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Glorious Summer  by daw the minstrel

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

This story is set about a month after the end of “Spring Awakenings,” but you should not have to read that story to understand this one. (I hope!)

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

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1. My Young Lord Lieutenant

Legolas crouched in the branches and darted quick looks left and right to make sure that the Southern Patrol warriors on his side of the clearing were arranged as they should have been. With satisfaction, he noted that, even for his Elven eyes, they were hard to spot, their green and brown clad presence betrayed only by small movements of leaves that ceased as they settled into position. Across the clearing, similar small movements showed him where Sórion was arraying the other half of the patrol.

And between them, to Legolas’s right, yawned the mouth of a cave where, their scouts had reported, a band of about thirty Orcs had taken shelter for the day that was now fading from the sky. Soon, the creatures would be on the prowl again, searching for whatever prey they could find in this summer of continued scarcity. The Long Winter was over, and the floods that had followed when the snow melted had eased, at least in the Woodland Realm, but game was still in shorter supply than usual, and the enemy had grown bolder in raiding the settlements of both Elves and Woodmen. For the safety of all, the Southern Patrol needed to destroy this roving band of hunters, as they had destroyed others over the past month in numbers that were unusually large even for this most dangerous part of Thranduil’s realm.

As Legolas looked at the cave, he felt his heart quicken a little. For him, these moments before battle were harder than anything that came after, when his blood was hot and his body in motion. And he was usually even tenser when waiting for Orcs to emerge from a cave than when ambushing them as they moved through the woods, for the fact that they were hidden away meant that those waiting could never be sure how many to expect no matter how well their scouts had done their job. Because the patrol had been operating in terrain with no caves recently, this was the first time he had waited outside one since returning from his leave as the patrol’s newly appointed lieutenant. He nocked an arrow and wished fervently that the battle would begin.

He checked his troops again, looking particularly for Isendir, who had joined the patrol only two weeks ago. Because Isendir was exactly where he should have been, Legolas could pick out his short, slender form through the screen of branches. Legolas and Isendir had been novices together, and like Legolas, Isendir had served in a variety of border patrols, but he had never been assigned to the Southern Patrol before. Legolas knew it was part of his task as the patrol’s lieutenant to keep an eye on its newest member, although he felt a little self-conscious about advising anyone, given that he himself had only four months of experience in the south. Tonight, Sórion had paired Isendir with the much more experienced Riolith, and as far as Legolas could tell, the two of them were positioned as safely as they could be while still having a good angle on Orcs who would soon, Legolas hoped, be emerging from the cave into the clearing.

Legolas glanced at Beliond, who crouched next to him. His bodyguard looked serene, so Legolas assumed he was correct in judging that the warriors for whom he was responsible were well-placed. Beliond was clearly trying to let Legolas find his own way as an officer and was offering very little advice despite his own years of experience in command, some of them spent as the captain of the Southern Patrol. But an attack on Orcs emerging from a cave was tricky enough to do safely that, if anyone had been out of place, Legolas was certain that Beliond would have told him.

He concentrated his gaze on the cave again, willing the Orcs to emerge in the deepening dark. As if in answer to his wishes, a darker shape stirred in the cave’s mouth, and a large Orc emerged, stood for a moment sniffing the air, and then shook himself and turned to shout back into the cave. The Elves were downwind of the cave, so the Orc had not scented them, but the stench of Orcs grew strong in Legolas’s nostrils as more of them emerged, and he had to force himself not to hold his breath.

The large Orc who had come out first shouted into the cave again. “Get a move on!” Orcs began emerging more quickly, and Legolas noted apprehensively that they all carried bows, making them far more dangerous to the Elves in the trees than they would have been had there been swordsmen among them, as there usually were in Orc bands.

Almost unconsciously, he counted the Orcs as they emerged. What made this kind of attack difficult was that on one hand, the Elves needed to be sure that all the Orcs were out of the cave before they attacked, or they would find themselves having to dig some out of their den, a maneuver that was likely to be very dangerous indeed. On the other hand, they also needed to attack before those who had emerged first had moved far enough away from the cave that they would be outside of the lines of Elven warriors. And indeed, Legolas noticed with dismay that the big Orc who seemed to be their chief had already begun leading them toward the other side of the clearing, where they began passing under the trees in which Sórion’s part of the patrol waited.

The scouts had estimated that the band contained about thirty Orcs, and as Legolas’s count reached twenty-nine and no more Orcs emerged, he tensed, expecting to hear Sórion signal for the attack to begin. An agonizing moment passed, and then another, while Orcs moved steadily away. Surely even the habitually cautious captain could see the cave must be empty by now, he thought a little desperately. And then, just when he thought he could wait no longer, the signal came.

With a flood of relief, Legolas surged to his feet, drawing his bow as he rose and loosing his first arrow. It sank into the neck of a passing Orc with a pleasant ‘thunk,’ that he heard with satisfaction even as he spun to launch his second arrow and then his third.

For a stunned second, the Orcs had stopped in their tracks, but now they whirled with their own bows drawn and began running for what cover they could find at the same time they searched the trees for targets. A black-fletched arrow sailed toward Legolas, but he dodged easily, and then took a quick glance to his left and right to check on his warriors. Well-disciplined troops that they were, they were holding their positions, shooting arrow after deadly arrow.

By now, the Orcs had realized that they were in an untenable position, caught between the two rows of Elves who were sheltered in the trees while they themselves were more or less exposed on the ground. But Legolas’s gleeful satisfaction over their distress was cut off when a hoarse shout sounded from across the clearing, and suddenly, it dawned on him that Sórion’s Elves appeared to be in some trouble too. Fewer arrows were coming from them than Legolas would have expected, and as he scanned them anxiously, he abruptly realized what had happened. Some of the Orcs had passed Sórion’s forces and now had turned back to aid their fellows, so that Sórion too was caught between two groups of archers.

Next to him, Beliond spat a word that a much younger Legolas had once said in front of his father and spent an afternoon sitting in a corner as a consequence.

“Pin them down,” Legolas shouted, shooting rapidly. His archers needed to keep the Orcs in the clearing busy while Sórion took care of the smaller group that was behind him. But the Orcs in the clearing were beginning to panic, as the Elves’ arrows found their targets. Suddenly, one of them jumped from his hiding place and ran in the direction his chief had taken, seemingly believing that it was safer to cross under the lighter fire of Sórion’s troops than to stay in the clearing. As if a logjam had broken, his companions scrambled to follow him.

Battle frenzy swelled in Legolas’s gut, and he felt an almost irresistible urge to go after his prey. For a split second, he listened eagerly for the signal to take to the ground and pursue the fleeing Orcs, before he realized that he was now the one who would give it. And with that realization came the simultaneous one that he could not send his warriors off yet, not unless he wanted to take a chance on their being accidentally shot by Sórion’s troops, who were sending a flurry of arrows into the Orcs.

As Beliond touched his arm in silent warning, he looked to either side of him, frantically shouting, “Hold! Hold!” He turned back and fired his last two arrows, bringing down one Orc and leaving a second clutching his leg and limping as he ran. He shouldered his bow, readied his sword, and waited in an agony of impatience for what seemed like forever but was probably only a minute or so. Then, suddenly, he saw one of Sórion’s warriors leap to the ground sword in hand.

With a relief that nearly made him weep, Legolas lifted his sword over his head. “Go!” he shouted and, with Beliond right behind him, he took to the ground to lead his warriors after the fleeing enemy. With savage strength, he slashed his sword into the spot where an Orc’s shoulder joined his neck. The creature tottered and Legolas shoved him so that he fell as Legolas jerked his sword back.

“Legolas!” Suddenly Sórion was by his side. “Take Isendir and Riolith and make sure the cave is empty. And be careful!” he added, throwing Legolas a worried glance. Then without waiting for an acknowledgment of his order, he charged after the Orcs, leaving Legolas leaning after him in almost physical pain at the idea of breaking off the chase.

Then, with self-discipline he was relieved to find he had, he turned and shouted to Riolith, who was standing over a fallen Orc. “You and Isendir come with me and Beliond to check the cave.” Riolith grimaced but obeyed, catching at Isendir’s arm as he charged forward and then running after Legolas and Beliond. As he crossed the clearing, Legolas paused long enough to salvage an arrow from the body of an Orc, checking swiftly to make sure it was still usable and then fitting it to the string of the bow he now slid from his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he could see him companions echoing his movements.

With Beliond beside him, Legolas drew a calming breath and then flattened himself against the rock next to the dark entrance to the cave, as Riolith took up a post across from him with Isendir at his rear. Legolas cocked his head to listen, heard nothing in the cave, and then edged forward to look sideways into the part of the cave he could see from where he stood. Riolith did the same thing, checking the part of the cave that was across from him and more or less behind the wall against which Legolas stood. They exchanged glances.

Legolas drew his bow, controlled his breathing, and then, giving a sharp nod to Riolith, he swung around the edge of the entrance and moved quickly aside to leave room for Beliond. He scanned the cave swiftly and then lowered his bow and let out a long sigh. The cave was empty.

“Sórion’s slowness made this easier anyway,” Isendir commented. “They had plenty of time to get out of here.”

Legolas looked at him sharply and saw Riolith scowling in his direction. As Legolas recalled, Isendir had always liked to make light of the novice masters behind their backs, but Riolith evidently did not find this comment amusing. He and Sórion were friends. And while Legolas could not help agreeing with Isendir’s evident judgment that Sórion had been slow to engage, he knew that, as the patrol’s lieutenant, he should not be criticizing its captain in front of the other warriors.

“Would you like me to pass your advice on to Sórion?” he asked dryly.

Isendir glanced at him and grimaced. “No.”

Legolas nodded. “Come,” he said. “Sórion needs us.” And the four of them hastened to join the rest of the patrol in chasing down the remaining Orcs.

The night had nearly worn away by the time they got back to camp, for the hunt for the Orc stragglers had been long. Legolas found Sórion near the campfire, bending over Fendîr and cleaning a long but shallow gash on his side. Sórion glanced up at Legolas and then, reluctantly, handed the task over to Gelmir and walked with Legolas toward the camp’s temporary command site, marked by the place where Sórion stowed his gear.

“How did Isendir do?” Sórion asked. But before Legolas could answer, Riolith, whose bedroll was nearby, jumped into the conversation.

“He did well enough, but I do not like his attitude.”

Legolas frowned. “He fought well,” he said, trying to make it clear that he was speaking to Sórion, not Riolith.

Riolith grinned. “And the new lieutenant did well too,” he added blithely. “Perhaps he will not get us all killed after all.”

Sórion raised a reproving eyebrow at him, but he also looked amused. “I know you are tired, Legolas, but as soon as it is fully light, I will be sending a messenger to Ithilden with a report on our recent battles. I want to request any supplies we need too. If you do not already know what we are low on, find out and write out the requisition.”

Legolas frowned. He did not know what they were low on, and he probably should have known. “I will have it ready for you within the hour.”

Sórion nodded and turned to write his own report. Recognizing his dismissal, Legolas pushed his tiredness aside and crossed toward the campfire where the patrol’s healing supplies were still spread out around Gelmir, who had just finished bandaging Fendîr’s side. Gelmir glanced up at Legolas.

“Did you want something, my young lord lieutenant?” he asked with a grin.

Legolas smiled good naturedly. “You sound just like Eilian.”

Gelmir laughed. “I would not want you to miss your big brother too much.”

Legolas watched as Gelmir’s smile turned rueful. Gelmir and Eilian had gotten into trouble together as children and had stayed friends ever since. Legolas strongly suspected that Gelmir missed Eilian more than he admitted, although any loneliness Gelmir felt would have to be less acute than Legolas’s longing for his brother’s affectionate and amusing company. “Do we need any healing supplies? I am getting ready to write the requisition.”

Gelmir paused in gathering up the various herbs and bandages and storing them neatly in the healing kit. “We are low on haru,” he said, poking among the packets of herbs, “and it would not hurt to get some more spider anti-venom.”

Legolas nodded and then started off to check on the patrol’s supply of acorn meal. The patrol supplied most of its own food by hunting and foraging, but Ithilden kept them well-supplied with meal to make porridge and had managed to do so even when the winter was at its worst. Legolas did not know how he managed it.

By the time he had checked on all the supplies they depended on the troop commander to provide and prepared the list of what they needed, the rest of the camp had settled to sleep, except for Sórion and those who were standing guard. Legolas handed the list to his captain, who grunted his acceptance, put it with the report he had just finished, and stowed both in the leather pouch the messenger would carry home with him.

Legolas turned to make his way to where he would sleep next to Beliond, his shoulders sagging a little with relief that the long night was over. On the way, he stopped to take a handful of new arrows from the patrol’s supply, hanging from a tree near the captain. He would make more tomorrow if he had the time. He removed his sword, his quiver, and his boots, laying them carefully within reach, and then took his blankets from his pack, spread them out, and finally lay down on them with a groan.

“You did well tonight,” Beliond said, surprising Legolas who had believed him already asleep. “You kept your head when the battle took an unexpected turn, and you looked after those who were in your command.”

“Thank you.” He was absurdly pleased by the compliment, but Beliond did not praise him often. And true to form, Beliond’s breathing almost immediately slowed and deepened, as he entered the path of Elven dreams.

Legolas lay on his back, looking through a screen of leafy branches at the few stars that were visible among the clouds that seemed constant in this shadowy part of his father’s realm. Beliond always chose the spot in which they would sleep on the pretext that he was responsible for Legolas’s safety and wanted to pick a spot that would be defensible. But it had not escaped Legolas’s notice that his bodyguard usually positioned them near one of the healthier trees that could occasionally be found among those that shadow was slowly twisting. Legolas could hear the soft song of the one whose trunk rose just behind him, murmuring sleepily but already rousing itself to greet the new day, and it comforted him, as Beliond had undoubtedly known it would.

His thoughts drifted slowly over the past night’s battle and settled on Gelmir teasing him about Eilian. He sighed. From the time he had been small, he had admired his dashing, adventuresome older brother, and he had spent years pretending to be a warrior under Eilian’s command in the Southern Patrol. Then, about four months ago, his play had finally become reality and he had been assigned to serve here with Eilian as his captain.  That had lasted all of a week before Eilian was so badly wounded that he had to be sent home, where he had no sooner gotten back onto this feet than he had disobeyed their father and bonded with a maiden whose parents were still reeling from the event. Legolas’s mouth twisted a little as he thought of the tension that Eilian’s impulsive marriage had produced at home. Thranduil had been furious, and as a consequence, Eilian was still at home and likely to remain there for a while.

Legolas rolled onto his side and pillowed his head on his arm but then wrinkled his nose and lifted his head to regard his sleeve. His clothes stank of Orc, and he was not surprised to see the spatter of black blood down his sleeve. He had managed to bathe almost every day since joining the patrol, washing in snow at first and then in the steams they usually camped near. But they had been on the move so constantly that he had not had time to wash his clothes for nearly two weeks.

He pulled a corner of the blanket over his arm to keep his face away from the worst of the smell and settled down again. Perhaps the Orcs would take a rest, and the patrol would stay in this campsite tomorrow and he would have time to do laundry. Then the muscles in his back loosened, and his vision began to grow vague, and he ran along the path of dreams toward home.

 

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

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2. Well and Truly Snared

Eilian turned the last corner of the building housing his brother’s office, simultaneously turning to the last page of the list of supplies that the quarter master had on hand and his painstaking analysis of what he thought would be required under a seemingly endless variety of possible circumstances. There was something not quite right about someone who could anticipate such a wide range of disasters, he thought in disgust. Not only Orcs and spiders, but floods, dragons, drought, fire, blight, invasion, earthquake, coming singly or in any combination: the quarter master was anxious about them all.

He turned into the building, entering the outer office and tossing the report onto the desk of his brother’s chief aide. “I cannot think what I am to do with that,” he told Calith flatly. “I doubt he can gather all the supplies he thinks necessary to have on hand to meet every emergency, so I suppose someone is going to have to decide which of those events is most likely to happen, but I am not the one to do it.”

Calith’s mouth twitched with frank amusement as he looked from the quarter master’s report on his desk back up to Eilian’s face. “Lord Ithilden would like you to try nonetheless.”

Eilian glared at him for a moment, tempted to tell Calith exactly what Ithilden should do with the report, but he thought better of it and snatched the paper up again. “Very well,” he said stiffly and retreated to the back of the room to the desk to which he had been assigned. He refused to think of it as ‘his’ desk. He did not own any desk, and this stint of working in his brother’s office was temporary, something that would end once his wound had fully healed and he was fit for active duty again, which, if the Valar were kind, would surely happen any day now.

He flung the report on the desk, seated himself, propped his forehead in his hands, and began trying to imagine which of these appalling events was most likely to happen in the next few years.

“I did not think you would be able to make sense of that report while pacing around outside anyway,” came the unwelcome voice of Tinár from the third desk in the room.

Eilian looked up at Tinár with hooded eyes and a nasty smile. “I suppose you might find that puzzling, Tinár, but unlike you, many people can walk, read, and think at the same time.”

Tinár bridled. “I can walk and think at once!”

Eilian leaned back in his chair and prepared to enjoy himself. Calith’s back was to them as he sat at the desk near the door to the inner office, but Eilian saw him stiffen, put his elbows on his desk, and cover his ears with his hands. Eilian suppressed a grin. He strongly suspected that Calith was nearly as anxious for Eilian to be released for active duty as he was.

“Can you? Would you like to walk with me for a while now? I find that being in motion helps me clear my head, especially if I can do it outside.” Eilian fervently hoped that Tinár would not accept the invitation, but he thought he was safe in issuing it. Tinár had shown no great desire to spend time in Eilian’s company.

“I prefer to work at my desk,” said Tinár stiffly.

“So you can sit and think at the same time too,” Eilian praised him happily. “What other things can you do while you think? Can you eat? Can you relieve yourself? Can you decapitate a chicken?” Tinár frowned at him, certain he was being teased but not knowing quite how to object. Eilian opened his mouth to continue asking about things that Tinár might be able to do while thinking but was forestalled when Ithilden emerged from his office and beckoned to him.

“Eilian,” Ithilden summoned him and then disappeared back into his office. Calith’s shoulders sagged in relief, and he gave Eilian an exasperated look as he followed Ithilden. Eilian grinned at him in passing.

Ithilden waved him into one of the chairs in front of his desk and seated himself behind it. “What do you make of the quarter master’s report?” he asked.

“Not much,” Eilian responded bluntly. “Except for the continued assault of Orcs and spiders, we cannot possibly predict what will happen, so in my opinion, we should store a few months’ supply of food and medical supplies in the stronghold and deal with dragons or blight if and when they appear.”

Ithilden laughed. “I suppose that is what we will do, since we cannot afford to do more anyway, but I do not think I will put the recommendation in those words when I make it to Adar’s council.”

Eilian shrugged. “Better you than me as the one who has to go to those meetings.”

“Celuwen does not seem to mind them. She seems to be hanging on every word that Adar’s advisors utter there.”

Eilian grinned. “As you can see from the fact that she married me, Celuwen is a patient person.”

“True enough,” Ithilden conceded with an affectionate smile that took the sting out of his words. Then he straightened his already erect back, a sign that Eilian read easily: Ithilden was ready to get to the reason he had summoned Eilian into his office. He pushed a small pile of papers across his desk, and Eilian leaned forward to take them. “These are the latest dispatches I have from the various captains. I want you to read them all and then tell me if anything strikes you as unusual.”

Eilian nodded, feeling for once a pleasant sense of anticipation as he fingered a stack of paperwork. He had done this task before and actually rather enjoyed it. He found it interesting to try to see the state of Realm’s defenses as a whole. Moreover, he could not help being flattered that his older brother valued his opinion on the matter. Ithilden was so overwhelmingly competent himself that Eilian could scarcely imagine he needed anyone else’s help to know exactly what was happening.

“I will do it now,” he said, rising. When Ithilden nodded and waved him on his way, he returned to the outer office, which Tinár had blessedly left on some errand, and started skimming through the dispatches, stopping here and there to consider an account of some battle and place it on the map of the Woodland Realm that he carried in his head. He lingered longest over Sórion’s account of the patrol he still privately thought of as his.

Sórion had been the Southern  Patrol’s lieutenant when Eilian was wounded and sent home, and it had been Eilian who had recommended to Ithilden that he be promoted to serve as its captain. He had known at the time that Sórion would be a more cautious, more deliberate leader than he was, but then, he had to concede, almost everyone was. Eilian did not think he was careless with the lives of his warriors, but he had found that he had an intuitive sense of what was going on in the forest that other people seemed to lack, and he was quite willing to rely on this intuition to make quick decisions and change his plans on the fly. Privately, he suspected that his feel for the forest had something to do with his being the son of its king, but he had never voiced that suspicion to anyone.

The dispatch he was now reading told him that Sórion was trying to plan the patrol’s actions more than Eilian thought anyone could, given the enemy’s unpredictability, and then was inspecting his own actions closely, looking for mistakes. Eilian grimaced. He still thought that Sórion would eventually settle down as a competent captain, but in the meantime, he was probably making himself quite uncomfortable.

Eilian went back over the dispatch again, this time studying the lines that referred to Legolas’s actions as an officer. Sórion was being very cautious in his assessment of Legolas, Eilian thought a little dryly. He supposed he could not blame him. Sórion was undoubtedly only too conscious of the facts that in Ithilden, he was writing to his new lieutenant’s oldest brother and that said lieutenant was the youngest son of his king.  From what Eilian could tell, however, Legolas was doing well enough. Eilian knew from his own observations of his younger brother on patrol that Legolas was quiet, but he seemed to be managing troops well when he had to and was making himself useful doing the tasks that any sane captain shoved off on his second-in-command if he could.

He ran his eyes over all the reports that were now spread out on the desk, thinking about what he had just read. The Southern Patrol had encountered more Orcs than usual, probably because the winter snows and spring floods had made food so scarce that they were hunting farther away from home than they normally did. Nothing else struck him as out of the ordinary however, a fact that was not altogether heartening given the number of battles he had just read about.

He rose and went to knock on the frame of the open door to Ithilden’s office. His brother looked up and raised an inquiring eyebrow as Eilian dropped the dispatches on his desk. “It all looks normal to me,” Eilian told him.

Ithilden nodded. “Are you contented with what you read of Sórion?”

“Yes. He will be fine once he becomes a little more confident. And from what I can read between Sórion’s cautious words, Legolas seems to be doing well too.”

Ithilden smiled faintly at him. “Little brother is growing up.”

Eilian grinned. “Do not tell Adar.”

Ithilden laughed. “I will try to shelter Adar from that sad news for as long as possible.” He waved a hand in the direction of the door. “Go and do whatever training the healers are allowing you to do. You have suffered enough for today.”

Eilian’s spirits lifted instantly. Circling the building was better than sitting, but it was no substitute for feeling his muscles work as he shot a bow or crossed swords with a sparring partner. “Yes, my lord,” he said enthusiastically and then gave his smiling brother a formal salute and lost no time in leaving his office.

“Unless the healers come to their senses, I will be back tomorrow, Calith,” he told the aide on his way out.

“I will send an encouraging message to Belówen,” Calith told him, and Eilian laughed and started for the training fields.

He found several friends willing to test his swordwork and spent a satisfying two hours sweating out all the frustrations a day of inactivity had bred in him.  By the time he was finished, the wound on his hip was aching again, but he was sure that the pain was less than it had been and he thought his footwork had been unaffected by it. He was due to see the healers again in a few days. Surely they would be sensible this time and release him for active duty. Not that the active duty for which he was slated was likely to be very exciting. Ithilden intended to appoint him as captain of the Home Guard, whose current captain was going to start training the novices on matters of strategy.

In truth, Eilian thought he saw the controlling hand of his father behind that Home Guard appointment. Thranduil still had not forgiven him for marrying without permission and was determined to force Eilian into a position where he would need to function without a constant supply of excitement. Eilian could not help but resent his father’s criticism, but he also had to admit that being kept at home with his new wife had its compensations.

