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Gifts  by daw the minstrel

A birthday present for Dot, who has given me the gift of many gratifying reviews.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.  This story is set between “Joinings” and “The Novice,” but you shouldn’t have to read those stories to enjoy this one (I hope).

*******

Gifts

“If you do not like the roast capon, my lady, then of course we will not prepare it.”  Cook sat stiffly erect.  An assistant at work kneading bread glanced over his shoulder at them, then turned quickly back to his task when he caught Alfirin’s eye.

“The capon has been wonderful,” Alfirin said.  “I don’t know how you manage to get that combination of crisp skin and tender meat.”

Cook’s shoulders relaxed slightly.  “The secret is getting the fire right.”

Alfirin nodded.  “I thought it must be something like that.  I could cook a half-way decent bird in my parents’ kitchen, but I suspect I would have a hard time doing it over the hearth here.”  She smiled, and Cook leaned forward with his arms on the table, ready to talk about menus.

Behind him, the hearth in the palace kitchen spread a good six feet wide.  As it always did, a cauldron hung from a pot hook over a low fire, doubtless full of scraps and bones being simmered into soup stock.  Dozens of copper pans gleamed on the walls, and the shelves were stocked with more bowls, knives, whisks, graters, and other kitchen gear than Alfirin had ever seen in one place before she married King Thranduil’s oldest son and took on the task of running the palace household.  If she had seen this kitchen before she was betrothed, she might have hesitated to accept Ithilden’s proposal.

“So of course, I like the capon,” Alfirin went on, “but I think the trout would be good for a change.  I assume you can get it for tomorrow?”

“Yes, my lady,” Cook said.  “I suppose we got out of the habit of cooking it because the queen was not fond of it.”

Alfirin frowned.  “What about the rest of the family?”

“As I recall, the king enjoys fried trout, and so far as I have ever been able to see, Lord Ithilden and Legolas will eat anything.”

Alfirin laughed and stood.  “Good.  I woke up this morning craving trout, so I am looking forward to it.”

Cook had gotten to his feet when she did.  He paused, then raised an eyebrow.  “You crave it?  You should have said so, my lady.  Is there anything else you crave?  Or maybe something you do not want us to serve because it makes you ill?”

The assistant turned around again and looked Alfirin up and down with wide, hopeful eyes.

For a moment, Alfirin did not understand.  Then her face grew warm.   “Nothing like that,” she said.  She and Ithilden had been married less than a year.  They were just learning to know one another. She was just starting to understand life in the palace.  Begetting a child so soon would be unwise, and neither she nor Ithilden was given to such poorly thought out behavior.

Cook’s mouth contracted, and the assistant let out a small sigh and turned back to his bread.  “Well, if you want the trout tomorrow, you shall have it,” Cook said.  “There are some nice new potatoes ready in the garden to go with it.”

“That sounds wonderful.  You know Lord Ithilden and I will be eating at my parents’ tonight?”

“Yes, my lady.  Have a pleasant evening.”

“Thank you.  Good afternoon to you.  You too, Tomyn,” she called to the assistant.  He dropped the bread dough into a large bowl to rise, then turned to smile a farewell to her.

Pleased with herself for having faced the sometimes intimidating Cook, Alfirin picked up her skirts and hurried up the narrow stone stairs to the main level of the caverns.  The visit to the kitchen had taken longer than she anticipated, and she was late for her appointment with Thranduil’s steward.

He was waiting for her in the antechamber, where the Great Doors stood open to the spring afternoon.  A warm breeze filled her nose with the heavy perfume of lilacs.  Framed in the stone doorway, the forest beckoned.  A year ago, she would have been out in the woods, glad for the excuse that she needed to gather plants to make dyes for her weaving.

“My lady?”

She turned away from the open doors.  “Yes, Nyndir.  Shall we go to my apartment?  I want your advice on which rooms to use for which guests during the king’s begetting day celebration.”

They went through the door into the royal family’s quarters.  Perhaps she and Ithilden could linger among the trees on their walk to her parents’ cottage that evening, or better still, on the way home, after the stars had flowered.  A shiver ran down her spine.

Nyndir cocked his head at her, and she realized she was smiling.  “I am so glad spring is finally here,” she said hastily.

“Indeed,” Nyndir agreed, “although when the novice master came to see the king earlier, I heard him complaining to the door guards that his charges were restless.  Spring seems to stir the young ones up.”

“So it does,” Alfirin agreed.  She led him into her and Ithilden’s apartment.

