'And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray . . .'
"My Prince, we must break off the hunt! We come too close to the dark tower; the orcs grow thick in these woods!"
Legolas gave the warning of his one remaining companion no heed. His sharp eyes were alert to the smallest sign -- a broken twig, a footprint in the bare earth, a flattened spot in the leaves where their quarry had lain down to rest. He hurried on.
"My Lord, please! It is too risky. We dare go no further!" These words came out in a desperate hiss, the voice kept low for safety in an area that was crawling with the minions of Dol Guldur.
Legolas merely shook his head and bent again to examine the earth. They were so close now. He would not fail Aragorn, fail his father, fail them all by turning back.
"For the love of Elbereth, Legolas! Kill yourself if you like, but do not take me with you! Haven't enough of us died because of that stinking gangrel creature?"
The naked pleading in the elf's voice and the message finally hit home. If only Legolas could rid his mind of the image of Dúrven and Nírorn lying with their throats cut beneath the tree when he and the others had returned from a skirmish with a group of attacking orcs. He sank to his knees on the forest floor with a groan of frustration and punched the earth with his fist. He was silent for a time, until he could master himself. "Forgive me, Glavras. I was not thinking. But we cannot let this prisoner escape."
"We have been trailing him to no avail for weeks, and we are almost to Amon Lanc as it is. If we go one step further we'll be taken, and the creature will be just as free, while Khamûl has you to use as a pawn against your father. I would pray for myself to have an easy death in the Nazgûl's dungeons rather than to have to return to Thranduil under those circumstances."
Legolas sighed, unable to dispute Glavras's reasoning. "All right. We head for home."
As the two elves turned and began to creep back northward, Glavras muttered, "I knew Lord Celeborn and the White Council should have razed that tower when they had the chance . . . ."
"I lost him."
"And I managed to kill two of our guards in the process."
"No, Legolas," Thranduil sighed, "orcs killed those guards. You merely thought to give a miserable wretch a few moments of respite from a joyless existence. It is obvious to me that this attack was planned to free the creature. If anyone is to blame, it is me for giving in to my guards' complaints that his stench was making the lower chambers intolerable. Or for promising your ranger friend that we would look after the nasty thing in the first place."
Disheveled and tired from the long hunt, Legolas stood slumped in front of his father's desk. Thranduil looked careworn himself.
"For pity's sake, my son, sit down! You look exhausted."
Wearily, Legolas complied, dropping his body into a chair with an uncustomary lack of grace. "Elrond will have to be informed."
"Yes, he will, and that will be an unenviable task for the one who does the informing."
Legolas could only nod in agreement. "I cannot think that he will take it well." Legolas did not think that Aragorn would take the news well either, for he had gone to great effort to capture this Gollum creature. He sighed. "I suppose I will have to be the one to do it. I am the one who lost him, after all."
Thranduil tensed, and a cloud came over his face. "As much as it pains me, I will have to agree. But it becomes more complicated, my son. I have just had an envoy from Imladris."
In spite of his fatigue, Legolas perked up in interest. Thranduil shook his head. "Not now. I want you to have that wound seen to, take a bath and a hot meal, and then have a good night's rest. That is an order, Legolas. And tomorrow night, when you are well rested, we will meet here in my study. You and I need to have a talk."
The next evening, when Legolas arrived in Thranduil's study, Legolas was clean and well fed, but he could not claim to be rested. Try as he might to find repose, his sleep visions had been haunted by the dead faces of his soldiers, as he had found them beneath Gollum's empty tree .
His father's study was dim, lit only by the fire in the grate. Thranduil sat with two full glasses of wine before him, his face ruddy from the firelight. The chess table, over which the two of them had fought so many a battle, was closed for once. Thranduil shook his head. "No games between us tonight, Legolas. Sit."
Without a word, Legolas complied. He cast a pointed look at Thranduil's wine decanter, a lovely piece of work of chased silver, executed by the Elvenking's own silversmiths. The decanter was Thranduil's largest, brought out only on special occasions when a great deal of wine was needed.
"Fuel for truth," Thranduil said tersely. "There is much that needs to be said tonight, and the words do not come easily to me."
Legolas took up his goblet and drank. It was Dorwinion. Legolas had to agree with his father -- if one were to drink red wine, this vintage was the best. Much of it had been drunk in the last decades; many barrels had gone empty down to the lake. He stayed silent, knowing that in such a pensive mood it was best to let Thranduil speak in his own good time.
