The Greenwood Tales: Part 7 - Shadow Awaken

"Have you lost hope, your Majesty?"

It was a simple question, asked in a gentle tone, but Thranduil could not answer. Instead, he closed his eyes and steadied himself against the rushing wave of pain he knew would follow. His entire body clenched like a fist.

"It has only been a day," Aladain said quietly, trying not to look at the despair on his friend and king's face.

"I have not lost my hope, not yet, but perhaps one day you might know how it feels," Thranduil said, whirling to face Aladain. "Perhaps one day you also will know what it is like to love someone until you feel your heart cannot hold it any longer. And then perhaps you might also know the pain - crueler than shaft or blade - of losing that which you adore. I cannot bear it."

"But you will," Aladain said. "You will bear it, Majesty, because your son will be found."

Thranduil looked away. At last, he turned back to face the Elf-captain. "Why was I ever born, Aladain? Why was I ever cursed with bitter life? Better to have never existed than to have lived to know this wretched suffering I must endure."

"Do not say that!" Aladain warned.

Thranduil gazed out of the window, his eyes blurring with hot tears, his voice shaking, wavering on the edge of a sob. "Everyone I ever loved has been taken from me, Aladain. First my father, slaughtered in battle because of Sauron - Morgoth's servant. Next Elaimar, crossing the Sea also because of Morgoth. And lastly Legolas, stolen from me, stolen from his own bed, in the bitter watches of the night. Does that also lie at Morgoth's hand, or Sauron's? What did I do? What have I done to deserve such a dreadful fate? Curse Morgoth, curse him!"

Aladain sighed. He could offer Thranduil no comfort from the cold reality of life.

"You have done nothing, your Majesty," he said softly. "You are one of the finest kings I have ever laid eyes on, whether of Edain, Quendi, or Naugrim. It seems that fate's cube does not favor you."

Thranduil laughed bitterly, spitting the word like poison at Aladain. "Fate! Ha! Fate's cube conspires most cruelly against me, and I am powerless to stop it. Curse love! Curse life! Curse - oh, Legolas, oh, my son." Losing control, he turned away from Aladain so that his friend would not see the tears streaming freely down his face.

"Legolas," he whispered. "My dear son, how I long for you. You are too small to face the world on your own. Where can you be? What evil power so steals a child from his father?"

Thinking of the shadow, he drew his breath in sharply. Was that what had so vilely stolen Legolas?

"Look!" Aladain said, cutting into Thranduil's thoughts. "A rider approaches."

"Show him before me, if you will," Thranduil said, forcing himself to become calm.

Aladain bowed quickly and hurried out to meet the approaching rider. He was slightly built, even for the slender Elves, and his hair was light. Thranduil guessed the rider must hearken from Lórien. What tidings could he bring?

Aladain reappeared shortly, leading the rider. Both Elves bowed courteously to Thranduil, than Aladain stepped aside and the messenger spoke.

"Greetings, Thranduil, Elvenking of Greenwood. I bring word from the Lady of the Golden Wood. She has heard that your son has vanished, and as such as searched with her ring and her Mirror to find an answer. She believes that this means that the power of Sauron is again stirred strongly."

Thranduil nodded. "Yes. That makes sense to me. Do you have the message?"

"No, not as yet," the Elf answered. "But the Lady of the Golden Wood bid me tell you to keep an extra watch. Sauron's power has grown enough as to threaten Galadriel Lady of Light. I must return to fetch the prophecy. I came here, however, to warn you before I return."

"Thank you for informing me of Sauron's power," Thranduil said. "I will bid you the speed of the Valar back to Lórien, and shall await your next coming."

The rider nodded. "Yes, my lord. I assume that you will be journeying forth to find your son?"

"Yes," Thranduil said, feeling calmer and much more collected now that he had taken action. He mind had been cleared, and now he was ready to find his son. Nothing, not even Sauron or Morgoth themselves, would stand in his way now.

