A Small and Passing Thing
"There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."
-The Return of the King, JRR Tolkien
Chapter 1: Drought
Year 16, Fourth Age-Ithilien
Legolas smiled and shouted a warning to Saida as he watched Elboron shoulder past Alfirinion to race Ewessel to the head of the path. Saida looked up at Legolas' call and waved an arm to let him know she was watching them as they ran and tumbled, Elboron predictably-but valiantly-losing to the feverish flight of the smaller elven child. At the end of the path, Saida threw both her arms out and caught up a child in each, and the force of their combined momentum sent her tumbling to her back with a roar of laughter.
It had been a good night. Though it had not been a good season for grain or trade, that month's hunts had been plentiful, and he was relieved to celebrate and to see the joy on the faces of his people after such a relatively short time in this new place. They had sang and danced and ate and drank, told stories and woven tunes that rose with the song of the cicadas in timeless chords, and the few children among them had flitted like dryads here and there, bringing joy to those who had seen far too much.
But it had not been easy to reach such joy. Years before, upon their first settlement in Ithilien, there was the fight against the remaining darkness-in the flora and fauna, the orc and the evil. Then there was the half-hearted assimilation into Gondorian culture and the struggles of a new diplomatic life. And, now, this horrid draught that made them nervous for winter and reminded too many of them of their struggles in a Greenwood under siege. Throughout, their leader had been more often than not distractable-ever-awake to the needs of his folk but drawn away from leadership at the smallest hint of Sea on the breeze.
But recently, Legolas thought, things were good. His head and heart were rooting themselves as best they could-more like reeds in sand than beech in loam, he thought, but rooting was rooting-and he had been more present these past months than he had been in years. Ithildim had begun representing them with the settlements in Belfalas and Saida had taken up some of his duties with the White Guard in Ithilien, and that left him to run their settlement, visit Gondor, wander, and tutor his students in between.
Which was the very reason Elboron was with him at the moment. After a year of hassling, Faramir and Eowyn had finally consented to an unsupervised visit to Legolas' home, a reward for the successful completion of his Sindarin lessons. When Legolas had deemed the child successful, Faramir had promised his child, Elboron could visit, and when Legolas had declared the child fluent, Eowyn had immediately amended, he could visit without a guard and on his own. Elboron had been beside himself at that promise.
It had all worked out very well, in Legolas' opinion, as it meant Elboron was now immersed in a new dialect that was difficult to teach in an isolated setting and he was providing the perfect distraction for Legolas' growing worries about the coming winter and from a new restlessness that pulled at the back of his mind when he was too long still.
Alfirinion tapped Legolas on the shoulder and pulled him from his thoughts.
"Legolas, I left my satchel at the fire. Ewessel's ledgers are in it and she will be cross at storytime if I do not fetch it."
Legolas patted his head and glanced down the path where Saida stood, Ewessel on her shoulders and Elboron bouncing on the balls of his feet at her side.
"Eh-oh!" he yelled to her. "Alfirinion goes for his bag."
Saida touched her forehead and nodded before taking Elboron by the hand and heading toward her dwelling in the darkness. Legolas could here Elboron's high voice trip over the very same elvish sounds he struggled to alter in his own Westron, as Elboron played a rhyming game with Ewessel. Legolas would have to remember to tell Eowyn and Faramir how much Elboron might benefit from a sibling...
He turned back to Alfirinion and absentmindedly tucked a strand of hair behind the child's ear as he instructed: "Meet us at Saida's when you are done, and keep to the path, young one. I would not face your aunt's wrath should I be blamed for losing you."
"I am old enough to run these woods, Legolas!"
"Well, I know that and you know that, but dear Saida is struggling with your growth, loved-one. Allow her to let you go at her own pace, and hurry back. There is watered wine to be had and sweetcakes I baked myself."
Alfirinion smiled brightly and looked in that moment just as young as he truly was, and he dashed back down the path toward the clearing where they had reveled and feasted, calling a Thank you, Legolas! over his shoulder.
Legolas sighed and looked toward the sky, just a sliver visible through the narrow window cut out by the trees and path. The leaves above him rustled dully-equal parts dry and limp in the dying summer. It would be a very crisp autumn, and they would be busy, he knew, with wildfires that season. He threw Elboron's abandoned sweater around his shoulders and hooked a thumb in his belt as he walked, squinting ahead to see if Elboron needed it, but they were almost back at the settlement and he would be warm enough there-even as the night settled in-so Legolas slowed his pace and watched the stars.
He had only walked a few paces when there was a breath of displaced air and the leathery whisk of leaves behind him, and he began to spin round, but was not quick enough as a hand slipped over his eyes and an arm wrapped around his chest, pulling him close to the body behind him.
"You are not on guard, my friend," a voice whispered in his ear.
Legolas rolled his eyes under the blinding fingers and cried out in amusement: "And I heard you coming a full breath before you caught me! You are out of practice, too, I think!"
