This is my contribution to Soledad's challenge to write an Elvish Yuletide story. Or in this case, Mid Winter Festival.
(Brethil appears with the kind permission of Treehugger Enterprises Ltd.)
Mid Winter's Eve
It was the day before the Mid Winter festival. Elrond and his sons had arrived in Greenwood to celebrate the festival a few days previously - only just in time, for heavy snow had fallen shortly after their arrival. The bare, leafless branches of the beeches and oaks were frosted with white, and the wide, still pools on the quieter reaches of the forest river were frozen over.
Elflings slid and slipped over the ice, shrieks and laughter filling the air as they stumbled with less than their usual grace. The sound carried to the halls of Lasgalen, where Thranduil and Elrond sat in Thranduil's study, deep in conversation. A fire blazed brightly in the hearth, and the window shutters, unusually, were closed against the bitter air.
Elrond paused as he listened to the sounds of mirth from outside. There were shouts and yells, and the noise of battle drifted in. "Whatever mischief is taking place, I have no doubt that my sons, and yours, will be at the heart of it somehow.
Thranduil nodded absently as he crossed to the window and pushed open the shutter. "They always are."
A furious snowball fight was taking place, and the air was thick with flying snow. It was difficult to see how the teams had been drawn up, as there was a scattering of elves from Rivendell on both sides, heavily outnumbered by those from Greenwood. One or two of the elflings from Lasgalen looked up and waved when they saw him.
"Good morning, Sire!"
Legolas paused in mid throw and glanced up at his father. The hesitation cost him. A snowball caught him full face, and he spluttered through a mouthful of snow. Thranduil bit back a laugh - it would not do to be caught laughing at his son's misfortune. Elrond had no such compunction, however, chuckling at the sight.
Legolas did not seem to have noticed, but the snowball had struck from a lot closer to home than the opposing team. Elrohir had a suspiciously innocent expression, and Elladan looked positively angelic.
By midday the sky was dark and heavy with the threat of more snow. The wind was rising, moaning and wailing through the trees. The elflings had all been called back inside, and warned not to stray from the clearing in front of the main doors. Vicious blizzards sometimes swept down across Greenwood, and could last for a few hours or a few days.
In the Great Hall, fires blazed against each wall. The two biggest hearths, at opposite ends of the hall, each held a single log, the trunks of trees which had fallen in the previous winter's gales. They had been lit the day before, and would continue to burn throughout the festival.
Greenery was draped across the mantels, bright holly intertwined with ivy and blood-red berries. More garlanded the doorways, arches and windows. It was the job of the older elflings to collect the branches used for decoration, cutting damaged or diseased limbs, and always remembering to ask the tree's permission.
Over the noon meal, the twins quizzed Legolas about the spiders. They had a horrified fascination for the eight-legged monsters, having been frightened out of their wits by an encounter with a particularly large and ferocious creature that attacked them on their last visit.
Legolas had never let on to them that in fact it had been him in the trees, rustling the branches, hissing, and eventually dropping a large, fringed, black shawl onto the path behind them. They hadn't stopped to look, but had run as if all the orcs ever spawned were after them. Legolas had laughed so hard he had very nearly fallen out of the tree.
"You don't need to worry" he reassured them now. "The spiders hibernate in winter."
"Hibernate? Are you sure?"
"Quite sure" he confirmed. "You see - I'm not supposed to know this, but ..."
"WHAT?" they chorused.
"I know where the spiders hibernate" he said in a dramatic whisper.
"Where?" demanded Elladan.
"You know the little ravine we found last time? There's a cave there, all hidden behind rocks and ivy and things. That's where they go for the winter!"
Elrohir was enthralled. "That's not far away! Can we go there?"
"Not today." Legolas shook his head. "It's going to snow again soon. Besides, I have to help my father. But after the festival, we'll go then!"
He left then, and the twins looked at each other. There was a gleam in Elladan's eyes. "Do you remember the way to that ravine?"
"So do I. It's quite close. Let's go there first, we don't need to wait for him!"
"And the feast won't be until later tonight. We've got plenty of time!" Elrohir agreed.
Suddenly Elladan paused. "What about the snow?"
