Her son by marriage, Berendur, was a good man, a good provider for his wife and children. But with so little food reserves, something had to be done. And so, she did the only thing she could.
The night was bright with the light of the moon hanging full high in the sky. It was a warm night, more than likely one of the last that would happen until long after the river had frozen and once again thawed. It was a good night to die, Avorniel thought to herself with a sad smile. Better to have just that much more food in stores for the little ones than for all to starve because a crone like her didn't have the courage to give her life for her grandchildren.
She walked for a short way, until her breath was catching in her chest and she needed to pause to rest, and then turned to look back on the farmstead that had been her home for her entire life. It had been in her family for generations, going back to the fractious days of Gondor and Arnor and the frequent wars between them as the peace of Elessar faded into myth. Her grandmother's mother had made a home here, even after her grandfather had been killed, and Grandmother Linnae had brought a husband home in her turn. A family fated to have more girls than boys, Linnae's only son had died in infancy, but her daughter had grown up to bring her husband to the farm. Then Avorniel had done the same, and most lately, Saeliel had brought Berendur. No doubt Morwen would do the same when her time came, should something happen to little Beleg.
Hopefully that something would not include starvation in the coming winter. Avorniel squared her shoulders to the extent she could and began walking again, more slowly this time, toward the tall darkness that was the forest that bordered the fields to the west. The wolves were beginning to howl closer to the farm lately, a sign that even their meals had been lean that year. With luck, Avorniel sighed, she would already be dead when they found her. With even more luck, there would be little left for Berendur to find, should he actually come looking - although she doubted he could be convinced to even try.
Berendur was of superstitious Esgaroth stock; he would never dare follow her tracks into this particular forest. Despite the fact that no one had heard of a single incident in recent memory, those tall, dark, forbidding trees were known throughout the region as the Elvenking's Forest and avoided at all costs. The tales told of the wrath and caprice of that figure of legend were many, and all of them cautionary. One simply did not cut the Elvenking's trees; one did not enter the forest without his expressed permission.
Well, she would do the latter, and she wouldn't care the consequences. Whether at the behest of a cruel ogre or hungry wolf, Avorniel was willingly seeking her end. She was ready to rejoin Taron, who had left the world long before. Her body ached constantly now, even when sitting beside the warm fire, and her strength was failing her. She could barely assist Saeliel with a few chores anymore. More often than not, she sat rocking little Beleg in her arms and singing old songs while keeping an eye on young Morwen that she didn't wander away too far. Avorniel knew herself to be a drain on her family's resources; it was time for her to remove herself as an impediment to survival.
The ground was growing uneven, and Avorniel moved even more slowly. The welcoming darkness beneath the trees was still a short distance ahead, and she didn't want to fall. If she fell, she knew for certain that she would not be able to right herself. If the wolves found her in the open, however, her daughter and grandchildren would have to bear witness to the ugliness of her death. She would spare them that, if possible.
She had spent the day singing all the old songs to Beleg that day as she rocked him, a little finger in his mouth to keep him quiet while Saeliel was out helping her husband with bringing in what little harvest there could be. Morwen had sung with her; and then, during the quiet moments after the baby had fallen asleep, she had recited all the old stories she could think of - even the fantastic ones that her Grandmother Linnae had sworn were the truth. But nobody had ever believed the stories of the great hall in the depths of the mountain, or that the Elvenking could be anything but cruel. Now, at this late date, it didn't really matter whether they were thought fables or truth; only that Morwen had heard one last time the old family stories. With luck, when it came to be her turn to tend the very young with stories and song, she would remember them.
Finally, after yet another pause to catch her breath, Avorniel had gained the cover of the forest. She gave an involuntary shudder, for the air beneath the ancient trees was cool compared to the left-over heat that had radiated up from the over-baked soil with its dead grass covering. The light of the moon did not penetrate the canopy of leaves above her, but it was no longer important.
She used her stick to feel out the ground before her - to check it for protruding roots or other obstructions. It was important to go deeper before sitting down and waiting for her end to catch up with her. This close to the edge of the forest, someone looking for her might see her, and she didn't want to be found; that is, she didn't want to be found close enough to the open that one of the little ones might see.