"I am," Ithildim answered, and he spun Legolas around now so they stood face-to-face and then grasped his shoulders.
"It is Ithilien. It has made us soft."
"Has it?" Ithildim asked teasingly, and Legolas pulled away and took Ithildim by the upper arm as he continued along the route, talking over his shoulder.
"Aye, friend. We are sluggards now, I think. Hunting only so we can feast, worrying most over rationing our wine to survive this dreadful drought."
Ithildim sighed and caught up to Legolas, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "Is that what you think about all the time, then?" Legolas shoved at him and Ithildim laughed and continued. "I ran in the trees tonight after helping Lerben pack up the meats. It smells like a storm in the canopy for the first time in months."
"The air is wetter to breathe."
"Yes, if we are lucky, it may rain."
"Hm," Legolas said, tilting his head back as they walked so it bumped against Ithildim's arm while he considered the stars. Ithildim kept them walking on the straight path as Legolas watched the sky.
"We are in mighty danger of wildfires come fall, at this rate."
"Mm, even the pines are beginning to give up the fight, I have noticed."
"So let us hope," Ithildim said, squeezing Legolas' arm and propelling him toward Saida's as they reached the massive oak that marked the lit entrance to the settlement.
"Indeed," Legolas agreed. "I will go to Elboron and acclimate him to the idea of coming home for the night."
"And I will wait for Alfirinion at the end of the path."
"Tell Saida to pray for rain," Ithildim smiled as he turned on his heel and walked away.
"Tell her yourself!" Legolas laughed and set off down the winding sidepath to Saida's dwelling.
He could hear Ithildim singing to the night as Saida's house came into view, and she sat outside on the stoop with a mug of wine in her hand and a child to either side of her, both well into what looked like their second sweetcake, judging by the crumbs.
He bent down to kiss Saida's forehead, and she smiled at him as he settled onto the ground before them, his back to the path and the darkness. She poured him a mug of wine from the carafe inside the door and passed it to him. Ewessel tapped Legolas on the nose as she chewed her cake, and then swallowed hurriedly.
"Thank you, Legolas," she said quietly, lifting a glass of water to her lips, then, with both hands.
"Yes, thank you! They are always better than even my mother's," Elboron added, leaning forward so both his elbows were propped on his knees.
"Well, we shall not tell the Lady that, I think," Legolas whispered back, leaning forward, too, conspiratorialy.
The wind picked up around them and the late summer cicadas whirred madly at the whipping winds.
"Ithildim says to pray for rain, Saida," Legolas said abruptly, turning back to her as she sipped from her wine. Her dark hair fell heavy on both side of her face, and her light eyes caught the reflection from the oil lamp hung at the entrance to their path.
"I will pray for what I want to, Legolas," Saida told him with a smile. "But tonight that does not seem like such a bad thing to wish for."
"No, indeed," Legolas agreed.
The cicadas rose into song around them, vibrating as wildly as the wind, so that the children stared in awe and drank their water with eyes like moons over the rims of their glasses-attentive and curious and becoming very tired.
Legolas took Elboron's glass from his hands as he finished and reached past Saida to slip it through the open doorway.
"You are tired and I hear Ithildim and Alfirinion nearing," Legolas said to Elboron, holding out his hand to the boy.
The next moment Alfirinion and Ithildim burst into the light, laughing uproariously as the wind made the trees creak around them. Elboron took Legolas' hand and stood, nodding his thanks to Ewessel and Saida; the child leaned up against Legolas as the two approached.
"I promised Alfirinion a sweet cake and some watered wine," Legolas admitted to Saida as Alfirinion took a final swing at Ithildim, which Ithildim dodged and stopped mid-punch, so that he too now had a child by the hand; he pushed him forward and handed him over to Saida.
"Legolas!" Saida reprimanded.
"He is riled-you may thank me, I think!"
"Yes, Saida," Alfirinion said with a laugh. "I am riled for I was running the trees before Ithildim caught me!"
Saida threw up her hands and poured a half-cup of water into Legolas' recently abandoned wine mug. "Hurry now, Alfirinion. If we are lucky there is a storm coming, and your sister needs her story for bed. Drink up and come inside."
Ewessel, who had been leaning against Saida, shifted so that Saida could haul her up under the arms and catch her legs at the knees. They disappeared together through the open door.
Elboron leaned more against Legolas as Alfirinion drank his wine and picked up the extra sweetcake left out for him.
"Pray for rain!" Alfirinion said, lifting the cake in a sort of toast while Ithildim took the sweater from Legolas' shoulders and slipped Elboron's arms into it one at a time. He lifted the child to his chest and bumped up against Legolas as he adjusted the weight.
"We shall pray, young one," Legolas said with a smile. He pressed a hand into Ithildim's back to lead him and Elboron to his own nearby dwelling.
It was fully dark, and the wind high, and the cicadas still droned around them.