“I will wait right here. I will be patient.”
The king of the woodland realm stands at the base of a great beech tree, looking up to the crook of a branch where a golden-haired elfling clings fast. He digs his nails into the bark as he scans the ground from his great height, far above his father’s head.
“I cannot do it,” Legolas whimpers. Strangely he had not been scared climbing up, but now that he sees the long distance to the earth and the concern written clearly on his father’s face, his stomach flips.
“You chose to climb so high. I cannot reach you and you must come down eventually. You may either climb back the way you came or leap from where you are. Either way, I promise I will catch you.” Thranduil extends his arms, but there is a quaver in his voice that unsettles his son.
“What if I am hurt?”
“If you are hurt, there will be some pain but you will heal,” he assures him. However, his own mind assaults him with thoughts of the injuries he would not recover from, that would indeed snatch him from their realm for good. The tree is very tall.
Legolas frowns and takes a deep breath but finally surrenders his perch. He squints shut his eyes and leans forward to allow gravity to master him. His small body, curled in fright, rolls over once in midair, but he nevertheless hits his target, landing safely as he had been promised directly into his father’s arms. For a moment he pauses, clinging tightly to his father’s robes with his face pressed against his soft fair hair, breathing heavily in frightened release. Thranduil holds him close, every muscle in his own body tense with the pent-up terror of the thought that his son might not have made his landing.
However, no more than a minute passes until Legolas realizes just how fun his “fall” had been. No longer frightened, his heart leaps with excitement and he twists in his father’s arms until he wriggles free, then scampers back up the tree like a golden squirrel.
Thranduil stands aghast for a moment, startled at the sudden shift from fear to fearlessness-- especially as his own heart quails to see his tiny son climb so far from his arms once again.
“Are you ready to catch me again, ada?” Legolas asks, this time daring to make his way further out onto the branch, placing one foot confidently before the other.
Thranduil is unable to speak, fear yet choking his words as he imagines the one wrong footfall, one moment of hesitation, one wrong-angled blow to the head or neck that would snatch his son from him forever. But he lifts his arms again and nods, and waits patiently for his descent.
“You may retrieve it and bring it to me yourself, or you may wait here while I have your room searched. But either way it will be found and returned, if it takes all night. I can be patient.”
The king sits with his arms folded, dark brows raised above icy eyes. His son, at two decades shy of his first century, is still counted as a child amongst their people and this shows clearly in his stance: hands clasped behind his back as he stares down at his boots, avoiding his father’s gaze, occasionally toeing at a loose stone in the floor. Like so many children on the cusp of their adulthood wishing to be seen as older than they are, he wears a reluctant scowl and refuses to speak.
“The choice is yours,” Thranduil repeats, “but I will be more wroth with you if it is necessary that my guards leave their posts to assist me in this petty task.”
Finally, Legolas’s face falls in defeat, for he has never come out the better once it has come to this. He departs for his chambers and soon returns with the object of his father’s ire, unwrapping the hide he has tenderly carried it in: one of Thranduil’s own bows, an ancient recurve that has seen battle in Dagorlad. He returns it with the weight and dignity it deserves, tenderly passing it as the dim torchlight of the caves illuminates its fine carvings.
However, his father snatches it from him with a swiftness bordering on irritation. Legolas’s stomach twists indignantly, as if he were being scolded for having treated it improperly.
“There is not a scratch upon it!” he protests. “I know how to care for such things. And you know I am skilled enough to wield it.”
“It is not your skill I am questioning, but your size. We have spoken on this countless times, when once you asked instead of simply taking,” he quirks an eyebrow. “You are not yet fully grown, my greenleaf. You are not tall enough to manage the bow of an adult elf.”
“But I am tired of a child’s bow! They may suit my size, but my abilities have long outgrown them.”
“When you come of age, you will have a proper bow made for you, fitted to your height and draw. Should you care for it well, it will serve you long in life. But in the meantime, it is not practical to size a bow of this quality for you while you are still growing; by the time it were complete, you would have grown out of it. One mere century using a child’s bow will not cripple your mastery.”
