After Menellir took Legolas away, the crowd murmured its concern for a few minutes. Legolas was certainly not the first child to have been frightened by the sudden violence of the masque, but everyone present knew of the loss he had suffered that summer, and every heart reached out to him with wishes of comfort. The interruption did not last long, however. There was one last dance left before the masque was complete.
A flute played a high, keening note, and a sorrowful maiden dressed in a gray gown trimmed with silver glided across the circle. She knelt by the fallen form of the Hunter King and bowed her head. Gently, she straightened his body and composed his hands upon his breast. When she had finished, she stood, spread her skirts wide, and danced with long, graceful steps around his body. Silver streamers fluttered from her sleeves and sparkled in her hair.
A bright fiddle tune heralded the entrance of another maiden, this one dressed in green and gold. She, too, made reverence to the fallen King. Then she took the hand of the maiden in gray, and they danced around each other, curving away and coming together again. Sometimes they danced close together, and the golden streamers of the one mingled with the silver streamers of the other. Together, the two maidens danced around the Hunter King in wide, interlocking circles.
Thranduil lay on the ground, paying minimal attention to the familiar music and the swirling skirts and stamping feet of the maidens' dance. Legolas's terrified screams still echoed in his mind, and a sharp ache had lodged itself in his chest. He wanted nothing more than to run from the room, take Legolas in his arms and soothe his fears, but he must lie still and see the masque through to its end. He wanted to laugh, even as he felt tears pricking his eyes. For months, he had not been able to approach his broken child, and now that his only wish was to do so, he found himself constrained by the requirements of the ritual.
Fortunately, this was the final phase of the masque. It was not especially long, and he would leave at the earliest opportunity to do so. He wished that Legolas could hear his thoughts. Wait, little mouse, he said silently. Wait just a little longer. Your Ada is coming for you.
In one of the small pantries off the Great Hall, Legolas sat on Menellir's lap and cried inconsolably. Menellir rocked him and hummed tunelessly, clasping the shuddering little body against his chest. Silently, he cursed himself for several different kinds of a fool. He had assumed that someone had explained to Legolas what he would see during the masque, but it appeared that he was mistaken. Of course, he told himself, it was something the Queen would have done had she still been present. As far as he knew, Thranduil had not had the wherewithal even to speak to Legolas for some time, and the other members of the King's household had been occupied with the hard work of autumn. It seemed that no one had had the time to prepare the child.
The heavy leather curtain over the doorway flapped, and Menellir looked up. Luindil slipped into the pantry, still dressed in his dancing tunic, his antlers in his hand. Gently, he laid the antlers down and hurried to Menellir's side and sat down on the bench next to him.
"Shall I take him?" he asked.
"No," Menellir said. "He is clinging fast to my shirt. I will let him weep a little longer. When he is weary from his tears, then we will have an easier time of reasoning with him. But you are still needed for the masque."
Luindil shrugged. "They will have to make do with five Stag Dancers instead of six. This is more important."
Menellir nodded. "Indeed." Legolas choked a little, and Menellir rubbed his back. Luindil dropped his head into his hands.
"I am a fool," he said. "I had intended to tell him the story of the Hunter before the feast, but I never could find the proper moment."
"You were preparing to dance unexpectedly. You had little opportunity." Menellir laughed bitterly. "If you are a fool, Luindil, then you are in good company, for I am as great a fool. I assumed that others had prepared him, and I did not even think to ask if this was so."
"Then we are fools together, and it is in our hands to see how we can repair the damage done."
Doronrîn stepped quietly into the pantry bearing a soft woolen blanket. Menellir took it from her with a nod of thanks and wrapped it around Legolas. He noticed that the child had become quiet, emitting an occasional hiccup. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped Legolas's face. "I am sorry that you were upset, Legolas," he said. "Doronrîn and Luindil are here, and you are safe with us now. Will you tell us what frightened you?"
"Ada died," Legolas said in a tiny, wavering voice. His eyes filled with tears again. Doronrîn stroked his hair, and Luindil detached Legolas's hands from Menellir's shirt and held them firmly.
"You are mistaken, Legolas," he said. "I promise you that your Ada did not die. It will not be long before he comes to see you."
Legolas was not convinced. "He had swords on his neck," he said. "Swords make people die. Swords made Nana --" his voice trailed off into a wail. Menellir held Legolas tighter, and Luindil squeezed his hands.
"Legolas," he said soothingly, "I understand why you were frightened. But I will tell you something you do not know. The swords on your Nana's neck were real, but the swords on your Ada's neck were not. He is not dead, Legolas. He will come for you."