He slid his practice sword into the rack and reached for the tunic that he had removed when he grew too warm.

“Come and have wine with Gîl-garion and me tonight,” his sparring partner invited, putting his own sword away. “We have not yet had a chance to congratulate you on your bonding.”

Eilian mopped his face with his tunic and then pulled it over his head, giving himself time to think about the invitation. There had been a time when his acceptance would have been instantaneous, and he did still value the company of his many friends, but evenings with Celuwen were so intensely sweet that he hated to part with even one of them, and his father was still being difficult enough that Eilian was trying to tread carefully. “Not tonight, I think,” he finally said, as he and his friend began walking toward home.

His friend said nothing but smiled knowingly, and, to his surprised chagrin, Eilian felt himself blushing like a raw youth.

“Good afternoon, Eilian,” called a female voice, and he had to turn sharply to see who had spoken to him.

“Good afternoon,” he called after the two maidens who had just passed them. For the life of him, he could not remember their names.

Next to him, his friend suddenly gave up his struggle not to laugh and burst into guffaws so hearty that he had to stop walking. “Gîl-garion said you were well and truly snared, Eilian,” he finally managed to gasp, “but I was not sure I believed him until now. You did not even see her before she spoke, did you?”

Eilian glared at him for a moment and then felt his own face dissolve into a rueful grin. “No,” he admitted. “I did not.”

***

Celuwen leaned on the broom and glanced around in wonder at what was going to be the sitting room of her and Eilian’s apartment. What had been a row of rooms along a palace hallway was nearly converted into a suite with a large sitting room and several sleeping and bathing chambers. The resulting space was larger than any cottage in which she had ever lived with her mother and father.

“We are finished for the day, my lady,” said a voice, and blinking at the still unfamiliar title, she roused herself to see one of the carpenters standing nearby. “I think we will finish all the woodwork tomorrow, and then you can begin laying carpets and furnishing the space.”

“Thank you,” she said, still a little dazed at the idea that she and Eilian were going to live here. The carpenter smiled at her and then he and his companions took their leave. Celuwen had not realized it was so late, so she had returned to sweeping up the sawdust with some speed, when a horrified feminine voice spoke from the open door to the apartment.

“My lady! We will do that!”

She turned to find two servants entering the room, laden with cleaning equipment. The one who had spoken took the broom from Celuwen’s hands. “Lady Alfirin sent us to clean up here, my lady,” she said firmly.

For a moment, Celuwen felt an almost overwhelming urge to snatch the broom back and demand the right to sweep her own home, to send these servants to tell Ithilden’s wife that she, not Alfirin, was mistress here, to feel useful and in control of her life again. But she knew the urge was childish and that acting on it would hurt the feelings of these servants and of Alfirin, who was only trying to be kind.

“Thank you,” she said, as graciously as she could, and marched off to Eilian’s room, where she shut the door firmly behind her, picked up a pillow from the bed, and clapped it over her mouth while she screamed. Then she lowered her arms and stood for a moment, wearily holding the pillow and wondering yet again if she was ever going to become accustomed to life in the palace.

She dropped the pillow onto the bed and, drawn by its irresistible softness and her own fatigue, she lay down to rest for a few moments. Only a month ago, before she had bonded with Eilian, she had been sick with grief because she thought he had abandoned her. The happiness she had found with him meant that she was slowly recovering her strength, but she was often still tired in the late afternoon. She crawled to the head of the bed and buried her face in Eilian’s pillow, inhaling the scent of him and feeling her body grow warmer and relax.

Quiet footsteps passed in the hallway and not for the first time she thought about how even the sounds here were different from the ones to which she was accustomed. For a second, she longed to flee her father-in-law’s windowless cavern and be somewhere where she could fling open a shutter to listen to the trees and the trilling of birds as she would have done in her tiny sleeping chamber at home. Instantly, she was ashamed of herself. This was home now, not the settlement in which she had lived with her parents for most of her life.

She wondered how her parents were faring without her. Were they lonely? Were they safe? Their settlement was a full day’s journey from Thranduil’s stronghold, and at that distance, the Home Guard was spread thin. She was now the king’s advisor about matters to do with the settlements, and she had spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks learning of how the settlements as a whole were viewed by the king and his council and considering what she might recommend to make life better for those who lived in them.

Her father had not been happy about her marriage to Eilian, but perhaps in her new position, Celuwen could help the settlers to get more support from the king. Surely, she thought vaguely, her father would see the benefit in that even if he did dislike Eilian. The path of dreams came up to meet her, and she ran barefoot beneath green trees with her parents standing in the distance, smiling at her.

The sound of a door closing brought her suddenly awake. She lay for a moment more, looking at the tunic that now lay on the floor in front of her, and then she heard the soft sound of water splashing in the bathing chamber. Every hesitation fled and contentment flooded her: Eilian was home.

She sat up, pushing aside the shawl that had been draped over her almost certainly by her husband. She briefly considered joining him in the bath and then reluctantly decided that, if she did so, they would be late for evening meal with Eilian’s family. Relations between Eilian and Thranduil were already strained enough that the rudeness involved in keeping others waiting for them would not be a good idea.

Still listening to Eilian, who was singing softly to himself, she slid off the bed and circled around his shed tunic, unlacing her gown as she went so that she could change into a more formal one for the evening. She hung the gown carefully in the wardrobe, ready to be worn again the next day, and paused for a moment, looking at the row of gowns that hung there, more than she had ever had at once before. She could not imagine that she would ever need this many, but Alfirin had insisted that she would eventually be glad she had them and had sent the palace seamstresses to her on an almost daily basis.

Celuwen knew that Alfirin had had to adjust to living in the palace too, so she probably knew what she was talking about, and if creating the gowns made Alfirin happy, Celuwen was willing to oblige her. She liked Alfirin and was grateful for her advice, even if she did occasionally wish that Alfirin would refrain from offering the advice until she was asked.

She shrugged into a green gown with lace on the collar, fastened it up, and then sat down at the dressing table to loosen the single long braid down her back and brush and arrange her sleep-mussed hair. She had just freed it and begun to run her brush through it when the door to the bathing chamber opened and Eilian walked into the room, stopping her heart as he always had from the time their childhood friendship had first begun to change into something deeper.

He was bare-chested, except for the rune of protection he always wore on a thin silver chain around his neck, and his leggings rested on the bones of his lean hips. The sight of his very male body sent a shiver down her spine, and in turn, his dark grey eyes lit up comfortingly at the sight of her. He bent over her and gently brushed his mouth against hers, leaving her longing for him to do it again. “Hello, my love,” he murmured. He smelled of spicy soap.

She put one hand up and touched his cheek, still amazed at the thought that this gallant, loving, generous Elf was her husband. “Hello, my love.”

He bent to kiss her again, and with what seemed to her to be a heroic effort, she put out a hand to forestall him. “We will be late.”

He paused and then grimaced and straightened. “Let me,” he said, taking the brush from her. He stepped behind her and began to brush out her hair while she watched him in the mirror. “How was your day?” he asked.

“Our apartment should be ready before another week is out,” she told him, stretching her neck with the pleasure of having her hair stroked.

“Good.” He braided her hair and then, with clever fingers, he began to weave the braids into an intricate knot at the nape of her neck. He had done this for her before. She had never asked him how he had learned to arrange a female’s hair and did not think she wanted to know. In the mirror, she could see him regarding her with his brows drawn together. “I am sorry you are lonely,” he abruptly said, his voice thick with pain. She realized with a start that he had sensed her mood through their newly-formed bond.

She put her hands up to cover his. “Never think for a moment that I regret my choice, Eilian. I love you with all my heart. I do miss my parents, but we will exchange letters and I will go to visit them, and then I will be glad to come home again.” She lingered over the word “home,” knowing with certainty that home was with Eilian now and to be anywhere else was to be in exile.

He kissed the top of her head. “I am so fortunate to have you.” Their eyes met in the mirror, and for a moment they were grave.

Then she took the brush from his hand and put in on the dressing table. “You should get dressed.” He made a face at her in the mirror and turned to search a chest for a clean tunic. “Eilian,” she said, and he glanced back over his shoulder with one eyebrow raised. “What do you think is going to happen to the tunic you dropped on the floor?”

Surprised, he turned to look at the offending garment as if he had never seen it before. “A servant will come and tidy the room and put it in the laundry basket.” He glanced at her, looking for all the world like an elfling eyeing his tutor to see if he has given the right answer to an unexpected question.

She considered the answer and thought about how she wanted to live. “I do not want servants in our rooms all the time once we have our own apartment.” She looked at him to see if the implication was clear, and slowly, he smiled.

“Then I suppose I had better start putting my dirty clothes in the laundry basket myself.”

She grinned at him. “I think that would be an excellent idea.”

He laughed, snatched up the tunic, and then dropped it in the basket in the foot of the wardrobe. “Soon I will have no bad habits whatsoever,” he said cheerfully, and she could not help laughing.

“I hope you keep a few,” she said, making her voice into a purr, “the ones I like.”

He stopped dead in the process of sliding the tunic over his head. “Are you deliberately trying to make us late for the evening meal?” he asked, the fabric muffling his voice.

“Get dressed,” she ordered, and he laughed and did as she had bid.

By the time they were ready, they were too late to have a cup of wine with the family before the meal and had to go straight to the dining room. Thranduil, Ithilden, and Alfirin were already seated when they entered. “Good evening,” Eilian said, holding Celuwen’s chair and looking pleasantly around the room. “I hope we are not late.”

“Of course not,” said Alfirin, signaling for the servant to begin serving the meal.

From the corner of her eye, Celuwen watched Eilian, who, in turn, was watching his father. It pained her to know that Thranduil was still annoyed with Eilian for bonding with her without his permission. Thranduil had made it clear that he liked her and thought she and Eilian were well-matched. But he had also make it clear that he thought Eilian should have waited for her parents’ permission, waited through a year of betrothal, waited until the proper ceremonies could be held, waited in general. Unfortunately, Eilian was not good at waiting, and in this case, Celuwen firmly believed that her father-in-law was wrong and was treating Eilian unfairly. So far, she had shared that thought only with Eilian, who had asked her not to provoke Thranduil on his behalf.

“Adar will calm down,” Eilian had assured her. “He is just worried that our marrying without your parents’ permission will somehow cause a rift with their settlement and perhaps with the other settlements too.  And then he has always thought I am too impulsive and worries I will do something dangerous. But once he has time to get used to the idea, he will see that you are nothing but good for me, and he will be glad of it.”

So she bit her tongue and watched her husband approach his father with care. Tonight, all seemed well, and Thranduil smiled at them. “I am sure you had things to do,” he said dryly, and everyone laughed.

“I heard from Sórion today, Adar,” Ithilden said, as he accepted a portion of roast venison from the platter the servant offered. “Legolas seems to be doing well.”

“I had a letter from him,” said Thranduil with satisfaction, and Celuwen immediately recognized the source of his good mood. Her father-in-law tended to worry about his youngest son and welcomed the reassurance of the frequent letters Legolas sent.

“We heard from Sinnarn too,” Alfirin put in happily. Alfirin and Ithilden’s son was in the Northern Border Patrol.

The servant finished and left the room, and the family settled down to talk about their own days and the news from those they loved who were far away. And for a while, the palace felt like home to Celuwen, as she engaged in familiar talk with her new family.

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

*******

3. Small Moments

Legolas sat a little distance from the low-burning campfire, writing a letter to his father and half listening to the conversation among the warriors seated around the fire. “In my opinion,” Riolith was saying, “your first shot at an Orc should always be aimed at his face. Even if he has armor on, it will not protect him there.”

“Surely that depends on the angle from which you are approaching him,” Fendîr protested. “If you are behind him—“

“If you have set the ambush up correctly, then you will have the right angle to take that shot,” Riolith interrupted fiercely. Legolas glanced up to find him leaning forward and jabbing his finger at Fendîr to reinforce his point. “Do you understand what I am saying?” Riolith asked. Fendîr threw up his hands, evidently unwilling to continue the argument.

Legolas frowned. He had known Riolith a long time. Riolith had been almost through with his novice training when Legolas had begun his, and while Riolith had always tended to underestimate the strengths of others, Legolas did not remember him being so difficult.

“So, Isendir,” Gelmir said, obviously changing the subject, “did you remember to shake your bedroll out with extra care last night?”

Legolas stole a look at Isendir and found him frowning. “No,” he said. “Of what are you speaking?”

“Did the captain not tell you that here in the south one has to be careful of Black Tree Beetles?” Gelmir was all astonishment, and like the warriors around the fire, Legolas had to lower his gaze to hide the smile he could feel creeping onto his face. Gelmir had told him the same story when he was new to the patrol four months ago.

With his eyes lowered, he could not see the look on Isendir’s face, but he could certainly hear the skepticism in his voice. Isendir had been a warrior long enough to know that new members of any patrol were likely to be fed some highly suspicious tales. “Sórion said nothing of any beetle.”

“You must have noticed that the trees here are ailing,” Gelmir said, waving his hand to indicate the twisted forest around them and drawing Legolas’s eyes up again to see the pathetic trees. “The beetle feeds on them, and it can get into your bedroll. You want to be careful because it has quite a nasty bite.” The others around the campfire nodded in solemn agreement.

“I do not believe there is any such beetle,” Isendir said flatly.

Gelmir shrugged. “It is your own hide you are risking,” he said indifferently.

Riolith leaned forward with his elbows out and his knuckles resting on his thighs. “When I was serving in the northern border patrol, I once saw a beetle the size of a dinner plate,” he announced. His voice was grating, and Legolas felt an almost irresistible urge to tell him to be quiet. He saw the others look exasperated too, and Isendir got up and walked away from the fire, ostensibly to check his gear.

It occurred to Legolas that, as the patrol’s lieutenant, he should probably be doing something to ease the situation. He stood up. “Riolith,” he said, “go and check our supply of feathers for fletching. Let me know if we need more.” Riolith blinked at being given the order, but after a second, he obediently rose and went to do as he was told.

“Thank you,” muttered Gelmir. Legolas ignored him and set off after Isendir, whom he found examining his spare bow strings.

Isendir looked up as Legolas approached and then abruptly shoved the strings back in his pack. “You do not have to say anything, Legolas. I know better than to quarrel with him.” His tone was clipped.

Legolas looked thoughtfully across the camp to where he could see Riolith examining their supply of feathers. “I do not remember him being that way when we were novices. Do you?”

Isendir shook his head. “I do not remember him being that way when we served together in the eastern border patrol a few years ago,” he said in disgust.

Legolas looked back at him. “When I first came here, Eilian was in command,” he said slowly, “and he approached me the first night while we were waiting for the scouts to return and the battle to start.” He paused for a moment, remembering the night that now seemed long ago, when living near the shadow had been new. “Eilian said that almost everyone who serves here so close to the shadow feels its effects. He said it worms its way into our hearts and fans our secret fears and makes us do things we would not otherwise do, and that it can be hard to keep track of our true selves.”

Isendir had looked down as Legolas spoke but it was obvious to Legolas that he was listening.

“I know I am tenser before battle here than I am in other patrols,” Legolas went on, “especially when I have been here for a while and my leave is almost due. Perhaps Riolith is feeling the effect of shadow.” He hesitated. “And you may feel it too.” Isendir shifted his weight but kept his eyes cast down. “You may not, of course,” Legolas added hastily, “but I thought I would tell you.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Isendir looked up with a wry smile on his face. “Thank you, Legolas.”

Legolas nodded, feeling absurdly pleased that he had apparently been able to help the other warrior. From across the camp, Sórion called his name, and Legolas turned to go. “The scouts will go out soon,” he said. “We will probably see battle again tonight.”

“We seem to see it every night,” Isendir said, and Legolas found he could not read the other’s tone. He started toward Sórion, thinking that that was not surprising because he himself was ambivalent about the constant action the Southern Patrol offered. It was exhausting but it was also exciting, and the time between battles often seemed flat.

Legolas could see why Eilian enjoyed serving here. His brother craved excitement and, much to Thranduil’s dismay, often manufactured his own when there was none already available. But Legolas knew that he was beginning to feel the strain of constant action coupled with his new rank. He only hoped he was not about to fail to live up to the faith in him that Ithilden had shown by promoting him.

He approached Sórion, who seemed to be just finishing a dispatch about the actions in which the patrol had engaged the previous night. In the morning, he would add news of anything that happened tonight and then he would send it to Ithilden.

“How is Isendir doing?” Sórion asked, not for the first time. Legolas had to give him credit for being concerned about his warriors, although he thought that Sórion was probably underestimating Isendir.

“I think he is still adjusting to the atmosphere here,” Legolas said honestly. He hesitated. “He has fought well, but I think he would benefit from being paired with someone other than Riolith.”

Sórion looked at him sharply, and Legolas recalled once more that he and Riolith were friends. “Why?” Sórion demanded.

Again, Legolas hesitated, wondering if he was stepping out of line. “I think that Riolith is feeling the strain of the shadow too. He is due for a leave soon, is he not?”

Sórion grimaced and flicked his gaze away to where Riolith was still sorting feathers before bringing it back again. “Yes, he is.” He sighed. “I could put Isendir with Gelmir, I suppose, and match his usual partner, Fendîr, with Riolith.”

Legolas thought about how irritated Fendîr had looked during the conversation around the campfire. Of course, Fendîr was an experienced Southern Patrol warrior and could probably stand the annoyance better than Isendir could, but still, he would be better off without Riolith serving as a thorn in his side. “We will have an odd number tonight because Nandir is wounded,” he finally said. “Riolith could work with Beliond and me, and Fendîr could work with Nandir’s usual partner. That would be Análas, as I recall.”

Sórion raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing, and Legolas continued to regard him steadily. He did not particularly look forward to having Riolith on his hands, but with Beliond along, he did not think that dealing with the other warrior would be a problem. “Very well,” Sórion finally said, smiling faintly. He glanced down at the unfinished letter, still clutched in Legolas’s hand and the smile faded. “You are writing to Ithilden?” he asked lightly.

Legolas stifled a sigh. He had had captains ask him that question before. “I am writing to my adar,” he answered. “He likes to hear about the small things that happen, but I am sure you know how it is when one writes home. One does not like to worry those who can do nothing to change the situation one is in. So, of course, I do not tell him everything.”

Sórion flushed slightly. “I did not mean to pry,” he said stiffly, but Legolas thought he looked relieved nonetheless. “You can send the scouts out now,” Sórion added and turned to scan his report again.

Legolas glanced around, catching the expectant eyes of the four warriors who would be sent out in pairs to scout for Orcs tonight. They would go out now, while the evening light lingered, moving swiftly through the trees and searching for broken or trampled underbrush that might mean that Orcs had passed. They would drop to the ground long enough to check these signs and then follow any Orc tracks far enough to know where the creatures were sheltering or, if they were too late to catch them still sleeping, where they were going so that the Southern Patrol could follow them.

“We are almost to the northwestern corner of our territory,” Legolas reminded them, “so keep the boundaries in mind and hunt south and east of here.”

“What if we see signs that Orcs have come through recently and either left our area or gone to that of one of the other patrols?” one of the scouts asked. “Eilian sometimes told us to follow them if that was the case.”

Legolas blinked. He had not known the Eilian sometimes sent his troops beyond their territory; he had served under his brother for only a week before was injured and sent home, and this was the first time since he had been a member of the Southern Patrol that it had been so close to the edge of its area. He hesitated. He doubted very much if Sórion would be enthusiastic about violating procedures by impinging on another patrol’s territory.

“Do not venture out of our area,” he finally said. “If you see signs that Orcs have recently crossed out of it, come back and tell Sórion. He will decide if the danger from them is immediate enough that we need to go after them rather than just report them so someone else can deal with them.”

The scouts nodded and set off to start sweeping through the surrounding section of the Southern Patrol’s territory. In the unlikely event that they found nothing tonight, the patrol would begin moving back east and south again, continuing their constant search for danger.

Legolas sought out a spot under a tree to try to finish his letter so that it could be sent home with the dispatch the next day.

“We have enough feathers for perhaps three more days,” Riolith’s voice said, and Legolas looked up to find him standing nearby. “If we see heavy action, they might not last quite that long.” Legolas nodded. “I hear I am working with you and Beliond tonight,” Riolith went on, with a broad grin. “That should be fun. Between the three of us, we should really be able to do some damage.” Without waiting for an answer, he swaggered off to begin checking his weapons.

Legolas looked after him for a moment. Warriors always worked in pairs so that they would each have someone to watch their backs, and such joint work, demanding as it did total trust, often led to deep friendships between warriors. Riolith and Sórion had been partners before Sórion became captain. Because Legolas had always been paired with Beliond, he had never had to adjust to a new partner as Riolith was now doing, but he had seen others struggle with the change. Riolith was probably not having an easy time of it.

As he started to turn back to his letter, he caught a glimpse of a gleeful Gelmir, leaning against a tree just beyond Riolith and looking across the campsite. Legolas followed the line of his gaze and saw Isendir carefully shaking out his cloak which he evidently anticipated wearing when the night chill set in. Legolas could not help laughing too, and then began to add an account of Gelmir’s joke to his letter.

Beliond settled to the ground next to him. “I am happy to see you laughing,” he said.

Legolas eyed his keeper’s placid face. He had learned long ago that there was no point in trying to tell Beliond to stay out of his personal life. “Have I been too solemn?”

“You have been serious, as I would expect given your new responsibilities and your tendency to believe that you have no right ever to make a mistake.”

Legolas considered. “Surely it is good to take my responsibilities seriously. Other people’s lives could depend on my actions.”

Beliond nodded. “Of course. But when you serve so close to the shadow, you need to enjoy what small moments of satisfaction you can, or you will never survive. Sometimes when real troubles are upon us, a joke is the only thing we have to turn to.”

Legolas gave him a slow smile. “I will remember that the next time Gelmir plays a joke on you.”

Beliond snorted. “He values his life far too much to try,” he announced calmly and then leaned back against the tree, running one finger back and forth over his bow as Legolas had seen him do countless times when calming himself before battle. “On the other hand, the next time I want to take your mind off your worries, I intend to ask you who the maiden is you have been dreaming about.”

Legolas looked at him sharply. How had Beliond known he had been dreaming recently about the maiden he had met while on a mission for his father? He flushed slightly. “Am I to have no privacy at all?” he asked in disgust.

Beliond smiled blandly. “Not from me. I have kept watch over you since you were an ignorant elfling, and since you are only a little less ignorant and a little bit older now, I intend to continue keeping watch.”

Legolas made a face at him, and then, with a half laugh, he returned to his letter. For a while the camp was quiet, as warriors waited to learn if they would need to spring into action. He had just sealed it and risen to take it to put in the dispatch bag when two of the scouts came racing back into camp. Everyone tensed at the excited looks on their faces, and Legolas hurried to join Sórion and hear their report.

“We found a large group of Orcs just stirring,” one of them reported a little breathlessly.

“How many?” Sórion demanded.

“About sixty, with maybe twenty archers among them.”

Legolas grimaced. The fact that only a third of the Orcs were archers meant they would be easier for the Elves to dispose of, but it also meant that the troop was not hunting game – at least not any game that Legolas cared to think about. The patrol needed to get rid of them.

“They are about two leagues south of us, moving east,” the scout continued.

The other scout had been looking as if he wanted to say something, and now he spoke up. “There is something else too, Captain. When we were on the ground checking tracks, we found signs that three or four Men had crossed trails with the Orcs.”

Legolas drew in his breath sharply. A handful of Men could be in a great deal of danger with Orcs so near.

“Were the Men captives?” Sórion demanded.

“We do not think so,” the scout answered. “It looked as if they saw the Orcs’ trail and then went west to evade them. They left our territory, we think, although we did not follow them because we were after the Orcs.”

