Even the air had changed here.
Legolas breathed deeply as he reached the outskirts of Mirkwood, tugging lightly on the reins to stop for a moment. After all the years of feeling the forest being slowly dragged down into the darkness that had spread across Middle Earth he heard the trees whispering sighs of relief. It was not yet fit to be called Greenwood the Great once more but the worst, Legolas knew, had passed with the destruction of the Ring and the fall of Sauron.
Closing his eyes, he let the sounds of the forest and its inhabitants wash over him, taking pleasure in the knowledge that he sensed that many animals that had left the forest many years ago had begun to return.
Still, a shadow lingered.
He opened his eyes with a sigh, and the smile fell from his face as he dismounted and sent his horse back on its way to Beorn. The skinchanger had been a friend to the prince for many years, and had quickly offered Legolas a mount for his journey back to his home when he announced it was time for him to depart. More than a month with any sort of company other than that of animals seemed to be somewhat taxing for Beorn, though he had been a most welcoming host. Legolas suspected that his being an elf had helped matters somewhat as well.
He had evidently had some dealings with other elves journeying back to Mirkwood recently, though Legolas did not believe they had lingered for as long a time as he had. Beorn had sent a suit of armor back with him, telling him that one such group had abandoned it after a member of their party succumbed to his wounds while seeking shelter with Beorn so that they might try to heal him. Beorn had no use for it and asked that Legolas return it to the king’s armory.
The prince had agreed only somewhat reluctantly, he did not typically wear armor beyond what the patrol guards wore, and though the suit of mail and helm were lightweight they felt unnatural to him. It would be the easiest way to transport them though, so he had donned them before setting out, ignoring the amused snort from Beorn as he did so.
He started out on the path, but soon took to the trees, jumping from limb to limb and occasionally stopping to speak with one of the more vocal ones or to offer a song to another that was more reticent.
Gone were the webs that had choked the passages through the twisted branches, and Legolas neither heard nor saw a single spider as the hours passed. His guard never dropped though; just because the spiders had been driven from spinning their webs in the forest did not mean they would stay away. Many times in the past he and the guard had cleared the forest of the ensnaring webs and abhorrent creatures only to have them return twofold within a week’s time.
When night fell he decided to stop and rest, though he had no need of it. He was in no hurry to return home and he had missed spending his nights under the forest canopy as the moonlight shone through, cradled in the arms of one ancient tree or another.
It had not been safe to do so once the darkness had spread and warped Greenwood into such a bleak and dangerous place. His father had ordered that elves would only venture out of the palace and established settlements in groups, and over time even that was discouraged by the increasing presence and boldness of the spiders.
Settling in a comfortable spot where he could recline and not worry about falling at the slightest movement, Legolas removed his helm and tilted his head back, allowing his mind to drift as his eyes watched the shifting leaves, catching glimpses of the stars beyond them as his body rested.
For some time he stayed that way until a new noise invaded his ears and snapped him from his reverie. It was barely audible, even to him, but there was no mistaking the pained cry of the elf nor the furious roar of an orc. Legolas was moving within seconds, helm on his head once more and flying through the trees at twice the speed he had moved before. He never considered dropping to the ground; the underbrush was too thick to run through here. As he leapt from one precarious perch to another he nocked an arrow on his bow.
After what could have only been minutes, though they were likened to hours in his mind, he laid eyes on the first of the orc pack. His feet never stopped as he began firing into the fray of battle, a small group of elves armed in the same manner as he was frantically trying to hold off a swarm of filthy orcs. Legolas brought down as many orcs as he had arrows in his quiver, and when those were depleted he dropped from the trees and drew his knives, falling seamlessly into the chaos.
The sheer mass of bodies made it difficult to see any detail beyond who was friend and who was foe, but from the corner of his sight Legolas saw a flash of pale hair as an elf spun and slashed at the orcs trying to reach him. He had forgotten how marvelous a sight his father was in battle; his twin swords seemed to be a part of him as they sang in his hands, gleaming with black blood, and he moved as if the battle took no more effort that lifting a goblet of wine.
