"They are moving deeper into the forest."
Thranduil lowered the map onto his knees, and rubbed his temple wearily. Standing around him in a semicircle, the court advisors watched with concern. The king had enough to worry about, without having to be bothered by intruders from foreign lands. They glanced at one another, silent acknowledgement passing through the meaningful gazes.
"We can dispatch an envoy," said one of the advisors, breaking the heavy silence. He brushed back a strand of brown hair and stepped forward, meeting the king's eyes. "We will ask them what business they have in our territory."
Thranduil held the advisor's gaze, his elbows on his lap, chin resting on his hands. His shadowed eyes flicked back down to the map. Brooding.
"Sire." The advisor's gentle call brought his dark gaze back up again. He was almost scowling. The advisor looked back, eyes sincere. It was almost a plea.
"Let us deal with them, my lord."
With a sigh, Thranduil raised his body and leaned back against the throne. He stared intently at the map.
"It may well be that they are not aware of our presence." His fingers slowly traced the borders of Mirkwood, the grand stretches of green upon the map. "I have no desire to claim sovereignty over the edges of the forest. The land is to be shared and respected, not possessed." He rubbed his temples again. "Besides, none of our people set foot in that region."
"But leaving them there may result in trouble," said another advisor, stepping forth. A dark-haired healer. "We have never had dealings with men in the past; we do not know what these men are after. They may try to invade into our realm."
Thranduil looked back down upon the map distastefully. His gaze then scanned the arc of advisors before him. They all wore the same concerned expression on their faces. He tilted his head. "Any more opinions?" he inquired wearily.
A sandy-haired advisor stepped forth. "I suggest we send a messenger to at least inform them of our presence, so that they may be aware. Perhaps that will make them change their minds about settling in Mirkwood, if their conscience is not clear."
The brown-haired advisor frowned. "But of course, there is no need to frighten them."
The sandy-haired advisor agreed. "No, not frighten them. Merely inform."
"Perhaps," mused an auburn-haired elf, "we can seek to establish a friendly relationship with them, even trade. It will help us watch them, for I have heard of exiled criminals who wander the lands and settle in the wilderness."
Thranduil lowered his head. A contemplative silence followed, which none of the elves dared to interrupt. At last, the king raised his head and rolled up the map with finality.
"We shall see," he said, handing the scroll to one of the advisors. "They seem relatively harmless, and may simply be seeking sanctuary from a source of danger. We will wait for their next move."
With those words, he rose. Dark green robes tapped against his calves as he scanned the silent advisors. He broke into a tired smile. "Go and rest. You are dismissed."
The advisors bowed their heads. None of them moved, however, until the weary king disappeared from their sight and entered the hallway leading to his chamber.
The sun was setting by the time Thranduil arrived at his chamber. Seating himself wearily on the couch, he frowned and began to chew on his lip. This affair was giving him a headache. He almost lightly laughed at himself at the thought. I sound like Elrond. He felt sympathy rising in his chest for the first time regarding the dark-haired elvenlord's occasional headaches. Shaking his head a few times, he stared up at the ceiling.
It had not been too long since he had heard of this new concern. Humans were invading into Mirkwood. No, not invading. They were not armed – at least, not for a war – and they did not seem to be heading straight for the heart of the forest. But they did enter the forest, nonetheless, and have built a small settlement in the southwestern fringes of the woods. He thought to warn them about the evils that lurked in the south, but it seemed irrational that anyone could possibly not know about Dol Guldur. Furthermore, his scouts were coming day by day with news of the human settlement spreading deeper into the forest. It was just as irrational to think that anyone could be unaware of the presence of the elven kingdom in the forest. Though many human societies these days seemed to forget the past and grow ignorant with the passing of generations, surely elves were not so rare that they failed to appear on maps? It just wasn't possible.
What, then, did the humans want from their forest? Thranduil locked his hands, slowly rubbing his fingers together, as his eyes took on a thoughtful expression. Were they really exiled criminals who needed a place to stay? If that was the case, Thranduil did not wish to deny them the chance to live new lives in the woods. He could watch them, but he would nonetheless leave them to themselves, as long as they brought no harm with them. But if they were simple civilians who wanted new land to cultivate, they were at the wrong place. The king shifted, sharp eyes darkening. Mirkwood was not open for strangers to uproot and upturn.
He rubbed his temple. Was it wise to send an envoy with friendly tidings? To establish a relationship of trust with the humans? Or would that frighten them? Would it seem as if Thranduil owned the forest? Or did they have ulterior motives for settling in the land?
He sighed. Foreign relations were so complicated.
Thranduil looked outside the large glass window, his gaze falling habitually onto a stone bench in the garden. His weary face broke into a distant smile. Leaning back in the couch, he lazily stretched his arms. No need to strain any further, he decided. He could worry about the humans later. His elfling would be returning home soon.
