Disclaimer:  The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and all of Middle Earth belong to the estate and immortal imagination of the Great Professor Tolkien himself.  My feeble imagination is only borrowing them, and I receive nothing for writing and posting this fic except the cherished words of the readers.

Author's Note:  A gift, my friends!  I wrote this baby over a year ago, and have been sitting on it ever since, but whilst shirking my law student duties I finally finished it up and got it formatted.  I hope you enjoy it, my first-ever one-shot, cliffhanger-free, twist-free, mild-on-the-angst fluffy fic.  I know my fellow Thranduil fans out there will enjoy it!  Just be sure to make your sentiments known—and perhaps I'll write a few more of 'em!

Oh, by the way, have I mentioned I'm going home for almost two months this summer?  Livin' with the folks, relaxing, applying for jobs…and writing like crazy!  So…my updates may be spare for the next six weeks due to final exams (Semester # 2, and I still haven't recovered from the first semester yet!) but I can promise more Update Fests during the months of June and July!  To the detriment of my schoolwork, several of my major fic projects are coming along quite nicely!

Dedication:  I started this fic during an especially nasty cold snap in my first few months in Washington, DC.  For a delicate Southern belle like me, experiencing the U.S. Capital's seventh-coldest winter on record brought some nasty revelations about just how nasty this atmosphere of ours can be.  However, the initial inspiration came from one of the true Greats of our fandom, Thundera Tiger.  This story takes place (appropriately) during the Fell Winter of 2911 of the Third Age.  Book fans can find it in Appendix B: The Tale of Years of Lord of the Rings.  I first heard it mentioned in a few sparse sentences in Thundera Tiger's epic "While the Ring Went South"—first fic that really got me into this fandom I might add!  Praise her with great praise!—and that was enough to spawn yet another plot bunny.  Here, at last, is the result for all to enjoy, and fondly dedicated to her.

Dispelling the Cold

In the halls of the elven king in northeastern Mirkwood

"The storm grows far worse, with no sign of lessening," said the warrior captain quietly to the anxious wood elves pacing in the crowded room. 

"By the Valar, why did we ever allow them to go?" cried one.

"None ever anticipated that it would be this bad.  The temperature is life-threatening," murmured another.

"Can we not send out searchers after them?"

"It would be folly, my lady," said the captain.  "It would be death to go out there now.  We must hold out hope that they have yet found shelter."

"There is no shelter from this nightmare that does not possess solid walls and a hearth," replied another elf.

Many elves had a natural dislike for caves, but necessity sometimes required a prolonged residence within them.  Such was the case in Greenwood the Great, known by outsiders (and increasingly by its own people) as Mirkwood.  The foul presence of the dark fortress of Dol Guldur in the southern portion of the wood had enabled fell creatures of all kinds to delve deep into elven territory, forcing the forest's inhabitants into the elven king's ancient halls within the side of a mountain.  The elves of Mirkwood knew that if the onslaught of marauding bands of orcs, nests of spiders, and visits from the deadly Nazgul grew into an actual siege, their mountain halls would provide a place of retreat where the entire elven population could live in reasonable comfort and safety for a very long time.

And the elves had indeed retreated from forest villages and settlements into their king's solid dwelling under the mountain this night, though not for a reason any of them had ever imagined.

The year was 2911 of the Third Age, and it would long be remembered as bearing with it one of the coldest winters in living memory--even to the long-lived elves.  None could recall having ever experienced anything like it.  The storms had swept upon them in the early months of the year, putting an abrupt end to the usually mild winters of Mirkwood.  The swift-flowing Forest River had frozen over, and rumor had it that even the great Anduin was but a vein of ice.  However, none could journey forth from Mirkwood to determine the truth of this claim, for it was swiftly becoming dangerous to stir out of doors in the storms--even for the resilient bodies of the elves.

But alas, shelter was not the only need for the people struggling to outlast the bitter storms.  Facing such enforced confinement had had the unforeseen and serious consequence of depriving the elves of their regular hunts and forages.  And never before had the elves of Mirkwood seen the need to stockpile quite so much in the way of supplies.  Healing herbs and bandages they had in abundance, for there were always orc attacks to worry about.  But food and wood…that they could obtain with little difficulty under most circumstances, or so they had thought.  And what need had they for hoarding blankets in the past?  Elves could, after all, survive much in the way of cold temperatures.

Now all understood the effect of such a dreadful miscalculation.  Everything was rationed strictly, but food and winter clothing most of all.  Nevertheless, supplies were running so dreadfully short that it had at last been agreed that the only solution was for hunting parties to leave the mountain halls in an effort to find game that might have been lost or frozen in the high snow and ice, game that could stave off the worst of the shortages.

And it was the safety of just such a party for which every elf in the elven king's halls now feared, for although the group had left in a relative lull, the wind had suddenly risen again, bringing with it a new blast of dreadfully cold air and more snow.  Now the elves waited, knowing there was little chance of finding anyone in the white monster that howled and shrieked outside, flinging its ice and debris at any who dared venture forth.

Few among the worried watchers were more anxious than the elven king himself.  Thranduil Oropherion was not an elf given to displaying high emotion—unless it furthered some end—but now he paced just as frantically as the others who lingered in the halls closest to the cave's entrance while others sought warmth below.  The small hunting party that had gone was composed of young warriors, all well-tested.  They had good survival skills and had been chosen for their sensibilities, and yet…the elves who waited and paced were their parents and siblings. 

