Thranduil believed instinct should have been...well...instinctive, but a year under Beleg’s tutelage had shown him otherwise. Day after day he faced the snow-dusted butts, shooting with a fraction of his mentor’s speed, and a fraction of his accuracy. He shot until his eyes crossed, his fingers swelled, his hands froze, and the muscles between his shoulder blades groaned for mercy.
An abundance of time, indeed.
He drew and...hesitated. Damn it all! He was supposed to load, pull, and fire in one smooth and continuous gesture, a harmonious song of archer and arrow, until he could hit a target without thinking, without stopping to aim. The principle he understood; the practice did not come easily. And Thranduil had little patience for things which did not come easily.
Again, he prepared, imagined the arrow sailing towards its goal, saw it with his mind and not his eye, knew the shot was good. Yet at the very instant he intended to release the string, a noise behind him made him startle, a loud, wet crunch ruining his shot.
He turned, fuming. Behind him stood a youth he knew by sight, if not by name. A man as young as he in years--which was to say, not yet a man at all, but hovering between the twilight of youth and the dawn of maturity--a dawn which stretched just beyond Thranduil’s grasp. And as Thranduil bristled, the interloper regarded him with a mild expression which Thranduil found even more irksome than if he had appeared laughing or haughty. It was a look of curiosity, as if he couldn’t fathom what Thranduil was doing, even as he stood there with his own bow and a quiver strapped to his back. His jaw worked in a leisurely circle. One hand was tucked in his cloak for warmth; the other grasped a half-eaten apple.
He dipped his head as he swallowed. “Apologies,” he said, though Thranduil did not think him the least bit sorry. “You would have made your shot if I hadn’t distracted you.”
Thranduil jerked up his chin, all ruffled pride and defiance, though he could not have said what he was defying. Not, certainly, this stupid boy with his inscrutable placidity. “Yes. I would have.”
When his boast went unacknowledged, he squared his shoulders. “I rarely miss. My father has me in training with Beleg Cuthalion.” When this, too, received no reply, he added (perhaps unnecessarily) “The Strongbow is the greatest archer in all of Doriath. Perhaps in all of Ennor.”
“A fine honor.” The young man at last conceded with a furrowed brow and a sage nod. “There’s no bowman better than Beleg Cuthalion, my father says. And that”--he pointed with the apple toward Thranduil’s bow-- “is as fair a piece of work as any I’ve seen.”
Thranduil doubted he had seen many fair pieces: his hair hung in a careless braid--not slovenly, but indifferently done; his clothes were well-made, but not stylish. Workmanlike, his mind supplied; the sort of word his father employed with a dismissive flick of a velvet-clad arm. The bow he carried was as small and rustic as those of the Laegrim Thingol had given sanctuary in the outer edges of the wood. Perhaps, Thranduil thought, he was one of them. Nonetheless, the compliment softened his posture and he sheathed his arrow. “My father commissioned it. Had it made for me by Hathalador, Lord Celeborn’s own bowyer.”
He hoped someday to have a bow crafted by Thingol’s bowyer, but he knew not to press his father, who would have chastised him for coveting an instrument of which he had not yet proven worthy. Perhaps after he had been accepted into Beleg’s company and served on the marches for a time--perhaps then he would approach his father for such a grand thing. Or he might purchase it for himself with his own wages once he had become a member of the King’s Guard, paid in gold from Thingol’s own treasury! Wouldn’t that be a thing to prize! Of course, his current weapon was not lacking, strong and supple through the limbs from tip to bronze-capped tip, decorated with subtle carvings and inlaid with lighter wood on the belly. He offered it up for inspection. The lad set his apple down on the snow, rubbed a handful of the fine, cold powder between his hands to clean them: a mark of respect (for the bow, if not for Thranduil). Thranduil’s estimation of him increased a fraction. When he reached out, he received it with both hands, like it was an object worthy of veneration. Perhaps he understood the value of the thing after all.
“It will shoot straight,” the boy appraised, turning it over in his hands and feeling its balance. “And it pulls evenly. Hathalador is known for his work.” Thranduil noticed the dirt beneath his fingernails as his hand swept over the wood: either he cared little for the details of his appearance, or he was of poorer stock, one who labored for his keep; an indentured craftsman, perhaps. “It’s quite strong. Black yew wood, like Belthronding.”
His knowledge of the weapon and its maker surprised Thranduil. “You are familiar with Hathalador, then?”
“I am. I know he has made bows for other great men. Lord Oropher carries one, I believe.”
Pleased to hear his bow compared to his father’s as well as his mentor’s, Thranduil allowed himself to preen. “Just so.” He took the bow back; a demonstration was in order. He turned to the target, nocked, and drew, aware his audience was observing the smooth pull of the string and the yield of the wood, the arrow fletched in bright yellow and green. He loosed his shot and it flew true. He lowered the bow and stepped back with satisfaction.
