The Uncommon Tales
Tales of the Jade King: Scroll One
Chapter Three: Reckoning and Resolve
Disclaimer: No squirrels or Elvenkings were harmed in the making of this chapter.
The tale continues…
Daybreak in Thranduil's halls was usually a quiet, serene affair. The corridors echoed with only the gentlest hum of activity as the palace awoke. Servants rose from their beds to begin their daily duties, even as the night watch retired; pleasant aromas wafted from the kitchens soon after the Sun's first light crept over the hills, for Galion and his staff knew that Thranduil woke with the sunrise, and they wanted to be certain that breakfast was prepared in good time for their king and his children. In the upper levels of the rock-hewn palace, the curtains were drawn aside to admit light and fresh air, and all the doors were flung open so that the rest of the cavernous citadel would remain well-ventilated.
One corner of the palace, however, was jarred from the fading night's peace by an ear-splitting screech. The piercing shriek continued for several long moments without pause, was interrupted just long enough for an intake of breath, and then continued, possibly even more loudly than before.
Merethen, one of the royal attendants, hurried from her room just as the second round of shrieks began. She rushed down the hallway toward the source of the clamor, flinging her long night braid back over her shoulder as she went. It's coming from the children's wing, Merethen realized. She thought she recognized the screeching voice, but she couldn't imagine what would elicit such a commotion. She hurried round a corner—
—and was nearly knocked off her feet by a sprinting flurry of gold and pale green.
Merethen stepped back to regain her balance. Her expression of surprise swiftly turned to one of concern as she caught sight of the wild-eyed, tear-streaked face framed by waves of tousled golden hair. Lelemir, Thranduil's youngest daughter, stared up at Merethen with wide silver eyes, gasping for breath as though she had just run all the way from Rivendell.
"Lelemir," the elder Elf said softly, kneeling and smoothing the child's hair away from her face, "what is this all about?"
"Th-there's a… a… in my room!" Lelemir stammered out, pointing back the way she had come with a shaking hand.
"There's a what in your room, pen-tithen?" Merethen asked patiently.
"A squirrel!" the princess wailed.
The attendant's brows raised incredulously. "A squirrel? In your room?" she repeated.
Lelemir nodded vigorously, sniffing. "It was in m-my hair when I woke up," she explained haltingly, sounding as though she might start crying all over again. "Chittering at me! And staring at me with those horrible little black eyes! It got all tangled in my hair!"
Merethen took in the disheveled state of the little princess' tresses; they did look like some creature had made a nest in them. But a squirrel, this deep in the palace? "What happened to the squirrel, Lelemir?" she asked patiently.
"I guess I scared it away with my screaming, but oh!" The Elfling hugged her slender arms, her face still paler than was normal. "I hate those things!"
The attendant smoothed down the little girl's rumpled green nightdress. It was likely a nightmare, she decided. "I thought you hated water, pen-tithen," she reminded gently. "Remember when you had that bad dream about falling into Morn Nen?"
Lelemir responded with an imperious glare. "I hate them both," she answered, her tone clearly reprimanding the elder Elf for not appreciating that fact. "And it wasn't a bad dream! It was real!"
"Ah." Merethen nodded, hiding a smile; the princess' glower had greatly resembled her mother's for just a moment. I wonder if King Thranduil has ever noticed it, she thought fondly. He likely had; since Queen Astalaewen's death a scant two years before, the king had taken to watching his children attentively to see the resemblances they bore his cherished wife. Merethen herself had often overheard Thranduil murmuring, "That was Aewen's smile," and "Mithgilhíri stitches with her mother's hands," and the like. How dearly he misses her, the attendant mused with a sad smile. How dearly do we all…
"I'm going to get Legolas for this," Lelemir was muttering to herself, fussing with one long lock of hair that had slipped over her right shoulder.
Merethen arched an inquiring brow. "What, pray tell, does your younger brother have to do with a squirrel in your room?" she asked.
"It's his squirrel," the princess answered with an annoyed frown. "He and his stupid friends have been catching squirrels for weeks and keeping them in cages. He must have let that one into my room on purpose, just to scare me!"
The elder Elf had to admit to herself that it sounded like just the sort of prank Greenwood's youngest prince had become infamous for. Nonetheless, she responded, "Are you sure it was Legolas, Lelemir? The squirrel could have gotten in through a window and ended up in your room accidentally."
Lelemir stared at Merethen as though the attendant had grown four extra arms. "Of course it was him, Merethen," she said plainly. "Why else did he get up so early this morning and leave for Car an Neled?"
Merethen paused. Car an Neled, the House for Three, was the tree house that Legolas and his friends most often retreated to when they had either committed some mischief or were planning on doing so. "How do you know he got up and went there?" she asked. "You were asleep."
"Brethil's big mouth woke me up for a few minutes when he and Tavor came to meet Legolas in his room," the little princess replied crossly. "I could hear them outside my door. Brethil was talking about the food he and Tavor managed to get from the kitchen when Galion wasn't looking, and about how they were going to have a breakfast picnic in their tree house instead of coming to the table."
"Without asking?" Merethen murmured, shaking her head. The young prince was quite the worrisome scamp, at times. Especially when his father isn't here to reprimand him straight away!
"Brethil said he'd left a note in the kitchen for Galion, telling him where they were going," Lelemir continued, grinning in spite of herself. "Legolas wasn't very happy about that. He said something about Master Tanglinna finding them."
"He did, did he?" thrummed a sudden voice above the princess and the kneeling attendant.
Merethen looked up, startled, and saw the Master Archer himself looming over them. The Elf maiden stood hastily and gave a slight bow. "Good morning, Master Tanglinna," she said, somewhat flustered to have been caught unawares so easily.
"Good morning, Lady Merethen," Tanglinna replied, his silvery gaze flicking from the dark-haired attendant to the golden-haired princess in short order. "And good morning to you, tithen cwen. Forgive my interruption, but I believe I overheard you saying that Legolas has gone to Car an Neled?"
Lelemir stared up at the tall Master Archer with the gravest expression she could muster. Whereas Legolas and his friends were utterly intimidated by Tanglinna, the little princess had somehow landed herself permanently in the archer's good graces, and she knew it very well. "Yes, Master Tanglinna," she answered, nodding. Her voice was full of innocuous charm, but Merethen thought she saw a smirk flickering around the edges of the little girl's lips. "Is he in trouble again?"
Tanglinna quirked one expressive brow. "Why do you think that, nin cwen?"
"He left a squirrel in my room," Lelemir told him indignantly, pointing down the hallway toward the scene of the crime. "It got caught in my hair! Did he leave one in your room, too?"
"Lelemir," Merethen chided, "even Legolas knows far better than to do such a thing." She glanced at Tanglinna's face, and the scowl she read in his features effectively halted that line of thinking. The attendant's eyes widened. "Oh, no," she breathed. "He did."
"Fifteen squirrels, to be precise," Tanglinna ground out. "I believe your squirrel is one of the escapees from my room, tithen cwen." He glanced down the length of the hallway, then nodded curtly to both Merethen and her small charge. "If you ladies will excuse me…" With that, the Master Archer strode past them and continued down the corridor, his long paces frighteningly purposeful.
Merethen heard a smothered giggle and turned to see Lelemir, her hands clapped over her mouth, slim shoulders shaking with scarcely-contained glee. "What is so funny, young lady?" the attendant asked.
Lelemir's silver eyes had crimped to teary crescents, and she could barely speak around her giggles. "Fifteen squirrels!" she squeaked out. "Legolas is so dead this time!"
At that, Merethen shook her head disapprovingly, but could not restrain her own low, rueful chuckle. Not dead, perhaps, she thought, looking down the hallway after Tanglinna, but certainly in far more trouble than he has ever been in before.
Dawn broke over Greenwood the Great as splendidly as ever it had. The Sun's rays trickled through the increasingly bare branches and danced on the forest floor, casting cheery patterns of burnished gold across the dew-dampened paths. Most of those trails were unoccupied, save for the host of fallen leaves whirling in the morning's breeze and the little birds fluttering down to inspect the moist earth for worms and other such fare.
One pathway, however, was lightly trodden by small, nimble Elfling feet. Legolas and Tavor made their leisurely way toward Car an Neled, the House for Three, a small bungalow of sorts built into a large beech tree. Each of them bore a shallow woven basket filled with breakfast treats and covered with napkins—their intended picnic provisions, "borrowed" from Galion earlier that morning. The two younglings walked in the scattered sunbeams, chattering and laughing with childish glee, and glancing over their shoulders from time to time, seeking the third member of their party. To their increasing consternation, Brethil was nowhere in sight. Their talkative friend had met them outside Legolas' room, as planned; after that, however, he had set out on his own, for reasons he had refused to share. Tavor and Legolas had assumed he would join them on the path to their tree house in a short while, but as yet he had not turned up.
Tavor, in particular, was ill at ease with Brethil's disappearance. "Where do you suppose he has gone?" he muttered, his fine features painted with a mixture of puzzlement and worry. Possibilities flashed before his eyes, each one more alarming than the last. He dearly hoped that Brethil wasn't running to Tanglinna to check on the squirrels; both Legolas and Tavor feared that the Master Archer would soon be on their scent anyway, hunting them down like scary Saeros the Tracker, and Brethil's incriminating blather wouldn't help the situation. Why hasn't he come after us already? Tavor wondered, casting another nervous glance over his shoulder. He had half-expected Tanglinna to rouse them all from their beds the previous night, demanding an explanation for the squirrels in his room. What was taking the Master Archer so long this time? Was he merely toying with them, waiting for the level of anxious, guilty anticipation to escalate until they ran to him begging for forgiveness? Is that where Brethil went? Tavor thought, his face whitening at the prospect. Had Brethil told everything? What was he saying to someone at that very moment? "Where do you suppose he is?" he repeated, his voice squeaking out in panic.
"I am sure I don't know," Legolas answered, shaking his head and shrugging at his friend's fearful expression. Brethil seldom went anywhere without them, and he never went anywhere alone. The youngest prince of Greenwood sighed, just as perplexed as Tavor. He doubted Brethil had gone to Master Tanglinna. But he did leave that note for Galion telling him where we were going this morning, a small voice reminded. Legolas frowned faintly. That might have been the responsible thing to do, but it hadn't shown much discretion, considering their status as wanted felons. I hope that doesn't become a problem later, he thought ruefully. "You know he'll tell us where he went eventually," Legolas continued. "He always does."
Tavor nodded, grinning in spite of his anxiety. "That's true." He knew as well as everyone else that Brethil couldn't keep a secret to save his life.
Legolas sighed once more and smiled contentedly, his silver gaze winging upward and lighting on a shower of leaves drifting to the ground, shaken loose by the light autumn breeze. As was often the case, the princeling felt his senses being drawn in by the trees' slow, slumbering songs. He, like his royal father, had always enjoyed the woodland's drowsy murmuring as it shed its gloriously colorful foliage in preparation for the winter's rest. Though he was not nearly so adept at interpreting the Greenwood's mood and tidings, the young prince possessed his family's heightened woodland perception, and he could already hear more of the forest's voice than most Elflings his age.
Something was different about the trees' singing, Legolas thought, cocking his head in mild curiosity. It wasn't the usual relaxed droning that he associated with autumn. It's almost…sad, the youngling thought in confusion, pausing on the path and staring up into the gently swaying boughs far above. His brows knit as he tried with all his might to discern exactly what the trees were saying to one another, but at his tender age, he could only make out the faintest whispers of distress and disturbance rippling through the leaves.
"What's wrong, Legolas?" Tavor asked, turning as he realized that his companion was no longer at his side. He saw the look of mild anxiety flickering on his friend's features, and panic blossomed again.
"I…I don't know," Legolas answered faintly, straining all of his senses. "The trees…"
Tavor's gaze floated upward, taking in bark, branches, and dying leaves. "What is it?" he queried. He truly didn't sense anything amiss with the trees; but he, like everyone in Greenwood, knew that the royal family was far more sensitive to the woodland's towering denizens. Tavor watched Legolas carefully, noting every breath, every slight twitch of the eyebrows and lips as his friend stared up into the interlaced branches. A horrible thought occurred to him. Did the trees perhaps know that Master Tanglinna was coming after them, and were trying to warn Legolas? Was that it? Tavor chewed his lips anxiously, trying without success to pick up on whatever had caught the prince's attention.
