Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nor any of the various dramatic incarnations thereof. No profit is being made from this work.
Greetings! Welcome to the story. It's a little out of season, but what of that? It will keep.
This story is an expansion of an event mentioned in an earlier story, "Coming Home." While I would certainly be flattered if you felt inspired to read "Coming Home," it is not necessary to have read it before reading this one. If you have read some of my earlier stories, you will probably recognize some of the names here.
We know relatively little about the culture of the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood. The ceremony that I've given them here is based on a number of sources, which I will explain in more detail later. In the meantime, enjoy the story, and I'll meet you at the end.
1. Sons of Sorrow
"Again, " Innil, the dancing mistress, said. "Step, hop, step, hop, step, step, step, hop, and repeat on the other foot." She tucked her fiddle against her arm and began to play. Thranduil, King of the Elves of Mirkwood, closed his eyes in concentration, counted the beats of the music, and executed the sequence of steps. "Good," Innil said. "Now, faster." Again she played, and again Thranduil danced, until he could dance the figure perfectly four times in a row. The dancing mistress nodded to him.
"You may rest a moment, my Lord," she said. "Inglor, it is your turn." Thranduil leaned against the wall of the dancing chamber and watched intently as the young border guard was put through his paces. Luindil had been right, he decided. He had been in desperate need of something to occupy his mind and his body while he recovered from the sudden loss of his Queen.
He had spent much of the time since that awful summer day in a haze, warding off the pain with too much wine. His staff had made what allowances they could. A circle of maidens and young mothers had taken Legolas in, and his lords and advisors had done their best to continue the rule of Mirkwood when their King was incapacitated. Finally, Luindil, his seneschal, who had served his father Oropher before him, and who loved him as a son, had stepped in to confront Thranduil. Fearful that the King he had first known as an infant would fade, Luindil had begged him to cease his excessive drinking. When that failed to have an effect, he had unleashed his full fury on Thranduil.
The tirade had finally penetrated Thranduil's wine-fogged mind, and he had responded with angry, grief-stricken shouting of his own. His ears still burned at the memory of the fierce scolding and the argument that had followed. In the end, Luindil had won, and Thranduil had allowed himself to be brought back from the dangerous edge of his grief. Luindil had welcomed him back to the land of the living with open arms, and had immediately sought something other than wine to aid the King through his sorrow. Autumn was at its peak, and the preparations for the winter had inspired Luindil to think of the masque.
The highlight of the Silvan Elves' Yule festivities was the ancient Masque of the King Stag. Luindil had witnessed the masque countless times over the centuries and thought that it would be just the thing to help Thranduil heal. He had approached the dancing mistress with the idea, and she had readily consented. This year, King Thranduil himself would dance the lead role in the ceremony. As such, he must learn two separate dances and preside over a third. As Luindil had hoped, the rehearsal and preparation for the masque neatly took up the time that Thranduil would otherwise have spent alone in his chambers with only a decanter of wine for company.
At the moment, the dancing mistress was teaching Thranduil and Inglor a complex dance that represented the hunt. It was a spectacular, athletic dance, which showed off the physical prowess of both hunter and prey. Watching the masque in previous years, Thranduil had always been impressed at the enormous leaps the dancers made. Now that he saw Inglor practicing them nearly every day, his admiration had increased tenfold. He had no doubt that Inglor was one of the best dancers in Mirkwood. He only hoped that he could live up to such a standard as they danced together.
"Very good, Inglor," Innil said. "Now, let us put this figure together. My Lord, you are needed once more." Thranduil stepped out into the center of the dancing chamber and faced Inglor. Innil began to play on her fiddle, and at the appropriate moment, Thranduil and Inglor began to dance. The figure was an intricate sequence of steps, which brought the dancers well within a sword's length of each other, yet prevented them from colliding if executed correctly. Thranduil and Inglor danced it without incident, and the dancing mistress nodded.
