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Astonishment in Mirkwood
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Choices

Summary: Learning that Indreâbhan is still unsure about their marriage, Legolas goes to the great ash tree to meditate.

Author’s notes:
These events are made up by me. There is no canon fact that could support my own ideas about Elven mysticism and such.

The fire-tree called nargaladh is an invention of Dwimordene. It appears in her story “Roots” and was used with her permission.

Alagos, whose name means “Storm of Wind”, is an original character of me. An ancient Avarin Elf who used to be the First Guard of King Nurwë of the Avari, the grandfather of Legolas’ mother, Queen Lálisin. He was inspired by a wonderful photomanip by my good friend Archet, showing Sean Bean as a chestnut-haired Elf.


~~~

CHAPTER 3: CHOICES

Legolas escaped from the dance after midnight and –as was his wont – sought refuge by the Great Ash that was considered a holy tree among the Faithful. As a little elfling he often had accompanied his mother when Queen Lálisin felt the need to renew her bonds with the earth and the waters, the winds and the trees. They used to make pilgrimages from the Emyn Duir to this place, back in the Second Age, and it had been a long journey, but at that particular time less perilous.

All trees were considered the incarnations of Palúrien by the Faithful, but more than any other one so the Holy Tree that stood on a wide, triangular patch of grassy earth, right where the Enchanted River and the Forest River met – where the former one lost its dark spell, no-one knew how or why. Legolas could remember vividly the maidens of his mother singing and dancing around the tree. He could remember Lálisin’s serene face as the Queen bent down to take a handful of water from the small spring that broke free between the roots of the Great Ash and offer it to him to drink.

The prince lowered himself onto the still warm grass, cross-legged, his back straight like the bole of the Tree, his upturned palms resting upon his knees in the time-honoured gesture of openness and acceptance. His eyes firmly on the Ash, he opened his fëa for the whisper of the leaves. Unlike other trees, the Great Ash never shed her(1) leaves ‘til the end of the fading season. Tall and slender she was, the Tree of Life, her roots delving deep in the flesh of Arda, reaching towards the very centre of the bent world, washed by the living waters born between them. Her powerful branches reached out to the stars of Barathî, the winds of Manwë playing with them like with the strings of a living harp. She bound the starlit skies to the earth like a powerful anchor. She was old, very old, but under her smooth bark the juices still ran vigorously.

“She offers the most beautiful and gladdening image you can ever keep in your heart, young one,” a deep, slightly rough voice spoke behind Legolas quietly. “Rich and fertile in form and effect she is, the Great Ash, giver of life and bread; the Holy Tree in which Palúrien’s powers are stronger than anywhere else. As long as she stands, untouched by withering and darkness, we need not to fear for our forests.”

Legolas did not look back, nor did he stir when a dark figure – wrapped in a russet cloak of rough wool that seemed black in the darkness – sat down on his side. He had recognized the voice at once; besides, who else but Alagos, the Dark Elf, could have sneaked up to him unnoticed?

Alagos was the chief messenger and weapons master of King Thranduil, as he had been for King Oropher before, ever since the royal family had moved to the Greenwood, back at the beginning of the Second Age. Alagos was the one who had taught Legolas and his brothers everything about tracking, fighting and weapons – but who had also led their steps towards a profound understanding of the elements and the trees.

The Queen, whom Alagos had followed to Oropher’s court in the first place, had taught her sons which was needed at peacetime. Alagos had taught them which was needed in war. And no matter how great and fierce warrior Thranduil was, there were things in which his sons bested him. For only those who had the blood of the Faithful in their veins could truly become one with the forest. ‘Twas Alagos’ doing that Legolas had learned to fight as only the Faithful could.

“The trees are our very life,” Alagos continued softly, his voice barely more than a murmur among the murmurs of the tree. “They guide us through the loa(2) as they change with the changing seasons, and we change with them. They offer us shadow from the burning sun, they give us shelter from the stormy rains. We live among their branches, and should we die, our empty shells will be laid to rest there, too, until they turn to ashes.”

That last part surprised Legolas a little. “I never heard of such custom,” he said. The woodland folk usually buried their dead (alarmingly many of them in recent times) in the earth.

“’Tis an old one that only the Faithful keep,” replied Alagos. “Elven bodies disintegrate quickly, and as the burial tree is always a nargaladh, no predators can touch our dead in that short time.”