Legolas shook his head slowly, his eyes dropping down to settle on Tavor. "I don't know," he said finally. "The trees are just…" He shrugged helplessly, still somewhat disconcerted. Then, he forced a smile, remembering that he and his friend had been planning a cheerful picnic. We don't need my gloom and doom this morning, he thought. There's enough to worry about as it is, with Tanglinna possibly coming after us! "Maybe Glavrol is practicing his archery," the prince suggested. He laughed slightly, recalling the upset mutterings from the underbrush every time Glavrol picked up his bow. "You know how the trees feel about that!"
Tavor stared at him, struggling to read anything in his friend's face that might signal something more disastrous in the works. Was Legolas just trying to lighten the mood, when trouble was heading straight for them in the form of an angry silver-haired archer? Please, let it just be Glavrol's arrows! he thought. Aloud, he said only, "I guess that must be it." Then, Tavor shrugged his shoulders and straightened importantly, determined not to let the day be spoiled with any more worries than it already contained. "After all," he drawled, "not everyone can be as good at archery as I am."
Legolas' brows rose, and his slim fingers shifted beneath his basket of breakfast treats. He tried to shut out the leaves' rustling, hoping that it was nothing very serious. And, more importantly, that it didn't concern three guilty Elflings and an unhappy Master Archer. "Oh, really? Well, I heard Master Tanglinna say that Mithereg will be better than you one day if you don't start taking it more seriously."
"He did not!" Tavor protested indignantly, though he did wince slightly at the mention of Tanglinna. "I am the best in our age group, and you know it!"
"You are not!" Legolas objected. "After yesterday morning, I'm the best in the group!"
"Are not!" Tavor countered.
And the two Elflings moved down the pathway once more, arguing all the while, infinitely relieved to have something else to talk about for a time. After a while, even Legolas managed to forget the disturbing murmurs he had detected, unaware that the trees' tidings were indeed humming with anger and alarm, for much had gone amiss the evening before.
Some time later, Legolas and Tavor were seated on the floor of Car an Neled, their treats spread between them on clean napkins of green linen embroidered with tiny leaves of golden beech and silver oak. Brethil had finally shown up, his face flushed, and the fingers of his right hand slightly reddened. He had refused to tell his friends where he had been, immediately shoving a piece of bread in his mouth to prevent himself from telling his secret. Tavor had snorted at the tactic, his mind already running through the various methods by which he could get Brethil to let something slip, and had joined his friends in their eager picnicking.
Eventually, Tavor and Legolas abandoned the meal in favor of continuing their earlier dispute. Tavor bragged at length about his prowess with the bow, citing his swift mastery of fletching and near-flawless stance as two of the many reasons for his obvious superiority. Legolas, in turn, contradictorily boasted that he could now shoot even faster than Tavor, and was therefore the best in the group.
"You were not that fast," Tavor protested with a frowning glare. He, Tavor Heledirion, had been the fastest, he was sure of it!
"I was too," Legolas returned, narrowing his grey eyes in a childish imitation of his Ada's legendary glare. He knew he had done very well the day before, maybe even well enough to impress Master Tanglinna!
Soon after the argument began, Brethil wisely placed some distance between himself and his two arguing friends. He stood at the small window and chattered quietly with the little brown sparrow sitting in his palm, feeding it crumbs from his own food and delighting in its cheery company. His Ada loved the birds very much, and had instilled that affection for all feathered things in his only child. The trees outside Brethil's home were continually alive with the fluttering and twittering of birds, all of whom were welcome (and willing) to dart inside for a visit with Bronadui and his family. Brethil had learned to speak gently and politely to the little creatures, and they never feared him as they did his louder friends.
A pronounced thump, accompanied by a particularly loud "Was too!" startled both Brethil and his sparrow companion. The Elfling turned to see that Legolas and Tavor had risen to their feet and were glaring openly at each other. Brethil grimaced.
"I am better than you now, Tavor," Legolas declared, lifting his head haughtily as he scrutinized his slightly taller friend. "You just won't admit it."
"You are not! I am the best on the archery field, and well you know it. You just won't admit that!" Tavor sneered, folding his arms over his chest and staring down at his shorter friend. He straightened up in an attempt to appear even bigger.
"You may have been, Tavor, but after yesterday, I have become the best on the archery field!"
"You have not!"
"I have so!"
Brethil sighed, looking back to the sparrow and shaking his head. "They are rather silly, aren't they," he murmured, stroking the bird's soft head. "Of course, if I were as good as they are, then I might not think it was silly. I might think it was very important to argue over who is best. They are both very good. Legolas did better yesterday than he ever has before." The child tipped his blond head to one side as the sparrow flitted out the window to perch on a branch with his fellows. "Tavor is good too, though. He always is. So I hope they don't ask me to decide." A small, secret smile touched his lips. "Perhaps I will someday be as good as they are…someday soon…and is that Master Tanglinna?"
Brethil leaned out the window to see the Master Archer striding purposefully toward the tree in which their house was perched. The Elfling considered waving to him, and raised his hand to do so, but when the silvery head lifted, Brethil could see that Tanglinna was not in a chummy mood. His slim hand dropped back to the windowsill.
"He does not look very happy, does he?" he whispered to the bird. "Um, Legolas? Tavor?" Brethil blinked in utter amazement as the tall Master Archer began to climb their beech tree as nimbly as any youngling. "I think we have company," he murmured, slowly edging away from the window. "Legolas? Tavor?"
The two were still engaged in their glaring match, each daring the other to be the first to look away. They were effectively ignoring Brethil, for the one who did look away would be the loser; therefore, paying attention to anything just now would make the other victorious, and neither future warrior was willing to concede the battle. Both Legolas and Tavor had gotten quite adept at ignoring the third member of their group when the need arose.
Brethil bit his lower lip, dropping to his knees at the "formal" entrance of Car an Neled—actually, it was the only entrance, unless one counted the windows—and staring down through the interlaced branches. For a moment, he saw nothing. Of a sudden, the young Elf hastily jumped back and away, as Tanglinna's head appeared in the hole cut in the floor. "He's here," Brethil whispered, retreating until he felt the wall against his back. "He moves very fast for someone so old."
Legolas and Tavor, meanwhile, suddenly became aware of the dead silence that filled the tree house. Brethil's constant chatter was ever a background noise, rather like bird song…or, to be absolutely truthful, like the irritating prattle of starlings. Its absence was as loud and effective to their ears as a scream for help. The two Elflings slowly turned, first seeing Brethil cowering in the corner against the wall, his eyes wide. Then, they watched in horror as Tanglinna eased gracefully into Car an Neled, a rather fierce scowl on his face.
Tavor felt his stomach jolt with panic, and his breath caught in his throat as the Master Archer's wintry glare chilled the warm afternoon air in the tree house. They were caught! Why did Brethil have to leave that note? his mind wailed frantically. Why didn't we go steal that note? Why—?
"Well, younglings," Tanglinna began, folding his arms over his chest. His head brushed the ceiling, which somehow made him seem even taller and more dreadful than he was.
Brethil sighed loudly and shook his head, his eyes darting momentarily to where his two accomplices stood, dumbstruck. He could count on no help from them. They always seemed to fall to pieces at times like these! "You didn't like the squirrels, did you, Master Tanglinna?" he asked quietly as he turned back to the Master Archer. A sharp intake of breath and an undignified squeak caught the young Elf's attention, and he glanced back at Tavor and Legolas. They were staring at him in horrified disbelief, their eyes wide, and Legolas' mouth was hanging open in a most unseemly fashion.
They look at me like this is my fault, Brethil thought in amazement. "I told you he wouldn't think it was very nice, didn't I?" he chided his friends. "Why do you look so surprised? I think they are cute, and you think they are cute, but Master Tanglinna is a grown-up, and they are not always amused by the same things that we younglings are," he stated seriously, his pale grey eyes somber. "Poor little squirrels."
Tanglinna turned an annoyed stare on Tavor and Legolas, who looked stricken. "I take it that the squirrels were yours?" he queried flatly, raising one silver brow.
Legolas dropped his gaze to the floor and grimaced. How had they gotten caught so easily? He hadn't truly thought they would get away with it. Not entirely, anyway. There had been that faint outside chance that no one would guess too soon…but Brethil had just admitted to their guilt as though it were of no great consequence.
Brethil! the princeling thought with an inward groan. For the Valar's sake, why did you have to tell him?
Tavor, for his part, swallowed and stared up at the Master Archer for a moment, then moved to stand behind his prince. It was the prince's job, after all, to protect his subjects. Surely an angry Tanglinna was a peril worthy of royal defense!
"Oh, yes," Brethil blithely answered Tanglinna's rhetorical inquiry. "They are ours. It took us ever so long to catch them. They are very fast and very clever, you know. They really are very cute, too. You should just look at them again. Were they doing any tricks? We tried to teach them some, but they didn't seem to understand what we wanted them to do. Or perhaps they thought they were silly tricks to do and felt it was beneath them to do them. I don't know." The Elfling shook his head, leaning against the wall. "Squirrels are not like us, are they? I mean, they climb the trees even better than we do, and they run very quickly, and—"
"Shut up, Brethil!"
The child blinked and gazed at the three who had spoken those three oft-heard words in unison. "What?" he asked, his voice low and confused, not understanding why they all looked so irritated with him. "I was merely saying—"
Tanglinna cleared his throat to halt the continuing cascade of words from Bronadui's young son. "Well, younglings," he said, resuming his earlier line of questioning. "Why were your squirrels in my room?"
Greenwood's youngest prince glanced at where Tavor had been standing a moment before, but was surprised and annoyed to see that his friend was now cowering behind him. He grabbed Tavor's arm and pulled him forward to stand at his side. If they were going to get into trouble this soon, they would all be in it together. Having thusly repositioned his ally, Legolas stared pleadingly at Tavor, his silver-tongued friend who always had a ready answer on his lips. The princeling was dismayed when the other child merely shrugged apologetically and gave a weak smile.
"Um, you see," Legolas began, his gaze darting from the Master Archer down to the floor, where one of his own feet traced a meandering pattern on the wood. "We thought…that is…we were…well, we thought…in your room, you say?"
Tanglinna sighed patiently. "You thought what, nin caun? That I would enjoy having those squirrels tear up my room because they looked so cute doing it?"
"Well…yes?" Legolas made a sickly sound in his throat, something between a laugh and a choke. Why had they let the squirrels loose? What possible reason could he give that wouldn't get them into even more trouble? "You see…after the lesson yesterday we…Tavor, Brethil, and I, I mean…we thought that perhaps…you see…" His grey eyes wandered to Brethil, who was watching him with a look of anticipation on his face, as though he was as keen to hear the answer as was Tanglinna. Why had Brethil mentioned that the squirrels were theirs, anyway? Why had he said anything at all? Because he is Brethil, Legolas thought irritatedly. Every time they got into trouble, it was somehow all Brethil's fault…Brethil's fault… Then, it clicked. "We were afraid that you wouldn't…wouldn't let Brethil come with us on the hunting trip!" Legolas finished with a bright smile, thinking that this was the perfect answer to their dilemma. It was concern for their friend that had prompted their prank, of course! How noble of them!
Brethil frowned and pushed away from the wall to stare up at the Master Archer. "You will let me go on the squirrel hunt, won't you, Master Tanglinna? I will work very hard to get faster. I know I can be, it is just so hard to not take the time to aim. I mean, you were always telling us to aim very carefully so we would hit what we were aiming at. That is why it is so hard to not aim carefully, you see?" His pale eyes got huge in the brightening sunlight streaming down into the tree house. "But I will try hard, I promise. Please don't leave me behind!"
Tanglinna turned to look down at the child, surprise rippling across his features. He sighed again and shook his head, stifling a chuckle. He had indeed drilled accuracy into them, and now he was telling them not to worry about their aim or where the arrows flew. There was a kind of sense in the youngling's argument. "I wasn't going to leave you behind, Brethil," the Master Archer said kindly. "It was silly of you to think that."