Even if he had not been their king, Thranduil was well within his rights to linger among them.  For one of the missing elves was his youngest son, Legolas.

His three elder children were also among the pacers currently measuring the floor of the room and occasionally bumping into the other worried elves.  The crown prince of Mirkwood, Thranduil's firstborn and heir, was named Berensul, and he was more than three thousand years Legolas's elder.  His wife, the crown princess, was Eirien of Imladris, a healer trained by Lord Elrond himself.  She was not among the elves awaiting news of the hunting party, for her duties occupied her constantly in the treatment of frostbite, hypothermia, injuries…and fear.  Only two years younger than Berensul (making them practically twins by elven standards) was Limloeth, Thranduil's only living daughter by blood.   A well-accomplished warrioress like her elder brother and father, she too experienced the sense of helplessness that plagued every elven warrior this night.  The demon that raged outside could be fought with neither bow nor knife nor sword.  More than one warrior in the past weeks had been heard saying he would welcome the sight of a Balrog.

Thranduil's third living child was an apprentice healer, and still many centuries elder than Legolas.  His name was Belhador, and although he had come among them for a few moments, seeking to assuage his fears for his youngest sibling with the company of his family, he would undoubtedly be called away at any moment to treat another blizzard-induced ailment.  Elves did not take well to confinement under any circumstance, and these…between the injuries and afflictions of cold, hunger, and worry, the population of Mirkwood was surviving—but that was as far as it went.

***

Far beyond the elven king's halls…

The question of survival was a far heavier one for the company of young hunters who had been caught out of doors in this new, fearsome blizzard.  Even as they bore the carcasses of several deer through giant dunes of snow, the shriek of the wind increased until the elves had to shout in order to be heard.  This was a strange situation for a race who often took their superior senses for granted.  Even their sight, which could normally stretch for leagues, had been impeded by the blasting white curtain until each elf could barely see their hand before their face.

Let alone the way home.

They came to a stop in the dubious shelter of a large oak, blinking at each other through the blinding, blowing snow, in an attempt to get their bearings.  "Valar, where are we?" breathed one of them.

"I do not know," answered a second warrior.  Even novice warriors in Mirkwood were accustomed to taking companies of marauding orcs and nests full of spiders head on, but this day they discovered themselves in the rare and frightening position of being utterly confounded by nature.  Not a one of them could be certain which way was home.

"Legolas?" the third novice asked the fourth, "is there aught you can see?"

The youngest son of the elven king shook his head, blinking in the bitter wind.  "Nay.  Even the trees speak of naught but the cold; I recognize none of this place.  The snow has covered everything.  Do not sit down, Tathar," he exclaimed sharply.  "This cold is enough to take an elf already."

The young warrior in question was Legolas's best friend and the son of the palace tutor.  Tathar, son of Alagos, sprang hurriedly to his feet and replied, "In that case we had best be off and moving again.  For already I feel unaccountably weary."

With that alarming thought, the novice warriors hastily returned to their blind wandering.  Legolas glanced worriedly at his companions.  Though he too admitted feeling the cold's effects, the sturdy Candrochon seemed to be bearing up fairly well.  Candrochon was the eldest of the four friends, the son of the king's second steward and a natural leader.  Legolas often felt without malice that Candrochon acted more like the son of a king than he himself did.  His concerned thoughts turned to his other two companions.  The only warrioress of the group, the daughter of the king's kinsman, Merilin, also seemed well enough for the moment, though Legolas could see great anxiety in her green eyes through the blowing snow as she pressed close to Candrochon.  Merilin's mother, the Lady Narmeril, was a high noble among the Mirkwood elves, and rather severe; she would see it as a personal fault that her daughter had become lost in a blizzard.

On the other side of Legolas walked Tathar, his black hair so coated with snow that he resembled an old mortal man.   Shifting his burden, the other novice, only a few years older than Legolas, paused atop a large snowdrift and looked about again.  "Here, everyone!  Could that be the river?"

Not daring to set down their precious deer, the other three walked cautiously to join him.  Under normal circumstances, walking atop snow was an easy feat for elves, but while lugging heavy deer through such fast-rising drifts, they found themselves at risk of sinking. 

Legolas squinted through the gale and saw what Tathar had found:  a place where the wind had scoured the snow to expose a bluish expanse of ice.  Stifling a shiver, he said, "Perhaps fortune has favored us at last.  If we can follow it, we shall find home."

"But there is not enough exposed," said Merilin, her teeth beginning to chatter.  "I cannot even tell which way it runs."

"Perhaps we might uncover the ice enough to find the bank," suggested Tathar.  "Then we might at least discern its direction.  We cannot have gone that far from home, so the way would be relatively straight even if the snow covers it again."

Candrochon protested, "That would be dangerous, climbing upon the ice.  The Forest River is fast; I doubt if it has frozen solid.  If we break through, we would be done for."

"Then let me go," offered Merilin, shifting her bundle.  "I am the lightest of you, and I might at least discover the bank."

"I agree with Candrochon; it is too risky," said Legolas.

"Know you another choice?" asked Tathar, now beginning to shiver in earnest.  "I fear our time runs short.  The air grows colder still, and dark will be upon us soon."

