As Legolas stepped into the tunnel, the sounds of Lasgalen – the murmur of voices, distant laughter, the thump and clink of boxes and bottles being moved – began to fade behind him. Soon he was enveloped in total silence. If it had not been for the flickering, flaring torch; he would have been in total darkness as well. Tightening his grip on it nervously, he peered forward into the yawning blackness that lay before him, then threw a last swift glance behind. The storerooms seemed very far away now, and he was alone in the still, dark, silence of the caves. Taking a deep breath, and drawing on all the determination he had inherited from both his father and grandfather, he turned his back on the welcoming beacon of light and sounds of life that lay behind him. This was something he had to do, despite his forebodings.
The sense of oppression he felt puzzled him – he had explored these caverns and tunnels many times before, either alone or with friends; but always it had been with a feeling of excitement and wonder. Now the air pressed heavily against him, feeling clammy against his skin, and he was aware as never before of the immense weight of rock and stone; of the hill above him.
Something had changed.
With a shudder, he pushed on, ignoring the deep apprehension he felt. The average temperature in the caverns never seemed to vary – which made them so ideal for storage – yet he was shivering, and not just from the chill His skin crawled, and prickles of unease ran down his spine. He found himself casting frequent glances over his shoulder, or stopping to peer into the gloom, searching and listening – for what?
Reaching the end of the tunnel, he hesitated, then turned right. These first caverns were familiar from previous explorations, and despite his odd misgivings now, he could still recall the route. Soon, though, he hesitated again. He had reached the labyrinthine maze of tunnels, passages and fissures where they had got so disastrously lost.
Uncertainly, he pulled from his pocket the map he had taken from the library. After their original catastrophic expedition, Elrohir had re-drawn and completed the partial map they had made then. Looking at it now in the flickering torchlight, Legolas studied the route he needed to take to reach the cave where the rockfall had occurred. There had been talk of having this part of the caverns sealed off, but it had not been done yet. Before all access was blocked off, he was determined to find out, once and for all, what it was he had seen.
As he drew nearer, his forebodings grew. There was something eerie about his surroundings, and the air seemed dank and chill. A stale smell hung about the tunnels, for no breeze ever freshened the air here. The atmosphere felt very claustrophobic, and it seemed to be getting difficult to breathe. Memory came back to him, of the crushing weight on his chest, and the searing pain of every single breath. He shivered again, telling himself that his ribs were healed; and drew a deep breath, forcing air into his lungs. Despite that, the dead stillness of the air pressed down on him heavily. With a shudder of apprehension, he glanced up at the roof cautiously, searching it for signs of weakness, for cracks or fissures in the rock, then whirled at a sudden sound from behind him.
His heart pounding, he extended the torch ahead of him, his hand shaking, and peered into the darkness. The sound came again, from another direction this time, and he spun around again. The sudden movement caused the torch to flicker ominously, and he slowed in sudden fear. If the torch went out, he would be in utter darkness until he could kindle a flame and relight it. He edged forward carefully, starting as he heard it again – this time right in front of him.
There was nothing there. Nothing. There was just the chill dankness in the air, and a glint of moisture on the ceiling and on the ground beneath his feet.
Moisture. Cautiously, he touched the rock wall at his side, feeling the wetness on his fingers. Something splashed onto the back of his hand, icily cold, as a drop of water fell from the roof of the passage, and he sighed. The noise he had heard was nothing more than drips of water, echoing off the tunnel walls. Holding the torch aloft, he saw a thin film of water glistening in the uncertain light, reflecting star-like sparks of fire. It was just water. Feeling more than foolish – and relieved that there was no-one to witness his needless alarm – he checked the map again, and continued along the tunnel.
He was drawing near to the cavern now, and stopped to tuck the map back into his pocket, checking his knife as he did so. It still hung from his belt, and he kept his hand near the hilt, ready to draw it in an instant. The only sounds he could hear were his own footsteps – a little uneven as he limped along the rough ground – and his breathing, still ragged after his earlier fright. He still felt a deep unease, and his skin still crawled with vague, unnamed horrors – his disquiet had not been abated in the least by his discovery.
