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Prodigal Sons  by daw the minstrel

 

8. Coming Home

 

The ride back to Thranduil’s stronghold took almost two days.  During that time, Legolas’s despair was all but overwhelming.  Every time he looked around, he saw the body of his friend and thought of Turgon’s death as in some part the consequence of his own actions.  He could not help but blame himself for not stopping Turgon.

 

He could not understand now why he had ever hesitated to do anything necessary to prevent Turgon from going on this disastrous trip.  Why had he not told Turgon’s father or even his own what his friend was planning?  What would it have mattered if Turgon had been angry with him?  He would have been alive.   There were things that were foolish illusions and things that were real, things that mattered.  Turgon’s body was real and it mattered very much.

 

And his father’s trust in him was also real, or it had been.  And it too mattered greatly.  How could he have thrown it away so lightly?  For that matter, how could he have behaved in a way that would make Ithilden speak to him as he had done in the campsite? “Dishonorable,” “self-indulgent,”  “I would not be certain that you could be trusted”: the shame-inducing words still stung like whips when he recalled them. The fight with the Orcs had been the first occasion upon which he had seen either of his brothers commanding troops in a real battle and fighting in that battle themselves.  The experience had increased his respect for them more than he could have imagined possible.  He desperately wanted their respect in return.

 

More than that, he had a responsibility to Mirkwood and honoring that responsibility had always been dear to his heart.  He was unable to conceive of what he would do if his behavior in the last few days led to his being permanently prevented from fulfilling it.

 

His fears for his own courage had seemed real when he started out on this terrible trip.  He now believed that the training he had received would see him through battle, but only if he allowed himself to be guided by more experienced warriors and patiently learned what they had to teach him.  It was not lack of courage that would destroy him; it was lack of wisdom.

 

When they made camp on the first night, Ithilden issued instructions for him to gather firewood almost before he was off his horse.  As he started into the trees near the edge of the campsite, he glanced back to see his older brother carefully lifting Turgon’s body down and laying it on the ground, still wrapped in the blanket, near where Sondil and Thrambor were piling their gear.  He froze.  As if feeling his eyes upon him, Ithilden looked up.  Then he rose, crossed to where Legolas stood, and embraced him, at the same time turning him away from where the blanket-covered bundle lay.

 

“I am sorry that you must endure this trip, little brother.  Angry as I still am at you for the danger in which you placed yourself and the worry that you caused us, I would never have wished this upon you.”  He grasped Legolas’s shoulders and, looking straight into his eyes, spoke fiercely, “But every time I see that bundle, I think of how easily it could have been you who lay wrapped within it.  You are precious beyond measure to Adar and Eilian and me, Legolas.  Losing you would be a blow from which we would be long in recovering, assuming that we ever did.”

 

The tears that he had held in check all day finally slid from Legolas’s eyes as his guilt intensified.  “I am sorry,” he said helplessly, finding no more adequate words.

 

His brother slid his arm around his shoulders again and, not unkindly, said, “I know you are.  Come, let us gather the wood.”

 

***

 

In the late afternoon of the second day, the party came within half an hour’s ride of Thranduil’s stronghold and then made camp.  Ithilden sent Thrambor on ahead as a messenger.  He did not want the sight of the sad burden that they carried to be Turgon’s parents’ first intimation of his death.

 

In the morning, they broke camp and then waited in patient silence.  Presently, they heard the sound for which they were waiting. Thrambor was returning, leading another group of Elves who brought a litter and other necessary things.  Carefully, they lifted the body of Turgon from his horse and unwrapped it from the blanket.  They removed the dirt and blood smeared clothing he had been wearing, washed him, and dressed him in formal robes that were the green color of youth and growing things.  Legolas had to turn away.  Turgon had always hated wearing formal robes, claiming that they made him feel as if he could not breathe.  That did not matter now.

