Finally I can answer to reviews! Thank you to you guests - I would love to be able to answer you personally, but alas. Please keep your comments coming, they are what is keeping this story steaming forward as fast as it is.
Angion had disappeared into the trees and the other warriors tracked silently behind Tirion at the fore, and before Lainion at the rear.
Legolas was in the middle, feeling somewhat indignant at being treated like a maiden unable to fend for herself. He had tracked back home with Idhreno and Ram en', albeit that had been for rabbit and other small game. Here, they searched for signs of orcs! The mere comparison, and his own stupidity made him chuckle out loud, garnering the other warrior's curious gazes.
Before long, the forest began to quieten, and his patrol went into a state of pre-alert. Roles were designated, and Legolas had been told that, should there be a confrontation, he was to climb into the trees and offer cover with his bow. Faunion, a Sinda warrior was to accompany him - as if he were a child! he scoffed to himself angrily.
His mounting irritation became apparent when his angry musings led him to miss Tirion's body language, unlike the others who had promptly either taken to the boughs or disappeared into the shade of the trees. Indeed he was the last to scamper up the bark and take his position near Faunion, who glared at him in reproval. Legolas decided he deserved it, for he had been sulking, making a fool of himself with his inattention.
Still a novice, he realised ruefully, yet he was determined to prove himself and so he bore the stern, non-verbal reprimand and prepared his bow, watching Faunion as he did so, yet always with an eye on Tirion, the Captain.
A bird call had Faunion drawing on his short bow and Legolas did likewise, remembering his lessons on bird calls and their meanings. This was it then, he realised. He was going into battle for the first time, albeit from the safety of the trees!
The noise was now audible and Legolas scrunched his nose up in disgust, for the smell was pungent - so much so it made his eyes water, impairing his vision. Swiping at them with his sleeve he rapidly took up his draw once more, unaware of the smirk that Faunion had allowed to escape.
"Steady boy. Do not land until you are ordered to. Take out the archers first if there are any, and if there are none, take out those in the fanciest armour."
"Aye Faunion," he said a little too tightly - he was nervous.
"Aim for the chest or neck.."
Chest or neck, wondered Legolas in surprise, surely the eye or the neck.. he did not understand and made a note to ask Lainion later.
Another call - imminent contact - they were coming and he was ready. His breathing doubled to keep up with his thumping heart, his eyes as wide as they could be and his mouth open. The fine hairs at the nape of his neck prickled painfully and his sight narrowed to where he knew the enemy would appear. He was ready, he said to himself again.
A guttural roar echoed around the glade and painfully in his ears, and the battle was unleashed. Faunion released and Legolas followed him, his keen eye following his own projectile until it embedded itself in the eye of a mountain orc who shrieked and then fell to the floor, dead.
Legolas smiled and then drew once more, letting lose another green-fletched arrow, his smile wider as he watched his second victim fall, its eye pierced.
The group had been small and the archers had not been needed upon the ground, and so, with no more mountain orcs left alive, a smiling Legolas followed Faunion to the ground.
"Clean up - Angion, see to it," barked Lainion, as Legolas watched in awe of his Avarin mentor who he was observing in battle for the first time.
But the dark lieutenant suddenly whirled on his heels and came face to face with a startled Legolas.
"What are you smiling at!" he hissed, taking the young novice completely by surprise.
The other warriors, including Tirion, had gone silent as they watched their lieutenant face their young novice.
"I do not understand…" said Legolas, his worry and incomprehension written clearly on his young face. He thought he had done well, he had not missed a single shot…
"If a warrior bids you aim for the chest, you comply!" he shouted mercilessly.
Legolas made to open his mouth and defend himself, but could not quite manage to get his thoughts together, for the lieutenant's face was a dreadful sight.
"You are a novice, boy. You are not yet qualified to make tactical decisions. This will not happen again," he finally said, a little more calmly, before he spun on his heels and went to oversee the cleanup.
A friendly hand squeezed his shoulder, making him jump. It was Angion who simply walked past him. Legolas smiled timidly before another hand landed in the same place, silent and strong and it was not long before all six warriors had offered their silent support. Legolas had erred because he had disobeyed Faunion, yet he still failed to understand why it was so important to aim for the chest, where the damage may well not be fatal - why not go for a sure kill? It was beyond his ken and he resolved to ask Lainion about it - later of course, for the Avari had been fierce indeed and Legolas had no intention whatsoever, of crossing him again until he had calmed down.
Blowing out noisily, he slung his bow over his shoulder and followed the warriors, for there was dirty work to be done.
The early evening breeze was crisp, and it was just what Aradan needed to clear his mind of the dreams that had plagued him, from which he had awoken with a start, his heart thumping and his soul heavy with pity and shared grief.
Unwittingly, Prince Handir had opened a door long shut, one he had bolted and chained lest his demons escape. It was useless though, for they had slipped through to his consciousness and would not be vanquished, at least not today.
