It was the old wizard's idea, which usually meant trouble from the get go; however, Thranduil admitted, there was not only logic in the idea, but sound reasoning as well. And so he had made this journey, alone, deep into the forest on behalf of his elfling.
Mithrandir had advised caution, but so far the only foe he had faced had been the night mists curling up around Mabon's hooves like the souls of the dead seeking warmth and life. Usually gift horses were suspect; tonight he would refrain from looking too closely.
Thranduil reined his horse into the sinuously curving turn. Not much further now.
Past the deep forest spring where wood nymphs bathed beneath silver waterfalls in shallow bowls of moonlight. On through the foggy bottomed hollow where piskies broke off their wrestling to swarm up for a ride, tangling Mabon's silky mane with their frisky fingers. Around the glimmering Cerin Mîr, beneath which, legend whispered, lay a king's ransom in rare jewels, over the gentle rise threaded through gnarled old trees, down to the guardian gate - a forest of standing stones thrice the height of any elf in the realm.
And still he remained unchallenged. Wise counsel to hold off this errand until the autumnal equinox.
His forest was old, sown by the hand of the Giver of Fruits in the days before the Star Kindler had dispelled the darkness of Cuiviénen. Some said this locale, nearly two day's ride north of the stronghold of Mirkwood, and difficult for most to find, had been the ancient realm of Elu Thingol and his Maia mate, Melian.
The waves of wrath that had swallowed the unrighteous of the island realm in the 2nd Age though, had changed the shape of world so dramatically one could not say with impunity.
Reining in, Thranduil sat a moment, listening. Beyond this spell-guarded threshold, even he did not dare enter without permission.
Mabon shifted, though not restlessly. The elf lord's steed was the steadiest in three kingdoms, but even the steadiest of companions would perceive the trailing finger of fear Thranduil acknowledged, if only to himself and his horse.
He was not welcome here, but the greater burden compelled transgression and on this night of nights, though few knew it, his safety was assured. Blood could not be spilled during this sacred celebration.
He had been here only once previously, long ago. Guarded, he well knew, and guided by his wife whose kinship with the Changers had guaranteed safe passage. It had been a night such as this, though fraught with less sorrow.
Thranduil swung down, allowing the memory free rein as he began to unbuckle, untie, and unlace the various bundles and baskets bedecking his patient charger.
Though untroubled that his trespass angered the guardians, he knew better than to come empty-handed. Carefully, as his wife had done before, he began to lay out the autumnal gifts he had come to bargain with.
He was not without power, even here deep in a domain of unfettered magick. Earth energy pulsed like a heartbeat as he carefully placed the first gift in the north quadrant of the hexagon; green grapes mounded like cushions inside a Haradrim lord's tent. For air in the east quadrant, a row of fat, yellow squash appearing a bit like Thranduil imagined the rotund little creatures Mithrandir was so fond of nattering on about. And his own personal bit of mischief, in the south quadrant, for fire, Thranduil placed several decanters of Dorwinion, along with the more traditional pile of deep red apples. Finally, in the west quarter he set out a circle of baskets woven in blues and lavenders, their handles festooned with ribbons of pale yellow, mint green and sunrise pink, releasing the spells that kept the bounteous offerings of seeds and nuts and berries from overflowing.
In the center of these gifts of harvest, he lit a raft of tall, slender star anise-scented candles, as both offering and appeal.
And sat back on his heels to wait.
Two Days Later
Thranduil settled on the side of the large bed, running his hand over the soft coverlet of pieced leaves as he contemplated the many kinds of magick he had encountered in his life. He was not accounted among the old of his realm, for a third of his father's army had survived the War of the Last Alliance, and formed a large part of his counsel, but he was old enough to have at least tangential knowledge of even the old elemental magicks.
He would not know how to live without the deep rumblings and grumblings of the ancient forest guardians undergirding the deepest levels of his attunement with the natural world. Nor would it cross his mind to consider dismissing the chitter chatter of the lively young saplings any more than he would think of telling the merry makers of his court to hush, though he filtered it through a thicker layer of intuition.
He was one with the forest and its inhabitants in an inexplicable way. Every tree and bush, every flower, rock and stone, each individual leaf and blade of grass, the birds, the bees, all the critters and creatures that crawled and flew and even spun – they were all linked to the King of Mirkwood.
