The Greenwood Tales: Part 6 - Shadowthief
Once the Elves returned to their tree homes, they kept a vigilant watch on the borders of Greenwood, on the lookout for anything out of place. With the Balrog, ancient evil of Morgoth, awake, more fell creatures would surely follow. The Elves were more than willing to obey Thranduil's command to make a note of anything unusual.
But the summer came and went without anything amiss, and as the days began to fade and chill touched the air, the trees began to turn golden. When Thranduil walked among the falling leaves, he was reminded vividly of Lórien. A sharp stab of pain lanced through his heart; when last he had been in Lórien, Elaimar had left him.
Aladain worried about Thranduil. Although he at last seemed to be recovering somewhat from the terrible grief that had almost destroyed him, he seemed to be living in a dream world rather than the real one. When Aladain took Legolas into the throne room to visit his father, Thranduil only gave his son and dearest friend a vague greeting, his eyes seeing somewhere far past them. Even when Legolas ran to him and held his small arms up for a hug, Thranduil just gave him a quick squeeze and then set him down.
The crisp autumn grew into winter, and a soft blanket of snow covered Greenwood, muffling sounds, coating the bare trees in white. Puffy clouds drifted in a gray sky, sometimes descending enough to let more snow fall.
One cold winter night, Thranduil lay in bed, tossing and turning, plagued by nightmares that would never cease enough to let him rest. Deciding at last that the endeavor was useless, he got silently out of bed, threw on his clothes and a cloak, and crept soundlessly down the stairs and out of the palace.
The air was cold, and the darkness coated the snow-covered wood like a shroud. The stars shone brightly in the black cloak of the sky.
Thranduil looked up, found the star Elbereth, and whispered a quick prayer to the Elven Queen. His boots made almost no imprint on the fresh-fallen snow, and the night was cold and still.
He walked a short way into the forest, knelt down, and scooped up a handful of snow. It was cold, sharp, and stinging, and it reminded him that he was alive. He pressed his hands together, melting the snow, and closed his eyes as the icy rivulets ran down his fingers.
Suddenly, he heard a small noise from behind him, and whipped around. A tall figure - Aladain - was carrying a small figure - Legolas - down a narrow path between the huge trees. They did not see him. Legolas was well-wrapped in cloaks, and his golden hair fluttered in the chill breeze. Aladain was wearing a hood, but Thranduil still knew without a doubt that it was him.
Thranduil shrank into the shadows and kept still. Suddenly, he wasn't sure if he wanted to face them. He was unexpectedly, painfully aware that he had snubbed them, forsaken them, drowning in Elaimar's loss rather than acknowledging them - the two people who were now dearest to his heart.
However, Aladain sensed his presence, said something in a low voice to Legolas, and came silently down the path toward him. The Elf captain looked serenely at Thranduil, who was crouched in the snow, his eyes bright with cold and pain.
"Your Majesty?" he said hesitantly. "What are you doing out so late? Are you all right?"
Thranduil didn't want to answer. He rose to his feet and tried to blend back into the shadows, but Aladain came softly on. "The young prince here wanted to see the snow. I went to find you - but you were gone."
"I have forsaken you, Aladain," Thranduil said. "I have forsaken my son. I do not know if I can possibly atone for it. I feel dark, a hideous creature of the night, and still you treat me with kindness. It breaks my heart." Tears filled Thranduil's eyes. He knelt down, scooped up a handful of snow, and threw it viciously at a tree. It broke in a soft explosion of whiteness.
Legolas laughed suddenly, misinterpreting his father's angry gesture. He slid down from Aladain's arms, filled his small hands with snow, and threw it playfully at Thranduil.
Caught off guard, the Elvenking started as the snow hit the back of his knees. Then suddenly, the world that he had been living in shattered, and he saw clearly for the first time Legolas and Aladain's faces. It was like a mist had been cleared from his vision, and now the sun was shining. The stars blazed in the sky, and Thranduil in that moment saw everything that he had gained - not everything that he had lost.
