Standard Disclaimers Apply
Legolas was beginning to think that he'd made a mistake.
Somewhere along the way, a sharp branch or a thorn had sliced along his left cheekbone, just under his eye; he had not noticed until it started to ooze in earnest a few minutes later. It was just one of a thousand tiny little discomforts that his trek had inflicted, the sort of thing a competent adventurer ought to expect, but in this case it wasn't the cut itself that bothered him—it was the manner in which it had been inflicted. A tree had cut him. That had never happened before. Ever. Which made the growing silence from the forest around him seem more than worrisome; it made it seem hostile. He had never felt ill at ease in the woods before, even when those older and wiser than him (his father, Mithrandir, even his brothers) had spoken cryptically about how dark they were becoming.
It was not a pleasant sensation.
The black mud sucked silently at his boots, making every graceful, utterly soundless elven step just a little bit more of an effort than it should have been, and there was a stillness to the air that spoke of… not quite emptiness, though it was completely free of the ominously wordless, warning moans of the trees and the clicking and spitting of those giant spiders, both of which he had been enduring for hours.
The spiders had been following him ever since he'd killed five or six of them, some four hours before. He'd gone further south than he'd meant to at first, and they had attacked in great numbers after he'd accidentally intruded on a dim, web choked clearing, one that was filled with ghastly figures mostly obscured by shrouds of sticky white and grey. The creatures had been furious enough to trail after him, but unwilling to test themselves outright against his arrows and knives for a second time. The trees had ceased to be coherent sometime after that, he thought, but it had happened so gradually that he hardly knew.
Even more alarmingly, he was not entirely sure when the complete, very occupied silence had descended—only that he'd realized upon noticing it that things had been that way for some time. It hadn't been more than a quarter hour, had it?
He was not an elfling anymore. That was the entire point of this exercise. He was the youngest son of the king of Mirkwood, and he had come of age. The spiders, at least, had been—if not precisely part of the plan—at least a possibility. He had started out with the vague idea that he would return with something that would make his brothers gape like landed trout. For weeks, he'd indulged in adolescent daydreams in which he ambushed a patrol of marauding orcs, or apprehended trespassing dwarves, and had left home that morning in high spirits, his new knives polished and his bow freshly oiled.
He was not an elfling… but he'd never felt more like one in his entire life.
His eyes felt as though they might start out of his skull at the slightest noise, and his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth together for so long. The air was too close and too warm (a brief thrill of outright fear shot through him as a stray thought flitted through his mind: it was like something very large was breathing very close by), and it suddenly occurred to him that something did not smell right. His nose was not nearly as good as his eyes or his ears, and it took him a moment to pinpoint the problem. It was not the usual smell of plants and animals living and growing and dying and rotting. It was… a corruption. Something outside the natural order.
And suddenly he remembered, eyes widening even further as a tiny choking sound—deafening in the silence—escaped him.
It smelled like orcs.
"…Hello, little elfling…"
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, but he was fairly sure that the source of it was in front of him. It was deep and rich, smooth despite being somewhat rusty with disuse, and with a little surge of alarm, Legolas felt his tense posture start to relax without his consent. "Mára aurë," he replied stiffly, then continued in the common tongue. "I am not an elfling. Who are you?" He wanted to point out that 'little elfling' was completely redundant, but he didn't need his father to tell him that was a singularly foolish idea.
"Oh, no one important. At least…. not anymore." There was a thoughtful pause, and then the voice continued in a low, hissing rasp that made gooseflesh break out along the young prince's arms. "Or perhaps… not yet." Legolas repressed a shiver, but could not stop himself from swallowing visibly. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to run away with all the speed he could possibly manage, but his muscles continued to gradually slacken despite him. A laugh, darkly amused and resonant, filled the close space in between the eerily silent trees. "Man eneth lín, little one?"
"You have yet to introduce yourself," Legolas replied frostily, stubbornly continuing to speak in common and struggling to hold onto his composure in the face of his growing panic, "I see no reason why I should do so."
The laugh sounded again, brushing idly against him in a frighteningly solid wave, and his balance wavered, bringing with it an accompanying wave of nausea. "Such fire. You are much more interesting than the Eldar I have had cause to deal with." Legolas' eyes narrowed, but he said nothing; he did not trust himself to speak. His hands had clenched into fists when his stomach had threatened to empty itself of his light breakfast, but even they were going limp at his sides, now. What was happening? "Come a little closer. I would see you better." The elf simply glared, blue eyes icy. "No?"
The feeling of nausea increased as his balance wavered again; he would have gripped a tree for support if he had been capable of doing so. But he was clearly being… held, somehow. I cannot move, as you well know, though I cannot guess at how you have done it. He was determined to keep his helplessness off his face, though he could do little about the light sheen of sweat standing out on his brow. "Who are you?" he asked again, his cold tone gaining a steely edge. At least, he meant for it to gain an edge; out loud it sounded tired, almost dazed.
