Author's Notes: Imagine this story to be wrapped in gift wrapping paper with a chocolate elf on top of it – it is my Christmas present to all my reviewers and silent readers and everyone who wants it. ;-) I should perhaps mention that the first parts of the story are quite angsty and dark, so if anyone does not want to have angst and darkness on Christmas you should probably save the story until after the holidays. ;-) Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you, I hope you're going to have a wonderful time:)
I would not have been able to post this story without the help of two wonderful people who were willing to beta it shortly before Christmas, so I want to give a big THANK YOU to Imbecamiel and Nieriel Raina! ((hugs))
Additional A/N: Please note that the events in this story take place about 1104 T.A., when Thranduil and the wood-elves still lived in the Mountains of Mirkwood and not in the caverns by the Forest River in the North-East. I assume that it took quite some time to create those caverns or make them habitable. I have named the settlement in the Mountains of Mirkwood the 'Valley of the Deep Roots' (Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir) and when I refer to the 'Palace' in this story I am speaking of Thranduil's and Legolas' home in that valley, which I imagine to be built half on the ground, half into the fir trees, with a large garden around it. That the settlement was positioned in a valley is not my idea – the Thain's Book mentions that "Oropher (…) who was then the king of the Wood-elves, lived in the glens of the Emyn Duir" (Emyn Duir is the name for the Mountains of Mirkwood before Dol Guldur was erected).
Title: Winter Solstice
Author: Silivren Tinu
Beta: Imbecamiel and Nieriel Raina
Summary: Hurt and confused, a young elf runs away from home after a series of troubling events, not knowing that deadly danger awaits him… Characters: Legolas, Thranduil, OC.
Disclaimer: I do not own any of Tolkien's characters, places, or creatures, but I do own Nestadren and have every intention of keeping him. (g)
- Winter Solstice -
Chapter One: Runaway
Winter had come early this year and it had already been long and hard. The ground was frozen and covered by a white blanket, and the branches of the bare trees creaked and moaned under their load of snow. An icy cold, biting wind blew down from the Misty Mountains, whirling up snowflakes and driving them over the ground like wisps of mist.
Deep inside the forest, the force of the wind was partly broken by the mighty trunks of gnarled old trees and their entwining and interwoven branches. In spite of the white pureness of the snow, shadows seemed to linger under the branches and cling to the trees as if they had a life of their own.
Far away on the western horizon the sun was setting, but the day had been so cloudy and grey that it made almost no difference in this world of twilight. Deep silence reigned here, as all sounds were muffled by the snow and all creatures had long since sought refuge from the cold. All creatures save one.
A lonely figure was moving between the trees, its steps slow and unsteady. The face and upper body of the being were hidden beneath a cloak that seemed to be far too short, and it had wrapped its arms tightly around itself, as if to conserve warmth. The figure did not sink into the snow, leaving almost no traces behind, and in spite of its unsteady gait it moved soundlessly.
The elf – for an elf it was - slowed even more and looked around for a moment, noticing that snowflakes had begun to fall lazily from the sky and adjusting his direction slightly. He had been moving through this white and grey world for hours, and he was tired. He knew that he had to move faster if he wanted to survive, but the cold that was creeping into his limbs made it difficult to keep moving at all.
The frosty air seemed to burn his lungs and made his eyes sting. His clothes were far from adequate for this kind of weather, but then, they had never needed to be. He had never suffered from the cold before, and he had never been wounded so severely. The wet warmth beneath the fingers he held pressed tightly against his side told him that the deep gashes there were still seeping blood, in spite of the makeshift bandage he had used half his cloak for.
He had to find some kind of shelter before he could succumb to the cold or the blood loss, and before his pursuer caught up with him. Of course it was all his own fault. Everything that had happened to him only showed what a failure he truly was and how far he was from being a warrior or ever getting to be one. No warrior would ever have been so careless, and no warrior would have run away instead of facing his problems.