A log in the grate popped and hissed. "A courier from Imladris arrived five days ago," Thranduil began finally. Legolas noted that his father's speech, usually the precise clipped cadence of old Doriath taught to him by Oropher, had softened into the gentler Silvan lilt so like his own and Galion's. This happened when Thranduil had been drinking; the only sign that he was in his cups, and Legolas wondered just how many glasses his father had downed before he arrived. "Elrond is calling a council of all free folk."
"Does he say what this council is about?"
Thranduil shook his head. "No, but I fear that I know the reason. Elrond forgets -- or perhaps he remembers all too well -- that I was there."
Legolas raised an eyebrow in question, but Thranduil seemed not to notice. "It was in this season of the year, so long ago. I was but a short time returned from Mordor, and enjoying a well-deserved reunion with your mother when the messenger came. Isildur's army, marching north to the Cirith Forn en Andrath on their way to Imladris, had been ambushed by orcs from the Misty Mountains at the fields of the Gladden and were sorely beset. I'd had my fill of fighting. The very last thing I wanted to do was to lead warriors forth yet again, but I had no choice.
"It was not so long a journey as it would be now, for in those days we still dwelt to the south of here, in the Emyn Duir, but as quickly as I came, it was too late. Only one we found, alive under the bodies of the fallen. All that is known of the end of Isildur comes from this young esquire." It seemed to Legolas that his father's face had fallen into shadow.
"Isildur died three thousand years ago. Why should his fate trouble you or me?"
"Aye -- for an entire Age have my father, Elendil, Ereinion, and Isildur been dust. And yet now Isildur's heir is your sworn friend. There were things left undone and opportunities missed. Old debts come due, and they may have to be paid by the next generation. Isildur's bane will be mine as well, I fear." Thranduil sighed and sipped his wine.
Legolas kept his peace. In his darker moods, his father could be frustratingly obscure. But the Dorwinion would change that soon enough.
"Of late, my sleep has been disturbed," Thranduil continued. "My dreams and visions are such that I prefer wakefulness. Over these past months I have wandered the palace at night, and most often my footsteps took me to the lower chambers where the prisoner was kept close. I sat with him."
"With Gollum?" Legolas was amazed. How had his father endured the stench, much less the steady stream of disjointed foulness that issued from the creature's mouth?
"Yes, Gollum, it called itself. But his name, I learned, was Sméagol. He talked. I listened."
Legolas would frankly have preferred nightmares to listening to the wretch's obscene discourse through the night. He had been forced to hear enough of it in the daytime. "I imagine you found little comfort in its company."
Thranduil laughed mirthlessly. "Very little indeed. Amid his ramblings about murder, thieves and torture, I learned that he had been of the River Folk; the halflings who dwelt along the Anduin, below the Gladden Fields."
Halfling? Legolas had seen only one hobbit, but this Gollum was nothing like Bilbo Baggins. "Father, there are no folk living along the Anduin in that area."
"No," said Thranduil. "Not now. Over five hundred times have the leaves fallen in these woods since the Enemy returned to the Dark Tower and drove all decent folk from the land, and yet it seems but a short time to me." He sighed and held his hand up to the firelight. "I have lived long, Legolas and seen much. I grow old, I fear, and it is the wont of the old to find trouble where it perhaps does not exist. And yet my heart is uneasy."
These words took Legolas by surprise. He had never thought of his father as old; never stopped to ponder the long ages of his life. To him, Thranduil had always been the personification of vigor and indomitable strength. "You old, Adar? I shall not live so long as to see that day!"
He heard Thranduil draw in a sharp breath, and the wine in his goblet sloshed, casting a dancing pool of light on the ceiling.
"Did you give Elrond's courier an answer?" Legolas continued.
Thranduil shook his head. "None was needed, and he had proceeded on to Dale and the Lonely Mountain ere your return from the southern wood. He will come there too late, I deem, for Dain had already petitioned me, and I had granted, safe passage through the wood for a party of Naugrim on their way to Imladris. He did not say why they wished to go there, but I had an idea of their business. Brand of Dale has informed me in secret that both he and Dain's folk have been under some . . . pressure from men of the east to swear friendship, if not outright fealty."
Legolas almost hesitated to ask. "Has our realm been approached as well?"
Thranduil laughed bitterly, and the reflected firelight glittered in his teeth and eyes. "They know better than to try."
"You granted passage through our woods? To Dwarves?"
