Chapter Thirty-Two: Sifting Through the Ashes
Legolas shifted slightly as consciousness lapped at the edges of his mind, drawing him towards wakefulness. For a heart-pounding minute, he couldn't remember where he was or how he had gotten there and he sat up in alarm, sweat breaking out over his brow. But a gentle hand pressed him tenderly back amongst the pillows. Then he realized that he was covered in an elvish blanket and his wounds had been cleaned and bound.
"Rest awhile yet, ion-nîn." Legolas smiled through closed eyelids as he heard that deep beloved voice.
"I am here Legolas," came his father's voice. He opened his eyes to see Thranduil sitting beside his bed, gazing down at him, one hand clasping his son's smaller one.
"It does my heart good to see you awake, ion-nîn. You've been sleeping for quite a while now." Thranduil fell silent, his blue eyes cast to the sheets as though he couldn't look up at his son's face. Legolas too bowed his head; he understood if his father was angry with him. So much had been lost because of his actions. Thranduil sighed and, despite himself, Legolas looked up.
"I cannot help but feel… if I had been honest with you and warned you about your-your uncle… this wouldn't have happened." Legolas glanced at the sheets, biting his lip. He hated to see his father so guilt-ridden and grief-stricken.
"It is not your fault, Adar. It's mine… I was a fool to trust him…" Thranduil's head shot up and he took his son firmly by the shoulders.
"No, Legolas. Don't you dare think that this is your fault! You could never have known about him. You did nothing wrong," the Elvenking said fiercely. Legolas nodded slowly, though he wasn't sure he believed it. Silence spiraled for a few moments.
"Where is he?" Legolas wondered suddenly, silently asking himself if he really wanted to know the answer to that. Thranduil shook his head.
"Do not worry about that now, my son. He can do no one further harm." Legolas felt anxiety gnaw at his insides as he glanced hesitatingly up at his father.
"Adar, Naneth… is she…?" he trailed off.
"Resting, my son." Thranduil smiled quickly to reassure his son. "She'll be fine though she will be better when she knows you are awake," Thranduil whispered, smiling softly as he wiped the tears of relief from his son's eyes but Legolas turned his face away.
"How's Lóthmir?" he murmured. Thranduil sighed deeply and looked away. The young elf had been inconsolable though he insisted on staying by his friend's bedside every day while he slept, refusing to be budged until Thranduil himself carried him out, half-asleep.
"I sent him to his rest an hour ago," Thranduil said softly.
Legolas nodded, remaining silent.
"A-and Haldir?" he asked, casting a swift glance up at his father.
"Also resting," Thranduil said gently. "And you should as well, ion-nin." With a suddenly, businesslike air, Thranduil tucked the covers up to his son's chin and laid a kiss on his son's forehead. Legolas looked up into his father's face.
"I love you, Adar," he said. Thranduil embraced his son fiercely, tears pricking the king's eyes.
"I love you too, ion-nin. Sleep well."
And he slept long and deeply. When he finally awoke, he felt refreshed and alert for the first time in what felt like forever. Legolas awoke early the following morning and for a few minutes just lay underneath his warm coverlets, watching the red sun rise over the winter tipped world through his window. Slowly he sat up, mindful of his healing back. He flexed his wrist which had had a bracing cloth wrapped about it and already felt much better. He glanced out of the window and smiled for the first time in what felt like forever.
Changing out of his sleeping clothes, he didn't quite know what he was going to do with himself. He hadn't been allowed to do anything by himself in such a long time, he'd almost forgotten what it felt like to have his life in his own hands again. It was a bit of a shock to be able to wake up in the morning with a sense of hope and that he could live his life again. And he was lucky indeed to still have that life.
Anxiety for his friend quickly paced him down the halls towards the healer's wing.
Rameil and Ancadal both looked up as he entered and he paused, hesitant to intrude but Ancadal motioned him inside with a smile.
"How are you feeling?" he inquired.
Legolas answered in the affirmative, his eyes locked on Haldir's still form.
"How is he?" he asked quietly, feeling guilt color his heart again.
Ancadal touched his bed-ridden friend's arm lightly.
"Sleeping still. And good thing too."
"So, he'll be all right?" Legolas sighed with relief, feeling a little better. Rameil smiled reassuringly at him and stood with a muffled groan stretching the kinks out of his back.
"He will. But I swear if I do not get some sleep myself I shall collapse here," he muttered, clapping Ancadal on the shoulder as he passed out the door.
Legolas smiled as the other elf rubbed his own eyes tiredly but unwilling just yet to leave his friend in case he woke up. He was out of danger now though it had been a long worrisome night.
Songs would be sung about the Great Battle of the Halls. They were all terribly lucky to be still alive. It had been touch-and-go for quite a while there. Legolas looked around the healers' ward which had become all too familiar in the past days. Across from Haldir's bed, he saw Galion's still form lying beneath the sheets, his head swathed in bloody bandages. But he seemed to be breathing easy and Legolas smiled in relief at the butler who had fought so hard to save them from Ainan's guards.
Thinking of his uncle again made him shudder and he pushed back the memories, returning his gaze to his sleeping friend.
Haldir looked peaceful lying there. So unlike the last time Legolas had seen him sleep: bloodied, bruised, hovering somewhere between life and death on a cold prison floor. It eased the young elf's heart to know his friend would be all right. He looked up and caught Ancadal gazing at him with a smile.
"Go on, Legolas. We'll let you know when he wakes. You shouldn't hang about here all day," he said.
Reluctantly, Legolas rose, promising to come back later. He turned at the door and shifted awkwardly.
"Thank you… for saving my life- and my family's," he said.
Ancadal's smile widened.
"There's nothing to thank us for, Legolas," he said honestly. "It was the least we could do."
Legolas nodded and left the room, searching out his mother in her room where she sat beside the window. Though very pale, the Queen looked a good deal better than she had. But to Legolas' keen eyes, she seemed so thin under the blankets that draped her shoulders, so fragile and he knew he would never forget that night he and his father had almost lost the greatest treasure in Mirkwood. The healers had worked steadily on her through that first night to ensure that she would live and today was the first day she had been allowed to get out of bed and sit in her window.
As soon as he appeared, she enfolded him in her arms wishing to hold him forever, keeping him always safe with her. Legolas leaned back against her, caring not that he had not been held like this since he was a very small child. In her arms, he felt safe as though nothing bad had or ever could happen. But as she held him and he breathed in her soft scent, questions began running through his head. Why had this happened? How could the one who had done this to them all have been her kin?
