I will never recall the first week of this travel again, ever! You swore to yourself. Calling it a disaster would be simply insufficient. First of all, your non-existing skills with riding turned out to be a bigger problem than what Legolas and Tauriel had thought it to be. Your first almost-a-fall occurred a mere one hundred feet away from the gates of the underground palace. After the first day on the horse, you slumped onto the grass happily, not able to feel the lower part of your body anymore. Yet, before you had the chance to relax a bit, the horse raised its tail and, well… relieved itself right next to your head. The company was laughing for several hours and they gave you a nickname too, calling you ’Lucky pile’. The next day, you were too tired to stay awake and fell asleep, leaning comfortably on a certain prince. Needless to say, you almost fell again, several times even, and when the company finally stopped to build a camp for that night, you were the target again; they named you ’Sleeping beauty’.
The daily routine started at sunrise. You were woken up mercilessly by the prince himself. He insisted to practice with you every morning before your first meal, letting the company to feast without the two of you. It was not a bad decision after all; you were not the favourite one there and eating with the rest of the company could have had unpleasant consequences. You needed to get familiar with your new daggers too and the early morning helped you to return back to the alertness level that you had been before you were imprisoned. Your breakfast was usually small; smaller than your portions in prison; but considerably more nutritious. Legolas introduced you to the elven travelling diet, naming various plants and fruits it consisted of and occasionally even showed them to you, when you passed some certain bush. Lembas bread was a forbidden meal for now, it was saved for later travels or emergency uses. He taught you to prepare the simplest ointments for your numerous bruises too; he was a methodical teacher after all.
After the meal, you helped him to pack the rest of the camp, as the majority of the work was done by the company during your late breakfast. Back on the horse, Legolas used to silently tell you some stories of old; stories that had been ancient even before the Sun and the Moon were created. He had passed much of the elven wisdom onto you, trying to awake the curiosity within you – the one which was already wide awake.
Tauriel overheard his narrating once and soon after, she joined you. Within one week, there was no one that would not have listened to what Legolas was telling. Some of them, the oldest in your small company, had joined his narrations, taking their word when their leader was either thirsty so the words stuck to his tongue, or simply too tired to follow the story. Soon, you understood what importance such stories had within the elven nation. It was the wisdom passed from parents onto their children, from masters onto their apprentices, from elders onto younglings. It was a big part of their culture of a mutual respect; a culture that allowed them to live in close symbiosis with the nature surrounding them and concealing them under its green foliage, both literally and metaphorically. It was diametrically opposed view of what you had witnessed in the human villages. Elves were not simply living in such harmonious way with their surroundings; they were part of it just as a child belongs with its mother and a mother belongs with her child. One without another would wither in no time – and that was a message that resonated in many of the ancient tales.
It took you four weeks and four days to arrive at the foot of Mount Gundabad.
Legolas ordered to make a camp on the clearing near a cold stream, right under the slope of the mountain range, partially hidden from the path by bushes and old trunks. It was not the ideal place to make a camp on, but the surroundings seemed to be vast. You have not heard any rustling of fallen leaves and twigs under the deer hooves since you left the deep forest of Mirkwood and, passing the flatlands of Langwell, spotting an animal – any animal – was getting harder and harder. By the time you reached the meeting point of two great mountain ranges; Hithaeglir to the west and Ered Mithrin to the north; the chirping of the birds silenced as well.
The silence of that place was unnatural and unnerving. All the Eldar around you strained their ears to catch the tiniest sound yet there was none; only their pointy earlobes reddened from the straining. Legolas even sent two patrols to search the surroundings, still not convinced that your company was alone at a place like this. The patrols returned with the same news; you indeed were alone there. That put the company slightly at ease, yet the traces of nervousness were still present in the camp, even after two nights of quiescence.
Two days and two nights after your arrival, there were regular patrols sent to find a path into the higher pass that lead to the stronghold. Two days and two nights you were forbidden to leave the camp. Legolas closed his ears to your pleas and demands and, instead of giving you a chance to prove yourself as an experienced tracker, he ordered you to guard the camp, feed the horses and wait patiently for their return. His sudden cold attitude towards you was teeth-screeching, yet what choices did you have? You obeyed.
On the third oncoming evening of your forced camping, the patrol returned with important news. It was quite clear that they had finally found the way to the stronghold. Feren, who was the leader of that patrol, furiously drew the map onto some parchment, explaining all the curves and signs of unstable ground, narrow passages, steep paths and, finally, guarding posts of the stronghold. He explained that they had not tried to search further, especially after they realised that the stronghold was not as abandoned as many Eldar, including the king, thought.
