To Rekindle Hearts|
Summary: Legolas and Ithildim accompany Mithrandir on a trip to the Long Lake, seeking relief from their duties for a short time. While away, an altercation endangers their lives. In the ensuing recovery, Legolas confronts the reality of secondary trauma, and begins a journey to escape the new confines of a slow-healing head injury. This is an exploration of the effects of trauma exposure on young professionals.
Author’s Note: The title references an interaction between Cirdan and Mithrandir at the Grey Havens in Appendix B of Return of the King: “Take this ring, Master,” he said, “for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it may you rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”
“Heavy would my heart have been, for all our victory at the havens, if Legolas had not laughed suddenly. ‘Up with your beard, Durin’s son!’ he said. ‘For thus it is spoken: Oft hope is born, when all is forlorn.’ But what hope he saw from afar he would not tell.”
—Gimli to Pippin and Merry in the Halls of Healing (Return of the King, “The Last Debate”)
Third Age 2459 (Last year of the Watchful Peace, 560 years before the War of the Ring)
Southeast of the Elvenking’s Halls, near the Forest River and the southwestern shores of the Long Lake
Legolas leaned toward the water and retched for the third time in as many hours, hugging his arms to himself as he bent at the waist. He straightened himself and wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand, before flicking the saliva and bile toward the stream. Legolas wiped what remained on the tail of the tunic that peeked from beneath his drenched overshirt.
He spoke. “This is truly not how I imagined this adventure would end, Ithildim.”
Legolas leaned against the steep clay and crumbling loam wall of a narrow ravine and closed his eyes, water rushing less than a meter away from the tips of his muddied shoes; it dripped from the tip of his nose and plastered a lock of hair to his face, which snaked from his brow to his temple and down his jaw before dancing from his chin in a twisting spiral—it sent water from its tip like a faucet. His clothes were coated in a fine mix of mud and clay and blood, and Ithildim looked much the same.
Ithildim laughed weakly from his vulnerable position. He sat on a large slab of heavy shale that was more than half-buried in the newly born river’s ravaged shores. His elbows were propped on his thighs and his head tucked between his knees; his fingers were interlocked and laid over his bent neck, and he occasionally moved them as one unit from his neck to the top of his head and back, pulling his braids—dark as moonless midnight now from the water— up and down and up and down, moving to a rhythm Legolas could not hear.
Legolas thought Ithildim looked rather like he was bracing for the sky to fall upon them. Which, Legolas supposed, it might.
It had been raining since dawn.
“I had not thought before,” Legolas continued, pulling his right arm farther up his chest and holding it there at the elbow with his left hand, positioned now so his curled fingers brushed his cheek, “but we might die here.”
Ithildim moaned. “Legolas, that thought has crossed my mind more than once these past hours, and you are just now considering it?”
Ithildim unlinked his fingers and lifted his head, letting his hands and forearms dangle in front of him as he considered Legolas’ reaction.
“I do not wish to die, and I did not want that for you, even though I offered up my life to those men,” said Legolas. “We might have been fine were we not cornered by a river in a gully that we did not really know existed. So until now, no, I had not really thought of it.”
Ithildim stared at Legolas for a moment in disbelief, unable to decide whether his heart bid him scowl or smile at his friend; as worried as he was, he was still very angry about the events that had led up to their current entrapment.
When Legolas tilted his head to the left questioningly, Ithildim’s gaze was broken and he said with stiffness, “Please, Legolas, go ahead and just wish us out of this unwelcome mess. Wish the spring rain away, wish the mountains hold back their melt! Wish that you had been running forward instead of backward; that we had not been pursued by boorish men twice our weight. Wish that Mithrandir had not come to us for this and that we had not accepted!”
Legolas frowned. “It would not do any good to wish those things,” he said, pausing. “I have upset you.”
“No,” Ithildim said. He shook his head. “I was already upset.”
Ithildim took a steadying breath, and held a hand out to Legolas, who stepped away from the wall and closer to him. Ithildim rose off the shale, pulling Legolas to him by the shoulder, and pushed him down onto the rock. Legolas crossed his legs in front of him and tucked his ankles beneath his knees. Ithildim pulled on Legolas’ left side lightly to indicate he wanted him to scoot further back on the rock, so Legolas used his left arm to steady himself as he readjusted his body, and Ithildim held tightly to Legolas’ upper arm. Ithildim settled himself, too, onto the slab. He wiped rain from his eyebrows, and then took Legolas’ head into his hands.
Ithildim pressed one hand to either side of Legolas’ face and peered at his pupils. Satisfied, he held a finger in front of his friend’s face and moved it from one side of his vision to the other; Legolas tracked Ithildim’s finger with his eyes best he could (which was not very well), as he knew he was expected to do, and as he had required the same of Ithildim during various expeditions throughout the centuries.
But Ithildim’s eyes narrowed, and then he threw up his hands and exclaimed, “I cannot see in this cursed rain!”
Legolas looked at Ithildim calmly, but with a furrow in his brow. “I think you are weary. You should rest, my friend.”
“That is your concussion counselling you,” Ithildim hissed. “I do not rest until you can rest; you know this.”
Ithildim and Legolas had suffered much together in their childhoods, and then on patrols as youth, and even more as leaders as adults, but this fall had shaken Ithildim more than any had before. Legolas frowned now earnestly, and his eyes looked regretful.
“Ithildim, we are still not on duty. You are here with me as my friend, not as my captain,” he said.
“If you think that my oath to you as a friend is any less profound than our oaths to one another as soldiers,” Ithildim began sharply, but Legolas looked startled, and Ithildim’s voice softened as he continued,“Then you are more injured than I initially pronounced.”
Legolas laughed, and the sound was almost lost in the patter of rain and the heavy babble of the water beside them. Legolas dropped his hand from his elbow but kept his arm tight against his chest. He grabbed one of Ithildim’s hands in his own and squeezed it comfortingly.
“You must not lose hope,” said Legolas. “Perhaps the rain will stop in the night and we will be able to navigate this place in the morning; perhaps Mithrandir will come looking for us, or the Lake-men may find our place of misfortune.”
Ithildim grinned and placed his other hand on Legolas’ temple, silver eyes sparkling naughtily.
“Or perhaps,” Ithildim said, “Your father will find out how far we travelled with Mithrandir and seek to find us, and, once done, he will lift us out of this canyon by sheer force of will, and slay us for our idiocy once we are on solid ground. Or perhaps,” he continued still, “the Lieutenant will find us and finally, and with great pleasure, strip us of our command before abandoning us to the elements. Or,” his face darkened here, “the men that chased us to this pit will come back to finish us off once they realize they could boast an exciting kill to a maid in the tavern,” Ithildim said, but then sighed and continued playfully. “Or, even more likely than all that, I will tire of your endless, hopeful suppositions and end you myself right here, on this rock.”
“You are incorrigible,” said Legolas with a huff, and then a half-smile.
“In that I am not alone,” Ithildim replied. He took his hand from Legolas' temple and wiped at Legolas’ forehead with the inside of his sleeve; he then pressed the back of his hand to Legolas’ brow.
Legolas tsked. “Why would anyone have—in this weather—a fever?”
“Legolas, are you completely addled from your fall?” Ithildim asked. “I am rightfully worried about your body cooling too much in this remorseless rain. There is something still not right about you. Besides,” he said, dropping his hand and scowling, “there is nothing else I can do, and I need to feel like I am doing something. My field medicine is failing me.”
Legolas lowered the arm he had clutched at his chest to the stone beneath them, resting it in the diamond formed by his legs.
“It is not your knowledge of medicine that fails you, Ithildim,” said Legolas, “but your heart.”
Ithildim pulled his hand out of Legolas’ reassuring grasp, as if burned.
“Just set the bone, my friend; this is nothing new and we have seen and set far far worse. I would rather endure a few more minutes of discomfort than not be able to draw a bow for all eternity,” Legolas continued. “In honesty, my patience is waning, and I cannot in this state be held accountable for any rash actions.”
“Fine,” said Ithildim. “Though I guess Mithrandir ought to have realized we are missing soon.”
“We can only hope,” said Legolas, with a wink, and then a frown.
Ithildim smiled at his friend and placed a gentle hand on Legolas’ left shoulder, clutching it tenderly. After a moment, Ithildim unbuckled Legolas’ quiver from his chest, and began to undo the clasps and ties of his friend’s overshirt and tunic.
“I am sorry to have despaired. It has been somewhat of a difficult day,” said Ithildim, winking, too, and Legolas laughed. “Besides, if I had treated you earlier, we might not have come to be,” he waved his arm vaguely, “here in the first place. I do not know that I can forgive myself. I felt overwhelmed and could not make a rational decision.”
“I doubt that he would have allowed us to escape unharmed, whatever you had done, or I had not done,” said Legolas, and he shrugged. “The man was driven by grief and thus could not be stopped, and you should not have to carry his grief as well as your own. You must forgive yourself this, Ithildim.”
All the while, Ithildim gently pulled Legolas’ injured arm through the fabrics and worked the shirts off the rest of his body. He draped the rain-heavy clothes on the edge of the rock, then undid Legolas’ belt from where it drooped across wet leggings, and laid his friend’s pouch and knife with it to the side.
“It is true what you say to our soldiers,” Ithildim said, not meeting Legolas’ eyes as he worked. “’Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.’ Thank you, for that, my friend.”
Legolas nodded and Ithildim met his eyes. He dried his hands on the inside of his overshirt before placing hands on Legolas’ bare shoulders and pushing back.
Legolas grimaced as Ithildim pressed him onto the shale slab until he lay flat, bruised skin cooling further against the slick rock, his face and eyes lifted to the grey and endlessly emptying sky. He sensed Ithildim moving to his right, fumbling with something at his belt, but he nevertheless started when Ithildim slipped two pinched fingers past his lips and tucked a bunch of herbs and bark into his cheek.
“Sorry,” Ithildim murmered.
Legolas shook his head slightly. “There will be time for that later,” he said softly, around the medicine. “Let us first just make it to the rising of the Sun!”
Then he closed his eyes against the water, let out a sigh, and offered Ithildim his arm.
Six days earlier
Legolas loosened the tie on the paper and unrolled it, eyes quickly scanning the letter.
Captains Ithildim and Legolas,
As you may have noticed, Mithrandir is in the wood. I am aware that your unit is home on rest rotation for the next fortnight. I recommend that you truly rest and ask you not to do anything foolish. You know as well as I that we have some serious decisions to make before the new moon, and the advisors want the Southern Defense’ counsel—to provide counsel, one must be both present in the Elvenking’s Halls, and sound. I expect both of you.
The words “truly rest,” “sound,” and “commander” were underlined three times. Legolas handed the letter to Ithildim and took a bite of bread, leaning back on the hard-packed earth of the training field and staring up into the night sky. It was perfectly clear, and his heart sang.
Ithildim finished reading the letter and dropped it to the ground, throwing himself back so he laid beside his friend.
“When have we ever done anything foolish with Mithrandir that Lostariel was not herself involved in?” Ithildim asked.
Legolas swallowed his bite of bread and grinned. “Well, we have not yet!”
The two laughed merrily, and then lasped into silence, considering the stars.
Finally, after they had lain quietly for long enough to see a star break the horizon and rise a few inches, Ithildim said,“It is important when one constantly faces elevated levels of emotional and physical stress, and is directly responsible for the well-being of a score of other elves, that one takes the time to care for one’s own needs, as well.”
As Ithildim spoke, Legolas held his hand up to the sky, measuring the number of fingers between the treeline and the star’s height. Three fingers fit the space between.
“Are you suggesting it is our personal and professional responsibility to act foolishly should we be given the chance?” Legolas asked, dropping his hand to his side.
“I am not suggesting anything!” Ithildim exclaimed. “You gave word to the thought, so I hold you responsible for all our choices henceforth.”
“But I follow your lead, Captain,” said Legolas, laughing.
Ithildim punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You better!”
“Well,” Legolas began, trying to sound light, “I will not be the one to tell Lostariel that one of her head captains has tried to escape his duties by running off with a wizard.”
Suddenly Ithildim stiffened and looked at his friend sharply; they had had this veiled and interchangeable argument—directed at one by the other—many times before.
“It is not an escape, Legolas,” Ithildim said sharply. “And we would of course ensure we returned long before our next rotation. Besides, you would not have to tell Lostariel, because I know you will be with me, escaping your own responsibilities.”
