1. The Houseless
'But were I left to lie alone
In an empty bed,
The skein so bound us ghost to ghost
When he turned his head
passing on the road that night,
Mine must walk when dead.'
WB Yeats, Crazy Jane and the Journeyman
Legolas Thranduilion rode eastward along the Elf Path, heading for home. He had set out to hunt early that morning, traveling out past the settled areas near his father's caverns and leaving his horse grazing beside the path while he went to stalk game quietly on foot.
The forest, always a chary place even in the best of times, had lain under an odd mood that day. No deer roamed; the usual sounds of birds and other small creatures in the tree canopy and in the underbrush had been stilled in the shifting autumn mist. He had caught nothing -- not so much as a black squirrel to tie at his belt. Not that black squirrels were good eating under any circumstances, but Legolas had a reputation as a hunter and archer to uphold.
Perhaps this unusual skittishness of the game stemmed from the fact that today was the first of the three Middle-days between Iavas and Narbeleth, a time when the Laegren elves of Thranduil's realm believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin and the faer of those who had left life might return to their former haunts for a brief time.
Legolas smiled as he recalled how long ago, as a wide-eyed Elf-child of fourteen, he had sat transfixed while his father's valet told him shivery tales of the Days of the Dead. He often wondered if Galion had received the sharp side of Thranduil's tongue for doing this, especially after Legolas had been moved to pad up the cold stone steps of the secret staircase that linked his room to the King's chamber to seek the sanctuary of his father's bed in the darkest hours that night. He thought not, remembering how, as he settled into the warm comfort of a strong arm wrapped protectively around him, Thranduil had murmured, "There is nothing to fear from the spirits of the dead, Legolas, but sometimes it is good not to have to sleep alone."
Legolas still loved the festivities. The adults would sit around great bonfires drinking strong wine, some of them reflecting on those whom they had lost over the Long-years. What few children there were put on costumes to fool the Houseless, who supposedly hungered after the vibrant life force of the young. Some of the youngsters dressed themselves up as deer, others as warriors of renown from the Lore-tales, the more adventurous, even, as small orcs or dragons. So disguised, they went about carrying tiny sacks, begging the adults for sweets as a bribe against potential mischief.
The treats were always given freely, and those pranks that occurred were harmless -- pine sap smeared on a door handle, sheets of a bed turned back on themselves and tucked in deceptively to thwart full entry to the inevitably drunken adults. These incidents were always blamed, with a nod and a knowing wink, on the Houseless faer.
Though well past his own childhood and the desire for dressing in costume, Legolas thought he might go out among the people to share a cup of wine and a seat at the fires once he reached home that night. The already dim light of the forest, filtering through the thick canopy of leafy branches from an overcast sky, had begun to darken further as the sun passed onward into the west. Twilight came increasingly swiftly this time of year, and Legolas realized he scarcely had time to reach home before full darkness fell.
Up ahead, a drifting patch of mist parted to reveal a dark shape on the path. Legolas's horse let out a loud snort of fear and danced nervously to the side. "Easy, Sulrion," he murmured, reaching down to scratch soothingly at the animal's neck beneath the mane. "Who goes there?" he called out loudly.
The figure turned, and Legolas squinted through the fog. No orc was this, but rather a young elf-woman dressed in the simple garb of the forest dwellers. A very pretty elf-woman, Legolas thought, noting long dark hair, now dampened by the mist, and the fine features of the Laegrim.
Legolas frowned. The woods were not a safe place for a woman alone, especially so far out from the settled area around Thranduil's stronghold. "Greetings, lass," he said as he urged his reluctant mount forward. "What are you doing out here all alone this dreary day?"
She came toward him, smiling, as Legolas tightened his knees around Sulrion, who again made as if to shy. "Easy, boy. Whatever can be amiss with you?" he muttered, becoming annoyed by the uncharacteristic behavior of his horse.
The girl hesitated. "I . . . I do not know," she said, the smile fading from her face.
Legolas peered at her closely. "Are you well, lass? Have you perhaps hit your head?"
She shook that pretty dark head from side to side. "I remember dancing in the clearing. I was laughing, and then . . ." Her puzzled look remained.
Legolas bit his lip. She might well be injured and in need of his aid. "Will you come with me? It is not good for you to be out here by yourself."
"On your horse?" she asked. "I've never been on a horse."
"There's a first time for everything," Legolas replied. "He can bear us both with ease." He hoped that was true, because his usually placid gelding was proving to be quite a handful at the moment, the muscles in his back bunching up tighter, the closer this strange girl came. "Please, I cannot leave you here alone."
She grinned, seeming to recover herself a little. "Why not? You're riding alone."
"I am warrior-trained, and I carry knives and bow. You are armed with naught but your beauty, although that beauty is considerable," he said, stammering slightly at his own boldness. Legolas did not consider himself much of a man with the ladies.
