Legolas smiled to himself as the soft murmur of running water beneath the darkened eaves of Mirkwood drew closer. He turned aside his head and traded a bemused expression with Elrohir who rode beside him before the two young Elves cast a backward glance at Beorn, who having taken the shape of a great Man, strode along beside a sturdy pony loaded with two strong wooden chests that were Bilbo's, slung one on each side of its sturdy midsection. Beorn's great mouth, a dark cavern in a face of hair, with but a small space for his twinkling eyes to peek out, was singing.
Deep was his voice, and warm as he sang,
"Came the news from birds of
that goblins dark, came from their lair
the bleak cold north where black things dwell,
with Bolg their chief, so dark and fell.
Then went I forth, from friends and
to lend my aide, far did I roam,
To Lonely Mountain near I strayed
Fell goblins, wargs, and Bolg I slayed
I pulled him down and crushed his
Now I return unto my home."
"Slayed?" A small voice that was Bilbo's asked as he rode behind Gandalf, clutching the wizard's grey robes, so that he would not tumble to the ground. "Isn't the word slew?"
"Hush there, little one. Else you wish to be slayed yourself." Beorn muttered in a growl of playful annoyance. "It's my song."
At that, a low ripple of grateful laughter echoed along the lines of marching Elves, the sadly decreased numbers much in need of the cheer the light hearted bantering between Beorn and Bilbo gave to them.
"Ah, alas, here our ways must part." Gandalf muttered in a voice filled with regret, and Legolas glanced forward to see the shadowed forest eaves that had been drawing closer, now towered above them, shading the company in cold shadow. And though the road continued under the grey green boughs, following the flow of the river that ran out from beneath Thranduil's palace, here the column of Elves stopped.
"From here, Bilbo and I will go with Beorn, round the northern edge of your forest." Gandalf said with a grunt as he hopped from his borrowed mount, and lifted Bilbo down after him.
Thranduil dismounted, and Legolas leaped down as well, following at his father's shoulder where Gandalf and Bilbo stood beside Beorn whose massive hand rested gently upon the neck of the pony laden with Bilbo's chests.
"Could I not entreat you to visit my halls, if only for a short time Mithrandir?" Thranduil asked.
"Oh, um," Bilbo muttered, clearing his throat as he shuffled his feet. The Hobbit shifted his weight uncomfortably as he glanced down, though he dared not speak, for the question had been directed to Gandalf.
"Ah, perhaps it would be best to decline." Gandalf murmured, glancing down at the shifting Hobbit. "For now that Bolg and his goblins have been crushed, the way is safer. Moreover, our friend Beorn, is going that way."
Bilbo visibly relaxed, at these words of Gandalf's.
"Very well." Thranduil conceded, with a smile and a nod of his head. "Yet you are ever welcome in my realm."
He said this to Gandalf as well as Bilbo and Beorn. Beorn bowed his thanks. And Bilbo bowed as well, muttering, "Thank you very much."
"Farewell! Oh, Elvenking." Gandalf said, with a smile, lifting his voice somewhat, as he offered Thranduil a formal bow. "Merry be the green-wood, while the world is yet young! And merry be all your folk."
"Farewell, oh, Gandalf." Thranduil returned. And he and Legolas both returned Gandalf's bow. "May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected! The oftener you appear in my halls the better I shall be pleased!"
"Um, um," Bilbo stammered, appearing suddenly agitated as he shifted his weight, and stood upon one stout furry foot, and in his most grave, most formal voice, announced, "I beg of you, to accept this gift!"
Legolas glanced down at the small Hobbit curiously as Bilbo reached inside his coat, and withdrew a necklace of silver and pearls, and a small leather bag, bound at the top with a string of leather. The necklace he held out toward Thranduil.
"In what way have I earned such a gift, O Hobbit?" Thranduil asked, his brow furrowing as he hesitated to take the precious trinket.