"What is it, my little leaf? What troubles you?" she asked, looking down into his face. She knew she would have to speak more to her son on what had happened but she was hesitant to broach that subject for fear of creating even more pain and hurt on his part.
"Why…Why was Vedhir so cruel, Naneth?" he asked hesitantly after a long moment had passed. Anariel shook her head in the face of her son's question for it had been one of her own.
"We are who we choose to be, my dove," she said softly. "Your uncle let his hatred and scorn rule him. He let the darkness consume his soul." Her eyes filled with sorrow. Her anger had long subsided and sadness replaced it for such a life to be wasted. Her brother had been great… once. He had not always been so hardened and bitter. He had not always been as he now was.
"He said tears were for children. Pain was a teacher."
"Tears, tithen, are what make us creatures of feeling- that we have not hardened ourselves to this world," she said quietly, smoothing Legolas' hair back from his face. "Even adults cry, my son," Anariel said quietly. "Pain can be your teacher- it teaches us our mistakes. But not like that. It is when that pain becomes more than punishment, more than learning that makes it wrong. What-what your uncle did to you: that was wrong." She embraced him again and he reveled in the soft brush of her hair against his cheek, inhaling her clean, sweet scent, feeling her love for him pour into his soul, soothing the aching tear in his heart.
"I was so afraid of losing you," she whispered into his hair.
"But we will discuss this later," she dried her eyes and looked out at the bright sky. "It is a wondrous day and you should be outside enjoying it."
Legolas slipped free of his mother's embrace and looked out at the sweeping green grass outside. His mother was right. The snows were melting and dripping from the trees already.
A gentle knock upon the open door made them raise their heads and Legolas looked up as Rinniad raced towards his friend and threw himself into his arms, hugging him tightly.
"Thank the Valar, you're all right! I feel like I haven't seen you in forever!" The elf gasped through his excitement. Legolas smiled, tightly gripping his friend's shoulder.
"I know. I'm glad you're all right too." He had forgotten his friend during his imprisonment and thought now of how anxious and fearful it must have been for him, not knowing where his friends were or what was happening to them.
"Thanks for taking care of my mother, Rinniad," he said solemnly and the other elf blushed and shrugged noncommittally.
"It was more she taking care of me."
Anariel smiled from her seat by the window. Legolas glanced at her then over his shoulder for the inevitable other who always trailed after Rinniad but did not see him.
"Where's Lóthmir?" he asked softly. The happy smile on Rinniad's face slipped and his eyes darkened with sorrow.
"He's with his mother," the other elf said quietly.
Tirien's body had been taken down into the cool cellars to preserve it until they could bury it. The kingdom was slowly pulling itself back together and unfortunately the dead had yet to be cared for until a few more issues were sorted out.
Rinniad's face brightened slightly as he added.
"We're going to the waterfall later, if you want to come."
"That wretched waterfall is more trouble than its worth," Anariel laughed, remembering well the last time the boys had played in its depths and broken Lóthmir's arm jumping from the rocks.
"Aw, Naneth, please? We promise no jumping," Legolas swore. Rinniad nodded his agreement vigorously.
"We're just going fishing- I swear!"
Anariel smiled, realizing she was unable to refuse her son anything.
"All right. But take an adult with you," she said, wishing she could go with them. At their protests that they were fully able to take care of themselves, the Queen grew severe though a smile barely tugged at her lips. "Go on both of you before your father finds out and has a fit!" she laughed, knowing all too well that Thranduil would do no such thing and on the contrary would have been the first to suggest the rock-jumping.
Legolas quickly pulled Rinniad out of the room and promised to meet them in a little while, wanting to check on Haldir one last time.
It was uncomfortable at best trying to sleep. His back burned and his side ached. He couldn't get comfortable. With nothing but the silence as his companion every muscle ache and injury that he had ignored for so long rose to the surface to trouble him. He still had the remnants of a headache but the long sleep had done him good and he could sit up without feeling too dizzy. He was thankful that Rameil and Ancadal had gone to their rest; they had needed it as much as he.
Unable to stand sitting still any longer, Haldir threw back the covers and wobbled to his feet, feeling the stinging pain in his side and back as he moved but he didn't care. Moving gingerly as his injuries stiffened, he indulged himself in a long bath which the servant who attended his room had kindly drawn up for him. Scrubbing away the remaining layers of filth and blood and sweat that caked his hair, he allowed himself to relax a little, pushing back the unpleasant memories to a far corner of his mind and soaking in the present, the touch of warm water soothing his aching muscles.
Feeling clean for the first time in days as he pulled on a fresh white tunic and dark breeches that had been left folded on the edge of his bed, Haldir combed his hands absently through his damp hair, refreshed. He didn't know what had happened to the rest of his clothes but he would not have been surprised if Vanima had burned them.
In fact, he would have welcomed it.
The healers' ward was a series of rooms on the east side of the palace. Rooms stretched down a long corridor intermittently on either side. Each chamber housed two beds with a large fireplace and multiple shelves, drawers and cupboards faithfully stocked by servants each morn with bandages and cordials, salves and vials. The healers themselves had quarters close by but for the most part, until recently, the ward had remained empty for some time for the elves had been at peace.
Legolas paused in the long corridor, stopping a young servant maid leaving one of the rooms with a bundle of sheets under one arm.
"Excuse me, is one of the Lórien elves here?" he asked hesitantly. She smiled.
"Certainly, your highness." She pointed down the hall on the left.
"May I see him?"
"I think he would enjoy the company. He's been asking for you."
Legolas grinned tentatively back and moved towards the door. He knocked timidly and poked his head in, a smile brightening his features as he caught sight of his friend, perched on a seat near the window. Throwing the door open wide, the prince rushed into the room.
"You're all right!" Legolas exclaimed, unable to contain his relief as he threw his arms around the elf.
"Easy," Haldir grunted as the prince's overenthusiastic embrace pressed on the wound in his side. But he returned it full force anyway, overjoyed to see his young friend alive and well.
Legolas pulled back sheepishly, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
"Do you want to come with Rinniad and Lóthmir and I? We're going fishing," Legolas said, looking up at him hopefully. "Please. My mother said we can't go otherwise."
The healers had ordered him to be careful and not overexert himself but he felt the need to stretch his legs.
"Bother the healers. Let's go," Haldir laughed, getting to his feet. Legolas eagerly jumped up and out the door.
They returned at dusk, hair damp and teasing Rinniad how he had fallen in while trying to snare a large river trout. Though spring had unofficially come, the water was still icily cold. They had managed to pull him out and keep from being sucked under, the only injury being his pride and the loss of their catch.
