2. The Quality of Mercy
Beta; Anarithilien - thank you
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Chapter Two: The Quality of Mercy
Moonlight pooled silver on the forest path, casting shadows of the tall beech trees. The breeze from the West stirred the long hair of the Wood-elves waiting silently in the boughs of the beech and oak, and set the leaves whispering. Above, starlight struggled against the brightness of the moon, which rode low and close to the earth, seeming to skim the tops of the trees. The Elves did not sing; each lovely, still face turned to watch the forest path with deep grief.
Distantly came the sound of horses' hoofs thudding wearily on the forest path, and the air tensed. The first grey horse came into view, almost invisible in the barred and dappled moonlight. Its head was low and weary and though its rider was tall and the moonlight seemed to stroke his burnished hair the colour of gold coins, his head too was bowed in defeat. Another and then another horse followed, each horse carried its head low and each rider was slumped. They had failed.
The tall Elf with hair the colour of gold coins looked up with grey-blue eyes full of sorrow into the trees at the many empty talans. This was Laersul, the eldest son of the King. Behind him rode his twenty men, for that was every one they could spare after the attack, and some had gone westwards to the Gladden Fields; Gollum's tracks had been clear there. The waiting Elves watched them pass and did not sing or cheer although many hearts were relieved that loved ones had returned and they had not lost more.
When the company reached a large spreading oak, Laersul tilted his head and looked up for a moment. He held up his hand for a halt and slid slowly from his exhausted horse, which huffed and nosed about the grass in a desultory fashion as if too tired even to graze. Laersul winced when his feet met the earth and he clutched his side for a moment before he straightened.
A woman stood in the dappled moonlight, her chest heaving with emotion. She glanced behind the warrior, searching for her beloved returned to her or at least a body slung over a horse. The Elves behind Laersul could not meet her eyes as she stepped past their leader and ran quickly between them, searching, looking at each horse, her lips parted and eyes distraught. She whirled back to Laersul and he stood looking down at her, reached out to touch her arm. She looked up at him, stunned and still he said nothing.
Suddenly she folded, slid to her knees and turned her face to the sky and cried aloud. It was a terrible, wrenching sound, of loss and loneliness and utter despair.
As if the cry released them then, other women quickly surrounded her, their arms about her and she wailed again, this time, she did not stop. The women cradled her in their arms and rocked her, held her close to their breasts and she clung to them, sobbing. One woman looked up at Laersul bitterly as only a mother who has lost her child would.
'You did not reach him in time...' she said and Laersul flinched at the accusation.
'We were so close, Nauriel,' he said in deep sorrow and bowed his head. 'But we could not catch them.' He did not say that the Nazgûl had ridden out, had cast their dark shadows of sorcery about, that they had been sorely beset for the Orcs and Nazgûl had turned on them then and the Elves had to flee for their own lives. He did not speak of the screaming that led them to despair.
'You could not catch them! They are Orcs and you, Elves! Are they so fleet-footed?' She threw her hand out towards them in disgust. 'You could not even be merciful*?'
Behind them, one of the younger warriors gave a wordless cry and turned away and amongst the small company, there was a distressed murmur. They shifted on their horses and seemed to close about themselves. Laersul turned towards them in consternation and then looked back to the bereaved woman, who sobbed and was held by another woman.
'I will go with her, with you, if you wish me to...To tell you what happened.'
Nauriel clutched her heart in agony for her lost son and shook her head. 'No. You are not welcome.'
There was a mild murmur of dismay from the crowd and another woman stepped forward and touched Nauriel on her arm, her face soft with compassion. 'This is the Shadow that speaks, Nauriel. You know that I have your pain. Not one family has been spared over the years, not Laersul's either. You know this.' She turned to Laersul and reached out, gently touching his distraught face. 'You could not have done more, Laersul. We know.'
'It was not enough,' said Laersul and he stood for a moment, head bowed in sorrow until his warriors moved softly around him, murmuring and touching him lightly so he would feel their Song and that they knew the truth of it. They moved silently around him and then he led them over the river and into the King's stronghold.