For one moment, the elf found himself wishing that all this was only a bad dream, a nightmare that he could simply wake up from, but he doubted that a nightmare could hurt so much. He had forfeited all the love that had previously been bestowed on him; he was alone and he would very likely die before the next dawn. It was probably no more than he deserved.
The young elf pressed his lips together tightly and trudged on, shivering when a cold gust of wind hit him right in the face, blowing the hood of his cloak back on his shoulders. Snowflakes were driven against his face, feeling like tiny needles on his skin. He could only hope that the snow was not about to turn into hail. He drew the hood back over his head and low over his face, as if trying to hide from the wind and the cold.
While he was still struggling to get some long golden strands of hair back into the hood, the elf felt the eyes of the predator upon him once more. He did not turn or even look back, but his fingers let go of the hood and moved down to the handle of the elven dagger in his belt, the only weapon he still had left, thanks to his own folly.
The beast had been following him for hours now, sometimes coming closer, sometimes keeping a considerable distance, and from time to time even flanking him, trailing him as if they were bound together by a strange fate. In a way, they were. They had both wounded each other in the creature's previous attack, and they were both fighting to survive.
The beast was driven both by its raging hunger and by instinctive hate, and the elf knew that it would die soon if it did not manage to kill some prey to feed on. Once the creature must have been formidable, a large warg with mighty fangs that might have been the leader of an entire pack. Now it was nothing more but a lean grey shadow that could barely be seen in the twilight beneath the trees, a shadow with blood-shot eyes that looked much more like a skeleton than a living creature.
So far the warg had neither attacked again, nor had he left, but the elf knew that it was only a matter of time until hunger drove it into action. The only thing that had saved him so far was that the beast, too, was weakened, and hesitant to risk its life in another attack. So the warg simply followed and watched, waiting for his prey to make a mistake, a wrong step, or show any signs of weakness.
The elf was quite sure that the smell of his blood must be driving the warg crazy, and it would probably start attracting other wolves or spiders as well if he did not manage to get out of the open soon. In his current condition he could not risk walking through the trees, and neither could he just climb up a tree and wait until the warg simply collapsed from hunger. He would very probably die from the cold long before the wolf stopped breathing.
He had to remain on the ground and find a shelter where he could light a fire and warm himself, and which would also provide at least some kind of protection from any predators. The elf knew such a place, but he was not sure whether the warg would allow him to get there. The strong feeling of being watched by hungry eyes slowly subsided, and the elf loosened his grip on the handle of his knife.
A piercing, sinister howl cut through the air behind him, making the young elf shiver. He had only been in a real fight once in his young life, and then he had failed. He had never before felt so alone or so far from the safety and love he had known. There was nothing he could rely on now but his training and what was left of his strength and right now, that did not seem to be much.
Thinking back to the life and the people he had left behind, Legolas wondered whether they would ever learn of his fate. Painful longing rose deep inside the young elf's chest as he thought of his father, and he wished with all his heart that he had never left his home, though he still was not able to forget the way Thranduil had looked at him just before he had decided to run away.
He had seen a stern king then, not a loving father, and he was not sure that he would be able to bear that look of anger and disappointment again. Thranduil had never before looked at him in such a way, and he had not even spoken a word.
The young elf drew a deep, shuddering breath, trying his best to ignore the howls, the pain, and the cold. He was only paying the price for his own mistakes. It was almost impossible to believe that all of it had begun only a week and a half ago, with a fateful decision which Legolas had come to rue deeply.
What happened back then had been long in coming, since Legolas had already been bristling with anger at a perceived injustice for a considerable time. Like all elves his age who were striving to be warriors, Legolas had spent the last years with long and arduous hours of training under the tutelage of experienced instructors, a training he had successfully completed almost one year ago. Unlike all other elves his age however, only Legolas had never been allowed to join one of the patrols that defended their realm against the growing shadows after completing his training.
