Author's Notes: Thank you very much for every single review you sent me, feedback is really important to me and a wonderful help to motivate an author! ;-) Here is the last chapter of my story. I hope you enjoy and I'd LOVE to get feedback and hear what you think about it:)
Disclaimer: See Chapter One.
- Winter Solstice -
Chapter Three: The Longest Night
Legolas lay there unmoving for a long moment, barely daring to breathe, waiting for the pain of sharp teeth sinking into his skin. Slowly he realized that he was still alive and that the pain had not come, though the warg had been about to take his prey. Shaken and confused, the elf opened his eyes. He immediately recognized the grey shape that was pressing down on him, trapping him between it and the rocky ground.
The warg did not move, nor even twitch, and Legolas smelled the unmistakable, metallic odour of blood. Getting bolder, the elf tried to raise his head a little, and then he saw a sword that was buried almost to the hilt in the warg's neck, the blade still vibrating from the force of the blow. Legolas stared at it. He knew that sword. He let his head fall back to the ground with a gentle thud, not even feeling the pain in his hurting and worn-out body for the moment.
Suddenly the weight on him began to shift and the elf froze, fearing for one moment that the warg was moving, until he realized that someone was partly lifting, partly dragging the heavy body away from him. Raising his head once more, Legolas caught sight of a tall elf with golden hair and noble features who was pulling at the bulky carcass, the beautifully-crafted sword back in its sheath at his side.
The sight was painfully familiar and Legolas kept staring at the other elf in spite of the strain his awkward position put on the muscles in his neck, not really able to believe his eyes. The King of the Woodland Realm wore the brown-black hunting clothes that every wood-elf preferred when he had to go out into the forest in winter, and his long hair was held back by simple warrior braids that told nothing of his royal status.
Legolas' gaze fixed on the other elf's face. He had never seen his father look so pale before. The carcass began to slide off from him, and the young elf bit back a moan when some part of the warg brushed against his injured side. Ignoring the pain as well as he was able to, Legolas struggled into a sitting position, slumping against the wall, his eyes never leaving his father's face. At the slight sound from his movement Thranduil turned his head, and their eyes met.
The king's gaze was intense, searching, but before Legolas could read anything further in it, a shadow fell over him and someone knelt down at his side a bit awkwardly, blocking his view. The young elf did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed. He wanted to see his father's reaction just as much as he feared it. Instead he found himself looking into inquiring grey eyes framed by long silver hair, a sight that had become very familiar whenever he was wounded.
Legolas would not even have needed to see the face to know who had joined him. There was only one elf in the entire Woodland Realm who had problems kneeling down and walked with a limp. The young elf began to believe that he was dreaming. How could Nestadren and Thranduil be here? And why should both his father and the head healer of Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir risk their lives following him when he had done nothing but disappoint them, disobey orders, and be the cause for devastating grief?
Feeling dazed and confused, Legolas let his gaze wander to the dead warg and back again to the elf at his side. "How… why did you-" he stammered, not really sure what he wanted to say and hoping that Nestadren would understand him anyway.
The healer smiled at him. "I may not be able to walk as elegantly as I once did, but I am still quite capable of following a trail," he said, his eyes already travelling over the young elf's body, searching for injuries and gauging their severity.
Legolas had no problems believing him, though that did not really answer all of his question. Nestadren was one of the oldest Sindarin elves in the Woodland Realm and had been a warrior much longer than Legolas had been alive. He had served his family for generations. Long before Thranduil became king, Nestadren had been one of the warriors in Oropher's personal guard, until the battle of Dagorlad, where his king fell and he was severely wounded. Nestadren survived, but he almost lost one leg and the damage done to joints and tissues by both a vicious blow and a fell poison was too extensive to ever heal completely.
Since then he walked with a limp. Unlike every other elf in Nestadren's situation that Legolas knew or had heard of, he decided to stay instead of sail. He followed Thranduil to Mirkwood, decided that his time as a warrior was over and became a healer instead. Though Legolas had never seen the healer venture into the forest before, he was well aware that Nestadren had not forgotten any of his old abilities.
