Some crossroads can be seen from afar, planned for, longed for, and seen with eager anticipation. Others are thrust upon us unexpectedly and we wake one day to find that a threshold has been irrevocably crossed. For better or worse, we must make our way onward, following a new path with new destinations.
I suppose things might have been different if my mother had survived the weariness that so often comes with bearing a child. I am told that even though she was of the woods, a Laegren, she bled greatly at my birth and soon became too despondent to care for me. My father, who had eagerly looked forward to the delights of fatherhood and family, was quite overwhelmed by the situation. Tied as I was to my mother's heart, I wept almost without ceasing, which only added to my father's distress. As time went on, it became evident that my mother was fading. Her milk dried up which added hunger to my list of woes. Eventually one of my father's advisors suggested that I be placed with my mother's people for awhile. My mother's sister had also recently given birth to a son. I had not yet reached two months when I was taken from my father's halls to be nursed by myaunt for a time. I did not return home for many years.
My early days were far from idle. When I lost the last of my milk teeth, I was finally allowed to climb as I pleased without supervision. I would wake, often at the cusp of dawn, to clamber to the very top of the great maple tree that housed our talan. From there I could lean into the gently swaying branches and look across the slumbering canopy of the forest, watching to the east for the first signs of the new day. As the stars dimmed into the gray-blue expanse, an easing of the darkness crept into the eastern horizon. Song by single song, the hundreds of birds that dwelt in the dark folds of the trees would add their voices to the slow crescendo of morning song. The song itself was rich and varied, as though to herald the beauty of the day to come. It continued unchecked until the sun crested the horizon and then, as though by some unseen hand, it subsided and stilled.
Within the stillness was the unspoken promise of the new day. Often I would grasp more tightly the branches in my hands, and stand as tall as I could to scan the vast awning of the heavens above, trying to discern the tone of the hours to come. During the early days of summer, the sky was usually clear, save for the rosy glow of the sun peering from the east. Sometimes, fluffy pink ribbons of clouds were strewn about the expanse. On hotter days, especially in the late summer, the colors of dawn were muted by a warm haze that settled as mist between the boughs of the trees below. Oh, how I loved to watch the day unfold! And just as my attentions grew weary and began to wander, I would hear the morning songs of my extended family greeting the dawn with melodies of pure light and clarity. Their resonance never failed to lift my heart.
Slowly I would breathe deep cleansing breathes and sing my own song of welcome to the new day. It was not for others that I sang, nor even for myself. I sang because the Song welled from my heart and would not be silenced.
If I stayed long enough at my perch, the smell of morning fires would reach me. On this particular day the sun promised to shine brightly and gently. Swiftly, I made my way to the ground and ran lightly past Nathel's fire. Then I bounded happily down the steep slope to the river's edge.
I paused when I saw my uncle's still form in the shallows of the river. Nador got up as early as I, but he preferred to welcome the day wading into the waters of the river to catch fish for breakfast. He would situate himself near one of the quiet pools by the bank of the river and stand, perched like a great heron, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. At some point, a fish would come near and in a flash his hand would dart below the surface and grab the creature just behind the gills.
I crept to the edge of the bank until I was sure that Nador knew that I was there. With a grin, he plunged his hand into the water and, in a single motion, threw a large blue gill towards me. I laughed and caught the fish, then drew my dagger to kill it quickly. My uncle's attentions went back to the water while I cleaned the fish, tossing the entrails back into the water as a food offering to the fish that remained.
"Well, nethben," he said, after a second fish had been killed and cleaned, "have you woken the birds this morning?"
I smiled sheepishly. No doubt the sound of my singing had reached his ears.
As we arrived at the morning fire, I could tell that my cousin Brethilas wasn't up yet. I quickly climbed to the talan to check on him. He was surely the soundest sleeper of the family. His dark hair spilled across the mat, his eyes were on his dreams and his mouth was open slightly as though he were about to speak. He looked so peaceful lying there. I could hardly stand it.
Noiselessly, I turned and climbed to a broad branch that overlooked my cousin. In the spring, the maple seeds grow embedded in a pair of fixed wings we called spinners. I grabbed a handful of these as I climbed. It took several tries, but eventually I mastered the art of releasing the spinners so that they would drop gracefully onto Brethilas's sleeping form. A full dozen had landed on him without result, and I had all but given up on waking him, when one chanced to land in his open mouth. With a start and a snort, Brethilas abruptly sat up and spit the offending seed from his mouth. He looked at the seed for a moment, then looked straight up at me, a look of annoyance on his face.
