Bloody knuckles clutched the scarlet carpet, whitening with tension. The elf bowed his head. Silence filled the room, thick and quivering. Eyes were shifting from him to the king, and back to him again. No one dared to breathe.
The crack in the air was a relief, only to foreshadow a tighter tension. The elf bowed deeper, curling himself into a ball against the carpet. He let out a trembling breath.
"Forgive me, my lord."
Slowly, a sway of dark green invaded his line of view. The king had moved away from the throne, coming to stand before him. The elf swallowed.
The voice was low, the same steady tone as before. The elf trembled, sucking in his breath. What lay underneath the unfathomable low voice, he did not know. It was frightening, this calm. This self-control. And from the young king famous for his fiery temper.
"I dare not stand before you, my lord." He bowed still deeper, if it was at all possible. There was silence.
Wordless, the green robe left his view. The king was moving back toward the throne. He slowly raised his eyes, daring a glance at his king. The body was turned away, facing the wall. The king did not move.
"How long did you say it took you to cross this mysterious black swamp?" said the king, voice even.
The warrior swallowed. "Twelve days, my lord."
The king's shoulders stiffened. "Twelve days," he repeated, voice still low and blank. "Twelve days for what would be a two-day travel."
The warrior hung his head again.
Finally, the king's voice cleaved the air once more. "Go and rest. You have done well."
The elf rose shakily, and stepped back into the sides where the advisors stood. He did not exit the hall. He watched the back of the king, clutching his broken arm.
Thranduil bit his lip. Twelve days. For twelve days his elfling had been lost, his warriors wandering in the wilderness, and he had not known. He had assumed that they had been delayed by Imladris' sumptuous hosting. It was only a few days ago that the black bile had trickled into the territory guarded by his people, and by then it had been too late. The ground was too slippery to tread, and there was no telling that there would not be more of the foul substances coming their way. The power and height of the black tidal waves described by this warrior could wipe out any elf who attempted to move through trees. If they were to be trapped while attempting to cross the black bile, they would be doomed.
Thranduil pressed his temple. Here was one ragged warrior, bloodied and broken and starved, and the remaining four escorts were still out there amid the dangers of the new shadow, searching for his child. And the elfling was still nowhere to be found.
Gritting his teeth, he raised his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. He could not wait here. They could not allow themselves to be trapped in the havens, waiting for the bile to clear. Shoulders square, he turned around. Anticipation tightened the air as eyes were riveted upon him.
"Prepare for manual labor," he ordered, eyes gleaming with resolution as he scanned the rigid elves. "If the shadow refuses to yield to us, we will break our way through it."
Roloth was awakened by the quiet creaking of the door. Blinking drowsily, he pulled himself up, glancing out the window. It was still dawn. Yawning, he plopped back down upon the bed.
"Are you awake?"
The soft voice crept into his senses, and he found himself slowly sitting up once more. Bright blue eyes stared into his. Gasping, he pulled back.
The round eyes withdrew, confused. Roloth took a deep calming breath, before leaning forward to touch the child's cheek affectionately. "Don't scare me so, little one."
With a bright smile, the child turned and approached the small wooden table. "You get up so late." Golden threads of hair shimmered in the semidarkness as he pushed a stray strand behind a pointed ear. "I gathered breakfast."
The man quickly sat up, eyes wide. "Where did you find those?" he asked, amazement lining his rugged features as he neared the table.
"In the woods." The child carefully laid out the day's pick, and the man's eyes grew wider. Today, it was not just berries. There were early cherries, and apples, as well as some thin films of what looked like tree bark.
"Are these edible?" he asked, a bit doubtful. The child looked up innocently.
"Of course," he replied, smiling.
With a chuckle, Roloth grabbed the chair and sat down. The child remained standing, and together they started the modest meal.
"So tell me, elf-child," started Roloth, in between mouthfuls of food, "why do you rise so early?"
The child glanced up from his food before resuming again. "You told me not to go out during the daytime."
"That is true," said the man with an absentminded grunt. His eyes bore into the child's pointed ears. "Where do you come from?"