"Well, er, I thought, don't you know." Bilbo muttered, his eyes taking on a confused look, "that, er, some little return should be made for your, er, hospitality. I mean even a burglar has his feelings. I have drunk much of your wine and eaten much of your bread."
Thranduil glanced at Legolas, his eyes sparkling, before he shifted his gaze down upon the shuffling Hobbit.
"I will take your gift, O Bilbo the Magnificent!" He declared, keeping his voice staunch and grave as he took the proffered necklace, and offered the Hobbit a stern bow. "And I name you elf-friend and blessed. May your shadow never grow less or stealing would be too easy!" Legolas hid a smirk at these words as his father finished gravely, "Farewell!"
"And for you, sir, er, Legolas." Bilbo muttered with a short bow to Legolas as he held out the small leather bag. "I thought your pretty, lady-friend, Lalaith, might like these."
"I thank you, brave Hobbit." Legolas said with a nod, taking the small bag. It was weighted in his hand, filled with what seemed to be several small stones. Gems, Legolas guessed. But his mind left the small leather bag in his hand as his eyes shot to Bilbo's face.
"How did you know-,"
"Farewell, O noble Elvenprince!" Bilbo practically wailed, and ducked like a child, behind Gandalf's robes.
"Farewell, brave Bilbo," Legolas returned, completely nonplussed. Thranduil had already turned back toward his own mount, but Legolas craned his neck to peek at Bilbo huddling behind Gandalf, and added, "but to you, whom my father has named elf-friend, I am called Legolas. Remember that, when we meet again."
Bilbo ducked his head, and grunted a mumble of assent.
At this, Legolas smiled, then with a glance of farewell at Gandalf, and a nod to Beorn, he turned away, and leapt upon his mount beside Elrohir.
"Farewell, brave Elves of Greenwood!" Gandalf called to the whole column before he and Bilbo with Beorn and the pack pony beside them, turned northward, following along the eaves of the trees as Legolas and Elrohir beside him, followed his father's lead upon the shadowed road into Mirkwood as the trees closed over their heads. He glanced back once before the trees hid the small Hobbit completely from his view, to see Bilbo watching after him, his eyes large. But at Legolas' grin, Bilbo's eyes grew ever larger, and he turned away, ducking his head.
Balancing the dinner tray within one hand, Haldir paused outside one of the many oaken doors along the corridor, one that sat slightly ajar, and rapped lightly upon the smooth wood.
"Come," he heard the soft voice beckon from beyond, and slowly, he pushed the unlatched door ajar, and stepped into the interior of Lalaith's room.
"Ah, Haldir!" Lalaith called out, her face brightening as she struggled to sit up upon the pillows at her back.
Though the room Lalaith lay in was within Thranduil's palace, it was still bright and airy, with the light of the late afternoon sun streaming in through a high window within the stone wall. Through the eddying dust motes that swirled about through the air, a beam of light filtered downward, alighting upon Lalaith where she lay, smiling tiredly at him. The white linen sleeping gown she wore seemed to glow as if it were woven of the fibers of clouds, and he wondered if perhaps any of the Valiër could appear more beautiful.
Haldir stepped near to the head of Lalaith's bed, and smoothed a lock of golden hair away from her face. What lay behind the weary smile that touched her lips, he wondered. What secrets did she carry behind the brightness of her luminescent eyes?
"Haldir?" Lalaith laughed, breaking him from his trance.
"Oh, ah, forgive me." He stuttered as he glanced at the floor.
"Do not apologize. You have no need to." Lalaith assured him with a smile. But Haldir sensed hesitation in her eyes, and deeper still, a touch of reluctance, and even a hint of fear.
"So what did you bring me?"
"A side of roasted venison, with some freshly baked sweet breads, and steamed vegetables." Haldir announced grandly as he set the tray upon a bedside table, and sat upon the edge of the bed beside her.
"More broth you mean?" Lalaith moaned.
Haldir shrugged, and nodded apologetically. "The queen's orders. You're still very weak."
Lifting the silver spoon from its place beside the bowl of broth, he dipped it into the steaming, golden brown soup, and lifted it dripping, before he carefully brought it to her lips.
