Survey results & NEW RULES

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Fear

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Mmmmmmmm...

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Five Ingredients - Your Recipe

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The Price of Freedom

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Crime and Punishment

"When I Was Your Age...!

Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

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A Glimpse of the Future

That's a First

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Drabbles

What If ...?

One Title: Your Story

A Fairy Tale, Middle-Earth style

Games People Play

Friends in Small Places

Chiktata


Sacrifice



Boom... Boom. Boom.

I listen to the drums with dread. They mean victory. They mean death.

Boom. Boom.

They’ve caught something. They have it and they’re returning with it. At dusk, between unfettered dawn and the blackness of night, I wonder what poor creature they’ve managed to catch now.

Boom.

I turn, peering through the canopy sheltering my seat.

“Mes’cala! Mes’cala!”

I don’t answer. It’s not my job to answer. I sit and wait to be told.

Braids and feathers burst through the tangle of leaves. I jump in surprise, but she doesn’t see. She dives to the ground, knees in the earth. Dirty nails slap flat in the dirt, panting so her ribs heave.

“Speak.” I say carefully in the tongue she understands.

The sharp ridge of her spine straightens under midnight skin. A flurry of gasping, jumbled words fly from the woman’s mouth: something about a man, traps, the hunters.

Panic races through my chest.

… Before I can command her to slow down, enough to make sense, the camp stirs to life. I see them break through the treeline, Chiktata warriors. The chief of them, my second in command is a massive, brawny man and he crashes through first. The whites of his black eyes flash in the light and his full lips are a savage grimace. Scars crisscross his shirtless torso in patterns, in slashes, in rows down his arms like a flayed fish. They are proof of his challengers, of his victories.

He is Asad. He is the holder of my secret.

“Mes’cala.”

I raise a hand even as his warriors break through the trees, signaling them stop. With a feral snarl, bearing his filed teeth, he approaches the pedestal alone.

“We have brought tribute for Faaruq!”

I don’t cringe. I don’t let it flicker through my eyes. Faaruq is Festival of Blood. They destroy a revered and rare animal, shot by the best bowman, burnt, and then consumed. Sometimes it’s an unlucky slave. They pay homage to Triá, God of the fight.

“Let me see it.” I speak quietly for the first time, shaded under a canopy of feathers. With a flick of his head, they bring it out.

And then, with a blink of shock, I find the creature is not an ‘it’.

It is a he.

“Who is this?” I ask sharply. Fear shoots through my fingers and they clench into white fists. “He is not Chiktata.”

Asad lifts his chin, letting his shaved head gleam in the faint light. I don’t know if it’s a challenge, a sneer, or just to show the double row of finger bones stabbed through his ears, knit in his throat, dangling from a chain around his massive neck. Each bone was a Chiktata stupid enough to challenge him.

“He is a potential rival for your thrown, Mes’cala.” He says the name with thick disdain, like he can barely choke it out. “Look at him.”

So I do.

The warriors drag a limp, bloodied body forward and their dark shoulders part to reveal a man. I narrow my eyes. Long, pale blonde tresses spill down his face and they drop him to the ground.

Blood.

I get to my feet slowly, glancing around the breathless onlookers. Carefully, I descend the stair, beads swishing in tinks and rustles against my legs. I crouch down next to him…before touching his still form in the dirt, graze black nails over his lean muscular back, his blood-stained arms…bruised knuckles. This is bad.

There was a fight.

“Where did you get him?” I mutter just so Asad can hear.

“A noose trap on the outskirts of the valley.”

I shake my head slowly. Of course. The traps are everywhere. They keep souls like me in as much as intruders out. “And why is he this…rival you speak of?”

Asad snaps his fingers and the warriors grab him, before yanking him upright. I look up in surprise.

“His ears…” I freeze. They are pointed. How can they be pointed? That’s not possible! “Why did you bring him here?” I hiss fiercely. I stand up and whirl on Asad, spluttering. “You expect this man to be…F-faaruq?”

He glances around, before lifting a metal studded brow. His voice drops and he steps close. I fight not to lean away from the foul stench of his breath, like rotting fish, but I can’t help it. “He is a child of the gods. How would you like him to speak to the Chiktata about himself?”

My heart drops. He is the holder of my secret. He’s right. If the man lives, fights, discredits me…it could be the end. I’ve lied to them, pretended to be something I’m not. I’ll burn in their fires.

A sick pit forms in my stomach, and I look away. The Chiktata are a brutal and merciless tribe, guided by fierce superstition and traditions banked in fear. I’m their queen because I can’t escape. I’m bound by their laws because I’m a daughter of the Gods. Anything less than ‘godly’ would break that façade.

“He…he can’t.” I whisper.

“You are right.” And he smiles. “Thusunder your divine will, I will subdue and rid us of this intruder, reinstating dominance over all Chiktata and this ‘son of the Gods’ too.”

I bite down on my tongue, drawing blood. “Yes.” I whisper faintly.

He doesn’t answer, not a word. His approving nod is enough.

And suddenly, Asad steps around me to shout in a harsh, booming voice. “Build the fires. Ready the feast! We have meat!”

. . . . . .

Boom… Boom.

I clutch the bark of two trees in a death grip, trying to breathe. I can’t. All I see is a man…black with blood, unrecognizable, unconscious. I try to keep the memory down, but it won’t be kept there. I’ve tried all day, every minute of today. But I can’t.

“Hail, Mes’cala!”

I look away, wishing I was anywhere but here. The flames are hot and they lap viciously at my skin. They make the traditional, suffocating makeup feel sticky and burning on my face. At least it won’t be skin. I tell myself over and over; I won’t burn. But I can’t stand this torment. I can’t stand another death…not the man in the dirt, bloody and helpless.

