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Prodigal Sons  by daw the minstrel

This story is a sequel to a previous story, “See the Stars.”  I think it stands on its own, but readers can learn more about the events that are troubling Legolas in this story’s opening by reading that one.

 

*******

 

1. On the Training Fields

 

The training fields were busy that summer morning, as both young and more experienced warriors of Mirkwood honed their skills with weapons they increasingly needed to keep their people safe from the dangers spreading from the south of the kingdom.

 

Among those busy on the fields was a group of younglings, not yet old enough to be called warriors but old enough to see their future closing in upon them.  They were still responsible primarily to their parents rather than to Mirkwood’s warrior captains, but those captains were eying them closely to see what the future might hold for them. Today they were engaged in a lesson under the watchful eye of the archery master, Penntalion.  One by one, the students were running across the field while shooting at a row of targets at the other end, with Penntalion calling corrections all the way.  “Do not push your release, Tonduil.  Drop your shoulder, Annael. That is an extremely sloppy draw, Turgon. Where is your anchor point?”

 

Turgon finished his run and then pulled up into line with the others who had preceded him.  “Penntalion is certainly in a bad mood today,” he complained to Annael, who stood next to him.  He and Annael, along with King Thranduil’s youngest son, Legolas, had been friends for longer than any of them could remember.  Anneal shrugged and grinned.

 

“Your draw really was sloppy, Turgon,” he teased. “Now I, on the other hand, did not have my shoulder raised, although as it happens, the arrows flew truer after I dropped it.”

 

Turgon snorted.  “Penntalion is too fussy.  My arrows flew true enough. You will see that my score was as good as that of anyone else here.”

 

The entire group had now finished its run, and Penntalion sent them off with a shout to retrieve their arrows from the other end of the field and then set up to run the whole drill again from the other direction. Turgon groaned in resignation.

 

An hour and three more runs later, Penntalion declared himself satisfied for the day and sent them off the field. All but Turgon, that is. He summoned Turgon to him and, having waited until the others were out of earshot, began to scold him.  “What ails you, Turgon?  It is plain to me that you have not made the slightest effort to do what I have told you today.  I expect that all of you will make mistakes, but I also expect that you will make an effort to correct those mistakes when I point them out to you.”  He paused, looking to see if the youngling was contrite, but Turgon kept his eyes firmly on the ground.  Penntalion frowned. “I shall expect better of you tomorrow.”  He turned and went back to the field where a beginners’ class of four very small elflings was waiting for him.

 

Turgon blew out his breath in frustration.  He was finding the discipline of daily training increasingly burdensome.  He longed to be off doing those things for which his training had prepared him.  Looking around for Annael, he started away from the training fields.  Off to his right, Turgon suddenly became aware of a stir indicating that something unusual was happening.  Never one to ignore something that might prove interesting, he moved off in that direction.  The focus of everyone’s attention seemed to be a training area in which a knife fight was occurring.  With increasing interest, Turgon saw that the student who was sparring with Thelion, the knife master, was Legolas.

 

For part of the spring, Turgon had been away from Thranduil’s stronghold visiting his family home. He knew that during the time he was away something had happened to Legolas, although he was not sure what that something had been.  Annael said that Legolas had missed almost a month of weapons practice, a fact that Turgon simply would not have believed if Annael had not been the one to tell it.  Legolas never missed weapons training and was extremely serious about the effort he put into it. Annael said that Legolas had spent part of that month working in the armory, evidently as punishment for leaving the palace at night without his father's permission, but that did not account for the whole time. Now there were times when Legolas actually seemed reluctant to participate in the training.  And there were times when he was entirely too quiet, as if he were brooding on something.  Turgon had tried to ask him about the matter, but Legolas brushed all questions aside and, if pressed, would walk away.  So Turgon had ceased asking and tried to signal his support by his silent presence.

 

It suddenly occurred to Turgon that this was the first time he had seen Legolas engaged in knife training since he had returned.  This insight startled him.  When he had left for his family home early in the spring, Legolas had been spending as much time as the weapons masters would allow training with a set of double knives.  Turgon had not seen him touch those weapons since then.

 

Today Legolas was working with a single dagger.  Both he and Thelion were wearing light leather armor and using blunted training blades.  Legolas was moving on the balls of his feet, sweeping the dagger in a defensive pattern from high on the right across his body and down to the left, and then from high on the left, down to the right.  He never looked at the dagger in the trainer’s hand, concentrating instead on reading his opponent’s intent in his face and in small shifts of weight and momentum. They circled around one another, each looking for an opening the other’s defense. Suddenly, Thelion lunged forward, stabbing toward Legolas’s left side.  In instant countermove, Legolas closed in and brought his dagger into the leather guarding the trainer’s diaphragm.  The weapon master immediately raised his arms in surrender, evidently pleased with his student’s alert moves.  In response, Legolas stood still for a moment and then dropped the dagger, turned, and walked hurriedly off the training field.

 

After a second’s startled silence, a murmur rose from the onlookers.  “Legolas!” called Thelion.  “We are not finished.” Hearing Thelion’s call him, Legolas stopped but did not turn around.  The blade master strode to his side, put one hand on Legolas’s shoulder, and bent his head to speak to him privately.  Then Thelion released him, and he began walking steadily toward the trees that grew down to the edge of the field.  Thelion returned to the training area, picked up his gear, and started wordlessly toward the area at one side of the field where the masters had their private space.

 

Turgon stared after Thelion and then started after Legolas at a trot, just as his friend disappeared into the forest.  It was no surprise to Turgon to find that even after he himself had entered the trees, his friend was still invisible.  All Wood-Elves could conceal themselves from outsiders in the trees if they so chose, but like all of his kin, Legolas could merge into the forest of Mirkwood without leaving a trace for even other Elves to find.  Legolas’s oldest brother Ithilden commanded the Mirkwood forces and occasionally took part in a training exercise so that he could get a sense of the skills of the warriors in training. During one such exercise, Turgon had been looking straight at him when he had seemed to vanish into thin air.

 

“Legolas!” he called. “I know that you are here somewhere. Talk to me.”  Silence answered him.  He ventured forward and called again.  “Legolas!”  Knowing that his efforts were probably useless, he nonetheless kept going, calling as he walked.

 

Legolas sat in the oak tree watching Turgon pass below him and disappear further up the path.  He leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. His stomach was tied in knots and his hands trembled slightly.  The tree sensed his distress and murmured soothingly with a sound like the fluttering of spring leaves.  “Why is this still happening?” he wondered despairingly.  “What is wrong with me?”  He settled into the embrace of the tree and endeavored to order his mind into the meditative state the healers had taught him. Gradually, he calmed himself.  He could hear the distant shouts from the training field, but they seemed like the buzzing of insects on a warm day.

 

At last he roused himself and realized that the sounds on the training field had died away and the sun was high overhead. It was time for mid-day meal.  He should climb down and go home. Already his family would have heard of his leaving the field, and his father and brother would be “concerned.”  Legolas grimaced at the word. He wanted nothing more than to be left alone to brood in peace.  With a sigh, he swung down from his perch and started back along the path.

 

Turgon stepped out in front of him so abruptly that he started. “You have certainly kept me waiting long enough,” complained Turgon.  “And you know that I do not like waiting.”

 

“Turgon, what are you doing here?” Legolas asked irritably.  “You are missing mid-day meal.”

 

“So are you.  Come with me,” Turgon offered. “My mother always has something good stowed away in the kitchen.  We can help ourselves and take it into the woods for the afternoon.”

 

“I cannot.  I have lessons this afternoon.”

 

Turgon grimaced.  They had companions whose chosen life path was that of the scholar, and Elves respect that choice.  But Legolas was the only person their age he knew who was destined to become a warrior and still had lessons.  Thranduil insisted that Legolas study history and languages to a degree that seemed completely irrational to Turgon.  “Do not go,” he advised simply.

 

Legolas looked at his friend and suddenly his mood lifted.  He laughed and slapped Turgon on the shoulder.  “Sound advice.  Let us go and see what your mother has in her kitchen.”

 

The two of them made short work of the raid on the kitchen in Turgon’s family’s cottage.  They found bread, cheese, and a flask of cider that they carted off with them into the forest, heading for a spot near a stream where they had frequently fished.  They settled down and for a while concentrated on slaking the hunger that is always great in the young.  Finally, Turgon broke the silence.

 

“Legolas, are you ever going to tell me what is bothering you?”

 

Legolas leaned his head back against a tree trunk.  Perhaps he would feel better if he told Turgon.  “While you were at your family home,” he began slowly, “my father discovered that there was an agent of the enemy in the palace.” He groped for the words that would allow him to tell his story and finally simply blurted it out. “She was threatening someone else, and I killed her.”

 

Turgon’s eyes were huge.  “You killed this enemy yourself?”

 

“I stabbed her,” Legolas choked over the words.

 

Turgon tried to process what Legolas was telling him.  Legolas had been in an armed fight.  He had killed his adversary.  For an unworthy moment, Turgon was overwhelmed with jealousy. “Why did you not tell me before?” he cried.  “And I still do not understand what is disturbing you at weapons practice.” An explanation that made sense suddenly occurred to him. “Wait.  I see.  The tediousness of the weapons masters has been bothering me increasingly too. It must be doubly so for you who have already acted as a warrior.”

 

Legolas groaned.  He should have known that Turgon would not understand.  He would not have understood himself before he had grappled the young Elven woman to him and driven a dagger into her, using much the same movement he had used on the weapons master today.  The action had upset him more than he would have thought possible.  He had gradually been recovering his former equilibrium, but the knife bout today had brought all his worries to the fore again.  He wondered if he were cut out to be a warrior after all.

 

“There is no point in talking about it, Turgon,” he said finally.  “Let us go toward the great oak stand and see if the owl’s eggs have hatched yet.”  Turgon plainly wanted to talk further about his friend’s startling revelation, but he had known Legolas long enough to recognize when no more information was likely to be forthcoming.  He shoved his leftovers into his pack, slung it over his shoulder, and set out after his friend.

 

It was late by the time Legolas returned home.  As he entered the palace hall containing the family’s private quarters, the guard on duty spoke to him.  “The king left word that he wished to speak with you as soon as you came in, Legolas.  He is in his office.”

 

Legolas had expected nothing else and made his way to his father’s office. He knocked on the door, and his father’s voice bade him enter.

 

When Thranduil motioned him to a chair, Legolas was relieved.  If his father was inviting him to sit, then he was not angry.  That probably meant that this was a talk about Thranduil’s “concern” over him, which was not welcome but was better than anger. At least, Legolas thought that it was.  Thranduil regarded him for a moment and then said, “You left the training fields this morning and disappeared for the rest of the day.”

 

Legolas nodded.

 

“May I ask why?”

 

Legolas hesitated.  His father knew about the difficulty he was having and had been very patient.  But Legolas had been getting better, and now he did not like to reveal the recurrence of his weakness to Thranduil.  Still, truth was always better when talking to his father. “Thelion had been pressing me to resume knife training, and I thought that I was ready. I did well enough during the bout, but as soon as it was over, my hands began to tremble.  I did not want anyone to see, so I left the field.”

 

Thranduil frowned slightly.  “The weapons masters already know about this, Legolas.”  Ithilden had insisted that the masters be told.  No student could be allowed to miss so many classes without some excuse, including the king’s son.  Moreover, the weapons masters needed to know what they were dealing with if they were to help their students.

 

“Yes, Adar. But I still did not want anyone to see.”

 

Thranduil rubbed his right temple and sighed.  “These things take time.  That you did well during the bout is encouraging.  It will be easier the next time.”

 

Legolas nodded.  “I am going to try again tomorrow.”  Thranduil smiled at him.  Legolas seemed to doubt his own courage, but Thranduil knew how much bravery it took to confront a demon that was within.

 

“That is well.  You will have to apologize to Thelion for leaving the lesson.”

 

Legolas made a face, but nodded again.  He knew what was expected of him.

 

“And Legolas,” Thranduil’s voice was steelier now.  “You missed lessons today and spent the afternoon wandering the woods with Turgon. That will not happen again.”

 

Legolas sighed.  Very little went on in Mirkwood that Thranduil did not know about. “No, Adar.”

 

Thranduil contemplated him.  “Do I really need to give you the lecture on responsibility?” he asked wryly.

 

“No, Adar.” Legolas could not repress a grin.  “I will recite it to myself as I dress for evening meal.”

 

One corner of Thranduil’s mouth quirked in answer, but there was an underlying note of seriousness in his voice when he responded.  “See that you do,” he said and sent the impudent youngling on his way.

 

2. Turgon’s Idea

 

That evening, as was usual in the warm weather, Thranduil’s people gathered on the green outside the palace gates after evening meal to tell stories, listen to music, and dance. For Thranduil’s family, the gatherings this summer were particularly joyous because Ithilden, the crown prince, had recently become betrothed to Alfirin, whose mother was one of the palace healers. Indeed, she was the healer who had taught Legolas the mediation techniques that were intended to help him gather himself again from wherever the parts of his spirit had fled.

 

Legolas now sat beside Annael on one edge of the green watching his brother dance with Alfirin.  The betrothal ceremony had been held only two weeks ago. Alfirin’s family and Ithilden’s had come together to bless the exchange of promises that the young people had made.  The room had been arranged to represent the strengths and talents they intended to join. The walls had been draped with her weavings, which were greatly admired for their beauty.  Ithilden’s weapons and his harp had been arrayed on a table covered with one of Alfirin’s tapestries representing the oak leaves that symbolized Thranduil’s kingdom.  Legolas has been surprised to see his brother’s harp on the table, for he had always thought of Ithilden as more practical and less interested in music than most Elves.  He had been utterly astonished when Ithilden had picked up the harp and sung:

 

When you thread your fingers through mine,

 

I am reminded of your braided hair

 

And my hands tugging at the ends.

