Title: Five Words in Winter
Legolas, OC. No romance of any kind!
Summary: It's cold and dark. And the weather's not so great, either. Takes place before the FotR.
night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire,
and the heart's sap stills,
and the year seems defeated.
(Twelfth Night by Laurie Lee)
Legolas sat high in an ancient oak. The tree did not speak to him except to grumble briefly about intrusive elves and the importance of a good winter's sleep. The elf sat on a snow-covered branch, legs dangling, leaning against the venerable trunk. His eyes scanned the plain stretching before him for danger but desultorily, for not even an Orc would be out in this weather. This had become a killing winter and many mortals in the villages had departed for the Halls in the past month.
In the lambent light of moonlight on snow, the white plumes Legolas exhaled seemed to freeze and shatter rather than dispersing into the air. He was bundled tightly into his warmest cloak, the hood pulled well to the fore. Elves do not normally die of the cold, or even notice it much in ordinary weather, but if it is cold enough there are many inconveniences. For example, his left hand was wrapped in several folds of the cloak and his right was between his thighs, keeping warm and supple in case he was wrong about the danger and some sudden action had to be taken. Elven hands, having so much surface area, are likely to lose sensation in such bitter temperatures and then the grip on arrow or knife could fail. When he took a deep breath, his nostrils stuck together briefly. Not life-threatening—but very annoying! His cheeks and forehead stung and his eyelids blinked sluggishly, as though the lubricating tears had thickened. But in spite of all that, he was well off—for no human could have kept this watch for more than a few hours without freezing to death.
He was one of four stationed on this section of the borders of Mirkwood. They were five miles apart from each other and he was the only volunteer. The others had been drawn by lot, for no one wanted to be away from the palace this night. It was Morfuin: the longest night of the year. Tomorrow Arnor would begin to return to Middle Earth and there was a great feast—except not so very great this year when the deer were thin and skittish and the early frosts had found some crops unharvested. Still, there would be singing and dancing and few would miss the chance to forget for a time the icy fist closed tightly around Mirkwood.
Legolas was in no mind for singing and dancing. He looked at the stars with a far darker night lying heavy on his spirit. The cold always seemed to make the stars sharper and more dazzling and he had loved dragging his father out in the coldest weather to watch them when he was an elfling. But it had been a long time since he had watched them with joy; now they were just far away, unreachable, mocking with their counterfeit of warmth. Even Earendil was cold and rejecting.
Then a star in his peripheral vision disappeared. He turned his head and saw one small section of the sky had vanished. As he watched, another star faded and was gone.
/It is a small cloud—nothing more./
Then another disappeared and it seemed to the prince that it was a warrior of Mirkwood, one of his people, those he was born to lead and protect. As more stars faded he began to name them, the ones lost to Namo, while the darkness in his soul deepened. He named them for an hour and yet had barely begun. In a thousand years there is time for many to die. Long had Mirkwood awaited the triumph over Darkness that had been promised, but more and more Legolas feared that when Sauron and his minions were at last cleansed from Middle Earth it would be far too late for his home and his people.
The naming stopped as Legolas heard a sound far off in the distance, coming from the direction of the palace. It rapidly came closer and became a rhythmic Scrick! Scrick! Scrick! Scrick! An elf approached on foot for the snow was too deep for horses. Even an elf made noise in these frigid temperatures; his feet squeaked on the snow as he ran lightly over its surface.
Legolas cast one last look at the plain before he lowered himself down to the ground, carefully checking his handholds for a good grip; even wrapped in his cloak his left hand had stiffened. As he arrived at ground level so did the runner.
"Hail, Prince! I bring you gifts from your father to give you comfort in this hard weather and in token of Morfuin." The elf had a hump beneath his heavy cloak and he began to shrug out of a large pack. Legolas stepped forward and took some of the weight and together they eased it to the ground. When they straightened they embraced warmly. They were comrades from childhood and there was no doubt in Legolas' mind but that his friend had volunteered to run the gifts to the outpost. Leglolas ruffled the pale, nearly white hair then nudged the pack with his foot.
"Aignor, I thank you, but has he sent me a small cottage?"