 

They smoothed his dark hair and then laid him tenderly in the litter. They covered him with a green and gold cloth woven with images of the forests of his home. And then when all was ready, they proceeded at last to the stronghold of King Thranduil.  Ithilden, Sondil, Thrambor, and Legolas--the companions of his last trip--carried the litter.

 

They carried their burden onto the green in front of the palace where Thranduil’s people were gathered in solemn silence.  As they approached, Thranduil’s minstrel began to sing a lament that others took up.  It spoke of lost youth and promise unfulfilled.  Legolas almost could not bear it.  And yet he knew that the real thing he helped to carry was more important than his own feelings.  They stopped at the place where Turgon’s father, Vardalan, stood with his arm around his wife who, in turn, clutched the hand of Turgon’s younger brother.  Grief had settled over them like a thick mist that grayed their faces and made them move with caution lest they stumble.

 

As the minstrel’s song faded, Thranduil approached. He first laid his hands on the body and then placed one on the bowed head of each of Turgon’s parents.  “Vardalan and Mírdaniel, your grief is ours.  We now declare a state of mourning to last until the body of Mirkwood’s child Turgon has been lovingly consigned to the fire and his spirit has been blessed on its way to the Halls of Mandos.”  Vardalan and three of his neighbors took the weight of the litter from the four who had carried it and began to make their slow way out of the green toward the cottage of Turgon’s family, where the body would stay until the funeral. At their departure, the crowd sadly began to disperse.

 

Relieved of the burden of the litter, Legolas stood uncertainly.  His aim this day had been to return Turgon’s body to his family.  Now he felt bereft.  He was roused from his bewildered state by the feel of his father’s arms being folded tightly around him, with one of his father’s long, elegant hands grasping the back of his head and pressing his face into Thranduil’s chest. The familiar warmth and woodsy smell of his father produced a comfort that was instantaneous, and he sagged slightly against that well-known strength. “Never do such a thing again,” Thranduil commanded in a husky voice.  Then he released him and drew back, a sterner look settling on his face. “Go and get cleaned up.  I will send for you when I am ready. Ithilden, I would speak with you now,” Thranduil said, and he turned and entered the palace.  Ithilden put a hand on Legolas’s shoulder as he passed.

 

Legolas dragged himself to his chamber.  It seemed to him that at least a decade had passed since he left it, instead of just under a week.  He wanted nothing more than to collapse on the bed and fall into oblivion, assuming he could manage to do so.  But instead, he did as his father had bid.  He bathed and, after a moment’s hesitation, dressed in formal robes similar to those that he and his companions had put on Turgon early this morning.  Whatever fate awaited him, he intended to receive it with solemn dignity. He waited for what seemed an eternity before Ithilden knocked on his door.

 

“Adar wants you in his office,” he said with some sympathy.  In the last two days, he had seen Legolas’s grief and remorse.  He had approved of the way his younger brother had accepted responsibility for his own actions and seemed determined to meet his fate with clear-eyed calm.  He walked with Legolas to the door of Thranduil’s study.

 

At the door, Legolas paused for a moment to gather himself, and then straightened his back.  Remember what is real, he admonished himself. Remember what matters. My feelings are insignificant here. What is real is that Turgon is dead.   What matters is to find a way to reconcile my behavior with my father’s judgment and my own.  Then he nodded to Ithilden, who knocked once on the door, pulled it open to allow Legolas to enter, and then closed the door behind him, leaving father and son in privacy.

 

In the last two days, Legolas had thought about this moment and debated within himself what course he should take.  He had finally decided simply to take the course of action that was traditional both for citizens who had offended against their king and for children who had erred grievously in the eyes of their parents.  He approached the place where his father stood and dropped to both knees before him.  "My lord, I beg your mercy and your pardon for the offense I have committed.”  He kept his eyes lowered to the floor in respect. 

