24. An Elf Alone
The captain nodded, “Might’ve killed the elf, I guess.” Then he shrugged, laughing, “No skin off our noses anyway if it did!”
The others laughed, and made their way down as the thunder of the falling rocks finally ceased. The clouds of dust blocked the sun, allowing them to work their way down the steep slope. “Hurry it up before the dust clears!” shouted the captain.
“Look!” one of them shouted, pointing a clawed finger.
The captain spied a wounded horse struggling from the edge of the rubble and staggering away from the orcs. Blood matted its gray mane and it limped badly. “Never mind the horse. If it survived, maybe the elf did too.”
Under the weight of the crushing boulders and flying shards of rock, it would seem at first glance that nothing could have escaped death. But elves were hardier than their appearance suggested; even orcs knew that. If this one’s horse had survived, chances were good that he yet lived. “Hey! Boss! Found ‘im!”
The captain came to where the others were pointing, and sure enough, the orcs had discovered a tangle of golden hair amid the rubble. Clearing away more blood-spattered rocks, they uncovered the crumpled form of the trapped elf. Blood dripped from an ugly wound near his hairline, down his face, and from the corner of his mouth. Much of his fair skin was already black and blue beneath his tattered clothing. His eyes were tightly closed. But as the orcs hauled the limp body from the rubble, a moan of pain told them he was still among the living.
The captain looked at the rest of his goblins and grinned, baring his teeth in anticipation. “Now we’ll REALLY have some fun!”
Imladris, at the same time…
“Should I go with you, Father?” Aragorn asked Lord Elrond anxiously as the Lord of Imladris mounted his horse.
“Nay, Estel, you have only just returned. Take your ease. I merely want to get this message to Legolas before he reaches Mirkwood. We’ll be gone two weeks at the most.” Elrond turned and gripped the hands of each of his sons in parting. “Farewell.”
“Safe journey, Father,” Elladan, Elrohir, and Aragorn said. Smiling at the trio, Elrond whispered to his horse and started the company off down the trail.
Elladan glanced over and saw Aragorn’s eyes still watching the elven lord as he and his escort rode out of sight. “What troubles you, Estel?”
Aragorn was silent for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t know,” he murmured. “But something makes me very uneasy. I will be glad when he has met Legolas and both are safely at home.”
That night, in Mirkwood…
King Thranduil struggled over the piled rocks and debris left by the landslide, weeping desperately. The clouds of dust and dirt made it impossible to see his hand in front of his face. From around him, he could hear the sounds of battle, but try as he might, Thranduil could not find the elves he knew to be in trouble.
He had never been to this place in his real life, but tonight, his dreams had taken him there. The mountains, where the orc-released rockslide and ensuing ambush had claimed his three children. *They are here somewhere. I must find them! I am their king! I am their father! I must aid them!*
An elven maid’s cry rang out, very close. “Where are you?!” Thranduil cried desperately, all control long gone in his panic to find his missing children.
The clouds of brown dirt seemed to part suddenly before him, and with a strangled gasp of horror, the elven king saw three forms lying upon the ground as though in state. One was a tall elven warrior, strong and seasoned. How could it be that so skilled a fighter would fall this way? Yet it was so; he was dead. The other two were young maidens, identical twins, so much alike that only their closest kindred could distinguish them. So young, only just come of age. Inseparable, it was impossible to see or even imagine one without the other. Now both slain.
Thranduil knelt beside Tavron, Meren, and Lalaith, trembling and helpless. He could not touch them. “Forgive me,” he whispered. “Forgive me. I could not save you. I failed you.” He wept with grief and shame. *I could not protect you…*
All at once, the sounds of battle rang out anew. And there were new cries, a new voice calling for Thranduil. In real life, this voice could not have been heard here, for the owner of that voice had not yet been born when Tavron, Meren, and Lalaith died. Yet it was here, and the dreamer knew it at once. For asleep and awake, this voice haunted him. “Father!” came a frantic cry from somewhere in the dust. “Help me! Please help me!”
Thranduil spun around, but the dust was still too thick to see. Three of his children were dead, yet one still lived. He could not let this one die too, alone. He rushed into the murk; it blinded him, but still he searched. He could not fail again. “Legolas? Legolas! Answer me! Where are you?”
The voice calling from nearby seemed both old and young; it was the Legolas who had come of age and gone away, yet it was also Legolas as a young child, which Thranduil remembered like yesterday. It did not matter either way. It was his son. “Father!”
“Legolas!” The cries were gone. Thranduil could hear nothing, see nothing. “Legolas!”
In the mountains, at the same time…
Pain. Throbbing, aching, stinging pain was the first thing that registered as Legolas came around. His skull felt half-crushed on one side, and his left ankle felt twice its normal size. He could taste liquid metal in his mouth. The elf moaned, disoriented, and tried to move to a more comfortable position. Immediately, an unforgiving fist, encased in a mail glove, connected with his jaw, sending an explosion of light into his closed eyes. “So, the little elf’s awake at last!”
In spite of his pain, Legolas lay perfectly still, though his heart pounded wildly in his chest. The cackles in the darkness grew along with the dread he felt. A boot nudged him experimentally, then came a metal slap. “Wake up, elf!”
Slowly, forcing an expression of calm, the warrior opened his eyes, still gritty with dust. Orcs. All around him, jeering and watching him with those hideous yellow eyes.
This was not good.
That established, he turned to his other surroundings. It was after dark, and the orcs had made camp near the rubble of the avalanche. Legolas could feel the rough stones beneath his body. His hands and feet were bound tightly with ropes.
