I was going to keep this chapter confined to a short epilogue, but it didn't like that and demanded to be a chapter in its own right. So I surrendered. Anyway, apologies for the delay in getting this out. Check the author's notes at the end for a full explanation. Chapter 3: Aftermath
I was going to keep this chapter confined to a short epilogue, but it didn't like that and demanded to be a chapter in its own right. So I surrendered. Anyway, apologies for the delay in getting this out. Check the author's notes at the end for a full explanation.
Chapter 3: Aftermath
The winter sun was dim and its light pale, but its appearance was joyfully hailed by every elf in Mirkwood. The night of terror had come to an end. The days would grow longer now and the power of the elves would wax in strength. But even as this happy thought crossed the mind of Thranduil's people, they mourned for the loss and the destruction the Nazgûl had brought. Never before had the foul creatures penetrated so far into the heart of Mirkwood's realm. Reports were coming back that large swaths of trees had been utterly destroyed by Nazgûl screams, too dry to endure the power granted the fell creatures. There were rumors that many warriors had fallen, but as of yet, nothing certain could be determined. The aftermath of the dark night was manifesting itself as a state of chaos among the elves, and it would be some time before all the facts could be gathered.
But there were fragments of comforting news to be found. Of the injured treated thus far, none possessed wounds so grievous that they would need to be sent away. The previous year, the healers had been forced to send six elves over the sea because their hurts could not be healed in Middle-earth. Seven had intended to take the trip, but one had become so sick by the time he reached Rivendell that he had begged his companions to slay him. And unable to refuse his request, they had complied. His suffering would not have allowed him to survive the journey anyway. It was considered a mercy to send him to the arms of Mandos.
Remembering these events with a sigh, Thranduil tightened his grip upon his drawn sword and turned his piercing gaze into the surrounding forests. The elf that had died had been a close friend of his son Taerorn. The two had trained together, worked together, and fought together. When news of his death reached Mirkwood, Thranduil had immediately ordered Taerorn back from a raiding party and relieved him of his duties, hoping that this would give his son a chance to mourn. But Taerorn had grieved for only a short time and then requested that he rejoin his units in the field, insisting that the incident was behind him. Thranduil had hesitated, but Taerorn was unusually persistent in his demands, eventually winning the king's reluctant acquiescence. Taerorn returned to the perimeters of the realm and led his units as efficiently and effectively as he had before, but he was not the same elf. A brooding darkness had taken hold of his heart, greater than any weight that the other princes carried, and nothing Thranduil did or said had been able to dispel this burden. True, they were all affected by the growing strength of Dol Guldur and they were all slowly succumbing to its shadow, but Taerorn had taken a rather sudden turn. And now there were rumors that he had fallen during the night…
"Sire, it was foolish."
Shaking himself free of his thoughts, Thranduil sighed and turned his eyes toward Narsigil, knowing what was coming. Narsigil was alone among Thranduil's children in repeatedly and deliberately daring his father's temper. They all clashed from time to time for they had all inherited Oropher's stubbornness, but Narsigil went out of his way to be blunt and direct with the king. This trend had always been present, but it had become even more pronounced after the death of Mirkwood's queen. It was almost as though Narsigil sought to make up for his mother's absence by providing a counterpoint to his father. At the moment, though, Thranduil was in no mood to listen to criticism. "Foolish?" the king challenged, raising his brow and daring his son to continue.
"Confronting the Nazgûl. Father, your place is behind the gates. Had you fallen and the Nazgûl continued, we could not have sealed the—"
"You know naught of what you speak," Thranduil interrupted sharply. "See to your duties and—"
"I haveseen to my duties, sire. All beneath my command have reported to me, and I have also spoken with scouts of other companies now returning. All that remains is for me to report to you. Would you hear what tidings I have and so fulfill your duties? Or perhaps you wish to pursue that Nazgûl on your own."