 

Thranduil saw his son’s position before him as appropriate. Indeed, if Legolas had not dropped to his knees on his own, Thranduil would have ordered him there.  In the last four days, the king had conducted the business of his court while able to focus only a small part of his mind upon it.  The rest had been sick with worry over Legolas. When Thrambor had arrived the previous evening with Ithilden’s message, Thranduil had felt sorrow over the death of Turgon mixed with a guilt-inducing relief that his own son was uninjured.  Then he had spent the better part of the night in a cold fury that had gradually worn itself away to leave him determined to see that this youngling learned the lessons that life was trying to teach him.

 

Ithilden had told him that Legolas had behaved well during the battle with the Orcs and seemed genuinely remorseful for the deception that he and Turgon had practiced and the lack of judgment that their actions had shown.  Ithilden had also told his father about Legolas’s helping the Men, a help that Ithilden had ordered Eilian to continue providing.  Thranduil was reserving judgment on the encounter between his sons and the Dúnedain until he had a chance to consider it calmly, but he approved of Legolas accepting responsibility for a wounded warrior who had joined with the Elves in fighting the Orcs.  Ithilden had had no need to tell Thranduil of Legolas’s grief for Turgon.  He had known from the minute he received word of Turgon’s death that Legolas would be devastated.

 

Thranduil now looked steadily at his youngest son, kneeling before him. He saw an Elf on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.  Although only the top of Legolas’s head was visible to him, he knew that the roundness of childhood had faded from his son’s face, but the strong bones of adulthood had yet to appear.  Legolas had skills but little experience; he possessed good intentions, but they had not yet ripened into wisdom.  Thranduil needed to act with insight and help his son to become an adult who would merit both self-respect and the respect of others.

 

“Attend to me,” he said finally.  Blue eyes came up to meet his own. Those eyes were tired and reddened, but they regarded him steadily.

 

“You do well to beg for pardon,” he said gravely.  “You have behaved with a carelessness of which I would not have thought you capable.”  Legolas flinched but neither protested nor tried to excuse his behavior.

 

"This was not a childish fault to be atoned for by a child's chastisement,” Thranduil went on. “When a warrior picks up arms, he does something serious, almost sacred.  He holds lives in his hands, those of his comrades, his people, his foes.  Battle is not a game. Warriors joke and create games during battle sometimes because in the face of death and suffering they must. But only children see battle itself as a game, and they are a danger to themselves and to others.  This was a serious thing that you did, and it had serious consequences.  Indeed, it may have serious consequences yet, for Ithilden tells me that you will need to prove yourself trustworthy before he will consider allowing you to act as a warrior."

 

As he spoke, Thranduil watched the emotions flitting across his youngest son’s face. 

He saw both determination and sorrow.  More gently, he said, “I know you grieve for Turgon.  In his death, your own foolishness has punished you far beyond what I ever could have done.  I grieve with you.”

 

Legolas closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, facing his father with resolve.

 

“But punish you I must,” Thranduil resumed. “Given Ithilden’s doubts about your future as a warrior, I have directed that your own warrior training be suspended for six months.  Ithilden says that it is not your skill with weapons that troubles him, but your ability to be responsible. You allowed yourself to be led into an action that you knew was wrong. If you are to take your place among the Mirkwood forces, I would see that you are able to lead rather than be led.  Therefore, during the six months that you yourself receive no training, you will help the weapons masters teach the smallest elflings.  They will be your responsibility day to day now, and their future safety will be your responsibility as you teach them to protect themselves and others.”

 

He paused and then asked, “Is there anything you wish to say, nín ion?”

 

Legolas too paused and then wet his lips. He could think of nothing other than the inadequate words he had offered to Ithilden on the trip home. “I am sorry, Adar,” he almost whispered. “I know that it does no good, but I am so sorry.”

 

"Your regret may not change anything that has happened, Legolas, but it matters to me that you feel it. Be reconciled with us and received again into our loving arms." Thranduil moved forward and drew Legolas onto his feet and into his embrace.