The orc with the chain mail gloves seemed to be the leader of the band. Certainly he was taking the lead in harassing the captive. Legolas swallowed a surge of humiliation at the recognition that he was a prisoner. *Worry about pride later,* he told himself. *Now figure out how you are going to get out of here.* Taking slow, calming breaths, he looked more closely at the orc camp. There were maybe a few dozen, not a terribly large band, if only he had his bow. Carefully moving only his eyes, he scanned the camp and soon found what he was looking for: several orcs huddled in a group quarrelling violently. Sure enough, the prizes in question were his bow and quiver, and his two knives. Anger boiled up within him. *These foul beasts shall never wield my weapons!*
If he could just get his bonds loose and reach his weapons, he could probably escape. But those first two tasks presented a rather daunting obstacle. And--Lanthir. Before he could catch himself, Legolas twisted his head toward the debris of the avalanche in search of some sign of his horse. Unfortunately, that got the orcs’ attention again. Another slap jerked his head, causing bells to ring loudly in his ears. “Looking for a way to escape, eh, little elf?” mocked a grating voice. “Keep looking; you’re ours. Mmm, yes, you elves are sturdy, that’s sure. Came through that rockslide quite nice. You’ll last long enough to give us plenty of fun, you will!”
Legolas hardened his eyes, but did not lower himself to responding. One of the others sidled up next to the leader, “Looks to me like he’s recovered enough, Sirch.”
The leader nodded, grinning in a way that made Legolas’s skin crawl. “Yes, looks ripe for a little sport, eh, friends?” There was a chorus of growls and cackles in agreement.
“Me first!” yelled one, scrambling forward eagerly.
“Nay, I am,” Sirch replied, shoving the other back. Pulling out a nasty-looking black whip, he gestured at the others. Two orcs yanked Legolas’s cloak from his back, choking him and leaving a red weal on his neck where the fastening finally broke. Then they rolled him onto his stomach. Even before the elf had time to brace himself, the lash cracked loudly, bringing a tongue of fiery pain down onto his back. Catching his breath, Legolas stifled a cry, but could not restrain himself from jerking reflexively. Then came another, and Legolas gasped. Then another. Four orcs held him still as he fought to keep from screaming, and his mind cursed in humiliation.
One of them tangled a foul hand in his long hair, using it to hold his head down. Like snakes of fire, the lashes kept coming. Legolas grunted, but somehow managed not to scream. The backs of his cote and tunic had been shredded by the whipping, and the fabric rubbed the stripes painfully at the slightest movement. With a jerk that made him groan the orc in front of him yanked his hair and head up, and dealt him a solid backhand across the face, splitting his lip. As the elf shook his head from the blow, the orcs rolled him cruelly onto his lacerated back. Legolas could not quite stifle a whimper.
The rest kept holding him down, but Sirch had moved beyond his line of sight. Whatever he was up to, all the other orcs were grinning and jeering in anticipation. “Wish you were dead yet, elf?” came Sirch’s voice from somewhere behind him. In spite of his pain, Legolas wanted to scoff at them. Surely they did not think they could break him, an elf, by mere beating! Then Sirch spoke again, “You will, when we’re done with you!”
Orcs by nature are quarrelsome creatures, even among themselves. So it was definitely not a good sign that all gave way as Sirch returned--as though whatever the orc leader had planned was something to look forward to. So the orcs and Legolas watched as Sirch carried over a small black metal pot, and several long, thin thorns. The captors laughed and jeered as Legolas, recognizing what Sirch had, began to squirm instinctively in a vain attempt to free himself. He had heard of this particular orc game, and all was lost if they carried it out.
Slowly, as the orcs muttered eagerly and Legolas was forced to watch, Sirch dipped several of the thorns into the pot. They came out covered in what looked like black oil. “Know what this is, don’t you, elf?” Sirch sneered. “Nasty stuff for your kind--then, ours don’t like it too much either, eh?” the orcs laughed and nudged each other as though sharing a good joke. “Hurts like hell, but won’t kill you too fast. Nice and slow. While we get to watch and keep having our fun with you.”
“Do it right, Sirch, and he’ll linger for a month!”
“Ha, a month’s sport with an elf!”
“Sooo, where first?”
“Nah, his foot!”
“Yeh, won’t be running away after that!” Sirch grinned and advanced on Legolas, who attempted to wrench away. The orcs laughed and pinned him down, and to his despair and shame, Legolas could do nothing to break free. He watched, helpless and horrified, as the orcs untied his limbs, and one of them grabbed his leg. “Ahh, poor little elf’s got a swollen ankle!” Sirch jeered. “Know just the cure!”
Legolas jammed his teeth into his lower lip, but then Sirch plunged the long barb directly into his ankle. Like a hot brand, fiery agony ripped through his skin, tearing through the swollen flesh like acid, roaring up his leg as though it had gone straight to his veins. All other sound was blotted out by the roaring in his ears, his sight blinded by searing pain. He wasn’t even aware that he was screaming until he stopped, gasping for breath, while the orcs laughed and taunted him. Then all he wished was to sink into unconsciousness, but several orc slaps kept him in tortured reality.
And still pain coursed up and down his entire body. Amazing, that just that little bit of orc poison could wreak such havoc within him. Moaning, the elf turned his face away from the mocking faces of his tormenters, closing his eyes. He tried to turn his mind to other things, distract himself from the pain. But no thought of home, family, or peace could push away the cyclone of misery and agony as another thorn bit into his left hand, and his pride burned as another cry of pain forced itself free. Writhing against the intractable grip of the orcs holding him down, Legolas prayed for death’s release as another cascade of acid agony tore up every nerve in his body, and screams of torment ripped from the very marrow of his bones.
The raucous noise of the loathsome creatures and the wails of their captive were so great that not a one of them heard the approaching hoof beats. Nor saw the approaching gray form until half a dozen of them were flung aside by fierce kicks. Jeers and laughter changed to shouts of surprise and alarm. The orcs scrambled for their weapons, but the gray horse attacked with the timing and ferocity of an elven warrior, giving them no quarter to react. Screeching goblins tumbled right and left, and angry trumpets of challenge pulled Legolas out of his pain-mazed state.
“Lanthir?” the elf whispered in disbelief. The stallion turned his attention to his rider, and rushed the orcs holding Legolas down. A fierce butt with his head sent Sirch flying, and as he leapt over Legolas, Lanthir’s front hooves struck two more in the heads, dropping them. The rest dove for cover, and Legolas found himself free.
Lanthir chased the orcs as they rushed off to regroup and figure out how to respond to a horse attack. Then the stallion charged back to his rider’s side, whinnying imperiously. One did not have to speak horse to know what he was saying. With a barely-stifled sob of relief and pain, Legolas staggered to his feet and flung himself onto the horse’s back. “Go!” he gasped weakly, clinging to Lanthir’s mane. Lanthir leapt over the nearest orcs and fled down the pass for the plains.