"Narsigil…" Thranduil fixed a dark stare on his son, but Narsigil had never been intimidated by these looks and matched the glare with a face devoid of expression. With a sigh, Thranduil attempted to muster the energy needed for anger and discipline, but the fight with the Nazgûl had taken more from him than he'd expected. He was too weary for an argument, and beyond that, Narsigil was right. Confronting the Ringwraith had been a foolish move. But given the chance, Thranduil would not hesitate to do it again. "I will not have such insolence in my captains," the king eventually said when he was unable to think of a better reprimand.
"Insolence?!" Narsigil's eyes blazed and he stepped forward, his chin lifting defiantly. "Is it insolence, father, to point out a flaw in the defenses? Is it insolence to offer counsel that might better aid our forces in the future? Is it insolence to seek after the good of Mirkwood as my duty and rank demands? For if it is, then I proudly stand guilty before you, my king, and I am prepared to continue in my crimes for as long as this realm endures!"
Thranduil bristled, his spark of anger flaring back to life, but he had taught his son well and he could not easily find an answer to the arguments that Narsigil presented. Moreover, he was exhausted. He lacked both the strength and the will necessary to debate the matter. "Morning was upon us," he said at length. "There was not time enough for the Nazgûl to reach the gates, even had I fallen. I judged the insult to our people to be a greater peril and sought to counter the Nazgûl's victory in penetrating so far. And in this, I was successful. He did not defeat me. I routed him."
"Father, you are king! You cannot put yourself in such danger."
"I know my station, Narsigil," Thranduil said coolly, sheathing his sword and folding his arms across his chest. It was time to move past this, and the king's anger was beginning to overcome his weariness. "You would do well to remember yours. Now report."
Narsigil hesitated for a moment, his shrewd eyes studying his father, and Thranduil had the strangest feeling that he was being tested. Then the moment was gone and the prince stepped back, his hands clasped behind his back as was his custom when moving from informal discussions to formal reports. "All elves in the field have now been accounted for, whether they be living or dead," he began. "The extent of the destruction is unknown at present, but rumor suggests that some colonies within the southernmost settlements stand in need of substantial repairs. Those who evacuated may be unable to return home until such repairs are completed."
"You say all sent forth are now accounted for. Do you have specific numbers of dead and wounded, then?"
"Nay, I do not. All company commanders have either returned or sent word ahead of them, and all can account for each member of their party," Narsigil answered. "But I do not have numbers. Celebas may, and his runners say he will be here shortly." He paused after saying this, as though debating over whether to go on, and then Narsigil continued, his voice softer. "Some say that Celebas was specifically targeted for an attack and nearly perished. Tawar has already returned, and he is concerned about Celebas's mind. It seems he behaved strangely when the Nazgûl advanced."
"Strangely?" Thranduil frowned. "Can you be more specific?"
"I cannot as Tawar could not," Narsigil answered, his voice filled with frustration.
"Is Celebas injured?"
"According to Tawar, he bears no physical wounds, but he appears to be in a state of shock. And he has said things about darkness and creeping shadows within his mind."
"What else were you told?"
"Naught, sire. Tawar knew nothing more."
Thranduil grimaced and rubbed his brow. "We shall deal with Celebas when he returns, then. What of Taerorn and Legolas? Have you heard aught of them?
Narsigil nodded, his face grim. "Ithildae sent scouts ahead of his party, and they reported that Taerorn and Legolas both live. But as with Celebas, there is concern. Taerorn also acted strangely, or so say those in his party. According to Ithildae's scouts, Legolas gave the first order to fire and then came under attack himself. But they could tell me nothing else."
"Elbereth," Thranduil murmured quietly. One hand clenched the hilt of his sword, and he fought with his emotions for a moment, attempting to regain control of the raging fury within him. "Was there aught else of import?" he asked at length when he could once again trust his voice.
"Aside from the need for repairs and the destruction to the forest, nay," Narsigil answered, shaking his head. "Two of the Nazgûl were driven back by Celebas's forces, and of the one that broke through, none in the area can sense him. I have already deployed some of my guard, and they shall serve as advance scouts should anything come upon us this day."
"Good," Thranduil said with a brisk nod. "Then if you have indeed finished with your duties, go and assist the healers in whatever way you can. But ere you do, leave word with the guards that when your brothers return, they are to report to me. I shall be inspecting the damage upon the western side."