His old playfellow laughed and shook his head. "I am taking the same to every elf in this section. I came to you first for there is a message for you and it may be important." He then began to search his tunic and finally brought forth a small scroll. "Here. Your father bid me give you this as well as the comforts."
Legolas took the scroll but placed it inside his jerkin. His father was not subtle; if it was important he would have said so. Aignor began to rummage in the pack and brought forth several items: a small silver flask of mirivor; a wrinkled apple, now frozen; a chunk of venison, also frozen; and a beautifully carved and colored piece of crystallized honey. He laid them in a row on the snow. Legolas hefted the fist-sized block of venison and looked to Aignor. "Is there meat for the others?"
His friend shrugged. "Some. The pieces are smaller." At Legolas' frown he said seriously, "You are our Prince. It is fitting."
"Give one of those to me and give this to Dinandil—he always looks like a stiff breeze could blow him away."
"Your father would skin me!"
"Then we will not tell him. Why should we change the pattern of a lifetime?" They laughed together, their breath making a misty cloud around them. Legolas put the large piece of meat back in the pack and removed a smaller—much smaller—piece. He looked sardonically at Aignor. "You can barely see this one. That is your definition of 'smaller'?"
"Technically, it is smaller. Legolas, I am sorry; I must go if I am to reach everyone while it is still Morfuin."
"I suppose you must. Please, take care. Even an elf can freeze if he is injured when the weather is so hard. Do you have a signal horn?"
"Your father pushed one into my hands himself." He pulled aside his cloak to show the small horn hanging from his belt.
"Good! Now be off with you. At least you will be warm while running."
"I admit I love to run through the night. If only the snow would not squeak so!"
Legoals laughed and helped him don his pack again. "Farewell, my friend. I will see you in a few days!" The light-hearted elf sprang away into the night and his Scrick! Scrick! rapidly faded away.
The heaviness that Aignor had banished for a little while returned as Legolas climbed to his perch again. His friend was one of only three warriors still living that Legolas had known while they were elflings. How long until, Aignor, too, joined the roster of the dead? Sighing out a large cloud of vapor that nearly encompassed him, Legolas remembered the message he had been sent. He pulled the parchment tube—no larger than his first finger—from within his tunic and set about pulling the tightly rolled skin from inside it. It was no easy task with cold stiffened fingers but he managed it and held the scrap up to allow the moonlight to shine upon it. He recognized the old-fashioned curling script at once as being from Mithrandir. How had he come through the snows on the plains and mountains? Wizards! He peered at the writing: Five Words in Winter. He turned the parchment over. Nothing. What did Gandalf mean by writing him cryptic messages having to do with old superstitions?
It was said that if a Silvan elf needed comfort for his spirit or guidance for some critical decision, that he could enter a state of awareness where nature herself would give him the answer. There would be five words that must be discovered (five for winter, seven for spring, five for summer, and seven for autumn). These would lead the elf to enlightenment. But it was all nonsense; no educated elf believed in such. And yet…Mithrandir was wise beyond even elven understanding and said little that was to no purpose.
Legolas tried to remember what he had heard about the ritual. He must fast—that was easily done; he had not had anything since the day before and had not yet started on his Morfuin treats. He must turn his mind to enter the realm of the natural world around him. Hardly a difficult thing to do, but not normally recommended for one on watch as it would take his focus away from looking for threats to his home. Still, the watch was a formality in this weather and Legolas decided to trust the maiar. He climbed down the tree and ran a little way off where he poured the precious mirivor onto the snow. He then threw the piece of venison as far as he could; he must have no food or drink by him. He laid his apple and honey piece next to a rabbit run. He then returned to his perch and opened his senses fully and began to listen and watch.