I won’t.

“Asad!” I hiss, delaying preparing for the ceremony. My throne is empty. “Asad!” I look around, searching frantically. Wild boar turn slowly on skinned spits, roasting on the flames. Chiktata are everywhere, leaping, shouting, drinking. The steady boom boom of the drums drives them wild. Tonight is bloody and it makes them mad.

And suddenly a massive, bare back turns in my direction.

“Come here.” I command, refusing to let the sight of his bared, filed teeth intimidate me. Not this time. This time I can’t.

“Why are you not in your throne, Mes’cala?” He spits out the word. It makes me wince; he hates it. He knows it’s not mine.

“Because I have to talk to you.” I shrink back in the shadows, very unqueenly and very un-godly panting.

He folds his arms, jerking his mouth on one side…a question, or a challenge, I think.

“You must not aim true.” I say without hesitation, shaking so hard I know he sees. He drags his eyes up and down my form, taking me in. He knows what terror looks like. He’s seen it enough.

Why can’t I just push it down? Why does it control me?

“Do you hear me?” I insist more powerfully. “You must not strike true!”

“Why?”

I stare at him, before straightening my spine, lifting my chin. Maybe he will listen like this. Maybe nine years of experience, nine years of leading a people blind will make him listen. “Because I tell you to.”

Apparently not.

“What…” he says scornfully. His voice is deep and thick, heavily accented, so low I feel the ground tremble under my feet. “…will you dazzle me with a magic light? Terrify me with tricks and smoke like an old medicine man?”

I swallow.

“Do not forget Mes’cala, who leads these people.”

“I do.”

You are a hapless woman!” he snaps, “You sit on a throne! You fooled my people with your tricks and sorcery. I lead them.”

I clench my fists, staring at him, so furious I feel the smolder in my blood. “It was not you who defeated the Haradrim chieftain, Asad. Don’t forget it.” I say quietly. “You’d be sailing to fight some worthless war in the north, if it weren’t for me-”

“- I,” Asad bolts forward a step, so fast I stumble backward. “I would have defeated him in the manner of Chiktata, with blood and victory! Now because of you and your worthless magic, my people run like frightened rabbits before them.”

“Can I help it I was out of blanks?” I shoot back desperately. “And how long do you think they’d let us alone if we’d actually killed their chieftain?”

“My people will feast on blood tonight.” He growls fiercely. And then, Asad draws himself to his full height: two meters of scarred, dark muscle. He towers over me, blacking out the fire’s light and throwing me in shadow. “Not empty promises of peace. That invader will die, and under my arrow.”

“You can’t!”

But he can. He knows he can. His smile says so.

I flex my fingers, wishing so badly for a knife… a knife to plunge through his foul, black heart. I wish he weren’t strong enough to stop me. I wish it was his, not innocent blood I dip my hands into every Faaruq. I don’t have a choice. Unless… unless I can think of something to offer.

I look down, searching for something to say…anything, before gritting my teeth. I can’t let him die. I have to talk to him. I have to know what he is, who he is…so I can know myself.

“If you’ll spare him, I-I will repay you.”

His dark eyes gleam. “How would you do that?”

“I…” I look down, heart hammering in my ears. I’m desperate and he knows it. “I’ll give you my gun.”

He just laughs.

“Then what do you want?” I shake my head.

“You know what I want, Mes’cala.” he bites. And ignoring the screams, the blood-red light flashing through the trees, he moves forward. I have to step back, feel the air behind me until I hit tree. He keeps coming, and I wish desperately I had bullets…real bullets to fight him.

But I don’t.

And when he’s so close I smell the blood and sweat on his skin, shaking violently, a scarred hand reaches to touch me. Panic flares and I want to bite it…but I can’t. I don’t dare. I’m too afraid.

“You ask too much.” I whisper. The flames lap at his skin, red on black. “I won’t!”

And it reaches to grab flesh, my throat. I flinch. “That is my price, Mes’cala.”

“I-”

“What will it be, goddess?” he leans close, and I flinch, choking to breathe. “Your son of the Gods consumed… or union with me?”

The bark digs into my neck and I search desperately for the ground, feel for it, look for support. Where would I be when he has what he wants? What will happen when he has me? When he’s climbed the last step and he’s thrust the Chiktata under his feet? “No!” I wrench myself out of his grasp and find it. I gasp for breath, trying to stand up, trying to breathe. But I can’t and I stumble. “No…I-I won’t.”

“Then you choose his death?” he demands, so thick I barely understand.

I squeeze my eyes shut, panting. How can I let him die? …When I don’t know what he is? What I am?

An instant of deadly silence follows. I can’t answer.

“So be it.”

I think my heart must have stopped. I think the whirling black must have swallowed me up. But when I crack my eyes open, peering around, breathing fast, the devil is gone. He’s back in the clearing and…and I have to leave. The ceremony begins at midnight and I have to be there… I tried.

I tried.

. . . . . .

Light, dark and bitter wind…

Legolas blinked.

… Cracked, blurred world swathed in dark.

Nothing happened a quiet, painful moment. He assessed his own injuries as he woke slowly from unconsciousness.

Hands ? They were bound. Legs? …Bound, too. His head throbbed like the pounding of a thousand drums, and his arms were weak, like liquid. Why did it hurt so much? Every stone and lump in the forest floor dug into his back. He felt every gust of cool, night wind.

And then…a quiet voice came, hushed, tentative. He didn’t hear it.

A leafed lean-to sheltered Legolas. His wrists were tethered to the stakes. Partiers feasted, drank, a cacophony of shouts and billowing smoke; they didn’t see her creep through the trees. She should be preparing for the ceremony. She should be sitting regally in a throne, watching them dance but… she had to talk to him.