"Snow's fun. It won't matter!"
They slipped out to the stables and found their horses. In a matter of moments, they were on their way to the ravine.
As the afternoon wore on, it grew darker and darker. By mid afternoon all the lamps around Lasgalen were lit. Outside the snow was falling heavily, and the wind had risen even more. It howled around the palace like a wolf pack. The sentries at the bottom of the steps had been pulled back so they were in the lee of the great doors, and at least partially sheltered. Their shifts were rotated every half hour, instead of two-hourly.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Elrond came to find Legolas. He was still in his father's study, where they had just finished their plans for the feast on Mid Winter's Day. They were both sitting by the fire, sipping mulled wine, when Elrond entered.
"My apologies, Lord Thranduil" he said briefly. "Legolas, do you have any idea where my sons are?"
Startled, Legolas shook his head. "I haven't seen them since midday. I've been here all afternoon. What's wrong?"
"They've disappeared. There's no sign of them in the Great Hall, in the library, or in their rooms." He turned as Glornan appeared behind him.
"Their horses are gone from the stables. The grooms say they didn't see them go, or they'd have stopped them."
"Why on earth would they go out in this weather?" demanded Thranduil in amazement.
Legolas said nothing. He had a horrible feeling he knew where the twins had gone.
"They are not used to this weather. They have seldom seen snow. It doesn't fall in Imladris" Elrond explained.
Thranduil gave Elrond a long, unreadable look. "You still have it, and you keep the valley protected." he surmised.
Legolas looked at his father, puzzled. What did that mean?
Elrond was nodding. "I still use it, but keep it hidden. None suspect."
"Suspect what?" Legolas wondered. But that could wait. He knew where Elladan and Elrohir had gone, and he had to go after them. This was his fault. He had not expected the twins to go without him, or on a day like this. He slid from the room while his father and Elrond were organising search parties.
The quickest way to the stables was from the back of Lasgalen, through the kitchens. Although crowded, everyone was so busy with preparations for the evening's celebrations that no one had time to really notice him. As he passed, Legolas snatched a handful of sweetmeats, prepared for the next day. One of the cooks brandished a ladle at him.
"Leave that, you little devil!"
Legolas dodged the swipe aimed at his knuckles, and left through the back doors. From here, it was not far to the stables, which was just as well. The snow was falling thickly, and it was bitterly cold.
The grooms were all busy preparing horses for the searchers, and in the general melee it was easy to locate his horse, snag a thick, warm cloak off a peg - taking two more as an afterthought - and lead Dorlath out into the snow.
Now, it was colder than ever. The wind was blowing even harder, causing the snow to whirl and billow in thick swirls. It was impossible to see more than a few feet, and beyond the whiteness it was pitch black. Before he had gone far, the back of the purloined cloak was thick with snow, caked on his hood and shoulders. Wetness slowly seeped through the thick material, chilling him further. The air was so cold, it hurt to breathe. He wondered miserably why he had not simply told his father as soon as he realised what Elladan and Elrohir had done. He was already shivering, and could feel his teeth chattering.
As Legolas went further into the forest, he called out, not sure if Elladan and Elrohir had reached the ravine and would shelter there, if they were returning - or even if they had ever reached it at all. In this, it would be easy for them to miss the path completely and become hopelessly lost in the depths of the forest. If that happened, by the time they were found, it could be too late.
"Elladan! Elrohir! Can you hear me?"
It was hopeless. The words were lost on the howling wind even as he shouted. They would never hear him. But he could not give up.
"ELLADAN!! ELROHIR!!" He paused, listening intently. Was that an answering shout, or just the storm? "ELLADAAAN!"
Faintly, he could hear a voice, calling his name, carried on the wind. He could still see nothing in the gloom, but turned Dorlath towards the sound, shouting again.
"Legolas! Over here!"
Out of the swirling haze, he suddenly saw them. They had moved onto one horse to share warmth, and so they could not get separated. The other horse trailed close behind. Moving Dorlath next to the twin's horse, Legolas had to shout over the storm.
"Thank the Valar I found you! Where were you?"
Elladan leaned over to make himself heard. "We found the ravine easily enough, but when we came to head back the storm had got worse. Somehow we took the wrong track."
