2. The River Child
Part Two: The River Child
Tulie, wife of Tamin the fowler, knelt at the riverbank, busy at her washing. It was a task she hated. It had not always been so.
As a new bride, almost thirty years before, she had enjoyed the trip to the river and the novelty of washing her young husband's shirts. And at the waning of the moon, each month, there had also been the necessary laundering which stemmed from a woman's secret time. When months had turned into years without any change, she had begun to see these times as both a disappointment and a failure, and there had been many occasions when her tears had mixed with the waters of the river. She had come to dislike the spot for its bitter memories.
Now, even her tears had dried up, for her moon blood had ceased two years past, and she knew that the cottage she shared with her beloved Tamin would never know the blessing of a child's laughter.
Leaning over the water to rinse out one last piece of laundry, she spied a flash of gold in the reeds along the bank. Curious, she fastened her skirts high about her waist and waded into the river. As she neared, she let out a cry of surprise, for the golden object was the head of a child who floated on his back, unmoving. The child's eyes were closed, and he wore a tunic of what looked to be sodden green velvet. If there had been a cloak, it had been lost in the river. The pale golden hair spread out like tendrils in the water, moving lazily with the current.
She rushed to the child and took the body up in her arms, carrying it to the bank. It was surprisingly light. From the pallor of the skin, she feared the worst, but as she looked more closely she could see shallow breathing. She turned the child over and pumped against the back. There was a rush of water, a cough, and the child began to breath more normally, although the eyes remained closed. She picked him up -- she assumed it was a 'him' from the breeches and small boots, although the face was as delicate as any girl's -- and rushed back up the path to the cottage, leaving her laundry on the bank.
"Tamin! Tamin! Look what I found in the river!"
Her husband sat at the table, fletching arrows from a pile of recently plucked feathers. He looked up as she flew through the doorway. "Tulie," he said in amazement. "Look at the ears. That is a child of the Wood-elves!"
"We must get him out of his wet garments," she insisted, carrying the boy into the bedroom and laying him on their bed. First off were the boots and the leggings, and she confirmed that this was indeed a male child. The tunic was more difficult, and she struggled to get it over the child's head. Concentrating on the difficult task, she heard Tamin gasp.
"This is mithril," he whispered, as the bright mail coat was revealed.
"How could he float in chain mail?" she asked.
"It's light as a feather, and so are the Fair Folk," her husband replied. "Even the weight of his clothes would not have been enough to drag him down. Whatever was he doing near the river? The Wood-elves are usually more careful with their young ones."
Tamin gently removed the coat of chain mail and tossed it to Tulie. "Keep this safe. It's probably worth the wealth of the entire marsh and most of Dale as well." Tulie hung it over a chair, and indeed, she could barely feel the weight of it. Returning to the boy, she helped her husband remove the undershirt. She gave a little gasp as this revealed a massive purpling bruise on the child's chest. In one spot, the metal rings had been driven with such force that they had broken the skin.
"Something hit him very hard," Tamin said. "He seems to have no broken ribs, but he will need something to draw off the bruising and give him ease."
"Who would hit a child, Tamin? Or let him stray into the river? I don't understand this."
Tamin shrugged. "All we can do is to keep him warm and tend to him until he wakes."
They had another tiny room in the cottage, with a small bed that had never been used. Tulie made it up with soft blankets and they laid the elf child on it. He had still not awakened, although the color had returned to his lips and his skin no longer felt so cold. Tulie sat beside him, stroking the pale gold hair and thinking how strange it was to have that nursery bed filled at last. She stayed beside him until darkness had fallen and she needed to leave to prepare her husband's supper.
* * *
Darkness had fallen, and Thranduil fretted. His Chief Advisor, Séregon, had returned with as many elves as the palace could spare without being left to the mercy of orcs and spiders. The most important among these searchers were the raft elves, who knew the currents of the marsh and the layout of the larger islands. Unfortunately, the raft elves had proved to be less useful than hoped, for they had informed Séregon and Galion that the high waters had changed the currents significantly, leaving them almost as puzzled as the other elves about where the young prince might have been carried.
Galion was doing his best to keep their pessimistic words from the ears of the king. "Hush, you fool!" he said to one of them, who had spoken of dragging the river. "If he hears you he will go wild, and there will be no controlling him. Already he insists on searching in the dark. Even with torches and good eyesight, something may be missed."
