Elf and Ranger rode quietly through the forest. A dull red sun shone fitfully through the trees, too low in the sky to light their path or warm the air. Their breath frosted on the chill dawn air, and Aragorn shivered, wrapping his cloak more closely about himself. "Red sky in the morning, Ranger's warning," he cautioned morosely. "There is bad weather ahead."
Legolas shook his head and smiled. "Nay!" he laughed. "You see those clouds? They are snow clouds, to be sure, but 'tis Mid Winter's Eve – there should be snow! We will be at my home long before dark, when the snow will fall. Trust me."
"Hmmpph!" was Aragorn's only response. He huddled deeper into his cloak, and followed Legolas's horse as they picked their way through paths scarcely visible. This was madness. He could have been safe and warm in Imladris, celebrating the festival with his father and foster brothers, exchanging the small gifts he had already bought for them, and singing bawdy songs with Elladan and Elrohir in the Hall of Fire. Instead, Legolas had persuaded him to see how other elves celebrated the feast of Mid Winter, and they had ridden long and hard to reach Legolas's home in time.
"I was raised in Imladris," he reminded Legolas yet again. "I know how to celebrate Mid Winter. I know the traditions and rituals. And although I am not supposed to know this, my brothers were to have given me a flask of mithril and a belt to hang it from. Elladan let it slip one day. They will probably forget now," he grumbled.
"Peace, Aragorn!" Legolas turned to him, laughing. "It will still be waiting for you – your brothers will not forget you so easily. But your traditions in Imladris are a little different to ours – tell me how you celebrate Mid Winter there. And what of the Rangers? Do they celebrate the season?"
Aragorn sighed. He knew Legolas in this mood. The elf was overjoyed to be nearing his home, to be seeing his father again. He would not tolerate ill humour, determined that his companion should share in his gladness.
"Well," Aragorn began in resignation. "The festival starts at dusk on Mid Winter's Eve. We gather outside, all of us, waiting for the first star to show. Whoever sees it first receives a special gift, a cloak pin shaped like a star. We always allow it to be one of the children, of course."
Legolas smiled. "And have you ever been the first to see the star?" he asked.
Aragorn nodded, absently touching the shoulder of his cloak, where a small, star-shaped pin was fastened. "Yes. The year when I was six. I remember Elrohir pointing it out, whispering in my ear, 'There it is Estel – do you see? Shout out, quickly!' I felt so proud when father pinned the brooch to my cloak." He smiled reminiscently.
"And your brothers? When they were young, did either of them ever win the brooch?"
Aragorn laughed. "Oh, yes! There was trouble, though, so my father says. They both saw the star at the same time, of course – and shouted out together. The problem was, there is only one cloak pin made each year!"
"So what did they do?" Legolas asked with interest. "Did Elrond have another made?"
Aragorn shook his head. "He was going to. They decided to share the pin though – using it one day each in turn. There were arguments, of course – this is Elladan and Elrohir, after all – but apparently it seemed to work most of the time. They won again the following Mid Winter, so all was well in the end. After that, Celebrían told them that it was time to let someone else win."
"Knowing your brothers, it does not surprise me that they would be in competition, even over a star sighting! Anyway, what happens next?"
Moving his horse forward so that he was level with Legolas, Aragorn glanced at him. "Well, we exchange greetings, and drink tiny glasses of a hot, spiced wine – or several glasses in some cases. It is the only time we make it, and it seems to warm you right down to your toes!" He shivered again. "I think it would be very welcome right now," he complained miserably.
Legolas turned and grinned. "Fear not, Aragorn – it will not be much longer. Think of the fires in the hallways, and the hot baths that will be awaiting us. There will be a fire in your rooms with an extra load of logs – my father knows how you feel the cold!"
