Without, Part 16
Corinne woke early the next morning, but Haldir was already up and gone. She dressed in comfortable low-riding sweatpants and a t-shirt, tucking the cartouche into her bra for lack of pockets. As it was obvious the cartouche could materialize on her whenever it wanted, they’d deemed it best to simply carry it around. That way, at least, it would be wrapped in its linen nest and not touching her skin.
She explored the cottage but he was nowhere inside. A shabby stone path from the front door wandered through a mélange of animal habitats and ramshackle garden plots, and she followed it. Here was a massive beehive, there a stand of bean plants crawling haphazardly up some rickety poles ten feet high. Uneven rows of lettuce were thriving as they wove between and around gopher holes whose occupants poked their heads up to peruse Corinne as she walked by.
Most obvious of all were the cages. There were cages everywhere, of all sizes and shapes—some short and squat, some tall and slender, some tiny enough to only contain a sole petite creature, and some large enough to hold multiple elephants. All had a single thing in common, however: not a door was to be seen on any single one of them, and the animals who made them their homes wandered freely in and out.
Wide-eyed, Corinne walked the path until it petered out, and then strained until she heard faint voices. Following them, she came to a small clearing, paved with a primitive mosaic floor depicting two trees—one of green and silver, the other of gold and green. The wizard had rolled up the voluminous sleeves of his rusty tunic and was industriously swabbing out a rabbit hutch at the edge of the mosaic while Haldir leant against a tree and ’supervised’. The early sun peeping over the treetops lit his head like burnished gold, throwing his face into shadow, but there was no quelling the brilliance of his eyes, both fierce and soft as they fastened on her. “Doll-nîn,” he said quietly, a faint smile lifting the corner of his mouth.
“Morning, baby,” she said, going to him and sliding her arms around his waist. “Been explaining our problem?”
He nodded, and dropped a kiss on the crown of her ruddy head. “I have told him all I know, and all Dawn has told us; is there anything you would add?”
She gave his mind a quick search to learn what he’d said to Radagast and found he’d been pretty comprehensive. “Not really,” she replied. “All you’ve left out is…” she paused, biting her lip. Haldir hadn’t mentioned their conversation before they’d left Lothlórien, about how they were beginning to doubt they wanted to sever their bond. “Is how we might not want to end it,” she finished. “But then again, that might just be the cartouche talking. Trying to keep us from breaking up and ending the steady influx of energy we’re sending it.”
Once again a strong feeling of both resentment for the cartouche’s interference, as well as disbelief that her emotions could somehow be artificial, welled up in her so powerfully that she knew it had spilled over into Haldir’s mind, for she felt his answering emotions of agreement and love brush comfortingly back against her.
“I don’t want to lose this,” she thought to him with a tinge of desperation.
Radagast moved to a massive birdcage that stood well over twice the height of a Man. Like the hutch, it too had no doors or any other method of restraining its inhabitants, what seemed to be an entire flock of large golden birds. They were snuggled up four to a perch, heads under wings as they slept, and didn’t move a feather as he swept (and chiseled, where necessary) their droppings and refilled vast basins of food and water.
“If there’s no doors on the cages, aren’t you afraid the animals will escape?” she asked, curious.
He straightened from scooping the detritus into a pan for disposal, and turned slowly to face her. His black eyes studied her a long moment, making her somewhat uncomfortable, before he smiled. “I have no need of doors,” he replied at last, cocking his head to one side. “Nor do you.”
Corinne frowned in confusion as he took up his sack of animal poop and began to amble back toward the house. “Wait!” she called, jogging after him. Haldir followed at a more leisurely and dignified pace. “What about the cartouche? What can you tell us about it?”
Radagast stowed the sack beside a disreputable-looking wooden table leaning heavily against the cottage’s wall. It had several mysterious dents and scorch-marks on its surface, and she was positive at least one of the stains was blood. “Let me see it,” he said, and held out his hand. Corinne dug it out of her bra and handed it to him.
“You might not want to—“ she began as he unwrapped it “—touch it,” she finished lamely as he plucked it from the linen with his bare fingers and held it up to the sunlight. It glittered off Aker’s two manes, highlighting his four tiny fangs exposed by the open, roaring mouths. Between his heads, the flat disc of the sun seemed to shine as brightly as the original overhead.
Radagast tapped the sun-disc with a dirt-encrusted nail. “So, you think this is the point of Aker’s mischief, do you? He wants to obscure the sun?”
Corinne blinked. “What else could it be? We couldn’t think of anything else that he could do, or that he’d need such a big chunk of life-force to accomplish…”
“Can you not?” His voice was low and amused. “Think harder. Think… of things both greater, and lesser.”
She let out a whimper and clutched her hands to her head. “You’re making my brain hurt.” The wizard sighed, and went back in the house. “Hey!” she yelled, stomping after him. “If you wouldn’t speak in riddles, I’d understand whatever the hell it is you’re trying to say!”
