3. A Novice No More
The Mirkwood elves were in a near frenzy. From his seat on the platform, King Thranduil could hear his other children murmuring prayers of encouragement to their youngest brother. On his left, Lady Galadriel wore a detached smile that suggested to him that she could sense the exact position of every one of the competitors. For himself, Thranduil wore a carefully objective expression as was required of the elven lords at this event. Perhaps only Gandalf the Grey noticed that the elven king was gripping the armrests of his chair so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.
Legolas tore down the narrow woodland trail, his elven senses stretched to the point of physical pain. Targets seemed to be popping out from everywhere, and it was all he could do not to stop in his tracks as he loosed arrow after arrow. The knowledge that Candrochon could not be far behind drove him on, his long legs pumping.
So intent was he on watching for targets over his head and at his sides that he nearly forgot to look down. A glint of silver close to the ground caught his eye just barely in time for him to hop over the thin wire stretched across the path. There were obstacles upon this course as well, he reminded himself, and pushed his eyes and ears to sense even more minute movements. It was this extra effort that saved him when another long branch was flung out, nearly level with his waist. There was no chance of ducking it, so Legolas launched himself into the air and practically somersaulted over the thing. He rolled back to his feet and, to his intense relief, heard no cry of “fault” from any of the overseers.
Sounds behind Legolas warned him that Candrochon was gaining on him. *I must fly if I wish to keep my lead. Candrochon is far swifter than I on his feet.* Although there was still a great deal of ground to cover, Legolas drove his weary legs harder, pausing only to aim and shoot at the targets that appeared. But it soon became clear that this final stage was not intended to be a mere test of speed. The track was growing narrower still, and the undergrowth thicker. Both targets and obstacles were coming at a much faster rate, forcing Legolas to slow. Fortunately, Candrochon and the other competitors would also be facing these impediments when they tried to race through the course.
Legolas was certain that his drawing arm was about to give out--if his lungs did not explode first. He could hear more competitors crashing through the course behind him, yet the targets still popped into view before him, and branches and vines still appeared to trip him up or knock him down. *I must not slow down. I must not loose focus…* But something inside his mind was beginning to moan that he could not keep this up much longer. This event was called a “trial” for a reason. *How much further, how much further…*
He took aim at another target and was forced to pause when sweat trickled into his eyes. With a muttered curse, he blotted them on his shoulder; fortunately the target was still there. Sometimes they were pulled back if not hit within a few seconds. He pivoted away from a shrub that suddenly snapped in his direction and ducked under a tossed rock. One target swept out of the trees right over his head, forcing him to lean back in order to strike it. Straightening, he staggered slightly but managed to keep his feet. Barely. *I am lost if my balance fails. How much longer…*
He forced himself onward, heart racing, and all at once, new noises reached his ears--from ahead rather than behind. Familiar cheers and cries. The race course had run in a full circle. He was nearly back to the archery field. Nearly to the finish. He used his free arm to knock aside a branch and continued to run, continued to shoot, the growing cries of the spectators urging him on. A heavier branch--almost a log--swung into his path and he dove to the ground to avoid being slammed right off the trail. The noise was very close now. He was almost there…
All at once, as he forced his way through the dense underbrush, he suddenly burst out into a clearing, to be greeted by frenzied cries of excitement from elves by the thousands, everywhere he looked. He was there. At last. With a massive surge of adrenaline, Legolas sprinted with all his might into the center of the clearing, shot cleanly the black target that ended the footrace, then took aim at a huge white target in the tree below the platform where the elf lords watched. All its rings were white, but there was a different-colored spot no larger than a seed within each circle. Legolas saw the white flag from the overseer just as another elf burst from the foot trail, followed by several more. His pursuers were too late. Drawing a final arrow and taking dead aim, Legolas struck the golden spot at the center of the target, showing himself to be the first finisher. From behind him, another arrow whistled by and struck the second ring, then the third was hit, and within thirty seconds, all six rings showed the arrows of the placing novices. A bell rang, signaling the end of the Great Gathering Trial.