Legolas groaned. It was not a good groan. It was exasperated and frustrated groan that told the company a lot about his current mental state. He was not satisfied with the current news that confirmed his presumption about the renewed stronghold. From what Feren explained, there were still several groups of orcs and goblins, patrolling the whole area from dark hidden places where the sun could not reach them. That was the good news for the company; the creatures inside and around the stronghold were not physically able to resist the sun and its rays. It was for certain that Legolas will lead the attack during the day. Which day, that was not clear yet; the prince of the Woodland realm was cautious and demanded more information about the stronghold and its surroundings. Before he dismissed the patrol and the rest of the company, he named those who would accompany him the next day on his way up the higher pass. You were not amongst them.
Later that day, after you all dined together and the tired elves receded into their tents, you sat at the fireplace with Legolas, Tauriel and two more ellyn. Silently you watched the burning coals that glowed in the darkening camp with bright orange light. The two ellyn were speaking silently to each other, Legolas remained buried deep within his thoughts and Tauriel was watching the stars. No one spoke for a very long time.
You had enough time to think about what had happened on your way to the stronghold and during the two days of your forced camping. You were not angry at a certain prince but you felt a bit down anyway. Legolas was an experienced leader and you trusted his judgement, there were no questions or doubts in your mind. He knew your fighting skills as well, he was the one who improved them and trained you in some new ones. He knew what you were capable of and he decided that you have to stay and you respected that decision. Besides, his eyes promised you that you will have your chance later. You were not that impatient to mindlessly rush into danger. Yet, for some reason, nothing of that calmed your nerves. The surroundings were not helping either, one could go mad from all that silence.
Tauriel suddenly stretched herself and stood up. “I shall retire as well. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Two ellyn, apparently tonight’s night watch, murmured their goodnight wishes, otherwise they were not paying any attention to you or their prince. They continued in their silent chatter as soon as Tauriel left the enlightened ring around the fireplace.
You stretched yourself as well but you were not tired at all. There were plenty of thoughts troubling your mind anyway; you would not fall asleep even if you were lying in your cell and listening to the underground waterfall that unnerved you so. What you would have given to hear that annoying sound again in this unnatural silence…
Legolas stretched himself as well. “It is getting late already. We all should get some rest.”
One of the patrol ellyn glared at him. The other simply ignored him.
“[Boy name], will you walk with me?” Legolas asked you silently. You simply agreed.
Once out of the light circle, right under the silent stars, you could clearly see that the prince is troubled. He tried to hide it, but then and there, only with you as a witness, he broke his steel facade and let some of his true feelings appear on his pale face. “I am deeply concerned.” He started out of the blue and almost made you jump. You looked behind to see if any of the patrol boys noticed either his voice or your strange reaction. What a surprise, the guards were fully ignoring you.
“What about?” You asked.
At least he was honest, you thought.
“I know it is not my place to know what my father asked of you on this mission, but I would really like to at least have a hint of it.” He looked at you, sighing heavily. “And I am sure,” he added, “that he forbade you to tell me. So I would like to guess at least.”
“I will not stop you from asking, but, as you correctly assumed, I am not allowed to talk about it. With anyone, for that matter,” you assured him. He was not alone in regards to who was to stay in blissful ignorance about the true goal of your adventure. The king wished it.
“The king sent you with me because you are good at some things.” Legolas mused. “You are a thief, you can hide well, go unnoticed… Did he send you to steal something from the mountain stronghold?”
As ordered by the king, you did not give Legolas any respond to his question. Not that he would have been awaiting some.
“I would say yes.” He continued. “Something that is valuable for him, but he does not want the company know that he is searching for it. More importantly, he does not want me to know that he is searching for it. But why would he do that?”
You shrugged, watching the grass under your feet. “I am not in the position to judge either of you.” You replied honestly. “He gave an order and I obeyed.”
“And what did he promise you?” He asked again, this time really hoping for some answer.
You stood dead in your tracks, thinking about the answer. The king forbade you to speak about your quest, but was this kind of information belonging into the quest category? You were not sure. But considering how nice Legolas was and how he approached you from the beginning, you owed him the truthful answer, and thus, you replied. “My freedom. The price was my freedom.”
Legolas whistled silently. The night watch, again, ignored that sound, only Legolas’ horse responded with couple of snorts.
“The value of that item you are supposed to get is much higher than I originally thought.” He admitted. Legolas, not the horse. He raised his moonlit face to the night sky and took in couple of deep breaths, clearly thinking about possibilities.
“Legolas.” You put your palm on his forearm. “There might be a reason why the king does not want you to know. Perhaps it would be wiser to let go.”
He looked back at you. “I know, mellon. Yet I am responsible for your safety. Without knowing your true goal, I can only guess and your life might be put in great danger. I cannot risk that, not yet. You might have been thinking why I plan to let you stay in the camp tomorrow.”
“You are indeed right, Legolas.” You replied honestly and let some of your emotions colour your voice. You were not angry, but you were also not prepared to let go of this topic that easily. “I thought that I have proven myself worthy already.”