Brethil smiled up at him with relief, then gave his friends a reassuring grin. "He isn't an Old Sourpuss like you and Tavor say, Legolas. He is very nice, see?"
Legolas gasped, and felt Tavor shudder as he pressed against the princeling's side.
"So," Tanglinna said slowly, turning back to regard the two. "You thought that by putting squirrels in 'Old Sourpuss'' room, you would convince me to change my mind and allow Brethil to go on the hunting trip. I see."
The prince nodded, trying to force a sincere smile to his lips. Yes, yes, he thought, that is it…all of it.
"Well, no, Master Tanglinna," Brethil volunteered. "That is not quite all of it. You see…"
"No," Legolas moaned under his breath.
Tanglinna allowed a considerate smile. He had not thought that was "quite all of it."
"Legolas, you know I wasn't going to say that it was because you were angry about not going with King Thranduil on his hunt, or that Tavor was upset about the scolding," Brethil admonished his friend. "Or that Master Tanglinna wasn't very nice to me either, calling me 'slow' and all. You did say that, Master Tanglinna. Don't you remember? But truly, Master Tanglinna, Tavor and Legolas did say they thought you needed some fun and that you would run to thank us for putting our cute little squirrels in your room. Oh! Is that why you are here? Are you going to thank us for it? Well, you are quite welcome. Really. You may borrow them anytime you wish." He smiled up at the Master Archer, quite unaware of the frozen horror on his friends' faces.
Tanglinna scowled, his annoyance rushing back to the fore with Brethil's ingenuous rambling admissions. Fun? Fun? The Master Archer shook his head. The younglings certainly had unique ideas about the definition of that word. "You three had better come with me," he said, one long finger pointing insistently at the "formal" entrance. "Now." The silver eyes flitted to the remnants of the Elflings' breakfast. "And bring the rest of your picnic with you," Tanglinna added.
Legolas gulped slightly and hung his head, kneeling beside Tavor to gather the napkins and leftover treats. How could Brethil have managed to report all of that in one breath? Everything they had said had fallen so effortlessly from those chattery lips, and now they were certainly caught. The prince knew very well what that meant: yet another edition of The Long, Boring Lecture That Is For Your Own Good.
When he and Tavor had finished collecting the remains of the picnic, Legolas rose and moved slowly toward the hole, one napkin-laden basket clutched in his slender hands. As he passed Tanglinna, the princeling turned his head and looked mournfully up at the tall archer. "They…the squirrels didn't…well, they didn't mess things up too much, did they?" Thranduil's youngest asked quietly. Maybe we won't be in as much trouble if they behaved better than I think they did, he thought, hope glimmering faintly through the gloom.
Tanglinna's silvery brows lifted. "No, nin caun, my room was not too messed up."
Legolas' mouth curved in a brief smile of gratefulness, and he silently whispered his thanks to Elbereth for watching over him and his friends in their foolishness. He grinned reassuringly at Tavor, who sagged slightly with relief as he watched his prince drop out of sight, holding the basket in one hand and navigating the branches with the other.
Tavor, for his part, had been imagining the scolding he would get when his grandmother, Laureahiril, found out what had happened. Tanglinna's scoldings were as nothing when compared to hers. Laureahiril was the Queen of Tongue-lashings; her voice, which was really quite beautiful when she was in a good mood, would be harsh and shrewish…and, well, flat-out scary. Tavor winced just thinking about it. Not to mention what King Thranduil will say when he gets back and finds out, the Elfling thought morosely as he maneuvered through the branches below Car an Neled, juggling his own basket back and forth as he descended. He jumped lightly to the ground and ran his free hand through his long hair, his relief dissolving as swiftly as it had materialized. "We're still dead," he muttered to Legolas, who nodded grimly in agreement.
Up in the tree house, Brethil knelt and grasped the flooring on either side of the door in preparation to leave, but before he climbed down, he lifted his face and grinned up at the Master Archer. "Did the squirrels do any tricks?" he asked again, hope coloring his young voice.
Tanglinna couldn't help but smile down at the child's innocent inquiry, and he bent to run affectionate fingers over the blond head. "No, Bronaduion, they did not."
"Oh," Brethil sighed, his eyes filled with disappointment. "I didn't think they would." He disappeared into the leaves and scuttled down to the ground, where Legolas and Tavor were speaking together in hushed tones.
Tanglinna soon joined them, and he motioned toward the palace. "Nin caun," he said in a neutral voice, "I suggest you get home immediately."
Legolas nodded, wondering vaguely when The Lecture would begin. "Yes. We, um…we will catch the squirrels. That shouldn't be too hard, since your room isn't very big."
The Master Archer's lips quirked in a quicksilver smile as the three young Elves headed away from him. "Nin caun," he called softly, then waited until all three had turned to look at him.
"Yes, Master Tanglinna?" Legolas answered meekly, fully expecting the boring lecture to begin.
"The squirrels aren't in my room any longer."
"They aren't?" Dread trickled through the princeling's slender frame, and he swallowed. Of course the squirrels wouldn't still be in Tanglinna's room; they had let them go last night, before the Master Archer had gone to his room for the night. "Um…where are they?" he asked cautiously.
Tanglinna studied the three young faces, already guessing how they would react to this bit of news. "Well," he drawled, moving past them with an amused glint in his eyes, "I am not entirely certain."
Legolas' eyes widened, and he winced slightly at the casual statement. "You aren't?"
"No. I have not seen them since yesterday. But it appears that others have." Tanglinna turned to see that the younglings were following him, trotting at his heels in a little knot of worry and fear. Their dismay was quite palpable.
Brethil's murmur floated to the Master Archer's sensitive ears. "Poor little things," Bronadui's son was saying. "They must be very scared. It is a good thing that your Ada isn't here, Legolas. He wouldn't like them running about in his palace."
Tanglinna suppressed the errant smile that pressed at his lips before continuing, "They escaped my room when I opened the door yesterevening. I thought that perhaps you would have collected them before you went to bed last night, but you didn't." One silver brow lifted reproachfully. "That was rather inconsiderate of you, nin caun. Now you owe your sister an apology as well."
Tanglinna nodded, a low noise of confirmation thrumming in his chest. "It seems that Lelemir was unpleasantly torn from her dreams this morning."
Legolas' eyes slid to Tavor, who looked entirely too pale by far. "Oh?" the princeling choked out.
"Yes. She was quite rudely awakened by something playing with her hair."
"Oh." Thranduil's son blinked, his overactive mind suddenly flooded with images of his slightly older sister waking up to find one or two—or even three—black squirrels tugging on her hair. "Oh."
Tanglinna repressed the urge to chuckle at his young prince's dismayed expression. "Yes. Imagine her distress when she awoke with one of your 'cute' little squirrels tangled in her hair."
Legolas groaned softly. He felt a tug of sympathy for Lelemir; such an experience would have been quite terrifying, even though he didn't hate squirrels as much as his sister did. The youngling's fingers strayed to his own long braid, and he swallowed. "I am very sorry," he whispered, his gaze dropping heavily to the ground. "I didn't think this would happen."
The Master Archer harrumphed. "That is exactly my point, nin caun. You didn't think." He leveled a considering stare on the Elfling's bowed head. "Your father will likely have something to say about this when he returns, Legolas. You had better hope that the hunt is very successful."
Legolas' shoulders slumped dejectedly. Ada would not be happy to hear about his youngest son's latest prank. How could they possibly have thought themselves so clever when they had first conceived this prank? When I conceived it, he privately amended. He sighed, scuffing his toe on the ground. "I will go and apologize to Lelemir as soon as we have caught them," he said contritely. For good measure, he then added, "It was a very foolish thing to do." A sideways glance at Brethil and Tavor prompted the other two Elflings to nod vigorously in agreement.
Tanglinna wasn't fooled for a moment, but he let it slide and beckoned to the younglings. As they resumed their journey back to the palace, the Master Archer remarked, "You will need to apologize to Galion, too. And to Turgil. Do you recall the lovely goblets your elder brother gave to your father? Your squirrels caused a mishap that led to the unfortunate denting of some of those goblets." The silver-haired archer cast a glance down at Legolas' wide-eyed stare. "Galion is not happy about that."
"Dented goblets?" Legolas repeated faintly.
Tanglinna nodded sagely. "Yes. I also overheard Thaldris telling someone that one of the tapestries hanging in the eastern corridor was found lying on the floor this morning, marred with several small tears and mysterious droppings."
Tavor let out an alarmed squeak. Laureahiril would really have something to say about this. He wondered how many tedious, boring excerpts he would have to copy from the battered books she had carried with her into her so-called "exile." And how many tedious, boring tasks would he be assigned until his grandmother felt he had learned his lesson? This is the absolute last time I'm going to listen to Legolas' stupid ideas! he decided, shooting a black glare at his friend. The fact that he had made that decision every other time he'd been caught in one of those ideas was an irony lost on his panicked young mind.
"Is…is there anything else?" Legolas asked in a quavering voice. He most certainly hoped his father's hunt would be successful. In fact, he hoped it would be the most successful hunt in the entire history of hunts. But I hope it won't be successful for a few more days…actually, several more days, the princeling thought. The more time that passed by before Ada found out about the squirrels, the better the chances were that he would see the amusement in this. Legolas swallowed miserably. Amusement…
Tanglinna picked up on the genuine remorsefulness underlying Legolas' glum anxiety. I may not even have to give him a lecture, the Master Archer thought, shaking his head and stifling a fond chuckle. "Not that I know of, nin caun," he replied, not unkindly.
Brethil sighed from his place at Tanglinna's left, wringing his slender hands. "They must be so scared," he repeated, still thinking of the squirrels. "What are we to do with them? They will be wild with fright!"
"I suggest that you let them go," Tanglinna said as they approached the bridge that spanned the Forest River, and beyond that, the great door to Thranduil's palace. "They don't wish to live in cages, tithen min, or in the palace. The trees are where they want to be."
Brethil sighed once more, and nodded. "I suppose that is true. But…" He stared up at the Master Archer, his pale eyes filled with sudden fear. "What if we shot them on the squirrel hunt?! What if we killed our squirrels? We can't do that! Oh, please, Master Tanglinna! Don't shoot my little squirrels!" The child twined his slim fingers with Tanglinna's larger ones, tugging anxiously on the archer's hand. "Please. They really are cute, even if they can't do any tricks!"
Tanglinna granted the Elfling a brief smile and paused, motioning for Legolas and Tavor to go on ahead to the palace. The prince swallowed convulsively, his brows knitting together in anticipatory pain. If what Tanglinna had said was true—and it certainly was—then he could expect quite a few lectures upon his entrance to that palace. Not only would he receive some variation of the The Long, Boring Lecture That Is For Your Own Good from Tanglinna, but he would also get the lecture on How A Prince Is Supposed To Act from Galion, and The Responsibilities Expected Of Someone Your Age from Thaldris.
And Lelemir isn't exactly pleasant when she's upset, either, Legolas thought with a wince. "We really are very sorry, Master Tanglinna," he murmured quietly.
"I know that, nin caun. Now, go and see what this prank has wrought. And don't forget it the moment your punishment is over," Tanglinna admonished.
Legolas nodded, knowing he would not forget this for some time. He and Tavor then trudged up the steps and into the palace, only sparing a glance behind to see Tanglinna turning to speak to Brethil.
The Master Archer knelt before Bronadui's son, a surprisingly gentle smile lingering on his lips. "If you fear we might shoot your squirrels on the hunt, Brethil, then we won't have a squirrel hunt. The king and I will come up with something else. Don't worry. I wouldn't want to shoot them either." Tanglinna raised a considering brow, and for the child's benefit, he added, "They were rather…cute."
Brethil stared at him for a moment, seeing only sincerity in the silvery eyes. A brilliant smile lit his features. "Thank you, Master Tanglinna," he chirped, then moved away, hurrying after his friends. After only a few steps, however, he turned and ran back to throw his arms around Tanglinna's neck in a quick embrace. The silver-haired archer gave the Elfling an affectionate squeeze in return, a low chuckle humming in his chest at the child's enthusiasm.
Brethil pulled away and gave Tanglinna a curious look. "Who is the lady in the picture on your wall?" he asked, remembering how he had been drawn to it the day before.