Breathing heavily, but under control, his bow in one hand, Legolas straightened and bowed with the other archers to the elf lords and ladies on the canopied platform above the Final Novice Target. The crowd fell silent as all the noble elves remained seated. Lady Galadriel then rose, and for a brief yet eternal moment, her gaze rested directly upon Legolas. *I should have known. After all this, my heart shall stop, and I will die right here upon the field.*
The honor of closing the Trial always belonged to the Lord of the winning realm. Sometimes it took several minutes for scores to be tallied to determine the winner, but not today. Galadriel turned to Thranduil, King of the triumphant Mirkwood and father of the indisputable winner, and beckoned him to rise. Thranduil stood, gazing at all the archers, and slowly raised his hands and began to applaud. The other lords followed suit and the trees rang with clapping hands of elves, who watched from all sides. Legolas could not restrain himself from looking at his father, but though the elven king nodded approvingly at all the contestants, he did not meet the prince’s eyes.
The Great Trial of the Gathering of the Realms was over. Prince Legolas of Mirkwood had won, finishing first in all the speed trials and scoring highest on all target competitions, with only two faults. Most of the ranking elf lords departed with Lady Galadriel, Lord Celeborn, and King Thranduil, but Gandalf remained behind, watching the archers and overseers working on the field and listening with amusement to the talk of the younger nobles still congregating on the platform.
“How did you fare, Belhador?” he heard Lady Arwen ask.
“Your brother Elladan owes me two bottles of wine, my lady.” There was soft laughter from Arwen, then Belhador said, “I hope Imladris is not dreadfully disappointed.”
“I do not believe so. Our Faron placed highly, either third or fourth. We will not know until all the faults and hits are tallied. And our Gaerongil was seventh. Imladris did well today, coming in ahead of Lórien.”
“Poor Haldir looks fit to kill,” whispered Princess Limloeth, and the others laughed. Gandalf chuckled to himself, for she was quite right; Lórien had not fared as well as any of its delegates had expected, and they would doubtless have that fact pointed out repeatedly for the rest of the Gathering.
The wizard glanced discreetly at the young nobles. Mirkwood’s Crown Prince Berensul had joined the group and was showing off a handsomely-carved, silver and jeweled knife that he had just collected from one of the unfortunate Lórien nobles. “Dwarf crafted, it was. Firith has three of them.”
“Had, Brother, had,” the group chortled at Belhador’s correction. “You fool, why did you not ask for the one with the pearls?”
“I considered it, but that one is his favorite, so I took pity on him. It is enough that he will never live down this day!” Berensul replied smugly. “Besides which, I am fond of sapphires.”
“I’ve coveted those dwarven knives of his for years. If we have a likely candidate next Gathering,” Elladan remarked, “I shall see if I can find a suitable treasure to wager against the emerald one.”
“You would do well to make certain you have no chance of losing. For anything that you can offer against Firith’s knives would have to be a treasure of equal value in itself. And speaking of treasures, do not forget--”
“I know, I know. Peace, Belhador, you shall have your wine.”
“You are fortunate I did not take you up on your offer to wager your horse, or I should be riding him about the forest now!”
“He would throw you.”
Forcing his attention away from them before his laughter betrayed him, Gandalf turned his gaze to the field. The champion of the Trial, the hero of the hour, Prince Legolas, was still tarrying upon the field, watching the overseers counting spent arrows. What the son of Thranduil was waiting for, Gandalf could not imagine, for not one of his arrows had missed their mark. The young archer appeared to be merely collecting his thoughts before returning to the embrace of his adoring people and comrades.