 

When you thread your loom,

 

I wonder at how artfully

 

Our paths have been woven.

 

Legolas had been dumbstruck.  Following the old traditions, the couple had exchanged silver rings which they now wore in shiny newness on the index fingers of their right hands, and the joy the two took in one another was transparent.  Alfirin seemed nice enough to Legolas, but he did not know her very well and felt shy around her. Her entry into their family was going to require some adjustment.  As Legolas watched, the dance ended, and Ithilden bent down to brush Alfirin’s mouth in a gentle kiss.

 

In the last year or two, Legolas had begun to be aware of the maidens his own age whose bodies were gradually rounding into womanhood. There was one in particular whose hair was the color of polished oak leaves. He had known her forever. Indeed he had once been punished for flinging mud at her for no reason he was later able to produce other than that she was a girl.  If he had not been afraid of his own awkwardness, Legolas would not have minded kissing her at all. But he could not imagine himself in the position Ithilden was now in.

 

Into Legolas’s somewhat dreamy state dropped Turgon, settling on the grass beside him and Annael. “I am bored,” said Turgon.

 

Reluctantly coming out of his reverie, Legolas smiled faintly.  “You have said that at least three times a day since you learned to talk, Turgon.”

 

“I have an idea,” began Turgon, much to the trepidation of the other two.  This sentence had introduced many a hair-raising episode in which they had all participated, sometimes to their sorrow. “We are all tired of the training exercises and believe that we would be of more use by actually using some of the skills we have learned, correct?”

 

Alarms went off in Legolas’s head, and Annael stiffened beside him. They both could see where this was going and neither of them liked the direction.

 

Blissfully unaware of their reaction, Turgon plowed on.  “I propose that we do something to prove ourselves to the weapons masters and that prig Ithilden.  I am sorry, Legolas, I know that he is your brother, but he can be very sharp-tongued when he likes.”  Legolas tried to imagine what the occasion had been upon which Ithilden had demonstrated his sharp tongue to Turgon, decided there were too many possibilities, and gave up.

 

“You cannot possibly be proposing that we ride out on our own,” Annael protested.

 

“Why not?” Turgon demanded. “I have ridden with my father’s patrols at our family home, and Legolas has used weapons in armed combat.”  Legolas cringed.  He had not told Annael about killing the enemy agent in the spring.

 

“What do you mean Legolas has used weapons in armed combat?” demanded Annael.  “When?”

 

Legolas turned to him to say something placating, but before he could say anything Turgon was going on with his suggestion.  “We three should ride south and westward for a few days and demonstrate our skills.  If we did that, no one would be able to keep us from the warrior patrols.”

 

“Yes, they would,” Legolas and Annael cried almost in unison.  The very idea was ludicrous. Sometimes Turgon lived in a dream world.

 

“I will not do it,” Annael said.  He had learned over the years that only a firm refusal had any chance of standing up to one of Turgon’s ideas in full flight.

 

Now Turgon was irritated.  “Legolas will do it.  He is not afraid, as you apparently are.”

 

“I am not afraid,” protested Annael.  “I am merely not insane.  Legolas, you would not do this, would you?”

 

They both turned to him. Legolas hesitated.  As Turgon had been arguing with Annael, he had remembered their talk of the afternoon.  It had occurred to him that Turgon’s eagerness had been sparked at least partly by his own tale.  Turgon had always been intensely competitive, and if Legolas had been involved in combat, Turgon would find it hard to still his own urge to show that he could do at least as well as his friend had.

 

And deep in his own heart, he had flinched at the taunt, “afraid,” that Turgon had tossed at Annael. Was he afraid?  Would he be able to handle a weapon when he needed to without his hands shaking?

 

Reacting to his hesitation, Annael cried, “You cannot possibly be considering this, Legolas.  And besides,” he continued in triumph, “how would either of you ever be able to do it?   Your parents would notice that you were gone before a day was out.  Even your parents would object, Turgon, and Thranduil would send someone after you. That would surely be unpleasant.”  This last was said with a certain grim satisfaction. Turgon’s parents had always allowed him to do pretty much as he liked, but by Elven standards, Thranduil was unusually strict with Legolas, as he had been with his two older sons, Ithilden and Eilian.  He evidently believed that the privileges and responsibilities that accrued to the sons of the king meant they needed to learn discipline early.

 

“I will think of something to take care of our parents,” Turgon promised, sending chills of apprehension down the spines of his two friends.

 

To Legolas, the rest of the evening passed in a haze of worry, as he tried to guess what Turgon might do.  As they were leaving the green at the evening’s end, Annael grasped his arm.  “Why are you letting him talk you into this?” he urged. “This is no joke, Legolas. You know it is a bad idea.”

 

“I cannot let him go alone.”

 

“But if you do not go, he will not either.”

 

Legolas shook his head. “You know Turgon better than that. Once he gets an idea in his head, he will not let go of it. Besides, I think, perhaps, that he has this idea in response to something I said this afternoon.  I cannot leave him on his own. If something happened to him, I would feel responsible.”

 

Annael was exasperated. “You cannot be responsible for every foolish thing that Turgon does.”

 

Legolas shook his head and did not answer.

 

***

 

The next day, weapons training began with an announcement and a request.  Sondil, the woodcraft master, was taking the group of youngest elflings on a camping trip that would last for three days.  He asked for volunteers from among the older students to accompany him on the trip and help to teach woodcraft skills to the little one.  Legolas, Turgon, and Annael all looked studiously at their feet, avoiding eye contact with Sondil.  Only after two of their fellows had stepped forward did they raise their eyes.

 

As soon as they had been released to their classes, Legolas sought out Thelion, the blade master, and apologized for leaving yesterday’s lesson.  Thelion was known as a kind teacher, and he had seen his student’s distress the day before, which was why he had not insisted that Legolas return to the training field immediately.  He accepted the apology without comment.  Then he asked, “Would you like to work with daggers again today?”  After only the briefest of pauses, Legolas nodded.  He had risen early and had spent an hour in the healing meditation that Alfirin’s mother had taught him. He believed, he hoped, that he was ready to try once again to triumph over his agitation.

 

Having donned their protective gear, the two once again began circling one another, each trying to sense the other’s intent.  So easily that he was taken by surprise, Legolas found himself settling into the intense concentration that, until the last few months, he had nearly always experienced when wielding weapons.  When he had first taken up the dagger, his palms had been sweaty and his grip had been slightly slippery.  But now he felt calm, as if he and Thelion were engaging in some sort of dance and moved in a harmony that was within his control to maintain or rupture.   They feinted and thrust and parried, matching strength to strength.  But in the end, as on the previous day, Legolas again triumphed, moving under Thelion’s outthrust arm and pushing his dagger into the leather over the teacher’s belly. Pulling away, Thelion laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. Legolas stood for a moment, and then, in relief, he grinned and gripped the teacher’s arm in his steady hand. For another hour, they worked together, until Thelion sent him off, basking in the approval of the weapons master and his own.

 

As he stood at the side of the training field, wiping his sweaty face on a towel, Turgon turned up beside him, looking pleased with himself.  “It is done,” he said.

 

“What do you mean?” asked Legolas.

 

“I have sent notes to our parents telling them that we will be accompanying Sondil on the woodcraft training trip with the elflings.”

 

Legolas blinked.  “Turgon,” he protested, “you cannot possibly want to spend three days looking after the elflings.  I know that I do not.”

 

“We are not really going with Sondil,” Turgon explained, as if he were speaking to one who was thick-headed. “I wrote the notes myself.  Do you not see? This is our opportunity to slip away and be three days gone before our parents miss us. And I did not send a note to Annael’s parents either.  He does not deserve to go.  We will leave tomorrow morning.”

 

Legolas was horrified.  If he went with Turgon, his father was going to be beside himself with rage at both the trip itself and the deceit used to enable it. Thranduil valued honesty and honor, and Legolas had always tried to be truthful with his father even when it was difficult.  He cherished his father’s trust in him.  That it might be undone by Turgon’s actions was an almost unbearable thought.

 

And yet how was he to back down now?  Turgon had already sent the notes.  Perhaps he could tell his father that someone had sent the note as a joke, knowing that Legolas would not want to spend three days babysitting elflings.  But if he did that, then Turgon would surely go by himself, and Legolas was deeply worried about his friend’s safety under those circumstances. For one moment, Legolas considered breaking his friend’s confidence and telling Turgon’s parents what their son was planning.  But the violation of the code of the young seemed overwhelming and besides, Legolas was not entirely confident that Turgon’s father would put his foot down firmly enough to prevent disaster. He could see no way out of the hole that Turgon had dug for them.

 

Dealing with Turgon was sometimes like facing a large rock rolling down hill.  The safe course was undoubtedly to do as Annael was advising and get out of the way lest he, himself, be crushed in the onslaught.  But Legolas was afraid that his friend would run into a wall one day and smash himself to pieces if no one were there to slow him down.  There seemed to be no one but him to stand before the out-of-control rock.  If he did not do it, who would?  Thranduil had taught all of his sons that they were responsible for Mirkwood.  Did that not also mean that he was responsible for Turgon?

 

And deep inside there was always the nagging thought, Was he afraid to engage in battle?  It was all very well to succeed in practice, but Legolas had seen the difference between practice and reality and that difference had shaken him profoundly.

 

***

 

Legolas found no relief from his agitation when he went home for evening meal that night.  The only saving grace was that on that evening Thranduil’s family ate in the Great Hall with the whole household.  If they had eaten in their small, private dining room, he would not have been able to manage it.  As it was, there were moments he found hard to bear.

 

“Ithilden tells me that you did well in training today, my son,” his father spoke to him briefly on his way to his own place at the head table.  “I am proud of you.”

 

Legolas swallowed and said nothing.

 

“I have received a note from Sondil saying that you will accompany him tomorrow on a camping trip with the younger students,” Thranduil went on, with a somewhat puzzled air. “Do you wish to do this?”

 

Unable to trust himself to speak, Legolas nodded and then, in a strangled voice, added, “Turgon and I wanted to get out into the woods for a while.”

 

“Ah,” said his father, more coolly, “Turgon.” But he said no more and moved on.

 

Legolas ate little, went to bed early and slept badly.

 

3.  Hunting Spiders

 

In the morning, Legolas rose from tangled sheets that testified to how much he had tossed and turned in the night.  He dressed hastily in leggings and tunic, and because they would be on horseback, he chose a brown jerkin rather then his cloak.  Then he began throwing objects into his pack.  He strapped on his quiver and slung his bow over his shoulder.  He considered taking the pair of long knives that Thranduil had given him on his last begetting day, but finally decided on a single short sword that would be easier to manage on horseback than a long one would.  He slid it into a scabbard fastened to his belt.  Into his boot, he slid the dagger that any Mirkwood Elf would feel naked without.

 

He paused for a moment to looks at the picture of his mother that stood on the bedside table. The picture had been gifted to him by his brother Eilian just before he left to return to his patrol in southern Mirkwood.  Legolas did not know where Eilian had gotten the picture.  He had never seen it before Eilian handed it to him.  Legolas had been very young when his mother was killed by Orcs and had recently confessed to Eilian that he did not clearly remember what his mother looked like.  The picture had come in answer to a need he had not known he felt.  He considered taking the picture but decided not to.  It was too precious to risk damaging. He started for the stables without pausing for food.  He wanted to get away from the palace without encountering his father, and he did not think he would be able to eat anyway.

 

At the stables, he found Turgon waiting in a state of high excitement.  “I cannot believe that I did not think of something like this before,” he exclaimed.  “To think that we could be spending the morning at weapons training,” he added scornfully.  The two of them led their horses out into the summer morning. 

 

Legolas stroked Sadron’s soft, brown muzzle and whispered into his ear. “Good morning, my friend.  Shall we go for a long ride with Turgon and Brithiel?”  Sadron snorted in what Legolas was not entirely sure was approval.  The two of them grasped the horses’ manes, leapt gracefully onto their backs, and set off westward along the main path.

 

Turgon had suggested that they ride west along the path as quickly as possible for most of the first day in order to gain distance from Thranduil’s stronghold.  They would need to watch for patrols and be ready to move into hiding swiftly, because the path was well-guarded by Ithilden’s warriors.  By late afternoon, they could leave the main path and strike southward, hunting primarily for giant spiders.  If they should encounter Orcs, so much the better.  Legolas had agreed to this plan without enthusiasm.

 

They began well with a ride through what Legolas had always thought of as the most pleasant time of the day.  Morning mist still lay lightly over the land, muffling noise and lending everything a magical vagueness in which anything seemed possible. Gradually, the sun rose higher and the day grew warmer.  Both of them removed their jerkins and loosened the collars of their tunics. They became grateful for the green shade in which they rode. By noon, they had encountered only one of Thranduil’s patrols and had managed to slide into the shadows just off the path in time to avoid detection. Legolas                                   privately thought that Ithilden would have had some crisp words to say about the alertness of the three warriors in the patrol if he had been there to witness the event.

 

They made good time, and by early afternoon, when they paused to eat some of the waybread from their packs, they were farther from Thranduil’s fortress than either of them had ever been without an adult present.  Soon they were beyond where they had been even under supervision.  As they rode further, the nature of the woods around them gradually changed.  The trees became denser and grew more tightly together over the path.  The air became darker, thicker, and more difficult to breath.  There were fewer birds and fewer small creatures moving in the leaves and bushes.  They both grew a little uneasy, although neither admitted it to the other.