As the elf and horse galloped away, Sirch furiously dove for his bow, haphazardly plunging an arrow into the spilled poison pot. “Won’t get far, elf,” he muttered, taking aim.
The bolt slammed Legolas in the upper back, forcing its burning venom deep into his flesh. With a helpless scream of agony, Legolas lost his grip on the horse’s mane, but Lanthir slowed at once, and that momentum carried Legolas forward instead of backward. The elf slumped against Lanthir’s neck, holding on with what little strength he had left as the orc shrieks faded into the background. Moaning and choking on sobs, he felt the roaring torture in his blood swelling up to claim all his senses, blotting out reality. Despite his own injuries, Lanthir carried Legolas as long and fast as he could, out onto the plains until the horse sensed they were out of danger. And not a moment too soon; as the sun came up, Legolas’s grip failed altogether and he slid from the horse’s back, tumbling limply to the ground.
Mirkwood, the next day…
King Thranduil was standing alone on the steps of the outer palace when his daughter Limloeth came out to him. “You have spent much time here of late, Father.”
Without taking his eyes of the trees, Thranduil held out his hand, gently clasping hers. “It is a good place to think.”
“Yes.” There was a pause, and then, “A message came from Lothlórien this morning.”
“Your husband writes to hurry your return?”
“Not yet, but he does ask how much longer I intend to remain.”
Thranduil sighed, turning to face her. “I know not how soon we shall have any word, Daughter. I would not see you long apart from Orthelian.”
Limloeth nodded, smiling wryly. “If feels as though we have spent precious little time together since we wed. And I shall also watch for Legolas. For all his travels, it is possible he may pass through Lórien.”
Looking at the serene forest beyond the gates, Thranduil knew she was right. Though now, as always, his heart ached with the prospect of her leaving. “When do you intend to depart?”
“In a day or two. I promised Silivren I would take her to watch the novice warriors race tomorrow.”
“That is well. Berensul will be sorry. He misses you.”
“I know. And I him. I miss all of my brothers.”
On the plains, at the same time…
The noontime sun did little to warm the late autumn air. With no cloak and his tunic in shreds (along with the skin of his back), the cold bothered Legolas far more than it normally would.
He had awakened here on the plains to Lanthir’s nuzzling--and a searing pain from the arrow still buried in his back. The elf needed no one to tell him that the arrow was also poisoned; it felt just as those thorns had, only far worse. He had been uncertain of what to do first, but knew the bolt must come out, and soon. After a few minutes of anxious searching, Legolas had found a small stream running down out of the mountains. Sitting on the edge with his swollen left foot in the icy flow, he had been forced to yank the arrow out himself. Though he had been unable to stifle a cry of pain, the arrowhead had come out on the first try. With tears of agony in his eyes, he had bathed his wounds as best he could.
Pain aside, the cold water made him feel stronger, and he slaked his thirst . He might be free of the orcs, but his troubles were not over. The powerful poison that Sirch had tortured him with would soon begin to act in earnest. He would only lose strength in the coming days, and it was anyone’s guess how long he could live without a healer. Not long.
He had two options. Rivendell was only about four days away, over the mountains, and he would probably meet a patrol sooner than that. His father’s halls were nearly a week away, across the plains and through the northern forest. It would be a stretch to try and get there in time. And he had another problem: Lanthir. Legolas had cursed himself at the sight of his beloved horse in the sun; Lanthir had been badly hurt, either in the avalanche or in the fight. It was amazing that the animal had been able to bear Legolas’s weight while fleeing the orcs last night. But he would not be able to do so again before his injuries were seen to.
*Which means, whichever way I go, I shall be walking.* Legolas sighed, rubbing Lanthir’s scraped neck as the horse came to drink next to where his rider sat.
His ankle was still in bad shape, but forcing Lanthir to carry him was not an option. Legolas was not sure if the horse would be capable of it. Over the mountains, he usually led Lanthir anyway, so that would make the journey maybe a day longer at most. It would probably as long as a full week or more to the elven king’s halls. With a groan of frustration, Legolas rested his head lightly against Lanthir’s side. *How could this unhappy turn keep me from my father yet again? The longer I tarry away from him, the less likely that he will ever have me back.*
As if that were not enough, their frantic escape into the night had taken Lanthir and Legolas out onto the plains, and now, on the horizon, Legolas could see the taunting shadow he knew to be the trees of his home. *To come so far as to have it in my sight…how can I possibly turn back now?*
The orc poison was slow-acting, that he knew. How slow was less certain, for there had been a generous dose of it on the arrow. Turning back west would get him to safety in plenty of time, while making for Mirkwood would cut it very close. *Don’t be foolish; you also have Lanthir to think of.*
But the dark line on the horizon that was Mirkwood held his eyes, calling to him in a pleading voice. His own heart called back just as longingly. He had been gone so long…he had not much time. Whatever his choice, he had better make it quickly. *I’ve so much I must say to my father. So many amends to make…*
Stumbling to his feet, Legolas made up his mind. “Go to Rivendell, Lanthir. They will see to you there. I shall come for you soon.”
The horse blinked dark eyes at his rider, as Legolas limped from the stream and began walking eastward. Legolas turned and scowled sternly as the horse began to follow him. “You cannot carry me, and you need a healer’s care yourself, Lanthir. You must go back to Rivendell.” The horse stared at Legolas, but refused to turn. Aggravated, Legolas exclaimed, “Go, Lanthir! You cannot come with me!”
Lanthir responded by walking up next to Legolas. Meeting his rider’s frustrated gaze, the stallion gave a snort that clearly meant, “Make me.”
Legolas sighed, shaking his head. “Stupid, stubborn beast. Almost as stubborn as I am. Very well, cast your lot with me if you must. And Elbereth have mercy on me if I get us both killed.” Turning to face the distant line of trees, he murmured, “Let’s go.”
Four days later, in the Misty Mountains…
“The pass is blocked!” Lord Elrond stared in surprise at the debris on the trail leading through the last of the mountain passes.
