Disclaimer: Middle Earth and all that is in it belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien. And I don't think anybody wants to argue about that.
One last pull of the reins, and we were there. The mass of trees loomed above and around us, but we were not scared. When they are in woods, Elves never are. The long journey from Ithilien had taken us months – months, as we travelled through Middle Earth, our lives packed in small neat bundles. Ready for a new life. Leaving behind us not much more than ruins.
After the fallen Maia Sauron had left what had once been Greenwood the Great his shadow had partially lifted; lifted only to be cast on other corners of the Earth. What crevice the Enemy haunted with his presence no one knew; but the dead land of Mordor had stirred, the wind bringing past its harsh mountains thin ashes, a smell of doom. The water, in the clear streams of Ithilien when I had been born, had started tasting fouler. The world was changing again; and it was not a change for the better.
Of us Elves of the Ithilien forests, many had lived long enough to know the terror of Sauron's ancient power; some had fought in the last battle that had brought him down. A few had seen the Man King Isildur take the One Ring, and be corrupted. They smelled the air, tasted the water, and as they flicked the ash off their pale skin, they said: we must go. We are Elves; we know when our time is over. And so we bade farewell to our secret houses among the trees and left Ithilien, for forever, we thought.
Myself, I was young. Barely five hundred years, the life everlasting of the Eldar strong in my veins, a keen thirst for the world in my mouth. My heart was breaking when I set eyes for the last time on the vales, the clearings that had always been my home; then I saw the spoiled shape of the tainted tower of Minas Ithil and my mouth set in a hard line. No more a place for us. Only the Rangers of Gondor that we had always avoided would have remained to patrol the empy woods. But they were Men: gifted with a talent for deceiving themselves. To Elvish eyes, the corruption of Ithilien was irreversible.
So we set our course North, towards Mirkwood and our kindred. The evil of the Necromancer had forced them to hide behind their mountains, but now they were slowly regaining ground, setting out to cleanse their home of the fell beasts that had crept within its bounds. We were ready to help them.
We had sent scouts ahead to warn king Thranduil of our arrival, and he had answered by sending a party to meet us. As our column advanced slowly, picking our way carefully on the rock-strewn edges of the Forest River, they emerged silently from the long shadows of the wood. It was then that for the first time I saw Legolas Greenleaf.
He was the son of the King, but this I did not know. And even if I had, it would not have mattered. Even if he had been the last of the Elves on Middle Earth, I would have seen him. Even if he had never looked upon me, talked to me, I would have loved him.
It sounds strange, saying it now, now that so many things have changed; but when I close my eyes I am there again, again in my ears rings the dark music of the water running, again my nostrils fill with the wild smell of decaying moss. And again I remember the pale countenance of the Prince of Mirkwood when I set eyes upon him for the first time.
He greeted us with gentle words, the cadence of his voice purer than that of most of Silvan Elves. His father was one of the Sindar; his mother a Wood Elf. From Thranduil he had inherited the eery, silverish shade of his golden hair; from the queen whose name nobody ever pronounced, murdered by Orcs before her son could remember her, the delicate beauty of his traits, the smooth quality of his movements. And the blue fire of his eyes.
I could never remember what he said to my people worn by a long journey; his words echoed in my mind like forgotten songs, the print of something lost and now, eventually, found. He could not see me, placed as I was with the other archers in the rearguard; but my eyes never left him as he showed us the way to his father's palace beneath the earth. Like some of the great Elvish lords in ages past, Thranduil liked to dwell in caves.
Our guide took leave from us after leading us to the wing of the palace reserved to us; and I was not asked to accompany our lord Gelmir when he went to thank the king for offering us a new home. When I lay down to rest that evening, it was as if a new life flowed through me. I was full of the remembrance of the beauty I had gazed upon for too short a time. Nothing I desired as much as the possibility of doing so again.
So simple sometimes our desires appear to be; and truly the deadliest of passions like to cloak themselves this way, and thus become our undoing. But I did not know it then; all I knew was of a quiet longing being born in the recesses of my heart till then uninhabited by any that did not belong to my family. If this were love, then it was a poison sweet to take.