Legolas did not reply, and there was silence again for a long while. Eventually, Legolas raised his hand once more to the sky to measure the star’s progress. His whole hand fit now in the space from tree to star.
He dropped his hand and said, “I am sorry.”
Ithildim sighed and said, “I am, too.”
“We spend much time together,” said Legolas. “And sometimes I think it makes us careless of our words.”
And that night the two slept shoulder to shoulder beneath the stars, scurrying up at first daylight to bathe and become presentable, and break fast with their families. They would find Mithrandir later or he, more likely, would find them.
We go to guide Mithrandir northward to a settlement east of the Long Lake. It is a two day’s journey with the wizard; we will not tarry long there; and then we will return more quickly on our own. We shall be back while the moon still wanes, and we do not foresee doing anything foolish.
Captains Ithildim and Legolas
“Do you really think this wise?” asked Amonhir, leaning on a practice spear embedded into the ground by his feet.
“I do not see what choice we have,” said Lostariel. “Not after what they have just endured. Can you not see their strength waning? They cannot keep up this charade forever.”
Commander Lostariel and Lieutenant Amonhir stood outside the officers’ barracks and watched the two younger elves scramble into a tree at one of the training fields’ edges while they waited for Mithrandir. Ithildim shoved Legolas hard, and he fell from the branch but caught it with his knees so he hung upside down; Legolas grabbed Ithildim by the arms and yanked so that Ithildim slipped, too, and hung from Legolas’ wrists, shoes a few inches shy of the ground. There was a grunt as Ihtildim’s weight pulled at Legolas’ joints, but it was followed by a mighty peal of laughter that seemed for a moment to even quiet the early morning birds.
“And these are the leaders of one of our fiercest companies,” said Amonhir, shaking his head, lips curling in a half-smile.
Lostariel grinned. “We are lucky. This joy is what we fight to protect.”
“Fight to protect,” Ithildim sighed. “It is a very watchful peace, indeed.”
Lostariel and Amonhir fell into thoughtful silence as they stood with shoulders almost touching, observing the scene before them. Finally, there was a cry of “My knees, my knees—let go!” and Ithildim released Legolas’ wrists and dropped to the ground. He pointed and laughed gaily as Legolas righted himself on the branch and scooted toward the trunk, leaning against it and stretching his legs in front of him with a groan.
“It is perhaps selfish of us to allow them go with Mithrandir on this ‘adventure’ when we know well they are likely to be at their most foolish,” said Amonhir.
“No,” said Lostariel. “I think if they knew our reasoning they would be grateful. I hoped to gall them into leaving by sending a missive asking them to not do so—it is indicative of how they feel right now that it succeeded. Accordingly, it is far better for us, and them, that they take risks when they are responsible only for themselves, than they do so while on duty and responsible for a whole unit of elven lives.”
“Harm reduction at its best,” Amonhir said dolefully, with a short laugh.
“The wizard will take some degree of responsibility for them on this journey, I am sure,” said Lostariel. “He will sense their vulnerability.”
Mithrandir opened the door to the barracks behind the officers and emerged into the morning light.
“And what were you doing in there?” asked Amonhir sharply, turning around.
“Eavesdropping,” said Mithrandir. “I like to know what I am committing myself to.”
Lostariel laughed, but Amonhir did not seem to find it quite as funny.
“And,” Mithrandir continued, “I have noticed the vulnerability, and it is why I insisted on their company, but I will not be held responsible for their lives. They must learn to deal with these dark days, however unfair it is to those who seem so young.”
“Aye,” said Lostariel. “I can respect that, Mithrandir.”
Three heads turned as Thranduil’s gates opened. The Elvenking himself rode at the head of a hunting party and across the field toward the forest. Legolas slipped from the tree onto the ground and haled his father. Thranduil raised a hand in parting, and Legolas did the same, and then the King’s party rode into the trees, and Legolas slipped silently back into their branches, climbing high enough now that he blended into the woods.
A song with a simple harmony reached the officers and Mithrandir’s ears, and all looked
sad to hear such an innocent tune sung by clearly guarded hearts in the early spring air.
“Well, I go to fetch them,” said Mithrandir. “It will be…a trip.”
Lostariel patted Mithrandir on the shoulder and Amonhir inclined his head respectfully.
“Just send them back to us, one way or another,” she said. “Otherwise I will have to revisit our patrol schedule and reassign officers, and no one will be happy about that!”
Mithrandir laughed. “One way or another, Lostariel, they will come back to you.”
And then he swept off and away from the barracks, raising his voice in salutation halfway across the field. There was a flurry of movement in the tree and then Ithildim and Legolas were on the ground, scooping up their bows, and running to the wizard; they flanked him on either side as he walked from the field toward the trees, and in just a minute more, they were gone.
They travelled south and across the Forest River without incident. So close were the Elvenking’s Halls to Mirkwood’s eastern border that the three were out under open skies in a matter of hours. Ithildim laughed to see Legolas sprint ahead of the pair and whirl, with arms spinning loose and eyes wide. As Legolas took in the open sky and fresh air, rays of sun erased battles from his eyes and his hair shined like dull amber in the weak, early Spring light. Mithrandir shook his head with a smile, and he muttered something about wood-elves, but he was compassionate beyond measure, so he swelled with joy to observe such simple delight.
“Should I call him back?” Ithildim asked. They had been left further behind and his friend’s form was blending into the tall, pale winter grasses. “He is sometimes distractable in the wilds.”
“No,” Mithrandir said. “This path is safe. Let him slip away from companionship for a while more.”
Ithildim nodded, but then turned his eyes to Mithrandir as they walked. “If this path is known to be safe,” he said, “why then did you ask for our guidance?”
Mithrandir shrugged, and ran a callused thumb across one unruly eyebrow.
“You both bore heavy weights on you; I could sense your desperation this time before I even came upon you in the Halls. I felt you both needed reprieve from the expectations others placed on you, that you placed on yourselves, and that you also place one on the other,” Mithrandir said.
Ithildim looked at Mithrandir curiously, catching movement out of the corner of his eye as Legolas wove through the grasses now back to them, holding something green in his hands.
“I do not need to explain myself,” Mithrandir said, “but it is my responsibility as one of the Maiar sent to Middle-earth to support elves and men in ridding Arda of evil. If I could ease your or Legolas’ emotional exhaustion and thus increase your resistance to your hearts’ pains, or to evil? That is good. So in rejuvenating guardians of Mirkwood, I am in part fulfilling my duty to the Valar—you have become my business. If a bit of open grassland, roaring rivers, and dealings with men—so full as they are with a frantic vigor for life—cannot rekindle a wild elf’s heart in a world grown chill, then I do not know, at this time, what will.”
Legolas was almost back to them now.
“Thank you, Mithrandir,” Ithildim said, bending his head to him to show his gratefulness. “I would ask you a question.”
“You may ask it,” Mithrandir said evenly, watching Legolas draw nearer to them. He had a trillium cupped in his hands, roots and bits of dirt dancing from between his long fingers as he ran.
“This Watchful Peace,” said Ithildim, and Mithrandir turned to him with considering eyes. “It is too watchful, and not so peaceful. Are we coming now to its end?”
Mithrandir watched Ithildim’s dark hair play around his face as a wind came from the north, blowing in from the Grey Mountains. Mithrandir raised a hand and pressed his hat further down his head. Legolas had drawn even with them now.
“What do you think, Ithildim?” Mithrandir asked, looking away from the strands of hair and meeting now Ithildim’s silver eyes. He held his gaze.
Legolas stood behind them silently and watched the exchange.
“I think that we cannot escape it, whatever is coming,” Ithildim said.
“Perhaps you are right,” said Mithrandir.
“Right about what?” Legolas asked, stood now closer with feet shoulder-width apart and with his hands still cradling that rare, tiny flower, clutching it to his stomach as if he could protect it from whatever was coming.
But neither Mithrandir nor Ithildim answered him.
“Escape what?” Legolas said again, this time a little impatiently.
Ithildim clapped Legolas on the shoulder, not wanting to dampen his friend’s considerably improved mood. “We will worry with it later, my friend.”
Legolas stared at Ithildim for a moment, deciding whether it was worth his effort to argue, but he settled on narrowing his eyes at Ithildim coldly instead, and finally nodding his temporary concenssion.
Legolas then turned to Mithrandir with a smile and held out the trillium like an offering. A separate leafy green plant hung from the underside limply, a casualty of Legolas’ enthusiasm.
“Have you ever seen one like this before?” Legolas asked Mithrandir excitedly. “It is new to me. Also, I accidentally picked some valerian, but we can keep that for travel. But this triullium! Never before have I seen such spots on the petals, nor leaves so waxy; I almost did not recognize it for what it was! Do you think it could be introduced into the Mirkwood or would it not survive its clime? Or perhaps it would do better there because it is shaded and more wet,” Legolas continued, on and on and on, tripping over his words in his excitement over such small and unsullied and pure living things.
Ithildim rolled his eyes and let the words go on, eventually taking the plant from his friend’s hands. He dug a hole in the earth with the tip of his knife, and slipped the little plant back into the ground, patting down soil around it. Mithrandir was talking now with Legolas about the flora in the lands north of Mirkwood, and Legolas was near bursting with enthusiasm and life.
Ithildim went to start walking again, and Mithrandir trailed behind him, but Legolas for a moment dropped to his knees, and touched the trillium with a finger, bidding it farewell. He rose and joined them, and it seemed as they left that the plant stood, improbably, a little taller than before.
Legolas was right, Ithildim thought, that this adventure was an escape, but it was a good escape, and a deserved one. Out here, Legolas was full of joy, and Ithildim himself felt unbridled and free, like he had not since before he had been made head captain for the Southern Defense. Ithildim had not realized how much the incessent darkness and neverending duty had drained him of his resilience; it had over time warped his perception of the world and surely affected his rationality and decision-making in the field—he had a duty to his unit’s safety to take care of himself and to heal.
Legolas sang softly as he walked, eyes on a point far ahead of them, and his hair whipped around behind him, snapping like a flag.
“Sing as much as your want,” Mithrandir said to Legolas, “but focus on the path—we’ve a way yet to go!”
Legolas tried to mask how startled he was by Mithrandir’s admonishment, but Ithildim knew him too well. He laughed and cuffed Legolas on the back of the head, looked at Mithrandir, and grinned.
“Thank you,” Ithildim said. And he knew that Mithrandir understood he was being thanked for much more than just embarrassing his dearest friend.
“Wood-elves!” Mithrandir said, picking up his pace and using his staff to swat at Ithildim’s legs. “Come, come!”
Yes, Ithildim thought again, he and Legolas would be stronger for this escape, as captains and as men—stronger in their bodies and their hearts and their minds, and so too, therefore, would be their soldiers and their people.
They spent their first evening around a merry fire, and Mithrandir taught Legolas and Ithildim much lore that they had not learned in their own home, and had them practice with him their Westron. The two elves likewise regaled Mithrandir with tales of their adventures and misadventures, and then more solemnly recounted difficult patrols they had led, and decisions they had made that dogged them still.
“I came in on the Elf-path,” Mithrandir said at this point, watching the fire flicker on the faces of the elves seated across from him. “The woods southwest of your Halls are burned.”
“Yes,” said Ithildim. “We lost a village. Many of its youngest wood-elves perished by smoke or flame.”
“I am sorry,” said Mithrandir. “But it seems that it has been wet here?”
“Oh, it is now, but it was not a few days ago. We are lucky the rains came when they did, or we would have lost more trees and another village,” said Ithildim. “Legolas was quick to motivate the villagers and organize an effective fire response once we were on site, but that alone would not have been enough.”
Mithrandir consider Ithildim thoughtfully. “Was it your patrol who responded? I thought you were assigned to the South.”
“We are. But we have for several moons been working on occasion with the Western guard to drive a clan of aggressive and northward moving spiders back from a spread of towns—including this village—and so had with them a working relationship,” said Ithildim. “At the time of the fire, our company was considering a spider nest to the southwest of the town—distinctly farther west than we usual travelled—and were there camped. Knowing of our intentions with the nest from Captains’ meetings, a runner was sent to us from the Western guards, in the hopes that we would be there and provide assistance. The captain of their company had fallen in their efforts against the flames, and their second was out with scouts and had been delayed in his return. It was necessary we respond.”
Mithrandir nodded and turned his eyes to Legolas when his voice softly rose.
“It was,” Legolas said, considering his word choice. “It was a difficult experience for all involved.”
