In the dim past when he had been young, Legolas remembered the dusk in Mirkwood as a gentle and beautiful time when the forest animals came awake and the birds sang their evening song. As a blue light filled the magic glades the air grew still, and soft and cool as a swift-running woodland stream.
That was the time most favoured by the Elves of Mirkwood for wandering abroad. Under the oaks and beeches, in shadows that seemed to have grown with the trees since the Eldar time, fireflies glowed like dreams. There was no danger then, no fear or hidden perils in the velvet darkness. Elves wandered where they wanted, singing and playing their silver harps late into the night, their music filling the darkling wood as the stars glittered bright above. And the Elves believed that the stars heard their song.
That was the time that Legolas did not roam the evening woods alone, but shared the twilight and the music with another of the Woodland Elves, and she among the fairest. From his early youth when Legolas had fought in his father’s wars and had received wounds to his spirit, the deep forest was no longer enough for him, and despite his father’s disapproval he often left vacant his seat at the right hand of his father’s throne in Thranduil’s glittering underground hall. He left Mirkwood to wander far afield in the lands of the North, to Rivendell, Rhovanion and even to the tiny land of the Shire, where he used the twilight to watch the small folk wending their way home in the early darkness of autumn, their hoes on their shoulders, their harrowing done.
But always when he returned she was waiting for him, the one called Ailinn for she was the most beautiful of the glittering throng that filled the court of Thranduil, king of Mirkwood. Walking in the summer dusk with the king’s son, or riding out in the bright winter sunlight in Thranduil’s great hunts, her look always sought out Legolas, but his heart held back.
But time does not stand still even for Elves, and darkness comes to swallow up the brightest day. Night in Mirkwood ceased to be full of beauty and music. First the rumour came, of dark creatures, offspring of the evil power that held the ancient fortress of Dol Guldur. But the Elves of Mirkwood would not believe that their forest could become a place of fear. At night, though, the harpists no longer played and sang under the great trees, and the Elves of the Woods looked behind them as they wended a forest path alone after dark. They thought they saw, in the corner of their keen eyes, shadows flitting under cover, strange black shapes like spiders, or caterpillars, or perhaps moths with wings of deepest purple, mottled with poisonous yellow.
‘The Necromancer has returned to Dol Guldur!’ said an Elf who had returned from the Eastern borders of the forest. But Thranduil waved him away in anger, and summoned Dwarvish merchants to furnish his throne with more diamonds and sapphires. Legolas and Ailinn rode out in the falling year and found the woods empty and full of alien whispering.
‘It is the fallen leaves stirred by the wind, Legolas!’ said Ailinn. ‘do not let your heart be troubled!’ But Legolas left her and sought out the far reaches of the woods, and remained there till night came, that deep windless night with no moon or star, and wrapped in his cloak at the foot of a great Elm he saw the servants of Night fill his forest, small starved orcs with great green eyes, spiders a man’s height across, spinning black webs to trap the Elves. In an ashen dawn Legolas shook off his dark dreams and returned to Thranduil to tell of what he had seen.
There was a time when Thranduil had hearkened to what passed outside his halls, but he had withdrawn into his forest realm and wanted to know nothing of what went on in the world, as if by wishing he could keep evil at bay. He would not listen to the prince, and Legolas went abroad to those who would believe him when he said that the Shadow grew closer.
Autumn came to Mirkwood, and on that forest which to outsiders was always dark and forbidding there fell a gloom that had never visited it before. Even when the trees were bare, the light was grey, fading into night long before sunset. Once a fair realm of the woodland Elves, Mirkwood became a dark and perilous place, even to those who dwelt there.
The Elves of the forest of Mirkwood were not soldiers, but hunters. They sought the invaders with their great bows, hunting them in glade and in the hollows left by great fallen oaks. And when night came, as it seemed to do sooner than was right, they continued their search. But by night the enemy sent forth great legions of spiders, myriads of tiny insect soldiers, and great stinging creatures with a thousand eyes and a sheen of poisonous gold on their iron-hard shells. And orcs, creatures of the night, in their thousands overcame many a lone Elf archer.
At last Legolas returned to his father’s halls from Rivendell to find everything was sadly changed. The lamps that had blazed in their hundreds in Thranduil’s glistening underground hall were quelled, and shadows haunted the subterranean palace. No more did the Elves of Mirkwood ride out on summer evenings to sing under the wide trees that seemed to lean and listen to their sweet silver music. The stars were no longer tempted out early by the songs of those who were their long lost children. Nor did the Elves ride abroad to hunt even on the brightest winter day, for by some evil sorcery night came early even then, and to be caught too far from home at night in their own forest had become a terror to the Woodland Elves.
Legolas stood before his father King Thranduil and even the gems on that king’s glittering throne seemed dimmed. As the King of Mirkwood recounted to his son the darkening of his realm, his people gathered round, their fair faces pale with sadness and anxiety, the gems in the circlets set on their brows no longer sparkling but glowing sadly like the last light of a disappearing ship at sea. And it was then that Legolas realised that the fairest of those fair folk, the one who had always greeted him first when he returned from Imladris, was not there. He turned to the Elves and asked;
‘Where is Ailinn?’
Later, when the fury in his heart had cooled enough for him to think, he found himself out in the dark forest. Night-sounds came to him, but not the familiar and reassuring sounds of the fair and friendly forest in which Legolas had lived for many times the life-span of men. These were the creaking of branches strained and cracked by the wizened claws of orcs tracking him, the soft thump of misshapen feet that belonged to neither Elf nor Man nor even beast, but to creatures of the night, born of darkness in the black dungeons of Dol Guldur.
And above these sounds Legolas could hear the voices of the trees themselves, angry and in pain, calling weaker and weaker to the Elves, burned and betrayed, seeking an end to a night they had never known before.
‘Where is Ailinn?’ Legolas asked the trees. A West wind passed through the branches and a soft shower of autumn leaves fell about Legolas, and in the noise of their falling he heard the words.
‘She is gone, Legolas! The night has taken her!’
The day that Legolas set out for Rivendell dawned fair and bright, the colours of autumn still golden and fiery red in the great forest. But in Legolas’s heart there was only darkness. The trees echoed to the music of the Elves as they sang songs of farewell and gave their blessings to their prince on his journey. Legolas looked at his father and his people, and wept. Then he turned his elven steed and rode out under the long eaves of the forest kingdom of Mirkwood and onward to Rivendell.
As the bright winter day declined all too quickly to night, Legolas thought about the twilights he had watched in the Shire. Sometimes, he had accompanied Elves of his kin as they left for the Grey Havens. Sometimes, he just watched the small folk, wending their way home from the fields. Their lives were short, compared to those of the Elves, but lived in accord with the seasons. He thought of their crooked wooden harrows, and to himself Legolas made a vow, that with his bow he would harrow the darkness that was spreading over all Middle-Earth. For perhaps in the harrowing of night some star might be retrieved, something of light long lost to men and Elves.