“There are great archers who live and die within the course of one mere century,” he points out. “The children of men will make skilled use of whatever bows their families have on hand.”
“The children of men die easily and often in all manner of terrible accidents, out of recklessness and the recklessness of their parents. You are no child of man. You are an elf, an immortal, and my son, and your mother and I will not be reckless with your safety.”
Legolas sighs deeply: yet again, his safety. It is the reason given for everything that stifles him, from the weapons he is allowed to train with to the very caves they live in, withdrawing beneath the earth in acknowledgement of a growing mysterious evil to the south, in which they hide for as long as weeks at a time when bands of orcs assail the northern woodlands.
“If you are so weary of the bow permitted to you, then do not wield one at all.” He turns to his butler. “Galion, since my son cannot be trusted to mind my orders, will you see that his bow is kept in the armory and that the armory is kept locked?”
Legolas’s jaw drops. “But ada--!” However, Galion has already taken his father’s bow and departed.
The young prince follows him out, and the king does not stop him. Stepping as lightly as he can—he has by now already mastered the fine art of striding over snow without so much as a footprint-- he stalks up behind Galion and waits at a safe distance for him to deposit the bows and lock the chamber, seeking out where he keeps the key ring he wears on his belt. As the butler makes his way for the cellars, Legolas darts swiftly up to seize his prize.
With expert reflexes—his hand seems to fly out of nowhere!—Galion catches the young elf’s wrist and smiles fondly at him as his face falls in disappointment. “You would have to find me considerably less conscious to come anywhere so near as relieving me of my keys,” he warns him with a chuckle.
“I will be waiting right here. I am patient.”
Although weary and muffled by the door, his father’s voice is clear. However, Legolas only wishes he would go away.
He has already heard the news, whispered amongst his kin in the shadowy recesses of the cave, but there is no shielding it from his sensitive ears. He knows that his father has returned from the north and his wife was not at his side.
He has shut himself in his chambers just as he did the day they left, when all hope of dissuading them had been lost. When Thranduil had decided to venture north to confront the powers of the witch-king spreading south to their already cramped and depleted forest home, Legolas had expected to be by his side, just as Thranduil had gone south with his father in the last great battle of the second age. When his mother responded sharply-- a strange and unexpected outburst from a woman who had always been endlessly gentle and patient-- that he was under no circumstances to leave the wood during this dangerous time, he had been outraged and shamed by the insult that he was still too young and callow to be useful and desirable in battle. In the subsequent weeks of preparation he had pleaded and cajoled, begged to be allowed to prove himself-- and in Thranduil’s eyes apparently only proved himself even more the child he believed him to be. By the time the day of their departure arrived, he was too exhausted and defeated to even wish his parents a fond farewell. Thranduil had shouted at him through the door to bid them a proper goodbye, to apologize to his mother for upsetting her more than necessary in the difficult preparations for war, but Legolas stubbornly refused his command, an unprecedented rebellion he only has the confidence for due to the depth of his anger and the knowledge his father’s company must be bound for the mountains of Angmar well before sundown.
It was only once their forces were long out of sight, bound north wrapped in thick cloaks against the winter chill, that he emerged again and went into the forest alone-- a rash venture his father would have punished him for severely had he not been hours from their stronghold by then-- and slain a clutter of spiders himself, proving to no one but himself just how wrongly his parents had assessed his capabilities, until exhaustion consumed him and he returned home shattered and drained but no less angry.
And although all other emotions are nearly drowned by the depth of his grief and the cruel sting of regret-- for against his father’s command, he never said a proper goodbye-- Legolas is still angry. If he had been there at Mount Gundabad, he is certain she would have survived. He would have defended her. He would not have left her side or turned his eyes from her as his father must have. Even if it cost him his own life-- for at least then he would not be here to feel the awful, deadening emptiness of loss.
He has known and loved her for longer than the lifespan of several men; the immortal heart is simply not prepared for such a loss. For the first time he envies the fates of mortals, who all one day free themselves from the torment of eternal memory, the curse of never being able to forget. How is he to survive this when it feels as if his chest has been torn open in a gaping wound-- an invisible wound that his elven healing has no power over? This is all it has taken for many of his kin to depart for the comfort of the white shores across the sea, too grieved to go on in such consuming misery.