“And this was but one week past?” Mithrandir asked.
Legolas had dropped his eyes from his companions, but he nodded curtly in response to Mithrandir’s question.
Legolas untied his braid and ran his fingers through it for several minutes. Ithildim continued to talk with Mithrandir, about every topic—about the fire, and about the frequency of fires in the forest, and then about Commander Lostariel’s decision to require the Southern Defense carry out offensive attacks on encroaching evil, instead of simply holding threats at the edges of their realm. Ithildim expressed that the shift in expectation had placed a different kind of burden upon his warriors. Legolas listened while braiding his hair back from his face, and eventually rejoined the conversation. Mithrandir listened to the both of them with openess, and he provided counsel and kindness late into the evening, bidding them seek guidance from Nienna to better understand the grief in their hearts.
They shared watches that night. In the morning, Legolas woke Mithrandir and Ithildim gently; he was singing in his mother’s dialect, and he gestured to two mugs of tea distractedly. Slices of raw parsnip, beets, and celeriac sat on a cloth in piles beside each mug, with a wafer of dry waybread each. Legolas slipped his knife into his belt and flitted away, still singing, and Ithildim called to him as he began to run.
“Will you not eat?” Ithildim said.
“I already have!” Legolas said over his shoulder, turning his body to follow his head’s motion so he ran now backward while calling to his friend. “I go to seek some interesting plants I passed in the night and will return shortly!”
Ithildim shrugged and settled down beside the doused fire across from Mithrandir.
“His capricious temper has not changed much in the decades since I last saw you,” Mithrandir said, chuckling.
“Don’t I know it,” said Ithildim. He grinned. “He is hopeless to engage when we are out of the woods and under the stars.”
“Thranduil must be very proud,” said Mithrandir, and Ithildim rolled his eyes.
“He should be. But he is very glad to have an older son that does not confound him so,” said Ithildim.
“And your parents, Anaron and Orodiel?” asked Mithrandir.
“They are proud, of course. When I get to see them. I am often away,” said Ithildim. He poured the last of his tea on the ground and began to fold their blankets. “My father is not so proud of me, though, when I spend my time at home with him in the healing wards!”
Legolas arrived back shortly with several roots and bunches of plants tucked into his belt and grasped in his hands, and then he folded them neatly and packed them away into the small pack on the back of his belt. Mithrandir raised an eyebrow, and Ithildim said, “You found more valerian.”
Legolas only shrugged and said, “Yes, heal-all and more! We should carry more herbs when we travel,” and then recommenced humming and packing up the rest of their camp, and so soon the three were on their way.
Mithrandir, Ithildim, and Legolas arrived in the settlement that day at dusk. Mithrandir sought a man and a dwarf for “urgent business,” and he bid the wood-elves find something to do besides follow him about. He showed them to the village tavern, and sat with them crossly for a time, sharing in a pint of ale with Ithildim while Legolas nursed a winter cider, before slapping a coin on the table and heading out the door.
“Now what?” asked Ithildim, grinning as he finished his own ale, and leaned back in his chair.
Legolas watched the door swing shut behind the wizard, and sorely wished he had not put away his cloak in Ithildim’s pack before they entered the tavern. The eyes of the men around him flickered occasionally to his tawny, thickly-braided hair and elven ears, and the attention agitated Legolas. Ithildim’s dark hair was down and fell across his head and shoulders, but he carried himself more roughly that Legolas did, with broader shoulders and a heavier stance for bladework. Though they stood almost the same height, Ithildim did not seem to draw as much attention to himself as did Legolas’ honey head and lithe form. That he could not understand much of what the men around them said—speaking a dialect similar to but quite distinct from Westron—did not help to subdue his ill-ease.
“Let us get out of here,” said Legolas softly. “Seek somewhere outside to rest, or else find a room upstairs. These men make me nervous.”
The man at the table beside them stirred, and looked at the two elves clad in browns and greens that sat across from each other there; the slighter of the two leaned in closely and spoke low in his woodland tongue to his companion. The man put down his tankard and lowered his brows and frowned as he spoke.
“We make you nervous?” the man boomed in Westron. “You are strange folk in our lands, and whispering in a stranger language.”
The man had gained the attention of those farther down his table, and they now all watched the elves, eyes flitting between the elf leaned back in his chair and the other who leaned on his elbows on the table, finger tracing the edge of his pint absently; the elves’ faces were blank and did not belay their emotions.
“Two wood-elves so far from the forest?” the man continued, catching the eyes now of those around him, pulling them one by one with his gaze into this provocation. “We are used to your kind in neighboring lands, but here it is seldom heard of. Here, wood-elves only exist in the stories we tell our children at night, to make them behave,” the man finished, eyes narrowed.
Legolas and Ithildim had turned their faces toward the man when he first began to address them, and as he finished, they caught each other’s eyes, silently trying to decide what to do—how had this man understood a Silvan dialect?
Managing volatile people was more Legolas’ realm of command than Ithildim’s, and Legolas knew Westron better, so Ithildim nodded at Legolas and narrowed cautious eyes, and Legolas turned around fully in his chair to face the man.
“You know our language,” Legolas stated in Westron, his tongue catching on the ‘r’ and making the sound harsher than it should have been. Legolas tilted his head as he considered the man. The whole room had fallen quiet to watch this exchange.
“We know some of it, though your words are more bastard than I am used to,” the man said, and then crossed his arms.
“I have heard that said before,” Legolas replied.
Legolas straightened his head and back and pushed his braid off his shoulder. Ithildim rose from his chair and moved to stand beside Legolas, who was still seated, for he did not want to alarm the man.
“You should not be here,” the man said, roughly, and there was a murmur from the men around them. They had noticed the short sword on Ithildim’s belt and it made them anxious to see his hand rest on its handle.
“Maybe we should not be here,” said Legolas, nodding slightly to the man. “But why not? We are not so different, elves and men.”
The man laughed. “Many people here do not like your King. Your elves did not answer the Elder’s letter begging aide this winter; we lost many children.”
“You did not uphold your trade agreement,” Legolas said evenly. “We had nothing to provide.”
A man at the far end of the tavern slammed his pint onto the table and those around Ithildim and Legolas became angry at Legolas’ words; he heard a few call the names of deceased children into the ruckus, further incensing the crowd. Ithildim placed the hand not gripping his blade on Legolas’ shoulder and pulled at it gently. This was not a good place for them to be.
“And how do you know that?” the man asked, standing now, too.
Ithildim’s grip on Legolas’ shoulder increased, and then he hauled his friend to his feet by the elbow, willing him not to speak, but guessing Legolas’ heart would bid him do so, regardless.
“I listen to talk in our Halls,” said Legolas stiffly, slipping Ithildim’s pack over his shoulders and dropping two coins onto the table as they moved toward the door. “It was a terrible winter for all, and we had nothing to spare, for we too had to care for our youth. I am sorry for your losses.”
The man did not like this answer, and he lunged at Ithildim and Legolas, who took off toward the door, pulling their knives from their belts as they ran from the tavern. They heard the sound of heavy boots and the swish of air and cloaks behind them.
The voice of a serving maid found them in the night, leaning as she was out the tavern door. “We are not all so base! Take care; I will tell your companion what has transpired!”
Legolas and Ithildim did not even spare breaths for a ‘thank you,’ but continued to dart and weave toward the closest copse of trees they could see, noting one past the farthest houses on the edge of the village. As they passed the clump of small houses, however, several men emerged from them, and received shouted instructions from the original instigator in the tavern.
The new men cut into the elves’ path from the sides instead of behind, and after one skillfull evasion, Legolas’ next bound sent him straight into a newly-joined man—he knocked Legolas to the ground and onto his stomach, and then flipped him over so he faced the sky. The man was larger and broader than Legolas and sat on him firmly across the hips, one hand holding Legolas’ forearms together above his head, so he could not strike out with his knife.
Ithildim could hear Legolas struggling and kicking at the air, but he did not stop running. If he were caught, he would be of no use to his friend, but that thought did not stop him from pausing when he heard a crack and a soft gasp from behind, followed by jeers from the crowd.
Ithildim slipped into the darkness and ran behind the houses from which the men had charged, coming now behind the group so he could see Legolas restrained, his white knife abandoned on the ground beside his caught but unclenched hand, his face barely betraying a grimace. The man from the tavern stood at Legolas’ head near his trapped arms, and Ithildim knew from his position and the sound he had heard previously that the man had stomped on Legolas’ forearm—aiming for his tendons—to force him to release the weapon from his fingers; the crunch Ithildim had heard would have come from an added twist of the boot, as the two bones of the arm worked against each other until one of them gave. But otherwise his friend seemed fine, for now.
In that moment, Ithildim realized he did not know what to do. He and Legolas were both fast and immensely strong, but they were lean and less muscular than some of the men gathered here, and with less weight to throw around than the others of the men had. If this were just a game of evasion, or they had a full company of elves or the cover of trees, they would undoubtedly suceed. But they were at a disadvantage here, and Ithildim would not be able to break through the barrier of bodies by force and haul Legolas away.
“Your kind has a thousand years to live!” shouted the man from the tavern. “Our lives are but a blink of an eye, a handful of sawdust thrown into open flame—we burn fast and we are gone. But our children did not even have that chance to go out nobly, for they were extinguished too soon. And that fault we place on your kind.”
“What is his name!” a co-conspirator yelled.
“Yes,” said the man softly. “Your name, elf.”
Ithildim leapt into action. Legolas had an alternate identity and history picked and well-rehearsed, but he did not lie particularly well, and the men might figure out Legolas’ relationship to Thranduil—or some semblance of it—soon enough. But as Ithildim leapt out from behind the house with his long knife extended in front of him, an old man walked angrily toward the crowd, and all but the man restraining Legolas backed away from the instigator and the elf.
“The meaning of this?” the old man asked calmly, gesturing sharply at the scene in front of him.
The man from the tavern bowed his head to the old man. “Elder Bregon, this elf is one of King Thranduil’s, whose people denied us the need we required this winter, to sustain our children.”
“Yes,” said the Elder.
There was silence; the man on Legolas did not move, and Legolas made no sound, though Ithildim could vaguely hear his tunic scrape the ground as Legolas tried to pull in a deeper breath; the man on his hips was constricting his diaphram.
“He and his friend should pay for the crimes committed against our young,” said the man.
“Aelfric , son of Aelfwine,” said the Elder, dropping to a knee and holding his hand out to Legolas, who could not respond to his invitation due to his restraints. “That is not how we punish people in our land. This elf is someone’s child or husband, someone’s comrade or friend—we cannot take that away from them, without explanation. That misplaced vengeance would be worse than the pain we felt in the winter, when our kin starved before our eyes.”
The man, Aelfric, shifted his weight from foot to foot, looking somewhat unsure of himself, but mostly very angry.
“You will release him,” said Elder Bregon, clasping his hand together, and rising from his knees.
The instigator did not move and the man on Legolas’ abdomen shifted uneasily.
“You will release him,” said the Elder again. “Now.”
And so Aelfric, the man from the tavern, nodded to the man from the houses, who pushed himself off the ground and away from Legolas’ body, stepping to the side. Legolas had leapt from the ground in a heartbeat and stood straight, picking at dirt that had been ground into the buckle of his quiver harness as he feigned indifference. Ithildim quickly came round the back of the group and stood close behind Legolas’ right shoulder.
“You will let them go in peace,” said the Elder. “Go now to your families; tell your children goodnight; enjoy your time with your wives. Go before you disgrace us any further by doing harm to folk who have done no more to you than protect their own kin.”
Legolas stood very stiff, and Ithildim watched the tavern-man’s shoulders release but his fists clench at his leader’s words.
“Aye, Elder Bregon,” Aelfric said.
And the two elves watched the men go away, separating in clumps and pairs to their houses in the village, or back to the tavern, and the old Elder came to Legolas and Ithildim when his people had departed, took one of Legolas’ hands in his own, and whispered,“Forgive us.”
Legolas said, “Thank you for letting us go.”
And then Ithildim picked up Legolas’ long knife from the ground, took Legolas by the elbow, and steered him away, toward the sliver of trees they had sighted many minutes ago when they had first left the tavern. Legolas raised a hand over his shoulder in farewell, and let Ithildim hurry them away.
“Why did Mithrandir bring us here?” Ithildim asked Legolas, leaned against a tree on the edge of the grassland to surreptiously allow Legolas to catch his breath.