Sórion’s brow crinkled in worry. “I suppose Woodmen could have ventured this far into the forest, hunting probably.” He bit his lip, plainly disliking the idea of letting the Men go unprotected and uninvestigated, and yet feeling the pressing need to go after the Orcs. Legolas could see how much his cautious captain was struggling. “I do not want to split up the patrol,” Sórion finally said, with obvious reluctance. “We need every warrior to make sure that Orc troop is destroyed.” He looked at the scouts again. “Get ready to lead us to them. Legolas, get the patrol underway.”

Legolas turned and started through the camp, calling orders as he went, but these experienced warriors were already standing with their weapons fastened to their backs and hips, eager to be underway. Riolith came trotting toward Legolas, tightening his quiver strap, and behind him, Legolas could see Isendir give a little salute in his direction. He nodded slightly, but his attention was elsewhere. The Southern Patrol was on the move again.

***

“As the situation in the forest has deteriorated, we have drawn back, and the Home Guard’s territory has been made somewhat smaller,” Thrior said, tracing his finger in an arc across the map of the Woodland Realm that lay on the table in the library. “If the state of affairs continues to worsen, we may have to ask some settlers to relocate.”

Celuwen grimaced as she looked at the space the king’s advisor had just marked out. The settlement from which she came was close to its edge, and two other settlements fell outside it altogether. “Some of these people moved not too long ago,” she protested, thinking but not saying that her parents were among them.

Thrior looked regretful. “I know, but there is nothing we can do about it.”

Celuwen frowned and wondered if that was true. Surely there must be some way the king could help these Elves continue to live in the forest they loved. Their presence was a blessing there, for it helped to keep the shadow at bay. She thought of the letter she had just received from her father, telling of the spiders that had been seen close to the settlement and declaring his unwillingness to give in to the forces of darkness.

Thrior began gathering up the papers he had been using to explain some of the problems that Thranduil and his other councilors saw with the current state of the settlements. “I fear I have another appointment, my lady. If you have any other questions about the king’s position on the settlements, we can meet again at any time that is convenient for you.”

“Thank you,” Celuwen said automatically, still mulling over some of the things her father had said about conditions at home. Thrior bowed and withdrew, and she sat for a moment longer before rousing herself. She had time to go and see what progress was being made on laying the carpets in her and Eilian’s apartment.

With a light step, she started down the hallway. This apartment was the first home that she and Eilian would have together, and she looked forward to making it their own. As she turned the corner to the hallway where the rooms were located however, she was startled to see two servants maneuvering a large wardrobe through the door into the apartment. She recognized the wardrobe as part of the furnishings that she had selected from a storeroom for use in her and Eilian’s rooms. “Put it there,” she could hear Alfirin saying, and when she followed the servants through the door, she could see that the carpets were all laid and several pieces of furniture had already been placed in the sitting room. The servants were carrying the wardrobe through to the largest sleeping chamber.

With a vehemence that startled her, she felt a flood of outrage that the task of arranging her own furniture had been taken from her. As she stood in the doorway of the sleeping chamber, struggling neither to give vent to angry words nor to burst into tears, Alfirin turned and saw her. “Look!” she cried, her face lit up with eagerness to deliver her good news. “They finished with the carpets early. You and Eilian should be able to move in tomorrow.” She stood for a few seconds waiting for Celuwen to respond, and gradually, her smile faded.

Celuwen drew a deep breath and chose her words carefully. “That is wonderful, Alfirin. I think I would like to be here when the rest of the furniture comes, though, because I would enjoy arranging it.”

Alfirin froze for only a second and then drew herself erect. “Of course,” she said, a little stiffly. “When would you like to do that?”

Celuwen felt a stab of guilt that she angrily suppressed. She would not allow her genuine gratitude to Alfirin keep her from speaking up for her own desires. “Tomorrow morning, if that is possible.”

Alfirin turned to the servants, who were studiously looking anywhere but at them, and said, “Thank you. That will be all for today. Please come back tomorrow to help Lady Celuwen with the rest of the furniture.” They bowed slightly and left the room. When they heard the door from the apartment to the hallway close, Alfirin turned to Celuwen with her jaw set. “I am sorry that I did not think about how much you might enjoy this, Celuwen.”

Instantly, Celuwen felt contrite. “Please do not believe I am ungrateful, Alfirin. I know you have been trying to ease my way into being ‘Lady Celuwen,’ and I am fully aware that you are the one person who knows exactly how big an adjustment it is to marry one of the king’s sons and move from a cottage to the palace. But sometimes I feel as if I were an elfling again, with someone else deciding everything from how I should dress to what I should think about political problems.” She heard the rising notes of her own voice, bit her lip, and stopped speaking.

To Celuwen’s surprise, Alfirin darted toward her and hugged her. “I am sorry,” she said contritely. “It is just that I do remember how hard it was for me when I married Ithilden, and I had the betrothal year to learn about what life in the palace was like, and even after we were married, I could go home for a few hours respite whenever it became too much for me.”  She stepped back again and looked earnestly at Celuwen. “I will try to wait to offer help until you ask for it, but, Celuwen, situations will be complicated in ways you could not possibly anticipate, so you might not know enough to ask for advice.”

Celuwen heard the concern in Alfirin’s voice and was suddenly aware of the effort that Alfirin was making. She and Alfirin were about the same age but had never spent much time together; Alfirin had played with other little maids and Celuwen had driven her parents to distraction by choosing Eilian and Gelmir as her best friends. Moreover Celuwen knew perfectly well that Alfirin had been shocked by the fact that she and Eilian had bonded without ceremony and against her father’s wishes. Despite that, however, Alfirin was trying to help, and Celuwen knew she meant it kindly.

“In truth, I want to ask your advice about something even now,” Celuwen said and then was a little abashed by how pleased Alfirin looked.

“Anything!”

“I know that I will need the help of servants,” Celuwen began, “but I also would like as much privacy for Eilian and me as can be managed. How do you balance the two things?”

Alfirin blinked. “I had forgotten about dealing with that,” she said with a rueful smile. She straightened her shoulders a little as she organized her thoughts. “Two servants usually take care of our apartment. They come in early in the morning, sweep the grates, and lay new fires. Then they check the boilers in the bathing chambers to make sure they are burning and that there is hot water. They come back later, while we are at morning meal, and clean the bathing chambers and dust and sweep the rest of the rooms. They take away the laundry and bring the clean things back later.” She smiled at Celuwen a little shyly. “When Sinnarn was little, of course there was more to do, but I do not think you are planning on needing a nursery maid any time soon.”

Celuwen laughed. “You have the right of it there. So I should expect to need two servants to manage our apartment too?” Alfirin nodded, and Celuwen paused. “I would like to choose them myself,” she finally said. “Not hire them,” she added hastily when she saw Alfirin’s brows drawn into a frown. “I know these people have worked in the palace for years, and anyone you have hired is undoubtedly well-trained and capable. But I would like to choose which two servants work for me.”

Alfirin pursed her lips. “That seems reasonable,” she said briskly. “I will send several to you any time you like so that you can interview them.”

“Good.” Celuwen let out a long breath. She might still be subject to restrictions she had never even considered before she married Eilian, but at least she could arrange her own home and choose who would help her manage it. Not all victories were large ones.

“Then that is settled,” Alfirin went on with a smile. “And since I have no more decorating to do, I think I will go and bathe before evening meal.”

“Thank you, Alfirin,” Celuwen said, and Alfirin left the apartment. Celuwen stood in the middle of the room and then slowly turned, inspecting her new sleeping chamber. So far, the only furniture it contained was the wardrobe, which Alfirin had had placed along the wall next to the bathing chamber. Celuwen frowned. She had intended to place it on the opposite wall, near the door. She would have it moved tomorrow, she vowed.

Her eyes were drawn to the door of the bathing chamber, and suddenly she pictured Eilian coming out that room and walking directly to the wardrobe to get his clothes. It would be extremely convenient to have the wardrobe there, she realized and blew out a vexed breath.

Strong arms caught at her from behind, making her jump a little. “I had better pin your arms down,” Eilian said, “until I know if that annoyed sigh was directed at me.” She laughed and twisted to face him, and he kissed her, making her heart race. “Alfirin said you were in here,” he went on, pulling back to look down at her. “What is the matter?”

“I wanted that wardrobe against the wall by the door,” she told him, glancing back over her shoulder at the offending piece of furniture.

“At least that is something I can fix,” he said, releasing her and starting toward the wardrobe. “I will move it for you.”

“No! Leave it alone!”

He turned to face her with one hand resting on a corner of the wardrobe. “I thought you wanted it moved,” he said cautiously, plainly puzzled.

“I like it there,” she declared, feeling her face redden. “That is the best place for it.”

He raised one elegant eyebrow, looking for an unexpected moment remarkably like his father. “Then why are you upset?”

“It was Alfirin’s idea to put it there, not mine.” She knew she sounded childish, but she could not help herself.

He regarded her steadily, and then, slowly, his face split in a wide smile. “Allow me to be sure I understand. You are angry because that wardrobe is not where you wanted it, but you do not want me to move it because Alfirin’s choice of a place for it was better, but you are still angry because the choice was Alfirin’s?”

The heat in her face intensified, but she nodded sharply anyway. “This is our home,” she declared. “I want it to be all ours.”

He cocked his head thoughtfully to one side and then turned back to pull open both doors to the wardrobe. “It is very large,” he observed. “What do you intend to put in here?”

“Gowns,” she spat out. “It seems I will need a great many of them.”

He bent into the wardrobe and then, to her surprise, stepped inside and sat down with his back against one side and his legs stretched out in front of him. He held his hand out to her. “Come,” he invited, and if the tone of his voice had not told her what he had in mind, the gleam in his eyes would have.

“Eilian,” she laughed, her annoyance abruptly forgotten, “you cannot be serious.”

“I am always serious about making my wife happy,” he declared. “We shall make this wardrobe our own, and Alfirin will have nothing to do with it.”

She ventured a little closer. “There is not enough room.”

“Oh, but there is,” he said with a wicked grin, catching at her hand and drawing her down to sit on his lap. “You are dealing with a resourceful Wood-elf warrior, my love.” He leaned forward to nuzzle her neck while grasping for the edge of one of the doors and pulling it shut. “Can you close the other door?” he murmured, and she found that if she leaned back, she could just reach it, while her husband’s exceedingly resourceful hands found their way under her skirts.

 

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

4. Do Not Worry

It is probably fruitless to say do not worry about me, but I will say it anyway. Do not worry about me, Adar. I am well, and you may believe that I speak truly when I say that Beliond uses every means possible to insure that I remain so. There are times when I am surprised he does not tuck me into my bedroll and sing me a lullaby.

Know that I think of you often, you and everyone else at home too. You have my love always.

Legolas

Thranduil raised his eyes from Legolas’s letter and gazed unseeingly at the rose bush next to the garden bench on which he sat. As overjoyed as he always was to receive a letter from his youngest son, he had to admit that reading the letters always intensified both the pain he felt that his child was away from home and the fear he felt that Legolas was in the realm’s dangerous southern reaches.

He looked back at the paper covered in Legolas’s neat, clear handwriting and tried to read between the words that his son had written. Thranduil had seen both Ithilden and Eilian serve in the south, and he knew how living so near to the Shadow had worn on them. Was Legolas tired, worried, frightened? Those were the things that his father’s heart really wanted to know, and they were the very things that Legolas was unlikely to tell him. He sighed. Legolas was well and surely that was what mattered most.

Thranduil wondered for a moment how his youngest son was faring in his role as a lieutenant. Legolas had said nothing about that, but Thranduil thought that he would do well. He got along well enough with others, although unlike Eilian, he was slow to make friends. He was responsible and capable, although unlike Ithilden, he was also unassuming. And Legolas was attentive to the needs of those for whom he held himself accountable, something that would matter to the warriors who served under him.

The latter quality had gotten him into occasional trouble as he was growing up when, out of loyalty to friends, he had sometimes allowed himself to be led into actions he knew were wrong. But those days were long past, and his judgment as a warrior and as Thranduil’s representative had proven good. It might take both Legolas and his fellow patrol members some time to recognize his strengths as an officer, but Thranduil was confident it would happen eventually. He simply wondered if it had happened yet.

“Adar.”

He looked up to find Ithilden standing just at the edge of the rose arbor. Ithilden’s eyes traveled to the letter in Thranduil’s hand. “How is Legolas?”

“He tells me he is well,” Thranduil said, a little dryly. Ithilden smiled in rueful understanding. Sinnarn did not always tell Ithilden about everything that happened while he was on patrol either.

“Your council is assembled and waiting for you,” Ithilden said.

Thranduil nodded and stood, tucking the letter into the breast of his robe. He would read it again later, after his morning council meeting.  He and Ithilden followed the path that led out of the garden, and then crossed the bridge and climbed the steps to the palace, with the guards on both sides of the Great Doors snapping to attention when the king and the troop commander passed. They entered the council chamber, drawing everyone there to their feet. Thranduil strode to his place, seated himself, and then motioned everyone else into their chairs. He glanced around the room, taking time to smile at Celuwen, who still looked a little dazed to find herself at the king’s council meeting.

“Before we begin our other business, I want to tell you that I have had word of the war being waged by the Men to our south,” Thranduil began, thinking with satisfaction of the message he had received from one of his spies only the night before. “The tide has turned against the invaders from the east and Dunland. Gondor has apparently dealt with its own invaders and has come to the aid of the Rohirrim. And the melting of this year’s heavy snows left the enemy in a sorry plight, I am happy to say. The Entwash and the Anduin both flooded, trapping many of them and depriving them of access to their supply wagons.  I understand they were easy prey for the Horse Lords and the Men of Gondor. I do not believe we have to worry any longer that the enemy will rule the lands that are south of us.”

A murmur of approval swept around the table, and Thranduil saw Ithilden’s shoulders relax a little. Ithilden had evidently been worried about the Men’s war. But then, Ithilden tended to worry about many things. “What have we to discuss today?” Thranduil asked, glancing at his chief advisor who kept the list of reports to be made and topics to be raised. The advisor announced the first subject for discussion and the meeting began.

The morning wore on with routine report after routine report. The cavern’s emergency supply of grain and dried stuffs was slowly being rebuilt after the previous winter’s dearth. The Men in a village just east of the forest had agreed to pay a small river toll even when trading with a nearby Elven settlement. The armorers had been supplied with a new shipment of metal for weapons at a reasonable price. Thranduil listened, asked questions, gave directions, and gradually gained a satisfactory sense that his realm was under his control and doing as well as could be expected in the dark days in which they lived.

They had reached the end of his chief advisor’s list of topics. “Is there anything else?” Thranduil asked, not expecting anyone to answer.

“My lord,” came Celuwen’s slightly nervous sounding voice, “I would like to raise an issue about the settlements.”

Thranduil blinked at her and then shot Thrior a glance that the advisor apparently knew how to read only too well, for he flinched and lowered his gaze. Had it not occurred to him to tell Celuwen that she should speak to Thranduil in private before she raised an issue at the council meeting? The king very much disliked being surprised by his own advisors. Thranduil considered cutting Celuwen off by saying that their time had expired so that whatever she wanted to speak about would have to wait until the next meeting, but he liked his daughter-in-law, liked the steadying influence he thought she was on Eilian, and he believed that as someone who had lived in the settlements, she had insight to share with him and his councilors. “What is it, Celuwen?” he asked a little cautiously.

She looked from him to Thrior, confused, but aware that some message had been sent that she could not interpret. Then she apparently gave up, grimaced a little at whatever mistake she had made, and turned back to Thranduil. “As you know, the Home Guard has been pulling back and making its territory smaller, leaving two settlements outside its area and a third one very close to the edge.” She paused, and Thranduil gave a small nod of agreement. From the corner of his eye, he could see Ithilden leaning forward and frowning a little. The decision to shrink the Home Guard’s territory had been his.

“The settlers in these three villages moved to where they are now because they were assured they would be safer there,” Celuwen went on, her stiff posture the only sign of how tense she was over delivering what she must have known would be an unwelcome message. “So I do not think it is fair to ask them to move again.”

“But—,” began Ithilden, but she pressed on, ignoring his interruption.

“And more importantly, the settlers themselves will not think it is fair. I know you want better relationships with these people, my lord, and you must be aware that you cannot have them unless you take the settlers’ feelings into account.”

“I believe I have always attended to the needs of my people,” Thranduil said, trying to keep his tone neutral and wondering yet again if he should cut her off.

“I know you have,” Celuwen said eagerly, “but the other settlers do not necessarily know that. And I have a suggestion for something you could do now that I think would show your concern and might allow them to continue living where they are.”

Thranduil hesitated for a moment, while she waited, her face flushed with excitement about what she wanted to say. He sighed. “And what is that?”

“I propose that you send two warriors to each of these settlements to train them in ways to defend themselves. I think it would be best if the warriors then stayed in the village to serve as head guards. And in exchange,” she went on hurriedly, as Ithilden opened his mouth in obvious protest, “if the guards taught them how, the settlers could help to keep watch on the borders and send you and Ithilden word of any suspicious activity they see.”

“I cannot spare the warriors,” Ithilden said immediately. He was plainly not happy about this scheme.

“It would require only six warriors,” Celuwen protested.

“It might be six now,” he retorted, “but sending warriors would undoubtedly encourage new settlements to form.” Thranduil moved his hand slightly, and they both fell silent, frowning at one another across the table, Ithilden obviously vexed and Celuwen frustrated and puzzled by the resistance to her plan.

There was a moment’s pause as Thranduil considered the proposal that Celuwen had made. It was true that his life would be made easier if relationships with the settlements were better. More importantly, he did need to find a way to make the settlers safer, and he suspected that Celuwen was correct when she said they would think it unfair to be asked to move again. Indeed, they would probably simply refuse to do it. On the other hand, Thranduil had no intention of doing anything with Ithilden’s troops that his oldest son felt was unwise.

He turned to Ithilden. “How many warriors could you spare permanently for such an effort?”

Ithilden opened his mouth as if to protest and then snapped it shut and glanced at Celuwen. He liked her, Thranduil knew, and was glad that Eilian had bonded with her, but just now, to Thranduil’s eyes, he was plainly annoyed. Ithilden thought for a moment. “I could spare three,” he finally said, “but no more.” The idea obviously made him unhappy.

Thranduil looked at Celuwen. “I like the idea of training the settlers to defend themselves better, and I certainly would value more sets of eyes in the forest, but I do not believe that we could leave two warriors there permanently. Ithilden, could we send two warriors to conduct the training and then leave one?”

Ithilden drew a deep breath. “Probably,” he conceded. “It would take a certain kind of warrior to be willing to essentially move to a settlement, perhaps taking his family. I would have to choose them carefully.”

Celuwen was beginning to look excited. “Such an arrangement might work.”

Thranduil leaned forward. “Do you believe the settlers would be willing to accept such training and to keep watch for us? I have not always found them to be grateful or cooperative in such matters, and part of the purpose of this would be to improve relations and gather information. I want my people to be safe, of course, but the other purposes would have to be met too.”

Celuwen brought herself up short. “They might need to be approached carefully,” she admitted after a moment’s pause. She bit her lip. “I could speak to Félas and see how he reacts,” she offered.

Thranduil considered her offer. It was for just such purposes as this that he had appointed Celuwen to his council. The leader of her parents’ settlement would listen to her as he would to no one else that Thranduil could send. And the idea she had proposed had merit. He did not like to send her off on a mission so soon after she and Eilian had bonded, but she would need to be away for only a short time, and in any case, this was probably a situation in which Eilian needed to set aside his own desires for the good of the realm. Thranduil felt a brief stab of the anger he knew he still harbored at his second son for disobeying him and bonding with Celuwen without her parents’ permission. That action alone was likely to make relations with the settlements more difficult.

“Very well,” he said. “Can you be ready to leave in the morning? That would allow you to make the whole trip in one day.”

Celuwen nodded eagerly. “I can do that. Thank you, my lord.”

Thranduil could not help smiling at her obvious excitement. “Thrior will meet with you this afternoon and help you to practice what you will say to Félas as our representative.” Celuwen blinked, having obviously not realized that she could not simply speak to her settlement’s leader as she always had. “You will make no promises, of course, simply find out if he would be willing to cooperate.”

She nodded, her face serious.

Thranduil looked at Thrior. “He will also tell you how to have an issue entered on the list of things to be discussed ahead of time.” This time, Thrior nodded.

“I believe we are finished here,” Thranduil said and rose, dismissing his council for the day.

***

“But, of course, I did manage to find them in the end.”

Eilian closed his eyes as Tinár self-satisfied voice defeated all his efforts to ignore it. Sometimes he enjoyed toying with his obnoxious office mate, but today he was feeling that he had been confined in a small room with Tinár for far too long. With a suddenness that made even Calith jump, he slapped his hand down on the desk. “Be quiet, Tinár,” he ordered.

Tinár turned to look at him, opened his mouth as if to speak, and evidently thought better of it when he saw the glare that Eilian deliberately made more threatening when he saw Tinár wavering. Eilian could almost see him remembering what had happened the day before when he had ignored Eilian’s command to stop talking, and, with Ithilden’s blessing, Eilian had finally dragged him off to the training fields to spar. Tinár was good with a sword, but not as good as Eilian, and he undoubtedly still had the bruises to prove it. Tinár scowled and then returned to making copies of the message he was supposed to carry to three different Home Guard outposts. Eilian let out a small breath and thought about how much better the day would become when Tinár left.

Once again, he turned his attention to the bundle of dispatches Ithilden had given him to read when he left to attend Thranduil’s council meeting. “I have not read these yet,” Ithilden had said, “but I will do so when I return. If you see anything unusual, tell me then.”

Eilian had been through all these dispatches once and now found himself lingering over the one from his own patrol. The scouts had seen evidence that Men had ventured into the patrol’s territory and then left. For some reason, that made him very uneasy. He thought for a moment and then shuffled through the papers again to find one that did not appear to be a dispatch, but rather looked like a summary of information that had come from Thranduil’s spies. Although Eilian knew his father used such sources, he had never spoken to either Thranduil or Ithilden about them. Still, Ithilden had been including their reports among those he wanted Eilian to analyze.

He found the paper he was looking for and then read the report again: Woodmen in a tiny village on the western edge of the forest, just north of the ford, had driven away several Men who had tried to steal food from a storage shed. The Woodmen had actually killed one of the thieves, for in this time of scarcity after the Long Winter, stealing food was not an offense taken lightly. None of the Woodmen recognized the dead Man or the other thieves, who had run off into the forest. Their clothing was ragged and had also looked unfamiliar, suggesting the Men might be from some distance away.

Eilian had just set the two reports next to one another and begun to study them with his brows drawn when Ithilden walked through the door, greeted them all briefly, and then continued on into his own office. Eilian got up and went to Calith’s desk. “I want to speak to Ithilden,” he told the aide.

“Come in, Eilian,” called his brother’s voice from inside the office, where he had evidently overheard, and Calith smiled and gestured for him to go in.

Ithilden was just settling behind his desk. He slapped his notes from the council meeting onto his desk with a force that suggested that events there had not gone his way. Moments when he did not get his way were rare for Ithilden, who generally met them only at Thranduil’s hands, and Eilian usually felt a certain amount of secret glee at his forceful older brother’s discomfort. Still he managed to look sympathetic and ask, “How was the council meeting?”

Ithilden regarded him with a look that Eilian could have sworn was half-amused. “I think I will leave you to discover the answer to that question yourself,” he said enigmatically.

Eilian frowned. What in Arda was Ithilden talking about? Whatever it was could wait. At the moment, he had a pressing concern. He touched the chair in front of the desk inquiringly and sat down when Ithilden nodded his permission. “I do not like the fact that Men have been seen in the Southern Patrol’s territory. And when I put that together with the fact that strangers attempted to raid one of the Woodmen’s storehouses, I get a very nasty feeling in my gut.”

With one eyebrow raised, Ithilden held out his hand for the reports, and Eilian handed them to him. He scanned them and then looked up. “With food so scarce after this past winter, a certain amount of moving about hunting and foraging would have to be expected,” he observed.

