In the days afterward, Thranduil could not remember why it should nag at his brain that there was something he had forgotten. Nuruwen made him stay on his stone bier, as she told him that he was not strong enough to walk, and as his entire body felt weak and sore, he believed her.
Nuruwen often vanished among the overgrown trees, sometimes returning with a skinny rabbit or bird to eat. The only place the shadows had not touched was the place where Thranduil lay, but even the sacred circle showed signs of being encroached upon. Spiders crawled in a constant thin stream across the sunlit grass and heavy moss grew on the trees bordering the clearing.
One night, as the ominous mutterings again began in the thick undergrowth, Nuruwen returned from what seemed a good hunt indeed. She carried two plump rabbits and a bird, and her face was flushed with excitement. Her curtain of dark hair rippled loose on the breeze.
“Thranduil, m’lord,” she said, bowing. “I do hope I find you in better health than when I departed?”
Was it just him, or was there a slight unpleasant curve to her lips as she spoke the words? Thranduil frowned and pushed himself upright on the bier. However, it seemed that his strength had waned too far to even achieve that. With a gasp, he fell back and smacked his head against the stone.
“Oh, my poor king.” Nuruwen was the picture of tenderness as she helped him sit and straightened his disheveled hair, taking more time than perhaps was necessary. “Weak and sick from the Orcish venom. I see that you have not recovered.”
Thranduil watched her warily as she prepared the rabbits for a meal. Nuruwen was efficient and skilled, and before long the rabbits were suspended over an open flame. The roasting meat smelled delicious, but Thranduil had little appetite.
“Nuruwen, what in the name of Elbereth has gone wrong with Greenwood?”
“Oh,” Nuruwen said, looking up with a smile on her face, “they don’t call it Greenwood any more. Especially among men. They have rechristened it Mirkwood. No green left.” She gestured at the heavy, overhanging roof of black trees. A pungent smell rose from their leaves.
“There is some poison, some taint that I know not in the midst of my sweet wood. There is no place I love better. Tell me. What has gone wrong with it?” Thranduil’s voice was desperate.
Nuruwen’s face was sad and intent as she turned the rabbits to cook the other side more evenly. “My king, I must wait to tell you the news until you are stronger.”
“No,” Thranduil said. “Weak though I may be, I am still the sworn sovereign of this kingdom. You took a blood oath to the crown, Nuruwen, even though Aladain does not usually require such measures. I have your loyalty. Now tell me.”
“You must prepare yourself,” Nuruwen said in a throaty whisper as she lifted the rabbits and handed one to him. “Careful, it’s a bit hot,” she added unconcernedly as Thranduil let go of his quickly.
She leaned against the bier, staring into the crackling fire. “Thranduil, you are thought dead in what remains of the Wood-elven people.”
Thranduil felt a hand closing his throat. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe, and the hot rabbit was chill against his numb fingers. “Thought dead…among the remains of the Wood-elven people? Tell me, Nuruwen, is their demise also linked with that of my realm? What of Legolas? What of Aladain? Tell me that they have survived!”
“The malady of the forest is a curse survived by few,” Nuruwen said sadly. “It chokes the spirit and will of life from the elven folk. Most die within a few months. The strongest live a year.”
Thranduil did not doubt it. He himself had felt the debilitating effects of the forest. His people were suffering and dying – and he was not there to help them? He had no appetite at all now, and the rabbit fell from his nerveless fingers.
“Aladain? Legolas?” he repeated urgently.
Nuruwen shook her head. “Aladain is alive, although very ill, m’lord. Legolas…my lord, I rightly warned you to wait. He did not survive the first purge of the weak. He was only a child, and a frail one at that. The encounter with Sauron weakened him to a point where he could stand no disease.”
The world was spinning. Thranduil could not focus on the fire, the trees, or Nuruwen’s tearful face. His dear son….dead? His dearest friend….dying? This could not be true.
The grief and anger welling up in him was too intense, too strong for any tears or shouting. He felt as if he was going to be sick, and was glad he hadn’t eaten anything after all.
Nuruwen was watching him with crystal tears rolling down her face and clinging to her exquisite eyelashes. “Ai, m’lord, it is a tragedy indeed. I told Aladain to lead the people forth from this forest, but he held to some foolish hope that the shadow would be lifted and all would be right again. It cost your son his life.”
“Take me to him,” Thranduil said sharply, standing up.
Nuruwen shook her head. “Thranduil, I cannot do that. You are already weakened greatly, and it would be a long trek to a colony of dying Elves. You would not survive the journey, and I could not guarantee that Aladain would even be alive by the time we reached him.”
“Take me to him,” Thranduil said. “I failed my people; I will not fail him. He is as close to me as any brother.”
Again, Nuruwen shook her head. “I cannot do that, unless you wish to die by his side.” She picked up the rabbit and rinsed the dirt from it with a splash of water from her leather flask. “Now, you must eat if you will regain your strength.”
Suddenly, Thranduil’s grief had been replaced by a fury such as he had never encountered.