Though he had refused to attend the White Council, he knew their work and the great magicks that had held first Morgoth's, and now Sauron's, devastating power, if not completely in check, at least from devouring Middle-earth.
And then there were Mithrandir's magickal fireworks.
It was an incomplete list, he decided, for in his long life he had experienced many more kinds of magicks than he could name. But here, in this fire-lit chamber, protected by enchantments deep as the carven rock ceiling and warm as the hearth flames, resided the heart of all magick.
Leaning to plant an elbow on the other side of the still, small form, Thranduil tucked a thumb inside the pliant curl of fingers resting next to the blond head, and felt the heartbeat of it pulse through his veins.
This was the oldest of magicks; the kind that knew neither bonds nor boundaries. It existed in every society, crossed all populations, and welcomed practitioners of every age. It suffered neither ordering or control, bent to will of none, bestowed unparalleled joy and caused unequaled sorrow.
Sentimental tripe turned his stomach, but to himself alone, Thranduil would admit that experience had taught him love was the most elemental magick of all.
Skin to skin, connected on the most basic level as those fingers curled trustingly around his own, he stepped gently into his son's reverie.
He did not often have time to wake Legolas in this manner, but they both relished the moments when it was possible.
"Aur bain, ada," Legolas greeted sleepily, turning to nestle his cheek into his father's large palm.
In the youthful, anything-is-possible mind, Thranduil took his elfling by the hand. Together they climbed the hill to wakefulness and sat to watch the memory of a sunrise, for there were no outside entrances to this well-fortified chamber. This morning, Thranduil shared the dawn he had woken to, with his wife, the morning after Legolas' conception. It had been a morning of incomparable joy and he channeled all of that into his son as they watched a golden sun peep over the horizon, painting the dawn with sharp brush strokes of sunshine-hued purple, and lavender, and pink.
"I still miss nanneth a lot, ada. I wish I could see her again."
"Aur bain, my little leaf," Thranduil returned as he centered his wide awake elfling in the here and now. "I miss her, too."
They shared a moment of silent gratitude for the memories that kept Nethil alive in their hearts. Thranduil would be forever grateful for the granted Mettarë wish that had allowed Legolas to see his mother once more. The nights in the old swan rocker staring into the fireplace flames were growing further apart.
Legolas was beginning to come alive again, to find joy in adventure and exploring. Several times lately, Rhenneth had lost track of him, and twice Thranduil had had the entire palace guard searching for the elfing. So far the prince had not ventured beyond the walls of the fortress, but his comfort level was increasing daily and it would not be long before the rules became guidelines and guidelines became blurred by curiosity and enthusiasm.
The resurgence of the dormant little fëa was beginning to cause Thranduil to tremble deep in his own soul. Not because of the reawakening; it brought him deep pleasure and satisfaction to watch his little one emerging from the cocoon he had bound himself in. But the elf lord was a single parent and a full-time king, and an individual who had never been easy asking for help. Healing his small son's grief, however, was more important than even his inflexible pride.
A twinkle lit in the elfling's eyes. "Is it today?"
Thranduil prepared for an explosion. "Aye, today is the day."
He expected flying covers and princelings. To his surprise, Legolas wriggled from beneath the quilt and crawled into his lap rather than erupting from the bedclothes.
"You've been very busy, ada. I have not seen you for days and days."
Thranduil smiled at the strand of manipulative guilt his son managed to thread into those two bare utterances. "Days and days? I thought you could count better than that, for I was certain you sat beside me at dinner just yestereve." He could feel the elfling roll his eyes.
"That is not what I meant," Legolas chided, burrowing into that place where his fëa would link him to his father's heartbeat.
"Did the Cold return again, my leafling?" Thranduil felt the jerky nod as he ran a gentle hand over the long night braid, dexterously removing the leather tie. Teasing the end free, he ran his long fingers through the fine silk, unraveling the braid and began to massage the little head. "Why did you not send Rhenneth for me, or come to my bed?"
The answer, when it came - and it was slow in coming - was uttered in a voice that sounded suspiciously akin to that of the king's chief seneschal. "I am no longer a child in need of protection from the denizens of the night."
For the space of three heartbeats, Thranduil considered the benefits of beheading the Keeper of his Comforts.
"Galion," he growled, catching Legolas beneath the arms and tossing him into the air, "knows next to nothing about almost everything."
He was rewarded by a giggle and tossed the child again.