At first he had been puzzled by that, since he had excelled in all disciplines, but it had not taken him long to realize that the instructors and the captains of the patrols only followed their king's – his father's - orders. He had tried to talk to his father about it, but Thranduil had refused to discuss the reasons for his decision and had only once again asked – or rather, ordered - him to be patient and wait a while longer.
As Legolas had no natural inclination to be patient, this had been hard to bear, especially as all his friends had already been on several patrols by that time and he had not even been able to explain to them why he was never allowed to join them or head out with a patrol on his own.
Legolas was well aware that he was not only a soon-to-be warrior, but also a prince of his people, and he not only wanted to show that he could fulfil his duty just like anyone else, but was also eager to be out there and defend his realm, as he had seen his father do so often before. In spite of his youth, Legolas had already a strong sense of responsibility, and he could not understand why he was not allowed to do what he was born for.
It hurt to be excluded in such a manner without even knowing why, and he was beginning to feel more and more useless and superfluous. It hurt even more that the current situation was his own father's doing, and it also stung Legolas' pride. Legolas and his father had always had a loving, if sometimes challenging relationship, but after the young elf had been trapped inside the Palace in Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir ((Valley of the Deep Roots)) for months and had repeatedly watched elves he had trained with come back from various patrols injured, weary, or not at all, the situation had become more and more unbearable and Legolas began to suspect that Thranduil did not trust in his abilities for some reason and did not want him to know about it.
Angry and confused, Legolas finally decided to show his father that he was just as able as any other of the freshly-backed young warriors and find a way to leave the settlement in the valley with a patrol even without Thranduil's blessing. It took some time of planning, but he finally managed to find a way to sneak out of the heavily guarded Palace right at the same time when a patrol was scheduled to leave the settlement and head out into the forest.
Clothed as a warrior and with his hood drawn low over his face it had been now problem to pass through the settlement without being recognized. Legolas had then joined the departing patrol, lying to Hebion, the captain of the patrol, for all he was worth and telling him that he had gained his father's permission to do so. Since Hebion had been one of his instructors before, Legolas had been able to finally convince him.
The mere fact that he needed his father's permission while everyone else did not, as if he was still a child, made Legolas angry enough to go through with his plan without having any qualms about it. Little had he known on that day a week and a half ago how disastrous his decision would prove to be, not only for him, but for others as well. Only a short time later everything had begun to go completely wrong.
Two days away from Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir, the patrol of seven elves had come across a small human settlement beleaguered by a pack of wolves, which was led by some wargs, and a group of spiders, which had seemingly left their usual hunting grounds in order to search for prey, which had become scarce due to the lingering cold. The humans were in the minority and their situation was dire, especially since none of them seemed to be warriors.
The wood-elves were not very fond of humans, both because of grudges of the past and because many of them were woodcutters, but they would also not stand by idly and watch them being slaughtered by a foe common to both races. So Hebion had decided to come to the aid of the humans and join them in their desperate fight against the hated creatures.
Legolas, who had never expected to be thrown into his first fight after only two days of patrol, had been thoroughly frightened but also determined to do his best, following the example of the more experienced warriors and clinging to everything he had been taught in his training. After a bloody battle, elves and humans emerged victorious from the fight, but to his dismay Legolas had become aware that only four out of seven elves had survived, and more than half of the human settlers had fallen.
For Legolas, the many losses and the sudden experience of being thrown into such carnage had been hard to come to terms with, and he began asking himself whether the battle might have gone differently if the elven warriors had not had to look out for an inexperienced young elf in their midst, who had acted against all orders by joining them.
Not wanting to intrude on the grief of the other elves, some of whom had known their fallen comrades for centuries, Legolas had stayed silent and simply done what he had been told to do. A short time later, after burning the dead, the elves had escorted the surviving humans to a village a short distance away and then four weary elves had set out to slowly make their way back to Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir.