“You tell me in all casualness that my son is dead and my best friend is dying, and then you tell me to eat to keep my strength up?” he thundered. “Weak I might be, Nuruwen, confined to this stinking bier day and night while you brave this dark plague, but by the Valar, you will not tell me what to do! Keep your mouth shut for once in your life, woman!”
Nuruwen gave him a mild look and obeyed, seemingly unperturbed by his burst of temper. She handed him the leather flask. “Then drink something. Grief is a thirsty business.”
Thranduil took a grudging swig of the water. It was too warm and tasted strange, but he swallowed it. Nuruwen was watching him, her dark eyes oddly bright, as she took back the flask and capped it.
“There. Are you satisfied?” Thranduil barked. Strangely, his throat felt more parched now than it had before he had taken a drink. “Now go away and leave me in peace. Choke in the forest if you must; I care not.”
Nuruwen gave him a sweet, acquiescing smile. “My lord Thranduil. I hear and obey.”
She turned and began her way across the clearing.
Thranduil stared after her, determined to watch the little witch go, but before she had crossed halfway his temples began to pound with sharp pain. The edges of her figure became indistinguishable from that of the dark forest surrounding her. His chest felt very heavy, as if something was pressing on it, and it was so hard to breathe he felt as if he had stuffed wool in his mouth. Dim realization flashed into his mind, but by then it was far too late.
As Thranduil crumpled like silk to the stone bier, Nuruwen turned back and flashed a predatory smile at the unseeing Elf-king. “Sweet rest, my poor, naïve Thranduil,” she whispered, before throwing herself into the forest.
Nuruwen waded easily through the tangled growths of underbrush and clinging moss. She separated hanging curtains of vines with her arms, leapt over rushing streams that cut through the heavy woods, and showed no fear of anything that tried to obstruct her path. They fell soundless with black, pungent wounds on their backs.
At last, Nuruwen saw torches flickering eerily ahead – the torches lit around the caves that the Wood-elves lived in – all of them. None of them were dead. When one was kept constantly drugged, it was easy to believe such things.
She walked up to the guard, a young Elf who was not yet considered full-grown. He was taller than most and strongly built, and his long blonde hair was tied back in an awkward ponytail.
“Darián Leafson,” Nuruwen said. “I wish to speak to King Aladain.”
Darián gave her a hard look. “Oh? Why should I admit everyone who wants to see him? He’s given orders not to admit anyone who looks like – like you, to be precise.”
Nuruwen changed her appearance subtly. She did not look different to herself, but Darián saw a petite, willowy blond with delicate features. He did not remember that she had ever looked different.
When Nuruwen spoke again, it was in a sweet, melodic voice.
“Darián, will you please admit me? I carry urgent tidings that the king must hear.”
His suspicions erased, for in his memory he had never seen a dark woman standing there, Darián stepped aside and let the blonde Elf woman pass.
Confident in her stolen form, for her art of deception was matched by few, Nuruwen hurried down the damp stone corridor, her footfalls echoing softly. Torches cast a pale, sickly light across the passage. Ahead, voices and footsteps echoed in a vast chamber.
The blonde Elf stepped in and looked around.
At the far end sat Aladain in a chair of carved wood. She was pleased to see that the replacement King looked ashen and weak. What she told Thranduil was perhaps not a lie after all.
“Your Majesty.” Nuruwen sank into a graceful curtsy. “It is most a pleasure to again set eyes on you. I hope I find you well?”
“Well enough,” Aladain answered in a rough tone. He shifted, one pallid hand holding the royal scepter, and fixed her with a sapphire gaze. He was good at emulating Thranduil, and gave Nuruwen an unsettling steady look.
“You will not believe what I have found in the depths of the forest,” Nuruwen said. “Thranduil on his stone bier is of course a sacred place that you have expressly forbidden us to disturb. But I was walking near there today, seeking the edible mushrooms that grow along the fringe, when I saw movement, and immediately ran to the bier to enquire further. What I saw stunned me. Your Majesty, Thranduil is alive.”
Nuruwen paused to enjoy the effect of her words. Aladain stared at her. His face, if it was possible, was growing even more pale. His mouth struggled to form the words that his brain could not yet comprehend. “Thranduil…..is….alive?”
Nuruwen nodded. “Yes. Of course, as befits a humble subject of Mirkwood’s crown – no matter whom it may belong to – I rushed to his side and offered him water from my flask.” She held up the bottle. “You may have your best sorcerers test this if you do not believe me. It will prove he drank from it.”
Agitated, Aladain leapt from the wooden chair and began to pace. “It cannot be possible,” he muttered. “Thranduil was dead, he could not have survived, he died in my arms – I saw it happen, I saw the poisoned wounds he was dealt – ” His normally calm and organized mind was in a whirl.
Half-hidden in the shadows, the young guard Darián watched the proceedings in silence. His hand gripped his spear, and he was pressed against the wall. If the strange blond Elf saw him, he had an uncanny feeling that it would mean serious trouble.
