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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
AN: This story is set between “See the Stars” (the first story I ever wrote) and another story called “In Mirkwood” or “Prodigal Sons,” depending on which site you read it on. Legolas would be about 16 in human terms. You don’t really need to read “See the Stars” to understand this one, but you do need to know that at the end of it, Legolas knifes and kills an Elf-woman who was betraying Thranduil’s people to Sauron. It was the first time he had ever killed another person.
1. Getting Better
Legolas bit his lip as Tonduil swung his sword yet again at the thick rod that served as their practice target today. And yet again, the target quivered but remained intact. On Legolas’s left, Galelas let out a soft, scornful sigh. Legolas threw him a frown. They were not supposed to criticize one another’s sword work unless the master asked them to. And besides, anyone could see that Tonduil was already upset by his inability to slice through the target. He was doing his best, and derision would not make him do any better. Galelas ignored Legolas and poked impatiently at the ground with the tip of his sword. They were almost done for the morning, and Galelas, who had already had his turn, was probably ready to be off. He had never put much faith in the idea that he could learn from watching the other students.
Legolas turned back to the field to find Tonduil, his face flushed, coming to sit with his waiting classmates, while Thelion beckoned to Legolas, who took a deep breath and rose to answer the blade master’s summons. You can do this, he told himself sternly. But somehow, the reassurance did not help and his breath quickened a little. He faced the target and raised his sword into the high guard position. An image of the last time he had held a blade flitted suddenly across his mind, and he hastily shut it out. That was a dagger, he thought. This is weapons training, and I am facing a stupid post, not another Elf.
“Loosen your thumb and forefinger,” Thelion said. Suddenly realizing that he was gripping the sword so tightly that it hurt, Legolas adjusted his hold. “Take some practice swings,” said the blade master, and Legolas tentatively swept the sword down and around and then brought it up to swing it again. “Keep your elbow in front of your shoulder or you will lose power. And remember, the object is not to club the target. Whip the sword around and let it do the work.” Legolas swung the sword again, trying to follow the blade master’s directions. “Good,” Thelion said. “Now try the target.”
Legolas faced the target. The substantial stick was nearly four inches thick and was sturdily anchored. They were using sharp swords today, rather than the usual blunted practice swords. They had sharpened them themselves and then gone through several sword forms, flourishing the gleaming weapons in the warm summer sunshine.
This was the first sword class that Legolas had attended in nearly a month, and on the previous night, he had dreamed badly, reliving yet again the moment when he had sunk a dagger into the body of a pretty Elf maid. She is a spy, he had pleaded with his dreaming self. She will kill the other Elf woman if I do not stop her. She is weaker than you, his dreaming self had cried. You could knock her weapon aside or talk her into stopping! He had awakened as he always did, drenched in cold sweat, and lain in the dark trying to slow his racing heart and convince himself that he had done the right thing.
Gradually his mind had turned to worrying about the sword fighting class he would begin attending again that day. The thought of stabbing at another with any sort of blade left him nearly sick, so he had been grateful to find himself facing only empty air instead of sparring with a classmate. Then Thelion had brought out the target, and everyone else had jumped enthusiastically at the chance to chop it in two with their shiny, sharp weapons. Legolas had feigned enthusiasm too, but he had immediately begun to worry that he might somehow disgrace himself by being unable even to strike at the post.
Now he stood here, facing both the target and the fear that every idea he had ever had about his future was about to be proved mistaken. He took a deep breath, stepped forward on his right foot, and swung. With a shock that he felt all the way to his elbow, the sword collided with the target and made a visible dent but did not slice through it. He let out a grunt of frustration and glanced at the blade master to see if Thelion’s face would show him to be disappointed in Legolas’s failure, if he would see it as part of Legolas’s prolonged weakness in coming to terms with his own actions.
The weapons masters all knew that he had stayed away from classes because he had been deeply shaken by the fact that he had killed another Elf. He had done it in defense of someone else, true, but to Legolas, it had still felt like a kinslaying. To his utter dismay, Ithilden had insisted that the masters be told, on the grounds that a student needed an explanation for missing so many classes, even if the student was the king’s son. Legolas had never expected special treatment from the masters, and he grudgingly admitted that his brother was probably right, but he had still been horrified to know that the masters were being told about what he had done. He wondered now what the blade master could possibly think of him.
“You let your elbow drift back,” Thelion said. “Try again.”
Legolas blinked at his matter-of-fact tone and then turned to the target again. He raised his sword over his left shoulder, carefully positioned his elbow and swung. With an ease that astonished him, the sword chopped right through the target. He finished his swing, brought the sword back into middle guard position, and held it there, elation sweeping through his body. He had done it! He could swing a sword after all!
“Good!” called Thelion. “You see what a difference the position of that elbow makes to the amount of power you have.”
Grinning in relief, Legolas dragged the sleeve of his tunic across his sweaty forehead and went to join his classmates, who were all now springing to their feet, preparing to be dismissed. “Nice cut,” Annael grinned. Legolas beamed at him. He knew that Annael wondered about what had kept him away from weapons training, but he also knew that his friend would never ask, just as he had not asked during the free time that they had idled away together during the two weeks that had passed since Legolas had been allowed out of the palace. Legolas knew no one who had a deeper respect for others’ privacy than Annael did. It was one of the many things that made him an easy companion for the king’s son.
“You all did well,” Thelion told them. “We will work with these swords again soon. For now, put them in the rack and then take the rack back to the storage hut.” He strode off the training field toward the hut the masters all shared, and the students buzzed around the rack, slotting their swords in place and chattering about the class.
Legolas found himself standing next to Tonduil, who still looked vexed by the difficulties he had had. Legolas did not understand why Tonduil did so poorly with weapons. He was certainly strong enough. Legolas had seen him working in the woods with his forester father, and he could manage any horse that had ever entered the area around Thranduil’s stronghold. But when they sparred, his fighting was almost purely defensive. Any attack was so tentative that his opponent easily drove it back. But of course, Legolas thought, he did not know what his own sparring would be like now. Today’s success had made it seem more likely that he would do well there too, but he was still uncertain.
“That was hard,” he told Tonduil, trying to offer comfort.
Someone snorted, and he turned to see that Galelas had come up behind them. “If you would show up for classes, you might find it easier,” Galelas said, sliding his sword into the rack. “But I forgot. Unlike the rest of us, you probably think you do not have to bother with that.” Legolas opened his mouth to protest, but Galelas had already turned his back. “Come on, Isendir,” Galelas said. “Those of us who consistently come to class should get some reward for it. We will let the ones who do nothing for weeks on end make up for it by putting the swords away.”
Fury rising, Legolas took a step after them, but Tonduil grabbed his arm. “Help me move the rack,” he said. He gestured toward the rack of practice swords, and reluctantly, Legolas took one end while Tonduil took the other and they began to move it toward the storage hut, with Annael walking along beside them.
“My sister is going to dine with your family tonight, Legolas,” Tonduil said, grinning at him. Legolas slowly let go of his anger and smiled back. His oldest brother had been tentatively courting Tonduil’s sister, Alfirin, for a while now, and both of them had been watching the progress of the romance with interest. Legolas knew that Tonduil admired Ithilden and would be only too happy to have him bond with his sister. Legolas liked Alfirin well enough, but he was a little uncertain of what it would be like if Alfirin and Ithilden actually bonded and she came to live in the palace.
“You will all have to use the silverware then, Legolas,” Annael observed, his face solemn. “No eating with your hands.”
Tonduil gaped at him, and then when Annael broke into a grin, burst out laughing. “I will tell Alfirin,” he pledged. “I would not want her to disgrace our family.”
They stowed the practice swords and then started back across the field to take the path home. Suddenly, Legolas stopped, for a tall figure had detached itself from the shade under a large oak and now stood waiting for him. How long had Ithilden been watching? he wondered resentfully. Had he been there throughout the whole class, afraid perhaps that Legolas would freeze up or run from the field, and big brother would have to step in?
Sometimes it felt to Legolas as if Ithilden and Thranduil had both watched him continually since the event. Since the killing, he corrected himself savagely. If his brother Eilian were not away on patrol, he would probably be doing the same thing. Suddenly, at the edge of the field, a second figure moved out of the shadows, and he recognized Alfirin, who had come to meet Tonduil. The tension in Legolas’s stomach eased. Was that why Ithilden was there? It must be. Relieved, he started walking again.
“Mae govannen,” Annael said, and Legolas remembered his manners and greeted his brother and Alfirin.
“How was your class?” Alfirin asked Tonduil, who was standing with his hands on his hips, watching Galelas and Isendir disappear down the path.
He grimaced. “All right,” he said noncommittally. “Galelas was as big an Orc as he always is though. Did you see him and Isendir leaving the rest of us to clean up?”
Legolas blinked. He had never heard Tonduil complain about Galelas before, although like all of them, he had had cause enough. He must have been more upset than Legolas had realized about his failure to cut the target.
Alfirin frowned slightly. “That was not very nice of them, I admit. But Tonduil, you do not know what reasons Galelas might have for his behavior, and until you know what it is like to be him, you should try to be more generous.”
“I know what it is like to be near him,” Tonduil said in disgust. “Is that not enough?”
Alfirin laughed and slid her hand through his crooked elbow to take his arm. “Walk me home, little brother,” she said, a bit ironically, since he was now the same height she was, “and I will feed you some of the vegetable soup I made for our mid-day meal.” Tonduil brightened immediately, and Alfirin smiled at them all, with her eyes coming to rest on Ithilden. “I will see you this evening then, my lord.” Ithilden smiled back at her, and she and Tonduil started along the path, with Annael accompanying them.
Legolas and Ithilden walked in the other direction, going toward the palace. “So did you have a good class?” Ithilden asked cautiously.
“Yes. We used sharpened swords.”
Ithilden’s face relaxed a little, and he smiled. “Thelion told me you would be using sharp swords today rather than sparring. I remember when I first used one to slice at a target. It was very gratifying to see that target fall.”
Legolas kept his head down so Ithilden would not see him frown. Had Ithilden and Thelion been talking about him? Part of Ithilden’s responsibility as their father’s troop commander was keeping track of weapons training, but Legolas could not recall him being so interested before. Stop it, he scolded himself despairingly. The healer said you are judging yourself and everyone else too harshly. That sounded right when the healer said it, but Legolas found he had trouble believing it all the time.
“The class went well,” he finally said, knowing that his voice was tight. “Just as the archery class did yesterday. You and Adar do not have to worry about me Ithilden!”
They walked along in silence for a few minutes, and Legolas glanced sideways and cursed silently to see his brother’s brow puckering. “Legolas,” Ithilden began, but Legolas cut him off.
“Tonduil says that Alfirin is dining with us tonight.”
Ithilden sighed and then accepted the change of subject. “Yes, she is.”
“She has never done that before,” Legolas commented. “Does this mean you have finally convinced her to treat your suit seriously?” He was pleased to see a faint flush creeping up Ithilden’s neck.
“That is none of your business,” Ithilden said stiffly. He looked at Legolas, who raised an eyebrow in a deliberate imitation of their father, and suddenly both of them laughed. “Point taken,” Ithilden conceded. He hesitated. “But Legolas, if you ever want to talk about what happened--.”
“I do not.”
Ithilden sighed and conceded the point. They entered the palace, and then parted as Legolas went to his chamber to shed the sweat and dirt of the training fields. He pulled off his tunic and went through into the bathing chamber, filled the basin with warm water, and scooped up a double handful of it to splash on his face. Then he reached for the soap and began scrubbing at his hands. Suddenly he realized he was still scouring at his right hand although the dirt had disappeared. He stopped and clenched it so hard that his nails bit into his right palm. It is clean, he told himself, but he kept seeing again the maiden’s blood that had stained it.
Thranduil entered the dining room to find Ithilden already there. “Good afternoon, Adar,” Ithilden said, rising to his feet.
Thranduil nodded in return and gestured Ithilden into his chair as he too seated himself. “Is Legolas coming?”
“Yes,” Ithilden said. “I walked back from the training fields with him.”
Before Thranduil could ask Ithilden how Legolas had done in the sword fighting class, the door opened and Legolas entered the room. His face was set much too tightly for Thranduil’s liking, and he felt a sudden helpless despair. His child was so plainly suffering, and Thranduil longed for nothing so much as to take Legolas in his arms and have him pour out the tale of his pain, but Legolas had refused to talk to any of them about killing the Elf-woman. He had agreed to talk to one of the healers about it, and she was teaching him to order his mind so as to calm it. Thranduil had finally decided that he was going to have to wait until Legolas was ready to speak. He had no other choice really. “How was your class?” Thranduil asked, trying to sound casual.
Legolas graced him with a faint smile, making Thranduil’s heart lift a little. “It went well, Adar.” He looked to Thranduil for permission to sit and took his place. The servant ladled stew into the bowls in front of each of them, put a basket of bread on the table, and then silently departed.
Thranduil sighed as Legolas lowered his eyes to his meal. “I have agreed to purchase some of the horses the merchant showed us yesterday, Ithilden.”
“Good,” Ithilden said, and the meal passed with the two of them talking lightly and Legolas eating in silence.
Feeling as if a weighty stone were lifting off his shoulders, Legolas dropped off the books he had used at his lessons, and then flew out of the palace and along the path to Annael’s cottage. It had been obvious to Legolas from the first that his tutor too knew about the killing, because he had suddenly stopped the history lessons about the First Age and set Legolas to learning the history of Gondor. Kinslaying was apparently a forbidden subject, Legolas thought with a grimace. At Annael’s, though, there would be people who were fond of him and knew nothing about what had happened.
He knocked on the door of the cottage, and a moment later, Annael’s mother stood smiling in the doorway. “Good day, Legolas,” she said, stepping back out of the way to let him in. “I understand the three of you are going riding. Come into the kitchen and have some bread and jam before you go.”
“Three of us?” Legolas asked in surprise. He had been expecting only Annael. Perhaps Tonduil was going to join them. When Elowen laughed and gave no explanation, he made his way willingly along the hall. He had had many a meal of Elowen’s bread and jam over the years. He reached the kitchen doorway and came to a halt. “Turgon!” he cried. “When did you get back?”
“This morning,” Turgon grinned. “I hope you and Annael have been behaving yourselves while I have been off riding with the patrols on my family’s woodland home.”
Fascinated, Legolas dropped into a chair. “Did you really ride with the patrols?” He accepted the slice of bread Elowen put on the plate in front of him and reached for the jam jar.
“I did,” Turgon assured him smugly.
Elowen ruffled his hair as she passed behind his chair on the way to take a seat at the end of the table and peel the vegetables she was carrying. “I, for one, am glad you are back safely and hope you do not intend to do anything so dangerous again until you are a few years older.”
Turgon scowled and reached to smooth his hair, but Legolas could see he was pleased by Elowen’s concern. For a second, Legolas wondered if having Alfirin in his family would be like having Elowen. If Legolas had had to make a list of his favorite people, Annael’s parents would both have been high on it.