 

“Do you think we should branch off soon?” Turgon finally asked, breaking the silence that had settled over them for the last half hour or so.

 

“I do not know,” answered Legolas, looking southward.  “The undergrowth is so thick that the horses will have trouble. Let us watch to see if we can find any sort of break that looks like a path or at least an easier way.”

 

They rode on, scanning the woods closely and finally were rewarded with a thinning of the undergrowth that might have counted as a path in a pinch.  They rode along it single file, picking their way around obstacles and rejoicing in occasional breaks in the dense growth.  The trees here were silent or murmured only in whispers that Legolas could not understand.  They troubled him.

 

They had been riding south for perhaps an hour when Turgon, who was in the lead, suddenly halted.  Coming up on him, Legolas saw what had caused his friend to pause.  Thick strands of spider webbing dangled from a tree to their left.  The two of them stared at it in thrilled anticipation.

 

Slowly they rode toward the web.  It seemed to be unoccupied and probably had been so for some time. But the sight of it told them that they were at last entering upon an adventure.  They paused to consider.  In this thickly wooded area, twilight was already approaching even on this summer day.

 

“If we go on in this direction,” Legolas said, “we are likely to encounter an active colony. But I think that we should do that in daylight.  Perhaps we should camp for the night now and begin the hunt in all seriousness in the morning.”

 

Secretly relieved, Turgon agreed, and, seeking for a place to make their camp, the two of them backtracked a little to a spot where the trees were a bit less dense and the darkening sky could be glimpsed between the distant tree tops.  Here they dismounted and turned their horses free to graze.  The horses would come when they were called, so there was no need to tether them.  They did not bother to build a fire, since the night would be warm and they had only waybread to eat.

 

“We should set a watch,” said Turgon, thus showing that not all lessons had been lost upon him.  They divided the watch, with Turgon volunteering to take the first shift.  Legolas rolled up in a blanket and settled to sleep, although sleep was slow to come after the new experiences of the day. 

 

The night passed uneventfully, and in the morning, they set off cautiously in the direction they believed the spiders’ nests to be.  The forest was thick enough that they had to walk with their horses trailing behind.  They had slipped along single-file for perhaps an hour when they once again began to see traces of webs.  The traces thickened and suddenly they saw what they had been watching for.  In a pair of trees directly in front of them, there were several black nests, with thick ropes of webbing trailing down to the forest floor, ready to trap the unwary. And there, hovering about the nests, were seven of the huge black spiders that had made much of Mirkwood uninhabitable. Legolas felt a hatred that was akin to disgust.

 

He and Turgon had been moving as silently as only Wood-Elves can and now they were doubly careful, sliding through the trees in opposite directions, avoiding the strands of web as they went.  Legolas slid into position, with his heart pounding so loudly that he was surprised that Turgon did not hear it from the other side of the trees.  He found that his hands were slightly sweaty as he pulled his first arrow, notched it to his bowstring, and waited.  He had to wait for only a few seconds before he heard the bird call that told him that Turgon too was in place.  He drew the arrow back, took careful aim, and fired. Almost to his surprise, a spider toppled to the ground with his arrow through its eye.  At the same time, Turgon too had fired and a second spider fell to the forest floor.

 

Legolas drew twice again quickly and brought down a third spider, but now the beasts were scrambling to their own defense, making a horrible clicking noise.  One of them swung toward him on a strand of web as thick as Legolas’s arm. He dodged hastily to his left, watching out at the same time for the other sticky strands that drooped around him.  As the spider swung by him, he fired again and had the satisfaction of seeing his arrow go right through the creature’s skull.

 

He turned toward the nests again and found Turgon firing arrows in rapid succession at two spiders that were scuttling toward him on the ground.  Legolas fired and hit one of them as Turgon brought down the other.  He notched an arrow and spun round, searching for the last target but, to his surprise, found nothing. Turgon had evidently shot one of them while he was preoccupied with the one swinging toward him.  Seven spider carcasses lay on the ground beneath the trees.  The whole battle had taken less than three minutes.

 

Turgon was jubilant.  “My first encounter with the spiders and I have killed three of them,” he crowed.

 

Legolas lowered his bow and felt his heart begin to slow to normal.  “Did you never encounter them when you rode with your father’s patrols in the spring?” he asked.  “Somehow, I thought that you had.”

 

Turgon hesitated.  “Truth be told,” he confessed, “my father allowed me to join his warriors only twice when they were riding very near the manor.  I believe that squirrels were the largest animals that we saw.”

 

Legolas stared at him and then burst out laughing.  “I cannot tell you how jealous I was of you,” he cried.  “Your letters put me in a foul mood for days on end.”

 

Turgon grinned.  “It turns out that you were the one who was in a battle.  I confess that I too have felt some jealousy over the last two days. But now, I think we both have something to boast of when we return home.”

 

Legolas’s own joy dimmed suddenly at the thought of what he would almost certainly face at home, but he could not deny the satisfaction he felt.  He and Turgon had triumphed in a battle again these loathsome creatures, and he had not hesitated for a second.  The steadiness of his own hands was more gratifying to him than anything he could remember for some time.

 

“Come,” he said.  “We had better retrieve our arrows and be off.  We do not know how many of their fellows are about.”

 

By late afternoon, they had made their way considerably further southwest.  They had found a lightly trodden path that wound its way through the trees to the west.  Legolas wondered if it had been made by the Woodmen who, he had heard, lived on Mirkwood’s western edge.  He would have thought that he and Turgon were too far east to find the paths of the Woodmen, but perhaps he had misjudged the distance that he and Turgon had traveled or the extent to which the Woodmen ventured east.  In any case, he and Turgon were grateful for the easier travel that made it possible to ride.  The only encounter they had was with a pair of spiders that they had almost casually shot before the spiders were even aware of their presence. Both of them felt that this must be what it was like to be warriors.

 

***

 

“My lord, so far as I know, neither Legolas nor Turgon ever intended to come on the camping trip,” said Sondil.

 

Thranduil face reddened.  Signaling an attendant, he sent for Ithilden and for Turgon’s father, Vardalan.  After a moment’s thought, he also sent for Annael. If anyone knew where Legolas and Turgon really were, he thought grimly, it would be Annael, since it so evidently was not the younglings’ parents.

 

The party of elflings had come back a day early after one of them had fallen down the bank into a streambed and sprained a wrist.  The injury was not serious, but it was enough to lead to an early return for the small ones.  And with their return had come the discovery that Legolas and Turgon were not among them.  Thranduil waited now with the woodcraft master to see if they could determine exactly where the two missing ones were.

 

Ithilden arrived, followed shortly by Vardalan.  Thranduil repeated to them what Sondil had just told him and even Vardalan looked worried.  Finally, Annael arrived, accompanied by his own father, who had no intention of letting his son face King Thranduil on his own.  Thranduil tried to arrange his face in reasonably benign lines so that Annael would feel able to speak freely, but it was a struggle.

 

“Where are they?” he asked with no preamble.

 

Annael had been awaiting the summons, although it had come a day earlier than he had anticipated.  He had thought long and hard about what he was going to say and had made up his mind:  He told the truth, everything that he knew.  When he had finished, Thranduil dismissed him, and he was led away, with his father quietly chiding him for not speaking earlier.  “Think of the danger they could be in,” he admonished as they left.  There was quiet in the room as every Elf there thought of exactly that.

 

Thranduil’s face was grim with both worry and anger. He waited until Vardalan had departed before he expressed his feelings to Ithilden.  “The deceit they used to arrange this is almost past bearing.”

 

“I gather from what Annael said that the deceit was Turgon’s idea,” Ithilden ventured.

 

“Has Legolas no mind of his own?” Thranduil exclaimed. “He knows better. This is willful defiance. I want them found and dragged back here by their ears.”

 

At Thranduil’s orders, Ithilden hastened to organize a search party.  He proposed to take Sondil, the woodcraft master, who would serve as their chief tracker, and Thrambor, who had recently been on patrol to the southwest where Annael said the two truants had been headed.  “We will make better time with just three of us,” he told Thranduil. “We will leave immediately and get as far as we can before dark. Then we will begin again in the morning. I do not want to miss the place where they left the path.  A patrol rode traveled the path that morning and did not see them, so they may have left it earlier than Annael thinks.”

 

“I have sent a message to Eilian to have the southern patrol watch for them too,” Thranduil said, when Ithilden came to report that the search party was ready to leave.  “And Ithilden,” he added as his oldest son was turning to leave. “If he is uninjured when you find them, I trust that you will make his trip home as unpleasant as possible.”

 

“Turgon’s trip too?” Ithilden asked longingly.

 

Thranduil gave a small, grim smile. “That would seem appropriate,” he said.  “Then once they are home, we can leave Turgon to his own father’s wrath.”

 

“Turgon’s father is never wrathful with him,” observed Ithilden.

 

“More is the pity,” responded Thranduil.

4.  Men

 

In the course of the night, the weather changed and a thunderstorm blew up.  Clouds covered the moon and stars, and deepened the darkness.  Rain penetrated even the thick leaves above them and soaked them both, making sleep impossible.  Their horses were unhappy at the thunder and had to be reassured.  Along with their animals, they huddled under the thickest foliage they could find to wait out the storm. They had stood there for perhaps twenty minutes, when, over the noise of the storm, Legolas thought that he heard some sort of stir further down the path.  He strained his eyes and ears and had just put his hand up to grab his bow when Turgon said tensely, “There’s something coming.”

 

The two of them acted in speedy concert. They sent the horses away, moved to the underbrush, and readied their weapons.  The noises sorted themselves out into at least three creatures, two of them heavy and the other lighter.  The lighter one was stumbling, as if it were injured.  Legolas had just had a sudden flash of knowledge about what the heavy creatures must be when they burst into the sight.  Orcs!  Legolas cursed himself and Turgon for not having taken to the trees instead of the underbrush.  They had been told over and over again that trees were the best vantage point for fighting Orcs who could not climb themselves.  But he had simply not realized until too late what the approaching creatures must be.  He had heard talk of these beasts all of his life, but he had never seen one before. The darkness made it impossible to see clearly now, but the hulking, clumsy creatures moved far more quickly than seemed possible from their heavy forms.

 

Responding to his long training rather than to his somewhat panicked feelings, Legolas aimed, fired, and had the satisfaction of seeing his arrow lodge in the left shoulder of one of the Orcs, although the creature seemed to take about as much notice of it as he would have of an annoying insect bite.  Turgon had sent a shot into the other one, but the two of them were still notching new arrows when, alerted to their presence by the arrows, the Orcs turned upon them.

 

Both Orcs carried swords that they swung as they charged the two Elves.  Legolas managed to get off another shot that again struck home before he had to scramble out of the way, drawing his long knife.  He far preferred a bow as a weapon but its use was limited in quick, close combat.  The Orc that he had shot kept coming at him, seemingly untroubled by the arrows.  The creature stank and its eyes glowed yellow. Legolas ducked under the Orc’s sword and came in close.  The Orc grunted and clouted him on the side of the face with the hilt of his sword.  Legolas was stunned, but not too stunned to use his long knife in the same move he had practiced over and over only three days ago.  With a grunt, the Orc sank to the ground.  Legolas wrenched his knife free and turned to see how Turgon was faring.

 

To his surprise, someone else had now entered the clearing and was wielding a sword alongside Turgon.  The Orc that they were battling hacked at the newcomer, who parried with his own sword but probably not before the Orc had wounded him in the shoulder. Legolas ran to them, but the stranger managed to drive his sword into the Orc’s gut and the creature collapsed.

 

“Are you all right?” Legolas asked frantically.

 

“Yes,” said Turgon, although his voice was shaky.  He had spun and was now pointing his sword toward the stranger, uncertain of who he was and why he was there.  The stranger raised his hands placatingly, swayed, and then, in a slow, graceful move, he collapsed to the ground.

 

Legolas and Turgon looked at one another and then moved cautiously to the stranger’s side.  To Legolas’s shock, he realized that their supporter was a Man.  He was tall and dark-haired, with a stubble of beard on his face.  Legolas had glimpsed Men occasionally, when the Men of the lake brought goods or messages to Thranduil, but he had never been close to one or spoken to one.  Thranduil was mildly hostile to the race, seeing in all of them the people who, along with Elrond and Gil-Galad, he believed had bungled the Battle of Dagorlad and caused the deaths of two-thirds of the Mirkwood warriors, including Thranduil’s own father, Oropher. That the leader of Men had then kept the Enemy’s ring for himself had confirmed Thranduil’s opinion of Men’s general untrustworthiness.

 

Legolas had as a matter of course come to share some of his father’s distrust of them and was alert to possible deception by the prostrate Man.  Thus he kept his knife in his hand as he bent over him, checking to see what injuries he had suffered.  There was a deep cut on the man’s left shoulder, probably the wound that Legolas had seen him suffer at the hands of the Orc. More serious, there was a gash in the top of his head that had probably been there before he ever entered the campsite.  Legolas pulled back his hand and found it sticky with human blood.  “He has a head wound,” he said, sheathing his knife. “Go and get one of our packs.”  Turgon stood immobile staring at the Orc who lay dead at his feet. “Turgon,” Legolas urged. “Get one of our packs.”