The elfling raised his eyes, and stared incredulously. "Mirkwood," he stated, and dropped his gaze again.
Roloth sighed. The child was young, but he was very evasive when he wanted to be. Who in this village was not inside Mirkwood already?
Lapsing into silence, he chewed as his mind reeled. Why did the child refuse to talk about his home? Of his people? Was there a secret that could not be let out? He bit on an apple, pensive.
Perhaps there was something about this child that he was not to know. After all, he had materialized like an unearthly being. In the darkness of twilight, he had found this strange creature standing at the edge of the settlement, staring at the humble cabins and the sparse dots of people. Glittering eyes and shiny hair were what had first given away the child's presence; the bow and quiver of arrows, together with the ethereal fabric of the tunic, revealed the child to be a wanderer from another world. And the pointed ears only further punctuated the evidence.
But even after Roloth had taken him into his lonely dwelling, the elf-child refused to even tell him his name. All he had said was that he was lost, and needed a place to stay until his father came to get him.
But how do you know that he will find you? He had asked, forgetting for a moment that this was a small child. But to his surprise, the elfling had not shown panic or fear. He had simply looked up at him with those unnervingly blue eyes, and replied that he would find him soon. How he was so sure, he did not say.
"Will you be going outside again?" asked the child, looking up from the meal. Roloth blinked.
"Ah, yes. I will. You will stay indoors, won't you?" He gauged the elfling's expression. Wistful eyes looked longingly outside the window. The sun was rising.
Roloth reached out and placed his large hand above that of the elfling. "You can open the window, if you promise to cover it fully with a blanket," he said soothingly. "I simply cannot let you wander among these people alone. Some people here are hostile."
With a sigh, the child nodded. Roloth gave the small hand a squeeze, and then rose. "I will be back before dusk."
As he locked the door from the outside, he could not suppress the smile that had been threatening to emerge. With a satisfactory click of the lock, he turned away from his small cabin, and ambled out into the rough street. His heart seemed ready to burst as he headed toward the small supply store in the village square – or what would be considered a village square in this poor settlement. He grinned wider as his fingers caressed a coin in his pocket. He could not wait for the day to begin. The elf-child was a blessing, in more ways than one.
Legolas cautiously lifted the edge of the thin blanket and peered out the window. The sun was so bright today. He smiled, eyes closing with bliss. The sky was very blue. Noon was coming; Roloth would return soon. Then he would not be as bored. The elfling was itching to be out and about, but he would not ignore the man's stern warnings. After all, he was in a foreign settlement of people he did not know.
Large eyes peered carefully around, taking in the view of the town. This place, containing barely fifty people at most, did not look so much a town as it did a rough camp. The only difference between this settlement and a war camp was that dwellings were composed of shabby cabins instead of tents. Villagers walked about, all dressed in rough dark fabric, their faces taut and grim. He had seen few women so far; there were no children in sight. There were many more men than women, and he wondered why. And everyone always looked so unhappy. Voices were either hushed or sharp with bitterness. And many more conversations seemed to occur with glances. Dark, fleeting glances among one another. Strange, these humans.
And then there was Roloth.
Legolas let the blanket drop between his fingers, covering the window again. The sunlight left the room, and the cabin fell into a brown dimness. The elfling plopped down onto the bed, swinging his legs.
The man was confusing. He was kind to him, and he had let him stay in his house and away from the dangers of the town...but something about the man was dark. He wondered if it was because he was separated from his son. He did say that he had a son who was about Legolas' age. Legolas thought it wiser not to comment on the age, but when he asked why they were separated, the man did not answer his question. He had simply pressed his lips, looking far out into the window, with a grim expression on his face. He muttered now and then that his son would be coming to join him, as soon as he was old enough. As curious as Legolas was about these humans' reasons for being in Mirkwood, he did not ask. He did not want to put himself in a compromising situation, considering that he was already in one. And after all, that mysterious old man had told him not to reveal his identity. The less he revealed about himself, the better.