Moving slowly and carefully, she repeatedly looked over her shoulder to keep the moonlight at her back and make certain she was walking into the woods. In the distance, a wolf began its lonely howl, which made Avorniel's heart begin to pound. She knew this was the right thing to do, knew that Taron would be waiting for her, but she had always been a little bit frightened of even the farmyard dogs. Their bites hurt. Death itself didn't daunt her, but dying was another question entirely.
At last there was no indication of light behind her, beside her, or before her; she was far enough in that she could be fairly certain that she wouldn't be found. A second wolf had joined its voice to the first, and it sounded much, much closer. And then a third howl joined, and Avorniel could feel the hair on the back of her neck standing. Despite her determination to sit quietly and accept her fate at their fangs, she forced herself to walk faster, as if she actually had a shelter to which to flee.
Heart pounding so hard and fast that it hurt, and barely able to breathe, she flailed her stick about her in a desperate attempt to sense her attackers before they struck. What had she been thinking? She could easily have waited until the first good winter storm and walked out into it. The stories in Esgaroth told of people caught out in such storms - that they merely laid themselves down and went to sleep and never awoke again. But no, she'd had to be impatient. Her end would be terrifying rather than a peaceful one.
The howls had become barks, and they sounded all around her. Avorniel drew in a sobbing breath and ran as fast as she could until she tripped over something on the floor of the forest, sending her sprawling into the soft loam. It hurt too much to even try to roll over, and she knew that her end had surely come. Things would happen very quickly from here. She had seen what happened when a bone was tossed to the dogs outside, how they fought and grappled with it, tearing what little meat might remain on it away in but a few moments. It was better this way. And she would not greet them with whines or flailing to try to ward them off. They were, after all, doing her and her family a favor.
Softly, almost under her breath, she began to sing the sorrowful song that her Grandmother Linnae had taught her so very long ago and claimed to have learned from the Elvenking himself. How fitting that it would be the Elvenking's own song to greet the Elvenking's own wolves as they did her this final service. She clenched her eyes tightly shut and concentrated hard on remembering the words rather than listening to the barks and whines and now growls that drew closer and sounded ever more menacing.
Just when she was certain that the snouts filled with those long, white, lethal-looking teeth were close enough to begin tearing into her, a soft whp sounded just as close-by, and resulted in a yelp of true pain. Several more of the soft sounds came in short order, each one followed by a cry of pain from a wolf. There was the sound of scrabbling, of barks and yips, and then silence.
Avorniel frowned. She should be… if not dead yet, then certainly well on her way. And then she felt her heart hesitate with fear again when the newest sound - that of footsteps - came close. Once more she clenched her eyes tightly shut. With any luck, the Elvenking, or his minions, would make faster work of her than the wolves would have. Getting through the process, hopefully, would be quicker, less painful.
Once more her heart began to pound hard in her chest, making it difficult to breathe. The moment dragged on; what were they waiting for? Then a gentle set of hands lifted her bodily from the ground, and her eyes popped open in surprise. The last thing she had expected was kindness… She could easily make out a soft glow in front of her, and her mouth dropped open at the vision of a fair, young face framed with dark hair.
"No…" she managed, almost indignant at being saved so unexpectedly, before the pain in her chest surged through her, blazing like fire in her veins and down her left arm. At last, she thought as the vision of the fair face, now folded in concern, faded from view. Her rescue had come too late after all, and she could rejoin Taron anyway. At last!
Avorniel swam against the darkness and the pain, wishing that she could have remained in the quiet place that she thought she had found. But the pain that she felt was now centered in her chest; had she been shot by one of the Elvenking's archers then? She tried to move away from the sensation of hands moving on her, but only could manage a moan.
She could hear the low murmur of voices, but none that she could recognize. And she was laying on… something far softer than even the straw-stuffed mattress that had belonged to the head of household at the farm. But it didn't smell like the farm; no animal-associated smells wafted through, or rose from any discarded piles of clothing that needed laundering at the banks of the stream. It smelled like… flowers, grass, and something sweet.
Where was she?
