The Chronicles of Shadowfall: Part 3 - Whispers
He splashed through a deep puddle of mud, but it was only after he was through that he realized perhaps it was not a good idea to walk through puddles blithely again. The mud shivered and rippled, then disappeared, swallowing a leaf that had floated down to land on it. Legolas shivered and plunged recklessly into the trees again.
Before he had left the caves, he had searched his father's former chambers, desperate to find at least one of the two long white knives that Thranduil had always carried into battle, but he had found neither. And so he made do with Darián's bow and quiver.
Something hissed close at hand, and red eyes flashed in the dimness. Legolas froze, staring into the trees, but there was nothing there. Still, he felt uneasy. This only meant that whatever had been there had vanished. He did not know where it could be.
The dim daylight filtering through the thick, overgrown trees soon vanished, and darkness closed in about the lone elven youth. Swallowing his fear, he kept into the darkness, feeling his way along trunks like a blind man, scuffling along the ground and occasionally slipping into a puddle of some muck he was glad that he could not see. It seemed to him as if the trunks and roots rose up to catch and ensnare his feet.
At last, breathing hard and desperate for a rest, Legolas stopped, and slid down the trunk of a thick tree to rest. His legs were tired and he was hungry; he wished that he'd thought to bring a cake of lembas with him. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, and sat in the dark wood, alone, wishing that his father was alive.
If he was, Legolas had every intention of finding him.
He stood up, moving carefully along the rough trunk with a vague intention of finding an edible plant that he knew grew in the deep forest. Although he knew that the chances were slim and none of him actually finding it, he thought there was no harm in looking, and he felt his way ponderously across the ground.
His fingers found something smooth and cool, something almost like a piece of wood. He lifted it, running his fingers curiously and blindly across his discovery. A quick examination confirmed that it was wood, and he could feel delicate designs and whorls carved into it.
More curious than ever, Legolas tried to find a single, solitary beam of light in the thick blackness that surrounded him, so that he could see what the thing was that he had found, but he could not, so he sat at the base of his tree and dreamed in silence. He liked the scrap of wood. It made him think of better days, when Mirkwood was a glorious green forest rather than a dark, clinging shadow. He closed his eyes, although it made little difference, and let his weary mind slip into fantasies.
A small sound, barely more than a whisper through the trees, roused him. Legolas jumped to his feet, fumbled around, and found the quiver and bow. He snatched an arrow from the quiver and hastily fit it to the string. He pointed it in the general direction of the sound, hoping to get a shot off if a creature in the shadows should spring.
There was no other sound, but Legolas did not relax his guard. He waited, and he had the strangest, eeriest feeling that something was climbing up above his head, waiting to spring. He could feel his body tense, and he looked around, determined to pierce the gloom.
At length, there was silence again, and Legolas let out a long sigh and lowered the bow. He slipped the arrow back into his quiver - Darián's quiver. He hoped that his friend was not greatly angry with him.
Legolas stumbled deeper into the forest. He did not mark which path he took; he did not care where his legs led him. He walked until he was exhausted, and then still he kept on.
It was morning, or as close to morning as it ever came to be in Mirkwood, when Legolas at last found something. It was a stone bier, etched with half-faded designs; charms of protection, of warding. Some were broken, crossed through with crude black scrawls. It was empty, and a dead rabbit lay at its base.
There was something queer about it. Legolas frowned and carefully put another arrow to the bow, then stepped forward into the circle.
"A bier," he whispered. "A bier for a king. My father must have lain here. Where has he gone? Did something drag him off, or does he - or does he yet live?"
Legolas frowned, then resumed his quest into the forest. He plunged heedlessly through the twilit woods, for the morning was grey and pale now. He was exhausted, the quiver weighing a thousand pounds, the bow heavier, yet he could not stop. Not now.
At last, he heard noises ahead of him. Something crawling through the woods, crouched low, clambering nearer - harsh breathing.
Legolas quickly loosed an arrow; the shaft skittered through the bushes and away. The noise came on, then stopped. Legolas held another arrow to his bow. "Come forth and challenge me if you dare!" he called, trying to sound like a fearless elf-warrior and not a frightened child.
"Elf?" The voice was hoarse, ponderous, yet heartbreakingly familiar.
"FATHER!" Legolas threw the bow and quiver down and ran across the woods and into the bushes. There stood Thranduil, painfully thin, gashes and cuts and bruises marring every inch of his skin. His clothes were in tatters, his eyes sunken, his hair long and ragged, but his eyes were bright, and there was a smile of such joy on his face, Legolas nearly cried for it.