Séregon spoke. "I will see that each searching party has a river elf to guide the way and explain the ways of the water to the others. Are there any Edain living in the marshes?" he asked.
"There are some small villages, here and there. Many are out of the main channels, back near higher ground," said one of the river elves. "We do not know them well."
"We will send elves to ask among them once daylight returns. I fear that even with the number of searchers we have, the going will be slow. You, Galion, stay with the king. Try to get him to rest, if you can."
Galion found Thranduil up to his waist in water, torch in hand, searching beneath some overhanging roots.
"Come out of there, please, Sire. You don't know the water, and if you put a foot wrong you'll be swept away. Then we'll be forced to look for you as well."
The king climbed wearily from the river and sat on the bank.
"Look at those boots," said Galion. "I won't be able to fix them, nor your breeches either."
"Boots?" said Thranduil. "You are worried about boots? Galion, I just told my boy that he had all the time in the world, and the Belair have made a liar of me. To the pits of Thangorodrim with my boots and my breeches too!"
Over three thousand years of attending to his Elven-lord had taught Galion that if he said one more word, he would be wished to the pits of Thangorodrim along with the clothing, so he held his tongue and watched Thranduil return to the water.
* * *
Legolas awoke in the dark, in a strange bed. His last memory was of a sudden blow that had knocked the air from him, a long tumble, and the chill of the river. He was warm now, wearing a strange shirt that was too large for him. His nose and lungs felt raw, and his chest ached in the center. He put his hand to it gingerly and pulled it away with a whimper of pain. He was very sore.
"Ada?" he called. He heard a rustling from another room and a figure entered and sat beside him on the bed. "Ir im? Man carnen?" he asked.
"Hush, child, you are safe now," answered a warm voice in the Westron tongue, which Legolas understood quite well. He realized he must be among the Edain, but why? Where were the elves, and where was his father?
He struggled to remember, and there came the last picture before he had been hit -- a soldier falling dead, arrows flying, and his ada fighting off two orcs. "No . . ." he whispered, humiliated that the tears were coming into his eyes and weakening his voice. He was no baby, to be sobbing in fear, but if he was alone with the Edain, something must have gone terribly wrong.
He felt the covers lifted and the warmth of a body against his own, drawing him close and comforting him. This body was soft in places that his father's was not. Legolas was not used to being cuddled by anyone other than his father, as his nursemaid was not the affectionate sort, but he found the feeling of soft breasts and arms surrounding him to be quite pleasant. It brought back memories so faint they were almost dreamlike. This woman smelled of sweat, wood smoke, and strong soap of the kind the Wood-elf laundresses used to wash the clothing. She was no elf, but he found her touch very soothing as she stroked his hair and whispered words of reassurance into his ear. Much to his humiliation, he had been trembling with the fright of wakening in a strange place and the worries over his father, but he soon relaxed and allowed his body's need for rest reassert itself. In the woman's embrace, he drowsed. His eyes lost focus and he slept.
* * *
Tamin opened his eyes at first light to find himself alone in bed. Before stepping outside to tend to his bladder, he stuck his head through the doorway of the small spare room and saw what he had been expecting to see. His wife was in the tiny bed, curled around the strange elf child like a cat around a kitten. In sleep, her face showed a contentment he had never seen before, and it brought a pang to his heart. Their lack of children had been a sorrow to him as well, but as much for the pain it had caused Tulie as for his own disappointment. It was good to see her happy, if only for a brief moment.
As if feeling his gaze upon her, she opened her eyes and smiled. Very gently, she disentangled herself from the sleeping boy and eased out of bed. Together, they went outside, and she stood next to him while he relieved himself. "Must you leave today, Tamin?"
He nodded. "The high waters will have played havoc with my nets and snares. Many will need to be replaced, and for those that remain, I hate to lose a perfectly good catch to the water and the rot. It should take me a day or two. I will stop past the village on my return, and I will ask for news about the boy. Will you be all right here alone with him?"
"Of course. I don't think he'll be any trouble."
Tamin dressed and packed his gear while Tulie made him up a pack of cram for his days out in the marsh. Kissing her goodbye, he set off down the path to the river, where his boat was tied.
