“I see you have come to your senses and are now prepared to do your duty to your King and rejoin us,” Faramir commented when Eldarion rode up to meet his escort.
“So Legolas and King Thranduil insisted I am obligated to do,” responded the young man, nodding sheepishly as he endured a short but stern lecture regarding his unexpected departure from the escort. Eldarion stunned the Steward into silence when he mentioned that he had already met Thranduil.
“King Thranduil, to you,” Faramir corrected him automatically.
“Very well, King Thranduil,” repeated Eldarion, exasperation evident in his voice.
“Really? Then tell us what he is like. Is he friendly? Does Legolas look at all like him?” Sarien interrupted with his eager questions all the while staring at his friend with wide eyed envy.
“You will see for yourself shortly,” was all Eldarion deigned to reply, deliberately leaving Sarien bursting with curiosity.
He also failed to mention the fact that he felt slightly annoyed with Legolas for siding with his father as he watched his standard bearer reverently unfurl the banner depicting the White Tree and stars. This was not the flag Arwen had made for her lover, for that was one of the King’s most treasured possessions and accompanied him whenever he travelled, but was a replica made with a mother’s love. Arwen had proudly presented her work to her only son as he left for Ithilien and he was overcome with affection for his mother and awe at her skill with the needle.
Another feeling also began to take hold as the flag fluttered in the light breeze, taking Eldarion by surprise as he felt a sudden surge of pride for his part in everything the banner of his father’s house represented. For the first time in his life he understood the full weight of his responsibility and knew that he was ready to accept his role as the son and heir. So it was that, accompanied by his escort bearing the symbol of his status, Prince Eldarion rode with head held high into the settlement, there to be met by Legolas and King Thranduil.
Faramir and Sarien were instantly mesmerized by the powerful and exquisitely fair Elvenking who stood before them, and had not Eldarion caught their attention with a rather loud clearing of his throat, they would have stared longer than was polite at Thranduil. The Prince’s apologetic smile to the elves for the rudeness of his friends was met with one reassuring no offence was taken, so he proceeded with the formalities.
“King Thranduil, allow me to introduce Faramir, Steward of Gondor and my dear friend Sarien,” Eldarion addressed the elder elf, taking it upon himself to make the introductions after he and his party had dismounted.
“Mae govannen, my lord Steward, Sarien,” Thranduil greeted the men in elvish fashion with hand over heart.
“It is an honour and a pleasure to finally meet you, Your Majesty,” said Faramir, bowing respectfully and thinking how aptly those last two words described this ageless elf who was obviously very much akin to the great elf lords he had met all those years ago.
“The honour is mine, son of Gondor. The rangers of the forests are held in high regard by the trees that even now whisper to me of their delight in your presence,” replied Thranduil.
“The trees know of me and my men?” Faramir asked his voice filled with a youthful kind of wonder on hearing something Legolas had never mentioned and he looked questioningly at the younger elf.
“The language of the trees in Ithilien very old, and Adar understands it so much better than I do. Since coming here I find that I can understand very few words that whisper through the leaves, although I am still able to sense the simple feelings that fill the air,” he admitted with more than a hint of sadness for the rapport he had lost. Thranduil moved to place his arm around his son’s waist, offering what comfort he was able.
“Do the trees also speak of Eldarion and me, Your Majesty?” Sarien asked with genuine curiosity. Without moving from his son’s side, Thranduil turned to face the inquisitive young man.
“Aye, I gather your youthful exuberance is a constant source of amusement,” he replied with an unexpected playfulness before rapidly changing the subject to something less painful for his son to hear. Noticing for the first time the quiver filled with arrows he easily recognised as crafted by Legolas, he spoke again. "Ai, Sarien! Are you not the young man whose skill with the bow is highly praised by archers both of elf kind and mortal?”
“There is none who can match Legolas on the archery field, but I have indeed won the most elvish arrows over the years,” Sarien replied, blushing slightly when he realised how bold his admission sounded. Thranduil laughed heartily and clapped the young man on the back.
“Do not be embarrassed for recognising your own talents. Your words were well spoken, young Sarien. Perhaps you and Legolas and a few of my most excellent archers might like to entertain us tomorrow with a small competition?”
“As you wish, Sire.” Sarien barely managed to contain his excitement at the very notion of pitting his skill against the elves.
“An excellent idea, Adar!” Legolas, exclaimed, his melancholy mood quickly disappearing in the wake of such an inviting challenge. “Might I suggest that Faramir and Eldarion should take part as well,” he added with a wink of understanding at his friends who were also just as eager to join in the fun. Thranduil signalled his agreement with a nod then drew Legolas aside.