 

Turgon roused himself and raced off to retrieve a pack from under the tree where they had sheltered.  He brought his own back and extricated his healing packet, something neither of them would have entered the woods without.  All warriors in training were taught simple healing techniques that would inevitably be needed on the battlefield. The packet contained some herbs and a limited amount of clean bandaging. Luckily, the storm had moved off and the rain was now dwindling, so Legolas was able to see the Man’s wounds as he cleaned and bandaged them.  He did not want to risk using the herbs on the wound; he had no idea of how they would affect a Man.

 

“Help me move him to a drier place, if we can find one,” he requested. Between the two of them, they lifted the surprisingly heavy form and draped one of his arms around each of their shoulders.  The Man was unconscious, and they had to drag him, with his toes trailing in the mud, to the spot beneath the tree that seemed the driest place about.  Both of their blankets were wet from the rain, but Legolas wrapped the less wet one around the Man’s body.

“He needs a fire, I think,” he said.  Accepting Legolas’s leadership in this matter, Turgon began to search for reasonably dry wood and kindling.  After some effort, they managed to get a fire started.  They sat back on their heels and regarded their--what? Savior? Prisoner?

 

“Who do you think he is?” asked Turgon.

 

“I have no idea.  One of the Woodmen, perhaps.  I think that we have been following one of their trails.”

 

“I do not like this,” said Turgon.  “I do not think that we should be around when he wakes up.”

 

“We cannot leave him,” Legolas protested. “He is hurt, and there may be more Orcs about.”

 

At this, Turgon shivered.  The battle with the Orcs had not been nearly so exhilarating as the ones with the spiders.  He had come close to having his head cut off.  “What do you propose, then?” he asked, his anxiety making him sharp.

 

“We need to wait for him to awaken,” Legolas said stubbornly.

 

Turgon blew out his breath in exasperation.  “Very well,” he said, knowing it would do no good to argue.  He looked at Legolas, “Does your face hurt?” he asked in sudden concern.  Legolas touched the left side of his face where the Orc had struck him with the sword hilt.  Now that Turgon mentioned it, it did hurt.  He sat patiently while Turgon fetched the healing kit again and dabbed at the cut and the growing bruise around it with a salve that stung like fire. Turgon’s hand trembled slightly as he worked but Legolas refrained from commenting on it.  This battle had been frightening.  In a tribute to their training, they had both functioned well while it was happening, but in the aftermath of it, they were both taking time to recover.  Legolas felt no remorse for slaying the Orcs, but he felt a great deal of healthy respect for the threat they had posed.

 

When Turgon had finished dabbing the salve on his face, Legolas looked up at the stars that were now visible through the trees.  “There is only another hour or two of darkness.  Why do you not see if you can sleep?  I will keep watch.”

 

Turgon accepted the offer with visible gratitude.  With the excitement of battle draining away, they were both finding themselves exhausted.  Turgon lay down as close to the fire as he could, and Legolas sat down against a tree near the Man.  He contemplated the wounded Man and wondered what he was doing in Mirkwood.  Was this something he should be worried about? Should he try to get word to his father of the Man’s presence?   The warmth of the fire flowed over his tired muscles, and he became aware that his eyes were glazing over and he was drifting off to sleep.  He stood up and began to pace the campsite.

 

A sudden unexpected noise caught his attention, bringing him to full alert.  He strained his ears and the noise came again.  Someone, no, two people were moving quietly, but not quietly enough, around the edge of the campsite in opposite directions.  Legolas’s ears told him they were too noisy to be Elves and too quiet to be Orcs.  He drew the only possible conclusion. Turgon was stirring slightly, probably disturbed by the unusual noise but not yet awake.  Legolas prodded him with his foot.  “I think our guest has friends out there,” he murmured, as Turgon’s eyes came into focus.

 

Legolas searched his mind frantically, trying to remember any advice he might have been given on how to handle a situation such as the one they were in. He recalled Thranduil’s distrust of the race and hesitated. The Men probably did not know yet that Legolas and Turgon had heard them.  He could call to them, challenging them to appear, but for all he knew, they were hostile and were even now readying their weapons to fire at the Elves who would be quite visible in the firelight. Turgon was looking to him for an indication of what their actions should be.

 

Finally, Legolas did the only thing that occurred to him.  He drew the dagger from his boot and put it to the throat of the injured Man.  Having just enough wits to remember that the Men probably spoke Westron, he spoke carefully in a language he had never had occasion to use before.  “Show yourselves,” he called, “or I will harm your friend.”  He cringed at the shakiness of his voice.

 

There was a moment’s silence, and then, across the campsite, a Man stepped from the trees, his bow lowered and containing no arrow, his free hand raised with the palm out.  “We mean you no harm,” he said soothingly.  Turgon, who spoke no Westron, had sprung to his feet, clutching his own bow at the ready.  He had watched Legolas’s actions in some confusion, unable to believe that his friend would put a dagger to the throat of an unconscious person.  Now, he lowered his own bow in response to the Man’s soothing gestures.

 

Legolas had thought that the other lurker was on his side of the campsite, but he had lost track of just where this second Man was when the other had stepped forward and spoken.  Now he glanced quickly around to see if another Man too had stepped into sight.  Suddenly, someone heavy sprang at him from behind, knocking him down and then wrenching the dagger from his hand.  At the same moment, the Man who had entered the campsite lunged at Turgon and seized his bow.  With some struggle, the Men overpowered the smaller Elves, and Legolas and Turgon found themselves pushed to their knees with their hands tied behind them.  The Man who had first entered the campsite searched them quickly, taking their weapons, including the dagger from Turgon’s boot.  He then stood in front of them with his sword drawn.

 

The Man who had grappled with Legolas bent over the wounded Man.  He spoke in Westron to the one holding the sword, “He has a shoulder wound and a nasty gash to the head. I thought I saw that Orc’s sword strike him there.  He must have gotten the shoulder wound after we were separated in the skirmish. The wounds have been cleaned and bandaged though.” Then he stood up from his examination and looked thoughtfully at the two Elves.  In Westron, he asked, “Was it you who bandaged our friend’s wounds?”

 

“Yes,” said Legolas. “The Orcs ran into our camp.  I think he must have been chasing them, because he followed after.  He helped us to slay them.” He pointed with his chin at the two Orc bodies that still lay further down the path.

 

“He helped you?” the Man holding the sword asked, sarcastically stressing the pronouns.  “Are you sure it was not the other way around?”  He appeared amused by the claim that this slim youngster had just made.

 

Legolas opened his mouth to say something undoubtedly unwise, given that he was bound and had a sword pointed at him, but the Man tending to the wounded one interrupted.  “Peace, Sarelad,” he said.  “Surely you can see they’re only lads.  I don’t think we will unbind their hands, though. We don’t necessarily want them summoning a pack of Wood Elves who will do more than threaten us with daggers, even though my guess is that these two had no intention of carrying out their threat, given that they had just spent a fair amount of effort in caring for Aragost. You may have to tie their feet as well,” he added regretfully.  “Let me see to Aragost, and then we will deal with our Elven friends.”  He searched in his own pack and removed a healer’s packet not so very different from the ones that Legolas and Turgon carried. 

 

The Man holding the sword did as he had been bid and trussed their feet. Then he stood back and regarded them curiously.  He could not imagine what these two obviously young Elves were doing in this dangerous part of Mirkwood, and he did not like situations that he did not understand. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” he asked suspiciously.

 

Legolas bristled.  These woods were his father’s realm, and these Men were intruders who had no right to speak to him or any other Elf in that tone.  The Man prodded Turgon gently with the sword point.  “I asked who you are,” he said.

 

“He does not understand you,” said Legolas. “He does not speak Westron.”

 

“Then you may answer for him,” said the Man with the sword.

 

Legolas grimaced in frustration, but answered.  “I am Legolas,” he said, giving no patronymic. “This is Turgon. And who are you and what are you doing here?” he added in as rude a tone as he could muster.

 

The man stared at him for a moment and then laughed.  “You have cheek. I’ll give you that,” he said.  Legolas was unsure exactly what “cheek” meant, but he chose not to ask.  The man bowed in exaggerated politeness. “I am Sarelad, and this is Berioger.”

 

Berioger sat back from his labors over the wounded man and frowned. “I think we will just have to wait.  I don’t want to move him, though. We should build up the fire.”  He glanced at Sarelad.  “Can you get some wood?”  Sarelad shot one last amused look at the Elves and then left to carry out Berioger’s bidding.  Berioger looked at Legolas. “You did a good job of cleaning and bandaging our friend’s wounds. Thank you.”   Legolas nodded once curtly in acknowledgement.  These Men had tied him and Turgon up and had been unforgivably rude.  He was not about to be polite from his current position.

 

Berioger waited until Sarelad returned. Then he picked up his own pack and pulled out dried meat. “Are you hungry?” he asked, as he approached them. “I will untie your hands so you can eat, but you shouldn’t try to escape,” he said.  “We mean you no harm, but we can’t let you go until Aragost is able to move on.  We have heard that Wood-Elves are not friendly toward Men, and I can’t take the chance that you’ll summon more of your people and try to take us captive or worse. Tell your friend what I say.”  Legolas translated, and when he had finished, Berioger untied first Legolas’s hands and then Turgon’s.  He offered them some of the meat.  They hesitated and then accepted, but they waited until he had eaten some before they tasted it themselves.  He snorted.  “Suspicious lot, you two are.”  He sat down with his back to the tree under which Aragost lay.  Sarelad settled next to him taking his share of the meat and never removing his eyes from Legolas and Turgon.

 

When they had finished eating, Berioger tied their hands again.  “You might as well lie down and try to sleep,” he advised.  “We could be here a while.”  They stared at him with gazes that he found unsettling.  “Lie down,” he said again, making it an order this time.  Legolas translated for Turgon.

 

“I do not like this,” Turgon answered.

 

“Nor do I,” said Legolas, “but we must bide our time.” The two of them lay down, but they kept their watchful eyes on the Men.

5. Learning to Trust

 

The Men busied themselves around the camp, cleaning and repairing their gear while they had the chance.  At one point, Berioger left the camp site and came back with several herbs that he set carefully to one side, evidently planning to use them on his patient.  Sarelad performed the unpleasant task of dragging the Orc bodies into the woods and performing some sort of rudimentary burial.  It was well into the afternoon before the wounded Man moaned and stirred.  His companions were near him in an instant, easing him to a half-sitting position and offering him water.  He blinked and looked around him.  His gaze came to rest on Legolas and Turgon who had sat up and were observing him in silence.  “Am I imagining two Elves?” he asked weakly. “Are they a product of my head wound?”

 

“No, they’re real enough.  Does your head ache?”  Berioger asked as he examined the gash on Aragost’s head.

 

Aragost closed his eyes again.  “As if there were dwarves inside trying to kick their way out.”

 

Berioger chuckled.  “I’ll make you some tea that will help,” he promised, and put a pan of water over the fire.  The wounded Man lay quietly with his eyes shut again. When the water was hot, Berioger selected from among his herbs and dropped the leaves into the water to steep.

 

Legolas had been watching the Men closely, looking for any weakness that might be useful later.  When Berioger picked up the herb, he could not prevent himself from sucking in his breath sharply.  Turgon had evidently seen the same thing he had, for he was now looking at the pan of steeping leaves with wide eyes.  After a few moments, Berioger picked up the pan and drained the tea carefully into a cup.  Legolas could restrain himself no longer.

 

“No!” he cried.  Berioger and Sarelad turned to look at him in surprise, and even Aragost cracked his eyes open to regard him.  “That is naeth weed,” he said.  “It is poisonous to Elves and to every other creature that I know of, so it probably will not do your friend any good either. Although,” he added arrogantly, “it probably will cure his headache.”

 

Berioger and Sarelad looked at one another and then at the intact pieces of the herb.  “I have never heard of naeth weed,” said Berioger doubtfully, “It looks like aracanath.”

 

“No,” said Legolas firmly.  “They say that naeth weed grows only in Mirkwood.  It looks like aracanath, but it is not.  The leaves are too large. And do you not see the lines on the underside?”   The Men inspected the herb more closely. Berioger, looking shaken, turned suddenly and flung the tea away into the woods.  He turned to Legolas.

 

“Thank you,” he said.

 

Legolas nodded and then said hesitantly, “I have aracanath in my pack.”  Sarelad looked surprised for a moment but then picked up one of the Elven packs and turned questioningly to Legolas. “That is Turgon’s pack,” he said, “but he has it too.  It is wrapped in a packet that is probably on top.  He had his healing packet out when we tended to your friend.”  He stressed this last trying to evoke some guilt from the Men, but they were too busy to react.   Turgon growled under his breath when the Men began pawing through his pack, but they ignored him.  They located the healing packet, sorted through the herbs, and found what they were looking for.  Sarelad scrubbed out the pan thoroughly and set about heating more water. The Men made the tea and again drained it into a cup.  Then Berioger roused Aragost and carefully fed him the tea.  The wounded Man seemed to drop immediately back to sleep.

 

The Men then began a whispered conversation that was quite audible to Legolas’s sharp Elven ears.  He translated for Turgon under his breath.

 

“We should unbind them,” said Berioger. “They tended Aragost’s wounds and prevented us from harming him. It isn’t right to keep them like this.  They have shown no enmity.”

 

“Except for the dagger at Aragost’s throat,” Sarelad reminded him

 

“He never would have used it,” Berioger argued.  “Did you not hear the quaver in his voice? He was trying to bluff us out of hiding.”

 

“And if we free them, they will bring more of their kind. You know we were warned that Wood-Elves were an unfriendly bunch, and the blond has a mouth on him that seems to bear out the warning.”

 

“He is ill-mannered,” sighed Berioger, “but he looks to be about the same age as my son, and he’s the same way.  It means nothing.”

