2. The Return of the Prodigal
"Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all . . ."
A.E. Houseman, 'The Recruit'
As the trail began to drop beneath his horse's feet, heading down through the ravine that led to the Forest River, Legolas had still not rid himself of the sour feeling his farewell to Aragorn had left in him. Aragorn had been courteous, no trace of disappointment showing in his eyes, yet the matter had hung unspoken between the two of them. If ever there were to come a day when the last Hope of the Dúnedain needed a friend to fight at his side, this should have been it. Legolas had clasped his friend's hand for what he knew might be the final time, his own betrayal weighing on him like a stone in his chest.
A few stray snowflakes drifted across his first view of Thranduil's stronghold. Ironically, for all their haste in departing, the Mirkwood party had encountered no snow in the Pass, nor on their trip across the plain of the Anduin. This flurry was the first sign of winter they had seen. Perhaps Nature would be kind this year, where Fate had not, giving them an easy winter in which to prepare for the inevitable war.
Legolas could never understand how news of his homecoming always preceded him. Runners went ahead, he supposed, or else the tidings were carried by the birds and forest creatures. He could see Thranduil standing in the demi-lune courtyard on the opposite side of the bridge, flanked by twice the usual number of courtiers. His father's face was impassive, kingly, yet Legolas's keen senses noted that Thranduil shifted unobtrusively from foot to foot in covert anticipation.
Why, of all the times he had returned home from duty, must his father be making such a great ceremony of it? Legolas shook his head as he dismounted and strode up the flight of steps from the bridge. This time, he had not come home a hero. His mission had been ignominious; his homecoming the opposite of triumphant.
Legolas had not even the time to bow formally to his King before finding himself suddenly enveloped in a tight bear hug. Taken by surprise, he struggled only briefly before surrendering to the long-remembered comfort of a time when his father's strong arms cured all hurt and fear. "You came back!" he heard Thranduil whisper.
"Was there ever any doubt of that?" Legolas asked, drawing away to see Thranduil grinning like a giddy child. It would seem that there had indeed been some doubt of his safe return.
Legolas looked around the courtyard at the smiles of relief on the faces of the assembled courtiers and further out to the elves who lined the incoming path. 'At least I've made someone happy,' he thought.
"Rest yourself," said Thranduil, giving him a final one-armed squeeze. "Come inside and wash the grime of the trail away. Tonight, you and I have much to discuss."
That evening, bathed and well fed, Legolas presented himself in his father's study. He found Thranduil in his familiar chair in front of the fire, holding his customary goblet of red wine. The same oversized silver decanter they had used on the night before his departure for Rivendell sat on a low table close to hand.
"What?" said Thranduil, noticing Legolas's soft smile.
"Nothing changes. It's as if I never left."
Thranduil laughed, but his eyes retained a hint of sadness. "Odd, it seemed like an eternity to me. Are you rested from your journey, son?"
"Yes, Father," Legolas lied. He saw no point in burdening Thranduil with his continued disquiet. He had not slept well since leaving Rivendell, and did not think the comfort of his own bed would change matters tonight.
Thranduil poured a glass of wine and held it out. "How did Elrond take your news?"
"He was rather decent about it, actually." Legolas accepted the goblet and took a sip, letting the wine warm his throat. "Considering how important a prisoner the creature Gollum was. And the circumstances under which I was forced to deliver the tidings of his escape."
Thranduil raised an eyebrow but remained silent.
"You were right, Father."
"Right?" Thranduil drained his glass and refilled it. "About what?"
Legolas sighed. "Isildur's Bane. It's been found. This Gollum creature pulled it from the Anduin five hundred years ago and kept it about him."
"Nae! I had hoped his mad ravings were just that -- the delusions of a fevered mind." Thranduil shook his head. "But he has not got it now. He spoke of thieves. Who, then?"
"I think you know," Legolas said. "Do you recall that party of dwarves you locked up eighty years ago? Right before Smaug was killed and we fought Bolg at Erebor?"
"Very well indeed. I doubt they've forgotten it either."
"They had an odd little fellow with them who called himself a hobbit. Mithrandir told you this 'Baggins' had a magic ring he found in the Misty Mountains that allowed him to disappear at will. Alas, Father, that was no silly bauble he carried."