* * *
The elf came to Tulie's door the following day. He was tall and fair of face, as were all the woodland folk, and he spoke his lilting-accented Westron with a voice that was soft and full of courtesy. Tulie had little experience of the elves, having seen the raftsmen once or twice, but even to her untutored eye, this elf looked unusually tired, as if he had not rested or stopped to eat in many hours. Even stranger, he was dirty. His boots and clothing were spotted and caked with mud, and his long dark hair was wet, tangled and had bits of marsh grass caught in it. "Mistress, we seek a child of our kind, who fell into the river two days ago. Have you seen any sign? A bit of clothing? Or . . .a body along the bank?"
Tulie tensed. The child, who had wakened the day before and told her that his name was Laygehliss, or something like it, was asleep in the back bedroom. Something had happened to him which had frightened him very badly. He spoke of armed attackers and would say no more. This morning, his bruised chest had hurt him worse than ever, so Tulie had given him some willow bark tea and told him to nap. Now, he would be taken from her.
Before she had a chance to think, she heard her own voice telling the elf, no, that she had seen nothing unusual on the river. The elf had only to push past her or peer around her head to see the mail shirt draped over a chair in the corner, but, either too tired or too trusting to doubt her word, he nodded gravely and turned from her door.
She quickly shut the door, telling herself that she really had no reason to trust this strange unkempt elf, and that she might be saving the child from the very ones who had tried to do him harm. Yet in her heart she knew she was lying to the man and to herself. It was her need to keep this child near her for even a few more days that had made her do it.
She turned to see the elf-child standing in the doorway. He was barefoot and still wearing nothing but Tamin's old shirt. His yellow hair was free and fell around his shoulders. The sight of his innocent face filled her with shame.
"My lady Tulie, I thought I heard voices."
"You heard nothing, little one, it was just me singing to myself." She smiled to disguise the bitter taste her untruths had left in her heart. "I am no lady, just Tulie. And you should not be out of bed."
"If I do not get up and move, I will not heal. Every warrior knows this."
"You are too small to be warrior, Laygehliss."
"Legolas," he corrected her gently. "I will grow, and I will be a fighter. What happened to my clothes?"
"I have them safe," she told him. "Laygolas, is your father a soldier? What does he look like?"
"His hair is yellow, like mine. And he is a mighty warrior. Those yrch could not have killed him. I know it."
Tulie let out a silent sigh of relief. At least the elf she turned away had not been the father. She did not speak the tongue of the Wood-elves, and the other word, she did not recognise. Perhaps it meant some kind of brigand of the sort that would attempt to steal a richly dressed child. "Do you have a mother, little one?"
The child shook his head.
"What happened to her?"
Again, he shook his head.
Poor little thing, Tulie thought. No mother, maybe no more father from the sound of it. "Your clothing has dried. I will help you into it, if you allow me to put some medicine on your chest first. The heat will help to carry the bruise away."
He nodded. Tulie fetched the jar of liniment she used on Tamin's aches, sprains, and his rheumatism, which was considerable from years of wading in the dank waters of the marsh. She took off the shirt and began to apply the pungent smelling lotion to the elfling's chest. He grimaced, but bit his lip and made no further protest.
"You are as brave as any warrior I have met," she said, helping him into the rest of his clothing.
"Tulie," he asked shyly, "will you braid my hair for me?"
"Of course, little one, if you will tell me how to do it."
The child's face lit up. "Can you give me two braids along the side to the back of my ears?"
"I don't see why not."
"It takes too much time, or so this is what they tell me at home. It is the way our archers keep their hair away from their bowstrings." The boy was practically beaming with excitement.
"We have all the time in the world, Laygolas. Just you and me, and nothing else to do today." Tulie saw his face cloud briefly, but he soon recovered as he told her how to braid the hair. It took at least an hour to get it right, but she enjoyed every moment of feeling the soft golden strands in her fingers. When she was done, she showed him the results in her little looking glass, and he beamed. He was beautiful when he smiled.
He proceeded to explore the cottage, examining the most mundane objects of her daily life with a grave curiosity. Everything from her sewing kit to Tamin's half finished arrows to the chamber pot got the same otherworldly scrutiny. He was not like any Mortal child, that much was apparent to her, especially when he went to the fireplace and began to trace strange letters in the ashes that coated the hearth. She was going to have to return him to his people eventually, she knew. But her heart was lost to this strange child, and she wished to prolong the time she had.