Galion heard what had happened and had to be restrained from going and finding Nauriel, and the only reason he did not was because of her loss. She was ever waspish he thought, and he knew that Laersul would feel her words as cruelly as if she had struck him. Even now, Laersul had gone to Silarôs' bedside to speak quietly to his wife, threading what peace he could through her poor broken heart before he took any rest for himself. Legolas was nowhere to be seen and Galion thought he must have slipped off quietly on his own. It was not unlike him when he was distressed, but Galion hoped he had gone first to Thranduil.
Galion leaned on the door post for a moment, watching his staff setting out food and drink in the kitchens for the warriors who had not yet gone to their own families; some lingered, needing to be with those who understood. Then he turned and took up a platter of food and a mug of warmed wine and left the hall, striding through the passages that wound through the light and airy caverns beneath the tree-covered hills.
To Galion it always felt like he walked through dense avenues of trees rather than caves, for every wall was carved with scenes of the forest or of feasting and dancing under the starlight. Gemstones gleamed and reflected the green-tinted light that filled the caverns and passages in the daytime. But at night, as now, great glass globes were lit and the light then was of every colour and the gemstones gleamed more brightly like miniature coloured flames. It was both like and unlike Menegroth, Galion thought, as he ran lightly up wide shallow steps. It was not as rich, or the caves as deep, and it did not have the same heavy, sonorous enchantment. Although there was enchantment here, it was older, more natural, of Fire and Earth and Air and Water. It was Thranduil's deep connection with his Woods and old magic.
He found the King in his rooms, clad in a simple hunting tunic of green suede and brown leather breeches, leaning over the same maps as before. He had removed the clasps of course, Galion noticed irritably, and there were the usual piles of books, the candlestick and a heavy paperweight holding the maps open. The clasps were on the table under a pile of scrolls.
'Have you seen Legolas yet?' Galion asked without preamble.
Thranduil looked up with sudden hope. 'Is he here?'
Absently, Galion moved the piles of books and the candlestick as he always did, and shoved the clasps over the edges of the map with a sigh. 'No. He has disappeared somewhere. I hoped he had been to see you first.'
Thranduil's face tightened a little and Galion knew that he bit down his disappointment. 'He has always needed to be amongst the trees when he is upset...I heard what happened,' Thranduil said. Galion was unsurprised that Thranduil knew, he seemed to know everything in his realm even as it happened. 'Is Laersul...?'
'He is with Silarôs. Before that, he was seeing to his men. He will be here in a moment I would think.'
Thranduil grunted agreement. 'He will not want to be comforted either. He has always been better at giving than receiving,' Thranduil said, resigned because he wanted to comfort all his sons and they had not come to him. It was, Galion thought, one of the prices they paid, for it was long since a woman had been part of their small family household, and not a day went by when he did not mourn that absence.
'Nauriel wanted her son to be a poet remember? Not a warrior,' Galion said with a sigh. 'He could not sing a note on key.' He squeezed his eyes tight for a moment for there was a strange prickling in the corner of his eyes.
Thranduil glanced at him and then quickly looked away.
Galion shook himself. 'It seems the Nazgûl rode out from Dol Guldur and assailed them,' he said. 'Two of them, as we thought. One was Khamûl.'
Thranduil barely glanced up. 'This is unsurprising,' he said. 'Have we not long known the Nazgûl occupied the Tower, have done almost since the day the Sit-On-Your-Arse White Council had sent the Necromancer-My-Arse packing. As you so accurately express it.'
'I am pleased to know, my Lord, that you were paying attention.' But in spite of the banter, they were both tense, waiting for Laersul, and both heavy with disappointment that they had not returned with Naurion or at least his body.
A light knock on the door came as a surprise to neither of them and both looked towards the opening door expectantly.
Laersul stood in the doorway, his tall frame obscured the torchlight from without and lit up his golden hair so like his father's. But for the grey-blue eyes he was very like Thranduil to look at, thought Galion. But there the resemblance stopped for where Thranduil was all whirling energy and power, like Air and Fire, Laersul was as steadfast as his name, and there was a quality of stillness about him rare in a Woodelf; Earth and deep waters, thought Galion remembering the quiet, earnest child that Laersul had been.
Thranduil took two strides across the room and enveloped his oldest son in an embrace, pulled his head down and kissed the top of his ear, for it had been a long time since he could reach the top of his head.
'You did well, Laersul. No one could have done more.'