Aragorn sighed longingly. "I look forward to it. Anyway, once we have greeted the stars, everyone leaves to be with their own families – either to the cottages and huts in the valley, or to their rooms in the house. We always gather in my father's study – my mother, Glorfindel and Erestor too, usually. There is more of the spiced wine, and a blazing fire, and all the windows and doors flung open to the night, so that we can see the stars."
His voice became soft and reminiscent. "We exchange gifts. Last year my brothers gave me a new dagger, with a matching sheath. We gave Erestor a pen set, with a silver blade for sharpening the nibs, and small containers for different inks. He was delighted! And once," – he smiled again – "once, Elrohir gave me a carving of a foal. 'Yours', he said. I did not really understand what he meant, until we all went down to the stables. There was a young foal, only a few months old – and he was to be mine, my very first pony!" His smile faded to sadness. "Poor Mithren died a few years ago, but I still have the carving."
They rode on beneath the bare and barren trees. Leaves and grass, white-edged with frost, crunched softly under the hooves of the horses; puddles and small pools and pockets of standing water were covered with a layer of ice. They halted at mid-day to rest their horses and to eat the last of the cold rabbit from their meal the previous night. Breaking the ice to let the animals drink, and to re-fill their waterskins, Legolas looked upwards. "The weather is changing," he observed. "The clouds are growing – I think the snow will be here soon. We should hurry."
The sun had vanished behind the gathering clouds. The sky grew darker and darker, and soon the first flakes of snow drifted gently down. Before long the snow was falling so heavily it was impossible for Aragorn to see much beyond his horse's ears. He glanced at Legolas in disgust. " 'We will be home long before dark, when the snow will fall. Trust me' , "he quoted rather sourly.
Legolas turned and grinned. "Even I am not infallible," he pointed out. "Stay close – I do not want to have to search for you if you become lost!"
Aragorn scowled. He wondered how even an elf could see anything in the blinding blizzard, but Legolas was finding the trail unerringly, his horse picking its way through the featureless forest with complete trust in his rider. "Which way now?" he shouted.
His friend merely raised an arm, pointing. "That way."
"How can you tell?"
Legolas shrugged. "I just know."
Before long they were in a part of the forest that even Aragorn could recognise. An avenue of beeches – bare and barren now – led to the bridge that crossed the river. Guards stood at the gates, and they moved forward with brightly flaring torches, bowing their heads in welcome. "Welcome, my Prince!" one cried gladly. Another moved to take their horses as they dismounted, and Aragorn followed Legolas into the depths of the caves.
Thranduil's study lay at the top of a flight of stairs. Legolas knocked once, then pushed the door open. The woodland king stood waiting, eyes fixed on his son. "Legolas. Welcome home, my son," he murmured. They embraced, and Thranduil kissed Legolas on the brow affectionately. "You are fortunate you made it home in time," he observed dryly. "This would not be the first Mid Winter you have spent in some inadequate shelter huddled against the snow!"
Aragorn glanced at the pair curiously. This was a tale he had not heard before. Turning, Thranduil clasped his shoulder in welcome. "Greetings, Estel. I am glad that you agreed to join us for this festival. You are most welcome here."
Turning to Legolas again, he added, "If you hurry, you can bathe before the feast starts. I expect you there – do not be late!"
After stripping off his cold, snow-sodden clothes, Aragorn bathed quickly before dressing again in the clothes he would have worn at home for this feast of Mid Winter – trousers of dark grey and a dark green tunic with silver embroidery, with the small silver star brooch pinned to the collar.
Throughout the meal, Aragorn was aware of excited elflings whispering to one another.
"Are you going to stay up?"
"Yes! I want to stay awake this year!"
"I'm not going to go to sleep. I want to watch!"
"Do you think you'll see who it is?"
He listened to the whisperings idly, wondering what the younglings meant. Soon they were dispatched to bed by their exhausted parents, and the hall gradually emptied.