Just once.

“Who are you?” Someone crouched on their heels in the dark. Someone touched a cool, soothing rag to his forehead. “Tell me your name.”

Legolas’ hands pulled and twisted in the leather binds. Violent splashes of firelight snapped over the forest floor and sent stabs of light through the trees. No moon shone in the black, starlit sky that night…blue like vile ink.

Legolas grimaced.

“Please,” she whispered in every tongue she knew. “Tell me who you are.”

And slowly, Legolas’ face scrunched into a painful grimace. He pulled dark brows together and she saw his eyes move under their lids, flick back and forth. Then the clouds cracked and the moon poured from the leaves, illuminated his skin. She almost gasped.

High cheekbones, dark angular brows, lips pursed in a pained, tense frown… he was beautiful. Carefully, gently she cleaned the dirt and gore from his face, leaving it raw and scratched. He was exquisite. No other word could describe him. The queen leant forward, touching the black bruise on his cheek. His wrists were chafed and bleeding, unconsciously tugging in vain to be free.

“Can you hear?” she whispered, breathless.

Legolas forced his eyes open a crack, feeling every nerve in his body flare in protest at the simple movement. Everything was dark, so dark he could feel it closing in, suffocating him. And then…he focused on two coal black painted eyes staring straight into his.

Rope, stinging knives, black hands…grabbing, cutting…

“Ssh!” she hissed, terrified. “They’ll hear you!”

Another startled yelp jumped out of him and he scrambled back wildly. He gasped in shock, whipping his head around.

The people, they were everywhere! He panicked and tried to see through the blur. Deep in the woods, past a line of clawing trees, black bodies, blacker than the Haradrim danced in a frenzy. Shouts and chants he didn’t understand echoed in the still distance, chaos and confusion.

“W-where am I?” he gasped, yanking on his wrists. “W-what is this?”

“Listen to me.” She got down on her knees, clutching his shoulders and dragging his eyes back with the fierceness of the touch. Legolas lifted his head, panting as the sudden pounding of his heartbeat slowed. He forced himself to focus on the face inches from his... He could almost make out her face. Pale blonde, tangled hair spilled down his chest.

“Who are you?” he spat, wincing as a surge of agony gathered in his left thigh. “What do you want with me?”

“Y-your name. I need your name.”

“What? Why?” The words spilled from his lips before he could stop. “What are you and your savages doing here?” a flood of memories returned, and he looked around, desperate. “These lands are not yours. How did I get here?”

“The warriors brought you.”

“What warriors? What happened? Who are you?”

“Just tell me your name.” she sighed in frustration. “Please.”

“Tell me yours!”

“We don’t have time for this.” She insisted.

Legolas set his jaw stubbornly, pulling back. He stared at her, breathing hard, refusing to answer.

And she sighed. “Okay, m-my name is Kera. Well it… it used to be.”

“Used to be,” he fixed his expression in a fierce frown. “What is it now? What happened to me?”

“You are a prisoner.”

“I gathered that!” he spat, caustically waving his tied hands. “But why?

“You’re a son of the Gods.” She said, as if it were obvious.

I…I what?

She hissed. “That’s why I need you! You’re a son of the gods.”

“You…need me? Why?”

“I am a daughter, like you.” Kera explained quickly, glancing around the trees as if the very blackness could leap out at them any second. “And-and I don’t know what it means.” She rambled on. “Listen to me. I-I need you to tell me. I’ve searched. I’ve searched for nine years, every book I can get my hands on. I taught myself this…um, Westron, this language, trying to understand. But there’s nothing about me. I need you. You’re a son of the gods.

“Son of the…what?” Legolas grimaced, trying to push past it. He’d never heard of such a thing. “What in Manwe’s name are you talking about?”

“Don’t you understand?” she clutched his shoulders, glancing over his face, before shifting down to the ground beside him. This was going to be harder than she thought. “Your ears, they’re-they’re pointed. The Chiktata say that we’re immortal, that we can’t die. That the gods are our parents, but that can’t be true. There’s no such thing! I have to know what you really are. You have to know so I can know.”

“You…want me to find out what you are?” he clarified in disbelief.

She stared at him, biting the inside of her lip, hopeful…before she nodded.

Legolas let out a silent groan. As if savages, injury and capture weren’t enough. This was mad.

“Please,” she pleaded more urgently, and she leaned closer, so close he felt a…something.

And then, Legolas felt his lips part, confused. He stared at her. The woman, or girl…she was terrified. He felt it. How could he feel it?

“Please, you have to help me.”

And Legolas refocused, as if seeing her for the first time. She was young…painfully young, different than these savages. She wasn’t like them at all. She was…elf.

“You are elf-kind!” he breathed

It was a wild, untamed fea, as if it shouldn’t be there at all. But it was. It was definite. It reached out desperately, battering against the walls of consciousness, trying to reach something that she could never touch… Legolas felt the wild fluctuations, terror and fear.

And slowly, the woman narrowed her gaze and pulled back. Elf. Was he fooling her? But…but why would he lie? He didn’t have reason to. He was going to die no matter what he said.

“An elf…” she whispered in wonder. Could it be? Was it possible? Her heart pounded a breathless rhythm in her veins. “Elf? Y-you’re an elf?”

Legolas couldn’t bring himself to answer. It was too surreal. She’d never seen another elf? Never felt one?

The thought was sickening.

“Alright, I have helped you. Now release me.”

Kera shook her head. “I…I can’t.”

And slowly, she reached up and touched the fleshy tip of his ear. Elf? Legolas was about to turn his face away, snap…but the unexpected sensation made him pause. She didn’t strike. No…she tentatively dragged her fingertips up the outer shell instead, and a second finger joined the first, feeling. He went still on the ground, hands and ankles tied.

