"Here's a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in!"
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
" . . . he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some young elf-prince long ago. It was of silver-steel, which the elves call mithril, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals. . . . 'I feel magnificent,' he thought, 'but I expect I look rather absurd . . .'"
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Prologue: The Forest
The horses, saddled and ready, stamped in the leaf dappled midsummer shadows at the south end of the stone bridge. The day was cool, for the previous week had been filled with rain, and the waters of the Forest River were swollen with the extra runoff from upstream. Mirkwood's king had a hand draped over the neck of his large bay charger, and his attendants, likewise waited beside their mounts. A troop of foot soldiers stood at attention, ready to guard the king and his party on their eastward journey. All was in readiness, save for the missing riders of a small dappled pony and a brown palfrey, which were being held by two impassive grooms.
A courtier sighed discreetly. The brown mare began to nibble the sleeve of the elf who held her bridle, and the pony broke wind.
"Galion," said the king, turning to his valet and erstwhile esquire. "Would you be so kind as to go see what is delaying Saerlin and the prince?"
"As you wish, Sire." Long years of seeing to the needs of his royal master had invested Galion with an abnormally restrained demeanor and an increasing love of strong drink. He crossed the stone bridge over the river, spoke the secret password that opened the stone gates into the mountainside and entered the palace. To reach the prince's chamber Galion had to first pass through a large reception hall, off which many public rooms, including Thranduil's throne room, branched. He went up a broad stairway whose stone balusters were carved into the shape of twisting tree limbs, down a carpeted hall, and then up another staircase. Burning torches set into elaborate sconces lit his way. As he went, he turned into progressively narrower hallways and through modest doors that looked as if they might lead to the servants' wings. There was a method to this, for only those very familiar with the layout of the caves could find their way to the sleeping chambers of the king and his son.
He came to a room whose carved wooden door stood partially ajar, and he heard much what he had expected to hear: "No! I will not!"
"You will, because I say you will."
"No, I will not."
Galion shook his head and sighed. The first voice was that of Legolas, very young as yet by elvish reckoning and already exhibiting the same stubborn temperament as his royal sire, although Galion would never have dared to voice such an observation out loud. The second voice was that of his nursemaid, Saerlin, poor lady, and to Galion's ears she sounded as if she were nearing the end of her patience.
Not that her patience was in great supply under any circumstances. Saerlin had been married to a friend and fellow soldier of Galion's, one of those unfortunate elves who had not returned from the battle of the Dagorlad. Saerlin had never been gentle natured, and almost three thousand years of being deprived of the pleasures of the marriage bed before she'd had more than a short time to enjoy them had not sweetened her sour temper any further. One had to wonder why she had wished to take on the difficult task of being nursemaid to a motherless elf-child. Galion had a suspicion that she had done it in hopes of getting closer to the father of said child, and perhaps catching the monarch's eye. If so, Galion thought she was deluded, for Thranduil had not shown much interest in anyone other than his young son in the years since the death of his queen. Hence, more disappointment for poor Saerlin.
He took a deep breath for courage and entered the room. "What seems to be the problem, Saerlin?"
"Prince Legolas refuses to put on his shirt of mail," the elf woman said between clenched teeth.
"Indeed, my prince, what is this foolishness?" Galion said briskly. "You know it is your father's wish that you wear your mithril shirt whenever you journey outside the palace gates."
"I don't care. It sets me apart and makes me look a fool," said Legolas, with a determination that surprised even Galion.
The article in question lay on the bed. It was a lovely piece of work, commissioned by Thranduil from the dwarves of Erebor when the prince was three years old, and Galion knew it had cost his king a small fortune. The neckline featured a yoke of vine filigree, and the belt was studded with pearls and crystal gems. Perhaps it was the gems. Knowing the Elvenking's fondness for white gemstones, the dwarvensmiths had thrown in the belt detail in hope of inspiring further business, but Galion had to admit it was a bit . . . much. Perhaps not for Thranduil, who cut a splendid figure in fine garments and enjoyed putting on a show for his subjects, but definitely for his more modest son. Who could have guessed that young Legolas would grow to have such a fierce dislike of ostentatious things?
"You must put it on, Prince Legolas. The party is ready to depart and you cannot keep them waiting."
"I will not put it on. It is too small for me."
"How can that be? It still fits well across the chest."
"Yes, but my arms have grown. My wrists stick out."
This was true, Galion thought. Already the boy was getting his growth. He shut his eyes, feeling the beginnings of a headache. The thought of a full-grown Legolas with his stubborn streak in full flower was almost too much to bear.