Lóthmir and Rinniad had to clean up before supper so Legolas and Haldir said farewell to them in the entrance hall, climbing the stairs to the healers' wing. At the landing, a woman walked up to them, her face worried as she stopped before them, wringing her hands agitatedly.
"Can we help you?" Haldir asked kindly, noticing she looked distraught.
"I am searching for my husband, sir," she said timidly. She had decided to check the healer's wing first, not having the courage to go down to the cellars where the bodies of the dead were being kept.
"What is your name?" Haldir asked, his face suffused with the knowledge of far too many losses already.
That name struck a chord in Haldir and he frowned, trying to remember where he had heard it before. It sounded so familiar but before he could think of it a sudden clattering rushed down the hall, followed by a healer's sharp protestations.
"You must rest, sir!" the red-faced healer was saying adamantly. "You're fortunate that knife stroke wasn't a little closer or you would be dead."
"I don't care for that!" The soldier argued back heatedly. "I have to find my wife!"
Haldir blinked, the voice triggering a memory in him.
"Can-can you do something for me?… My wife's name is Brethiel; will- will you tell her I did my best? That I love her?"
He glanced at the woman beside him who was trembling slightly. He took her arm and guided her around the corner. The two combatants stood a little further down the hall and in the heat of their argument, had not noticed the three there.
"He will not have to leave the ward, madam," Haldir reassured the healer then turned a smile on the soldier. "Your wife is looking for you," he said quietly.
The young guard's lips split into a wide grin as he turned about. The woman gave a little squeak between surprise and joy and threw her arms around his neck as he took her into his arms.
When he could finally release his wife for a moment, the guard seized Haldir's hand in a wringing grip.
"Thank you," he said fervently. Haldir smiled and returned the handshake, glad at least for this small mercy that pierced the darkness that had lain for so long over the castle.
They all stayed up late into the night, talking about things to happen in the next few days, the future that Legolas had never thought he would see. And the world did not seem so dark after all. After a while, warmed by the fire and a hot meal, he drifted into a half-doze, waking only dimly when he felt Haldir lift him up and carry him into his chamber. The servants had made up a pallet for him in Haldir's room and Legolas curled up almost immediately and fell asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Legolas tossed uneasily beneath the sheets, small mewling whimpers escaping his lips. He felt it again- even in his dreams, even though his uncle was far away and could hurt him no longer. He could still feel it! The rod on his back… the fingers around his neck… Ainan plunging his knife into his mother's helpless body again and again and again…
The young prince bolted up shaking and sweating with remembered fear. It was dark and he froze, afraid that if he so much as twitched he would see those silver-blue eyes glaring at him from out of the shadows. Coming for him again…
"Legolas?" a voice asked softly from out of the darkness and the prince jumped, badly startled. He whirled with heart hammering towards the shadows, scuttling frantically backwards until his back struck the wall.
Haldir sat up, the moonlight filtering through the windows and glimmering in his silver hair. Wincing slightly as he swung his legs over the edge of his bed, he slithered onto the mattress beside the prince.
"What's wrong? Why are you awake?"
Legolas relaxed slowly, waiting for his heart to stop thrumming in his ears before he spoke to the other elf then realized he could think of nothing to say, feeling rather awkward and embarrassed that he had woken his friend because of a nightmare.
"What is the time?" he asked at last.
"Hours before dawn," Haldir answered promptly with a glance out at the curtain shrouded window, still dark and moon framed as he tugged his sleeping tunic closer over the bandages wrapped around his chest. "Now, what is really troubling you?" he asked, looking steadily up at the young prince. He knew what nightmares Legolas must be suffering; he himself knew them all too well.
"I see it still," Legolas said quietly after a long moment of silence, looking down at his upturned hands, lying pale in the moonlight on top of the white sheets. He fisted his hands in them agitatedly with a self-loathing groan.
"Why? Why do I have to see these things? I feel so foolish…" he moaned with a shake of his head, refusing to look the older elf in the eye. "He's gone, isn't he? He can't hurt me anymore: I know that! Then, why do I have to remember… what he did…" Tears were beginning to sting his eyes but he pressed on, knowing he would not be able to sleep. "He made me cry like a child!" he whispered tremulously, his head bowed in shame as his voice failed him. He would never have spoken this aloud to anyone but Haldir; his friend understood more than anyone what he had gone through.
Haldir looked away uncomfortably, vividly remembering his own durance vile. Why was it suddenly so much harder to say? Haldir took a deep breath. Legolas needed to hear it more than his own selfish pride needed to keep it hidden.
"I screamed," he admitted, his curtain of hair falling in front of his face as he lowered his eyes. Realizing that Legolas watched him closely, with an effort he lifted his head and pushed his hair back over his shoulders. "When he struck me… I-I couldn't keep it back." As much as he wanted to look away, he stared right into Legolas' face, knowing it was for both their sakes.
"What you did, Legolas, is far braver than any grown elf I have ever known. For that, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of."
He wasn't quite sure how he could say this to the young prince when he himself still felt the stigma of what had poured forth from his own mouth; I should have held out longer, I should never have given any of them the satisfaction…
Instead, he took the prince's clammy hand in his own.
"Try to go back to sleep- I'll watch over you."
Legolas looked down at the strong hand clasping his own and gave it a relieved squeeze.
"Thank you, Haldir," he said simply, not just for comforting him in this hour of darkness. For everything- for his friendship, for his protection, for his understanding, trust and, in a sense, for his love.
Haldir only nodded once, tucking the covers back up around the prince's chin.
Legolas lay obediently back as Haldir gave his hand a last reassuring squeeze and eased back into his own bed. The prince watched him for a while then rolled over onto his side to get into a more comfortable position and stared at the cooling embers on the hearth. Sleep was long in coming to him that night and he kept looking back at his friend who lay still and silent but Legolas could see that his eyes were open and unclouded, watching over him as he promised.
Finally, near dawn, exhaustion overcame him and he fell into blessedly dreamless slumber.
The sun was shining brightly when he awoke. Legolas sat up, feeling as though he had hardly slept at all. Pulling a hand through his sleep-tousled hair, he tossed back his covers and crept noiselessly to his feet. He glanced down at Haldir who was still resting in elvish dreams.
Deciding not to disturb him, Legolas quickly changed into a new tunic and breeches for the day, stifling a yawn with his free hand. All of the last few weeks seemed like a dream .A horrifyingly vivid dream. But the prince knew it was all too real. Elves had died. Tirien would not be returning to his family. Nor Telas' to his.
Legolas glanced over at Haldir again and found those grey eyes looking at him. He offered a smile and a good morning. Haldir replied in kind and sat up, brushing his own disheveled hair off his shoulders. Legolas thought his friend looked as tired as he himself felt. Worn.