“Have the two of you done anything except boring old training and lessons while I was gone?” Turgon asked.
There was a second of silence, and Legolas could see Elowen pause in peeling the vegetables. “No,” he said firmly, and after a further split second, Elowen resumed her work. Turgon did not even know that anything out of the ordinary had happened, Legolas thought with a kind of longing. Being with him would be like being normal again.
“Hurry up and eat,” said Turgon. “Annael and I have already finished, and I want to go for a long ride and see these woods again.” Under Turgon’s impatient eye, Legolas wolfed down two slices of bread, and then the three of them rose, bid Elowen goodbye, and set off toward the pasture, where all of their horses would be at this time of day.
“Annael says you used sharp swords at training today,” Turgon said.
“We did,” Legolas agreed, feeling a small flush of pleasure that he had managed to get through the sword fighting class without problems.
“I carried one when I was on patrol,” Turgon said, picking up a stick and swinging it with unconvincing casualness.
His pleasure fading, Legolas looked away and made no answer. Would he ever be able to do what Turgon had done with such apparent ease? I will, he vowed. I am getting better. Today’s class proved that.
They rounded a curve in the path and suddenly found themselves face to face with two maidens, who stopped short at the sight of them. Legolas recognized Miriwen and Beliniel. He pulled himself up a little taller and licked his lips, but it was Annael who spoke first. “Mae govannen,” he said.
“Mae govannen,” Miriwen responded. Her hair hung straight and heavy down her back and moved in a curtain when she turned her head to smile at Annael. Legolas felt an unexpected spurt of annoyance, but then Miriwen included him in her smile too, and he could feel the color rising into his face as his heart began to beat a little faster. “Are you going to the pasture?” she asked. “It is a fine day for a ride.”
“We are.” He smiled at her and felt unutterably stupid because he could think of nothing else to say.
“And we need to go now,” Turgon declared, “or the day will be gone before we have time to ride anywhere.” He stepped to one side to make room, and the maidens slid past them and walked on, with both Annael and Legolas watching them go. Miriwen inclined her head to hear something Beliniel was saying and then both of them giggled.
“Come on,” Turgon said impatiently. Legolas and Annael exchanged looks, and Annael smiled faintly before turning to follow Turgon. Legolas trailed along behind them, wondering what Beliniel had said and feeling rather meanly pleased that Turgon seemed oblivious to the maidens’ charms. Turgon might have ridden with patrols around his family’s woodland home, but there were apparently some things he had yet to grow up enough to do. For a moment, he wondered again about Ithilden and Alfirin. Had Ithilden kissed her? The thought intrigued him.
“Hurry up, Legolas,” Turgon called, and he put aside thoughts of maidens and ran to catch up to his friends.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
2. Dining with the King
Alfirin stood in her chemise, holding her damp hair away from her face and inspecting the two gowns she had laid out on her bed. Which one should she wear? She fingered the sleeve of the pink one, feeling its silky texture, and then picked up the green one with the cunningly draped collar. Holding it up in front of her, she tried to see the effect in the small mirror over the chest, but she could see only her own face, framed by the swathe of green and by her dark hair, rapidly springing into curls as it dried. She bit her lip. She liked this gown better, but the pink one was more elegant and might be more appropriate for dining with the king.
A knock sounded at her door, and her mother entered. “Ithilden is here,” she said.
Alfirin gave a little cry of dismay. “I am not ready yet.”
Her mother smiled. “I can see that. Do not worry. He is outside talking to your adar and Tonduil.” Alfirin could not quite suppress a moan, and her mother laughed. “Are you afraid they will disgrace you?”
“No, of course not. But they both watch Ithilden, and I think it makes him nervous.”
Her mother stroked of wisp Alfirin’s hair back from her face. “They are all getting less awkward with one another, and a little time being just males together will do all three of them good. Are you going to wear that gown?”
Alfirin glanced down at the green gown she still held. “I do not know. Perhaps the pink one would be better.”
Her mother cocked her head to one side appraisingly. “I like the green one,” she said. “Let me help you into it.” She took the gown from Alfirin and settled it over her head and arms, while Alfirin held her hair out of the way. Then she stepped behind Alfirin to do up the laces. “Sit, and I will fix your hair.” Pushing Alfirin into the room’s only chair, she reached for the brush on top of the chest and began to draw it through Alfirin’s long, thick mass of hair. To Alfirin’s surprise, when she had finished with the brush, rather than weaving the single braid that Alfirin customarily wore, she picked up strands of hair near each of Alfirin’s temples, twisted them, drew them to meet at the back of her head, and pinned them there.
Alfirin frowned and reached behind her neck to prod at the mass of curls that cascaded down her back to her hips. “My hair will be all over the place, Naneth!”
Her mother smiled. “Yes, it will.” She eyed Alfirin’s hair critically, and for a moment, Alfirin thought she was going to do the sensible thing and braid it, but then she said, “Wait a moment,” and left the room.
When Alfirin peeked around the doorway, she saw that her mother had gone out the cottage’s back door. She glanced cautiously down the hall in the other direction to see the front door standing open to the spring night and hear a faint murmur of male voices. Her mother came back inside, holding a small spray of lily-of-the-valley. “Turn around,” she instructed, and when Alfirin did so, she tucked the flower into the knot of hair at the back of Alfirin’s head. “There,” she said with satisfaction.
She put her hands on Alfirin’s shoulders, turned her gently to face her, and kissed her on the forehead. “Alfirin, you are a beautiful, kind, intelligent person. Thranduil will be fortunate to have you at his table tonight, and Ithilden is privileged to have you as his companion. What is more, he knows it.”
Alfirin could not help smiling. “Do you think so?”
“I am sure of it.”
Alfirin wanted to believe her, but Ithilden had approached her and then backed away too many times over the past few years for her to be as certain of his feelings as her mother evidently was.
“Are you ready?” her mother asked.
“Let me get my shawl.” Alfirin ran back into her room to get the wrap that she would probably need for the walk home later and then followed her mother out the cottage’s front door. She found her father sitting on the bench next to the doorstep, working at the elaborate carving he had been making in the handle of a basket for Alfirin to use in gathering the flowers from which she made dyes for her weaving. “Where is Ithilden?”
“Tonduil wanted to show him the flet he has been building.”
Alfirin looked toward the tall oak on the other side of the clearing in front of their cottage and caught a glimpse of movement high up where Tonduil had nearly finished the flet on which he proposed to sleep for the summer. She walked tentatively toward it, and through the leaves, she saw Ithilden. She had wondered if he might wear robes tonight, as he did at feasts on the Green, but he was dressed as usual in a tunic and leggings. Even from where she stood, however, she could see that, rather than being a woodsy brown, they were both a deep green, with flashes of what looked like elaborate gold embroidery.
“This side was difficult to anchor securely,” she could hear Tonduil saying. He sounded excited and pleased to have Ithilden inspecting his work. Alfirin smiled to herself. She knew how much Tonduil admired Ithilden, and her heart warmed at the solemn nod of approval that Ithilden now gave to Tonduil’s handiwork as he crouched at the edge of the flet to examine the ingenious way Tonduil had managed to anchor it among the branches.
Suddenly she realized she was watching the flex of muscle in Ithilden’s thigh as his leggings tightened across it when he crouched. For a second, she stared, fascinated, and then he turned his head and saw her. She could feel heat rising instantly into her face, but he seemed to take no notice. Instead, he smiled, rose, made some comment to Tonduil over his shoulder, and leapt down through the branches with a cat-like grace that left her dry-mouthed.
As he approached, she could see that his eyes were gleaming as he regarded her unbound hair. “You look beautiful,” he said in a heartfelt voice. His gaze went to her still warm face and immediately his smile faded, and his brows drew down in concern. “Is something the matter?”
“No,” she said hastily. “I am simply warm from hurrying.”
“I apologize for being early.” he said, and she was comforted to see color creeping up his own neck.
“No, no,” she protested. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting.”
He smiled at her. “Shall we go then?” He offered her his arm, and she took it, aware of the warmth and solidity of his body as he pressed her arm to his side.
She looked toward her parents, intending to bid them good-bye, and found them watching her and Ithilden with expressions of half-amused affection. “Have a nice time,” her mother called. Alfirin nodded a little self-consciously and then let Ithilden escort her off into the night.
“Tonduil is doing a nice job on the flet,” Ithilden said. “Legolas will be jealous of his sleeping there.”
“Will your adar not allow Legolas to do the same thing?” Alfirin asked, although as soon as she tried to picture where Legolas would build such a flet, she realized that it would be a long way from where his family slept.
“Adar might allow him to spend the occasional night on a flet, but not the whole summer,” Ithilden answered. “Legolas tends to wander sometimes.”
Alfirin blinked. It was the frankest comment she had ever heard Ithilden make about a member of his family. He fell silent, and his face grew sober. Alfirin held her peace. She knew that Legolas had only just returned to weapons training after a long absence and that some mystery existed over the reason. Moreover, when she had stood next to Ithilden at the edge of the training field that morning, he had been tense enough while watching Legolas to make it obvious to her that he was worried about his brother. Indeed, his concern had warmed her heart. But she did not feel it was her place to pry.
Ithilden roused himself. “I saw a wall hanging you had woven today. It was being hung in the small council chamber. It was very beautiful.”
She felt a small flush of pleasure. “The one of the waterfall? Your adar’s steward saw it in the weaving workroom and asked if he could have it for the palace. I am glad you like it.”
“The scene reminded me of one of the waterfalls in Imladris,” he told her.
“You have been to Imladris?” she asked in surprise.
“Yes. I went to a meeting there with Adar. How long ago would that have been? Legolas was not born yet, but as I recall, Eilian was old enough to be asking for his own horse. Seventy-five years or so? You and he are the same age, I think. Do you not remember Adar being gone for two months?”
Reminded not for the first time of how much older and more experienced Ithilden was, Alfirin shook her head. “At that age, I am afraid I was not aware of much beyond my dolls and my playmates.”
He smiled slightly. “I will wager you were a sweet elfling.” She laughed but still could not help feeling a little dismayed. What in Arda did she have to offer the oldest son of her king?
They crossed the bridge to the palace and went through the Great Doors, with the guards on either side snapping to attention as Ithilden’s passed, although as far as she could tell, he ignored them. How could he do that? she wondered. Did he not even see them any more?
As they entered the antechamber, an Elf rose from the bench to one side of the Doors. “My lord,” he said, approaching them, “I have a message from your aide.”
Ithilden grimaced and reluctantly released her arm. “One moment,” he told her and stepped aside to bend his head close and hear what the messenger had to say. He was evidently not happy at what he heard. With an impatient gesture, he signaled the messenger to wait and turned back to her. “I am very sorry, but I must go and talk to one of my captains. I do not believe I will be gone long.”
She could not suppress an exclamation of dismay, not only at the idea of his departure but also at the prospect of having to approach his family on her own. He must have understood her feelings because he looked apologetic. Then another Elf strode purposefully out of one of the multiple hallways leaving the antechamber, and Ithilden’s face immediately lightened a little. Alfirin recognized Thranduil’s steward.
“Nyndir,” Ithilden called, grasping Alfirin’s elbow and steering her toward him, “would you please show Alfirin to the family’s sitting room? I should be back shortly.”
The steward halted. Alfirin could see that he held a sheaf of papers, so she assumed he was bent on some task for the king’s household, but he spoke graciously enough. “Of course. This way, mistress.” He indicated a doorway, outside of which stood two more guards. Alfirin watched Ithilden disappear out the Great Doors with the messenger, drew a deep breath, and then went through the door the steward was holding for her.
Alfirin had been in the public parts of the palace before, but this was the first time she had entered the royal family’s private quarters. She found herself in a wide hallway that ended at a crossing hallway. From the stone floor of the antechamber, she stepped onto a deep carpet, patterned in shades of green. Tapestries hung on the walls, separated by sconces holding crystal lanterns and by doors made of golden wood. The stone pillars that stood at intervals were carved like the trunks of trees with their branches spreading across the ceiling. As she passed the first set of pillars, she realized that the bark and leaves of the tree on her left were recognizable as those of an oak, while those on her right plainly belonged to a beech.
“I hope I am not keeping you from anything pressing,” she apologized to Nyndir.
“A list of purchases needed by the household when the raft goes to Esgaroth tomorrow,” he said, holding up the long, closely written page. “I have only to deliver it, and then I will be finished for the day.”
“So much?” She could have bitten her tongue at what must have seemed a presumptuous inquiry, but she had not been able to stop herself.
He smiled at her. “We meet the needs not only of the king and his sons, but also of guards and servants, particularly those who live in the palace. And the summer solstice festival will soon be upon us too. The cooks are planning some very special dishes and need some items that we cannot supply ourselves.”
She returned his smile, but her mind was still on the length of the list he held. Because her mother was a healer and thus was busy most of the day, Alfirin had run her family’s household since before she had even come of age, but with a feeling very like trepidation, she was struck by what a complicated task managing the palace household must be.
Nyndir pushed a door open, and she entered a sitting room in which chairs and high-backed benches were grouped around a large fireplace. At the moment, the only person in the room was Legolas, who was sprawled in a chair, staring moodily into the fire. He jumped to his feet when he saw her. “Legolas, will you see to Lord Ithilden’s guest?” Nyndir asked. “He has been called away but says he expects to be back soon.”
“Of course.” Legolas looked a little uncertain but accepted the request readily enough.
Nyndir paused on his way out the door. “Your weaving looks most elegant in the council chamber, mistress. You should ask Lord Ithilden to take you to see it before you leave.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.
“Will you sit down?” Legolas indicated a chair. She seated herself, looking around the room. The furniture was elegant but a bit somber for her taste, and the benches looked uncomfortable. They need some extra cushions, she thought and then caught herself. The king must prefer it that way, she thought, appalled at her presumption in criticizing the room.
“Would you like some wine?” Legolas offered.
He went to a small table holding a decanter, poured a cup of wine, and brought it to her. Then he poured another, which he mixed liberally with water, and sat down again. Alfirin took a sip of the wine and knew immediately that it was far better than anything she had ever drunk.
“This is very good,” she told Legolas.
He grinned. “My adar has good taste when it comes to wine.”
They sat in silence for a moment, while she groped for a subject of conversation. “Tonduil was disappointed when he could not slice through the target in the sword class today.”
Legolas nodded sympathetically. “He will do better next time.”
“You did well,” she said.
He looked at her searchingly, as if trying to see if there was anything behind her words. “Thank you,” he said noncommittally.
At that moment, Thranduil entered the room, and Alfirin rose, as did Legolas. “Good evening, my dear,” Thranduil said. “Please sit. Where is Ithilden?”
“A messenger was waiting for him when we arrived,” Alfirin said. “Ithilden said he thought he would be back quickly.”