There was no mystery though, for he knew why that was. There had been something in Handir's eyes, something he had admittedly withheld and that would only be revealed with Aradan's promise to not share whatever it was. In good conscience he could not, for the boy offered no guarantees as to the nature of the information and yet - and yet he had to know. His considerable intuition told him it was important, hence the dreams…
Thranduil had been his friend for many centuries, still was, in spite of the dramatic change that had taken place in him after the queen had left him. The people had attributed it to grief at the loss of his wife, but Aradan knew better. It was not the loss of his wife, it was the loss of his love… he felt the desperate urge to make Handir understand, force him to see his father as he had once been, show him that what had happened to Thranduil could have happened to anyone.
It had always felt so wrong that Thranduil's own children should treat him with such frigid disregard. He did not deserve it and yet, when Aradan forced himself to see it from the perspective of the royal children, he could no naught but to understand their resentment.
As far as they were concerned, their father had gone with some Silvan woman of no import and had earned the wrath of his queen, who promptly and silently leaves for Aman, her children left behind without the slightest of explanations other than that she could not stay. Their father, when repeatedly asked why she had done such a thing, had simply remained silent, disregarded their need to understand. And so it had festered until the king was left with two princes and one princess who were little more than strangers to him.
With a heavy breath, Aradan rose and began his short trek back to the fortress. It was decided. He would take a risk and give Handir his promise. If there was some way, any way at all that justice could be done and Thranduil could, at least, regain one of his sons, then Aradan would see it done…
"Legolas! Join us," said Lainion in his voice of command. The lieutenant and the captain sat around their small fire, away from the other warriors where, until now, Legolas had been sitting, chatting animatedly. He had them laughing and singing, joking and reminiscing and Lainion could not help but be impressed with the young one's empathy, his ability to influence and inspire.
"Sit," he said, watching as his young charge crossed his legs and waited patiently. He was worried, and still confused about yesterday's events but he had respectfully held his peace, waiting perhaps for this very moment when Lainion would explain to him why he had shouted at him before the entire patrol.
Yet it was not Lainion who spoke but Tirion.
"You are confused and that is understandable. I will tell you why you deserved that down braiding," he said matter-of-factly as Lainion nodded, staring into the flames.
"In battle, it is often the case that the archer's aim is not at its full potential. The excitement of the fight, exhaustion, poor light, an injured companion; there are many variables. It is the work of a good archer to guarantee a hit, whether it kills or simply maims. That way you never waste an arrow. If you take a difficult shot you may lose that arrow - your results will be poor and your companions on the ground will suffer the consequences."
Legolas listened carefully, before opening his mouth to ask the question that was screaming to be freed, but Tirion stopped him with his hand.
"Wait, and listen. I saw your marks and I know you did not waste arrows, but it was simply circumstance that allowed to you snipe, rather than to confront in battle. Had you been on the ground and firing your bow, would you have been able to make that shot?"
Lainion turned to face Legolas, daring him to gainsay the captain, and to his absolute shock - he did.
"Yes - under the correct circumstances I know I could make the shot. I believe I have learned a lesson, but I also trust my instinct in this. If I know my circumstances permit, I therefore know I can make the shot. Had I been tired, perturbed in some way, injured, I understand the need to take a guaranteed aim, rather than one that may send my arrow astray. But that was not the case. I was safely perched in a tree, fresh and alert - I believe it was a good tactic, albeit unwise. I did indeed disregard Faunion's guidance and for that I know I deserved your ire, Lieutenant. I will make sure that does not happen again."
Both commanders stared at the young novice, still processing his bold words.
"How can you be so sure, Legolas? You have never engaged in battle before, you do not yet know how you will react. Your words are based on faith. It is the duty of the commander to ensure his warriors's safety - never trust to faith in that, Legolas."
Legolas held Tirion's steady gaze before dipping his head in silent acknowledgement. "I understand, Captain," he said softly.
"Good. Now, that said, I must congratulate you on a magnificent aim - you have earned the respect of my patrol, that is no easy feat," he said with a smile, all the seriousness and the severity now gone from his tone and his expression, and Lainion was surprised to see the hint of a blush on Legolas' beautiful face. Such contrasts warred within this one, he mused. So mature and intelligent, so naive and unsure, so solemn and disciplined, and yet so confident and - feral.
"And Legolas.." he called after the retreating novice.
"Do something with that unruly hair of yours!"
Aradan watched the king as he pecked at the midday meal, his face indifferent, as if he had surrendered his will and simply moved with the errant tides. Rinion sat to his right, eating heartily, his face completely straight and emotionless, his movements abrupt. To his left, sat Handir, graceful and dignified, but there was a far away look in the boy's eye and Aradan knew he pondered his dilemma, still shocked perhaps, at the morsel of information Aradan had not been able to keep from the boy.