"And why ever not? All that is required is that I be asked politely. I am not entirely unreasonable, you know." Legolas bit his cheek to keep the smile from showing on his face as Thranduil continued. "The party came through while you were hunting that cursed creature in the south. I made sure that they were guarded -- discreetly, for they are a stiff-necked folk and would have no doubt taken it amiss to be shepherded through like children. I even went to far as to offer them lodging for a night. It was declined, for as it turns out, the leader of the group was one Glóin, son of Groin, and he remarked that he had already enjoyed enough of our hospitality to last him a lifetime."
"Dwarves do live a long time -- for mortals," Legolas observed dryly. Thranduil gave him a sidelong look, but Legolas was relieved to see a faint smile appear on his father's lips. "Father, as long as there is to be candor between us tonight, what is the tale of the old quarrel between you and the dwarves? I have long wished to know."
"Have you not read your history books, my son? The Dwarves of Nogrod killed Elu Thingol our greatest king. I was not yet born when Doriath was sacked, but my father told me the tale often enough."
"That explains your ill-feeling for the dwarves, I suppose," Legolas said. "But I have been to Dale often enough to overhear them talking about you, and your reputation among them is notorious."
"Truly?" Thranduil sounded rather pleased with himself. "What do they say?"
"Er . . ." Legolas decided that discretion was the better part of valor, as the term, 'miserly son of a dragon' would hardly improve his father's mood. "They say that you are a negotiator to be reckoned with, Adar."
Now Thranduil laughed out loud. "You may become a diplomat yet, my son. For I know what they say about me is far less flattering. I have had one of them question my parentage to my own face."
"Ai, Rodyn," Legolas muttered. "What did you do to them? I have heard it was over a necklace."
His father shrugged and refilled Legolas's glass, then his own. "I think that over the long-years, the story of Thingol's and my own have become wrapped together. But, yes, it was over a necklace. A very special necklace, this was to be. No silmaril, no gaudy gems and gold. Just two moonstones, simple and elegant, and the chain light as a feather so as not to burden the neck. For this, mithril was required."
Thranduil paused, his face lost in old memory. "Here came my first problem, for although I had drawn the design, there was not a silversmith in Oropher's realm with enough skill to work it. I took my half ingot of mithril -- even in those days the metal was very dear -- and my gemstones, and had my agents treat with Moria, where the finest metal workers were to be found. I contracted with one Orin to work the mithril and the stones into a necklace, and I gave him the gold he required as his price."
"What went wrong?"
Thranduil shrugged and sipped his wine. "When the necklace arrived and Dorin's messenger placed it into my hands, I knew something was not right. It was a thing of beauty, no doubt, but I knew in my heart that dwarf had cheated me. He had replaced much of the mithril with plainsilver and kept the excess for himself. I had no way of proving it, or so I thought. The necklace weighed exactly what it should have, although it seemed small to me. The only way to tell for sure would be to melt it down to see if it made a full half ingot, which I was unwilling to do, and Dorin knew this.
"I was in a quandary. There were those who counseled me to let it pass and be content. But my father told me that if I did not make the Naugrim respect me they never would, nor would anyone else. I wonder now, if he had the gift of foresight and knew that a time would soon come in which I would need all the respect I could get. I lay long nights awake, pondering upon what to do. And then it came to me how, at least, I could prove my case."
Thranduil merely grinned, pulled off his great oak leaf signet ring and dropped it into his wine goblet. The wine, which had been at three quarters full, rose almost to the top.
Legolas stared blankly for a moment and then laughed aloud. He looked over to see his father grinning. "Yes -- you understand!"
"What did you do then, Father?"
"I took the necklace, and I journeyed to Moria. Dorin and I had a little talk."
"You promised me a 'little talk' tonight. Am I in for the same treatment?" Legolas said.
Thranduil chuckled. "Not unless you expect to find yourself up against the wall of this chamber, with my hand around your throat and the soles of your shoes dangling two feet off the floor."
"And this tactic proved successful?"
"He remade the necklace, if that is what you are asking," Thranduil said. "Dorin told a different version of the tale, and ever after, the dwarves have no love of me. And whenever I am in their presence, I keep one hand on my sword and the other on my purse." Thranduil drained his glass and refilled it. "Come to think of it, that is not such a bad stance to take with anyone outside of this realm. Mortal or otherwise."
"And the necklace, what did you do with it?" Legolas asked.
"I gave it to a girl."
"Did she like it?"
His father smiled. "Oh yes. She liked it. You could say it was a resounding success."
"Where is it now?"
The smile faded from Thranduil's eyes. "She is still wearing it."
Legolas drew in his breath sharply, feeling as if he'd taken an arrow to the chest. Suddenly, he recalled one of his earliest memories, little more than scattered images in his mind. He had only just learned to walk, and he had somehow managed to escape his nursemaid when she had set him down to talk to another servant. Running on stubby legs, he had made it down the corridor and out of the gates before she had caught him and snatched him up. He had seen his father on horseback at the far end of the stone bridge.
