'll just split it up. I wanted to upload something lol.

I just want to make a quick comment that I wrote this eight years ago and there's probably a gross difference in the writing and my intentions from the first chapter to the twentieth chapter, so... I'm really sorry to the readers who had to go through that. I have no clue when I'll be updating again, but I hope it's soon! If there are any long-time readers sticking around and just want to know how this story ends, please PM me and let me know, I can literally just spoil the entire thing.

Please stay safe. Let me know if you wanna talk. I'll be back soonnn.