A soft knock at the door announced Vanima who grinned happily at them as she brought in the midday meal. Two bowls of steaming broth and a hunk of red cheese with a loaf of freshly baked bread enough for both of them was set upon the table in the corner between them.
"Really, you're spoiling us, madam," Haldir laughed as he took the tray from her. He turned to Legolas with an inviting smile. "What say you to breakfast in the sun?"
The prince eagerly agreed feeling suddenly ravenous, and they broke their fast on the terrace overlooking the Queen's gardens.
The winter snows were melting. The ice that had long held the forest locked in its eternal embrace had crumbled and had been swept away by the tides of the changing seasons. Spring was coming to Mirkwood again and the light tips of grass sprouted up from underneath the cold permafrost. Buds blossomed on the ends of branches and birds began returning from their winter nests.
Sweet fragrances drifted on the light westerly breeze, bringing with it the scent of warming earth and rain. Legolas leaned his elbows on the balcony railing, watching the small spring that fed into the forest river fall from its rocky bed and wind slowly along the western hedges of the gardens. Far above, through the interlacing tree limbs, he could see the drifting white clouds.
Despite the beauty of it, his heart remained heavy as he looked down from the terrace and caught sight of the preparations taking place below on the edge of the tree line near the river. Elves in shining white moved to and fro. After breakfast, Legolas and Haldir made their way there as well.
All of their brave ones had to be taken care of. Tirien among them. Death was so permanent. Tirien had been Captain of the Royal Guard for as long as Legolas could remember. There had never been another and now, to see Sarithan temporarily taking his place, it was disconcerting and horrible, not passing him in the halls or spotting him in the courtyard at dawn where he patrolled in the early morning.
Many elves of the Kingdom had come to mourn and remember they who had been slain. Even Anariel had been allowed down from her bedchamber so that she might pay her respects to the faithful fallen. The graves faced the West towards Valinor that is even though some were empty- Cálivien's and Telas' bodies never having been recovered. A marker of white marble had been placed at one end of the gardens as a memorial for those who had fallen honored with their names carven in stone and a simple epitaph:
Valar keep these brave defenders and friends who gave their lives heroically protecting the innocent and preserving the freedom of their people. Their memories will live ever in our hearts.
The King's new councilor stood near the stone, staring numbly at his father's name. He closed his eyes momentarily then lifted his head to watch Legolas who stood with his mother and father.
"The poor child," Serkë said quietly, casting a gaze over the grief-filled elves. "It was cruel that it went on for so long."
"Did you know?" Haldir asked incredulously who had overheard the remark. Serkë glanced hesitantly at him, surprised to see the other elf standing there.
"Yes," he answered uneasily. His eyes widened in an expression close to panic as Haldir glared at him. He held up his hands supplicatingly. "Now, I-I wasn't entirely sure. He is a child after all and prone to such accidents…" Haldir shook his head and brushed a hand across his eyes, unable to take any more surprises.
"Accidents? The child was being beaten for Valar's sake! Did you not tell the Queen?"
"No! Why would I do that?" the elf gasped, shocked.
"Why would you not?" Haldir retorted angrily. "The King's son was being beaten by someone he trusted!" Haldir hissed, careful to keep his voice low. Serkë shook his head mutely, his eyes wide with horror.
"You do not understand what they would have done to me if they ever found out what I know- they would have killed me. Killed me just as they did my father." His eyes fixed upon the graves.
"Then you would have died with honor- die- rather than betray your king!" Haldir said sharply too angry to care for the ears that might overhear them.
"Had you been in my place you would not have been so quick to take such a position," Serkë retorted with an anxious glance about them.
Haldir did not bother arguing with the fearful elf and walked away in disgust.
Thranduil was still speaking.
"But this is not a time for sorrow. These brave heroes will always be honored in our hearts. And we shall see them again in the West…"
Unable to take any more grief, Legolas took one of the wandering wooded paths leading through the gardens. The espalier of pear trees which were just showing their white blossoms lined the path on either side of him and he looked at them in growing awe, wondering when the spring had suddenly come. It had seemed so dark and so forlorn for so long.
Gazing around at the bare beauty around him, he could have wept to see the sun capering among the clouds above his head. It seemed so long since he had seen the sun. But still he felt in his heart that things could not be as they once were. He had been changed by his experience. For the better or worse, he did not know. But he was not so jaded or traumatized that he could not find joy in life.
Looking back over his shoulder, he could just make out the white marker, Haldir Rameil and Ancadal standing near it with bowed heads. Thankfully, none had noticed his absence for his mother panicked if he left her sight for only a moment and that was part of the reason that he had wanted to leave so badly. He liked the loneliness, at least then no more awkward questions were asked of him and he could be alone with his thoughts.
"Legolas!" a voice hailed him and the prince stopped but did not turn around.
Rinniad ran up to him, his face at once concerned and anxious. He didn't like to see his friend spending time alone; he knew Legolas was brooding and he ached for his friend's pain, longing to take it away. But the prince interrupted him before he could say anything.
"Please, Rinniad, I- I would just like to be alone for a little."
His friend shifted uncomfortably.
"I just wanted to tell you, the trial will be soon." He shook his head and suddenly burst out in rush. "Legolas, you do not have to go. I don't want you to be even a step closer to that monster than you have to be," Rinniad said, clearly concerned for his friend's well-being. But the prince shook his head.
"No. I want to be with my mother and father." He forced his pain and sudden nervous fear to the back of his mind and smiled softly at his friend. "But, I just need a little time. To think, that's all," Legolas reassured him.
"Well, you know if you ever need someone to talk to," Rinniad shifted awkwardly but kept his gaze steady. "I'm here. You know that."
"Iston. (I know,)" Legolas said quietly, knowing his friend's intentions were noble but also realizing that he couldn't talk about this just yet. Not with them anyway.
"All right." With a last pat on the shoulder, Rinniad turned about and hurried back down the path.
It was quiet and solemn beneath the dark trees lacing overhead, shadowing the crowd gathered below. Somber silence pervaded the atmosphere but already the forest and the people seemed easier at heart than they ever had. The kingdom was already beginning to heal.
The Elvenking stood tall and straight as an oak tree upon the black marble stairs before the great gates of the palace, unknowingly standing in nearly the exact same place where his brother-in-law had pronounced him dead and first gained control over the kingdom. But the true king stood before them now and no falsehood. The relieved and joyful faces of the adulating crowd made him smile sadly. So much had been lost from this. So much trust and security and faith. It would take many years for that to even begin to be rebuilt.