Legolas cursed softly; he had not realized how late the hour was, with the sun hidden from view.  Candrochon, Tathar, and Merilin looked nervously at each other, and at him.  Over the howl of the blizzard, Merilin said, "I am not afraid."

Candrochon suddenly tossed down his deer.  "I shall follow you as close as I can.  Do not go beyond my reach, and take my hand if you hear a crack."

Tathar also set his carcass down and came down the little snow hill.  "Give me your other hand, Cand.  Step not upon the ice; your weight may be too much."

"Be careful, Mer!  And hurry!"  Legolas admonished, standing behind Tathar.

Leaving her own burden, Merilin carefully came off the snowdrift and stepped directly upon the patch of ice.  She was a meticulous elf by nature in all things, and here it aided her well, for she did not move too swiftly across its treacherous blue surface.  Instead, she slowly lowered herself until her hands could delicately brush away the accumulating snow, and moved cautiously across the ice, seeking its edge. 

"Mer, come back this way," pleaded Candrochon. "Do not go too far out."

"But the snow rises too high here," said Tathar, gesturing to the drift they were standing on.  "She will find the bank faster in that direction."

"But if the ice gives way, she shall be farther from our aid," Legolas said in a lowered voice, not wanting to add to his friend's tension.  Merilin needed her wits about her.

She heard him anyway.  "Calm yourselves; I shall take care."  She was now directly upon her knees with her back to them, brushing at the snow in search of the riverbank.  "And…" she murmured in broken sentences as she moved awkwardly across the surface, "I think…I may…be close—"

Crick...

Every one of them froze.  Merilin's head swiveled to look at them, and her eyes were huge even in the blowing snow. 

Crack…

The sound came again.   "Mer," said Legolas in a very shaky voice, "do not rise.  Crawl backward slowly."

Swallowing hard, Merilin did as he bade.  All at once, she gave a yelp and threw herself backward, just as a loud CRACK! indicated a break in the river's coat of ice, and a large chunk broke away into the frigid water moving slowly below.  Merilin landed on her back just beyond it, gasping in relief, but she had not fallen in.  Yet her peril had not passed, for more cracks were heard, and the last reserves of calm deserted all of them.

"Merilin!  Get off of there!" cried Legolas. 

Whimpering in panic, Merilin threw caution to the storm and scrambled to her feet, attempting to outrun the breaking ice and fling herself to safety.  She might have succeeded, but at that moment Candrochon surged forward onto the exposed edge of the ice, reaching desperately for her hands, and his weight was more than the river could support.

Tathar seized Candrochon and yanked him back as the ice shattered, but Merilin managed to grab his hand in time.  Alas, there was not enough time to pull her clear, and she plunged into deathly cold water up to her chest. 

"Merilin!" Legolas cried.  He sprang forward, hearing her breathy scream as the frigid waters stole air from her lungs.  He threw himself down upon the edge of the snow and grabbed her other hand, and Candrochon and Tathar needed no word from him to pull.

"Ai!" gasped Merilin as they dragged her from certain depth in the icy flow.  "It hurts, Valar, hurts!"

Candrochon still had managed to get one shoe soaked with cold water where he had broken through, and the sleeve of his tunic where his hand clung to Merilin's.  Legolas and Tathar stayed relatively dry as they dragged the other two back onto the snowdrift.  "Curse the Valar!" spat Tathar, yanking off his outer cloak and wrapping the shivering Merilin in it.  To Legolas, he said urgently, "We must abandon the meat and make for home.  She cannot last long with her garments soaked."

Cursing inwardly at the loss of the supplies, and at their own foolishness in trying this venture, Legolas had to agree.  "Cand?  Can you rise?"

"Y-yes," shivered Candrochon, and he stood up.  He would have give his cloak to their soaked friend as well, but Legolas bade him keep it, for he had also gotten wet.  Instead, they wrapped Merilin in Tathar and Legolas's cloaks, for those two had stayed mostly dry. 

Merilin herself was in a far worse state.  Her skin was already taking on a bluish tinge, and the water that had soaked her skin, hair, and garments was beginning to freeze.  She shook so violently that she was unable to answer them when they spoke to her.  Her friends could see she would not last long at all if they did not get her to shelter swiftly.  Candrochon pushed Legolas aside when he attempted to get Merilin to her feet and instead swept the freezing warrioress into his arms.  "Come on!  We've not much time!"

He was about to start running when Legolas exclaimed, "Wait!  Look!" and pointed back at the river.

The motions of the breaking ice and freed water had knocked much of the snow into the river, and across its blue flow, they spied a dark surface that could not be more ice.  It was the riverbank.  "The river flows north past King Thranduil's halls," cried Tathar.  "We must walk south along its bank and we shall reach the bridge!"

"Come then," Candrochon snapped.  "Make haste!"

The three set off at a run over the snow.

***

In the elven king's halls…

"There is less than an hour until darkness falls, my lord," said one of the stewards quietly.

King Thranduil barely acknowledged him, lingering near one of the last remaining open windows in the outer rooms.  The storm had grown so fierce that he could not even see the bridge across the Forest River.  He could see naught but a great veil of white that waved and rippled like a cloak in the wind.  A cloak of killing cold.

Legolas…my son is abroad in that…lost…Legolas!  Something akin to panic, or perhaps hysteria, took over, although it showed not upon the elven king's face.  Rather, the few remaining elves in the room were startled to see Thranduil turn and head resolutely for the door.  It took no great thought to observe his intent. 