"Well done," she said. "From here, we will open the dance out to its climax. Please remain where you are standing now." Thranduil and Inglor waited as Innil pulled a bit of chalk from a pocket in her dress and began to sketch their paths lightly on the floor.
"No!" Legolas said, scowling at the chestnut-flour bannock on the plate in front of him. "It is wrong." The nine other children at the table looked nervous, watching to see if Legolas would throw a fit and kick or bite.
"It is a perfectly good bannock," Gilveril said. She and her mother Glawariel, Thranduil's chief cook, had rounded up all of the small children who lived in the delvings and were attempting to feed them lunch before sending them to their lessons. Most of the children had started to eat their bannocks, but the King's son refused to touch his food. "What is wrong with it?" Gilveril asked. "It is just the same as what everyone else has. They are all eating the good bannocks. Are you not hungry, Legolas?"
The child's face screwed up, and Gilveril feared that he would burst into tears. "It is cut wrong," Legolas said. Gilveril sighed. She had carefully split each bannock and smeared each half with honey. She could not see what she had done wrong with this bannock.
Glawariel, hearing the sound of a small child on the verge of a tantrum, hurried to rescue her daughter. She knelt down beside the child. "What is the matter, Legolas?" she asked. "How is the bannock cut wrong?"
"It goes in four pieces," Legolas sniffled. "Like this." He held his index fingers up, crossed at right angles.
"I see," Glawariel said. "Is that the way your nana cut them for you?" Legolas nodded. All of the other children at the table looked sympathetic. Gilveril rolled her eyes.
"Naneth," she said, "he has been eating bannocks like this ever since he was old enough for lessons. I do not see why I should cut a fresh one for him. Even if the Queen is gone," she added. "It will not make her come back." Legolas looked as if he would cry. Glawariel favored her adolescent daughter with a brief, ferocious glare.
"Silly girl," she said. "No one has told you to cut a fresh bannock. We have no more fresh bannocks for you to cut in any event. I will handle this." She turned back to Legolas, and softened her voice. "Legolas," she said, "do you know that this is a special bannock?"
Legolas eyed Glawariel warily.
"It is," Glawariel assured him. "It is a special lessons-bannock. Do you see the way it opens, just like the books and scrolls you are learning to read? When your lessons are over and you are eating with your family, then you may have your family-bannock."
"No Nana," Legolas protested, almost too softly to be heard. "No family."
"I will ask my husband to make you a special family-bannock this evening," Glawariel said. Galion, her husband, was fond of the child and sometimes allowed him to "help" in the great kitchens. He had indulged Legolas more than usual recently in the face of Thranduil's grief-stricken neglect of his son, and Glawariel was sure that his indulgence would extend to the baking of an extra bannock.
"Promise?" Legolas asked, and Glawariel knew the worst was over.
"I promise I will ask him," she said. "Now, eat your lessons-bannock so you will not be hungry this afternoon." Legolas glanced around the table at the other children, who were watching the drama with rapt interest, and finally picked up his bannock and took a bite. Satisfied, Glawariel stood and moved to reclaim her own bannock from her daughter.
"You are so skilled with them, naneth," Gilveril sighed. "You distracted him so smoothly, it was like water."
"That is because I have had years of practice," Glawariel said. "Not the least of which were with you." Gilveril blushed.
"All the same," she said, "I think it is a shame that the King cannot seem to find it in him to care for Legolas. What is the matter with him that he cannot interest himself in his own son?"
"The King is not yet himself," Glawariel said. "It is a marvel that he is still here at all. Were it not for Legolas and Luindil, I think he would surely have faded. You do not know how deeply he is hurt, child. We must be patient a little more before he and his son begin to heal."
Galion did bake a bannock for Legolas that evening, making sure to cut it in four pieces that were just the right size for small hands to grasp. Luindil sat with the child as he ate it, for Thranduil had requested that a tray be sent to him in the library, where he would be inspecting his accounts all evening. As he watched Legolas gnaw doggedly at his bannock, Luindil felt a flare of anger at his King for leaving this little one alone in his grief. Then he shook himself and suppressed the flare. At least it was accounts and not wine, Luindil told himself. Thranduil was returning to life, but only slowly, and Luindil wondered how long Legolas would have to wait for his father.