"And you are also armed with a charming tongue," she replied with a laugh. "Very well, young warrior; you may carry me to my home."
"And where is that home?"
"The talan of my parents is near the river, just off the path that leads to the King's fortress."
Legolas nodded. The mention of a talan confirmed his impression that she was Green-elven, and the mention of parents led him to hope she might be young like himself. "Good, I am headed in that very direction. Come, get up behind me."
"I am Muiniel," she said, grasping his proffered hand. "What is your name?"
Legolas suppressed his smile of delight. She had not recognized him for Thranduil's son. Truth be told, Legolas always felt shy around the ladies of his father's court, most of whom were much older than he and still treated him with the subtly patronizing manner that one uses with a child. Those who did show an interest in him, he suspected of cultivating the King's son. Luck was with him today; here was a rare chance to have a girl like him for himself alone. "My father calls me Leaf," he said, swinging her up behind him.
"Enough!" he muttered sharply to Sulrion, who again bunched his muscles and threatened to crow-hop beneath him as Muiniel settled herself. Old friend or not, his gelding was not going to be allowed to spoil his chances with a girl. The horse subsided reluctantly.
"Well met, Leaf," she said.
"And you, likewise, Muiniel," he said, enjoying the feeling of her slender arms clasped tightly around his middle. He urged Sulrion into a careful walk. "Your hands are like ice, lass."
"I will warm up soon enough," she replied. "Tell me then, Leaf, what brought you out into the woods today?"
"Hunting. I like to hunt."
"Well, you're not very good at it," she laughed. "You caught nothing. Other than me, that is."
"Hmm," Legolas mumbled, feeling the need to defend his prowess. "Something was frightening the game today, which is why you should not be in the forest alone. Besides, I like to stalk game just to have the time to myself. What do you like to do, Muiniel?"
She sighed into the back of his neck, stirring his hair with the softness of a stray breeze. "I like to dance. But I'm not very good at it. That is why I seek the privacy of the woods. I don't like anyone to see me doing it."
"I'm sure you are very good at it," Legolas said gallantly. "I would like to see you do it sometime."
"Perhaps, Leaf. Perhaps." The smile in her voice was implicit. Legolas smiled too, happy that she could not see the foolish grin on his face at the thought of watching her dancing among the trees.
They rode on together through the darkening afternoon, the horse's footfalls muffled by the moist, mist-laden air. They talked of everything and of nothing, and Legolas told himself he kept Sulrion to a walk for fear of the unusually fractious animal acting up at any higher speed, rather than out of a wish to prolong the trip home so that he might spend more time enjoying the company of this strange girl. And so, it was deep twilight before they reached the settled areas near the Forest River.
"My parents' talan is through that stand of big oaks," said Muiniel, as they rode past a few huts on the ground. "My father prefers to dwell high up."
Legolas turned his horse, following the girl's directions. Beneath a tall elm, they halted. Legolas threw his leg over Sulrion's neck and dismounted, helping Muiniel down after him. They stood facing each other awkwardly beside the rope ladder that hung down from above.
"I shall bid you good evening, Muiniel," he began, only to see her face fall.
"No, please!" she said. "I am not ready to face my parents just yet. I pray you, Leaf, go ahead of me. They will be angry that I am out so late."
"Oh, surely not!" he protested.
"You don't understand," she insisted, her tone of voice growing even more desperate. "I am not supposed to venture so far out into the woods by myself. Please, Leaf. Go up to Ada and Nana. Tell them I am here . . . and that I love them very much."
"Very well," he said, wondering once again if something were amiss with the girl. Best to humor her. As he put his hand to the ladder, she shivered visibly.
"Are you cold, Muiniel?"
She nodded. "When we were sitting close on your horse, I was warm enough, but now that were are apart, I feel the cold overtaking me. The day was much warmer when first I set out from home."
"Forgive me, Muiniel; I am a churl," he said, taking off his cloak and wrapping it closely about her. "There -- is that better?"
Again she nodded. "Thank you, Leaf." She looked so sweet smiling up at him, almost like a little girl in his oversized cloak, that Legolas succumbed to impulse. He bent and kissed her.
Muiniel's lips felt soft beneath his, and the taste of her was intoxicating. Legolas felt a sudden rush of passion, and he broke the kiss, stepping back quickly before his body could betray him. Just as swiftly, the girl followed him, clasping her body against his and reclaiming his mouth in a kiss that seemed to drink in his very breath.
"You are so very warm," she murmured, finally pulling away and leaving him swaying for balance. "So full of life!"
"Ah, yes," said Legolas when he could trust his voice again. "You stay here with Sulrion while I speak to your parents. All will be well. I promise." Quickly, he turned and ascended the rope ladder.