"My lord!" exclaimed Ulban, the king's First Steward, running to forestall Thranduil.  "What are you doing?"

"I am going to find them."

"Father, you are mad!" Berensul moved to block his father's way.  "You could not see them in that if they were but three strides away from you!  It is no use; you cannot go after him."

Fighting the urge to fling his tormentors out of his path, Thranduil ground out, "You would have me stand here and do naught while four of our children freeze to death?  They will never survive a night in this!  You would have us mourn another dead child?"

Berensul flinched at the harsh words, but did not give way.  "I would not have you sacrifice yourself needlessly.  If there were but a chance of reaching them I would go myself, but there is not in this storm.  It would be suicide."

It took all of Thranduil's strength not to shudder.  "Legolas is out there," he murmured.

His eldest son swallowed hard and closed his eyes, gripping Thranduil's arms in mutual anguish.  "I know," he said softly.  "You know I would offer my life gladly to save him, if there were a chance in succeeding.  But we shall never find them in this."

Thranduil sighed and turned slowly away, going back to the window as despair filled him with a cold more bitter than the storm outside.  "I cannot bear to think of losing another child," he murmured, not caring whether anyone heard.

Berensul came to stand behind him.  "Legolas and his friends are well-trained and resourceful, Father.  I would not give up hope just yet.  They may yet surprise us."  He reached past his father and slid the window shutter into place.  "We are short enough on wood without letting the cold in. Come away.  You can do no more here."

With another sigh, Thranduil rubbed his chilled face and turned to his eldest son.  "Send for Anunborn, Lord Heledir and Lady Narmeril.  They shall await news of Candrochon and Merilin as I await news of Legolas." 

Tathar's father Alagos had departed over the sea many years ago, so his uncle was sent for.  Close as a brother was he to Legolas, as were Candrochon and the young Lady Merilin.  All four had been born within ten years of each other, and their collective antics and childish schemes as elflings had been the last to brighten Greenwood's dwellings, for very few children were born anymore.  And those that were were forced to grow up seeking friendship with elves far older than themselves, for births no longer came frequently enough to the Silvan elves to provide their children with playmates their own age.  It was a fact that deeply grieved Thranduil when he recalled his own children's adventures with their friends.

He looked again longingly at the closed window.  Death had become all too common in the ranks of the Mirkwood warriors, as the shadow of Dol Guldur grew ever closer to Thranduil's realm.  Nary a month seemed to go by when his people were not plunged into mourning for deaths in battle, but this!  To lose four of their youngest warriors to a snowstorm—the thought made him shiver and brought a dreadful stabbing pain to his insides. 

He went again to the window but did not open it, instead putting his hand up against the shutter to feel the cold air seeping through the wood.  Cold air that was at this moment undoubtedly tormenting his youngest and last child. 

Legolas.

***

About an hour later…

It was growing dark.  The storm had begun to subside, but it was no consolation to those who had been caught out in it.  The four novice warriors had long since staggered to a walk, stumbling exhausted and freezing over the snow, with only their support of each other to keep moving.  The fearful possibility that one or all of them might not live to see home had made their situation all the more bitter.

One fell to his knees, weighed down by the shivering burden in his arms and his own faltering body.  Candrochon's left leg was numb where it had been drenched after breaking through the ice, and his arms throbbed with cold and weariness as he struggled to keep his grip on the elven maid he carried.  He tried to stagger back to his feet, but fell again; his frozen foot had lost all feeling.  Indeed, his mind was beginning to lose some of its feelings as well, and he felt strangely disconnected.  The rest of the cold seemed to recede as he felt a terrible longing for sleep…

Someone's hands came to tug at the cloak-wrapped bundle in his arms, and he blinked wearily.  "Give her to me, Cand," said a strangely muffled voice.  "I will carry her."

They pulled at his charge again, and he struggled, mumbling a protest for reasons he could not recall.  But then someone else came behind him and took his shoulders, pulling him back.  He leaned back gratefully at the warmth of this new arrival, who said, "Let Tathar take her, Candrochon.  We must hurry."

Tathar?  He blinked at the figure before him and at last, Tathar's black hair and dark eyes came into focus.  "Tathar?" he mumbled.  "What—"

"I can carry her, my friend," Tathar assured him, and Candrochon finally relinquished the shivering warrioress to his friend's care.  Tathar pulled back the cloaks to look at her face and glanced worriedly at Legolas.  "She is unconscious.  She will not last much longer."

"Come on, Cand!" Candrochon found his arm slung over another pair of shoulders as an arm came to wrap around his waist, pulling him bodily to his feet.  "We must make haste.  Lean on me."

"What—"

"Hush.  Save your strength.  We are going home.  Just walk."

That seemed a simple enough directive for his frozen mind to comprehend.  And so he concentrated upon putting one foot in front of the other and not lurching his companion off balance as they struggled on. 

***

"Legolas?" 

The son of Thranduil peered past Candrochon to Tathar, who was carrying Merilin.  "Should we not have been there by now?" Tathar asked worriedly.

Legolas shook his head.  "I know not.  We were very lost until we found the river.  Perhaps we strayed further north than we knew."  He noticed with alarm that the cloak-wrapped figure in Tathar's arms had gone still.  "She is worse?"