The Legolas who returned with the decimated patrol had been quiet and subdued and very different from the determined young elf who had stolen out of the Palace some days earlier. After their arrival they had immediately been called to the king's study, and when the captain was done relating the events of the last days, Thranduil had taken the duty of informing the relatives of the fallen elves on himself and sent the members of the patrol away to get some rest, ordering only Legolas to stay behind.
For a long time, the king had simply stood there staring at him, various emotions swirling in his eyes, which Legolas was unable to discern. Among other things, the young elf had read anger in those piercing eyes, and after trying to meet the stern gaze as long as he could Legolas was suddenly convinced that all his worries had been justifiable and his father and everyone else did indeed blame him for the deaths of the three warriors.
Unable to bear that gaze any longer or face the accusations that undoubtedly would come next, Legolas had turned and fled the room without looking back or even closing the door behind him. Feeling heartsick and shaken, the young elf had run to his chambers and locked the door behind him.
He had collapsed onto his bed and sat there unmoving until deep in the night, trying desperately to make sense of everything that had happened. He had felt like crying, but the tears did not come. His father had been right to doubt him all along. He had not been ready to join a patrol, and now through his disobedience and incompetence he was responsible for the deaths of three warriors.
Not only that, but he had also lost his father's trust, his regard, and perhaps also his love. Legolas had finally given in to the crushing weight of guilt, despair, and pain, curling up on his bed with his hands balled into fists. Still there had been no tears, but there had also been no reprieve from the whirling maelstrom of his feelings or the painful thoughts that seemed to chase each other in an endless chain in his mind.
All peace and all confidence he had ever felt seemed to be shattered beyond repair, just as the love and respect he had once been given, and he kept seeing the faces of dead elves and dead humans and the flames of burning pyres in his head over and over again. He lay there shaking, fighting against inner demons he had never known to exist, until, a seemingly endless time later, he realized that there was no escape and no chance to win that fight. The pain only grew, and suddenly he knew that there was no place here for him any longer.
The old Legolas had been at home here, but no one would want to have what he had become. Coming to a decision, the young elf rose slowly. With his insight, the inner turmoil had ceased, and he felt strangely empty. Mechanically, he cleaned himself and changed into fresh clothes. Grabbing his weapons and what was left of his provisions, he unlocked the door, knowing that it was useless to lock it anyway – no one intended to come for him.
Afterwards he left the room through the balcony door, quickly and expertly lowering himself into the surrounding garden. He had known ways to sneak out of the Palace without using the gates since he had been a child, and so he managed to leave his home a second time without anyone knowing about it.
Legolas stumbled, fighting to keep his balance and cursing his inattentiveness. He held his breath for a moment, but there was no sound of paws on crusted snow and the warg had stopped howling some time ago. The beast was still waiting. The young elf breathed a sigh of relief, knowing only too well that another blunder like that could cause the starving creature to attack him.
He tried once again to push wayward strands of hair that fallen into his face at his sudden movement back under the hood, wishing that he had not decided to loosen the warrior braids. All he needed right now were some loose strands of hair obscuring his sight while he tried to fight for his life against a ravenous warg.
But then, he had done everything wrong from the beginning. He should have tried to speak to someone, like the head healer of Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir, who had become as close to him as an uncle over the years. He should have stayed, facing the punishment he deserved, whatever it might be. But instead he had run away like a coward, and now he would very likely die for it without being able to even apologize to the ones he had wronged.
No warrior would ever flee from the consequences of his actions. His father never did. Legolas could not understand any longer how he could ever have made himself believe that he was destined to be a warrior. Perhaps there was at least some kind of poetic justice in his dying by the fangs of a hungry wolf, like the dead warriors had done, but it would not bring them back.
His encounter with the warg had only proven to Legolas once again how totally useless he was as a warrior. He had been walking on the ground, lost in dark thoughts and not paying any attention to his surroundings, behaving as if he was in the Palace garden instead of a hostile forest. He had become aware of the warning whispers of the trees at the last possible moment, and had only been able to raise his bow in an instinctive move to defend himself when a shadow with gaping fangs had already flown through the air towards him.