“Well done.” The stranger clapped once, twice, thrice. “A decent distance for a static target.” He plucked the apple from the snow and took a casual bite. His tone was more placating than impressed, which Thranduil found utterly infuriating.
Beleg’s words came again into his mind: Skill is proud that it has achieved much; wisdom is humble that has not achieved more. What difference did it make if some middling-born son of a craftsman hadn’t been awe-struck by his efforts?
But Beleg’s lesson had not yet settled in him fully, and his temper--which Beleg often admonished--rose in spite of his better self: did this fool imagine he could do better? “And what of that thing?” he asked with more sharpness than he intended, flapping an arm toward the unremarkable weapon slung across a broad but meddlesome back. “Do you shoot with it or merely wear it for decoration?”
A skewed smile broke across the stranger’s face, one hinting at mirth at one corner of his mouth, and broadened into appealing humor at the other. He surveyed Thranduil with eyes sharp as lances. “I’m not partial to decoration where practicality will suffice.”
His measure so succinctly taken, Thranduil bristled once more. “Well, I’m of a mind that the tools with which I would depend on for my life or livelihood should be as beautiful as they are functional.”
“Those, then,” the man snorted, tipping his head towards toward Thranduil’s fur-lined and intricately-tooled boots. “Which are they for? Your life or your livelihood?”
Thranduil’s cheeks burned. He had always enjoyed fine clothing, and most of the young men with whom he consorted envied his wardrobe. He was unaccustomed to being teased, even though he sensed not even a whit of malice. This boy, with his bright eyes and crooked mouth, reminded him of an unruly puppy who lacked the sense to know when he bit too hard. “If your skills are as dull as your humor, I shall keep my expectations of them low.”
The man snorted again before he took up his own weapon and applied his clear-eyed scrutiny to its rude but serviceable curves. “This mayn’t look like much,” he said with a shrug, “but it does what it’s intended to do.”
“And who is its maker that you are so bold?”
Thranduil tried to incite him with a scoff, but his damnable face remained equanimous while regarding the inelegant instrument in his stained hands. He simply shrugged and replied, “Its maker is no-one of note. In fact, it is of my own making.” His face dimmed--just for a moment, and nearly imperceptibly--as if he expected Thranduil to mock him. “But if I don’t stand behind my own work, who will?”
Thranduil, who had learned only the most basic concepts of the bowyer’s arts and knew few of the practical talents required to create a weapon himself, could barely conceal his surprise… surprise shot through with more than a hint of envy: yes, his father’s gold had bought him a beautiful piece, proportionate, balanced, and pleasing to the eye, but he couldn’t recreate it or anything like. At best he could turn his own arrow-staves, but so could any simple huntsman. To craft a bow was another skill altogether--one Thranduil did not possess.
Curious now, he swept his arm toward the target in a gesture that was both a welcome and a challenge. The man smiled with an impish expression which seemed to be laughing both at Thranduil and at himself. Thranduil’s stave still stood proud in the innermost circle; it would be tough to best his shot. “You haven’t left much room for company.”
Thranduil offered his most insouciant shrug.
Was the ensuing laughter at Thranduil’s expense or his own? He could not say; this stranger and his star-bright gaze and errant smile confounded him-- drew him in and annoyed him all at once. “Well,” he looked at the apple in his hand, now reduced to a well-gnawed core, as if trying to decide what to do with it. “As I said, that’s a fair distance for a static shot. But if you hope to be a marchwarden, I should think you would do better to practice with a moving target.”
And with alacrity Thranduil scarcely imagined possible, he threw the apple core high into the air and in a single graceful motion drew a bolt from his quiver and pulled off a shot. The arrow soared, and as the apple reached the apex of its arc, the bolt pierced it straight through, from style to stalk. Thranduil watched it fall and drive into the dirt a scant few feet from the target, the apple core centered between the snow and the plain grey fletches. The man retrieved the bolt without a word, sliding the remains of the apple from the shaft, rubbing it down with a fistful of snow and drying it on the tail of his cloak before returning it to his quiver. He returned to where Thranduil stood, silent and dumbstruck, biting the core in half and chewing as he walked.
“One shouldn’t waste food in winter,” he said, swallowing around the words, his voice sounding just short of apologetic, as if he assumed--rightly, if he were honest--that Thranduil was the sort to leave the orts behind. Damn him again, Thranduil thought.
But curiosity overtook his annoyance in the end: who was this ridiculous creature? Of course, there was nothing for it but to ask. “I am called Thranduil, son of Oropher.” He thrust out his hand. “And you are…?”
The man looked from hand to hand--one held the last of the apple core and the other held his bow--and Thranduil felt a sense of victory at having wrong-footed him even in such a trifling fashion. While Thranduil’s outstretched hand hung waiting in the air, the man pushed the remainder of the fruit into his mouth and chewed as quickly as he could. Thranduil watched him stretch his neck and swallow.
“I am called Haldir,” he said in a voice muffled by the apple, meeting Thranduil’s proffered hand with a grin and a strong, slightly sticky grip. “Haldir, Son of Hathalador.”