Legolas nodded distractedly. Climbing the nargaladh, the fire-trees of Mirkwood, was not an easy thing, even for a Wood-Elf, for the bark of these trees was moist and oily to the touch, and the hard outer layers contained a springy substance that felt like melted wax and got up in flames very easily.

“There is much the trees can teach us, Young one,” Alagos continued, “and their different nature can show us the difference of our own choices. The love which you have been nurturing in your heart for hundreds of years is like a nargaladh – bright and wondrous it might be, but it can burn you easily. Its roots are strong, but go not deep enough to hold you safely.”

Legolas looked at the rough face of Alagos thoughtfully. Those hard features carried the memory of much pain and horror; all the darkness that Alagos had seen throughout the three Ages of Middle-earth and before. No-one knew for certain just how old the King’s Armsmaster was (save perhaps his wife), but he had that look in his green eyes that only those possessed who had been born before the rise of Ithil and Anor. The “starlit look” it was called among the Silvan folk.

“Are you one of the Firstborn, Master Alagos?” asked Legolas quietly. The Dark Elf gave him an amused look.

“Of course I am, young one. We all are. Even you.”

“That was not what I meant," replied Legolas, a little impatiently, “and you know that.”

“I do,” nodded Alagos with a smile, “and nay, I am not one of those who awakened at Koivi-néni – or Cuiviénen, as it is called nowadays. But my parents were. And when they were captured by the Hunter, never to return, Nurwë, the leader of our Clan, took me into fostering care, for I was still very young at that time. With his people I wandered many long leagues, until we reached this forest, where we have dwelt ever since. The other three Clans followed Morwë to the South and made their homes in the mountains that are now called the Ered Nimrais.”

“How many Clans did come here, to the Greenwood?” asked Legolas. For some reason, his mother always refused to talk about these things, so the other Faithful did the same. But Alagos rarely did what everyone else would. And this time was no exception.

“Three,” he answered simply. “Our leaders thought that spreading our people would serve our survival better. Thus half of the Faithful came with Nurwë here, while the others went with Morwë to the South.”

“So there were only six Clans of the Faithful?” Legolas was a little surprised, for the Avari still were a numerous people, even after three Ages of fighting the Darkness on the most dangerous places.

“Nay,” replied Alagos grimly, “there were twelve. And a thirteenth one which – though it was the greatest in numbers – became separated early on from the rest of us and vanished in the vales of the Great River. There they mingled with other tribes and later became the Silvan folk.”

“What about the other six Clans? “Legolas was afraid he knew the answer already – and a terrible one at that – but he needed certainty.

“They were captured while looking for a home,” said Alagos slowly, “and those unfortunate enough not to be killed have become the forefathers of the Orcs. If they survived the torture in the pits of Utumno, that is.”

Legolas shuddered. “Did you ever see your parents again?”

Alagos nodded slowly. “In a sense… though not in person. When Thangorodrim was broken and the pits of Utumno lain open, many of us went there secretly, to look for our beloved ones. I never found my parents – or my wife, who had been taken much later – but I found a brother.”

Legolas stared at him in shock. “How is that possible?”

Alagos shrugged. “The Lost Ones were forced to breed – to produce more slaves for the Dark Lord whom he could torture and twist to his convenience. My brother had been born in the pits – born as an Orc already, but I still could find the features of my mother in his hideous face. The first few generations of Orcs were us a lot more alike, though they had already lost their connection to the flesh of Arda and were doomed to die, just like mortal Men are.”

“What has become of your… brother?” Legolas asked.

“I could not raise my hand against him,” answered Alagos with a sigh. “He was the only sibling I had. Thus I brought him back to the Greenwood with me, and our Wise Women did what was in their power to heal him. He was never able to endure the light of Anor, but we walked and hunted under the starlight together for many long seasons. He learned our tongue, but lived in a cave, outside our dwellings, hiding from all eyes, even though he was not the only one brought back by their kin. They all led solitary loves, allowing only their closest kin to see them… until they died, either of old age (an age that was but the wink of an eye for us) or slain by wild beasts or some hiding dark creature that remained in the woods after Melko’s defeat(3).”

“And the Faithful accepted them all?” asked Legolas in awe. This little aspect of the past was never discussed in his father’s court – not within his earshot, anyway. Alagos nodded solemnly.

