Legolas led her directly to Thranduil’s private rooms, walking past the King’s honour guards and into the dim quarters without hesitation. It was a moment’s pause that Aeslin followed, her anxiety pulsing in her chest. Haldir had agreed to wait behind to give the siblings some much needed time with their father. She could tell from the look on his face when they had parted that he was far from happy, but that he knew it was necessary. That he did not trust the King was evident to everyone, and neither Aeslin nor Legolas could blame him.
The King of Mirkwood was not pleased to be interrupted in such a manner. He leaned languidly back in his seat, his easy posture belying the air of impatience about him.
“I trust you have a good reason for this disturbance, my son.” He looked up, surveying Aeslin in one quick glance. Legolas appeared unfazed but his father’s terse greeting, if it was even to be called that.
“You invited my sister to return to Mirkwood, and have yet to truly speak with her. I think it is high time you do so, Father.” The King of Mirkwood stood, pulling himself up to his full height.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“Because I did not return in order to be ignored, Father. Am I not your daughter? Do I not deserve your courtesy?” Aeslin’s voice was quiet, but her irritation bled through her calm demeanor. Thranduil’s cold gaze came to rest upon his daughter. He made a sound that sounded oddly like a sarcastic laugh.
“Courtesy? After the courtesy you have shown me?” She clenched her jaw, her eyes flickering with ire at his response. “To marry without my blessing is no show of courtesy on your part.”
“Then you should not have banished me from my home, nor given me away as a ward when there was no plausible excuse to keep me away any longer.” The words were out of Aeslin’s mouth before she could stop them. Thranduil’s face darkened. Legolas tried to intercede, to calm them, but he was largely ignored.
“That was for your own protection.”
“My protection. Yes, I have heard that before. Let me tell you this, Father, I did not feel so protected, not when I discovered you lied to me.” Thranduil looked as if she had slapped him. “‘When you complete your training?’ That was never the intention, was it? That I wished to learn the arts of healing was convenient. You cannot deny that.”
“I must admit, there were times I doubted my decision to send you to Rivendell. Now I can see the cost. You have changed since you left, Aeslin. You were never like this; obstinate, ungrateful.” He was nearly sneering as he spoke, though something flickered in his eyes that Aeslin couldn’t quite place. The hurt and pain the Mirkwood Princess had been suppressing for centuries and trying to let go of was suddenly fanned to life once again. In a corner of her mind she could feel Haldir responding to her distress, anxiety beginning to bloom in him.
“Ungrateful? I have only ever done what you asked!” The anger in her voice broke, revealing the heartbreak that only her husband had known lingered. The depth of the grief in her voice shook even Legolas, who had already known of her suffering at being sent so far from home. Thranduil watched her silently, the first true expression of sorrow she had ever seen from him casting a shadow on his features. She was close to tears as she continued, but she never dropped her father’s gaze.
“My life belongs to me, now. I will not have you dictate where I am to live or whom to love. I have only ever tried to please you, Father. I only ever wanted to make you happy, but all that led to was doubt in myself and grief at the lack interest you had shown me. So I decided to make myself happy. I followed my heart, and my heart led me to Lorien, a place of brightness and light. Were it not for my brother, I would never have come back.” It was now bitterness that clouded her voice, bitterness and resolve.
“You belong here, Aeslin. That you cannot deny. You are of the Woodland Realm; it is in your blood. You will see, my daughter. You will remember that this is your home.” The words were firm, but the tone underlying those words was something else, something, like the look Aeslin had seen a moment before, that she did not recognize. Aeslin could only shake her head.
“No, Father. It is time Haldir and I returned home,” she said calmly, though she was eyeing the King warily, “it is time we returned to Lorien.” Thranduil scoffed, turning his back on his children.
“The Marchwarden. It is because of him that your perception of us has been so twisted.” Aeslin stared at her father in disbelief, anger beginning to seethe within her. She was beginning to lose control of her temper, her fingers curling into fists. A sting of pain prickled up her arm as her own nails bit into her palm. She could feel Haldir’s protective instincts flaring through their bond. He’d had enough of waiting from afar. Normally, she would have she tried to calm him, to beg his patience, but she was too shocked and hurt by her father’s blunt dismissal of her feelings. The look of shock on Legolas’ face nearly matched the one on his sister’s.