Thranduil nodded and went to pour himself some wine. To Alfirin’s amusement, he glanced at Legolas’s wine as he passed, and she knew he was checking to make sure that Legolas had watered it. Her father would have done exactly the same thing with Tonduil. She relaxed a little. The head of this family might be the king rather than a forester like her own father, but it was not so very different from hers.
Thranduil sat down. “Did you go riding as you intended to, Legolas?”
“Yes.” Legolas brightened. “Turgon is back.”
To Alfirin, Thranduil looked a little dismayed at this news that Legolas evidently thought was so good. She knew who Turgon was, of course. He was in the same weapons training classes as Tonduil, although so far as she knew they did not spend time together outside of classes. Thranduil gave a little sigh and then asked, “How is Turgon?”
Legolas’s face fell a little, and he looked down at his hands, holding his cup of wine. “He rode with the patrols around his family home.” Alfirin could not quite make out the tone in which he spoke. He sounded somehow as if he wondered at Turgon’s daring.
Thranduil rubbed one temple. “So you told me he said in his letters too. He is far too young to have done such a thing.” He hesitated, while Legolas continued to look at his hands. “None of you is ready for such a thing yet,” he said gently, “but you will be when the time comes.”
Legolas looked up at him, and for a long moment, their gazes held. Then the door opened, and Ithilden entered the room. “I am sorry I am late,” he apologized.
“Is something the matter?” Thranduil asked.
Ithilden shook his head. “Nothing serious. One of the Home Guard patrols saw signs of spiders to the east, and I needed to reassign some warriors and send a message to the Eastern Border Patrol.”
A solemn male servant came to the door and announced that the meal was ready. Alfirin realized that whoever was deciding when to serve the meal must have been waiting for Ithilden’s return. She wondered how such decisions were made and who had the authority to do it here. They all rose, and Thranduil offered her his arm to lead her to the dining room. Glancing back, she saw Ithilden put his hand on Legolas’s shoulder in what looked like an affectionate gesture to her, although Legolas shrugged it off. She wondered what it was that Thranduil and Ithilden were so worried about with him.
When they had seated themselves around the table, the male servant began offering them venison while a female passed a platter of roast vegetables. Alfirin vaguely recognized the couple. They were married, she thought. At present, the wife looked annoyed. She kept shooting venomous glances at her husband, who was resolutely ignoring her.
The wife offered the vegetables to Alfirin. “I am most sorry, mistress,” she murmured. “If I had had my way, we would have lovely spring peas, but he got together with cook, and neither one of them would listen to me. ‘We always have the roast vegetables with venison.’ That is what they said, as if nothing could ever change.”
With unnecessary force, her husband slapped a serving of venison onto the plate in front of Legolas, who was grinning openly. Even Thranduil appeared to be having trouble controlling his face. Alfirin glanced at Ithilden to find him looking mortified.
Both servants set their platters on the table, and then she stalked from the room with him close behind. The door closed firmly, but not before Alfirin heard the husband snarl, “That was an utterly disgraceful display!”
Alfirin looked around the table. There was a moment’s silence, and then suddenly, Legolas snorted and then whooped with laughter, seized by it so completely that he all but fell out of his chair. Thranduil chuckled and picked up his wine. “I will have to speak to Nyndir about them tomorrow,” he said regretfully. “Control yourself, Legolas.” Legolas choked and held his napkin over his mouth as he tried to get hold of himself, but above it, his eyes still danced with glee.
“Has he no command over his wife?” Ithilden asked in exasperation.
Thranduil had been taking a drink of wine, and now Alfirin thought he made a spluttering sound, although it was hard to be certain over the noise of Legolas’s continued snorts. She turned to look at Ithilden in surprise. He had sounded entirely too much like a troop commander for her satisfaction. The quarreling Elves were husband and wife, not officer and warrior. She looked down at her plate with a frown. While it was true that the husband was usually the head of a house and thus was entitled to expect obedience from every member of it, surely Ithilden did not believe that husbands should ‘command’ their wives?
And equally surely, she thought, there must be far better ways to manage a household staff than to leave those serving the meal to quarrel over what it should consist of. She felt a moment of despair. If the capable Nyndir could not bring order to the palace household, who was she to think she could do it?
She looked up to find Thranduil watching her expectantly. After a moment, when she remained silent, he sighed and then smiled gently at her. “Would you like some more wine, my dear?” he asked and poured it for her.
“I should be going,” Alfirin said with regret, and Ithilden hastily set aside the harp he had been playing and rose.
“Let me show you how your weaving looks before I walk you home,” he said.
Thranduil too got to his feet, came toward Alfirin, and bent to kiss her forehead. “We have enjoyed your company, Alfirin. You must come again soon.” He straightened and smiled at Ithilden over her head.
“Good night, my lord,” she said. “Good night, Legolas.” He smiled at her from where he stood behind his father, and then Ithilden led her out of the room and down the hall to the antechamber. He took her through a side hall she had never been in before and then through a door into a room with a long, polished table in the middle. He turned her to face the wall next to the door, and she saw the weaving of the waterfall over which she had labored for so many months. It did look lovely there, she thought, pleased.
“I think that Adar is hoping the picture soothes his advisors and makes his council meetings more tolerable,” Ithilden said, and she laughed. “Shall we go?” He took her shawl from her and stepped behind her to drape it over her shoulders, lifting her hair out from under it with a touch that seemed to her to linger. Then he put his hand in the small of her back and steered her out of the room and down the hall to the Great Doors. She did not think she had ever been so acutely aware of the curve of her spine and the tingling skin around it.
Finally, once they were outside, he removed his hand from her back and offered her his arm. She slid her hand through it and tried to regain her breath as they strolled silently along through the starlit night. He is serious, she thought suddenly. In time, he means to ask me to bond. And even as her heart leapt at the thought, she felt doubt creep in. How would she ever manage as the wife of the king’s heir and troop commander? I cannot do it, she thought despairingly.
They halted in front of the door of her family’s cottage, and she stood for a moment looking into grey eyes that looked solemnly back at her. Then Ithilden dipped his head a little toward her, and she started back out of his grasp. “Good night,” she choked.
“Wait,” he said, grasping her wrist. “Would you like to walk along the river with me tomorrow evening?”
She looked at his pleading face. This will not work, she thought and then heard herself say, “Yes.” She pulled her hand free from his hold and slipped into the cottage, closing the door and leaning against it for a long moment before walking slowly down the hall to her chamber.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
3. Take Your Time
Alfirin waited another minute for the surface of the water in the pot to begin to roll and then carefully sprinkled handfuls of the porridge meal over the top, stirring all the while with the wooden spoon in her other hand.
“Do you need more firewood?” Tonduil asked.
She glanced over at the neat but shrunken pile of split wood next to the hearth. “Yes.” He left the kitchen, and she heard the slam of the back door and then the sound of an axe. She added honey to the porridge and, brushing her hands against her apron, turned to see her mother enter. “The tea is made,” Alfirin said, “but the porridge will be a while yet.”
Her mother poured tea into a fragile looking cup and seated herself at the table. “How was dinner at the palace?” She and Alfirin’s father had both already gone to bed when Alfirin had returned home the previous night.
Avoiding her mother’s sharp eyes, Alfirin poured her own cup of tea and sat down. “We had venison and roast vegetables,” she said and suddenly had to smile to herself at the memory of the quarreling servants.
“Something amuses you?” her mother prodded.
Alfirin looked up. “The married couple who served the meal had apparently quarreled over what we were to have to eat, and they squabbled in the dining room and then out in the hall too. We could hear them.”
Her mother laughed. “That must have pleased the king!”
Alfirin laughed too. “He said he would speak to his steward about them.” Abruptly, she sobered. “Running that household must be a staggering task, Naneth. Even the steward apparently cannot manage the staff well, and he has years of experience.”
Her mother regarded her. “What do you think he should do about them?”
“He should put someone in charge of making the menus,” Alfirin said promptly, “and allow no one but himself to change them. You cannot run a kitchen as big as that one must be without a firm hand. And if the couple who served the meal cannot be polite to one another, then they should not be working together.”
Her mother smiled. “It sounds as if you have given some thought to managing the palace’s domestic affairs, almost as if you think you might be called upon to do it.”
Alfirin could feel the heat rising into her face. She hesitated and then admitted, “I think Ithilden is serious, Naneth.”
Her mother nodded. “Of course he is. From what I have seen, Ithilden is as far from being a fool as his adar is. The question is if you are serious.”
Alfirin was unable to contain her doubts. “I do not know if I could manage it all!” she cried.
“Do you mean the royal household? I have every confidence you could run it well. It would take time for you to learn all the details, of course, but in the long term, the king’s family would bless the day Ithilden married you. What I am asking you, iell-nín, is if you think you would be happy married to him.”
Alfirin blinked, astonished that her mother could even ask such a question. “He is…he is wonderful, Naneth. He is so honorable and so dedicated to the good of the realm.” Her mind suddenly flashed to the image of Ithilden crouching on the flet the previous evening, and she knew she was blushing again. “He is handsome, too.”
“He is all of that,” her mother agreed with a small smile, “but he has so many responsibilities that I worry he will not have enough time for you.”
Alfirin took a sip of her tea and said nothing, but she thought about the way Ithilden had been called away on the previous evening. It had not been the first time that such a thing had happened. His duties seemed to take nearly all his waking hours. Would he have room for her in his life too?
Her mother had hesitated, but now she went on. “And even more important, would he listen to you and respect your opinions? Ithilden can be a bit overbearing at times.”
Alfirin opened her mouth to protest but suddenly heard Ithilden asking, “Has he no command over his wife?”
She paused. “I think he would,” she finally said, but to herself, she had to admit that she was not sure.
Her mother covered Alfirin’s hand with her own. “Take your time, Alfirin. You will know if he is the right one for you.”
They sat in silence, sipping their tea, and Alfirin could hear Tonduil still chopping wood behind the cottage. Her mother turned toward the window. “Did Tonduil go out to do that without being asked?” Alfirin nodded, and her mother smiled broadly. “He is growing up quite nicely.”
Alfirin smiled at her mother’s obvious pride and abruptly remembered another scene from the previous evening. “Something is the matter with Legolas,” she said, frowning slightly. Her mother’s face went still, and Alfirin blinked. Her mother knew what the matter was! she thought with surprise, and then felt a flood of dismay. Her mother was the healer who had always cared for the king’s household. Legolas must be under her care even now. “I did not mean to pry,” she said quickly.
Her mother looked at her thoughtfully. “Legolas might present another responsibility for anyone running the king’s household, Alfirin. His adar sets the rules, and he and both older brothers plainly love Legolas, but at least until he is old enough to become a novice, you might wind up being the one who keeps track of him during the day. Moreover, I suspect a motherly presence might not come amiss. Would you be willing to do that?”
Alfirin was prevented from answering when the back door banged again, and Tonduil entered the room with an armload of firewood. She rose to check on the porridge, her mind whirling with the questions her mother had asked. Her mother was right, she decided. She needed time. When she saw Ithilden that night, she would be cautious and cool. She needed time to think.
Legolas released the arrow and watched as it sailed swift and true to knock over the last disk that had popped up over the top of the wooden wall.
“Good!” called the archery master. “You three can exchange places with the others now.” Legolas trotted down the training field, along with Annael and Galelas, elation flooding his system. Not only had he shot well, but he had done so without hesitation. His bow had felt easy and natural in his hand. Why had he stayed away from the training fields for so long? He was, at last, returning to being his true self.
Halfway down the field, they met Turgon, Tonduil, and Isendir on their way to take their turns at the exercise. “Good shooting, Legolas,” said Tonduil as he passed.
Legolas nodded an acknowledgment and then stopped to retrieve his arrows before taking his place behind the wall. “Good shooting, Legolas,” Galelas’s voice mimicked softly. Legolas whirled to find the other passing close behind him. Galelas grinned at him and disappeared behind the wall.
Legolas’s good mood vanished as if it had never been. Yanking his last arrow free, he followed Galelas. “Do you have some sort of problem?” he hissed. Annael, who had evidently not heard Galelas’s jibe, spun to look at him in surprise.
Galelas raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. Am I not obligated to praise you just as much as everyone else is?” He took a step closer. “If I stay home for a month, do you think people will praise me too?”
Blood roared in Legolas’s ears, and he lunged toward Galelas only to find Annael in the way. “Stop it,” Annael urged. “Penntalion will want to know what is happening.”
And just as Annael predicted, Penntalion’s voice called to them from beyond the wall behind which they were hidden. “Are you three ready?”
“Almost,” called Annael. He looked over his shoulder at Galelas and spoke softly. “Unless you want to be in trouble, you should shut your mouth and work the target at the end.” Galelas sneered but evidently did not wish to provoke the archery master, who was perfectly capable of making them all do push ups for the rest of class and then reporting them to their parents. Galelas moved to the end of the wall and took hold of the lever that raised and lowered the first target. Annael took the place in the middle, leaving Legolas to control the remaining target. Aware of Annael’s concerned gaze, Legolas concentrated on drawing deep breaths and steadying his trembling hands.
Finally, Annael looked away. “Ready!” he called.
“Go!” Penntalion said, and they began raising and lowering the targets, but Legolas’s mind was not on his task. How could he have let that fool Galelas get under his skin? he wondered desperately. Why was he still so on edge?
Head down, Legolas hurried through the Great Doors, down the steps, across the bridge, and into the woods beyond. The trees rustled softly around him, pouring out their concern. Sometimes, he was amazed by the way the forest continued to respond to him just as it always had. Surely it could tell how changed he was. Gradually he slowed his pace until finally he sank to the ground beneath a large old oak and leaned back against it. You are too hard on yourself, the healer had said when she came to see him that afternoon after his session with his tutor. Try to use the mindfulness we have been practicing together. Let the thoughts and feeling come, but then let them go. You will find yourself there somewhere.
Would he? he wondered unhappily. And if he did not, what was he to do? He had always assumed that he would be a warrior and defend his father’s realm from the darkness spreading through it. It was the only role he had ever imagined for himself. But what if he could not bring himself to do it?
I have to try, he thought desperately, and drawing a deep, wobbly breath, he pulled his knife from the embossed sheath that was buckled to his belt at his left hip. Sometimes he felt like a fraud for still wearing it, given how reluctant he was to think about using it, but if he left it off, its absence would be noticed. He sat for a moment regarding it as it lay in his open hand. It was a beautiful thing, really. The handle was engraved with a design of twining leaves that had been inlaid in a muted gold. Ithilden had given it to him as a begetting day gift when he had first become old enough to be trusted to carry a sharp weapon on his own. He ran his fingers over the runes engraved on the blade. “Legolas owns me,” they read. “I hunt and protect.” Legolas bit his lip. Would he ever be able to use this knife in a battle?