 

***

 

Ithilden stood at the edge of the training field, scanning the various activities that were winding down at the end of the busy autumn morning.  One of his most skilled archers had just finished giving a master class to the most advanced group of younglings, including Legolas’s friend, Annael.  Ithilden had arrived in time to watch the last fifteen minutes of it.  He thought that it had gone well and had high hopes for this group, many of whom would be moving soon to a different level of training, becoming novices in the Mirkwood forces.

 

At the extreme right side of the field, another group had been having an archery lesson of a different kind.  Four elflings had been shooting at stationary targets with varying degrees of success.  Legolas had been teaching the class by himself because Penntalion, the archery master, had been assisting at the master class. Ithilden knew that missing this class had been a bitter disappointment for Legolas, but to his credit, he had not complained. In the last few months, Ithilden had seen much that was to Legolas’s credit and had privately begun to think that his little brother had learned some important lessons.  Although it was too early to be certain, he had every reason to think that Legolas would be returning to warrior training at the end of his six months trial.

 

Ithilden had occasionally glanced toward that side of the field to see Legolas adjusting the elflings’ stances and observing them closely.  They were too far away for Ithilden to hear anything but three of the small ones were clearly listening closely while the fourth turned his head stubbornly away, to Legolas’s obvious exasperation.  The beginners’ class too was now coming to an end and Legolas had sent the three attentive ones on their way while he spoke to the other one.  Ithilden could not help smiling. Legolas stood with one hand on the elfling’s shoulder and the other raising his chin so that the elfling could not look away, his stance echoing the one Penntalion always used when scolding small ones.

 

Not unexpectedly, Ithilden recognized the inattentive elfling as Amdir, Turgon’s little brother. Thranduil had not said so, but Ithilden strongly suspected that the presence of this elfling in the class was one of the factors that had led Thranduil to choose this particular punishment for Legolas. Their father was sometimes far deeper than a casual observer might expect.   Finally, Legolas released Amdir, and the elfling trotted off the field, decidedly unbowed by the scolding he had just received.  Legolas gathered his own belongings and left the field more slowly.  Ithilden moved to intercept his path at the edge of the field.

 

“How are the elflings doing?” he asked, casually.

 

Legolas made a face.  “You saw them,” he said.  “The other three will do well, I think, but Amdir is in a world of his own.  I might as well talk to the rocks.”

 

Ithilden laughed. “Some elflings take longer than others to grow into training,” he observed.

 

Legolas hesitated.  “The preparations for the autumn festival mean that there are no lessons for the next two days,” he said. “I thought, perhaps, that I would take him camping.”

 

Ithilden turned his brother’s words over in his head and thought of the temptation that was hidden in them.  Frightened by the loss of Turgon, Amdir’s parents had kept the elfling close to them in the last three months and restricted his movements far more than they had ever governed those of Turgon.  But Ithilden feared that their caution was a temporary reaction, and he did not want Legolas to attempt a task that was almost certainly beyond him. “You know that you cannot be his father,” he finally said gently. “Vardalan is what he is.”

 

Legolas chewed his lower lip.  “I know,” he said.  “But perhaps I can be his older brother.”

 

Ithilden grimaced at the thought of the burden that Legolas was talking about taking on. Ah, well, he thought.  We wanted him to learn responsibility. Trust Legolas to do it with a vengeance.  “Do not try to take on such a role while you are acting as his master,” he finally said firmly. “Doing so would make complications on the training field that I would wish to avoid.  Later perhaps we will see.”  Then he laughed, slapped his little brother on the shoulder, and said, “Besides, I have heard that an older brother is not always a good thing to have.”

 

Legolas grinned back at him. “That is true,” he said. “They can be overbearing.”

 

“I suspect you will find that a younger brother can be a trial too,” Ithilden observed.  “Occasionally, though, they do prove worth the effort.”  And then he put his hand on Legolas’s shoulder and the two of them left the field together.

 





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