 

Turgon smiled nastily at Legolas. “You should have let them drink the tea,” he murmured.  Legolas snorted inelegantly.

 

Berioger approached them.  “If you will promise not to try to escape,” he said, “I will untie you.”

 

Legolas translated this offer for Turgon, and then the two of them weighed it in silence.  “You must let us speak to one another,” Legolas said finally.  Berioger nodded and moved away to give them privacy, and although the move was unnecessary given his inability to understand Sindarin, the Elves still appreciated the politeness.  “What do you think?” Legolas asked Turgon.

 

“I am getting very tired of being bound,” admitted Turgon.  “I do not do very well when I am required to sit still.”

 

“If we promise, then we cannot escape,” Legolas reasoned aloud. “But if we do not promise, then we will stay bound and probably will not be able to escape anyway.  And I do not think that they will harm us, or they would have done so already.  I think that they intend to let us go eventually, so perhaps escape is not necessary anyway.” Turgon nodded approvingly.  The possibility of being untied had increased his impatience with their bonds.  Legolas looked at Berioger.  “We promise that we will not try to escape,” he said in Westron.

 

“Both of you?” Berioger made sure.

 

“Yes, we both agree.”

 

Berioger untied their hands first and made to untie their feet, but they were hastily unknotting the bonds themselves.  Turgon flung off the bonds, leapt to his feet, and paced around the clearing, alarming Sarelad, who kept his hand warily on his sword hilt.  He was unaccustomed to long hours of immobility and had found their confinement difficult.  Legolas rose more slowly and also moved about.  “You do not need to be wary,” he told Sarelad.  “We have promised, and even unfriendly, ill-mannered Wood-Elves keep their word.”  Sarelad flushed with annoyance and turned to check on Aragost, probably to keep himself from doing or saying something he would regret.  Legolas recognized the tactic from his dealings with the adults in his own life.

 

And in an odd kind of way, these Men had temporarily become the adults in his life.  During the hours when he and Turgon had been tied up, he had become aware of the confusing fact that he felt safer with the Men around, even when he himself was bound.  The previous night’s events had made clear to him that, in coming on this trip, he and Turgon had thrust themselves into a situation that was beyond their ability to handle.  These Men were clearly experienced warriors.  If more Orcs came, they would have a grasp of tactics and a practiced steadiness in battle that he and Turgon sorely lacked, for all their hours on the training fields.

 

Now that they were free, his naturally buoyant spirits had risen and his tongue had loosened.  His family and teachers would have recognized the mood. Bored with sitting in the camp all day, he looked around for something useful to do.  “If you like,” he offered to the Men, “Turgon and I could hunt for some fresh meat for evening meal.  There is not much game here, but we have seen rabbits in the woods.”

 

Sarelad frowned.  “Take your bows and go off by yourselves?  I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

 

Legolas looked at him steadily. “We have promised that we will not try to escape,” he said again, “and we will not.” 

 

“What about shooting us?” Sarelad asked dryly. “Did you promise not to do that?”

 

Legolas grinned at him.  “Among Elves, that would count as trying to escape,” he said blithely.  “Would Men shoot their captors and then return to sit beside them?”

 

Sarelad snorted at the impertinence. In his opinion, someone should have cuffed this sweet-faced, smart-mouthed youngster around a bit, long before now.  Then, he eyed Legolas appraisingly.  He had held dealings with Elves before and had always found them honorable, but they had not been Wood-Elves, who sometimes caused even their fellow Elves to roll their eyes.  He picked up their bows and hesitated. Putting weapons in these young Elves’s hands implied a degree of trust he was not sure he felt.  Still, the two of them had thus far done nothing but good to the Men. They had tended to Aragost and prevented harm with the tea.  He took a deep breath and decided to rely on his knowledge of the general high-mindedness of Elves.  He handed them their bows.

 

“How about bringing in some of those black squirrels too?” he asked Legolas.  “They seem to be plentiful.”

 

“I will bring you one if you like,” Legolas said pleasantly, and then he laughed. He and Turgon picked up their quivers and started off into the woods.  Within an hour, they were back with four plump rabbits and a squirrel.

 

Berioger, who was feeding the fire, put out his hand for the game and nodded approvingly.  “Good,” he said.  “We will spit them and roast them. They will make a change from dried meat.”  He set about cooking their evening meal, and the four of them settled in an oddly companionable state to eat it.  Legolas and Turgon watched gleefully as Sarelad took one bite of the squirrel, spit it out, and hastened to rinse his mouth from his water skin.

 

“Why did you not tell me it tasted foul?” he cried.

 

“You did not ask,” answered Legolas with Elven logic.  Sarelad gave him a black look but said nothing. Berioger sniggered.

 

As they ate, Berioger cautiously began to question Legolas about himself and Turgon.  “Do you live near here?”

 

Legolas considered but could see no harm to answering the question.  “We live near the eastern edge of the forest,” he said.

 

“And what brings you to this part of the woods?”

 

“We are hunting spiders and Orcs,” Legolas answered, a bit defensively.  He knew that he and Turgon would have appeared an odd hunting party to any Elf, but perhaps these Men did not know that.  And it was after all the simple truth that they were hunting these creatures.

 

Berioger raised an eyebrow but said nothing.  As a father himself, what he wanted to ask was “Do your families know you’re here?”  But he restrained the impulse.  He did not know the customs of Wood-Elves.  Perhaps they sent their youngsters alone on such hunts routinely.  Sarelad had no such inhibitions.  “Your people must have gotten tired of your insolence to have let you come out on your own,” he said. Legolas bit his tongue to hold back what this Man would undoubtedly consider a rude reply and thus prove Sarelad correct in his assessment of their manners.  The truce between Elves and Men was fragile but pleasant, and he did not wish it to end.  He did not translate Sarelad’s remark for Turgon.  There was no sense in asking for trouble. And indeed there was something of truth in Sarelad’s observation. They were not supposed to be out here on their own.

 

“And you?” Legolas asked.  “Are you Woodmen?”

 

“No,” Berioger answered.  “The Woodmen are our distant kin, and we visited them on our way here, but we ourselves are from the other side of the Misty Mountains.”  Legolas’s eyes widened.  He would have liked to hear about the crossing of the Misty Mountains, but Berioger appeared to feel he had answered enough questions and turned the topic.

 

When they had all finished eating, Sarelad cleaned up while Berioger roused Aragost long enough to feed him some broth that he had prepared from the rabbit carcasses and some more of the aracanath tea.  Soon afterwards, they were settling to sleep.  Berioger and Sarelad were dividing the watches between them when Legolas offered, “Turgon and I can take two of the watches.”  Sarelad scowled and Berioger hesitated, but in the long run, they both acceded to his offer.  Legolas drew the first watch and had seen nothing untoward when Sarelad relieved him and sent him to sleep.  Thus, in the end, the four of them passed the night more like companions than foes.

 

***

 

When Legolas awakened the next morning, he found that Aragost was finally awake.  Legolas lay quietly for a few minutes listening to the conversation between the three Men.  Aragost was questioning the other two about the events of the last two days.  From the way they deferred to him, Legolas concluded that Aragost was actually the leader of this group of Men.  He was questioning the others now about Legolas and Turgon, and Berioger was laying out his rationale for concluding that they were potential allies rather than enemies.  Aragost looked thoughtful.  “Perhaps they can help us,” he mused.  “We could use guides and they are undoubtedly more familiar with this forest than we are.”

 

Berioger was inspecting Aragost’s wounds again.  “You would be better with another day’s rest,” he said, “and even better with two.”

 

Aragost shook his head and then looked as if he regretted the movement.  “We will see,” he said.  “Two days is out of the question, but I may have to concede the one.”  Legolas considered.  The group of elflings who had gone on the woodcraft training trip would have returned in the late afternoon of the previous day.   He and Turgon would have been missed and searchers would have set out to look for them, probably this morning, but possibly last evening.  That meant that another day’s stay here was safe, but that two days were, indeed, out of the question.

 

Unless, of course, they wanted to be found.  Just after they had fought the Orcs, he would have said that he would welcome a rescue party.  But today, things seemed better, and his stomach clenched at the idea of meeting whatever fate awaited him at home. He did not want to think of what his father’s reaction had been when he found out what Legolas had done.  That way lay grief and fear.  No, a few more days on their own for him and Turgon would be very welcome. Perhaps they would even go with these Men and guide them wherever they were going.

 

Even as that thought occurred to him, the better part of him knew exactly what he and Turgon should do: They should go home.  Their families were undoubtedly worried beyond reason. To stay away was not right.  He held that idea in his mind and examined it with as much honesty as he could bring to bear.  In misery, he finally drew the only conclusion that he could, one that had, in all truth, been too long in coming. Today he would try to talk some sense into Turgon.  He did not think that the task would be an easy one, though.  Then he remembered with relief that they had promised the Men they would not try to escape.  That meant that any thought of going home had to be postponed anyway.  Perhaps by the time the Men moved on, Turgon would be ready to go home.

 

Sarelad was now helping Aragost to his feet, for the Man wanted to try his strength.  Legolas sat up, drawing their attention.  Beside him, Turgon too was stirring.  Aragost made his way over and, in Westron, said, “It seems I owe you both my thanks for your help with the Orcs and your care for my well being.”  Legolas translated for Turgon and then the two of them nodded wordlessly.

 

Aragost regarded the pair before him thoughtfully.  They had the arrow-straight backs and strong shoulders of Elven archers and were clad in the brown and green that he had been told marked the Elves of Mirkwood.  The one with the bruise on his face was unexpectedly blond. Aragost had thought that all Wood-Elves were dark, like the blond’s sharp-eyed companion.  It was difficult to be certain of age with Elves, but it was clear that these two were not yet fully grown.  If they had been Men, he would have judged them to be perhaps fifteen or sixteen.  What they were doing out here by themselves, he could not imagine. The Elves he knew were intensely protective of their young.

 

Switching to Sindarin, he spoke again. “I am Aragost, son of Arahad.”

 

Both Elves were startled to hear their own language in the mouth of a Man, albeit he spoke it with a strange, rather affected accent.  Turgon responded almost automatically with polite correctness. “I am Turgon, son of Vardalan, and this is Legolas, son of Thranduil.”  Too late did he feel Legolas’s restraining hand grip his arm and remember that it was perhaps better that these strangers not know whose son Legolas was.  The startled look on Aragost’s face told them that he knew very well the significance of the information he had just been given.

 

He paused for a moment and then bowed to Legolas. “Then I am honored, as well as thankful,” he said. Legolas flushed; as the youngest of three brothers, he was unaccustomed to being treated as his father’s representative. Aragost looked at him thoughtfully for a moment and then turned away.  He too had had to learn to be seen as his father’s son.

6.  Consequences

 

Ithilden stroked the flank of Legolas’s horse and frowned.  They had traveled hard for the last two days and, thanks to Sondil’s expert tracking, they knew they were on the right trail, despite the fact that rain had fallen in this area since the younglings had passed through.  But according to Sondil, the marks of that trail were almost two days old. So why were Legolas’s and Turgon’s horses both grazing peacefully by the side of the path?  Ithilden signaled to Thrambor, motioning him to climb a tree and see what that vantage point told him.  Thrambor leapt nimbly through the branches and was soon lost to sight overhead.  In a very short time, he was back.

 

“There is smoke from a campfire about half a league south of here,” he reported softly, “probably further along this path.”

 

The three of them looked at one another.  “Something is not right,” said Ithilden. “Why have they camped in the same spot for two days?”

 

“Perhaps one of them is hurt,” suggested Sondil.

 

The three experienced warriors had no need to speak of the need for extra caution in this puzzling situation. They left their horses with the other two and began to move silently down the path, weapons at the ready.

 

***

 

Aragost leaned back against the tree.  Even the short walks he had been taking around the campsite had tired him, but he was determined to be ready to move tomorrow, and he was much less dizzy than he had been this morning.  He and his companions needed to get the information they sought and return to their people, although he already knew that the news would be bleak.  Evil was astir here in Mirkwood, as it had been in the Misty Mountains.  The only question was how deep and how wide the enemy’s reach had become.

 

He looked wearily around the camp.  Taking advantage of the delay to cook something time consuming, Sarelad was poking at the stew he was concocting for their evening meal.  Berioger was writing more of the endless letter he was preparing for his family.  Aragost smiled to himself. Berioger would probably carry the letter home and hand it to his wife and son himself.  He looked over at Legolas and Turgon, who in theory were sharpening their various blades, but who actually seemed to be arguing about something. Legolas was urging some point and Turgon was shaking his head vigorously.

 

What were they going to do with those two, he wondered.  He had hoped they could use them as guides, but their youth and Legolas’s parentage probably made that untenable.  They could part ways with them in the morning, but he was not entirely comfortable with leaving them on their own out here either.  All three of the Men strongly suspected that the two friends had set out on this Orc-hunting trip on their own.  He and his companions should probably return them to their families, but such a course of action would take them well out of their way.  Still, it might be useful to see if they could make an ally of the king of the Woodland Realm.  Perhaps his unfriendly reputation was unwarranted.

 

A bird sang somewhere off to his right, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up.  The two Elves’ heads snapped up in unison.  Aragost had only a second to glance toward his weapons, lying a good six feet distant, before three dark-haired, stony-faced Elven warriors seemingly materialized from thin air and stood in the campsite with drawn bows trained on the three Men. For a moment, everyone in the camp froze and time stopped.