The voice continued on as though it had not heard. "Do you know how long it has been since the first born were careless enough to let one of their young ones get so near to me? It has been so long since I…" A pregnant pause. "Talked with someone." Legolas had nothing to say to that. "There is something uncommonly familiar about you…" The prince shook his head, though it was really more of a twitch. "Are you the spawn of the elf witch?" That was… it was talking about Galadriel. This thing, whatever it was, knew the lady of Lothlorien; more than that, it was clearly contemptuous. A horrible, nameless dread was starting to take shape in the back of Legolas' mind, but he couldn't quite force it out into the open. "More likely, you are one of Thranduil's children. Yes… you look very like him." The last words were genial on the surface, but something of that feral hiss lay beneath them, an endless, timeless rage that seemed to turn the very air to boiling steam.
His father's name as well? How…? Disorientation swirled through him, turning his normally clear thoughts into little more than a useless fog. "I…"
"Ah. I see that you are. Tell me, little prince, does your family guard something of mine, or are such things left to Imladris?" There was a savage eagerness to the words now, though it did nothing to cancel out the silky smoothness of the voice's cadence. "Perhaps the elves are ignorant of its whereabouts after all. No matter."
What was it talking about? "Release me." The words sounded strange, slurred. Whatever was happening to him, it was starting to effect his mind, his speech. His knees threatened to buckle.
"I think not. It has been too long, and you are far more interesting than Shelob's brood." Legolas tried to shake his head again, though what he was denying he was no longer sure. It didn't work. "…Won't you come closer?" That part was low, coaxing. As though he even had the option of-
Impossibly, his foot moved, taking a small step forward, soft but unexpectedly clumsy on the damp earth. Legolas almost choked on the air he breathed, jaw creaking in protest as his teeth ground together. What? After a moment, he realized that it did not matter. He would not move again. He would not.
"…Interesting," the voice purred, "You are something special, child. I do not believe I can make you move again." Absurdly strong triumph flashed through his increasingly clouded head. "… Ah, well. I will come to you, then."
The shadows in front of him moved. That was the only way that he could describe it. They shifted (or perhaps something shifted within them), and suddenly, with an unpleasant, almost electrical jolt, Legolas realized that what he had taken for the broken, ragged stumps of saplings were nothing of the sort. They were dead spiders. Hundreds—maybe thousands—of dead spiders, some bigger than horses, curled up on their backs like grotesque, many-fingered claws.
And whatever was in the shadow reached over them, out toward him.
Legolas' knees finally gave out.
… And someone caught him, firmly, by the elbow, hauling him back up. At the same time, a voice trumpeted, calling out a series of words that he should have been able to understand. A bright, yellow-white light flashed, and somewhere behind that the entity screeched. It did not sound remotely like any of the known races, now; not even orcs could force pure hate into their voices quite like that.
And then he was moving, half running, half being carried, while a low, well-known voice urged him to go faster. Something about not wanting a fair fight…
"…Mithrandir?" Legolas asked numbly.
"Of all the idiotic things to do," the man in question snapped, his grip still strong and steady on the prince's arm. That was all the confirmation Legolas needed; reassured, he started putting more of an effort into running on his own, though his elven sense of balance had not recovered enough to be of much use.
He wasn't sure how long they ran—everything was largely a blur until sometime well into the sprint—but the trees were understandable again when they finally stopped. The grey wizard was breathing hard as he settled the elf down on a bank and then sat beside him, wincing a little as he did so. Legolas, who still felt lightheaded, glanced over at him, searching the soothingly familiar, deeply lined face with slightly unfocused, stunned eyes. "Mithrandir…"
"People are always going on about the wisdom of the elves," the bent figure muttered. He looked pale behind his beard, and legitimately old for the first time in memory. "I can't for the life of me understand why."
"Gandalf," Legolas began again, carefully. He couldn't quite look the wizard in the eye, but he did the next best thing and focused on his nose, attempting to draw his thoughts into some semblance of order. Then again, he wasn't sure that he wanted to think about what had just happened, or what had almost happened… "I am sorry."
"As well you should be."
The elf let out a slow breath and leaned back against the embankment, a long-fingered hand idly reaching out to brush along the rough bark of a nearby root. The trees were concerned, but even in their chattering distress, the voices were a blessed relief. "That being," he continued slowly, thinking about each word even as he tried to avoid considering their implications, "That was—"
"Yes. Yes it was. You are fortunate that I came after you, rather than one of your brothers." Legolas shuddered involuntarily at the thought. "That was your present, by the way," the wizard added firmly, "Happy Birthday."
Legolas blinked at him, and then the corners of his mouth twitched, the look in his eyes shifting swiftly from incomprehension to incredulous amusement. "Thank you. I owe you my life."
Some dark emotion passed behind the old man's eyes, but it vanished the next moment, and he managed a weary smile. "Legolas, the next time you feel as though you should not continue forward, do not. Your instincts are clearly more to be trusted than your intellect. Sometimes I think you are entirely too hot headed for an elf. Though I suppose," he added, his tone and expression softening, "That you still have some growing up to do."
Legolas nodded, his own slight smile more than a little bleak. "You are right," he agreed with subtle but clear emphasis. He was no longer sure that he liked the world he was coming of age in. Dark things were stirring.
Somewhere far behind them, in the still, silent part of the forest where the skeletal trees hardly moved in the wind, something curled up again, simultaneously furious and amused, but only a little disappointed. He had learned two valuable things, after all: the elves were not holding his missing piece, and something would have to be done about the wizards, at least in the long term. That was progress enough for one day.
He could wait.