However, he knows there are some of who have already endured and survived losses far greater. Until now Legolas has never understood why his father has seldom spoken of his grandfather, why he only came to know about the devastation of Oropher’s army in small slips and whispers from the survivors who after a millennium still grieve the decimation of their kin.
He opens the door to reveal his Thranduil not standing, but sitting, on the ground with his back against the wall beside his door. He hunches over to rest his forearms on his knees, his hair falling to curtain his face-- a shocking posture for a king. However, at the arrival of his son he turns his face upward, his eyes brightening as if his son has cast a beatific light to illuminate them.
Legolas realizes now that the only reason his father has returned to the Greenwood, and is not now bound for the Grey Havens himself, is because of him.
It is strange and uncomfortable to stand above him, so he slips delicately down beside him and they stare into the darkness in the hall side by side in silence, both breathing slowly and deliberately as they try to master the pain coursing through their souls.
“One day, ada, I should like to travel north to see her grave,” Legolas suggests after a while.
“There is no grave,” Thranduil replies.
They do not speak of her again.
“How is it that I am brought a prisoner for diplomatic . . . conversation before I have even heard the briefings of my captain and her officers? It is good that I am so patient.”
The king retires beside the calm pool of the private chamber, pouring himself a goblet a wine. His son, now a full warrior and officer in the woodland guard, enters briskly, still animated by the thrill of the day’s capture.
“Tauriel and I were ensuring the rest of the prisoners were properly detained first, and I think it best we did. Their leader’s shouts carried all the way to the dungeons,” Legolas replies with a wry smile as his father pours another goblet of wine and extends it to him. “Apparently he does not trust you very much.”
“An irony to be sure, for his kin have given us precious little reason to trust them.”
“They are a strange race,” Legolas agrees vaguely, and Thranduil remembers that despite his age and all he has been taught of the world through stories and songs, this is the first he has seen a dwarf so close for himself. He takes the offered goblet and sips from it. “Did you know that female dwarves are also bearded?”
“I confess to having given little thought to the gendering of dwarves,” Thranduil replies. “Did their capture give you much trouble?”
“Not at all. We caught them just as they were under assault by spiders. They should be grateful to us for having spared them such a fate! We might have saved our energy and let them both destroy each other.” He speaks of death and destruction with the calm, almost arrogant assurance of one who, despite the growing powers to the south, has never faced such destruction himself—thanks to Thranduil’s efforts.
But Thranduil ignores his jests and narrows his eyes. “Spiders again?”
“Another crop of them. Tauriel believes they are growing bolder, sweeping north more quickly than they have been.”
“Or perhaps Tauriel did not see they were extinguished properly in the first place.”
“Oh, no!” Legolas’s eyes flash as he comes to her defense. “You should have seen her today; she felled as many as the rest of the guard put together! There is no doubt the nest was destroyed.”
“I suppose if I were unpledged myself, I would not doubt the words of a beautiful young elleth, either,” Thranduil muses icily, watching carefully as Legolas’s bright-eyed enthusiasm for Tauriel’s competence transforms into a startled blush.
“She is my captain . . . and my friend,” he replies. “Of course I trust her word.”
“Your friend, of course,” Thranduil conceals his smile with a long sip of wine.
He is not the first to assume. Elves live long and marry only once, so any close pair of unpledged elleth and ellon is subject to some curiosity and precocious excitement. Legolas wishes Tauriel were by to squash his father’s pointed suspicions as she does so effectively when her soldiers’ giggles and gossip distract them from her orders-- but why he wishes this, he is not sure.