"All done," Legolas announced. He climbed down from his chair and came to stand before Luindil. Luindil looked at the plate and frowned. Legolas had eaten only three of the four pieces.
"What about the last piece?" Luindil asked. "You should not waste food." Legolas thought for a moment.
"I will share it with Ada," he offered, looking hopeful. "Maybe Ada wants a special family-bannock, too." Luindil sighed and lifted the child onto his lap.
"I think that is an excellent idea," he said. "I think your Ada needs a family-bannock very much indeed. Would you like to bring it to him?"
Legolas shook his head, cuddling close under Luindil's arm. "No. You should give it to him. Ada does not see me any more." He gave a resigned sigh.
Luindil glanced over Legolas's head at the piece of bannock. "Very well," he said. "I will give it to him. But first, I believe I know of a little one who has had an unhappy day." Legolas nodded.
"I do, too."
"Perhaps we should cut our losses, then? Shall we end this little one's unhappy day now and hope that tomorrow will be happy?"
Legolas nodded again. Luindil reached out with one long arm, wrapped the bannock remnant in a napkin, and put it into his belt pouch. Then he carried Legolas down the hall to his sleeping chamber to help the night nurse put him to bed.
An hour later, Luindil knocked on the door to the library. There was a long pause, and then he heard Thranduil's voice. "Come in."
Luindil opened the door and frowned at what he saw. The accounts were spread all over the desk in untidy piles. Thranduil sat listlessly before them, his face blank, and his eyes disoriented. At Luindil's approach, he roused himself and made the effort to focus on his seneschal. Luindil glanced reflexively around the room, and Thranduil cracked a wry half-smile.
"You need not worry," he said. "There is nothing here stronger than tea. I am merely exhausted, not drunk."
"And lonely as well, I would wager."
Thranduil dropped his head into his hands and nodded. "We used to do this together, she and I," he said after a while. "I have always been good at determining the settlement's needs and the best ways to distribute our resources, but she had the better head for figuring."
Luindil picked up one of the account pages and examined it. "This seems to be in order."
The corners of Thranduil's mouth turned up, but the smile did not reach his eyes. "You see?" he said. "I am learning to live without her."
"You are making a start, at any rate." Luindil glanced at the tray that sat on the desk, empty dishes propping up another sheet of figures. "You have eaten, and that is good as well. Think you that you could manage a little more?" At Thranduil's questioning look, Luindil offered him the bit of bannock from his pouch. "Legolas wished to share this with you," he said. "He called it a 'family-bannock,' and he seemed to think that you are in need of it. I would tend to agree with your son," he added pointedly.
Thranduil started a little, and Luindil saw his eyes grow suspiciously liquid as he stared at the piece of bannock. Slowly, Thranduil reached out his hand and took it.
"He is a good child," Thranduil said softly. "I have done nothing to merit such a treasure." He glanced at Luindil as if expecting his seneschal to agree with that statement, but Luindil was silent. Thranduil looked down at his desk. "He is broken now," he went on. "Every time I look at him, I see such hurt in his eyes that it takes my breath away. It frightens me, Luindil. I want to take all my child's pain away, but I cannot. There is too much of it. I do not know where to begin."
"You must begin to trust yourself," Luindil said. "You are his Ada, and that is no mean thing. Legolas does not ask perfection of you, only your steadfast love."
"I do love him."
"I know you do. And Legolas knows it as well. That is why he waits for you."
"But he cannot wait forever," Thranduil sighed. Luindil shrugged.
"That is true," he said. "And that is why, in my heart of hearts, I wish that you will recover your courage soon and take your son back. But I would also say that you, too, are broken, and I know that it is hard to comfort a broken child when one is not whole oneself."
"I wish to heal," Thranduil said, "and so I dance. I do not know if it is healing me to do so, but it begins to dull the pain a little."
