34. In the End - Part II
For three days they rode. To Legolas, it was a terrible eternity of endless worry and disquiet. Though Gimli and Aragorn sought to distract him with tales of their journey after they had been separated at Amon Hen, he found little was interesting enough to steal his attention away from his apprehension. Each step was a torturous reminder of the many left to take, each moment a foul indication of time yet to pass. He had always counted himself to have a measure of patience, but this lengthy journey was truly trying.
His own weariness did not aid their speed. As much as he sought to ignore or deny, he grew fatigued easily. Sitting atop Arod for any extended period of time left his healing body cramped and exhausted. Arod appeared to sense his discomfort at least and made every effort to ease his steps upon the ground. Still, it was not enough to extend his endurance any, and for two nights they made camp early and began to travel the following day later than he would have liked. He did not complain about the matter, wishing not to be a burden or nuisance. Even though he despised it, he did much benefit from these extended periods of rest. Though Aragorn had brought along weapons for him, the ranger refused to let Legolas take any sort of watch. He did not put up any resistance. His nerves were already too frayed to allow for any conflict between himself and his friend.
Finally, they reached Mirkwood. The familiar paths led them deeper into the dark and murky forest. It had taken some coaxing to convince the horses to venture into the forbidding mess of limb and leaf. Legolas knew these roads well, having many times in the past followed them during trips to Rivendell or in a hunting expedition. The dark woods were tangled with vines and gnarled branches. Even with the defeat of Sauron, the gloom had hardly receded and left the place frightening and disheartening to all whom entered. They rode quickly and carefully. Aragorn's eyes were constantly scanning the maze of thick trunks, searching for any sign of danger and threat. Legolas' heart hammered in his chest. He had held his breath since entering Mirkwood's unmarked borders.
"Halt!" came a cry from behind them. Legolas jerked in the saddle, pulling Arod's reins tight as the massive horse stepped about. Aragorn ripped around and was met by the threat of a score of notched arrows. "You are trespassing on the lands of King Thranduil! State your business in these woods!"
It was a patrol. Legolas glanced to them, recognizing many of the faces. In particular, its leader was an experienced warrior by the name of Telethir, who had for many years been the captain of his father's guard. Legolas had hunted with most of these Elves, joined them in patrols and battles against the menaces of their home. In fact, it had been Telethir himself who had taken him upon his first ventures into the wild as a young warrior.
He was not fast enough to avert his eyes, and one of the other Elves in the patrol gasped. "Prince Legolas!" Shock widened his gaze, and he dropped his bow. Immediately he fell to one knee and bowed his head.
The others stared him, scrutinizing him intently in an effort to prove the truth to their disbelieving eyes. A chorus of murmurs went quickly through the group. Their surprise and confusion hurt him. "I… I am so sorry, my Lord. Forgive me," Telethir gasped, immediately lowering his weapon. "I did not recognize you."
Legolas stiffened. Gimli immediately detected his pain and glared icily at the group of Elves. He appeared prepared to insult them for their indiscretion. Aragorn shot the Dwarf a restraining glance, and Gimli submitted, though with an audible huff. Then the ranger turned to the patrol, addressing Telethir with a firm tone. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn. We are the prince's escorts. He wishes to see the King."
The less experienced Elves muttered once more. There was obvious distrust among them, and the air grew thick with tension. Telethir narrowed his piercing eyes. Legolas knew he, like much of his kind, held no love for men, and even less for Dwarves. "I know who you are, heir of Isildur. I know what you have done. Though rumor is no substitute for truth, it has been enough to convince much of this nation of your guilt. You are not welcome here," he declared lowly, a threat returning to his tone. His glare shifted to Gimli. "Neither of you are."
This was too much for Gimli. "Why you blasted-"
"Peace, Gimli," whispered Legolas. He had quickly regained himself. For now, at least, he was still their prince. He would not have them talk so rudely to his friends. "These two have saved my life. I do not ask for their acceptance, but simply allow them passage." His eyes narrowed dangerously, and he forced bravado into his voice. "I expect you to afford them the respect you afford me. I am still your prince, though I may not look it. Do not shame me before my companions. Is that clear?"
"But, your Highness," said another of the archers, his long face tense with prejudice, "your father would-"
His glare turned deadly. "My father is my own concern," Legolas countered coldly. Some things never changed, he mused idly as he watched the harsh words sink into the Elves. He was his father's youngest son, and thus his word automatically carried less weight than his brothers'. He had always had a difficult time giving orders to Elves older than he. Sometimes he was glad he was not the heir to the throne, for he doubted he would ever have the power or arrogance to command people as his father and eldest sibling did.
Still, he was angry enough to put aside his dignity. His patience was nonexistent and their prejudice disgusted him now more than ever. "Send forth messengers to alert the King of our arrival. I would like to speak with him as soon as it is convenient." His voice was cold and left no room for question. The other Elves stood, transfixed at amazed at the sudden vehemence in his voice. Legolas did not doubt it was strange thing to them. Not only were they faced with a very changed prince, never before had he ever snapped so sharply at any of his father's people.
They stood transfixed a moment more, paralyzed and stupefied by the transformed lord before them. Then one of the Elves took off in a run, seeking to carry out his lord's demands. Telethir nodded. "As you wish, my Prince. Let us be off then."