She followed Radagast into a sitting room across from the dining chamber. In it was a semi-circle of chairs pulled round the crackling fireplace. Also in it were Legolas and Buffy, seated somewhat stiffly in two of those chairs, while a third was occupied by an elf that was nothing short of magnificent.
“Woof,” Corinne said, skidding to a stop so suddenly that Haldir bumped into her from behind. A flash of displeasure and jealousy from Haldir burst into her mind, but she shook it away. The newcomer turned his head on a long, tanned neck to survey her with eyes of piercing, brilliant green, and Corinne felt distinctly light-headed as he studied her with a lazy, knowing arrogance that took her breath away.
“This,” Legolas began in a strained voice, “is my father, Thranduil, King of Mirkwood.”
Corinne’s gaze dropped from the flawless contours of his face to the rest of him. He wore a sleeveless tunic, and arm-bands of elaborately wrought gold clasped his considerable biceps. His trousers did not in any way disguise the bulges of muscle that ran the length of his legs, and the belt that clasped his trim waist seemed only to draw attention to the area beneath it…
Dragging her gaze from him, she managed to say, “This is your father?” Her brain seemed to be stuck on ‘incredulity’; he looked like no father she’d ever seen in her life. But the begetting of a child… oh, that she could imagine without any effort whatsoever.
Beside her, Haldir read her thoughts and growled. He nodded shortly to the newcomer, who nodded back with languid unconcern. “When did you arrive?”
“Just minutes ago,” Thranduil replied easily. “One of Radagast’s accursed birds notified him of my approach, and he made sure my son and… daughter were awaiting me.” The pause he gave before speaking the word daughter was barely perceptible, unless you were another elf or a Slayer, in which case it was completely noticeable and more than a little insulting. Nevertheless, Buffy’s determinedly cheerful smile did not waver, though her grip on Legolas’ hand tightened.
His voice was like a violin, Corinne thought absently as she watched his pink, perfectly sculpted lips move; throbbing and sweet and low, and all at the same time. What would it sound like moaning a woman’s name in passion? As the thought spurred yet another naughty mind-picture, Haldir growled louder.
Radagast looked up from where he was setting a kettle of water on the hook over the fire and grinned. “There’s a cock amongst the hens,” he commented slyly. “But where are the other chickens?”
As if on cue, Tatharë, Dawn, and Arwen appeared in the doorway. The elleths were better at hiding their reaction to Thranduil, but Dawn goggled shamelessly.
“Who’s this tasty little crumpet?” she asked, staring appreciatively even as Boromir could be heard muttering unhappily in the hall.
“Legolas’ father,” Corinne explained in a whisper.
“Apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” Dawn commented, eyeing Thranduil avidly. “And whatta tree…are you single?”
“It does not matter if he is single,” Boromir said, tugging on her hand, “because you most certainly are not.” She grumbled, but allowed him to pull her out of the room again.
“I’m single,” Corinne said immediately, and smiled at Thranduil. He smiled back, a slow smile that spoke of tangled sheets and passionate whispers in the dark, and she groped for a wall to lean against. Haldir growled again.
“Your majesty,” Tatharë breathed, sinking into a low curtsey before him.
“Tatharë,” Thranduil addressed the elleth, surveying her from the humble chair as if it were a throne of mithril and gems, “ever is thy sight a joy.”
“You honour me, my lord,” she replied faintly, a very pretty flush creeping up her throat. Now it was Rúmil who was growling.
“Not at all,” the king demurred smoothly before turning his attention to Arwen, and something flickered in the emerald depths of his eyes. “Undómiel,” he said, standing. “A star truly shines on the moment of our meeting.”
“We are well met, my lord,” she said with perfect composure, but there was no disguising the faint tremor of her hand when Thranduil lifted it to his lips, golden hair swinging forward to frame his face and brush her skin. Every female in the room sighed, and it was like a storm gusting through the cottage.
Legolas made a noise of deep disgust and strode from the room, pushing roughly by Elessar as he was entering.
“I’ll just… go talk to him,” Buffy said haltingly, seeming almost unable to drag her gaze from Thranduil but managing with a mighty effort.
The kettle gave a piercing whistle. Radagast pulled it from the fire and there was silence once more as Elessar’s keen eyes took in the scene before him; Thranduil still held Arwen’s hand and even now watched the other king with a heavy-lidded gaze that was half amusement, half challenge as he sat once more.
Elessar told Arwen he needed to speak with her, privately, in a completely unconvincing show of ownership that only made her glare daggers at him as she followed him from the room, and Rúmil was also quick to request Tatharë’s presence elsewhere. When the room was emptied of all save Radagast, Thranduil, Corinne (still watching him closely) and Haldir (still frowning fiercely), the wizard emitted a laugh that was almost a cackle.