With his knife resting lightly in his hand, he closed his eyes and began the deliberate breathing that the healer had taught him. The oak murmured soothingly, and he became aware of the rasp of its bark against the back of his tunic. The muscles in his shoulders relaxed as he allowed his mind to drift. He had not been sleeping well, and he was tired, he realized.
Suddenly, behind his eyelids, he saw the surprised face of the Elf maid. With sickening clarity, he once again felt the light resistance of flesh and muscle as he drove his dagger up under her ribs, felt the warm blood flow over his hand.
With a soft cry, he opened his eyes and sat rigidly erect. The knife slipped from his open hand to ground. He bit his lip and blinked away a shameful rush of tears.
“Legolas?” said a soft voice.
He jerked his head around to see Alfirin standing uncertainly a few feet away, a basket of flowers over her arm. They stared at one another for a second, and then he bent as much to hide his face from her as to pick up the knife. “Mae govannen,” he muttered and waited for her to move on.
Instead, her light footsteps drew near, and he clenched his hand around the knife hilt. Could she not see he wanted privacy? he wondered resentfully.
With a rustle of her skirt, she sat down next to him. “I have been gathering the last of the spring flame flowers,” she said, setting her basket down between them. “They make a rich red dye that I like to use on some of the wool for my weavings.” She wrapped her arms around her drawn up knees and turned her face up to the afternoon sun. There was a moment’s silence, and then she smiled slightly. “In truth, I probably already have as much as I need of these flowers, but on such a beautiful day, I wanted an excuse to be in the woods.”
He smiled politely in response and leaned back against the oak again, with his knife in his lap. If he kept silent long enough, she would probably leave, he thought, and then was ashamed of his planned rudeness. She had asked for no explanation for what must have been his obvious distress, and indeed, exhibited no curiosity about it at all. Her presence next to him was not really a burden. He pulled himself together and made an effort. “I saw the weaving of the waterfall in my adar’s council chamber. It is very beautiful.”
He started to sheath his knife, but she stopped him. “Is that yours? May I see it? The carving on the hilt is exceedingly graceful.”
Without comment, he handed the knife to her, and she turned it over to examine the hilt. “It looks like Dwarf work,” she observed as she gave it back to him.
Legolas blinked. If the knife had been made by Dwarves, Ithilden had never said so, but of course, he probably would not have done so in front of their father, who tried to have as little as possible to do with their Dwarvish neighbors at Erebor. “Ithilden gave it to me for my twentieth begetting day,” he told Alfirin, putting the knife away.
Her face glowed. “Ithilden is very thoughtful.”
Legolas ducked his head to hide his smile and picked up a twig to dig absentmindedly at the dirt next to his right foot. Even in his own state of inexperience, there was no doubt in Legolas’s mind that this maiden loved his brother. Of course, how could she not? Next to their father, Ithilden was the most admirable Elf Legolas knew. He tried to decide how he felt about Ithilden bonding with her. It might be nice to have Alfirin around, he thought tentatively. She was gentle and nonjudgmental. He could not imagine her ever hurting anyone and indeed suspected that she was one of the rare people dwelling around Thranduil’s stronghold who did not even know how to use a weapon.
Of course, that meant she would probably be shocked if she knew what Legolas had done. He hoped Ithilden never told her. “It grows late,” he said. “May I walk you home?” He did not think she should be in the woods alone.
“I would be happy for the company,” she said and rose and slid her hand through his offered arm.
Ithilden took Alfirin’s hand and, rather than putting it on his arm, boldly continued to hold it. “It is a fine night,” he said, looking up at the stars, scattered thickly overhead.
She had been moving her hand toward his arm, plainly expecting to take it, and he thought she drew in her breath when he kept her palm against his and wrapped his fingers around it. “A very fine night,” she finally agreed and tightened her own fingers around his. With his heart beating a little more rapidly than usual, Ithilden led her off along the path that would take them to the river, where Thranduil’s people gathered on nights such as this one to sing and visit with their neighbors and enjoy the beauty of the world under starlight, looking the way it had looked when Elves first awoke in Arda.
He glanced at her. Her hair was back in its customary thick braid tonight, but her delicate features were beautiful in the pale starlight, and the neck of her gown was slightly lower than usual, giving him a tantalizing glimpse of the beginning of the swell of her high breasts. He could hardly believe that she was with him.
When they reached the river, it seemed to Ithilden that the music was unusually lovely. He supposed that the coming of spring and promise of summer had inspired people. He and Alfirin began to make their way along the path next to the river, in whose dark waters, the stars were reflected.
Two of his warriors came strolling toward them. “Good evening, my lord. And you, mistress,” said one, eyeing Alfirin curiously. Ithilden could sense her tensing a little under the scrutiny.
“Good evening,” he answered, as Alfirin nodded. The warriors passed, but Ithilden was suddenly aware of a small ripple of silence that accompanied his and Alfirin’s passage along the river. Apparently others sitting along the riverbank were also watching them. Glancing at Alfirin’s face, he found it slightly flushed and cursed to himself. He knew she was uncomfortable with the public curiosity to which she was subjected when she was out with him. He should have known better than to bring her here.
“Shall we sit for a while?” he asked, indicated a bench in the shadows of a clump of lilacs.
“Yes, please.” She sounded grateful, and he guided her to the bench and sat down next to her. They would be out of the way here and might have a little privacy. He hesitated slightly and then put his arm around her shoulders. To his dismay, she froze under his touch, and he was suddenly worried that he had made a mistake.
After long denial that he now realized stemmed from fear of her indifference, he had finally admitted to himself that he loved this maiden, but he was still unsure of whether she reciprocated his feelings. He had been disconcerted when she pulled away from him at the last moment on the previous night. He did not want to frighten her off now, either by exposing her to the curious stares of his father’s people or by being too bold. Then he felt her relax and lean against him. Her body was warm where it pressed against his side. His breath quickened and he swallowed hard.
From nearby, a song drifted toward them, telling a tale of Eärendil sailing across the night sky, catching glimpses of the lives of his people but having always to stay remote. “I know that Eärendil is a hero,” Alfirin sighed, “but it has always seemed so sad to me that he and Elwing had to leave their children behind to fend for themselves.”
Ithilden thought about that for a moment. In his experience, warriors sometimes had to do exactly what Alfirin found so sad. “It is fortunate for the rest of us that Eärendil and Elwing did what they did,” he finally said.
“I know. I just find it hard to think about their sons. They would have been better off as the children of Elves who simply lived in the forest and loved them and raised them to do the same thing.”
Ithilden contemplated what Alfirin had just said. Was she, perhaps, worried about what it would mean to bond with the son of a king who might have obligations beyond those he had to his family?
Suddenly, he blinked and sat up a little straighter. There, along the riverbank, not thirty feet away, walked Legolas, Annael, and Turgon in the company of three little maidens. Or perhaps, not so little, he thought, eyeing them. They were Legolas’s age, but as Legolas and his friends had stretched out and grown tall, the maidens’ bodies had rounded. Legolas had his head bent toward one of them, listening to something she was saying. Did Legolas have permission to be out tonight? Ithilden vaguely remembered a conversation between his little brother and their father at evening meal, but he had not paid much attention, for he had been thinking about his own plans.
He considered speaking to his little brother but decided not to. He thought Thranduil had finally given Legolas leave to go out, but if his little brother was out without permission, Ithilden was not sure that was a bad thing. At least it was normal. Ithilden tried not to show it, but he was worried about Legolas. He had seen young warriors strongly affected by their first kill before and knew that they usually got over their distress, but Legolas was taking more time to recover than most warriors did. Of course, he was younger than even new warriors were, and the person he had killed was another Elf and one as pretty and innocent looking as the maiden who now walked next to Legolas.
Turgon was in the lead of the little party, and as Ithilden watched, he suddenly halted and turned to speak to the others. Ithilden could not quite make out what he was saying, but he did see him gesture off into the woods and hear the words “the Glade.” With a suppressed groan, Ithilden removed his arm from around Alfirin and began to get up, but she caught at his tunic.
“Wait. See how they deal with it themselves.”
But Ithilden could not stop himself. Young Elves with nothing better to do gathered at the Glade to drink and wager. Much to Thranduil’s displeasure, Eilian had spent a fair amount of time there around the year he came of age, and Legolas already had slipped away from the palace to spend an evening or two there. Thranduil would be very displeased if he did it again. He rose and started toward where Legolas and his friends had halted.
Then, still in the shadows, he stopped, for already it was evident that the young people were unlikely to be setting off into the woods on their way to the Glade. The maidens were all frowning, and Annael was shaking his head. “No, Turgon,” Legolas said finally, and the six of them set off again, with Turgon looking disgruntled.
Ithilden returned to the bench and sat down with a sigh. “I wish Turgon had stayed at his family home permanently. He is a bad influence on Legolas, and if I were Adar, I would forbid Legolas’s spending time with him.”
Alfirin frowned at him. “Legolas decided for himself not to go, Ithilden, and he is old enough to do that. Why do you not trust him?”
He looked at her sharply. Had she heard something about Legolas’s trouble? He scrutinized her face but found her looking more puzzled than anything else. She did not know, he decided. And there was no reason she ever should. Thranduil’s people knew that a spy had been found and killed, but most of them did not know the details. “I trust Legolas,” he said stiffly. “It is Turgon I do not trust.”
She looked away and then back again. “Legolas is lucky to have you to worry about him,” she said with a small sigh.
He could not make out what was troubling her. With a flutter in the pit of his stomach, he tentatively put his arm around her again, but it quickly became evident that the mood of the evening had been broken, and she did not lean against him again, although she also did not ask him to remove his arm. For a while longer, they sat quietly, listening to the music and watching the stars and the river. He could see her only in profile, but to him, she looked as if she was deeply absorbed in some inner debate. Finally, she stirred. “I should go home,” she said. “I have to be up early tomorrow.”
Ithilden had to be up early the next morning too, but he did not care. He would have sat with her all night, and he wished he knew why she had decided that she needed to go home now. They rose and began to walk back the way they had come, this time with her arm decorously through his. “Good night, my lord,” called one of the musicians on his left. He grimaced quickly, even as he lifted his hand in acknowledgment. Perhaps Alfirin was so bothered by the public nature of his life that she had decided to back away from him. If so, he did not know what he would do. He was who he was.
They followed the path to her family’s cottage, stopping outside the front door, where a maple tree cast its shadows. She turned to face him and gave a small curtsy. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said, sending his heart plummeting. “I will bed you good night.” Abruptly, her eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth.
He blinked. What had she said?
She stared at him over her hand, and suddenly, she giggled and then laughed outright. “I was going to be wise,” she moaned. “I was going to take my time and be sure because I do not know if I can manage your adar’s household, and you are so busy you might not have time for me, and you can be very dismissive of the opinions of others, Ithilden, but I am such a fool, that I cannot do it.”
He stared at her, trying to sort through what he had just heard, and then she stepped toward him with her face raised, and he forgot what she had said, and put his hands on her shoulders, and kissed her.
Her lips were soft, and he drew the bottom one gently between his and then pulled away to look into the depths of her dark eyes. “I love you, Alfirin.”
The stars must have been reflected in her eyes because light danced in them. “I love you, Ithilden.”
He bent and kissed her again, and as he did so, he reached behind her to untie the ribbon securing her braid and then began working his fingers through it, unraveling the glorious cloud of her hair.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
4. Time Away
Legolas trailed slowly along through the spring morning, thinking about how beautiful Miriwen’s eyes were. Surely he was not mistaken in thinking that they had gleamed when they had looked shyly up at him as he and she walked along the river. He smiled to himself, and contentment flowered warmly in his breast.
From ahead where the training fields lay came the sound of clanking blades, drawing him from his reverie. He could not help grimacing. The blade master would almost certainly have them sparring today. He bit his lip, hoping fervently that he would not disgrace himself. Then he emerged from the trees to see the field where his class would be held and came to an abrupt halt.
The rack on the edge of the field held not training swords, but long knives.
His breath came quickly, but he felt as if he was not getting enough air and his head began to swim. Without thinking, he backed up into the shelter of the trees again. Then he turned and hurried back along the path with his heart beating wildly. He could not do it! He could not!
“Legolas! Where are you going?”
He spun to see Turgon coming along the side path from his family’s cottage. For a moment, he could not answer. “I am not going to class,” he announced and flinched at the slight tremor in his voice.
Turgon blinked. “You are not?”
Turgon took a tentative step toward him. “What are you going to do instead?”
Oh Valar, Legolas thought unhappily. If he could not go back to weapons training, what was he going to do instead? Not only today but for the rest of his life? “I do not know,” he answered in despair.
Turgon cocked his head to one side. It was evident that he knew something was the matter, but he could not determine what it was. “We could go fishing,” he offered.
Legolas felt an abrupt flood of gratitude for this friend, who would stick by him no matter what. His chest loosened, and he drew a deep breath. “That is a good idea. May I borrow fishing gear from you?”
“Of course.” Turgon turned, and Legolas began following him back toward his home. “I did not want to go to class today anyway,” said Turgon cheerfully. “The weather is much too fine to be anywhere but the woods.”
To Legolas, the thought of being in the woods was like balm on a bruise. He would worry about his future later. Just now, he needed to be among the trees in the company of someone who had not even been near the stronghold when he had killed the Elf-woman.
Ithilden waited until he and Alfirin had gotten a distance away from his father’s stronghold before he shifted the picnic basket to his other hand and slid his freed arm around her waist. For a second, her step faltered. Then she turned her head to look up at him through half lowered lashes as she allowed him to draw her closer to his side. His heart accelerated. She loved him. She had confessed it on the previous night, and now they could explore just what that meant. He smiled down at her, and they resumed walking toward the sheltered grove where he planned that they would eat their mid-day meal. Then, he hoped, there might be time for other satisfying pursuits.
“I am so glad that you could take time away from your work today,” she said. “I was surprised to get your note because I know how busy you are.”
He shrugged. “There was nothing going on that I cannot catch up with later, and my aide knows where to find me if he has to.” The aide also knew that Ithilden would have his head if he interrupted them for anything that did not absolutely require his immediate attention. Ithilden did not think he had to worry. The aide had given him what could only be called an indulgent smile when he left his office.
“Nonetheless,” Alfirin said, “I am gratified that you would take the time off to be with me, and I am glad for your company.” And she did look happy, he thought, pleased once again that he had thought of this picnic and decided to take a highly unusual break in the middle of the day.
He led her off the path and into the deeper woods until they reached the bank of small stream, where a grassy patch lay in sunlight between the stream and a grove of towering oaks. “I thought we would eat here,” he told her. “I used to come here for picnics with my parents when I was an elfling.”
She smiled at him, showing the dimple in her right cheek that never failed to charm him. “I wish I could have seen you as an elfling. Were you well-behaved or did you get into trouble?”
He laughed. “I believe I was usually well behaved, but I am told that I was occasionally stubborn enough that it was hard to dissuade me from any project upon which I had set my heart.” He looked at her. “It still is,” he said softly and was delighted when she blushed.