And so they were. The patrol led them through the thick woods with ease, traveling memorized paths blankly. Legolas' emotions were a mess of pride and pain. He felt their quick glances, sensing their surprise, disgust, and pity. It affected him greatly, and he wanted nothing more than to dig his heels into Arod and take off in a run to hide in the forest. Still, he forced his racing heart to slow and his distressed mind into some sort of tranquility. He would not be such a coward in his own home.
Gimli chuckled behind him. Legolas raised an eyebrow at the sound, though the Dwarf could not see it. "What amuses you so, Master Dwarf?" asked the archer quietly, his characteristic peace returning to his voice.
"You are quite the prince, Elf, and a tough one at that!" he answered softly, his tone merry with delight. "I must confess that during our journey I thought you a rather weak example. You could not even conquer my wit in our grandest arguments! Oft I wondered how you ever managed to rule over your own people when your command over your own tongue was so poor." He laughed again. Legolas smiled. Indeed there had been more than few occasions during the Fellowship's trials in which he had been infuriated into a frustrated silence by Gimli's constant insulting retorts and clever reversals. He had to admit that he found it somewhat amazing that a Dwarf could be so wily in the ways of logic. "Now I see that such a thought may have been premature. That was a worthy display of fortitude, my dear Elf, especially from you! I daresay my own kin could hardly manage such disgust in their voices, and we Dwarves are finely skilled in the art of argument." Gimli patted his back.
Legolas was tempted to discredit Gimli's belief, knowing that it was an exaggeration. In all his long life, this was perhaps the first time he had ever been so harsh. But he was content enough to accept the praise. He smiled coyly, feeling a bit of relief come to his worried heart. "They had it coming," he responded softly.
The Dwarf grunted again with barely contained laughter and then grew silent. They rode a bit farther, and Legolas found it increasingly difficult to remain calm. For so long had he yearned to return to his home! It had been a driving force bringing him hope and strength through his captivity. His love of this place, of these ancient trees that now shunned him, had carried him through the darkest times of shadow. It was his pride as a prince that driven him to defy, to stand tall against Saruman and his minions.
And it hurt deeply to know that he was now forever its outcast. Never had he imagined such a painful homecoming!
Time passed without meaning. The woods became brighter as they passed the great Forest River, and they came upon the realm of the Silvan Elves. Legolas felt tears sting his eyes and his heart was still in tension. He saw familiar places as they entered the city. Familiar faces. Roads and paths he knew so well. It all seemed alien, now, distant and cold. As their small group rode through the area, many stopped and stared, utterly shocked at the reappearance of their prince. Whispers and gasps resounded through his aching head, and it took all his concentration to ignore the agony within him. He kept his eyes lowered, wishing not to look upon his people, yearning that they not see him as such. Through the thick mass of trees and homes, they traveled, and this trek had never before seemed so endless. The Elves' shame and sadness at his sight slammed into him like a battering ram, and concentrating on steadily breathing was all he could do to keep himself tethered to his horse. The silence within, with which he thought he had finally begun to make peace, becoming a blaring chorus of shrill quiet, and he quivered.
A compassionate pair of eyes fell upon him. "Are you well, Legolas?" Aragorn whispered. He had pulled Hasufel close to Arod at seeing his friend's suffering.
Legolas managed to raise his eyes, stilling his shaking form. He sucked in a deep breath to compose himself and concentrated on Aragorn, ignoring the void within and the pity and disgust without. "Yes, Aragorn," he answered. "This is… unnerving."
"Aye." The archer looked to the ranger and shared with him a sympathetic moment. He had missed Aragorn's own awkward discomfort at arriving in Thranduil's stronghold. The looks he received were not of pity, but of hate. Legolas wondered vaguely which was more disheartening. They were quite a sight, the three of them. The prince pitied, the man scorned, and the Dwarf shunned.
Finally they reached the palace. It was situated within a mountain, its great gates the only sign of its existence. Its courtyard was a magnificent display of wealth and pride, adorned with the beautiful banners of the House of Oropher. Flowers of all colors, sizes, and shapes hung from the stone arches. He remembered how his mother had loved the flora. She had taken special care to maintain them during her living years, conscientiously pruning and doting upon them as she would her own kin. She once explained to a young Legolas the name and lore behind every bloom. The king had been less than pleased with the feminine appearance of his grand gates, but all knew his disdain to be light indeed, for though he often complained never did he reprimand and always did he smile at his wife's loving ministrations to the gardens. Since the Queen's death, the flowers had not been touched. They were overrun with other growth, their meticulous pattern lost in a bed of all sorts of greens. It seemed more a miniature forest now than a garden.
The gate guards watched Legolas in obvious shock, their faces ashen and stricken as the visitors dismounted. Telethir stood before the palace entrance, his stature firm. "You can go no further," he said, nodding towards the Dwarf and man. "Though I respect your orders, my Prince, I answer directly to your father, and his rules must not be broken." His eyes narrowed. "Foreigners are not welcomed within the House of Thranduil."
Gimli growled, and Aragorn open his mouth to protect, but Legolas raised his hand to quiet their anger. "It is well," he said before turning to them. He afforded his friends a small smile that betrayed how very nervous he was. "This is something I must do alone."