“Father, you cannot—” but he was interrupted again by Aeslin’s coldly furious voice.
“I cannot believe you would say that. I do love him, yes. But I fell in love with Lorien first. It is not solely because of him that I wish to make my home there, I assure you.” Aeslin was no longer trying to hold back her growing ire, but Mirkwood’s King didn’t care. He spun to face his daughter, his eyes flashing dangerously. In that moment she felt fear flash through her; for the briefest of instants she was afraid of her father, and the way his eyes glinted. Unfortunately, the flash of that very fear through their bond only further incensed her husband.
“Careful, child. My patience is not infinite, not even for you. I will not stand for your impudence, or this insult.” His voice was low and cold and the finger he pointed at her to punctuate his words was threatening. Aeslin’s alarm quickly turned back to anger of her own. She could also feel her husband drawing close, and began to back away from her Father.
“What insult? I followed your wishes. I cannot help that Mirkwood no longer holds sway over my heart, just as you cannot help that it holds sway over yours.” When Aeslin spoke her voice was just as cold as her father’s. But before Thranduil could respond, Haldir came bursting through the door, followed closely by Thranduil’s personal guards. One look at the scene before him and Haldir was moving to his wife’s side, but the instant he saw the angry flush on her cheeks and the way her father was looking furiously at her, his eyes flashed, turning to Thranduil as what little reason he had left abandoned him. The instant before he lunged, he was caught by the Mirkwood guards. At once, Aeslin and Legolas yelled out, but not before one of the guards dealt Haldir a harsh blow to the stomach.
In a rush, it felt like all the air had been slammed from Aeslin’s chest. As Haldir grunted in pain, Aeslin doubled over herself, her reaction mirroring his. Panic flashing on his features, Legolas leapt forward, catching his sister before she fell. Haldir’s rage was gone in an instant when he looked up to see Aeslin gasping, trying to regain her breath even as he did. Thranduil surveyed the scene looking as imperious as ever, save for the alarm in his eyes.
“Release him,” Legolas snapped, earning an immediate response, “leave us!” As the guards bowed out, Haldir got to his feet. He eyed the King warily for a moment before he stepped to Aeslin’s side, unconsciously placing himself between her and her father. Legolas relinquished his sister into the arms of her husband, bringing his own piercing gaze to bear on Thranduil.
“That is enough, Father.” His voice was soft and deadly, startling the King. Thranduil’s gaze flickered to Aeslin, taking in the riot of emotions present on her face. For an instant a look of guilt suffused his features before he hid it beneath a cold mask.
“It is time for them to return to Lorien,” the Woodland Prince continued. There was a distinct air of disappointment in his voice, though whether that was because of the reality of her leaving Mirkwood, or his father’s behavior, Aeslin couldn’t be sure. Thranduil’s gaze flicked to Haldir for a split second, something that didn’t escape anyone’s notice. Aeslin’s fury was building again, so much so that the air around her seemed charged.
“It is only with my leave that they may depart, my son. Or have you forgotten that I am the Master here,” Thranduil retorted, glaring at his son as he sank back into his chair. It was meant to be a reprimand, but there was little bite to it. Something in the King’s manner had shifted the instant his guards had subdued Haldir. Legolas sighed, well aware that the anger had bled out of his father. It was something Aeslin saw as well, her own anger draining away. There was a hushed pause before Legolas spoke again, sympathy in his voice now, rather than disappointment.
“Can you not see the change in her?” It was a long moment before Thranduil spoke, unable to look either of his children in the eye.
“You know I cannot deny that, Legolas. I remember well how quiet a child she was. You have no idea just how precious her smiles were to me, especially after Lasbereth…. But she was so young, so fragile; too fragile and pure for Mirkwood.” His voice was barely audible, but his gaze swung up to meet Legolas’, a flicker of his earlier vehemence returning. “You know letting her go was the hardest thing I have ever done, and I have no wish to do it again. I cannot lose her as well.” Silence reigned when his voice faded. Haldir could only tighten his embrace of Aeslin; she was trembling in his arms. Eventually Legolas sighed, taking a hesitant step toward his father.