"Our lives can never be as they once were," Thranduil began softly though his voice rolled out over the gathering below. "Our security has been shattered, our home violated…"
No one except those that had been present that fateful night really knew what had happened within the walls of the palace. But their hearts were grieved for the lives that had been lost and their anger great against those who had plotted against their King- many of which had been captured and imprisoned. Thranduil knew many of them had been coerced or threatened with harm to themselves or their families if they did not join the coup. And not one of them remained unmarked after the fight in the Great Hall. But even though they had betrayed their king and country, their wounds had been treated for Thranduil was not cruel to his enemies and he was saddened to see so many young elves of the guard and even older ones that he had counted among his friends now numbered among the traitors.
Thranduil had offered them a choice: to be received back into his service as a loyal subject of the King or to accept Ainan's fate as their own.
Many chose to return to Thranduil.
However, some, like Ascadim who would leave behind a wife and two daughters, felt unworthy of Thranduil's mercy and knew their punishment was just. They would accept the consequences of their actions because they could not face their families or what they had done in the service of a madman but neither could they leave him in their pride and devotion. No matter what the cost.
Still others of those traitors and informants who helped Ainan rise to greatness were never found- until many years later, to much grief and pain.
Drawn from his sorrowful reflection by a movement at his side, Thranduil glanced up as his son took his place beside his father and Thranduil laid a hand on his shoulder, pressing him close in a one-armed embrace. On his other side stood his wife who to everyone's relief continued to heal steadily though her face was white and sorrowful. Behind the royal family, the three elves of Lothlórien stood in shadowy grey.
Legolas tensed as a group of armed guards with Sarithan at their head marched forth, Ainan and his small band between them. The elven traitors' hands were bound at the wrists and they stared darkly at their captors but they dared stir neither hand nor foot for archers stood concealed among the crowd, ready and willing with a shaft strung to bow.
Ainan's silver-blue eyes lifted and Legolas caught his breath as he found himself ensnared again in that hypnotic, hate-filled gaze. Nervous knots twisted in his stomach as he met those eyes that still appeared in his dreams. But he straightened his back as much as he could, remembering that Haldir had told him that fear was Ainan's power. Legolas firmed his jaw, deciding that he would be afraid no longer. He met his abuser's dark gaze squarely and the bitter hatred in his uncle's eyes deepened as Legolas met his stare. But those eyes did not linger as Thranduil began to speak.
"You have all been wronged by this elf," the King said, gazing around at his people, his hand tight on his son's shoulder. "Lives have been lost at his behest. Our people's blood stains the palace floors! He has named himself Bauglir- tyrant and traitor- to us all!" Thranduil's face remained hard though his voice softened.
"But, enough blood has been spilled on his account and I will shed no more in my homeland. His charges have been read. And now after looking to our ancient customs and the Valar for guidance, I shall pass my judgment," he said, every word ringing out over the gathered assembly.
Even now, after all he had done, Thranduil was still willing to spare the elf's miserable life, reticent to spill his blood as easily as he had spilled his people's. And though many scowled at the elven traitor and thought he deserved much more, they accepted their king's judgment.
"I cast you out, Ainan," Thranduil ordered grimly. "You no longer have ties to any royal family of Mirkwood. You are disgraced. You may not return here nor to any of the other remaining elven realms even will they have you. Your only refuge lies beyond the western Seas if you so choose."
"It is just," Anariel added softly.
Thranduil griped her hand tightly and nodded to the guard at his side. Sarithan stepped briskly forward and drew his long knife. Ainan strained against his chains but the soldiers flanking him gripped him securely by the arms and shoulders to prevent him.
The border captain neatly sliced through the braids entwined into the elf's fair hair. The thin strands curled sadly on the ground. Legolas felt his heart swell with pity- to have one's braids cut from them was like having a last lifeline cut. It signified the deepest stigma and had never before been carried out in the forest of Mirkwood.
Ainan was no longer considered an Elf- one of the noble Firstborn.
His face as anguished as any had yet seen it, Ainan watched in dull surprise as one of the guards stepped forward and unlocked the chains that bound his wrists and ankles. The manacles fell with a soft thump to the grassy earth as he raised a hand to his shorn hair.
The elven traitor stared around at all the grim faces, settling at last upon his sister's sad face and the young prince who stood beside her, stoic, silent. Ainan's silver blue eyes flared to life as he fixated them upon Thranduil, the mangled strands of his once-flowing hair swirling about his shoulders.
"You will regret this, muindor! You cannot send me away forever!" His voice rang among the trees, sending a shiver down every elf's spine. Several of the elves raised their bows but Thranduil stayed their hands.
"No! Leave him be! He has no power anymore," he said quietly. Ainan's eyes shone in the gloom as he nodded mockingly in his brother-in-law's direction.
"Your mercy is commendable, my lord." His eyes narrowed further until they were mere malicious slits in his narrow face. "But do not think me grateful for I am not."
"We will return- stronger than before! I promise you that."
He motioned for the small remnant of his followers to form behind him. The guards on either side tensed but made no further move. Ainan leaned forward and spat at the Elvenking before turning away.
"Ainan," Anariel called softly, her blue eyes radiating the pain and betrayal that was clearly tearing her apart inside. Tears flowed readily from her crystalline eyes. She swallowed hard, not quite trusting her voice as she spoke her final words to her brother.
Do not come back.
Her brother's hate-hardened eyes stared straight back into her own.
"Nai hiruvalye gurth lintë a saer, le annath nîn. (May yours be a swift and bitter death, the one you should have given me.)" That venomous glare of pure hatred was the last Legolas saw of his uncle and it stayed, imprinted in his mind forever.
Anariel felt those words pierce her soul and she closed her eyes as Thranduil wrapped his arms around her. Turning his back to them, Ainan stalked off into the dark trees without a backward glance, his company following in his wake. A contingent of the King's guards rode after them to see that they did harm to none and truly left the elven land.
"I fear you did him too great a kindness, hir-nîn," Sarithan said gravely as he stepped up to the King. Thranduil's sorrowful eyes were fixed upon his brother's retreating back as they faded into the dusk.
"I fear you are right."
Anariel watched until her brother's form was lost to the trees then she turned, numb as a sleepwalker as the King gently took his wife's arm, supporting her as she leaned heavily upon his shoulder, bowed with pain and dark thought.
Legolas watched the small group disappear into the darkling woods. His blue eyes flickered to where Nárvenien stood, alone, at the edge of the crowd. The Elvenking had granted her amnesty for her part in the salvation of the Kingdom. However, for her mother and father, no mercy was granted and she was left alone, watching as they strode together, silent and cold as marble statues, sparing her not a glance.