Aragorn met his gaze then and nodded. "We shall await your return here." In his eyes was an offering of hope and strength, and Legolas received his friend's affection with a nod of his own. Then he turned. For a moment he closed his eyes and sighed slowly to bring himself resolution. Go now and do what you came to do. Do not be dissuaded.
Moments later he was inside the palace. People and places moved around him in a blur, and he paid attention to nothing. He had erected a shell around his heart, guarding him from pain and sorrow. Numb and distant, he instructed a servant to bring to him a satchel so that he might collect a few valuables from his room. After, he walked those long, dark, familiar halls blindly and dumbly, refusing to let the warm and comforting aura within this manor reach his heart and cause him longing. He did not want to second-guess himself, or be distracted by woe at his departure. He refused to acknowledge how very good it felt to again be home.
The stares grew worse. He could hear them whispering, wondering, watching. They did not know how much their innocent astonishment and pity hurt him. He dashed as fast as he could to his room and slipped inside on light footfalls. Closing the heavy door behind him, he pressed his back to the cool, oak slab. For a moment, he simply stayed as such, leaning against the wood for support. He closed his eyes and willed his racing heart to slow and his mind to abandon its torment of him. Everything spun and swirled around him, voices long past filling his ears, and he breathed heavily. When he felt strong enough again, he opened his eyes.
His room was as he had left it. His large bed was dressed in new linens; the maids, at least, had expected his arrival. They had also taken it upon themselves to dust and clean, for the oaken furniture looked recently polished and the floor was immaculate. It seemed as though no time had passed at all between these walls. He remembered the day of his departure for Rivendell many months prior. He had been so very eager to leave and be rid of his father's anger and his brothers' spite that he had not taken much time to appreciate the comforts of his sanctum before racing out of its door. Had he known how much time would pass. Had he known how very different he would be upon his return…
Legolas swallowed the knot in his throat. There will be another room, another place. It is only stone and wood.
The cold thoughts hurt, but they also bolstered his resolve, and he stepped forward. The leather bag he rested upon his bed. Mindlessly he began to pick through his drawers, grabbing a few things he wished to take with him. Though Lord Elrond had asked his tailors to produce a few new sets of clothing for Legolas, the archer still took a pair or two of breeches and some tunics from his overfilled closets. He looked remorsefully at the clothes for a moment. Some of them he had never worn, given to him by the seamstresses a few weeks before his departure. Panged with an irrational guilt, he replaced the worn trousers and shirts and gently removed the new garments. He knew they had worked hard on them. It would be quite unbecoming of him to leave them to waste.
He went to his dresser and pulled open the top drawer. There was a red velvet pouch within it. He took it into his hands, cradling it gently. Within it was the only thing he had left of his mother. To each of her sons at their birth, she had given a piece of her precious jewelry so they might always have a sense of her near. Legolas had received a simple charm of a green and gold leaf attached to a gold chain. She had explained it to him once when he had been very young. The necklace had been a gift from her mother when she wed Thranduil. She in turn had given it to her last-born son, to remind him always that he had been named for the splendor of the forest. It was not overly valuable, but meant a great deal to him. It was another sign of his mother's love of all things verdant and bountiful.
A knock at the door nearly caused him to jump. He shook his head to clear it, his heart again pounding away with an unreasonable fury in his chest. He swallowed his fright and turned.
The door opened before he had even a chance to voice a protest. In the portal now stood Vardaithil.
The two brothers stared at one another for quite some time, silent and unsure. The crown prince's face was torn between a great many things, and Legolas could not discern the emotions swirling in his lord's eyes. It was as if both had known this meeting was possible, but neither wanted to accept that it had indeed occurred. That any of what had happened had happened at all. "The gate guards said you had returned," Vardaithil finally softly announced. The comment was empty. His piercing eyes fell to the bag on the bed and widened a bit. "Returning only to leave again, it seems."
His mood puzzled Legolas, who greatly feared wrath or rejection. He doubted he could withstand an argument. Seldom had he quarreled with his oldest brother in the past, for Vardaithil too much reminded him of their father, and that was a force with which one did not readily trifle. The thought of such reproach and anger from his sibling tore at his already weakened heart. "I cannot stay," he finally managed in a small voice. He shook his head sadly and walked back to the bed. "Not like this."
There was quiet then. He began to stuff the folded clothes into the bag, feeling sweat bead upon his brow. "I do not blame you, my brother," Vardaithil admitted finally. His voice had lost its edge. He stepped inside the room, and Legolas busied himself with packing to ignore his brother's powerful presence. When there was nothing left to put inside the satchel, he helplessly looked up and focused his gaze on the opposite wall.
Vardaithil shook his head glumly, his face sorrowful and grave. "It should not have been like this," he said. "All that we have lost… it should not end as such." His hand tentatively fell upon Legolas' slim shoulder and slowly tightened in its affectionate grasp. He was so careful, as though the being before him were more glass than flesh, glass that might shatter under the weight of his fingers. "I am so sorry, Legolas."
"Nay, Vardaithil," said the archer, turning around to face his kin. "Many have said those words to me in the last weeks, and I do not want to hear them any longer. It is no more your fault than it is mine. This is a pain I wish you would not bear."