“By not letting her go, you would lose her.” He took another step forward, steadily holding Thranduil’s gaze as he spoke. “She is happy in the life she has chosen, Father. That is clear to me. How is it not to you?” he said sadly.
“She could be happy here once again.” Thranduil said firmly, but his affected confidence was undermined by the doubt that was flickering in his eyes. Aeslin suddenly understood the expression she hadn’t been able to decipher; it was fear borne out of unfathomable, irrational love. Understanding seemed to crash in on Aeslin as she watched the cracks appearing in her Father’s usually unwavering composure. Legolas slowly shook his head, but it was Aeslin who spoke, drawing all eyes to her as she stepped out of Haldir’s embrace, taking a hesitant step toward the King.
“No, Father. I couldn’t. I wish I could answer differently, but Mirkwood is now a part of my past.” Her voice was soft and sad, mirroring the expression growing in Thranduil’s eyes. “I am sorry, Father, but I can no longer turn back.” Haldir laid his hand on her shoulder, drawing the King’s gaze. After a moment, a faint, humourless smile came to his face.
“Well, at least I now know that your bond is true, and that your husband will keep you safe.” Aeslin reached up, her hand coming to rest against her husband’s. No matter how hard she tried though, she could not seem to spare a smile. She was too tired and emotionally drained. She closed her eyes, holding back tears that began to glisten therein. After a moment, she opened them again, meeting her father’s reluctant gaze, his vibrant eyes dulled by sorrow. Her heart went out to him in that moment.
“I only ever wanted your love, Father, and for you to be proud of me.” Thranduil was the first to lower his eyes, visibly overwhelmed by remorse. While Aeslin verged on losing what little emotional control she still had, Haldir was on the verge of losing his temper. Restraining the urge to lash out at the source of his wife’s grief, he instead gathered her into his arms. Grateful, she buried her face in his chest, concentrating for a moment on regaining control of herself. Eventually, she pulled back looking up into her husband’s face. He leaned down so that their foreheads touched, pouring reassurance though their bond, relieved when she finally began to relax.
“I am proud, Aeslin.” Thranduil’s voice was soft as he spoke. Aeslin turned to face him, a hand still grasping the fabric of Haldir’s tunic while his arm remained protectively around her waist. “And you have my love. You never lost it.” Slowly he stood, walking over to where she stood with Haldir. The Marchwarden was still wary, and not afraid of letting his mistrust show on his features. Thranduil looked at him for a moment, gauging him before turning back to Aeslin. He laid his hand on her cheek. For once, Aeslin was not at all tempted to pull away, instead leaning into the contact. It was a gentleness she had not seen in her father since a time almost beyond memory.
Withdrawing his hand after what seemed like an eternity, he took a step back, surveying both his daughter and her husband. “You have my leave to depart whenever you wish, daughter mine. Your brother will guide you to the borders of this land when you are ready, ensuring your safe passage through the darkness.” This time Aeslin did manage a small smile.
“I am grateful, Father, not just for your leave, but for everything you have done for me. Though there is still pain in my heart from my first leave-taking, I think I begin to understand why you acted as you did. More than that, I find I can no longer wholly regret your choice to send me away, for it led me to where I stand now.” Her words were halting at first, and the truth of her words startled even Aeslin. She hadn’t realized until that moment, upon seeing her Father’s pain, that she no longer truly felt the same resentment toward him as she had so long ago; she may not have entirely forgiven him yet, but the wounds on her heart had already been healing for a long while. She looked up at Haldir, relief suffusing her features. He returned her gaze, his own relief showing in his eyes despite the severe expression that lingered on his face.
When she turned her attention back to her father, his attention was on Haldir, a faint expression of wonder gracing his aristocratic features.