He drew a blanket from the large picnic basket and spread it in the sunny spot. “Let us see what the palace cooks have given us.” She seated herself as he dropped to his knees next to the basket and began exploring its contents. On top, he found plates, silverware, and two carefully wrapped crystal goblets. He raised his eyebrows. He did not remember such elaborate tableware being used at the picnics on which he had gone with his parents.
Next, he unwrapped a cloth from around pieces of roasted chicken. He put it on one of the plates and then, growing more and more touched by the trouble the palace cooks had taken, he found fresh, fragrant bread, with a slab of butter tucked in next to it, pastries filled with honey and nuts, and four of what must have been the best of the apples left from the previous fall. Finally, he pulled a skin of wine out of the basket. He contemplated it, certain that it contained the best of his father’s Dorwinion. Slowly, he smiled. The kitchen staff must have decided that they liked Alfirin, he thought.
He looked up to where she was already dividing the food onto two plates. “This is wonderful!” she cried, with obvious pleasure. It was wonderful, he thought, and poured wine for both of them. He rose to immerse the wine skin in the stream where it would stay cool and then returned to stretch out on his side on the blanket. Alfirin laid a plate of chicken and bread and cut up apples next to him and took another plate onto her lap.
He sipped his wine and watched her as she ate a bite of chicken, marveling at the delicate curve of her cheek and the fullness of her lips. She looked up, saw him eyeing her, and lowered her fork to her plate. “Are you not going to eat?” she asked.
He picked up a slice of apple. “I am, but just now I am so happy to be with you that I am not very hungry.”
Her face lit up and she smiled at him so tenderly that his breath caught. Then she bit her lip and looked down at her plate. “I do love you, Ithilden. I said it last night, and I meant it. But I also meant the other things I said. I am uncertain if I would be able to be a good wife to the king’s oldest son.”
For a brief moment, he froze. When he had left her on the previous night, he had at first been so euphoric at her declaration of love that he had forgotten the stream of worries she had also poured out. But once he had reached the privacy of his own chamber and had been going over the whole evening in his head, he had heard her again, fretting about what being married to him would be like, and his heart had misgiven him. He knew Alfirin well enough by now to know that she was capable of loving him and still refusing to marry him if she thought that such a marriage would make them both unhappy. In truth, her concern about whether he would have time for her was one of the reasons he had made an effort to get away from his work today.
In what felt like a single motion, he dropped the apple slice, got to his feet, and crossed the short distance between them. As he sank down next to her, he took plate from her lap and set it aside. Then he put his arms around her and pulled her against him. “You would be the wife I want and need,” he said fiercely. “You would be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For a second, she felt stiff in his embrace. Then suddenly, she softened, leaned against him, and laid her head on his chest. “I do love you,” she murmured.
He bent to inhale the scent of her hair. “You do not have to take on the running of the palace if you do not want to,” he offered tentatively. “Nyndir can continue to do it.”
She looked up at him and shook her head in evident exasperation. “Of course I would want to do it. And while I am sure I could learn a great deal from Nyndir, it is also possible that he would resent my presence and see it as interference.”
He blinked. He had not thought of that, and he should have. After all, he had led his father’s warriors for a good many years and knew how difficult a change in command could be. “I do not believe that Nyndir would mind,” he finally said. “He is a scholar, and I think he might be glad to have more time in the library.”
She still frowned slightly, and he stared in fascination at the way her mouth was fixed in a small pout. He slid one hand up her back to caress the nape of her neck and felt her stretch in response. Then he bent down and brought his mouth to hers. She gave a little gasp and then, as he brushed a line of soft kisses along her lips, she parted them slightly and caught his head between her hands to hold him still and press her warm mouth to his. He could feel her breasts against him, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach.
Suddenly, a faint sound penetrated his absorption, and with a nearly physical pain, he jerked his head up and turned slightly in the direction from which the noise had come. Alfirin made a low sound of protest but then saw the look on his face. “What is it?” she murmured.
Ithilden frowned. Surely he was mistaken? He sprang to his feet, gestured for Alfirin to stay where she was, and, with his hand on the hilt of his knife, slid silently through the underbrush that ran along the edge of the stream. He had gone no more than thirty yards before he was certain that he been right in what he thought he had heard. With an exasperation he could hardly contain, he waited where he was and a minute or two later saw Legolas and Turgon making their way along the bank of the stream, carrying a string of fish, and chatting idly to one another.
With his anger increasing because they were so careless that they did not notice him, he waited until they were nearly upon him before he spoke. “What are you two doing here? Why are you not at training?”
They both jumped and spun toward him. “Ithilden!” Legolas exclaimed. Then he snapped his mouth closed and looked apprehensive. As well he might, Ithilden thought grimly.
“We went fishing,” Turgon said, holding up their catch.
With difficulty, Ithilden ignored him and continued to look at Legolas, who dropped his gaze to the ground. Ithilden feared that if he once started in on Turgon, he would say things that were entirely too harsh and his chief concern was with Legolas in any case. Legolas shifted from foot to foot, and Ithilden sighed. There was no help for it. “Come with me,” he said, beckoning to them.
“We are on our way home,” Legolas said, wetting his lips.
“Not by yourselves, you are not,” said Ithilden firmly. He did not like the idea of Legolas going off alone or, even worse, with Turgon. Legolas was so unpredictable these days that there was no telling what he might do if left on his own for too long. Ithilden felt a sudden chill at the possibilities: If Legolas decided he needed time alone in the woods, he just might disappear into them, and that would be very dangerous, given his current inability to use weapons with confidence.
“Come.” Ithilden turned and started back toward the picnic site, and after a second, he heard them following him. They emerged in the little clearing where Alfirin waited. Ithilden despaired as he looked at her. Given his unwillingness to let Legolas go home on his own, his pleasant hour or two with Alfirin would have to be postponed for another day.
“Mae govannen, you two,” she said, sounding surprised but smiling at the younglings. “It looks as if you have been fishing.”
“We have,” Turgon agreed happily, “and we caught some really lovely trout. We needed a day off from training,” he confided.
Alfirin shot Ithilden a half-amused glance, but he found it impossible to share her enjoyment of the absurdity. Legolas’s struggle to return to using weapons was hard enough without Turgon tempting him away from the training fields. Ithilden glanced at Legolas, who stood silently to one side, his posture tense.
“I am afraid we need to escort these two home,” Ithilden told Alfirin. She raised her eyebrows and glanced at Legolas and Turgon, but she said nothing and stood up to begin packing the food back into the basket.
“Are you going to eat that?” Turgon asked, eyeing the chicken. Ithilden rounded on him, ready to snap at his presumption, but Alfirin spoke first.
“You may have it if you are hungry,” she said, offering Turgon half-wrapped chicken. He helped himself to a leg. She offered the chicken to Legolas too, but he shook his head. Ithilden’s irritation deepened at the resentment that was increasingly evident on his little brother’s face.
“You do not have to do this, Ithilden,” Legolas said. “As I told you, we were on our way home anyway.”
“The last time I saw you, you were on your way to the training fields.” Ithilden could not help the sharpness in his voice. He had taken comfort every morning this week in knowing that Legolas was safe under the watchful eyes of the weapons masters. “But you do not seem to be very skilled at arriving at the destinations you set off for. This time, I want to be sure you get back where someone can keep an eye on you.”
Legolas’s jaw tightened, and Alfirin frowned at Ithilden, making him want to smack both younglings. He swept up the blanket and took the basket from her. “Did you get the wine?” he asked, and she retrieved it from the stream and tucked it into the basket he held out. He offered her his other arm, which she took, and started back through the woods toward the path. Turgon flung away the bone from his chicken leg and stood waiting for Legolas, who finally moved after them.
Alfirin looked back over her shoulder. “Today, I am drying those flame flowers you saw yesterday, Legolas. By the day after tomorrow, they should be ready to extract the dye from. I will try to remember show you what the yarn looks like after I dye it.”
“Thank you,” grunted Legolas in what Ithilden supposed was an effort at politeness.
Alfirin looked meaningfully at Ithilden. He was uncertain what she wanted, but he guessed that she was urging him to speak to the younglings too. He was too angry to do it, however. Even in his current state, Legolas knew better than to dodge out of weapons training. Of course, Turgon was probably responsible for that.
They walked quickly, and his annoyance grew as Alfirin fixed her eyes straight ahead and pulled a little away from him. At length, they drew near Thranduil’s stronghold.
“Do you want some of the fish, Legolas?” Turgon asked when they paused at the point where the path to his cottage branched off.
“No, thank you,” Legolas said. “You can have them. But thank you for going with me, Turgon.” Turgon smiled and trotted off toward home. In silence, Ithilden, Alfirin, and Legolas resumed walking until they reached the Green.
“I want to walk Alfirin home, Legolas,” said Ithilden. “Can I trust you to get home from here?”
Legolas threw him a scathing look. “You could have trusted me to get home from the forest.” He turned his back, but Ithilden caught his arm.
“The weapons masters have almost certainly sent word to Adar that you were not there today. You would do well to go straight to him.”
Legolas jerked his arm free and glared at Ithilden. “I already know that.” He whirled away and was trotting across the Green before Ithilden could answer.
He turned to find that Alfirin had already started walking along the path to her cottage, and he had to hasten to catch up. When he came up beside her, she threw him a glance that made him stop in his tracks. “Why did you do that?” she demanded angrily.
He was dumbfounded. “Do what?”
“Treat Legolas as if he were completely irresponsible. I know that this is none of my business, Ithilden, but I cannot help myself. You acted as if he had to be dragged home by force. He said he was going home. Why could you not trust him?”
Ithilden struggled for composure. “I could not leave him to go home alone! He had already proved himself unreliable by being where he was not supposed to be. He needed someone to keep an eye on him. And he needed to have company, to feel that someone cared enough about whether he got home to go with him.”
“Do you think you provided him with such company? You would not even speak to him. And he already had company. He had Turgon.”
Her voice had risen slightly and Ithilden could feel heat flooding his face. “Turgon is a large part of Legolas’s problem! He talks Legolas into doing just this sort of thing.”
“You heard Legolas,” Alfirin cried. “He thanked Turgon for going with him. That did not sound to me as if Turgon was the instigator. Besides, you have been worried about Legolas for some time now, and Turgon has not even been here until the last few days. You cannot blame everything on Turgon, but I doubt if you help Legolas by treating him as untrustworthy.”
Ithilden stood looking at her. They were both breathing hard. He had not told her about Legolas killing the Elf-woman because doing so felt like a violation of Legolas’s privacy. She did not know what she was talking about, and she was interfering quite inexcusably.
“I think I know what Legolas needs better than you do,” he said stiffly. For a second, she said nothing. Then she gave a wordless cry and turned to march away with her fists clenched.
He started after her, but she looked over her shoulder long enough to say, “Do not come with me. You may not think Legolas can get home on his own, but I assure you that I can.”
He stopped and watched her disappear around a bend. Then, aware of the weight of the nearly full picnic basket in his hand, he turned and strode off toward the palace. She was the most infuriating female he had ever met! How could he have ever thought of her as gentle?
Alfirin took great satisfaction in not slamming the front door of her family’s cottage. She was in complete control of herself, she thought as she turned to push it firmly shut. Ithilden was so arrogant that she could scarcely stand it, but she was not going to let that discompose her.
She turned away from the door to find her mother standing in the doorway of the kitchen at the end of the hall. “You are home early,” her mother observed. “Is something the matter?”
Alfirin marched down the hallway toward her. “Nothing you did not warn me about,” she fumed. She swept into the kitchen and was grateful to find neither her father nor her brother was there. The remains of the mid-day meal littered the table, and Alfirin had evidently interrupted her mother in clearing it up.
Still standing near the doorway, her mother tilted her head and regarded Alfirin thoughtfully. “Have you eaten?”
“I am not hungry,” Alfirin announced as she gathered dirty dishes and shoved them into the pan of warm water near the hearth.
Her mother took a seat at the table and touched the side of teapot to see if it was still warm. “Bring two cups and sit and talk with me for a few minutes before I go back to the infirmary.”
Reluctantly, Alfirin obeyed. She was not sure she wanted to talk about this. She had not yet decided what the events of the last half hour meant about her and Ithilden’s rightness for one another.
“What happened?” her mother asked.
Alfirin suddenly found herself blinking away tears. “Ithilden and I quarreled,” she said, glancing at her mother, who nodded, evidently unsurprised. “We met Legolas and his friend Turgon in the woods. Obviously they should have been at weapons training, and Legolas looked very conscious that he was where he did not belong. He said he would go home, but Ithilden would not let the two of them go on their own. And, Naneth, I know he is worried about Legolas, but he was unkind to him! He let Legolas feel that he was angry and did not trust him, but he never made it clear that he was also concerned for Legolas’s happiness and well-being.”
Her mother took a sip of tea. “You let Ithilden know you thought he had done the wrong thing?”
“I did.” Alfirin lifted her chin. “I know that whatever is the matter with Legolas is none of my business, but I could not stand by and watch Ithilden hurt him without saying something. Ithilden loves him, but he was just so wrong!”
For a moment, her mother looked down at her tea. Then she raised her gaze, and to Alfirin’s shock, she smiled broadly. “Good for you,” she said. “I am proud of you for standing up to Ithilden. He can be very intimidating, so that could not have been easy. Perhaps you even helped him and Legolas. Now all you have to do is enjoy the making up.”
Alfirin gaped at her. “But we quarreled! I am still angry.”
Her mother reached out to lay her hand on Alfirin’s wrist. “Yes, and I am so relieved that you did. I was afraid he might be too much for you. But I am beginning to believe you would be happy with him after all.”
For a second, Alfirin could only sputter. Then, abruptly, her anger drained away, and she laughed. “Assuming he ever comes near me again,” she said, suddenly worried.
Her mother laughed. “I have seen the way he looks at you. I do not think you need to fret.” Alfirin could only hope that she was right.
At the sound of the knock on his office door, Thranduil looked up from the letter he was writing. “Come in,” he called, and Legolas entered the room. Thranduil laid down his pen and leaned back in his chair to regard the slim young figure standing before his desk with his chin defiantly raised. When the weapons masters had sent word that morning that Legolas was missing, Thranduil had felt a moment of panic, but then he had realized that the fact that Turgon was missing too told him what had probably happened to his son: Legolas and Turgon had gone off somewhere together. And indeed, it turned out that one of the Home Guard patrols had seen them on a path leading to a stream where Thranduil knew Legolas liked to fish.
Thranduil sighed and rose. “Come and sit down, Legolas,” he said, indicating the comfortable chairs near the fireplace. Legolas blinked. He had evidently been expecting a scolding, and rightly so, Thranduil thought wryly. Under ordinary circumstances, Legolas would be standing in front of Thranduil’s desk, not sitting near the fire, and Thranduil would be letting him know in no uncertain terms that his behavior was unacceptable. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
Legolas approached the chair Thranduil had pointed to and sat down on the edge of it, his stiff posture suggesting that even now, he was uncertain of what attitude Thranduil was going to take.
