"Shoo! Get away, you wicked beast! Shoo, I tell you!"
Thranduil released his hold on the dark mane of the horse he was about to mount and turned from his stirrup to see the cause of the angry exclamation. "Truly, Heledir, what is the problem? It is only a cat."
It was indeed, only a cat, a small ginger tabby, crouched in one of the mangers. Thranduil suspected the bad temper had more to do with Heledir himself than the innocuous animal. His former captain of the guard's recent demotion to stable hand after an incident involving stolen wine and escaping prisoners had merely served to further sour a temperament already on the pessimistic side.
"We have been overrun with them, sire, since not long after you returned from Erebor. Perhaps you were unaware of this infestation, this rush of cats from the south. They are creatures of Morgoth -- this one in particular." In response the cat laid back its ears and hissed.
Thranduil shot Legolas a glance across the back of his horse. His son, who stood preparing to mount his own gelding, merely rolled his eyes. Neither of them wanted their mood spoiled on this day of all days.
"Do not be foolish, Heledir," Thranduil said. "That nonsense about cats is a Golodhren superstition. They are good beasts and serve a purpose, as do all of Eru's creatures. You simply do not know how to approach them."
By way of illustration, he left the side of his stallion and walked over to the stall Heledir had been mucking out. He blinked his eyes slowly, waited until the cat had relaxed and blinked its eyes in return, and then held out his hand, palm down. After a pause, the animal allowed Thranduil to stroke its head.
"You see? It was merely afraid. All it wants is a warm place to sleep and shelter from the spiders, and in return it will kill the mice and rats for us. Now, my son and I have business in the woods today. I do not want to hear reports of any cat being ill-treated in my stables. Are we clear?"
"Clear, sire," replied Heledir stiffly.
As Thranduil and the rest of the party rode out into the crisp winter air, Legolas leaned over in his saddle to whisper, "I am surprised that you did not tell him to hold it, feed it, and tell it that it was a good cat and a pretty cat."
Thranduil laughed. "I confess I was sorely tempted. Heledir brings out the worst in me. But who could be petty at this time of year and on such a beautiful day? You and I have been doing this together since you could sit your first pony and the joy never fades for me. Let us go choose a good one!"
The next day -- the Solstice -- Thranduil was among the first to awaken. His mood buoyed by anticipation, he made his way down to the gates in the early hours and spoke the word to open them to the dawning light. Snow had fallen during the night, obliterating the tracks left by the sledge that had brought the live tree, with its root-ball wrapped in heavy cloth, into the stronghold.
The snow was pristine, save for a single set of tracks left by little cat feet. They led over the bridge, up the steps and to the door, yet none led away. Thranduil looked quickly to either side of the door and saw no signs of life. Mysterious beasts, cats. They came and went as they will. He shrugged and went back inside.
"This is the first year for this little piece," said Thranduil, draping a simple necklace of silver and pearls in the upper branches of the solstice tree, "but I hope I shall be hanging it for many more. Nice little fellow, that hobbit. I hope he makes it safely back home and never has to face anything like a dragon again." He snapped the lid shut on his now empty jewelry box and handed it to Legolas.
He stepped back for a moment to admire the tree, glittering with necklaces, brooches and rings. Then he removed the crown of holly and berries from his head and placed it over the tree's topmost spire. "It is done. This tree is now your King, and I am off duty until the Yule."
After the smattering of applause and laughter died down, Thranduil remained, staring at the tree in silence, while his courtiers retired to their festivities.
"You seem pensive tonight, Father," said Legolas.
"I am remembering, that is all. The first time crowning the Solstice tree. The crown belonged to Oropher then, and I thought the trees would wear my father's crown for Ages to come. But that first time was the last."
"It is such a pleasant tradition. I have always taken it for granted."
Thranduil smiled. "I initially did it for your mother, in order to make her feel at home with her adopted folk, as a man will do for a new bride. Oropher seemed mildly amused, although it was always hard to tell what my father was thinking. Then, for all these years, I kept up the tradition, first with your mother, and now with you."