The crown prince's voice dropped to a tortured whisper. Legolas had never before seen Vardaithil so upset, so visibly riled. His stoic mask of control and arrogance had all but fallen away, revealing a frightened and hurt Elf seeking some sort of solace. "Let me say this apology, my dear brother. I would have you hear it even if you do not want it, for it would much ease me to know you understand." He faltered for a second, his eyes dropping in shame and grief. "I cannot undo the wrongs I have done. I knew there was much anger between you and Astaldogald, but I did not intervene and the hate grew stronger. It was I who allowed this spite to fester and divide us. It is my duty to protect my kingdom, but it is also my duty to protect my brothers, and in that I failed. I failed terribly. Astaldogald is dead and you… you are lost."
"I am not lost, my Lord. I stand before you now, do I not?"
"You are not as you once were, Legolas. You will never be again."
"But I am your brother, and that is all that is important."
Vardaithil did not appear convinced by his words. He grasped Legolas by the shoulders. "I thought you were dead," he said quietly. "For the longest time you were silent, cold within me, and I lost hope. After Astaldogald was killed and Aratadarion told me of you, I did not want to have faith again. Your silence was a blinding fury to me then. I was a coward for letting it consume me, for letting it direct me. But now… I think I can understand. I think I can forgive. There is more to life, I suppose, than who you are. There is what you have done, and who you love." His lips bent into a small smile, as though amused at his own comments.
After, he released Legolas, and his princely manner quickly reclaimed his face. "I shall miss your skill with a bow at my side during our patrols, brother. I may look, but I know I will never replace it." He headed towards the door. "You will see Father before you leave?"
Legolas said, "Of course."
"Good. Farewell, Legolas."
The door shut with a soft thud. Legolas watched it blankly a moment, unsure of what to think or feel. The exchange was enigmatic to say the least. As he pondered, he began to comprehend. To lower his guard and show his true emotions was a difficult task for Vardaithil. The crown prince had been trained to forever distance himself from his subjects, cold and stoic at all times. In his own strange way, Vardaithil had just made his peace. Legolas could not ask any more of him.
Alone once more but resolved, he collected his things and set off to find his father. Outside he encountered another page who bore a message that his father awaited him in his study. Steadfast but nervous, he made his way towards the king's most private of places. He had not often before ever ventured into his father's study. It was the place the lord meditated, where he pondered private and important matters, where he sought silence and peace from the throbbing chaos of leadership. He was not sure he wanted to breach his father's quiet.
His feet carried him, for his mind was lost to the words stampeding through it. What might he say? What could he say? The truth suddenly seemed a terrible option. Surely his father would fault him for what he had done, for the fight he had brought between himself and Astaldogald, for the shame and dishonor he had levied upon this House. Time was a blur, and all too quickly did he arrive at the dark door to his father's study.
He stood there, struggling to compose himself, fighting to calm his racing pulse and breath. It would do him no good to appear so frazzled before his sire. He raised his hand to knock, but could not find the courage to rap upon that door. This is foolish. You cannot show him what you have become!
"Come inside, Legolas."
He stiffened and dropped his hand in surprise. He could never fool the shrewd and agelessly wise creature that was his father. Submitting to the inevitability of this confrontation, he grasped the knob, turned it slowly, and opened the door.
It was dark within the study. Shadows swept across the room, obscuring the table and chairs, hiding the murals painted upon the stone walls. Yet it was warm and smelled of sweet incense and perfume, the sort his mother had always worn during the summer. A fire crackled brightly in a brick hearth, spreading golden illumination throughout a small sitting area. In a chair facing the fire sat the King.
Tentatively he stepped inside. "I am sorry to disturb you, my Lord," he finally murmured when he found his voice.
There was a rustle of movement, of cloth gliding upon skin. Thranduil rose from his plush chair gracefully, and when he did, the room grew grander. The Elf King was a powerful force, his face firm and strong, his eyes ancient and knowing. Yet now they gleamed with something not quite discernable. Legolas gazed upon his father again, and felt the little Elf once more, marveling at the impressive creature's potent aura and stature. "I am glad you returned," murmured the King.
The moment was awkward then as father and son lapsed into a silence laden with unvoiced pain. In his youth, Legolas had never had trouble addressing his father, for he had been quite the flamboyant and joyous little Elf, and Thranduil had loved his youngest son dearly. Their mindsets had served to separate them, and that trust, once shattered, had never been as it once was. It was bond not easily reborn. The harsh words shared prior to his departure again rang in his mind. "You seek to hate, Father, hate without reason! That is madness! We have lost Sméagol and that is a terrible tiding! We must warn Lord Elrond's House!"
"You understand so little, my son. Involving yourself with the likes of men will do naught but hurt you. This House suffered for the greed of their kind. Do not ever forget that, Legolas. The same blood from my father runs in your veins. You are an Elf, not a pawn in the game of men!"
"This world is ours as well, even if we do not want to defend it. I will go, if you will not. I will speak of Sméagol's escape to Lord Elrond, and I will help him in any way I can."
"Do not sacrifice yourself for a cause not your own."
"It is theirs, so it is mine. Goodbye, Father!"