She was lifted, and liquid poured very carefully into her mouth; and then fingers rubbed against her throat as if to convince her to swallow. Poison? Had she faced down ravening wolves and fair-faced wraiths in the forest only to find her end in this manner? And yet, she had no strength with which to fight, and poison would also be a direct manner of leaving the world behind. The liquid in her mouth was tasteless, and she thought a prayer to the All-Father that the poison be a painless one as she let it finally trickle down her throat.
Again the voices surged around her: sweet voices like the chiming of bells. She was warm, comfortable, and even the pain in her chest was easing a little. Was that someone patting her hand?
But the soft, warm darkness flowed up and into her, washing away all sensation and sound.
Somehow, Avorniel hadn't expected there to be music as she awoke from her death-sleep to step beyond the circles of the world. And yet, a trio of voices singing in impossibly clear and exquisite harmony had penetrated the cocoon of darkness and silence in which she rested.
She felt no pain, and could remember no pain from before; so she was grateful in the moment to whoever had given her the poison…
"Lady. It is time to awaken now. Open your eyes."
The hand on her shoulder shook her slightly, making her aware of an unexpectedly strong ache in her chest. She frowned and moaned; wasn't the pain supposed to go away when she was dead?
"Come now," urged a female voice to her left. "Aran Thranduil is here and would like to speak with you." Another gentle shake disrupted her peace.
A deep voice speaking words that Avorniel couldn't understand sounded then from her right. Curious now, she moved her head with difficulty and worked at blinking her eyes open. They didn't want to obey at all, and she had to struggle to get them to follow her demands on them; but finally they parted slightly, and then a little bit more.
There was light - soft and diffuse, as if from several candles - and a blur of faces. Avorniel blinked and tried to move a hand to wipe the film from her eyes that kept her from seeing clearly, but there was no strength in her arm to do so. She blinked again, and yet again; and slowly the faces came into focus, fair faces, pale and terrible in their beauty.
These creatures, these people, they were the Elvenking's own. Ears that came to delicate points and eyes that gleamed and sparkled as if lit from within by starlight were unmistakeable. The old stories were true; Grandmother Linnae's descriptions, however fantastic, weren't far from the truth. And Avorniel felt the tightness in her chest begin anew.
"Do not fear," the deep voice chimed gently, drawing her gaze to eyes that sparkled like new grass in the spring sunshine and yet held the weight of ages in their depths. "You are safe. The wolves cannot harm you here."
"I am… dead?" she asked in a whisper, unable to find her voice.
Hair like threads of spun gold shifted as the ageless head shook. "Nay. You breathe the air of Arda still. And soon you shall be returned to those who love you."
Alive! Avorniel's eyes closed in disappointment and chagrin. "You should have left me to the wolves." To have come so close, and yet have to face the reality of failure and being returned to where she no longer served a purpose was a kind of pain that she could never before have imagined.
There was a stirring, and then all was quiet about her except for the trio of voices in the distance. "You have wished your own death then - entered the forest seeking it?" The deep voice sounded astonished and even horrified.
"They would all starve if I were to remain," she answered finally. "There isn't enough food to get us all through the winter. If I am gone, however, then there might be enough, and the babies might live…"
"You come from the farmstead on the edge of my realm, do you not?"
His realm? Avorniel felt her heart lurch painfully as she realized this golden being with the shining green eyes was the dread Elvenking himself. She forced herself to relax again; in all the stories save those told by her grandmother, no one who entered the Elvenking's forest without permission ever returned. He would kill her eventually, she was sure of it.
"Yes." It would do no good to try to deceive him.
"But do your people not remember the promises that were made?"
At that, her eyes sprang open. "Promises?" she mouthed, unable to make a sound.
"Indeed." The golden one's face now held a frown of confusion. "I told the young one, Linnae, to tell her mother that she, and her family in perpetuity, could call upon me in times of great need. Did she say nothing of this, then?"
Avorniel's eyes widened in shock. "What?" Again she could make no sound, but her lips formed the word.
Before her eyes, the confusion washed away into an expression of deep sadness. "Tell me of Linnae. Does she still live?"
Avorniel gaped for a moment. "My grandmother is long dead," she managed at last.