Legolas held his wrist tightly to his chest and closed his eyes. He could feel the pressure rising around the joints and it felt as if his muscles grated against mismatched rock inside his forearm.
Ithildim slipped Legolas’ lost knife back into the sheath on his belt.
“Mithrandir is wise, Ithildim,” Legolas said shakily, opening his eyes again, “But he cannot see all.”
“You are ever unpredictably philosophical,” said Ithildim.
“Or gallingly candid,” said Legolas, straightening himself from the tree and pulling a strand of sweat-soaked hair from his temple.
“Hm,” said Ithildim. “Let me see your hand.”
“Let us get out of this place first,” said Legolas, turning and walking into the small copse of trees. “Surely Mithrandir will meet us before we depart.”
“No rest?” asked Ithildim.
“We do not yet need it,” said Legolas, frowning. “Let us go from here.”
“All right, Legolas,” said Ithildim. He pulled his own pack off of Legolas’ back and slipped it over his shoulders—Legolas’ quiver was full, but he had lost his bow in the confusion of the tavern.
Ithildim walked close to Legolas’ shoulder as they traversed the sparse cover, and after a while—when it had become quite dark, though they had not travelled so far, more concerned with staying occupied than putting distance between themselves and the Istar—Ithildim took their waterskins to find fresh water. Legolas struggled to make a fire, finally lighting it with a curse and a sigh, and he argued with Ithildim about his arm for some time after he got back. Ithildim did not want to set it because he did not have healing supplies; Legolas did not understand why a few strips of cloth and a stick from the ground would not suffice as a brace—he thought Ithildim was being quite silly.
But Ithildim was more insistent, and Legolas’ patience wore out. So they put out the fire and crawled both into the low branches of a young tree. Legolas sang to himself for some time, and after a while—feeling safe with their distance from the village—he fell lightly asleep.
Legolas did not know, then, but Ithildim was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of protecting his command (even if, here, his command was only his second-in-command), so much so that Ithildim feared his routine intervention might make Legolas’ injury worse. Far away from the watchful eyes of his commanders and soldiers, Ithildim found himself paralyzed by the cumulative stress of his duty, and he could not see the forest for the trees.
Ithildim spent a long while watching storm clouds build in the low light of the waning moon above him, before he finally, and relunctantly, fell into an uneasy sleep.
Legolas awoke with a start when he heard footsteps of men approaching across decomposed leaves a few decameters to their right. He pulled out his knife with his left hand and narrowed his eyes at the forest floor below.
It was first light, and the heavy clouds above had just begun to release their rain.
Legolas roused Ithildim with a low whistle and then Ithildim, too, became alert, grasping his weapon and dropping to the branch on which Legolas was now watchful and erect.
Legolas jerked his head toward the sounds and said quietly to Ithildim, “The man from the tavern, and several friends.”
As the men came to the base of the tree in which the two wood-elves stood, Ithildim saw that Legolas spoke true. He almost groaned when he saw he had left his pack hanging from a limb at eye level, and the remains of their fire Legolas had neither overturned nor returned to the wilds, so it was very clear that Ithildim and Legolas were nearby, though the Men did not realize yet just how close they were.
Ithildim rolled his eyes skyward in exasperation as the instigator from the tavern picked up a great sword and slashed his pack from the tree limbs, driving the blade straight through the middle when it hit the ground. The man was good with a blade, for a villager, and what he lacked in technique he seemed to make up for in pure and committed hatred.
Legolas glanced at Ithildim and inclined his head toward the tree to their right. Ithildim nodded, and Legolas slipped his knife back into his belt and began to ascend as best he could, with one healthy arm, to the place where the trees’ limbs overlapped. Ithildim was right behind him, and eventually they had made the next tree, the shift sounding like no more than a glance of wind in the cool morning.
They continued that way for some time until the rain became heavier and slowed their progress. After a while with no sounds from below nor sight of the men, Ithildim dropped to the ground to survey their surroundings, for the woods were bigger than he first imagined, and it seemed to Ithildim that they had been moving west, perhaps toward the marshes that ran up to the eastern edge of Mirkwood. Woven below the even pitter-patter of large raindrops hitting ground and leaves, there was the faint sound of a running stream a small distance behind them.
Ithildim whistled up the tree to Legolas to let him know it was all clear below, and then he slipped his sword back into his belt. Legolas was down the tree in a heartbeat.
In that moment when Legolas’ feet hit the ground, however, an unexpected arrow passed Ithildim’s left shoulder and Legolas’ right and was buried to the shaft in the bark of the tree between them. Legolas immediately recognized that, whatever was happening, he would be of no use to Ithildim at ground level without his bow (indeed, he would most likely be a hinderence). So he jumped back into the tree, and took its branch with one arm at the elbow; he then swung his legs back up to grasp the limb, and clambered fully back into the tree’s protection. Ithildim stood below him with his short bow pulled and arrow nocked, and Legolas reached into his armguard and pulled out a small, discrete knife, staring cautiously into the waning darkness before them.
Several seconds passed, and the footsteps that approached were consistent with a much larger group than Legolas had initially heard. The instigator from the tavern and his friends, plus some, emerged to stand in front of Ithildim, who had held his fire, because these were not spiders or orcs or other evil things, they were men besot with grief. But, Legolas thought sourly, grief may make one dangerous.
Immediately one of the men walked behind Ithildim who still held his bow, and Ithildim did not turn as there were more opponents to his front. Legolas saw Ithildim’s shoulders square, and knew he was bracing for whatever was to come. Legolas fingered the small blade in his hand. If he only had one throwing blade and one chance to throw it, Legolas did not want to do so idly.
The man who walked behind Ithildim pulled back his fist and punched sharply on the left side, right below Ithildim’s lowest ribs. The blow made him drop his arrow and he bent forward as the pain radiated from his kidney and made him nauseous. Another of the men pulled the bow from his hands as Ithildim dry-heaved once, and a third grabbed his hs dark hair and wrapped his hand in it; he pulled a knife from his belt and then jerked Ithildim up by the hair, tilting his head back and placing the knife delicately near Ithildim’s large vein. Ithildim gasped and dropped his hands—absolutely still—to his sides, standing very straight but careful under the blade.
Legolas quit fondling his blade’s handle and froze. There were seven men, and he had one blade. He would have to be on the ground to give Ithildim any chance of escape, and even landing a killing blow against one of the men with his small blade would not ensure they would not kill Ithildim outright, anyway, at the first sign of a threat.
So Legolas took careful aim at one of the men farthest away from his friend, and sent his blade spinning. It hit the man’s foot and pierced through it and into the ground with a soft thunk.
In the moment the man cried out and all heads turned to the sound of the cry, Legolas dropped from the tree and pulled out his long knife. He held it extended before him as the men turned back around, knees bent and ready to attack or dodge if necessary. The instigator from the tavern—Aelfric son of Aelfwine, Legolas remembered—approached Legolas and roughly grabbed him by the right upper arm.
Legolas suddenly felt quite small and a little rash as the man’s fingers closed fully around the base of Legolas’ deltoid, his thumb and middle finger overlapping as if Legolas were as insubstantial as a waif, instead of a well-trained soldier. Legolas did not let his doubt show, however, and he stood still, eyes flickering to the knife at Ithildim’s throat, just two meters away from him.
A moment passed as the men considered the elves, and the elves likewise considered them.
Legolas’ voice was so soft when he spoke that it was almost lost in the cacophonous sound of water from all sides, but it was unyielding and shook with a quiet rage when he looked up to meet the eyes of the instigator.
“I do not want to needlessly hurt you, Aelfric son of Aelfwine; that is not our way. I do not like to meddle in affairs that are not mine,” said Legolas, adjusting the grip on his blade. “But if you do not unhand my friend and return him to me now, in full health, there is nothing in Middle-earth that will stop me from destroying you, whether it is in this very moment or not.”
When he finished, Aelfric took Legolas’ other arm into his grip and shook him once sharply. He then stared with hatred into Legolas’ grey eyes, which were now calm and looked very coldly upon him.
“Captain,” said Ithildim, hoping his base command of Westron would serve him well enough to allow him to communicate with Legolas in it. He did not want to offend the men by using an elven language—he was not really in a position to make these men angry.
But the man holding the knife to Ithildim’s throat jerked roughly at his hair, forcing Ithildim’s head back even further, so that he stared straight up into the rain, and his neck was very suddenly very exposed.
Aelfric laughed; Legolas could feel the vibrations of his twisted mirth in the hands that gripped his arms.
Ithildim could sense Legolas’ eyes considering the expanse of skin from his overshirt to the tip of his sharp chin, and Ithildim had heard the wild timbre in Legolas’ voice when he confronted a moment before the man from the tavern. In Ithildim’s previous experiences, that tone did not bode well for Legolas’ self-preservation or for the calm resolution of any given situation, whether levelled during an argument over baking flours or in a shouted plea in the midst of combat.
“Captain,” Ithildim said again, more firmly. “It would be well for you to listen to this man’s demands, so that we can all leave here unharmed.”
Legolas set his jaw and stared at a point behind Ithildim.
“We have had enough pain these years without being assigned blame for the death of yet more children,” Legolas said evenly, in a Silvan dialect. “If we are to die for a stupid reason in these woods that are not even our own—at the hands of grieving men!—I will at least not have us demeaned so in the process!”
“Legolas, you must not—” Ithildim started to say.
“We are not on duty, and you will not in this foolishness command me,” said Legolas, looking now, in turn, into the faces of each of the men surrounding them.
The man holding Legolas growled. “If you are going to speak of death, at least do so in a language we can all fully understand.”
“Aye,” said Legolas now in Westron, steadfastly ignoring Ithildim’s exposed neck and the anger and beseechment he sensed from his friend, and he looked up into Aelfric’s eyes. “I did speak of death. For if we die here at your hands, your own death may swiftly follow. The Elvenking of whom you are not fond? He is not so fond either of men murdering his captains, or his son.”
In that instant, Ithildim wanted nothing more than to strangle Legolas himself.
Aelfric smiled unkindly. “So you are one of the king’s own sprites!”
“I am,” said Legolas cooly, sounding more like his older brother or even the Elvenking than Ithildim had ever heard before. “The king’s own deadly sprites. My name is Legolas, and you would do well to not test the mercy of King Thranduil in this matter.”
There was silence for a moment throughout the group. And for that moment, Ithildim thought that Legolas’ outrageous approach might indeed spare them their lives. But it was only a moment, and a very brief one at that, for the man holding Legolas slapped him very hard across the face, and grabbed Legolas’ right arm above the wrist—his other still grippig Legolas’ left arm—where he knew he would be able to cause most pain.
Ithildim spoke up quickly.
“Legolas is a notorious liar and will be disciplined for this attempted falsehood when we return to home,” Ithildim said. “This elf is but a soldier of mine, and you would do well to let him go, for I am responsible for his safety.”
The man holding Ithildim loosened his grip on his hair so that he could look now into Aelfric’s face, which was perverted by a new and vengeful lust.
“And you,” Aelfric hissed, “would do well not to lie. Now that I know who this elf is, it is all too apparent the relation. He carries himself with the same pompous and thoughtless air of a great,” he spat, “Elvenking, who would look down on men and take joy in watching our children die.”
Ithildim saw Legolas stiffen and for a moment could read the sorrow and then anger in his posture, before he stood taller in the man’s grip, so that his forehead was now level with Aelfric’s nose. Legolas’ jaw was clenched and he frowned, his neck very stiff, and he had raised the knife as much as he could with the man’s hand pinning his arms to his sides. There was nothing Ithildim could do in that moment but yell, to redirect what he knew were Legolas’ heedless intentions, for Legolas was a sneaky fighter and infinitely resourceful, and he had found what he believed to be an opportunity.
The man turned his face away from Legolas for a moment to look at Ithildim, and Legolas gave a whimper of pain and twisted his arm in Aelfric’s grasp to refocus his attention. The sound and movement served to draw Aelfric’s gaze again to Legolas, and his eyes dropped toward the twisting arm beneath his large hand, his head inclined slightly. Legolas took advantage of his position to quickly pull his upperbody as far away from the man as the excruciating grip on his arm would allow, and then curled his back and drove his forehead as hard as he could into the man’s nose.
A sharp crack sounded above the rainwater, and Ithildim watched the man release his hold on Legolas and stumble away from him. Legolas shook his head slightly and then stepped forward and pressed his long knife into Aelfric’s chest. Ithildim was at least grateful Legolas was not feeling insensate enough to attempt to put the much larger man in a chokehold or press his own knife to the man’s throat.
