Many thanks to Emily Nielsen for the exceptional Legolas picture. She's a truly gifted artist and I'm grateful I got her for this challenge.
Banners of red and yellow snapped in the wind over the colorful striped pavilion ahead as the party of Wood-elves approached Esgaroth. Legolas, who had never traveled more than a few miles from the stronghold, cast his hungry eyes on every inch of the landscape as he took in the sight of the town rising from the waters of the Long Lake. tbc
Accustomed to still forest pools and gurgling streams, the young Elf was unprepared for the sight of so large a body of water and the roar of the cataract that spilled over the cliff on the horizon. A sense of wonder and freedom swept him up so suddenly and completely that he felt like bursting into song.
"Fall back," Thranduil admonished as Legolas, in his excitement, urged his horse forward.
"Yes, adar," Legolas answered, pulling his prancing horse back in line beside his father's.
He scanned the expansive lake, sighting far down to the south where white birds perched on the ragged black bones of the old Lake Town. The hint of a mounded shape just above the waterline marked where the dragon had fallen, and Legolas silently recalled the story as he had read it in his father's journal. The King of Dale had brought down the creature with a single shot. With a novice hunter's eye he tried to envision the sighting and loosing of the arrow, the moment of triumph when the shot found its mark, and the fall of the great beast onto the town. He imagined himself standing on the shore as the dragon bore down upon him, reining in his fear, his hands steady as he took aim. . .
His reverie was cut short as the party turned northward toward the new Esgaroth. Soon the bridge that led to the town came into view and now the striped pavilion drew Legolas's full attention.
"What is the purpose of that big tent, ada?" Legolas asked.
"It is the surprise I told you of," Thranduil said. "A traveling circus comes to Esgaroth every seven years and I timed our visit this year so that you might see it while I complete our trade negotiations."
"I do not remember 'circus' from my studies." Legolas knitted his brow as he sought to place the word. "What is 'circus'?"
"It is a group of Edain from the east who perform feats for entertainment," Thranduil explained. "Unlike the songs, stories, and skills of weapons and horsemanship we share when we come together, these people perform feats of physical skill, strength, and dance. They bring with them animals of far lands and exotic food and drink."
Legolas' sharp eyes glittered, his excitement growing. "Why have they never come to the Greenwood?"
"We do not mix with the Edain save for trade," Thranduil explained. "It is unsafe to allow strangers to freely roam our forest, and little is known of the lands beyond the Sea of Rhûn."
"But might we not learn something of these lands by having them come to the Greenwood? You have said the only way to truly know a people is to live among them."
Thranduil laughed. "So you do heed me on occasion," he teased. "You are correct that we may learn from them, but then they might learn also of us. In these times it is best to be circumspect with whom we share our knowledge."
Legolas considered this. "It is one of the things I will understand when I am older, is it not?" he sighed.
"Yes, my son. Which will be soon enough, you will see."
The conversation dampened Legolas' mood. It seemed he could never quite understand his father's philosophy when it came to seeing the Greenwood as a part of the larger world. He knew his father's responsibility to his people, of his need to protect them, but he could not grasp why that meant the Wood-elves had to stay hidden in the stronghold, venturing out only to hunt and keep others from their borders.
It did not help matters that he spent long hours studying the places and peoples of Middle Earth and imagining what it would be like to see and experience them. Reading old tomes held only so much pleasure for a young Elf, and stirred in him a longing for travel and adventure that he knew to be impossible. He often vowed that when he came of age he would strike out on his own and see all there was to see.
As the party of Elves approached the long wooden bridge that led into the town, a group of men came forward to greet them.
"Well met, Elven-king," the leader of the men called.
"Well met, Gundar," Thranduil replied. "I trust all is in readiness for our stay."
"Yes, my lord. Everything has been arranged as you requested in your letter. The Master of Esgaroth will meet you for supper this evening after you have settled in."
"I have brought my son along this trip. I thought it time he saw something of the world. Allow me to present Legolas." He placed his hand on his son's arm and the men all bowed respectfully."
"Well met, Prince Thranduilion," Gundar said. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
"Thank you, master Gundar. I am sure I shall," Legolas said, inclining his head regally.
The Elves dismounted and the men took the reins of their horses and led them along behind the party as Gundar escorted them up the bridge. The wooden structure was only wide enough to allow four men to walk abreast, to make the bridge easier to defend. Another new feature of the town was the wooden palisade built around the pilings on the shore side to keep brigands from reaching the town by boat.