Perhaps she would not have hesitated to accept Ithilden’s proposal even if she had seen the palace kitchen first.  The novices were not the only ones responding to the rebirth of the green world.

***

The door opened at last, and Ithilden hurried into the room.  His straight, dark brows were drawn together over his nose.  “I am so sorry I am late,” he said, already unlacing his tunic.   He started down the hall to their bedchamber.  “It will only take me a moment or two to change.”

Alfirin rose from her loom and followed him down the hall.  “What kept you?  Has something happened?”

“Not really.”  His deep voice rumbled through the tunic he was pulling over his head.  He freed himself, and she took it from his hands.

“What do you mean, ‘not really’?”

He disappeared into the bathing chamber.  She went to stand in the doorway and watch as he poured water from the pitcher into the basin.  She tried to sense the depth of his concern through their bond, but as he did too often for her liking, he was guarding his feelings.

“Ithilden?” she prompted.  “What happened?”

He grimaced.  “At the last moment, a Home Guard warrior reported seeing warg tracks.”  He splashed water over his face.  “Deler sent more warriors to investigate.”  He reached for a towel to wipe his face, caught sight of her, and lowered the towel.

“Wargs in the Home Guard territory?”  She flinched at the strain in her voice.

“Try not to worry, love,” Ithilden said.  He hung the towel back on its hook.  “The warrior was young and on his first patrol more than a few leagues from the stronghold.  His partner rolled his eyes and said any warg leaving those tracks would have to be very small.  More likely they were made by a large wolf.  We are just being careful.”

He came to take her in his arms.  She rubbed her cheek against his broad chest, savoring his warmth and the feel of hard muscle.

“I should not have told you,” he said.

“Of course you should tell me!  I want to know when you are worried.  I am not used to hearing about these things, but that does not mean you should keep them from me.”

He kissed the top of her head.  For a moment, she nestled against him, his soiled tunic trapped in her hands between them.  “My parents will be waiting,” she murmured.  They pulled a little apart.

“How late do we have to stay?”  Ithilden’s voice was husky.

She lowered her eyelids demurely.  “I believe it would be thoughtful of us to let them retire early.”

He laughed and pulled her against him again.  She pressed her ear against him to listen to his heart.

*** 

Alfirin pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders.  The evening had grown cool while she, Ithilden, and her parents and brother ate rabbit stew at the table in her parents’ garden.  The air was sharp with the scent of smoke from a neighbor’s fire.  From a nearby tree came the soft twittering of a pair of scarlet tanagers.  They must be feeding together, she thought.  Like us.

“Have you had a chance to fish in that pond near the ash grove?”  Erendrinn offered Ithilden the bowl of asparagus.  Alfirin smiled to herself as her husband helped himself to another large serving.  Cook was right.  Ithilden liked good food and plenty of it.

Across the table from them, Tonduil watched, wide-eyed and obviously impressed. But then, as Alfirin knew, her younger brother held Ithilden in some awe.

“I was over that way today to check on some maples with spot disease,” her father went on.  “The fish jumped out of the water and begged me to catch them.”

“I have not had time,” Ithilden told his father-in-law.  “I think Legolas and some of his friends were there though.  Did you go, Tonduil?”

“Yes,” Tonduil said.  “Annael caught a trout a good foot long.”

“Now, now,” said Erendrinn.

“It was,” Tonduil insisted, his round face creased in earnestness.

Gwaleniel intervened before her husband and son reached the point of arguing.  “Is the new loom finished yet, Alfirin?”

“Nearly,” Alfirin said.  “I stopped by the workshop this morning.  I am still trying to decide where to put it.  It is so large.”

“How about that room next to your bedchamber?” her mother suggested.  “The one with all the old furniture stored in it.”

“I want that room for a nursery,” Alfirin said.

Her father’s cup of cider bounced off the edge of the table and rolled away in the grass.   He exclaimed and brushed at the wet spots on his tunic, but no one else took any notice.  Gwaleniel scrutinized Alfirin with the assessing gaze of a healer.  Tonduil’s eyes widened, and he darted a quick look at Ithilden, then lowered his rapidly reddening face to his meal.

Alfirin pressed her fingers to her mouth.  What had possessed her to say that?  Cook’s speculations must have lingered in her mind.

Ithilden patted her arm and laughed.  “Not that we expect to need a nursery just yet.”  He ran amused eyes around the table and brought them to rest on her.  Their gazes met and held.  His hand tightened a little on her arm, and his mouth settled in a lazy smile.  Warmth spread through Alfirin’s belly.  She shifted a little closer to him on the bench so their thighs touched.  He pressed his leg against hers, and his smile broadened.