He stood silent again, thinking about the answer.
“Have I not?” You pushed further.
“You have.” He admitted. “But still, I am responsible for you and I cannot let you come with us. Not yet. I only wish for one day, [name]. One day of exploration. Then you are free to go. Can we agree on that?”
You were surprised by his offer, but it sounded more than reasonable. He knew well that you will go into the stronghold with or without his consent – or knowledge – so he gave you a good reason to wait in camp as he originally planned. Precaution, one would say.
“Alright.” You accepted his offer. “One day. Then I will go into that stronghold.”
“I was not awaiting anything else.” Legolas replied plainly.
“I just want this to be over.” You told honestly. “This quest and my gained freedom. I cannot stay long in one place, and being imprisoned, I used all of my spared patience already.”
You neared Legolas’ tent.
“If everything goes well tomorrow, your wish will be fulfilled soon.” He reassured you. “Though I must admit, I will miss our trainings.”
“And the stories.” You smiled at the fond memory. “But we are not parting yet, my prince.” You teased him with this title.
Legolas scowled but smiled immediately after. “You are right, mellon nin. We do not know what our future holds.” Then, much to his embarrassment, he yawned.
You laughed heartily. “Yet your near future is quite clear. Prince Legolas, you should go to bed,” You lowered your voice in an attempt to imitate his very own imitation of his teachers.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Sleep well, Lucky pile.”
You made sure he saw your grimace before he disappeared inside his tent.
Eventually, you retired for the night as well.
Lying on the thin mattress on the ground - just as you have preferred it - your mind was burdened with all of the possible outcomes of tomorrow’s inevitable clash between your elvish comrades and the foul creatures of the stronghold. You had witnessed the mastery of elven warriors and therefore you had no doubts that in open combat, the beasts will be utterly defeated. Yet there was still a possibility that the beasts would be smart enough to lure the elves into the stronghold’s deceitful passages.
You turned to your other side.
The Elvenking gave you the order of keeping his son safe. How could you manage to fulfil that order, when the very prince ordered you to stay safe in the camp? Would you risk the wrath of the king which might result in your further imprisonment, or would you rather risk losing your new friendship with the prince by betraying his trust? You could not tell anyone about what the king was asking without risking endangering Legolas’ leading position within the company.
You turned to your back. Staring at the ceiling of your small tent, the frustration was overwhelming you. The too-silent surroundings were not exactly helpful either. All you wished for was this insane quest to be finally over – with or without the gems you were supposed to find. You groaned. How could you forget about the gems? It was the necklace of pure starlight as the king had called it when he had ordered you to go with his son. True, you would have happily agreed to literally anything just to get out of the dungeons, but this time, it was possible and even probable that you overestimated your abilities.
You should have told Legolas. No matter what the king had ordered you to do, you should have told Legolas. He was your friend and he was certainly not a child anymore. Though you had an understanding that the topic of his dead mother could be still somewhat painful to him, he should be mature enough to withstand it. By Eru, he was at least two millennia old! And surely, there was no family in Arda that would not have had someone tragically die during the numerous wars and battles which occurred during its history. Sadly, death was a fact of life in Arda.
You turned to your stomach and focused on the thin mattress under you. It was worn by the years of usage but it was more comfortable than both the floor and the bed you were supposed to sleep on.
You had been a fool, you thought. Not only for not telling Legolas about your personal quest and for agreeing to take it, but for letting yourself get caught in the first place. You should have stayed far away from the Halls and from the king whose obsessed stare was haunting your dreams. You should have starved in the sickening forest or survive by moving to other parts of the world. What you had been thinking, that the thievery will go unpunished? But now you have had what you had asked for; an impossible quest – or rather two – and your thoughts which prevented you to sleep peacefully.
You should have told Legolas. You should have told him days ago; weeks ago. You definitely should have told him today before he retreated for his night rest.
You sighed. There will be some time tomorrow morning before the company leaves for the stronghold. You could tell him then. Or rather not, as it might burden his mind too heavily to stay focused on his task and thus endanger his safety. But tomorrow evening, after there will be some more progress of this quest, you will tell him.
This was the last thought before your sleep finally overwhelmed you.
Eldar - elves (the race)
ellyn - elf males (pl. form of ellon)
mellon (nin) - (my) friend
Gundabad - a chief Orc mountain-stronghold at the northern end of the Misty Mountains and south-east of Angmar
Langwell - one of the rivers in Rhovanion that flowed east from the Misty Mountains into the Anduin
Hithaeglir - The Misty Mountains; a great mountain range between Eriador in the west and the Great River Anduin the east
Ered Mithrin - The Grey Mountains; a large mountain range to the north of Rhovanion. Their western end connected to the Misty Mountains at the site of Mount Gundabad
Eru (Ilúvatar) - the supreme deity of Arda, the single creator above the Valar
Arda - the world