“But who are they?” Eilian persisted.

“Perhaps they are Woodmen from a village further south. That area was flooded this spring, so hunters might have been driven far and wide. At any rate, Sórion says they left the patrol’s territory.”

“He says Orcs drove them out,” Eilian corrected, “but they were originally headed east. I do not like it.”

Ithilden regarded him steadily for a moment, tapping the papers against his desk. “Eilian, are you sure that you are disturbed by the reports and not by the fact that someone else is making decisions for the Southern Patrol?”

Eilian stiffened. “You were the one who decided I would be useful in your office thinking about how separate reports fit together, Ithilden. I am doing my best to do just that.” Eilian could scarcely believe that Ithilden had just added the insult of questioning his judgment to the injury of removing him from the captaincy of the Southern Patrol.

Ithilden grimaced slightly and glanced away. Then he looked back down at the reports. “There is another possibility,” he said slowly. “Men have been at war south of us. It is very unlikely that any of those involved in that battle would be this far north and west, but I suppose it is just possible that they could have been driven here by the floods and the chances of war. The strange clothes of the thieves would be explained if that were the case.”

Eilian felt himself grow very still as every instinct in his body responded to the suggestion Ithilden had just made. “That must be it,” he breathed.

Ithilden looked at him sharply. “We cannot know that yet,” he said. “I will ask Sórion to check on the Men and see what he can find out.”

Eilian gnawed on his lower lip, trying to decide whether to chance arguing with Ithilden, who in this office was his commanding officer rather than his older brother. “I suppose that would be best,” he finally conceded. “There were only three or four of them after all.”

“If they look dangerous, Sórion will know what to do,” said Ithilden, and Eilian stood.

“By your leave,” he said, and Ithilden nodded his permission for Eilian to go. He went into the outer office, dropped into the desk chair, and stared at the blank wall opposite him, wishing with every fiber of his being that he was back with his patrol, far from central command, choosing his own actions and seeking answers for himself rather than sitting here biting his tongue.

***

Eilian entered the sitting room, well aware that he was late. “I am sorry,” he apologized to his assembled family. He bent to kiss Celuwen’s cheek, inhaling the sweet scent of her as he did so. “I went the archery range and lost track of the time.”

“No matter,” Thranduil said peaceably. “You have time for a cup of wine if you want one.”

Eilian poured himself the wine and sat down next to his wife, who, he suddenly realized, looked ready to burst with eagerness to tell him something. “Did you have a good day?” he asked her.

She smiled at him. “I had a very good day. I made a suggestion about the settlements that Adar’s councilors agreed to.”

Eilian sent a smiling glance at his father and abruptly noticed that everyone else in the room was looking wary. A small alarm went off in his head. “What was your suggestion?”

“I am going to negotiate with Félas to see if he will allow two warriors to come and train his people to defend my parents’ settlement, and in exchange, provide Adar with a warning if any danger appears. Oh, and I am to make sure he is very grateful too,” she added with a grin and a look at Thranduil.

For a moment, Eilian froze. Surely he was mistaken in what he thought she had just said. “What do you mean you are going to negotiate?”

Something in his tone must have alerted her, for she turned to look at him when she answered. “I am leaving tomorrow morning to go and see Félas.”

“No.” The word jumped from his lips unbidden, and he knew immediately that he had made a tactical error because her eyes narrowed slightly.

“This is not your decision to make, Eilian,” she said, her voice tight.

“Celuwen, such a trip would be dangerous,” he said, struggling to sound reasonable when his stomach was knotting in fear. “Strange Men have been seen in the forest.”

She frowned. “You and I were there just one month ago,” she protested, “and I lived there for years. It is no more dangerous now that it was then. The Woodmen are always in the forest.”

“These are not Woodmen,” Eilian cut in.

“We do not know that,” said Ithilden. “And I will send two guards with her.” Eilian turned to glare at him.

“Despite our discussion about the Men, you knew of this plan and did not tell me,” he accused his brother.

Looking exasperated, Ithilden shrugged. “There were three or four Men, and they might very well have been Woodmen out hunting. There is no evidence that they are dangerous, and they were a good long way from the settlement. Moreover, the plan was council business.”

“It was my business,” Eilian snapped. “She is my wife.”

“But not your property,” Celuwen said heatedly, her face flushed.

“I want to be one of the guards,” Eilian told Ithilden, ignoring Celuwen.

“You are not on active duty yet,” Ithilden retorted, his own voice growing severe. “And you have other duties.”

“Control your tone of voice, Eilian,” Thranduil interrupted sharply. “Celuwen has duties as my advisor, and neither she nor I have to consult you as to whether they should be fulfilled.”

“Please stop,” Alfirin pleaded. “I do not want us to quarrel during this time or during our evening meal.”

Eilian sat back, breathing hard, and next to him, Celuwen drew away a little, her body stiff with anger. At that moment, a servant entered the room to announce that the meal was ready, and they all stood to go to the dining room.

***

Eilian held the door of their apartment open so that Celuwen could enter and then followed her in and down the hall to their bedroom. Neither of them had eaten much of their evening meal. He stood with his back against the bedroom door as she sat down at the dressing table and began pulling pins out of her hair and flinging them onto the table. One of them bounced off and hit the floor just beyond the edge of the carpet, making a small pinging noise.

“Celuwen, please do not go. I tell you this is dangerous.”

She whirled to face him. “You have no idea how difficult the last month has been for me.”

“I do,” he insisted in distress, taking a step toward her. “I admit I had not realized ahead of time that it would be so hard, but I have seen how you are struggling.”

Her mouth began to tremble, and all at once he realized that she was close to tears. With an inarticulate cry, he crossed the room and gathered her to him, pressing her face into his tunic. “I am so sorry, my love. I never wanted to make you unhappy.”

“I am not unhappy,” she protested, her voice muffled in his midsection. “I just want to spend some time in the woods again, and I want to see my parents, and I want to be useful.”

He ran his right hand over her dark hair, now coming loose and tumbling down her back. What could he say? He knew how much he hated being caged in Ithilden’s office. Was he willing to cage Celuwen, even for her own safety?  And even if he wanted to, could he do it? With the silk of her hair under his hand, he thought about his wife. He had known her from the time they were very small children, and he knew that she would do as she thought best no matter what argument he made.

“Promise me you will be careful and will stay with the guards,” he said.

She pulled away to look up at him. “I promise.” She looked at him for a long moment. “I will not be careless as your naneth was, Eilian.”

He cringed, closing his eyes against the pain she had just evoked and remembering his mother, refusing to wait for the escort Ithilden was sending for her and riding off to her death. She still had two guards with her, he thought in despair, but he said nothing. How had Celuwen known that that was in his mind? He had not even known it himself.

He pulled her up and lowered his mouth to hers. If this was to be their last night together for a while, he was determined they would make the most of it.

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

AN:  I make use of a bit of lore from “Laws and Customs among the Eldar” in this chapter: “And the Eldar deemed that the dealing of death, even when lawful or under necessity, diminished the power of healing….”

*******

5. I Can Do It

Eilian lay awake, gazing up at the dark ceiling and listening to Celuwen’s quiet breathing. What am I going to do? he had wondered, and now, after hours of  chasing the thought around and around in his head, he knew the answer. There was nothing he could do, and therefore he would do nothing. In the morning, he would bid good-bye to Celuwen and watch her ride off to her parents’ settlement, hoping that he was wrong and that no fresh dangers lurked in the woods.

Like a hurt warrior who cannot resist poking at his wound, he pictured the scene of her leaving and swallowed the choking fear that she would never return from this trip. In his mind, he saw her disappearing into the woods, with her face turned back to him, glimmering pale in the dawn light.

And along with the fear, he suddenly realized that another emotion was stirring in his heart. With a horrified start, he recognized it. I am jealous! he thought in dismay, jealous because she can ride off and be free while I must stay here under Adar’s and Ithilden’s thumbs.

“What is it?” asked a sleepy voice, and he turned his head to see Celuwen roll onto her side to face him with her brow creased in worry. She put a hand out and rested it on his chest. “Is something the matter?”

She knew him so well, and with the tie of bonding between him, she seemed to feel his emotions and sometimes even read his thoughts. He could not tell her this, he thought unhappily. She would think him small and ungenerous. With an almost painful effort, he pushed the ugly emotion as far away from his thoughts as he could. Then he turned toward her and reached to draw her close, as much so that she would not be able to see his face as to caress and comfort her. “I am simply worried,” he said, kissing her hair. His heart contracted painfully. It was the first time since they had married that he had deliberately hidden a thought from her.

She lay still for a moment and then pulled away from him so that their faces lay inches apart on his pillow. “Are you sure?” she asked, touching his face. She sounded distant somehow, and he realized that she must sense that something was amiss.

“Yes.” He rolled onto his back again so that he would not have to meet her eyes. For a while, they lay quietly.

“Eilian, I have been thinking, and I wanted to tell you that I am sorry.”

“For what?” He looked at her in surprise.

“For complaining about the hard time I am having learning to live in the palace while ignoring how hard this month has been for you too.  I know that your adar is still being difficult and that you do not like sitting at a desk all day. I know you have been doing your best for my sake. I was selfish to complain.”

He found himself looking back at the ceiling. Perhaps he had not hidden his thoughts from her as well as he thought he had. “I love you, Celuwen,” he said simply.

She was silent for a second, and then she slid across the short distance that separated them and put her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her, and they lay together without speaking, as he waited for the morning to come and take her away from him.

***

Legolas finished his sweep of the patrol’s camp, checking on every member to make sure that no one else had been hurt in that night’s battle. They seemed well enough, he thought, anxiously running his mind over what he had seen. They were settling down to sleep, as the heat of battle drained from them and their bodies recognized how exhausted they were not only from pulling a bow and swinging a sword, but also from the strain of fear and constant vigilance. Not to mention the shadow, of course. He was reasonably certain that if any of them was going to break from the pressure, it would not be tonight.

He walked back to the camp’s center, where Sórion was just pulling a blanket up over the wounded Análas. Análas would sleep near the fire tonight, where he could be kept warm and would have a ring of his fellow warriors to protect him if unexpected trouble should come upon them. Already, his eyes were vacant and his breathing deep, as he fell under the influence of the sleeping draught Sórion had given him.

“How is he?” Legolas asked, dropping to his haunches next to his captain. He had seen the Orc slash at Análas but had not been close enough to help.

“He will be fine in a day or two,” Sórion answered.

Legolas watched as he carefully replaced the patrol’s healing supplies in their bag. “You are very good at dealing with the wounded.”

Sórion gave a crooked smile without looking up from his task. “I used to think that I wanted to be a healer. I even trained at it for a while. But then I saw the wounded coming home, and I realized that what I really should be doing was driving the enemy away so that no one would be hurt in the first place.”

Legolas considered that for a moment. He had never wanted to be anything other than a warrior. Indeed, as the king’s son, he had never thought of himself as having any other choice. He wondered what it would be like to be Sórion and know that every battle in which he fought lessened his ability to do what he most wanted and heal the injured. If Sórion still had the skill that Legolas saw him exercise almost daily, then his gift must have been great indeed when he started. He felt a sudden stab of anger. He had lived under the shadow and seen its effects his whole life, but he was still occasionally surprised by the far-reaching nature of its destructiveness.

Oblivious to Legolas’s reaction, Sórion closed the healing kit and went on, “A messenger came with a dispatch while we were out hunting Orcs. Ithilden wants us to find out whatever we can about the Men we saw signs of five days ago.”

Legolas pulled his attention back to the present and frowned. “That will not be easy after all this time.” The patrol was well southeast of the point where they had seen the Men’s tracks, and enough time had passed that some of those tracks would have been obliterated by weather and the normal life of the forest.

Sórion glanced at him sharply. “I judged it unwise to divide the patrol, and the Men had left our territory,” he said. Legolas had to force himself not to react. He should have known that the captain might take his comment as critical of Sórion’s cautious commands. Sórion surely must have heard some of the grumbling from troops who were accustomed to Eilian’s more daring leadership, and Legolas had never made any secret of his admiration for his brother.

He shrugged, trying to look casual. “Our first business must surely be with the Orcs.” And in truth, he could see Sórion’s point of view. Judging by what the scouts had said, the Men had not seemed to present an immediate threat, but the Orcs had been looking for prey. Still, he did not like having Men venture into his father’s realm while they knew so little about them. Their presence made him uneasy.

Sórion paused and then nodded, apparently accepting Legolas’s loyalty. “Get a few hours sleep, and then I want you to take about half a dozen others and see what you can find.”

Legolas felt a surge of excitement. In his experience, lieutenants frequently led small groups of warriors on missions away from their patrol, but this was the first time that Sórion had trusted him to do it. He had begun to wonder if the captain doubted his ability to direct a group of warriors by himself. He paused for a second, knowing what he wanted to say but worried that Sórion would once again see it as a criticism. I need to be able to speak my mind, he decided. If I cannot, then I will be far less useful. “I think we will have to be ready to follow them out of our own territory,” he said firmly. “They were very close to our northwest boundary when we saw the signs of them.”

Sórion sighed. “Yes. I think you will. Take no chances though, Legolas.” He smiled wryly. “I would not like to have to explain to the king how I let you be killed.”

Suddenly, another reason for Sórion’s reluctance to send him off on his own occurred to Legolas. He grinned. “I would not like to have you have to make that explanation either.”

Sórion laughed.

“It may take us several days to learn anything,” Legolas said.

Sórion nodded. “I expect it will. I am sure you will have no trouble finding us when you are finished.”

“We will be back as soon as we have satisfied ourselves about the Men,” Legolas promised and went off to snatch what sleep he could.

***

“The king wants us to stand watch for him?” Félas asked. “Surely you told him that we have no time to spare, Celuwen.”

Celuwen looked across the table at the Elf who had led this settlement from the time her family first moved there just before she had come of age. She had a sudden vivid memory of him finding her in the woods that first week, looking for a good place to set rabbit snares. He had shown her half a dozen promising sites. Her heart sank a little. You are the king’s representative, she admonished herself firmly. Remember that.

“Lord Thranduil respects the knowledge that those living here have of the forest. He knows you have much to tell him,” she said. “I believe he had in mind that you would tell him of any oddities that you noted in the course of your own affairs. He can take action against dangers only if he knows about them.”

“What action?” her father asked from his place by her side. He had acted as Félas’s second for years now, and she had necessarily met with both of them. At least he sat next to me instead of Félas, she thought wryly.

“That would depend on what you reported,” she said.

Her father grimaced. “He evidently expects us to defend ourselves though, so I cannot conceive of what help he might intend to give.”

“He wants you to be able to defend yourselves if you have to,” she corrected. “He proposes to provide you with training and a head guard. Surely you would welcome those things.”

“Perhaps,” said Félas noncommittally. “Your adar and I will have to talk about this with one another and with our neighbors too. I am not sure that everyone would like the idea of arming themselves. We are a pretty peaceful lot.” He smiled at her, and she could not help smiling back.

“The king truly is concerned about your safety,” she said. “I have heard him talk about it.”

Félas rose, signaling that the meeting was at an end. “Allow us time to think a little. And in the meantime, enjoy your visit with your family. I am sure that Sólith and Isiwen are happy to have you home again.”

“Indeed we are,” her father said, looking at her affectionately. “Her mother is roasting a duck for evening meal, so we had better not be late for it.”

Together, they walked out of the open door of the communal gathering house, and then Félas bid them good evening and departed on the narrow path to the right, while Celuwen and her father strolled along the path that led straight ahead, toward their cottage.

“We were surprised to see you home so soon, Celuwen,” Sólith commented. “Glad, but surprised. We did not expect a visit from you for another month or two yet.”

“I suggested this plan to the king, Adar, and I was only too happy to take the excuse of talking to Félas about it to come here and see you and Naneth.” To her surprised pleasure, the minute she had announced that the plan was her own, both her father and Félas had become more open to it. She took her father’s arm. “I have missed you and Naneth and the life here.”

She could feel his arm tense under her hand. “Are you unhappy in the palace, daughter? Does he not treat you well?”

She frowned. “Eilian treats me with all the love and respect for which any wife could wish,” she said a little sharply. “I feel blessed beyond measure to be married to him.”

Her father’s jaw tightened, but to her relief, he said no more. She did not want to quarrel with her father, but she had resolved not to let him speak ill of Eilian if she could help it. The odor of roast fowl greeted them as they entered the tiny cottage, and her mother turned from where she was just removing the duck from the spit. “There you are! I was beginning to think I would have to eat this by myself.”

“Let me help you, Naneth.” Celuwen moved to help slide the bird off the hot spit while her mother held it.

“I can do it,” Isiwen chided her. “You are a guest now. Sit down.”

Celuwen hesitated, torn between obeying and helping in the way she had done from the time she had been small. Then she stepped forward and reached for the large fork her mother was using to spear the duck. “Nonsense. Let me make myself useful. Besides, I could never be a guest here.”

“Now that sounds like my daughter,” Sólith approved. “And she is right too. This is her home after all.” Celuwen felt a second’s warmth at the idea of being home and then realized that her home now lay elsewhere. And I am glad, she thought, a little guiltily. Truly I am.

The meal passed pleasantly enough, with her mother asking about her and Eilian’s new apartments and her father telling her the small news of the settlement. A neighbor’s cottage had needed a new roof. A young couple had decided to have a baby and had left the settlement to live near the king’s stronghold. “I hope that one day we will be secure enough that people can raise their children here,” Sólith said.

“I hope so too,” Celuwen agreed and thought suddenly of how wonderful it would be if she and Eilian could raise elfings here. But perhaps that would not be wise either, she thought, with a sideways glance at her father.

When the meal had ended, she ignored her mother’s protests and helped to wash the dishes. Then she declared her intention of going to bed. Her parents would soon retire too, she knew. No one who lived in a settlement wasted candles or lamp oil in staying up much past dark.

“Go,” Isiwen told her with a smile. “You are probably tired, although I must say you look much stronger than you did the last time I saw you, my child. I think I will have to send my thanks to Eilian for that.”

Celuwen laughed and kissed her mother’s cheek, catching a glimpse of her father’s grimace from the corner of her eye. “Good night, Naneth. Good night, Adar.” She kissed him too and went into the tiny bedchamber that had been hers from late girlhood.

The window was open, and for a second, she stood with her eyes closed, simply breathing in the night smell of the forest near her parents’ home. How she had missed this! She sighed and then began to undress. She hung her gown on a peg, dropped her chemise and stockings onto the small pile of laundry in the basket, and then opened a drawer that should have contained her nightdress only to find it empty.

She had put the garment in the laundry basket that morning, she realized, and then forgotten to wash her clothes. How silly of her! She must be drunk on the forest air, she thought in amusement. She would have to do laundry the next day. She pulled open another drawer, searching for a worn-out gown she might have left behind when she gathered her things to go with Eilian. A ragged gown that had been too pleasantly soft from wear to part with lay pushed in a corner of the bottom drawer.

When she lifted the garment out of the drawer, something fell from its folds and landed on the floor with a clatter. For a second, she stood, holding the gown pressed against her breasts and staring at the thing that lay there, glittering faintly in the moonlight. Then she crouched and picked it up.

The polished stone on its leather thong lay cool in her hand, reminding her of the day that Eilian had given it to her. It had been her thirty-fifth begetting day, the last begetting day she had spent playing with Eilian and Gelmir. They had waded in the river and then thrown knives in a contest that she had won. And when it was time to go home, Eilian had shyly given her the pierced stone that he had found and polished and tied to the length of leather. She had worn it occasionally and then put it away, and the three of them had begun to grow up. She did not think she had seen the necklace in years. Her mother must have found it somewhere and put it in the drawer.

Sudden longing for Eilian nearly stopped her breath. She pressed her mouth closed to keep from moaning and then slipped the loop of leather over her head, so that the stone nestled between her breasts. She pulled the gown on and climbed into the narrow bed, where she lay hugging herself for what seemed like hours, trying to draw comfort from the song of the trees. Why did she have to choose? she thought and then immediately dismissed the question as childish. In reality, there was no choice for her anyway.

***

“Does that hurt?” Belówen asked, prodding the fading red mark on Eilian’s hip.

“No.” Not much anyway, Eilian thought. And really, what did healers expect when they poked at sore spots?

Belówen raised one eyebrow skeptically. “It is best to be truthful, my lord. If you go back to active duty too soon, you are likely to find yourself flat on your back in bed again.”

Eilian met his gaze levelly. “Are you suggesting that I am lying?” he asked coolly.

The healer sighed. “I would not be so bold.” He made a face. “Very well. I will tell Ithilden that I am releasing you for active duty.”

Eilian could not suppress a triumphant smile. “Good. When?”

Belówen laughed. “You may go and tell him yourself right now if you like. I will speak to him later.”

Eilian slid off the examining table, fastening his leggings as he did so and starting for the door. “Thank you,” he called back over his shoulder, but he was out of the infirmary before the healer had time to answer. He strode toward Ithilden’s office, with his mind working busily over what he would need to do this afternoon if he wanted to put his plans into effect by morning. He could not shake the notion that he needed to act now, that there was no time to waste.

Calith looked up when he entered and read his face with no trouble at all. “I take it you have had good news,” he smiled.

“Indeed,” Eilian agreed, not at all offended that Calith looked almost as glad as Eilian felt to know that he would no longer be working in this office. “Is Ithilden here?”

But Ithilden had come to the door of his office, smiling broadly. “How did things go at the infirmary?” he asked, although he plainly already knew the answer.

“Belówen has released me for active duty. I thought I would go over to the Home Guard headquarters and get some things organized.”

“The paperwork here must really have been wearing on you,” Ithilden laughed. Eilian supposed that his brother had a right to be startled by his enthusiasm for a posting he had never even pretended to like. “Go,” Ithilden said. “Elviondel has been managing things since their previous captain left, but I think you will find he is glad to see you. He looked a bit harassed when I saw him yesterday.”

Still preoccupied, Eilian nodded and left an amused looking Ithilden to go back outside and follow the path to the Home Guard headquarters. It was nearly time for the day patrols to report in and the night patrols to be sent out, so he expected to find Elviondel there and was not disappointed. Elviondel’s relief at seeing Eilian was evident. “I am only a lieutenant again?” he asked with a grin. “I think I can live with that.”

Eilian laughed. He liked planning the action of others and leading them, but not everyone wanted the responsibility. So far as Eilian was concerned, if he could shove all of the patrol’s paperwork off onto Elviondel, the division of labor would be eminently satisfactory. “I have been reading your reports, of course, but tell me the things I need to know that have not been in them.”

The two of them sat down together in one corner of the room, and Elviondel talked quietly about the patrol, telling its new captain about incidents he had not seen fit to put in his reports, about who got along – or did not get along – with whom, about concerns that had arisen in the last few days that had not yet come to anything. Eilian listened intently, trying to hear both what Elviondel was saying and what he was not saying. As they spoke, those on night duty gradually filtered in, sending interested glances Eilian’s way, and by the time they had finished, the day patrols were beginning to return from their assignments. Eilian saw his bodyguard, Maltanaur, enter and raise his eyebrows in their direction. Maltanaur had been serving in the Home Guard as he waited for Eilian to take his place as its captain.

Eilian stood and the warriors’ conversations gradually fell quiet. He grinned at them. “As you may have guessed, the healers have finally decided that I am well enough to deal with you lot. Or perhaps he has decided that you have been bleeding all over his infirmary too much and has decided to punish you by sending me your way.”

As he had expected, they all laughed. He was experienced enough at captaining patrols that he did not anticipate having any trouble with this group, although they tended to be of a different temperament than the more daring warriors he usually led in the Southern Patrol. “Elviondel and I are going to share command for another week or so while I take stock of things,” Eilian went on, conscious of the surprised look on Elviondel’s face. “He will send those on night duty on their way now, while I hear the reports of the day patrols. I look forward to working with you all.”