A nearly imperceptible glimmer of pain flickered deep within the Master Archer's gaze, but his smile remained warm and inviting. "She was my wife," he answered quietly.
"Oh. I wondered. I am glad the squirrels didn't mess anything up. She is very pretty." Brethil flashed a parting grin, then scampered up the steps and through the immense palace gateway.
Tanglinna's smile dimmed somewhat. "Yes, she was," he murmured. He rose to his feet and moved toward Thranduil's great door, wondering if there was any way he might deflect some of the punishment the younglings were sure to receive. An amused snort followed that thought. I must be getting lenient in my old age, he mused. He would have to hurry if he wanted to get in his lecture before Legolas and the others were completely deafened by scolding voices. "So ends yet another remarkable morning in the Greenwood," the Master Archer chuckled to himself.
Later that morning…
Thranduil shifted painfully atop the horse's bulk, finding his new placement little more comfortable than the last. He was yet careful to mask his movements as being part of the beast's steady gait, for though the Easterling leader evidently suspected that his captive was awake, Thranduil was hardly inclined to prove that assumption correct. He felt the Sun's harsh, uninhibited warmth pouring over him; the air was hot and oppressive inside the cloth sack over his head, making breathing a chore. Coupled with the abrading cord pulled tight about his wrists and the protesting of bruised, strained muscles, the sweltering atmosphere exacerbated Thranduil's already seething temper. Were it not for their threats against the others, I would have returned to Greenwood by now, he fumed silently. And oh, but I would give them cause to lament the day they entered my realm…
The Easterling leader's dark threat concerning the other captives weighed heavily on the king's mind, a chill barb amid the flames of anger. Time and again, he found his mind dwelling upon them—wondering who among his nineteen companions were now prisoners alongside their king, and worse, how many of those warriors had not survived to become prisoners at all. Elbereth cradle those who fell into mortal sleep, Thranduil thought, grief snaking its way through his fury. Help me to preserve those who remain.
The king closed his eyes once more, as there was little use in staring endlessly at the blankness afforded by the thick cloth obscuring his vision. A human might have been tempted to sleep, but for an Elf, closed eyes only brought about heightened awareness as the other senses sprang to full alertness in order to compensate for the lack of sight. Thranduil's keen ears sifted through the sounds floating about him: the steady clopping of horses' hooves, the muttering of rough voices, the rustling of cloth and the grating of weapons against saddles. He did not hear the leader's distinctively cold tone, nor did he hear the voices of any of his warriors. Perhaps they, too, are feigning unconsciousness, Thranduil thought, well aware that he was being atypically optimistic.
Just as his hearing was enhanced by the temporary loss of sight, so too was the receptivity of his skin. Thranduil concentrated on the air flowing past his bound hands. It was hot and dry, with an almost gritty texture—dust kicked up by the horses ahead, the Elvenking presumed. It was not Greenwood's air. It was the parched, thirsty atmosphere of the desert.
There were few things so disturbing to a Wood-elf as the life-starved silence of a desert, and Thranduil in especial was deeply disturbed by it. From his youth, Oropher's son had lived among whispering boughs and leaves, his extraordinarily receptive young ears inundated with the songs and murmurings of the forest. He had always possessed an uncanny sensitivity to the moods and murmurs of the woodland; it was one of the more peculiar traits he had acquired from his father. From the sheltered canopies of Doriath to the ever-singing haunted depths of Ossiriand, and finally to the eastern expanse of Greenwood the Great, Thranduil had walked in the company of living forests' thrumming for as long as he could remember. He knew the trees of his own realm as thoroughly as a shepherd knew his flock; the woodland's steady hum was as an omnipresent chorus, one that seemed at times to dictate the very rhythm of the king's heartbeat.
Since his waking the night before, however, the absence of the Greenwood's constant hum had been plucking at Thranduil's mind, niggling at his awareness like a painfully entrenched splinter. The barely perceptible breeze coughed across the land without a hint of living song to sweeten it. That silence, so utterly foreign and unnatural, served to set the king even more on edge. The earth itself is dead, he thought darkly. A dry, desiccated corpse charring to ash beneath the Sun's glare. The Easterling leader's words took on a sinister realism in light of such musing; "…the earth will drink the lifeblood of your companions, and that most deeply," the man had warned. An icy chill raced down Thranduil's spine as a stark image of browned, thirsting dust greedily swallowing wet, crimson blood sprang to his mind.
That line of thinking brought a very real and insistent need to the forefront of Thranduil's attention. His throat burned with hideous thirst. The discomfort was likely due in part to the yellow drug, but whatever the ultimate cause, his tongue felt as dry and coarse as the air around him. It was dangerous to go long without water in such arid surroundings, he knew. He screwed his eyes tightly shut against the sweat rolling down his face; it was an unfamiliar and unpleasant sensation, for Elves did not often have reason to sweat so. The heat and the rough fabric pressed against his skin, however, gave more than adequate cause. 'Tis also dangerous to lose water in such fashion, Thranduil mused, frowning as he clacked his dry, swollen tongue against the roof of his mouth. He did not think the Easterling leader so great a fool as to risk such an assault, only to lose his prize captive to lack of water—then again, the leader was fool enough to risk the assault in the first place, the king reflected, his cracked lip curling upward with renewed umbrage.
Scarcely had he finished that thought when the cold, precise voice of the leader barked out a sharp command in his own tongue. Thranduil bit back a hiss of pain as the steed beneath him halted abruptly, jolting his aching body. There was an outbreak of activity all around him—they have stopped for the day, Thranduil surmised, recalling one of the fundamental rules of desert travel: travel mostly by night, and rest through the scorching hours of sunlight. He may be a fool, but he is a desert fool, the king conceded. Of course the leader would take into account his captive's need for water, just as he considered his own people's need.
"We are going to cut your bonds and take you down from the horse, Elf king," the leader's voice informed him in clipped Westron. "If you are uncooperative, I will spill your companions' blood to the desert floor without hesitation." The man paused, and almost as an afterthought, he added, "You may wish to lay aside the pretense of unconsciousness now, else the dismount will be rather...awkward."
Thranduil wanted nothing more than to feed the Easterling's arrogant words back to him—preferably on the edge of a finely honed blade—but he would not risk the lives of his people for the sake of his own smarting pride. The aching pressure at his wrists went slack as the bindings were slit, and rough hands took hold of his left arm. Enough of this, Thranduil thought disgustedly. He wrenched his arm away from those grasping hands and pushed himself up into a sitting position astride the horse, ignoring the vicious flares of pain that erupted in what felt like every muscle he possessed. A sharp spasm in his right shoulder hitched his breath, and he sat still for a moment, reorienting himself.
A hand clamped round Thranduil's left elbow, and a coarse voice demanded, "Get off, or we drag you off."
The Elvenking's glare could likely have burned a hole through the thick fabric over his face, if given enough time. "You are fortunate I do not tear your arm from its mooring, mortal swine," he bit out, the fluid syllables of the Sindarin tongue rolling from his lips with far more grace than he felt at the moment. He shook off the offensive hand once more, then slipped from the horse's back—with less than his usual elegance, he noted crossly. Thranduil clenched his teeth against the fierce ache in his right leg as the foot touched the ground; the limb nearly folded beneath his own weight, and he was forced to steady himself against the horse's sturdy frame. It felt as though one of the long bones in his lower leg was cracked, if not cleanly broken.
Distracted by the pain and heat, and blinded by the sack over his head, Thranduil was not prepared for the forcible shove against his chest. He pitched backwards, stifling the angry curse that leaped to his throat, and swiftly twisted his body so that he caught the impact on his forearms instead of his back or head. His injured leg wrenched beneath him as he fell, shrieking at him for the harsh treatment, and jagged spikes of pain ignited in aching limbs and joints—the right shoulder, in particular, flamed with hot anguish.
Thranduil was given no opportunity to recover himself. He was forced down into the dust by a heavy knee in the small of his aching back, and several hands wrenched his arms behind, binding the wrists once more with cruelly abrading cord. The king bit into his thirst-cracked lip as his ankles were similarly lashed together, putting painful stress on his damaged right leg. A large knot of sour, shame-trampled pride rose in his throat, nearly choking him. Ground into the dirt and trussed up like a calf for the slaughter, Thranduil mused bitterly, his scowl darker than ever as he tasted the dust and dried blood coating his parched lips. He had been in more dangerous circumstances, but none quite so personally offensive to him. To his thinking, the indignity was far worse than the physical pain.
When they had finished binding him, the Easterlings carelessly flipped their captive over and dragged his upper body up off the ground, so that he sat upright, albeit most uncomfortably. Thranduil drew in a deep breath and held it, willing the pain in his body to wash over him and drain to a bearable measure. He heard heavy footfalls all around, as well as the rustling sounds of a camp being assembled. Of a sudden, the Sun's harsh rays were blocked, and the pounding of mallets nearby informed the king that a rude tent of some sort was being erected over his head. Thank the Valar for small blessings, his father's voice reminded gruffly, especially when they lend themselves to the slaying of enemies. Indeed, Thranduil could feel some small amount of strength returning, now that the Daystar's miserable brilliance had been effectively barred. Strength with which to rip their miserable souls from their bodies, he thought darkly. I wonder what sort of hell these creatures believe in?
"Remove the sack from his head," the Easterling leader commanded, "for I would see our Elf king in his helplessness."
Thranduil's wrists unconsciously strained against the bindings in response to the denigrating words. Helpless I am not, fool human, he nearly spat aloud. Remove these cowardly bonds, and we shall see who is helpless…
The stifling sack was pulled upwards, along with several strands of the Elvenking's long hair, which had become caught in the rough fabric. Thranduil suppressed a wince as his head was callously jerked backwards and the ensnared locks torn. His golden hair fell in limp, damp strands about his sweaty face, but with a cavalier flick of his sore neck, he tossed the disheveled tresses back over his shoulders. Then, he straightened his back and looked up into the face of his captor, the Easterling leader of clipped accent and arrogant assurance.
The man stood directly before Thranduil, just within the shade afforded by the tent cloth, which was stretched only slightly above the Easterlings' heads and tethered to poles jammed into the ground. He was rather tall for a man of Rhûn; Thranduil estimated that the leader's height nearly equaled his own. The face was a harshly structured collection of severe planes and angles; a long, straight nose jutted between pronounced cheekbones, beneath which lay slight depressions that sloped down to the sharply carven jawline and chin. His skin was toughened and bronzed by the Sun, and a pair of flinty obsidian eyes peered darkly from within their calculating hollows. The pale headdress lying folded atop his head and draped across his shoulders hid his hair, but Thranduil suspected it was long and as black as the man's thick, bristling brows. The leader's robes were cut of dust-daubed off-white cloth, save for a crimson and black sash running across his breast and the long black tassels dangling from his belt. Too, a long, wickedly curved blade hung from his belt, as well as a fawn-colored personal water skin.
"Welcome to my home, Elf king," the man said, his shadowed eyes glittering with pleasure at his captive's unkempt, uncomfortable state. "I am Ducash son of Dorash, leader and high priest of the Rhûkhara tribe."
"A remarkable collection of titles for a dead man," Thranduil replied with forced calm, meeting the Easterling's supercilious gaze with a black glare. His ire rose as he realized that the raw, abrasive voice he heard was his own, roughened by thirst.
Ducash of the Rhûkhara allowed an infuriatingly patronizing smile and stepped in closer, leaning down slightly as if to inspect his captive. "Proud words for an imminently dead Elf," he echoed, almost chidingly. "Do not forget, I also hold some of your fellows as prisoners. If you take any threatening action, I assure you that every other Elf in this camp will die within moments."
"Show them to me," Thranduil demanded stiffly.
"You forget yourself," Ducash warned. "This is not your demesne, nor am I an underling to be ordered about."
The king turned a molten stare on the Easterling chieftain. "Show them to me," he grated out once more. "Or are your threats as lacking in substance as this wasteland you call your home?"
Ducash's thin lips turned downward briefly at the double-edged slur, but just as swiftly twisted into a crooked smile. "As you wish," he replied, his tone laced with mocking. He turned and barked out an order in his own tongue to one of the robed men standing nearby. The man gave a short bow and hurried from the crude tent. "They will be here shortly," Ducash said, turning back to regard his captive. "In the interim, perhaps you would like to know why I have risked so much in order to obtain you?"