Legolas moved towards him unconsciously, cutting down several orcs to clear a path to the king and finally driving his way forward into the circle that had surrounded Thranduil. Had he not known his father as well as he did, he would have never seen the small look of relief that crossed his face when he saw Legolas. They did not speak, and the bloodshed continued. The orcs were thinning out, but to Legolas’ dismay he saw several elves fall as well. He and Thranduil managed to widen the circle surrounding them as fewer and fewer orcs were willing to risk coming so close to the king and the prince.
Suddenly a fresh surge of orcs sprung out from the brush, ten or fifteen strong, at Thranduil’s back. He heard them of course and engaged them, but as soon as he turned his back the group that was assailing Legolas abandoned him and charged at the king.
Legolas followed them, slashing at undefended necks and stabbing through whatever weak spots he could find in their armor. The reinforcements had bolstered the orcs’ courage though, and it seemed that when one would fall two more would come to stand between Legolas and Thranduil. The king was holding his ground, but Legolas could see in the quick glimpses he managed to catch that his father was being forced into fighting recklessly to try and hold off the many blades seeking his blood.
And it was about to cost him dearly.
In the second Legolas saw his father’s arm extended behind him, flung back after slicing through the air and an orc’s neck, he saw too another orc leering grotesquely behind the king. The orc darted forward and snatched Thranduil’s wrist and he raised his axe to hack the limb off as the Elvenking was jerked off balance and fought to defend himself against the others, unable to free himself.
Casting aside all concern for his own safety, Legolas felt his lips curl into a vicious snarl and beheaded the orc in front of him before springing up and leaping over the orcs in his way. He was going to land amidst angry orcs and flailing weapons, but it was too late to turn back. In his descent, he drew both his knives up above his head and buried them in the orc holding Thranduil captive, one in his neck and the other hewing the orc’s own arm from his body.
The king let out a startled cry as wrenched his arm forward as the rough grip fell away. He redoubled his attack, driving back the orcs now that they saw there were two elves to contend with. When there was room to breathe, Thranduil turned to face his rescuer.
His sharp gasp made Legolas’ brow wrinkle in concern; he had not seen any of the king’s opponents manage to wound him. It took another moment for the pain to register, and Legolas looked down slowly. His hand rose unconsciously to the tip of the blade protruding from the armor covering his chest, and he raised his head to meet his father’s gaze.
But the king was looking elsewhere.
“I will clear a path for you. Make your way back to the palace!” he commanded, already striding forward.
Legolas followed obediently, wincing as he dodged an attack and drove his blade into an orc’s heart, his blade piercing flesh not far from where his own had been pierced. The king did indeed clear a path for him and he finally stumbled out into the open beyond the fighting. Thranduil immediately launched back into the melee while Legolas stood perfectly still, appraising the battlefield and breathing as lightly as he could manage.
His decision was made for him as he saw another elf fall to the orcs’ brutality. Forcing his muscles to relax he raised a trembling hand behind his back and grasped the hilt of the knife embedded there. Gritting his teeth he began tugging at the blade. It was a slow agony as he stopped and began again several times to steady his hand so as to not worsen the wound.
A violent shudder ran through his body when the tip finally slid free and Legolas stared at the knife in his hand, coated in his blood. Shaking his head, he tucked the accursed weapon in his belt and unsheathed his own knives once more. He would not flee like some coward nor would he abandon his people while he drew breath and there was orc blood to be spilled. He could not suppress the urge to cough though, and when he pulled his wrist away from his mouth there was a fine spatter of blood patterned there. There was nothing to be done for it though, and he flew at the nearest orc, blades flashing in hand.
As the fighting continued, he found it easy to ignore the burning in his chest and the black spots that danced across his vision occasionally. But as the number of orcs dwindled and the battle slowed to a crawl, Legolas began to struggle to keep his feet under him, stumbling this way and that. He managed to dispatch one last orc before realizing he could no longer feel his legs. Crumpling to the blood-soaked ground, he tried to push himself back up, but his body would not obey him. A wave of vertigo hit him, the world spinning around him even as he lay on the ground and a great wall of darkness rushed at him and he knew nothing more.