“I will be honest, and admit a Silvan Marchwarden was certainly not my first choice for one worthy of my daughter’s pledge,” he said lightly. Haldir tensed, his grim expression never wavering, but Thranduil held up a hand in truce, “But I see in her eyes and her actions that she truly cares for you. I would have to be a blind fool not to see the strength of the bond you share with her.” He looked down to Aeslin, who watched him in surprise. A faint smile came to his face.
“You have my blessing, daughter mine. My dearest wish has always been for your happiness; that is all I have ever wished, and all your mother ever wished. I can see you have found that with your husband.” An expression of astonishment broke out on Aeslin’s face as her tears were finally released, only this time in elation. On impulse she stepped forward, wrapping her arms around her father. Stunned, Thranduil could only stand there for a moment before enclosing her in a tight hug, his hand on her fair hair. When he finally released her, he looked down at his daughter’s face, relief coursed through him at the unabashed joy he found there. Gently stroking her cheek, he smiled.
“I used to hold you like this once, when you were very small. I doubt you remember that now.” To his surprise, though, Aeslin nodded.
“I do; I never wanted for your love then.”
“I am sorry, my child.”
“I know, Ada.”
After coming to a fragile peace with her father, the Woodland Realm began to seem a little less grim to its Princess. But, even though she began to feel more at ease in her childhood home, Aeslin saw little point in remaining in Mirkwood, something Haldir agreed with. Both of them missed the lightness and sun in the Golden Wood, and Aeslin especially was deeply affected by the overwhelming darkness and shadow that seeped and crawled amid the gnarled trees and choked underbrush of the deep forest. The sickness that had overwhelmed the Greenwood was beginning to abate with the cleansing of Dol Guldur, but it was still far from well. They both longed for the peace of Lorien.
They began their preparations not long after the confrontation with Thranduil. Having accomplished what they set out to do in Mirkwood they were anxious to return to their home. As the season turned for the fifth time since their arrival in Mirkwood, the couple was ready to depart.
One afternoon in particular, Aeslin sought out Legolas in order to finalize their plans and see to getting an escort out of the woods. She finally found him in one of the main court’s private sitting rooms. She was almost hesitant to interrupt his reading, for she knew he would be saddened to hear that she wanted to leave, and she also knew he would hide it. Nevertheless, she knew her task needed to be done. Slipping quietly inside, she walked across the small room, settling herself down beside him on the couch he lounged on. Looking briefly over the top of his book, he smiled as she tucked her legs up beside her.
“I imagine there is purpose to you crowding me?” he said teasingly as he turned the page. Aeslin gave his knee a playful shove.
“Must I always have a reason to see you, my dear brother?” Closing his book, he fixed his full attention on her.
“No. But I can see you are wary. Whenever you got that look on your face, it always meant you had something to ask of me.” She harrumphed, leaning back against the cushions. Legolas straightened. After a moment, Aeslin sighed in resignation.
“You are right, though; there is a reason I have sought you out,” she finally said tentatively. Legolas nodded, lauding himself in a playfully exaggerated fashion for being right. Aeslin couldn’t help but smile, shaking her head slightly at his antics before sobering. “It is time Haldir and I returned home.” Though his expression didn’t change, she saw his eyes grow sad.
“Legolas—” He stopped her.
“Aeslin, I understand. You grow restless, even through your peace with Father; you long for home. I can see it in your eyes day by day.” Aeslin nodded in reluctant agreement; reluctant in that leaving Mirkwood meant leaving him.
“We all have our duties. Yours is here, mine is not. It is time we departed. We need passage out of Mirkwood,” she said quietly.
“Very well. I will escort you to the border myself if Father does not object.” He laid a hand on her calf. “It has been good to have you here, little sister. I will miss you.” Picking up his book, he appeared to resume his reading, though she could see his eyes were unfocused and thoughtful. So Aeslin did not move for a long while, content to sit with her brother for the time being. For once, things were peaceful for Aeslin within the borders of Mirkwood.