"Hear me, my heart, and learn this lesson well." The elf lord tucked up his child again inside a warm embrace and whispered directly in the tiny tapering ear, "Nothing and no one will ever keep me from your side should you have need of me."
The day would come, he knew, when this one would test the limits of his patience, if not his love. He had not needed the signs and portents accompanying his son's birth to know that rebellion and revolution would follow in the wake of this child's footsteps.
And so, daily, he worked at rooting his leafling's deep, intrinsic trust, so the tether that might rend the soul of the father would hold strong for the son in the time of testing. He had learned this from his own father and would someday gift his son with the wisdom as well.
It was enough, this morn, to enfold his child in a deep embrace and kindle a small imperishable flame to keep the Cold at bay, something his wife would have done instinctively and he should have thought of long ago.
And he would have a word or three with Galion, though their sharpness would be tempered by the blade of his own accountability. If he had not been deep in his cups last night, he would have heard Legolas' distress himself.
He encouraged the warmth to encompass them both and kissed the bright head pressed against his heart. "I will do better about listening, too, I promise."
"It is better now, but I have missed you a lot, ada."
"And I have missed you, too, Legolas. Now come!" The king tossed his heir one last time, savoring the giggles as he caught the child and snoggled kisses into the sweet-smelling neck before placing the elfling squarely on his feet on the wide expanse of whimsical Haradrim carpet covering the cold stone floor. "Go bring me the comb and we will plait your hair like a warrior today."
The youngster scampered across the room to drag the stool they used for night-braiding over to the bit of driftwood cleverly concealing drawers and the perfect assortment of hidey holes for collecting bits and pieces of juvenile dreams. Snatching up the comb, Legolas hopped back off the stool, pausing only long enough to grab leggings and tunic from a half-open drawer before flying back to insert himself between his father's knees. "What do we do today, ada?" he inquired, holding the comb up over his shoulder.
It was put to use on the few tangles left and once more Thranduil sifted his fingers through the fine strands of hair, starting the braid over the left ear. "I thought you might like to go and visit the litter of wolf pups we ran across on our last outing."
Legolas bounced enthusiastically. "Oh aye! May we, ada? May we go see them?"
Connected as he was with all the woodland realm, Thranduil had observed casually that it was an unusual time of year for the whelping of pups, but stranger things had happened and he had felt no taint in the earth surrounding the wolf den. It was a matter of interest only in that it had been a delightful end to a day teaching his son to track. And a rare find, for the natural wolf packs roaming his forests normally bred deep off the game trails they had been following that day.
Calaeron, the king's head game keeper, had backtracked from a large, muddy paw print at the edge of a well-concealed spring, to a sheltered den hidden behind a tangled screen of dead vegetation on the edge of a verdant clearing.
Until today, Thranduil had not considered that a deeper magick might have already been at work before he had agreed to the old wizard's meddlesome prodding. He had thought the idea of using a wolf pup's form his own, but perhaps the thought had been planted long ago and only grown to fruition in the fullness of need.
The right braid was tied off with a thin strip of leather as well, and Thranduil patted his little one on the behind to move him forward. "Then let us go see the wolf pups. But first, you must dress and we will ask Duinenel for a basket of lunch to take with us when we go, to break our fast. Shall I wait for you, leafling?"
"Nay!" Legolas clambered out of night leggings and into day wear, using his free hand to shove at the long column of muscle and bone that supported his tall-as-an-oak-tree ada. "Tell Duinenel I will have berries to break my fast this morning. Porridge takes too long!"
Thranduil, obedient to the prodding, turned himself cheerfully toward the door. "I will convey your wishes, caun tithen."
"Well, aren't we the cheerful one," Galion intoned, separating himself from the wall supporting his unrestful contemplation of the one hundred and forty-four studs decorating the door of the prince's chamber.
Thranduil's tuneful whistle faltered not, nor did his feet. He did accept the sheaf of parchments shoved at him as his seneschal fell in step, if less than gracefully.
"These items require your seal prior to your departure."
This did stop Thranduil, who was not in the habit of signing things he did not read, and his seneschal knew it. "We had this discussion yestereve, Galion. We have had this discussion countless times since the birth of my son, and yet you cannot remember it even over a small span of darkness. Should I seek counsel of Elrond the Healer for your forgetfulness?"
Galion's scowl suggested the king was not playing by the rules. He said only, "They will not delay you overmuch."