"I will see it done," Narsigil said with a quick bow. "Will there be anything else?"
"Nay. Go now and assist the healers."
Narsigil nodded and moved to leave, but then he paused and turned back. "Father, if I may beg a request, would you send for me when my brothers return?"
A ghost of a smile flickered across the king's face. "Yes, Narsigil," Thranduil promised. "That I will do."
"Thank you, sire." And without another word, Narsigil left, weaving through the elves in the clearing and making his way toward the entrance of the halls where some of the chief healers had assembled.
With a weary sigh, Thranduil turned back to the forest and shook his head, silently cursing the Valar for gifting him with this fate. He had not wished to raise a family in this manner, but circumstances had given him no other choice. They lived under the constant threat of destruction, and as princes of the kingdom, Thranduil's sons had been forced to train as warriors and captains, regardless of their own desires. And Thranduil had ruthlessly pushed his children, allowing no room for errors. In Mirkwood's dark forests, mistakes were usually rewarded with death, and the king loved his children too much to risk letting a slip in a practice session take their lives in the field. The end result was that they had evolved into a distant and militaristic family. Conversations were dictated by necessity and revolved around scouting reports and troop placements. The familial tenderness and casual camaraderie enjoyed by the lords of Imladris and Lothlórien had been replaced by debates over archery assignments and arguments about the advantages of mounted patrols. Yet despite all this, the bonds of family had not been completely lost to Mirkwood's royalty, and if Narsigil wished to speak with his brothers upon their return and assure himself of their safety, Thranduil was not going to prevent him. He denied his children too much as it was.
The brisk wind whistling through the open balcony door carried with it the scent of coming snow. The late afternoon sun had vanished behind a thick blanket of clouds, plunging the forest into deep, winter shadows. Temperatures were dropping swiftly as the approaching storm drew near, and smoke poured out of the palace's central vent as elves kindled fires for comfort. Lanterns and candles were lit to stave off the darkness, and windows and doors were shuttered tightly against the growing wind. But these precautionary measures were not universally observed. Sprawled across a large bed, his eyes staring blankly into the shadows, the youngest prince of Mirkwood lay still and silent. His spacious chambers were slipping into a realm of twilight, and the hearth opposite his bed remained cold and dark. Legolas was keenly aware of the growing chill and had even begun to shiver, but he made no effort to warm himself. Rather, he urged the creeping cold onward, desperately hoping that its numbing touch would seal off the memories of the previous night.
But such was not to be his fate. Over and over again, he watched his brother fall, crashing through splintering limbs and slamming into the ground with a sickening thud. He heard the hideous scream of the Nazgûl and he cried out in terror as trees shattered around him. He felt his blood thicken and his mind freeze as a shadow separated itself from the surrounding darkness and advanced upon Taerorn. He watched, paralyzed by fear, as Taerorn struggled to his feet and attempted to confront the horror. He recoiled sharply as another scream ripped its way through the tortured forest, and he saw his brother fall again, a Nazgûl blade hovering above his prone form.
Caught in the throes of his memories, Legolas shuddered and clutched at the blankets beneath him. He remembered being jolted from his fear by the sight of Taerorn lying still before certain death. He'd summoned his will and stepped off his branch, plummeting toward the earth. During the fall, instincts honed over several centuries of training had taken control of his body. He hit the ground hard, immediately falling into a low crouch in an effort to lessen the shock of impact. The black horse beside his brother reared in surprise, and Legolas scrambled away from the flying hooves, pushing Taerorn to the side as his shaking fingers sought to light an arrow. He fired, but the horse suddenly turned and the bolt went wide. He fired a second shot but this missed as well, and then that horrible scream filled the air once more. Legolas cried out and fell to his knees, his weapons clattering to the ground. He clutched at his ears, desperately trying to stop the sound, and he sensed the Nazgûl bearing down upon him even as he trembled in helpless fear. As though it came from the other side of a dream, someone called his name, and then Taerorn was standing before him, blocking the darkness long enough for Legolas to regain control of his body. Together they leaped to the side, diving for safety as a sword filled with the power of the Enemy flashed above their heads. The scream echoed yet again, and then there was nothing.