With that, he seated himself at the small table near the door to hear from each pair of warriors who had been guarding the woods that day.  He could hear Elviondel making the night assignments, but for the most part, he concentrated on what each returning warrior had to tell him about the state of the woods. “Did you find anything unusual?” he asked one after another. “Did you sense any danger?” Each of them said he had not.

Maltanaur was the last to speak to him, and by that time the night patrols had all left too, so Eilian, Maltanaur, and Elviondel were alone. “I am glad to see you back,” Maltanaur said. “How much did you have to lie to Belówen to get him to allow it?”

Eilian grinned. “None at all.” Maltanaur laughed softly, his disbelief plain.

Eilian turned to Elviondel. “I want to work out the duty rosters and anything else we need as much as we can for the next week or so.  I have decided that Maltanaur and I are going to be carrying out a special assignment during that time.”

Elviondel hid his dismay well. “Of course. May I ask what the assignment is?”

“We are going to check on the safety of one of the settlements,” Eilian told him.  Maltanaur let out a startled snort and Eilian smiled blandly at him. “You do not have to stay, Maltanaur. Elviondel and I can attend to this and you can meet me in the morning.”

“I will stay here,” Maltanaur said flatly. “There is something I wish to speak to you about.”

Eilian laughed outright. “I will wager there is,” he said cheerfully and then sat down with Elviondel to go over plans for the patrol for the next week, while Maltanaur leaned against the wall and watched him. Finally, Eilian was satisfied that everything he could do ahead of time was done.

Elviondel sighed slightly. “I look forward to your return, Captain.”

Eilian nodded. “This should take no more than a week and might take less.” Elviondel saluted and left the building, and Eilian turned to his keeper and raised an eyebrow.

“Have you told Ithilden what you intend to do?” Maltanaur asked, not trying to disguise his disapproval.

“I am the captain of this patrol. I do not have to clear every decision I make with the troop commander.”

Maltanaur made a disgusted noise. “I take it you have missed being in trouble.”

Eilian pulled himself erect. “That settlement is within the territory of the Home Guard. It is my duty to see to its safety.”

Maltanaur rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “What time do you want to leave tomorrow?”

“Dawn.”

Maltanaur nodded and left the building without another word. Eilian followed him out. From somewhere, his instincts were urging him to hurry, and he was elated that at last he would be able to do something about his sense of impending danger.

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

6. A Settler’s Alarm

Riolith pointed to the tracks he had found, and Legolas crouched to inspect them more closely. “Men,” he murmured, and next to him, Beliond grunted his agreement. The tracks were too deep and too obvious to have been made by Elves, even though they were in a part of the woods where Elves from the settlements occasionally hunted.

Legolas put his face close to the ground, sighting across the leaf cover to see the faint depressions that signaled the existence of tracks beneath them. He poked a leaf gently aside so he could see better and then looked up at Riolith. “Four, I think?” Riolith nodded his confirmation. The little group had been looking for signs of the Men for two days now, and Riolith and Fendîr had been the first to spot them, here in the extreme northwest corner of the Southern Patrol’s territory.

Legolas looked back at the tracks, which were in single file, and thought that whoever this was had probably been trying to leave no sign of their passage. They must not be accustomed to being around Wood-elves, he thought wryly. No Man from Esgaroth, for instance, would ever have believed that Thranduil’s warriors would be unable to spot these tracks at a glance. The same would be true of Woodmen. And that meant that strangers were in the woods. Legolas frowned at that thought and glanced uneasily at Beliond, who looked grim.

Legolas rose. “The tracks look fairly recent to me. Perhaps a day old? No more than that and probably less.”

“I agree,” said Isendir, who, with Gelmir, was a short distance away, looking at the broken off tip of a hawthorn branch.

Legolas considered, while the others waited for his orders. The light was fading, and tracking the Men in darkness would be harder than hunting for Orcs, although of course, it could also be difficult enough to find one or two Orcs on their own, as opposed to a troop of them. Moreover, the Men would probably camp for the night and thus get no further ahead of Legolas’s patrol than they already were. Now that the Elves had found the Men’s tracks, they would be able to hunt them down swiftly as soon as day broke. And hunt them down they would. At the moment, the Men were moving directly east, but if they veered even slightly to the north, they would enter the territory of the Home Guard, and there were settlements there.

Legolas did not know if the Men were hostile. They could simply have roamed far from home in search of game, and many Men tried to hide from Elves simply because they were afraid of them. But he did not intend to let these Men roam free without finding out who they were and what they were doing there.

“We will camp here tonight and pursue them in the morning.” His companions dropped their packs, although not their weapons, and Gelmir began clearing a place for a fire. Isendir went to gather wood, while Riolith and Fendîr took the rabbits they had killed earlier in the day and went off to butcher them near the stream they could hear burbling. Beliond gathered everyone’s water skins and followed Riolith and Fendîr to refill them. Legolas glanced around, feeling a small, secret satisfaction that they all accepted his decision so readily and set calmly about doing the same chores he had assigned them the night before. He went to gather green sticks to use to spit the rabbits. Riolith and Fendîr returned, took them from him, and began cooking their meal.

Legolas sat leaning against a tree that was humming with sleepy nighttime life and watched the stars emerge. In this part of the Southern Patrol’s territory, the forest was much healthier than it was further south. The smell of the roasting rabbits drifted toward him, and suddenly he remembered Beliond telling him to enjoy the small moments. He smiled to himself. This was surely one of those moments. Even in the midst of the hunt for the strange Men, beauty lay above him and good food would soon be ready.

Someone sat down next to him, and he lowered his gaze to see Gelmir. “Have you heard from Eilian lately?” Gelmir asked, leaning back on his elbows.

“I had a letter last week.”

“How are he and Celuwen?” Gelmir sounded a little wistful, and Legolas recalled that he, Eilian, and Celuwen were all close friends, having played together as children.

“Eilian was still working for Ithilden, but he had hopes of being on active duty soon, so he was in good spirits. He is amusing himself by tormenting Tinár.”

“Ah, Tinár,” Gelmir said with a grin. He had served with Tinár and had probably done his own share of tormenting.

“Celuwen is advising my adar about matters to do with the settlements,” Legolas went on. “Eilian seems proud of her but a little mystified that she would willingly go to meetings of my adar’s council.”

Gelmir laughed. “Celuwen would be good at that. She is smart. I will wager she soon convinces them to do what she thinks is best. Most of the time, she can even do that with Eilian.”

Now it was Legolas’s turn to laugh. “If she can manage that, my adar will be forever grateful.”

“I miss Eilian,” Gelmir said, “both as a friend and as a captain. I like Sórion well enough, but I find him overly cautious. Do you think you could do anything about that, Legolas?”

Legolas blinked, suddenly uncomfortably reminded that Gelmir was no longer just his brother’s friend, one who had always teased Legolas almost as if he were his own younger brother. Gelmir was now a warrior in a patrol that Legolas was leading, and Legolas strongly suspected that at the moment, Gelmir was trying to take advantage of their long-term acquaintance. “Sórion is careful, but that could be a good thing.”

Gelmir turned to look at him and then slowly smiled. “I believe you are becoming an officer, Legolas. My sympathies.”

Legolas smiled back. “I cannot help it. It appears to be a family curse.”

Gelmir laughed and sprang to his feet. “Surely our meal is ready by now.”

“It is,” said Riolith, and Legolas looked up to find him nearby.

“Good,” said Gelmir easily and wandered off toward the fire, ignoring the faint scowl Riolith sent his way. Legolas was sure he must have heard Gelmir’s mild criticism of Sórion, and he evidently resented it.

Riolith turned to look at Legolas and the scowl gradually faded. “The rabbit is cooked, Lieutenant,” he said and then turned to go back to the fire.

Legolas stared at his back. That had been the first time Riolith had addressed him as “Lieutenant.”

***

Eilian brought his horse to a halt, slid to the ground, and waited until Maltanaur stood beside him. “We are within shouting range of Celuwen’s cottage,” he murmured. “It is the nearest to us, but I want to do some scouting before I go there, just to make sure nothing has happened. You circle the settlement that way, and I will go this. Look for any sign that things are not as they should be.”

“No,” Maltanaur said calmly. “You and I will scout together in whichever direction you choose.”

Eilian glared at his bodyguard but knew better than to argue. And in one way, Maltanaur’s caution was comforting. At least his keeper took Eilian’s fears seriously. “Very well.” He motioned to their left, and bows at the ready, they began a cautious circuit of the settlement.

As they crept through the trees, searching for indications that something was amiss, Eilian suddenly became aware of an almost irresistible urge to turn aside from his task and thread his way among the scattered cottages to the one in which his new in-laws lived. Celuwen, he realized with a flush of joy so powerful that it stopped him in his tracks. She is longing for me.

Maltanaur touched his arm lightly, and Eilian looked to see him smiling faintly, although he said nothing but simply gestured Eilian into motion again. Maltanaur had recognized his reaction, Eilian realized, slightly embarrassed. His keeper had been married for a long time and undoubtedly understood some of the state’s mysteries better than Eilian did. Obeying Maltanaur’s urging and his own training and experience, he resolutely turned his attention back to the serious business of making sure that nothing dangerous was happening here. Half an hour later, he and Maltanaur returned to their peacefully browsing horses having found nothing out of the ordinary, and Eilian relaxed slightly, although he still could not shake the feeling that things were not as they should be.

“I will camp here with the horses, Eilian,” said Maltanaur. Then he smiled blandly and added, “That is, unless you think you will need me to watch your back in Sólith’s presence, or perhaps even with your wife, who thinks she is an adult who can travel to see her parents on her own.” Eilian looked at him sharply and then felt an unexpected misgiving. As he had just remembered, Maltanaur had been married a long time.

“I think I can manage to defend myself,” he said and then pulled his pack from his horse’s back and set off to find his wife with Maltanaur’s soft laughter drifting after him.

Even if he had not been to this settlement and this cottage before, Eilian would have been able to walk straight to it. Celuwen was there, and his body knew it in a way that he did not yet fully understand. He had to force himself to stop on the doorstep and knock, but almost before he lowered his hand, the door flew open and Celuwen stood before him.

For a split second, they stared at one another, and then, with a cry, she flung herself into his open arms. “Eilian!”

He buried his face in her hair, savoring the warm softness of her body and inhaling her scent, a mixture of spring grass and the spicy soap she used that he would have recognized anywhere. Then he looked up and saw the unwelcoming face of his father-in-law.

“Come in!” Celuwen cried, tugging on his hand and drawing him into the cottage. “Look!” she told her parents. “Eilian is here.”

Isiwen had already started forward from where she had been standing near the fireplace, stirring a pot of what smelled like a venison stew. “How good to see you!”  She turned her face up to him, and he kissed her forehead.

Then he raised his head and looked at Celuwen’s father. “Mae govannen, Sólith,” he said, keeping his face as blank as possible. The two of them stood face to face, neither one blinking, and Eilian took a malicious satisfaction in the way Celuwen clung to his arm, clearly overjoyed, and just as clearly rendering Sólith unable to say what he really felt.

“What are you doing here, Eilian?” Sólith asked.  All three of them looked expectantly at him.

He hesitated. “That is a long story,” he said slowly.

“You have come just in time for evening meal,” Isiwen smiled. “I will set another place, and you can tell us while we eat.”

“I will do it, Naneth,” Celuwen said and slipped from his encircling arm to lay a place for him at the table and then help her mother serve the stew and some fresh bread. Isiwen’s eyes followed her daughter’s slim, energetic figure and then went back to Eilian with gratitude plain in them. And Celuwen too looked back at him, smiling happily. “Sit,” she said, patting a chair and taking the one beside it.

He sat beside her, feeling all the tension and worry of the last few days draining away at the brief touch of her hand on his thigh beneath the table. Isiwen sat across from him, and Sólith took the chair at the head of the table.

“So why are you here?” Sólith asked, scooping up a spoonful of the stew. It dawned on Eilian that Sólith had noticed his hesitation in answering that question and was curious about it. He grimaced inwardly. Sólith was many things, but stupid was not among them.

“I am back on active duty and captaining the Home Guard now,” he said.

“That is wonderful!” Celuwen broke in, her face lighting up. “The healers say you are better? And you are no longer tied to a desk. You must be rejoicing!”

“I am.” He smiled at her.

“But why are you here?” Sólith persisted. There was a second’s silence, and suddenly Celuwen frowned slightly, as the oddity of his presence dawned on her when her joy at his arrival had previously made her blind to it.

He drew a deep breath. “This settlement is within the Home Guard’s territory. I was worried about its safety, so I came to check on it.”

Celuwen paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth and then carefully set it down and turned to him. “Do you mean that you came to check on me?” she asked.

“On your safety, yes,” he admitted. He could see no point to lying to her and hated to do it anyway. “I have been very uneasy in the last few days. Something is wrong in the forest, and I was afraid that you and everyone else here were in danger.”

She looked at him for a moment, with her face troubled, while Sólith’s eyes narrowed.

“What sort of danger?” he demanded.

“I am not sure,” Eilian answered, his gaze still on Celuwen, who was looking down at her bowl of stew. “The Southern Patrol has seen signs of Men in the forest.”

Sólith snorted. “It was probably Woodmen. When game is scarce, they sometimes hunt this deep in the forest. They are no danger to us.”

Eilian looked at him now. “Woodmen to the west of us have reported that Men in strange clothes tried to steal food from them. I am wondering if they were part of the army that invaded Rohan last fall and were somehow driven north by the flooding and the arrival of the Men of Gondor.”

Sólith frowned. “I do not know anything about this invasion, but surely it is far more likely that your warriors saw traces of the Woodmen.”

“What does Ithilden say?” Celuwen asked abruptly.

Eilian paused for a second and then smiled wryly. Trust his sometimes unfortunately acute wife to notice the inescapable problem in his explanation for his presence. “He says more or less what your adar does, that there is no proof the Men are dangerous. He has asked the Southern Patrol to try to track them down.”

She gave him a long, level look and then went back to eating her meal in silence.

Isiwen had looked preoccupied for some time and now she spoke with her brows drawn down in worry. “Will you be camping with your patrol, Eilian? Or would you like to stay with us? I am afraid that Celuwen’s bed will be very narrow for the two of you.”

Sólith shot Eilian a look of pure venom, and Eilian grinned gleefully back at him, sure that his father-in-law was picturing him and Celuwen lying more or less on top of one another in Celuwen’s virginal bed. He turned happily to Isiwen. “Maltanaur is the only one with me, and he is camping just north of here. I had planned to stay with you if I may.”

“We will sleep on one of the flets,” Celuwen declared, sounding exasperated. Isiwen reached across the small table and patted her hand.

“You brought only one warrior with you?” asked Sólith, distracted from the question of sleeping arrangements, at least for the present. “If we had been under attack by Mannish troops, what did you expect to do with only one companion?”

Eilian raised an eyebrow at him. “The Southern Patrol saw signs of only a handful of Men. Maltanaur and I would have been enough.”

Sólith gave a skeptical snort, and Celuwen got up abruptly to start clearing the table. Isiwen sighed and joined her, while Eilian watched her a little guiltily. Sólith sat for a moment staring at the tabletop and then got up to tend to the cooking fire, banking it so that it would be ready to be stirred into life to cook their porridge the next morning.

As soon as the dishes had been washed, Celuwen went into what Eilian knew was her room and came back with a small pile of clothes, a pillow and a blanket. When he rose to pick up his weapons and his pack and take her burdens from her, she opened a chest in one corner of the room, took out a second pillow and blanket, and handed them to him too. “We will see you in the morning,” she told her parents and led Eilian out into the night with Sólith’s eyes boring into his back, making his warrior’s nerves twitch.

“Where are we going?” he ventured, once they were outside.

“You must have seen the flets scattered in the trees. We use them to store things and sometimes to sleep on when the weather is fine. We just need to find an empty one.”

She led him through the trees, passing the first flet they came to when a low voice called a greeting to them as they approached it. She stopped beneath the second one, waited for a moment, and then apparently concluded that it was unoccupied. “Let me take some of the bedding,” she offered, and he handed her a blanket and her clothes and then followed her up the tree trunk, admiring his view of her legs as he did so.

He emerged on a small flet, deeply screened by oak leaves. Through the branches overhead, moonlight fell in thin streams that made a pattern of light and dark across its surface, where Celuwen already crouched, spreading the blanket she had been carrying. He paused, struck by how beautiful she looked with streaks of silvery light in her dark hair. We should live in a place like this, he thought, not in a cave.

And immediately he remembered just why his father lived in a cave, and with that memory, all his nervous alarm came flooding to the fore again. “Celuwen, I am not sure it is safe for you to sleep in the open like this. I really do think that something is amiss, even though I am not yet sure what it is. Maybe you should go back to your parents’ house. I can sleep here.” For Celuwen’s sake, it would be better not to intensify the tension between him and Sólith by having him spend the night in her room, he thought, trying to suppress his regret at having her leave him, and he would be able to keep watch from the flet.

“And pass up a chance to sleep on a flet with you? I do not think so.” She grinned at him, and his heart turned over with wonder that she had chosen him. She rose to her feet and walked behind him to the trunk of the oak. He turned to watch her reach up into the tree and catch at a handful of long cords that were wrapped around a branch. As she slid them from their anchoring point, they unwound with a light tinkling noise and fell in long, gossamer threads that glimmered in the moonlight and reached almost to the ground. She spread them carefully, making sure they were untangled and then turned triumphantly to him. “And that, my resourceful Wood-elf warrior, is a settlers’ alarm system.”

Eilian laughed and then bent curiously over the side of the flet. “What is making the noise?”

“Crystals.” She looked down at the glittering threads.

“This is clever,” he admitted, feeling a flush of pride at her competence.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you think we in the settlements are so foolish that we know nothing of how to protect ourselves in our own woods unless you come to show us?” Her tone was humorous, but he had known her long enough to recognize the underlying danger. She had not liked his quarreling with her father.

He reached out and gathered her to him. “I would never be so rash as to think you foolish in anything, except possibly in marrying me.” He dropped to his knees, pulling her with him, and then toppled to his side on the blankets, still holding on to her. “I have missed you,” he murmured, kissing the side of her neck.

She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away. “Eilian, does Ithilden know you are here? Does your adar know?”

He sighed and rolled onto his back. He had known at evening meal that she was worried about this. “No. Or perhaps they do by now. I did not tell them before I left.”

“They will be angry with you!” She sounded vexed.

“They would not listen to me when I said I was worried. Besides, as Home Guard captain, I could have assigned a patrol to come here. I just assigned myself instead.”

She groaned, put her hand on his face, and turned it so that he was looking at her. “Even you cannot possibly think that that excuse will end the matter. In truth, I do not mind so much that Ithilden will be angry. You and he can deal with one another as captain and commander. I have seen you do it, and it does not seem to make lasting trouble between you. But I hate to see you at odds with your adar! It pains you when he is angry with you, and do not try to tell me that it does not.”

To his utter amazement, a lump rose in his throat. He swallowed and with attempted lightness said, “I am used to it.”

“No, you are not,” she said firmly. “And you never will be. It is as much his fault as yours, I think, but you could make things easier if you would not do things like this, Eilian.”

He stared at her, with his breath quickening a little. “How could I not come?” he asked, his voice cracking a little. “I thought you were in danger.”

Her face softened and then he was kissing her. The night closed around them, and the songs of settlers spending the summer night out of doors rose around them like incense, but their own songs were too strong for them to hear them.

***

Eilian patted his horse’s neck and offered him a carrot, which the animal lipped up enthusiastically. He looked over at Maltanaur, who had broken off a chunk of the bread that Isiwen had sent for him and was eating with equal relish. “Have you seen anything unusual at all?” Eilian asked.

Maltanaur shook his head and swallowed. “Have you?”

“No,” Eilian admitted. “But I am still not happy. I cannot rid my mind of the idea that something is wrong.”

Maltanaur looked away and then back again. “Eilian, the sooner we go home, the better off you are going to be. Not that anything is going to save your hide this time,” he added, ripping off another chunk of bread.

The sound of someone approaching from the settlement made them both turn, and Eilian saw Sólith round the clump of lilac bushes that sheltered Maltanaur’s camp. Sólith nodded to Maltanaur, who regarded him from beneath half-lowered lids. Eilian had to suppress a grin. His keeper might be willing to surrender him for punishment to Ithilden and Thranduil, but he would defend him from anyone else with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs.

Sólith turned to Eilian. “I am going to check my snares to see if we will have rabbit to eat this evening. Celuwen suggested that I take you with me.” His tone made it clear just what he thought of the suggestion, but he was apparently not going to cross his daughter.

Maltanaur looked at Eilian with a half smile on his face. “Have a good time,” he said.

Eilian glared at him and then turned to Sólith. “I would be happy to go with you.” He refused to be outdone by his father-in-law in doing what would please Celuwen.

Sólith jerked his head to indicate the direction they should take, and Eilian followed him as he set off in a large half circle toward the southeast side of the settlement. They moved in silence, with Sólith stopping and checking his snares every time they came to underbrush that was likely to attract rabbits. Each time he found a snared animal, he dispatched it quickly and cleanly with his knife, murmuring under his breath what Eilian knew was probably a prayer asking the creature’s forgiveness. His snares had evidently been set with wily care, for by the time they reached the last of them, they had enough meat for their meal, and the two of them proceeded to a stream to skin and dress the rabbits.

Eilian finished his first rabbit and set it aside. “Celuwen showed me the alarm system for the flets last night,” he said, breaking the silence between them. “I have been thinking about that and about how successful you were with your snares. I wonder if the settlement can use such things as part of its defense system.”

Sólith shrugged. “We have done that sometimes, but I seem to recall being told that if we moved inside the Home Guard territory we would be safe.” He threw Eilian an angry look and picked up another rabbit.

Eilian sliced forcefully into the rabbit he was holding, barely able to bite back a retort. There was no point in antagonizing Sólith further, and besides, he was right. The Elves who lives in this settlement had been told that. “Things change,” he finally settled for saying. Sólith picked up the last rabbit and made no answer.

Eilian frowned at the knife in his hand and began to work more quickly. He felt a pressing need to return to Celuwen. As if in response, Sólith too began working more swiftly. They finished their task in silence, washed their hands, and gathered the meat to take it back to Isiwen to cook for the evening meal.

Sólith broke into a trot as the approached the cottage, flung the door open, and hurried inside. Eilian stopped for a second on the doorstep and glanced around, his uneasiness intensifying. Then he turned, stepped into the cottage, and froze when someone shoved the point of a sword into his ribs.

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

*******

7. Men in the Settlement

Eilian froze. Across the room from him, he saw Celuwen, her face chalk white, with a Man standing behind her holding the point of a knife to her throat. He took an involuntary step toward her, and the sword at his ribs suddenly bit into his flesh. “Do not move, Elf,” said a voice to his left in heavily accented Common. “You move; you die. And so does she. Indeed, I suspect that Zalan would enjoy the chance to kill her. He is made like that.” The eyes of the Man holding Celuwen shifted rapidly back and forth from the speaker to Eilian, and when he saw Eilian looking at him, he grinned and prodded Celuwen so that a trickle of scarlet ran down her neck. She drew her breath in sharply but said nothing.

Her eyes went to a point on the floor between them, and Eilian saw the dark shape sprawled there, with blood from a gaping wound in his belly spreading in a pool around him. Félas, Eilian realized, recognizing the settlement leader. A loop of Félas’s bowels protruded from the gash, and Eilian was as certain as he could be that he was dead. The rabbits that he and Sólith had butchered lay in a small heap next to the body, where they had dropped from Sólith’s limp hand.

“He came to talk about my proposal for the settlement’s defense,” Celuwen said faintly. She sounded as if she were having trouble drawing in enough air to force the words out.