“Tonduil,” her mother said briskly, “go and fetch a clean cup for your adar.”

Tonduil leapt to his feet and fled into the cottage.  Alfirin lifted her own cup and took a cool drink.

Ithilden let go of her arm and returned to his meal.  “Children born now would face a dangerous world.”

“True,” Erendrinn sighed.

Alfirin could only nod.  Ithilden was right.  It would be foolish to beget a child now.  She knew that.  It was too bad, of course, but there it was.

***

Alfirin waved to her parents, then turned to walk out of the light spilling from her parents’ doorway and onto the shadowed path under the trees.  Ithilden put his arm around her and tucked her close against his side.  A shiver ran down her spine.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“No.”  She tilted her face up to him.  Under the trees, he was a tall silhouette.

In unspoken accord, they stopped.  He bent his head to hers.  His warm breath brushed against her cheek.  And after an endless moment, he brushed his mouth against hers, then nibbled on her lower lip.

Someone moaned, and to her acute embarrassment, she realized the sound had come from her.

Ithilden gave a low laugh.  “I think we should hurry home before you really do grow cold.”

“Not much chance of that.”  Her voice shook.  She felt his desire through their bond and let him sense her own.

He put his arm around her shoulders, and they hastened along the path to the stronghold.  They crossed the bridge and all but ran up to the open Doors, from which torchlight spread in an uneven arc down the steps.  Alfirin was vaguely aware of the guards saluting as they passed through into the brightly-lit antechamber.

Abruptly, Ithilden stopped, dragging her to a halt too.  He loosed his grip on her shoulders.  “What is it?” he demanded.

She came out of her dazed absorption in her husband to see a grim-faced Deler approaching.  The Home Guard captain had apparently been talking to Thranduil, because behind him her father-in-law moved out of the shadows along the room’s edge.  His mouth was set in sober lines.

“It turned out Marten was right, my lord,” Deler said.

“Wargs?”  Ithilden moved away from her.

“Yes, a pack of them. The warriors I sent believe they killed them all, but they are scouring the area to be sure.”

Something in Deler’s tone set a warning drum throbbing in Alfirin’s head.  It must have done the same for Ithilden.  “And?” he asked.

Deler took a deep breath.  “Marten was killed, my lord.”

Alfirin gave a small cry.  She knew Marten.  He was barely of age, only a few years older than Tonduil.  “His poor parents.”

Ithilden’s shoulders stiffened.  His pain flooded across their bond, and her heart went out to him.  Then the thread between them broke.  He had shut his feelings away from her.

“I will go and see them,” he said.  “You can tell me how it happened on the way, Deler.”

“I will wait up for you,” Alfirin said.

“That will not be necessary.”

“I want to.”

“Go to bed, Alfirin.”

She recoiled from the roughness in his voice, and he grimaced.  “Go to bed,” he said more gently.  “I may be very late.  By your leave, my lord?”

Thranduil nodded his permission, and Ithilden strode out the Doors with Deler at his side.  Alfirin watched his straight back until it vanished in the darkness.

Thranduil approached, his eyes too on the point were Ithilden had disappeared.  “Try not to worry, Alfirin.  Ithilden has always wanted time to himself when he was distressed.”

“He should not have to bear things alone.”

Thranduil patted her shoulder.  “Come.”  He guided her into the family quarters.  “Would you like to come to my sitting room and talk for a while?”

“No, thank you, Adar.  With your leave, I will bid you good night.”

He nodded, and she made her way to her apartment.

Despite what Ithilden had told her, she was determined to wait for him.  She seated herself before her loom at one end of the sitting room.  She was in the midst of weaving a soft throw that she intended for the back of the room’s padded bench.  She picked up a shuttle and set to work.  The repetitive clack of the foot pedals and steady motion of the shuttle usually soothed her, but not tonight.

What must Ithilden be feeling as he faced Marten’s parents?  She wished she knew, but when she opened her mind to him, her sense of his presence was muffled.  She bit her lip.  Ithilden had learned to hide his feelings well in his years alone, years in which he had seen a defeated evil return, sent warriors to their deaths, and failed to keep his own mother safe.  But now they were bonded.  Why was it so hard for him to share himself with her?

She thought about the pleasant evening they had just spent and even more pleasant night they had been looking forward to.  To her surprise, what flashed brightest in her memory was the moment when her family thought she was pregnant.  For a moment, she held the shuttle suspended.   A baby.  She realized she was smiling and shook herself.  What was wrong with her?  She and Ithilden had agreed that a child was out of the question just now.  She bent to her task again.