Legolas looked down into the murky water lapping at the supports and his nose wrinkled at the smell of fish, moldering wood, and other less pleasant smells that were to be found near the settlements of men. He quickly masked his distaste and kept in step beside his father as they ascended into the town. The bridge appeared deceptively long, rising high above the water of the lake which, Legolas noticed from the waterline on the pilings, was lower than it should have been for the season. As they walked the wooden sidewalks, Legolas was impressed with the neat rows of houses with their window boxes of flowers, and small shops with their colorful signs and samples of their wares displayed on tables beside their doors.
The sight of the Elven-king's retinue caused a stir among the people and many stopped their buying and selling to watch them go by. None would meet their eyes but, to his surprise, Legolas noted from their manner that not all appeared to welcome the Elves' visit.
As they approached the inn, Legolas could see the pavilion on the huge platform that served as the town square and he heard the roar of some large beast. People seemed to be migrating in that direction and Legolas looked expectantly at Thranduil, who appeared to take no notice.
"Uh, adar… may I go look at the circus now?"
"Not now, Legolas. Let us clean up first and have a talk."
'A lecture you mean,' Legolas thought dismally as he trailed his father into the inn.
The accommodations, although not grand, were comfortable. Legolas had his own room and explored it briefly: a feather bed, a wardrobe, a table with a basin and pitcher for washing up, a wooden chamber pot with flowers painted upon it, as though to ward off the less than flowery smell it contained. Legolas put his clothes in the wardrobe then stripped off his tunic and washed his face, ears, and hands in the basin. After he had changed from his traveling clothes into a tunic of silver silk with embroidery of green at the neck and sleeves, he left and knocked on his father's door.
Galion opened the door. While the butler's eyes gave nothing away, from past experience Legolas suspected he knew what his presence meant for him. He entered and Galion followed him into the room, standing discreetly to one side. Thranduil smiled in greeting.
"So, what is your impression of the town from what you have seen so far?" Thranduil asked.
Legolas answered, his hands folded in front of him. "It is larger than I expected. The proximity of the lake and woods offer the chance for plentiful fish and game. The structures upon the pilings are sturdy enough, though the use of wood in the building would seem to offer little protection from severe weather or attack. Their major trade products are copper smithing, cooper and wain wrighting, and glass work. They trade these for. . ."
"Very good," Thranduil broke in, 'but this is not an exam, ion nîn. Tell me what you think about the town and its people."
"The Edain were properly deferential, even friendly, but some did not seem to like the fact we are here."
"And what does that tell you?"
Legolas suddenly snapped to where the conversation was heading.
"That caution is in order in our dealings with them?"
"Exactly so, Legolas," Thranduil agreed. "I want you to have a good time and to enjoy yourself, ion nîn, but always remember who you are. Comport yourself as a king's son and do not let your eagerness and curiosity rule you. I will be sending Galion along to look after you. . ." he hurried on as Legolas gave him a dejected look, ". . . not because I do not trust you but because the Edain's ways are not ours. They are prone to rashness and aggressive action and I will not take a chance of something happening to you. You are still a child."
As always, Legolas bristled at the hated word. "I am no child. I am almost as tall as you, ada, and I can hunt on my own and ride a horse as well as any Elf in the Greenwood. I can tell good water from bad, which plants are safe to eat. I can find my way by the moss and stars. I can bind a wound. . ."
"Legolas!" Thranduil broke in, glowering at Galion who was unsuccessfully suppressing a smile. "That is enough. I brought you here because I thought you old enough and mature enough to obey my rules. You can survive in the wood and I allow you to go out on your own because I know you understand the dangers and trust you to respect them. But you have no experience with the Edain, or with the ways of towns and cities. Just as I accompanied you on your first hunts, so Galion will accompany you here. If this is too much for you to bear, you must stay in your room until I have completed our trade. Is that understood?"
"Forgive me, ada," Legolas said quickly. "I rather proved your point and I apologize for my outburst." He gave a small bow and Thranduil smiled forgivingly and held out his arms. Legolas stepped into them and embraced his father. How much longer before these arms, from his earliest memories so strong and comforting, became a prison? Legolas wondered, even as he hugged Thranduil back with all his might.
"One more thing before you go," Thranduil said when Legolas stepped back. "I expect you to act like a prince but it would be best if you did not wear your finest clothing on the streets here. Go change into the homespun tunic I had you bring, and your hunting leggings. Then you and Galion may be on your way."