Tathar bit his lips and quickened his pace.  "We must find shelter of some kind soon.  Night is upon us."

Blinking back tears in the stinging wind, Legolas looked around, grimacing.  "Merilin will not survive a night in the cold, even in shelter from the wind.  We must reach home if we're to have any hope of saving her."

Candrochon's legs suddenly buckled, and he nearly dragged Legolas to the ground.  Cursing, the younger elf dragged his friend to his feet.  Candrochon's eyes were glazed and losing focus; the Steward's son had only soaked one shoe and one sleeve, but it was enough for dreadful frostbite and cold to set in.  Legolas seized his friend's frozen hand in his free one and held it to his mouth, trying to warm it with his breath.  The skin was taking on a blue tinge.  A little whimper caught his attention.  "Legolas?"

"Yes?"

Tathar was beginning to stumble, a look of hopeless guilt in his eyes.  "I know not how much longer I can go on!"

Desperately, Legolas pulled closer to him, trying to keep them moving forward.  "We must keep moving.  We cannot be far!  You cannot give up on me now!"

And so they trudged on, as the snow came down now in gentle, mocking swirls.  But at this late moment, even the softest breath of wind was torture upon their frozen skin, and they stumbled more and more in their exhaustion.  Legolas too soon began to feel a dreadful, craven desire to sink into the white bed and drift into dreams.  Their objective seemed so lost and so far away…

Candrochon fell again, this time pulling Legolas down with him.  For a few moments, his friend's shoulder became like a pillow beneath his head, and sleep whispered seductively of leaving this torment forever…

"Legolas!" a half-shout, half-sob broke him out and reminded him.  Blinking wearily, he raised his head to see Tathar's tear-stained face, looking at him in terror.  His friend stifled a sob as Legolas sat up again, wondering idly how long he had faded out.  "Don't leave me," said Tathar in a small voice.

Without bothering to stifle a groan, Legolas shook his head and dragged Candrochon into his arms.  The other elf was unconscious now, and Legolas doubted it would take less than a healer's care to wake him.  "We shall make it," he grunted; Cand was heavy.  "Come on.  We shall make it."

Side by side, the freezing bodies of their friends in their arms, Legolas and Tathar staggered onward into the wilderness of white, now turning black as the faint light of the sun vanished altogether.

***

The elven king's halls, a short time later…

"The storm has subsided," said Berensul, flinging on his heaviest cloaks.  "We must form a search party."

"But my lord, the air is even colder than it was during the storm!" protested one of the warriors.

"Cold, yes, but the wind has died.  At least now we may see and be seen.  We cannot be gone long, but with our lanterns and our calls we might yet find some trace of them," said Berensul.  His sister Limloeth paused in fastening her own cloak and shuddered. 

The captain of the Mirkwood warriors, Langcyll, motioned urgently to them.  "Come!  We've no time to lose!"  The elves seized lanterns and torches and ran out the main doors. 

"Legolas!" Berensul had a legendary capacity for bellowing that surpassed even that of his father.  Nonetheless, the snow seemed to swallow his voice, along with his hopes.  "Tathar!  Can you hear us!"

He and the other searchers pelted over the snow, breaking through sometimes in their haste as they waved their lights.  But there was no sound beyond their frantic calls, and the snow still fell thick and heavy.  Darkness swallowed their lights and their cries. 

Berensul felt his heart sinking.  Are they dead?  Shall we return home empty-handed only to find and mourn them when the snow is gone, left behind like so many dead animals?  The thought made him want to fall to the snow and be sick.

Another drift gave way and sent both him and his sister tumbling over in a heap, cursing and spitting.  As he sat and dusted himself off, a faint sound reached him—one that was not the call of a searcher.  "Silence!  Silence!"

The elves froze.  Darkness, cold, and fear were heavy about them.  And then…

"Help!" 

"LEGOLAS!" screamed Limloeth, springing to her feet.  "Where are you!"

"Here!"

"To the north!" cried Langcyll, leaping forward.  "By the river!"

"Keep calling, Legolas!" shouted Berensul, racing after him.  "We are coming!"

He overtook the warrior captain and ran harder than he had ever run in his life.  My brother lives…my brother lives…I must reach him!  I must get to him!  The bitter cold air stole breath from his lungs and tore at his chest, stinging in his eyes, but he cared not.  Only one thought could move him:  Find Legolas.

All at once, the killing white curtain parted before their torches to reveal two figures stumbling weakly toward them, each carrying a heavy burden.  "Legolas!  Tathar!"  Limloeth gasped, rushing forward with her lantern outstretched. 

"Mm-my lady?" Tathar shivered, exhausted and frightened.   "M-Merilin…she n-needs help!"

Langcyll seized Candrochon from Legolas and another warrior took Merilin, "By the Valar, does she live?"

"Barely, and young Candrochon is in little better condition.  Come, we must away at once!" the warriors raced back to the elven king's halls.

***

Legolas's mind felt strangely sluggish as the weight in his arms was suddenly taken away.  He knew the voices and faces swirling around him, and had even answered them…he thought…but he could not seem to put it all together.  And he was so tired.  Then someone was in front of him, rubbing his shoulders, "Elbereth, Legolas, you've been out in this without your cloak?"