Tears filled his eyes. He was so ashamed. "I did not mean to hurt you," he whispered, losing himself in a river of swirling guilt and grief. "I did not mean to bring this disgrace upon your House! I am so very sorry."
Thranduil stepped closer. He seemed incredibly tall, towering over his son. "Do not apologize, Legolas. It is you who has lost much from this disaster. My pride is but a small grievance."
Legolas shook his head. "But Astaldogald! You must know, Father, of all that really happened. Aratadarion mayhap sought to hide the truth for its ugliness, but I cannot live with this hurt."
Thranduil smiled knowingly, his deep eyes gleaming with a sad mirth. "And what truth is that?" he asked. "That there was a great fight between you and your brother? That his death was more the result of your conflict than of any danger set upon you? That your loyalty to a man sundered the ties between you?" Legolas' eyes widened. Could it be his father already knew the truth? Thranduil nodded, as if somehow understanding his unspoken thought. "You can hide nothing from me, my son. Do not forget that I am your father, and I know you very well. I know your brothers just as intimately." He sighed then and turned, leaving his son dumbfounded and amazed. "It is my fault more than any, I suppose. I saw the anger between you for many years. I saw the hate grow. Astaldogald's envy was a terrible force that crushed his good sense sometimes, and you were always quite willing to push him even further." Legolas opened his mouth to protest the accusation, but at his father's sharp glance, he wisely chose not to speak. "I can fault neither of you for what has happened. Neither can I condone you both. Both of you instigated this turmoil. I doubt I will ever know who dealt the killing blow, and poor Aratadarion would rather blame himself than name the culprit."
Silence. Legolas' soul shriveled with guilt. Instantly he regretted all he had said over the years in return to Astaldogald's hurtful jibes. He wished immensely he might have once just had the humility to concede the point for the sake of his family's sanity. "I am sorry, father," he murmured, bowing his head in shame. "I have acted the child."
"Perhaps. You have acted my child. I do understand the course of events that led to the downfall of my sons. You were both given quite a gift from your blood: pride. Yours is a quiet, gentle sort, fierce only in the face of adversity. Astaldogald harbored a honor that bordered on cruelty and arrogance. Yet it was pride all the same that would allow neither of you to ever reach an agreement, to concede defeat, to make amends. No matter the mindset, you both set to defend it with all your being." Thranduil sighed softly, turning his eyes to the fire crackling noisily in the hearth. "It saddens me that it came to this."
Legolas did not respond. The pain was fresh upon him, and he closed his eyes against the tears. His bleeding heart grew weary, and he felt the darkness of the curse rise within him. Too numb to do much else, he sagged into the shadow.
"I do not blame you, Legolas." He opened his eyes at his father's words. Though the king's face was stern and impassive, his eyes spoke of his concern. "I would not. Much has been lost. If there was a punishment at all for such behavior, you have paid it ten-fold." His father's face grew taut with hidden anger and grief. "There is… no way to remove it?"
Legolas lowered his eyes again. "Mithrandir knew of no means, and he is now the strongest of all the Istari. Believe me, Father, I have tried! And I struggled, I swear this to you. I did not easily submit to this…"
Thranduil remained silent a moment. Legolas could not bring himself to look at his father's face, fearing disgust and rejection. This would be the final blow. He felt himself sink, and he nearly welcomed it.
A strong hand reached forth and grasped his chin. Thranduil lifted his son's face and forced Legolas to meet his gaze. They said nothing, locked in the moment, eyes searching souls for absolution and resolution. Legolas felt himself shaking as his father looked upon him. His gaze was fathomless, void of emotion. Then Thranduil released him. The Elf Lord turned, facing the fire once more. His large fingers came to grab the back of the chair in support. Legolas nearly missed the barely perceptible motion. "I wish I could ease your pain, my son. Were it possible, I would have taken your place."
Legolas snapped from the blackness and quickly shook his head, though his father could not see the movement. "Nay, Father. I would never wish such torment upon you. This fate is my choice, my burden to bear. I will bear it."
"Ask what you will of me, then, and I will do what I can to ease your suffering."
This was the moment. The final step. It lingered before him, and he stood upon the precipice, wondering if this was truly the end. Could he finally be free? Could he finally regain his spirit? Silence. A heartbeat, a breath. "I have come to bid you farewell, Father. And I would like for you to let me go."
Quiet. A void of emptiness, cold and incomplete. Thranduil turned then, and even he was unable to hide his surprise. It was etched deeply into his face. "Let you go?" he whispered.
Legolas nodded and began to speak, praying he would not now in this vital instance lose his courage. "I cannot put this upon you, my Lord. I would not force you to ask it of me." His eyes narrowed. "I would leave, renounce my place as your prince. It is the only punishment fitting. I took it upon myself to become one of the Nine Walkers. In doing so, I shirked my duty to you and to this kingdom. Though I believed and still do consider the choice to be a moral one, I erred greatly. A prince should never make such a vital decision himself. A prince cannot weigh one duty as more important than another. Even if I was been instrumental in preventing harm to Middle Earth, I forsook you and our people in a time of need." He released a slow breath. "Now I will leave you, and let this wound heal."