Indulging in high spirits even by elf standards, a crowd of Mirkwood elves burst into a song of victory several yards away, and startled Legolas out of his thoughts. Shaking his head slightly, the young elf handed his bow and quiver to the Langcyll, the archer captain of Mirkwood and left the field, a novice no longer. Gandalf noted with interest the intense pride in the gaze of the prince’s former instructor. *Legolas shall soon be one of Langcyll’s archers,* Gandalf thought. *A worthy addition to the forces of Mirkwood, and his skills will be needed in these troubled times.*
Legolas’s faint grimace of pain brought Gandalf’s attention back to him. *He ought not to have stood so still after completing the Trial. His muscles have stiffened.* In spite of his soreness, the young prince carried himself well and accepted the shouts of admiration and congratulations graciously. Perhaps only Gandalf had the perception to detect the slight discomfort Legolas seemed to feel. At first the wizard could not be certain what was bothering the champion, then it came to him as Legolas passed another group of Mirkwood elves.
“Well done, my lord!” “Well played, my Prince!” “My congratulations, my lord!”
Gandalf frowned thoughtfully, then remembered. *Now he that is a full warrior, he is recognized as an elf lord, fully of age. He has never been so addressed before now.* It was still strange. Most young elven princes spent centuries longing for the moment when they would come into their full rank and title, and were elated when they finally heard it recognized. King Thranduil’s youngest son, on the other hand, seemed just the opposite. *He is intriguing even by elf standards, this Legolas. His coming of age may mean a great deal for Middle Earth.*
The rooms where the warriors prepared for and returned from their exercises were in the lower level at the outermost part of Mirkwood’s largest fortress, which also housed Thranduil’s halls. The massive edifice rose through the forest in a glistening construction of marble and polished wood. No trees had been felled to make way for its growth; the stairs wound around them, their branches emerged from balconies and windows, and they grew through the courtyards at all parts of the palace. It was an edifice far more solid than most elven buildings, showing the influence of the dwarf craftsmen in its stone, gems, and metalwork. And it hosted an even greater rarity among elven lands--dungeons.
Across a bridge over the Forest River from the outer palace were the old caverns within the mountain that had long housed wood elves’ halls, where the dungeons were found deep within. Most of Thranduil’s folk now dwelt in the outer palace; the inner cave halls were used mostly for storage, but also as a safe haven in the event of an attack from the dark fortress of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood. They had been the first part of the new halls built when Thranduil and his people had been forced to move further north when the shadow had first descended upon Greenwood the Great, and hosted the elven king’s famous treasure rooms--and the dungeons. Few of the elves of Mirkwood had ever seen them; even elves found guilty of crimes were placed in the towers at the treetops. Legolas had never lived anywhere but the royal chambers in the outer palace, and he could not remember a time when the dungeons had been occupied.
Legolas wished he could simply slip inside without being noticed or remarked on, but on a day like today there was no chance; not only the entire elven population of Mirkwood but elves from all over Middle Earth were present. So Legolas was forced to carry himself in the fashion expected of a prince of Mirkwood, standing straight, head up, nodding and smiling in response to the nods, smiles, and praises of “Well done, my lord,” from the other elves milling about--when all he truly wanted was to stagger inside, shed his sweaty clothes and collapse for a few weeks. Or at least a few days until the Gathering of the Realms was over.
All the same, he knew what was expected of him, and had survived with expectations of rank all his life. He knew had done well, out-shooting, out-riding, and outrunning the delegates from all the other elf lands, even Lothlórien. That was no easy task, though he had hoped to do better. He always hoped to do better. He gave an especially cordial nod to a group of Mirkwood elves talking near the entrance to the tree-stairs that led to the training rooms, and they all smiled broadly.
“Well done, my lord.” “A magnificent performance, my lord!”
*Yes, I suppose I do rate that title now,* Legolas thought. He knew he should be pleased; it was no small thing for a prince of Mirkwood--the last son of the King and Queen of Mirkwood--to come of age as a warrior of his realm, but at the moment he was too weary to care. Legolas had been the last to leave the field, and by the time he reached the training rooms, most of the other competitors had already bathed, changed clothes and left. He was relieved by the sound of his soft footfalls on the stairs, the sound and sight outside of talking, milling elves outside cut off by the walls. Crowds made Legolas uneasy; other elves always stared at him because of his rank, and because he looked somewhat different. Most Mirkwood elves were of darker hair and skin, and all of Legolas’s siblings had these traits. Legolas had been the only one to inherit the fair hair of his parents, and the delicate features of his Lórien-bred mother, Queen Minuial. But in another strange twist, Legolas had his father’s eyes: a gray so dark they were nearly black, as unlike his mother’s pale, blue-gray eyes as could be. Consequently, he looked neither fully Silvan or fully Sindarin, and so even among his own people, Legolas seemed to draw gazes.