Galion winced at the irony of the words he had spoken himself some weeks before, but Laersul looked away and rubbed his eyes with his hand. Galion knew he would be blaming himself, drenching himself in self-recrimination in the same way his father did.
'It was not still enough.' Laersul smoothed his hands over his head, over his braids as if reassuring himself they were there, that he deserved them.
Galion tutted and pushed him into the low, comfortable chair, and reached for the decanter. He poured rich amber wine into a goblet and pressed it into Laersul's hand.
'Galion says it is the good stuff,' Thranduil commented drily. He reached out towards the map table, groped for his own goblet of wine but found only the silver clasps; Galion pretended not to notice that he glared at the clasps as if they somehow were to blame. Finding his wine on the side table, Thranduil threw himself into his own chair, took a long drink, swirled it around his mouth and then leaned back, swallowing. His slate-green eyes came to rest on his tall son.
Laersul stared down at his hands, his full lips slack and suddenly a sob tore its way from his throat.
'Ah, Laersul,' Thranduil sounded as anguished as his son and he reached forwards to clasp his son's hand. Galion rested one buttock on the arm of Laersul's chair so he was lightly pressed against him. Laersul did not sob again and he did not weep.
They were patient, waiting for him to speak, and Galion let his mind go back to when the times were good, before the Shadow had come to Dol Guldur and they lived the simple, easy life they had dreamed of...
...Trees reaching their high boughs upwards. Oropher throwing his head back, laughing loudly. Sunlight pouring over Amon Lanc, turning Oropher to gold and Thranduil gazing up at his father, adoringly...
Galion rubbed his eyes and wondered how much more Vairë had to throw at the House of Oropher. These days he thought he drank wine more in sorrow than in merriment and spent his time more in dreams of the past than of the future.
Laersul took a breath, and swallowed some wine. He let his head fall back against the chair and began to speak.
He told Thranduil and Galion of those very trees that Galion had been remembering, in the deep forest where the pines grew tall, which had now become diseased and rotten. They had turned against the Elves who had once lived amongst them, and reached their twisted and gnarled branches to snarl the Elves as they fought their way towards their comrade before he was taken into the darkness of the Tower.
Thranduil clenched his fist slowly until the knuckles were white and his rings dug into his flesh as Laersul told how the Orcs they had pursued so relentlessly suddenly turned to attack, and the Nazgûl came then, their unearthly shrieks piercing the darkness. The Nazgûl's thin black shrouds seemed to spread and billow wider and wider, sorcery, so the ruined forest was veiled even to the Woodelves' keen eyes and a bank of grey fog rolled over them. The trees twisted and turned them so that they fled the wrong way and suddenly the Tower itself, Dol Guldur, had loomed up from the mist...
Laersul had tried to hold out, fought to reach the Orcs that still held Naurion, but they were being driven ever closer to the Tower. All the time, they could hear Naurion screaming, his voice hoarser, weaker.
Laersul swallowed the wine without tasting it. 'I did not dare fight on...We were surrounded and lost and the walls of Dol Guldur loomed up ahead of us. I ordered all our arrows loosed into the fog towards Naurion, and to retreat,' he said. 'We do not know if Naurion still lives.' He faltered. 'I...I cannot speak of it more, my lord. Please... Forgive me.'
Galion stirred, unable to sit any longer. He leapt to his feet and grasped the heavy decanter to refill Laersul's goblet, pressing his fingers against Laersul's hand in comfort as he did so. Laersul looked away and Galion guessed he did not believe he deserved comfort.
Thranduil glanced up at Galion in mutual sorrow. 'There is no comfort for any of us.' He reached out to touch Laersul gently on his cheek. 'You would not have one of your men berate himself and I beg you give yourself the same kindness.'
Laersul hid his eyes with one hand. 'I cannot forget the screaming, father. I never will. Naurion is but another added to the cries of those I have not saved from the Darkness.'
Thranduil twisted the ruby ring on his finger in uncharacteristic distress. 'It is so for all of us, Laersul. Even now, I do not forget Dagorlad when Orcs ran amongst our wounded and dying and took such glee in inflicting pain... And we could do nothing. Their screams haunt me still.'