"They will not delay me at all." Thranduil thrust the batch of parchment back at the seneschal, letting it flutter heedlessly from his hand when Galion did not immediately take it. If his stride lengthened a bit more than usual as he resumed his journey toward the kitchen, it might not have been an involuntary reaction. "If they must be dealt with today, then you will have to accept Hithuon's verdict," he floated over his shoulder, knowing, even without hearing the indignant sputter behind him, it would spike Galion's weaponry.
He would have replaced the seneschal long ago, but for his unsurpassed skill at sniffing out the best wine in the land. It was from Galion that
Thranduil had learned the fine art of drinking himself into a stupor. And Galion who had been his drinking companion yestereve.
Thranduil competently squashed the flutter of renewed guilt. Parenting was not a job he had ever imagined doing alone, but he knew himself to be a good father, even without the old conjuror's frequent reinforcing of that opinion. However, he had daemons of his own to fight since the death of his wife; he would not allow one lapse in judgment to spawn further torment.
He stopped whistling long enough to buss his baker and thank her for the wonderful yeasty smell of rolls drenched in cinnamon and honey scenting the kitchen's bustling warmth. Of all the places he had labored over, both in the drawing up and the engineering of his mountain fortress, the kitchens had required the most ingenuity. There were two – the family kitchen, here close to their quarters, and the kitchen that cranked out sustenance for the majority of those who manned the day to day operations of the palace. Venting for the ovens alone, not to mention the multiple stoves and fireplaces, had required seemingly endless days of hammers clanging against chisels reverberating throughout the entire mountain.
"Where's the wee one?" Duinenel set a plate of rolls next to the steaming goblet already waiting at the head of the long trestle table. "Sit you and drink that down before he arrives."
Thranduil did as he was told, and gratefully. Duinenel's brew was worth imbibing for itself alone, though she refused to give it to him unless he was spending time with Legolas after a night of wild overindulgence.
Most of the resident healers served him up some vilely noxious brew that had him spewing his guts in order to soothe the after effects of said indulgence; on purpose, he was certain, to drive home their point. They could take a few lessons from the understated smugness of the kitchen cook, whose perceived lesser talents ran toward healing.
Thranduil kept his own smugness to himself as he considered the healing magick she apportioned into everything that left her stove. She had inserted herself wil-you-nil-you into the yawning chasm of distance separating two broken souls in those initial darks days after Nethil's loss. Tracking them both down regularly and physically plunking Legolas into his lap, then sitting to make sure they both ate enough to keep their bodies functioning. Thranduil was certain there had been far more ingredients in the dishes she had prepared to tempt them, than could be harvested even within Mirkwood's far-reaching realm. And not just things of the earth.
In the way of a good healer, she had not intruded, just knit the brokenness of the relationship back together again with food salves that eased both the heart and the stomach.
"Rolls!" Legolas burst into the kitchen, his presence lighting even the darkest corners of the cavernous chamber. Clambering up onto the bench into his place at the right hand of his father, he chortled over the heavenly smell, drawing in deep lungfuls of air as he grabbed his cup and took a hefty swallow of berry juice.
Thranduil met the purple fountain of spewing juice with a handy wet cloth he had learned to keep ever present at table, wiping off first his elfling's face, then handing the cloth to his son.
"Perhaps that will teach you not to breathe and swallow at the same time. Clean up your mess."
Legolas, on his knees already, industriously applied cloth to tabletop, then took it to be rinsed and wrung out in the wash basin. "That was not very good manners, was it?" he offered artlessly, handing the cloth back over to his father as he resumed his seat.
Thranduil carefully hid the smile, though he let its warmth beam toward his small companion, and raised a fatherly eyebrow. "It was not, and I am thankful you figured that out on your own. Did you have something else you would like to add to that?"
Legolas looked at him quizzically, small fingers inching toward the rolls set before him, now slightly hazed in purple. The fingers paused while he searched, perplexed, for the expected missing words and then the small face lit with comprehension.
The lure of those rolls, however, could not be resisted. "Imsorryfordamess. Duinenel," he said around his mouthful. "Thankyoufordarolbs."
"Esteledil made your rolls, youngling, and I clean the table every morning after your departure, since you leave behind enough crumbs to feed half the yard birds daily."
Legolas swallowed his mouthful at the dire look from his father and offered obediently to stay – even though they were in a very much rush this morning – and help clean the table. "And thank you for the rolls, Dilly!"