“Of course we did. They were our flesh and blood, and we all knew just how easily we could have been in their place. Unlike Thingol’s hidden realm, our dwellings had no higher powers to protect them. Besides, those early ones had little resemblance to the Orcs that you know now, three Ages and thousands of generations later. They were not irrevocably evil yet – not beyond healing. Their bodies were damaged beyond repair, true, yet their fëar were not yet corrupted completely. Our Wise Women of old knew ways and methods to re-connect them with Arda… to a certain extent. Your grandmother and her mother were the strongest of all; they saved many of the Last Ones.”

“Mother never told me aught about her ancestors,” said Legolas sadly. “Naught beyond the fact that Nurwë was her grandfather. I wonder why. I wonder if she ever told Father these things.”

“She did,” replied Alagos simply. “The Queen never kept any secrets from King Thranduil; it would have been unwise to do so, with all the dark rumours among the Eldar about our people cross-breeding with Orcs and other wild tales. Thranduil – and even more so his father – needed to know the whole truth when they came to our forests to make an alliance with our people.”

“Why has she never told us, then?” asked Legolas. “Would her sons, too, not need to know the truth?”

“These traditions are kept to the female line among the Faithful,” said Alagos, “and not discussed with the males, unless they were directly involved, as I was. I believe the Queen left it to your father to tell you – if and when he found it necessary.”

“Does that man that Celebwen has known all this, all the time?” asked Legolas in surprise, as his older sister never cared much for the Avari traditions of their mother. Alagos nodded.

“She has been told, yea. But it only strengthened her urge to flee to the Sea, and so she finally moved to Mithlond. She never truly felt at home under the trees, not even as a small elfling, and often it seemed that our rituals frightened her. She inherited too much of your father’s Sindarin blood. The Queen hoped that Aiwë would follow her path one day. But when we lost the little bird(4), the lady Lálisin chose Princess Indreâbhan to be the heir of her powers.”

“Indreâbhan?” repeated Legolas, quite stunned. Alagos gave him a grim smile.

“What do you know of your betrothed, young one? Aside the fact that you are not in love with her?”

To that Legolas had no answer, just looked a little ashamed. Alagos nodded.

“I thought so. She is an earth-healer, young one; mayhap not such a strong one as our Wise Women used to be, certainly not strong enough to protect a whole forest from the creeping darkness, but a healer nonetheless. Or do you believe the soil of Dor-Lelmin remains unstained by some whim of nature?”

Once again, Legolas had no answer. Alagos sighed. The prince was still so young, he should have been allowed to discover these simple truths on his own, but in these dark days there was simply no time for that. And at times ‘twas better when someone else but the father took the difficult task upon him to open the eyes of the young ones. They were more likely to listen.

“I know you were taught the history of the Greenwood, young one,” he began quietly, “but let the most important meeting be re-told by someone who witnessed it. I was one of those who accompanied Eredur son of Nurwë, our leader after Nurwë had been slain, on his first meeting with King Oropher. We travelled a long way on foot from our dwellings in the Emyn Duir to the Amon Lanc where Oropher has made his dwelling, shortly after he had come to the East, at the beginning of the Second Age. I witnessed the agreement they made – that, in order to unite our peoples, Prince Thranduil would wed a lady of Eredur’s House. There were a few to choose from, and your father chose Lálisin, the daughter of Eredur’s sister, although she was much older than him, for he found a liking to her at first sight. Yet it was also a choice for the good of his future realm; Thranduil would have married anyway, if not your mother, then one of her cousins. ‘Tis an added blessing of Palúrien that the two liked each other right away and that this has grown to deep love between them. An added blessing, not a condition.”

Legolas shook his head in disbelief.

“Does anyone choose their life-mate out of love?” he asked bitterly.

“Few who are chosen to lead and protect an entire folk can follow their heart freely,” answered the Dark Elf soberly. “Yet if you look at your own parents, or at the Lady and Lord of Dor-Lelmin, you will have to admit that no-one of them has made a wrong choice. Besides… the choice you would prefer to make does not stand open to you. It never has.”

“I know,” whispered Legolas, “and I shall do as it is expected from me. But it hurts, Alagos. It hurts so much.”

“Of course it hurts, young one,” replied the older Elf, his cool green eyes full of sympathy and understanding. “Making the right choice is never easy. But I know you have the strength in you to choose well.”

He rose from his grassy seat with the practiced ease of a woodsman.