"Yes, ada," Legolas said dutifully. He went back to his room to change, weighing his father’s words against his own world view. What could be so different about the ways of Men that such precautions were necessary? It was not like he was unfamiliar with the evils of the world he thought derisively; he had seen a soldier kill an Orc once.
When he stepped out into the hall, he found Galion waiting for him and the two left the inn and set off for the town square. On the street the sounds of music, cheers and applause rang through the air while the smells of spices and roasting meat led them to their destination. Legolas wanted to walk a little ahead to appear to be on his own, but he knew Galion would not allow it and he wished even less to be reprimanded for all to see by his "traveling companion".
As they approached, a great cheer and burst of laughter erupted from the crowd. Despite Legolas' claim that he was almost as tall as Thranduil, he discovered he could not see over many of the men watching the show. Galion found the perfect spot where the two stood and watched a clown make a great show of juggling, only to repeatedly drop the colorful balls upon his head, or trip over them as they fell at his feet. The people clapped and laughed at each new antic. Legolas watched them as curiously as he had watched the juggler, until he understood that the Edain were clapping their hands together as a show of appreciation for the performance. Elves did not show their approval in this way. Legolas was surprised to see how boisterously these people displayed their enjoyment. At first he thought the noise and liveliness crude, but soon began to delight in the way the juggler responded to the crowd's applause with ever more outrageous antics.
The clown did backflips and cartwheels in his attempts to catch the elusive balls, ending the performance by doing a one-handed handstand, catching one of the balls while the others rained down around him. The children and adults in the crowd gave him an appropriate ovation and the clown bowed then disappeared into the tent. Another man, dressed in ornate robes of purple silk, came forward to address the crowd.
"Step inside and see the wonders of our age," he said in a deep baritone voice. "Witness the mysteries of the East. See dangerous beasts as tame as lambs. Feats of daring that will shock and astound. See men who fly, women who charm deadly vipers with their wiles. Dancers and tumblers and . . ." his voice took on a tone of awe, ". . . magic. Magic that can transform a man into a wild beast and a beast into a harmless dove. See what your eyes will not believe. See what only those at the farthest reaches of the world have ever witnessed. Step inside. For only a silver penny all this can be yours. Do not miss this chance of a lifetime. Step inside, step inside. . ."
The man continued his patter as part of the crowd drifted away, some to take advantage of the booths selling food and drink, or to look at the menagerie. Yet a goodly number queued up to pay their admittance and Legolas fell in line with Galion behind him. He paid his coin, a small part of the money his father had given him this trip for incidentals. Galion took out his coin but Legolas waved him away and paid his entrance too.
"As thanks for accompanying me," Legolas winked.
Galion grinned, "Yes, I saw the joy in your eyes when your father announced the arrangement."
"I should have known ada would not allow me out on my own, yet still was I taken by surprise," Legolas said. "I am not nearly as green as he thinks me, despite my name."
"There is much to be said for experience, young master," Galion said, as they positioned themselves around the outer rim of the ring to see the show. "Do not so readily discount the wisdom of those who would spare you the bitterness of their own errors."
"What errors, Galion? Are you speaking of ada? He rarely talks of his youth."
"I speak of everyone, Legolas. We all have lived many years to your few and have learned a great many things, whether or not you choose to believe it," Galion said. "For now, you need only know. . ."
"That I will understand when I am older," Legolas finished, laughing when Galion nodded. "What if I am not willing to wait?"
"Then you will be making a mistake as grave as any Elf has ever made," Galion said sagely. "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of others are doomed to make worse mistakes themselves."
Legolas would have reflected longer on Galion's words, but the show had begun and he was instantly caught up in the sound of pipes and drums as a group of acrobats tumbled into the ring.
For the next hour Legolas did, indeed, witness sights astounding to his young eyes as acrobats, aerialists, animal tamers, and dancers went through their routines. He gasped as a tightrope walker teetered high above the ground, gaining his balance only at the last second; he laughed at the spectacle of a monkey, dressed in the robes, pantaloons, and fez of an Easterling, dancing to the tune of a reed pipe; he cheered as a huge striped cat jumped through a ring of fire at the crack of the trainer's whip.