"My prince, if you will not put on your chain mail and come down, I will be forced to bring your father up here to see that you do it."
"Then bring him," said the child. Galion knew himself to be trumped.
Galion caught Saerlin's gaze, and the two rolled their eyes. "Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled," said the woman's cornflower blue eyes. "Just like his father," said the man's slate grey ones.
Back down the hallways he trudged and out of the gate, muttering to himself as he did so. Prince Legolas was not so much spoiled as he was overprotected. Galion could hardly blame his king for cosseting his one and only child, but he could also not fault the child for having the intelligence to sense it and rebel.
The king greeted him with a beatific smile. The courtiers, archers and grooms merely looked annoyed.
"He won't put on his mithril shirt, Sire."
"Is that so, Galion?" said Thranduil. "I suppose I must deal with it then." He nodded courteously to the waiting assembly, who had no choice other than to await his return with good grace no matter how long it took, and followed Galion back across the bridge.
"You had children, Galion," Thranduil said softly to his valet as they went up the broad staircase. "However did you deal with this sort of thing?"
"Their mother dealt with it, Sire," he said and regretted it as soon as the words were out, for he saw the look of pain flit across the king's face. "You must also remember that my children were born in the early days when Lord Oropher first led us to Greenwood the Great and we dwelled upon Amon Lanc. There was no need for the young ones to be so closely guarded back then."
"And now, The Necromancer dwells in that same spot, and his orcs fill these woods with their terror. I would like to give my son the freedom that once we had, but I dare not." Thranduil sighed. "How strange life is, Galion. You and I are of an age, yet you are a grandsire many times over, while I am raising my first and only. And I am having quite a time of it."
The child was staring into his fireplace, ramrod straight and defiant, as monarch and valet entered. Saerlin bowed and fluttered her eyelashes and was completed ignored.
"What's this I hear, my son? You have been looking forward to this journey to Dale for weeks. Surely you do not want to miss the celebration? Girion's youngest son is just your size. I hear he is looking forward to meeting you. Why will you not put on your armor? I would think that any young elf your age would delight in such a set of mail."
Galion, as ever, was amazed to see his Elven-lord deal with his child thus. Thranduil's temper had been forged before the Black Gates of Mordor and his own warriors trembled before him. Some of that patience would not go amiss with his courtiers, or even his valet, Galion thought, yet it seemed to be reserved for the child.
"I want to go with you to Dale, Ada. But I do not wish to look foolish. No other elf wears mail of mithril. Your archers wear armor of leather."
Galion saw the king tense ever so slightly. He had been his esquire at the battle of the Dagorlad, where too many Silvan warriors had fallen with their leather armor pierced by orcish arrows, while the hosts of Gil-galad had fared better in their metal gear. He had ridden at Thranduil's side on the sad journey home and been witness to his palpable grief at his inability to protect his warriors.
"Legolas, there is a shadow on this wood, and the minions of The Enemy may attack at any time. You are a prince of your people and you must keep yourself safe. Just as I, their king, must keep myself safe."
"Are you wearing mithril mail, Ada?"
Galion saw Thranduil blink. "You cannot see beneath my outer clothing, my son," he countered smoothly, with the guile that had made him the best negotiator east of the Misty Mountains.
"May I wear my mail beneath my tunic, like you?" Legolas asked.
"Of course, as long as you wear it."
"All right, Ada." said Legolas meekly. Saerlin rushed forward to help the child out of his tunic, but Thranduil waved her off and began to undress his son himself. "Why is King Girion celebrating, Ada?"
"It is the majority of his eldest son. Girion is very proud of his heir, and rightly so."
"Majority? What is that?" Legolas was down to his undershirt, and Thranduil began threading his arms through the mail shirt.
"It is when a young male of the Edain reaches the age of twenty-one and his bones and muscles are set. When his body is strong enough to bear the weight of full armor and wield a sword he takes his place among the men."
"Will I have a majority when I am twenty-one?"
"No, my son," Thranduil said, fastening the jeweled belt. "That will not happen until you have fifty winters to your credit."
"Why? Will I not be strong enough?"
"Put up your arms, Legolas, and let me put your tunic over your head. If you are anything like me you will have most of your full height by the time you are forty, but we Firstborn are different, and the requirements of adulthood are far more than bearing a sword. You have much more to learn before you can take your rightful place in our society. Far more than the Edain."
"It seems unfair."