“Is there not something you are forgetting my son?” he asked, speaking softly so that the others did not hear. Legolas frowned, clearly not understanding his father’s meaning. “These men have travelled a long way, surely rest and refreshments are in order?”
“Aye, Adar.” the younger elf replied as he turned to speak to his guest. “I have been remiss in attending your needs, Prince Eldarion. If you will follow me, I will show you and your escort to the guest cottages. Some of my people will take care of the horses,” he added, signalling two elves to do so.
Eldarion hid his surprise at being addressed so formally and only a sideways glance from Faramir quelled the protest the young man was about to voice regarding the need to be directed to the accommodation. After all he and Sarien had become such frequent visitors over the years that they had built their own guest cottage! Nevertheless, he understood that certain etiquette was required, and that Legolas and Thranduil were only trying to help him become accustomed to his position, so he simply followed in silence.
Once he was certain that all were comfortably housed and that food and drink were readily available, Legolas informed his friends that the festivities were to begin at sunset, then, needing to continue to assist with the preparations, he took his leave. Had he been able to remain, no doubt would have been highly amused at the discussion concerning the appropriate form of attire to be worn that evening. Even Eldarion would have to admit that it sounded unnervingly similar to one of many he had overheard his sisters and their friends engaging in at times, the kind of conversation he normally avoided at all costs.
Not this day, however.
Faramir insisted not only that they should wear formal robes, but that Eldarion should also don the circlet that indicated his royal status. Eldarion and Sarien resisted, declaring that the elves would likely only laugh at such an unaccustomed display from the two young men. Eldarion was sorely tempted to use his authority and insist they dress in a more casual manner, but experience reminded him that his wishes were not always to be granted simply because he was the Prince. The Steward’s argument that any feast in honour of a King, no matter from which realm, demanded a certain level of dignity, rang with truth and out of respect for his advisor’s greater experience in matters of protocol, he acquiesced to the request.
To Faramir’s embarrassment, when they finally appeared in the glade at sunset, it was obvious that he should have heeded his Prince’s words, for the men and the soldiers were patently overdressed for the occasion. None of the elves, Legolas and Thranduil included, wore robes of any kind, but rather the males all wore open tunics and leggings, the females gowns of feather light fabric and all were bare footed. The only indication of rank was the crown of summer flowers worn by the King and the single strand of leaves that Legolas preferred as a coronet rather than the mithril circlet he wore when attending official functions in Minas Tirith.
“You pay me great respect with your formal attire, but please feel free to dress more casually. I think you will find it more comfortable and much easier to dance when unencumbered by robes and the like,” Thranduil suggested after he had greeted the new arrivals in the appropriate manner.
“As I tried to tell my Steward,” Eldarion responded, finding it easy to speak with Thranduil as one royal to another, although he could not resist favouring Faramir with a youthful smirk of triumph that was acknowledged only by a slight shrug of his advisor’s shoulders.
“They are often the most difficult of all people a King must deal with,” Thranduil confided in the young Prince. “The opinions of my esteemed Steward are almost impossible to sway once his mind is set.”
“That is even truer of stubborn Kings and their sons, if I may be so bold, Your Majesty,” a more amused than offended Faramir responded in his own defence.
“So I am often informed, and since I trust my Steward implicitly and respect his opinion, I suppose it must be true,” Thranduil laughed merrily, looking around to find Legolas and Sarien had moved away. They were already seated at the main table, involved in a conversation of their own as they sampled one of the bottles of wine Thranduil had brought from Eryn Lasgalen. “Come, Prince and Steward, I notice my son and his young archer friend have opened a particularly excellent bottle of wine. Shall we join them before there is none left?”
As the evening progressed and the excellent food of the feast was sampled, more wine was needed to quench the thirst and by the time the dancing began, both elves and men were in a merry mood. It was a mood destined not to last for either Thranduil or Eldarion.
The two had tired of dancing for the moment and had returned to their table, taking a few moments to catch their breath and enjoy their wine. They remained content to sit in companionable silence until Eldarion raised a question.
“Tell me, my lord, what was the first official duty you performed as King?” It was an innocent enough query, but one that caused Thranduil’s smile to disappear instantly.
“One your father was spared from having to endure,” he replied. It was no answer and Eldarion, emboldened by the wine, was not to be deterred from seeking further information.
“Endure? Surely finally being able to do as you wish for the first time was not an unpleasant experience?” the young Prince asked, now intent on satisfying his curiosity.
Thranduil shook his head sadly at the loss of innocence that would result from his words, but he said them nonetheless.
“My first duty as the new King, as yours will be I am sorry to say, was to lead the song of mourning for the passing of my beloved Adar.”