"Why did he have swords on his neck?"
Luindil wondered how best to explain the meaning of the masque to such a small child. In truth, he had been so preoccupied lately that he had not given the issue much thought. Fortunately Menellir, who had two grown children of his own, stepped in to rescue him.
"It is part of a ceremony," he said. "The masque is exciting and colorful and even a little frightening sometimes, but it is very important. It is our way of responding to the world around us."
"Do you remember the games that you played this summer?" Luindil asked. "All the games where your toys did battle and some of them died? You could not put into words what you were feeling, but you could say it when you played. There are some feelings that are so strong that we cannot speak them aloud. Instead, we speak with our bodies. We make music, and we dance."
"Long ago, when the Sun was first made," Menellir said, "the Wood-Elves noticed that she did not always take the same path every day. She rose later and set earlier. The days grew colder, and the nights grew longer. The rivers froze, and snow fell, and all the plants that fed us died, and the animals grew thin and hungry. This made the Elves worried. They feared that if things continued along this path, the Sun would never rise again."
"But the Sun always rises," Legolas said.
"We know that now," Menellir agreed. "But the Elves who lived when the Sun was first made did not know that. All they knew was that the days became short and cold and that the forest began to die a little. They feared for the forest, but their fear was too deep to put into words. So they danced their fear, and their hope that the Sun would return, bringing light and warmth to restore life to the woods."
"Each year, the forest dies a little death," Doronrîn said. "And on the night when the darkness is longest, we look forward to the coming of spring."
Six times the two maidens circled the Hunter King. They met with a final spin and stood at his head. A shower of tiny bells sounded from the darkness as they bowed, opening their hands to the King.
The mellow sound of a horn swelled, and the Hunter King rose gracefully to his feet. He leaped high in the air, spinning completely around before landing. As fiddles, harps, flutes and drums struck up a merry tune, he extended one hand to the maiden in silver and gray and one hand to the maiden in green and gold. They escorted him in a lively dance around the edges of the circle.
When they had completed one full circuit, the Stag King appeared at the head of a line of the five lesser stags who had opened the masque. If anyone noticed that the sixth was missing, not a word was said. The Sword Dancers followed the stags, and all of the dancers took hands in a long line. The Elves rose to their feet and began to sing a joyous song of welcome for the returning Sun.
Still singing, the dancers in their line began to pace out a simple step, circling and weaving around the floor. One by one, they took hands with the watching Elves and brought them into the dance as well, until nearly the entire community was linked hand in hand, all singing and dancing together. Pages quietly lit the torches along the walls, and light seemed to flood the Great Hall, which had been in darkness for so long.
In the very center of the mass of celebrants, Thranduil's heart ached so fiercely that he could no longer resist its call. Quickly, he joined the hands of the two maidens with whom he had been dancing and began to work his way through the crowd, cutting briefly into one layer and dancing a few steps before working his way outward once more. In this way, he soon found himself at the edge of the Great Hall, where the musicians played in their alcove.
The harpist pointed him toward a particular door. Thranduil nodded his thanks and hurried away. He saw candlelight spilling from beneath the leather curtain of one of the pantries and heard soft voices murmuring. His heart pounding in his throat, Thranduil tapped gently at the curtain.
The voices paused, and Thranduil heard footsteps. Then the curtain was moved aside, and Luindil smiled at him.
"Is Legolas there?" Thranduil asked. "I must see him."
"Of course," Luindil said. "He is here with us." He started to turn, but Thranduil caught at his sleeve.
"What do I say to him? It has been so long; I do not wish to ruin this from the beginning."
"Do not worry about that, Thranduil," Luindil said. "What you say is not important. The words will come. It is more important that you say something at all." He turned to announce Thranduil's entrance. Thranduil took a deep breath and pushed the curtain aside.
"The King has come," Luindil announced. Menellir hugged Legolas, and Doronrîn patted his hair.
"That is wonderful," she said. "It is just as we have told you, Legolas. Just as the Sun will rise again, the King has returned. Your Ada is here for you."
Sheltered in Menellir's arms, Legolas looked up, his face a strange mixture of grief and hope and wariness. The curtain moved, and Thranduil entered the pantry. His white tunic and scarlet cloak glowed in the candlelight, and his golden headdress gleamed. His face glittered with beetle-shell paint, and his eyes shone. Legolas took one look at him and shrieked, burying his face in Menellir's shirt.
"That is not my Ada!" he wailed. "That is a monster!"
Thranduil stood rooted to the ground, horrified, as his son turned away from him in fear. Black spots danced before his eyes, and there was a sick lump in his stomach. Through the tightness in his throat, he choked out the first thing that came to his mind.