Cook read the warning aright and placidly accepted the offer of help cleaning up the table. Across the room, Esteledil, Dilly to the young prince, acknowledged his thanks with a wave.
Thranduil mentally patted himself on the back.
Dawdling a bit over his morning medicinal, he managed to convince his son a heaping portion of porridge might be a useful addition to the morning menu, since there was nothing else to do but wait for his ancient father to finish his own victuals.
Legolas eyed him askance, but complied cheerily enough when the bowl of porridge and blackberries was set before him.
"Are you done yet?" Legolas rose to his knees again, and then to stand on the bench, hands planted firmly on miniscule hips.
"At last! May I have the cloth please?"
Cloth handed over, Legolas scrambled onto the table top and on hands and knees, began to scrub madly down the length and breadth of the table. Fortunately Galion was not in the kitchen, for none other had the heart to scold him for being on the table in his boots, not even his trying-to-be stern father.
They left the kitchen hand in hand, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs and smiles in their wake. Legolas had insisted on taking their morning crumbs to feed the birds so Cook might have time for a nice nap by the fire.
Autumn had painted the forest with its own brand of magick as they rode out of the stable yard and into the woods.
A sharp gust of wind, the herald of winter, brought a dancing swirl of gold and green, flame and russet, raining down on their heads. Legolas laughed delightedly and urged his pony forward to catch the elusive wind.
"Both hands on the reins," Thranduil reminded easily, keeping the stallion to an indignant walk.
"Look, ada, look!" A woven collage of brilliant fall leaves and berries had landed with precision on Legolas' blond head.
"My my, the tree sprites are sharing their gifts with you." Behind the elfling, Thranduil lifted a hand, acknowledging the gift tossed down by one of the scouts returning among the treetops.
"Does it look like your crown, ada? The one you wore at the harvest festival? I wish I could see it."
Legolas' fat pony turned his head, Thranduil noted, eying the elfling a bit morbidly as he bounced with enthusiasm. "Perhaps Gedror would appreciate less bouncing and more guidance." Though the pony's surefootedness made that unnecessary for all practical purposes. "And aye, your crown looks like a miniature replica of the one the women wove for the equinox festival."
This, and many other questions fired at him, were amiably answered, Thranduil relishing their time together just as much as his son.
Almost, as the morning wore on and the leagues passed slowly beneath the horses hooves, and Legolas' artless prattle continued unabated, Thranduil wished for the return of the contemplative elfling. Almost, but not quite. Nethil had handled their son's effervescence with ease, and, Thranduil had to admit, a bit of shrewdness lacking in the vast arsenal of his own cunning.
Clearly, the Mettarë visit with his mother had begun to heal the wounds so deeply embedded in the tender fëa. And he was marrow-deep thankful for the gift, even if it meant swallowing his pride long enough to give thanks to the interfering popinjays who called themselves the Rodyn.
He had noticed with relief too, that the elfling's song was beginning to lose its dirgey overtones, its deep roots sending forth tentative tendrils of merry melody once more. It had lightened his heaviest burden tremendously, for an elf lacking the power of song was doomed to a half-life, or worse, ineffable fading.
And so they rode along in the glory of a perfect fall day, Legolas pointing out the more flamboyant trees dressed in burnt orange and butternut yellow, eggplant purple and the deep, shimmery copper color of the bowls with which Rhenneth had finally coaxed the elfling back into the kitchen. For some reason, unfathomable to his father who preferred gems to precious metals, Legolas had an affinity for copper.
Thranduil, in defense of both sanity and education, instigated of a game of Spy the Scouts, telling Legolas when they were entering into zones of coverage where he knew there were active scouts, encouraging the youngling to point them out. So far, Legolas had missed only one of the six they had encountered on their meandering journey. And Thranduil had only been aware of the elf on the periphery of his mind because he was so in tune with the whispering trees.
From that had sprung an impromptu lesson on opening one's mind to the natural cadence of the forest, listening to the voices of wind and water and trees, the heart song of the Earth thrumming with the balance of light and shadow. Thranduil purposely had not mentioned the growing shadow in the south, creeping with slow menace, further and further into the borders of what had once been a beautiful greenwood.
Legolas had blithely informed his ada that naneth had shown him the old magick, and of course he could hear the trees, but he had been busy trying to recall if they were anywhere near the turn off where they must leave the horses and walk to the wolf den, so of course he had missed the elf who had overtaken them from behind.