"Legolas, there are other ways to reach absolution. We might rise above this," Thranduil said simply. There was a hidden wistful note in his voice, but Legolas detected it. He resisted the urge to smile. "You need not divide yourself from your making."
"Father, if I am to regain any sense of myself, I must do this. Please. It has taken much of my will to surmount my despair. Only through the love of my friends have I come to terms with the loss of my immortality." Thranduil stiffened slightly. Legolas dropped his tone. "I would not ask you to do the same and accept this terrible truth. I do not want to remain here and force you to love me, and then one day have to watch helplessly as I wither. That is not a pain our people understand, and it is not one I would willingly put upon you."
Thranduil regarded him calmly, no hint of his inner thoughts evident in his dark eyes. Legolas remained in the moment, waiting desperately for some sort of answer. "Please," he whispered. "I must find my peace."
The king finally smiled. In his gaze sparkled tears. Tears of joy. Tears of sadness. "My son," he whispered hoarsely, his voice rough with emotion. He grasped his child's shoulders, and spoke the nickname he had given him when he was only a babe. "My little Greenleaf! So much the gift of your mother. You possess a beauty that sets you apart from your kin, a precious innocence so deep and pure. She gave you her heart, and you have done her such justice with it!" In a rare moment of love, he encircled his mighty arms tightly around his youngest son.
Legolas sank into his chest. The tears spilled from clenched eyes as he nuzzled his cheek into his father's strong shoulder. He smelled as he had thousands of years ago, of woods and wine and warmth. Those strong arms tightened, and Legolas felt safe. Whole. "It will pain me much to see you go! In losing you, I fear I have lost her once more," Thranduil admitted, his hands smoothing his son's long blonde hair. "But I will be heartened by your strength. The shadow did not take you. I had so feared it might, but it did not! I am proud of you, my son."
The words wrought within him such joy, such intense, burning happiness, that he could scarcely breathe as his heart swelled in his chest. Such a wonderful moment! In the end, his father had forgiven him. In the end, his father still loved him.
They parted. Thranduil smiled weakly, his own cheeks damp. He then pressed his lips to his son's brow. Finally, he looked into Legolas' eyes. "Know this," he breathed. "Though I send you away from my home, I will never send you away from my heart."
Legolas could not find his voice to speak, so overwhelmed by emotion, so he merely nodded. It was more than he could have expected. So much more!
His father nodded firmly then, and turned back to the fire. Legolas watched him, his body tingling, his heart rushing. In that instance, he loved his father more than he had ever before. It was a final moment of peace between them, of understanding, and in it a bond was restored. It would sustain them both. He had taken the last step. "Goodbye, Father."
"Goodbye, my son."
Aratadarion questioned his sanity yet again. From his vantage, he could clearly see the man and the Dwarf as they waited. Were he not so distracted with doubt, he might have considered his present actions somewhat craven, for the manner in which he had positioned himself in the shadows of the courtyard's great stone pillars so that his form was obscured from distant sight could be construed as nothing but hiding. Still, he remained in their concealing shroud, pondering what it was he hoped to accomplish. Word had spread quickly of Legolas' return and of the youngest son's plans of leaving. Both facts had puzzled Aratadarion at first, but he slowly realized the events to be inevitable. There was no place for a mortal Elf in Mirkwood, no matter who that Elf had been.
He had ventured forth from his room, quietly making his way to the courtyard. Much of his father's House was still in mourning over Astaldogald's death, and he himself had rarely left the security and peace of his private place in the weeks past. He still felt terribly weak from it all, his heart at times so heavy with guilt, grief, and hurt that it quaked with the strain. He had sought no solace, for the only one of his family that ever truly understood him was dead. The king, he supposed, had sensed the falsehood in the tale he had told concerning Astaldogald's demise. Still, he would rather the blame be shifted upon himself and this feud between man and Elf end than be continued by his twin's blood.
But he had taken this small risk. In the days prior, none had interrupted him in his grieving, for he had always been a meek Elf that needed solitude more than companionship. The peace had been his only comfort, the silence strong and loud enough to blot out memories of laughter. He had been afraid to face others, consumed by sorrow. Yet he knew that if he should allow his youngest sibling to part with them forever without seeing him one last time, he would come later to regret it. This desire was enough to drive him from his seclusion.
Yet Legolas was not there. Obviously, the young archer still had business within their father's palace. So he stood, eyeing the man and Dwarf skeptically, fighting this urge to reveal himself to them. What good would it do, at any rate? Why reopen a wound that had barely begun to heal? He closed his eyes and released a slow breath. The answers to these questions he knew well, even if he did not desire to accept them. The tension was still there, painful and angry. There was peace yet to be had. These two had done much for Legolas. It would be rather unbecoming him to simply brush aside their devotion to his brother. In Gondor, he had sacrificed Legolas' well being for loyalty to his people, placing in Aragorn's hands the fragile and fading life. And Aragorn had obviously done all Aratadarion had asked of him. He could not in good conscience let such a deed go unheeded.
He drew within him a deep, cleansing breath and collected what remained of his equanimity. He moved from behind the pillar and walked to the man and Dwarf.