 

Then the broad-shouldered Elf in the middle, who was evidently the group’s captain, glanced back over his shoulder at Legolas and Turgon. “Are you both all right?” he asked in Sindarin. They nodded, staring wide-eyed at the precarious situation in front of them.  The Elven captain focused for a second on Legolas’s face and then turned back to the three Men. “Which one of you made the mark on his face?” he asked menacingly in Westron.

 

Aragost’s blood ran cold.  He had no doubt that this Elf would wreak vengeance on them if he thought they had laid a finger on either of the two youngsters.  He was deeply grateful that Berioger and Sarelad had decided to untie Legolas and Turgon before these three appeared.

 

Before he could speak, Legolas leapt to their defense in rapid Sindarin that, given his Mirkwood accent, Aragost could only just make out.  Sarelad and Berioger shifted uneasily as the conversation swept away from them.  “It was none of them, Ithilden. It was an Orc.”  Ithilden lowered his weapon and turned to the youngsters while the two other warriors made sure that the Men were still pinned in place.

 

“An Orc,” he said tonelessly, with no indication at all of the terror he felt over the notion that an Orc had gotten close enough to his little brother to clout him in the face.

 

Legolas and Turgon began quickly telling the story of their encounter with the Orcs and the entry of the Men into their camp.  Aragost noted with relief that neither of them mentioned being tied up. They had apparently decided not to direct the Elven warrior’s wrath toward the Men. They finished by telling what they knew of Aragost and his companions.

 

“They are from the other side of the Misty Mountains,” said Turgon in awe.  He pointed to Aragost with his chin.  “The one named Aragost speaks Sindarin.”

 

Ithilden turned back to regard Aragost.  Legolas began to make polite introductions, as if he were in a reception chamber and there were not arrows pointed at some of those present. “This is Aragost, son of Arahad, and these are Sarelad and Berioger.  Aragost, these are Sondil and Thrambor, and this is Ithilden.”

 

“Be quiet, Legolas,” Ithilden said without raising his voice.

 

Aragost was surprised and a little amused to see Legolas subside immediately at the Elf’s bidding. Turgon too looked decidedly subdued.  He would not have thought that these youngsters would be easy to intimidate, but perhaps their behavior had left them on shaky enough ground that they had no wish to cross the Elven captain.

 

“It is unusual for a Man to speak Sindarin,” the captain observed mildly, evidently trying to decide if this was a suspicious circumstance or a reassuring one.

 

“It is,” Aragost agreed.  “But I lived for six years in Rivendell when I was a lad.”  During the time that Legolas and Turgon had been telling their tale, he had reached a decision.  He would trust these Elven warriors as he and his two companions had trusted their younger counterparts.  Assuming he could get them to return that trust, friends in Mirkwood would be valuable.  He knew he was taking a risk in revealing his connection with Rivendell, for he had been told that Thranduil clung to his resentment of Elrond’s command at the Battle of Dagorlad.  But perhaps these younger Elves were more open.

 

Ithilden regarded him steadily, weighing what the man’s name and his history might signify. Mirkwood Elves were not quite so ignorant of history or the world outside Mirkwood as the supercilious Elves of Rivendell might have told this Man, he thought.  He wished that his brother Eilian were here; Eilian was very good at judging people.  He considered the fact that Legolas and Turgon had spent the last two days with these Men and evidently trusted them.  Then he made a decision and signaled almost imperceptibly to the other two Elven warriors.  They kept their arrows notched, but they lowered their bows and released their draws.  All three Men breathed sighs of relief.

 

“I would talk to you further,” Ithilden told him, “but I have something that I must do first.”  He turned and walked slowly toward Legolas and Turgon.  The two of them visibly braced themselves as he approached.

 

Aragost assumed that the day of reckoning had come for these two. If they had been Men, he would have believed that the captain intended to take a belt to the youngsters’ backsides.  If they had been Elves of Rivendell, he would have anticipated that a reasoned lecture was about to be delivered. But these were Wood-Elves, regarded in Rivendell as rustic and rash.  For all Aragost knew, Ithilden intended to tie them to a tree stump by their hair or, alternatively, ply them with milk and honey.

 

Legolas spoke first, “Is Adar very angry?” he asked anxiously.

 

Ithilden blew out a sharp breath.  “Of course he is.  But at the moment, what you should be worried about is that I am very angry.”

 

No, thought Aragost.  Milk and honey were not in the offing.

 

“You have behaved stupidly,” Ithilden went on, his voice tight with fury, “and placed yourselves and others at risk. You engaged in a deception that was completely dishonorable. Adar asked Eilian to search for you as well as us. Do you not think that the southern patrol might have better things to do than look for two self-indulgent younglings who want to play at being warriors?”  He paused and then went on in a low-voiced, angry rebuke, “If you were old enough to be Mirkwood warriors, I would not allow you to join a patrol, no matter what your skill with weapons because I would not be certain that you could be trusted.  And after this escapade, you will have to prove yourselves to me thoroughly before I will change my mind.”

 

Evidently finished with them, Ithilden turned his back on them and started toward Aragost.  It was suddenly very clear to Aragost why Turgon and Legolas had not wanted to cross the Elven captain.  He glanced at the other two Elven warriors.  Their faces were utterly impassive.  But both youngsters looked stricken.  Turgon’s lips were set in a tight line and he looked away.  Legolas had flushed and then gone white, making the fading bruise on his face stand out in stark contrast.  He could not have looked more stunned if Ithilden had struck him.  Abruptly, he turned and left the campsite. 

 

“You should not speak to him like that, Ithilden,” said Turgon in a low voice.  “He would not have done this if it were not for me.”

 

Ithilden did not even turn around.  “Be quiet, Turgon.  Legolas is responsible for his own actions as you are for yours.  I have been told to leave you to your father’s retribution, but I am tempted to take you in hand myself. Do not provoke me.”

 

Turgon paused for a moment and then followed Legolas.  Ithilden glanced at Sondil, who was already drifting off in the direction the two had taken, disappearing like smoke fading into mist as soon as he had stepped into the trees.  Thrambor continued to stand at alert watching the woods around them. Unable to follow the conversation, Sarelad and Berioger kept one eye on him and the other on their chief, judging the situation from his reactions.

 

Aragost thought of what he had just heard and one part of the exchange stood out in his mind: Legolas and Ithilden had shared a mutual understanding of who “Adar” was. Moreover, “Adar” had been ordering Mirkwood troops about.  So this was another of Thranduil’s sons, this one an adult apparently in a position of some authority. There would never be a better opportunity to begin to build trust between his people and the Elves of Mirkwood.

 

Ithilden settled to the ground beside Aragost, as if to speak with him, but he held his peace, evidently waiting for something.  A bird trilled softly, and he relaxed and turned to Aragost.  “Tell me of your business here,” he said.

 

“As Turgon told you,” Aragost began, “we are from west of the Misty Mountains.  We are Dúnedain.”  He looked to see if Ithilden knew the word and went on when Ithilden nodded.  “We had heard that Orcs were multiplying in the mountains and that the shadow had returned to Mirkwood.  My father, our chieftain, sent us to learn what we could of the truth of these reports.”

 

“And what have you learned?” Ithilden asked.

 

“That the truth is even worse than we had feared,” Aragost answered simply. “The Orcs swarmed like insects in the mountains.  I fear our trip home will be a difficult one.  Can you tell me aught of Mirkwood?”

 

Ithilden sighed.  “The shadow falls ever more heavily upon these woods,” he said. “It comes from the south, from around Dol Guldur.  My brother Eilian leads a patrol of warriors south of here but their efforts are puny compared to the force they face.”

 

“Can you tell me how to get closer to Dol Guldur to see the situation for myself?” Aragost asked. “We should be underway by tomorrow morning. We have already delayed too long.”

 

Ithilden nodded, although he privately thought that these three were greater fools than he had taken them for if they intended to venture closer to Dol Guldur on their own.

 

They sat in silence, contemplating the evil times in which they lived.  Then Aragost ventured, “I would not interfere in family matters, but your brother and his friend saved my life, so I cannot regret their presence in the woods too much.”

 

Ithliden raised an eyebrow.  “You are not the one who needs to learn regret,” he said and then rose to his feet. “I do not wish to set out for home with night so near, and thus I ask permission to trespass on your hospitality.  We will take Legolas and Turgon and go in the morning.”  Aragost nodded.  The Men too intended to be underway the next day.

 

Ithilden sent Thrambor to fetch all of their horses, and the two of them tended to the animals and then removed dried fruit and nuts from their packs to contribute to the food that Sarelad was organizing for the evening meal.  Turgon came back into the camp as the meal was being served, accepted his portion, and withdrew from the others to eat it in silence.  Ithilden portioned out two more servings of the food and set one, evidently intended for Legolas, next to Turgon, who turned his back on him.  He put the other near the Elven warriors’ gear for the still-absent Sondil. 

 

Legolas slipped back into camp only as they were settling in for the night.  He ignored the food, wrapped himself in his blanket, and lay down with his face turned away from the others.  Ithilden was tempted to order him to eat something but decided to leave well enough alone.  Sondil was suddenly sitting beside him with his evening meal in hand.  The warriors of both races insisted that Aragost sleep so that he might be more ready to travel the next day.  The other two Men and three Elves drew lots for the watches and then lay down to sleep.

7.  Orcs

 

Ithilden moved quietly around the edge of the campsite, making sure that nothing untoward lurked in the darkness.  For some reason he was uneasy, but he could neither see nor hear that anything he had not encountered on his last round ten minutes ago.  The stars and his own innate sense of time told him that his watch would soon be over and he could awaken Sarelad to take his place.  He strongly disliked the opaque darkness that formed the night in this part of Mirkwood, although it was not new to him.  He had spent time patrolling here when he was younger.  He did not envy Eilian, whose lot it was to command the southern patrol now.

 

He leaned against a tree and considered the things that Aragost had told him. It seemed to him a good thing that there should be a cautious friendship between Mirkwood and these Dúnedain.  He did not immediately see how it could be useful, but one never knew what the future might hold.  He did not completely share Thranduil’s mistrust of Men.  But then, he had not been born yet when the Battle of Dagorlad took place.  He had not seen the things that Thranduil had seen.

 

His thoughts turned to Legolas and Turgon.  He had meant it when he said that their foolish actions had imperiled their future as warriors of Mirkwood.  He had frequently had doubts about Turgon anyway.  He was wild and undisciplined and always had been.  Unless he changed drastically, no comrade would want to depend on him to be where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing.

 

Legolas was different.  Quite apart from his uncanny skill with weapons, he had always been serious about his training and, until the incident in the spring, had never given any of the weapons masters cause to doubt his future for a single second.  Given the proper guidance and, Ithilden thought with grim determination, separation from Turgon, Legolas would probably be able to redeem himself, but one never knew how the young would react to disaster.  Thranduil would undoubtedly inflict the most painful punishment he could conceive of when they returned home.  After that, Ithilden would see what the future brought.

 

A faint noise from the left caught his attention.  He paused only a second and then picked up an equally faint smell.  Orcs!  Many of them.  Perhaps as many as thirty at a short distance yet, but coming this way. He was instantly in motion, rousing the camp, directing his quickly alert companions into defensive positions.

 

“You two,” he ordered Legolas and Turgon, “get into the trees and stay there.”   The two younglings were up the trees almost instantly, weapons in hand.  Sondil and Thrambor scrambled after them. The Men accepted his command without protest, bowing to his long experience in dealing with Orcs in Mirkwood. They took up spots behind trees, as did Ithilden himself. Within three minutes after he had picked up the foul stench of the Orcs, they were all in position with bows ready, awaiting the arrival their enemy.

 

The strategy against Orcs was simple: take out as many as possible with arrows and then, when they got in too close for a bow to be useful, be ready to hack at the rest with swords, preferably with another warrior at your back.  Artful swordplay was not required. Ithilden did not have a lot of respect for Orcs as fighters, but, as the first captain under whom he had ever served had once said, they were too stupid to recognize their own danger and thus were just stupid enough to be dangerous.

 

Within another minute, the Orcs had begun to swarm into the campsite.  Eight bows sang almost in unison, with each arrow hitting a target.  Indeed, the Orcs were so thickly crowded together in this overgrown woods that it would have been hard to miss hitting one of them, and Ithilden knew that the Elves were all well-trained.  It looked as if the Men too knew which end of the arrow was which.  The first flight of arrows caused the Orcs in the front to hesitate, but those rushing on behind them were not to be stopped.  The confusion gave the archers a second chance to fire, though with less success, and then the beasts had poured through into the campsite, firing their own bows in the directions from which the arrows had come.  Ithilden got off one more shot before an Orc was upon him and he had to draw his sword.

 

He swung his sword but the beast parried and the two of them grappled.  An arrow whizzed past his right ear and lodged in the Orc’s throat. He glanced up in the tree to see Legolas dodge an Orc arrow and move off to deliver a similar shot to the Orc who was battling with Sarelad.  He knew that Legolas’s aim was precise, but that particular arrow had come entirely too close to his head for comfort. He would have to have a little talk with his brother after this battle was over.  He heard Sarelad curse loudly as Legolas’s shot whistled past his hair.  Perhaps Sarelad would want to take part in the talk too.

 

Drawn by the sight of a group of Orcs attacking Berioger, Turgon had violated Ithilden’s orders and was now down out of the trees. He ran across the clearing, firing arrows all the way.  Ithilden had the irrelevant thought that Turgon’s draw was the sloppiest he had ever seen an Elf use.  What had the archery master been thinking when he trained this youngling? Turgon dove into the bushes at the other side of the clearing with an Orc in hot pursuit.  In the tree over Turgon’s head, Sondil drew and fired.  The Orc crashed to the ground and Ithilden hoped that Turgon had had time to get out of the way of its fall.