Four hours later he came out of his light trance to scratch an itch on his shoulder blade that would not be denied. Results of meditation: nothing. Not one thing had impressed itself on his mind as important or insightful. He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and saw a mink scampering across the snow; it was headed in the direction of the venison he had discarded. Suddenly three more, smaller than the first, came tumbling and rolling out of the underbrush. They were the kits of the first one, though well grown and far from babies. Legolas could not help laughing at their antics and though they froze at the sound, they were quickly reassured that Legolas was no threat and recommenced their roughhousing. The larger one was digging industriously for the venison when a shadow swept across her. She reared upright, saw the owl, and ran, humping, across the snow to her kits. The talons of the striking owl stretched out mere inches from the scuffling young ones. The mother leapt into the air and bit the owl's foot fiercely. It screeched and veered and she was carried many yards before she released her hold. She fell to lie limply and Legolas scrambled down the tree and ran to her. He cradled the small body in his hands while he checked her for injuries and whispered words of encouragement and praise. She slowly raised her head, eyes blinking, then looked measuringly at Legolas before springing away and leading her family back into the underbrush. Dazed, Legolas retrieved the venison and tossed it after them as his mind was filled with revelation. Thalion. The first word was Thalion: hero.
Trembling, the elf returned to his tree limb, running the word through his mind. As yet, it meant nothing, nor would it unless he discovered the other four. With renewed purpose the elf once again merged his senses with the world around him and waited. He waited while dawn broke and the few wintering birds sang. He waited while a wind rose and for the first time he felt truly cold. He watched and waited as a scraggy deer—a yearling—moved into the open, trying to find a few blades of winter-burned grass where the wind had scoured the snow from the crest of a slight slope. Three others followed, all much too thin for so early in the winter. Legolas remained motionless; he could not hunt while waiting for the words. Behind them paced a young stag, probably no more than a year older than those he guarded. He took a position some distance away and raised his head into the wind. He did not eat, nor turn his face away from the cold gusts that began to draw shudders from his body. He stood watch, even as Legolas did. The stag would surely die before his charges, since he forbore while they ate the little that could be found. Tears trembled on the elf's lashes and snaked only an inch or two down his cheek before freezing on his skin. The second word was Sador: faithful.
More time passed and the deer returned to the cover of the forest. Legolas heard a soft scrabbling that worked around the tree trunk, stopped, moved again and faster, stopped, then exploded toward him as a small squirrel ran out on the branch just above the one the elf sat on. It had no fear of an elf and ran right up to Legolas' face. Its bright eyes met the elf's and it jerked its tail up and down. Legolas stretched out his hand and the creature cautiously moved onto his palm. He stroked its back with his other hand, using only one finger for the ball of fur was so small. The squirrel chattered and squeaked under his touch and began to pat its tiny forepaws on the heel of his hand. Then it jumped onto his chest and tried to wriggle beneath the cloak and into the elf's tunic. Legolas unfastened the cloak pin and pulled loose the first latchet to his jerkin, letting the tiny body into the warmth. The squirrel turned around a few times and then settled down like a cat on a hearth, just beneath Legolas' chin. The elf laughed softly as the tail was folded tightly around the tiny nose and the squirrel slept. Legolas fondly remembered the hundreds of squirrels that had accompanied him into his home at one time or another when he was a child. His father would chide him and say there were none left in the forest. Legolas would protest, "But Ada, they are my friends!" At that very thought the squirrel bit him gently on the collarbone and then squeaked imperatively. In awe the elf whispered, "Elvellon." The third Word was Elvellon: elf-friend. Again using its front paws, the squirrel patted the elf approvingly and then curled up again.
After the squirrel had finished his nap and moved off in search of one of his stores of nuts, Legolas climbed down and began to move around to loosen up his limbs. He ran lightly away from his watch tree and into the open.
As he ran, going scrick! scrick! just like Aignor had done, he kept himself in his light trance state so that he would be aware of the next word when it came to him. After an hour or so, pacing along his stretch of the border, he returned to his tree, nicely warmed but with no further insights. The sun was beginning to lower and he had only several more hours on watch before he would be relieved. He perched on his familiar branch and concentrated on finding the two words he needed. Unfortunately, such insights come as they will, not because a soul-weary elf is desperately trying to make them happen. The hours passed and the elf learned nothing. His hope faded as the sun started to sink below the horizon and he began to despair again. He berated himself bitterly for a fool that would continue to try to see hope where there was none.