The rider bowed. "I thank you for your aid, Elvenking of Greenwood. I shall convey your missive with all speed to my Lady, and return to you with all the haste I can make."

Bowing again, he left.

The next few days were the most excruciating of Thranduil's long life. Every waking moment, he gazed about for the rider, willing with all his heart for the Elf-rider to appear from the woods. He kept his ears strained for any creak of leather, his eyes for any flash of white or brown in the woods.

It was on the eve of the third day that the messenger returned. He came galloping out of the trees, bent low to his mount's neck, his golden hair flying like a banner in the breeze. Without even waiting for his horse to stop he leapt off it and hurtled into the palace. "Elvenking, Elvenking!"

Thranduil acknowledged him courteously, but he could easily see the desperate haste in the young Elf's eyes. Without bothering with formal greetings, he said to the messenger, "Speak."

"Thank you, my lord," the Elf panted. "I now carry the message from the Lady of Lórien, Galadriel. She bids me tell you thus:

Swift shadow ere rising

The ocean as flooding

The rivers that reach to the Sea

Where has the Light gone, where can it be?

Once more the darkness is free."

Thranduil surveyed the young Elf with his deep blue eyes. "Thank you." Accustomed to the mysterious mannerisms of the Lady of the Golden Wood, he added, "Did she send any other word?"

"Yes," the messenger said, speaking more clearly now that he had regained his breath. "She said, `Look to the Dark Land.' As you know, her ring, Nenya, gives her the power and will to visualize Sauron's mind while her own remains closed to him. I have no doubt this message has some sinister purport about it, thinly veiled if hidden at all."

"Look to the Dark Land," Thranduil murmured. "Sauron!"

The Elf looked startled and afraid. "Speak not that evil name so loudly in my ears!"

He quickly remembered who he was talking to and inclined his head in respectful apology. "Forgive me, my lord Thranduil, but it is said that the name of the evil Maia still holds wicked power over the races of Elves, Men, Ents, and Dwarves."

"Wicked power or none, it seems I now have my proof," Thranduil said. "Sauron has taken my son to his dreadful land of Mordor." His face calm and impassive, the Elvenking made one of the split-second decisions that made him such an able ruler. "Let it be known to my people that I leave to find my son. I shall be a long time in returning, should I return at all. The captain of the guard, Aladain Treechild, shall rule in my stead. If I should not return, he shall rule until he desires to pass over the Sea, and then his descendants shall govern Greenwood."

The messenger bowed. "Yes, my Lord."

He hurried out.

Aladain came to visit Thranduil later that evening. The Elvenking was readying his bow, filling his quiver with freshly sharpened arrows, and sharpening the two long knives he carried with him. They were white, with curling patterns etched on their lethal blades.

"Your Majesty." Aladain bowed and waited for Thranduil to address him.

"Vedui,' Aladain," Thranduil said serenely, sheathing the knives in their pouches in the quiver. He checked that the straps were clean and the buckle to the quiver well-oiled. "What is it you wish to say? Speak quickly."

Aladain did not mind his king's abruptness. "Your Majesty, I came to ask you. Is there a certain thing I should do while acting as king?"

"Yes," Thranduil said, picking up his long bow and testing the string. "Keep their faith, Aladain. Do not let them waver. Do not let them give into despair. Keep their hope alive. And do not them believe for one instant that I am never coming back. I shall - I hope."

Aladain bowed slightly, his lips tight, his eyes glittering with unshed tears. "I will try, your Majesty. The best I can do within my mortal power." Suddenly, surprising them both, he stepped forward and seized Thranduil in a fierce, hard embrace. He furiously bit back his tears, but one slipped out anyway. "Oh, my friend....swift journey. Safe passage to the Dark Land - and back, I wish dearly. I shall pray each day to the Valar that you return."

Thranduil nodded, stepped back, grasped Aladain's shoulder, and regarded him steadily. "You shall do excellently as king, my friend Aladain. I trust you with every fiber of my being."