“I…” Legolas’ tongue clove to the roof of his mouth; he tried to speak, make sense of the action, tell her to stop. But he just leaned back, staring shakily into her mesmerized, shadowed eyes. Elven ears were sensitive, vulnerably so. He felt her face move closer and he pressed back, darting between her gentle, exploring hand and wide curious eyes. “I…I suggest you release me this instant.” He managed to whisper.

And suddenly, she brushed him even more faintly and he hissed, “Stop!” and jerked his face away.

She went still. “I-I’m sorry.” And then, there was another whisper. “But you’re an…” she pressed her lips together, “…elf? A real one?”

“Yes!” he said in annoyance, as if it were obvious, before grimacing and shuffling back. Legolas lifted a bound hand and brushed his ear off vigorously…along with the pleasurable tingling sensation. It was unnatural. Every other inch of him was bruised and in agony. She had no right to be so gentle and so cruel at the same time.

“Now tell me where I am.” He insisted, ignoring the fea fumbling blind for his. He pulled himself inward instead, hid inside the shielding shell of his own mind. He didn’t want to know what a spirit who lived nine years in a hollow, empty void could feel like.

“And where is my bow?” he pressed. “That was a gift from the Lady of Lorien herself. I need-”

“-But where did you come from?” she interrupted, and the urgency was back. Her fea flared to life and Legolas recoiled again. “Are there others like you? Is there a country? Can I go there? Are they peaceful? Or-or are they fighters, like you?”

“I… hail from the Greenwood.” He answered, eyeing her warily. “And they are certainly warriors, at least they’d be to the likes of you.”

“The Greenwood, that’s where elves live? What else is out there? Trolls? …Fairies?”

Legolas squinted. “Are you mad?” he shook his head. How was it possible? Could it be she honestly didn’t know?

Kera pulled away, taken aback. “I…I’m not mad, just upset. I swear. I don’t want to hurt you”

Legolas almost choked. “No, I mean… Are you senseless? Do you not know your own kin?”

“What’s a ‘kin’?” she whispered just as seriously.

And Legolas blinked. Every joint ached; his world was blurry and a little groggy. He could barely think through the deep, purple bruise on his head. But here he was, bleeding and sprained, tied to a make-shift shelter, prisoner to savages…and he almost sighed.

“You really don’t know what you are, do you child?” he pressed softer.

And she glanced away, looking affronted. “I… guess I’m an elf.”

Grimacing, Legolas shuffled up on his arms. His leg flared and he clutched it with bound hands, wincing, before forcing himself to glance up. “Well, you are unlike any elf I’ve seen.” He muttered. “Are you a prisoner, too? Where do you hail from?”

“A long way from here.”

“How long?” he asked. “And how did you get here?”

“I…I don’t know.” Kera admitted.

Legolas didn’t move a long minute, listening to the hollow wind in the treetops. And for a moment, the ache in his leg eased. “Tell me.” He offered reluctantly. Maybe her story would help him, provide a way to escape.

She glanced down. “I…I was in South Africa, stationed there, Airman First Class.” She said reluctantly. It had been so long since she spoke the words aloud. They came out slow and hard.

“That is a country?”

She nodded.

“What happened?” he pressed.

Kera was silent a long minute, and her fingers fidgeted furiously with the threads of her sleeve. But to the man, or elf with just a few hours to live…she owed him that much.

“We were supposed to help quell an uprising, there.” She whispered. “Um, I was out on my first patrol with a squad. I…I was a scout. I should have heard them. I know I should have, but they were so quiet. The natives, they knew the country, the trees like no one else could. The rebels must have paid them off with something…promises, land? I don’t know.”

“Why were you there?” he questioned, wondering how much of this he should consider fact. He’d never even heard of such a country.

“I-I was stationed there. We were trained for it. But the natives, they attacked from the trees.” She looked up, searching his face in the dark. And suddenly, there was urgency in his voice. “They killed another soldier, Johnny. He…he was my friend.” She looked down, hissing in short breaths. It was so long ago…almost ten years. It didn’t mean anything now; it shouldn’t mean anything now. But the memories made her angry again.

“I was so… blind. They retreated back in the trees. But I chased after them. Serge called me back; I didn’t listen! I don’t know how many miles I ran down that bastard.”

Legolas frowned. “This does not explain how you got here.”

“It was a trap! He led me straight back to camp! They had more, s-so many more. They had guns like the militia. I didn’t know. I tried to get out! But somebody caught me from behind, and-and I shot him. I never killed before. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to…to do it…”

And a heavy silence fell over the two, Kera breathing fast, twisting her hands in knots. Legolas felt an inexplicable sadness sink over him. He didn’t let it show, but the clench of his jaw eased a little. It took a little while, processing the jumbled words pouring from her lips... He didn’t understand what she meant by ‘gun’, or ‘Airman’…but nothing would help that.

“It was the son of their chief.” She continued in a small voice. “…I didn’t know. When-when I woke up, my squad was gone. It was dark out and, and I couldn’t remember what happened. There was fire, and smoke, and I felt like I was burning alive. But I wasn’t. I heard chanting and screams, and-and things I couldn’t understand. The next thing I remember, I woke up here… alone.”

Legolas, head still throbbing, couldn’t bring himself to decide if he believed her or not. A human…turned elf? The very thought was preposterous. But it didn’t matter, really. She was here now.

“I’ve been here for nine years.” She spat suddenly, looking at him again.

Nine years? Legolas tilted his eyes to meet hers, seeing the hurt and fury in their depths.

“Why weren’t any of you here? Why was I alone? Why did I have to fight for every day on this God-forsaken planet? I was a human, not s-some fairy-tale elf.”