"I care not for your motives," Thranduil rasped, stifling the dry cough rattling in his lungs. "The very deed demonstrates an appalling lack of wisdom."
The Easterling leader's eyes narrowed. "I do not much care for your tone, Elf king," he said softly, dangerously. "Perhaps the Elves bear less concern for their kith than I was given to understand."
The comment snagged Thranduil's attention; it implied that Ducash had an informant of some kind. An informant who could be a threat to the kingdom if allowed to escape notice, he realized. "And who gave you anything to understand concerning the Elves?" he asked, keeping his tone as contemptuous and uninterested as possible.
Ducash chuckled almost congenially. "A band of disgruntled Dalemen who dislike your policies regarding their hunting within your borders," he replied in an offhand fashion. "They were kind enough to share what they knew of your own hunting habits, as well as a few other pieces of necessary information concerning Elves in general." The man folded his arms across his chest and quirked an indulgent smile. "That knowledge will do you little good, however, as you will not survive long enough to mete out any penalty to them."
"Just how long do you expect I will survive, then, mortal?" Thranduil asked, matching the Easterling's smile, disdain dripping from every word.
A barely discernable glint of anger flashed in Ducash's gaze, and then was gone, replaced by his veneer of calm superiority. "Long enough to suffer thrice the pain you have caused my kin," he said darkly. "And then, O deathless Elf, you will surely die, and the Dark One shall devour your soul as it escapes your broken body." A chorus of assenting murmurs from the assembled men met the declaration.
Thranduil arched one sculpted brow at that pronouncement—it sounded ominously similar to the rhetoric spouted by the witless Sauron-worshippers he had interrogated in the course of the siege at Barad-dûr a century past. Before he could form a reply, however, Ducash glanced back over his shoulder, then quirked a self-satisfied smirk at the Elvenking. "Your companions have arrived," he said, stepping aside in order to afford Thranduil a better view.
The king swallowed a livid curse as he watched four men drag two limp bodies into sight some distance beyond the tent's open entrance. The warriors' hands and feet were bound in a fashion similar to Thranduil's, and their heads were yet covered by coarse brown sacks. The Easterlings carelessly dropped their burdens into the dust, where they lay as still and silent as a grave. Thranduil forcefully halted that line of thinking, peering at the two Elves. He could not tell whether they were breathing, for they were lying at awkward angles and their bodies were partially obscured by the men guarding them. Their clothes were stained a rusty brown in places—blood, Thranduil realized with a pang. A heavy weight descended on his heart. Only two, out of nineteen, he thought in dismay. So few… Hot anger welled up, a churning cyclone that nearly choked him with its bitterness. So few…
"Now," Ducash interrupted the king's smoldering thoughts, reclaiming his place directly before his captive, "I know very well that you are quite thirsty, Elf king. Sathak is going to tip the water skin for you, and I would advise you to drink, for if you do not, I shall have my men force water down your throat in a most unpleasant and inelegant fashion."
The man standing behind Thranduil's left shoulder stepped forward and bent down, placing the mouth of a water skin at the Elvenking's parched lips. A few droplets leaped from the container at the movement and landed on Thranduil's hot skin, and it was all he could do to restrain himself from seizing the water skin and guzzling like a newborn foal at its mother's teat. My pride would have me refuse, Thranduil thought crossly, his guts squirming with humiliation at the prospect of taking water from the hands of such lowly creatures as Ducash's underlings. Did not Tanglinna once say that my pride would one day be the death of me?
Thoughts of the Master Archer lifted the king's spirit somewhat; he knew that when the attack site was discovered, Tanglinna would not rest—nor allow anyone else to do so, in fact—until Greenwood's missing sovereign was found. I would rather he found me in some semblance of good condition, Thranduil mused irritably, staring at the proffered water skin. And so, cramming his violently protesting dignity down into his innards, he pressed his lips to the brim and drank. The water was warm and somewhat sour-tasting, but it flowed over his eager tongue like the finest Dorwinion vintage. To his credit, he did manage to restrain himself from swilling the liquid with the urgency his thirst dictated.
When Thranduil had finished—or at least, when he could stand the indignity no longer—he pulled back and ran his tongue over his cracked, sore lips. His thirst was sated, but the degradation churned in his stomach like the bitterest of poisons, making him nauseous with suppressed fury.
"It seems our Elf king enjoyed his fine draught," Ducash said, his lips quirking smugly. His men chuckled around him. "Mayhap he has also learned some respect for those who hold his life suspended above the desert's flame, hm?"
Part of Thranduil's tightly-held control gave way before the Easterling's patronizing tone. He bared his teeth in an uncharacteristically Silvan fashion, and spat some of the newly-acquired moisture in his mouth at Ducash's feet. "I will see you dead for this, human pig," he hissed, his silveron eyes narrowed in a baleful glare.
Ducash's gaze hardened. Without a word, he stepped in, drew back a fist, and struck Thranduil a vicious blow across the face. The blow snapped the king's head back with such force that something popped alarmingly in his already-aching neck. His equilibrium shattered, Thranduil collapsed backwards and to the right, landing on his injured shoulder, and it took every ounce of control he possessed to suppress a groan of agony. Tiny white stars—born of pain or wrath, he did not know which—flickered at the edges of his vision.
Clenching his throbbing jaw with contained fury and pain, Thranduil struggled to right himself again, but a glance downwards revealed droplets of red sinking down into the dry earth: his own blood, spilled from a stinging split lip. A frosty, anger-laced shudder raced up his spine as he recalled the eerily similar image of his earlier musings. The earth will drink the lifeblood of your companions… Indeed, the abused earth greedily swallowed the gift of crimson fluid, reducing it to little more than a dark, dry stain in a matter of moments.
The Easterlings grabbed their captive's bound arms and jerked him upright again, so that he was brought face-to-face with Ducash. Thranduil glared hatefully at the man, practically trembling with pent-up rage, his nostrils flaring furiously as the brigands behind him twisted their hands in his hair and forced his head back at an uncomfortable angle. Ducash's gaze had calmed once more, but a dangerously gleeful spark glimmered in his eyes. "That," he said conversationally, "was for wasting precious water in a pitiful display of inconsequential contempt." He dabbed at the blood trickling down Thranduil's chin and contemplatively rubbed the crimson fluid between his thumb and forefinger, then stood and carelessly flicked the blood down at his captive. "Though I might have expected such foolishness… from an Elf."
Thranduil did not reply, but merely let his glare bore into the Easterling with the force of a raging inferno. He was mildly gratified to see the leader drop his gaze, unable to maintain eye contact. He should be prostrating himself before me, begging for mercy, the Elvenking thought irately, remembering many a time when his merest stare had reduced men to such displays. Ducash was made of far sterner stuff than most of his kin, it seemed.
Ducash stood and gave a string of clipped commands to his men. The Easterlings released their contemptible hold on Thranduil, then rose and exited the crudely fashioned tent, pausing only long enough to give their leader short bows and deferential murmurs. Ducash himself appointed two of the men to remain just within the shade, apparently to serve as guards of a sort. The men were armed with heavy swords, and their glances at their captive were dark and full of warning. Thranduil ground his teeth together. His skin crawled; he wanted nothing more than to spill their mortal blood and use its vengeful scarlet brilliance to wash away the unclean feel of their hands on him. And I would drown Ducash in it, the Elvenking thought, cathartic visions of red blossoming behind his eyes. Drown him in his own reeking blood, and cleanse my blade with the ashes of his tribesmen…
The Easterling leader turned back to regard Thranduil once more, unaware of his captive's bloody-minded musings. "You would be wise to take your rest now, while the Sun is hot," he said, his tone almost pleasant in its derision. "I shall leave your face uncovered for the moment, but if you overly annoy my men, they may decide to punish you by placing the sack back over your head." Ducash gave his captive a final disdainful smile, even sparing a slight incline of his head, and then took his leave.
Thranduil closed his eyes for several moments, refusing to look at either of the men remaining in the tent. Much as he wanted to unleash his wrath on those available targets, and as satisfying as it would have been to provoke the humans to anger, he did not wish to spend the day sweltering within the sack. He was hot enough in the open air. His forest green undershirt was uncomfortably damp with sweat. At least I am not wrapped in my cloak, Thranduil conceded, though he did wonder what the Easterlings had done with the cloak, as well as with his weapons. Perhaps they will attempt the use of my bow, and slay one another in their incompetence. Elven bows were sometimes more dangerous in unskilled hands than they were in the hands of their owners, as Thranduil well knew, and a thrill of dark pleasure swelled in his heart as he envisioned a clumsy Easterling unintentionally spearing Ducash with an ill-aimed arrow.
The two captive Elven warriors had been removed from their place beyond the tent's opening. Thranduil gave an inward sigh laced with bitter resignation. No, he would not risk their lives for the sake of his own dignity. Although if I continue swallowing my pride as I have been, it will likely consume me from the inside, he mused irritably. The king shifted in his bonds, and was surprised to feel a gout of pain at his wrists, accompanied by sticky warmth trickling down the backs of his hands and fingers. In his anger, he had wrenched so hard against the restraints that the cords had bitten deeply into his skin. In addition, his injured right leg complained most resentfully at the pressure the bindings placed on the damaged bone, and his right shoulder continued to throb mercilessly in rhythm with his aching head.
Thranduil bit down on a frustrated curse—by Elbereth, what would my father think of such language? he wondered, the unprompted reflection nearly enough to quirk a smile on his bruised, bloodied lips. Oropher had not often utilized the colorful oaths to be found within the Silvan tongue; he had considered them too crude for a Sinda of prominent lineage. There are no other words to suit the circumstances, Thranduil thought defensively, as though arguing the point with some phantom from his past, come to reprimand him for his errant tongue. Aewen would think me a fine sight, sitting here in the dust, bound and bruised, cursing my luck and disputing with my father's specter. The impulse to smile intensified as the king imagined how cheerfully his queen's laughter would have echoed if she had heard her normally decorous husband's use of her people's more uncouth idioms.
Much of his wrath drained away as he thought of the blue-eyed warrior maiden he had so utterly adored, and did still, even after her death. Thranduil averted his face so that the Easterlings could not see the bleak sorrow ghosting across his countenance. Oh, my love, what will happen to our little ones if I do not survive? he questioned silently, his eyes darkening at that prospect. The two eldest were fully grown adults, and though they would grieve terribly, they would likely recover with time. Taurëmíredil, the firstborn, would take the throne of Greenwood; and Mithgilhíri, his slightly younger sister, would lend her quiet wisdom and strength to her elder brother. They would in turn receive the guidance and support of Thranduil's counselors, Tanglinna chief among them. The kingdom would endure despite the consecutive loss of two kings, Thranduil was confident of that.
But ai, the little ones are so young yet, Thranduil agonized silently, his eyes slipping shut. Far too young to lose one, let alone both parents! His mind touched on his two younger children, the last great joys in his Aewen's life before she had been so cruelly taken from them. What will happen to them if I should fall? he again wondered. They would surely be well taken care of—their older siblings and Tanglinna would see to that. But little Lelemir, his sparkling, smiling little jewel, would blossom in golden beauty without her Ada; and he would not be there to bless her when she came of age, nor to threaten her aspiring paramours, nor to witness her marriage, nor to coddle her children with all the pampering charm of a proper grandparent.
And little Greenleaf… Thranduil gave a small, sad smile. Legolas would grow in grace and strength, would become a young warrior of superb skill and swift reflexes. He would take on his mother's beauty more as the years lengthened, Thranduil knew, but it would be tempered and solidified by his father's angular features. And I will not be there to braid his hair on the day he comes of age, the king thought bleakly. I will not take him on his first hunt. I will not evaluate his intended lady, nor give him my blessing on his wedding day, nor welcome his children into the world and tell them discomfiting tales of their Ada in his youth—
Nonsense, a vaguely familiar voice snapped, dispersing the despondent deliberations like a flock of startled crows from a shaken tree. Where is your strength gone to, Thranduil son of Oropher of Ossiriand? Do you so readily accept defeat from such lowly swine as this Ducash and his creatures?