"That is a start," Luindil said. He eyed the Elvenking critically. "You are exhausted," he observed.
"Healing is hard work. And so is figuring."
Luindil smiled. "Then go to your rest, King Thranduil. I will tidy the accounts here." Thranduil blinked at him, then stood.
"Thank you, Luindil," he said. "I bid you good night."
"May your rest be pleasant and your dreams gentle."
Thranduil nodded and left the library. Luindil turned to the accounts scattered over the desk and organized them into neat piles before going to seek his own rest.
Despite his exhaustion, Thranduil's sleep was light and troubled. He woke several times during the night, sometimes with the memory of a strange, dark dream fading from his mind. When he woke just past the middle of the night, he thought he heard someone weeping. He lay awake for a few moments, and the weeping persisted. He realized that the sound was not a fragment of dream and padded out into the corridor to investigate.
The sound came from Legolas's chamber. When Thranduil entered, he found the child curled in his bed, fast asleep, crying out in his dreams. Thranduil dropped to his knees beside the low, narrow bed and tentatively reached out his hand to caress Legolas's soft hair. Gently, he rubbed his child's back and sang soothing nonsense. Under his touch, Legolas relaxed, and his cries subsided. Without ever fully waking, he slid from nightmare into a deeper, dreamless sleep.
Thranduil knelt by the bed a while longer, watching Legolas sleep. With a feather-light touch, he brushed away tears from the child's soft cheek and twined a strand of fine hair around his finger. Someone had bathed Legolas before putting him down to sleep, and he smelled of fresh water and new leaves. Asleep, he seemed calm and untroubled, just as any child ought to be when tucked safely into its own bed. Thranduil could well imagine what monsters lurked just beneath that calm surface, far down the path of childish dreams where he could not follow.
At that thought, a shadow passed over his face. He disentangled his hand from Legolas's hair and stood up, placing a gentle kiss on the tip of one little ear as he did so. Silently, he moved out into the corridor and shut the door. He leaned against the wall, then slowly slid to the floor, wrapping his arms around his knees and bowing his head. His eyes burned, and something swelled in his throat, nearly stopping his breath, but no tears came.
After a while, he became aware that he was not alone. Raising his head, he saw Luindil sitting on his heels beside him, regarding him with large, solemn eyes. "Legolas had a nightmare," Thranduil said. "I heard him crying. He is calm again now."
"Good," Luindil said. Something in his voice prompted Thranduil to speak again.
"Legolas did not wake up," he said. "I sang to him, and the nightmare faded away, and he slept peacefully. I can do that when he sleeps. Why can I not do so when he is awake?"
"There was a time, not long ago, when you could not have done it at all," Luindil reminded him. "Every day, you recover a little more of yourself."
"That was why my mother faded," Thranduil murmured. "She could not bear the hurt of my father's death. But I cannot fade. I cannot leave Legolas alone. He is too young. He needs me, but I cannot go to him."
"You know that he needs you, and you have a reason to stay," Luindil said. "That is why I trust your ability to heal. Do not despair, Thranduil. Your heart has not turned to stone. I think it has turned to ice, and very slowly, it is thawing."
Thranduil glanced over at the door to Legolas's chamber. "He did not wake."
"But he knows. The little ones know much more than they let on. Deep in his heart, Legolas knows that you have not forgotten him."
Thranduil's mouth, which had been set in a hard, tight line, softened a bit. "He shared his bannock with me."
"Yes. Your son loves you still and wishes to see you returned to life and hope," Luindil said. "Will you return to your bed now? It will be warm beneath your blankets, and perhaps your icy heart will thaw a little more."
"I will. I arose because I heard Legolas crying, and he is asleep now. I will sleep as well. Good night Luindil." Thranduil rose to his feet.
"Good night, King Thranduil." Luindil waited until his King had entered his chamber and shut the door, then walked off towards his own bed, satisfied that both of his boys had received the soothing they needed.