Eyes he did not remember closing snapped open, and Legolas's hands flew to his chest as he struggled madly for air. His room was dark and silent save for the sounds of his frantic breathing, and there existed no hint of the shadows he'd faced the previous night. Flakes of snow were beginning to drift through the open balcony door, and he shivered as the cold wind crawled over him. It is gone, Legolas told himself with something akin to a mental sob. Gone! It was driven back. I am home and I am safe! But despite these thoughts, the memories of the Ringwraith continued to assault him. Desperate to halt the marching tide of darkness that threatened to claim his sanity, Legolas forcefully turned his mind to what had happened after the Nazgûl left, as though to reassure himself that he had indeed found safety.
He remembered Ithildae's voice rousing him from a sea of nightmares that he could not quite remember. He'd sat up slowly with another's assistance and stared at the number of surrounding elves. He did not know how or when they had come to be there, and it was obvious that a period of time had passed without his knowledge. He remembered restraining hands and soothing voices that begged him to lies still and rest, but the urge to see his brother had been too great. He'd lurched to his feet, stumbling as he did so, and then he'd sought Taerorn. When he found him, he almost wished he hadn't.
Taerorn was cold to the touch. His breath was shallow and labored. His skin was pale and clammy. He responded to nothing that Legolas did or said, and Ithildae eventually ordered that a travois be constructed for him from the broken wood of the shattered trees. And all the while, Legolas knelt beside his brother, speaking quietly and begging him to open his eyes and defy the darkness that lingered over them both. And Taerorn eventually heeded Legolas's words, but his timing could not have been worse. He woke just as they were about to depart, and he stubbornly refused to ride the travois, insisting that he could walk.
I should have beaten you into that travois and tied you down, Legolas thought ruefully, feeling a twinge of pain from his lower back. Had our places been reversed, you would not have hesitated to do so to me. You were in no condition to walk. But nay, that was not to be. The great Taerorn had to prove his strength and march with the rest of us. And when you could no longer walk on your own, you used me as a crutch for the better part of the journey! You are fortunate that I decided to heed the law that prevents me from striking one higher in authority than I. I should have knocked you unconscious! Ithildae would have supported my actions. I think he wished to beat us both senseless.
That last thought managed to produce a wry smile upon Legolas's face as he remembered Ithildae's exasperation with the princes upon arriving home. They had met Narsigil's scouts shortly after the noon hour and they were told that the king wished to speak with them should they feel well enough. Ithildae informed both Taerorn and Legolas that neither of them was feeling well enough for anything save rest, but combined stubbornness on the part of Thranduil's sons managed to overcome the captain's objections. Not that it had done them any good. After finding Thranduil, their father had given them both a long look and then said essentially the same thing that Ithildae had said before sending them off with strict orders to seek out the healers. Narsigil had been their escort, and from him they learned that Celebas had also been sent to the healers. But Narsigil would tell them no more than that, and Taerorn and Legolas had both been too weary to force the information from him.
Upon reaching the healers, they brothers had been separated, and in the end, it was determined that Legolas could rid himself of the Nazgûl's shadow on his own, the healers deeming it to be a trivial thing when compared with wounds that others had sustained. They had sent him to his quarters with a sleeping draught that would cause him to temporarily lose control of his dreams, allowing the remnants of the Nazgûl's influence to surface. When Legolas regained control, he was to push the taint of evil away, after which he would fall into a more restful sleep. It was a standard remedy for an ailment that was unfortunately rather common among patrols that journeyed in the southern regions of Mirkwood. But Legolas had never needed such treatment, as his own company of archers was usually sent westward toward the Misty Mountains on Warg hunts. But the healers had assured him that the procedure was quite successful and very few ill effects were ever reported. His mind would be cleansed and the lingering touch of darkness would be banished.