Aladain looked up and his gaze ran once across the hallway, mercifully not coming to rest on Darián. Then he looked back at Nuruwen, face ashen, and reached for the flask as if he had been crawling in the desert for many days and now needed a sip of its precious contents. Nuruwen let him take it.
“Test it,” she whispered, sidling closer. “Thranduil is alive.”
“Where is he?” Aladain demanded, handing the bottle off to the nearest guard with orders to take it to the chief sorcerer.
“Not far. You know that you ordered the caves to be built in the freshest section of woods – the section that is, coincidentally enough, built near what should have been Thranduil’s final resting place.”
Aladain frowned. “Should have been? I see it as more fortunate that it was not. And what is your name, elf-maid? I do not know if I have seen you before.”
“Lurea,” Nuruwen answered. “I am called Lurea.”
“Strange name for a young, pretty maid such as yourself,” Aladain said, his brow furrowing. “Very well, when the sorcerer has his say we will see, Lurea, if you speak true words. And then we will – “
However, Aladain was cut off as a guard rushed back in bearing the flask. “My lord! My lord! She speaks…truthfully.”
Aladain’s face went slack. He stared at Nuruwen for several moments with a wide-eyed sort of horrified fascination on his face. Then he said, with no emotion on his face, “Lead me to him.”
“I cannot,” Nuruwen answered. “I must take one of your guards first, to see if the place is fit for you. Yes, I passed through there with no harm, but I am proficient in the arts of magic and I would not needlessly risk the life of another Elf-king.”
“I don’t care!” Aladain cried. “I would sooner risk my own life than a hundred of my subjects. I would pass through death and much more if it meant seeing Thranduil again! I deserve this risk, no one else! Now, in the name of the crown, take me to him!” His pale skin was flushed and there was anger in his eyes.
Darián stepped out from his cloak of shadows. “Your Majesty, she is right. We cannot afford to risk your life. I will go with her, as I am your sworn servant.”
“I cannot let you do this!” Aladain shouted.
“Yes, you can. Trust me, your Majesty, you are the only clear king we have left. Legolas is too young. There is no other leader, and Mirkwood would fall among mad scrambles for power.” Darián’s dark eyes were resolute. “I swore absolute loyalty to the crown. I know I became a guard in haste, after Nuruwen Esteniel left us, but I have the skills necessary. Let me do it.”
Nuruwen managed not to stiffen at the mention of her own name.
Aladain surveyed the younger Elf for a long time. At last he said, “You’re barely more than a boy, Darián.”
“Is it as if we have much choice?” Darián said quietly.
Aladain let out a deep sigh. “I do this much against my will, Darián. I do not want to risk your life. You have not had enough time for living yet…and to see Thranduil again is my dearest dream.”
“Will there be any time for living until this shadow is lifted?” Darián said.
Aladain sighed again. “No.” With defeat etched on his features, he collapsed wearily back into the throne, covered his face, and listlessly waved a hand. “You may go.”
Darián and Nuruwen hurried from the caves and into the thick growth of Mirkwood. Nuruwen gave the young Elf-guard grudging credit; he knew the forest as well as she did and did not hesitate to take the direct path. She hurried to keep up with him, at the same time carefully maintaining her Lurea form.
At last, they reached the bier. Thranduil was crumpled on it like a dead leaf, his arms outstretched, his eyes unseeing. Nuruwen stopped and drew her breath in as if sorrowful.
Darián stopped as well, rigid beside her.
“Oh my….sweet Valar,” Nuruwen whispered, making her voice tremble at the edge of tears. She gestured with a shaking hand at the untouched rabbit that Thranduil had not eaten.
“He must have gone insane with hunger and tried to eat something from the forest. The meat of any creature that lives in it is poison – he was alive when I left him!” She collapsed in artful sobs.
Darián stared in horror. “What am I to tell the King?” he whispered.
“Tell him – tell him only that Thranduil is dead!” Nuruwen wailed, tears splashing down her face. She flung herself on Thranduil’s body, shaking and sobbing, as Darián watched, stunned.
After a second, Darián decided that he didn’t want to be anywhere near the dead King and the sobbing Lurea, as he knew her. He backtracked into the forest, then paused for a second to come up with something to tell Aladain, something gentle but honest.
He was just hidden in the forest when Nuruwen changed from the slender, petite form of Lurea to her own strong, dark, muscular one. Her eyes snapped in cold triumph, and Darián did not remember that she had ever looked different.
He stared in horror. It was her, the one Aladain had ordered to bar from all the Wood-elven caves. Nuruwen, the dark heart, Nuruwen the scorned, the evil.
Immediately, Darián drew his bow and put an arrow to the string. He let it fly, but there seemed to be some invisible shield to the clearing and his arrow could not penetrate.
Nuruwen looked up and saw him. Her lips parted in a snarl.
As she charged for him, Darián turned and ran desperately toward the Wood-elven caves. Aladain had to know – perhaps the sorcerers could help break the barrier –
As Thranduil started to come to, groggy and disoriented from the effects of the drug that Nuruwen had used, the first thing he saw was a white spark of light very close to being swallowed by a black shadow.