For a moment, Legolas forgot his bound hands and he let them rest on his chest. He stared at her shadowed face, thick black hair, let himself absorb the words and, sheltered behind his own mental shields, erratic flares of fea. His skin burned where it was injured, but a cool night wind stole through the trees. There were alone, shrouded in a canopy of fluttering leaves. Not even the thunderheads rolling in on the horizon distracted him.

How did he get here? … It couldn’t have been a story as preposterous as hers. But it was hard to remember. A simple scouting mission, news of a disturbance in the forest a little south of the colony. Ithilien. His head hurt when he tried to think past that, and soon he looked up. A shaking voice interrupted his efforts.

“I want to be human.” She whispered hoarsely.

Legolas drew his knees up slightly, watching her sit on her legs and stare at the earth.

“Eldar are gifted.” He said finally, reluctantly. “Immortality is a gift. Whatever has happened to put you here, it was not a curse. The Valar do nothing by chance. My people are stronger, faster. A century is as a day, a day a century. Perhaps you were plucked from the race of mortals for a reason, perhaps so that you would survive the journey here. Perhaps you are simply too blind to see it. Life is only a curse when you wish to die!”

“I do!” she hissed, and then panting, staring at him with tear-stained eyes, she looked down. “And I don’t. I would have killed myself a long time ago if…if I weren’t so afraid to die.”

Legolas lifted a bound hand to his head, feeling it ache.

“I can’t sleep anymore…” she whispered, as if in disbelief. “I can’t feel the cold anymore. Do you know what it’s like to drive mad in your own head? To lay awake every night?” The Mes’cala slumped inward, wrapping herself in her own arms. Distress cried from her whispers, and Legolas felt pity well in his chest. “I’d do anything to feel just…just the cold of a snowflake, again. Just once, I’d give anything for a single minute of sleep, rest.”

Legolas turned away, shutting his eyes.

“I-I’m so tired of standing. I don’t want to stand anymore.”

Legolas stared emptily at the leaves fluttering silver in the red light.

There were so many things he could tell her. There was so much that could help the little creature…and yet nothing he could say. So, propped on a stake supporting the lean, under the cover of darkness, he sat in silence. A moment passed that he forgot his sore, tied wrists, the healing pangs in his broken leg. He even forgot the frenzied screams in the night.

“Let me see your face.” He murmured softly, turning to look at her.

A minute passed; Kera turned away.

Maybe she was a captive here. Maybe she fell and she just didn’t know how to get back up again. Legolas didn’t know. But with a scratched, calloused hand, Legolas reached to carefully, slowly tilt her chin back. She dropped her eyes instantly, and he simply…looked.

“There is strength in you, little one.” He said softly.

Ebony painted markings lined her eyes, and she lifted them. They were quiet, dark. They were hollow.

“If we are to live out of this, I’m afraid you will have to find it.” he finished with a pained, forced smile.

And suddenly, Kera reached up and put her head back, pulling at her scalp. The blanket of coarse black hair fell away, and Legolas recoiled a little in surprise. But her own hair tumbled loose in a tangled braid. The dark hair was the same as the Chiktata, a…fall, he realized, and she let it drop to the ground.

Kera glanced down, and her lips pulled into a faint, reluctant smile. “What do you think?”

“I...” he couldn’t finish. Instead, he reached up and touched the dark, blonde hair with his fingers in surprise. “Your face, is it not real either?”

“You mean the make-up?” she half-laughed, sick. “I wear more than this for the ceremony.”

Legolas half smiled. “What ceremony? Tonight?”

And then…Kera jerked her head up, as if remembering something. Her eyes darted over his face, wide as saucers and dilated in the black light.

A sinking feeling hit the pit of his stomach. “Kera…what ceremony do you mean?”

She looked away, spine straight as a board.

“What…what do they want me for?” he asked quickly, suddenly feeling panic grow in his chest.

She didn’t answer. Nothing. Her lungs started to rise and fall rapidly.

“Kera?”

“No.” she whispered. “I…I can’t.”

Kera!”

“I can’t!”

Before he could even grab on, she jumped to her feet and stumbled back. Legolas was going to scramble after her, but his cracked leg pulled and he gasped in pain. It shot up his torso and paralyzed him, just long enough to let her slip away. Legolas looked up.

Footsteps!

Kera turned wildly to the trees. They were coming. Crazed, animalistic fear shot through her eyes. She couldn’t stay. She couldn’t help him. Nine years for nothing, nine years…just to throw away? No!

Legolas almost shouted. “Kera, do not leave!”

But she was already running.

She ran blind through branches and heard his grunt of pain. She didn’t look back. Asad watched her go with a wordless glance.

It was time.

. . . . . .

Dry lightning scratched across the sky. Stormclouds gathered on the horizon, and a cold, violent wind flew through the trees. The branches wove in the wind, whispering and questioning what stirred them. They felt the elf’s need, an echo of his pain. He looked up, inwardly crying for help.

Chiktata filled the forest floor like a solid, writhing mass, snapping and twisting in the blood-red light. Canopies sheltered the fires, but they wouldn’t hold. Dry lightning scratched across the sky, tearing itself to shards. Stormclouds roiled and an icy, bitter wind blew.

When they brought him out, Mes’cala was in her throne. It happened around her… but not to her. She felt displaced, as if watching it from another’s eyes. Drums beat out a relentless rhythm. Screams filled the night and it’s all she heard.

He’s awake.

They must have roused him again.

She pressed herself back in the chair, lifting her chin. She was queen and goddess, not the frightened creature she let that elf see. Frightened creatures were stepped on, beaten, fell. Goddesses rose.