He lunged at Legolas, caught his small son in his arms, and lifted him into the air. Legolas squealed, kicking, as Thranduil whirled him around. Then he pulled him against his shoulder, their cold cheeks pressing together. Legolas was laughing in exhilaration. Aladain's smile seemed bright enough to light the night.
Thranduil fell to the snow and slid down on his back, Legolas laughing and shrieking. They rocketed down through the trees, whipping around corners, and came to rest in deep snow at the base of a tree. The snow stung the back of Thranduil's neck, and his long golden hair was spread out on the ground. Legolas was sitting atop him, laughing, clinging onto him, the ends of his hair brushing Thranduil's face. Thranduil put his arms around Legolas and drew him against him, hugging him tightly.
A second later, Aladain came sliding down the path that Thranduil had broken. "King Thranduil!" he gasped. "Prince Legolas! Are you all right?"
"I am well," Thranduil said, not moving from the place where he lay. "I am much better than I have been in a long time."
Swinging Legolas onto his hip, he stood, crossed over to Aladain, and enfolded his friend in a tight hug. "I am sorry for how badly I have been treating you," he murmured into Aladain's ear. "I thought only of those who are not here, and paid no attention to those who are here. I am sorry."
Aladain sighed gently, his breath fluttering Thranduil's snow-soaked hair. "I forgive you," he whispered.
They held the embrace a few moments longer, then parted. Thranduil carried Legolas back up to the palace.
After that one night, Thranduil came completely from the shell of his isolation. He was open and warm, he made sure to spend time with Legolas, and he often talked to Aladain as he had many years before.
But still, the presence of the Balrog stalked his mind. He could not escape it, and often in quiet moments the thought floated to mind. It remained a fact that the Balrog was awake - awake and hungry. Soon, it would come, and take for Morgoth any of those who sympathized with the Laiquendi. The Dark Lord still lived, even though he was clapped within the Void.
The winter passed in time, and spring returned to Greenwood. The leaves came to the trees again, and the days warmed. The Elves of Greenwood began to hold parties welcoming the arrival of spring, including the Sheelala, their annual festival to celebrate the season.
However, Thranduil noticed that the music was not as sweet, the sky not as bright as it had been when he had celebrated other Sheelalas. The laughter seemed strained, and his close friends distant. He furrowed his brow, trying to understand why. The sun, although shining brightly, seemed cold. Was it the Balrog? Was it Morgoth? He feared both, and he hoped that neither had a hand in it, but it seemed like more than coincidence.
Aladain came up next to him, and with one glance into his friend's dark eyes, Thranduil could tell that he felt it as well.
"What is it, Aladain?" he asked. "Something is not right, and I do not understand what."
"I am not sure," Aladain replied slowly, spinning on the balls of his feet and looking into the trees on all sides. "But something is amiss. The air - the environment - even the Elves - something is wrong. I know."
"I do not understand," Thranduil said. "But this much is true, I know. The Balrog's power is no longer merely confined to Hadhodrond. This also means that Sauron is growing strong again, even after the Last Alliance defeated him."
Aladain smiled at Thranduil, but it seemed to the Elvenking that even the familiar expression on his friend's face was distorted, and unnatural. "You spoke of Elaimar, and of Oropher. You have at last seemed to come to terms with your grief."
Suddenly, Thranduil was angry at Aladain. "I managed to come to terms with it a long time ago, Aladain."
Aladain nodded mildly. "I am sorry, my friend."
Turning, he blended back into the crowd.
One day, when the Sun was shining brightly, filtering Her warm rays through the forest canopy of Greenwood and providing illumination, Thranduil took Legolas out into the deep woods, where the forest grew and thrived unbridled. Sitting beneath a spreading oak, polishing his bow, he watched as Legolas crawled around, fascinated by every patch of dirt and every flower he found, talking happily to himself. The little Elf looked much like his father, with long golden hair that Thranduil had given up on tying back. Legolas pushed it out of his face with small, grubby hands as he closely investigated a single niphredil flower that grew in the clearing.