Abruptly, Eilian felt himself becoming a warrior again, and his vision expanded to take in someone other than Celuwen. He scanned the room. In front of the fireplace, where the fire now blazed brightly, despite the warmth of the fading summer day, Isiwen was tending to a third Man, who lay with the leg of his trousers cut away from the protruding shaft of an arrow. Even from where Eilian stood, he recognized the fletching on the arrow as Maltanaur’s. What had happened to his keeper? he wondered, his breath coming a little quicker.

Isiwen looked up at him and Sólith, who stood just to Eilian’s right. She glanced at Celuwen and then at the body of Félas, naked pleading in her face. She was warning them to take care. If Félas had been cut down in front of her and Celuwen, Eilian did not doubt that she was terrified.

“I am going to take your weapons now,” said the Man to his left. “If you move, Zalan will cut the woman. Do you understand?” Eilian hesitated for a second before nodding. “You too,” the Man added, speaking to Sólith, who also nodded.

The Man who had been holding Eilian at sword point eased into sight now. Like his companions, he was dark, bearded, and broadly built. Eilian eyed him narrowly. I was right, he thought. They are from the east. Given what he had heard about the mercilessness of the Easterling armies, the thought gave him no comfort. The Man approached Eilian carefully and took his bow, quiver, and sword, as well as the knife at his belt. He ran his hands over Eilian’s body, checking for more weapons, but did not check his boots. Eilian was acutely aware of the dagger hilt pressed against his right ankle, and his fingers itched for it, but he did not dare to act while the knife was at Celuwen’s throat.

The Man moved from Eilian to Sólith, taking his weapons too. Eilian wondered if Sólith also carried a dagger in his boot. If he did, then he might be a useful ally in a fight when the time came. Still facing them, the Man moved to the door of Celuwen’s room, tossed the weapons through, and pulled the door shut.

“Does either of you know anything about healing?” he asked, glancing from Eilian to Sólith.  And Eilian now noticed that the shoulder of his tunic was torn and bloody. “Do you know anything about healing?” the Man demanded again sharply. “That woman has medicines, but she says she cannot get the arrow out of Khi’s leg.” He flicked a suspicious glance at Isiwen, who was gazing pleadingly at Sólith. A calculating look came into the Man’s face, and he beckoned to Sólith, who hesitated, glanced at Celuwen, and approached the Man.

With ostentatious casualness, the Man brought the hilt of his sword down in a heavy blow to Sólith’s temple. Celuwen and Isiwen both cried out in protest, and Sólith crumpled slowly to the floor. Isiwen jumped to her feet.

“No,” the Man said, putting his sword point against Sólith’s chest. “You may tend him after we are cared for.” He jerked his head at Eilian. “You help her.”

Eilian caught his breath and turned slowly to edge around the body of Félas and go toward Isiwen. He looked as reassuringly as he could at Celuwen as he passed her, and she actually smiled faintly at him, although her eyes went back immediately to her unconscious father. She was plainly shaken.

His mind moved rapidly, trying to assess the situation. How was he going to deal with these Men while keeping Celuwen and her parents safe? He thought again about Maltanaur and glanced at the closed window, where the curtains had already been drawn. Where was his keeper?

“And do not count on any help from your friend with the horses,” said the Man. Eilian glanced back at him, and the Man bared his teeth. “I will admit that he did some damage, but we took care of him before we came in here.” Eilian kept his face blank only with great difficulty. “Unfortunately,” the Man went on, “the horses ran away. The fool did not have them tethered. When Khi can travel again, you will give us food and medicine and help us catch the horses and then we will leave. We would be gone by now if that cursed Elf had not attacked us.”

Eilian had to fight to draw in his next breath. Had these Men killed Maltanaur? His hands clenched involuntarily, but he forced himself to open them again. Whatever had happened to Maltanaur, Eilian was in no position to help him now. He crouched next to Isiwen, looking at the Man, Khi, he supposed, who lay unconscious, probably from the recently stitched gash on his head. It had bled copiously into the towel Isiwen had put beneath him.

“The arrow will need to be cut out,” she said in Sindarin, her voice trembling a little. “I have never cut an arrow free before.”

“Speak Common,” the Man said sharply. “Zalan does not understand it, but Khi and I both do.”

Eilian looked at the unconscious Khi. The languages he understood were probably irrelevant at the moment. He glanced up at the other Man. “May we know your name?” he asked, as politely as he could bring himself to do. He needed to know everything he could about these Men if he, Celuwen, and her parents were to emerge alive from this cottage.

The Man eyed him suspiciously but apparently could think of no reason not to give his name. “Susta.”

“Are you the leader of this group, Susta?” Eilian asked and knew at once that he had hit a sore spot. Susta’s mouth tightened.

“Khi is,” he said, with grievance thick in both words.

Eilian forced a look of knowing sympathy onto his face and turned to look at Khi. “He is lucky you are here. I can cut the arrow out, but I will need a knife.”

Susta hesitated. “Let the woman do it.”

“She does not know how.”

“You tell her.”

Eilian grimaced and decided not to mention that Isiwen might accidentally damage the muscles in Khi’s leg further. “Very well.” He examined the arrow and the site where it was lodged. Then he snapped the shaft off to keep it from wiggling and twisting the point while she was removing it. “I will stand just over here so I can see what she is doing,” he told Susta.  The last thing he wanted to do at the moment was surprise the Man by his movements. There would be time for that later.

Susta nodded, and Eilian rose and moved a little to one side, studying the Man. Susta suddenly frowned at him, and it occurred to Eilian that Susta might find his gaze disturbing or even challenging. Even the Men of Esgaroth sometimes found it hard to meet Elves’ eyes for any length of time. Eilian hastily averted his face.

Susta hesitated for a second longer and then approached Isiwen with his knife drawn. He paused. “Remember that Zalan has the other woman,” he said. Eilian and Isiwen both nodded. Susta handed his knife to Isiwen, having to look up at her as he did so because she was taller than he. He scowled. He resents her height, Eilian guessed immediately. He thinks of both Isiwen and Celuwen as inferiors, probably underestimating their strength. Eilian stored the information away in his head. Anything could be useful. Anything at all.

Isiwen turned to hold the knife in the fire to clean it. As she did so, Eilian scanned the three Men. He could not always judge the ages of Men, but Susta and Khi both looked to him to be of middle years. Their faces were lined, and Khi’s hair and beard were lightly streaked with grey. Zalan, on the other hand, was young, and when Eilian looked at him with tip of his knife still at Celuwen’s neck, his stomach tightened. Zalan’s eyes glittered with enjoyment of the scene before him. Eilian had once before seen a Man like Zalan and had concluded that he was broken inside. Whatever Men had for a fëa was missing. Zalan would cut Celuwen’s throat and take delight in doing it. I have to get her out of here, he thought, fighting to keep panic at bay.

Isiwen looked up at Eilian to wait for his instructions. “Slide the point of the knife in along the flat side of the arrowhead,” Eilian told her. She did so, and even in his unconscious state, Khi groaned. Susta’s eyes narrowed and she froze. Disconcertingly, Zalan laughed. Eilian looked at him sharply. He had not harmed Celuwen again, but she looked terrified. She knew quite well the kind of Man he was.

“Isiwen cannot help hurting him,” Eilian protested to Susta, and after a beat, he nodded grimly. For a few moments, Eilian concentrated on helping Isiwen get the arrow out of Khi’s thigh. At last she had the arrow in her hand.

“Give me my knife,” Susta ordered sharply, and she handed it to him and then turned back to try to stop the bleeding from the wound the arrow had made. Susta wiped the knife on his trouser leg and slid it into its sheath. “Help her,” he ordered Eilian, who now crouched too and helped Isiwen bind the leg tightly. For a second, he wondered if they might do better to let Khi bleed, let him bleed to death if he would be so obliging. But he shied away from the thought with a flush of shame. Khi is not going to hurt us anyway, he told himself. He was not even terribly worried about Susta. He would have taken the Man down by now under most circumstances. It was Zalan he was worried about.

“Now she tends to my shoulder,” Susta said when they had finished with Khi. “You stand over there.” He pointed to a corner of the room that was far from both him and Zalan. Eilian went where he was told. He was close enough to the window that he could hear birds singing. A neighbor called to someone as he walked along the path near the cottage. Out there things were still ordinary, he marveled. It was only in here that a nightmare had sprung to life.

***

Legolas lay in the underbrush, watching the Elf stroll unconcernedly along the path that crossed in front of him, leading through the center of the settlement. Everything looked disturbingly normal. Had he been wrong in thinking that something was the matter here, that the Men his patrol had followed all day were dangerous intruders? He had been so sure. The forest here felt wrong, and he had urged his warriors on with increasing concern as the day wore along.

A bird sang sweetly off to his left, making his breath catch. “Come,” he commanded and raced off to where the signal had come from, with Beliond at his heels, both of them keeping carefully out of sight of the path. They found Isendir near a thick clump of lilacs. He beckoned to them and suddenly Legolas saw Gelmir, bent over someone sprawled face down on the ground. He hastened up and then stopped short, as Gelmir’s white face turned to him.

“It is Maltanaur,” Gelmir said. “We found him in the bushes.”

Legolas could scarcely believe what Gelmir and his own eyes told him. What was Maltanaur doing here? Could there possibly be a Home Guard patrol here already? He had seen no sign of one when he scouted the settlement. “How is he?”

Looking grim, Gelmir pointed to a deep sword wound in Maltanaur’s back. “He is in a bad way. He needs a healer.” He detached the emergency healing kit from his belt, pulled out clean bandaging, and pressed it against the still bleeding wound.

A sudden thought struck Legolas, one that should have occurred to him sooner, and he glanced hastily around. “Search,” he commanded Isendir and Beliond. “See if there is anyone else.” He did not voice his fear, but Beliond at least knew what it was: If Maltanaur was here, then the chances were that Eilian was not far away. And if Eilian were unharmed, then he would never have left his wounded keeper to lie alone like this. They began hastily beating through the underbrush, and Legolas rose to join them.

At that moment, Riolith and Fendîr came sliding through the bushes. “Lieutenant, we found a dead Man shoved in the underbrush about fifty yards in that direction,” Riolith said. His eyes went to Maltanaur, and his breath caught. “Is he --?”

“He is still alive,” Legolas answered. “How did the Man die?”

“Arrow in the neck,” Fendîr said briefly. He looked at the quiver still strapped to Maltanaur’s back. “One of his,” he added.

Legolas’s heart began to beat even faster than it had been doing. There had been a fight. Maltanaur had killed a Man but been wounded himself. But where was Eilian?

“Legolas,” Beliond called softly. Legolas turned to see him pointing to the ground a short distance away and went to see what he had found. “Four Men have been here. This is where the scuffle was. It looks like more than one was wounded.” They crouched over the marks. Spatters of blood lay beaded in the dust, and there were clear marks where the dead Man and Maltanaur had been dragged away into hiding. Legolas eyed some long scuff marks.

“Two of them were dragging the third between them when they left,” he said slowly, picturing two Men with the arms of the wounded one around their necks and his toes trailing in the dirt. The marks led toward the nearest cottage.

A soft signal came from behind them, and all of them melted into the trees or the underbrush, where Gelmir was still tending to Maltanaur. From the branch where he stood, Legolas saw a settler come walking along with a string of fish in his hand, evidently on his way home with his family’s evening meal. A source of information, Legolas thought immediately and dropped to the ground again, with Beliond quickly following.

“Mae govannen,” he greeted the Elf, who seemed completely unperturbed by his sudden appearance.

“Mae govannen,” the settler responded with a smile. He glanced toward the trees where the rest of the patrol was still concealed. “I did not realize that Sólith’s son-in-law had brought so many warriors with him.”

Even in his current anxious state, Legolas felt a spurt of surprised amusement. These settlers apparently knew their own woods every bit as well as they had always claimed they did. But the moment was short-lived, as worry about Eilian came flooding back. “Is Sólith’s son-in-law here?”

The Elf nodded. “He and Celuwen are both here. Did you not come with him?”

“No. Lord Ithilden has asked us to check on some Men, and we have followed them here. Do you know if there are any Men in the settlement?”

The settler shook his head. “Not that I have seen."

Legolas drew a deep breath. “I am called Legolas. May I ask your name?”

“Celoril.”

“Celoril, we believe that these Men are dangerous. Look,” he invited and showed the marks in the dirt to Celoril, who blinked. He may not have been a warrior, but he had undoubtedly tracked a great deal of game, and he knew blood when he saw it. “Whose cottage is that?” Legolas asked, indicating the one to which the marks appeared to lead.

“Sólith’s,” Celoril said, and for just a second, Legolas’s world stopped. Over Celoril’s shoulder, he could see Beliond looking at him with concern.

He forced himself to concentrate on what he had to do. “These Men are probably in Sólith’s cottage,” he told Celoril. “We need to be sure that is where they are though, and we need to know that all of your neighbors are safe. We do not know all your neighbors or who should be where, and if we go into the settlement, we might create a stir that would alert the Men. Can you help us?” He hated to involve Celoril in searching for the Men, but he could not see that he had any other choice.

Celoril stared at the blood on the ground and nodded slowly. “I can get one or two others to help me, and we can check on everyone.”

“Tell people to go inside and stay there,” Legolas said, trying frantically to think of what else he needed to tell this Elf. “Stay away from Sólith’s cottage because that is probably where they are, but do not take that for granted. Go carefully.” For a moment, he wondered if he and his warriors should conduct this reconnaissance themselves, but he immediately dismissed that as impractical. “And we need a healer. One of my warriors is hurt.”

Celoril nodded. “I will send the healer. And I will come back and tell you what I find out.”

“Good.” Legolas stepped back, and Celoril walked off into the settlement, glancing around him but not looking back at them.

“Good decision, Legolas,” Beliond murmured, and Legolas glanced at him. He hoped Beliond was right.

An hour crawled by.  A healer came almost immediately and set about tending to Maltanaur, with her face grim. Legolas sent his warriors into the treetops to scout around the edge of the settlement, learning what they could. He and Beliond circled Sólith’s cottage several times, traveling through the branches and noting every bit of cover near the cottage and every window that might give them access. Then he scaled an oak and sat staring at the cottage, trying to guess what was happening there. The curtains were drawn, and no one went in or out. Beliond climbed to the branch beside him.

“We need to get the Men out of there and keep everyone else who is inside safe,” Legolas worried aloud. “And that probably means we need to know more about what is happening inside.”

Beliond nodded. “We will see what Celoril has to tell us,” he said softly, “and then we will plan.” Just as he finished speaking, they saw Celoril coming along the path toward them. They dropped to the ground and waited.

“They must be in Sólith’s cottage,” Celoril confirmed. “No one has gone in or out of there for several hours. Everyone else is accounted for except for Félas, our leader. He went to see Celuwen about something earlier today and has not been seen since.”

Legolas drew a deep breath. “Then at least we know what we have to do,” he said grimly. “Thank you. You should go home now.”

Celoril raised an eyebrow. “Nonsense. These Men have invaded our home and threatened one of our neighbors. I am going to help you. Five others are also making their way here through the trees. We have never served as warriors, but we can certainly use a bow and these Men need to be removed from our midst.”

Legolas looked at him, half in admiration and half in dismay. The idea of untrained civilians running around while a battle was going on scared the wits out of him. “It is too dangerous,” he said firmly.

“It is too dangerous to leave the Men where they are,” Celoril answered calmly.

In the back of his mind, Legolas heard his father’s voice, speaking sharply about the stubbornness of settlers. I might as well save my breath, he thought resignedly. If they will not listen to Adar, they certainly will not listen to me. “You will have to follow my commands,” he said grimly. “Otherwise, we will have chaos, and people will be hurt when there is no need.”

Celoril eyed him and Legolas met the inspection with a steady gaze. This was not something he would even consider negotiating about. Finally, Celoril nodded, apparently satisfied. “We will follow your orders, for we know we have no battle experience, but we will not leave.”

“Very well,” Legolas said, as his ears told him of the arrival of the other Elves. “Now we need to plan.”

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

*******

8. What Is Happening in There

Legolas studied the cottage in which he now knew Eilian was being held. Smoke rose from the chimney, and a faint light showed behind the curtains. None of the shutters had been closed on this warm summer night. Probably the Men were worried that doing so would look out of place.

“The dark will cover our approach to the cottage,” he said. “Men’s eyes are not good at night, and until the moon rises, they will be looking out from a lit room into darkness.” He turned to Beliond and Celoril, who crouched on the branch beside him. His patrol and the other settlers who had come to help waited in the trees all around them, keeping watch. The settlers seemed to be treating Celoril as their leader, and Legolas could only hope that meant they would follow Celoril’s softly given declaration that they were under Legolas’s command.

“The dark will help us,” Beliond agreed, “but if we go in, our eyes will need a second to adjust to the light. Much can happen in a second.”

Legolas grimaced. Beliond was right of course, but they were probably going to have to enter the cottage anyway. “We need to know more about what is happening in there,” he said slowly. “I wonder if we could see anything around the edges of the curtains.”

He felt an almost overwhelming urge to jump down from the tree and slip through the night to see what he could see at the cottage’s windows. His brother’s presence in the cottage tugged on him like a lodestone on a nail. This was Eilian, whom he had adored from earliest childhood, Eilian, who had made it clear to a small, bereaved Legolas that he would go away but he would always come back, and that Legolas could be as bad as he liked and Eilian would love him anyway.

But even in the face of an almost painful desire to be the one who crept to the cottage and peered in the windows, he knew he would have to send someone else. He could not take a chance on being hurt and leaving this mission without a leader. If he had learned anything about command during the last weeks, it was that an officer needed time to learn  his own strengths, and his warriors needed time to see those strengths and trust them.  It would not help Eilian if the patrol had to find a leader on the spur of the moment because Legolas had given in to his impulses. “I will send a scout,” he said reluctantly.

He slid to the ground, summoning his patrol at the same time. The settlers came too and stood in a little knot off to one side. Legolas turned to them first. “Can one of you describe the layout of the cottage?”

Celoril nodded. “There is a central sitting room that you enter as soon as you go through the front door. Doors lead off both sides of the sitting room to sleeping chambers. The one on the left is Celuwen’s. It would be very small. The one on the right is Sólith and Isiwen’s.”

“So the window to the left of the door leads to Celuwen’s chamber? And the one on the side of the house to her parents’?” Legolas asked.

“Yes.”

Legolas turned back to the members of his patrol, running his eyes over them and assessing their individual skills as scouts. They were unusually keyed up, he knew, and had been ever since they had realized that their former captain was one of the Elves who were apparently in danger from the Men. “We need to send a scout to check the windows and see if we can learn more about what is going on in that cottage,” Legolas said, and he would have sworn that each one of them straightened slightly, hoping that he would be the one chosen to go.

Gelmir took a slight step forward, and for a minute, Legolas’s eyes rested on him. He saw the pleading look in the face of his brother’s friend and knew that Gelmir shared his own urge to do something, anything, that might help save Eilian from whatever plight he was in. But just as being the patrol’s lieutenant kept him from satisfying his own urge, he regretfully realized, it also kept him from satisfying Gelmir’s. He needed the best scout he had, and there was no question who that was.

“Riolith,” he finally said, “you go. Everyone else spread out and watch his back. I want you with arrows ready to loose if there is the slightest sign of trouble.”

Riolith gave him a single, grim nod and then disappeared into the undergrowth, seeking a sheltered path toward the cottage. For a moment, Gelmir looked incredulous, but then Legolas saw him take a deep breath, and without a word, turn to follow the other members of the patrol into the branches, with the settlers close behind. Legolas too went back to his post in the tree, watching Riolith’s shadowy form slip from place to place as he approached his target. He found he kept holding his breath and had to consciously remind himself to let it go again.

From the corner of his eye, he caught of glimpse of Beliond’s face and saw a look that he could not quite read, despite many years’ of spending most of his time within  a few yards of the older warrior. Was Beliond questioning Legolas’s choice of a scout? His keeper had much more experience that Legolas did, and if he had advice, Legolas wanted to hear it.

“Is something the matter?” he murmured.

Beliond raised one eyebrow. “No. You do not like Riolith much, do you?”

Legolas shrugged. The question seemed completely irrelevant to him. “Not at present, no. He will be better once he has had his leave. He is almost due for one. Fortunately, he is a superb scout even when he is at his most difficult.”

Beliond’s mouth curved in a smile, and he nocked an arrow and turned back to watching the cottage. Legolas frowned at the back of his bodyguard’s head for a second and then pushed the incident from his mind and readied his own arrow. Beliond was incomprehensible sometimes, and Legolas did not have time to worry about what he might think now.

In an agony of impatience, he watched as Riolith crept in absolute silence, pausing first at the small window to the left of the cottage’s door and then the larger one to the right. Then he slid around the building’s corner to check the window on the side. Legolas glanced up hurriedly and then relaxed when he saw that Gelmir and Isendir had taken up posts that allowed them still to see Riolith. When Riolith reappeared and began making his way back toward where Legolas waited, he jumped hurriedly to the ground to wait for him.

“Legolas,” said someone just behind him and he jumped and turned to see Celoril and another settler.

“What is it?” he asked impatiently. He darted a look to see if Riolith had arrived yet, but he had not.

Celoril ignored his unwelcoming tone and indicated the other settler. “Isulas saw some things in the cottage from the tree tops.”

Legolas stared at him. “He what?”

“He went through the tree tops around the cottage and saw something in the sitting room.”

Legolas felt his anxiety flare into hot anger and turned on Isulas. “I gave no orders for that! I sent a scout who knew what he was doing. You could have given him away!”

Isulas looked astonished rather than offended. “All I did was travel through the trees. We always do that.”

Legolas opened his mouth and then shut it again with a suppressed moan. He had been about to deliver a speech that was familiar to every warrior he knew, the one that went something like “When you are under my command, you will not breathe unless and until I tell you to!” But what was the point of saying that to these settlers? They were not warriors, and they did not think like warriors. He was going to have to be very careful with them.

“What did you see?” he demanded grimly.

“A Man is holding Celuwen in front of him with a knife at her throat,” Isulas said soberly. Legolas cringed. That was bad. A hostage with a knife at her throat would be in great danger if he and his warriors tried to enter the cottage.

“Lieutenant,” said a voice, and Legolas turned to find that Riolith had returned. “I could see only into Celuwen’s chamber,” he reported, his face set. “No one is in it, but there were weapons on the floor. The sword is Eilian’s.”

Even though he had believed that Eilian was probably in the cottage, Legolas could not help the wave of anguish that washed over him at knowing for certain that Eilian was there and unarmed. What could possibly have happened that Eilian would allow Men to disarm him?

“I heard people speaking only in the sitting room,” Riolith went on, “Eilian and another male. They were speaking in Common and the other voice was strongly accented, so I assume that was one of the Men. And,” he hesitated but then pressed on, “I could smell death.”

For a second only, Legolas closed his eyes, trying to shut out the idea that someone in Sólith’s cottage had died. It was not Eilian, he comforted himself. Riolith heard him speaking. It was not Eilian yet, whispered another voice in his head, the one that had first surfaced years ago, when his mother died. Then he drew a deep breath and pulled himself together. “If the Men are killing those inside, then we need to act now.” He shoved aside the question of what Eilian would do if Legolas rescued him at the cost of Celuwen’s life.

***

“Get him out of the way,” Susta ordered, pointing his sword briefly at the body of Félas. “If someone comes along, we don’t want them seeing anything they shouldn’t.”

Eilian moved gingerly toward the body, trying to avoid stepping in the blood. He looked to where Isiwen had at last been allowed to tend to Sólith, who was just beginning to stir again. “Is there a blanket I can wrap him in, Isiwen?”

“In the chest in the corner,” she answered, indicating the chest from which Celuwen had taken bedding on the previous night. She was amazingly calm, Eilian marveled. He could see the source of some of Celuwen’s strength. He looked to Susta for permission to get the blanket.