"That looks bad," the healer said softly, his concerned eyes resting on the soaked-through makeshift bandage on Legolas' side. "The warg bit you?"
Legolas nodded weakly. He was almost too tired now to keep his eyes open, and cold to the bone. He began shivering without being able to stop it and watched Nestadren taking off his own cloak and wrapping it around his shoulders.
"I need a fire in here!" the healer spoke over his shoulder, then he drew a knife and began to carefully cut through the makeshift bandage around the younger elf's waist.
The cold had dulled the pain slightly, but Legolas still flinched when Nestadren removed the part of the fabric that clung to his wounds. A sudden shock of cold on the hot skin around his wounds brought him back to full awareness for a moment, as the healer used snow to clean the gashes, just as he himself had tried to do.
When Nestadren started treating the wounds, Legolas passed out, too weakened by all he had been through already to be able to bear any more pain.
When Legolas regained consciousness he was lying on the floor of the cave, looking up at the rocky ceiling not too far above him. The pain had lessened and the numbness was gone from his limbs. He could feel the light, welcome weight of a blanket on him and the warmth of a crackling fire on his left side.
Noticing that someone was holding his hand, he turned his head and saw that Nestadren was putting a light bandage on one of his scraped hands. Obviously the healer was still not done treating him, so Legolas concluded that he could not have been unconscious for too long.
Feeling his gaze, Nestadren looked down at him and smiled. "Welcome back," he greeted his young patient.
There was still concern in his eyes, but considerably less than the last time Legolas had seen him. The warmth was pleasant and the young elf wished that he could simply close his eyes and sleep for a week. He had not felt so safe for a seemingly endless long time. Nonetheless, there were memories that were far from pleasant and Legolas knew that there would be no running away now.
Legolas looked at the older elf for a long moment, wondering if there really was no condemnation in those ageless eyes, or if Nestadren was simply hiding it well. There were few who could read the healer's emotions or guess at his mood when he chose not to show them, Thranduil being among them. Becoming aware that Nestadren was still holding his hand, Legolas noticed that the sleeve of the tunic that covered his arm and part of his bandaged hand seemed to have changed colour and also grown in size.
He did not have to ask to know that he was wearing one of his father's tunics now instead of his own torn and bloodied one. Thranduil was broader than his son and a bit taller – his clothes had always been slightly too big for Legolas. The young elf blinked back tears, wishing that he could make everything undone that had happened over these last weeks.
"It has not all simply been a bad dream, has it?" he asked quietly.
Nestadren gently put the younger elf's arm down on the ground beside him and released it. Looking at the healer Legolas could see that his silence had begun to worry the older elf.
"I am not sure whether you refer to the warg or to everything that happened before that, but I am afraid it was no dream," Nestadren answered finally.
He scrutinized the young elf's face a moment longer. Nestadren had lost nearly everyone he had cared for or sworn to protect in the great battle so many years past that had also almost cost him his leg, but when he looked in the face of this youth who had not even been born back then, or at the face of the king whom he had known and loved when he still was a prince and only a child, he knew why he had stayed and that his decision had been right.
Right now Legolas needed something that he could not give and having watched the events of the last weeks unfold, he had a good idea what that something was. Fleetingly he wondered whether all of Oropher's descendents would become as stubborn as he was.
"I need to leave you for a moment, Legolas," he said to the still rather worn-out looking prince in front of him. "The cadaver of the warg has to be burnt. I do not think the trees would appreciate it if we left it here to rot. I will be back shortly."
Legolas nodded in understanding, and Nestadren rose, leaving the cave quickly and soundlessly like a shadow, his slight limp almost invisible in the dim light. When he was gone, Legolas carefully rolled on his uninjured side and sat up slowly, wincing as the wounds in his side protested strongly against the movement. Leaning against the cave wall, the young elf drew the blanket tightly around him and stared into the dancing flames in front of him.