Then, a hush instantly fell over the crowd as the conjurer strode into the ring. He was resplendent in robes of rich, royal blue velvet with elegant silver embroidery down the front and around the heavy sleeves. He was taller than the other circus folk, thin, with long fingers capped with claw-like nails. His face behind his snow white beard and long mustache was brown as a nut and wrinkled with age. Yet despite this, he walked with his back straight, his arms held out on either side, his presence commanding respect and awe.
There was flash of light, a puff of smoke, and beside the conjurer stood a woman clad in a long white gown. As the people applauded, she helped the conjurer set up a screen. She then stepped behind it, only to have a man kick it over a second later. The woman had vanished! The man standing there looked wilder than a Drúedain with messy black hair that fell just past his shoulders and bloodshot eyes of deep brown. He was, from his appearance, neither an Easterling nor a man such as those of Dale or the West. He was bare-chested and hairy, dressed only in a loincloth and a leather collar with odd designs tooled into it. He bowed briefly to the gasps and applause that greeted him and then turned his gaze upon the crowd as the conjurer began to speak in deep, heavily accented tones.
"What you are about to see will frighten those among you who are faint of heart. A sight so shocking, so lurid, that it has never been seen beyond the mysterious bounds of the East. Within this tent shall I transform this man into a ravenous wolf. When the change is completed all civilized thoughts will be gone and only the beast will remain. The collar he wears will keep him under my command, but I caution you, do not make a sound, hold your applause and do not leave the tent until the illusion is complete. Any sudden movement may break the spell and the consequences could be dire! If any wish to leave before I begin, I strongly urge you to do so at this time.
He paused as the people shuffled about uneasily and looked at each other. A few of the women left, taking their children with them, distressed looks on their faces. The man-beast turned his gaze upon those who stood around the ring and as his eyes caught Legolas, the young Elf felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. Only when the man's eyes left him did he chance a look at Galion, who was frowning. Legolas whispered, "Do you feel it too?"
Galion looked at him sharply and leaned down to whisper. "Something is amiss. These tricks are not real and yet I sense magic here. Perhaps we should go."
Legolas was immediately sorry he had spoken. "Oh, no, please Galion," he said, "I want to stay. I am not afraid."
"It is wise to listen to our hearts and mine tells me this is something we should have no part of, come."
He turned to go but Legolas did not move.
"Legolas, I said come with me. Now!" He raised his voice slightly and the people nearby stared.
Galion reached for Legolas' arm, and the young Elf pulled roughly away and ran from the tent, leaving the flustered servant no choice but to pursue.
Galion caught up with Legolas on the street leading away from the inn and took him by the arm. "Just where do you think you are going?"
Legolas' eyes flashed in anger and humiliation, his cheeks were red and his posture stiff and stubborn. So much like his father did he look at that moment that Galion released him at once. Legolas did not move away and did not shout, though he wanted more than anything to do both.
"I never would have spoken if I had known you would make me leave!" he growled. "Only the women and small children left and you would have put your hands on me and dragged me from the tent. You have no right! Why could I not have stayed? You shamed me in front of a tent full of Edain, Galion. I will never forgive you for this. Leave me!"
Galion was stung by the prince's words but refused to be cowed. "Whether you forgive me or not is your affair, but you will return with me now to the inn or I will have the city guard bring you back. Which do you think would please your father more?"
Legolas knew he had no choice. Thranduil would lock him in his room for the rest of their stay if he forced Galion's hand. Yet he was determined to see the conjurer again and began to formulate a plan. Pretending to give in, he said, "Very well, Galion, you win. I will return with you." He punctuated his words with a world-weary sigh. "But will you at least tell me why you made me leave the tent? What was wrong?"
"I cannot tell you what I do not know," Galion replied. "I sensed something was wrong, and when I saw you felt it also, I thought it unwise to remain."
"It was an odd feeling, that is all. The man was so wild looking, and then when he looked at me I felt. . . I cannot describe it," Legolas mused. "It did not feel "wrong" exactly. I would still like to have seen the transformation."
"The magic performed by conjurers in these shows is done by trickery. There is no real magic involved," Galion said.
"Yet you thought otherwise for a moment, did you not?" Legolas teased, reverting to his usual lighthearted mien.
"Perhaps," Galion conceded thoughtfully.
He followed Galion back to the inn, certain he could talk Thranduil into taking him to the show after his work was done on the morrow. He felt positive that if his ada saw the show he would find nothing wrong. And even if he did, he would not leave until he got to the bottom of the matter.