“Wait.” The Man edged toward the chest, still watching Eilian, and then bent briefly to open it and pull out a blanket. As he did so, Eilian’s eyes flicked to Zalan, who now leaned against the wall, one arm pulling Celuwen back against him to shield himself from any move Eilian might make, and the other still holding the knife to her throat. Eilian stifled the fury he felt at Zalan’s touching Celuwen so that he could make use of the fact that Zalan’s eyes were on Susta. He dipped his fingers quickly into each of Félas’s boots, seeking to add a second dagger to his supply of weapons. To his disappointment, he found nothing. That probably meant that Sólith did not carry one either, he thought unhappily. Of course, from what Eilian could see, his father-in-law was unlikely to be of much help even if he had a weapon. Sólith was plainly still dazed and his moments of consciousness were brief.

Susta tossed the blanket to Eilian. He backed up, opened the door to Sólith and Isiwen’s sleeping chamber, and glanced inside. “Put him in here.”

Eilian spread the blanket on the floor and gently moved the body of Félas onto it, breathing a prayer as he did so. He wrapped the body in the blanket and then almost picked it up before he thought better of it and decided to drag the body to the other room. He did not want the Men to realize that Elves were stronger than they knew. With Susta watching from the chamber’s doorway, he laid Félas’s wrapped body on the floor and then responded to the jerk of the head that Susta gave to indicate he should return to the sitting room. To his secret relief, Susta closed the door to the sleeping chamber. Eilian did not want to have to think about the body in there.

Zalan had been looking restless for the last little while, and now he said something to Susta that made the other Man grunt in apparent agreement. “Woman!” Susta snapped his fingers to draw Isiwen’s attention away from Sólith. “Leave him. We need to eat. Cook the rabbits for us.”

Isiwen looked at the rabbit carcasses, lying on the floor not very far from where Félas had just been sprawled and her face paled. Eilian’s stomach protested too, so he knew what she probably felt.

Susta looked at them both. “You may be able to be fussy, but we are hungry. Cook them.”

Reluctantly, Isiwen rose from her place next to Sólith and picked up the rabbits. With her face set, she took them to the water bucket and sluiced them clean before she slid them onto the spit over the fire.

Eilian looked to see how Celuwen was doing, and found Zalan watching him. When Eilian’s gaze turned his way, he grinned and slid his hand casually over Celuwen’s breast, eyeing Eilian with a calculating gaze. Celuwen drew in her breath but made no move. Her eyes were fixed on nothing, as if she were concentrating on something in her own head rather than on what was happening in this room.

Eilian trembled with the effort it took for him to refrain from leaping at Zalan and killing him with his bare hands. I have to get her away from Zalan, he thought desperately. In truth, the only thing keeping the situation in the cottage in its current form was the knife at Celuwen’s throat. He could do nothing until that was removed. Once it was, he could and would kill Zalan as in as unpleasant a manner as he could conceive of.

Susta said something to Zalan that sounded like a reproof, and Zalan laughed but took his hand off Celuwen’s breast and contented himself with pulling her more firmly back against him. For a single, absurd second, Eilian actually felt gratitude to Susta, but then he came to his senses and considered what he had just seen. Susta was not the captain of this little group, but he evidently thought of himself as being in charge now that Khi lay unconscious. And Zalan’s actions suggested that he would defer to the other Man. Thank the Valar, Eilian thought. He would have been able to do nothing with Zalan, but Susta might be a different story.

He watched the Man, whose eyes kept darting to the fireplace, where the rabbits were just starting to cook. “You have not been eating regularly?” Susta shook his head. Eilian pondered that. These Men had come through the forest. There should have been game, even after the hard winter, but perhaps they were used to being fed from a supply wagon. Eilian had heard that the soldiers of Men sometimes relied on such things. “How do you come to be here?” he asked.

Susta grimaced. “It was Khi’s fault,” he said without hesitation, and Eilian instantly recognized the tone of a soldier about to complain about his commanding officer. He had heard the tone often enough, although seldom in his own patrol, thankfully, and had even occasionally adopted it himself.

“What happened?” he asked, making his tone as sympathetic as he could. He wanted Susta to see him as reasonably friendly, and it would not hurt at all if the Man were distracted by his own troubles.

“Our company was with some of the Dunlendings when the Men of Gondor came,” Susta said in disgust. “Why we were there, I will never know. No one tells us anything. We just had to be with the barbarians every day and then get caught on the wrong side of the river when the battle broke the wrong way. And everything was flooded. You would not believe the mud and the insects. We had to come more than forty leagues north before we found a ford we could use.”

Eilian gave a short laugh. “Officers,” he sneered. “None of them has the sense of a newborn puppy.”

“That’s the truth,” Susta spat.

Eilian looked at Celuwen and then turned to Susta. “I am sorry to trouble you with this, but I think my woman is tired.” He gestured at Celuwen. “May she sit? You know how females are.  She will become petulant if she is kept on her feet for much longer.” He offered a silent apology to his wife, who now looked at him with her brows drawn together as if she were trying to understand some puzzle.

Still absorbed in his own grievances, Susta threw a quick look toward Celuwen and then said something in his own language. When Zalan scowled and made what sounded like a protest, Susta snapped at him, and after a second, the younger Man spat onto the floor and broke eye contact.

“Woman,” Susta jerked his head at Isiwen, who was tending the rabbits, “get a chair for your daughter.”

Isiwen shot Celuwen a concerned look, pressed her lips together, and slid one of the straight-backed chairs from the table over to where Celuwen stood. She ignored Zalan and murmured something to Celuwen that even Eilian could not hear. Zalan frowned and then casually flicked the point of his knife away from Celuwen’s neck just long enough to slit the sleeve of Isiwen’s gown and leave a shallow cut in her arm before he returned the weapon to where it had been. Isiwen sucked her breath in through her teeth and turned abruptly back to the fireplace. Celuwen suppressed a cry and then sank into the chair as if her legs could hold her no more. Even from where Eilian stood, he could see that she had started to tremble. She was at the end of her tether, he thought worriedly.

But while Zalan still had the point of his knife at her throat, he now stood behind her chair while she sat, leaving his chest and head exposed. Eilian again became very conscious of the dagger in his boot. At that moment, from close outside the window, he heard the soft warble of what sounded like a bird and yet, he knew, was not. His heart leapt, and he quickly looked down to hide the expression on his face that he knew might betray him. Had Maltanaur come? Susta had claimed that the Men had “taken care” of him, but they seemed to have no idea of how tough Elves could be. And then his ears picked up the soft sounds of someone in Celuwen’s sleeping chamber. He looked up hastily and knew at once that the Men had not heard them, but the crisis had plainly arrived.

In one swift movement, he pulled the dagger from his boot and threw it at Zalan. For a second, no one moved, as the knife’s handle quivered a little where it protruded from the base of the Man’s throat.

Then, as if realizing only belatedly that he had been stabbed, Zalan’s eyes widened in surprise. Simultaneously, Celuwen leapt to her feet, whirled, and snatched up the knife that Zalan held in his hand, and Isiwen grasped the heavy spit from the fireplace and brought it down hard on Zalan’s head, splitting his skull and sending the rabbits sliding off the spit and skittering across the floor.

“Stop!” shouted Susta, and, now weaponless, Eilian spun to find the Man’s sword pointed at his chest, with the tip about a foot away. “Stop, or I will kill him!”

At that moment, several things happened at once. The door of Celuwen’s bedroom burst open, and Elven warriors erupted into the room. The front door of the cottage also opened, and to Eilian’s surprise, Legolas leapt through it with his sword already in motion. And as Legolas stabbed at Susta from behind, a knife flew past Eilian’s right shoulder and struck the Man in the chest. Eilian whirled to find Celuwen standing with her arm extended. She had thrown Zalan’s knife, he realized. She looked at him and suddenly her face crumpled, and then somehow he was across the room and holding her in his arms while she sobbed.

“Isendir, Gelmir, check the other room,” Legolas ordered, leaning forward to make sure that Susta was truly dead and then yanking his sword from the Man’s back. Warriors, who, Eilian now realized, were from the Southern Patrol, hastened to obey, with Gelmir touching his arm briefly as he hurried past. He reappeared at the chamber’s door almost immediately.

“There is a dead Elf in here,” he said grimly.

Elves who were not warriors were now pouring through the front door, and one of them hastened into the sleeping chamber, as a second put his arm around Isiwen’s shoulder. “Sólith needs a healer,” she said shakily. She looked up at her protector. “The dead Elf is Félas,” she said, as the Elf who had hurried past came back and nodded his head in agreement.

Legolas turned to one of the Elves, whom Eilian recognized as one of his in-laws’ neighbors. “Get the healer,” he order briefly and then turned back to face Eilian. “How are you?” His voice sounded tight.

“All right now that you are here, brat,” Eilian said as lightly as he could.

Legolas met his eyes and then smiled faintly. “What are brothers for?”

More of the settlement Elves were still entering the cottage, crowding the room and raising the noise level as they exclaimed to one another. Eilian felt Celuwen tremble and glanced down at her chalk-white face. “Come,” he said softly and drew her into her own room, which was empty. He pulled her close against him and stroked her hair, crooning as he did so. “You were so brave. You are safe now. It is all over.”

From the other room, he could hear Legolas raise his voice and exclaim exasperatedly, “Everybody get out, except the healer and one person to help Isiwen!”

And then came the voice of Sólith, who was finally waking up. “I give the orders in my own house, Thranduilion. Not you.”

Eilian laid his cheek against Celuwen’s hair and groaned. His father-in-law undoubtedly had a monstrous headache and no memory of the events of the last few hours, but he knew who he thought was in charge here. The everyday world had returned, it seemed.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me. And my thanks to all reviewers at Stories of Arda for their thoughts on Celuwen's guards.

*******

9. Doing Well Enough

“I cannot see that one guard is going to do us much good,” Sólith grumbled.

“The king’s warriors are needed all over the realm,” Celuwen said as patiently as she could.  Judging from the strained look around his eyes, her father’s headache was bothering him again.

“So he says.”

“So they are,” she insisted. “Adar, I sit on the king’s council. I hear the reports of what is happening everywhere. Thranduil has too few warriors to send more than one to any settlement on a permanent basis.”

Sólith looked away from her and sighed. At the hearth, Isiwen stirred the stew with what seemed like unnecessary vigor, banging the wooden spoon against the side of the pot. Celuwen’s eye was caught by the white bandaging peeping out from beneath her mother’s rolled up sleeve. The cut Zalan had made in her arm was shallow but long and was probably sore. Celuwen involuntarily touched the bandaging on her own throat and then snatched her hand away and shuddered a little. She would not think about Zalan, she vowed.

“All we want to do is live peacefully in the forest,” Sólith said at last. “I hate the idea that we are now to be trained as if we had chosen to be warriors. Is that the only fate left for any of us?”

For a moment, Celuwen wavered, recognizing the tragedy her father saw in what was happening in the Woodland Realm. And then, in her mind’s eye, she saw Eilian snatching the dagger from his boot. She saw Legolas bursting through the cottage door, with his sword gleaming in the firelight. She saw their neighbors pouring into the cottage, with their bows in their hands. And she had had enough.

With a force born of frustration, she banged her fist on the table, making her father jump. “How can you be so stubborn?” she cried, rising to her feet and leaning toward him. “Can you see nothing beyond your own desires? Do you think Eilian and Legolas want to spend their lives as warriors? Do you think that they would not like the chance to live among healthy trees in harmony with the song of Arda?”

He put his hands up as if to stem the tide of her anger, but she went relentlessly on. “You are glad enough for the protection of the king’s warriors, and if you had seen what happened in here last night, you would have been gladder still. And our neighbors seemed only too eager to help when danger was in this room.” She banged the table again, and her father winced and put one hand to his head. “How can you even think about not allowing them to be trained and to have a warrior here to lead them if danger comes again?”

Her legs wobbled, and she sank back hard into her chair, suddenly aware that she was trembling. Her mother made a sound that was surprisingly like a snort, and when Celuwen glanced her way, she saw Isiwen, with her mouth pressed in a thin line, nodding as she prodded the stew.

Sólith drew a deep breath. “I did not say I would not allow it, only that doing so was painful.”

Celuwen narrowed her eyes at him. “So you will allow it?”

He started to nod, thought better of it, and said, “Yes.”

“And you will send word to Thranduil of any change or possible sign of danger you see?”

He blew out a long breath. “Yes.”

They regarded one another for a moment, and then she smiled at him. “Good,” she said, as sweetly as she could. She rose, darted around the table, and kissed him on the top of the head. He patted her hand weakly.

“Maltanaur’s meal is ready, Celuwen,” Isiwen said and handed her a spoon and a bowl of the stew.

“Thank you, Naneth.” She carried the stew to the door of her own room, shoved it open with her hip, and went in, hearing behind her her father’s plaintive mutter and her mother’s sharp response. Maltanaur lay in the bed, his pale face turned toward her as she entered. He had obviously heard the scene in the sitting room.

“Very diplomatic,” he said with a straight face as she propped him up with pillows so he could eat. “Do you talk to Eilian that way too?”

“I have done so,” she admitted a little sheepishly. “We have known one another a long time, and Eilian can be quite maddening sometimes.”

Maltanaur grinned. “I have noticed that myself.” He opened his mouth obediently as she offered him a spoonful of stew.

She noted his increased appetite with satisfaction. Eilian would be pleased.

***

Eilian tested the edge on the dagger and then slid the whetstone over it again.

“What are you doing out here?” Gelmir’s voice asked, and Eilian looked up to see his friend smiling at him quizzically. He gestured to the grass beside him, and Gelmir folded his long legs under him and leaned back against the tree under which Eilian sat.

“Celuwen is meeting with her father about her proposal that a warrior be stationed here and train the settlers to protect themselves. I had no intention of getting caught between them. I had enough of death last night.” He ran the whetstone over his dagger again. He had meant to make a joke but somehow his words did not sound amusing.

Gelmir looked at him thoughtfully. “Surely that blade is sharp enough by now,” he said gently.

Eilian regarded the blade, in his mind’s eye seeing it once again sailing through the air to lodge in Zalan’s throat. Was it sharp enough? How sharp did it have to be to make sure that no danger ever touched Celuwen again? He drew a deep breath and then slid the dagger into its sheath in his boot. “What have you been doing?”

“I just came from taking my turn guarding Khi in the healer’s cottage. She says he will survive, but I cannot believe how slowly Men heal. Legolas says he intends to send him back to the stronghold for the king to dispose of, and I think he is going to have to travel in a litter.”

Eilian smiled. “I cannot tell you how odd it feels to watch Legolas issuing orders to the Southern Patrol warriors while I sit idly by.”

Gelmir grinned. “I know you have just enough discretion not to ask me, but I will tell you anyway that your little brother is doing well as an officer. He has enough of Ithilden in him that he can give orders with the best of them, but he looks after us, and he makes good decisions. For an officer, of course,” he added.

Eilian laughed. “I realize one has to make allowances.” He smiled to himself, thinking of his earnest little brother, now all grown up and commanding the respect of seasoned Wood-elf warriors. He wished that his father and Ithilden could be here to see it. At that thought, he brought himself up short. His meetings with his father and older brother would come soon enough. He shifted slightly, feeling the slight pull in his side where Susta had cut him and the ache in his hip from the wound he had suffered there in the spring. Neither wound bothered him much, he was happy to note.

Two maidens appeared from among the trees in front of them, one of them carrying a basket. Evidently they were gathering mushrooms, for they stopped in a patch where some were visible and began to pick them. Gelmir eyed them judiciously. “The one on the left is very pretty,” he said softly.

Eilian looked at her. “She is all right,” he shrugged.

Gelmir laughed. “I would not have believed it, but I think you are becoming a husband, my friend.” Eilian made a face, and Gelmir grinned at him. “In truth, I am glad. I think we were in our first year as novices when I realized that you and Celuwen were in love.”

Eilian raised his eyebrows. “Why did you not tell me?” he asked in mock exasperation. “It took me years to learn that.”

Gelmir shrugged. “You were busy being a pain in the backside. And Celuwen is my friend too, after all. I could not wish you upon her.”

Eilian laughed. “That is true enough,” he admitted. He leaned his head back against the tree trunk, considering Gelmir’s words. It certainly was true that he had spent many years hurting Celuwen and then resenting it when she hurt him back. “I am afraid I might be a pain to her yet,” he said slowly, not looking at Gelmir. “I love being with her. I feel complete with her near me. But I have been driven mad by this time in Ithilden’s office, and I am not sure the Home Guard is going to be any better. I seem to crave excitement like an elfling craving honey cakes.” He frowned. “Sometimes I think my adar is right about me. I do need to grow up and realize that I cannot have everything.”

Gelmir snorted softly. “I notice that no one objects to your love for excitement when it means you excel at fighting Orcs.”

Eilian shook his head. There seemed to be no answer to his dilemma. And for now, he was unlikely to be going anywhere except the Home Guard in any case, assuming that Ithilden was not angry enough at him to think of something worse.

One of the maidens dropped the last of the good mushrooms into the basket, and they both turned and came toward Eilian and Gelmir. “Mae govannen,” said the one Gelmir had admired, dimpling prettily at him.

“Mae govannen,” they chorused back and then watched as the maidens sauntered off through the woods in search of more mushrooms.

“I think she likes you, Gelmir,” Eilian murmured.

“Really?” Gelmir looked after the two departing backs.

“Really.”

Gelmir threw him an apologetic look. “Do you mind?”

Eilian grinned. “Not at all. I probably should go and check on Celuwen anyway.” Gelmir scrambled to his feet and set off after the maidens, while Eilian rose and made his more leisurely way back to Celuwen’s cottage.

As he drew near, he caught sight of Isiwen working in the family’s vegetable garden. She was hacking at the ground with a hoe, bringing it down in sharp, vicious strokes that threatened to cut down the pole bean plants around her feet. Eilian halted and then began to move toward her, thinking of the tremor he had heard in her voice the night before when she told one of her neighbors that Félas was dead. While he was still some distance away, however, Sólith came around the corner of the cottage, saw her, and immediately went to put his arms around her. For a second, she stood rigid in his embrace. Then she dropped the hoe, buried her face in his shoulder, and began to weep.

Eilian paused for a moment regarding them and then took a roundabout way through the woods, thinking how hard it was to understand how anyone’s marriage worked, including his own. He entered the cottage to find Celuwen on her hands and knees, trying yet again to wash away the blood stains where Félas had lain and Susta had fallen. She turned her face up to him as he stood in the doorway. For a moment, they regarded one another in silence. Then she looked at the floor again.

“It will never come clean,” she said, sitting back on her heels.

He took a step toward her. “In time, the stain will wear away.” And then he imitated his father-in-law and went to pull her to her feet and into his arms. She did not weep like Isiwen, but she did lean against him. They stood for a moment, holding one another.  He slid one hand under her hair to rub the back of her neck and felt the leather thong of the necklace he had made her so many years ago. When he had finally persuaded her to go to bed the night before, she had pulled it put it from a drawer and put it on, declaring in a shaking voice that it was her “rune of protection.” He wished it did possess some form of powerful magic that would keep people like Zalan away from her forever.

“Do you know what the worst thing is?” she asked, not raising her eyes to look at him.

He kissed her hair. “What?”

“I keep reliving the moment when I threw that knife at Susta and it landed in his chest, and all I feel is glee.”

He tightened his arms around her but could not think what to say.

She pulled back and looked at him. “As soon as Maltanaur and Khi can travel, I want to go home.”

He nodded, feeling a sudden flood of gratitude that her “home” was now with him.

***

A slight movement next to him drew Legolas’s attention, and he glanced over to see Eilian taking Celuwen’s hand. She looked close to tears as settler after settler stepped forward to speak about Félas, while Sólith waited patiently to light the firewood piled beneath the funeral pyre. She must have known Félas since she was a child, Legolas thought, and he had been killed right in front of her. No wonder she was upset.

He returned to listening to the funeral speeches. Even apart from Eilian’s need to support Celuwen, neither he nor Legolas had had any doubt that they needed to be present for this ceremony, although Legolas had never met Félas before and Eilian had met him only rarely. They were officers in the forces of the Woodland Realm, and more than that, they were the king’s sons. In that capacity, they both had attended more rituals and ceremonies than they could count, and sometimes been more bored than Legolas could begin to say. But he was not bored now. Félas had died at the hands of Men who had held his brother and sister-in-law hostage. The body on the pyre could so easily have been Eilian’s.

In his mind, Legolas relived the moment when he had shoved the cottage door open, leapt through it, and thrust the point of his sword between the ribs of the Man who was pointing his own sword straight at Eilian’s heart. It had not been until later, when he was standing outside talking to Beliond, that his hands had begun to shake. Beliond had taken one look at him and barked an order sending him off to his bedroll. Legolas had considered resisting, if only for the sake of his dignity, but he had suddenly realized that he was exhausted almost to the point of being unable to keep his feet.

His keeper had followed him away from the cottage, intending to make sure that Legolas did as he was told. And then he had sat next to Legolas, who had collapsed onto his blanket, and tentatively said, “When we broke into the cottage, Legolas, your sword was already moving.”

Legolas had blinked uncertainly. “Susta was right there by the door.” He had not understood what Beliond was asking.

“Our eyes had to adjust to the firelight in the cottage. How did you know it was one of the Men standing there and not Eilian?”

Legolas had opened his mouth to reply and then found he was uncertain of the answer. “I just knew,” he said, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. For a terrible moment, he had considered what would have happened if he had been mistaken. But I was right, he had thought, and Eilian is still alive.

Now, as the last speaker finished sharing his memories of Félas, Legolas put the memories of the previous night aside, and watched as Sólith put a torch to the pyre, and fire flared up around the empty husk of the settlement leader’s body. Someone began a song of mourning, and Legolas joined in along with everyone else. The voices rose and fell as the flames did their work, and then the pyre collapsed in on itself, and people began to drift away. He saw Celuwen pat Eilian’s arm and walk away with her parents to join some of the other settlers in comforting one another.

Eilian watched her go and then turned to Legolas. In silent agreement, they strolled off among the trees, not wanting to intrude on the grief of the settlers. A light breeze was stirring the tree tops, and the scent of the leaves filled Legolas’s head like wine. I will miss this when we go back to our own territory, he thought wistfully.

“Gelmir tells me that you will send Khi to Adar,” Eilian said. “If he can travel by the day after tomorrow, I can take him if you will loan me some guards. The healer says that Maltanaur will be ready to ride by then.”

Legolas nodded. He had been hoping to do just what Eilian suggested, but he had not wanted to cut short his brother and sister-in-law’s visit to Celuwen’s parents. “When is your leave up?”

“Leave?” For a moment, Eilian looked baffled, and then he grimaced. “In truth, I am not here on leave.”

Legolas frowned. “I do not understand.”

Eilian seemed to be groping for words. “Adar sent Celuwen here without me to negotiate with the settlers about a plan for their protection,” he finally admitted, not meeting Legolas’s eyes. “But I was worried about her, and as soon as I was put in charge of the Home Guard, I assigned myself to come after her. I am on duty as the Home Guard’s captain even now.” He stole a glance at Legolas, who realized that his mouth had fallen open.

“You did not clear this trip with Ithilden or Adar?” Legolas was incredulous. Surely he was mistaken in what he thought Eilian had just told him.

“No, I did not.” Eilian looked unhappy, but his mouth was also set in a stubborn line that Legolas recognized all too well. His brother did not look forward to the anger that would probably rain down on his head as soon as he reached home, but he still felt he was right in doing as he did. And as Legolas thought about it, he realized that Eilian had been right. Legolas was simply uncertain if Thranduil and Ithilden would be placated by that.

A sudden thought occurred to him, and he turned to Eilian in dismay. “I am so sorry. If you are the Home Guard’s captain now, then I should have deferred to you on the question of what to do with Khi. I thought you were still working for Ithilden.” He had already felt presumptuous giving orders to warriors who, on some level, he still regarded as Eilian’s, and now it appeared he had been stepping on Eilian’s toes as Home Guard captain too.

Eilian grinned at him. “You are doing well enough on your own, Legolas, and I have enough sense as a captain to let any competent lieutenant who wanders my way do as much work as he likes.”