"Grandmother," the Elvenking repeated, and then reached out a gracefully long-fingered hand to brush some of the white strands of hair from her brow in order to gaze at her more closely. "Yes, I see the resemblance now." His face smoothed into a soft smile. "And many generations sit between the child I once knew and the children of the farm, then, I take it?"
This was no ogre; there was no monster sitting in wait in the forest to devour all who dared approach! Had Grandmother Linnae's stories of the kind and generous King who lived inside a mountain deep in the forest been the truth after all?
"She…" Avorniel began, but coughed from the dryness in her mouth. Astonishingly, the King himself lifted her head against a strong arm and held a crystal cup filled with clear, fresh water to her lips, and then settled her comfortably back into the softness of her pillow.
"Say on," he invited with a slight nod.
"She… my grandmother… Linnae… once showed me a child's dress, all embroidered over with flowers," she remembered with amazement. "She said… the Elvenking had given it to her when she was but a child…"
"And do you have that dress still?" the golden one asked softly.
Sadly she shook her head. "Papa had to sell it to buy seed for the spring after the harvest failed one year." Even that story had been true then!
"That it served the family well is most proper," the Elvenking remarked quietly. "But you must rest now. We shall speak again, soon."
He turned back to her, his brows high. "Yes?"
"What did you mean, about promises?"
The smile that lit the Elvenking's face warmed Avorniel's heart like nothing had in a very long time. "We shall speak again, soon, and that will be part of the conversation. Rest now, and know that your time to step outside the circles of Arda has not yet come."
Avorniel buried her nose into Morwen's soft hair and began the sad song that her Grandmother Linnae had told her once that the Elvenking had taught her. It could very well be; the tune was not so unlike the melodies that she herself had heard during her short stay in the hall under the mountain.
They had brought her home, perched in front of one of the Elvenking's archers on a tall horse that looked as if it might never have even seen the traces of a plow. They must have been quite a sight, emerging from the deep forest on those tall, graceful beasts, led by the Elvenking himself, sitting tall on a proud stallion the color of darkest night.
Berendur's mouth had hung open, as if he had been struck dumb, and Saeliel peeked around the corner of the door as the little parade of horses walked serenely into the farmyard. Avorniel didn't really want to wonder what was in their minds when the Elvenking himself had helped her down from in front of the archer. She was still in awe of the fair creatures, still stunned that although they wore the faces of young men in their prime, all of them - even the archer Glorvaethor - had known her grandmother as a very small child. That part of the stories must be true as well, then: they must be immortals.
It had taken coaxing to get Saeliel to release her hold on her children when the Elvenking had taken a seat on an upturned barrel and summoned them to him. And yet, nothing could have prepared her for the sight of such a magnificent, unearthly being gently cuddling both little ones close on his lap and singing silly songs to them while other warriors unloaded the cart of the nuts and dried fruits, smoked and dried fish and venison. With this bounty, there would be no worries of starvation.
She looked down into her little granddaughter's face, grateful that she was getting this chance to see the lovely child for just a little longer before the time would come for her to return to Taron. "What is it, little one?"
"Will him comed again, maybe?"
Avorniel smiled. She had seen the look on the Elvenking's face as he had so very carefully returned the children to their mother. "I don't know, Morwen."
"I want see him again." The child spoke firmly. "I like him. Him smelled nice, and telled good stories."
"He is very busy," she warned her granddaughter. "I don't think he wants to spend all his time telling you stories."
"I see him again." Morwen snuggled down, with her head neatly turned into her collarbone. "Someday."
"Perhaps, poppet, perhaps."
Avorniel allowed her eyes to look to the carving that the Elvenking himself had affixed over the front door to the farmhouse. It was his sigil, he'd explained, allowing the three of them to see how the cluster of oak leaves carved into the polished wood matched the carving on his great ring precisely. This would help them remember, he had told Berendur and Saeliel just before leaving, that they were in his keeping; and be a visible reminder to those who came after them to look to the forest when their need grew great.
It was hard to believe, but the carving was something that could not be discounted. She would have to try to remember all of Grandmother Linnae's stories and songs in the morning. After all, if Morwen were anything like her grandmother, she had a feeling the stories would not only be useful, but soon increase.
Life, suddenly, wasn't all that bad.