He looked over the plains again and saw a merlin making its way to roost. The bird of prey was swinging joyously through the sky. The winter, hard for some, brought plenty to others as the weak became easy prey, and the hawks, kestrels, owls, and other flying hunters were well fed. The bird climbed steeply, rolled over lazily, and then began to stoop for the ground. When it seemed it must drive headfirst into the snow, the wings, tightly furled against its body, suddenly snapped outward, swooping the bird into level flight only inches from the ground. It climbed slowly, again rolling over and over in high spirits.
Legolas looked upon it longingly; it was a secret desire of his to fly. He had never shared this with anyone for fear of their laughter and he felt foolish—but not foolish enough to try to root such nonsense from his mind and heart. He wondered if this was how men felt when they saw elves running lightly through the trees. If so, he now had more sympathy for them. For the freedom of the soaring bird tore at his heart until it seemed that his faer was trying to lift from his body and join the bird in the vaulted skies. No orcs. No spiders. No darkness ever shadowing it. Free to leave for anywhere on Middle Earth. Ai, to be free! Free in a way no prince, be he man, elf, or dwarf, dare dream of. And there it was; the fourth word. When he had totally forgotten his quest it came to him. Lain: free.
Legolas forgot the merlin, forgot the cold, forgot all else besides the four words he now knew. One more! Surely, surely he would find it! In great excitement the elf ran the four words he had found through his mind. They meant nothing, but so they would until he found the fifth. He tried to gain again his light trance but his heart pounded and his blood raced. He drew deep, calming breaths but had little success in quieting his mind. Just then, his attention was caught by the familiar sound of an elf approaching from along the forest edge. Scrick! Scrick! Scrick! Scrick!
Once again Legolas climbed down and met the running elf. To his surprise, Aignor had returned.
"Aignor, why have you come? I thought you would be home, warm, and plied with mead from all the elleth by now!"
"I wanted to visit with you for longer than I could stay before. I'll stay out your watch with you and we can return to the palace together."
Legolas looked at the warmly smiling face of his dear friend in dismay. Aignor had more good qualities than anyone could count, but a somber spirituality was not one of them. It was hard to imagine any deep insights occurring in his company. Still, looking at the happy, expectant face before him, Legolas could not send him on his way. His despair now threatened to consume him entirely as the two climbed back into the tree. He had been so close!
Aignor was lighthearted but not a fool. He laid a hand on his friend's arm as he settled down next to Legolas. "It is on you again, is it not? The darkness. That is why I came back; I sensed it."
"Mellon nin, I am well. I have told you before not to worry for me."
"You have told me before you were not injured when you were. How many times? You have told me before you needed no help when you did. How many times? You have told me before – ""
Legolas laughed. "Enough! This is not the same; I am not injured. I merely feel a little weary, that is all…"
The fair brow furrowed and the twinkling eyes sobered as Aignor looked with sternness on his friend. "I cannot imagine why! You are only responsible for the defense of your home against ever increasing odds. You only have a father who is hard to approach when you feel less than perfect—forgive me, but you know it is true. You only have to be confident and encouraging for everyone else when the darkness increases on your own spirit. You bear a heavy weight, your Highness."
Legolas shifted in annoyance. "I thought I could count on you not to call me that!"
Aignor became even more earnest. "For once you and I will have the word with no bark on it, Prince Legolas. You are a prince and an only son at that. I am your friend but I am also your subject. Most would say that puts me in an inferior position to you. And with some princes, perhaps it does. Certainly the sons of Feanor were not made of the same stuff as your father and you, and I have heard that many kings of men keep their people as slavelings to their every wicked desire. But your father, my King, and you, my Prince, have ever put your people before yourselves. It is why you feel the darkness so heavily, and why we love you and die for you gladly."
Legolas stared at him aghast. "For Mirkwood! For Mirkwood, not for me! Never put that burden upon me!"
"That burden is upon you, Legolas, that is what is the cause of the blight on your spirit, not this never-ending battle against spiders and Dol Goldur. And you must come to grips with this. Surely, we would still fight and die for our homes even if your father and you were dissolute sadists who wrung every drop of allegiance from us with the lash and the executioner's block. But you do not—you serve us as royalty should and so you are greatly loved and receive loving service in return. In some places people go to battle because the spear points behind them are sharper than those before. That is not the case in Mirkwood." Aignor suddenly tugged at Legolas. "Come. Come down to the ground. Legolas, come!"