How this bloody mess drive us backwards in time, Galion thought, and the memories were the same. It seemed to Galion that always they paid the price, always the Woodelves took the brunt, and whatever Thranduil said about Elrond, Galion knew what was in his heart...
...Oropher lying dead on the bloody field at Dagorlad, Thranduil weeping, over his body, furious, shouting at Gil-Galad that he had deliberately held back and allowed the Woodelves to throw themselves recklessly at Sauron believing the Noldor to be following...that the Noldor had sacrificed the Woodelves so they had cut Sauron's forces for the Noldor who only then had entered the affray, with their strong armour and steel weapons...And Elrond taking it with unbearable compassion...It had been Galion who comforted Thranduil then, and he had turned in his despair, needing comfort, to feel another living body.
Galion shook himself slightly; it seemed he was plagued this night with nostalgia.
Thranduil lifted his head to look at his son. 'You could do no more. I would not have still more families in grief...And I would not lose you for all the world,' he said gently.
Laersul sighed as if it came from the deepest part of him.
'You have not seen Legolas I suppose,' he said at last. And then it was his turn to give Thranduil comfort and he leaned towards his father and clasped his hands so he ceased turning the ring on his finger. 'Legolas is by far the best archer amongst us so I charged him with this one task. I wish I had not. There was only one moment for the mercy.' He smoothed his hand over his head. 'Numbers of Orcs kept breaking off from the main group to engage us in battle, to slow us down for there were far more of them than us and the main group kept hurrying Naurion on ahead. Then for the first time, the only time, we could see Naurion...' He swallowed for the sight had been cruel. 'Legolas had drawn but I was down and three Orcs onto me. There was no one else to help me...Legolas hesitated and then it was too late.'
Galion let his gaze drop to the deep amber wine; Legolas had missed his shot. No wonder Nauriel was so desperate. No wonder the returning warriors had gathered about Legolas in pity and concern. No wonder the only company he sought now was his own. He was not the first, he would not be the last. 'Mercy is hard on everyone,' he said softly, aware of Thranduil's concern for him too. 'When it is not given it is harder than death.'
'It is why he will not come,' Laersul said quietly. 'Give him time, father. You know he will seek solace and peace amongst the trees first. He will come to you when he is ready.'
'And I must be content with that,' Thranduil said but try as he might to hide it, there was anguish in his voice and Galion watched, knowing how it grieved him that it Legolas on whom mercy depended, and that on his return, Legolas had not turned to him first.
'You need to eat something,' Galion said, noticing how exhausted Laersul was. 'And then you must sleep.'
Laersul shook his head. 'None of us will sleep well tonight, not yet,' he said heavily. 'I wonder where Thalos is.' He glanced over his shoulder to the map. 'Pray that he is safe.'
Thranduil had sunk back in his chair and his face was in shadow, though Galion could see his chest heave in fear for his last son still out there.
'He is most likely over the Gladden Fields and in the Hithaeglir now,' said Thranduil at last. 'They lost Gollum for a while but last we heard he was headed south and west...towards the Dimril Dale.' He leaned across and tugged at the map and then finding it secured, he made a sound of exasperation and pulled hard. The clasps pinged off while Galion watched irritably and resolved to glue the map onto the table when Thranduil was out hunting. Thranduil shook the map and smoothed it over his knees.
'If Gollum has made it to the Hithaeglir we will lose him in the mountains,' said Laersul slowly, leaning forwards to see the map. 'To continue our search it will mean going beneath the Hithaeglir.' He pointed where the trail petered out and traced further. Then he raised his eyes to his father's face. 'The only way in that we know of is Moria.'
Moria, the Black Pit. The name itself sent a prickling chill down Galion's spine. He pulled at the map across Thranduil's lap and dragged it around so he could see the inked line more clearly. As Laersul said, it threaded its way across the Gladden Fields and for a while it lost itself in the Hithaeglir. Then more strongly it struck out and the line led unerringly towards Moria.
'Thalos will not wish to go into the Dark. But he will, if you command it.' Laersul met his father's eyes coolly.
'It is far closer to Lórien than us now. It must become their problem not ours. Let Galadriel deal with it,' Galion burst out. 'Hasn't she got some sort of magic mirror? And that accursed Ring she wears,' he said bitterly. He did not want Thalos going into the Pit. 'She can see where the misbegotten creature is and send some of the Galadhrim out for it. They have nothing else to do!' He felt a sense of dread creep over him at the thought and sent a quiet prayer to the Star-Kindler to light the way for the last son of Thranduil not yet returned.
