‘Bow to the lords, child.’
‘Nod your head, young one.’
‘Smile faintly at the ladies. Kiss their hands if they are offered.’
‘Be courteous at all times.’
‘Do not run through the halls.’
‘Drink slowly—immortals need never be in a hurry at the table.’
‘Listen to the elves who speak with you.’
‘Stand up straight.’
‘Don’t roll your eyes.’
‘Don’t be loud.’
‘Let your title show, and live up to it.’
A thousand instructions from thousands of occasions fluttered like light crazed moths through his head as he looked at the throng of elves making their way into the great hall. Self-consciously he straightened his stance slightly, while relaxing his appearance at the same time so he wouldn’t appear to be drawn to his full height. He schooled his features into more or less neutral yet welcoming with a faint smile upon his lips. He quickly ran a hand over his hair and circlet to be sure all was in place, before resolutely leaving his hand at his side though he would have gladly fidgeted.
As his father came in the room fell silent, many rising only to bow and seat themselves again, at least once the signal was given. “Good evening, Father,” he murmured quietly, lifting his own head.
“Good evening, my son,” his father returned, smiling that faint smile as he nodded slightly.
He could never tell if his father was pleased with him or not, since that smile was the same one bestowed upon everyone deserving of that faint courtesy. Slowly he took his seat after being sure it was quite time. The rest of the room sat down more or less before him, and the music began for the meal as serving elves entered and presented their food.
The reason for this sudden feast was made clear not long after the feasting was done. As the wine flowed as freely as the conversation, his father got to his feet, the move alone silencing most of the more sober company. “I am glad to announce—“ he began, waiting for the final drunken titters to fall away, “—that there is to be a royal wedding in a month’s time. The Lady Carise shall be the Wood’s new Princess!”
He caught his breath, closing his eyes for an instant before opening them again. So that was why the she-elf across from him looked so uncomfortably out of place. She rose at his father’s indication to do so, and he slowly rose to his feet as well. Without showing the hesitance he felt, he rounded the head table to take her hand for the first dance. His father claimed the second, and he took the third, leading her out when the music ended to a balcony which overlooked a small garden which was deserted in favor of the feast this night. “You agreed to this, without knowing me?” he asked quietly.
“How am I to refuse my King?” she asked, equally quiet, her eyes downcast. “Should we not be in the great hall?”
“The people will assume we merely wish some time alone, and those who know the truth will understand.” He took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. “I have not yet been ordered,” he muttered after a minute.
She stopped and looked at him. “You did not know?”
He shook his head, seeing shock widen her eyes.
“How could he forget to mention—“
“Oh, I sincerely doubt he forgot,” he cut in. “More likely he sprang this on me during a feast because he knows I wouldn’t dare dispute such with him in front of the entire realm—nor to exert what little right I have to deny his request of me later, as the entire wood believes what they want to believe.”
“That it was our choice,” she murmured softly, her eyes falling to the ground before her feet once more. They walked in silence for a time, using the narrow staircase to enter the gardens. “It seems peculiar,” she whispered after a while.
“Which part?” he asked bitterly.
She paused and looked up at him. Her head tilted slightly to the side. “You do not agree with your father’s decision?”
“I think marriage should be between two who love each other, and no others.”
“Even to go against your father?”
“To go against the Valar themselves, if need be… but I—we, I suppose—are well and truly stuck, as what I believe or want doesn’t matter.”
“And what do you want, my lord?”
“Please, Carise. If we are to wed—which seems rather likely—we cannot be so formal. If I were to truly get what I wanted… it is hard to say.”
“What would you do, if given total freedom to do whatever you wanted?”
He stopped and looked down at her. “Total freedom? I have never tasted such. Nor has anyone ever asked, been concerned. Always I have been the little prince, the king’s only son… which means that I am forever trapped with unnatural fetters which bind me to a life no elf who isn’t half dead should live.” He blinked in shock at his own speech, for he had never expressed his resentment out loud to anyone.
She, however, was not judging him for his words, but merely searching his face for his sincerity. Slowly she reached up and put her hand against his cheek. “Then you are not what I expected.”
He felt a bitter smile twist his lips. “What did you expect? That I would be pompous, arrogant, self-absorbed, pretentious—“
“Basically,” she agreed with a slight nod and even fainter smile. “Instead I think you would enjoy perhaps a breath of truly fresh air over the stuffy atmosphere of the halls…”
He sighed. “Not without a personal guard,” he snorted, looking away from her large eyes.
He still felt them fall from his face, and heard her sigh. “I misjudged you,” she murmured. “I first laid eyes upon you a month past, at the winter festival. You seemed very cool, very reserved, perfectly content to be where you were, at ease with the unending social duties required of you. Again tonight, you were utterly collected as you were announced, while my insides quaked every step to my chair.”
“I have had millennia of training, Carise. The echoes of long-dead lessons echo eternally in my ears, never giving me a moment’s free rest at such events. The closest to comfortable I get is when everyone is otherwise occupied, and I can simply be myself, even though it never lasts more than a few minutes.”
“Would you say you are yourself now?”
“Surprisingly, considering we only met at the announcement of our engagement.”
“Then you have lasted more than a few minutes.” She pointed that out quietly, ignoring the bitterness of his tone as he answered her soft question.