Thranduil blinked in surprise. The demanding voice echoing in his ears sounded somewhat like Oropher himself, but Thranduil also heard Astalaewen's ringing tone, and Tanglinna's, and even his own, all overlapping in a sharp, insistent chorus. Nay, he answered vehemently, I accept no defeat. He straightened his spine, ignoring the hot twinges in his right shoulder and sore back. Wintry hatred transformed the silveron gaze to pure steel, and he shot a moment's open glare at the two guards seated at the mouth of the tent. The Lord of Greenwood the Great accepts defeat from no one. And with that resolute avowal came a breathed prayer, delivered on a silent glance toward the cloth above him and the endless sky beyond. I must live. I will live. For my children's sake, Lady Elbereth, give me the strength!
Merethen, Lelemir, the Rhûkhara tribe, Sathak, et al belong to Katharine.
*Sigh* Oh, all right, Katharine has a confession to make. *clears throat* Ducash, his cronies, and all his horrible antics are entirely the products of my sick and twisted little mind. The lovely TreeHugger bears absolutely no responsibility for the Very Bad Man™'s dreadful misdeeds toward our favorite Elvenking. There, I said it! *bravely shields poor Tree from the enraged readership's review-missiles* Yaaaaah!
Car an Neled, Tanglinna, the Trio, et al, however, still belong to TreeHugger, and aren't we all extremely grateful for her wonderfully cute Elflings in this wretched tale? ^_^
Scary Saeros the Tracker, of course, belongs to JastaElf, and we all love him as well. *winking grin*
Oh, and Master Tolkien owns everything that we don't claim. Which is basically everything except our own stuff. Right.
Pen-tithen = Sindarin, "little one"
Cwen = Sindarin derivative, "princess" (Kate and Tree couldn't find an actual listing, so Kate extrapolated this based upon existing trends within the language… forgive her audacity! ^_~)
Tithen min = Sindarin, "my little one"
Replies to reviews:
Well, well, the replies seemed VERY well-received last time, so here we go again! Enjoy! ^_^
Once again, the bland room in the Realm of Impossibility. The same computer, tuned in to one Fanfiction.net. Three small Elflings stared at the glowing screen, mesmerized.
"Is that it?" Tavor asked, pointing at the strange machine. He was certain that he didn't look frightened at all, that his face was a perfect mask of indifference. After all, he was a Soon-To-Be-Warrior, and learning to mask one's fears was something that warriors did all the time. The Soon-To-Be-Warrior could not have known that his eyes were, in fact, flung wide with obvious dismay, and his face had turned a sickly grayish-green color.
Legolas nodded and grinned, enjoying his friends' discomfort. Tavor looked like he would turn and flee at the slightest provocation. He looked truly frightened! Of course, the princeling would never tell how fearful he had been the first time he had seen the wonderful device…and since Tavor and Brethil hadn't been there to witness it, they would never know. Legolas' grin widened, and with the loftiest tone he could manage, he proclaimed, "Yes, that is it. It contains many stories, and…other wonderful things."
"Didn't your ada tell you not to touch it?" Brethil whispered, eyeing the machine distrustfully. "He said that you were not to read anything written there, not when he wasn't here." He glanced sideways at Legolas, wondering how much trouble they would be in before they left this place. But then his face brightened. "Do people really read stories about us?"
Legolas grinned at him, nodding. "Yes, they do. They love us! But don't worry. I am just showing you this magic screen, and Ada won't mind that…at least, I don't think he will." Legolas glanced around, suddenly wondering just where his Ada was. Changing the subject, he remarked, "It's like magic, isn't it?"
"It does look magic," Tavor agreed in a low voice. "Your Ada knows how to make it do its magic, right? Just like Mithrandir?"
"Of course," Legolas said proudly. "My Ada knows how to do lots of things."
"Can't we just…take a peek?" Tavor suggested, edging toward the computer, knowing full well that Legolas would stop him before he actually got close enough to touch it. Or before it bit him.
Legolas glanced behind him once again, feeling rather guilty. He wondered when his Ada would arrive, and if he would catch them standing too close to the magic machine, and what he would do if they did get caught. Curiosity, however, won out over good reason, as was usually the case with young Elves. "Well, maybe if we are quick," he decided.
The Elflings edged forward, eyeing one another, each hoping one of his fellows would back out and prevent them from doing anything that would get them into trouble. Just as they came within arm's reach of the computer, however, King Thranduil and Tanglinna appeared behind them.
Brethil just happened to glance back, and he gasped, yanking on his friends' tunics. "Legolas! Tavor!" he hissed, grey eyes widening in alarm.
"Quiet, Brethil! Ada might hear you!" Legolas whispered fiercely, swatting at the other Elfling's hand.
"Legolas!" a familiar voice said scoldingly.
Legolas did turn then, and his eyes fell on the two tall Elves standing behind Brethil. The prince gulped slightly and grabbed Tavor's arm. Tavor jumped and yelped, spinning around in a mild panic. The evil machine was about to bite them, just as he had feared! But no, he realized, it wasn't the machine they had to fear. He moaned lowly, and his mouth twisted with dismay.
Thranduil and Tanglinna did not look amused. The Master Archer moved swiftly to insert himself between the little Elves and the computer, his back to the machine. He folded his long arms over his chest, his silver eyes narrowed in disapproval.
"What have you done now, little Greenleaf?" Thranduil asked.
Legolas grimaced and ran one foot in a complicated pattern over the floor. "We were just…just…I was just showing them the magic screen, Ada."
Thranduil raised one dark brow. "Ah. And what did you see on the magic screen, nin iôn?"
"We didn't see anything, Ada. Truly."
"We didn't," Brethil chimed in, glancing earnestly from Thranduil to Tanglinna and back again. "You came in before we could."
Tavor frowned and edged slightly behind Legolas. "We didn't see anything, aranhîr," he managed, gazing up at his formidable ruler, his dark grey eyes wide. He tried his best to look as calm and confident as his grandmother did whenever she faced Legolas' intimidating Ada, but failed miserably, and ended up looking even more sickly and pale than before.
"Hmph. Well then, shall we get started? We have been somewhat remiss in answering these delightful reviewers!" Thranduil moved past Tanglinna as he spoke, quirking an amused smile. The Master Archer responded with only the slightest grunt of acknowledgement. "Let us see what our adoring devotees had to say about that last chapter," Greenwood's king continued, rubbing his palms together in anticipation.
"They love my Ada," Legolas whispered to his friends with a proud grin. "Lots."
Thranduil seated himself regally in the strange chair and quickly scanned the first review. "Ha!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "What did I tell you, Tanglinna! JastaElf was the first reviewer for the last chapter!"
"Smugness is hardly becoming in a king of Elves, aranhîr," Tanglinna replied, arching one expressive brow and rolling his silvery eyes.
"Nonsense, Tanglinna," Thranduil said dismissively. "I am always becoming, regardless of my mood." He read a little further, and gave a satisfied chuckle. "You simply must see this review. Turn and look!"
Tanglinna glanced sharply at the three Elflings, who knew very well what that particular glare (commonly known as the Or Else glare) meant: they were not to move one step toward the computer…or else. Having delivered the ages-old threat, Tanglinna then turned as directed and gazed at the computer screen through narrowed eyes.
"She says she loves me," Thranduil whispered with a grin, "more than you. Look," and he pointed at the screen, his smile widening, "she said she would lick spider venom from my toes if I asked her to."
"That, aran brannon nin, is positively revolting," Tanglinna remarked loftily. "In fact, were I faced with such a prospect, I would likely leave your toes to rot, rather than put my mouth anywhere near them. Ah, and Lady Jasta also wants a hug from you. And a kiss!" His mouth turned upwards in a meaningful smirk. "Mm, would you enjoy kissing someone whose lips are dripping with spider venom recently sucked from your feet?" When he received no answer aside from the three Elflings' muffled giggles, Tanglinna shrugged and continued reading the review. "Hmph. She calls me 'Old Sourpuss,' and in the same breath requests a… a gift?" The silver-haired archer snorted and turned his back on the screen at last, again facing the young Elves clustered a short distance away.
Thranduil gave a light cough, signaling his intention to move on. "Jasta sends her love to you as well, Little Greenleaf," he called over his shoulder.
"What are they talking about?" Brethil asked lowly, his face filled with confusion.
"Gross stuff, mushy stuff," the prince confided in a whisper. "Kissing and stuff like that."
"Kissing? Really?" Tavor's eyes lit up. "Kissing girls?"
Legolas and Brethil both stared at their older friend in disbelief, and then glanced at each other. "Okaaay," Legolas muttered lowly.
Thranduil was speaking to Tanglinna again. "Ah, Tanglinna, you will like this one. Nilmandra says that you should be 'creative' in your punishment of the 'bad little Elflings.' Fancy that, eh?"
Legolas' eyes widened. "What did we do now?" he squeaked, staring up at the Master Archer in alarm.
"I wouldn't know where to begin in answer to that question, nin caun," Tanglinna replied with a somewhat discomfiting smile. "Perhaps she could suggest something for the next time you get into trouble."
Brethil tugged on Legolas' sleeve and whispered fiercely into the princeling's ear. "Legolas, I thought you said these people liked us!"
"Along the same line, Legolas, daw says that your silver tongue is 'talent gone to the bad,'" Thranduil continued. He turned in the chair to quirk one dark brow at his child. "Do you see, Little Greenleaf? You really must learn to behave yourself."
Legolas scuffed the floor with his boot, his bottom lip thrust out in a highly adorable pout. "Yes, Ada. I know."
Tavor snickered, but quickly covered his mouth as Tanglinna's Arched-Brow Hawk-Glare fell on him. "That applies to all three of you, Tavor," the tall Silvan said reprovingly.
"Yes, Master Tanglinna. I know," the child muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor. He glanced over at Legolas from beneath his lashes. The young prince shrugged, and couldn't quite contain the grin that tugged at his lips.
Thranduil continued reading through the review. "daw liked me as a child, though," he chuckled.
"Hmph, there are quite a few tales I could spin concerning you and your own youth, aranhîr," Tanglinna remarked with a surprisingly impish grin and a wink at the Elflings. "You presented an entirely new facet of 'talent gone to the bad.'"
The king narrowed his eyes and snorted. "I have no idea what you are talking about. I was the perfect child, as you well know."
"Oh, really?" Tanglinna tapped one finger against his chin, feigning a thoughtful frown. "Then, pray tell, who was it that—"
"Ah, Elflings," Thranduil interrupted hastily. "PuterPatty thinks that all three of you are adorable. She says that she loves you in especial, Tavor. And," he tossed a small grin over his shoulder, "she sends you smooches."
Tavor gasped, his eyes widening in shock. He started forward, hoping to glimpse the magic screen and touch the words typed by PuterPatty, but a warning grunt from Tanglinna stopped the Elfling in his tracks. "She loves me?" he murmured, a dreamy grin spreading over his fair features. "She is a girl, and she loves me? And she sent me smooches?"
Tanglinna sighed and shook his head. "Now look what you have done," he said reprovingly. "He will be quite useless for some time."
"She sends smooches to you as well, Tanglinna," Thranduil replied, and a fiendish grin tugged at his lips as he added, "and she says 'growl.'"
"'Growl?'" Brethil echoed, knitting his brows. "What does that mean? What is wrong with your cheeks, Master Tanglinna? They are awfully red."
Thranduil gave a snort of laughter. "To borrow a phrase from Legolas, it is mushy stuff, Brethil. Mushy stuff." The king chuckled as he resumed reading. "Speaking of Legolas, it appears that Undomiel Greenleaf is more than prepared to defend you from Master Tanglinna, nin iôn."
"Her name is 'Greenleaf' too?" The princeling blinked. "I thought I was the only one."
"Maybe it's Lord Elrond's daughter, Arwen, playing a joke on us," Brethil suggested. "Isn't her name 'Undómiel' too?"
Legolas shrugged in response. "Maybe. Don't let Tavor hear you say that, though; he'll probably melt into a puddle." He intentionally said his friend's name loudly to see if he could snap Tavor out of his wistful trance, but it was to no avail. The prince shook his head and gave Brethil a mock mournful look. "Brethil, my friend, we have lost a good Elfling today."