"Have the new patrols reached their destinies, Rinion?" asked Handir in an obvious attempt at making the meal minimally bearable.
"Aye. Our captains have already reported. They are in position and already fighting back small pockets of the enemy - they fare well it seems," said the crown prince, always eager to talk of all things military.
"It was a good idea to promote the novices, Rinion. Perhaps now the Silvan foresters will be satisfied with the extra defences we have sent them."
"They will never be satisfied, but well they should be," said Tirion as he skewered a piece of roasted meat.
"Incidently," he added, his voice muffled by the food in his mouth. "Tirion speaks of a novice with the best aim he has yet seen. He shows much promise."
Handir froze for a moment, before schooling his features and looking at his brother for the first time. "A Sinda?" he asked lightly, too lightly, and Aradan recognised that recurrent trait in his young apprentice's voice.
"A half-breed it seems, but they call him The Silvan. I will make a point of watching him when they return."
Handir simply nodded, but it was too late. Aradan had seen his surprise and was intrigued. He would sate his curiosity later, when he had Handir alone. For now, he could not be sidetracked, and so it was that after the meal, Aradan invited the young prince to his study. Handir had simply nodded, thinking no more of it other than Aradan's ongoing training, but when they arrived and the chief councillor offered him a glass of wine, he knew this conversation was not one of tutor and apprentice. His hopes raised, he took the glass and sat before a long window that looked out over the beauty of the hidden, Evergreen Wood, trying with all his might to look calm and collected.
"I have been thinking, Handir. Thinking and debating and I believe your self-appointed quest to be a good one. Tell me why you are doing this now, for you have my promise of discretion - I will say nothing to your father."
Handir was shocked at the change and suddenly found himself debating the wisdom in confiding in Aradan. It was too late though, too late to change tactic, for not in vain was Aradan Chief Advisor to the king.
"Why the sudden change, Aradan? Yesterday you were adamant about not giving your oath. What has changed in but one day?"
Aradan held Handir's eyes and the prince found himself suddenly drawn into the grey wisdom. When first he locked gazes with his mentor, there was that familiar blank expression that any good advisor learned to wear, but as he observed, fell deeper, he saw sadness, grief. He was telling the truth, this - change of mind - was genuine.
"This has gone on for too long, Handir. The suffering he has endured has changed your father so that he is unrecognisable, but a shell of his former self. All that is left is his strength, his will to continue leading his people - the king remains but the elf, the elf is withering inside."
Handir had never thought of it like that. His father had always been cool, sparing in his affection, strict in his attention to detail, although he remembered Rinion telling him many years ago that he remembered his father had not always been thus.
Drinking from his glass, he steadied himself before turning his eyes back from the forest to the councillor. His nerves must have betrayed him though, because Aradan frowned deeply, apparently reading his emotions as if Handir himself had written them down.
"I have much to learn from you in masking myself, Aradan, but this - this is - it is too close to home, too transcendental…"
"We are not in the council chambers now, Handir. We speak as friends, I will not judge you for that."
"Lainion came to me recently. As you know he has been participating in the novice project…"
"Go on," said Aradan encouragingly.
"Well, he - found something - someone…" he said, glancing uncertainly at his tutor.
Aradan's frown deepened and Handir steeled himself, pressing on.
"Aradan it seems - it seems Ada has another son… with a woman that was not my mother…"
Aradan moved backwards, as if avoiding a blow, his eyes wide as they searched those of his young charge, yet no words left his slack mouth.
"He is younger than I, but old enough to be a recruit, and good enough to be chosen as one of the early promotion novices. He is currently serving his apprenticeship with Lainion and Tirion in the western patrol."
There, he had said it - it was over and a wave of utter relief washed over him, his tense muscles relaxing for the first time in days.
And yet the silence continued and Handir now observed his tutor closely. His eyes had dropped to the side, shock still rendering him silent.
"You may ask," pressed Handir, "how Lainion would know such a thing, indeed I did. I attended the vow ceremony and I saw him, Aradan, I saw him from afar - there can be no mistake."
"How can you be so sure?" whispered Aradan.
"Because his face is his credential - he is the very image of my grandfather, Aradan - he has the face of Oropher!"
"Lassiel, what have you done…" he whispered again, as if he spoke to the wind.
Handir started at the comment, and a suspicion began to form in his mind and as it did, his head cocked to one side, words rolling off his tongue without his permission.
"You knew… "
"That there was a child? Yes. But Handir - he is supposed to be across the sea - with his mother in Valinor!"
"Valar," whispered Handir now, shocked at the turn the conversation was taking.
Aradan sprang to his feet in a flurry of robes, raking his hand over his hair and reaching for the wine bottle. Sitting once more as if defeated, he topped their glasses and took a deep breath, glancing up at the prince in concern.
"Make yourself comfortable Handir, for there is a long, long tale to be told, one it is time for you to hear…"