Much earlier than he had expected, Legolas heard a slight sound behind him and when he turned his head to greet Nestadren and tell him unmistakably that he would not lie down again he found himself looking right into his father's face. For an instant, the young elf froze. Thranduil did not move, either. He simply stood there for some moments, watching his son.
Legolas could not look away from his father's face, though he still felt a lot of trepidation, and this time he recognized the emotion he saw there: relief. Before the young elf was able to think further about it, Thranduil came towards him, kneeling down by his side, and a moment later Legolas found himself wrapped in a careful, but tight embrace.
Legolas tensed involuntarily for an instant, but then he hugged his father back and clung to him for all he was worth. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry!" He felt tears sting his eyes, but once again he blinked them back angrily.
"You should be!" Thranduil answered, his voice hoarse. "I have never been so scared before."
Not really hearing the second part of his father's words, Legolas went on, his voice sounding more and more desperate, "I know it was all my fault. You were right all along. I did not want anything like that to happen! I'm so sorry."
Thranduil frowned, not really able to understand the connection between Legolas' words and what they were talking about. "What?" he asked, gently gripping his son's shoulders and moving back a little so he could look into Legolas' face.
The young elf kept his eyes downcast, refusing to meet his father's gaze. To his mortification, tears began to spill out of his eyes, and he cursed himself for being too weak to stop them. "I know it cannot be undone," he said, his voice wavering slightly. "I know what happened is unforgivable. I just want you to know… that I am aware of the consequences of my actions."
"Legolas, what are you talking about?" Thranduil wanted to know, both mystified and increasingly worried. He put a hand under his son's chin, trying to encourage him to look up, but Legolas turned his head away, staring at the ground at his side.
"I cannot blame you if I have lost your love," the young elf continued resignedly. "And I understand if I have to be punished."
"Legolas, you have never lost my love!" Thranduil said with emphasis, feeling increasingly confused and frustrated. "And why should I ever want to punish you? For running away and almost getting yourself killed? I would say that is punishment enough for anyone!"
Legolas balled his hands into fists, resting them in his lap and staring down at them. He did not think he could bear this much longer. Why could his father not simply understand what he was talking about? "I killed them," he whispered. "Their death is my fault and you know it. If I had obeyed-" He tried to suppress a sob, but did not succeed entirely, breaking off with a choked sound.
For a moment, there was a shocked silence between them. Then Thranduil leaned forward slightly, gripping his son's chin firmly with one hand. "Legolas, look at me," he commanded.
Legolas looked up reluctantly, his eyes quickly filling with tears once more.
"You believe that the death of the warriors on that patrol was your fault?" Thranduil asked, and the young elf nodded.
"And you believe that I hate you because of it, or at least do not love you anymore?"
Once again, Legolas nodded. Thranduil fell silent, speechless. He felt wetness on his fingers from the tears that were running down Legolas' cheeks. "Whoever told you something like that?" he asked, a hint of anger in his voice.
"No one did," Legolas answered almost defiantly. "No one had to."
Thranduil shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts, releasing his son's chin. "Legolas, Hebion came back and spoke to me after you had left. He was worried about you. He told me that without you, even more members of the patrol might have fallen."
Legolas blinked. "That… cannot be true," he said uncertainly.
Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "Do you wish to imply that he was lying at me?"
The young elf looked at him helplessly. "N-no," he said. "But they had to look out for me – I was completely inexperienced!"
"Well, the captain told me that you handled yourself very well, taking your cues from him and the other members of the patrol and never being in anyone's way. He said you you behaved like someone who has been in fights before." There was a strange mixture of hidden pride and sorrow in Thranduil's voice now.
Legolas stared at him like someone who had just lost the ground under his feet.
"He apologized to me for not taking better care of you," the king added. "He said that he only realized back at Imrath-e-Thynd-Nuir, after he had had some time to think, how it must have been for you to be confronted with so many deaths for the first time."