“Your penchant for causing trouble almost makes me like you, Oropherion,” he told the Silvan king. “Almost.” He poured them all cups of tea, but made no move to actually hand them out. “May I assume you are here to see your son? For if you are here to beg my intervention of behalf of your realm, my answer remains as it ever was.”
“I still doubt I could fit the entire forest there, Radagast,” Thranduil murmured, leaning forward to take a cup in his long, lean fingers before slouching back in a posture of negligent ease that made Corinne sigh before she could catch herself. “Surely you could learn a new insult after all these years?”
“Why bother?” the wizard asked swiftly. “The old one yet suits so perfectly.” He drained his cup of tea and set it with a thump down on the scarred table. “Go and talk to your son, or go make eyes at the she-elf again, I care not. But there are things I must discuss with these two that are none of your concern.”
Thranduil stood, utterly unperturbed by Radagast’s scarcely hidden hostility, and nodded to Corinne and Haldir as he left. She could feel the wordless fury in her lover’s mind, and wondered at it—surely he couldn’t be that jealous, could he?
“I am not,” he thought to her. “I have never liked Thranduil, and even less now.” Before she had time to learn more, however, Radagast was speaking.
“Still you have not figured out my riddle, although with Thranduil’s arrival, I am not surprised you would be… distracted. Ever are the ladies enchanted by him.” His tone indicated his poor opinion of those who would be fooled by such a flimsy thing as appearance. Easy enough for a shape-shifter to think, Corinne felt. “But now we must talk of more serious things.”
He poured another cup of tea and drank, even though its great heat must have scalded his mouth, and reached into his tunic for the cartouche, which he placed on the table among the teacups. “Aker does not concern himself with the sun these days; but yet he is the keeper of the gate, and would prevent those who travel from reaching the far shore.” He surveyed her from under bushy brows. “East to west, young one. Who travels from east to west in this world?”
Haldir stiffened beside her as realization dawned, horrible and sharp, within them both. “He means to cut off the Straight Path to Valinor for the elves,” he murmured, setting his cup down hard so it rattled on the table.
At the wizard’s nod, Corinne frowned. “But why? If he’s got plans to take over Middle-Earth, wouldn’t having more elves here hinder him? It would just mean more to fight him. I mean, the most powerful elves of this age are still here… Galadriel, Celeborn, Elrond, Glorfindel…”
“Indeed it would.” Radagast fell silent and slouched back in his chair, threading his fingers together over his belly and staring out the window. “If,” he continued, “that were his plan. But I fear his desires are somewhat more… ambitious than merely ruling Arda.”
“You cannot mean…” Haldir began, but could not seem to finish his sentence. His grasp on Corinne’s hand tightened until she was in pain, but still she said nothing.
“Yes,” Radagast confirmed. “Not Arda, but Aman itself. Yavanna has made her fear of this plain to me. By keeping on Arda these elves you have mentioned, his conquest of Aman would be much simpler.”
“How can this be possible?” Haldir’s voice was almost shaking. “How can he dare to attack the Valar themselves?”
“He dares because of you,” Radagast said plainly, and Haldir jerked back as if slapped. “Because of the force he drains from you, and you.” He nodded to Corinne, who shrank back in her chair, aghast at her role in this whole debacle. “Tell me, have you joined?”
“Not entirely,” Corinne answered for them, as Haldir was staring at the wall, his jaw clenched, a muscle leaping in his lean cheek as he struggled to contain himself. “Galadriel told us not to.”
Radagast nodded again. “Wise,” he said. “But then, she always was.” He paused. “Except for that bit about following Fëanor, but I digress…yes, I am glad, it will make it easier for me to sever your bond.”
“You can do that?” She tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her chest, mirrored in Haldir, she knew, and vying only with his despair for Aker’s designs on Valinor for painfulness. “How? And when?”
“’Twill be an easy matter,” the Maia replied, standing and gathering up the cups. “Only a matter of draining the cartouche, of ridding it of all the blood used to purchase its powers over the years. Releasing the blood will remove the centuries of power Aker has drained. As for when…” he plunked the cups into a basin and pumped some water over them, then took up a rag and began to wash them with vigour. “I could do it now, this moment, but I suspect neither of you are prepared for such an event.”
He threw them a glance over his shoulder, mustache twitching in what could, quite loosely, be termed sympathy. “You should go now,” he suggested, not unkindly. “Go, and enjoy what time you have left. Tell me when you are ready. I will be here.” He smiled a little. “I am always here.”
doll-nîn = my dusky one
Oropherion = son of Oropher, Thranduil’s father
Arda = another name for Middle-Earth
Aman = another name for Valinor
Yavanna = Valar/goddess of plants and animals; Radagast is her particular servant.