Suddenly, Thranduil saw a smooth curve of wood, an oaken soundboard, lying half-concealed in a cluster of bushes. Elaimar's lute! Thranduil seized it, tenderly stroked the wood, and kissed the strings that her fingers had coaxed such music from. How it had come to be here, he did not know, nor did he care. It was almost as if he was seeing her fair face again.
Thranduil tuned the lute, set it against his knee, and touched his fingers to the strings. But although he was himself a skilled musician, today the notes would not come. They sounded disjointed, wrong, not the uplifting flow of rushing melody that Elaimar had been capable of. Tears stinging his eyes, Thranduil set the lute aside and put his head in his hands.
He heard a soft whimper, and two blue eyes looked up at him, set in Legolas's anxious little face. The small prince put his short arms around his father's neck and looked up at him, demonstrating by his gestures that he was concerned.
Thranduil put his own arms about his son, holding his small, warm body close. It felt good to have Legolas near him. He stroked back the golden hair from Legolas's fair forehead and kissed it.
Legolas was old enough to stand and walk by himself, so the energetic young Elf could have easily wriggled away and returned to his dirt-examining, but the little prince stayed by his father, letting the Elvenking hold him. He nuzzled up underneath his father's chin, his hair silky against Thranduil's skin. The Elvenking closed his eyes and breathed in Legolas's child scent, like fresh air, mud, and violets. Like violets. Like Elaimar.
He sighed, holding the little body closer, feeling his son's heart beating against his. Here was some reminder of Elaimar. He only had to look at Legolas's eyes, blue like his father's, but shaped the exact way as his mother's. Elaimar was present, too, in the way he moved, the way he cocked his head when he was confused, the way his laugh sounded when something amused him. Thranduil, as he hugged his small son, thought of all those and the terrible grief he always carried around, deep inside of him, eased.
At last, Thranduil let Legolas go. The child rested his hands on his father's shoulders, an uncommon wisdom in his small face. Then he stepped back and went back to his eager exploration of the clearing.
Thranduil watched Legolas, happily making a concoction of grass, flower stems, and twigs, stirring it with a grubby finger and smiling at his own ingenuity. Scooping it onto a piece of bark, the little Elf offered it to his father, like one of the herbal healing poultices Thranduil made for him whenever the prince came down with a cough or cold. Thranduil had to grin. He accepted the piece of bark graciously and rubbed a leaf on the back of his hand. Legolas looked delighted.
At that moment, he discovered Thranduil's bow, lying beside him, and immediately abandoned any thought of making poultices. Fascinated, he looked at the bow, feeling the polished curve of the wood, the suppleness of the new bowstring.
He struggled to pick it up, for the bow was almost as tall as he was. He balanced it on its end and looked intently at it, grinning and talking to himself.
Thranduil sighed, a deep longing for Elaimar rising in his heart. Even this moment with his son could not entirely appease his need for her. Again, he cursed the day the Valar permitted Melkor into Eä.
At that moment, he saw something in the trees behind Legolas, a dark, sinuous shadow. His heart jerked. Leaping to his feet, he snatched an arrow from the quiver resting on a tree root, his entire body falling ready into a fighting stance. Oblivious, Legolas continued to examine the bow.
"Pretty," he told Thranduil approvingly.
Thranduil did not answer, staring at the shadow. It seemed not to be a mere shadow cast by the sun, for it moved unnaturally. But whatever it was, it quickly slithered away and disappeared.
Letting out a long, shaky breath, Thranduil slid the arrow back into the quiver, gently took the bow from Legolas, slung it on his back, and scooped up his reluctant son, holding him against his hip. Legolas was still small enough to carry.
They hurried back to the tree homes. Since there was nothing that needed to be done, the Elves of Greenwood had chosen to relax this fine afternoon, practicing archery, climbing trees, running through the forest, or simply sitting and meditating underneath the sun. As soon as he saw Aladain, who was like a second father to him, Legolas wriggled down from Thranduil's grasp and ran over to the other Elf. Laughing, Aladain knelt down and looked at Legolas.
"Elen sila, Ali," Legolas greeted enthusiastically.
"Elen sila lumenn omentilmo, Legolas," Aladain replied, a twinkle in his eye. "How goes the dirt-digging?"