I stifled the temptation to chortle, and settled for a gentle laugh instead. "Good morning, sleepyhead!" I cried, "I was afraid you would lose the whole day to sleep."
"I was doing just fine without your help," he retorted.
"Well, if you don't like eating spinners for breakfast, I think that the fish is almost done cooking. Get up now, before the day wanders away."
Brethilas could never hold a grudge. He grinned broadly and swung down from the talan. I followed close at his heels.
Fresh grilled fish washed down with morning tea is definitely the best breakfast in the world. Nathel didn't season the breakfast foods as she did the supper dishes, so the full flavor of the meat was there to be savored. Barely had the fish time to cool before I was digging at my portion with my little dagger. Soon even that was not quick enough, and I burned my fingers taking bits of the meat and popping it into my mouth.
"Slow down, child," chided Nathel, "If you savor the meat, you will enjoy it more."
"Yes, Nathel," I replied, and tried my best to comply with her wishes.
I was the first to reach the gardens that morning. The field stretched like a warm brown blanket across a clearing in the woods. Our community didn't rely heavily on gardening, but there were nearly fifty of us to feed and many of the vegetables that we grew could be harvested and stored for the winter. The daily tending was rotated among the households on a regular basis, and all shared in the bounty at the end of the season.
I noticed with satisfaction that there was a strong green blush to the soil this morning. The seeds which we had planted but a fortnight ago were already breaking through the earth. I wanted to go straightaway to examine them, but Nathel made us stand and center ourselves before going to the plants. "Good singing comes with good listening," she reminded us. I squirmed, and Brethilas gave me a sidelong glance, but we quickly settled ourselves.
Breathing in I could smell the rich moistness of the soil, echoing its season long ago when it rested deep under the waters of the river. The smell of spring, of new plants unfolding was also there.
Breathing out I tried to let go of the sensations of breakfast that still lingered in my mouth, and I tried to distance myself from Brethilas, who was ever near to me in thought.
Breathing in I could smell the tang of the morning air not yet fully warmed by the sun. I could hear the river sliding along its course and hear the sound of two redwing blackbirds fighting over their territory.
Breathing out I let go of sense of self and made ready to receive the Song of the young plants.
Breathing in, I allowed my heart to draw near to them as they pushed hesitant shoots through the rich thick soil. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun drenching the timid leaves with life giving light. I drank of the sunlight with them.
Breathing out, I closed my eyes and drew my own heart closer to the Song.
WhenNathel was ready, she began to sing. Her voice was soft and low, reminiscent of a mourning dove. She sang a song of awakening and good health. As soon as I felt secure in her rhythm I also sang, and Brethilas soon joined in. The melody tumbled a bit, and Nathelreached out her hands to join ours. Soon the song was righted and we dropped hands and set to our work. We did not touch any of the plants; they were still too young and tender, but we stopped at each one and set two fingers beside the new shoot, offering support and comfort. Gently we pulled out the few weeds that had also started to grow. When we finished singing to one part of the garden, we changed key and began a new song in another.
Before the morning was done we had sung to nearly all of the plants. The afternoon's work would be much quicker that the morning's, and then perhaps there would be time for play. I brushed the dirt off my hands, then set my hands in the small of my back and stretched. Young elves, I decided, were not intended to stay folded over plants all day, and I hungrily looked forward to lunch.
Brethilas ran to me and hit me lightly on the shoulder. "Are you too stiff to run, cousin? The first to the talan gets the larger slice of cheese!" With that he turned and began to run.
Brethilas had enough energy for two elves, but I have always had the longer legs. At first it was hard to run on the soft turned soil, but as soon as we got to the firmer ground of the forest I was able to take the lead. Brethilas did his best to keep up, but soon realized that he was at a disadvantage. The path to the talan followed the curves of the land. It would be much shorter if he took to the tress.