“A rockslide, my lord,” said one of his guards.
The riders of Imladris carefully threaded their way over the rocks. Elrond felt increasingly worried. This had never been an unstable area; it was better known for orcs than avalanches. He raised his eyes to the steep slopes, pockmarked with caves. An ideal spot for an ambush. “I sense a shadow in this place.”
“My lord!” the lead guard’s cry had a definite note of alarm.
Elrond’s walk broke into a run as he approached what the guards had found. Near the edge of the rubble was what had clearly been an orc camp. The remnants of their fire and their litter were there, but all had been abandoned as though the orcs had been forced to flee without having time to hide the evidence of their stay. There had also been a struggle, and a few orc corpses were lying to rot in the sun. But what alarmed the guards the most also sent a surge of dread through their lord. Near one of the carcasses was an elven bow and quiver, and two knives. The markings on the weapons were unmistakable. “Legolas,” Elrond whispered, horror coursing through him. “They caught him with the avalanche and took him.”
In a voice tense with anxiety for their kinsman, one of the guards called, “Perhaps not, my lord!” He pointed to the ground, “Horse tracks. And the marks of elf shoes.”
Elrond joined them and forced himself to concentrate on following the signs to determine what had passed here. “They were holding their captive down, doubtless tormenting him,” his jaw tightened with rage at the thought of the young warrior’s suffering. “The horse came--it must be Lanthir--and stirred them up, buying Legolas time to leap to his back. The horse rode out of the pass, limping. Both were hurt in the rockslide and the fight; I see blood on the stones.”
Several of the guards breathed sighs of relief, “So Prince Legolas escaped.”
“It appears so--” Elrond took another glance around the remains and froze. His heart dropped somewhere below his shoes as he walked to where a small pot lay on its side, its ominous black contents drying like tar in the sun. He did not touch the stuff. “We must find him,” the elven lord whispered. “And soon.” He did pick up, very carefully, two thorns that lay near the pot. They had the poison on them, but something more: blood. Elven blood.
Dropping the deadly barbs, Elrond rose swiftly. He ordered two of the guards to bring a team of elves from Rivendell to clear the pass. “The rest, we ride after Legolas. We must find him. He will need a healer’s care.” The enormity of what was happening struck the Lord of Imladris as too horrible to be believed. Snatching up the prince’s weapons, he sprang to his mount’s back and led the company from the ravine, praying. *A Elbereth, do not let us be too late.*
Legolas staggered through the outer palace gates, and all but dragged himself up the steps. He hurt so badly, but the other elves merely watched him with distaste. The door of the palace suddenly flew open, and there stood King Thranduil, tall and majestic, just as Legolas remembered. But there was no warmth, no concern on the elven king’s face at the sight of his son. “So, you are back,” he said in a cold tone that made Legolas cringe with shame. With an air of indifference, he started down the steps.
Struggling to straighten, Legolas whispered, “Father, please forgive me.” He was dying; couldn’t Thranduil see that? Without his father, he had nowhere to go!
A hand closed on his arm, and Thranduil jerked Legolas harshly to his feet, then back towards the gate. “You had your chance, little fool! It’s too late! You are no longer welcome in my halls!”
“Father--” but the king flung Legolas to the ground outside the gates and strode back inside. The doors of the palace slammed, leaving Legolas alone.
The prince lay in the dirt, unable to move. Then a dark-haired figure knelt over him. “So finally this is where your folly has brought you. At least this time you only got yourself killed.”
“Tathar?!” The blurry figure focused into his long-dead friend. But there was no love in Tathar’s face either. “No…”
“Why so sad, Legolas? It is your own fault. Always running and running, last time I was the one who paid the price for your cowardice. Now there’s nowhere left to run, no one left to help you--”
“No!” Legolas jerked himself back to consciousness beneath the tree where he had stopped to rest. Lanthir looked over at him and whuffed gently. Trembling, Legolas wiped his face, feeling sweat on his brow. At first, he thought it was just the nightmare, then looked around to see a coating of frost on the ground. How strange. He was feeling warm. The poison. Rising, Legolas felt substantially weaker than he had the night before. His heart sank; he still had so far to go. And the poison was taking a more powerful hold every minute. “Come, Lanthir,” he sighed wearily. “We haven’t much time.”
Walking quickly proved easier said than done. Legolas felt dizzy, and a horrible, pervasive weakness made him sluggish and unsteady on his feet. He had to lean against Lanthir to keep himself going in a straight line. Soon he began to shiver, though the weather was not nearly cold enough for that, and knew it was the poison. *A Elbereth, I will never make it…*
The trees seemed mockingly close, but Legolas felt a terrible urge to sink to the ground and never get up. Those cruel dreams plagued him with new doubts and fears. Surely his father would not deny him shelter in this state. Yet as the fever grew, certainties diminished, and nothing seemed sure anymore. The pain also came with a new fury, a deeper, harder pain than the initial fire of the poisoned darts. Sweat drenched his face, and he staggered on. *I cannot give up. Whatever awaits me, it is a matter of honor. More than that. I must go to my father--or die trying as the case may be.*
Legolas tripped on a root he had not seen in his path, painfully catching his still-wrenched ankle. With a cry, the elf fell to his knees, tears springing into his eyes with the jarring impact. As if the poison’s effects were not enough, it also had prevented his wounds from healing. Some of his disorientation was probably due to the head injury from the avalanche--or so he would have reasoned if he’d been coherent enough to analyze the situation. Cursing in weary frustration, he dragged himself to his feet, only to fall again an hour later over some stupid obstacle he should have avoided. But he got up again. And again. And again…
Mirkwood, three days later…
King Thranduil, Crown Prince Berensul and Crown Princess Eirien, and Silivren came out of the palace gates to see Princess Limloeth off. “Will you take me to Lothlórien some day, Aunt Limloeth?” Silivren pleaded.
“I promise I shall, Sili,” said Limloeth. “When you are older.”
“Everyone says that,” Silivren pouted.
Limloeth laughed, holding out her arms, “Because it is true, little one. Do not be in such a hurry to grow up.” She embraced her niece. “Farewell for now, Sili.”