It was early morning again when Aeslin took her leave of her childhood home for the second time. Like the first, Legolas stood at her side as her Father gave his almost indifferent farewell. She knew better now. It was not indifferent, and she found that realizing that made all the difference. There were still several other differences though. Haldir now also stood beside her, and when Aeslin stood before her father for one last goodbye, he took her face in his hands.
“Be happy, Aeslin. Know you are always welcome here, and that you are beloved to me. I think even I forgot that for a time. It will not happen again.” Though his face was closed off, she could see in his eyes how hard this leave-taking was for him. She responded with a smile, though, for she was not obliged to shield her feelings as he was. It was then that he reached into his robes, drawing out a small leather satchel. She looked at him in confusion when he pressed it into her hands, his long fingers covering hers even as hers cradled the bundle. As he stared at the bundle in their hands, his mask cracked, his eyes misted with sorrow and memory.
“I had these made for your mother, only she never saw them. She was lost before they were completed. Then they were lost to me. We may not have shared a bond such as you and your Marchwarden share, but I did love her greatly, and I have yearned to recover these nearly every moment since I felt her passing, such do they remind me of her. It was only in the last few years past, with the slaying of the great dragon that retrieving them has been possible.” Her brow still furrowed in confusion, Aeslin undid the leather ties, revealing a couple smaller, velvet-wrapped bundles. Withdrawing one, she gently drew the thick fabric aside. She gasped, tears springing to her eyes. She heard Legolas’ sharp intake of breath beside her, but she could not tear her eyes away even to glance at him. Set in the finest setting of pale silvers and golds were jewels of the purest white light; they looked to be made of the stars themselves.
“The White Gems of Lasgalen,” Legolas murmured, reaching out to touch the shining jewels with reverence. Thranduil nodded gently before replacing the velvet over them, wrapping them once again within Aeslin’s fingers. When he finally spoke again, his words were soft and full of memory.
“It is fitting that they should go to you, my child, for, in truth, you are far more dear to me than these gems should ever have been. I had forgotten just how so. One wiser than her years told me once that I had no love in me. She also asked me also why love hurt so; I buried the love I had for you, my children, because of the agony losing one I loved had brought upon me. I see that now. It was you, and your brother, who have reminded me of what I had so foolishly disregarded.
“I was wrong, Aeslin, terribly wrong. You do deserve this happiness, and I am glad that you have found it in your Marchwarden. Your mother would be proud of you, dear one, for she loved you and your brother with everything she was.”
He then laid a kiss on her brow, granting her his blessing. Aeslin couldn’t help but reach out, touching her fingers to her father’s cheek. There was a ring of truth to his words, earning a genuine smile from Aeslin. Beside her, Haldir waited to receive his farewell from Thranduil, his attention wholly on the exchange between the King and his daughter.
“Love is mysterious. It can lead us to the most unlikely of places. I am glad you realize now how important he is to me. How much he is tied to me, and I to him. Thank you, Ada.” Thranduil smiled, but a faint shadow hung in his eyes. Unsure of its meaning, Aeslin left it well enough alone. She was content.
A short while later they departed.
At the border of Mirkwood, Aeslin was forced to bid yet another goodbye, one that was significantly harder than the one before. Dismounting, she stood before her brother, finding her emotions more difficult to control than they had been in a long while.
“I will miss you, dear brother. That is indeed my one regret in leaving Mirkwood behind me. You’ve always been there for me, no matter what. You were always my protector, my best friend.” Legolas gave her a sorrowful smile of his own, but she could also see that he was genuinely happy for her.
“I shall miss you as well, little sister. But it seems you have a new protector now. Take care of him, as I am sure he will care for you.” He spared a glance at Haldir, who nodded his head in thanks, touched by Legolas’ conviction. With one last embrace, she mounted her horse.
“She is the most precious thing in my life, Haldir of Lorien. You care for my sister; let no harm come to her,” Legolas added to the Marchwarden alone, his voice hushed. Haldir nodded brusquely, raising his hand to his breast in respect.
“Do not fear, Legolas of Mirkwood. She may be the most precious thing in your life, but she is my life. While I live and breathe, no harm shall come to her.”
Then they departed.