He threw himself into Thranduil's arms, and his father held him close. His arms were like sticks; his skin pale and translucent. He was obviously much the worse for wear from his long exile in the forest, but he was alive.
At last, Legolas let him go. "They said you'd eaten poisoned meat," he said breathlessly. "They said you were dead."
"Am I not?" There was a spark of grim mirth in Thranduil's eyes.
"No, you're not, you're here, you're real." Legolas flung himself back into Thranduil's arms, and the Elvenking sighed and rested his head on his son's golden hair.
"You're so big now, Legolas. When I saw you last, you were a child."
"You've been away a long time," Legolas said.
"Yes, I have," Thranduil said. "And the first thing that I will do now is to give you some archery lessons. Your shot missed me by a good five feet, Legolas. Why is it that you now carry a bow?"
"I - borrowed it," Legolas admitted sheepishly. "And perhaps it's best that I didn't hit you."
Thranduil's smile was sudden and unexpected, lighting up his entire face like a star. "Yes, perhaps it is."
Together, father and son made their way through the tangles of forest back toward the Wood-elven caves. This time, it seemed to Legolas that the previously stubborn rocks and roots parted away to let him pass better. He could not remember being so happy in a long time.
They stepped out at last into the twilit circle cast by the torches mounted on the doors of the caves. There were guards there, but they rushed forward at once when they saw Legolas.
"My prince!" said the first. "You worried the King Aladain. These woods are dangerous. You should not be out alone - and who is this?"
For Thranduil had just stepped forward behind Legolas, resting his hand on his son's shoulder. "Lle n'sinta amin?" he said quietly. (Do you not know me?)
The guards looked at him in shock, than as one dropped to their knees.
"Heruamin Thranduil," one whispered. (My lord Thranduil.) "We thought you dead. How is this - how is this possible?"
"I am not yet sure myself," Thranduil said, with a rueful smile. "Rise."
The guards did so, staring in awe at the king. One stepped forward. "If you will permit my, my lord, you are ragged and dirty, in a manner unbefitting a king. Come with me, and I will find you clothes, and a crown, and a bath."
Thranduil raised a hand. "I am grateful for your offer, but not now. Just a moment. Let me....let me speak to Aladain first."
The guard bowed. "As you wish, my lord."
Thranduil smiled at him and then sped off into the caves. So his people had been forced to abandon their fair tree-top dwellings for the shadow. It made him sad, but it also gave him hope that perhaps one day they would return.
But there was no more time for thought. He stood at the doors of the throne room. Wondering what Aladain's reaction would be, Thranduil opened the doors and stepped through.
Aladain sat on the throne, head in his hands, staring at the floor. The crown that Thranduil had given to him so long ago was still on his head. The room was empty except for the two Elves.
Thranduil walked forward silently and stopped before the throne. "My lord."
Aladain looked up, surprised. "Who are you? I do not think I gave anyone leave to enter, I said I wanted to be left alone - "
He stopped. His eyes grew wide. He could not believe his eyes, for there, standing before him in ragged garb but smiling, was Thranduil.
Aladain leapt out of the chair and sprinted the length of the hall. He snatched Thranduil in a fierce embrace. His arms nearly encircled his friend twice; Thranduil was as thin as a twig. Aladain didn't care. He rocked back and forth, choking on his sobs, trying to understand everything that had happened.
Thranduil gently disentangled himself and stepped back. Tears were pouring down Aladain's face.
"Thranduil," he whispered. "I don't believe it."
"Neither do I, I'm afraid," said Thranduil.
"It was Nuruwen, wasn't it?" Aladain growled. His tears of relief gave way swiftly to fresh anger. "She took you, she bound you with her foul spells, she made us all believe you were dead. Was that not how it was?"
Thranduil nodded wearily. "Aye," he said, "it was."
"And I let her go!" Aladain's voice rose to a roar, and he whirled away from Thranduil and started pacing back and forth. "I can't believe it, I let her walk away - "
Thranduil placed his hand on Aladain's shoulder. "Calm," he said. "We will mete out justice to those who deserve it in time. For now, I will not think of it. I wish to enjoy being here again, seeing you, seeing my son."
"And you should also see a bath," said Aladain, and Thranduil laughed for the first time in months.
After Thranduil returned, there was peace, albeit an uneasy one, for a long time among the Wood-elves of Mirkwood. In the caves beneath the shadowed forest, there was gaiety and merriment again, something that had been much lacking since Thranduil's supposed death.