Brethil nodded seriously, not at all understanding.
Thranduil, meanwhile, continued reading with a raised brow. "Hm, I see Undomiel claims to be the originator of that nickname I so detest," he muttered. "But, since she likes me the best—"
"What nickname is that, your Majesty?" Brethil asked curiously. "I didn't know that kings could have nicknames."
Tanglinna smiled down at the child, ignoring Thranduil's warning hiss. "Everyone can have a nickname, Brethil. Even the great king Thrandy."
"Thrandy?" Brethil repeated, grimacing slightly. "King Thrandy. That is a rather…nice name, I suppose. It rhymes with candy, after all."
The Master Archer gave a choked guffaw, barely able to contain his mirth. "Aranhîr, I do believe the child may have hit upon something. Mayhap you can put candy on your toes in place of spider venom. Great King Thrandy the Tasty, they would call you!"
"As I was saying," the Great King Thrandy said loudly, his tipped ears reddening, "Tamsin FlameArrow calls you Tanny, O Master Archer. Hardly a dignified or particularly imposing nickname, eh?"
"Thrandy and Tanny?" Legolas snickered. "Thrandy and Tanny?" Two pairs of narrowed eyes suddenly zeroed in on the youngling, and he choked down a fit of giggles. "Oh! Yes, well. No, I guess that doesn't sound as funny as I thought."
"I guess everyone does have a nickname," Brethil murmured, staring at the two elder Elves in wonder.
"She loves me," Tavor sighed happily. "PuterPatty loves me."
All eyes turned to Laureahiril's young grandson. His dark grey gaze shone brightly, with an odd sort of light that was baffling to his friends and instantly recognizable to the adults.
"I told you he would be of no use for a while," Tanglinna muttered, punctuating the remark with a low harrumph.
Thranduil shook his golden head in amusement and peered at the computer screen once more. "Hm, younglings, it seems that kellen enjoyed your prank," he remarked, smiling indulgently. "She says that it sounds like some of the pranks she and her own friends have played."
"She sounds like trouble to me," Tanglinna grunted disapprovingly.
"She sounds like fun to me," Legolas leaned over and whispered in Brethil's ear, grinning mischievously.
Brethil nodded. "Me, too, but what prank did we play? Did you and Tavor do something without me?"
Legolas was surprised at the hurt look in his friend's pale grey eyes. "No, of course not! It's the prank in the story, not a real one."
"Oh, good." Brethil gave a relieved smile. "So, what did we do in the story?"
Legolas shrugged. "I have no idea, but whatever it was, the readers thought it was very funny. Maybe if we get a look at the screen, we can see what we did in the story, and then actually do it!"
Brethil's expression crumpled. "Oh, no! Do you know how much trouble we'll be in if—"
"…but kellen says she adores you, Tanglinna," Thranduil was saying, tapping the computer monitor for emphasis. "Right here, see?"
"Did she growl, too?" Brethil asked curiously, watching in fascination as the archer's ears turned crimson once again.
"No, she didn't growl," Thranduil chuckled. The king lowered his voice enough so that only Tanglinna could hear him. "She wants me to be tortured, too, so long as I recover afterwards." Greenwood's lord shook his head and grinned smugly. "I told you it would work, Tanglinna. This sort of tale gets them every time!"
"You are wise and good, aranhîr," Tanglinna sighed, staring at the ceiling with a supremely long-suffering expression.
"Good and wise," Legolas and Brethil corrected simultaneously, and they both giggled. Then, almost as an afterthought, they glanced over at Tavor to see if he had heard them and would properly congratulate them on it.
Tavor, however, continued to stare into empty space, murmuring his doe-eyed litany of, "She loves me. PuterPatty loves me…"
"I see what you mean, Tanglinna," Thranduil said lowly, one brow raised. "Quite useless."
"What is wrong with Tavor?" Brethil asked, staring at his elder friend in amazement.
Legolas shrugged and shook his head, surreptitiously trying to peer around Tanglinna at the computer screen.
"None of that, youngling," the archer reprimanded with a frown. "You know the rules."
"You sound rather like the teacher that erunyauve mentioned in her review, Tanglinna," Thranduil said. "Her best English teacher, to be exact."
"What is English?" Brethil whispered to Legolas, not wanting to look to like he didn't know what they were talking about.
"I think it is something like Westron," the prince shrugged, not wanting to look like he didn't know what he was talking about, "or maybe it has to do with commas and grammar and boring stuff like that."
"Ah," Thranduil continued with a smile of satisfaction. "addicted says that I may come and visit her anytime." Suddenly, he flashed eight fingers in the air at Tanglinna, his slight smile changing to a full-blown smug grin.
Tanglinna frowned. "What is that supposed to mean, aranhîr?" he asked, glancing over to see if the Elflings comprehended this mysterious signal. The three of them, however, looked just as perplexed as he did—all except Tavor, who was still whispering dreamily about PuterPatty.
"That is how many reviewers have mentioned me," Thranduil declared in a gratified voice, his silver eyes shining.
Tanglinna blinked slowly, and turned to stare at the king. "Is that so? You are still keeping track of that, are you?"
Thranduil leaned back in the chair, stretching his arms over his head. "Of course I am. Do you want to know how many have mentioned you, Old Sourpuss?"
Legolas let out a squeak of laughter at the moniker, but quickly clamped his hand over his mouth when Tanglinna turned to glare at him. The prince shrugged apologetically and looked at the floor.
"Are you keeping track of that, as well, aranhîr?" Tanglinna asked nonchalantly, folding his arms across his chest.
"Well, no. I thought you would be. Here, let me count." Greenwood's king turned back to the screen, scrolling through the reviews he had already read. "Hmph. That is interesting. You have eight, as well."
Tanglinna managed to keep the telltale smile from his lips.
Thranduil scowled slightly, but shook his head dismissively and began reading the next review.
Tanglinna smirked and flashed eight fingers at the Elflings.
"What are they doing?" Brethil whispered at Legolas, wondering if the king and the Master Archer were learning some type of new magic that made the magic screen work.
"How many do we have, Ada?" Legolas burst out before he could answer Brethil, dancing up and down on the balls of his feet in excitement.
"See what you have started now?" Tanglinna asked reproachfully as he turned to read over Thranduil's shoulder.
"If it keeps up like this, 'Tanny,' you will have to hug the computer screen after all," Thranduil countered as he tallied the Elflings' points.
"I want to hug PuterPatty," Tavor piped up, moving to stand by Brethil and smiling at him in such a manner that Brethil eased away and moved to stand at Legolas' other side.
"Little Greenleaf, you and your friends have...mm…most interesting. Eight."
"Eight!" Little Greenleaf whooped, and jumped into the air, flashing eight fingers at anyone who would look.
"We all have eight," Brethil said with a puzzled look on his face. "What game are we playing?"
"It is not a game, Brethil," Thranduil answered, hiding a grin. "But if Master Tanglinna gets the same number of points as I do, then he must hug the computer screen for the reviewers."
"What?! I never agreed to that!" Tanglinna protested.
"You don't have to agree with me, you just have to do it. And now, thanks to Pasta-Head, who waves to 'the review board,' which is all of us, it looks like you might have to," Thranduil chuckled, immensely pleased with his latest scheme.
"I will not!" Tanglinna muttered darkly, scowling at his king.
"Yes, you will. I am the king, and I am telling you that you will. The younglings will enjoy it, too. Won't you?" Thranduil turned in his chair to look at the three Elflings, smiling reassuringly at them.
"Yes! We would!" Legolas blurted out with a crow of laughter, then clamped his hand over his mouth once more when Tanglinna raised one silver brow. "I mean, uh—"
"Exactly," Thranduil cut in, grinning triumphantly, and turned to face the monitor once more. Suddenly, he burst into peals of laughter. Tanglinna glanced over his shoulder in surprise, and Legolas and Brethil actually jumped, startled. Even Tavor seemed to awaken from the Patty-induced stupor he had fallen into.
"Well, well, it seems that our fans know us entirely too well," the King of Greenwood remarked between snickers. "Lily Frost's first words are, and I quote, 'Don't argue, we love all you guys.' It sounds like she would fit in quite well with the younglings, eh Tanglinna? She has an affinity for small crawly things."
"Does he mean us?" Brethil whispered into Legolas' ear. "Are we small crawly things?"
"No…I think he meant something else…I hope," the princeling whispered back, looking none to certain of this.
"Do we get to count the crawly things for us?" Brethil asked, staring down at his fingers.
"Of course you do, Brethil," Thranduil answered with a chuckle. "We all stand at ten now. Invader Iggle brings us all to eleven. And moving right along—"
"Ah ah ah," Tanglinna interjected, peering over the king's shoulder once more. "I see why you are in such a hurry, nin aranhîr. You were going to skip over the part where Invader Iggle said that I am 'REEEEEAlly cool,' mm? I see. Please continue." He straightened and turned back to the younglings, then mouthed, "I am reeeeally cool."
Legolas blinked and managed a confused smile. Someone actually thought that Tanglinna was cool?
"Now, to deflate that head of your, Tanglinna," Thranduil continued, "Seaweed loved the prank the younglings played on you. She even thinks they should set spiders loose in the palace. AND she calls me good and wise AND cool." The king leaned back smugly, turning his head to gaze up at the Master Archer. "AND she says that we should maybe tie you to the computer screen, Tanglinna. I like her!"
Tanglinna scowled and turned to stare at the screen with a disapproving frown. "What does she know? She likes that dwarf, after all."
Thranduil winked at the younglings before continuing in his reading.
"What dwarf is he talking about, Legolas?" Brethil whispered.
"Shut up, Brethil," Thranduil said quietly, smirking at the screen. "Actually, this says 'No "shut up, Brethil."' I think Laura likes all of your chatter."
"Laura? Laura! Laura!! I know Laura!" Bronadui's son said excitedly, his grey eyes bright. "Mae govannen, Laura! How are you? I am so glad you left a review. Do you want to know what is going to happen now? I would tell you only I don't know myself, but I am certain that—"
"Shut up, Brethil!" Thranduil and Tanglinna said in unison, quirking amused grins at each other.
"What? I didn't tell her anything," Brethil muttered in consternation.
Thranduil turned a kind smile on the youngling. "Yes, well, don't." He glanced back at the screen, and a deep rumble of laughter again escaped. "Ah, Legolas, aranel_elf is offering to marry you."
The prince's cheeks reddened, and he choked out, "Marry me? Marry me?!"
"We could get married together, Legolas," Tavor said. "You could marry aranel_elf and I could marry," his eyes softened and he clasped his hands at his breast, "PuterPatty."
"No one is getting married any time soon, Tavor," Thranduil said with a shake of his head. "But I wonder about this 'small fee.' Does she mean she will pay me to marry you? Hmm. I wonder what she would pay for that privilege."
Legolas stared at his father in disbelief. "Ada!"
Thranduil chuckled. "I am just teasing you, Little Greenleaf," he assured, but then he leaned closer to the screen and whispered, "What is your offer, aranel_elf? Because it looks like gapofrohan thinks Legolas is very cute, and she may want to offer something for him as well. Ah! And she thinks I am cute too!" The king grinned as he sat back up and shot a glance at the Master Archer. "She thinks I am cute," he repeated. "That puts the younglings at fifteen, Tanglinna. It appears they are winning this round."
"Fifteen!" Legolas chortled, clapping his hands and high-fiving Brethil, who looked as perplexed as ever.
"I thought this wasn't a game," he said with a frown.
Legolas leaned against him and whispered conspiratorially, "It is."
"Jay of Lasgalen wants to copyright 'Poor Thranduil.' I guess we should let her; after all, I know she likes me a lot," Thranduil remarked as he read on. "Very well. Ahem. I, King Thranduil of Greenwood the Great, hereby declare that Jay of Lasgalen has officially copyrighted 'Poor Thranduil' for the duration of this tale."
"Why are they calling your Ada 'poor,' Legolas?" Brethil asked lowly, wondering how the king could find that amusing. "He has more jewels than anyone I know."