The ranger focused his gaze upon him as he approached, turning his attention from tending his horse. A brief look of pain and uncertainty crossed the young man's face as he met Aratadarion's gaze. Then he lowered his head respectfully. "Prince Aratadarion," greeted Aragorn. The Dwarf merely nodded, his small eyes cold and suspicious.
Aratadarion stopped before them, wondering again why he sought to further pain himself over these matters. Somehow he managed a small smile. "You are brave indeed," he commented finally, "to journey into these lands. Your devotion to my brother runs deep."
"Should Legolas ask it of us, we would follow him to Mordor," boasted Gimli proudly.
The comment bothered Aratadarion, but he made a great effort to keep his face impassive. He turned to Aragorn, offering the man a grateful gaze. A silence thick in awkward tension descended, and Aratadarion nearly lost his resolve. He fought to hold to it, though. He had sworn to himself and to the spirit of his twin, which always remained within him, that he would not let this pain fester. "I came to… offer my thanks. If not for you, I am sure Legolas would have lost his will to live at all." He released a slow, long breath. This was very difficult for him. "In the end, you did more to save him through your love than we could."
Aragorn's face relaxed visibly. Relief glowed his eyes. "I would not take such credit, my Lord," came his gentle response. Then his expression collapsed into one of much trouble and regret, and he lowered his tone. "In fact, I should apologize." The ranger opened his hands helplessly. "I never meant to cause such distress within your family. Had I known it would come to this…" He sighed in frustration, obviously finding the words inadequate. "I am sorry that I took Legolas from you."
Aratadarion struggled to maintain that tiny smile. Legolas had regretted the very same action when they had laid Boromir to rest in Minas Morgul. It was simply another indication of his brother's likeness to this scruffy ranger. "You are closer to his heart than I could ever hope to be, Aragorn. I cannot fault you for understanding him."
Gimli spoke finally, having watched the exchange silently. "I do suppose I as well owe you an apology, Elf," he admitted begrudgingly. Aratadarion settled his gaze upon the stout warrior, surprise plain on his pale face. "I must admit that I had no faith in you. Ere we parted paths in Isengard, I lost hope, believing Legolas' rescue to be improbable at best. I was obviously mistaken."
It was the most sincere thing he had ever heard from a Dwarf. He afforded Gimli a curt nod. He then looked once more to Aragorn and lowered his voice to a murmur. "As for… what happened in Minas Tirith, I have ensured that no wrath shall fall upon you. I cannot guarantee you will be regarded highly within these borders, but I have spared you any retribution." Aragorn's eyes glimmered with confusion and relief, and he opened his mouth to speak. The Elf interrupted him. "Let us forever keep the truth a secret. It will cause only our families strife, and I would rather not create bad blood between Elves and men or Mirkwood and Rivendell. Enough exists already."
Slowly the ranger closed his mouth. His gaze grew hard in determination, and he nodded firmly. "I will do as you ask," he promised, "and only swear to you my undying gratitude. I would express my apologies, but I know they mean so little compared to your loss."
Aratadarion felt the tears build in his eyes, but he only blinked them back. The agony was still too close to his heart, and he wished not to appear weak before them. "You will take care of Legolas?" he asked carefully, finding his voice rough and pained.
The other nodded resolutely. "Aye. No harm will ever come to him."
"And you will stay with him when the moment comes?" His tone was quiet and laden with unspoken meaning. For Elves, death was such a foreign and frightening concept. He wished not to have his younger brother face such terrifying uncertainty alone.
At this, Aragorn only bobbed his head slowly. This was enough to appease Aratadarion's fears, and the Elf relaxed. He did not doubt the ranger would keep this solemn vow.
Legolas emerged then from the palace carrying a small satchel. Aratadarion turned at his appearance and found himself staring in wonder at his brother. Life had returned to him, his features glowing, his eyes bright. He limped as he walked, and he seemed rather thin and ashen, but he had climbed from beneath the smothering weight of depression. His recovery was remarkable. If not for the stark silence within him, the Elf prince might have thought his brother free from the curse. It was truly amazing! Perhaps there is a chance yet. Surely there is!
As he neared, Legolas smiled. One of the guards took his bag and attached it to the white horse's saddle. "I feared I might miss you, brother," said Legolas.
Aratadarion did not trust his voice to speak, so he expressed his relief and sadness in a tight hug. The brothers embraced for a long moment, content in this brief reunion. So much they had endured! So much they had lost!
"Thank you," Legolas whispered, "for all you have done for me!"
Deep inside Aratadarion flushed with pleasure at the words, and he squeezed his little brother tighter. Never did he want to release him. They were young again in that moment, before this peril had befallen them, before the hate had torn them apart. With them as well was the spirit of a brother lost. Aratadarion felt his twin's presence; it was a warm and comforting balm to the last of his pain. "Please do not hate him," pleaded the meek Elf gently, closing his eyes tightly against the sting of his tears. "He regretted all he did in the end, Legolas. I saw it in his eyes! He was so very sorry! He never meant to hurt you."
Legolas pulled back. In his deep blue gaze was a calm, the same calm he had often had before his departure. It was a look borne from their mother, and it signified his understanding. His peace. "I know," he said softly. "And I am grateful for all he sacrificed for me. You will tell him that, will you not, Aratadarion? I should much like for him to someday know how much I love him."