 

As suddenly as they had appeared, the Orcs were withdrawing.  But as they withdrew, one of them put a horn to his mouth and sounded a call.  Ithilden groaned. They were signaling for reinforcements. There must be more of them in the area somewhere.

 

The Elves were down out of the trees now, and all of them began to scavenge for arrows. They would need any they could find.  Ithilden checked for injuries and found that Sondil had had an arrow slice the flesh of his upper arm.  “It is nothing,” the woodcraft master declared. “It did not lodge.”

 

Aragost’s shoulder wound had ripped open again. Ithilden had heard that Men were slow to heal, and here was clear evidence of it. He marveled that they ever managed to survive a campaign.  Other than these two minor injuries, they were unscathed, thanks to their enemy’s blind rush into the campsite. The next time, the Orcs would know what to expect, and they might not be so lucky.

 

He paused to check briefly on the steadiness of the two younglings and then set them to binding Sondil’s and Aragost’s wounds as quickly as they could. They worked efficiently enough, although they both looked a little dazed.  The busier they were kept, the better off they would be.  Sondil and Aragost talked to them easily as the younglings ministered to their wounds, attempting to settle them down.  Both warriors had directed the young in battle before.

 

Too soon, the Elves again heard the approach of Orcs, this time perhaps as many as fifty.  Ithilden arrayed his badly outnumbered defenses once again. At the last minute, he turned to Turgon.  “Stay in the trees where I have put you this time, Turgon,” he growled as fiercely as he could.  “I swear to you that if you do not, I will personally make it impossible for you to sit a horse for the ride home.”  Turgon seemed cowed by the threat, and Ithilden could only hope he remembered it once the battle had started.

 

Again the Orcs swept into the campsite.  And again the battle followed the familiar pattern.  Ithilden saw Berioger swinging his sword and backing up before two Orcs who were bearing down upon him.  He saw Aragost charging and heard him shout “Elendil!” as he beat back the creature before him.  In terror, he saw someone fall from the trees, with an Orc arrow in his chest.  There were too many of them, Ithilden thought in despair.  And just as that thought occurred to him, arrows flew from beyond the edge of the campsite, and the Orc with whom Ithilden was struggling fell dead at his feet.  With a hair-raising shout, a group of Elven warriors swept into the clearing, driving the Orcs before them.  For a moment, the confusion that in Ithilden’s experience was almost always part of battle deepened. Then the Orcs broke and ran. Most of the newly-arrived Elves rushed after them, but one stopped before Ithilden. “Are you all right, brother?” asked a familiar voice.

 

Eilian.  It was Eilian and the southern patrol, searching for the two wandering younglings and arriving just when they were most needed. Ithilden almost collapsed in his brother’s arms, but turned instead toward the clearing, seeing again in his mind that figure falling from the trees pierced by an Orc arrow.  Sondil was swinging down from a branch, nursing the arm that had been wounded in the first round of the battle but seemingly otherwise untouched.  Sarelad had rushed to Berioger’s side and was probing his thigh, where blood was slowly spreading through his clothing.  Thrambor had fetched a pack and was moving quickly to their aid.  Aragost had gone to the edge of the clearing and had placed a hand on the shoulder of a crouching figure who was pulling frantically at the shoulders of the one who lay there.  Simultaneously, Ithilden and Eilian saw what was happening and hastened to the spot.

 

Legolas was rocking and moaning, grasping at Turgon in the vain hope that his friend would jump to his feet, laughing at the joke he had played.  Both of his brothers saw at once that Turgon would never play jokes again.  Ithilden pulled gently at his little brother, trying to draw him away from the tragic form before him, but Legolas did not seem to know he was there.

 

And indeed Legolas did not know that Aragost and both of his brothers stood next to him.  He was far away in another time and place.  In his mind’s eye, he saw Turgon raising his arms overhead as he rode a horse for the first time and then promptly falling and breaking his collar bone; diving from the high rocks into the pool where they all swam because someone had dared him; venturing onto the early winter ice covering the same pond and responding a hair too slowly to the ominous cracking noise. He remembered Turgon comforting him when Thranduil had scolded him, drawing a wild dog away from a frightened Annael, lying through his teeth when a palace cook asked if it had been the three of them who took a pie intended for the king’s table.  He remembered unruly, exciting, loyal, maddening Turgon. And oblivious to his brothers’ arms reaching out to him, he fell on the ground and wept for the child who had been and the adult who never would be.

 

***

 

Eilian sat next to the Man called Aragost and carefully worked the bandages around his wounded shoulder.  He glanced across the clearing to where Ithilden sat leaning against a tree, both arms wrapped around Legolas, who sat beside him.  Legolas had stopped weeping but had withdrawn into himself and had not spoken since Ithilden had pulled him away from Turgon’s body.  Still, he clung to Ithilden’s side like a small animal seeing shelter in a tree. In Eilian’s opinion, Ithilden looked none too hale himself.  Turgon had been in his care, and Ithilden had taken his death as a personal failure.

 

“They are taking this hard,” said the Man he was tending.  When the Man had first spoken to him, it had taken Eilian a moment to realize that the Man was speaking in Sindarin.  What to make of this, he did not know. He supposed Ithilden would be able to tell him about these Men, but in the meantime, he accepted their presence and was grateful for the help they had provided in defending against the Orcs.

 

“Do Men not mourn the death of their young?” he asked as non-judgmentally as possible.

 

The Man sighed.  “Yes,” he said simply.  “But perhaps we expect to see death more than you Elves do.”  He still could not get over the fact that all three of Thranduil’s sons were here in the clearing.  If the Valar had intended them to form a friendship, they could not have arranged things more opportunely.

 

“Ithilden will learn from events and then be ready to move on when he needs to be,” said Eilian, with an assurance born of long experience of his brother’s strength.  “Legolas, I am less sure of. He is young and Turgon had been his friend since before he can remember.”

 

“He behaved honorably with us,” Aragost commented thoughtfully, “despite the fact that he was obviously suspicious of Men when we arrived.  He looked after his friend as best he could. He fought well and with discipline tonight.  He’ll be all right.”

 

Eilian made no answer.  He hoped the Man was right.

 

Sondil approached him with two cups of warm liquid.  “This one is the sleeping draught,” he said, indicating one of the cups. Eilian nodded his thanks, took the cups, and then rose and crossed over to where his brothers sat.  He offered the sleeping draught to Ithilden, who took it and began coaxing Legolas to open his mouth and drink it.  He poured enough of it down the youngling’s throat to be satisfied and then waited, with Eilian settling at his side, for the herb to take effect.  Within a few minutes, Legolas’s eyes glazed over as he drifted off into an uneasy sleep.  Ithilden lowered him to the ground.  Sarelad appeared at his side, offering a blanket.  Ithilden tucked it around his little brother, and then he and Eilian moved to sit a small distance away so that they might speak without disturbing him.

 

Eilian took the empty cup from Ithilden’s hand, and replaced it with the full one of now cool tea.  Ithilden looked at it suspiciously. “I will sleep when we get home,” he said. “Right now, I am responsible,” and the stress he put on the last word told Eilian everything he needed to know about Ithilden’s sense of guilt.

 

“It is just tea,” Eilian protested.  “I would not lower your alertness in a situation like this.”

 

Ithilden took a drink and sighed.  “I have much that I need to tell you.”  In his customarily efficient manner, he told Eilian what he knew about the Men. He finished by asking, “What did you think of Aragost?”

 

Eilian shrugged.  “For the little time I have spent with him, I liked him, but you know him better than I.”

 

Ithilden smiled in relief.  He knew no-one who was better at judging people that Eilian was.  He was glad to have his own judgment of Aragost confirmed.  “They wish to go closer to Dol Guldur,” he said wryly.

 

Eilian looked at him and laughed.  “Then I was mistaken.  I had not realized they were crazy.”

 

“Will you take them?”  Ithilden asked.

 

“Of course, if you wish.” Eilian hesitated.  “Will Adar mind, do you think?” he asked.

 

Ithilden shrugged.  “So long as they are nowhere near home, I think not.  And they are kin to the Woodmen. I am in command here, and I judge that they will make good temporary allies.  I am not presuming to form a treaty or anything remotely like it.”  Then he added, “If Adar does object, I will tell him that I ordered you to take them, which I now do.”

 

Eilian smiled wryly.  He envied Ithilden his self-confidence.  Ithilden was the only person he knew who did not sometimes tiptoe carefully around their father.  Unless, of course, you counted their little brother.  Eilian contemplated the sleeping figure of Legolas for a moment.  “Whatever possessed the brat?” he marveled.  “Adar must be spitting fire.”

 

Ithilden nodded. “He was when I left him,” he said. He suspected that, faced with Turgon’s death and the pain of Legolas’s loss, some of Thranduil’s anger would be muted, although he knew that there would still be consequences for Legolas’s actions beyond what had happened here. Thranduil would never leave the shaping of his son’s character to chance.  And indeed Ithilden himself was not willing to surrender his demand that Legolas prove himself to be trustworthy and responsible before being allowed into the ranks of the Mirkwood warriors.  In some ways, Turgon’s death had only proven the folly of the younglings’ behavior.  His own responsibilities as commander of Mirkwood’s forces meant that he could take no chances.  As tonight had proven, Mirkwood was a dangerous place, and it was too easy for people to die.  Legolas had done as he was ordered and fought well tonight.  That was a first step. There would be many more.

 

Eilian reached out and touched the shiny silver ring on Ithilden’s right index finger.  “I am sorry I could not be home for the betrothal ceremony,” he said.  “I wish you joy.”

 

Ithilden sighed.  “There will be joy,” he said, “but not on this day.”  Side by side, they settled to wait for daybreak.

 

When the dawn came, they sorted themselves into two groups.  Sondil and Aragost both seemed to be on the mend from their injuries, although the Man was still healing at a pace that appalled Ithilden.  Berioger’s thigh wound was not serious, although it would have impeded travel, but for the fact that Eilian’s people had left their horses at some little distance when they were summoned to the campsite by the sound of very horn the Orcs had used to call for reinforcements.  Sarelad and Berioger were each now mounted behind one of the Elves of the southern patrol. Aragost approached Ithilden to take his leave.  “I thank you for your help,” he said.  “I will see to it that kind words are spoken about the Wood-Elves among the Dúnedain. Perhaps in the future, our two peoples can unite against the shadow.”  He and Ithilden clasped each other’s forearms in a warrior’s farewell and then he, too, turned to mount behind one of the Elves.

 

At the last, Eilian embraced each of his brothers tightly.  He stroked Legolas’s hair and spoke softly into his ear.  “I wish that there were words to take away your pain, Legolas, but there are not.  I am sorry about Turgon.  I know that he was your close friend for your whole life, but you have much life ahead of you yet. Turgon would never wish you to despair.”  Eilian did not know if his words had made any difference, but he drew comfort from the fact that Legolas briefly tightened his embrace. He was functioning better today than he had been in the night, but his grief and his guilt were written on his face.

 

To Ithilden, he said, “Give my love to Adar. And kiss Alfirin for me.”  Then he slapped Ithilden on the shoulder, mounted his own horse, and led the southern patrol and the Men who were their guests south along the path, where they were quickly lost to sight.

 

Ithilden, Sondil, Thrambor, and Legolas prepared for their own leave taking.  Carrying Turgon’s body in an improvised litter would have been slow and difficult in the dense forest, and Ithilden wanted to reach home quickly.  So they wrapped Turgon’s body in a blanket and draped it over the back of his horse.  Legolas stared at the anonymous bundle that had been his friend and then turned away wordlessly. There was nothing he could say.  They mounted their own horses and then they, too, rode out the campsite and started for home.

 

*******

 

Author’s note:  According to Appendix A of The Return of the King, Aragost was chieftain of the northern Dúnedain from 2523 to 2588 TA.  He was the seven-times great grandfather of Aragorn, in whose life, as we know, Legolas also had a part to play.

 

8. Coming Home

 

The ride back to Thranduil’s stronghold took almost two days.  During that time, Legolas’s despair was all but overwhelming.  Every time he looked around, he saw the body of his friend and thought of Turgon’s death as in some part the consequence of his own actions.  He could not help but blame himself for not stopping Turgon.

 

He could not understand now why he had ever hesitated to do anything necessary to prevent Turgon from going on this disastrous trip.  Why had he not told Turgon’s father or even his own what his friend was planning?  What would it have mattered if Turgon had been angry with him?  He would have been alive.   There were things that were foolish illusions and things that were real, things that mattered.  Turgon’s body was real and it mattered very much.

 

And his father’s trust in him was also real, or it had been.  And it too mattered greatly.  How could he have thrown it away so lightly?  For that matter, how could he have behaved in a way that would make Ithilden speak to him as he had done in the campsite? “Dishonorable,” “self-indulgent,”  “I would not be certain that you could be trusted”: the shame-inducing words still stung like whips when he recalled them. The fight with the Orcs had been the first occasion upon which he had seen either of his brothers commanding troops in a real battle and fighting in that battle themselves.  The experience had increased his respect for them more than he could have imagined possible.  He desperately wanted their respect in return.

 

More than that, he had a responsibility to Mirkwood and honoring that responsibility had always been dear to his heart.  He was unable to conceive of what he would do if his behavior in the last few days led to his being permanently prevented from fulfilling it.

 

His fears for his own courage had seemed real when he started out on this terrible trip.  He now believed that the training he had received would see him through battle, but only if he allowed himself to be guided by more experienced warriors and patiently learned what they had to teach him.  It was not lack of courage that would destroy him; it was lack of wisdom.