"I sometimes forget that the rest of you have lived so very long," Legolas said. "To have memories that go back over two Ages seems incomprehensible to me."
"You will understand it all too well, given time. The Long-years will seem to have flown past in the blinking of an eye." Thranduil sighed. "I will not say that such a long life brings wisdom, but it teaches a lesson. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the Lady Weaver seeks only to rob me of my joys, but then, in amongst the sorrows will come a gift, if one is not so blind as to pass it by."
"Such as tonight?"
"Yes, tonight," said Thranduil, when a rustling from the tree made him startle. The branches had begun to shimmy, setting the jewelry to swaying and sparkling. "My goodness, what is that?"
A ginger cat came out of the branches, leapt down off the root-ball and sauntered over to Thranduil. It stood up on its back legs, using one paw against the knee of his trousers to steady itself while it waved the other to reach even higher.
"I would say it is a cat," remarked Legolas. "I think it is perhaps the same demon-cat from the stables yesterday. What is more, it seems to like you very much."
Thranduil scooped the animal up. "She likes me," he corrected, after a discreet look. "Odd, ginger females are rare."
"Ha! What were you just saying about gifts from Fate?"
"I suppose you have a point. This little one is a golden gift indeed."
"As long as this is a night for candor," Legolas said, "there was a little grey striped one out in the stables who decided I was the greatest thing on two legs. He is up in my chambers right now."
"Have you thought of a name yet? If he pisses on your tapestries, I would suggest you call him Heledir."
"Actually . . . I have taken to calling him Gandalf. Grey, you know."
Thranduil fought a smile. "If Mithrandir comes calling anytime soon, we will keep your cat closely mewed. 'Closely mewed' -- get it?"
"Good one, Father. How about a name for yours? No golden-haired elf-ladies you could poke fun at?"
"Again, it is very tempting, but the idea of taking 'Galadriel' up to my bedroom does not bear even a passing thought. Glaurant, this little one shall be, and my chambers are where she and I will go now. Good night, my son. This celebration is for the young."
Thranduil returned from the privy after performing his necessary nightly ritual to find Glaurant curled up in his upholstered chair, enjoying the fire. He had undressed himself. Galion, still recuperating from a severe wound a month earlier, had been dismissed early and sent to bed. Galion still didn't know about the cat.
"You waste no time settling in, do you?" Thranduil said with a laugh. "Go on, get down. I want to sit here myself."
Obligingly, the cat jumped down and settled comfortably on the hearth rug, nose to tail. From the state of her teeth, which Thranduil had examined earlier, she was no juvenile, barely out of kittenhood. She had at least a few winters to her credit.
"You had a home before, that much is clear. You know about firesides and comfortable chairs and gentle hands. I wonder how you lost them. I wonder who loved you before and if he is missing you now."
The fire died down as Thranduil finished his final glass of the day. Had the little ginger cat dwelt with a family of Woodmen? It was unlikely she had lived with one of his own folk, since elves rarely let their animals go astray except for some dire mischance. If Heledir had spoken truly, what was the reason for this rush of little cat-feet from afar? At the last, Thranduil decided that he really did not want to know.
"You are here, Glaurant, for the rest of your days, and that is all that counts. May they be long. And now it is time for bed."
He threw off his robe and slipped between the covers, preparing to blow out the candle. Glaurant hovered expectantly at the closed door.
"Your former master, he put you out at night, did he?" The cat blinked. "Well, we don't do that here." He patted the covers beside him.
The cat blinked again, and then jumped up on the bed, settling herself in the curve of Thranduil's body. With his hand on the soft little head, he pursed his lips and blew out the candle. Did it really matter whence came the gift? It had been a good Solstice.
The title of this story comes from the ancient Christmas carol, Whence Comes This Rush of Wings Afar?
Glaurant is Sindarin for Golden Gift.
Golodhren is Sindarin for Noldorin
Many thanks to Pandemonium_213 for the plot-bunny and allowing me to poach from her idea that Sauron had pet cats at Dol Guldur.