'Thalos could go to Lórien' Laersul ventured. 'She could perhaps tell him if Gollum is beneath the Mountains.'
The candle guttered, its flame suddenly long and smoking and Thranduil stared at it for a moment. Then he reached for a new, long white candle from a basket on the shelf behind him.
'Oropher moved north to escape her influence long ago,'** he said, holding the taper of the new candle over the long guttering flame of the old. 'Any help she gives is in riddles and I have no time for that.' He jammed the new-lit candle into the candlestick so wax bubbled over, spilled onto the table. 'Thalos would be no better off than he is now.'
Galion saw Laersul stifle a sigh of frustration. These sons do not understand, he thought. They do not know the Noldor. How could they? They had not lived through the bloody ages and Thranduil had brought them up as truly Silvan; as dangerous and as merry as Iluvatar intended Elves to be, he thought with quiet satisfaction, and if the Noldor thought them 'untutored', it was because the sort of tutoring the Noldor engaged in was simply not worth having, Galion thought with a sniff. Elrond was all right he supposed, but he was so mixed in his blood he owned kinship with everyone.
'Father,' Laersul had leaned forward and touched Thranduil's hand lightly. 'Then call Thalos back. He cannot hope to track Gollum through Moria if that truly is where he had gone. Even the Man, Aragorn, lost him there,' he said earnestly. 'Call Thalos back. Send a message to Mithrandir that his creature is gone,'
Thranduil met his son's steady gaze, considering.
Then slowly, without taking his eyes from Laersul's, he nodded. 'Very well.'
Both Galion and Laersul breathed but Thranduil gave them a stern look and said, 'Gollum is important in some way and we do not yet know for sure that we have lost him. So we will await Thalos' return and if he has not recovered Gollum, we will send messages to Mithrandir in Imladris.'
There was a moment of stillness, of relief, and Galion drained the last of his wine and Laersul rose to his feet slowly, wearily. Galion knew he would find Legolas before he retired; he knew where he would be, they all did.
Laersul looked down at his father for a moment and then said thoughtfully, 'Mithrandir was heading for Orthanc. Was there not a message from Radagast to send any messages there? '
Thranduil swirled the amber wine in his goblet. 'I do not wish to send messages of any kind to Curunír,' he said deliberately. 'There is something about him I do not trust, and he has never been our friend.' He looked at Galion briefly and a small smile tugged his lips. 'I sound most mistrustful,' he said wryly. 'Many a time has he scoffed at our belief that the Necromancer-my-Arse was the Enemy himself when even Galadriel thought us right...No, we will seek Mithrandir first in Imladris. If he is not there, Aragorn dwells there and will know how to find him. He is trusted by Mithrandir. If not, we might ask Elrond for advice I suppose,' he added grudgingly.
He pursed his lips and stared at the fire, lost in thought and Galion made a signal to Laersul that he might go. But Thranduil suddenly looked up. His eyes were clear, and the firelight that always loved him, gilded his hair. 'We will send a witness with the message. I want Mithrandir to know what the cost has been to our people of harbouring Gollum. I want him to understand the price we have paid for the kindness he bid us show.' He gazed into the depths of his goblet and closed his eyes briefly, his thoughts seeming to shift then, his voice to soften. 'I will be glad to have all my sons at home.'
Laersul walked beneath the silvered beeches but his heart was not soothed. Although his path was far from Nauriel's talan where she still keened, he hoped he would not meet anyone at all. He rubbed his hands over his face and then smoothed his braids wishing he had done more, ridden faster, more recklessly. There would be some who criticized he knew that. Some would say he should have ordered the milui-criss* much sooner, others that Legolas should not have been the one charged with the shot, or that he should have made the shot and allowed others to cover Laersul...He breathed out. No one else could have made the shot that bought Laersul's life, and he supposed part of his guilt was that he lived and Naurion...well, he had no doubt that Naurion was dead by now.