Beyond that, there was an oppressiveness about large numbers of people to an elf who loved the space and freedom of forest and field. And the Gathering of the Realms was the largest meeting of the elves, taking place every hundred years. While he enjoyed the chance to see and talk with lords, ladies, and friends from the other realms that he did not see often, the sheer numbers drove him to distraction. Other than this Gathering, elves only met in such masses in times of war.
At last, Legolas passed into the chamber outside the bathing rooms and fought the urge to simply drop into a chair and go to sleep. Instead, he stood stubbornly in the center of the room and began stretching the tightened muscles of his arms, shoulders, neck, and back. There would be a banquet tonight, and it would not do to move stiffly. He had been looking forward to it, but the amount of energy, mental and physical, that he had spent on preparing for the trial had left him with little concentration and less interest to devote to anything else.
Massaging a knot from his neck, Legolas sighed. He was called “zealous,” by his weapons masters and rightly so; how could he have managed to hit a “friend” target one hour into the competition? His hopes had been high, even thinking of perhaps tallying a perfect score, though it had never been done. Yes, he had still tallied the highest score in the history of the event, but…
“Well done, my lord.” Legolas jumped and turned around. It was Merilin, one of the archers who had trained at his side for as long as he could remember and like him, was now recognized as a full warrior. She grinned at his reaction and raised her hands, “Forgive me for startling you, I merely wished to offer my congratulations, my lord.”
“You needn’t call me that, Merilin,” Legolas replied wearily, but he smiled. They both knew she was teasing him. Then it occurred to him that he knew of no final scores other than his own. “Did you place?”
“Third in the running, my lord,” she replied from behind the curtain of one of the bathing rooms. “Though I fear I may have dropped one place in faults. I slipped a bow string. Faron of Imladris would move up in rank, but I do not begrudge him the third place. Candrochon was second and Tathar was fifth, and Lórien’s Eregolf was sixth. Your performance will be the talk of the banquet this evening,” she added, coming back out with a tunic that she had evidently left behind. She paused, looking puzzled, “Surely you feel no cause for dissatisfaction. All of Mirkwood is rejoicing. Your brother Prince Berensul is trying to think up the appropriate toast.”
Legolas pulled his mouth to one side. “I am satisfied…” His friend looked both amused and disgusted by his perfectionism. He smiled wryly as her expression changed to patient tolerance, “I know I performed well, I was merely disappointed in myself for striking a ‘friend’ target. It was a careless mistake.”
“Fortunately, you surpassed it in other ways, my friend,” Merilin replied firmly. “You have given Mirkwood every cause for pride today, and we will not have you melancholy for our celebrations. Be of good cheer, my lord, or I shall be forced to call on Master Langcyll to strike a smile onto your face.”
Legolas laughed, “You strike terror into my heart, Lady, so I shall be merry under duress. Until then, be off with you.” She bowed extravagantly at him and departed. Legolas went into the bathing chambers with a lighter heart. Merilin was right, of course. There would be time for criticism of his performance during exercises with the warrior captains after the Gathering.
He felt refreshed after washing the sweat from his skin, but now Legolas was feeling the weight of the morning’s efforts more than ever. Every muscle in his body sang with exhaustion, and the effort of keeping his senses so highly focused had left him lightheaded. Still passing other elves in the corridors and walkways, he dared not trudge on the walk back to his chambers, and when he came through the door of his room, his bed immediately called to him. *No,* he told himself firmly and went to dress for the evening‘s feasting. Once he had eaten, he would wake up. But to take his shoes off, he sat down on the bed, and the pillow beckoned to him once again. *I mustn’t. If I sleep now, I will forget to wake up. I cannot…I must not…perhaps just for a minute.*
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.