Tauriel is beautiful to be sure, but she is an elf, so of course she is beautiful—as is he, as is his father, as are all who dwell in their kingdom. He is not sure if there is something more to her beauty he is meant to feel, especially when the affairs of married elves yet remains a sacred mystery to him. It is her spirit, rather than her beauty, that draws him to her-- that she is bold, that she is fearless, that she sees possibilities and connections that are insightful and different from how his father sees. Although he is older than she is, she has seen beyond the borders of their realm-- mostly in secret, a rebellion he does not dare himself but admires her for-- and he feels in her a youthful spark and wildness far removed from the stifling, cautious calm of his father’s caves. And she sees in him something more than his father does, trusts his competence and skill and ability to fend for himself. In this trust, he has yet so far to meet another soul that fights with him so perfectly in tandem as if their minds and bodies were one.
But is what he feels for Tauriel what his father fears? And it is fear, for despite his knowing smile Legolas knows he is reluctant that his son should face this fate. Having seen the passing of two millennia he is now long past the age his kin typically marry, although he is the sole son of the king and yet without an heir. It should be natural that Thranduil should want what his people want, to see the line of Oropher continued into the next age and secure his son’s life to their kingdom with the stability and protective impulse of caring for a child, yet he has never pushed him towards the dancing of young elves at feasts, never sent him abroad so that he might meet a highborn elleth in Lothlorien or Imladris, never spoken of pledges or grandchildren. Like so much he has faced in his own life-- homeless wandering, battle, death, even simply having left the borders of the woodland realm-- he seems content that Legolas should remain naïve to this forever.
Stumbling to recover his poise, he returns to his report: “I took off the leader a blade of Elven make. He would not answer plainly how he acquired it.”
“Then it is good it has been returned to us. Keep if it if suits you, for he will have no need of it.”
“You might consider Tauriel’s proposition to send a party south to destroy the spiders at their source,” he says, returning hesitantly to the topic of Tauriel. This risk earns him another flash of Thranduil’s eyes, but Legolas presses forward, knowing that if Tauriel has permission for this task she will require a party of warriors to accompany her, and perhaps he will finally have his chance to see beyond their northern stronghold. “You know she works tirelessly to keep the northern lands clear of them. She knows the realm well. I think she is wise to consider an offense rather than waiting until they are upon us.”
“Is it wisdom,” Thranduil asks, voice dangerous, “to concern oneself with matters so far beyond their power? I am a king, not an emperor of all things; my duty is to my kingdom, not the affairs of every realm. And Tauriel is a captain of the guard; her duty is to her king and command. I have given her orders and it is her task to complete them as I have asked. Why concern herself with matters much removed from her ken? To defy my command would be treason; why tread so close to challenging it? Does she not trust my will as king?”
Legolas presses his lips together to keep from arguing, because he has long ago mastered the sense to heed the warning in his father’s manner. “You are right, ada,” he replies compliantly. “While she speaks carelessly, I am sure in her heart she is obedient to you.” But although there is much about which he is uncertain, he knows his heart rebels at this. Whether or not he loves Tauriel, he agrees with her, and continues to wish to see this greater world she speaks of that is yet unknown to him.
“We cannot allow our enemies to reclaim him. Search all night if you must. We must be patient.”
At Thranduil’s command, Legolas leads the tracking party in pursuit of Gollum, a miserable and cursed creature they have found surprisingly piteous. Unlike the spiders born of evil and orcs so mutilated by it to prevent ever being redeemed, the woodland elves recognize a piece of lost humanity with him not yet entirely lost to shadow. This is a being who has been horribly corrupted, but not yet wholly so.
His curse was a torment, for it turned goodness against him. He choked and spat to taste the pleasant foods they tried to cheer him with and would only eat the black creatures of the dark forest he caught for himself, tearing into them raw with his tiny pointed teeth. When he hunted they could not bind him with rope for he screamed as if it burned him, but had to accompany him on his walks untouched, keeping close as he scaled trees with his bony feet.
But perhaps their kindness was misplaced, for one day when he was let out, his keepers were slain by orcs and Gollum was lost.
They track him as far south as they dare, but even in his curiosity to venture beyond their borders Legolas cannot deny the palpable evil as they approach Dol Goldur. The land is thick with spiders and goblins and orcs; they can feel the signs of growing forces that are sure to outnumber their small tracking party. The darker shadow upon the southern forest fills him with a deep-seated dread that sets his practiced hands trembling so he nearly drops his arrows. They cannot march closer and must admit Gollum is lost.