Silivren returned to Golwen’s side as Berensul and Eirien came to say their goodbyes. “Take care, Sister,” Berensul whispered. “I shall miss you.”
Limloeth embraced him tightly. “And I you. Be well.” She embraced Eirien, then turned to her father.
“Safe journey, my daughter.”
“Farewell, Father. Until we meet again.” Kissing the king’s cheek, she mounted her horse and rode out of the gates.
Outside Mirkwood, the same day…
Sweat drenched his body. Pain and exhaustion sang in his blood and bones. But he walked on. Fever made his mind wander with fears and imagined threats, melding dream and reality into a confused blur. But he walked on. Bound by a need that no fever-fog could erase, a debt he owed to the one person he loved more than any, Legolas walked on. No matter how many times he fell, he rose again, and walked on.
He was so close; the trees taunted him with their nearness. But he was close enough now to hear their song, and it called him home, even as the poison’s fever raged in his body and mind. He was so close…
Legolas fell to his knees, trembling. He was also desperately thirsty, but there was not a stream or pond to be found. The frost of the morning had melted even as he had scraped what moisture he could find from leaves and grasses. Gasping for breath, feeling ridiculously winded, Legolas tried to rise. He fell again. This was absurd. He was an elf, a warrior of Mirkwood, the son of Thranduil. How could a mere glob of orc poison lay him so low? He dragged himself to the nearest tree, using its sturdy bulk to pull himself up. That enabled him to take five full steps before collapsing again. Kneeling upon the ground, Legolas began to accept the knowledge that he would not reach his father’s halls alive.
A soft whicker came then, and Lanthir’s nose gently brushed his ear. Blinking red, bleary eyes, Legolas smiled in spite of himself. “I fear you may have to leave me after all, my friend. This may be the end.” *Or perhaps not. If I can find the courage to leave my dignity behind, I may still have the strength to crawl for a ways. Then at least I will be under the trees.* That considered, Legolas attempted to drag himself onward.
Lanthir walked in front of him, staring at his rider balefully. The horse tossed his head, clearly offering an alternative. “Don’t be silly, Lanthir, you cannot bear me. You are wounded too.” Legolas tried to pull himself past the horse, but Lanthir got in the way again. “Curses, Lanthir, stop it! This is hard--and humiliating--enough as it is.”
With a distinctly sarcastic-sounding snort, the horse finally moved aside. Then he walked up next to Legolas--and bit the elf solidly on the ear. Legolas yelped in surprised pain and rolled aside, falling to the ground again. “Ai! Lanthir! That hurt!” Very deliberately, Lanthir seized a mouthful of Legolas’s hair and jerked. “Ow! Stop that!” The elf attempted to scramble away, but Lanthir calmly walked after him, nipping at Legolas every chance he got. “Aah! You crazy horse! Stop it--ow! Ai! Be off!” In his wounded, feverish state, Legolas was no match for the very determined stallion.
Only when the elf curled into an outraged, defensive ball on the ground did Lanthir desist. He lowered his head and gently nudged his rider with his nose, then stepped back expectantly. Legolas raised his head. “If I refuse, you will bite me again, I suppose?” He got an affirmative whinny. “Very well.” He pulled himself to his knees, and Lanthir helpfully came up beside him to serve as a brace. It took Legolas several embarrassing tries to get onto the horse’s back. He winced as he felt the horse buckle slightly. “You cannot bear my weight, Lanthir. Why are you doing this?” The horse simply snorted; it was clear that he was carrying Legolas whether the elf liked it or not, and Legolas had better hold on. With a sigh, Legolas took the horse’s mane. “Take me home, my friend. And try not to overexert yourself.”
With an answering whinny, Lanthir started off at a smooth trot. Until now, Legolas had been able to take his mind off the fever and pain with the effort of taking steps, but now it came with a new vengeance. He was also shivering badly, and he felt weaker than ever. Even if Lanthir were able to run all the way, it was doubtful he would last as long as it took to get home. The horse stumbled, jolting his rider, and Legolas moaned, doubling over. Weakly, he draped his arms around the horse and let himself fall against Lanthir’s neck. The poison was beginning to claim his consciousness, and it was getting very hard to breathe.
The elven horse sensed his rider’s distress, and before Legolas realized what had happened, Lanthir broke into a run. “Ahh, what--Lanthir, what by the Valar are you doing?” he gasped, holding on with all his might.
The trees were coming closer, and the gray stallion’s jarring strides were each a new exploration of agony for his rider. But Lanthir was also struggling, trying to keep from limping too badly, and fighting to ignore the effects of the other (more serious) injuries he had sustained in the avalanche. Even in his muddled state, Legolas sensed the horse was going beyond his limits. “Stop, Lanthir,” he pleaded. “You’ll kill yourself!”
Lanthir just snorted defiantly and continued running. The stallion had somehow figured out that he was the one chance Legolas had of reaching safety, and the loyalty of all good beasts to the elves was deep and strong. Still deeper and stronger was the devotion of an elven horse to its rider. Legolas heard distress in Lanthir’s breathing, felt him limping still more, and cried for him to stop, but the horse ignored him. The elf considered throwing himself from the horse’s back, but his body felt so weak that he feared he might break his own neck. And still the trees came closer. Mirkwood. So close.
Blood stained the lather of the wounded and weary horse, but Legolas could not see it. And Lanthir tossed his head anytime Legolas tried to look too closely. They were nearly there…Legolas let out a moan of pain and relief as they swept through the first dark trees, under the threshold of the forest. Its mere presence, like the open arms of his mother long ago, was a balm to the elf’s spirit. “We’re home, Lanthir. Stop now.” But Lanthir would not stop. Legolas saw a drop of blood strike a leaf as they raced on through the bushes. “Lanthir? By the Valar, STOP! You’re killing yourself! No!”
He pulled back on the horse’s mane, shifted his weight, fought for control, but his friend ran on. Panic gripped him, but the fever made him too weak to make any difference. The trees flashed past, and Legolas pleaded with the stallion desperately. “Lanthir, stop, please--” He felt the horse suddenly jerk in a new burst of pain, and cried out in anguish and horror as Lanthir pitched over, spilling his elven rider to the ground.