Legolas glanced questioningly at his father, who smiled, and then nodded. "Aragorn," Legolas murmured softly. "There is one more tradition I would like you to see. Get changed into something a little less – noticeable – and meet me down by the main doors. Hurry!"
Puzzled, Aragorn returned to his room and changed swiftly. At the doors he found Legolas and Thranduil already waiting, both clad in cloaks of a soft, shimmering grey. They carried bags slung over one shoulder of the same material, bulging oddly with unseen contents. As soon as Aragorn joined them, the guards opened the gates and the three slipped out into the night.
Following Legolas and his father, Aragorn wondered what part of the Mid Winter tradition this was. Against the snow covered ground and star-spangled sky, the others could scarcely be seen. Beckoning Aragorn to join him, Legolas gave him another bag and pointed to the trees surrounding the bridge and glade that lay before the doors. "I will show you," he whispered softly.
Taking a small packet from the bag, Legolas deftly tied it to a tree branch, then moved on. Soon the whole tree was adorned with tiny parcels, all gaily wrapped and tied with bright ribbons. "When the children wake on Mid Winter's day," he whispered, "They come to see the trees. There are gifts for all – tiny gifts, like sweetmeats, small toys, hair clasps, bracelets and necklaces. Every elfling has something." He grinned reminiscently. "Every year they all vow to stay awake, and every year they fall asleep!"
"They do not know who does this?" Aragorn asked equally softly. He began to tie the packages to the nearest tree, covering the lower branches with decorations. The higher branches would be too far for elflings to reach – yet he saw branches high above him covered with the little parcels. Stretching, he tried to reach a branch far above his head, but gave up. It was too far. And if it was too far for him, it would surely be too far for an elfling.
Legolas appeared beside him, and raised one hand. To Aragorn's utter amazement, the branch shivered and bent lower, until it was within easy reach. Overcoming his surprise, he tied his remaining packages to the branch and stepped back. With a soft murmur of thanks, Legolas lowered his hand, and the tree straightened once more.
Aragorn stared at the tree, then at Legolas, trying hard not to show the deep sense of awe he felt. It was easy to forget that his friend was a wood-elf prince, revered by the trees themselves. Turning, he saw Thranduil, and felt his jaw drop in amazement. The woodland king was surrounded by trees, all festooned in the bright finery. The branches seemed to be tangled and snared in his hair; his cloak; as if he was at the centre of a crowd of well-wishers all desperate to touch him. The branches quivered in delight as Thranduil raised his hands to touch a branch, a trunk, a twig. Then, with a quiet word from their king, the branches fell away and released him.
Seeing Aragorn's amazement, Legolas smiled. "The rituals and festivities of Mid Winter are for the children. None of them know who does this – I did not, not for many years. There are wild rumours, but no-one knows for sure. I remember the first time I saw it, when I could not sleep and something called me to the forest. I saw … this. Instead of being disappointed that the mystery was solved, I saw an even greater magic. That sense of awe has never faded." He nudged Aragorn and grinned. "Come. To bed with you – morning will come soon enough!"
The grey light of dawn filtered in at the window, and Aragorn groaned, turning over to shield his eyes. Soft voices and squeals of excitement roused him though, and he squinted at the light, then crossed to the window. The glade before Thranduil's gates was transformed. Every tree was covered with a glittering layer of frost, and the packages and presents and their bright wrappings and ribbons shone gaily among the branches.
Several elflings were already about, some barefoot and clad in nothing but their nightwear, others obviously hastily dressed in whatever came to hand. None, Aragorn noted, had more than two or three of the tiny presents, and many were helping the youngest to reach up into the branches. As he had half-expected, the branches themselves were bending within reach of the smallest children.
Behind him, the door opened and Legolas joined him at the window. "Happy Mid Winter," he murmured. "Are you glad now, that you came to see how we celebrate Mid Winter here?"
Still watching the children, Aragorn nodded. "Aye," he agreed. "We do not have this ritual at home. Hannon le, mellon nîn."