The prince himself gives the report and the king frets that their prisoner’s time in their realm has supplied their enemies with too much information, though he is also relieved to be rid of this difficult guest who has caused his keepers so much grief and distress.
Knowing their prisoner was of particular diplomatic sensitivity and that his loss is a danger to all of Arda, Legolas ventures a suggestion: “We were entrusted with him. If we could not hold him, should we not at least see that Mithrandir is informed he is free again?”
Thranduil regrets that his son was amongst the guards sitting watch the day the ragged Ranger had dragged the pitiful creature screaming onto their lands, given the puzzling sense of duty this seems to have engendered in him to strange foreigners from lands he has never seen. “We will send an emissary to Imladris on the morrow,” he replies with a sigh.
“You know this is a matter of importance,” Legolas insists. “The other Elven kingdoms expect your cooperation and to hear from you directly. I think you would insult them to treat this matter so lightly.”
“I do not think Imladris expects much from our realm as far as sensitivity and courtesy,” the king retorts coldly. However, Mithrandir’s involvement in these recent developments does give him pause, for the grey Istari has proven time and again that where he appears, trouble is wont to follow. “I suppose you are volunteering for this journey?”
“Surely the king himself cannot abandon the kingdom,” the prince replies delicately, diplomatically, and clearly well-practiced. He has waited for this moment. “But I am skilled in campcraft and defense, comfortable in journeying discreetly in a small company. I am the crown prince and heir, yet whatever past lies between you and the other elf-lords will be less strongly associated with me. And besides, I am well-practiced in redirecting the anger of elven nobility, ada.”
His eyes sparkle and Thranduil raises an eyebrow, surprised and impressed at his son’s cheek. But there is truth in what he says.
He considers his proposition. Of the many places his son might wander, Imladris is not so far, and most of the journey is through forest with which Legolas is already familiar. And although the city lacks Thranduil’s presence, it does have a protection the Greenwood lacks: Elrond’s ring Vilya. Once he is in Elrond’s halls he will be safer from spiders, orcs, goblins, and trolls than he would be at home. His greatest challenge will be simply in navigating the customs of his distant kin, who will not recognize him beyond his association with the greed and solitude of his king in a lonely, wild realm and judge him even before speaking as more dangerous and less wise. But although it may discomfit Legolas it will be a boon to Thranduil, if it returns his son to him quickly with his wanderlust finally satiated.
And so the prince prepares for his journey. A youth spent in the courts of Doriath has Thranduil cringing at the raiment naively Legolas chooses to present himself in to the Lord of Imladris: crownless, garbed humbly in the green and brown of a woodland hunter rather than the lush silver robes of a Sindar prince. He thinks of how like his grandfather he is, so comfortable in the rustic simplicity of the forest Oropher chose to make their home, far from the politics and kinslaying that destroyed Beleriand-- and so unlike Thranduil who sits upon his humble wooden throne yet remembering the glorious caves of Menegroth with awe and avarice. However, he says nothing in hopes that perhaps the minor embarrassment will hurry his son home from Imladris sooner that he might.
The king sees his son off as he departs, silent prayers to the Valar for his safety rushing swiftly through his mind as he bids him farewell.
“I will return soon,” Legolas promises, even as he strategizes to himself how long he can make this precious excursion last.
“I have . . . I have tried so . . . to be patient.”
Thranduil is clearly shocked to see him as he strides into the cavernous throne hall, one of the few places mostly untouched by the flames. Legolas has left Gimli back in an antechamber with his father’s guards, hand on his axe, still not entirely convinced the wood-elves will not try to imprison him as they did his father. Legolas acknowledges his discomfort, knowing he would prefer to stay in the company of the elf he knows and trusts, but their companionship is perhaps too much to explain to Thranduil in his stubborn old age, especially after waiting so long for his son’s return. Legolas’s final words to his father are better said in private.