For long days I had no chance of seeing Legolas again, learning from a casual conversation that he had led a party of hunters to chase a breed of monstrous spiders, descendants of Shelob the Black Scourge, away from their lairs South of the mountains. I waited for his return, my spirit brimming with the white fire of my newly born affection. I did not hope for his love; only for the opportunity of seeing him again.
As one of our archers, I was charged with escorting parties of our people as they set out to explore our new dwelling. Mirkwood was treacherous still, King Thranduil had warned us; until we had found our way on its shady paths, better to use caution. On one such expedition I set out, ten days after our arrival; and when I had safely brought my charges back to the palace, as the Sun climbed to her peak at ease, I slung my bow upon my shoulder and made my way deep among the trees.
Thick was the foliage on their branches; a place made to hide and protect an Elvish realm. Closing my eyes, I listened to the voices of the trees, distinguishing anger and pain, but also a desire for new times. Yes, perhaps it had been better to seek for a new world, abandoning the old, loved one blemished and scarred by shadow and malice.
It was, I remember, a clear winter day; the air poked with cold fingers at my skin through the cloth of my tunic, and beneath my feet the ground was soft with dead leaves. I delighted in the richness of the air, in the pale light that filtering through the leaves tinged with green. My mind was empty, open to the soft talk of the world around me; empty until the wood became different, its silence sharpened, and I perceived that I was not alone anymore.
Silently, smoothly, I readied my arch; too carefully hidden was the presence to belong to monsters or blundering Orcs. Another Elf, perhaps? But the Enemy could take many forms and avail himself of different seductions.
I was in a clearing; as I moved towards the trees, towards my unseen companion, I perceived him to move, shift further from me. I followed; and again the elusive presence retreated deep in the leaves. Teasing me, it led me around in circles, out in wild paths through the wood. Always one step ahead of me, a much better hunter and tracker, clearly, but not caring much for hiding his trail. He wanted me to follow.
Half-worried, half-amused I delved into parts of Mirkwood till then unknown, I listened to the happy trill of freshly discovered brooks, inhaled the scent of different plants. If this was the Enemy, his devices and tastes were startingly similar to those of Silvan Elves.
For the better part of that day I allowed myself to go astray, always on the lookout for that imperceptible trace. Until the sky grew red, and the shadows of Mirkwood deepened. When the green light turned to an early darkness I looked around, and the trail had disappeared. I was far from home, and as a gentle wind rustled through the leaves and Mirkwood chanted with it, the slightest hint of fear crept upon me. Had I so easily been deceived, one of a long line of Elves to perish this way?
My heart trembled, and I urged it not to betray me, to sustain me in my search for way back. And just then, as the last remnants of light left the glade, a voice I already knew resonated behind me.
"You are a good tracker, maiden of Ithilien."
I blessed the darkness that hid the joy in my eyes; my voice was steady when I turned and replied: "Your trail was far too easy to pick, prince of Mirkwood. If I did not know better, I should think you wanted me to follow."
Even in the darkness, I could tell he was smiling.
"I played with you, my lady, and I ask your forgiveness for this. But I hope you enjoyed the beauty of Mirkwood, as I have shown it to you."
I smiled myself.
"Deep are the shadows and hidden the paths in this realm, Legolas, son of Thranduil, but I do not fear them. In time, I may come to love them and accept them as my true home."
There was silence for a moment before he replied: "And yet you regret Ithilien and its lost beauty."
My answer was woven with sadness. "We always regret exile, however sweet it may appear."
"You are wise, maiden of Ithilien."
He drew nearer, stopping in front of me. His nex words were barely more than whispers. "And yet I hope you will lay down your sorrows one day, and know again joy."
He did not wait for me to reply. He turned and led the way, and I followed again, this time without deceit in his wake.
We had almost come to the palace when he asked, his voice coming suddenly out of the darkness: "What is your name, my lady?"