So beautiful the lungs
are breathless. The hand remembers;
I was a wing.
Blue. The peaks in ruddy
Young day, young times, young world.
Birds listen, intently silent.
—excerpt from “Songs of a Wanderer”
by Alexsander Wat (Polish poet, 1900-1967)
Third Age of the Sun, 1872 – Northern Mirkwood
There are moments in one’s life from which it is impossible to recover, Ithildim thought, watching his friend from where he stood—something horrible had happened.
Legolas touched his forehead in confusion. He swayed for a moment and then stumbled forward into Saida’s arms, as if fainting. She lowered him to the ground and he settled there, knees crossed like a diamond in front of him, hands clasped in his lap and head bowed.
Ithildim’s company had been stopped in the middle of the Elf Path, and Ithildim was reviewing a chart from the Western patrol with a soldier when he heard the approaching thrum of a messenger’s horse. When he looked up, their childhood friend Saida—now a trainer for their youngest recruits—leapt from her horse and bowed her head. “Legolas!” she had called softly, with urgency. “I have been looking for your company for days.”
And then she had taken his shoulders in hand and tucked hair behind his ear, leaned in and whispered, and Legolas had fallen to the ground, where he was now.
Ithildim pushed the chart into Elednil’s chest and walked to Legolas and Saida; he crouched at his friends’ side as Legolas stared blankly at the dirt in front of him.
He looked at Saida.
“What news have you brought him?”
“Lieutenant Felavel has been killed. The Halls are in chaos. Prince Lumornon bid me find your party before the King or Queen make a rash decision, and Captain Lostariel said she sent you all west to scout, but the Western Patrol knew not of your whereabouts, and I could not find you until now! I have wasted such time!”
Ithildim placed a hand on her cheek and Saida stopped her frantic report. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again she was calm.
“It is well, Saida,” said Ithildim gently. “You are here now, and we are here with Legolas. You have the only horse. Take him with you back to the Halls.”
“No,” Legolas said, and his friends were startled. “We will take our company back to Captain Lostariel first, and then I would travel back with the both of you, by foot if we must. They will have had rights for my sister by now; there is no need to hurry.”
Ithildim caught Saida’s eyes, and she spoke quietly.
“Legolas, there is rumor among the palace staff that Gwaerain will sail. Your brother fears she will take the baby. The Halls are full of grief.”
Legolas finally looked up and tilted his head to the side, as if considering.
“If the Queen has chosen to leave,” he said slowly, “then she will do so regardless of whether I am with my family in four days or fourteen. I see no reason to hurry.”
Ithildim stood. He was ranked higher in the King’s Army than his friend, son of the Elvenking or not.
“Elednil,” Ithildim said, walking away from Legolas and Saida and toward their fellows. “You will lead our soldiers back to Captains Lostariel and Amonhir. Legolas and I return to the Halls with Saida.”
Elednil nodded and stood from where he had been drawing a diagram on the earth with a stick.
“Something has happened,” Elednil said, narrowing his eyes at Ithildim.
Elednil was a new warrior, but he was the oldest in their company—born in the Emyn Duir before the Battle at Dagorlad—and he was more measured and perceptive than most of them.
Ithildim nodded. “Lieutenant Felavel has been killed. Legolas must return to his family.”
“Ithildim,” Legolas interrupted, standing and placing one hand on Saida’s horse as if exhausted, “you are being ridiculous. My mother will not go to the Havens—she is Silvan! The sea does not hold sway over her heart.”
“The Sea holds sway over all of us, Legolas,” Elednil said softly, “whether we know it or not, especially in these dark times.”
“No,” Legolas protested, “we are children of the woods! She will stay; she would not take Piniriel. We will go back to Captain Lostariel with our company, Ithildim, as we should.”
Saida put a hand on Legolas’ shoulder and Ithildim turned to Legolas. The elves behind them rolled up papers and tucked waybread in pockets, readjusting weapons. They avoided looking at their king’s distressed son, ready to leave the path to find their captains.
Ithildim took a breath and exhaled through his nose to steady his response.
“I command our party, Legolas, when we are apart from our captains. And I say we will go with Saida to the Elvenking’s Halls, and you will follow me because it is your duty, and because I am your friend, and I know better than you right now.”
“Captain Amonhir, too, insisted you were to return with me, Legolas,” Saida said quietly, her voice almost a plea. “You have been commanded, by your superiors as well as your peers.”
“This is absurd,” Legolas insisted. “There is no need to hurry. Felavel is dead. The worst has already happened. This could not be any worse to me. But I will not defy your orders, Ithildim, so let us leave.”