"Augh, I feel as helpless as an infant." Lalaith grumbled, though she opened her mouth obediently and swallowed the thin soup down. "My limbs feel as heavy as bricks."
"The queen said it would pass, eventually." Haldir assured her, ladling another spoonful to her mouth.
Lalaith gulped the broth down, and another spoonful, before she spoke "Yes, perhaps, when my arms and legs have shriveled to little sticks."
Haldir glanced down at her feet that lay unmoving beneath the sheet.
"Indeed." Haldir muttered, struck with a sudden idea.
Dropping the spoon into the bowl of broth, he retreated to the end of her bed where he lifted the thin coverlet enough to expose her bare feet.
"You have lain abed for days now." Haldir offered as an explanation as he absently stroked her slender ankle with the backs of his curved fingers. "Surely your feet have been aching from lack of movement." At this, he lifted her foot in one hand, and with the other, began to knead the limp muscles, pressing with fingers that bore a gentle touch, in small circles over the soft flesh of her foot's sole.
Lalaith sat up higher though the effort was great, for she was still recovering from the effects of the spider's poison. "Haldir, you are not required-,"
Haldir glanced up at her eyes, smiling gently, though his work did not pause. "Let me do this one thing, for you, Lalaith. It will help your blood flow better in these motionless limbs of yours."
Slowly, Lalaith relented, leaning back upon her pillows, and folding her hands across her stomach as she gazed up at the ceiling. Haldir smiled at her face that grew visibly relaxed as he continued to knead the softening muscles of her feet. It was indeed a pleasant sensation, Lalaith admitted, and she found herself, to her chagrin, imagining Legolas in Haldir's place, his own warm lean fingers running soft circles over the soles of her feet. She smiled at the thought, unaware that Haldir's eyes, upon her face, saw her smile, and he smiled as well, his heart growing warm with renewed hope.
Legolas stood in the stirrups of his mount, and glanced about through the shower of fresh flower petals, and over the crowd of cheering Elves welcoming the column of warriors home as it halted before the great doors that led into his father's halls, and had been thrown wide at the return of the warriors. At the top of the steps, and before the great archway that led into the deeps of Thranduil's fortress, stood Aseaiel, adorned in silver flowing robes, her diadem of mithril crowning her fair head as she beamed like a youthful bride at the approach of her lover. Thranduil grinned at the vision of her, and bounded down off his mount. Legolas too, leapt to the ground, casting one last hopeful glance across the crowd. But where was Lalaith?
"Oh, my Lord Elrohir! Such a relief it is, to see you come safely again to our woods." Chirped a sprightly female voice as Elrohir dismounted from his horse to find himself surrounded by three young maidens eagerly vying for his attention, chirping and cooing over him like so many lively little birds.
Elrond's youngest son smiled broadly at the maidens, trading a few pleasantries with them before he lifted his eyes and glanced at Legolas over the girl's fair heads, giving the Mirkwood Prince a casual shrug with his brows as if such a thing as maidens accosting him was entirely expected, and could not be evaded. For it was his burdensome duty, Elrohir's bemused look said, to humor the fairer sex.
With a purse of his lips, Legolas gave his horse's warm neck a final pat, and turned away as a young groom came to claim the reins. For it would be to no avail to attempt to bring the young lord of Imladris along, surrounded by so many fair maidens as the poor man was.
Already his father was halfway up the steps, entirely unaware that his son who should have been at his shoulder, was nowhere near, for his eyes were focused on no other but Aseaiel.
Dodging the few remaining warriors who had not sifted off into the crowds, he leaped like a young deer up the great stone steps, arriving at his father's side just as Thranduil reached his beaming lady.
"My lady." Thranduil said, his words formal and composed, though his eyes danced at the sight of her.
"My lord." She returned, a pink blush darkening her cheeks. "It is good to see you returned safely."
"Has all been well in our absence?" Thranduil asked, and at this, Aseaiel's glowing eyes faltered for a moment.