His heart healed, knowing his warring brothers had found their amity. Now there was nothing left to do but live. "Aye, little brother. I will."
"Be at peace always, Aratadarion."
Then Legolas turned. The man and the Dwarf were ready, having watched the exchange with solemn eyes. Legolas mounted the great white horse, pulling Gimli up behind him. Aragorn climbed atop the massive brown stallion, turning the animal around. They began to walk away, the guards escorting them from the courtyard.
The Elf prince stood and watched, feeling light, feeling whole. He heard the Dwarf's distant voice as the trio departed. "It is done then, Master Elf?"
"Aye," answered Legolas, "all is well."
All is well. Indeed, it is!
Aratadarion raised his eyes to the bright, blue sky and smiled. There is your peace,
my beloved Astaldogald. Take it now, and be free! Liberated, his spirit rose. His
heart escaped the prison of self-doubt, of loss and pain, and knew the warmth of
forgiveness and of success. At long last he found himself. At long last he had become
his father's son.
All was quiet in Lothlórien this eve, and the Lady of the Golden Wood was weary. Yet it was not an exhaustion based upon sadness or pain, but one of simple completion. Her mind felt numb, relaxed, and she could not find a care to concern her this beautiful night. She rested in her cove, pondering of all and none, of what was, what had been, and perhaps what was yet to come. The stars shone upon her, and she glowed with her diminishing power. Aye, the Lady was tired this eve, but she had done much to restore Middle Earth to a state of peace. Rest was well deserved.
She stood still and felt the forest breathe around her. The leaves sang an ancient melody. The cool ground was firm and resolute, pure again without the poison of evil seeping into it. The air was sweet and soft against her, pressing with the magical caress of messages from distant lands. She knew all, understood the words that Middle Earth spoke. It saddened her somewhat, for her time in this wondrous place was coming slowly to an end. The sea was calling her, beckoning her to partake the final journey of her life. Her strength to ignore it was all but depleted. She had passed all tests pressed upon her, done all her love for this land had bid her to do. There was nothing left now but to enjoy the last hours and days she would spend in this glorious and beautiful forest.
The world told her things this night. Some things she understood, and some things she did not. She saw the intricate weaving of fate and knew its course. Much had been restored to the way things might have been. The visions from her mirror that had so distressed her months prior had not come to pass. A great many had sacrificed their lives so that it might be prevented, and for them she spoke a soft Elvish blessing. Time passed, and though things had somehow balanced in their favor this time, she knew it was only temporary. The forces of good and evil remained always in a precarious state. One would never dominate the way of things for long, and without a doubt eventually the balance would shift and return suffering to the peoples of this world. Worry filled her heart. She knew she would not be here to help the forces of right when the time came. Still, her wisdom was great, and she knew that such concerns were best left alone. Others would surely have strength enough to overcome the great obstacles.
In the whispers there was news from distant forests. The breeze smelled vaguely of moss and shadow, of Mirkwood. The grand, old trees were speaking to her across the great expanse between them, sharing news she had hoped one day would come. Their son was returning. Their son would again find his way to the light. A small smile twisted thin, pink lips, her eyes distant with relief and understanding. The vitality of the Elf could not be undone by the darkest shadow, it seemed. The burning light of their extraordinary companionship could not be extinguished by the heaviest black breath!
The dissonance of one lost had disappeared, now becoming understanding and confidence.
The terror of one alone was no more, now growing into a sense of friendship and pride.
The shame of one corrupted had passed away, now resting peacefully with redemption.
The pain of one imprisoned was gone, now replaced by a tender promise of hope.
The course of the future had been changed, and now all would be as it should.
Still, there were some things that disturbed the peace she felt within. Like a needling whisper, she felt another song come to her, a melody of waves crashing against a shore and beating rocks, of gulls crying their invitations overhead, of the water murmuring and chanting a call. She recognized the message clearly enough. It was the threat of sea longing, of the pressing upon an Elf to journey to Undying Lands. She knew it well because she was also afflicted by it. This message was not meant for her, but for the Elven spirit freshly liberated from the shadow. Vaguely she sensed grief and sorrow, and she knew that when the time came for the recipient of this message to depart these shores, he would suffer great distress at leaving behind his mortal friends. This tiny bit of depressing news she shoved aside for now, though. He was too newly healed to face another trial. Let him have this moment.
Fate wove around her. She had the power of foresight, of greater knowledge and understanding, and she had used it to aid Middle Earth. She had the power to change the route of things, adjusting the path of time and truth. What was and what had been. What is. What is to come. I have done all I could.
The spirit of the planet brushed by her in the air, the soft soil beneath her toes, in the songs of distant people and places. She was filled with an overwhelming light, warm and soft, bringing with it all the power of life. It rewarded her silent appreciation for everything she had endured for the sake of Middle Earth. She welcomed its touch. Often before she had promised herself that in the end she would finally rest. She would let go of her plight, of her power, and follow the path of her kind into the West. Yet this she had always postponed, waiting until she could be sure that all would be well.
She breathed deeply and lived without pain, without fear. Finally free, she did naught but enjoy these quiet moments, feeling Middle Earth swell and pulse all around her.
The end had come. Her peace the world offered, and finally she gratefully accepted it.
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.