At last – yet far too soon – he reached the great cavern. There was a faint illumination here, from the opening high up on the wall, but it did little to penetrate the deepest recesses. Legolas paused and listened intently, but there was utter silence all around him. He stepped out into the open space, slowly turning around and examining the cave as he moved, searching for anything that might lurk there. He moved back to the entrance again, and from there slowly circumnavigated the cave, studying the walls before him carefully, raising the torch to illuminate the walls high above his head. There were several dark crevices, and he thrust the torch into them cautiously, lighting the black depths, each time prepared to leap backwards if anything suddenly lunged at him.
He did not know what he expected to find – a spider squatting on a web, a rat scuttling away from the light, a snake slithering into some tiny crack. Perhaps there was some nameless creature, never before seen, that dwelt in the caverns, or just an unfortunate forest animal that had tumbled through the gap torn by the uprooted tree. There was no trace. There were no droppings, no bones, no tracks on the dusty floor. Oddly, the less evidence he found, the more his fear and anxiety increased. It seemed the longer he was in the cave, his sense of oppression grew and grew, until all he could think about was the layers and layers of rock, stone and earth above him. Beyond the circle of flickering torchlight, the darkness pressed in on him relentlessly, full of threat and hidden dangers.
At last he stood beneath the narrow opening and stared upwards to the glimmer of daylight he could see. Although it was only a hundred feet above his head, he could feel no connection to the forest here – the trees seemed as remote as the distant peaks of the Misty Mountains, and their song was silenced. He tore his gaze from the sliver of light, and looked down again. The ground here was littered with the rubble and debris that had fallen from the cave wall when Elrohir climbed it. A little to one side lay a heavy slab of rock. Kneeling a little awkwardly – his leg was still rather stiff – he winced as he studied it, and at the dark stain that covered the ground where he knelt. Gazing up at the cave wall again and the long drop, he shuddered. He and Elrohir could both so easily have been killed – it was a miracle they had survived.
Legolas shivered again as he got to his feet. It was time to go back. There was nothing to see here, nothing but a lingering memory of pain, fear, and darkness. He turned, surveying the cave one last time, the torch held high.
Suddenly, the wavering light showed him two gleaming pinpoints shining in the darkness. Two eyes, just as he had seen before. He whirled, facing the eyes, heart hammering in his chest, and gave a shout of warning.
“Stay back!” His voice echoed around the chamber. Beneath the echo, he could hear a harsh, rasping breathing – the same sound he had heard the last time. Drawing his knife, he stood in a fighting stance, balanced lightly on his feet, the stiffness of his leg forgotten.
The eyes did not move, returning his gaze steadily and unblinkingly. They were widely spaced, an indication of the size of the creature – whatever it was. Nothing more of it could be seen, for it blended into the shadows perfectly. They stared at one another unwaveringly for several long seconds, then very slowly, very cautiously, Legolas began to edge closer. As he drew nearer with each careful step, the flame of his torch was reflected in the creature’s eyes, growing larger as he approached.
Still it did not move. He stretched his hand out in front of him, expecting at any moment to touch the thing’s head or face. Instead, his groping hand encountered hard, gritty rock.
Disbelievingly, he raised the torch high, and saw. The ‘eyes’ were two faceted crystals of quartz, embedded in the rock. They caught and reflected the light when viewed from the right angle, giving an illusion of life – but there was none there.
In despair, he lowered the torch, and leaned his head against the cave wall with a deep sigh. The sound was rough and unsteady, and he suddenly understood too the harsh, rasping breathing he had heard before. There was nothing there. The monstrous creature that had haunted his nightmares for weeks now, ever since his injury, was born from nothing more than the ubiquitous quartz that studded every wall in Lasgalen, and his own fears and fevered imaginings. The gentle warnings of his father, Elrond and Calmacil were right. Elrohir’s straightforward explanation, and Arwen’s startled denial all made sense. They were all right – there had never been anything there.