Legolas gulped, his heart catching upon a sudden thud. "Mother," he blurted, "where is Lalaith?"
Aseaiel turned her eyes upon Legolas, smiling, though with sympathy.
"She is-, inside, in the halls of healing. She met with a bit of misfortune in the forests, but Hal-"
Without waiting for further words, Legolas darted past his mother, and into the cool shadows of his father's palace. Behind him, the lights and the jubilant noise from the Elves gathered outside became swiftly muted.
"She was bitten." Aseaiel murmured soberly, turning back to Thranduil, whose eyes now, reflected her own worry. "But she will recover. Word was sent by our swiftest messengers to Imladris and Lothlórien, for they would wish to know, as they are her kin."
"As soon we will be her kin as well, I hope." Thranduil said, his grin quickly coming once again, to his face that bore a youthful expression, though it was filled as well with deep wisdom. "He is much like I was, when I courted you, is he not?" Thranduil finished in a low, teasing tone. And at the twinkle that had come again to his eyes, Aseaiel smiled, blushing like a maiden as a silent understanding passed between them.
Many smiling Elves looked on, as the queen, heedless of the many eyes that were watching, threw herself into Thranduil's arms, and kissed her lord boldly on the mouth, amidst laughter, and much applause.
Legolas strode through the bright twisting hallways of his father's palace, unaware of everything beyond his need to find Lalaith, only amplified more now that he had learned of her injury. Within Thranduil's palace, the long hallways and stairways were empty all but the bright flickering of torchlight, for the servants and courtiers had all gone to greet the returning warriors. No sound but the soft patter of his own boots echoed off the walls. So when Legolas reached at last the long corridor where were the healing rooms had been hollowed out of Thranduil's stone caverns, the soft sound of an unmistakably male voice singing softly, came easily into his ears, and made Legolas pause.
He knew the voice, one that made his blood rankle, and his jaw tighten. One of the oaken doors, just beside him, sat slightly ajar, and it was through this door, that the voice came.
Haldir smiled as he watched Lalaith's fair face. Her eyes had grown unfocused, her breathing deepened. What sweet dreams were passing through her mind, he wondered. And was he a part of them?
His work slowly ceased, and with a stray finger, traced the lines of her pert little toes that jerked slightly in reflex to his touch as his finger, feather soft, trailed over them. He smiled and drew his hand back, covering her feet once again, for, admittedly, he was beginning to enjoy his work more perhaps, than he ought.
Sliding again to his place at her side, he reach out, and ran his hand over her sleeping face, feeling the cool touch of her smooth skin beneath his fingertips, his heart giving a hopeful thud as she stirred and sighed in her sleep.
She smiled at his touch, turning into it, nuzzling his palm with the warmth of her soft mouth.
Like Elbereth, she is. Haldir thought to himself as he studied her face beneath the warm light of the reddening sun that still lighted upon her face. For no other of Ilúvatar's creations could be more fair, or appear as one of the Valar, so flawless. How he wished he could bend low above her, and press a kiss to her sleeping mouth. But no. He wanted their first of such loving touches to be something she willed as well as he.
Instead, he smiled as he caressed his thumb over her soft mouth. And opening his own mouth, he began softly to sing,
Snow-white, snow-white, O Lady
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.
Haldir drew in a long breath, his eyes gazing upon the sweetly sleeping maiden, before he opened his mouth and finished, his voice softer, and speaking only to himself,
"Snow-white, Snow-white, O
Thy stars shine in Lalaith's gold hair.
And as thy stars, her virtues shine,
But could I ever make her mine,"
Within the realm of her dreams, Lalaith began to smile as at a sweet vision only she could see.
But the sweet tranquility of the moment was shattered when the door behind him swung open with such strength that it struck against the stone wall and swung slightly back, quivering.
"What are you doing here?" A harsh voice demanded, one well known to him, that made Haldir's jaw tighten, and his blood grow heated with envy and resentment.