Arien rode the sky directly over their heads when Thranduil steered them off the old game trail deeper into the woods where he knew a band of regular scouts kept a well-stocked, deeply camouflaged flet. It would not only challenge his elfling's tree-climbing abilities, it would provide another bit of adventure, for they had not been out visiting flets since well before Nethil's death.
This close to the wolf pups though, the elfling could barely sit still long enough to eat the cooked fowl and grapes Duinenel had provided. When he could not be persuaded to even try the treat of sweet crème layered between thick slabs of dense cake, Thranduil repacked their noon day refreshment and followed his son's rapid descent from the top of their sylvan bower to the lowest limb.
Legolas would have launched from there onto his pony had not his father clamped a hand in the back of his tunic. "That is a long leap, my son. Your pony could perhaps accommodate so light a feather as you, but the ground would not be so accommodating to little limbs if you misjudge the leap. Besides, there is a better way."
Bending gracefully to grasp the sturdy limb, still a good three yards above the ground, the king swung down, hung from his hands for a moment grinning up at the small face peering down at him, then dropped the few feet left, landing lightly.
The elfling's eyes widened in delight. Bending as his father had done, Legolas positioned his hands similarly and swung down, except the supple leather of his miniature knee boots clung to the tree bark so he somersaulted in a circle before kicking out his feet and letting go. Shrieking with glee, he flew through the air just like the falling leaves, to land safely in his father's arms, where he was promptly deposited on the back of his sturdy steed.
Clearly he wished to do it again, but the urgency of the wolf pups won out and with a last longing look over his shoulder at the gently undulating tree limb, Legolas clicked at his pony to catch up with his father's already moving charger.
It was not far to the turn off, only a couple of leagues, and they covered the distance at a trot, tethering the horses in the shade of a venerable old beech. It was another half hour walk deeper into the woods to find the den, but that distance, too, melted away.
The colorful carpet of fallen leaves beneath their feet absorbed the soft footfalls as father and son crept toward the outer edge of the small clearing. The den was a little cave made of fallen logs and forest detritus on the west edge of the clearing, directly across from their approach. The clearing was one of those natural forest glades, probably cleared at some point by fire, that had nurtured the seeds deposited by birds and other animals passing through. They approached noiselessly from downwind, catching glimpses through the trees, of the wrangling brood. Belly down in the grass, Legolas shimmied up on his elbows beside his father.
A bright shaft of sunlight illuminated the clearing, gleaming off the fur of a dozen pups gamboling about, flattening the deep grass, yipping and nipping as they rampaged wildly, bowling each other over and landing in panting heaps of energy and fur.
"The mother knows we're here," Legolas whispered, propping his elbows in the grass and his chin in his hand as he watched the wolf raise her head to stare at their hidden shapes.
"Aye, she would." Even if he hadn't warned her. "The pack will not be far away."
They watched in silence for a long time, Thranduil watching his child watch the antics of the lone white female pup. She was a lively thing, in the thick of every mock battle, pulling and chewing and growling as hardily as her brothers, and far less daintily than her sisters. She was adventurous, too, her circular path widening with each bit of gained ground, refusing to be herded back to the center of the clearing by any of her larger siblings. Until she broke away to circle the outer perimeter of the tree-ringed glade. Her loping perambulations brought her within touching distance of their hiding place.
Legolas stopped breathing as the quivering black nose pushed further and further up the very slight incline, until elfling and wolfing were eye to eye.
Thranduil felt no fear in his child, only a faint worry that the puppy would be chastised for its boldness.
The wolf pup sniffed, hesitantly at first, then licked inquisitively, slurping a long pink tongue over a small human nose. Legolas held still as a statue until a definitive head butt invited him to play. "May I, ada," he breathed in an awestruck whisper.
"Of course, but you should ask permission from her mother, too."
Legolas pushed himself very slowly to his hands and knees, then sat back on his heels. The wolf pup pounced, grabbing a bit of tunic in an attempt to drag him down into the clearing with the other younglings.
"I would never harm your babies, naneth pîn ," Legolas said softly, opening his hands in entreaty. "Will you let me play with them?"
Thranduil sat up to watch as wolf and elfing tumbled head over heels straight into the middle of the rambunctious pack of puppies. Legolas was at once one of them, his delighted laughter adding a further sheen of brightness to the autumn afternoon.