Legolas still stared at him, looking confused. "But… you were so angry," he said with a small voice.
Thranduil sighed. "I was angry," he admitted. "I was angry at you for scaring me like that and it only got worse after hearing what had happened on that patrol. I am sorry that I did not talk to you right away. But I was angry and shaken, and I knew you did not need that on top of everything you had been through already. Then I had to visit the relatives of the warriors and tell them of the deaths."
He closed his eyes. "It could just as well have been you, Legolas. It could have been you who had fallen. Afterwards, the captain came to talk to me, and when we were done it was so late that I was hesitant to disturb you. I was quite sure that you had already fallen asleep, tired as you were. I stood in front of your door for quite some time, but then I decided to come back early the next morning – and that is what I did."
"And I scared you again," Legolas said, looking miserable.
"Yes you did," Thranduil answered, and Legolas could read the truth in his eyes. "Thoroughly. Especially when we found blood in the snow and the trail of a warg right next to yours."
Legolas looked down at his hands again for a moment, trying to come to terms with what he had heard. Finally, he raised his head, meeting his father's gaze. "It was not my fault?" he asked hesitantly.
"No, it was not," Thranduil answered, his heart aching at the pain he still read in his son's eyes.
"And you… you still love me?"
Thranduil smiled at him. "You could never do anything that would make me stop loving you, pen-neth," he answered, both sadness and warmth in his eyes.
"I am not little anymore," Legolas whispered automatically, tears spilling over again.
Thranduil drew him close once more, and Legolas broke down sobbing in his arms, as the accumulated heartache of long and lonely days forced its way out. "You will always be little to me," Thranduil contradicted gently, and Legolas buried his head on his father's shoulder, while the king held him and simply let him cry.
Some time later, when the tears had finally stopped, Thranduil watched his son staring thoughtfully into the flames of their little fire, much the way he had found him before, except for the red-rimmed eyes.
"There is something else on your mind, is there not?" he asked, not willing to tolerate any more misunderstanding between them after all they had suffered because of it – and Legolas in particular.
Legolas hesitated, but then he turned his head and looked at his father. "Yes there is," he confessed. "You never wanted me to go out on a patrol, in fact you did everything to prevent it. Why?"
Thranduil did not say anything for a moment, searching his son's face. "What did you think was the reason?" he asked then, not really sure if he wanted to hear it but knowing he had to.
"I thought-" Legolas began and broke off. "I think now that this is probably not true, but I thought you doubted my abilities and did not want me to go because of it. You never wanted to explain your decision to me, so I believed it had to be something you did not want me to know."
A snort came from the background somewhere on the other side of the cave, and Legolas blinked. He had never noticed Nestadren's return, but then, that was not unusual.
Thranduil felt an 'I-told-you-so' gaze boring holes into his back, and he stiffened slightly. He was quite sure that he and Nestadren would have a long discussion after all this was over, and he was not looking forward to it. The healer had indeed warned him that something was seriously amiss, but Thranduil had not wanted to listen, hoping that Legolas would simply follow his orders.
Nestadren always had had that annoying habit of spotting warning signs before anyone else was able to see them and he never had been shy about voicing his opinion. Emphatically. Right now, Thranduil honestly wished he had listened, though he did not plan on admitting it to the healer if he could help it.
He took both of Legolas' bandaged hands into his own and held them. "I never doubted your abilities," he said, looking directly into his son's eyes. "I did not want you to go on a patrol because I was afraid… because I was afraid of losing you." To talk about this was just as difficult as he had feared it would be, but he knew he could not avoid it any longer. It was necessary for Legolas to understand.
"Afraid of losing me?" Legolas echoed, surprised.
Thranduil saw a hint of relief in his son's eyes and knew he had been right in telling him. "Actually there are two reasons why I did not want you to go," he went on. "The first reason is that I am your father and you are my only son, and I was afraid of losing you like I lost your mother. I would not be able to bear that." He looked into Legolas' eyes until he was sure that the young elf understood exactly what he meant by that.