“You will let my friend leave,” said Legolas. “You will let him live, and the king’s wrath will be less. Release him now, from the knife and from your men, and once he is far enough away to be safe, you may take my weapon, and slaughter me however you wish. If you will not release him, I do not care what you do to me after, but I will spring upon you and slam this knife straight through.”
The man wiped blood from his face and looked at the blade pushing against his outer clothes.
For a moment, no one spoke. Legolas increased the pressure on the man’s chest, and the man grimaced as he felt the sharp tip of the knife on the skin over his sternum.
To Aelfric, the elf looked absolutely feral and desperate, and he did not doubt that he might die by his hand. But, this elf was also injured and not so mighty as he. Aelfric grabbed Legolas again by the broken arm, even as Legolas brought down the blade so it bit into the back of Aelfric’s hand, but not with much force, so that he would not dismember his own arm if the man twisted away. Aelfric elbowed Legolas in the cheek and swept his other arm around to twist the knife from his thin wrist. It hit the ground and slid sluggishly on the wet earth toward Ithildim, settling among a pile of rotted leaves near the tree’s trunk.
Ithildim watched helplessly. He knew this was over for Legolas, and that it would have been over whether he had provoked the tavern-man or not—no matter how skilled the warrior, an injured warrior could not compensate fully for an injury, a warrior lacking his weapons could not truly defend himself, and without all those things, an enemy twice one’s weight is simply not a vanquishable target.
The man picked up Legolas under his arms and threw him onto the ground, digging a punch into his stomach.
Ithildim could tell from the way Legolas had quit reacting, that he too knew his part was over.
“Is this really just about the winter and someone else’s children?” Legolas asked, gasping.
“No,” Aelfric said, punctuating the next words by slamming Legolas into the ground by his shoulder. “I held my own son while he died of hunger, and then next held my daughter when she took her last breath. Weakened by cold and lack of food, she she was taken by the croop. This is certainly just,” he said, punching Legolas again in the gut, “about the winter, and my children, for your kind might have saved us, and you did not.”
Aelfric patted Legolas on the cheek and Legolas met his eyes fully.
“It is better to me that you are the king’s son,” said Aelfric. “I will not feel so guilty in taking your life, as I might have in just taking the life of one of his people.”
And then he lifted Legolas by the front of his overshirt, walked toward the faint sound of the stream, and stood Legolas upon its edge, which Ithildim realized now was probably very steep, if not in fact a cliff.
“If I do this, you will let my friend go, then,” said Legolas.
Aelfric nodded. “I will. You are payment enough.”
Legolas straightened his back and pushed his hair behind his shoulders. He looked Aelfric fully in the face and spoke.
“The death of a child is never excusable. I send love to you and your family, for your recovery from this great trauma,” Legolas said. “Ithildim,” he continued, “do not tell my father this is how I died.”
And then he bowed his head and waited for the fall. It came after a knee to his groin, which caused him to stumble, straight from the edge of the cliff to the unknown below.
Ithildim gagged, and the knife was pulled away from his throat so he would not be cut.
“The King’s sprite wanted us to spare this elf, and so we will,” said Aelfric, turning away from steep bank. “Let him go tend to his friend there.” He pointed to the ravine behind him. “There is not a way out, and there the king’s son will perish, anyway. A fall from such a height even an Elf-warrior cannot survive. And the gully may yet swell with snow-melt and take them both unawares, and do us the favor of sweeping away this crime, so we need not dispose ourselves of a royal body.”
And indeed, there was no sound now from below. No cry of pain followed the fall; no voice rose in surprise or called out for help—there had only been a heavy thud, and then the continued and neverending—and now unnerving—pitter-patter of rain. Ithildim felt his skin flush from his feet to his forehead and his ears for a moment roared with the beat of his own heart.
“Please let me go to my people, for help,” said Ithildim, in halting Westron.
“No,” said the man. “You have one choice, to go to your friend. We will let you climb down, though, instead of throwing you over the edge. You can either climb down there, now, or we will just kill you here.”
“Fine,” said Ithildim. The man holding him realeased him and Ithildim walked to the egde. The man who had held Legolas took a long length of sturdy rope that had been crossed over one of his companion’s chests. Aelfric then tied one end to a tree some distance away and then threw the rest of the length over the edge and into the gully.
“Use this,” said the man. “We will meet your prince’s conditions of the deal. This way you will return to the King’s son—away from the knife and a safe distance from my men—alive and unharmed.”
So Aelfric guided the rope, and Ithildim scaled down the side of the ravine, and as soon as his feet hit the soft clay of the bottom, the rope was hauled back up, and the men yelled about something in Westron that he could not quite follow, and then they walked away, leaving Ithildim and Legolas quite alone, and quite helpless.
Ithildim moved to Legolas’ side to find his body nearly spreadeagle and sunk several centimeters into the wet ground; the fingers of his left hand were dancing in the stream that ran through the center of the gully. Legolas’ face was to the sky, and his eyes wide open to the rain. Ithildim sank to his knees and took his friend’s hands—they twitched rhytmically inside his grip.
Ithildim released Legolas’ hands and completed a perfunctory inventory of his friend’s body. Ithildim gingerly palpated Legolas’ abdomen but felt nothing concerning, and his limbs—beside his already injured arm—were all well; there was no dent in his skull, no blood beneath his hair, but something was yet wrong.
It was the kind of wrong, however, for which there was nothing Ithildim could do.
So Ithildim bowed his head, and suddenly cried. He cried for Legolas and for himself—for the burdens he had carried too long and the trauma he had seen and born without speaking of it, day in and day out, without pause.
And now they were here in a canyon, in a deluge, with snow-melt running fast at their side; they were alone and injured, and they were likely both going to die.
Nine days after original departure from the Elvenking’s Halls
Legolas did not remember much about the actual fall. His memory of the event started when he became conscious of Ithildim slapping at his cheeks. He remembered also the interminable hours from midday to dusk, and the several hours they sat close together against the ravine’s wall, hair caking with clay as they kept dry as they could. He remembered singing to himself and reminiscing on their childhood with Ithildim in some of these hours.
Legolas remembered Ithildim shaking his shoulders to stop him from drifting into dreams on many occasions, and he remembered Ithildim’s cry of joy when the rain ceased, and then another joyous exclamation several hours later when—in the dark of night with just a sliver of the moon above—Mithrandir’s dark head peered over the edge of the cliff, followed by the head of Elder Bregon, and a dwarf that Legolas did not know. He remembered Ithildim and Mithrandir talking and shouting and devising a plan to get them out of the gully. He remembered offering a few unhelpful suggestions. He remembered Elder Bregon saying that one of the men who had hurt them was sick with guilt, and immediately sought him out to send aid.
Legolas remembered going back to the village by horseback and that he and Ithildim were tended by Mithrandir; he remembered Ithildim bathing and then bathing himself, with some help, in turn. He remembered Elder Bregon bringing them night shirts; Mithrandir washing their clothes and laying them before the fire to dry overnight.
Legolas remembered what they ate for breakfast the next day, the color of the horse leant to Mithrandir, the route they took home, the birds that called out to them on their journey, and the tree with the twisted trunk that marked the path at the east edge of the forest nearest the Forest River.
In short, Legolas remembered everything that happened since he woke to Ithildim slapping him. She did not understand why still he found himself losing time, why he found himself lost in the middle of perfectly inane conversations, why Mithrandir looked at him often with concern and Ithildim with outright terror. He would, he thought, be glad to be home.
Once reaching home, however, and reporting officially to Commander Lostariel, Lieutenant Amonhir, and King Thranduil in the Council Room, Legolas realized he was not so glad to be at home again. After they gave their—highly abbreviated and somewhat falsified report—Ithildim had left with Amonhir for an obligatory trip to the healing ward, where he would also likely see his father, Anaron.
Without Ithildim by his side in battle—which he was quite certain this was about to be—Legolas felt remarkably ill-prepared.
The Elvenking had asked Lostariel and Mithrandir to wait in the hallway, and he turned now toward his son, who sat in a chair turned partway to the long table, with his long hands folded gracefully on top of it. His quiver and its harness were in a jumble at his feet. Thranduil stood several feet behind Legolas, and spoke.
“If you are overwhelmed by your command, Legolas, you speak to the army’s lieutenant. You do not run away with Mithrandir to meddle in the affairs of Men.”
“I was not overwhelmed by my unit, father,” Legolas said, looking at his hands for a moment before meeting the Elvenking’s bright eyes again. “I needed respite.”
“And that you had,” Thranduil said sternly. “You were on rest rotation!”
“No,” said Legolas vaguely, voice suddenly thready. “No, that is not what I mean.”
Thranduil pulled back the chair beside Legolas and swept into it like the first storm of spring—quiet and powerful—green robes billowing around him as he settled.
“Then tell me what you mean,” Thranduil hissed darkly, leaning into his son’s space so that they were only centimetres away from each other.
Legolas did not turn his head to look at Thranduil.
“I needed—we needed—” he said, before looking his father fully in the eyes and wishing he did not have to answer truthfully, because the truth would make the Elvenking melancholy, and turn him to guilt and grief.
“We needed respite from our home and woods,” Legolas finally continued. “A moment away to consider and breathe. To see the stars from somewhere besides the training fields, or in the treetops while keeping watch for spiders and other foul beasts. I needed to be able to see my stars without holding my breath—waiting for the next stroke to fall—so that when I came back to our woods, I could remember what we were fighting for.”
Thranduil shifted in his chair as if he were about to speak, but Legolas continued.
“What we are fighting for,” Legolas said, “in this supposed time of peace.”
Thranduil looked at Legolas for several long minutes, and Legolas did not look away. He studied, instead, Thranduil’s face, trying to read there the thoughts that flittered through his father and king’s mind. He could find no answer in Thranduil’s high cheekbones, his light eyes, the almost imperceptible creases at the corner of his lips. So Legolas sat very still, and waited for the Elvenking’s response. It was not what he expected.
“Needing a respite from duties is different than running away from them,” Thranduil finally said slowly. “But what would your unit have done if you and Ithildim had been killed? You have built a team together these past two centuries, and your soldiers are bound to one another and loyal to you. Who would be ready to replace you, or even could? Had you died, your team would have for a time been broken, and they would not function as well. Your death or Ithildim's might leave your people unprotected. Did you not think of that?"
Legolas dropped his eyes to the floor. "I did not think of that, not exactly."
There was silence, then: "I am used to Ithildim making large decisions; I am not good at it. I am best at planning off the field, and at directing and responding and giving hope on it, but never choosing the mission in the first place. I thought briefly, and then I banished my thinking, and I followed him. You know as well as I that there is a good reason that I am sub-captain.”
Thranduil sighed. "You do not have the steady temperament of a leader—you are at once bold and distracted. I know this, everyone in Mirkwood knows this, and probably half of Middle-earth, or whoever you have graced your presence with on your adventures thus far. Recognizing that weakness is commendable, my son," said Thranduil. "That being said," he continued, "you will not make excuses for your ill behavior."
"If your duty as Ithildim's second will not persuade you of your recent foolishness, then perhaps your responsibilities as a prince will. I believe the darkness will soon return, and our people need us here whole and present and dedicated to them fully. I am their leader and king; Lumornon is their heir and future; and you are their protector and hope—you uniquely inspire our people with your youthfulness and spirit, your joy and ferocity. You cannot fail them in death or abandonment—it would be unfair. You have the potential to be so much more than you currently are, but you refuse to commit your attention.”
Legolas stared at his father. It was a position he often found himself in—when he did not know what to say, he chose to not say anything at all. And the thing he often thought he and his father were talking about, was not actually the King’s intended subject of conversation at all.
The Elvenking was accustomed to Legolas' habits of silence, and he felt his anger begin to grow when his son continued to stare at him, as he had done when unsure since old enough to speak. But though relatively young and still learning, Legolas was not a child at all, and Thranduil expected more of him now, as a captain, and a prince, and a son.
"Legolas," Thranduil said sternly. "This conversation requires you actively engage."
“I—” said Legolas.
And then there was no more response.
Legolas continued to stare at his father. His brows drew together and scrunched, and then released, as did the muscles at the corners of his mouth. Thranduil could tell Legolas' hands moved thoughtlessly in his lap from the way his upper arms tightened.
When Legolas' lips twitched faintly for a second time, Thranduil realized this was not one of Legolas' normal deflective silences, and he stood quickly when he saw the unfocused cloud in Legolas' usually bright and assessing grey gaze.