Aignor started to climb from the tree and Legolas followed, complaining. "I know I am a wood elf but I have been up and down this tree a hundred times today!"
Aignor said nothing but when Legolas reached the surface of the snow, he pulled him around so that they faced each other. Then, to Legolas horror, Aignor sank down on his knees before him and said, "I have never bent the knee to you, your Highness, as I did to your father when I gained my majority and took up weapons in defense of our home. But I do so now. You are my liege for as long as I live. I swear it by the stars of Elbereth." He placed his hand upon his heart and bowed his head.
"You are pledged to my father—you cannot enter another's service without dishonor, and I know you have served him faithfully."
Without raising his head, Aignor replied, "Your father has released me at my request. This is not something I decided upon today, Legolas. I have had it in mind for long years, but knew you would resist and I also feared it would change things between us. As for your father, he is delighted that you will begin to gain a retinue of your own."
For a moment Legolas thought of rebelling, of refusing the service Aignor offered. It was his right to do so—to refuse the fealty of any. But it was only actually done where treachery or an evil nature made the supplicant unfit for chivalry and he could not put such shame upon his friend. He tried one brief protest.
"Is this supposed to lighten my darkness? You would add a greater weight to the burden you yourself named?"
The head remained stubbornly bent, but Aignor's voice was warm. "Nay…nay, my Prince. I desire to take some of that burden, be a help and support to you. You have no adjutant, no lieutenant; you insist on carrying your burden alone. Let me share it and thus lighten it. Legolas, I have pledged you my life. Do not deny me."
Legolas' mind twisted and fought but found no way to refuse what was offered without causing pain to one he loved. He straightened and became the Prince of Mirkwood. He seemed taller, broader, and his brow was austere and demanding; his eyes stern and his gaze weighty. Aignor felt the change and gave an internal sigh of relief. He had been truly worried he would be refused.
Legolas drew a knife from his back. "I have no sword. This must suffice. Aignor Laendarion, do you swear fealty to me and the kingdom of Mirkwood, pledging your blood in our service?"
"I so swear." He took the knife held out to him by the hilt, and, in spite of the solemn moment, spun it flashing in the air before letting the returning point lightly slash his palm. Scarlet drops spattered the snow. The knife sank deep into the snow and stood, quivering.
Legolas touched the fair head bowed before him and intoned, "Then I accept your fealty." He added lightly, "Now get up before I add your frozen form to our palace statues."
But as Aignor raised his ardent gaze to Legolas, the prince saw the last word in the dark grey eyes. Echil: follower. Dazed, Legolas stepped back, feeling for the tree trunk behind him. He had them! He had all five! Echil, lain, sador, elvellon, and thalion. Follower, free, faithful, elf-friend, and hero. But what did they mean? Did they have to do with Aignor? They could all apply, although elf-friend was a stretch since it meant, by definition, one who was not an elf.
Aignor rose from cold-stiffened knees and went to catch his friend by the shoulders. "Legolas! What is it? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
Legolas turned his astonished eyes to his friend. "I must go back up the tree and be alone for a time, Aignor. This is nothing to do with you but rather with something Mithrandir said to me." His eyes focused fully on the concerned face before him. "You pledged your service and here is my first command: take over my watch and give me peace to ponder over the riddle I have been given."
On hearing the name 'Mithrandir' Aignor had become very respectful. He and the maiar had had more than a few run-ins over various pranks and it hardly needed to be said that Aignor came off much the worse in these encounters.
"Very well, my Prince. I will take your watch, though a duller one I cannot imagine." He continued somewhat pensively, "I am not so confident about the peace you asked for. I have been known to chatter a little—or so I have been told. Of course, today would be a good day to turn over a new leaf. A green one!"
He darted back as Legolas groaned and tried to box a cold-reddened ear. When Aignor danced away, Legolas turned back to climb his tree and was soon on his familiar perch. The other elf climbed behind him and took up his position a branch or two above the elf, dumping snow down upon his liege as he settled his back comfortably against the trunk.
Legolas ran his five words back and forth in his mind. He was rather at a loss for he had assumed that once he knew all five that their meaning for him would be immediately clear. Time passed and he came no nearer to feeling he understood what the Valar had intended him to take from his Five Words in Winter.