Legolas’ eyes were a brilliant, ice blue as he came into the clearing, like freezing water. She tried not to, but she stared breathlessly as Asad appeared. His skin was black as coal and shining with oil, powerful, creaking bow in hand. He stood twenty paces away, legs planted in the dirt, watching as the Chiktata dragged him to a splintered, blood-stained board.

“Hail Mes’cala!” came a cry and it was echoed a hundred times. “Long live Triá, and the child Mes’cala!”

Kera’s stomach threatened to rise but she pushed it down. Throwing up in the middle of this was not godly. She was not going to ruin everything she suffered for, in one night, for one elf.

Legolas came flinching into the firelight, stripped to the waist. Women scrabbled over his strange clothes, tore them to pieces. The sight made Kera angry. She flicked her eyes to the side, bit her cheek to keep the maddening tears from falling.

They didn’t help.

Instead, she stalked down the stairs with a black skirt slapping her feet. It twisted up her body in raked knots, before coiling around her neck in the tail of a serpent. She hated it. Again, she almost gave her stomach…but there was nothing more to give. She lost it all putting on the paint, the tattoos. She lost it waiting for tonight, this very moment.

And rain began to fall, in great splattering droplets.

Kera brushed her fingers gently across his face… searching for a sign, a breath, anything that whispered he still lived enough to fight, enough to do what she couldn’t. And then his eyes fluttered and he looked up blearily. It was Mes’cala who looked at him with cold indifference, because she was queen. Then she walked about him slowly, because she was goddess and only accepted the best. She looked at him like an animal at market, indifferently.

“I accept.” she muttered to the black face screaming and chanting, dancing in circles around the burning pyre. He recited the rites of sacrifice.

“Hail, Mes’cala!” screamed another.

She didn’t cringe, not this time. Instead, she reached out a hand. A dish of blood was placed there.

The drums pounded mercilessly and the moving, writhing mass of black bodies wouldn’t hear. The fires snapped and burned at the trees, but the Chiktata were kept from the oblong ring inside the clearing. They couldn’t see.

“I…don’t know your name.” she confessed quietly.

Mes’cala looked up. Flames reflected in his eyes, red on blue…like fire on a lake. Beautiful. And fighting through the black and the blur, Legolas forced his head up. Everything made sense…the girl in the woods, the ropes, the mass of braided black hair before him.

“You…” He whispered. The ruler the warriors spoke of, it was her. Why didn’t he see it? She was a liar. She wasn’t small and terrified. She was bitter and cruel! “…you are Mes’cala.” He bit out.

Black eyes peered at him, dark as the night. Kera. It was paint, the same as the marks and lines twisting down her face. Sable tattoos on shining white skin, he couldn’t see her face anymore. Hair as black as death twisted in columns down her head, falling in dreadlocks down her neck. She wasn’t the same.

“I am sorry.” she whispered. She dipped her hand in the blood…and cringed. It was still warm.

Legolas pulled violently on the ropes holding him down. Chiktata shouted, chanted in a frenzy. The bruise on his head was black and swollen; Legolas tried to focus…shooting his eyes down, realizing his bloody clothes were in a pile… And he yanked on the frayed ropes with all his might.

“Let me go!”

And the sharp, pungent smell of blood filled his nostrils and he looked down, wild-eyed. It was spread on his chest, warm and thick. Legolas saw the massive man, Asad, a silhouette against a blazing fire, back straight, shoulders slumped with muscle. He was an animal to slaughter. Mes’cala was marking him with the blood of another. He was tribute!

“S-stop.” He struggled and swore violently. “You will pay, I swear it! They will turn every branch and stone of these woods until they find me. You will pay for this.”

“I already am.” She said quietly, dipping her hand in the bowl again, before forcefully running her thumb across his forehead. “Be still.”

But he wouldn’t be still.

Legolas couldn’t breathe. Water and blood ran down his face from the cuffs and an ugly bruise, falling rain. He remembered the men, black…blacker than the Haradrim. He couldn’t fight any harder. There were too many. He remembered the capture now.

Every instant played back in his head… the green and the sun, so distracting. He remembered scouting the forests, south Gondor, Ithilien. The company was only a day behind! He remembered racing the wind, listening for a call, a whisper…anything from the trees. But there was nothing. He remembered the trap in the leaves, his broken leg, the sick feeling of crunching blood and bone.

“Be still.” Came the female’s voice again, and Legolas whipped his head back, panting. His skin reflexively dimpled under her hands and he shivered, grimacing in the cold.

And then… in the midst of roiling, midnight clouds, when he thought his life could end in the single snap of a bowstring, the moon burst free. The spread of tiny wings flickered through the silver light. A night moth. Legolas released a gust of breath, and everything…the chilling wind, blood-lusting screams… they faded.

He lifted his face, flinching in the icy droplets as they shattered off scales. He heard the faint flutter of shelled wings, the whisper of tiny feet on a naked branch above his head… and he shut his eyes.

We are here. We are here.

The words were gone before he could think, and he didn’t know if they were there at all. But they echoed in his thoughts and suddenly, a fierce, quiet calm passed over him.

Legolas looked up to the trees. He saw the gleam of green eyes, leather on wood, skin on wet bark. We are here. Legolas squared his jaw and turned fierce blue eyes to the lapping firelight, the powerful black bow as it drew. He saw the gleam of dirty steel, and he wasn’t afraid. He didn’t fight. He barely flinched in the icy pellets battering his face.

Mes’cala stared at him, before placing a bloodied finger on his lower lip. “I am sorry.” She whispered.

And she was gone.

The next moments happened too fast for Legolas to contemplate. The screams came to a crescendo, grew frantic as the black eyes of Asad looked down a sable, bullhead arrow. The eyes in the trees…green, blue, brown…flashed and the crack of a bowstring whistled free.

Snap.