"We found ourselves near that pine tree, and knew we'd gone the wrong way." Elrohir finished.
Legolas knew the tree, a solitary pine in the midst of the beeches and oaks. "It's in the opposite direction!"
"I know. So we turned back this way."
The thinner cloaks the twins wore were already soaked through. They discarded them, wrapping themselves instead in the thicker ones Legolas had brought. Conditions were even worse now. They had turned back, and were travelling in the direction Legolas had come from. They were riding into the teeth of the storm. The wind was even stronger now, gusting directly in their faces. Legolas blinked repeatedly. The snow and sleet made his eyes sting. His hands were already numb, and his face burned with the cold. The snow that settled on his face was no longer melting, and ice was forming on his eyelashes.
He was afraid. He had never been out in such killing weather. He knew the general direction they had to take, but knew also how easy it would be to get lost. It had been a miracle he had found Elladan and Elrohir at all. For all three of them to get safely back to Lasgalen .....
In Lasgalen, Thranduil and Elrond had been sending out search parties, headed by the army captains. They were at their wit's end. Without knowing where Elladan and Elrohir might have gone, the searchers would be spread thinly as they had to cover every direction. It would make their chances of success that much smaller. Thranduil turned to Legolas to ask again if he had any idea where the twins might be. It was only then that he realised his son was also missing.
"He knows something. He's gone after them." Thranduil explained grimly to Elrond. His gaze swept the Great Hall, searching for any of Legolas' friends who might also know something. His eyes fell on Brethil. Of course. If anyone would know, Brethil would. And he knew he would be able to get the full story from Brethil. Eventually.
When he realised that the King's gaze was focused on him, Brethil turned pale. Now what had he done? He racked his brains, trying to think how he fallen foul of Thranduil this time. He looked frantically for somewhere to run, but he was cornered.
As Thranduil approached, Brethil's expression resembled that of a frightened rabbit. "Tell me, young elfling, do you know where they are?"
"I - I don't know what you mean. Know where who are? Do you mean Legolas? Or Tavor? Or Elladan and Elrohir? Or ..."
"I mean Legolas. And the twins. Do you know where they are?"
Brethil shook his head. "I haven't seen them since lunch. And I don't know where they are. They wouldn't let me listen. But they were planning something. Legolas wouldn't tell me anything! And I didn't believe it, anyway. I'm sure he was making it up. He does, he teases them sometimes. Did you know that once, he ...."
Thranduil held up his hand to stop the flow of words. "Shut up, Brethil" he said automatically. "Stop. Go back. What didn't you believe?"
"I thought he was making it up. I'm almost sure it's not true. But he was telling Elladan and Elrohir about it ..."
"About WHAT?" roared Thranduil.
"The ravine" squeaked Brethil. He tried again. "The ravine" he said in a more normal voice. "Where the spiders hibernate. They didn't know I could hear them. But I didn't believe it, anyway. I don't think spiders can hibernate, I mean, they're like insects, and insects don't hibernate, creatures like squirrels and hedgehogs do, and bats, but not spiders ..."
"Brethil, shut up" said Thranduil again. "They've gone to the ravine? How do you know about that, anyway? No, don't answer." He could foresee another lengthy explanation otherwise.
He turned from Brethil, who disappeared rapidly. Elrond had watched the whole exchange with a bemused expression. "Ravine? Spiders? Why aren't they supposed to know about it, anyway?"
"To prevent exactly this happening. I don't want any foolish elflings daring each other to go there to see if they can wake the spiders up. They could. It's much too dangerous!"
"But at least we know where they've gone."
"Yes. And we'd better go after them. If the spiders don't kill them, I will!" said Thranduil grimly.
In desperation, Legolas tried something he had seen his father do. Closing his eyes - it was impossible to see anything in the swirling whiteness anyway - he reached out with all his senses, hoping to feel something of where he was.
Without the protection of one of the elven rings of power, the elves of Greenwood had learned to adopt other ways to defend their realm. Thranduil had developed the ability to sense intruders and threats to the forest, and always knew where evil lurked. Even if he had been dropped, blindfolded, anywhere in the forest, he would know exactly where he was, and how far away Lasgalen was.