The Elvenking dropped to his knees and pulled at Legolas' chair roughly, turning it so his son fully faced him. His hands were moving in his lap as Thranduil had suspected, his left grasping his right and releasing it, grasping and releasing and grasping over and over again.
Ithildim mentioned they had both suffered a fall when the two soldiers originally reported to himself and Lostariel, but he failed to mention that Legolas had done any more than break his arm. As a soldier’s captain, that vague report was unacceptable, but Thranduil would deal with that later.
Thranduil grabbed his son's shoulders and shook him slightly, and when he did not respond, Thranduil called his name and slapped at his cheeks, increasing the pressure of the strikes and volume of his voice with Legolas’ continued non-response and his own mounting anxiety.
"Guards! Mithrandir!" Thranduil yelled toward the doors. "Lostariel! Someone fetch a healer!"
A guard opened the door and Mithrandir swept in, not entirely surprised to see the Elvenking knelt on the floor before his son, whose head dropped slightly from the defiant position in which he usually held it, Thranduil’s hands on his shoulders and shaking him.
Thranduil looked at the wizard as he came to them. "Healer Anaron, please find Healer Anaron."
Mithrandir knelt gently by Thranduil and put a hand on his shoulder, imploring the king look him in the eyes. "You must not jar him, Thranduil,” said Mithrandir.
When Thranduil turned his head to look at the wizard, he let his hands fall from Legolas' shoulders, and it hurt Mithrandir to see the worry in the Elvenking's light eyes.
"He does not need a healer urgently, but he will need one to recover over time. It is true that the young ones suffered a fall, and Legolas fell backward and struck his head when he fell, very luckily, Ithildim tells me, on already well-saturated earth,” said Mithrandir. “Ithildim reported that when he first found Legolas in the ravine he looked much as he does now, but then was fine for several hours more. But later, Legolas had many of these spells on our journey home, and they come on suddenly and without warning."
Lostariel had slipped into the room and stood now behind Mithrandir and Thranduil, hands clasped before her and eyes bowed.
"I have seen this before in those who have suffered trauma to the head, Thranduil, and it usually diminishes in time,” Mithrandir said. “It is a type of seizure; I am sure you are familiar with it."
Thranduil sighed. He was.
Lostariel’s brow was creased as she regarded the ground and she looked almost uncomfortable.
"My king," said Lostariel. "Even after his arm heals, Legolas cannot go into the field like this, unpredictable as such a condition is. He will be a yoke to himself and those he leads, and I cannot allow it."
Thranduil dropped his head to his chest, placed his hands on his son's knees, and sighed. "I know," said the king, "but he will not be pleased."
Mithrandir gently pushed Thranduil aside and knelt in front of Legolas. Mithrandir took Legolas' grasping left hand into one of his own, and raised a hand to Legolas' forehead. Legolas’ hand pulled rhytmically at the woolen sleeve of Mithrandir’s robes. Mithrandir closed his eyes and murmered some words under his breath, and after several seconds Legolas' hand quit with twisting at the wizard’s wrist, and his eyes came back fully into focus.
The first thing Legolas noticed was a drop of water still clinging to an unruly hair in the Istar's eyebrows.
"You will tell him," said Thranduil to Lostariel behind Mithrandir, and she frowned, but understood.
Legolas took a deep breath, and looked into Mithrandir's face, and then shifted to look behind him, finding the faces of Thranduil and Lostariel, who now stood side by side, watching Legolas.
"What did I do?" Legolas asked, tilting his head to the side, questioningly.
Mithrandir huffed and pulled at Legolas' belt, tugging so that it rotated around his hips. He pulled open the leather pouch now on the front of Legolas' body, and selected several leaves, and pressed them into Legolas' hand.
"Again?" Legolas asked, frowning. Mithrandir nodded and tapped Legolas' palm. Legolas scowled and put the leaves into his mouth, chewing the juices from them and tucking what remained into his cheek with his tongue. "I do not have the time for this."
"Guard!" Mithrandir called, and Legolas jumped, almost aspirating the leaves in his surprise.
The guard entered.
"Have chamomile and lemon balm tea sent to this room immediately," said Mithrandir, and the guard nodded and left.
Legolas scooted in his chair so that he could see Thranduil’s face without peering around Mithrandir. "I am sorry, father," he said.
Thranduil's nostrils flared. "You should be sorry, but not for that for which you are apologizing. It is not necessary to apologize for injury or illness, but sometimes one has to apologize for the decisions one makes that lead to that injury. You cannot escape your duties or the darkness, Legolas. You are a prince of Mirkwood and a captain in the King's army, so you must quit trying to."
Legolas nodded and stood from his seat, and Mithrandir moved away from him as he did so. “You are right, King Thranduil. I will recommit to my duties." He bowed.
"Good," said Thranduil.
But now Lostariel stepped forward. "First, though, you are on a leave of absence."
Legolas jumped and took a step toward Lostariel. She shook her head.
"Not because of your decision to go with Mithrandir, or what happened while you were with him, but because you are, right now, a liability in the field. Your lapses in consciousness cannot be predicted. But we will use you here in the Halls; you will join the defense council for a time, and help train the newest recruits; you are far more patient with children than most of their tutors,” Lostariel said. “You will continue to write your patrol’s reports—Ithildim’s Sindarin is hopeless and his script illegible. Ithildim will report to you when your unit is home, and you will work together to create an accurate account.”
Legolas clasped his hands in front of him at the wrists, dropped his eyes, and nodded.
"I understand, Commander Lostariel," said Legolas. "You should know that this is not what I intended. Ithildim shall boot me into the Enchanted River when he hears.”
"I know it is not what you intended," said Lostariel abruptly.
Thranduil turned away from his son and pulled Mithrandir with him to the far end of the room to allow the warriors privacy.
"But it is what happened,” Lostariel continued gently. “You are still young and sometimes still very rash.” She smiled at him. “But I would be more worried about Lieutenant Amonhir than Ithildim.”
At this point, Lostariel put her hands on Legolas' shoulders and looked him fully in the face, and winked. Legolas blinked several times and then swayed slightly like a lithe tree in the wind; there was a moment of silence in which he shook his head almost unnoticeably, and blinked again, looking into Lostariel’s eyes.
“Pardon,” Legolas said, running two long fingers across his eyebrows and then down the back of his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “What were you saying? After the bit about me being rash?’
Lostariel did not take her hands off his shoulders at first, confirming he was steady before releasing her hold.
“I said you are still young and rash, and that you should be more worried about Lieutenant Amonhir’s reaction to your absence from the field than your captain’s,” said Lostariel.
Legolas swallowed the now pulpy and fibrous leaves still in his mouth and then laughed lightly, finally smiling for the first time since he walked back into the Elvenking's halls.
"Oh! Do not worry about that,” Legolas exclaimed. “I am!"
Lostariel turned to see one of the kitchen staff walking toward them, doors held open by a guards. It was Ithildim's mother, Orodiel, a baker. She handed the tea to Lostariel, who pressed Legolas back into the chair from which he had risen, and placed the tea in Legolas' hands.
"Drink," Lostariel said. "And then you go to the healing wards."
"Yes, Commander," Legolas replied, leaning back into the chair and slumping in its seat, finally looking worn and exhausted.
"Orodiel, is Anaron yet in the healing wards?"
Anaron was Orodiel’s husband, and one of the best healers in Mirkwood; he took a particular interest in members of the King’s Army.
"Yes, he is there now with Ithildim and some from the Western patrol," said Orodiel.
"Excellent," said Lostariel, nodding deeply to her. "Thank you for your assistance. You can return to yor duties in the bakery."
Legolas waved to Orodiel from behind Lostariel, and she smiled fondly at Legolas and nodded her acknowledgement, before turning around and heading out of the room and back to the kitchens, her thoughts on her foolish and brave son and his equally foolish and brave friend.
Legolas sat the cup down on the table a little heavier than he intended. It sounded a loud clunk, and at the noise both Mithrandir and Thranduil turned back toward them.
"Well?" said Thranduil, looking at Legolas evenly.
Legolas stared at his father blankly.
Thranduil smiled. "Aren't you to go to the healing ward when you are finished with the tea? Commander's orders."
"Oh," said Legolas, standing.
Thranduil laughed very softly. "Go now, Legolas; you will be well soon."
"Yes, sir," said Legolas, and he bowed and was past his mentors and out of the room in a blur of muddy green and amber, whisking away down the halls like a leaf on the wind.
One and a half months later
The weeks Legolas spent recovering were frustrating and tedious, for both himself and those around him. He spent a large amount of time with Ithildim’s father Healer Anaron, more time than he had spent with him since he and Ithildim were children and they passed endless days flitting in and out of Anaron’s cottage and the Elvenking’s halls; in and out of his home to the training grounds and back for meals and wound care; and, once, Legolas had even lived there with them after his own family suffered a great loss, and it was then that he learned another important skill from Orodiel—baking. But Legolas knew Anaron now better than he maybe would have ever liked to have known him before, and while Legolas knew it was unfair, he had at several points in the process resented Anaron, for healing from a head injury, Legolas found, was nothing like healing from a break or bite—it required a kind of patience and endurance he did not know, until it was required of him, he possessed.
Several days after their return with Mithrandir, Anaron had allowed Legolas to recommense council duty, for he sensed the younger elf was despairing in his idleness, which he was. After a week more, Legolas could write reports again for their company, for which Ithildim was sorely relieved. A week after that, he was allowed back to the odd hours at which captains’ often found themselves meeting for tactical planning. And finally, when the moon was new once again, Anaron released Legolas from his care with a list of reasonable limitations, a stiff leather brace to stablize his forearm and wrist, and directions to report to him every other day to check on the effectiveness of his medicines, (which Legolas did without complaint, because Anaron was a great man and kind and powerful, and he would not disrespect him). Upon his relative return to health, Lostariel immediately assigned Legolas to a young training group, for Legolas was healed almost entirely in body and mostly in mind, and he was simultaneously impatient and exhausted from the wait.
The first few days on the field were not entirely pleasant for him or the young novices. They often watched him sidelong as they practiced, excited to see not only how a captain fought, but also shamefully excited to see first hand Legolas’ malady, that they had all heard their families and tutors whispering about for weeks. Legolas was pleased they had not yet been graced with such a show, but it was not to last much longer, and it would culminate in a decision made above him which he would not very much appreciate.
“Ai, Elbereth, Legolas, what happened to your face?” asked Lostariel when she saw Legolas at the mess table against the wall, sat on the bench and leaning his head and body back against the cool stone behind him.
“I am certain you will get a report on it later,” said Legolas, not moving. “Probably written by me.”
“And?” she said impatiently, crossing her arms and leaning against the rack of practice spears near the door.
Legolas sat now upright to address her. “My consciousness lapsed while Sinnafain and I demonstrated an offensive response to an opponent’s undercut. I was unable to pull my punch before faltering—Sinnafain did not properly block—and I thus hit her rather sharply in the abdomen. Sinnafain continued in the demonstration in the short moment before she realized I was unable to continue, and I could not defend myself, and she neither pulled her blow.”
Legolas smiled wryly.
“So I was thus essentially incapacitated by a youngling with barely a yen, while she had only to gasp for a minute to restore the air my hit had taken from her. It will be a good tale for her to tell to her peers, defeating a captain of the Southern Defense,” Legolas said. “But they were all, besides, rather in a flurry when I stood back up! I know they had been waiting to see one of my ‘fits’ since I started training them, but they seemed rather upset once they realized what staring vacantly could mean for me in battle.”
He looked at his hands. “I have asked Amonhir to finish with them their lessons, for I could not continue and they are more scared of him than me, I wager.”
“Aye, I wager, too,” said Lostariel. “Well, I do not expect a written report on the incident; your verbal message will suffice. Besides, it was not anyone’s fault.”
“I do not know about that,” said Legolas. “But all right.”
Lostariel watched him quietly for a while.
“I know we—though more often Amonhir—have time and again said that you do not listen, that you are rash or insolent, too slow or too impulsive,” said Lostariel. “He has said that you are meant to be a follower and not a leader.”
Lostariel caught Legolas’ eyes here, and held his gaze for a moment.