Thranduil frowned at the low fire that had been lit against the chill that still lingered in the caves in spring. He needed to be careful or he would drive Legolas further away, when what he wanted was for his youngest son to talk to him. “You did not go to training today,” he observed mildly. He was listening carefully, but he kept his gaze averted, trying to be as unthreatening as possible.
“No.” Legolas hesitated. “I meant to go. I got all the way to where the path comes out of the woods, but then I saw--.” He stopped and then gathered himself and went on again. “I saw that the class was going to use long knives.”
Thranduil let out a long sigh. So that was it. He turned to look at his son, who was biting his lip and looked as miserable as Thranduil had ever seen him. “I take it you are not ready to work with knives yet,” Thranduil said.
Legolas shook his head and looked down at his hands. He still looked as if he were braced for Thranduil to chastise him for his absence from class. Thranduil did not have the heart to do it; for the last few weeks, Legolas had already been punishing himself far more than anyone else thought he deserved.
For a moment, Thranduil felt despair. Was he going to have to let this one be something other than a warrior? Was that something he could possibly do, given that other people’s sons were serving the realm, often at great personal cost? I do not have to think about that just yet, he told himself firmly. And what matters now is Legolas. He leaned forward and put his hand on Legolas’s knee. His son looked up, blinking in surprise.
“If you are not ready, then you do not have to do it. I would like you to try, of course, and perhaps you would like to spar with me or Ithilden first, just to be sure you can. But if you need more time, there is no reason you cannot have it.”
Legolas’s lips parted slightly. Then he swallowed, and suddenly his face softened a little. “I am sorry I could not do it today, Adar. I will try. I promise.”
Without thinking, Thranduil rose and drew Legolas into an embrace. The top of the blond head was higher than Thranduil’s chin now, he noted ruefully. “I am proud your courage, Legolas. You did a brave thing in defending someone else, and you are doing a brave thing now in coming to terms with it.” Legolas said nothing, but he did not pull away either, which, given how closed in on himself Legolas was these days, Thranduil took as a sign of progress.
After a moment, Thranduil put his hands on Legolas’s shoulders and stepped back a little. “You do not have to go to classes that use knives until you are ready, Legolas, but you do have to let me know where you will be instead. I worry when you are missing, iôn-nín.”
Legolas’s mouth tightened slightly. “I do not need to be watched all the time, Adar. I am not an elfling.”
“Of course you are not,” Thranduil said as calmly as he could. “But I still want you to let me know where you will be if you are not going to a training class.” He waited for a moment, and then when Legolas made no more protest, he patted his son’s shoulder lightly. “You missed mid-day meal. You should go and find something to eat before your tutor gets here.”
“Yes, Adar.” Legolas flashed him a brief, small smile that wrung Thranduil’s heart, and then he was gone.
Thranduil sighed and went back to his desk. Only time would tell what future Legolas would be able to make for himself. Another knock sounded at the door, and at Thranduil’s invitation, Ithilden entered the room, looking annoyed.
“Has Legolas come to you?” Ithilden asked.
“Yes.” Thranduil was surprised by the question, and Ithilden evidently realized it.
“I suppose he did not tell you that it was I who stumbled on him and Turgon in the woods today.”
“No, he did not.” For the second time, Thranduil put his pen down. He signaled for Ithilden to sit. “I knew he had not gone to training. The masters sent a message.”
Ithilden nodded and dropped into the chair in front of the desk. “I brought him home, although he claimed he was on his way here anyway.” He drew in his breath and continued determinedly. “Adar, I think you should seriously consider forbidding him to spend any time with Turgon.”
Thranduil stiffened. “I will decide what I allow Legolas to do, Ithilden. It is not your concern.” Thranduil knew that his adult sons both occasionally differed from him as to how Legolas should be raised, but he reserved the privilege of parenting his youngest child for himself alone. Ithilden was plainly wrestling with the temptation to say more, and Thranduil cut him off before he could speak. “I have told Legolas that he need not train with knives yet if he does not think he is ready. Please tell the blade master to let us know when he is planning to have Legolas’s class work with knives.”
Ithilden evidently resigned himself to losing the battle over Turgon and nodded, but he was still frowning. Thranduil eyed him curiously. Ithilden seemed far angrier than Thranduil would have expected him to be over Legolas’s absence from the training fields. Suddenly, Thranduil remembered that Ithilden had intended to take Alfirin on a picnic. “Did Legolas interrupt your time with Alfirin?” he asked, meaning to be sympathetic.
Ithilden gave an angry snort. “Yes, but it is no matter.”
Thranduil raised an eyebrow. “No matter? You seem very annoyed if this is something that does not matter.”
Ithilden grimaced. “Alfirin was quite critical of how I treated Legolas.”
Thranduil blinked. “She was?” Thranduil would have sworn that Alfirin was unlikely to contradict Ithilden about anything. Indeed, her evident docility had worried Thranduil, who thought that Ithilden needed a wife who was as strong as he was.
“Yes, she was. She said I should have shown more trust in him and sent him home alone.”
To Thranduil’s ear, Ithilden sounded as much astounded as angry at the maiden’s criticism. A bubble of amusement rose in Thranduil’s chest. He tried to suppress it, but Ithilden’s sharp ears heard the slight sound that Thranduil could not quite contain. Ithilden looked at him sharply. “You find this amusing?”
Relieved of having to dissemble, Thranduil grinned openly. “I do. I have always liked Alfirin, but I am beginning to think she is an even better match for you that I had originally believed.”
Ithilden’s mouth dropped open, and then he shut it with a snap. He plainly did not know what to make of Thranduil’s enjoyment of his discomfiture.
Thranduil brought his face under control and smiled sympathetically. “I think you will find that in the long run it is better to have a wife who does not always give way to you.” He grinned again. “And besides, making up after a quarrel is one of the great pleasures of marriage.”
Slowly, Ithilden’s face broke into a rueful smile. “I am not even sure she will be interested in making up a quarrel so that marriage is a possibility.”
“Ah,” said Thranduil, “it will be sweet to find out, though.”
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
5. Is Everything Well?
At the sound of the dining room door opening, Legolas turned to see Ithilden entering the room, looking preoccupied. Legolas lowered his spoon into his porridge bowl and waited, bracing himself a little. He had not seen Ithilden since his brother had hauled him home the day before, because Ithilden had been so busy in his office that he had not been at evening meal and had returned to the palace only after Legolas had retired and then been called out again that morning. Legolas found that he still resented Ithilden’s lack of trust, but he did not particularly want to continue quarreling with him in front of their father.
Ithilden’s mind was evidently on other things though, because he simply greeted both Thranduil and Legolas, seated himself, and ladled porridge into his bowl.
“Is everything well?” Thranduil asked.
“Yes.” Ithilden gave no further information, nor had Legolas expected him to. Thranduil and Ithilden seldom talked about the details of the realm’s defense in front of Legolas. Ithilden reached for the pitcher of milk, and as he did so, he focused on Legolas, who realized he was still watching his brother apprehensively. Legolas could see the memory of yesterday blossoming on Ithilden’s face. For a second, Ithilden hesitated. Then he said, “I saw the stablemaster leading your horse out to the pasture this morning, Legolas. Sadron was in fine feather.”
Legolas relaxed. Ithilden evidently had no more desire to continue scolding him than Legolas had to be scolded. “If Annael and Turgon have time, I hope we can ride this afternoon when I am finished with my lessons.”
Ithilden’s gaze flicked momentarily to Thranduil, but he said nothing. For a moment, Legolas could have sworn there was some tension between his father and brother, but he was too glad that Ithilden seemed to be offering a truce to worry about it.
“A ride would be pleasant,” Thranduil said. Remembering the day before, Legolas waited for his father to demand to know where he and his friends planned to ride, but instead Thranduil said, “I hope to have time to ride too.”
Pleased, Legolas picked up his spoon again. You are seeing doubt where there is none, he admonished himself. He had been allowed to ride where he liked within certain boundaries for years now, and he had no reason to suppose that his father would change the rules. He scooped up the last of his porridge. “By your leave, Adar, I will be on my way to training.”
“Have a good day,” Thranduil said, nodding his permission for Legolas to leave.
He stopped in his chamber to pick up the weapons that he was not supposed to carry in the palace and hesitated for only a minute before buckling his knife sheath to his belt. He had worn his knife all along and he would not stop now, he thought with determination. Moreover, he resolved, he would ask his father to spar with him, even though his stomach tightened at the thought. He picked up his bow, savoring the familiar feel of it and rejoicing that today he would be able to go to training gladly.
Pleased with himself and with the day that lay before him, he set out for the training fields. The morning was glorious. Spring was in full flower and the warmth of the sun on his face suggested that summer was on the way. He walked briskly along the path and approached the training fields to find most of his classmates already happily sprawled on the grass. He dropped to the ground next to Annael.
“I was just telling Annael about all the fish we caught yesterday,” said Turgon from Annael’s other side. “We should have gotten him to come too.” Annael looked expressionlessly at Legolas, who could only shrug helplessly. He could not very well tell Annael that he had been unable to stomach the thought of sparring with long knives.
“Fishing?” said a voice behind him. “You went fishing? If you two get away with that, it is going to be so unfair!”
Legolas turned his head sharply to see Galelas standing a foot away, his face flushed with resentment.
“What do you mean ‘unfair’?” Turgon asked. “If you want to go fishing, just go. I am sure no one here would be sorry to see you leave.”
Galelas ignored him, keeping his gaze focused on Legolas. “Anyone else who did that would expect to spend a week running the training track or cleaning armor, but not you, Legolas. You come to class only when you find it convenient and do just as you like, and you know that the masters will not say a thing. All I can say is that if we are ever warriors together, I hope I never have to depend on your skill with weapons to protect me!”
For a second, Legolas sat, quivering, every muscle tensed against Galelas’s scathing attack. Then suddenly, he could bear it no longer. Almost without his willing it, he dropped his bow, pushed off from the ground, and threw himself at Galelas, catching him in the knees with his shoulder and sending him crashing down, with the arrows from both their quivers scattering around them. Frantically, he scrambled up Galelas’s squirming body, throwing punches as he went.
From somewhere nearby, Annael shouted his name, but Legolas ignored him, as the older, heavier Galelas managed to shove him off and roll on top of him, sinking a fist into Legolas’s mid-section as he did so. Legolas grunted but managed to keep rolling, his legs tangling with Galelas’s until they came to rest with Legolas on top again.
He drew his arm back, intending to slam his fist into Galelas’s hateful face, but a hand caught at his elbow and then someone got hold of the strap of his quiver and lifted him onto his feet. “Stop it!” commanded Penntalion. “Both of you, stop it right now!”
Legolas stood, breathing hard, Penntalion’s hand still on his quiver, as Galelas scrambled to his feet. To Legolas’s savage satisfaction, Galelas was dabbing with his fingers at a cut at the corner of his mouth. “Explain yourselves!” Penntalion ordered.
Utter silence followed. Legolas dropped his eyes to the ground, picking out his arrows from Galelas’s and trying to get control of his emotions.
“Very well.” Penntalion let go of him. “Collect your things and go home. I do not want to see either one of you in an archery class for a week, and then you had better be able to behave yourselves. I will be telling your parents exactly why you are not welcome until then.”
Dismayed, Legolas looked up to see that the archery master’s face was set in lines suggesting he would brook no argument. Slowly, Legolas picked up his bow and then bent to gather his arrows. His face both sympathetic and horrified, Annael hurried to help him, and Turgon joined in too.
“The rest of you go and get the small targets and set them up halfway down the field,” Penntalion ordered, and after a second, the other class members, who had been silently watching, hurried to obey.
Legolas avoided Penntalion’s eyes as Annael slid the last two arrows into his quiver, patted Legolas’s shoulder, and then ran off to do as they had all been told. Galelas was already striding away, his head down, looking at no one. With his head lowered too, Legolas started toward the path leading to the palace. Penntalion caught his arm. “Do you need anything, Legolas?”
He jerked his arm free. “No.” And he trotted away, running faster and faster until he reached the cover of the trees.
“That will be all,” Thranduil said. “I will let you know how the mayor answers our questions about the tariffs his merchants are imposing.” His council members rose, bowed, and took their leave.
On Thranduil’s left, Ithilden gathered his notes together. “Are you and I meeting with the mayor right away?”
“He and his attendants are refreshing themselves. I will send word for them to wait on us shortly.” Thranduil signaled to the servant who had appeared in the doorway as his council dispersed. “Tell the mayor I will await him in the Great Hall in half an hour.”
“Yes, my lord,” the servant said. He offered Thranduil a folded piece of parchment. “This came while you were in the meeting.”
Thranduil accepted the note, and the servant departed. Thranduil opened the message, read it, and then read it again. Legolas had been fighting? Thranduil could barely contain his dismay. He looked up at Ithilden, who was watching him inquiringly. “Was Legolas’s class working with blades today?”
Ithilden looked surprised. “No. Not as far as I know. They were scheduled to do archery, and I did ask the masters to let you know if they were using knives. Has something happened with Legolas?”
“He apparently got in a fight with another student and was sent home.” Thranduil frowned. He had been so sure that Legolas would be happy at least in an archery class.
Ithilden groaned. “The masters take fighting very seriously, as well they should. If Legolas has only been sent home for today, then they are treating him unusually gently.”
“He is not to go back to the archery class for a week.”
Ithilden grimaced. He knew what being barred from archery would mean to Legolas.
Thranduil tapped the parchment against the palm of his other hand. He knew that Legolas was suffering, but he had also thought that the youth was gradually getting better. If Legolas was actually fighting with other students, then he was not healing nearly as well as Thranduil had hoped. He sighed and rose. “I will go and speak to him. If the mayor arrives before I return, please deal with him.”
Ithilden nodded, and Thranduil left the council chamber and made his way to Legolas’s chamber. He knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for an answer. The room was empty. “Legolas?” he called, looking toward the open door of the bathing chamber. No answer came. Legolas was not there either.
Thranduil’s mouth tightened in annoyance. He was going to have to hunt his youngest son down, which meant he might not have time to speak to him before the mayor of Esgaroth arrived. He left the room and strode down the hallway to speak to the guards at the entrance to the family quarters. “Do you know where Legolas is?”
“He has not yet returned from training, my lord,” said the guard.
Thranduil blinked. Legolas had not come back yet? He had been sent home at the start of the morning classes. Where could he be? In a flash, any irritation he felt turned to full-blown worry. Legolas might simply be in the nearby part of the forest, seeking comfort from the trees. But he also might have wandered off, trying to hide himself away from a situation that gave him pain. Thranduil was not at all happy about that idea. He paused. What he wanted to do was go after his son. What he probably should do was deal with the mayor of Esgaroth and send someone else to hunt for Legolas. After all, for all he knew, the youth was sitting in a tree somewhere, singing himself into a happier frame of mind. Thranduil’s worry was probably exaggerated.