Hearing the commotion, Thranduil had turned to look, and his face was bleak, anguished. "For the love of Elbereth -- get him away from here!" he had shouted, and Legolas had hid his face in Saerlinn's's neck at the unaccustomed anger in his father's voice. Thranduil was alone, dressed simply as if for travel, and he had been leading a pack horse. That pack horse had been carrying a large wrapped bundle.
"Oh, Rodyn," Legolas whispered. Among the Avarren folk of his father's realm, it was the custom of the nearest of kin -- the husband in the case of a wife -- to take a body alone into the forest and there to make a secret grave. Legolas had learned little about his mother. This was unusual, for there were few secrets that could be kept in Thranduil's cave, but the elves had been too nervous of their King to say anything, and Legolas had never dared to ask his father. He had only heard a few whispered references to the Avari, quickly silenced at his approach and he had deduced that his mother was of the eldest folk, the last to come west from Cuiviénen. "My mother. How did she die, Adar?"
Thranduil shut his eyes, and his head dropped forward ever so slightly. He drew in his breath slowly and spoke with obvious reluctance. "After your birth she . . . weakened, my son. More and more of her strength left her until she just . . . slipped away."
Legolas felt a pain in his chest that made it difficult to draw breath. "No wonder no one would speak of it. You must have hated me," he said softly.
Thranduil opened his eyes and turned his head sharply. "No. Never say that. You made her happy, Legolas, in a way that I never could. The months she suckled you were the most joyful of her life. And of mine as well." He sipped his wine and sighed. "Rather, I should hate myself for causing her death. If only I had been stronger, so much of her strength would not have had to pour out into the making of you."
He shook his head and continued. "You did not ask to be born, Legolas. That was my choice, and your mother's. The only regret I have is that, since the hour of your birth, you have been an arrow aimed straight at my heart. Someone once told me that in my greatest joy would be my greatest grief. I have been fighting that doom since the day you came into this world, and alas, in this hour it comes upon me."
These words chilled Legolas in a way he could not explain. Before he could formulate a reply, Thranduil drained his glass and rose from his chair. "Come, there is something I must show you. It is time."
Legolas followed his father out into the corridor. Thranduil strode forcefully, his son in his wake, never showing the effects of the wine he had consumed. Those elves they met at this late hour bowed and gave way before them. "Where are we going?"
The vaults! Legolas could barely contain his excitement. He had often wished to see the interior of his father's treasury, and he had often felt a secret frustration that he was not held in enough confidence to be admitted to it. He had realized it was because of his youth, but that did not make it any easier.
Off a lower corridor, father and son entered an ante-chamber. Thranduil pulled a key from his robes. "This is kept in a box in my desk. Just so you know. But it will not work unless you say the words to this spell. Repeat them after me." Legolas listened to the sequence of words his father spoke and recited them back as directed.
"Good," said Thranduil, and he turned the key in the lock while saying the spell again. The door swung open.
Legolas followed his father into the vault and stood staring in amazement. "Where is it?" he asked. There was a series of shelves with ingots of gold and silver, along with some bags of coin, but the piles of glittering gems he had expected to see were conspicuously absent.
"This is it, Legolas," Thranduil said.
"But in Laketown and Dale, and even among your own folk, they speak of a huge hoard."
"I know. I am reputed to be as rich as Smaug back in his time, and I let the rumors go unchecked. What gems we have, I wear, and my courtiers wear freely and openly. The appearance of vast wealth is a useful thing, my son, for if ever I need to contract with the Easterlings or the men of far off Rhûn for goods and food in times of scarcity, they will do it without hesitation. And the truth is, I have always been able to pay when the time comes."
Thranduil waved his hand in a wide circle. "We are far from poor, Legolas. But the true wealth of this realm is in the skill and hands of my people, and the bounty of the forest. We live off the land, and for what we do not have, we trade the work of our hands -- our cloth, our furs, and our metal craft, which thanks to our desire to learn begins to rival that of the dwarves."
"But, Adar, the emeralds that Dain gave to you as your portion for taking part in the battle at Erebor! I do not see those here."
Thranduil shook his head. "You will not. But if you look in the armory, you will see suits of armor, newly delivered. They are those made by old Thror for King Bladorthin, and Dain gave me quite a bargain on them. He is not a bad fellow -- for a dwarf. Truth to tell, he had little use for them, although I fear I may find them too useful in days to come. My soldiers will not have to fight in thin leather ever again."