"That word is just one of the mysterious things that the reviewers like to say. It must be magic or something. Maybe they can't talk to us if they don't say 'poor somebody,' or something," Legolas shrugged.
"Emma the Lame has given us twenty-four exclamation points. That is wonderful!" Thranduil said approvingly, scanning the review board. "She likes us all, and she thinks that we are clever for responding to them. I think I like her. Thank you, Emma. We are very clever indeed." He then felt Tanglinna's stare boring into him, and turned to raise a brow at the archer. "You don't think we are clever?" the king asked pointedly.
Tanglinna cleared his throat and gestured at the screen. "This is taking an incredibly long time for some one who is so clever, aranhîr. Keep reading."
"Hmph. Some people have no sense of humor. Very well." Thranduil turned back to the monitor. "Legolas gets two points from the evil witch queen. One for being so cute—which she says you do get from your mother, Little Greenleaf—and one for your evilness or pestiness, which you apparently got from me." Thranduil snorted. "I can't imagine why she would think I am pesty."
"Maybe I told her," Tanglinna smirked.
"I doubt it, since she calls you 'Old Sourpuss,'" Thranduil smirked back.
"Old Sourpuss!" Legolas giggled. "That name seems to be very popular. Erm. That is…it really is too bad that someone called you that, Master Tanglinna."
"You said it first, Legolas," Brethil reminded quietly. "At least, I think you did."
Legolas turned to glare threateningly at Brethil.
"Now, now. None of that. We all have nicknames, after all," Thranduil said calmly.
"Thrandy knows best, younglings," Tanglinna quipped, grinning.
"Don't call me that, Tanny, or you will be sorry," the king rejoined with a growl.
"I am shaking in my boots already, aranhîr."
Thranduil ignored his Master Archer's comment. "It looks like you had better get Noone to join your archery practice, Little Greenleaf. She is having quite a time with her bow, it seems. She said that she will leave that bow to Brethil in her will. Or her flute perhaps. And she thinks Brethil is a sweetheart as well." He chuckled. "She wonders what you would think if you could see me as a child, Little Greenleaf. Isn't that sweet?"
"Shall we tell Legolas about your younger days, aranhîr?" Tanglinna teased. "There are many stories I could tell about you."
"Now is not the time for that," Thranduil hedged with a frown. "We are in a hurry here, as you pointed out earlier. Dragon_of_the_north gives you three smiles, Little Greenleaf. And three smiles to me as well. But she thinks you deserved to have the prank played on you, Tanglinna. Not because you are an Old Sourpuss, but because you were going to let the Elflings hunt the squirrels. Then she gives you three smiles as well."
"Dragon_of_the_north, my dear," Tanglinna muttered, smiling wolfishly, "if you keep that up, I shall just continue to haunt you."
"Haunt? What does that mean?" Brethil asked.
"Never you mind that, youngling, never you mind," Thranduil responded quickly. "Hiro-tyre is in need of rescuing, so I will try to make this reply run more quickly. It appears that she wants the 'Hurricane TreeKate' to lift her from the Impatient Pit. Hmm…it seems the reviewers think that our dear authoresses are writing this tale too slowly. Haste is needed, indeed!" The king leaned back in his chair and gazed speculatively at the monitor. "Now, let me see what the tally is. Little Greenleaf, you are in the lead with twenty-one, I am in second place with twenty, and Tanglinna, you have fallen behind with nineteen. Too bad, eh? I want you to hug this machine!"
"I won't hug it," the archer muttered.
"We shall see. Ah! Look! Earl Grey liked it when Legolas and I hugged the monitor the last time!" Thranduil nudged his Master Archer. "You see? They want it, Tanglinna! Our fans enjoy that intimate touch from us. You will hug it before this tale is over! I will order you if I must…or get Seaweed's rope."
Tanglinna stood with his back to the king, affording the younglings the full brunt of his scowl.
Thranduil hid his smile. "She also liked the prank, and said she laughed and laughed at the squirrels."
"What squirrels?" Brethil whispered, and Legolas replied with his customary shrug. None of them knew what the prank was, only that it had to do with squirrels and Master Tanglinna.
"Look here, Tanglinna," Thranduil continued, "Earl calls me Great—with a capital G. How very kind! You see, they do like me. I knew there must have been some mistake with all those evil Thranduil tales out there." The king scanned through the next review. "Ah, this should please you, Brethil. EMerald QUeen thinks we should let you talk all you like, as well. My, but that would never do! We would be sitting here all day and achieve nothing if we let him do that."
"Rather like we are doing right now, you mean?" Tanglinna asked, turning to the king. "Only it isn't Brethil that is taking quite so long to say something, is it?"
Thranduil narrowed his eyes, his lips thrusting out in a pout. "I don't know what you mean, Tanglinna. And it seems that EMerald QUeen is a bit of a prankster herself! She would fit right in with you three younglings! She says that she may have Brethilitis! That is not good. It appears to have made its way into their world! Oh dear, look here, Tanglinna. She sounds quite upset."
"Ah, yes," the Master Archer murmured, reading through Emerald's last outburst. "One hundred and thirty-two exclamation points. She does sound upset about that, erm, incident, doesn't she? Don't worry, EMerald QUeen . Both Brethil and I haunt TreeHugger every day over that one!"
"What is he talking about? Haunting? Are there ghosts in that machine?" Brethil asked, eyeing the computer fearfully.
Legolas shook his head. "I don't know."
Tavor stared off into space and murmured, "I will haunt PuterPatty if she will let me."
Thranduil snorted with laughter. "Well, Tanglinna, they are clamoring for you to hug this screen! Hildestohl thinks you might do it when no one is watching. Did you sneak in here after we left the last time, mm?"
"I did not!" the archer huffed. "Who ever heard of hugging a computer screen, anyway!"
"We shall see," Thranduil answered in a singsong voice. "Hildestohl draws pictures of us! How wonderful! I am certain that they are quite lovely. Ha! And she wants to know how old the Old Sourpuss really is!"
Tanglinna harrumphed low in his chest. "Well, I am not as old as dirt. That distinction belongs to Saeros the Tracker. Just ask JastaElf. And oh, greetings to you as well, Saeros."
"Hildestohl is a very affectionate thing," Thranduil said with a smile. "She sends hugs and says she loves us all, even those squirrels. Maybe you should send some to live with her, Tanglinna."
"Could we?" Brethil chimed in. "Would you like that, Hildestohl?"
"Not now, Brethil. Let me finish here, then we will discuss the squirrels," Thranduil told the Elfling. "Well, well. Mickie says that the Tricksy Trio reminds her of herself, her sister, and their friend. It seems there are many people out there with a penchant for getting into trouble."
"Yes, there are," Tanglinna remarked dryly. "Did I mention the time that a youngling named Thranduil—"
"As I was saying," the king interrupted with a frown, "Mickie mentions that 'haunting' event in chapter five of that story as well. She cried over it. We should send her a red hanky for that, don't you think?"
"We should, she seems very sentimental about it. Poor Mickie." The Master Archer smiled. "Tell her that the author of that tale has been duly haunted about chapter five."
"There are ghosts!" Brethil gasped, darting a fearful glance around the room. "There are ghosts!"
"No, there aren't. He is only teasing," Legolas muttered, shaking his head, but looking about nonetheless. "Are you really going to send a squirrel to Hildestohl?"
"Maybe you should send one to Mickie, as well," Thranduil suggested. "That would be two less squirrels to worry about."
"Send one to PuterPatty!" Tavor piped. "And tell her it was from me! With smoochies!"
"There are several reviewers, including angaloth that feel rather sorry for you, Tanglinna," Thranduil remarked. "The Elflings should be glad that their squirrels didn't hurt your picture, eh?"
"Yes, they should be very glad indeed," the archer said quietly, with a stern glance at the three young Elves, who looked daunted and just a smidgen confused—after all, they still had no idea what their story selves had done to affront Master Tanglinna.
"angaloth also thinks that the authors of this tale are very slow to update. How very true that is! You had better get after them, Tanglinna. I want to know what befalls 'Poor Thranduil' copyright Jay of Lasgalen, and that VBM," Thranduil added, scowling darkly.
"VBM? What does that mean?" Legolas asked, trying once more to see around the Master Archer.
"I know!" Brethil proclaimed with a gasp. "Very Big Mouse! You have a pet mouse, do you, King Thranduil? Can I see it some time? Does it know any tricks?"
"Very Big Mouse?" Thranduil mouthed at Tanglinna, and then turned to look at Brethil, who looked very excited by the prospect of seeing the giant rodent. The king looked down at the computer's mouse and frowned. "It doesn't look very big to me."
Tanglinna shrugged and shook his head. "How many more, aranhîr? The day grows late, and the younglings are missing their practice…again."
"Well, Hiro-Tyre reviews again and sounds very distressed, so I had really better hurry along here. The Teenage Angst Brigade says that she 'wuvs Legolas,' and she says I am a GOOD Ada." A very pleased smile spread over the king's handsome face. "I am so glad that people realize that I am not the Bad Man that some have mistaken me for in the past. Things are looking up for me…finally." Thranduil sighed. "Thus, this session is concluded. All further reviews will wait until next time. All right, Little Greenleaf. You and your friends may hug the screen and depart. Tanglinna will be expecting you at archery practice the moment he returns."
Legolas grinned happily and moved to hug the screen, enfolding the cold plastic and glass in a loving embrace. Brethil did the same after eyeing the machine suspiciously, wondering if perhaps the Very Big Mouse lived inside it, and just how big the Very Big Mouse could be.
Lastly, Tavor leapt forward and enthusiastically hugged the screen. "I love you too, PuterPatty," he whispered, planting a kiss firmly on the screen.
"Enough, Tavor. Now go home. We will join you shortly," Thranduil said.
"But, Ada, who won the game, erm, not-a-game?" Legolas asked.
"You did, Little Greenleaf," the king sighed.
Legolas whooped happily and wound his arms through those of his friends. "We are SO popular! I love it!" he exclaimed, before the three vanished from sight.
"Well, well," Thranduil said, leaning back in the chair. "This has been most interesting and productive, wouldn't you say?"
"And extremely long," Tanglinna pointed out, looking at the number of pages that the review responses had taken up. "Very long, indeed."
"Ah, well, they do love us, and it is very nice to be able to chat with them, don't you think?" The king grinned and flashed both his hands at Tanglinna twice, and then flashed six more fingers. "Twenty-six! I am SO popular!"
Tanglinna stared down at him, one silvery brow raised. "Yes, you are. It must be good to be king."
"Oh, yes it is. You are just jealous, because you only had twenty-five. Or perhaps you are jealous because the 'Very Big Mouse' is torturing me instead of you."
Tanglinna snorted. "I wonder what he would say to being called the Very Big Mouse."
"I doubt that one would see the humor in it," Thranduil conceded with a frown.
"All the same, I am glad that I am not the king," Tanglinna said, then harrumphed.
"Thank the One for that," the two murmured simultaneously.
They gazed at one another, and then a smile touched Tanglinna's lips, and Thranduil chuckled as he rose to his feet. "Shall we?" he said, gesturing at the ceiling.
"You are forgetting something, aranhîr," Tanglinna reminded.
"What is that? Ah, yes." Thranduil turned back to the screen and placed his strong arms about it, dutifully hugging it. "Perhaps next time it will be your turn to hug it, Tanglinna. Of course, there is always that rope."
"I think not," Tanglinna muttered, rolling his eyes.
"We shall see," Thranduil chuckled.
And the Realm of Impossibility faded out once more, sending the two Elves back into the forest from whence they had come…
*Katharine goes slightly ga-ga over the prospect of munching candy off of The Great King Thrandy's tasty toes* Mm… Hershey kisses and Elves go together well, no? *Big sigh* Hmph, after all the crap I've put him through, I'd be lucky if the good king let me suck spider venom from his toes… Oh well, just read the teaser for the next chapter, and be sure to leave a review! Special thanks to Madame Tree for writing the replies to the reviews for this chapter—they are magnificent, melaglar nin! *waves* See you all next time! ^_^
Next chapter… all is not well in the Greenwood, as we shall soon see; between Elflings' nightmares, an edgy archery practice, and Thranduil's eldest daughter, Tanglinna starts to worry…