“We will make haste; Elednil can take the horse,” said Saida.
Ithildim issued a series of sharp commands and bid their party farewell, while Legolas stood silently by Saida, head bowed and arms limp at his sides.
When Ithildim returned to them, he placed a hand on each of their shoulders as they began to walk the path.
“My mother will not sail, Ithildim,” Legolas said.
“Legolas,” Ithildim began, “your brother has known your mother much longer than you. If Lumornon fears something, we ought to fear it, too.”
“No,” said Legolas. “I will not believe it.”
“No! I will not! To believe it is to give up—it is to lose hope!”
“Legolas, your sister has died; your mother has lost her eldest daughter—“
“No! No,” Legolas repeated. He shook his head from side to side as Ithildim had not seen him do in years, and he closed his eyes, pressed the heels of his hands into them. “She will stay with us in the woods, where we belong. She will stay here; she is Silvan, and her children are as good as. Felavel would not want her to go; to go is to give in to darkness; she will not go—she cannot.”
“Let me believe that which I need to, Ithildim!”
“I will let you lie to yourself if it is what helps us get you home.”
There was quiet then between the three friends as they continued in the deep gloam; eventually all three lit lights, and a while later they put them out and took to the trees, away from the threat of spiders and toward the lightness of the eastern wood, drawing ever closer to the Elvenking’s Halls.
Legolas, Ithildim, and Saida arrived home two days after departing their company. They flanked Legolas on either side, accepting condolences from their peers and elders for him, as they worked their way further into the hill, to the Elvenking’s quarters. Ithildim and Saida presented Legolas to his parents and then bowed and ducked out of the room. Legolas could feel the ghost of Ithildim’s warm hand on his wrist after they had left, and he raised his eyes to look at Thranduil and Gwaerain, but neither of them spoke. There was silence in the room for a long minute before Thranduil turned to him.
“Felavel’s ritual was two days ago; I am sorry you missed it.”
Legolas clasped his hands in front of him and dropped his eyes to the worn purple rug underfoot.
“I am sorry also,” he said.
“Your mother will need to speak with you later,” Thranduil said, crossing the room and placing a hand on Legolas’ shoulder, looking down into his face and reaching out to wipe a stripe of dried mud off his cheek. “We are making a decision, but we did not want to do so before you returned.”
Legolas looked up at his father and he could not speak.
His older brother Lumornon emerged from the sitting room to the left, carrying a cup of tea.
“I thought I heard you, emlineg,” Lumornon said, walking to him quickly and touching Legolas’ cheek.
“You are not really considering allowing her to leave?” Legolas asked suddenly.
The familiar feel of his brother’s smooth hand on his cheek had grounded him, and he looked away sharply from his father toward Gwaerain, and the fear of it rushed into him.
Neither Lumornon nor Thranduil answered him.
Legolas walked to the pouf on which his mother was sitting, hands folded in her lap and legs crossed in front of her, bare feet tucked beneath her knees.
“Mother!” he said, dropping to the floor and kneeling in front of her.
He took her hands in his. She looked down at his dirty hands, entwining with her long dusky fingers, but did not say a word.
“Mother,” Legolas repeated. “Mother, tell me you are not leaving us.”
Thranduil was beside them in a moment, pulling Legolas to his feet.
“She has barely spoken since the funeral rights, my son. Please, give her time.”
Legolas looked up at his father and he did not know what to say. Over and over, he did not know what to say.
Suddenly, Lumornon was gently taking his arm and pressing the warm mug of tea into his hands, wrapping his fingers around it with his own.
“Come with me, Legolas,” he said. “Come. You need to bathe and change and eat; Mother will come see you later.”
Legolas only nodded and looked one last time at his mother, who was still sitting quite still behind him, head tilted to the side and lips parted; her cheeks had become flushed.
“She will explain later, Legolas,” Lumornon pulled him toward the door, but Gwaerain stopped them with a quiet word.
“Emlineg,” she said, and Legolas whipped around; he felt the hot tea burn at his hands, felt it melt away at the dirt in his calluses, sting at his skin, cracked from the cold.
Lumornon’s hand stayed firm on his arm and seemed for a moment to urgently squeeze, so he could not turn round completely.
“My child, I do not intend to leave you,” Gwaerain said.
Legolas nodded, and then inclined his head to his father, and he allowed Lumornon to lead him into the hall.
A few steps outside the door, Lumornon stopped their progress and faced Legolas, cupping his hands underneath the warm mug and pushing it gently upward, catching Legolas’ eye.