"G-gave it to Merilin," he mumbled sleepily.  Could he rest now?  A new cloak wrapped around him, though not warm enough to give him any comfort.  Only blessed oblivion would end his agony.  "Need to rest…"

"Ai!" Someone shook him hard.  "Nay, Legolas, you cannot sleep!  Not now!  Come on!  Walk, you must walk!  Lim, Caranaur, go with Tathar.  Keep him moving.  Go!  I have Legolas!"  A vaguely familiar arm wrapped around his waist and began bodily hauling him onward.  "Come, little brother, you shall be warm and safe soon."

"Beren," Legolas sighed, remembering at last.  "Where am I?"

"Nearly to Father's halls.  Just a bit further, little one, and then you can rest.  Come."

He mumbled something apologetic and tried to sink down, but those insistent arms dragged him back to his feet.  "Legolas, no!  You cannot sleep!  Speak to me!  Keep speaking to me!"

"Candrochon?  Where—"

"He is on his way home as well.  Come on, Legolas, stay with me!"  the voice grew more anxious, and he felt himself shaken violently.

"Stop it," he grumbled irritably.  Wasn't it just like his elder siblings to pester him when he was tired!

There came a snorting laugh.  "Sorry, little one, I fear it is my duty to tease you, now more than ever."  An irritating poke came to his ribs, and he was jostled about more.  "Keep walking until we reach home and then I shall cease plaguing you."

"You n-never c-cease plaguing me," he muttered, fighting the chattering of his teeth.  He had never known it possible for cold to hurt this much!  "Ai, Beren!"

"What, Legolas?  What's wrong?"

"So cold!" he gasped, feeling a terrible urge to cry out.

Strong arms held him closer as he staggered and shook, fighting sobs of misery.  "I know," Berensul said in a gentler voice.  "I know it hurts.  It will be over soon, little one, I promise."

"Don' call me that!"

Berensul laughed.  "But I must.  To me you shall always be the little one."

"Hate you sometimes."

"Of course."

***

In the elven king's halls…

Shouts from the main doors brought Thranduil to his feet and running down the halls.  The blast of cold air that struck him was nothing compared to the chill that swept through his heart when he saw the two limp figures in his warriors' arms. 

"Candrochon!" Anunborn and his wife rushed to Langcyll and tugged back the cloak from their son's face.

"We must get him inside and warm at once," the warrior captain said.  "He and Lady Merilin fell through some ice."

A cry of horror came from Lady Narmeril as Merilin was carried in.  The young warrioress looked even worse than her companion.  Ice was encrusted in her clothes, hair, and on her skin, which was blue with cold.  For a moment it seemed that she did not live, but the warrior who carried her felt the faint beat that indicated her body still clinging to life.  "My daughter!" gasped Heledir, fighting tears. 

"She will live if we make haste!  Come!" 

Over the alarmed chatter of the warriors and worried parents, Thranduil forced his mind to work.  "Send Eirien to them and see that she has everything she requires," he told one of the servants distractedly.  "Tell her to expect more injuries."

The remaining anxious elf in the room looked at his king with wide eyes.  "Where is Tathar?"

Thranduil shook his head a little, turning to look at the closed door with a growing sense of dread.  Only the two had come back and nearly frozen!  Berensul and Limloeth were still abroad, presumably still searching with the other warriors.  If the hunting party had become separated…  In a voice tight and quiet, he murmured, "Where is Legolas?"

***

"Just a little farther!"  Berensul's urgent voice forced its way through the cyclone of agony in his younger brother's ears. 

Legolas had never known such misery in his life.  His garments might as well have been made of parchment for all the protection they afforded him from the cold.  Except that it was no longer mere cold; it was pain.  In a way it almost seemed to burn.  Legolas could not comprehend it; he knew Berensul's arms were around him!  He knew he was wrapped in his brother's heavy cloak--why did he not feel the slightest hint of warmth?  It had begun to anger him; this sense of other helplessness against his own body's frailty.  The tears that stung his eyes and tightened his throat seemed such a shameful thing, but strength to walk was waning, let alone hide his misery. 

Berensul's voice penetrated his torment yet again, and Legolas dimly realized he had begun to sink to the ground.  "Hold on, little one.  Just a little farther.  Come on, Legolas!"

"Can't," Legolas mumbled as his limbs tried once more to give way on him.

His wrist was squeezed painfully (he would have protested if he'd had the strength) as his body was fairly dragged upright.  "Walk, Legolas!"

"Beren," he whimpered like a frightened youngling.  "So cold," he choked back another sob.

He felt his brother's hand pressing the cloak against his frozen cheek.  "I know, Laeg, I know.  Hold on.  This shall be over soon."

The biting wind, blinding snow, and his own terror had long since robbed Legolas of much of his senses.  And so it was that he could not feel the wood of the bridge beneath his numb feet, nor see the bulk of the mountain before him, nor hear the groan of frozen hinges as the great doors swung open to the elven king's halls.

***

"Tathar!"  Aradol flew past Thranduil to snatch the shivering novice into his arms.

"Aradol?" Tathar gasped, clutching his uncle as his shivering grew worse.  "C-cold!  So cold!  W-what—of—others—"

"Hush, child," said Aradol, wrapping a heated blanket around his nephew.

"Take him to the healers," ordered Thranduil, wincing inwardly at the tremor in his voice.  On one hand, his heart sighed with relief that none of his subjects' children had been lost this night, but on the other, "Has my son been seen?"