In a flash Brethilas was clambering up a white pine, headed for the canopy. I debated my own course for a moment and decided to follow. Unfortunately, in my hurry I grabbed for the branches of a tamarack pine and was well on my way to the top when I brushed against the trunk of the tree. It was heavily laden with the late season sap of that species. My leggings escaped unscathed, but the front of my tunic and several thick strands of my hair were coated. As quickly as I could, I disengaged from the sap and slid back down to the forest floor. I was too distracted to run the canopy safely, so I set out in a long strided gait to home.
So intent was I on winning the race that I did not see the horse until I was almost upon it. I had just rounded the corner to the north of our clearing when I caught sight of her, a beautiful grey mare with black mane and tail. She must have been twelve hands high – much taller that the little horses that we kept in the village.
I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to startle the animal. I couldn't keep from breathing a bit heavily, for I had run quite a ways. I opened my mouth wide so that the air could move silently. The horse did not move, but turned her head to look at me with dark eyes flecked with curious amusement.
"Eh," I murmured at last, not wanting her to be frightened. "You are so beautiful." I wanted to pet her, but my hands were quite sticky. Nador kept a solution that would remove the sap, but I wondered if the horse would still be there when I returned. I stuck two of my fingers in my mouth to try and suck the sap off of them, when I happened to look to my left. There, at the head of the path leading to our fire was the form of a stranger.
He was no taller that Nador, but he was dressed in fine clothing. His tunic was of dark green laced with silver embroidery on the collar and cuffs. There was more embroidery on the hem; a colorful floral motif. His brown leggings were closely tailored to his legs, and even though it promised to be a warm day, his feet were enclosed in boots of light leather. When I finally drew my gaze to his face, I saw that the stranger braided his dark hair as though for a ceremony. His skin was as fair as goat's milk, and his eyes were bright with a combination of surprise and delight.
"Mae govenan," he said. His voice was smooth and strong, "I came to get something, but if you are busy making friends with Aduial I can come again later."
I was thrown so off balance by the sudden appearance of the stranger and his horse that I could do no more than stare dumbly at the pair. I didn't even have the presence of mind to pull my fingers from my mouth.
"No, wait a moment," the stranger was saying, "I have something that you might enjoy. " He crossed to the horse and retrieved a small bag from one of the panniers that was draped across the horse's back. Quickly he untied the drawstring and pulled open the neck of the bag. I tilted my head to try and see what might be inside. The stranger caught my gaze and smiled, "Here, have a honey cake," he said, pulling forth something that looked like bread. It was much thicker than the bread we ate, and its surface was shiny with honey. I could see nuts peeking out from the top of the morsel. The stranger held the cake out to me, but I was too shy to come and take it from his hand.
Just then I heard Brethilas drop lightly from a tree a little ways away. The horse startled and the stranger spun to find the source of the sound. Swiftly, I snatched the cake from his hand and ran for the safety of the trees.
When I drew near to the family fire some time later, the stranger must have told Nador of my distress, for I could smell the apple solvent that would dissolve the sap on my hair and clothing. Nathel was there, towel in hand. Nador was standing behind the fire, looking less than pleased. The stranger was sitting on Nador's log. He was smiling, but I could sense he was less than comfortable. I could not see Brethilas. I knew he was nearby, doubtless watching to see what was going on. I hesitated to step forward. The honey cake had been delicious, but I knew that I had been rude to take it so abruptly.
"Come now," said Nathel, sensing my presence "You will gain nothing by waiting." I knew her words to be true, so I shuffled slowly into the clearing. I kept my eyes on Nathel, intentionally turning my back to the stranger. Nathel's strong hands grasped my tunic and pulled it over my head. Strands of my hair got caught in the shirt, and I had to wait patiently for Nathel to pull them off of the sap. "Here, fingers first, little one," she said, thrusting my hands into the pail of soapy liquid. The smoothness of the solvent felt good against my skin and I scrubbed my hands earnestly.
"The king wishes him returned as soon as possible," said the stranger, evidently picking up on a conversation that I had interrupted.
"And why should the king wish that?" said Nador, with thinly disguised anger, "It has been many years, without a single word. Now you are here to say that he wants him delivered forthwith? Was there no more to this message?"
"Only to say that he appreciates the kindnesses you have shown and the love you have given, and if there is aught you require by way of thanks, to not hesitate to make your desires known."
"He should come and face us himself," said Nathel, her voice was tight. "Here little one," she said more gently and she sat me on the ground and immersed the ends of my hair in the solvent. She turned again to the stranger, "You tell him to come and talk with us. He is one of our family. We will not deny his request if he comes in love. How can he send a stranger to ask this thing?"