Rising from his seat, he idly wandered toward the window. Dusk was staining everything a deep shade of blue. He smiled absentmindedly once again, envisioning the twinkling blue eyes of his child as he rode vivaciously on his steed, running toward him. Legolas had been gone for a whole year now. How he missed the sparkling child. Thranduil sighed softly. He wondered how much older Legolas would have to be in order to stop making these trips. At first, Thranduil had sent his elfling away to Imladris so that he could enjoy the presence of other elflings in his childhood; and now, the elfling was still making regular trips to Imladris, for his friendship with the sons of the elvenlord had solidified into that of brotherhood. Not that Thranduil minded hosting the twins; no, quite on the contrary, he enjoyed hosting the mischievous – though noble and sincere – brothers. Especially because it meant his elfling did not have to leave. But Thranduil and Elrond had to reach a compromise; all had to be fair, both fathers had agreed, so their children took turns visiting each other. It certainly did make Legolas happy. But Thranduil still found himself missing his child as soon as he was out of sight.
He sighed. It probably will not get better, he mused with a wistful smile. When he grows older, he will want to travel all over the world. Nothing could satisfy the elfling's curiosity and desire for adventure and exploration. And Thranduil knew that he could not harness the untamed soul in his young son; Prince Thranduil had been famous for the same wild streak in his blood. Some day, his little Greenleaf would go far away, and not return for a long time; and then, he would go far away again, and not return for a longer time...
Thranduil shook his head. Where were his thoughts leading him? Of course his little Greenleaf would return to him. He would always return to him in the end. He scowled, turning away from the window to light a candle. The dusk was making him melancholy.
He still had time. Yes, he thought, pale blue eyes reflecting the quiet dance of the candle light, he is still young. Legolas was now a lively, growing elfling, but his hair still had some more lengths to grow before he reached the bloom of adolescence. Still some time before he would begin taking interest in other things...
Quickly shaking himself out of his reverie before he could sink deeper into the memories of female companions, Thranduil entered the bedroom and began to unfasten his robes. The days of extra stress and concern were taking a toll on him. After a good night of rest, these morose thoughts would leave him by morn. Yes, tomorrow morning he would be refreshed again...
As his eyes slipped into the transparent haze of sleep, Thranduil's heart beat heavily against his heart, whispering quiet murmurs of dread through the night.
Legolas hummed, his hands lightly stroking the mane of his mount as the party progressed through the familiar path in the woods. They would be home soon. As sad as it was to leave Imladris and the company of the twins, he was looking forward to seeing the vivacious green of his own forest again. And his father's warm, welcoming arms. He smiled. It would be very nice indeed, to leap off of his horse and run into his arms, and be buried in that strong embrace again...
He looked up at the sky. The weather was fair, and the clouds were white; the sky was the palest of blue. It reminded him of his father's eyes. Those pale blue eyes, always intense and sharp with long thought and swift judgments. It was not rare to see his father's smile, but it nonetheless was a treat. And the elfling knew by now that his father laughed the happiest, smiled the brightest, when he was in his arms. And it was a special joy in its own right to make his father happy. Legolas smiled to himself. His fingers gently stroked the horse's mane, parting the rough hair and brushing it playfully, as the peaceful company rode on.
Suddenly, the elf in the lead halted. He held up his hand, eyes focused on the bushes to the right. All of the elves stopped in their tracks, eyes and ears keen, muscles taut with anticipation. Legolas slowly reached up and soundlessly drew his bow. Something had been invading their path. A sinister silence. He had been too lost in his thoughts to notice, and he immediately berated himself for letting down his guard. The path was familiar, trod a thousand times, but there was nonetheless danger lurking in these dark depths.
The unseen shadow continued to creep in closer, intensifying the unknown chill in his spine. The elfling swallowed, keen eyes darting from one side of the path to another. His horse shifted restlessly in response to the tense silence.
Then, Legolas screamed.
A darkness surged from the shadows. Like a wave, it catapulted upon them, sweeping them away in a rush. They horses panicked and bucked, and elves shouted instructions at each other as they attempted to evade the crashing blackness. Quickly, they broke into a gallop, speeding away from the unknown black bile that tumbled after them. The maddening waves seemed to emerge from all sides, however; they were surrounded, and as they galloped, they found themselves led in erratic circles in an effort to evade the attack of the unknown enemy. As the horses galloped, several elves let their arrows fly; the weapons were all swallowed up in the cavernous darkness almost welcomingly. And so the elves ran madly, shouting incoherent words to each other, urging their horses to go faster, to outrun the frightening tidal wave.
"Run, Prince! Run!"
The desperate shouts of the band of elves reached his ears, and the elfling urged his horse to go faster, faster. His breaths were shrill and tight as he clutched onto the reins, not daring to look back. The black tides were behind him. He could feel coldness emanating from the evil behind his back. Gritting his teeth, he looked back. His eyes widened with terror.