"The emeralds went for armor?"
"Yes. And that is the difference between one suit of triple-beaten silver for Girion's heir and two hundred of iron."
At the mention of silver armor, Legolas took pause, for he remembered another, even more costly, suit of mithril mail, and his father's words: "Take it and choke -- Just leave me my boy." How Legolas had hated that little mail shirt, and how gleefully he had watched it fly off in Smaug's talons and later on the back of a retreating halfling. He had thought it just a drop in the immeasurable wealth of his father, and now, looking around, he could see what a significant portion it had represented. "Oh, Father," he whispered. "That mithril shirt just for me? And then you let it go?"
"It served its purpose, Legolas," Thranduil said with a gentle smile. "For I still have you, have I not?"
Legolas had nothing to say to this, for he was still feeling ashamed. He waved a hand around the vault. "How many know of this?"
"Myself and my Chief Advisor, Séregon," Thranduil replied. "And now you. I had not wished to burden you with such worries, but tonight you leave your childhood, such as it was, behind. Now that you know the truth, I trust you to keep it a secret. And when the Naugrim, or the men of Laketown call me a miserly son of a dragon who likes to play with his piles of jewels, I expect you to smile and agree with them."
Thranduil sighed and looked him in the eye. "My son, Mirkwood has only ever had but two treasures. One of them sleeps in the forests of the Emyn Duir. And the other, I send to Imladris tomorrow."
Legolas reached out and laid his hand against Thranduil's chest. "Adar, Mirkwood's wealth is here. And its strength too." Beneath his palm, he could feel the slow measured cadence of his father's heartbeat, a comforting rhythm he remembered from childhood. How many times, he wondered, had it beaten, and how many more before the end? Elf hearts were made to beat forever, but in these fell times, it was far from a certainty. "I will give Elrond our bad news, and then I will hurry home again. From the tenor of your words, I sense I will be needed here."
Thranduil shook his head sadly. "I made a promise long ago that your life would be your own, and I am now held to it. I raised you well, my son, and I strove to protect you. How I wanted you to have the peaceful life of a healer or a bard, but you had other ideas! This was one battle I was destined not to win.
"You are the best warrior that Mirkwood ever produced, and you have a wisdom far beyond your years. It may come to pass that you feel you can best serve me and our people by taking a different path. If that is so, I trust you to make the right choice and I want you to do what must needs be done with an untroubled heart. I give you leave to protect us however you deem best."
Legolas made a rueful face.. For all his talk of candor, his father was still speaking in riddles. "Father, you mentioned troubled dreams. Tell me, please, what is it that you see?"
Thranduil dropped his gaze and cleared his throat. "I see a wheel of fire. Blood, death, war -- these woods aflame. And I see you, on a barren plain with ash for earth and a sky like lead. It is a place I know all too well. And then your face turns into that of Oropher, standing on that same plain. You are so very like him, you know. So much so that it has always frightened me."
"Do you see anything more?"
Thranduil shook his head wordlessly. "No, that is where my foresight fails me."
He laid his hand upon his son's shoulder and offered up a shaky smile. "He was laughing, you know."
Legolas shook his head, puzzled.
"Oropher," Thranduil said. "All Angband was breaking out around us; men dying, screaming, death coming at us from all sides, and my adar was laughing like a madman. At the time, I thought the battle-fear had unhinged him, but after all these years I have come to see it differently." He shook his head. "One might have a worse end, you know. Better to die on your feet like a man than weeping on your knees as a slave to the Enemy."
Thranduil stood tall in the dim light of the vault, and the flame of the torches seemed to burn in his eyes. "Legolas, if Námo should come for you, I would have you look him in the face and greet him with a laugh. Show him how the House of Oropher meets death. I know that is what I will do when he comes for me."
It was a glorious day the next morning, one of the first crisp ones of the autumn. The hooves of Legolas's grey brushed through deep drifts of fallen leaves as the group rode out. This time, Legolas had a retinue, as befitted a Prince of his people and Thranduil's official representative.
As the mounted train made its way along the Elf Path, past the orderly rows of beeches and into the forest, Legolas spared a look back over his shoulder. Thranduil stood in the grassy terrace at the top of the steps on the far end of the stone bridge. One hand was laid on his heart and the other was held up in a gesture of blessing and farewell. Legolas nodded his head imperceptibly and saw the ghost of a smile appear on his father's lips.
Legolas could feel his father's eyes on him, long after he had turned his face toward the trail ahead, as the leaves fell around him, red and gold.