Legolas tumbled to a stop against a tree, groaning. It took several moments to get his wind back, and the fall had stunned him still more. What finally brought him around was a soft sigh from the forest, sadly noting the death of one of its creatures.
“Lanthir,” he whispered weakly, and tried to pull himself upright. He could not. So he crawled on his hands and knees to where the gray horse lay. Lanthir’s black eyes were dull, glazed, looking at nothing. Blood marked his soft muzzle. Legolas could hear no sound of breathing from the still form. The sighing of the trees--it could not be! “No…” Desperately, he ran his hands over the horse, trying to find some sign of life. “Lanthir,” he whimpered, fever and now grief destroying any control left in him. A sob escaped, tears began to streak his face, then he buried his face in Lanthir’s gray mane and wept helplessly. He could not even crawl anymore, and the sight of his beloved horse dead after trying to carry him home stole what was left of his will. He had nothing. *Nothing…* Lost, defeated, stripped of dignity and strength on the edge of Mirkwood, Legolas laid his head down next to Lanthir’s body and let his consciousness drift away.
Who was there? Someone had called his name. Dimly, Legolas looked around, though he had lost the strength to lift his head or call out.
*Legolas, do not let go.*
Someone was calling to him. Why did it matter, anyway? His Lanthir was dead. He was dying. He had lost everything and failed. They should leave him to his fate.
*Legolas, you cannot go.* From the blurry forest, a dark-haired figure ran out of the trees to the dying elf’s side. *Legolas? Do you not know who I am?*
Legolas felt his eyes widen, and forcing his mouth to work, he said weakly, “Tathar?” *How can you be here? Why do I matter to you after I got you killed in the mountains?*
Tathar laughed softly, kneeling next to Legolas. *Do not believe the phantoms of fever dreams, my dearest friend. You must not give up, Legolas. You’ve much yet to do. Come, I told you I should always be with you. Rise, son of Thranduil. You are needed here.*
*In your heart, much strength still lies. Rise, Legolas. I am with you.*
Moaning with effort, Legolas braced himself against the ground, managing to sit up slightly, and looked around for his friend. “Tathar?” But the forest was empty. He was so tired…yet the echoes of Tathar’s voice would not leave him, and he continued the struggle. With much effort, he fought the dizzy weakness of his body until he was upright against a tree. Then he pushed himself off the tree and staggered a few steps to the next tree, catching himself against it. He rested his forehead against its brown bole, fighting the poison’s insidious urge to lie down and sleep himself to death. He was already out of breath.
Just then, he heard footsteps coming through the forest. “Tathar?” He held onto the tree for dear life and looked about, trying to see him. His vision was a green and brown blur, but a gray figure came out of the haze. “Lanthir?”
“Who goes there--” a gruff voice began, than stopped. Legolas blinked, unable to identify or remember the speaker. The voice came again, this time full of alarm and shock. “By the Valar, young Legolas! What’s happened to you?”
“I…” Legolas blinked harder as the figure came closer, trying to clear his vision. At last it focused enough to show him what appeared to be an old man, with a long gray beard and pointed hat. “Mithrandir?” He pulled away from the tree and promptly collapsed.
The Maia caught him, easing him toward the ground. “This is an unexpected meeting, young prince of Mirkwood. Forgive my manners, but you look most unwell.”
Sleep was such a wonderful thing. With an effort, Legolas managed to raise his head to speak. “Poison. Orcs,” he mumbled. The presence of the wizard, the gentle voice of the trees, and the still-rising fever were robbing him of coherent thought. Shadow called enticingly to him. He just wanted to sleep.
“No, no, Legolas, you cannot do that. You must stay awake until we can get some healer’s draught into you. Orc poison, was it? Where? Where were you attacked? Come on,” Mithrandir firmly shook him. “Stay with me, young prince.”
“Mountain orcs,” Legolas managed to say, though what difference it made, he could not imagine. *Just let me sleep…Tathar. I want Tathar to come back.* His body was going completely limp, and his head drooped against the wizard’s shoulder. “Tathar…”
“Tathar? Ah, your friend, the one who…well, we’ll never mind that; this wretched poison has you pretty fuddled, doesn’t it? Hmm. If only I had stopped to get a horse on the way, curse this luck! On your feet, Legolas. You must stay awake.” Mithrandir made several attempts to pull Legolas to his feet, to no avail. There was a sigh, and Legolas dimly felt himself being shifted. “It seems this is the only way. I’m sorry, young Legolas, you’d be much more comfortable asleep, but I fear you would never wake. Hold on,” there came a stream of unintelligible words, and a bright light, and a strange alertness swept over Legolas. He blinked as the wizard’s face came into focus. “That’s more like it. Come now, on your feet. We must move fast.”
Weakly, Legolas accepted Mithrandir’s help and found himself able to stand. Whatever the wizard had done, it had staved off the exhaustion for now, but the pain had not lessened. He shivered violently, and Mithrandir draped his heavy gray cloak around the elf. “How far to my father’s halls?” he asked as the wizard walked him into the woods.
“Almost three days on foot. I’ll do all I can for you, young prince. It’s a pity we don‘t have a faster mode of transportation; you’d be better off in Rivendell under Lord Elrond‘s care.”
Legolas sighed his thanks, then concentrated on putting his feet where they belonged and not lurching as he walked. It seemed to him in his near-delirious state that he could still hear Tathar’s voice, speaking words of comfort and encouragement in the sounds of the forest. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a beast running through the woods, and recoiled in alarm. Mithrandir also heard it, and the wizard tensed, readying his staff. The sounds drew nearer, hoof beats. A horse. Mithrandir recognized them before Legolas could speak, and lowered his staff again. Out of the trees ran a beautiful brown stallion, stopping when it spotted the two walkers. “Mithrandir?” Legolas whispered.