The Forest River rushed ahead of him, its song unchanged, careless of the plight of the Elves; it rushed over granite and slate and through the ferny dells and gushed into still, shady pools where the brown trout moved lazily. This Song was in the hearts of all Woodelves, as was the wind in the tree-tops, but he listened also to the light green-gold notes that threaded their way through the moonlit forest and followed them to where he knew Legolas would be.
On the outer circles of the Woodelves' settlement at edge of the river was a tall and very ancient oak with wide spreading branches, cool in the Summer and its deep roots plunged into the earth. Its bark was silvery in the moonlight and Laersul grasped a low bole and climbed swiftly. The oak's song thrummed, twined with light notes of green-gold.
'Laersul...?' His brother's voice came down from the higher branches and he paused for a moment for Legolas sounded so unhappy. But when there was no further sound he resumed climbing, his strong hands finding handholds and pulling himself easily aloft. He paused briefly at the simple talan that Legolas often used, noting his bow and quiver, his long knives cast carelessly onto the narrow bed, his cloak cast over the wooden chest. A soldier's billet, nothing luxurious or homely, but he knew that to Legolas the trees and river were all the beauty and luxury he needed. He climbed higher into the topmost branches of the oak.
Sitting astride a wide branch was Legolas, outlined in silver. The moonlight seemed to catch in his long pale hair, and there were always leaves clinging to him as if the trees loved him most of all. Laersul smiled for he was being fanciful and that was unlike him. Legolas barely turned when his oldest brother crouched next to him and slid his long legs over the edge of the branch to dangle alongside his.
Laersul sat silently, very still, listening to the songs of the trees and the stars. He heard the oak's slow song and its deep green cadence; its slow rhythm thrust strongly into the earth, reaching roots, pushing leaves upwards, washed with moonlight and sunlight, the sap pulsing through its veins and filling the leaves so they unfurled and stretched.
Breathing in the clean air of the forest, Laersul let the song of the oak and the river soothe and gentle his spirit. After the twisted trees and the corruption of the South, he needed green things around him, life pulsing like the blood in his veins.
At last he gently cupped Legolas' cheek and pulled his youngest brother's head down onto his own shoulder and felt Legolas slump suddenly, resting against him.
'I still have not thanked you,' he said softly.
Laersul closed his eyes and listened for Legolas' own sweet song of green-gold that threaded through the notes of the trees and stars... There, it washed the air around Laersul and he felt immersed as if in a shaded pool of water and with sunlight filtering through the pale green leaves. But there was not the usual lightness and joy that danced through Legolas' song, but instead a well of sorrow like the rolling of waves that he had seen on the Long Lake, endless, sonorous. Laersul did not seek to drown it with his own Song; he merely let Legolas rest against him and listened.
The sun shone on the Woods and the leaves began to turn. The deep song of the great oaks had slowed still further as they turned their thoughts to sleep and the Elves gathered the harvest and made plans for the winter. Thranduil had charged everyone to make sure supplies were more plentiful, better stored, more secure and that the light and airy caverns of the stronghold were ready for as many Elves as needed, for they could all feel the storm gathering. The birds of the Forest who were friends of the Elves had brought tidings that the Nine had crossed the Fords of the Isen and it disturbed the Woodelves more than they thought possible. That the Nazgûl had abandoned Dol Guldur was no comfort to anyone and still the talans were empty and many of the Elves remained in the stronghold. The Raft-elves brought news from Esgaroth that there were strange doings in the lands of Men, and the Dwarves were restless and had been busy in the Mountain, shoring up their defences and urging Dale and Esgaroth to do likewise.
Legolas had hoped his father would send a small troop, himself included of course, to ascertain how serious this was but Thranduil seemed to take this news in his stride, as if he knew anyway. And Galion had been most insistent that no one could be spared anyway; that every last apple, every last grain had to be gathered in, and so had set everyone, including Thranduil, to the harvest of the apple trees that were on the edge of the forest and spread out into the low meadows.
It was evening and they had still not finished the day's work though the sun's rays were low across the ground and the world was settling into dusk.
Legolas was carefully picking apples along a particular branch that would take him directly into the path of Theliel; she was leaning over to pick some ripe red apples, her long black hair falling over her shoulder and her front of her dress dipped just as enticingly. Legolas was thoroughly enjoying the view except that Laersul, who was in the same tree, and moving along the same branch as Theliel, kept getting in the way. Laersul suddenly turned and looked over his shoulder at Legolas, caught his eye and grinned. Legolas was outraged.