Legolas knew his father had this ability, but not why. He also had no idea if he had inherited the skill, but it seemed like a good time to find out.
He tried to concentrate. All he was aware of was the cold. His hands were cold. His face was cold. His feet were cold. His ears were cold. Everything was cold.
Sighing, he tried again, refusing to give up. There was something ... He turned his head slightly to the left. Yes, that way ...
He opened his eyes, realising that Elladan and Elrohir were looking at him in concern. They both looked as miserable as he felt.
"Are you all right?" they asked worriedly.
"Yes. We need to go that way." He pointed, slightly to the left of the direction they had been taking.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." he repeated, more confident now. They continued in that direction. Every now and again they paused while Legolas checked their direction, sometimes altering it slightly.
In a surprisingly short time, they were drawing close to recognisable parts of Lasgalen. When Legolas stopped again to think, Elladan listened carefully. He could hear something.
"Father!" he called. There was an answering yell. Suddenly, very close, figures became visible. It was Thranduil, Elrond, and the search party from Lasgalen.
Legolas allowed himself to be swept up in his father's embrace, not caring if Elladan and Elrohir were watching. He needn't have worried. Elrond was leaning over precariously on his horse, attempting to envelop both twins at once.
"I found them, father. I found them and we came back." Legolas was saying.
"I know, my son. I'm proud of you" Thranduil whispered. Then his tone changed. "But what were you thinking of, going out in this weather without saying anything? What did you think you were doing? Don't you realise how dangerous it can be? Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you wait for us? And how did you find out about the ravine in the first place?"
Legolas bowed his head sheepishly. Beside him, Elladan and Elrohir were receiving a similar tongue-lashing.
Swiftly, they returned to Lasgalen, Thranduil leading the party unerringly back to the palace. Once there, Legolas and the twins were deposited unceremoniously in the bathing rooms at the back. Firelight flickered, and a puff of steam appeared. Hot springs rose here, feeding the tanks which supplied hot water. Three tubs, full of steaming water, stood ready.
"Get in" ordered Thranduil. They needed no further bidding. Stripping off their wet, sodden clothes, still encrusted with snow and ice, the three climbed in. Their frozen bodies thawed in a few painful, ecstatic moments.
When he was finished, Legolas dried himself, and padded over to a stool that stood near. A warm, fur lined robe was ready for him. Dressing swiftly, he turned to see that Elladan was already waiting. Elrohir was still reclining in the tub.
"Elrohir! Come on!" he urged.
"It's no good" commented Elladan. "He always takes ages."
"We'll see about that" muttered Legolas grimly. Seizing a large cake of soap, he threw it into the tub. It hit the water hard, splashing Elrohir with warm, soapy water. There was no reaction.
"That won't work" said Elladan. "Just leave him."
The two left the bathing room to head for the kitchens. As they went out, Elladan called: "Join us when you're ready. There might be something left."
Before long, the sound of damp, bare feet followed them. They turned to see Elrohir emerging from the bathing room, tying the belt of his robe. His black hair was still dripping wet.
A late supper had been left for them. They had missed the feast - Legolas realised, guiltily, that so had his father and Elrond, and the searchers, as well - but there was meat, bread, cheese, fruit, even a flask of wine. He had feared they'd get nothing. Maybe his father wasn't that angry ...
"Anyway, tell me one thing. Did you find the spiders?"
During the night the blizzard blew itself out. By the next morning the snow around Lasgalen was deeper than ever, the ice on the ponds several inches thick, and a glittering shroud of ice crystals covered every branch and twig.
It was Mid Winter's Day. From the lower branches of every tree around Lasgalen, tiny packets of sweets hung, tied with bright ribbons. Excited elflings ran to and fro, searching for the treasures, vying to find the most, lifting the tinier children so that they could reach.
Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir were out too. However, feeling themselves to be still somewhat in disgrace, they contented themselves with a single packet of sweets each, and instead untied packages from the higher branches to give to the smaller elflings. Before long the branches had been stripped bare, and the strange fruit collected for another year.
Until the next Mid Winter festival.