“Well, now, here’s a stroke of good luck! Come closer, friend, we’ll not harm you! In fact, the prince here desperately needs your help!” The horse, reassured by Gandalf’s words, slowly walked up to them. “Well, aren’t you a beauty, and strong by the looks of you. Would you be so kind as to bear our weight for awhile? Ah, thank you. Up you go, Legolas,” the elf suddenly found himself astride the brown stallion with Gandalf behind him. “Hmm, with a little help from me, you could probably get us to Imladris in not much more than three days. And this young elf needs the skills of Lord Elrond. Perhaps--”
“No!” Legolas exclaimed, grabbing Gandalf’s arm as he was extending his staff. “Mithrandir,” he said weakly, not releasing his hold. “Please take me to my father’s halls.”
“Your father has excellent healers, Legolas, but you are very ill. I worry that none other than Lord Elrond will be able to save you. You are very far gone in this poison.”
Legolas frantically shook his head, fighting to keep his mind coherent. “No.” He managed to turn and face Mithrandir. “I must go home. Please take me to my father.” Seeing the wizard’s furrowed brows, he whispered, “Please.” There was no point in worrying about pride. He knew he was dying. If he could but see Thranduil’s face one last time, and ask his father’s forgiveness, what happened afterward did not matter.
Mithrandir’s perceptive eyes probed the elf’s fevered face. If he chose to ride for Rivendell, Legolas could not very well stop him, and yet…that was not what the young warrior wanted. *Trying to get home to your father. There is a change. And an important one.* “Very well. I suppose it’s more important to get you to shelter than anything else, and your Lady Eirien is a superb healer. Let’s see how fast our friend here can run. Bear us to the elven king, Master Horse!” He held Legolas upright as the brown stallion galloped into the woods. With luck, and a little of the wizard’s own contribution, they could be at King Thranduil’s palace by sundown.
It was just as well, Gandalf thought as the horse galloped swiftly through the trees, that Legolas had insisted on being taken home. He could feel the young warrior’s pulse growing faster and weaker as his breathing grew more labored. The poison’s advance was speeding, and it was unlikely Legolas would have survived even a greatly-sped-up trip to Rivendell. The Maia was beginning to worry he wouldn’t survive the trip home. He pulled the prince back against him, looking at his face. The spell he had used was keeping Legolas awake, but his dark gray eyes were glassier than before, and they focused on nothing. Gandalf wondered if the elf knew where he was. “Hold on, Legolas, hold on.”
In spite of the forced consciousness he was enduring, fever dreams had once again claimed Legolas’s mind. Weird, blurry images whirled around him, and though he could feel the rhythm of the horse’s strides beneath him and hear Gandalf’s words behind him, he could make no sense of anything. Delirium took him, but even in that state, he knew what he sought, and called out for his father. Many things that he wished to say spun through his thoughts. He did not know if he spoke them aloud or not. Strange, hollow voices and apparitions swirled around him, and Legolas flinched, frightened and confused. He still had not found his father. *I must find him…I must tell him…*
Then it all stopped. The pain seemed to diminish a little. The nightmarish visions parted like the stars in the Mirror of Galadriel. Legolas was lying upon a bed, the trees around him were silver, crowned with golden leaves, and he could hear the song of birds and elves in the distance. The breeze blew gently over his face, cool against the fever. But even in this peaceful place, he cried out for his father.
*Legolas!* A black-haired elven warrior, in Mirkwood colors, rushed to his bedside anxiously. *Ai, how did you get yourself into this state?*
*Tathar,* Legolas sighed, feeling his friend clasp his hand. *Orcs. They poisoned me.*
Tathar looked astonished, then shook his head in that pose of affectionate disgust he liked to assume. *Now why ever did you let them do that to you? You always had a tendency to punish yourself for faults, but that was going a bit far, don’t you think?*
Legolas laughed weakly. *I did not have much choice in the matter. Believe me.*
Tathar shook his head, and now his eyes were sad. *There is always a choice. You could have been cured by now. Must you always do things the hard way? Why do you make yourself suffer?*
*You don’t understand,* protested Legolas, staring at his friend. *I had to get home.*
*Yes, yes, I know, to confess your faults and throw yourself upon your father’s mercy. Why do you fear him, Legolas? He is your father, and no quarrel in the world will change that. * His brown eyes sparkling with amusement, Tathar laughed at Legolas. *I cannot imagine why you fear him, for he has always shown you more mercy than you have ever had on yourself.*
Legolas blinked, confused by Tathar’s words. Then he closed his eyes and sighed. *I wish you would not leave again. The world became so hard to bear without you.*
Tathar’s hand patted his shoulder. *Do not be ridiculous. I have never left you.* He snorted, *I could not if I wanted to, for you would never let me go. Ah, but I cannot talk; I suppose I would have been the same were our positions reversed.*
Tears filled Legolas’s eyes, *You would not have died had I not run away.*
A gentle cuff landed on his shoulder. *I thought I told you not to believe those poison phantoms! Do not listen to them, Legolas, the shadow of evil only seeks to take your heart. We make our choices, and we live with them. I knew long ago that your destiny lay along a much greater path than mine, but I chose to be with you. I would have gone with you if you had chosen one of those silly training missions.* Tathar laughed, squeezing his hand. Bending close to Legolas as though sharing a great secret, he added, *And I never regretted it. Not even in the end.* He rose from the edge of the bed.
*Tathar! Wait! Do not go!*
But he was vanishing into the dazzling light through the silver and gold trees. Legolas shivered, frightened in spite of the beauty of this place. Why had Tathar left him alone? A pale hand cupped his cheek and turned his face away from where Tathar had gone. Legolas found himself staring at the beautiful face of the Lady Galadriel, her eyes gentle, her white hood resting atop her golden tresses. *He has never left you, Legolas. Heed his words.*
*I am so tired, Lady.*
*We are all tired at one time or another. But it is not your time to sleep yet. You shall be home soon, prince of Mirkwood. And there is much left for you to do.*
*How will I be strong enough?*
The Lady Galadriel smiled. *You need not know how. Know only that you shall be. I told you before: as long as your hope survives, you shall find the strength for all your battles.* Resting a hand lightly upon his shoulder, she said softly, *The shadow shall not have you, elf warrior, as long as you remain true to your heart.* Bending forward, Galadriel kissed him gently upon the forehead. Then darkness seemed to swirl toward him, blotting out the golden woods. Legolas gasped, but Galadriel reassured him, *Fear not, Legolas. We shall meet again.*
Then the light and the vision was gone, and Legolas was back upon the horse, in front of Mithrandir. Pain and weakness struck him anew, and he moaned. Mithrandir urged the horse faster. “Hold on, Legolas. We are almost there.”