'Theliel, these apples are particularly ripe,' he called, exasperated.
Theliel's grey eyes peered over Laersul's broad shoulder and Laersul leaned down and whispered something to her so she laughed merrily and Legolas rolled his eyes. But Theliel did move slightly past Laersul then and the next apples she picked brought her closer to Legolas.
He deliberately reached for the same apple that she seemed about to pick when he thought he heard the echo of a song coming through the forest, and he turned...It danced lightly across the leaves, sparkled on the river and leaped through the heavy boughs of the apple trees. He saw that Thranduil, who was stacking the apples so they would not spoil, had also straightened and was looking into the forest, his long hand shading his eyes. Slowly, others raised their heads or leaped down from the trees, and Legolas looked excitedly at Laersul, Theliel forgotten for the moment. He jumped down from the tree he was in and grabbed at his brother excitedly. An answering gleam was in Laersul's grey-blue eyes.
'Thalos!' he cried excitedly and set off after Thranduil, who was already taking long strides towards the Forest Path. Legolas whooped in delight and set off running, matching Laersul's long strides and overtaking Thranduil. There were other voices raised in welcome and delight, for Thalos and his hunters had returned.
Glad voices raised in song, a very different homecoming from the last one, and then Thalos was there, long bow slung over his shoulder and green eyes sparkling; he seemed blown in on the wind, smelt of the last warmth of the Summer and the open plains beyond the Woods. There were leaves in his long dark hair as if the trees had let their leaves fall upon him as a greeting and he laughed, such a glad sound and so full of merriment. The three returning hunters looked tired and strained but the relief of returning was so great they seemed lit from within. Laersul and Legolas were the first to reach them and Laersul shoved Legolas out of the way with brotherly affection and reached Thalos first, enveloping him in a great bear hug and trying to lift Thalos off the ground. Legolas almost danced around them trying to pull Laersul off and Laersul tried to keep Legolas at a distance with one hand. Other Elves arrived and surrounded the returning hunters with cries of welcome and relief.
'You are too short by a head little brother!' Laersul laughed and ruffled Legolas' hair irritatingly but Thalos drew Legolas into the embrace, his bright eyes darting over the crowd of Elves that gathered to welcome them home, seeking out Thranduil who was half-running towards him.
Galadhon and Nemir's families quickly surrounded them drew them off to their own homes and both Legolas and Laersul drew back to let their father in.
The four of them stood close and said little for a moment, each hearing the others' songs and hearing his own amplified by those closest to him. Legolas breathed in, the smell of the forest, leaves and berries and the shady ferns and clear forest river...He felt Thranduil's song soar, its deep, mellowed notes like wine and moonlight and the forest glades and the crown of autumn berries he wore at the feasts.
After a while Thalos reached out and cupped Legolas' cheek lightly and turned his face towards him, searching his face. Thalos' green eyes were full of concern and Legolas dipped his gaze, he could not bear any more sympathy or condemnation. But Thalos simply tapped him on the nose lightly with his forefinger as he used to when Legolas was a child and Thalos a warrior of renown.
'Still shorter than me, Squirt,' he said.
'Still stupider than me, Lackwit,' Legolas returned unimaginatively with the same response he had developed when he was a child and had never found one better or more fun. Thalos cuffed him lightly on the side of the head and Legolas found himself grinning stupidly at his tall, valiant brother.
Thranduil threw his arm around Thalos' shoulder and drew them all away, towards the kitchen for Galion had already gone within.
Legolas dropped back to walk with Laersul and allowed his father to have sole possession of his brother, who was complaining about the smell of his hunters and their lack of delicacy and Thranduil was leaning into him and enjoying having him home. Around them, the families of Galadhon and Nemir were walking slowly towards their talans in a similar way, heads bent towards those closest, sharing news, glad that they were home and safely gathered in.
'At least there is someone he will listen to now,' muttered Legolas to Laersul and when Thranduil shot a look back over his shoulder, he gave a blazingly innocent smile that fooled no one.
'Ah but he listens to me,' Laersul replied smugly. 'It's only you. And who can blame him?' he added mischievously. 'Ow.'