But the draught they had given him sat untouched upon a table near the dark hearth. Legolas could not explain why he was so reluctant to follow the healers' instructions. He had never been a good patient, but his current rebellion was not born out of petty desires to defy the healers. Rather, it came from a combination of fear, guilt, and shame. The shame was from the fact that he had been laid low by something that other elves had endured for years. Something the healers deemed trivial. The guilt was for falling before the Nazgûl when Taerorn needed his aid. His stricken brother, who had been injured more grievously than Legolas, had been forced to come to his assistance. And the fear—easily the most powerful of the three emotions—came from the knowledge that he would have to face the Nazgûl once more in his dreams. He would have to face the fear and the darkness, and for a time, they would be allowed to rage uncontrolled within his mind. Legolas did not think he could endure that.
And as these thoughts entered his mind, he was once again pulled away from the comforts of his room and propelled back into the dark forest. The fires of the arrows dimmed, and the black shroud of the Nazgûl grew until it encompassed his entire vision. He could see nothing save for the darkness that was the Ringwraith. His mind shrank before its hideous cry, and he plunged into a void that pounded with the cacophony of discordant notes as they raged and struggled against the beauty of Ilúvatar's song. His ears ringing and his mind spiraling into chaos, Legolas curled into a helpless, trembling ball. The shadows from the previous night became so dark that he nearly screamed in an effort to prevent madness. He was falling into a shadow with no substance and no end. It devoured all, reaching up to consume Legolas even as he desperately scrambled for safety…
And then it was gone.
Jolted from his memories, Legolas shot to a sitting position, clutching wildly at the blankets and struggling vainly to master his racing heart. His breath coming rapidly, he looked around to determine what had call him back and found that someone had entered his room and shut his balcony door.
"The healers told me that you would be sleeping."
His eyes shifting to a figure standing by the dark hearth, Legolas inwardly winced and lowered his head. "Such were their instructions, father, but I have not yet obeyed them."
"I suspected that this would be the case," Thranduil answered, his voice laced with wry humor. "You, Celebas, and Taerorn are notorious for defying the healers' orders and escaping their clutches."
"Narsigil is no better a patient," Legolas muttered in a weak attempt to defend himself.
"True, but Narsigil is rarely in the care of the healers. He is too cunning for that, leaving such tasks to you and your brothers. Thus he has not the reputation that the rest of you have earned. You, Legolas, in particular are the subject of numerous complaints. I am mildly surprised that you consented to see the healers upon your arrival."
"I did so by the king's command, sire."
"And when has my command ever swayed you from your own desires?"
Legolas frowned, his hazy mind attempting to determine whether or not he was being reprimanded. But he could not determine what actions had need of censure, and it did not help that his memories were dominated by a growing shadow. "Father, if I have done aught to dishonor your or my brothers, then I—"
"Hush, Legolas," Thranduil interrupted. "My words were a test, one which you failed, unfortunately. Given the state of your room, though, I wonder if the test was even needed."
Now thoroughly confused, Legolas swung his legs over the side of the bed and began to stand, but a firm hand upon his shoulder pushed him back. Shaking his head and attempting to clear his mired thoughts, Legolas looked up at his father and tried to read the emotions behind the expressionless face. "Sire, I—"
"Lie down, Legolas. You are in no condition to be up and about." Thranduil's hand tightened briefly upon his son's shoulder, conveying the message that the king was in no mood to be disobeyed, and then the prince was released. Crossing the room, Thranduil knelt beside the hearth and began to kindle a fire. "You should have more concern for your health."
"I had not noticed the cold," Legolas lied.
Wincing at the note of warning in his father's voice, Legolas rolled onto his side, putting his back to the king, and closed his eyes. "It helped," he murmured at length.
"Did it?" The sharp crackle of a fire could now be heard, and a bit of warmth crept into the room, much to Legolas's dismay. "Enlighten me," Thranduil continued, and Legolas heard him move away from the hearth and toward the bed. "How did the cold help?"
"It numbed me," Legolas answered with a sigh.
"It numbed your body, but what of your mind? Was that also numbed?" An uneasy silence stretched between them, punctuated only by the shifting of logs as they gave themselves over to the growing blaze in the hearth. "Legolas?"