"Good!" Legolas squeaked, grinning. Then, deciding to play shy, being capricious as usual, he scampered back over to Thranduil and hid behind his legs, peering out at Aladain with perfectly serious blue eyes.
Aladain laughed and addressed Thranduil. "That child of yours is a blessing, my friend. To see him alive and lively is a wonderful thing."
"Yes, he is a blessing," Thranduil said, ruffling Legolas's golden hair. "And a comfort."
Aladain knew what Thranduil was talking about, but he said nothing, just nodded. "It would be terrible to lose him. He is a bright star for us all, a golden treasure beyond the wealth of Men of Elves."
"I agree," Thranduil said, pulling Legolas back from the edge of the creek bank. "A very mischievous golden treasure, if you ask me."
They both laughed. Thranduil scooped Legolas up again; the little Elf tugged a strand of his father's long golden hair affectionately. He reached over Thranduil's shoulder to try to grab an arrow, but Thranduil snatched his hand back. "No. Not for little Elves to investigate."
That reminded Thranduil of the strange shadow. Since Elaimar's departure over the Sea, Aladain was his closest counselor. Surely he ought to tell him about the odd phenomenon in the forest?
"Legolas, go find a friend," Thranduil said, setting Legolas down. "Run off and have fun."
Obediently, the Elf-prince trotted off on his short legs, going eagerly to find a friend to play with. Thranduil watched his son leave, then turned to Aladain again.
Before he could speak, Aladain said, "What is it, Thranduil? You would not have sent your son off unless you wanted to speak." He surveyed Thranduil with worry in his dark eyes. "Another evil force awakened, another thing come to threaten?"
"Perhaps, perhaps merely a trick of the light," Thranduil answered, and proceeded to relate what he had seen in the trees. Aladain listened carefully, without interrupting.
When Thranduil finished, Aladain said nothing.
"What do you think?" Thranduil pressed.
"I could not answer rightly," Aladain said. "As you said, it could have been a trick of the light, afternoon shadows confusing your vision. I do not know what it could have been. Some symbol of Sauron's - " He trailed off into silence.
Thranduil bit his lip. "I wish I did know."
That night, Thranduil lay in light sleep, the covers soft over him, part of his roof open to the air and the brilliant stars. He felt drowsy, but for some reason rest would not come to him. He shifted again.
Outside, a sinuous, slithering shadow slid down the hallway, as quiet and as dark as the night, so that untrained eyes were fooled into believing that it was part of the night. It made no sound, not even a breath of air, to mark its passing.
It slid into a small room, made from curling filigrees of wood, hung with gauzy green drapes. By the window, in a bed made with soft, flowing green covers, a little Elf rested, his eyes closed, looking much like the image of angels that Men thought of.
The shadow slid nearer.
Just before the shadow reached him, the Elf's eyes opened. The innocent blue orbs widened in fear and confusion. He scrambled backward on the bedclothes, his white night robe trailing after him. He opened his mouth and gave a piercing shriek, but he was a second too late. The shadow swooped down, closed itself about him, and little Elf and shadow alike vanished.
Thranduil jerked awake as soon as he heard his son scream. Flying from the bed, he thundered down the hallway and threw the door into Legolas's room aside.
The bed was neatly made, the room as immaculate as it had been when Thranduil had put Legolas to bed a few hours earlier.
With one important difference.
Legolas was not there.
The rest of the palace had been awakened by Legolas's shriek - a few servants, Aladain, and the guards. They all came running up to find Thranduil staring in shock at the empty room, with no sign of the little prince anywhere.
"Oh, Valar," Aladain whispered.
Thranduil seemed too stunned to do much more than stare at the neat room, with no sign of his son. His hands hung limp at his sides, then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, he flew into a towering rage. Seizing a hanging, he rent the delicate silk into shreds. He slammed a few kicks into the wall, whirled, stared at the small bed, and then collapsed onto it, his entire body shaking, but not making a sound.
"Oh, Elbereth, lady mother of the stars, save us," Aladain whispered, staring, stunned, at the Elvenking.