 

When they made camp on the first night, Ithilden issued instructions for him to gather firewood almost before he was off his horse.  As he started into the trees near the edge of the campsite, he glanced back to see his older brother carefully lifting Turgon’s body down and laying it on the ground, still wrapped in the blanket, near where Sondil and Thrambor were piling their gear.  He froze.  As if feeling his eyes upon him, Ithilden looked up.  Then he rose, crossed to where Legolas stood, and embraced him, at the same time turning him away from where the blanket-covered bundle lay.

 

“I am sorry that you must endure this trip, little brother.  Angry as I still am at you for the danger in which you placed yourself and the worry that you caused us, I would never have wished this upon you.”  He grasped Legolas’s shoulders and, looking straight into his eyes, spoke fiercely, “But every time I see that bundle, I think of how easily it could have been you who lay wrapped within it.  You are precious beyond measure to Adar and Eilian and me, Legolas.  Losing you would be a blow from which we would be long in recovering, assuming that we ever did.”

 

The tears that he had held in check all day finally slid from Legolas’s eyes as his guilt intensified.  “I am sorry,” he said helplessly, finding no more adequate words.

 

His brother slid his arm around his shoulders again and, not unkindly, said, “I know you are.  Come, let us gather the wood.”

 

***

 

In the late afternoon of the second day, the party came within half an hour’s ride of Thranduil’s stronghold and then made camp.  Ithilden sent Thrambor on ahead as a messenger.  He did not want the sight of the sad burden that they carried to be Turgon’s parents’ first intimation of his death.

 

In the morning, they broke camp and then waited in patient silence.  Presently, they heard the sound for which they were waiting. Thrambor was returning, leading another group of Elves who brought a litter and other necessary things.  Carefully, they lifted the body of Turgon from his horse and unwrapped it from the blanket.  They removed the dirt and blood smeared clothing he had been wearing, washed him, and dressed him in formal robes that were the green color of youth and growing things.  Legolas had to turn away.  Turgon had always hated wearing formal robes, claiming that they made him feel as if he could not breathe.  That did not matter now.

 

They smoothed his dark hair and then laid him tenderly in the litter. They covered him with a green and gold cloth woven with images of the forests of his home. And then when all was ready, they proceeded at last to the stronghold of King Thranduil.  Ithilden, Sondil, Thrambor, and Legolas--the companions of his last trip--carried the litter.

 

They carried their burden onto the green in front of the palace where Thranduil’s people were gathered in solemn silence.  As they approached, Thranduil’s minstrel began to sing a lament that others took up.  It spoke of lost youth and promise unfulfilled.  Legolas almost could not bear it.  And yet he knew that the real thing he helped to carry was more important than his own feelings.  They stopped at the place where Turgon’s father, Vardalan, stood with his arm around his wife who, in turn, clutched the hand of Turgon’s younger brother.  Grief had settled over them like a thick mist that grayed their faces and made them move with caution lest they stumble.

 

As the minstrel’s song faded, Thranduil approached. He first laid his hands on the body and then placed one on the bowed head of each of Turgon’s parents.  “Vardalan and Mírdaniel, your grief is ours.  We now declare a state of mourning to last until the body of Mirkwood’s child Turgon has been lovingly consigned to the fire and his spirit has been blessed on its way to the Halls of Mandos.”  Vardalan and three of his neighbors took the weight of the litter from the four who had carried it and began to make their slow way out of the green toward the cottage of Turgon’s family, where the body would stay until the funeral. At their departure, the crowd sadly began to disperse.

 

Relieved of the burden of the litter, Legolas stood uncertainly.  His aim this day had been to return Turgon’s body to his family.  Now he felt bereft.  He was roused from his bewildered state by the feel of his father’s arms being folded tightly around him, with one of his father’s long, elegant hands grasping the back of his head and pressing his face into Thranduil’s chest. The familiar warmth and woodsy smell of his father produced a comfort that was instantaneous, and he sagged slightly against that well-known strength. “Never do such a thing again,” Thranduil commanded in a husky voice.  Then he released him and drew back, a sterner look settling on his face. “Go and get cleaned up.  I will send for you when I am ready. Ithilden, I would speak with you now,” Thranduil said, and he turned and entered the palace.  Ithilden put a hand on Legolas’s shoulder as he passed.

 

Legolas dragged himself to his chamber.  It seemed to him that at least a decade had passed since he left it, instead of just under a week.  He wanted nothing more than to collapse on the bed and fall into oblivion, assuming he could manage to do so.  But instead, he did as his father had bid.  He bathed and, after a moment’s hesitation, dressed in formal robes similar to those that he and his companions had put on Turgon early this morning.  Whatever fate awaited him, he intended to receive it with solemn dignity. He waited for what seemed an eternity before Ithilden knocked on his door.

 

“Adar wants you in his office,” he said with some sympathy.  In the last two days, he had seen Legolas’s grief and remorse.  He had approved of the way his younger brother had accepted responsibility for his own actions and seemed determined to meet his fate with clear-eyed calm.  He walked with Legolas to the door of Thranduil’s study.

 

At the door, Legolas paused for a moment to gather himself, and then straightened his back.  Remember what is real, he admonished himself. Remember what matters. My feelings are insignificant here. What is real is that Turgon is dead.   What matters is to find a way to reconcile my behavior with my father’s judgment and my own.  Then he nodded to Ithilden, who knocked once on the door, pulled it open to allow Legolas to enter, and then closed the door behind him, leaving father and son in privacy.

 

In the last two days, Legolas had thought about this moment and debated within himself what course he should take.  He had finally decided simply to take the course of action that was traditional both for citizens who had offended against their king and for children who had erred grievously in the eyes of their parents.  He approached the place where his father stood and dropped to both knees before him.  "My lord, I beg your mercy and your pardon for the offense I have committed.”  He kept his eyes lowered to the floor in respect. 

 

Thranduil saw his son’s position before him as appropriate. Indeed, if Legolas had not dropped to his knees on his own, Thranduil would have ordered him there.  In the last four days, the king had conducted the business of his court while able to focus only a small part of his mind upon it.  The rest had been sick with worry over Legolas. When Thrambor had arrived the previous evening with Ithilden’s message, Thranduil had felt sorrow over the death of Turgon mixed with a guilt-inducing relief that his own son was uninjured.  Then he had spent the better part of the night in a cold fury that had gradually worn itself away to leave him determined to see that this youngling learned the lessons that life was trying to teach him.

 

Ithilden had told him that Legolas had behaved well during the battle with the Orcs and seemed genuinely remorseful for the deception that he and Turgon had practiced and the lack of judgment that their actions had shown.  Ithilden had also told his father about Legolas’s helping the Men, a help that Ithilden had ordered Eilian to continue providing.  Thranduil was reserving judgment on the encounter between his sons and the Dúnedain until he had a chance to consider it calmly, but he approved of Legolas accepting responsibility for a wounded warrior who had joined with the Elves in fighting the Orcs.  Ithilden had had no need to tell Thranduil of Legolas’s grief for Turgon.  He had known from the minute he received word of Turgon’s death that Legolas would be devastated.

 

Thranduil now looked steadily at his youngest son, kneeling before him. He saw an Elf on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.  Although only the top of Legolas’s head was visible to him, he knew that the roundness of childhood had faded from his son’s face, but the strong bones of adulthood had yet to appear.  Legolas had skills but little experience; he possessed good intentions, but they had not yet ripened into wisdom.  Thranduil needed to act with insight and help his son to become an adult who would merit both self-respect and the respect of others.

 

“Attend to me,” he said finally.  Blue eyes came up to meet his own. Those eyes were tired and reddened, but they regarded him steadily.

 

“You do well to beg for pardon,” he said gravely.  “You have behaved with a carelessness of which I would not have thought you capable.”  Legolas flinched but neither protested nor tried to excuse his behavior.

 

"This was not a childish fault to be atoned for by a child's chastisement,” Thranduil went on. “When a warrior picks up arms, he does something serious, almost sacred.  He holds lives in his hands, those of his comrades, his people, his foes.  Battle is not a game. Warriors joke and create games during battle sometimes because in the face of death and suffering they must. But only children see battle itself as a game, and they are a danger to themselves and to others.  This was a serious thing that you did, and it had serious consequences.  Indeed, it may have serious consequences yet, for Ithilden tells me that you will need to prove yourself trustworthy before he will consider allowing you to act as a warrior."

 

As he spoke, Thranduil watched the emotions flitting across his youngest son’s face. 

He saw both determination and sorrow.  More gently, he said, “I know you grieve for Turgon.  In his death, your own foolishness has punished you far beyond what I ever could have done.  I grieve with you.”

 

Legolas closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, facing his father with resolve.

 

“But punish you I must,” Thranduil resumed. “Given Ithilden’s doubts about your future as a warrior, I have directed that your own warrior training be suspended for six months.  Ithilden says that it is not your skill with weapons that troubles him, but your ability to be responsible. You allowed yourself to be led into an action that you knew was wrong. If you are to take your place among the Mirkwood forces, I would see that you are able to lead rather than be led.  Therefore, during the six months that you yourself receive no training, you will help the weapons masters teach the smallest elflings.  They will be your responsibility day to day now, and their future safety will be your responsibility as you teach them to protect themselves and others.”

 

He paused and then asked, “Is there anything you wish to say, nín ion?”

 

Legolas too paused and then wet his lips. He could think of nothing other than the inadequate words he had offered to Ithilden on the trip home. “I am sorry, Adar,” he almost whispered. “I know that it does no good, but I am so sorry.”

 

"Your regret may not change anything that has happened, Legolas, but it matters to me that you feel it. Be reconciled with us and received again into our loving arms." Thranduil moved forward and drew Legolas onto his feet and into his embrace.

 

***

 

Ithilden stood at the edge of the training field, scanning the various activities that were winding down at the end of the busy autumn morning.  One of his most skilled archers had just finished giving a master class to the most advanced group of younglings, including Legolas’s friend, Annael.  Ithilden had arrived in time to watch the last fifteen minutes of it.  He thought that it had gone well and had high hopes for this group, many of whom would be moving soon to a different level of training, becoming novices in the Mirkwood forces.

 

At the extreme right side of the field, another group had been having an archery lesson of a different kind.  Four elflings had been shooting at stationary targets with varying degrees of success.  Legolas had been teaching the class by himself because Penntalion, the archery master, had been assisting at the master class. Ithilden knew that missing this class had been a bitter disappointment for Legolas, but to his credit, he had not complained. In the last few months, Ithilden had seen much that was to Legolas’s credit and had privately begun to think that his little brother had learned some important lessons.  Although it was too early to be certain, he had every reason to think that Legolas would be returning to warrior training at the end of his six months trial.

 

Ithilden had occasionally glanced toward that side of the field to see Legolas adjusting the elflings’ stances and observing them closely.  They were too far away for Ithilden to hear anything but three of the small ones were clearly listening closely while the fourth turned his head stubbornly away, to Legolas’s obvious exasperation.  The beginners’ class too was now coming to an end and Legolas had sent the three attentive ones on their way while he spoke to the other one.  Ithilden could not help smiling. Legolas stood with one hand on the elfling’s shoulder and the other raising his chin so that the elfling could not look away, his stance echoing the one Penntalion always used when scolding small ones.

 

Not unexpectedly, Ithilden recognized the inattentive elfling as Amdir, Turgon’s little brother. Thranduil had not said so, but Ithilden strongly suspected that the presence of this elfling in the class was one of the factors that had led Thranduil to choose this particular punishment for Legolas. Their father was sometimes far deeper than a casual observer might expect.   Finally, Legolas released Amdir, and the elfling trotted off the field, decidedly unbowed by the scolding he had just received.  Legolas gathered his own belongings and left the field more slowly.  Ithilden moved to intercept his path at the edge of the field.

 

“How are the elflings doing?” he asked, casually.

 

Legolas made a face.  “You saw them,” he said.  “The other three will do well, I think, but Amdir is in a world of his own.  I might as well talk to the rocks.”

 

Ithilden laughed. “Some elflings take longer than others to grow into training,” he observed.

 

Legolas hesitated.  “The preparations for the autumn festival mean that there are no lessons for the next two days,” he said. “I thought, perhaps, that I would take him camping.”

 

Ithilden turned his brother’s words over in his head and thought of the temptation that was hidden in them.  Frightened by the loss of Turgon, Amdir’s parents had kept the elfling close to them in the last three months and restricted his movements far more than they had ever governed those of Turgon.  But Ithilden feared that their caution was a temporary reaction, and he did not want Legolas to attempt a task that was almost certainly beyond him. “You know that you cannot be his father,” he finally said gently. “Vardalan is what he is.”

 

Legolas chewed his lower lip.  “I know,” he said.  “But perhaps I can be his older brother.”

 

Ithilden grimaced at the thought of the burden that Legolas was talking about taking on. Ah, well, he thought.  We wanted him to learn responsibility. Trust Legolas to do it with a vengeance.  “Do not try to take on such a role while you are acting as his master,” he finally said firmly. “Doing so would make complications on the training field that I would wish to avoid.  Later perhaps we will see.”  Then he laughed, slapped his little brother on the shoulder, and said, “Besides, I have heard that an older brother is not always a good thing to have.”

 

Legolas grinned back at him. “That is true,” he said. “They can be overbearing.”

 

“I suspect you will find that a younger brother can be a trial too,” Ithilden observed.  “Occasionally, though, they do prove worth the effort.”  And then he put his hand on Legolas’s shoulder and the two of them left the field together.

 





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