The monstrous rush of black bile was building upon him. It was closing in on him from all sides, as if it had a mind of its own and was chasing him with all its might. He could see none of his companions. His vision was blocked by the unknown monster, and the erratic paths that his frightened horse was taking. And the black tidal waves were rising, gathering height, as they prepared to launch their deathblow upon the elfling.
Gathering his breath, Legolas bent forward, and whispered to his horse.
Forgive me, he begged silently, as his eyes shone with determination. He slowly raised his knees from the horse's sides, and released the reins. His eyes darted upward.
The black waves came crashing down.
The elfling leaped, desperation giving wing to his nimble flight. He barely reached a high branch of a tree overhead when his white horse disappeared under the rush of black. The branch swayed violently.
Clenching his teeth, the elfling struggled to swing his foot over the branch, and scrambled to the trunk of the tree. He watched in silent horror as the black torrent rushed past him, flooding the forest paths, sweeping everything out of sight. It buried young trees, bushes, flowers – even the tall, stately trunk in which he took shelter was buried more than halfway. Clinging onto the tree with all his might, Legolas trembled.
It seemed to last forever. Where did it come from? Legolas swallowed, and closed his eyes. Fervent whispers circled his lips as he squeezed his small fingers against the rough bark of the tree.
When he opened his eyes again, the black bile was slowly ebbing away. Drenched foliage reappeared, heavy and thick with oily black substance. The ground was slowly beginning to re-emerge.
Tentatively, the elfling climbed down. He put a cautious foot upon the black ground. It did not burn, though it was slippery. With a careful sigh of relief, he rested both of his feet onto the ground.
He looked up at the sky. The sky, or what little of it he could see through the thick mesh of branches, was tinted red and gold. So it was sunset already. With a sigh, the elfling looked around. Where was everyone?
Timidly, he raised his voice. He jolted when his voice echoed back, sinister and dark. He was in an unknown territory. And no one answered his call.
Swallowing nervously, the elfling pulled out his bow. Darkness would be coming soon. And he was alone, lost. Standing in the remnants of this mysterious destruction in his homeland.
Fear not, he whispered to himself, training his eyes onto the paths before him. You have been in a similar predicament before.
Resolutely, he began to step forward. He could not stay here. He needed to get away from this stained land. Back to the greenery.
Dusk was falling by the time he reached green grass again. He took a deep breath, and looked around. He was standing in the middle of a small clearing. Smell of fresh plants sweetened the cool air. There were bushes all around the clearing, blocking his view of what lay beyond it. He wondered which way he would need to go, but slowed his steps as he realized that it was getting darker by the minute.
What if he kept walking to no avail? Would he not need trees to sleep in? The woody plants were becoming sparser as he walked this way, and they continued to thin out. At this rate, he would end up in the outskirts of the forest. He frowned. Perhaps it was wiser to exit the forest, and look for the familiar path again and enter from the beginning. That may be wiser than going in circles in this unknown land.
However, he could not continue to walk in the dark. He was but a lone elfling. He gripped his bow tight. Perhaps he should have stayed in the tree. He had been so desperate to get away from the foul mark upon the land that he did not stop to think about how to spend the night. And now he was lost.
No, he whispered to himself. He shuddered. He could not bear to see the darkness tainting the ground again. It was too painful, too frightening. And so the elfling stood, undecided, as the air cooled into a dark blue.
Suddenly, his eyes darted forward. Experienced fingers steadied an arrow against the bowstring. His eyes glittered as he aimed toward the rustle in the bushes. And then they widened.
"Well, well, well." A benevolent chuckle filled the air. Legolas lowered his bow, mouth agape.
From between the bushes emerged a tall figure, with twinkling eyes and a knowing smile. He held a beautifully sculpted staff, which he held against the dewy grass. Brilliant white engulfed him; the long robe, the hair, the beard...
"You are not wary of me," stated the mysterious old man. For some reason, the word old did not suit this figure. His body was tall and erect, and there was a subtle aura of power in him that Legolas could not quite put a finger on. The young elf bowed respectfully.
"No, my lord."
A soft chuckle. The old man pulled on his long beard, and studied the elfling thoughtfully. "I am but a simple old man," he stated, waving his hand dismissively at last. "I happened to see you wandering. I gather that you are lost."
"Well then," said the man slowly, turning to glance toward the southwest, "go that way. I believe I saw a settlement of humans toward the edge of the forest."
The elfling froze. "Humans?" he whispered, knuckles tightening around his bow. He had never seen humans before. And his father had always told him to be wary of all creatures that were not elves...
"They will not hurt you," said the old man, kindness in his voice. "They will provide you with shelter until your kinsmen come to search for you. Do not fear, child."
Drawing in a shaky breath, Legolas bowed. "Thank you, my lord."
The old man chuckled again. "I am but a mere traveler," he said, turning aside to head into the bushes past Legolas. "Ah, and one more thing." He stopped and looked back at the elfling. The child looked back, eyes alert and receptive.
The old man had an ageless smile in his lips. "No matter what, do not reveal your identity. Silence will protect you."