"Berensul brings him, Father!" called Limloeth as she aided Aradol in leading the staggering Tathar down the hall. 

There was a commotion from the other direction.  The doors were still open.  Thranduil stared.  Then out of the white haze emerged two figures, one leaning heavily upon the other as he stumbled along.  From beneath a borrowed cloak, wisps of golden hair brushed a too-pale face, and dark gray eyes blinked weakly at Thranduil.  Lips moved.  "Father?"

"Legolas!"  the elven king rushed forward and had crushed his youngest son against him before he knew what he was doing.  "Legolas!"

The slim cloak-wrapped form in his arms was ice cold and shaking violently.  He made an effort to return his father's grip but could not seem to make his frozen limbs obey him.  On top of which, the voice muffled by Thranduil's shoulder appeared to be mumbling apologies.  "Father, sorry…couldn't…hunt—"

"What?"  Thranduil looked incredulously at his eldest son, returning from the hearth with a heated blanket.

Berensul rolled his eyes.  "Silly child," the crown prince muttered affectionately, tugging the cold cloak away from his little brother before wrapping Legolas in the blanket. 

Gathering his scattered thoughts, Thranduil glanced at the warriors near the door, "Was that everyone?"

"Aye, my lord!"

"Then seal the doors and close these outer rooms.  We shall move deeper into the halls and save wood," ordered the king.  Legolas was swiftly going limp in is grasp, and Berensul scooped the novice into his arms.  "Come, my sons.  To the healers.  We must get you thawed out."

***

Limloeth, daughter of Thranduil, was heating blankets over the hearth of the healers' chamber as her elder brother's wife worked at treating the young hunters' frostbite.  "Let the water cool a little, Belhador," ordered Eirien.  "It is still too hot."

Lim carried another blanket to the young novice and wrapped it tightly around Tathar's shivering form.  "L-Legolas," Tathar muttered as Aradol tried to feed him hot broth.  "Merilin.  W-where—"

"Hush, Tathar.  They're safe," said Belhador, coming back.  To his sister, he added, "The water is ready.  Let us get him into the bath."

The son and daughter of Thranduil aided Aradol in easing his frostbitten nephew into a tub of warm water.  Nearby, the heads of Candrochon and Merilin were visible, propped up in other tubs.  Such treatments had quickly become a standard in the wretched days since the first blizzards had struck.

Aradol, gently holding Tathar up in the warm water, looked anxiously at the siblings, and the question was clear in his eyes.  Limloeth shivered.  "Beren is with him," she murmured as much to herself as to Belhador and Aradol.  "The storm had died.  They shall be back soon." 

Belhador reached over and squeezed her hand.  "They'll be all right."

The door burst open.

"Healers!"  the crown prince came swiftly into the room, bearing a limp elf in his arms.  "My brother requires your aid!"

"Legolas!"  Belhador sprang to his feet and sprang to one of the beds made up near the hearth.  "Bring him here.  More blankets, Lim."

King Thranduil followed Berensul silently to the bed and began stripping the damp, cold garments from Legolas's frozen body.  As Limloeth carried the heated blankets over, she saw that her little brother was not completely senseless, though the cold had rendered him nearly so.  Red-rimmed eyes blinked weakly at Thranduil as the elven king wrapped the warm cloths around his son.  "Father?"

"I am here, Legolas."

"Cand and Mer?"

"They are safe and warming up," Thranduil assured him.

"Didn't know," Legolas murmured.

"What?" Frowning, the elven king felt his son's forehead.  He was probably only listless, and yet… "What did you not know?"

"Cold…hurts," came the faint reply.  "Hurts so…" the weak words gave way to a hiss as Eirien sat down with a bowl of warm water and began bathing his frostbitten hands.  "Ai!"

Thranduil smiled, pressing the warm edges of the blanket against Legolas's frozen cheeks.  "I know it hurts, my son.  It shall pass soon.  Be strong."

"Mmm," Legolas's face took on a faint grimace.  "Not strong."

"Don't be silly, little one," Limloeth said briskly.  "Of course you are strong!"

"Got lost," her brother replied in a defeated sigh.

Exchanging disgusted glances, Legolas's siblings laughed.  "That does not mean you are weak, Laeg," declared Belhador as he heated more water.  "That merely means you are an ill tracker."

"Still better than you," came the mumbled retort.  Berensul snickered and Limloeth rolled her eyes.

"Come, boys," said Eirien sternly, handing a mug of broth to Berensul.  "We must warm him."  Obediently, the crown prince lifted Legolas's head up and held the cup to his lips.  The youngest prince sipped slowly as the healers prepared another bath.

Thranduil watched his sons silently and wondered why his insides refused to cease their churning.  Perhaps it was caused by his mind, which still echoed thoughts with dread.  So close.  So close…  The blue lips and grey skin told the elven king that his son would not have survived another hour in the dark cold.  At Eirien's announcement that the bath was ready, he gathered Legolas in his arms (ignoring the mumbled protests from the young elf that he could walk) and eased him into the warm water.

Legolas, only semi-aware of what was happening, gave a weak cry of pain.  "Ai!  What—"

"Shh.  Easy, Legolas, I know it hurts," Thranduil soothed, keeping a firm grip on his son lest he slide beneath the water.