Legolas smiled slightly at his brother and lifted the cup to his lips; chamomile and a hint of cinnamon overwhelmed him, and he took a deep breath and breathed in the warm steam; he closed his eyes and felt his shoulders relax, and then he brought the mug down and held it close to his chest.
When he opened his eyes, Lumornon was a step closer, and his hazel eyes were wide and worried. He reached out to Legolas and gently took his bow from his shoulders and put a hand on his back, pushing him forward, but Legolas would not at first move.
“Where is Piniriel?” Legolas asked suddenly, and his whole body felt rigid again and alert as his brother urged him forward.
“She is napping in your room, Legolas,” Lumornon said gently. “She has been waiting for you. Our parents have been obviously distracted and she is craving attention.”
Legolas smiled and allowed himself to be moved along more easily.
“Do you think mother will leave, Lumornon? Will you really let her go?”
They had reached Legolas’ room at the very end of the hall, and Lumornon pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door, and then tucked it into Legolas’ belt.
“I do not know, emlineg,” he said. “But you know as well as I that we have no control over her—she will make her own choices.”
“Hmm,” Legolas said, dropping his pack onto the bed and beginning to undo his quiver and belt.
“Pull out your tub, Legolas, and I will find someone to bring you a few buckets of warm water.”
Lumornon nodded to a corner of the room where their younger sister Piniriel lay sleeping on her chest, with one arm tucked under her and her legs splayed akimbo.
“She has only just fallen asleep,” Lumornon said to Legolas as he shrugged out of his jacket. “Mother and father could not console her, and she did not understand. She did not understand when they laid Felavel to rest; she asked us when she would come back, and I told her she would not. She did not understand, and I did not know what to say.”
Legolas looked up at his brother, and Lumornon took a step back to see the depth of hurt there, and the sudden age and wisdom in his young eyes.
“How could she understand, Lumornon, when even we do not? When Mother cannot see any way to feel whole again but by sailing over the Sea, though it would sunder our family as Felavel has done her heart? Piniriel is too young to even know injury, let alone death. But she is lucky, in a way, because she will forget this, and she will never know our family is less than it was meant to be, and she will grow whole and happy.”
Legolas looked away from his brother and dropped his jacket to the ground, moving on to his tunic and pulling it over his head. He folded it quickly into a square—fold, fold, press, fold—and let it fall on top of his jacket on the floor.
“I should warn you, Legolas,” Lumornon told him, looking distraught and a little uncomfortable—his dark hair fell in a frame around his face and it brushed at his cheek as he leaned toward his brother. “Mother wants you to leave with her; she intends to take you and Piniriel to the Havens.”
Legolas felt himself freeze as he reached behind his neck to undo the latch at his necklace—
“She what?” he finally managed.
“I know that you heard me,” said Lumornon. “Do not make me say it again. But know, Legolas, that the choice is yours. No one will hold it against you if the hurt is too much.”
Legolas fumbled with the clasp that was caught in his hair and said stiffly, “No amount of hurt is enough to chase me from these woods.”
He could not untangle the necklace and he sighed. Lumornon turned him around with a push at his shoulder and picked out the hair tangled in the clasp. He undid it and held it out by the chain, dropping it into Legolas’ hand when he turned back to him.
“Do not worry, Lumornon,” Legolas said. He slid the necklace—a flash of citrine like muted sunshine—onto his bedside table and sat on the bed to untie his shoes.
Lumornon did not move.
“I am sorry I was not here to steady them,” Legolas said quietly. “This was too much for us. They thought it was safe, for her.”
They both glanced toward Piniriel, who stirred in her sleep and brought a knee to her chest.
“Who knows,” Legolas said musingly, “perhaps she will be better off in Valinor. But my heart will be broken. I will appreciate the hot water, Lumornon. And to see you again later.”
Lumornon suddenly stirred and moved forward in a rush. He grasped Legolas’ shoulders and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“Rest, emlineg,” he said. “Please rest.”
Legolas dropped a shoe to the floor, and then Lumornon was gone. The door breathed a sigh like an old pine in a breeze as it shut behind him. He pulled off his shirt and undershirt, wiped his hands on his breeches—wet from the tea—and crossed to a cupboard by their washbasin. He pulled out the metal tub and slid it into a corner, and then walked to his sister’s bed. He laid down beside her and draped an arm across her tiny shoulders; her breath was a sigh on the hairs of his arm, barely there—she was so small.
He laid there until there was a knock at the door, and he thanked Galion and his friend profusely for the water, and then, he was so glad to be clean; he had never been more glad to get rid of the dirt of the road.