"Nuath! I had that . . . thing in my stronghold for over a fortnight?" Thranduil's eyes had suddenly taken on a haunted, hollow look in the firelight.
Legolas nodded, unhappily recalling the period of nightmares and waking unease he had experienced years before during the time Bilbo Baggins had lived among them unseen in the caverns. He now realized he had felt the same flesh-creeping sensation in Elrond's Council chamber in the presence of The Ring, as if he had stood next to great evil unknowing. He shivered, imagining having to feel the fell voice of The Ring in his mind on a long journey south. He was well out of it.
"Well, thank the stars The Ring is at Imladris now and nowhere near us. Elrond will know how to keep it hidden, safe from the eye of . . ." Thranduil trailed off, with a pointed glance to the south.
Legolas swallowed slowly. "Indeed, the Ring is at Imladris. For now."
"For now . . .?" Thranduil took another large gulp of wine. Already, his usually precise speech was devolving into the Laegren lilt he slipped into when in his cups. "All right -- spit it out. What does Elrond plan to do with it?"
"The plan is for Bilbo Baggins' kinsman to take it to Orodruin and destroy it. Aragorn is with him, and Mithrandir, along with a company on foot."
"Lord Glorfindel and Elrond's sons are among them, I hope."
Legolas shook his head. "There is an Elf with them, but he is not one of the great lords. There is also a Dwarf, and a Man from Gondor. Oh, and three more of those halflings. I believe the idea is for them to travel in secrecy."
"Huitho!" Thranduil's expression had turned from ill to stricken. "They haven't a prayer! They will fall into the clutches of the Enemy and when he gets his hands on that Ring . . . You and I had best be sharpening our swords, my son."
A burnt log collapsed in the fire, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney. Thranduil shut his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He looked weary, Legolas thought, and a little frightened. "They'll all be killed," he said at last. "At least . . . at least you are not with them. I had feared that . . ."
"I should have been with them, Father," Legolas said quietly. "I owed that to my friend, but at the last moment, at the thought of Mordor, my courage failed me." He shook his head, feeling the bitterness flood his heart. "I'm a coward."
"Never say that!" Thranduil said roughly. "Three thousand years ago, I went to Mordor. I left your mother for seven long lonely years. I lost my father and two thirds of our men. Why? That war was to put an end to Sauron for good, Gil-galad and Elendil told us. Legolas, I went to Mordor so no child of mine would ever have to."
Thranduil sighed. "At the end, when Isildur held victory in the palm of his hand, he failed in his duty. By hanging on to that cursed Ring, he let peace slip through his fingers. If there is a debt to be paid now, it is his heir, your friend Aragorn, who must do it. This is not your battle, Legolas."
"I fear this battle belongs to all of us now, Father," Legolas said.
"Perhaps," replied Thranduil. "Perhaps. But that battle will come to us, all too soon. We need not go looking for it."
Thranduil turned to him, and, for the first time, Legolas saw the great age and weariness in his father's eyes. "Legolas, if I were to lose you, all of this would be nothing." Thranduil waved his hand to encompass the room with its tasteful appointments: candles burning in carved sconces, so different from the elaborate Golodhren work of Imladris yet exquisitely wrought nonetheless, the chased silver goblet in his hand, the signet ring glittering on his finger, the silver bands that secured the tail ends of his hair. "Without you, the works of my hand would be fleeting, ephemeral -- no more substantial than the mists that rise off the Forest River on a chill morning. And I, myself, would be hollow, the heart gone from my body."
Legolas sat back in his chair. Although words of overt affection had been rare between him and Thranduil he had somehow never doubted his father's love for him. Yet never until this moment had he realized the depth of that love.
"Father," he said, setting down his own goblet of wine to gesture round at the stone walls of the cavern as his father had just done, "this is more to me than mist and smoke. This is my home. Here I have lived in joy, and here I will stay to help you fight for it."
The joy in Thranduil's answering smile banished the last of the doubt from Legolas's mind.
Laegren: Green-elven, Nandorin
Huitho: the affirmative command for the marital act (Thranduil's favorite cuss word)
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.