Legolas saw the familiar anger in her eyes and maybe… satisfaction? He wasn't sure. The woman, sensing his gaze, turned to look at him with a cold glare and Legolas knew nothing had changed.
He looked away.
Behind him to where Lóthmir stood, his head cast down. Legolas felt remorse and grief tug at his heart as he saw the crystal tears sliding down his friend's face. The exile of his father's murderers had brought neither peace nor closure to the young elf. Only bitterness and helplessness.
Tirien had been buried that morning.
Legolas left his mother's side and walked back past Haldir with a small smile, stopping before his friends. Lóthmir was wearing his guardian's tunic for the first time today, his newly polished sword gleaming at his waist. Rinniad stood beside him proudly sporting the green and black colors of the border guards. After what they had done to protect their friend and to save him from certain death, they had more than earned that honor.
Lóthmir shot a look up at him and glanced quickly away. The prince looked at him for a moment then wordlessly folded him into a tight embrace.
"I'm so sorry, mellon-nin," he whispered. Lóthmir merely shook his head and tightened his grip on his friend.
Lóthmir's mother who stood beside them smiled through her tears, knowing that her son would be all right with friends like the prince of Mirkwood.
Twilight settled over the elven palace. Night mists crept up from the black river rolling smoothly, glinting under a moon sliver. Old leaves rattled in the wind, warmed by the coming spring. A deep dusky blue sky sparkled above with a myriad of white pinpricks. Eärendil shone brightly in the West tonight and Haldir sighed, standing at his ease outside his room on the small balcony.
He knew the time was coming when he would have to leave and unspeakable longing for his home tore so strongly through him that he closed his eyes against it. Reopening them, he felt sadness tug at his heartstrings too for he knew that with his departure towards home, he would also leave Legolas behind.
Haldir had noticed the young elf was spending more time alone. More time alone than he should be. The depth of emotion that troubled the young elf bothered him. Legolas should be free now that his uncle was gone and could never hurt him again. He should be laughing and joking with his friends in the firelight, not sitting in the grass in the cold night by himself.
Haldir walked slowly out onto the wind-whipped lawn, feeling the cool breeze comb through his hair as he searched the darkness for that glimmer of gold. He found the young prince sitting silently beside the recently turned earth where the elven warriors rested. With a soft grunt as the wound in his side twinged, Haldir dropped beside him with his arms draped comfortably over his knees. Legolas started nervously before he realized who it was.
The prince had forgotten his cloak but he did not seem to feel the cold. Not far away stood his teacher, Kirar, who, under Thranduil's instruction, had been appointed Legolas' protector. Along with several other faithful elves, the group had been officially assigned the security of the royal family.
"What are you thinking, Legolas?" Haldir asked after a minute of silence, wondering what had brought his young friend out here tonight. He sensed the sadness in him and his gaze in turn alighted on the names of those had had fallen, resting last upon that name which was dearest to him.
Haldir sighed when he received only silence in answer. With a sideways glance at the graven names, he looked at the elven prince. "They would be proud of you, Legolas, for what you have done."
"What did I do that was so special? I didn't do anything! If I had done something, they would still be alive," Legolas burst out, staring down at the grass between his boots.
So that was it. Haldir knew the feeling well though it was clear to him that Legolas did not deserve this guilt. Often felt by surviving soldiers after a comrade had been killed in battle, Haldir supposed it was just the same for the prince now. He felt guilty that he was alive and others had died for him.
"Haldir, how can you say they would be proud of me when I'm the one responsible for your friend being dead?" he asked quietly, his voice shivering.
Haldir looked at him, shocked.
"Legolas, you did not kill him."
Closing his eyes, the young elf just shook his head.
Wondering what he could say, the older elf looked up at the stars their fair light bathing his face in a silver shimmer.
"Look," he bade, pointing upwards.
Legolas did so and far above his head, above the interlacing boughs of the trees, stars he had never seen before had kindled above the white marker.
"Cálivien, Tirien and Telas, all of them, gave their lives for this land and gladly so that the rest of us could live in peace and happiness. They would be proud of you, Legolas, because you were brave enough to be the first to stand up, to say 'no,' that this could go on no longer. That takes a lot of courage. For that, they would be proud of you. You deserve no guilt for something you are not responsible for."
Legolas thought about that for a moment.
"I think Cálivien would be proud of you too, Haldir," he said thoughtfully.
Touched, Haldir could think of nothing to answer that and wordlessly wrapped an arm around the prince's shoulders, forcibly reminded of his brothers when they had been as young as Legolas.
"Come on. It's getting cold," he offered at last, draping his long woolen cloak over Legolas' shoulders. The prince clutched it to him as he scrambled to his feet, grateful for the warmth as he inhaled the sweet fragrance of mallorn leaves that seemed to reside in all woven make of that fair country.
The two walked back to the castle before the doors closed for the evening and made their easy way up to the healers' ward where the Lórien elves had been given guest rooms. Ancadal and Rameil were waiting for them, lighting the candles to illuminate the shadowed room.
Legolas curled himself into a chair in Haldir's room, listening idly to the older elves talk as he struggled not to fall asleep before the heat of the fire. His eyes flickered to a small wooden table at his elbow, upon which rested a bowl. The honey-glazed seeds inside it were very good and Legolas grabbed an eager handful.
"Ancadal, cut it out!" Rameil growled in irritation as a small missile soared over his head. The younger elf looked at him with a puzzled gaze and Legolas buried his nose in his hand to stifle a snort of laughter.
Across the fire, Haldir gave him a conspiratorial wink, another pip ready between thumb and forefinger.
"Really, now! That is enough!" The dark-haired elf protested as the projectile struck him between the eyes, leaping to his feet and glaring round at them all.
Unable to contain his mirth at the sight of his friend with the sticky seeds clinging to his dark tresses, Haldir burst out laughing.
Rameil rounded on him, glaring fiercely but the effect was ruined somewhat by the broad grin twitching the corners of his lips.
The room erupted in an all out seed fight. Legolas and Haldir took cover behind the armchairs as Ancadal threw himself behind the bed, pelting unfortunate Rameil, who had been caught in the open, with the sticky seeds.
"What in Arda is going on in here?" Vanima asked as she entered the room, looking around at the destruction with horror dawning on her face.
All four of them froze, guilty smiles spreading across their faces.
Rameil cleared his throat nervously and righted the chair he had pulled down to crouch behind. They were all out of breath from laughing so hard and quite covered in stickiness and bits of seeds. Ancadal plucked one out of Rameil's hair and ate it with relish as the dark-haired elf glared at him.