"Nay, it was not. My mind was left to its own devices," Legolas whispered.
"It would seem, then, that your own attempts at healing were in error. And yet still you decline the advice of others. Why is this?"
Despite his efforts to maintain a stoic composure before the king, a shiver of fear escaped Legolas. His fists tightened upon the bedding beneath him, and then a hand fell upon his shoulder, pulling him onto his back so that he could clearly see Thranduil's face.
"You are frightened."
There was no emotion in the tone; it was merely a statement of fact with neither judgement nor condemnation. But Legolas could not help feeling a pang of humiliation. He had proven himself an adept commander in the fields, and very few could match his growing skill with the bow. But there were still times when he felt as though he walked in the shadow of his father and his brothers, and this was one of those times.
"If I am not mistaken, Legolas, last night marked your first encounter with all three Nazgûl at the height of their power. You have never felt their strength so directly before."
Legolas closed his eyes, refusing to meet the king's piercing gaze. "What would you have me say, father?" he finally asked, unable to bear the silence. "I am young, as you and others frequently remind me. I have not seen all the horrors that Mirkwood possesses, and I lack the experience that would enable me to better deal with these situations."
For a long time, there was no response to this, and then Legolas heard a chair scrape across the floor. The wood creaked as his father settled himself into it, and Legolas realized that this conversation could continue for quite some time. Shame took him, and he thought of all the demands upon the king. That Thranduil should sit with him when his ailment was something that most elves overcame with ease…
"Perhaps your time would be better spent with Celebas and Taerorn, sire," Legolas said quietly.
"So you now dictate where the king spends his time?"
Legolas winced and shook his head, opening his eyes. "Father, I—"
"I have spoken with Celebas and Taerorn," Thranduil interrupted, dismissing the attempted apology with a wave of his hand. "Celebas was fairly lucid and able to explain some of what happened to him. Though their afflictions are serious and the damage worrisome, the healers assure me that they will both recover, but it might be several weeks ere they are able to return to duty."
"Several weeks?" Legolas echoed in disbelief. He did not know what had happened to Celebas, but Taerorn had not been harmed physically. Was his mental trauma so great that it would actually take weeks to recover?
"So the healers say," Thranduil confirmed, watching Legolas closely. "One of the Nazgûl employed an attack that I have not seen for many years. I did not think they would be so rash as to try it here where there are many elves present."
"What attack is this?" Legolas asked.
"A Nazgûl directly assaulted your brothers' minds, waging a mental battle rather than a physical one. He deprived them of their will, robbing them of the ability to act according to their own desires. The fear and shadow that drives the Nazgûl wove itself about your brothers' thoughts, and their minds were consumed by darkness."
"But that is not what happened to me, is it?"
"Nay, you suffer from something different."
"Then why was I spared?" Legolas whispered.
"This mental attack is difficult to employ and requires a bit of preparation. Based on the accounts I have heard, you acted too quickly for the Nazgûl to turn his attention to you with sufficient time to mount a mental assault. Had you hesitated, I am certain you would now be suffering as your two oldest brothers are suffering."
"You said that you had not seen this attack used for some time," Legolas said quietly, his mind wheeling. "Why is that? Why would they hesitate to use it if it is so dangerous to us?"
"Because it is nearly as dangerous for the attacker as it is for the victim. The one employing the attack becomes distanced from his surroundings, and his ability to react to changing situations diminishes greatly. The Nazgûl took a great risk in using this method." Thranduil sighed and shook his head, directing his gaze toward the fire. "Unfortunately for us, the risk was a good one. Celebas and Taerorn were already heavily shadowed, as are we all. It required no great effort to darken their minds, and they lacked the knowledge to effectively strike back, though Celebas did become rather innovative."
"But they will recover, correct?"
"To an extent, yes, though I wonder if any of us shall ever completely recover. We have lived under this darkness too long," Thranduil murmured, his voice becoming distant. Then he shook his head and fixed his eyes upon Legolas once more. "Because your brothers will be unable to fulfill their duties for several weeks, you and Narsigil will shoulder their burden. For that, you shall need to be hale, my son," Thranduil concluded with a pointed glance in the direction of the untouched draught.