Legolas felt a warm flush of pleasure. Eilian thought he was doing a good job. He thought that Legolas was competent. He felt a grin growing on his own face as he regarded his smiling brother. “Thank you,” he said, and Eilian nodded and rested a hand on Legolas’s shoulder.

They walked in companionable silence for a while, until Legolas’s thoughts returned to the trouble that Eilian was probably in at home. He fervently hoped it would not be too serious. He found it almost unbearable when Eilian quarreled with Thranduil in particular. And he realized that something in Eilian’s confession puzzled him. “Did you say Celuwen made the trip here by herself?” he finally asked. That she would be allowed to do anything so dangerous seemed highly unlikely to him.

Eilian shook his head. “Ithilden sent two guards with her.”

“Where are they?”

Eilian sighed. “I have hesitated to ask, but I would guess that she dismissed them once she arrived here.”

Legolas let out an incredulous snort. Every member of the royal family lived with the need for guards. Even those who were warriors could not escape the requirement. Legolas had served with Beliond at his side for years now, just as Eilian had served with Maltanaur. Ithilden did not even allow their father to take a ride through the woods without guards by his side. “They let themselves be dismissed?”

Eilian nodded. “I am afraid so. She can be very determined when she wants to be.”

Legolas gave a short laugh. “Ithilden will have their heads.”

“And other body parts too,” Eilian agreed. “I would go after them myself, but as I say, I know how stubborn she can be.”

“He will not be happy with Celuwen either,” Legolas added, remembering with painful clarity Ithilden’s forceful reaction to his own youthful complaints about Beliond.

Eilian shrugged. “That is Ithilden’s problem. If he wants to try to scold her, I will stay out of his way. Hers too,” he added.

Legolas could not help laughing. “The guards are probably on their way back here right now, with Ithilden’s boot print on their backsides. Once they arrive, they can help you get Khi and Maltanaur home, but if you have Celuwen with you too, I think you should have one or two more warriors as escorts. Do you not agree?” he asked, taking care to defer to a more senior officer.

Eilian only nodded however. “I would be grateful.”

Legolas drew himself up. If Eilian was going to rely on him, then he would do his best to serve him as well as he could. “My patrol should probably leave this afternoon. We have no excuse for staying any longer, and Sórion will be looking for us. But I can let you have two of my warriors. They are burying the Men right now, but I will tell them as soon as they are finished. Riolith is due for a leave soon. He should be one of those who go with you. And I think that Gelmir is the one who is next in line.” He was pleased at being able to send his brother’s friend home with him for a while, even though he was simply following his patrol’s custom of choosing those who had been away the longest to escort the wounded home.

Eilian nodded, but the corners of his mouth had twisted into a frown. “I am sorry to see you go so soon, brat. I understand, but I am sorry.”

“I am too.” Legolas felt the truth of the simple words. “But my leave will be here soon, and I will see you then, always assuming that Adar and Ithilden have left you in one piece.”

“Yes,” Eilian agreed, “always assuming that.”

Legolas knew he should go and ready his patrol for departure, but he could not bring himself to go just yet. A few more minutes in these green woods with his brother were surely not too great a self-indulgence.

 

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

10. Home for Now

Eilian urged his horse on, quickening the pace as the group drew close to home. Evening was drawing in, and through the trees, he could actually hear Elves calling to one another as they made their way toward their cottages. Then they were out of the woods and riding into the warrior training area. Eilian led them straight to the infirmary before calling his horse to a halt.

He turned to issue an order to Gelmir, who rode just to his left, with Khi suspended in a litter between his horse and Riolith’s. But he found that Gelmir and Riolith were both already on the ground reaching to untie the litter’s poles from the straps holding it. He slid from his own horse and hurried over to help Maltanaur down from his. His keeper had been flagging as the day wore on, and Eilian wanted him in bed and under a healer’s care.

“Shall we escort Lady Celuwen to the palace, Captain?” one of Celuwen’s guards asked. They had arrived at the settlement looking harassed and had been extremely attentive ever since.

Eilian had hissed a single warning at them: “Never again let me hear that you have left someone you are guarding alone, no matter what they told you to do.”

He must have looked menacing because they both had both paled, saluted, and smartly responded, “Yes, Captain.”

Now he looked at them, intending to tell them to take Celuwen home, but he found that she, too, was off her horse and taking Maltanaur’s other arm. “I will help you with Maltanaur.” She smiled at the guards. “You may go.” As one, they turned to look at Eilian, who nodded resignedly.

“Send someone who is on night duty to guard Khi in the infirmary,” he ordered. “Tell Elviondel that we are back and that Khi is with us. And someone should notify Maltanaur’s wife.”

“Shall we see to the horses too, Captain?” one of the guards asked. Eilian nodded, and they gathered all the horses and led them off toward the stables. He drew Maltanaur’s arm over his shoulders, and he and Celuwen began helping him into the infirmary.

“The guards are very solicitous,” Celuwen said from Maltanaur’s other side. Maltanaur’s eyes slid toward her.

“Indeed,” said Eilian dryly, and Maltanaur looked back at him. “But I was surprised when I arrived at the settlement and did not find them there with you. I thought you promised me you would stay with them.” He had refrained from speaking to Celuwen about this until now, but he was annoyed by her seemingly complete lack of awareness that she had done anything wrong.

“I did stay with them.” Celuwen sounded surprised, and Maltanaur looked back at her. “I never strayed more than a few yards from them during the entire trip. But once I was there, I felt selfish keeping them with me. I know how much Ithilden needs every warrior.”

Eilian opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Maltanaur cut in. “Finish this discussion at home, please. I am wounded already and would prefer not to be in the middle of another battle.” They exchanged guilty looks across his chest.

By this time, they had entered the main corridor of the infirmary, and a healer was running toward them, calling for help. Eilian could see Khi already lying on the bed in the nearest room, and the healer took Maltanaur’s arm from Celuwen and hustled him into the next one. “He was stabbed in the back,” Eilian explained. “He is better, I think, but he lost a lot of blood.”

He heard a commotion in the hallway, and Maltanaur’s wife appeared in the doorway. Eilian knew that there had not been enough time for a messenger to reach her, so he assumed she had sensed her husband’s presence. She was out of breath and plainly worried. He could see Celuwen hovering behind her. “I knew you were in trouble,” she scolded gently, resting her hand on Maltanaur’s shoulder as he lay on his stomach on the bed while the healers looked at the wound in his back.

Maltanaur reached up and grasped her wrist. “I am already on the mend, Nindwen. Do not fuss.”

The healer’s apprentice slid between Eilian and the bed, bearing a salve and clean bandaging. Eilian suddenly realized how crowded the room was. He and Celuwen should get out of the way. “I will be back tomorrow,” he told Maltanaur.

“Look for me at home. I am not staying here,” his keeper declared. His wife looked exasperated, but he ignored her. “And, Eilian?” With some difficulty, he raised his head and turned it toward Eilian.

“Yes?”

“Be respectful, but do not forget that you were right.”

Eilian blinked uncertainly. Was Maltanaur giving him advice about his imminent meeting with Thranduil and Ithilden?  Maltanaur had said several times that Eilian was foolish to have gone off on his own as he did. Could he actually be supporting Eilian now rather than Thranduil and Ithilden? The healer’s apprentice glanced curiously from Maltanaur to Eilian, and Eilian knew that his keeper would say nothing further about this now, so he simply bid them all good evening and went out into the hall, where Celuwen waited for him.

They stood looking at one another for a second. From behind him, Eilian could hear Maltanaur’s wife murmuring to him. Celuwen bit her lip, and then they simultaneously reached for one another’s hands. Fingers entwined, they walked home together in silence as the summer stars opened over their heads.

The guards at the Great Doors stiffened when they recognized Eilian. They were Home Guard warriors and under his command now. He nodded to them but did not speak. When he and Celuwen entered the hallway in which the royal family lived, he spotted a servant coming from the dining room with a rumpled table cloth thrown over one arm.

“My lord,” the servant said in obvious surprise, “we were not expecting you.” He looked faintly apprehensive. Alfirin had the household servants too well trained to admit to knowing when family quarrels were in process, but they inevitably did know.

“I take it the meal is over?”

“Yes, my lord. The family is in the sitting room, I believe.”

Eilian handed him the two packs he carried and then, in wordless agreement, he and Celuwen went on to the sitting room. There was no point in delaying the meetings with his father and brother. He might as well get them over with. He paused with his hand on the sitting room latch, and Celuwen touched his arm. “I do not know what your adar or Ithilden will say, Eilian, but I am deeply grateful that you risked their wrath to protect me.”

And suddenly his world narrowed to her face, which he had always thought beautiful enough in its way but had valued most for its expressiveness. And now she looked at him with love.

And he recognized the simple truth that she was what mattered most to him now. His father’s and brother’s anger would not be pleasant, but he would survive it, and he would go home to her afterwards with what was at his core still intact. Some time in the last few months, the emotional center of his universe had shifted, and now it lay in Celuwen. He kissed her brow, and together, they entered the sitting room.

Thranduil sat in his large chair near the empty hearth, with Ithilden and Alfirin on a high-backed bench across from him. All three of them turned in surprise when the door opened. Thranduil’s and Ithilden’s faces immediately became guarded. Ithilden’s jaw set, and Thranduil placed his cup of wine carefully down on the table by his elbow. But Alfirin leapt to her feet with a cry of welcome.

“I am so glad you are back! We have been worried about you. Have you eaten?”

Eilian’s eyes were on Thranduil and Ithilden, but Celuwen answered Alfirin’s question. “We did not stop to eat because Eilian wanted to get home before dark.”

“I will send for something for you,” Alfirin declared and started toward the door.

Ithilden rose to his feet. “I want to talk to Eilian, Alfirin.”

She turned to him in exasperation. “Can it not wait?”

“No, it cannot.” He turned to Thranduil, who was frowning slightly at him. “May I borrow your office, my lord? I want to speak to my officer.”

Eilian stiffened his spine, much as the guards at the Great Doors had stiffened theirs when he appeared. Ithilden was making it quite clear that, at the moment, he was Eilian’s commander, not his brother. And as a commander, he was plainly furious at an officer who had gone off on a rogue mission far outside the scope of his assigned duties.

Thranduil let out a long breath. “Very well.” He turned a cool gaze on Eilian, and for a moment, they regarded one another. Eilian withstood the scrutiny with as much stoicism as he could muster. His father had apparently decided to let Ithilden take the first jab at him. That made sense. Thanduil’s concern would be as his father, and he would be willing to wait for Ithilden to decide what to do about the violation of military discipline.

“I will send for something cold then,” Alfirin said resignedly.

“Wait,” Celuwen put in, and they all turned to her, surprised by this disruption of what all of them, including Alfirin, might have predicted would happen on Eilian’s return. Eilian still held her hand and felt the small tremor that ran through it. He squeezed it slightly. “I want to tell you my news,” Celuwen went on. “The settlers agreed to accept the plan I offered.”

Thranduil’s face dissolved into a delighted smile. “Félas agreed?”

Celuwen shook her head. “Félas is dead. The easterlings who came to the settlement killed him. My adar is the group’s leader now, and he agreed.”

Thranduil, Ithilden, and Alfirin all stared at her, and even Thranduil’s eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean?” he demanded.

She told the tale of how the Men had come bursting into her parents’ cottage when only she and her mother were present and of all that had happened afterwards.

“They are all dead?” Thranduil demanded sharply. “There were no others?”

“We brought Khi back with us,” Eilian told him. “He is in the infirmary, and you should be able to question him. There were no others in the settlement, but I do not know if there might be some in other parts of the woods.”

Thranduil and Ithilden exchanged looks. “I will ask all the captains to be on the alert,” Ithilden said, and Thranduil nodded, although his posture was still tense. He did not like this invasion of his woods.

Ithilden turned back to Eilian. “I still want to speak to you,” he said, his mouth tightening. Eilian dropped Celuwen’s hand and stepped aside so that Ithilden could precede him from the room. Then he followed him into Thranduil’s office and shut the door.

Ithilden began pacing in front of the fireplace, leaving Eilian standing too. On the other hand, he did not order Eilian to attention, which Eilian could only hope was an encouraging sign. “Eilian, I am at a loss as to where to even begin telling you what I think of your behavior in this matter. I rely on my captains. I have to. And I thought I could trust you among them. So what am I to think when you go off on your own like this? The newest novice is told over and over that being a warrior is not an individual enterprise. How could you possibly have thought that you had the right to walk away from your assigned duties?” He turned to face Eilian with his jaw thrust forward. “If you have anything sensible to say, you have permission to speak.”

Eilian drew a deep breath. “I could have assigned someone to check on that settlement. It is within the Home Guard’s territory. I simply assigned myself.”

Ithilden gave a sharp, sarcastic laugh. “You are trying my patience! You know as well as I do that captaining a patrol does not give you the right to do anything you like with it or to use it to satisfy your personal concerns.”

“This was not personal,” Eilian insisted and then amended his argument quickly when Ithilden’s eyes narrowed disbelievingly. “Or rather, it was, but it was also related to the safety of the Home Guard territory. I knew there was trouble, and you and Adar would not listen to me. What would you have had me do? If I had not been there, Celuwen would have been dead when Legolas and his warriors entered the cottage. If it had been Alfirin in the woods, what would you have done?”

Ithilden drew back slightly. For a moment, they stood in silence. “I do not know,” Ithilden finally confessed. He drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “But Eilian, you know as well as I do that I need to be able to predict where my forces are, particularly the Home Guard, which is closest and which I will have to make use of if there is some emergency. I cannot accept a situation in which you decide for yourself whether you will be where I expect you to be. For one thing, it looks as if I have accorded you special privileges because of who you are.”

For the first time, it occurred to Eilian that Ithilden was considering stripping him of his captain’s rank. The thought appalled him. “You know that this was an exception,” he cried, trying desperately to read his brother’s inscrutable face. “I am a good captain. As for what others may think, unless you told them, no one knows I did not have your approval to go to the settlement.”

Ithilden snorted. “Your lieutenant could probably tell from the look on my face when I heard. And it has been quite clear to anyone with eyes that both Adar and I have been angry.”

“That could have been about anything!”

Ithilden raised an eyebrow, and suddenly the mood lightened a little and they exchanged half smiles meant to acknowledge the fact that Eilian managed to provoke both Thranduil and Ithilden with some regularity.

Then Eilian sobered again and bit his lip. “I am sorry, Ithilden. But I cannot pretend I would do otherwise if I had to do it over.”

Ithilden turned away for a moment, looking at the floor and rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. Then he seemed to resolve something and turned back to face Eilian. “I am going to leave you as Home Guard captain,” he said. Eilian’s knees went weak with relief. “I assume that your absence means there is a great deal of paperwork to catch up with,” Ithilden went on, “and I want to see you hard at work among your warriors and in the office. I do not want a single report to arrive late or a single task to be left undone.”

Eilian recognized the message he was being sent: He was not to set a toe out of line for the foreseeable future. If he did, the wrath of Mordor would come flaming down around his ears. “Of course,” he said. “You can count on me.”

“I had better be able to,” Ithilden said. Eilian shifted his weight slightly, assuming they would now rejoin the others in the sitting room, but Ithilden stayed where he was. “There is one other thing,” he said. “Celuwen dismissed her guards. Can you tell her not to do that again?”

Eilian suppressed a groan. “I think that should be your job,” he protested weakly.

Ithilden pursed his lips. “No. You should do this.”

Eilian looked at him dismally. A bargain was being proposed here, and he had no choice but to agree to it. “Very well,” he agreed. “I will speak to her.” That he would do as Ithilden asked and “tell her” not to dismiss her guards again was out of the question. But when the moment was right, he could at least bring the topic up. He considered what such a moment would be and then slowly smiled to himself. Perhaps he could find a good time if he worked at it hard enough.

***

“I know that Eilian enjoyed seeing Legolas, even in such unfortunate circumstance,” Celuwen said. The door opened, and a servant brought in a tray of bread, cheese, and fruit and, at Alfirin’s signal, set it on the table nearest Celuwen. Thranduil thought that Alfirin looked horrified by the story that Celuwen had just told them, but she rallied at the idea of feeding someone. She poured a glass of wine and pressed it into Celuwen’s hand.

“Legolas was well?” Thranduil asked, trying to conceal just how gratified he was by even this second-hand glimpse of his youngest son.

“He was,” Celuwen agreed. “In truth, Eilian was not the only one who was glad to see him. We were all fortunate that he arrived when he did.” She smiled. “I have seen so little of him, and Eilian always talks about him as his little brother, but he looked like a capable Wood-elf officer to me. You must be very proud of him.”

“I am.” Thranduil could not help smiling in return. Legolas was doing well. Of course there had been no reason to think he would not, but hearing it was so was gratifying anyway.

“And you must be proud of Eilian too, of course,” Celuwen went on. “I do not know what I would have done if he had not been there. I do not think I would still be alive because Zalan would still have had his knife at my throat when Legolas’s warriors burst in.”

Alfirin rose from her place on the bench to put some bread and cheese on a plate and hand it to Celuwen, who accepted it and began to eat. Alfirin’s face was pale but determined, and Thranduil recognized the look: She was about to try to turn the talk away from a topic that she thought was too unpleasant for this family time.

Celuwen forestalled her, however, by plunging doggedly on. “I am lucky Eilian sensed danger when he did and acted upon his instincts. But then one of the things that has always appealed to me about him is his tie to the forest. He is a Wood-elf. I think even my adar knows that.”

Thranduil regarded her steadily, and she smiled sweetly at him. “Are you trying to tell me something, daughter?” he asked dryly.

“I am saying thank you, Adar,” she said and there was no mistaking the sincerity in her voice. “You and Eilian’s naneth raised an Elf who is courageous, and perceptive, and dear to my heart.”

Thranduil made a non-committal noise, well aware that while she meant what she said, she was also asking him to think about his second son’s good qualities as well as whatever it was Eilian had done to anger him. He reflected on the events in the settlement that Celuwen had just told him about, feeling again the cold hand grip his heart when he thought about the danger that both of his sons had been in. Eilian had actually been in the cottage with the Men, had had a sword hovering just inches from his chest when Legolas burst into the room.

Thranduil rubbed his temples wearily. He had been angry when Ithilden told him of what Eilian had done. Indeed, if he were honest with himself, he had to admit that he had been angry even before that. He still had not forgiven Eilian for bonding in a manner that seemed so scornful of his family, and in particular, of Thranduil. Eilian’s disregard of the proper ceremonies had infuriated him and, he suddenly realized, had hurt him. Why was it that his relationship with this second son was so troubled when Eilian was so like his mother, whom Thranduil had treasured?

He closed his eyes for a moment. What was the real issue here? Eilian had flouted his duty as an officer, of course, but Ithilden was dealing with that, as was his right. So what did Thranduil want? Did he want Eilian to deny his feelings for the woods? What would he have done if he had been able to sense the danger that killed Lorellin? He knew that answer to that easily enough: If he had thought he might be able to save her, no power in Arda could have stopped him from trying.

He sighed. He would put this away to think of on another day. He turned to Celuwen. “Your adar agreed to your plan, you say?”

“Yes, he did. I am afraid I was forceful with him. I had not quite realized before how annoyingly stubborn he could be. He should hear the things I hear as one of your advisors.”

Thranduil smiled to himself at her energetic reply. He had thought that his daughter-in-law might think differently once she had gotten a wider view of the realm than the one she had undoubtedly heard in the settlement.

The door opened, and Eilian and Ithilden walked into the room. Looking serene, Ithilden returned to his place at Alfirin’s side. Eilian smiled reassuringly at Celuwen, but then shot a sharp glance at his father. To Thranduil’s eyes, he looked apprehensive. Thranduil drew a deep breath. “You should eat something, Eilian.”

Eilian’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he obediently took some bread and cheese and sat down next to Celuwen.

Thranduil eyed him and then smiled slightly. “It appears you were right to be worried about the Men in the woods. It is fortunate that you were at the settlement.” To Thranduil’s secret amusement, Eilian’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. Ithilden, too, blinked in surprise, but Celuwen smiled at him. It was good to be able to startle one’s children sometimes, Thranduil reflected.

***

Legolas led his little band out from among the sad, withering trees and into the clearing where the Southern Patrol was camped. Warriors were just beginning to rouse themselves from their morning’s sleep, and several turned as the four warriors rode into sight. Sórion rose from where he was seeing to the wound on a warrior’s thigh, and Legolas slipped from his horse’s back and approached him, leaving Beliond to tend to their mounts.

“Where are Riolith and Gelmir?” Sórion demanded, his face lined with worry.

“They are unharmed,” Legolas said hastily. “We found the Men. They turned out to be Easterling soldiers from the war to the south of us.” He launched into the tale of what had happened in the settlement. By the time he had finished, stew was being ladled from the pot over the cooking fire, and he and Sórion both got bowls of it and went to sit near a blackened oak tree that still showed signs of life near its top.

“Eilian is captain of the Home Guard now?” Sórion asked, and Legolas nodded, wondering what Sórion thought about the captain he had replaced. Eilian had been popular with his warriors, and Sórion knew it.

Sórion smiled slightly. “I expect he does not like that much, although I suppose that now that he is married he might prefer to be home more too.”

Legolas held his tongue. He really did not know what Eilian would prefer.

“My guess is that Eilian will be back here eventually,” Sórion went on. “He loves this patrol.”

Legolas ate a spoonful of the stew. Sórion seemed unconcerned about Eilian’s eventual return. “Would you mind if Eilian came back?”

Sórion shook his head. “No, I will be ready to go elsewhere when he does. My desire is simply to protect the realm and send all of my warriors home again safely.” Sórion’s wish did not seem like too much to ask, but both he and Legolas knew that it probably was.

Still, Legolas understood it. He had been deeply grateful to be able to tell Sórion that everyone under his temporary command was unhurt. When they had been getting ready to invade Celuwen’s cottage, he had been too concerned for Eilian and too caught up in laying their plans to worry about his warriors over much, but afterwards, he had looked at the wounded Maltanaur and been secretly relieved that no one under his command had suffered while carrying out his orders. He was bracing himself to deal with that the first time it happened. His excursion to find the Men had left him far better able to understand Sórion’s caution.

As he and the captain ate, Legolas automatically scanned the patrol’s warriors, looking for signs of any problems, but all seemed routine. The patrol members were eating and then gathering their belongings into their packs so that they could move quickly when they had to. Isendir and Fendîr were being greeted and welcomed back by the others. Legolas could hear laughter as someone asked Isendir if he was worried about being back around the Black Tree Beetle. Legolas glanced over to see Sórion smiling slightly.

“Isendir seems to be settling in,” Sórion observed.

Legolas nodded. “I think so. He is irreverent, but he does as he is told.”

Sórion considered that information. “Will he hurt morale, do you think?”

“Probably not, more likely the opposite.”

Sórion nodded, trusting Legolas’s judgment. Then he handed his empty dish to Legolas. “Tell Análas and Tinul that it is their turn to do cleanup.” He rose and went to speak to the Elves who would scout that night, leaving Legolas to take their dirty dishes and assign the undesirable task of washing them.

Legolas started across the campsite. Suddenly he realized that talk stopped as he passed the various groups of warriors. They are reacting to me as an officer, he thought in surprise. He had not noticed them doing it before, but now that he thought about it, his companions’ behavior toward him had been changing gradually over the last month or so. A small glow of pleasure bloomed in his breast. These Elves respected him and trusted him to lead them.

He found Análas and Tinul and handed them the dishes. “Your turn,” he said briefly.

They wrinkled their noses in identical signs of reluctance. “Yes, lieutenant,” Tinul said, and they rose and started off to do the task.

Legolas walked back across the camp alone to check on his own gear. Tonight, they would hunt Orcs. His pulse quickened a little. He was not in his father’s stronghold, but this place, this patrol, was home for now, and he was glad to be back doing what he had been born to do.

The End

 





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