"Perhaps so, Legolas, but your body is made to last the ages of this earth and your mind along with it. At fifty, an adan is already feeling the weight of his years while you will be just beginning your life. They must hurry, because Eru's gift to Men takes them so soon. We, on the other hand, have all the time in the world."
Thranduil smoothed the tunic down his son's body and tied on his cloak. "Is this good now?"
Legolas nodded. 'Yes, Ada." He put his small hand into his father's larger one, and the Elvenking and his son proceeded from the room.
The orcs attacked near the eastern edge of the forest where the Elf path ran along the river on a high, steep bank overlooking the rushing water. The first sign of trouble came when one of the foot soldiers pitched forward silently with an arrow through his neck. Within seconds the air was filled with the hiss of flying arrows, and black-clad orcs wearing the insignia of Dol Guldur began to swarm out of the trees. Thranduil and his mounted nobles drew their swords and charged in among the attackers, while the foot soldiers drew their bows and returned fire. The horses began to whinny and snort in the confusion.
"Galion, protect the prince!" Thranduil yelled, whirling his charger and trampling down an unlucky orc in his path. Galion reined his own horse around, just in time to hear Saerlin scream as an arrow hit Legolas in the center of his chest. The force of the blow knocked the child from his saddle, and he tumbled down the steep bank. Within moments his small form was lost to sight beneath the roiling currents of the Forest River. Thranduil, busy with two orcs who were jabbing at the chest and belly of his horse in an attempt to bring it down, did not see. Galion rode to his king and relieved one of the orcs of his head with a quick swipe of his sword, while Thranduil struck down the other.
"My Lord, quickly! " Galion cried. By now the foot soldiers had managed to kill or chase off most of the orcs, and the mounted courtiers were making short work of the rest. Two more of the soldiers were dead, and one of the courtiers had an arrow in his leg.
Thranduil turned to see a pale and weeping Saerlin struggling to keep her palfrey from bolting, and then he stiffened as he spied the trembling and now riderless pony. He leaped from his horse and ran to her side. "What happened? Tell me!"
"He was hit, Sire. He fell into the river," she wailed.
The Elvenking ran to the steep edge of the bank and picked up a spent orc arrow with the tip badly blunted.
"His mail stopped the arrow, thank Elbereth," said Galion, reaching Thranduil's side. "But he'll be badly stunned, perhaps knocked unconscious."
Thranduil ran back to his horse and swung into the saddle. "Séregon, see to the dead and get the wounded back to the palace. Magorion needs a healer for that leg. And bring back as many elves as you can muster. We have to find my son." He kicked his horse and galloped off east, his eyes fixed on the river.
"Ai! He's not watching where he's going," Galion muttered to himself, running to his own mount. "He'll put that horse's foot in a rabbit hole and break his neck." He galloped after his king.
Galion caught up to his lord at the edge of the forest, where the river rounded a spit of rock and flowed out into the marshes. Past the forest wall, the river split off into a maze of smaller channels. If the child's body had been swept this far, and there had been no sign of him back along the banks, he could be in any one of those backwaters, hidden among the tall grass and poplars.
Thranduil stood staring silently to the east. His face, in profile, was eerily calm. Galion had seen that same stunned look once before, on the plains of the Dagorlad when Oropher had fallen within yards of the two of them.
"My lord, Séregon is returning with help. We will find him."
Thranduil turned to him, his face blank. "Yes. We will find him, if it takes me until the breaking of the world. We will find my son."
Ada: Sindarin for Daddy
adan: Man, mortal
Edain: Men, as a race
Author's Notes: Here comes my customary note on elves and saddles. For those who will insist that elves never use saddles, I cite the following example of an elf using both saddle and bridle. The horse is Asfaloth; the rider is Glorfindel:
"Suddenly into view below came a white horse, gleaming in the shadows, running swiftly. In the dusk its headstall flickered and flashed, as if it were studded with gems like living stars. ( . . .) the rider had reined in his horse and halted ( . . .)'You shall ride my horse,' said Glorfindel. 'I will shorten the stirrups up to the saddle skirts, and you must sit as tight as you can." Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter XII: Flight to the Ford
I am a horse owner and a rider myself. When I first wrote this tale, I envisioned Thranduil and his courtiers brushing horsehairs from the seats of their breeches upon their arrival at Dale, and I could not help thinking there was something wrong with the picture. In a subsequent story, an adult Legolas will exhibit his ability to ride without tack, but for now, the saddles are being used for pragmatic reasons.