Thranduil looked up as the cell door creaked open on its badly oiled hinges. Two leering men entered the room, their eyes on Celebrail. Landion shrank back into his mother’s arms, his eyes wide, whimpering.
Thranduil looked away as the men grabbed Celebrail by her wrists and dragged her toward the cell door. Legolas shuddered in his arms, shaking at Landion’s screams of protests. Leaving the elfling sobbing on his knees by the locked gate, the humans hauled his mother away.
Thranduil held out an arm to Landion. Landion crawled to him and nestled against him and Legolas, silent tears sliding down onto his curled fists.
“Will she come back?” Landion asked in a small voice.
Thranduil was torn between the desire to say yes and set the elfling’s heart to rest and to tell the blunt truth. But his hesitation told Landion al he needed to know. Burying his pale face in Thranduil’s shoulder, he cried himself to sleep.
With both elflings in his arms, Thranduil sat and waited, his eyes closed. The weight in his arms pressed at his injuries, inflaming them with pain but it was a small price to pay for he knew his embrace brought the children in his arms at least a moment’s comfort.
Thranduil’s eyes jerked open as the metal grate creaked open. He sat tensely, not sure whether the humans had come back to thrown Celebrail’s body into the cell or if Lord Katar had come to feed off screams. His stomach twisted.
A figure entered the cell, glancing behind himself, the torch in his hands casting eerie shadows throughout the cavern.
Thranduil hugged Legolas and Landion a little closer in his arms, his body trembling as the figure approached. He felt weak and helpless. He hated himself for hurting his small son and for being unable to protect either of the elflings he held. All he could do was sit and wait for Lord Katar’s next torture, for the pain and grief and despair and, at the end, blissful death. Legolas slept in his arms, his breathing shallow, and his bruised face a reminder of the abused elfling Thranduil had found months ago.
The flickering torchlight moved closer, illuminating the human guard beneath it. The human reached up as he neared the frightened elf and tugged off his helm, revealing the face of a young human. His drawn face held lines of worry and his eyes throbbed with pain.
“I want to help you,” the human said. “My name is Rueben.”
Thranduil’s eyes met Rueben’s anxious ones. He hesitated, distrustful of the human. He remembered Rueben had helped hold Legolas down while Lord Katar whipped him. But . . . surely he had to take any chance at life he could.
“I cannot be a part of this,” Rueben said, his desperate voice trembling. “I was spun tales of victory and glory, of heroism. I-I did not realize it meant torturing children and forcing their parents to hurt them. You have hearts and mine ached when I was forced to hold your son down. I wish to help you escape and make amends for the wrong I have done.”
Thranduil nodded. “I accept your help. But if our lives are endangered, you must promise me you will take the elflings to safety. My life is not important.”
“I promise,” Rueben said.
Thranduil shook Legolas awake. His son awoke, a shudder running through his body, and looked around, wild-eyed. He opened his mouth but Thranduil clapped his hand over it. “No noise. If we are to escape this place, we must be silent.”
Legolas met his father’s eyes and nodded to show he understood. Thranduil took his hand away and woke Landion. Legolas slid off his father’s lap, jumping back at the sight of Rueben. He remembered the human’s pained gaze from the whipping at the beginning of his torture.
Thranduil rose to his feet, a small groan escaping him as his aching body cried out for him to rest! Gritting his teeth, he ignored the pleas. Taking Landion and Legolas by the hand, knowing they felt no better then he, he followed Rueben to the cell door.
Rueben glanced at the dark, empty hallway beyond the cell door, his body tense. Leaving the torch burning on the dirt floor, for light would attract too much attention, he stepped outside the cell door. As Thranduil followed him, he felt his heavy heart lightened somewhat. At least he was free of the cruel confines of the cell . . . for now.
Rueben led the way up the dark hallway, forcing himself to check his hurried pace for the injured elves could not match his stride. At the fork of the tunnel, he glanced up and down the intersection. Finding it empty, he beckoned for the elves to follow him into the tunnel leading to freedom and the outside earth. He walked along the edge of the tunnel, his back against the wall, sidling sideways.
Thranduil felt the urge to sink into blissful darkness but he struggled to keep his eyes open. His body ached and every stumble Legolas and Landion made jerked at his muscles. His eyes flew open as Landion let out a small cry. He followed the elfling’s gaze and his stomach heaved.
Celebrail lay at the entrance to the mouth of a cave in the opposite wall, her body stripped off clothes, blood dripping off her. From within the cave, ugly laughter floated out.
Thranduil saw fury bubbling in Landion’s eyes. The elfling was ready to scream and cast himself on the humans who had killed his mother. Thranduil pulled his hand free of Legolas’s, throwing both arms around the elfling to keep him from fleeing. He clung to the struggling boy, one arm wound tightly around his mouth to keep back any loud noises. Landion sobbed, his tears wetting Thranduil’s arms. He stopped fighting. Cautiously, Thranduil took away his arm.
“We must be quiet, Landion,” Thranduil said gently, turning the elfling around by the shoulders to face him. “If we want to escape and see the sun and trees again, we must escape. I am sorry your mother is dead, I truly am. But unless you wish to join her, you must be quiet. My heart bleeds with yours, Landion. But I promise you everything will be all right.”
Numbed by grief, Landion clung to Thranduil’s words, nodding dumbly. Clutching the elf’s hand, he stumbled after him, continuing up the tunnel. He blinked as he saw a soft ray of moonlight lancing through the open mouth of the tunnel ahead.
Rueben stopped inside the mouth of the tunnel, looking out at the world beyond lit by dim moonlight.
“There are guards flanking the exit,” he said. “We will have to run for the trees and hope for escape.”
Thranduil swallowed. He feared his life would end during the wild dash for freedom, however short the distance to the trees may be. He doubted he could run far or fast in his condition. He looked up as a loud shout echoed through the glade outside and two figures fled from the entrance, yelling orders. Confusion broke out.
“The guards are gone,” Rueben said, peeking out the tunnel. “This is our chance! Someone has attacked the glade. Run!”