Legolas whimpered and squirmed as the blood forced its way painfully back into his extremities.  Thranduil took up a cloth and sponged his face, noting with relief that the color was returning to his skin and lips.  In fact… "Your nose is red," observed Belhador.

What retort his brother would have made was muffled by the cloth.  Thranduil shot his second-youngest son a warning look and glanced around the room.  Young Merilin and Candrochon had been dried and packed into the beds nearest the hearth.  They had sustained the worst injuries thus far this winter; Candrochon's foot and left hand were swollen where he'd been wet and Merilin's entire body was frostbitten.  Belhador was bandaging the worst of their cold hurts. 

"Hold there, Legolas!" Berensul's words and a splash startled the elven king from his thoughts.  Legolas was slipping under the water, and both his elder brothers were dragging him back out.  "You cannot sleep yet."

"So tired…" Legolas muttered, his head lolling. 

"A few more minutes, little brother, and then we shall put you to bed," said Eirien gently.  "Keep him awake," she ordered Berensul.  "I must see to the others."

It was ten long minutes before the healers were satisfied that Legolas could be taken from the bath.  Berensul and Belhador dried him and wrapped him in blankets.  "Have we a chamber free?" asked Belhador.

"One where all four of them may be brought when Eirien gives leave," said Thranduil.  "And a fire already burning.  Let me," he bent and tenderly scooped his thoroughly-swaddled youngest child into his arms.  Now that it was permitted, Legolas was rapidly falling asleep, but he still managed to pull closer to his father, slinging one arm around Thranduil's neck and resting his head on his shoulder.  "Come," said the elven king softly, and bore Legolas from the healers' surgery.

The chamber, Thranduil was pleased to find, was well-warmed, with a fire blazing under a cauldron of hot water in the hearth and an ample supply of wood sitting next to it to keep it going.  "A great number of our people have brought wood from their own chambers, in case we were running short," said Limloeth fondly.  "We did not need so much, but thanked them nonetheless."

"Aye, that is generous for such nights," said Thranduil.  He maintained a few lordly scruples in not putting Legolas in the bed closest to the hearth; he knew that one should be reserved for Merilin or Candrochon.  But he cared not who might be watching as he eased the bedclothes aside and laid Legolas down, then tucked his son beneath the layers of blankets as though he were an elfling.  Had Legolas been conscious, he would have been mortified, but his body had at last fallen into the deep sleep the cold had made him so desperately crave. 

Thranduil pondered him.  Eirien had assured them that all four warriors would recover completely, but Legolas still did not look completely well.  His nose and lips were too red while the rest of his skin was abnormally pale.  And he slept so deeply that his eyes were closed, though he hunched in on himself as though still freezing.  Thranduil toyed with the blankets again and frowned:  they were too cool.  "Have we any skins of hot water to warm the bedclothes?"

"I will get them."  Limloeth busied herself over the fire for a few minutes, then returned with two full skins.

"Are there enough for all of them?" asked Thranduil, wanting Legolas warmed completely but never dreaming of depriving the others.

Limloeth picked up the skins by the hearth.  "We have skins enough but not water.  I shall send someone for a few pails of snow."

"That at least we have in ample supply," said the elven king, and she went chuckling out the door.

The heat of the warming skins had finally enabled Legolas to relax, and he lay still and quiet against the pillows.  Now alone in the room, Thranduil sat upon the edge of the bed and stroked his son's face, as much out of a desire to make certain he was warm as to give a fatherly caress. 

No child could possibly comprehend how the their own pain stabbed at the heart of their parents.  The sights and sounds of a child suffering was worse than anything orcs or even Nazgul could deliver to their family's hearts.  Thranduil rubbed his hand gently over Legolas's ears, thinking them too cold, out of a paternal and somewhat irrational desire that his youngest son never feel cold again.  Legolas's shivering, tearful admission of pain had rent his father's soul.  Severe cold did hurt; Thranduil had been alive long enough to know that, but seeing his son's astonished horror and agony at facing it was an experience he could have done with out.

Blessed Elbereth, I fear I have aged a millennium this day.

That whimsical admission brought a smile to his face as Limloeth returned with Berensul and Belhador, the three of them carrying heaping pails of snow to dump into the kettle over the fire, and also Anunborn, Heledir, and Aradol, who were carrying Candrochon, Merilin, and Tathar.  "How is he, my lord?" asked Aradol softly as he and Limloeth arranged Tathar in the next bed.

"He sleeps peacefully now that he is warm," said Thranduil, not bothering to rise.  There was no need to trouble with pretenses here; these were all parents and kin.

Limloeth tucked two warming skins into the foot of the bed with Tathar, then moved down to do the same for Candrochon and Merilin.  "Has she awoken yet," she asked Heledir.

"Aye, for a few minutes."  Lord Heledir shook his head.  "Immediately started fretting about those deer they killed."  Thranduil chuckled with the rest of them.  "Children!"

"Not quite," said Anunborn.  "I would say they acquitted themselves in the manner of adults this night, and quite well too."

"That cannot be denied," agreed Aradol.

"Nay," laughed Heledir softly.  "But shall that ever make any difference to us when the question comes as to whether they still need tucking in for cold weather?"

All four elves chuckled still harder.  Smiling to himself, Thranduil tugged the blanket up a little higher under Legolas's chin, smiling to himself. 

Never.

~Fin~

Don't forget to review!