The Eldar do not show their age on their bodies in brittle skin and wrinkles as men do, but Legolas feels the weariness in his father as he draws near. Although as far as Legolas remembers he has always moved with a leisurely dignity-- except in the fervid urgency of battle-- he has slowed to a pace nearly that of an Ent. Matching the blackened withered branches of the better part of the wood, he has not even trimmed the singed edges from his hair. However, like the razed forest already giving bud to new sprouts from the ashes its former glory, Legolas knows his father has strength within him still. He has recovered from devastation before, time and time again, and he will once more.
Thranduil, however, is in turn startled by how little his son reflects the horrors he has endured, appearing yet as youthful and exuberant as the day he has left, even after his long journey home. In fact, his restlessness seems even worse than before. Legolas seems to have no roots now whatsoever—but, Thranduil thinks, this is perhaps his own fault for naming him as the green leave of summer, for leaves by their nature must eventually fall from the trees that bear them. Legolas has traveled in the company of a tempting evil, fought in many battles, and even walked in the shadow of the black gates-- the very field where Thranduil saw his own father fall-- and yet he returns to the Greenwood in health and peace.
It is a surprise, for in the dark corners of Thranduil’s mind this past year his son has been something of a hostage, an unwitting pawn in Mithrandir and Elrond’s designs against Mordor to spare Elrond’s own house and force Thranduil’s cooperation with the other Elven realms. But he knows Legolas will not have seen it this way, so eager to have been cast a part—he would even have volunteered!-- in this “adventure” to see a world he had known only in stories and song. Knowing this has pained him most of all. Indeed, his son has tarried to return; it has been an entire season since the might of Sauron was vanquished.
In the meantime, Thranduil has fought his own war. The Greenwood has been razed nearly to the ground, all he has worked to protect and preserve gone up in flames that painfully recall the holocaust of the war that ended the first age and sent his people out of their first homeland in Beleriand, and the conflagration in the northern mountains that took his wife. And even once it has recovered it will never be what it once was before the shadow fell, for he has surrendered the better part of it to Celeborn and to the Beornlings, an honorable gesture to deserving allies in his battle beneath the trees-- but a sharp reminder of why Thranduil has preferred to avoid alliances when he can. However, he begrudges none of this to see that his son has returned home whole and unharmed.
But it is only for a moment.
“I have heard the calling of the sea,” Legolas explains, and Thranduil understands. Legolas does not mourn that he has not married, borne a child, sat upon his father’s throne, or so many things which could have and perhaps should have been by right of his birth, but instead feels only a sense of peace and completion for all he has done in his time. Although he will tarry a little longer to see all things in their proper place before he leaves, to patiently wait out the brief lifespan of his mortal companions and see that the new age is set on its proper course, his greatest longing now is for his next adventure in the great land across the sea, a world apart from all he has ever known. His soul has already uprooted from this place, his sights fixed firmly on the West.
However, his father’s heart is still in this wood, where he has lived with his own father, his wife, his son, and the people he has protected for thousands of years. It is the truest home he has known. His own roots are deep and, even in the wake of fire, strong and unmoved.
Legolas explains his intentions with an enthusiasm Thranduil no longer has the energy for himself. He wishes to bring a colony of their people to enliven a wood that needs them, much like ages ago Oropher had brought his company of Sindar elves to rule the Greenwood. He will advise the great new king in the south and see to it as far as it is in his power that he leaves the next age untroubled for the mortals that will keep it when he is gone.
But he will not return to the Greenwood again. When his time in Ithilien has ended and he has seen his companions laid to rest in Gondor’s noble tombs, he will build a grey ship and the Anduin will take him to the sea.
“Will you be there when I arrive?” he asks, feeling out his father’s own intention to depart for the Grey Havens.
Thranduil’s eyes indicate he does not know; there is uncertainty and fear as much as there is weariness and desire for the sweet renewal to be found in the West. Now it is the father, not the son, who balances precariously on the end of the branch, unsure of whether he is brave enough to take the leap when it is so much easier to cling fast to what he knows.
But Legolas does not need a firm answer and smiles kindly. “When you are ready, ada, I will be there waiting for you,” he promises. “I will be patient.”