* * *
On the fourth day, the elvish searching parties had reached the eastern end of the swamp and had regrouped where the divided waters of the Forest River came together and flowed southeastward toward the Long Lake. There had been no sign, no word of the prince in any of the small marsh villages the elves had canvassed. All the elves were tired, but Thranduil was the most haggard of them all, and Galion was seriously concerned for his lord.
Magorion, the Elvenking's general, had joined them as soon as his leg wound had permitted. It was Magorion now who beckoned Galion away from the king's side.
Thranduil was refusing to accept the information of a harried raft-elf as Galion hurried away with the general. "I don't care! A few days is not enough. We will turn around and search the waterways again. And then we will turn again and come back this way. As many times as it takes!"
Magorion made sure they were out of earshot and spoke sotto voce. "We have to get him out of here, Galion. It has been four days. If we were going to find the prince alive, we would have done so by now. I don't want Thranduil here when we . . ."
Galion nodded. "But how?"
"Séregon has a plan. You know Thranduil best. Say whatever you must to back us up."
At that moment a soldier approached. "My lord Magorion, one of the river elves tells me that they have found Prince Legolas's cloak on a snag in the south channel."
Magorion sighed. "Ai, this is it then. Stay here, and I swear, if you breathe one word of this to anyone before you see the king ride off to the east, I will make you very, very sorry." He grabbed Galion's arm and the two of them headed back to where Séregon waited. The three then approached Thranduil, who was still shouting orders at several other elves.
"My lord, your advisors have been conferring, and we feel it would be best for you to continue on to Dale at this point," Séregon said respectfully.
"Attending festivities is the very last thing I want to be doing at this time."
"No, my lord, but looking after the interests of the realm and your own health is of the utmost importance right now. The alliance between Dale and Mirkwood is of long standing. Girion's eldest son will be the next king, and his friendship will be important as well. You are not doing us any good here by driving yourself to exhaustion. You are of more use to Mirkwood in Dale than you are to us here. We will send news to you if we find anything before you have had the chance to pay your respects and return."
Thranduil looked at them sharply. "Does Magorion agree with this?"
"Aye, my lord, I do. You are needed in Dale. I am sure any one of us would be glad to go in your stead, but it must be you, as you well know."
"You see, Sire?" Galion added with what he hoped sounded like sincerity. "Your Chief Advisor and your general are in agreement about this. It will be for only a few days, and you surely need the rest."
Thranduil's shoulders sagged. "Very well. I cannot go against all three of you. I will go to Dale. Bring my horse." A groom appeared immediately, leading Thranduil's big bay and Galion's brown gelding. "That was quick," the king observed sardonically. "My nobles take a great deal for granted."
He swung into his saddle and rode off, with Galion close behind.
The road to Dale cut away from the river almost immediately and ran due east through low foothills. Thranduil was quiet for a while, and Galion was not eager to break the silence.
"My Chief Advisor, my general, and my valet must all think me a great fool," the king said, finally.
"I thought you might see through it, Sire," Galion said. "Why did you agree to go?"
"Because, Galion, if I go to Dale and keep up the charade, that is a few more days I can cling to the fiction that my son is alive. I fear that is all that is left to me. Just a few more days of ignorant hope."
Thranduil urged his horse forward, and Galion could no longer see his king's face.
* * *
Thranduil urged his horse forward so that Galion could not see that his courage was threatening to fail him. He had lived too long and seen too much.
He had seen his own father cut down before the Black Gates of Mordor, along with two thirds of his army. The blood and the horror of it had scarred him, but he had lived and soldiered on, becoming the leader his people needed him to be. The young wife who had helped to heal his grief during that dark time was gone now too, and he had survived that, for she had left him Legolas. No matter how dark the world became, Legolas gave him reason to live.
But now Thranduil feared that this next loss would carry him over the edge into despair or outright madness, he did not know which, nor did he care. For the next few days, he would go through the motions of diplomacy that he was so good at, smiling, kissing hands and slapping shoulders, ever the charming Elf-king. He would be hollow, a ghost. And when the news came, finally, he was not sure what, if anything, would be left of him.
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
Translation from Sindarin: "Ir im? Man carnen?" : "Where am I? What happened?"
Translation taken from Dreamingfif's Sindarin Phrasebook at Merin Essi ar Quenteli. My thanks.
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.