Once again, his composure broke and Legolas shuddered as he looked at the cup. "Father, I…"
"There is no shame in fear, Legolas," Thranduil said quietly. "This is the first time you have been thus singled out by a Nazgûl. I have yet to see an elf, man, or dwarf who did not shrink before the dark ones during their first real encounter."
"I dropped my weapons," Legolas hissed, his memory returning to the shadowed forest.
"You wielded them for a moment, and that is a great accomplishment."
"But why am I still shadowed? Why have I been unable to recover? You said I was not attacked as Celebas and Taerorn were. But what ails me?"
"You were essentially alone before a Nazgûl in the darkness of Mirkwood on the year's longest night. You have never faced such fear before, and you were unable to rest and recover immediately afterward. The Nazgûl attacked you not with the intent to stun or to frighten but with the intent to kill and to maim. He paralyzed you with terror and then sought to destroy you. His shadow and his power cannot be so easily shrugged aside." Thranduil sighed and his eyes clouded briefly. "Be thankful that you are still alive and in possession of your own mind, Legolas. And be thankful that you are now given the opportunity to heal."
"I do not think I can face that fear again," Legolas confessed, his eyes closing in frustration.
"Your lack of trust in your abilities does not change your obligations," Thranduil answered, his tone becoming stern. "You are a prince of this realm, and you must take steps to free yourself of the Nazgûl's taint as much as you are able. You must take the draught, and you must face your adversary."
"He is too strong," Legolas whispered. "And there is a darkness within me that I fear to fight. I do not think it can be defeated."
"Legolas, look at me."
"Look at me!" The command could not be ignored, and a reluctant Legolas eased his eyes open, turning them to his father's face. "Hear me now," the king said, holding Legolas's gaze. "The darkness you feel within yourself is made in part by the darkness of your own heart. We are all creatures of light and dark. There is both good and evil in all beings. The Nazgûl, through fear, has amplified your own misgivings and created an opening whereby your own shadows have begun to grow. There is nothing that can be done about that. Every elf in this realm is so affected. Such is our doom, Legolas. We fight a losing battle, but we fight until the last elf falls."
"This darkness within me…will it grow?" Legolas whispered.
"It will grow with every battle and every mission," Thranduil answered quietly. "It will grow with each passing year as our defenses continue to weaken. It will grow until the sight of your own face in a mirror gives you pain and grief." Thranduil paused for a moment, his eyes flashing with sorrow, and then he leaned forward, one hand coming to rest upon his son's shoulder. "But you will learn to manage the darkness, Legolas, and it will make you strong. In some ways, this darkness might even be seen as a perverse gift. The warriors beneath our command know more of the deceits and power of the Enemy than the warriors of the other realms, for we are intimately acquainted with the shadow and strength that flows from Dol Guldur."
"We pay a great price for our knowledge," Legolas murmured.
"We do, and the price will rise as the years pass," Thranduil said, releasing Legolas's arm and rising from the chair. "But for now, we resist the shadow, and we clutch at what little hope we can find. And we also do as duty dictates, which means that you, Legolas, will now drink this draught and sleep." The king took the cup from the table and held it out for his son. "That was not a suggestion," he added when Legolas hesitated.
Slowly and reluctantly, Legolas grasped the cup and stared at the liquid inside. It was clear and clean, like water trickling away from melting snow. The cup itself was warm to the touch, the fire having heated it, and for a brief moment, the shadows within Legolas's soul subsided. He looked up at the flickering flames, noting that even though they were small and the room large, they managed to drive the shadows into hiding.
"Drink," Thranduil commanded gently, and his hand once again rested on the prince's shoulder. "I will stay until your sleep is peaceful."
"I am sorry, father," Legolas murmured, still watching the fire. "I do not mean to be a burden."
"You are not," Thranduil answered softly. "I have done this with each of your brothers, Legolas. Your fear is not unique, and it is not a sign of weakness. Now drink, my son, and I will watch over you."