The terrifying fangs had snapped shut only inches from his face, closing around the wooden bow instead of his neck. The bow had splintered under the pressure, breaking into several pieces. The wolf had howled with rage and the pain of sharp wooden splinters burying themselves deep into the sensitive skin inside his mouth.
The emaciated beast had seemed like an image taken right from his worst childhood nightmares, and both its impressive size and the dark aura that clung to it like a second skin told Legolas that he was not facing a wolf, but a warg, who had probably come here from as far south as Dol Guldur in his search for food.
Before Legolas had been able to recover from his fright and surprise, the warg had lashed out with one mighty paw, his claws cutting through the tunic and into the elf's skin, hurling him forcefully to the ground. The dazed young elf barely had time to register the pain before the warg was over him, drawn by the irresistible smell of blood.
Pressing his prey down into the snow with one paw, the warg licked over the deep gashes he had caused, tasting the elf's blood. A mere instant later, the beast's teeth sank into the elf's skin, preparing to bite down hard. Brought back to full awareness by the sudden flaring pain, Legolas gasped and instinctively smashed the part of the bow he was still holding against the warg's head. The ragged end where the bow had broken pierced the creature's skin and made it throw its head back with a yelp.
The mighty head swivelled around, and eyes darkened from rage and hunger stared down into the elf's face. Legolas stared back, hurting too much to be frightened, holding the broken bow tightly with both hands. When the warg's fangs parted and his head came down aiming for the elf's throat, Legolas rammed the pointed end of the broken bow right into the beast's gaping mouth.
The wolf gave an ear-splitting yowl and jumped back, shaking his head wildly to escape the excruciating pain. The piece of wood that had once been a bow fell to the ground, but the damage was already done and the warg began rolling on the ground whimpering, trying in vain to rid himself of the additional painful splinters in his mouth with his paws and rubbing his head against the frozen ground.
Legolas' head had dropped back into the snow and he had simply lain there for a moment, frozen with shock and pain, but finally his survival instincts and training began screaming at him, and he forced his fingers to close around the hilt of his knife. He knew it was not over yet – the warg was still alive and would come back. Somehow the young elf had managed to fight his way back to his knees, and when the warg finally ceased his useless efforts and rose with a snarl to end what he had begun, Legolas was ready for him.
Beast and elf watched each other for a long moment, blood dripping from the warg's fangs into the churned up snow, while the torn tunic around the elf's wounds slowly turned from forest green into a dark scarlet. Finally the warg had come forward, snarling and exposing his long yellow fangs. Legolas had thrown himself down, landing on his uninjured side and burying his flashing blade in the warg's left foreleg in one fluid move.
He had not been able to cut any sinews before the large wolf jumped back with a howl, but obviously the pain from the additional injury had been too much for the beast. The warg took flight, limping noticeably and leaving a trail of scattered drops of blood on the white snow. After he was sure that he had managed to drive the beast off for a while, if not away, Legolas had wrapped his wounds with strips from his cloak as best he could with his shaking hands. Only then had he realized that he had not even thought of taking medical supplies with him.
Legolas could still only shake his head at his own carelessness. He would probably not even know of the warg's existence if he had only stayed safely in the trees. And how could he have left Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir without even wasting one thought on how he would survive out here with only a handful of provisions? After years of training he was still nothing but a complete failure – he had not even managed to kill a half-starved warg.
A movement at the edge of his vision tore him from his thoughts and when he turned his head Legolas saw that the warg had drawn close to him again, moving between the trees to his left. Instinctively, the elf's hand moved back to the knife in his belt.
To be continued…
Note 1: For the sake of this story, I've decided that Mirkwood spiders don't hibernate. If Tolkien ever mentioned anything to the contrary, feel free to tell me. ;-)
Note 2: This is NOT an evil-Thranduil-fic – everyone who knows my Thranduil can probably guess as much, but I thought I'd mention it nonetheless.