"The second reason is that you are not only my son, but also the prince of this realm, my only heir. If you should fall and my heart should break from grief… there will be no one left to lead our people in their fight against the darkness."
He gave Legolas a few moments to think about that, then he added, "I know it was wrong. I know I have to let you go some time. But I want you to be as strong and prepared as you can be. The fight you were in has probably shown you how quickly and suddenly even an immortal life can be claimed by death."
Legolas nodded, and the expression in his son's eyes when he mentioned the fight made Thranduil decide that they would have a conversation about that and all that had happened in those last days very soon, though it would not be tonight. He was quite aware that Legolas was weakened by his wounds, still in some pain, and very tired, even though the young elf tried his best to hide it. For a moment Thranduil found himself wondering if all sons were as stubborn as this one was.
"I understand," Legolas said, interrupting his thoughts. The young elf smiled at his father softly. "Thank you for telling me."
Thranduil could read in his son's eyes that Legolas was well aware of how much it had cost him to talk about his fears. "I should have done so sooner," the king answered, almost expecting another snort from the background, but it never came. He released his son's hands.
Without a word, Nestadren came forward, carrying some blankets, provisions, and more firewood, and set everything down right beside the fire. Legolas looked at the firewood, thinking of his arrows and feeling very grateful that they never had had to be used like that. Only now he realized how close he had come to dying today without ever learning that the reason for all the painful events of the last days had been nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.
He would have died believing that his father did not love him anymore. He shivered. It would have been worse than death itself, and he would never forget the lesson he had learned. Legolas was quite sure that he would never fall into doubt about himself or his father so easily again. He raised his head and smiled warmly at the two older elves. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you for coming in time."
A short time later, after they had eaten and Nestadren had given Legolas some herbs to drink to dull the pain, they all sat together close at the back wall of the cave, right next to the fire. Legolas was leaning against his father's chest, wrapped into a blanket and in the king's arms, needing both the warmth and the comfort.
The long hours he had spent with only the warg and his own agonizing thoughts as company were still far too close for his liking. He remembered the hungry eyes of the creature and suppressed a shudder. Thranduil felt it nonetheless.
"Are you well?" he asked softly.
Legolas nodded against his shoulder. "I was only thinking about the warg," he murmured. "He really scared me. Does that make me a coward?"
Nestadren laughed softly at his side. "That only shows that you are not a fool, child," he said, ignoring Legolas' half-hearted glare at that form of address. "That one was big, even for a warg, and I have seen far too many of them in my life. The big ones are usually the most dangerous and intelligent of all of them. The warg that was after you was probably a pack leader – I think it likely that he killed the last survivors from his own pack to keep from starving. There is no shame in being afraid of a beast as cruel and dangerous as that."
"I see," Legolas said, mulling over the older elf's words. "I am glad that he is dead."
Thranduil and Nestadren exchanged a look of mutual understanding over the younger elf's head. They both had gotten the scare of their life today, and burning the warg had been just as satisfying for the healer as killing it had been for the king.
No one said a word for a long time afterwards, and the silence around them deepened. Only the soft crackling sounds of the fire could be heard, and Legolas was watching the swirling snowflakes outside. He was feeling relaxed and sleepy, and very much at peace. It was not a winter solstice as he had imagined it to be, but the magic of this special night was back and he felt as if he could almost touch it.
In a way, this night had been closer to the spirit of winter solstice than any he had ever lived through before. Hope had truly destroyed his very own darkness tonight. He smiled, becoming aware that his family was here with him tonight, and grateful for the love he could both give and receive. At some point, Nestadren began to sing, and his clear, beautiful voice finally lulled the young elf to sleep.
Outside, the warm red glow of the fire was reflected in silvery snowdrifts, and the snowflakes kept swirling and dancing throughout the rest of the long night.
- The End -
Until the next time!