And Legolas drank, comforted by his father's words and presence as well the reassurance he'd found in the fire. The draught worked swiftly, and before he knew what was happening, he was falling back onto the bed, his eyes glazing as sleep took him. He felt his father draw warm blankets over his body, and then the sound of a quiet song filled his mind. And as he drifted into dreams, he held tightly to this song, knowing it would sustain him against the darkness he was about to face.
Outside, the wind increased in force, rattling the balcony doors. The storm that had been building all afternoon was upon them, and snow began to fly in earnest, swirling past the windows in wild, chaotic patterns. But within Legolas's room, the fire burned brightly, holding the outside world at bay and allowing two burdened elves a brief moment of sorrowful peace. The peace would not last, of course. The solstice was over, but the battle for survival continued. The rest of winter would be spent defending the realm against mountain goblins that came seeking lower climes with less snow. Then spring would come with an increase in Warg activities as the fell wolves hunted to feed their young. Summer would see spiders on the move, spinning their webs across pathways and feasting upon any that were caught unawares. Fall would bring with it countless Orc raids as the creatures sought to stock their supplies against the coming of snow and colder weather. And then it would start all over again with another winter solstice. But for now, all was quiet. For a brief moment, the dangers of the outside world could be forgotten.
His song drawing to a conclusion, Thranduil leaned over his son, gently brushing tendrils of hair away from the furrowed brow as he had when Legolas was but a child and frightened by the shadows beneath his bed. Now the child was a warrior: proud, capable, and fiercely resentful of dependence upon others. But there were still times when the innocent child returned, and as Legolas moaned in his sleep, Thranduil soothed him with a quiet word. His own duties called for him to leave, but Thranduil had promised to keep watch until Legolas's sleep calmed and the king of Mirkwood never made an empty promise. The reports and councilors could wait another hour. And so he continued to sit beside his youngest son, sometimes singing and sometimes watching in silence, while the fire crackled merrily in the hearth. And outside, the world was buffeted by a fierce winter storm as the darkness of night slowly drew its cover over all.
Author's Notes: Oh, where to begin… First of all, I should again apologize for recent delays in updating, responding, reviewing, emailing, and just about everything else. Some know about this already but for those of you who don't, my hard drive crashed last month, all my data went with it beyond hope of recovery, and I've only now gotten my new computer set up on my university's LAN system. Fortunately, I did periodically backup my files, but not often enough, as I've discovered to my chagrin. Anyway, that accounts for all the delays. If you're waiting on me for a review, be patient! I'm still trying to get back on my feet. Updates may meet with a few more delays, but hopefully my notes are now back in order. There shouldn't be too many problems now.
And along similar lines, if you emailed me within the last month and failed to get a reply, your email was probably lost in the mad shuffle of information. I sincerely apologize for that! If you'd like, try emailing again, but I must warn you that I'm still a little late in responding to things.
Anyway, because of time constraints and the fact that I just want to get this update online, I am not posting responses to readers at the end of this story. But I LOVED your comments and during the frustrating times when I was desperately searching for snippets of saved story bits, I would read the reviews and find encouragement. Thank you again.
That is not to say that I won't respond at all. I do have some general comments for prevalent issues. To begin, there were several requests made to see the back story for that woman in Khamûl's memories. I had not planned on further elaboration, but you've got my muses spinning. There is a slight chance that I might do a Khamûl origin story, complete with the mysterious lady. But don't get your hopes up yet. I have too many other stories demanding attention.
Next, my profound gratitude for your support. All of you. These stories would not be possible without your encouragement. And I'm insanely happy that you seem to like this particular fic. I felt that I was stepping out on a limb in exploring a Nazgûl's point of view, but your reactions have laid most of my fears to rest. I'm glad this risk paid off.
And that covers things from my end. As I said before, if you're waiting on an email or a review, hang on. They're coming, but they're not coming quickly. And once again, thank you to all the readers for all the support, encouragement, criticism, and suggestions that you offer! You really make my day.