He returned to the council chamber, where Ithilden was reading over his notes again. Ithilden rose when Thranduil entered. “Legolas did not return to the palace this morning when the archery master sent him home,” Thranduil told him. “See if you can find him.”
Ithilden took only a second to absorb the news. “Of course. I will check with Turgon and Annael first. They usually know where he is. I am sure there is nothing to worry about.”
Thranduil nodded. Ithilden must surely be right.
Alfirin picked her way carefully among the rocks, searching in the hollows for the low-growing yellow flowers that she had been able to find only in this area near the river, west of Thranduil’s stronghold. The flowers were beautiful, but what she actually wanted was the pale green leaves, that, when boiled, would provide her with a silver dye. She spotted a golden clump and crouched to cut the sturdy stems of the leaves and add them to those already in her basket.
Straightening, she stretched her back and drew her hand across her forehead. The day had grown oppressively warm for spring. Summer really was on the way, she thought, and then made her way to the edge of the rocky patch, where the trees would provide her with some shade while she ate the meal she had brought with her.
She dug her water skin and oil-cloth wrapped bread and cheese from her basket. The water had grown tepid over the course of the morning. She would refill it from the stream that she seemed to recall lay a bit further along once she had finished her meal. She cut a slice of the cheese, laid it on the bread, and took a crumbly mouthful, thinking as she did so about kissing Ithilden.
She had thought about kissing him off and on ever since she had stormed away from him the previous day. She had even lain awake in the night thinking about it. She shivered a little, despite the warmth of the day, and touched her fingertips lightly to her lips. She pictured Ithilden’s strong shoulders and the serious gaze of his dark grey eyes, and warmth spread through the pit of her stomach.
Sighing, she looked down at the bread in her hand. Last night, when she had not been thinking about kissing Ithilden, she had reveled in how angry she was at him. She had to concede that she did not know what was bothering Legolas, while Ithilden did. She also knew that he had been genuinely worried about Legolas. But judging by how Tonduil reacted to the way she and her parents treated him, she believed that Legolas needed loving acceptance from those close to him, even when he was at his most difficult. She could not deny that he also needed discipline, but surely Ithilden should have been able to see that his treatment of his little brother hurt him.
And then, when she had awakened, after having slept for what could not have been more than an hour or two, she had lain on her side, looking at the dawn coming through her window, and found that not only had her anger faded, but also she was looking forward to tackling the challenge of managing the palace household, of making it warmer and more comfortable for Ithilden and his family. Assuming, of course, that Ithilden ever came near her again.
Now she sighed and wrapped up the remains of her meal. Her mother had been confident that Ithilden would come back, and her mother was usually right. She contemplated getting up to hunt for more flowers, but the midday sun overhead was still very warm, and after her restless night, she was beginning to feel sleepy. She would stretch out in the shade and nap for a while. She lay down with her arm across her face to block the sunlight, and almost instantly, her mind began to drift and then she was walking along a dream path with Ithilden’s arm around her waist.
Legolas slid from Sadron’s back and then stood patting the horse’s neck. “Are you happy to be out in the woods, my friend?” Sadron nuzzled Legolas's hair and Legolas rubbed his cheek against the animal’s velvety nose. His horse was indifferent to whether Legolas did well or badly in weapons training. Sadron loved him wholeheartedly either way, and indeed, would probably be glad if Legolas never went to training again, but spent his days riding. The morning they had just passed together had been pure pleasure for the horse.
“Go and find some grass,” Legolas told him, and then swung himself up into the arms of a beech tree. He looked down. Sadron was still watching him, but now he apparently decided that Legolas was not going anywhere without him, and he lowered his head and began searching for the sweetest blades of grass he could find.
Legolas watched him for a few minutes and then leaned his head back against the tree, which was humming happily at his presence. His mouth twisted in a rueful smile. Why was it that pleasing the forest and his horse was so easy, while pleasing everyone else was so hard? Including himself, of course, he added honestly. He did not think that even Ithilden could be unhappier with him just now than he was.
How could he have let Galelas get to him like that? He should have ignored the irritating little Orc-spawn. After all, Galelas had no idea why Legolas had missed so much training, so to him, it probably did look as if Legolas was being given special privileges. Legolas plucked at a leaf, feeling its complex vein system rasping against his fingertips. Of course, if he were honest, what had really stung was not Galelas’s accusation of favoritism, but his doubt about whether Legolas would be a reliable fellow warrior. That could not be true, he thought angrily. He was having trouble right now, but his father and the healer and the weapons masters all seemed to think he would recover. In addition to being an obnoxious loud mouth, Galelas was simply wrong.
He let the leaf flutter from his fingers to the ground. He supposed he would have to go home soon. Sadron was apparently finding enough to eat, but Legolas was growing hungry. He leaned over to see where the horse had gotten to and found Sadron standing stock still, staring into the distance with his ears pricked. Legolas blinked and then turned his own head to listen. A deep throated rumble came from the west, and Legolas heard Sadron snort and shuffle uneasily. Now that Legolas was paying attention, he realized that he had been hearing the distant sound of thunder for some time. Moreover the sound was drawing closer.
He climbed a little higher to get a view of the sky unimpeded by the thick treetops and found that dark storm clouds were piled high in the sky to the west. As Legolas watched, he heard thunder again and saw lightning flashing in the clouds. A cool breeze bathed his face. He grimaced. There was not the slightest chance he could reach home before the storm was upon him. He did not mind the rain, but he should not be sitting in the treetops while lightning played.
He swung himself lightly to the ground and had started toward Sadron, meaning to soothe him, when he heard the sound of another horse approaching. He waited for a moment, and then with a stab of annoyance, saw Ithilden’s big grey stallion come trotting out from between the trees. His brother brought the horse to a halt, and for a second, the two of them regarded one another without speaking.
“I am within my boundaries,” Legolas finally said. “And I was on my way home.”
Ithilden could hear the resentment in his voice and grimaced slightly. During a largely sleepless night, he had concluded that Alfirin had been right when she said that Legolas was hurt by Ithilden’s lack of trust the previous day, and he had tried to make peace at morning meal. But Legolas had apparently not yet forgiven him entirely. He kept his voice as matter-of-fact as he could. “Adar was worried. He got a note from the weapons masters saying you had been sent home, and he could not find you.”
Ithilden could see Legolas’s struggle with his resentment reflected in his face, a face with a purple bruise on the left cheek, Ithilden noted. “I am sorry,” Legolas finally said, albeit a little grudgingly. “But he really should not have been worried. I am not an elfling.”
Ithilden smiled wryly. “Neither is Eilian, nor am I, but I think you will find that Adar worries about us too.”
Legolas’s face relaxed. “True enough,” he admitted. He hesitated. “I was in a fight,” he said rather aggressively.
Ithilden nodded. “So I heard.” He had decided that Legolas’s behavior was a matter for Thranduil and the weapons masters to deal with. Thunder rumbled again, much closer this time. “We should be on our way, although I suspect we are going to get very wet anyway.”
Having apparently come to the satisfying conclusion that Ithilden was not going to scold him, Legolas nodded and called to Sadron, who was pawing nervously at the ground. He mounted, talking soothingly to the animal, and then rode to Ithilden’s side. Ithilden smiled at him, pleased by how easily Legolas had accepted his companionship today. He still did not like the idea of Legolas roaming the forest alone, but he thought that perhaps he needed to take a different approach to preventing it, one Alfirin might be more likely to approve of. They started back toward the palace, moving as quickly as the twisting path between the trees would allow.
Thunder clapped, and Ithilden’s horse jumped slightly beneath him. He could hear the patter of rain on the leaves overhead. A cold, fat raindrop struck him in the face, and then the rain came down in a roar, soaking through his tunic and hair within minutes, and sending a stream down the back of his neck. He glanced back to see Legolas hunched over against the rain, trying to comfort the increasingly alarmed Sadron.
As he turned to look forward again, he caught a glimpse of someone moving on the hillside to their left. He lifted his hand to signal to Legolas and brought his horse to a halt. Had someone else been caught in this downpour? As he watched, the person emerged from a dense copse, and he was startled to realize that the slim figure sliding on the slippery wet grass of the hillside was Alfirin. Jumping to the ground, he started hastily toward her. Her mouth opened slightly in surprise at the sight of him, and she stopped dead in her tracks.
“You are soaked,” he said in dismay, reaching for her hand to help her to the level ground.
For a horrible second, he thought she was going to refuse to take his hand, and then, suddenly, she grinned and placed her hand in his. “You have rain dripping from your nose, so I do not think you are in a position to talk.”
And as quickly that, they were easy with one another again.
He ran his eyes down her wet clothing, which was clinging to her body in a way he could not help finding interesting despite the fact that he knew she must be uncomfortable. He took a quick look at where her nipples, hardened by the cold, pushed against the fabric of her gown. Then he flushed and glanced to where Legolas stood next to his horse, watching them with a knowing smirk. He turned back to Alfirin. “Let us take you home. Unless, of course, you want to find shelter until the storm lessens a little.”
She laughed, and it occurred to him that she was as happy as he was, a thought that made his heart leap. “It is only rain,” she said. Thunder rattled the ground around them. “And thunder and lightning,” she added with a smile, and as contented as he had ever been, he turned to lead her back to the horses, already looking forward to riding with her in front of him.
At that moment, a loud crack split the air around them and the hair on the back of Ithilden’s neck rose, soaked though it was. The world in front of him seemed to tilt crazily, and then he realized that what was really moving was the tree near which Legolas and the horses stood.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
6. Taking Care
As Alfirin watched in horror, the tree toppled toward Legolas, everything seemingly happening with unbearable slowness and yet too quickly to prevent.
“Look out!” Ithilden cried, lunging forward. At the same time, Legolas’s horse, already nervous, gave a hysterical scream and started to bolt. Legolas whirled to grab for him, but too late, and his horse flew off, spooking Ithilden’s horse into the same panicked flight.
Alfirin could tell the instant that Legolas spotted the tree, because his face changed and he began to scramble frantically back out of the way. For a second, she thought that everything was going to be all right, and then, unbelievably, Legolas’s foot slipped in the mud and he fell. Even then, the tree almost missed him. Only at the last possible instant did a branch near the end of one of the tree’s great arms catch his still outstretched leg, driving a cry of pain from the youth.
At the sound of his cry, Alfirin shook herself free from her paralyzed state and, slipping a little on the rain slicked grass, she ran to help Ithilden, now crouched at his brother’s side. Legolas was moaning and trying to wriggle backward and draw his leg out from under the tree. “Hold still!” Ithilden commanded, and rather to Alfirin’s surprise, Legolas bit his lip and obeyed. Ithilden looked at her. “Can you get your hands under his arms and pull him free when I lift the branch a little?”
Determinedly, she nodded and bent to grasp Legolas, twisting her fingers into the front of his soaked tunic to steady her slippery grip. Cold drops of rain pelted her back. Grabbing the branch, Ithilden gave a great heave and moved it a fraction of an inch, and she dug her heels in and pulled, dragging Legolas out from under it. She could hear him gasp, but he made no other sound.
Ithilden dropped the branch and ran to them, drawing his knife as he fell to his knees next to Legolas. With swift precision, he slashed the already torn right leg of Legolas’s leggings from the knee down and peeled it away. Alfirin stared at the long bruise forming around the oozing scrape on Legolas’s leg. She reached out to run her hand along it to check for the tell-tale bump of a broken and dislocated bone, but Ithilden’s long, elegant hands were already sliding gently along his brother’s leg. Legolas sucked in his breath sharply, and Alfirin looked at his milk-white face and then placed her hand over his.
“Everything seems to be where it should be, Legolas,” Ithilden said with reassuring calm, “but I do not think you should try to walk on it until a healer looks at it.” Legolas drew in a wobbly breath and kept his lips firmly pressed together. Probably holding back whatever sound he feared might come out if he opened his mouth, Alfirin thought.
Ithilden sank back on his haunches and looked around. “I am going to have to go after the horses, and I would like to get him out of the rain as much as I can while I do it. Do you know of anywhere more promising than under those pine trees?” Although his voice was composed, she could see from the tension around his mouth that he was anxious.
“There is a small cave, closer to the river a short distance further on,” she offered. “I found it the last time I was here hunting flowers. That is where I was going when we met today.”
Gratitude shone from Ithilden’s eyes as he smiled at her, and she felt her heart thump against the wall of her chest. And at that moment, she knew that whatever fears she had for her future were of no weight at all compared to the love she felt for this Elf.
Oblivious to her capitulation, Ithilden slid the bow from Legolas’s back and unbuckled his quiver and helped him out of it. He handed the gear to Alfirin and then bent to gather Legolas carefully into his arms. Legolas closed his eyes and clenched his jaw but made no sound. Instead, he let his head fall against his older brother’s shoulder, hiding his face from them both. Ithilden made a single, soft comforting sound, and then, when Alfirin pointed the way, he set off.
Alfirin snatched up her basket and trotted after him, hurrying to keep up with Ithilden’s long strides. Her heart warmed at how gentle Ithilden was with his brother today and how clearly Legolas trusted in Ithilden’s strength. Perhaps she had been too harsh in judging him, she thought, or perhaps he had listened to her more attentively than she had realized. It did not matter. What mattered was that he was responding to Legolas’s need for him, and Legolas knew it.
Rain continued to descend in torrents, and thunder still sounded, although it had moved off from where they were. When they neared the cave, she plucked at Ithilden’s sleeve from behind and he stopped and turned to her. “It is over that little ridge,” she said pointing to their left and starting to sidle that way.
“Wait,” he said. “Let me check to be sure nothing else has sheltered there first.” He moved into the doubtful shelter of a maple and set Legolas down carefully to lean his back against it. “We will have you out of the rain soon, Legolas,” he said soothingly and straightened and looked at Alfirin. “I will be right back.” And he climbed nimbly up the ridge and disappeared over it.
Alfirin crouched next to Legolas, trying to get between him and the blowing rain. He still had his eyes closed and was breathing hard. Her gaze came to rest on the trunk of the tree just above his head. The bark was scraped off, and streaks of mud had been spread along it. Wild boar, she thought, recognizing the signs, and almost simultaneously, she heard a snort.
Legolas’s eyes flew open, and Alfirin turned to see a boar, standing not twenty feet away, trembling slightly and watching her and Legolas. His tusks looked sharp and menacing. It should be asleep, she thought incredulously. They sleep during the day. But then another clap of thunder sounded and the animal quivered. The storm had evidently awakened it and made it suspicious of them, the invaders in its territory.