Legolas ripped his arm out of the broken cord just as the arrow hit, and Asad’s bow released with a thick twang. The rope snapped and Legolas threw himself to the side; it barely grazing his bare shoulder.

“My prince!”

Legolas looked up in time to snatch a falling blade, just as a barrage of elven fury dropped from the trees.

“Maeglad!”

“Beria tel’ taren, Legolas!” the captain shouted. Hair flashed and Legolas threw his arm back, slashing through the other rope.

Chiktata screamed.

“No! I am fine.” Legolas snatched another knife and, ignoring the agony shooting up his thigh, he pushed off the elf and back into the fray. Sweet Eru, he didn’t need protecting! “Go!” he whirled around, blocking a stray hit.

Kera back-stepped wildly, slipping in the water. Rain and tears streaked her face; the clearing filled instantly in clashing blades, screaming women, creatures so lithe and fast she could barely keep track of them. They were beating the dark warriors back. Chiktata gathered their senses, threw themselves into the battle with whatever they had…staves, knives, limbs.

Legolas. That was his name. She looked around wildly, panicking. Where was he? Should she fight? Fight for who?

Legolas.

Kera spun around, searching the chaos for the only white in a black and forest-green blur. He was fighting two handed, pivoting on one leg, taking down Chiktata warriors in sprays of blood and sparks. Every strike of his knives was like the crack of blue lightning. Magnificent.

And suddenly, she threw her head around, braids flying. A glimpse of rusted metal lifted from the trees.

Asad .

In a bolt of lightning, his body flashed into view. He was in the trees, powerful arms straining with the pull. Time slowed down. Panic. Fear. She saw the rain and his grimace, the bullhead arrow aimed through the screaming fray for an elf prince. Kera looked between them, heart hammering in her chest.

Asad…second in command, holder of her secret, tormentor, fear…too much fear to keep any longer, she let go.

“Legolas!”

He kicked the legs out from under a Chiktata warrior, bracing on a tree, and he spun around at the shout. Legolas threw a blade behind his back and blocked a swinging blow. In the midst of chaos, fighting through a mass of dark skin and blades, lightning, it was Kera.

Legolas!” she screamed so hard it hurt his ears, but it was too late. By the time his whirling vision levelled out and he could see again, the snap of a powerful bowstring let loose. It was too late…too late.

She leapt and Kera felt a blunted blow slam into her side; she stumbled. Fighting black pulled away, blurred out. She felt weak arms catch her as she staggered, a shocked cry of dismay. There was no pain, just a sick, disbelieving jolt.

“Kera…” Legolas gasped, dropping a blade to support her. The Chiktata were being driven back to the tree line fast now; they were running blind with terror and the storm. Maeglad, the captain and his troop were in hot pursuit.

Legolas staggered, panting as the rain beat his face clean. Kera looked down, staring at her shaking hands, the fletching from her side. And then, the bowman reached back slowly, yanked another arrow free.

Legolas growled, lifting his eyes.

By the time he stared down the drawn bow, ready again, Asad hissed a sharp breath in surprise. The elf was gone! Mes’cala lay on the ground, panting, gripping a bloody arrow embedded in her side. She was in the swirling mud and water, staring at the sky and shaking…alone.

Where was he?

Where was he? She didn’t let herself feel the rush of empty, cold air that replaced him. She was dying, and she was alone. But that was alright. She thought she’d feel fear, or terror…always more terror. But there was none. Just peace, and an overwhelming sense of shocked, vile relief.

Kera craned her neck, twisted in the pooling water, to stare at the man named Asad. A scratch of lightning silhouetted him in the trees. He was aiming, staring down a black arrow at her, confused.

Yes, Legolas was gone; she grimaced, panting. But he was alive. He deserved to live. She thought as she felt lifeblood soak with the pounding rain and careen away. He was alive and beautiful. He wasn’t afraid; he didn’t crumble. He lived. It was how it should be.

And suddenly… when the world was going black in numb, cold shock, an animalistic cry broke the haze. It was Asad. She looked at him, strained to keep her eyes open. The sight made her lose the rest of her stomach.

A shining blade thrust through the warrior’s back and broke through his belly, and as the massive man dropped, tumbled from the boulder in a heap, Legolas stood there, hands thrown down. He gripped a bloody blade in bruised knuckles as he watched Asad fall.

“Legolas...” she whispered hoarsely.

And the spell was broken. Legolas lifted his eyes breathlessly, before throwing the knife away. He leapt from the rock, stumbling with a splash on his bad leg. “Kera…”

She looked up. Kera heard the voice, crystal clear, and a wave of lucidity washed through her as gentle hands lifted her from the mud. “Kera…I am here.” He whispered, cradling her head in his lap.

“I’m s-sorry,” she managed, and she gripped the shaft in her fists, jolting with every violent fall of her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. “…s-so sorry.”

“Why did you do it?” he demanded in a fierce, husky whisper. “You took it…why? Why did you do it for me?”

Kera winced, breaths coming in short, ragged bursts. “I…I don’t want to take anymore.” She managed. “I-I don’t want it.” She struggled to finger the cloak clasped around his shoulders. Her senses became hyper-aware briefly, as if feeling the cold, the scent of wet wood and snuffed smoke in the air, blood and dirt.

And suddenly, he pulled the black braids from her hair angrily, revealing the tangled, blonde locks beneath. He ran his fingers through it, knotted his hands in her wet strands. “I am sorry.” He whispered, hoarse, “I…I did not see. Manwe, forgive me, Kera. I did not see!”

She shook violently. “Don’t, please. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault…”

He grimaced, looking around, trying to force himself up on his knees. “Kera-”

“Don’t leave!” she panted, grabbing onto him. “Don’t leave me, please. I don’t want to die alone!”