“And some of these things, in some instances, are sometimes true. But you would not have progressed so far and so quickly if you were not implicitly trusted by your peers and superiors, and if you had not demonstrated—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that your insight and presence in the field are a boon to your company strategically and emotionally; if you had demonstrated irresponsibility, you would not have elves under your command; if you were anything but wholly and passionately dedicated to your people and your charges, you would not have the power you have, nor carry the responsibilities you do—you are a different warrior and a different captain than most, but you are yet a good warrior and an excellent captain. Amonhir conceded all his centuries of concerns about you in a matter of weeks.”
She paused again and met Legolas’ eyes, and he looked back at her evenly and nodded, and she then continued.
“Nearly every irresponsible decision you have made since I first met you as a child did not result in injury to anyone but you, or occasionally Ithildim. While your judgement is sometimes unfortunate, your self-sacrifice does not often affect those around you.”
Lostariel stopped speaking and Legolas nodded from his position behind the mess table. “I am lucky it does not.”
Suddenly Lostariel’s eyes narrowed, and she crossed the distance from the spears to the table in two long strides. She pressed her hands into it as she leaned forward onto its surface, her face leaning well over Legolas’. Her hair swung in her agitations air so that the tips of it tickled his nose.
“Have you listened to a single thing I have said?” Lostariel asked with a quiet anger.
“I have,” said Legolas, lifting his eyes from his hands and considering her livid face calmly. “I notice now that you are angry with me, Lostariel, and I would understand why.”
Lostariel hovered above him for a few moments longer and then pushed herself back from the table with a huff and crossed her arms across her taupe tunic, pacing in a slow ellipse between the wall of weaponry and the mess table in silence for more than a few minutes. Legolas watched her, then watched his hands, then observed the shadows playing on the wall across from the window, then considered his hands again, then his lap, and then watched Lostariel a while longer, until he could no longer sit quietly.
“Commander, I beg you speak,” said Legolas. “Perhaps it is selfish, but I am confused, and I spent the past month being far too confused over simple things to be confused now over something of potential monument, while the one who is experiencing the grief and could explain it to me is right before me, walking in silent circles and thus making me slightly nauseous.”
He looked at her seriously and then bowed his head respectfully when Lostariel finally stopped pacing and turned to face him. She looked at his passive and deferent mask for a moment before bursting into laughter, and at that Legolas looked up and laughed, too.
“Thank you for bringing me back this time, Legolas,” Lostariel said, sitting down on the bench across from him.
“However I can best be of amusement and service,” Legolas replied and laughed.
Lostariel reached across the table and grasped his forearm, that had just a week before been still painful; Legolas grasped her forearm also, and smiled appreciatively.
“I will tell you what has upset me, though it is a bit more complicated than anger,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Legolas, and they released each other’s arms and Legolas waited patiently for Lostariel to speak.
“I am upset because you do not place enough value on your own life,” said Lostariel. “I have read the true report you and Ithildim put together for Amonhir and I after your meeting with the king, several moons ago. It angers me to hear, even now, that it seems you yet believe injury to yourself is not injurious to those who love you. I am upset that you grew up in a time that made you feel that way, and that in trying to give you and Ithildim the freedom to heal from the recent tragedy of the fire on your own, that you both have suffered for it.”
Legolas scrunched his eyebrows and looked in Lostariel’s face. He was perhaps more confused than he had been before.
“Lostariel, it is odd,” he said. “For that is very nearly the same reason I hold myself responsible.”
Legolas’ eyelids fluttered momentarily, and then he seemed to stare at a button on Lostariel’s shoulder. The fingers of the arm that lay on the table rubbed together lightly as if he were trying to remove sap from the pads of them. Lostariel climbed back off the bench and walked to the end of the table where a pitcher sat. She poured a glass of water and walked back to Legolas and sat back on the bench. Lostariel gently placed the water in front of Legolas near his arm and waited patiently, passively considering the way he had woven the shorter locks of hair around his face into his larger braid.
After a handful more seconds had passed for Lostariel, Legolas suddenly noticed that Lostariel was sat a few inches left of where she had been what seemed like just a moment before. He looked down to see the previously nonexistent cup of water she had sat by his hand, and Legolas felt himself becoming overwhelmingly frustrated. Had Lostariel not moved from her seat nor placed the glass of water before him, Legolas would not have even noticed he had lost any time. He resisted smashing the glass against the wall, but he instead brought both hands to the table and leaned onto his elbows. He took a deep breath and looked Lostariel straight in her dark eyes.
"I am sorry to have caused you such pain. I feel like I have lost touch with who I have always been,” Legolas said, one hand tapping out a light rhythm on the back of the other as he spoke, urged on by anxiety. “I feel lost now, and all I want to do is go back to what I have always done, and what I know well, by muscle memory. And yet I cannot fully, and I feel angry, and like my purpose has been sundered from me, and my identity and relationships with my peers abandoned. I have put upon many people these past few weeks as a result of my foolish action, and now I despair, which is not a thing I knew before..."
When he trailed off, Legolas watched the almost imperceptible movements in Lostariel’s face—an unnamed emotion tugged at the edges of her mouth; an unidentifiable feeling compelled her nostrils twitch once and her right eyebrow convulse indiscernibly. But Legolas could not put together the pieces to guess at what she was thinking, so he was glad when she finally spoke.
"You may have noticed, Legolas," said Lostariel quietly, "that those in the king's army and, especially we officers, do not often discuss our feelings, one to the other."
Legolas flushed and dropped his head; he pulled his hands into his lap with speed where they clutched together tightly.
"I am sorry then for my hasty words," he said.
Lostariel reached across the table and touched Legolas' chin, raising his eyes to her own.
"But that has not ever been the way with us, nor should it be the way among our warriors at all," said Lostariel; she dropped her hand from his face and folded them in front of her. "We each hold a lot of pain in our hearts, and I would not see one of my most intuitive captains and my longest trainee suffer needlessly. I need you healthy, as does our land."
Legolas did not speak for a long and silent minute, and his eyes had returned to the wood top of the table. Lostariel began to wonder if Legolas had once again slipped from the world around them, and she said softly his name. When Legolas did not respond, she reached across to touch his face again, lifting his chin to look in his eyes.
He turned his head away from her and his braid shifted from his shoulder to fall onto his chest. Lostariel removed her hand.
"I am here, Commander," he said, still not looking at her. "I am just exhausted."
"Yes, you are," said Lostariel. "Nevertheless, now—if you will, Legolas—I would talk to you about my concerns about you."
Legolas lifted his eyes. Lostariel saw him quickly survey the room as surreptitiously as possible, eyes lingering for a moment on the door to the training fields.
"No one has reason to be in the mess hall for quite a time yet," she said. "It is safe here."
"I know it is safe here!" Legolas said sharply, turning his head now to look at his commander.
Lostariel only appraised him and said nothing.
Legolas sighed. "I was rude, Lostariel. I do not know what is wrong with me. Please forgive me."
"It is well," she said, and she stood. "Come to my study. I will make tea and we will talk there."
Legolas stood and followed her as she walked away, several paces behind her. He bent to stealthily retrieve the brace he ripped from his arm and threw at the far wall in frustration when he had first reached the reprieve of the mess hall. He slipped the brace back onto his arm and tightened the laces with with one hand as he walked.
When they had come to Lostariel’s study, Legolas slipped into a tall oak chair across from her usual spot at the table, and dropped his head into his hands, untied laces dangling from his wrist like limp ivy in the height of summer. Lostariel turned away from him and dug some discarded mugs from beneath a map Legolas' brother had left absentmindedly draped over her things in the otherwise immaculate study. Lostariel checked the mugs for mold and then put a pot of water on in the fireplace at the far wall of her office. She stood there and waited for the water to boil. Once done, she walked back to the table.
"Chin up, Legolas," Lostariel said after several moments observing his sulking.
Lostariel sat a mug of steaming water in front of him and slid a metal net filled with chamomile, lemon balm, and mint into it. She took the laces of Legolas’ brace into her hands and roughly tied a double knot, tucking the remaining length between the leather and his skin. He considered her vaguely as she did this, and then set his eyes to the mug, looking as if it's presence offended him.
"I know what is in that water," said Legolas. "You have been speaking with Anaron. You have kept the rosehips and ginger for yourself, then!"
Lostariel was for a moment confused at the tone of his voice, and then Legolas looked up at her with a mischievous glint in his eye, and she laughed, and he did, too. Lostariel missed his brand of cheek.
"I did keep it for myself, Legolas. This is my study. Besides, as far as medicines go, yours are rather inoffensive. Just drink the draught."
He shrugged. "Once it has steeped, it is as you command."
Lostariel rolled her eyes and then pushed her own mug aside and folded her arms in front of her. She watched Legolas pushing the floating metal net around his mug with the tip of one long finger.
"Now we will talk," Lostariel said. "But first you will listen."
Legolas looked up from his task and nodded to Lostariel in acknowledgement, and then returned to playing with his tea. Lostariel sighed and continued; he was too listless for her to expect his full attention right now.
"There is something we do not talk about, as servants of our forest and our people. But it affects each of us, though some of us more than others, because we are at our core beings of the light,” Lostariel said evenly, “regardless of our relegation to moriquendi by fairer elves, and our peculiarities as an increasingly mixed people—to see our home despoiled is horrific to us; to see darkness twist the hearts of woodmen and village folk as well as the hearts of our kin and comrades? It hurts our souls. And to see darkness seemingly prevail over all that we hold good and pure again and again and yet again, it is exhausting, and it may evoke in us a sense of doom."
Lostariel quit speaking for a moment to look more closely at Legolas. She did not want to give this lecture only to realize he had not been able to listen at all. She noted, however, that while the rest of Legolas was quite still, he still halfheartedly chased the herbs around the mug with his fingertips.
"Take those out," Lostariel directed. "They will oversteep."
Legolas took the metal net out and lay it on the table, taking the mug into both hands with his elbows propped on the wood so the draught's scent and the steam from the cup were right below his chin and nose. He looked at Lostariel in the eyes and gave a small nod.
"Go on," he said, and sipped at his tea.
Lostariel removed the herbs from her own cup and then continued. "I respect our king, but I believe your father was too harsh with you when you first returned, for your actions were not a result of wreckless foolishness or youthful impulsivity, but rather loyalty and something larger much larger, tinged heavily with desperation. But the King was scared for you, and fear forces fathers and leaders to make statements before they have considered their repercussions."
Legolas blew now on the tea in his hands; the steam shifted and swirled to obscure Lostariel's view of his face. She continued.
"What I mean is this: there is nothing shameful in such exhaustion. Mithrandir sensed in you and Ithildim that desperation; it is why he wanted you to leave the forest with him, and why I even told you he was in the woods in the first place."
Legolas lowered his mug and raised his eyebrows as Lostariel continued to speak.
"Captain Legolas, you protect your forest well, but you do not protect your own heart; you are too intent on your mission to protect our people. I know, however, that your work will eventually suffer, for your behavior and decisions while off-duty are an indicator of the health of your soul,” said Lostariel firmly, catching his eyes in hers and holding his gaze unblinkingly. “The recklessness that led to your fall is symptomatic of this health. It is not unusual for an elf or man to act in such a way—when carrying a burden unrecognized by themselves—and the cumulative effects of the trauma you have both born and witnessed manifest themselves in their leaders in dangerous ways."
Legolas did not say anything but he looked at Lostariel challengingly and grasped his mug tightly in both hands; Lostariel noted his knuckles had whitened around the warm ceramic.
"You must take care of yourself, before you fail yourself,” she pushed on without hesitation, expecting soon a reaction. “You must consider your needs before you inadvertently become a danger to those that you and Ithildim command."
Legolas released his hands from the mug and flexed his stiff fingers quickly.
"I would never be so negligent as to allow my own misjudgement to endanger the lives of one of my warriors," Legolas said coldly, grasping again his mug.
"You would not do so willfully, no," said Lostariel. "But when we are overwhelmed by the grief we have seen, we do not see so clearly out own actions."
Legolas nodded shortly and leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms across his chest. Their mugs sat abandoned between them.
"I have always tried to be humble, but I recognize my value as a warrior and a servant of our land. My heart can endure things that the hearts of most others simply cannot endure, and I can remain cheerful in the face of great evil or dire circumstances," he said.
"That is a fair assessment of some of your qualities," said Lostariel. "It is why you serve the Southern Defense."
"I know," Legolas said, looking now at the diminishing steam in the mugs between them. Lostariel's arms were likewise still folded across her chest but rested lightly on the table.