Having restored his honour, Legolas reached around Laersul's shoulder, for in spite of his brothers' assertions that he was shorter than they, it was less than half a head. They followed Thalos and Thranduil over the bridge into the stronghold where Galion would be frantically preparing far too much food and drink and enjoying himself immensely.
'I am starving,' Thalos was saying cheerfully. 'Nothing but black squirrels and goblin for months. I am going to eat and eat and eat until I am quite sick and you have no food left. Then I am going to dance in the Woods with all the maidens who will have me!' He glanced over his shoulder at his brothers and his eyes gleamed wolfishly. 'Galadhon and Nemir are neither good cooks nor good company.' He gave them an enormous and outrageous wink.
'We will have a feast and dancing in the forest glades,' declared Thranduil, apparently oblivious but Legolas saw him smile.
'You should go away more often,' Laersul clapped Thalos on the back. 'Let us go hunting tomorrow morning, see if you can bring down a deer for the feast, Legolas.' He glanced down at Legolas' bowed head and winced. Shaking his head at his own crassness, Laersul leaned down conspiratorially to whisper, 'See if you cannot hide those silver map clasps when next you are in father's study. It will drive Galion wild.'
Legolas smiled. 'Even better, I will hide two clasps,' he whispered back, 'and take away the goblets so they are both driven wild and blame each other.' Laersul laughed loudly enough for Thranduil, who had heard only the laughter and not the reason, to throw them a pleased look over his shoulder at his sons.
He did not want to ruin Thalos' homecoming, but Legolas could not shake off thoughts of that terrifyingly reckless chase into the South of the Forest. And the ignominious return empty-handed in every sense. Even Laersul was now doubting his ability to shoot something, although he had tried to cover it up quickly Legolas thought. He remembered how he had finally gone to his father in the early morning light and Thranduil had drawn him into his arms like he was still a child, and Legolas had leaned on his father's deep chest and listened while he hummed an old woodland lullaby...and it was only then that he wept for Naurion and his childhood friends, Celdir and Anglach.
Legolas berated himself again for his carelessness, blamed himself for allowing Gollum the freedom to climb the tree, and he found his hand clutching again at the cloth above his heart for it hurt when he thought of it.
He found Laersul's hand over his now and his older brother's calm blue-grey eyes upon him, compassionate and sorrowful. He breathed in through his nose and shook his head, wishing they would leave him be to feel the pain; he deserved it.
'You must let this make you burn brighter, Legolas,' he said softly. 'Do not turn it inwards and let it consume you.'
Perhaps they heard in spite of Laersul's softness for both Thalos and Thranduil turned and Thranduil held out his free arm to Legolas. Sheepishly he went forwards and was tucked under his father's arm like a duckling.
*merciful- or giving mercy: this refers to the 'merciful cut', the milui-criss as the Wood-elves call it. (mentioned later in the chapter) In Thranduil's realm, they have long battled the Shadow and when one of them is taken by Orcs and there is no chance of releasing them, the Elves will instead try to release their feä by shooting them dead. It is only the most skillful archer asked to do this of course and in this case, they do not know if they hit Naurion or not. Normally the family would pay the archer a 'price' so that it is acknowledged that the archer has done them a great service but is not a kin-slayer. This is what Gandalf proposed Elrohir to do on the mountain in Sons of Thunder. ( This is not canon but something I invented for Sons but am happy for others to use with an acknowledgement.)
*Oropher moved away from Lothlorien to escape Galadriel's influence. (Silm) It would be reasonable to expect Thranduil to feel the same about her, but in LOTR there is no sense at all that Legolas feels this and therefore I think Thranduil brought his sons up free of the memories and history of the 2nd Age and 3rd Age feuds, etc. In LOTR Legolas seems remarkably uninformed in LOTR- he knows nothing of Hollin or what Durin's Bane is although he recognises it as a Balrog, and I have tried to reflect that in this story.
References to the Dragon connected to the story of how Thranduil went to Erebor during Smaug's reign, and the dragon is part of the yaré-camë (Ancient Art) that some silvan warriors bear. Not a tale to be told now.
Reference to Galion's secret yearning for Thranduil are of course, not canon. But Jael wrote a lovely story, The Rose in the Fisted Glove, which I am sure has nudged me into thinking of Galion in this way.