The stranger sighed, "The days grow darker, my friend. You know that. He gave you the child because it was the only way to assure that his son would live a happy life. And so he has. But the needs of the kingdom weigh heavily on Thranduil. He is often called these days to battle the darkness, sometimes at great risk to himself. He could not come right now, but he worries. He worries for his people and for his son," the stranger paused, as though considering his next words, "If something should happen to the king, you know that we would need a prince ready to inherit the crown."
"You want him back because you have a use for him now." Nador almost spat the words, "Go and tell our king, tell your king, that a hammer is for using, a pot is for using, with kind permission a goat or a horse is for using, but a child is not for using."
It was silent for a time after that. The sound of the water splashing in the pail as Nathel washed the solvent through my hair was the only sound I heard. Nathel dipped the edge of the towel in the liquid and washed my chest and shoulders. Then she took a brush and began working it through my hair, taking care not to pull at the tangles.
Facing the stranger as I was, I could tell that he was most unhappy. At one point our eyes met, and I could see both compassion and frustration in his gaze.
"Why don't you ask Legolas what he thinks?" asked the stranger, leaning forward.
I looked at Nathel and Nador confused, "Why would I know what to do about this child?" I said at last.
The stranger sat back slowly and shook his head in disbelief, "He does not know?" he asked.
Nador scowled, "Legolas, go wash your hair in the river," he commanded.
"But Nathel was brushing it," I began, but then I thought better of it. Quickly I left the clearing and headed to the river. I paused as the voices continued.
"He knows that Nador and I are his aunt and uncle," said Nathel, "and that his beloved mother faded when he was born."
"And his father?"
"His father abandoned him at birth, " said Nathel, "We decided it was best not to speak of him at all. What good would it do for Legolas to know that he is the child of the king?"
When I returned to the clearing some time later, I could tell that the winds of the argument had shifted. Nathel was sitting near her cooking stone. Her hands were in her lap and it looked as though she had been crying. Nador was seated next to her, rubbing her back with one hand. He looked stern and withdrawn. The stranger was much less tense, and I was grateful to see the sober look in his eyes. He had won the argument, but he was sensitive to the sorrow of my family.
When I joined the somber gathering at the fire, Nador said, "Legolas, you are to go with Galion tomorrow at dawn. We will get your things together this afternoon, and you can make your farewells at dinner."
"Yes, Nador." I had so many questions in my heart that there were not words for. I crossed the clearing at sat at Nador's feet. Nathel scooped me into a warm embrace. I could tell that she was frightened and upset. I wrapped my arms around her tightly and breathed deeply. The light woodsy scent of my Nathel is one that I will never forget.
The next hours passed as in a dream. Nathel took me back down to the river and washed my hair again, this time with a cherry bark solution that made it soft and shiny. Then she brushed it much longer than usual until it glistened in the afternoon sun. Between the dirt and the sap my outfit from the day was all but ruined. My other tunic was older and a little worn, but it would have to do. I was happy to wear my other leggings as well. They were getting a little short, but they were the same color as Nador's and I always felt proud when I wore them. I had no personal belongings to bring with me, save for my dagger and a smooth stone with a hole in it that I had found one day near the river.
I don't remember much of the farewell dinner, except that it was much more subdued than usual. I do remember every word that my cousin said to me as we lay tumbled together for the last time on our talan. The air was warm and we welcomed the cool breezes that flowed up from the river. The stars were brilliant that night, as though to bid a farewell of their own. . .
I was frightened and proud as I was placed in front of Galion on the horse early the next morning. I could tell from the dampness in the air that it was going to be a hot and humid day. Briefly I wondered about the welfare of the little plants I was leaving behind. I envisioned them in my mind opening their precious leaves to the world that awaited them. I thought, too, of my perch atop the great maple tree. Aduial was tall, but I had been ever so much higher the morning before.
Nador and Nathel were standing side by side, and Nathel was holding Brethilas close as Galion set Aduial on her course. It occurred to me as the distance between us grew that my family stood close together, and I was no longer among them.
Nador – non cannon, uncle
Nathel – non cannon, aunt
Mae govenan – a greeting
Talan – a flet or platform built in a tree. In this story it is used for sleeping
Nethben – little one