“Indeed I have—which is a cue for one of my father’s advisors, or some servant, or a messenger boy to come running in to interrupt.” With a heartfelt sigh he lifted a hand, grimacing in distaste when he encountered his circlet instead of hair. He lifted it from his crown, letting it dangle from his fingers. “Sometimes I almost wish there was somewhere else to go,” he mused quietly.
“Only sometimes? I often wish it, and I have more of a chance for freedom that it seems you do.”
“I have a duty here, however unwelcome and unwanted it may be… and Father is here…”
“You trailed off… why?”
He looked at her, and smiled faintly. “You are the first elf in a seeming age who has cared enough to notice and ask that question.” She blushed faintly but didn’t reply. “My Father is the king among wood-elves, though he himself is not of their kind. Yet he becomes more and more like them in some ways every year. What a mess that dwarf trouble was! All over some worthless trinkets that have no true value… He is proud of me when I remember my lessons, when I show up on time and as I am supposed to… when I win the competitions among the warriors… and yet… is it pride because I please him, or because his son is the one who does these things?”
She studied the ground at their feet for a long while. “Perhaps… perhaps things will be better. Some day you can cross the sea—and there will be no need for fear, no need for caution. You can simply be yourself, with no Wood to impress all the time.”
“Yes,” he agreed softly, “but I fear I will no longer strain against my bonds when that time has come. Already I grow accustomed to their bite. When I accept my cage and yet fly free—what shall become of me then? Shall I construct a new cage, or find a niche for myself in the ones others shall bring with them?”
“You do not credit yourself enough,” she protested. “If you have lasted this long, you can certainly wait a while longer… and perhaps we could help each other wait.”
He smiled faintly. “Perhaps,” he agreed. “Already I have found some freedom where in every other time there was simply a desire to escape whatever company Father forced upon me. Endless rows of she-elves who desire the crown…”
“What a foolish dream,” she whispered, a faint frown on her brow. “If I could, I would be rid of the title I already wear, and run as free as we were meant to be.”
With a peaceful smile he nodded his agreement slightly before he felt someone shaking his shoulder.
“Son? Son, are you coming to dinner or not?”
Legolas blinked and frowned. “What?”
Thranduil rolled his eyes slightly. “Dinner. You know, the meal in the evening that sustains the body until breakfast in the morn?”
“Oh… yes.” Legolas frowned and ran a hand through his unbound hair. “I shall be down shortly.”
“It’s an official evening, lad,” his father added before leaving.
Legolas mumbled some sort of understanding murmur, not having heard a word his father said. What an odd vision, he mused. His mother used to call his ‘dreams’ that. He had never spoken to his father of them ever since he had one in which he walked into their chambers and found her lying dead on the bed. A few days later she had been killed by orcs in the wood.
But what did this one mean?
Yes, he had been schooled in all the ways of gentle elves, and yes, his father had become a bit greedy as he sought to find some sort of treasure that would replace his Queen… but things were not nearly as bad as they had been in his dream… nor would his father ever coerce him into something as life-changing as marriage.
Every one of his visions had a meaning, and it was only a matter of discovering what. Maybe he just needed to spend some time alone in the wood, stir up his blood for a while. The halls must be getting to him.
He ran his hands over his face and through his hair before getting up, quickly braiding his hair, changing from his comfortable guard clothes into something more fitting of a prince, carrying the circlet with him as he walked quickly through the halls so he would not be late for the meal.
Some day it would be nice to find someone he could talk to so freely—but it would never be found in a single night. It wasn’t possible. Even in such a peculiar situation as the one he had dreamed, he couldn’t imagine himself opening up like that to a perfect stranger.
Deep in thought, absently frowning at the floor, he rounded a corner and ran into someone coming the other way. He caught her before she could fall and helped her regain her balance. “I am sorry, my lady,” he offered once she was steadily on her feet. “I’m afraid I was quite lost in my own musings.”
“As was I,” she laughed lightly. “So I cannot let you take all the blame, when it was no doubt evenly my own fault, and you did a wonderful job of saving me the embarrassment of actually falling.”
He smiled at her ease of speaking with him, before he recalled he wasn’t marked as the prince. He remembered his circlet with a sigh. “Oh, I’ve dropped the blasted thing,” he sighed, looking around for it.
“My damned—there it is,” he muttered, reaching around her to pick it up. “Were you headed to the great hall?”
“Well… I was supposed to be,” she agreed, “but I’m afraid I must admit this place is still confusing to me.” She was smiling with self-depreciating humor sparkling in her eyes. Then she saw the circlet as he straightened to face her. “Oh…” she stared at him for a long moment.
“Please, don’t,” he murmured quietly, watching her eyes.
“Don’t pretend it makes any difference when it needn’t.”
She looked at him for a time, then slowly nodded. “Well, I have no need to ask your name, now.”
“But I do not yet have yours,” he countered, offering her his arm and a small smile.
She hooked her hand at his elbow with a charmingly guileless smile. “Carise. Are you alright?” she asked an instant later.
He blinked and slowly nodded. “I… yes.” He smiled ruefully at her. “Someday I’ll explain.”
“Explain how the prince—who is known to be one of the most accomplished warriors of this age in the woodland realms, not to mention an avid hunter—happened to trip over his own feet in the halls of his birth?”
“Someday,” he agreed, smiling slightly as he looked down at her, the circlet dangling uselessly from his fingers.