“Do not talk nonsense.” Legolas ran a thumb across her cheekbone, gripping her face gently in his hands, before forcing himself to say. “I told you, there is strength in you, little one. You just have to find it.”

“I-I can’t.” she scrunched her forehead. And then, shuddering, feeling her limbs begin to convulse in the cold…she began to cry. They weren’t tears of regret, but pained, halting, ugly sobs. “I don’t want to fight anymore. I just…I just want to sleep. I didn’t want you to die.”

Maeglad!” Legolas shouted in desperation. The captain was a healer; he’d know what to do. “Help me!”

He wasn’t coming fast enough. No run was fast enough. Legolas forced himself down, determined to keep her awake. “Kera…listen to me. Did-did you know that elves sleep?”

She shook her head vigorously, grabbing his cloak, burying her face in his lap to hide from the violent downpour.

“They can,” he insisted, stroking her hair, forcing her to look at him. He shielded her face with his arms. “…if you know how. It is a sleep-like trance. I could teach you.” He nodded, encouraged by the flare of hope in her eyes when he said, “…for when we Eldar cannot stand the waking world any longer. I could teach you. You just have to stay strong. Don’t give in. Fight.”

But there was no answer.

And suddenly the captain was there, black hair…green eyes. He panted, sword in the water.

“Maeglad!” Legolas hissed. He clutched her bloody side and it soaked his fingers. The sight made him sick. He was covered in it…blood, gore, and the rain washed it away.

“Help her.” He managed. “Quickly.”

The elf dropped to his knees and Kera glanced at him, shaking. Wonder lit her face at the sight of the other elf. She blinked furiously, feeling calloused hands stroke the rain from her face as fast as it fell…her cheeks, forehead, running in her eyes, and she whispered something. “Can…can I go there?”

“Where?” Legolas said even as he positioned her head to rest on his good leg, giving Maeglad access. “Look at it.” he commanded.

“Can I go t-to your place? Where the elves are?”

Maeglad, even as he ripped cloth from her side, glanced at Legolas in confusion. The prince just shook his head. “Be still.” Legolas commanded gently, and he turned his attention to the healer. He was touching her, taking in everything with skilled eyes and quick, practiced hands.

“How bad is it?” He demanded. “Can you heal her?”

“Legolas!” she panted, shaking her head. “Don’t try…please. I-it’s alright, I promise.”

And in that moment, Maeglad looked up. Legolas saw the expression in his eyes. He heard the words over and over in his head, a thousand variations of it. It made his heart race with panic, unreasonable panic. She will die. She has died in place of you. She is here and gone…another candle snuffed in the wind.

“The wound is serious...” Maeglad said instead.

And then the world changed for Legolas. He saw again, breathed clear air. It rushed into his lungs and filled him with strength. The rain shattered on his arms and he blinked it furiously from his lashes. It was cold and clean.

“…but not fatal.”

Legolas looked up, peering through the rain. “Help me get her back to the settlement!”

. . . . . .

Legolas sat in the healing halls, fingering a quill and ink nearby. Warm, late sunlight poured through the windows, and in the bed beside was a breathing, slumbering girl. He dragged his fingers up and down the back of her hand absent-mindedly, reading the latest update on pursuing the Chiktata outside Ithilien’s borders. Estel wouldn’t let him fight with the troops, not until his shoulder healed.

… Three hundred miles away, delicate columns of rising white stone wove through a sea of green. Thranduil looked out over the balcony, watching specks of jade, russet and gold move through the twisting branches. Elves, his people walked the halls, peppering an edifice of granite bridge-ways grown from the trees.

The city glowed a pale, beauteous blue in the rapidly falling dark. Lanterns threaded through the boughs and cast a faint, scintillating hue of green over the palace, walkways and platforms set in the trees. Stone, leaf-strewn stairs spiraled in every direction from where he stood.

And suddenly, a shroud of murmuring boughs stirred. Thranduil turned his head. A messenger ran up the walkway, bearing a cracked letter.

“This arrived by raven, sire.”

The source surprised him briefly… It was Legolas. He was supposed to be here in a matter of days! Thranduil frowned, glancing over the lines in an uncharacteristically messy, scrawled script.

“Thank you.” he murmured.

Adar,

… I am sorry, but my return home is delayed. We encountered some unforeseen problems clearing the forests south of Ithilien. It seems a barbaric tribe of the far Haradrim has been driven north, and they’re proving difficult to deal with. We have an unexpected guest though, and I plan to stay and see her recovery before my visit home. ‘Twill not be long. Estel has ridden from Minas Tirith. He says she will heal by the full moon, and I’ll be home soon! Until then, do not worry.

Thranduil raised a skeptical brow. But then the words turned more serious, and he scanned over them slower.

I know that my letters have been sparse of late. And I know they’ve caused you to worry. But things are better now.

I’ve tried to write of my experiences in the last months, to talk of it on my return home…the war, the sacrifice. But it was difficult; I didn’t understand. Sometimes I think it is not worth it. Sometimes I think the cost is just too great. There are so many ways to be brave, so many things to sacrifice. Why must death be one of them? Why is something so sacred so easily lost?

I think I saw the answer in a dying girl’s eyes, Ada. There was no sacrifice there. I thought there would be anger. I thought there would be fury… But it was a gift. Something so terrible should be ugly! It should be unforgivable, as it is unforgiving. But I think sacrifice has a beauty in it that I never saw before.

‘Till we meet once more:

- Legolas

Thranduil stared at the closing a long, unsettled moment, before lifting his eyes and staring cryptically at the flecks of white stone in the floor. Had he missed something crucial in his time away? This new-found, philosophical side to his son?

He frowned. Sometimes, it was hard to grasp that child.

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