Vanima eyed the recalcitrant elves sternly but the barest hint of a smile at the corner of her lips betrayed her as she bent down to pick up a rumpled pillow.
"Settle down," she chided lightly as though they were little elflings that were misbehaving. She cut a glance at Legolas and Haldir. "You two at least should be resting before you break those stitches I have so carefully bestowed on you."
Legolas and Haldir exchanged mock-sheepish looks, trying futilely to control their laughter. Vanima, scowling through her own chuckles, shooed his highness off to bed while tossing pillows at the Lórien elves to put away.
The very old and long untreated arrow wound in his shoulder was enflamed and hurt abominably but he had dealt with worse over his long imprisonment and only rubbed absently at it every now and then, his mind on the little child sleeping in the next room.
"I didn't protect him. I let this happen... I should have known," Thranduil mourned, dropping his head into his hands.
A whisper behind him and the soothing scent of lavender told him who it was before her hands settled on his shoulders.
Anariel's sorrowful gaze looked down at the top of her husband's golden-crowned head. She knew he was not the King now, he was a father, guilt-ridden and broken-hearted because of something he could not have controlled. She wrapped her arms around him and held him to her and he clung to her. Ever since his imprisonment, he had thought ceaselessly of her, of his son, in his brother-in-law's hands, fearing what he might do to them.
Now, he swore to himself that he would never let this happen again. Not to his son, not to his wife, not to his people. Thranduil spoke slowly, diffident to reopen old wounds that he knew pained his wife still. Her brother had always been a difficult subject to broach- and now she had moved him to mercy and not condemned him for high treason! He shook his head and said nothing, willing to wait a little for the ire to cool.
But, as she always did, she sensed the strain in him and pulled slowly away, looking up into his face.
"My brother was very jealous- for many reasons," she said, not willing to discuss those reasons. There were darker secrets still that she kept close and would never speak aloud again. Even to her husband.
Thranduil sighed softly and thought a little while before answering.
"You remember at your father's palace, my friend was accidentally killed- he was found on the riding path with his neck broken." He fell quiet and shook his head. "I knew better. No rider was more skilled than Rochir. I wondered but I…" He took a steadying breath and reached for her hand which she gripped without hesitation.
"I know now that if I had gone with him instead of taking that picnic with you by the river, that I would have been dead too."
He looked up at her, her hand still clasped in his. He didn't know if it was for support or to keep her from turning away from the hard truth. She shook her head slowly, touching the wound in her side as it twinged.
"You do not know what he suffered."
"That does not give him the right to inflict suffering on others. On our son!" Thranduil said heatedly, simultaneously admiring and irritated with his wife's gentle mercy.
Anariel wordlessly shook her head. As much as he had warranted death by his actions, she could never have consigned herself to ordering the execution of the last of her lost family.
Thranduil understood more than she knew and sighed heavily, looking away from her but still keeping her hand.
"You abandoned your family for me," he said softly.
Anariel was silent as she knelt before him. Taking his face in her long-fingered hands, she looked up into his eyes.
"You and Legolas are my family."
She spoke softly but full of sincerity. The Queen's eyes lingered from her husband's to the doorway where a small figure stood near the doorjamb, starting as he realized he'd been discovered.
Anariel beckoned him into the room and Legolas came willingly into his mother's arms, curling against her shoulder as she reseated herself beside her husband. She stroked his hair gently, no longer feeling the gut-wrenching terror thrumming through him. But it had been replaced by a slower fear, a more troublesome emptiness that worried her for more than the fear had.
Thranduil looked keenly at his son as Legolas hesitantly looked up at him. The Elvenking was smitten to the heart by that look and he knew he would never forget the image of his child, bloodied and sobbing, apologizing to him… for being born! And his anger against the one who had done this made his voice tremble as he spoke.
"How long, Legolas?" the King asked, his heart breaking within him to see such a vacant look in his son's eyes.
Pressing himself closer into his mother's arms, Legolas told him without looking up, ashamed and afraid that his father would be angry with him for allowing it to go on for so long.
"Why did you not tell us?"
Legolas shifted, agonized. He had constantly denied to himself that what had happened was real. If he ignored it, it would go away but it had not been so and now so many had suffered because of his silence. He could never have told his mother and father about it though. Ainan had threatened to kill them if he told and then his friends…
"I… I couldn't," he mumbled.
Thranduil sighed but he did not blame his son. He still had not told his wife all of what had happened down in the dungeons between her brother and himself. And he wouldn't either so he could understand Legolas' reluctance. He understood his brother-in-law well now and had an idea of what had been demanded of his son for his silence.
He shivered and laid a hand on his boy's shoulder.
"You know you can always tell us anything, my son. Even if it is horrible, we will always believe you and listen to you."
Legolas only nodded. He took a deep, steadying breath and opened his eyes slowly. And he told them.
Everything, as near as he could remember and those dark memories that he had wrestled to the back of his mind. Once begun, he could not stop. He told them everything from the very beginning on the archery field when his uncle had first struck him through the long, bitter nights of countless beatings with the horrible rod, the confinement for hours at a time in the dark, the whippings and finally the horrible abuse in the lower dungeons of the palace. It felt as though he were squeezing poison from his skin, all of the feeling he had kept bottled up, things he hadn't even told Haldir yet and his parents encouraged him if he stopped for shame or remembered fear. And with each turn of his tale, his mother's face grew whiter and his father's darker.
By the time, he had finished, they were all crying and Thranduil was thankful the elven traitor was gone from his lands before he caught up his sword and went after him.
Legolas lay back in his mother's arms, drained from reliving those wretched memories and buried his face in his mother's shoulder as she cradled him. After a moment, he looked up into her rapidly blinking eyes.
"Please, Naneth, don't cry. I'm sorry," he whispered, his throat clenching. "I should have said something sooner… I should have told… but I-I was too cowardly and… stupid to realize…"
A single tear spilled over his cheek and splashed onto his mother's hand. She clung tighter to him, shaking her head determinedly.
"No. No, my little one. There was nothing more you could have done. You were smart and brave to face all that you did, all alone, oh, my child," she murmured into his hair, squeezing him even tighter.
"Now, now, my dear, you'll choke the poor boy with all your smothering," Thranduil chided lightly. Anariel looked sharply at him.
"I do not smother! Do I, Legolas?" she asked of her son but Legolas merely attempted a smile in answer to his parents' lightheartedness and the ache in his chest eased.
His mother had said he was brave.
But the smile faded as he recalled something else.