At the top he paused, politely cleared his throat, and called out, "May I enter?" There came the sound of footsteps across the wooden platform and the scrape of the door being unbarred. The door opened, and a dark-haired man peered out.
"Prince Legolas!" The man bowed and motioned him inside, giving Legolas little time to wonder how the father knew his face well while the daughter did not. "To what do we owe your visit?"
Inside the talan stood an elf-woman, similarly dark-haired to the man. Muiniel had the look of both her parents. Legolas bowed gravely to both. "I found your daughter upon the Elf Path while out hunting this afternoon, and I have escorted her home. She awaits below."
"Our daughter . . .?"
Legolas watched as the looks of polite deference on the countenances of the man and woman turned to stark horror. The woman's face crumpled then, and she turned her back on him, stumbling off behind a leather curtain into the next room. The man whirled on him with an expression of tightly controlled fury. "Truly, Prince Legolas, word in this realm is that your are a gentle and well governed youth. I would have expected much better from you than this, this . . . cruel jest, Days of the Dead or no! You are old enough to be well past your pranks."
"What? What have I said?" Legolas stammered, taken aback at the heat in the man's voice.
"You mean to say you did not know?"
"No, truly, Master Elf, in what manner have I offended you?"
The man sighed and shut his eyes in pain. "I suppose you could not have known. It all happened long before you were born."
"What could I not have known?" Legolas asked, aghast. What distress had he caused here, unwitting?
"Our daughter . . . liked to wander in the forest, to dance alone under the trees. She was a sweet lass who fancied herself like Lúthien in the old songs. Alas, it was no mortal Beren who found her, although the end was the same. She is lost to us."
Legolas stared, horror-struck, and the father nodded.
"Orcs. They did not deal kindly with her. Eight hundred and forty-three years ago this past midsummer, and no matter how many years pass, I've not lost the count. We found her, and we buried what they had left of her here near the settlement. Her cairn is beside the path, right before the ravine that leads down to the river."
Legolas knew the spot well. He had often wondered who lay beneath that pile of stones as he passed by. "What is your name, please?" he asked quietly.
"Neranu," the man replied gravely.
"Master Neranu, I do not understand this. I met a girl upon the path. She told me her name was Muiniel. She awaits at the foot of this tree."
"Nae! That indeed was my daughter's name. Muiniel."
"Please believe me," Legolas insisted. "I would never cause you and your lady pain by playing such a cruel jest."
Neranu looked him deep in the eye. "No, son, I agree that you would not. But perhaps we both have been the victims of an ill-conceived prank. This girl is waiting below, you say?"
"Then let us descend and get to the bottom of this."
Legolas was the first to reach the ground. He looked about. Sulrion stood alone, holding his place according to the will of his master, but he trembled slightly, and Legolas could still see the sweat of fear drying on his coat. Muiniel was nowhere to be seen.
"There is no girl here," Neranu said, touching down behind him.
Legolas shook his head. "She is gone." Had one of his father's elves truly been so cruel as to play this trick on him? "Whoever she was, she has wandered off. Perhaps she needs our help."
He heard Neranu sigh. "Look at the grass, Prince." In the silvery dew of the evening, the incoming tracks of the horse showed plainly. There were no others.
"I don't understand this. She was so very real . . ." In memory, Legolas still felt the sensation of her lips against his, the sweet press of her body. He turned to see Neranu staring at him keenly.
"Have you perhaps, Prince, hit your head?"
Yes, thought Legolas. How tempting to pass it off as a figment of the imagination, or as someone's twisted idea of humor. And yet, as he recalled the look on Muiniel's face as she sent him on ahead, a face whose profile matched that of the man who stood before him, Legolas knew he could not dismiss his charge so easily.
Legolas bowed deeply. "Master Neranu, I crave your pardon for any pain I have caused you and your good lady tonight, but . . . ," he paused for breath, "the one who called herself your daughter told me to tell you that she had come home . . . and that she loves you both very much."
With that, he swung up onto his horse and rode off. It was full dark now, and Legolas went slowly out of concern for his horse putting a foot awry on the uneven trail. Had he truly imagined the whole thing? No longer did he wish for the merriment of a cup of wine by a bonfire; he merely longed for the comfort of his own bed and an end to the chill of night that seeped into him. The chill . . .
At the top of the ravine that led down to the river, Legolas saw a flash of white in the trees off at the side of the trail: a cairn of stones whose occupant was no longer a mystery to him. He dismounted and slowly approached to kneel beside the pile of rocks.
His cloak lay there upon the grave, folded neatly into thirds. And though the night was breathless, Legolas felt a passing draft of air upon his cheek, as soft as a ghostly kiss.
* * * * * * *
This story, a Middle-earth retelling of a classic ghost tale, was written for the birthday of my faithful beta reader, Ignoble Bard.
Beta reader for this story is Oshun.
Narbeleth: Sindarin for the month of November