Gaze lost on the rough wooden wall, Legolas idly fingered the coarse sheets on the bed. How many sunrises had he seen since that incident? Were his escorts able to return to the castle? His heart constricted at the thought. He could still hear the frantic shouts in his ears. Telling him to run. To save himself.
Slowly, the elfling lay onto his side, and hugged the small pillow in his arms. Ada knew, didn't he? Ada must know by now...he must have figured out somehow. He had to be searching for him. He was just taking a long time, because the forest was so large, and Legolas was in an unexpected territory. That had to be it. And perhaps the remnants of that horrible black river were hindering their progress...
Wondering where the black substances had come from, the elfling fell into a light sleep.
The soft touch at his ear jolted him back to consciousness. Clutching the blanket tight, Legolas quickly backed into the wall, eyes glittering. Roloth held up his hands in surprise.
"Peace, little warrior. I mean no harm."
With a sigh of relief, the elfling relaxed. The small cabin was dark. The window was uncovered, for twilight rested in the horizon. He could make out the faintly lit silhouette of the man standing before him. He was holding something in his hands.
"I brought dinner today."
Excitement was evident in the voice of the human. Legolas smiled in spite of himself, and gingerly crawled out of bed as the man lit a candle. On the wooden table was a small loaf of bread.
Roloth pulled the chair close and sat down. "Eat," he said eagerly. Legolas shook his head.
"What?" The man looked surprised. "You're a growing boy! You must eat healthy if you want to keep growing!"
Legolas smiled faintly, but did not move toward the bread. Truth be told, he could not understand how humans could eat such strange-smelling substances. But he thought it politer to keep his thoughts to himself.
Roloth broke off a piece of the bread, and held it out. "You must eat, little one. If there is not enough food for two, it is the child who should get the chunk of the food."
Large blue eyes widened in the dark. "This is not enough?" He stared at the bread in the man's hands. "Then you should eat it all."
The man's jaw hung open. "What?" he whispered, hoarsely. "Are you insane, little one? You barely eat as is! You must eat!"
Legolas nodded with round eyes, a bit taken aback at the outburst. Despite his confusion, he reached out and took the bread. Did humans really need to eat so often? They didn't seem to do much to spend all that energy anyway.
Roloth looked satisfied as Legolas nibbled on his piece of bread. Picking up the rest of the loaf, he began to chew hungrily. "I suppose elves are different. Sorry, little one. I'll be sure to bring more fruit next time."
The elfling smiled.
Quickly finishing his meal, and declining to take more of the bread, Legolas stood and wandered toward the bed. While the man ate at the table, the elfling plopped down onto the thin mattress, and reached down toward the bedpost, where a small quiver of arrows leaned. Roloth watched between mouthfuls as the elfling took out a small knife from under his belt – the weapon had been completely invisible until this time – and began to run it smoothly along the shaft of an arrow.
Dumbfounded, Roloth fumbled with the bread in his hands. This elf-child was a continuous unveiling of mysteries. He quickly rose from his chair, shoving the rest of the loaf into his mouth, and groped around under the table until his hands found what they were looking for. Triumphantly, he pulled the items out and seated himself by the table once again.
Legolas looked up when he heard a faint scratching sound. The man was sitting with a large white board before him, his hands moving busily on the surface. The man's face was drawn up in tight lines of concentration. He flicked his gaze upward, and met the curious stare of the elfling. He grinned sheepishly.
"I, uh, bought some sketching supplies in town today." He pointed toward the table, where a few more pieces of charcoal rested. "You make a good subject."
Legolas tilted his head.
Roloth hastily searched for words, eyes flicking all over the room as his hands trembled slightly. "I mean, you're such a beautiful child...it is nice to draw you. Can I draw you?"
The elfling slowly nodded, wondering why the man's face was such a brilliant shade of red. He bowed his head again, returning his focus unto the arrow and the knife in his hands. Another arrow rested by his side, and a small hand reached down to pull another arrow out of the quiver. And the knife moved quietly.
A peaceful silence settled in the candlelit dwelling as the child and man worked, heads bowed, hearts content.