"Legolas, little mouse," he called. "Do not cry. I am here for you. Come here and let me hold you." His nose stung, and he felt tears begin to leak from his eyes. Desperately, he felt around with a hand, and Luindil pressed a small towel into it. He scrubbed it across his face, heedless of the grease and glitter that it picked up.
In a flash, Doronrîn realized what the problem was. She turned to Legolas and gently but firmly pried him away from Menellir's shirt. "Look, Legolas," she said. "That is no monster. You see strange clothes and gold and glittering paint, but underneath the paint is your Ada, and he very much wants to see you."
Slowly, Legolas turned around. He had seen the Hunter King die, which was frightening enough, but on his return, the King had seemed even bigger than before, dangerously large in the small pantry outside of his ring of light. He could not see how such an overwhelming creature could possibly be his Ada, but he could not resist Doronrîn's firm hands as they turned him to look.
The strange figure seemed smaller, somehow. The iridescent glitter was blurred and smeared so that plain flesh showed through. The face underneath was familiar, and he knew the voice. It called to him again.
"Legolas, I love you, little mouse. Please come to me."
Thranduil nodded. Doronrîn assisted Menellir to his feet, and Menellir carried Legolas to his father. "There is nothing to fear," he said. "It was only paint. Your Ada really is here for you."
Luindil removed the golden headdress, allowing Thranduil's hair to fall free. "Do you remember the beetle shells you mashed, Legolas?" he asked. "You helped to make this paint."
Thranduil wiped the towel across his face again, cleaning another patch. Then he handed the towel to Legolas. "You try it, little mouse. Wipe, and my paint will come off."
Tentatively, Legolas swabbed at Thranduil's face. More glittering paint transferred to the towel, and suddenly he saw that it was indeed his beloved Ada standing before him. He saw that Thranduil was trembling, and he realized that his Ada needed him. He dropped the towel and squirmed, and Menellir hastily released him into Thranduil's embrace.
"Ada!" Legolas said. "You came back!"
"I did. I am sorry that I was ever gone from you in the first place. Forgive my weakness, Legolas. You waited so patiently, for so long, but I have come for you."
"I love you, Ada." Legolas snuggled into the hollow of his father's shoulder. Thranduil's strong arms closed around his son, and he rested his cheek against the child's hair, breathing in the scent of new leaves.
"And I love you, little mouse," he said, before his throat closed and he let the tears come. After a few minutes, he looked up, his smeared face damp, but his eyes bright and clear. He smiled at Menellir and Doronrîn, and then at Luindil. "Thank you," he told them. "Thank you for loving him and caring for him when I could not. And thank you for your care of me, as well. I will not forget this kindness."
"You have fought a mighty battle, King Thranduil," Luindil said. "We gave you what aid we could, but the battle and the victory are yours. The light in your eyes is the best reward we could have."
Legolas peeked at Menellir from under Thranduil's chin. "Thank you for sitting with me," he said. "I am sorry that you missed the end of the masque."
"No," Menellir said. "I have seen the end of the masque. I did not see it danced, but I saw the end of the masque."
"The reveling will continue until dawn," Thranduil said, "but I think I must excuse myself. I wish to celebrate privately this year, with only one special guest." He kissed the top of Legolas's head. "Luindil, will you preside in my absence?"
The seneschal nodded. "Of course. There is not an Elf in Mirkwood who would begrudge you this time."
"Then I bid you good night, and a glad Yule." Thranduil carried Legolas out of the pantry and through the corridors.
"Where are we going?" Legolas asked.
"We are going to my chambers," Thranduil told him. "I have not forgotten that it is Yule, after all. There is a gift waiting for you there."
"I have no gift for you, Ada. I am sorry. I was too sad about Nana to think about Yule, and then everyone was too busy to help me make one."
Thranduil tickled Legolas's ear. "Nonsense. You have given me the most wonderful Yule gift I have ever received."
Thranduil opened the door to his bedchamber, and Legolas gasped. Dozens of candles glowed inside their clear glass globes. The light shone on dark green holly and made its red berries gleam. Evergreen branches added a fresh, woodsy scent to the air. Little prisms and icicles of glass cast rainbow reflections.
"You decorated!" Legolas cried, delighted. "You found the Yule ornaments! I thought Nana hid them and that you could not find them, and that they were lost forever."
"No. I know exactly where your Nana kept her treasures," Thranduil said. "But I could not bring myself to look at them until today. Luindil brought me the holly and the evergreen. He said you had gathered them yourself, but there was no room for them in the Great Hall."