They entered the inn and there they met Forodion, one of the king's bowmen. "Is Lord Thranduil here?" Galion asked.
"No, he has gone to oversee the disposition of the goods we brought."
"There are many others who could have. . ." Galion began, then stopped and sneaked a glance at Legolas, who was, as always, watching him intently.
"Looks like you are stuck with me until supper," he grinned.
"It is not that, Legolas. I very much enjoy your company - most of the time," he smiled, as the two continued to Galion's room.
"I am only jesting. I know you think ada is sometimes too much involved in the business of the Greenwood."
"Not too much involved, but he could delegate some of his tasks more freely," Galion said.
"And I'm sure he would do so if his seneschal was not so busy playing nursemaid," Legolas sighed.
Galion halted and Legolas almost ran into him. He feared he had offended, but Galion turned and looked at him with a conspiratorial grin. "How about if we go back to the circus to sample their wares and see the menagerie?
"Will it not spoil our appetite?"
"I won't tell if you won't," Galion promised with a wink.
That evening, Legolas presented himself to his father wearing his silver tunic and was pronounced acceptable to take supper with the Master of Esgaroth. As they walked through town, Legolas chattered on excitedly about the circus and the animals he had seen. The only thing he left out was his spat with Galion.
Supper was a fine affair and Legolas was greeted warmly, but he soon grew bored with the talk of trade routes and wine. When a lull finally presented itself, he decided to steer the conversation in a more interesting direction.
"I saw the circus today, Master Lars, and I had such a good time I am thinking of going again tomorrow."
Thranduil turned to look at him. "Is that so? I do not remember discussing that."
Lars chuckled and Legolas reddened. "I did not think you would mind, ada. I know you will be busy."
"Yes, and so will Galion and most of the others of our party. Master Lars' wife has been kind enough to agree to accompany you around the town tomorrow. There are other things to see here besides the circus."
"As you wish, ada." Legolas hid his disappointment superbly for he had seen the Master's wife and was not looking forward to spending a day with the severe, matronly woman.
"Returning to the circus would not be an option at any rate, young Thranduilion," Lars said casually. "They are leaving tonight after their show. They have many stops to make before they return home. Their popularity grows each time they travel about."
Legolas' heart vaulted into his throat and he turned his attention to his plate so his father would not notice the distress the Master's words caused him. "I did not know that, Master Lars," he said calmly. "I thank you for asking me to your home this eve and I thank your lady for her generosity in showing me around your estimable town."
"You are most welcome, young Thranduilion," Lars replied. He went on to compliment Thranduil on his son's manners. Thranduil beamed with pride, but Legolas barely noticed so bitter was his disappointment. He forced himself to finish his meal, and two desserts, though his appetite was greatly diminished after his trip to the circus and the Master's distressing news.
When the meal was finally over Thranduil rose and the other diners followed suit. Thranduil walked Legolas to the door and leaned over so his words would be heard by his son alone.
"I must stay and finalize the agenda for tomorrow, Legolas. Therefore I will allow you to go back to the inn on your own on two conditions. One, that you go straight to the inn and do not dawdle to look around or engage anyone in conversation and two, you must check in with the guard there before you go up to your room."
Legolas' eyes shone with gratitude. "I will obey, ada."
He left the Master's house feeling happy that his father had trusted him, but when he saw the tent was gone, his disappointment made him forget everything else. His stomach clenched at the thought of waking in the morn to the humble sights and sounds of the town going about its normal, mundane, business. What he really wanted was one more chance to see the circus, one more chance to discover the mystery of the conjurer.
Just as he was about to break his promise and turn onto the street that led to the square, he heard the roar of a cat and the excited chattering of monkeys and he knew the circus had not pulled out yet.
Hastening to the inn, he greeted the Elven guard waiting for him in the common room and went up to his chamber. Without fully thinking through his actions, he scrambled out of his silver tunic and into his homespun. He secreted his purse, with its few coins, in his clothing, tucked his knife into his belt, threw on his cloak and opened the window. The rooms were on the second floor but a convenient downspout provided him with all the footing he needed and he climbed down quickly, disappearing into the rising mists of the night.
Banners of red and yellow snapped in the wind over the colorful striped pavilion ahead as the party of Wood-elves approached Esgaroth. Legolas, who had never traveled more than a few miles from the stronghold, cast his hungry eyes on every inch of the landscape as he took in the sight of the town rising from the waters of the Long Lake.