“Back in the Elder Days, our people believed that the fëar of their beloved ones would nestle in ancient trees,” he added as an afterthought, “for not even their spirits would be all too eager to leave the place of our birth. I know not if ‘tis true or not. But I know that the Great Ash is the wisest tree in the whole forest. Listen to her, young one. She will guide you well.”

“I wish I could understand the trees as you do,” Legolas sighed.

“You will learn to understand them better, given enough time” said Alagos. “Alas, I cannot stay here and teach you right now. I have to go and meet Master Aiwendil and escort him to the King’s place.”

“Aiwendil?” repeated Legolas in delight. “I knew not that he was to come to the Festival.”

“Apparently, he was visiting Dor-Lelmin and invited to the betrothal ceremony,” explained Alagos. “Small wonder; the blessing of the Istari is a good omen for the beginning of a marriage.”

“I am glad he is coming,” said Legolas. “He has been a friend of our family from the day on he set foot in the Greenwood for the first time. He shares many memories with us – most of them sad, but some of them bright and happy.”

“Do not wail among the shadow of the past, young one,” warned him Alagos. “Enjoy the peace of the night – ‘tis rare enough in these dark days. May the Great Ash give peace to your heart, too.”

With that, he pulled his brown cloak tighter around himself and vanished between the trees without a trace as was his wont. Legolas sighed. Not often happened that Alagos, the Dark Elf, as he was called even among the woodland folk (not for his origins, as they all were Moriquendi in the Wood, but more for his brooding nature) interfered with the affairs of the royal family, but when he did, his opinion was highly valued. He was the highest-ranking of the Faithful, after all, and also the second-eldest member of the court, after Galion.

Legolas knew that he had to make his choice ere the Festival was over. ‘Twas not a matter of simple obedience – he would always obey his father if the good of the Greenwood was at stake, no matter what the costs – this time he had to make a conscious choice. One that would persuade Indreâbhan to go through the betrothal ceremony with him. He had asked a lot from his selected bride during the last two hundred years. Indreâbhan had been most forthcoming and understanding. But their last conversation in-between the dances made it very clear that his lady had come to the limits of her endurance.

I am willing to wait for you, Laegalas, she had said, using the older form of his name, as always when they were talking about matters of great importance. But I shall not share my bed with you while you are still thinking of him. Consider carefully whether you shall be able to open your heart for me, once he has gone to the West, for if you cannot, the betrothal shall be called off. I am not willing to live in Elrond’s shadow ‘till the end of Arda. Not even for the good of our people.

Legolas reassumed his meditative posture and allowed his mind to drift off to the state of waking dreams. This was how the woodland folk always sought connection with the whole of Arda – how they sought advice from the trees and the winds, the water and the very soil itself.

He waited patiently, opening up his heart to the soft whispers in the night. The trees spoke not in clear words or images, and to understand the barely audible sighs of the night breeze one needed focus and endurance. But the blood of the Faithful in his veins made his hearing keen for the murmurs of waters, for the almost nonexistent sound of the tree-roots growing under the earth, for the whisper of leaves above his head. Finally, all these voices moulded together in his dream, and he saw the image of his mother approach him from under the Great Ash.

‘Twas not the first time that the Queen had visited his dreams. They had always been very close, as Legolas was a late-born son and had been the youngest fledgling in the family nest for hundreds of years. Ever since his mother’s horrible death in the dungeons of Dol Dúgol, he often asked himself if these visits were simple visions, sent to him by the Lady Palúrien, the thoughts of the Great Ash taking a familiar and beloved form, or if the fëa of his mother never truly left Middle-earth, staying behind to watch over the rest of their family.

Whatever the reason might be, Legolas was grateful for it. He missed the gentle wisdom of his mother terribly. As close as he was to his father, Thranduil did not share that very special mindset that only the blood of the Faithful could give. The King had gone great lengths to understand the ways of his wife and his people, and he had been reasonably successful to adapt to their lives. But it was a knowledge that he had acquired by learning and willpower. For Legolas, it was in his blood. That made him different from the rest of his family – the forest was not just his realm, it was his inheritance as well. His very life.

Queen Lálisin seemed not different from how he had seen her the last time, alive or in another vision. Tall and slender she was, like an elm-tree, after which she had been named, her thick, mahogany-hued hair put up and held together by a dark green cloth as was her wont in her life. Almond-shaped eyes, bright and greenish-brown like polished chestnuts, shone in her gentle face, and in the moonlight even the freckles on her cheeks could be seen. She was fairly plain for an Elf, compared even with most other women of the Silvan folk. For Legolas, however, she was breathtakingly beautiful, and he knew that his father felt the same way.