Thranduil made a mental note to be sure and thank the ring of warriors undoubtedly holding back a rush of spiders, for such joy would bring the black creatures scurrying from their nests in search of prey faster than the time it took to rub two legs together.
This area had been searched and re-searched for spider infestations, then kept guarded for the last moon cycle, against any hidden nests that might have spawned in the meantime.
And once again, he had to hand it to Mithrandir. He should have remembered Legolas' affinity for animals sooner than the old grey wanderer, though he would gladly set aside the case of Dorwinion the wizard had set as his price for softening up Annanis.
The old crone, who might have appeared as a Haradrim war lord or a witchy, siren elleth, had driven a hard bargain for the indefinite services of her many times removed great grandchild, and then informed him - after payment had been exchanged - that the child still had the right of refusal. It was the way of their people. She did the haggling, but none were constrained to agree to her bargains. It was a risk one took in seeking out a Changeling.
Thranduil had been incensed, for he had paid the contract price with a particularly lovely white gem full of fire and ice, its magickal worth far greater than its value in currency. And then he had recalled Mithrandir's sly inference that no old crone worth her salt could remain unaffected by the story of the quiet little princeling finding his voice and song again, reclaiming his mischievous inheritance and in desperate need of a fearsome guardian.
The Changelings had never been known for their honesty, nor was faith something Thranduil practiced regularly. He still did not know if the bargain he had struck would hold, though it was clear there was an affinity between his son and the wolf pup already.
He let them play uninterrupted until Arien's slide toward the treetops began in earnest. Thanking the wolf mother for her tolerance, he called his son to begin their journey home.
From the bottom of a heap of exhausted puppies, one small elfling scrambled to the surface, calling his own thanks to the mother as he scampered to his father's side.
"Come, my little leaf, I should have called you sooner, for it is late now, and the trip home still long." Thranduil swung his son up on his shoulders and turned them both to take a last long look at the puppies dragging themselves over to dinner.
"They are so beautiful," Legolas remarked. "And so much fun, ada."
Thranduil reminded himself, yet again, to ask Rhenneth about integrating Legolas into the group of children belonging to the palace retainers. He had needed no companionship beyond that of his parents previously. But soon his reblossoming son would enjoy the friendship of children his own age.
He was a little bit surprised and a lot pleased that the crumb of faith he had managed to retain through the long ages of fighting for survival was rewarded as they reached the edge of the woods and their patient steeds. Tossing his son up on the back of the pony, he caught a flash of white out of the corner of his eye.
Hushing the gentle murmur of the trees, lest they spoil the surprise, he mounted his own charger and turned them toward home.
Legolas relived every moment of his afternoon as an honorary litter mate, each charge and retreat, every nip and tickle, every lick and sniff he had given or received. And then, as the evening cooled and the smell of cooking fires had begun to scent the night air, his patter had begun to trail off.
Thranduil had shifted his sleepy son over to his horse and turned the pony loose to find its own way back to the stables.
"Ada?" a sleepy elfling rubbed at bleary eyes as Thranduil tucked his son into bed much later that evening.
"Legolas?" the king reflected, matching the serious tone.
"I had such fun today, riding and climbing and spying and playing with the puppies. But most of all, I liked being with you."
"For me, too, my little leaf, having you all to myself was the best part of the live long day." He would not share that the ride had reminded him of a time when the great wood had been green and growing at all points of the compass, and that memories of his courtship and betrothal haunted him now. He bent and kissed the tip of the small nose. "I will make sure Galion clears my schedule so we can do this again soon."
"Ada?" the sleepy voice said again.
"Legolas?" Thranduil repeated.
"Ada, Aiollda followed us home."
"She said her name is Aiollda." Legolas yawned and snuggled deeper into the feather mattress. "She says she will watch over me and keep me safe, even when you are in your cups."
"Aiollda," Thranduil repeated, squinching his eyes as though his morning headache had returned. On the hearth rug, a white pup lay curled with her nose in the circle of her tail.
Once given, a Changeling's word is bond, a silvery feminine voice said in his head. An engaging pup that follows you home; that was what you desired, aye?
Thranduil made no answer, but he wondered, as he dimmed the brilliance of the Fëanorian lamps down to the softness of a glowworm, if he had won the bargain … or not.
This has been a work of transformative fan fiction. All characters and settings belong to the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien; the story itself, and the original characters, are the intellectual property of the author. No copyright infringement has been perpetrated for financial gain.