"Ved- he said I needed to grow up. I couldn't be a child anymore. I had to grow up and take the pain," Anariel felt more tears prick her eyes as she drew her son to him in a tight embrace.
"I would that you stay a child forever, tithen nîn (my little one)." He pulled away from her slightly, looking up into her gentle face.
"Can I Naneth?" She smiled sadly in return. He was still her innocent little boy though much of that innocence had vanished from behind those beautiful blue eyes as she stroked his cheek.
"For a little while, my brave little boy. It is not yet time for you to grow up; you have years of happiness ahead of you yet." The prince smiled weakly, fluttering on the edges of sleep, exhausted by his tale. Anariel leant forward and buried her face in his soft golden hair, tears gathering in her eyes for son and brother both
The little family stayed like that for a long time. His mother stroked his golden hair and held him against her while his father wrapped his arms around both of them, a feeling of safety and peace surrounding all as the room slowly darkened as their servant softly lit the lanterns and stoked up the fire in the massive fireplace. It was very late and at last the King stretched and yawned, having drifted into a half-doze himself.
"I'll take him back to his bed," Thranduil volunteered, lifting his little son carefully into his arms, cradling him against his chest. He felt how thin his child was and his heart nearly broke, realizing how close they had come to losing him.
Legolas' room had been moved from that chamber of nightmares to a new, clean room overlooking his mother's gardens. The Elvenking tucked his son into his own big bed, draped with dark green coverlets. Legolas woke as his father drew the covers to his chin. He smiled sleepily up at his father who kissed him on his brow as he drifted off again. Forcing the memories to the back of his mind, the prince fell asleep with thoughts of the day and how it had been the happiest day of his life in a long time.
The bite was gone from the chill in the castle and every room blazed with warmth and light and happiness such as it had not seen in a long while.
"I will never forget what you have done for me, Captain," Thranduil said quietly. "Or for my family." Haldir bowed his head but the King took his wrist in a firm grip.
"Thank you," he said earnestly. "I sign this treaty now gladly and I hope that this is a sign of the friendship to grow between the elves of Mirkwood and Lothlórien," he said with a smile.
Haldir stood with Rameil on his left and Ancadal on his right as they faced the King before the assembled council the following morning. Dressed in their traditional warriors' uniforms which had been cleansed and re-stitched, they stood at ease, embroidered dark green sashes wound about their waists. The King had made them honorary warriors of the Realm, free to come and go as they pleased, always to be welcomed as heroes in his halls.
"Lord King,-" Thranduil looked up. "We could have done no less," Haldir answered for all of them.
The Queen leant forward and gifted each of them with a kiss on their brows. In turn, they bowed deeply over her hand.
"Never again let it be said that the elves of Lothlórien are treacherous or faithless for they have shown the greatest courage and fealty in protecting this home that is not their own," she said quietly.
Legolas beamed brightly, standing with his friends as he cheered with the rest as the household of Mirkwood wandered out onto the vast expanse of lawn which had been prepared for them.
Thranduil called a great afternoon feast to celebrate the lives of their fallen and of leave-taking for the Lothlórien elves would be departing soon. Many attended from the young guards- who had continued to control the borders in their monarch's absence, hearing only rumors of what had happened- to Lóthmir and his mother who were still pale with grief.
He and his friends lolled out in the sunshine, basking in the first few blissful days of spring where the sun shown bright but not too hot upon their faces. They lay on their backs, feeling the wind tease their hair across their faces, and the grass hissing around them, the trees sighing in the peace at last.
Lóthmir opened his eyes as a cool shadow fell across his face and opened his mouth in greeting but Haldir held a finger to his lips, stepping soundlessly over to Legolas. He nudged him playfully in the side with his boot.
"Stop it, Rinniad," Legolas muttered sleepily, swatting lazily at the older elf who dodged it with a muffled laugh.
Said elf opened his eyes, puzzled until he caught sight of Haldir.
Haldir nudged the prince again with a grin at Rinniad and Lóthmir who were madly trying to control their laughter. Opening his eyes, Legolas shot a sheepish glance up at him through half-open lids. But Haldir's lips twitched in an uncontrollable grin and suddenly they all burst out laughing- the tension, fears, pain and sadness ebbing away with the sound.
Legolas scrambled to his feet, still laughing.
Haldir smiled slightly as he brushed a stray lock of hair from Legolas' face. The young prince was still thin but he looked happier and healthier than the Lórien captain had yet seen him. A wide smile broke the younger elf's face though it was tempered with sadness as he embraced the older elf, looking up into his face.
"We're leaving soon," the older elf said, his eyes betraying his sadness. Legolas too felt his heart sink in his chest.
Haldir circled his arms around the younger elf. It was so difficult to leave after what they had gone through together. But his heart longed for home. Breaking the embrace, he knelt next to the elven prince so that they were nearly eye to eye.
"Not for ever,'" he smiled. Legolas nodded though sadness still glittered in his eyes as he waved to Rameil and Ancadal who were coming towards them, their packs over their shoulders.
In turn, the Lórien elves bid farewell to the youngsters and walked to where their horses stood already saddled and waiting
The prince watched as the Lórien commander mounted his steed, Rameil and Ancadal impatiently waiting and eager to be off. They all turned once and waved to the King and Queen who had come to see them off along with other members of the guard and household for a royal send-off.
Legolas sighed, waiting until the figures of the Lothlórien elves disappeared under the hanging tree shadows. Then, he felt Rinniad wrap an arm around his shoulder.
"Well are you going to stand about all day or watch me best Lóthmir in an archery contest?"
"You have the eyesight of a dwarf!" came the indignant reply from the insulted elf as Lóthmir came up beside him and cuffed him playfully across the head. "It is I who would best you!"
"You're both wrong," Legolas said with a laugh. "I'm better than both of you!"
"Oh, ho!" Rinniad chortled, a broad grin spreading across his face. "The young prince of Mirkwood wishes to challenge our skills, Lóthmir! What say you to that?"
"I accept the challenge and will gladly watch him beat you."
Mirkwood's prince laughed merrily and as he did so, lines of care that had seared his young brow were smoothed away and did not return as Lóthmir leant forward and tousled his hair. He jumped up indignantly and raced after him with Rinniad right behind him, laughing across the lawn.
Legolas was not fully healed by any means. It was true his physical scars would fade with time but he had been badly hurt by someone he had trusted, whom his family had trusted. He had been shamed and taught self-hatred and loathing. Such wounds would take a long time to heal- if they ever did.
But he had also learned love and loyalty and friendship which rose above all shadow. Light and happiness always came after the darkness. Spring after the cold bitterness of winter.
And at last, healing could begin for them all.