He slipped his crown off his head and presented it to Aladain. "Here. Wear it. It is yours until I return - if ever."

"No!" Aladain protested. "It was made for you alone - "

Thranduil cut off his arguments with a swift slash of his hand. "No debating. Take it. Wear it. For me, Aladain."

Slowly, Aladain slid the crown onto his head. The finely worked silver brushed against his hair, and the emerald leaves glimmered in the fading light of the day. He nodded, biting his lip. "Until you return, my friend."

"Yes," Thranduil said.

He turned and departed.

Biting back his grief and worry, Aladain clenched his hands by his fists. He could only watch as his friend dwindled into a shadowy silhouette that was quickly swallowed up by the evening.

Aladain watched him go with a sickening feeling in his heart. The light silver crown felt heavier than a dwarven anvil and twice as painful. It seemed to burn and blister his skin. He stared after Thranduil until long after he had gone from sight. The silver-and-emerald crown burned and throbbed, almost physically painful, on his head. Surely this quest of Thranduil's to find his son would surely result in death for both of them. Aladain wondered if Sauron had killed Legolas already. With the evil Maia, it was easily possible.

Again, Aladain asked himself how. How had it been that Sauron had gained enough power to steal Legolas? It didn't make sense, and Aladain was afraid of the evil that he knew would come. Dark times were once more upon Middle-earth.

Thranduil hurried off, dashing as quickly and silently through the quiet wood as he could. He ran faster and faster, his long, swift strides slicing away the distance. Nothing would slacken his speed.

Through the night he ran, and till he did not stop. He remembered, painfully, how long the distance through Mirkwood was. Thinking of who had been with him the last time he had been running through the forest, he felt a stab of pain go through his heart, strong enough to bring him, gasping, to his knees, clutching at his chest. His vision blurred and spun. Then he forced away the pain, climbed to his feet, and continued to run.

He kept Elaimar's letter in a silver-inlaid wooden box by his bedside, carefully preserved, opening it each night to look at it. Often he would lift it out and kiss her name, then gently, tenderly lay it back in place. Still his heart ached for her, and often he cursed Morgoth and Sauron. He detested the evil Valar and Maia even more now. First Elaimar, then Legolas...

His only comforting thought was that Elaimar lived in joy across the Sea, far away from earthly cares. He wished he knew if she still yearned from him as he yearned for her.

Thranduil ran all of that day and well into the next night, never stopping. He carried a skin of water, and drank only a little as he ran.

At last, as morning broke, he was forced to stop for sheer fatigue. He sank to the ground and slept fitfully, awoke a few hours later, and ran again. The woods blurred in his speed, familiar and comforting, but he wished that they would be gone. He was desperate to get to Mordor. He had never thought that he would voluntarily go there, but now it was not a matter of choice.

The minutes blurred into hours, hours blurred into days. As an Elf, Thranduil possessed above-average stamina, but even he needed to rest occasionally. When he at last saw the endless trees of Mirkwood falling away on the ripples of the land, he could have sung.

He ran from the southern border of Mirkwood and into empty plains where only the wind roamed. His feet pounded the grass. It seemed to him that the day shriveled and fell into night, only in a few seconds, while he ran. He crossed quickly through the Gap, and looked into the land called Rohan, where only a few sparse settlers made their home. Again, the days crumbled, and the sun rose in the east and set in the west with almost alarming rapidity.

Often, he thought he saw a huge bird in the sky, wheeling and circling above him. When he tried for a closer look, it vanished, and not even his Elf-eyes could find it in the vastness of the sky. So he turned his mind from the strange bird and continued to run.

The Misty Mountains rose on his right, tall and imposing, with their heads in the clouds and their broad flanks clothed in white. The sun reflected brightly off their slopes, and Thranduil screwed up his eyes to avoid being blinded. He was weary, but he knew that Mordor was not all that far now. So, instead of resting, he continued to run.

That, Thranduil would later realize, was the biggest mistake of his life.

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