Very slowly, she crouched and, from her basket, she slid the knife she had been using to cut flowers. Then, her heart pounding wildly, she took up a stance between the animal and the injured Legolas and waited to see what would happen. Boars were normally not dangerous unless they felt threatened, but this one was clearly rattled. Go away, she urged it silently. We will not hurt you. Go away. If the boar charged, she would have to throw her knife, and she was not sure she could do it hard or accurately enough.
For a long moment, she and the boar looked at one another, and then the animal backed away and faded into the bushes. She let out a breath she had not known she was holding, trying to steady her trembling legs as she did so. Immediately, out of the rain, Ithilden appeared by her side, his bow in his hand. He touched the hand in which she held the knife. “That was very brave.” His eyes shone as he looked down at her.
And then he was gazing past her at Legolas with a look she could not read, and she turned to see Legolas sliding his knife back into its sheath. He must have been ready to throw his knife too, she thought. And a good thing. He is undoubtedly much better than I am with one. But something in Legolas’s face gave her pause. He was looking down and his mouth was tight. His breath was coming hard, and, to her surprise, his hands were shaking. As she watched, he curled them into fists.
“Legolas,” Ithilden said softly, and the youth lifted his gaze to look at him. “That was very brave of you too.” Legolas looked at him without reacting for a moment and then gave a tiny smile. Ithilden smiled back, shouldered his bow, and moved to pick him up. “The cave is empty,” he told Alfirin. “Come.” He led the way over the ridge to the small cave she had found the previous summer.
He set Legolas down with care, once again propping him into a sitting position. He pushed a strand of wet hair off Legolas’s forehead. “I am going to get the horses now. You stay still.” Legolas nodded wordlessly, and Ithilden hesitated and then said, “That really was well done, little one.”
Legolas gave a small snort. “Not little any more,” he said, and Alfirin smiled. It was exactly what Tonduil would have said.
“No,” Ithilden agreed solemnly. “Not little any more.” Legolas regarded him steadily, and then, simultaneously, the two of them smiled, and Ithilden patted Legolas’s shoulder.
Ithilden rose and turned to Alfirin. “I will be back as soon as I can. Take care.” She nodded, and he walked out into the rain and started back over the ridge. She watched him go until his comfortingly strong figure disappeared from sight.
Then, determined to be of comfort if not of use, she dropped her basket, propped Legolas’s bow and quiver against one wall of the cave, and knelt down to look at his leg again, although she drew back from touching it when he tensed. She bit her lip. The leg would have to be immobilized in some sort of splint for the ride home, but she would wait for Ithilden’s return to do it. Two pairs of hands would make it easier to hold the splint in place and secure it. Besides, the process was going to hurt, and she thought Legolas would do better with Ithilden present when that happened.
She reached into her basket for the water skin. “Would you like a drink?” He shook his head, and she took a drink of the tepid water. “Somehow it feels wrong to be thirsty when we are so wet,” she said, smiling. She put the skin back in the basket and sat down next to him. “Are you looking forward to the summer solstice feast? I know I am.”
He made no answer, and she had not expected him to. Visiting her mother at the infirmary, she had seen enough injured people to know that they were usually quiet at first. She leaned her head back against the wall of the cave and pictured dancing with Ithilden at this year’s feast. He would have his arms around her and perhaps would draw her close. She shivered a little.
Suddenly, Legolas’s voice penetrated her reverie. “You can use a knife?”
She blinked. “Yes. I am not particularly good with it, but I can defend myself if I have to. As long as the enemy is not too determined,” she added with a small smile. “I have to admit I would have felt much better if I had known you were there with your knife ready too. I was terrified.”
Legolas did not look at her. He was plucking at the hem of his tunic, pulling the wet fabric away from him. For a long moment, they sat in silence, and she had just decided he was not going to speak again when he asked, “Did you know there was a spy in the palace last month?”
“Yes.” Alfirin was surprised at his choice of a topic. She did not know what she had expected him to talk about, but it was not this.
“Did Ithilden tell you that I killed her?”
For a moment, Alfirin stopped breathing. This youth who was a year younger than her brother had killed another Elf, and what was more, one who was female. She glanced at Legolas, who was still looking at the hem of his tunic, where his fingers were twisting in the fabric. Then she let go of the breath she had been holding. “He did not tell me,” she said as calmly as she could. “I remember being relieved when I heard that the spy was dead and thinking how fortunate we were that the king’s warriors were so well trained, but I did not know that you were the one to whom we all owed our continued safety.”
He did not answer, and her heart constricted as she looked at him, so obviously in anguish. She thought about Tonduil and how he would probably feel if he had had to kill an Elf-maiden. “For the sake of the rest of us, I am glad you were there, Legolas, but for your own sake, I am sorry. Killing her must have been hard.”
He bit his lip. “It was.”
She was at a loss to know what more to say. He dropped his head back against the wall of the cave, and she could see tears leaking out from under his closed eyelids. Impulsively, she put her hand over his, stilling it. “I do not know exactly what happened, Legolas, but I have seen enough of you to know that whatever you did was done from necessity. Sometimes we have to do things that we would never freely choose. I am sorry such a thing happened to you, but I say again that I am grateful for your being willing to do something hard so that I and those I love could be safe.” He said nothing, but he left his hand where it was, accepting what little comfort she had to offer.
They sat together in silence as the rain gradually lessened. Eventually, she heard the sound of horses approaching and then Ithilden stood in the cave mouth, his worried eyes on Legolas. She looked at him, large and solid and warm, and felt an enormous elation. He loved her. He had said he did, and she would stake her life on his truthfulness and faithfulness and honor. “All we need to do now is get some sort of splint on your leg, Legolas, and we will be on our way home,” he said cheerfully.
He glanced at her and smiled, and she thought she had never seen anyone more beautiful. He was the king’s son and the leader of the king’s warriors, and she respected and admired him for the skilled, graceful way he met those responsibilities, but the person she loved was Ithilden himself, the Elf he was in the center of his being, the one who could be strong when those who depended on him needed strength and yet be tender when a suffering youth needed someone to comfort him. The Valar have smiled on me, she thought. I will remember this moment forever.
Legolas clutched his knife in a shaking hand, determined to throw it if he had to. Get hold of yourself, he scolded. It is an animal, not another person. The trouble was that Alfirin was closer to the boar than he was. He tried to jump ahead, but strain as he would, he could not move.
“Legolas,” called Thranduil’s voice. His father wanted him to throw the knife. Legolas knew that and he thought that he could, but how could he protect Alfirin if he could not get in front of her?
Someone touched him on the shoulder, making him jump. “Wake up, Legolas. You are dreaming.” And suddenly, his eyes snapped into focus, and he was looking at his father, who was bending over him. For a confused second, he could not quite shake off his dream, but then he realized he was home in his own bed and his tense muscles let go. “Does your leg hurt?” Thranduil asked.
“No,” Legolas said automatically. In truth, his leg did ache a little, but he did not want any more of the sleep inducing herb that the healer had left for him. He moved his leg restlessly. The bone was only cracked, the healer had said, and then she had wrapped it and told him it would heal rapidly if he stayed off his feet for a day or two. He had been astonished that something that sounded like a minor injury had hurt so much, but found that already he was beginning to forget the initial pain and feel more irritated than anything else at the leg’s persistent ache.
Thranduil resumed his seat in a chair that had been pulled up to Legolas’s bedside. He had been reading petitions, Legolas saw. They were piled on the table next to him. But now Thranduil had laid them all aside and was eyeing Legolas. “Are you hungry? It is almost time for evening meal.”
Legolas thought about that. “I am hungry,” he admitted, “but I can wait.” He would have to eat in his room, and he did not want servants fussing about just yet.
“I am not surprised you are hungry,” Thranduil said. “You missed mid-day meal and have had quite a time.”
Legolas immediately recalled the reason he had missed the mid-day meal and shot his father a guilty look. “I am sorry about the fight, Adar.”
Thranduil glanced away and back again. “The masters say you threw the first punch, Legolas. That is not like you at all. What happened to set you off?”
Legolas hesitated. He was not sure he could explain how Galelas had managed to get so deeply under his skin. “Another student doubted that I was serious about being a warrior because I have missed so many classes. He said he hoped he would never have to rely on me.” He looked at his father, whose face had gone still, and waited to see what he would say.
Thranduil seemed to brace himself. “Whether you want to be a warrior is up to you, Legolas, but--.”
“Of course I want to be a warrior!” Legolas cried. “I have always wanted that. I just do not know if I will be able to do it, Adar.” And as he heard himself say it, Legolas knew he had finally spoken of the thing that frightened him most.
Thranduil moved immediately from the chair to the edge of the bed and put his arm around Legolas’s shoulders. “Give it time, child. If I were to take my best guess, I would say you will recover and be a warrior of formidable skill, but whether you are or not, I know you will make me proud of you.” Legolas found he could not help smiling, and then Thranduil added, “But you may not fight with other students.”
More soberly, Legolas nodded. “It will not happen again.”
Thranduil nodded placidly but spoke firmly. “It had better not.”
Legolas sighed and decided to change the subject. He recalled his dream. “Did Ithilden tell you we saw a boar?”
“Yes.” Thranduil drew in a deep breath. “He said you drew your knife.”
Legolas lay quietly for a moment. He had drawn his knife. Did that mean he was better now? “It was only a boar,” he said tentatively, “not another person.”
“Still, when need arose, you were willing to use a knife to protect yourself and Alfirin.”
Legolas pictured the scene in the woods and smiled slightly. “I am not sure who was protecting whom. She had a knife too.” He could not keep the surprise from his voice.
His father laughed. “It has been my experience that Wood-elf maidens are almost always considerably tougher than they look.”
Legolas turned his head to smile at his father. “Was Naneth good with a knife?”
“She could knock down an acorn at twenty paces,” Thranduil declared with a grin. “I kept that in mind when we had a quarrel.”
Legolas laughed and then asked curiously, “Is Ithilden going to bond with Alfirin?”
Thranduil looked contented. “I believe he is.”
“Good,” said Legolas. “I like her.”
Thranduil tightened the strap at the side of the light leather armor, watching Legolas from the corner of his eye as he did so. His youngest son’s face was impassive as he walked back and forth across the grass of the garden, ostensibly warming up the muscles on his newly healed leg. Thranduil glanced at Ithilden, who was leaning against the garden wall, waiting to watch them spar and saw that his shoulders were tense and his eyes too were on Legolas. As if feeling Thranduil’s eyes on him, Ithilden turned to him and they exchanged glances.
Ithilden straightened up and picked up a leather helmet from a nearby bench. “Here, Legolas,” he called and tossed the helmet to Legolas when he turned. “I know how the maidens like your hair, so you will want to prevent Adar from slicing it off.” Legolas made a face at him and then put on the helmet, while Ithilden handed the second helmet to Thranduil. Then he picked up the blunted training knives, handed one to Thranduil and took the other to Legolas. He slapped him on the side of his helmeted head and retreated quickly when Legolas swatted at his hand.
“Are you two ready?” Ithilden asked.
Thranduil stepped into the center of the grassy area, and after a second of hesitation, Legolas stepped forward and faced him. Thranduil could see him swallow hard. They both held their knives at the ready and then Ithilden called, “Go!”
Immediately, Thranduil began circling to his right with Legolas echoing his movements. Legolas moved a little stiffly, and Thranduil thought that was due as much to how tense he was as to his newly healed leg. Thranduil could see openings in the defensive pattern Legolas was making with his knife, but he kept circling steadily, trying to give Legolas time to work off his anxiety.
“That is the way to do it, Legolas,” encouraged Ithilden. “He is old and will eventually need to sit down if you keep him on his feet long enough.”
Thranduil raised an eyebrow but was secretly pleased to see Legolas smile and relax slightly. They continued circling. Thranduil feinted to his right and, Legolas skipped out of the way.
“Legolas,” said Ithilden, “did I ever tell you about the time Eilian rigged a bucket of water over the door of the masters’ hut and then threw his knife to cut the line and dump it on the unarmed combat master?”
Thranduil glanced sharply at the grinning Ithilden. He had never heard that particular story. He caught a glimpse of movement, and only just kept himself from reacting, and then, Legolas was under his guard and holding his knife an inch or so away from Thranduil’s diaphragm. He did not touch the point to the armor, but he was smiling in triumph, albeit rather shakily.
Ithilden crowed triumphantly. “He has you, Adar!”
Thranduil smiled down at the panting Legolas. “So he does,” he said and quickly embraced and then released his son. He turned to Ithilden and frowned reprovingly. “Were you not afraid of distracting Legolas by telling him that story?”
Legolas shrugged. “I already knew about that,” he said.
Thranduil could feel his mouth opening slightly and tightened it. “I would like to know about it too.”
Ithilden laughed. “I would love to tell it to you, Adar, but I am already late in meeting Alfirin.” He came toward them to thump Legolas on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Legolas. Hard luck, Adar.” And still grinning, he strode off to meet Alfirin.
Thranduil looked at Legolas. “That was well done, iôn-nín,” he said gently.
Legolas flushed slightly. “Thank you, Adar.” He looked at Thranduil. “Thank you for everything.” And despite the fact that Legolas made a face, Thranduil drew him close and kissed his forehead.
Ithilden took Alfirin’s hand in his and felt a pleasant little thrill when she looked shyly up at him and squeezed his palm. They had no particular destination in mind today. He had left his office early to take the blunted knives and armor to Thranduil and Legolas, and now he had an hour to be alone with her before both of them would dine with her parents. Without having to discuss it, they had chosen to wander the nearby part of the woods, reveling in the way summer had crept into the forest.
They came to the edge of the Forest River, and he led her along a narrow path through some bushes until they were in a small glade by the river, sheltered by the underbrush around them. He wanted the privacy. He had something to ask her.
They stood for a moment, looking at the way the still high summer sun sparkled on the water. Then he turned to her. “Alfirin, I know that I am asking something difficult, that life in the palace would not always be easy, and life with me would not always be easy either, but I cannot bear the thought of living my life without you. You make me a better person. You make me whole. So despite the fact that it is entirely selfish of me, I ask you anyway: Will you bond with me?”
He thought he knew the answer she would give. He had spent a great deal of time with her in the last few weeks and had read what he could in her actions and words. She loved him. She had said it. And he thought she was ready to bind her life to his. But as he looked at her now, he felt a moment of doubt. How could she agree to it? She could have anyone she wanted. Was he being arrogant to think she had chosen him?
She tilted her face up to his. “I love you, Ithilden, and I know now that I have done so for years. I feel deeply fortunate that you love me back. Of course I will bond with you. Indeed, I think in most ways, I already have.”
For a moment, he froze, astonished by the way his life had become deeper and richer and far happier than he could ever have believed possible. Then he bent his head to hers and kissed her.
Thank you to everyone who has read this story and especially to those who reviewed. If Ithilden's life is richer because of Alfirin, my pleasure in writing these stories is richer because you tell me that you enjoy them too.
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