Sick at heart – for he would have felt better if he had found something more tangible – he stepped slowly back from the wall, shuddering uncontrollably. Suddenly desperate to get away, to leave the suffocating darkness far behind and return to warmth and light and safety, he turned sharply, and slammed into a solid mass, lit only by an eerie, flickering glow. Stepping back, he drew his knife and held it out before him, brandishing the torch as well in a double defence. “Keep back!” he warned sharply. He was shamed by the note of fear and panic in his voice.
A familiar voice called to him out of the shadows and darkness. “Legolas? Did you not hear me? I called to you, elfling.”
Thranduil stood there, gazing at him with concern, the torch he held casting odd shadows across his face.
Legolas’s glance flicked behind his father, and back to his face. Thranduil was alone. Releasing a long breath, he lowered his torch, ashamed of his sudden panic, and relieved that there was no-one other than his father to observe it.
“I …” He stopped and moistened his lips. “I came to find what it was I had seen down here.”
Thranduil gave a snort of exasperation. “I feared you would. When there was no trace of you, I guessed you would be here. Did you find anything?”
Legolas shook his head. “Just an illusion.” He straightened his back, doing his best to banish his lingering fears and doubts, at least temporarily. “Come. There is nothing here. Shall we return?” Without waiting for his father’s agreement, he turned, suddenly desperate to escape from the deadly darkness and return to the light, life and laughter of Lasgalen.
Thranduil gestured to the chairs set by the window, and turned to a side table where goblets and bottles of wine were set out. Pouring two glasses of a deep red Dorwinnion, he handed one to Legolas, and settled himself in one of the chairs. He studied his son from the corner of his eye. Tension was visibly draining from him, but there remained a shadow about him.
“You found an illusion, you say?” he questioned carefully.
Legolas nodded slowly. “Yes. I found the eyes I saw, at any rate. There was nothing there – not really. Just two crystals of quartz, set about so far apart,” – he held his hands about a foot apart – “which reflected the light. That was all.” He grinned humourlessly. “That was all. My imagination did the rest.” He fell silent again.
“And was that all?” Thranduil asked. There was more here, he was sure of it.
There was silence for a moment. Then at last, Legolas spoke again. “I found fear,” he said in a low voice. “I realised why I had been putting of this investigation for so long, although I wanted to see what was there. I could have gone as soon as I could walk again, even on crutches – but I did not. Even with a stick, I delayed. I told myself that Calmacil was right, I should not take risks – but that was not the reason. Finally, today, I could not make any more excuses to myself. But the reason for my reluctance was because I was afraid.” He dropped his gaze, and looked away.
“That is scarcely surprising, given what happened. There is no shame in that,” Thranduil said softly. “You were afraid – yet your curiosity prevailed. You were afraid – yet you went into the caves alone. You were afraid – yet you persevered until you found what you sought. There is no shame in fear. There is no cowardice.” He added the last deliberately, knowing intuitively what troubled his son most.
Legolas’s hand tightened convulsively on the wine goblet. Then he looked across to Thranduil. “You knew?”
“I know you,” Thranduil explained simply. “We all have fears. It is how we face them that counts.” He fell silent, and they sat quietly, watching the sun as it set over the trees, streaking the sky with fiery fingers of pink and gold.
As darkness filled the room, Thranduil stirred, refilling their goblets. “Do not forget the farewell feast tomorrow evening for Elrond and his family,” he commented. “I expect you to be there.”
“Yes, of course,” Legolas agreed. “I look forward to it – well, to the feast and dancing at any rate. Not to them leaving. I know they have stayed for far longer than they planned, but I will miss them.”
Thranduil nodded. “You get on well with the twins,” he observed carefully.
“Yes. I always have. With Arwen as well, now. She was always just Ellahir’s little sister before, but recently …” Legolas shrugged. “I like her. We have much in common.”
“Ah,” Thranduil murmured softly. “Good.”
Legolas narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean, ‘good’?” he queried suspiciously. “Are you planning something?”
Thranduil shook his head. “Nothing at all, elfling. Nothing at all,” he replied serenely.Stories > First > Previous > Next