Aignor kept an admirable silence for two hours before he began to crack. "I have all the latest gossip from Mithrandir. Do you want to hear some?"
"No. I am trying to think, Aignor."
"Oh." Again there was silence for twenty minutes. Then the cheerful elf began to tap his fingers on his knees, developing from a plain tap-tap-tap to a tutta-titty-tap-tap to a tutitutity-tut-titty-tut-titty-tut-tut and then on to a virtuoso titty-titty-tut-titty-tut! Tittitituttytitty-tut-"
Legolas took pity on his jittery friend since he seemed to be getting nowhere with his 'thinking.'
"Go on and tell me the gossip, Aignor. Thinking does not seem to be very profitable right now."
"If you are sure? Well! Now of course, I heard all this from Mithrandir, and he said…"
Legolas smiled to himself as his friend's voice washed over him, alternately laughing, outraged, or titillated. "…apparently they have loved each other for an Age but neither had the nerve to speak. Can you credit it? I know time has little meaning for us, but!….Celeborn is worried and Mithrandir says when Celeborn is worried, Middle Earth should be worried…and right into a barrel of Elrond's favorite vintage!...troubling hints from Isengard, but I told them we have enough to worry about with Dol Goldur and your father agreed with me—with me! That has to be a first!...and let me see, oh yes, Elrond has taken in another human fosterling. I suppose he thinks of them like fox kits or something. Still, an odd pet, if you ask me…"
As the voice continued, Legolas only half-listened as he continued to run his five words through his mind. He tried different orders: lain, sador, elvellon, thalion, echil. Or echil, elvellon, thalion, sador, lain. Hmmm, that seemed better somehow. He tried another one.
Elvellon, Sador, Thalion, Echil, Lain.
"….he gives them the most curious names. This one is Estel of all things! He should name them Fluffy or Manny or – "
Legolas fell out of the tree.
Aignor scrambled down, terrified, for Legolas did not make a habit of tumbling from trees unless he had several Orc arrows in him. He found his friend spread-eagled on his back, staring up at the now starry sky in wonder.
"Legolas! What happened! Are you all right!"
"I am fine, Aignor. Leave me for awhile. Please? This is a matter of the Valar."
Aignor swallowed and darted a glance at the sky. "If you are sure you are not hurt?"
"No, I am quite sound. Go and intercept our replacements; they will be coming soon. Do not disturb me until I call for you."
Aignor could not resist a cheeky, "Yes, Highness!" as he turned away. Legolas sighed. Aignor would be a second like none ever seen in the elven kingdoms!
As soon as Aignor was out of earshot, Legolas contemplated the revelation he had been given. When his friend had said, "Estel" a feeling of joy, pain, fear, and protectiveness had lanced through him. He turned the words, now in their proper order, over in his mind. Elf-friend, faithful, and, not hero, but the other meaning of thalion: dauntless man. Then follower and freedom. They spelled Hope. And they would be significant in his life. He would be significant in the life of an elven prince. And not the lesser of the two, either, for Legolas had been given the knowledge that he would follow this man. This man named Hope.
Legolas looked to the stars again and they did not seem so cold and distant as they had before. Indeed, Earendil, long a favorite, twinkled warmly at the elf. There was significance there, too, although Legolas was suddenly too weary to decipher any more mysteries. A feeling of peace stole over him and he realized he must rise or he would freeze where he had fallen; even elves cannot sleep in snow when the temperatures were so bitter. He climbed to his feet and whistled sharply and heard another in return, some distance to the south.
As Legolas heard several elves scrick! scrick!ing toward him, he drew a deep, deep breath and let it go along with much of the despair that had been his companion for so long. He might plan on a trip to Imladris in a few years to take a look at this Hope of his. As he dragged his small pack from the snow at the base of his tree, he laughed at the thought of what Aignor would say when (if ever) he told him that he, the Prince of Mirkwood, was to be the follower of someone Aignor would have named "Fluffy."
A/N The temperature at which nostrils begin to stick together is roughly -14 degree Celsius. And yes, I know that through experience. (8 degrees above zero for those using Fahrenheit)