"So," Legolas continued,"if I can endure, should I not do so? If I can do more than I am already doing, should I not do more, and thus better protect our home? If I can endure one more pain on my heart or soul, should I not endure it so that someone else does not have to? Someone has to do these things, and I am capable of doing it. I am fine. Is it not my duty to protect where others cannot?” Legolas finished.
Lostariel was silent for a moment, and then placed both her hands flat on the table. She looked intently at Legolas for a few seconds, and then folded her arms again across her chest, and leaned back. Lostariel narrowed her eyes at Legolas and tilted her head; she spoke.
"Did you not lose Elednil to a spider attack several moons past?" asked Lostariel.
"Yes,” Legolas replied.
"And he died in obeying a command you gave,” she stated.
"Yes,” said Legolas again.
"And how did you rest after that?"
There was a beat in which Legolas blinked and lowered his eyes to the seat of his chair.
"I did not at all rest, for many weeks,” he said finally.
"And when you were sanctioned by the Defense Council several summers ago, for refusing to follow through on an order from Ithildim," said Lostariel evenly.
Legolas was silent for a moment again and then met her eyes, and it hurt her to see the betrayal there.
"We lost no lives," Legolas said. “You defended my decision to the court.”
"You are right that you did not lose a single life," Lostariel said. "In fact, your decision to disobey saved your warriors. But that action still led to the disfigurement of one of your troops, and the action of disobedience became a weapon. You were forced to endure endless questioning, to enumerate every decision you made from the beginning of that patrol to the end, and to explain, in detail, the nature of the abhorrent events of which you had learned that led you to defy an order. All this in a public forum, before you were even allowed to return to duty. And still for very long after you answered questions in the corridors, redirected gossip in the barracks, admonished novices for idealizing brazen behavior. You endured whispered accusations of conceit for quite a while more."
"That is all accurate,” said Legolas, jaw clenched tightly as he swallowed. “Thank you for the vivid reminder."
"And when you responded to the fire in the village to the west immediately before you left with Mithrandir, and the young elf that you and Celebel pulled from the cottage who died in your arms. And the mother that you comforted best you could, and the younger brother who demanded you explain death to him, and you did not know how. The children whose eyes you shut and the elves whose hands you held in grief, who you helped to cut away burnt clothes, wash from them the cloying scent of burnt skin and dying trees and their children’s death,”said Lostariel. “Yet you were to remain stoic for your soldiers and give comfort to the families that our elves could not help; you laid to rest the children who had been burned or suffocated, and coordinate treatment for all the rest."
Legolas could not for a moment speak. He stared at the seat of his chair. Lostariel could see a vein pounding in his neck, and he bit his lower lip sharply as if reminding himself of his physical body, and the pain he could yet feel there.
It seemed to snap him out of his thoughts.
“What is the point of this, Commander?” Legolas finally hissed. He looked at Lostariel with hurt in his light eyes, darkened by angry and unshed tears, and then he seemed to crumple. He uncrossed his arms and propped them on the table. He leaned forward, and hid his face in his hands.
"Legolas,” said Lostariel quietly and with compassion, “You have suffered great trauma. And seen the pain of others. You cannot remain whole and hale and effective if you do not acknowledge it. You will despair, and lash out. And you will hurt yourself and others. You are of no use to any of us—not a single one of us, most especially yourself—dead."
Legolas’ face was still covered by his hands, but a shaky sigh escaped it. He sat thus for several minutes before speaking.
“You are right, I know, Lostariel,” he finally said.
“Of course I am. I have not served Mirkwood since the Second Age to remain an idiot still,” Lostariel replied.
“No,” said Legolas, lifting his head and brushing his hands over tears on his cheeks in a quick movement. “You of course have not.”
Legolas gave her a small half-smile.
"You are incredibly strong, Legolas," said Lostariel, and she walked around the table and dropped onto her haunches in front of him. "But you have been strong now for too long, and it is not—after all this—” she waved a hand at his head, “sustainable."
Legolas nodded, and Lostariel patted him on the knee, standing up again and perching on the edge of the table some distance from Legolas’ chair.
"I think you should take a true leave of absence," said Lostariel, studying for a moment the floor. What she had to ask—or rather, order—pained her to do.
"What?" Legolas exclaimed, jumping. "No!"
"I want you to rest from your responsibilities and injury," she continued.
"No, Commander; I am resting!"
"You are not," said Lostariel, and Legolas did not contradict her now. "I want you to go to Imladris to recover."
"I will not go there; I have a duty here and I do not know the Noldor's ways," Legolas said, allowing his voice to take on a flat and unperturbed quality.
"For all the reasons we discussed, I think it is best," said Lostariel. "I have already had Anaron consult with Lord Elrond in regards to your head injury, so he should not be surprised by a formal request for treatment; I have already discussed the possibility with Anaron and Ithildim. Ithildim came to me with concerns himself. And as your commanding officer, I will see you—"
Legolas reached a hand across the distance toward her, but seemed to change his mind. He slid instead from his chair and dropped to his knees before her; he bowed his head deferently.
"Please, commander, no," Legolas said. Several locks of hair had fallen out of his braid and now framed his lowered face; they made him look more earnest and younger than even he was. "Please do not command me to do so, Lostariel. Please do not make me consider disobeying you so directly. To leave here—to leave my home?—it would break my heart."
"Staying here will do just the same," she said, curtly. "You apparently do not truly recognize what such unacknowledged exposure to the darkness can do to our souls over time, though you are strong enough to become impervious to it if you will just but heal.”
Lostariel looked as if Legolas’ stubborness physically pained her.
She continued, “Therefore, if you are not well from these seizures by not this full moon, but the next, you will go to Imladris for Lord Elrond. And that is an order, Captain."
"Yes, Commander," Legolas said. "Thank you. I understand."
"Good," said Lostariel. "I will speak with the King about our plan. You will not go to the King's council this evening, nor wait up for the captain's meeting, and Ithildim will delay until tomorrow to write his report. I will explain to Amonhir the holdup."
"Yes, Lostariel," Legolas said.
"You will go now and rest, or stay here for a time. I will relieve Amonhir of the novices’ training and see you tomorrow."
Legolas nodded and stayed in his seat as Lostariel left the room. He drained the last of his now-cold tea, popped a root of valerian into his mouth and began to chew, and when he heard both the study door and the door to the training fields swing shut, he was on his feet. He stepped outside, slipped behind the officers’ barracks, and then ran between the tree trunks, in and out of clumps of laurel, around obstacles and over rocks, until he could run no more. He then walked silently to his rooms in the Elvenking’s halls, stripped himself of the outer layers of his uniform, and fell quite gracelessly onto his bed.
Lostariel was right in everything that she had said. It did not make him happy, and he felt even ashamed, but he did not have a single idea what to do about it.
Several months after the adventure
“This is not the kind of escape I wanted," Legolas said with a dry laugh, looking bitterly at his hands.
Ithildim and legolas sat cross-legged on the practice fields, under a summer sky spread with stars and an almost full moon rising now above the treeline.
"No," said ithildim, "but it is maybe the reprieve you need. You feel things so starkly, and this place is again—" Ithildim considered his word choice."our home is again changing."
"I know," said legolas, and when his eyes met his friend’s he looked forlorn. "But I do not want to leave our unit," said Legolas.
Ithildim took Legolas' hands in his own, and squeezed them gently. "And I do not want you to leave. But you must for a time. I will not let Amonhir try to appoint someone new to your position while you are away."
Legolas laughed, and returned the comforting clasp of his friend's hands. "Thank you, my—"
And then Legolas was gone for a few moments, staring, both hands twitched twice in Ithildim's own, and Ithildim sighed. After a moment, Legolas’ grey eyes focused again on Ithildim's face, and he smiled again brightly.
Legolas still did not often notice when his consciousness lasped. It was unusual but not abnormal, his father Anaron had told him, for these staring seizures to last for several months after a head injury, but it did not make Ithildim feel any better at all when Legolas was taken away from him by his own mind, and Ithildim could only sit there and wait. He would worry for Legolas on his ride to Imladris, Ithildim realized, and he knew the guards of the hall that were assigned to accompany Legolas on his journey did not know him as well as Ithildim did, and as beloved as Legolas was to his people, his moods were disconcerting still to many of them, and Ithildim sensed Legolas felt still vulnerable at this time.
Ithildim undid the pouch at Legolas' belt and pulled out a packet of herbs and a thinly sliced root. The herbs were wrapped in a large green leaf and tied tightly with a thin grey string. Legolas had become used to Ithildim or another peer prompting him to take them when his mind had lapsed and he had not noticed it, so much so that he no longer even sighed when he realized what had happened. So Legolas took now the packet and unwrapped it quickly, and took pinches of the herbs in his fingers and dropped them into the waterskin leaning against his calves in the diamond-shape between his crossed legs. He shook the waterskin vigorously and slipped the root between his lips; he chewed it and frowned at the taste—after two and a half moons he had still not grown used to that bitterness.
Ithildim watched Legolas thoughtfully. He noticed the ink that was smeared on the index finger and palm of Legolas' right hand from the hours they had spent bent over the desk in Legolas’ study, Legolas translating Ithildim’s report—spoken ito him in Silvan—to Sindarin so that he could write it out neatly in Tengwar script. It had been already a long night.
"I will escort you to Imladris," said Ithildim. "And, if you wish, stay there for a time."
Legolas shook his head and smiled, loose honey hair slipping from behind his ears into his face and bouncing limply about his shoulders as he continued to shake the waterskin. "I will not be the excuse you use with Lostariel to escape your duties."
Ithildim took the waterskin from Legolas' hand and placed it on the ground, stilling his, recently, ever-present movement.
Ithildim frowned. "I no longer want to escape my duties, but this is not an escape, Legolas—this is a duty."
Legolas raised an eyebrow, and Ithildim continued.
“You are my second and my comrade, and you are my friend,” said Ithildim. “I have a duty to you as your captain and as your your friend to see you well again—I took an oath on the first count, and might as well have on the second. At least let me see you to Lord Elrond safely. It will for me, also, be healing.”
Legolas shrugged gently, but then nodded.
And so it was decided between Ithildim and Legolas, and the next day Lostariel would approve a brief absense for Ithildim, for she had great respect for her captains' loyalty to one another. Neither Legolas nor Ithildim knew at that point that Legolas would return from Imladris stronger in body and mind and, most importantly, in confidence than he had ever been before, or that it would become clear to Thranduil that this trial in his son's life had not been an escape from responsibility at all, but instead a powerful lesson that would help him to grow more into a leader than Thranduil would have thought possible.
But for now, under the clear summer sky, neither of the friends knew what the future held. Ithildim handed the waterskin back to Legolas, who pulled out the cork and drank of it deeply, and then tossed it aside. And then the two friends laid back, and their eyes found the stars, and Legolas began to measure the path of the moon as it rose with his hands, placing one hand at the tree line and then placing the other hand on top of it, switching in this manner over and over, as if he were walking his hands through the night sky. Six lengths of his hands fit from the tree line to the moon.
Ithildim laughed at his friend's antics, and continued to laugh even as Legolas' hands froze in midair for a moment and then lowered to his stomach— his mind was trapped, and his eyes blinked rapidly for several long seconds. Ithildim laughed through his friend’s silence so that when Legolas was let loose from his mind, Ithildim would be just as he was when Legolas had left, always there with things as they always were, ready to joke or jest as they had come to expect of one another when they were off duty.
Ithildim and Legolas had both become somewhatt different people since the ravine, and they no longer needed such respite, for they had begun to care for themselves as well as they cared for their soldiers, and to turn to one another for strength when they were all but prepared to run away. And as the darkness came back, the strength they shared would be a guiding light for their realm.
Ithildim patted Legolas on the chest from his position on the ground beside him.
"You look a fool!" Ithildim exclaimed, still laughing.
Legolas turned his head to him and grinned, hair falling completely across his face and he tried to blow it away from his eyes before speaking.
"We spend too much time together,” Legolas said. He became frustrated with his hair and pulled himself halfway upright so that his back hovered a few inches off the ground as he quickly plaited a tight half-braid to hold his hair from his eyes. He let himself back to the ground with a soft thud, turning eyes again back to his friend.
"No, Legolas," said Ithildim. "We spend just enough."
And they lay and watched the moon pass its peak. Legolas counted the moon’s distance from the treeline across the nightsky with his hands until he could not keep track of it anymore, after which the the two lapsed into a comfortable and healthy silence. Shoulder to shoulder, they considered the stars, and then peacefully fell into sleep.