The elven king’s halls, several hours later…
Candrochon of Mirkwood was serving a stint of guard duty at the palace gate as the sun sank low in the sky. It was getting very chilly. He drew his cloak around him and listened idly to the song of the trees. It was then that he heard the sound of a rider, approaching the palace fast. The elf warrior tensed just as the other gate guards did. “A horseman comes,” one of them observed. “Openly. A messenger?”
“It’s a heavy horse--” Candrochon began, then the horse came into view, and his heart all but stopped. There were two on the beast’s back. The one in back was no trouble to recognize--the pointed hat and gray robes identified him as Mithrandir, trusted friend to all elves. And the one in front… “Ai! Is it…oh…by the Valar…Legolas?!”
The elf’s shock and alarm were not surprising, for even the closest of the prince’s kindred had difficulty recognizing him. He looked dreadful. His face and body were drenched in sweat, and his golden hair clung to his skin. A deep, bruised gash marred his forehead, and other welts and bruises stood out on his skin, which was pallid with illness. His eyes, normally so bright and alert, were glazed, red-rimmed, and confused, as though he were not quite conscious. As the horse ran up to them, Candrochon could hear how shallowly Legolas was breathing.
Before any of the shocked elves could speak, Mithrandir swung down. “Send for Crown Prince Berensul, if you would be so kind, young Candrochon. Prince Legolas must be seen by a healer immediately. He was attacked by orcs.” No words would come to him, so Candrochon simply threw open the gate and raced into the palace. He did glance over his shoulder as some of the elves exclaimed aloud; Mithrandir’s horse had bolted back into the woods. “He was not my horse,” the wizard told someone as he helped the staggering Legolas up the stairs. “He merely helped us out.”
*Strange,* Candrochon thought absently. *He looked like Sadron.* But as he entered the palace, his mind turned to other things.
Whatever spell Mithrandir had cast upon Legolas was wearing off, and the elf could feel himself losing control of his body again. Mithrandir had him braced upright against his side, and it was taking all his strength just to keep his feet under him. He vaguely thought he knew that elf who had gone for help, but the fever clouded his mind so that he could not be sure, or concentrate enough to figure it out. His mind did not even register where he was.
Then voices came anxiously from the distance, and the palace door opened. Crown Prince Berensul, with Candrochon beside him, took one step out of the palace and stopped dead in his tracks. Words and motion deserted him at the sight of his youngest brother. “Who…oh…Legolas? Mithrandir, how…”
Legolas did not react to Berensul’s presence; merely blinked weakly at the Crown Prince. Gandalf wondered if the young elf knew who his brother was. Taking control of the situation, the Maia said firmly, “We must get Legolas to a healer, my lord. There is not an instant to lose. Does the king know he is here?”
His eyes very dark and worried, Berensul said, “No. Quickly, we must get Legolas inside before my father does find out. Whatever confrontation is coming, this is definitely not the time.” He beckoned, and Mithrandir hurriedly supported the stumbling Legolas up the steps and into the outer halls of the palace. But no sooner had they entered than they heard a familiar voice coming toward another doorway. Berensul recoiled, close to panic. “Ai, Mithrandir--”
Deep in conversation with his Steward, King Thranduil strode through the door oblivious to the happenings in the hall. Absently, he took a cursory look around, and his gaze fell on Berensul, Gandalf… The elven king froze, taking in the haggard appearance of his son, held upright against Gandalf’s side under the wizard’s cloak, sweaty with fever and pale as a wraith. In a toneless voice, he said, “Legolas.”
For all the fever did to his mind, Legolas recognized his father. Thranduil’s unexpected appearance seemed to have turned everyone to stone, even Gandalf. But somehow, Legolas pulled himself from the wizard’s supportive grasp and staggered forward a few steps, where he stood facing the elven king. The young elf’s mouth moved, he tried to speak, but his voice failed.
Thranduil’s expression was too blank for even Mithrandir to read, but to Legolas, it seemed rather foreboding. Berensul rushed in front of the king. “Father--”
Thranduil strode forward, placing a hand on Berensul’s shoulder and firmly moving him out of his path, having eyes only for his other son, the one who had left him on bad terms six months before. Legolas stood where he was, helpless, bracing himself, as his father came towards him. A few desperate thoughts worked their way through the fevered haze. *He knows I am doomed if he does not let me stay. I must ask him to forgive me. Ai, to find my voice! Will he cast me off now?* Legolas wondered hazily as the world closed in. *Am I to die alone?*
It seemed that fate would not permit him to know the answer, for the last remnants of Mithrandir’s spell faded. Blackness swept up and formed a tunnel around him, pulling him in so that the last thing he saw was King Thranduil advancing forward, his dark eyes locked upon his son‘s, as the orc poison’s shadow finally claimed him.
Berensul and Gandalf watched in horror as Thranduil strode purposefully toward his youngest son. The same questions dogged both of their minds. Couldn’t he see Legolas was dying? Would he truly be so callous as to refuse his youngest son sanctuary? What did he intend? Legolas, for all his brave effort to stand alone before the king, had pushed himself too far. His eyes closed, his legs gave way beneath him, and he sagged limply toward the ground. Before either Gandalf or Berensul could react, King Thranduil covered the last few strides between himself and Legolas--and caught his son as he fell.
Sweeping Legolas up into his arms as if he weighed nothing at all, Thranduil stared for a moment at his son’s unconscious face, and many emotions flew across the king’s own countenance. Gandalf identified all of them as various forms of anguish. Then the elven king turned and started toward back down the hall, carrying Legolas. As though just remembering the others were there, the elven king turned and stared incredulously at Gandalf and Berensul, who had not moved. “Why are you just standing there?!” he demanded. To Berensul, he snapped, “Send for Eirien at once!” Breaking into a run, Thranduil carried his youngest child toward the royal chambers, shouting for the palace healers.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.