“You are concerned, my little leaf,” said the Queen gently, sitting down next to her son and embracing him gently; ‘twas the great gift of the waking dreams that they gave other sensations, too, beyond mere sight.

“I stand before my hardest choice, Mother,” replied Legolas. “I know what I have to choose, but I know not how. I wish not to lie to Indreâbhan, yet I cannot promise that I shall be able to love her as she deserves to be loved, once Elrond has gone. All the people that I have spoken with say I could do this – yet I am not that certain. And if I know not my own heart, how could I make such a promise?”
“Remember, I was still with you when your father and the Lord Aghavannagh made that agreement,” said the Queen. “Do you believe Thranduil would make such a decision without asking me first?”

“And you agreed?” asked Legolas in surprise. The Queen nodded.

“I always knew that you and Indreâbhan would be good for each other. The only thing I feared was that she would not have the courage to stand up for herself and demand from you what she deserves. I feared that she would accept this marriage without any conditions. That would have been a bad thing, for in that case you would not be equals. But it seems that she has finally grown up enough to make use of her rights. Do not be mistaken, my little leaf; she will not wed you just to make her father – or yours – happy. You will have to win her heart.”

“But how can I do that, Mother, while mine is still occupied by someone else? She will not share – and I would never ask her to do so.”

“Then you will have to make room for her in your heart,” answered the Queen gently. “I know that right now Elrond needs you, for his burdens are heavy, heavier than even you might guess, and I say not that you should leave him alone, not yet. But you should be ready to close that part of your life when he is gone – without compromises, without looking back. From then on, your life and your heart should belong to your wife-to-be. Completely. Can you do that, my son? Do you have feelings in your heart for her, feelings that are strong enough to build a life upon them?”

Legolas pondered over this question for a long time. He recalled old memories about times spent in Indreâbhan’s pleasant company, before and after he fell in love with Elrond. He weighed her shining beauty, her gentle wisdom, her generosity and understanding against the searing passion he harboured for the Lord of Imladris – and finally nodded.

“I believe so. But will I be able to make her believe it?”

“You do not have to make her believe it,” his mother answered “She knows it already. You only have to promise her that you would try. She is prepared to fight for you, to win your heart – if only you would allow it.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?” asked Legolas doubtfully. His mother shrugged.

“Ask her to wed you. Show her that you have chosen and are willing to accept her conditions.”

Legolas shook his head in disbelief. “It cannot be that simple…”

“Oh, but it is,” his mother answered with a smile. “All that truly matters is simple, my son. ‘Tis we who refuse to see it and try to make everything difficult, to make every choice hard.” She rose. “I have to leave now, little leaf. Be steadfast. I know you have the strength in you to do the right thing.”

“Mother…” Legolas hesitated; “is this really you? Or are you but a vision, born from my concerns and dreams?”

“I am all that what you need to see and hear right now,” the Queen answered. Then she bent down to kiss his brow and left slowly, vanishing between moonlight and shadows ere she would quite reach the Great Ash.

Legolas looked after her for a long time, coming back to awareness slowly. To his great amazement, he felt the burden lifting off a little from his heart. He was willing to make the choice that was expected from him, and it felt right.

In fact, he was amazed how liberating it felt.

~~~

(1) For some reason I imagine that Wood-Elves considered trees as female creatures. Or at least some particular trees (certainly not the Huorns, though). I don’t know why. Barathî is – according to the Ardalambion website – the Primitive Elvish form of Varda. I simply supposed that the Avari would use earlier forms, having been isolated from other Elves for a long time.

(2) The seasonal year. A loa had six seasons of different length.

(3) Melko was an earlier name of Melkor (Morgoth). I let Alagos use this version, for he is a very ancient Elf, who never went to the West, thus he is most likely to use older names than the Eldar. Also, the name Morgoth (Black Foe) was given to Melkor by Fëanor; I doubt that an Avari would use it.

(4) The name Aiwë means simply “bird”. She was Legolas’ late-born baby sister, killed by a Giant Spider at a very young age. The whole tale is called “Little Bird” and is available in this archive.


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