Aladain, for his part, was not reluctant to hand the crown back to Thranduil, and resume his place as captain of the guard. Each day, though, he hated Nuruwen more, and thought about how to do away with her if he ever saw her again.
Thranduil, as promised, took Legolas out for archery lessons; the Elves had cleared a patch of forest before the caves that was suitable. The first time, Legolas was awkward and clumsy with the bow, trying vainly to imitate the smooth, graceful way in which his father used it.
"I'll never learn!" he complained, after his shot had struck two feet wide of the target for the dozenth time.
"You will learn," said Thranduil. "You have an innate skill with the bow. I remember one time, when you were just a child. We were sitting in the forest. You were fascinated by my bow. Even now, you are better than many of the other beginners I have trained. You will be a great archer, trust me."
Legolas tried another shot. "Some skill," he grumbled, looking at the arrow lodged rakishly near the very top of the target.
"All things come with patience." Thranduil picked up his own bow, raised it, and fired it. The arrow sped through the air and lodged in the center of the target. Legolas looked at it with envy.
"Can we pretend I shot that one?" he said to his father, hopefully.
Thranduil laughed. "No," he said, "but soon you will not have to pretend. Come, now. Again."
And so the years passed, if not in perfect contentment, than in a reasonable approximation of peace. Darián came of age and was accepted by Aladain as a full member of the guard. Legolas continued with his archery lessons, and soon he was only missing the mark by an inch or two, if at all.
Then it was all broken.
Legolas was out alone one night, practicing his archery in the darkness, tirelessly drawing the bow again and again. Thranduil had already retired, but his son was determined to hone his skills fine as a knife, whether by day or night.
There was a soft rustling in the woods, and Legolas whirled, arrow at the ready. "Come out," he called. "Or I'll fire."
An Elven youth stepped from the tangles of trees. He was younger than Legolas, slender and quick, with long hair as black as jet and surprisingly blue eyes. His clothes were dirty and ripped, and he held a well-worn knife.
Curious, Legolas lowered his bow.
"Who are you?" the stranger called.
"Who are you?" Legolas reiterated.
"I asked first." The youth moved nearer, keeping his knife at the ready. "Don't worry, I know how to use this."
"And I this," Legolas said, raising his bow again, slightly. "Very well, I will tell you who I am. I am Prince Legolas of Mirkwood, the son of the King, Thranduil, and it was he who taught me to wield this." He knew that should rattle the youth slightly. Thranduil was renowned for his skill with the bow.
"Oh," said the youth, stepping still closer and sliding the knife into a sheath at his side. "I don't have a name. They called me Nurion, before I ran away." He thrust his sharp chin up, proudly.
Confused, Legolas tried to keep up with the pace of this interchange. "Who called you?"
"Nurion," the boy answered. He was barely more than a child, but he acted as one much older. "They did. Before I ran away."
"Ran away from where?" said Legolas.
"Imladris, they called it," Nurion answered. "I was born there. But I wasn't one of them. They didn't like me, for some reason. They always acted like I was a disease. Then they banished my mother."
"Who was your mother?" Legolas asked, feeling uneasy for some reason.
"Don't know her real name." Nurion shrugged. "But they said she came from here. I didn't like it there, so I came here. I stole a knife and ran away. They won't miss me."
Legolas kept watching him, eyes narrowed.
Finally, Nurion sighed, unsheathed the knife, and threw it into the ground. "There, I am unarmed! Do you mean to make me sleep in this wretched forest?"
"I don't know you," Legolas replied. "I cannot let you in untested, unguarded."
Nurion's eyes flashed. "Give me that bow," he said menacingly, "and I'll outshoot you at any distance you care to name. Give me a knife, and I'll outfight you. No doubt you've had a sheltered childhood, being a little prince and all. I've had to scrape for my existence."
"My childhood has been anything but sheltered," said Legolas, watching Nurion carefully, in case he decided to go for his knife again. "I highly doubt that you could beat me as easily as you claim."
Nurion shrugged, bent down, and retrieved the knife from the ground. He spun it casually and handed it to Legolas, hilt first. "There you go. Keep it if you want."
Legolas looked at it. It was a pretty knife, forged from white metal and etched with elf-runes. "Maybe I will," he said.
Nurion looked unconcerned. "As you will," he said. "I have no need for it any more. Now let me in. I wish to speak with your father."
"Do you know your father's name, at least?" Legolas demanded, running to keep up as Nurion walked toward the entrance to the caves. "My father will want to know something of you, besides the fact that you ran away from Imladris."
Nurion kept on walking. "It's nothing to me," he said, "but if you really must know, Luinil Riverdancer."