Legolas nodded. "He said he would put them in a safe place."
"And this is a very safe place," Thranduil said.
"Was that my Yule gift to you? The holly branches?"
Still clutching Legolas, Thranduil sat down on the bed. "No, little mouse. The holly branches were a pleasant surprise, but your Yule gift was something far more valuable. This summer, after what happened to your Nana, I felt as though the Sun had gone out, and it would never shine again. Inside my heart, it was very dark, and I think that I lost my way in the darkness."
Legolas shivered. He had once gotten lost exploring the deepest tunnels of the delvings when he had accidentally dropped his lamp down a drain, and he knew that being lost in the dark was a terrifying thing.
"Luindil was very kind," Thranduil went on. "He promised me that I would find my path out of the darkness and that you would be waiting for me when I found it. And it turns out that he was right. You were very brave and very kind to wait for me for so long, Legolas. You have helped me find my way out of the darkness, and having you here in my arms is the most wonderful Yule gift I could ever imagine."
"Are you really well again, Ada?"
Thranduil sighed. "I do not know for certain. I still miss your Nana, and I am sure that you do, too. I think there will still be dark days ahead for both of us. But I do not think they will ever be so terrible as the months just past. I do not know if I am really well, but I can assure you that I am better."
"I love you, Ada."
"And I love you, little mouse, always. There is no darkness that can take that away." Thranduil nestled Legolas firmly in the crook of one arm and reached under his pillow with the other hand. "And now, I think it is high time that my light in dark places had his Yule gift." He pulled a small bundle wrapped in a bright kerchief from beneath the pillow and gave it to Legolas.
Eagerly, Legolas pried the knot in the kerchief open. The bright cloth fell back, revealing a little pair of fringed buckskin shoes lined with soft rabbit fur. Brightly colored glass beads were firmly sewn in pretty patterns across the tops. Legolas squealed with delight. "New shoes! Oh, thank you, Ada! Look, they have beads, they are so pretty."
Thranduil laughed. "You have run your old shoes into rags, so it was high time that you had new ones. And what is better than colored beads for someone who brings such brilliant color into my life?" Legolas threw his arms around Thranduil. Thranduil held his son close. He could feel the little heart beating against his own, and he gave silent thanks for the love of his child. After a moment, he broke the embrace and set Legolas on the floor.
"The celebration will last all night," he said, "but I think that today has been too exhausting for both of us. I must wash the rest of this paint from my face, and you must go to bed. In the morning, the Sun will rise, and a new day will begin."
"Will you sit with me while I go to sleep?" Legolas asked.
"No," Thranduil said. "I would have you stay with me tonight. It is the longest night of the year, and I find that I want a bright little light with me through the long dark." Legolas smiled. Thranduil took his hand, and they went to Legolas's chamber to retrieve his nightclothes before returning. Thranduil went to the washbasin and washed the remains of the beetle-shell paint from his face and the dried tears from Legolas's.
Legolas fell asleep quickly in the warmth and security of his Ada's arms. Thranduil remained awake a while longer, listening to the dim sounds of the celebration still going on. Eventually, the limp weight and peaceful breathing of his child lulled him into the world of dreams as well. And for the first time in months, Thranduil's dreams were gentle and filled with light.
Many thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed this story. Thranduil was certainly a very lucky Elf in the end, and he will not forget that. He tries hard to be a good Ada, but the learning curve can often be steep.
This story grew out of a number of separate ideas and thoughts. I had written a few stories involving Yuletide celebrations in Gondor, and in the course of writing them, I grew interested in old British Yule traditions. I had studied pre-Christian pagan ritual before, and it always impressed me just how dark and violent the roots of certain common Christmas customs can be. The winter solstice is a scary event, and I wanted to write a story that showed its terror as well as its beauty. The form of the masque is based on an English mummer's play, though the mummer's plays tend to have farcical elements that the masque does not.
Many people were concerned about the fact that none of the adults explained the masque to Legolas beforehand. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens between adults and kids. I've seen it happen a couple of times, both with religious and secular drama. Sometimes, there's no time, sometimes the adult can't seem to find the proper moment, or sometimes the adult just doesn't think to do it. I think that, a lot of the time, adults think of a story as a whole; they know the beginning, middle and end, and they feel that if the child can just sit through the scary parts, they'll learn the end and everything will be all right. A lot of small children are just terrified by Disney's Snow White because they don't know that it has a happy ending, and their adults don't think to tell them beforehand. Adults mean well, but they don't always think the way kids do, and sometimes they just drop the ball.
Again, many thanks for reading. I'll see you later.