The night wore on, and the fire died down.  The room grew dim, but she needed little light to weave.  Her fingers knew what to do.  Finally, she heard his firm tread in the hall.

His step softened when he entered the apartment, and he closed the door quietly.  He started toward their bedchamber with his head down.

“I am awake,” she said, rising from behind the loom.

He started.  “I told you not to wait up.”

She went to him and put her arms around his waist.  “How was it?”

In the dim room, his face was shadowed, but she felt the tension in his back muscles.  “It was as it always is,” he said.

“I am so sorry.”

He pulled her so close that she could not see his face.  “I have spoken to grieving families before, Alfirin, more than I can remember.  It is never pleasant, but over the years I have learned to take it in my stride.  If I had not, I could not do what I need to do.  You worry too much.  You should have gone to bed.”

“I want to help you, and you are shutting me out!”

His exasperated breath ruffled the curls that had escaped her braid.  “I do not need help, and I do not want you exposed to this kind of problem.  That would be a poor reward for marrying me.”

She opened her mouth but found she did not know what to say.

“Come,” he said, drawing her gently toward their room.  “We are both tired.”

In their bedchamber, they undressed and slid beneath the covers.  When she curled up against him, he put his arm around her but did not turn to her.  His breathing slowed and deepened, but she still lay awake.  Perhaps he was telling the truth.  If he could fall asleep so easily, perhaps he really had learned to take grief-wrung families in his stride.  Perhaps she was making too much of this.

But she remembered the hot stab of agony she had sensed when he heard the news of Marten’s death.

***

We followed the band south but were forced to retreat when they were joined by reinforcements.  I plan to track them and pick them off.  I will report again when we are finished.

Respectfully yours,

Eilian

Ithilden forced himself to sit still and reread the conclusion of his brother’s message.  South.  Eilian had taken his patrol in a direction he vaguely identified as ‘south.’  Did he think Ithilden was a fool?  Ithilden knew exactly what Eilian was telling him, or rather not telling him.  He was venturing out of the defined territory of the Southern Patrol to play cat and mouse with an oversized band of orcs.  The idiot! 

“Calith!” he shouted.

His aide appeared in his office doorway.  “Yes, my lord?”

“Send a message to Eilian.   I want him standing in this office as fast as he can get his backside home for me to kick.”

His face as unperturbed as always, Calith eyed him.  “I fear all the messengers are unavailable just now.  I will not be able to send anyone until tomorrow or perhaps even the day after.”

Ithilden threw Eilian’s report onto his desk.  “Find someone.”

“I will look the duty roster over, my lord.”  Calith disappeared.

Ithilden drummed his fingers on top of the report.  How could Eilian risk his warriors like that?   Was he so eager for excitement that his mind had ceased to function?   Ithilden realized that shouts from the training fields no longer drifted through the open window.  The afternoon was wearing on.  He ran his hand over his tightly woven braids.  He should go home.

In the outer office, he found Calith ticking off items on what Ithilden recognized as a list of supplies to be sent to the border patrols.  He frowned.  Calith should be checking the duty roster, which Ithilden could see tucked under the largest of the Oliphant paperweights on the corner of his aide’s desk.  “Have you found a messenger?”

“I will have to see how certain things develop, my lord,” Calith said.  He opened his mouth as if to say something more, then hesitated and said only, “I will see you at Marten’s funeral.”

Ithilden decided that if Calith could not locate a messenger, no one could, and he might as well leave him to it.  He set off home, hurrying now.  They were eating early because Thranduil would preside at the funeral.  Alfirin had already left their apartment when he arrived, so he changed and hastened down the hall to find his father and Alfirin just entering the dining room.

He kissed his wife’s temple, waited for his father to sit, and took his place next to Alfirin.  “Where is Legolas?”

“He is not back from training yet,” Alfirin said.

Two maids entered the room to serve platters of fish and new potatoes.

“Tell Cook he has my thanks,” Thranduil told one of them.  “The fish looks excellent.”

“I will tell him, my lord,” the maid said.  She and the second maid put the platters on the table and left the room.

Alfirin face glowed, but she said nothing.  Ithilden smiled at her.  “I suspect you deserve as much credit as Cook does.”

She smiled back at him, showing the dimple that was one the first things that charmed him about her.  How lucky he was to have her!  She had never flinched at all the problems that came with marrying the king’s oldest son, including the daunting task of running the palace.  He only hoped she never regretted her choice.

The door banged open, and Legolas entered, scowling at no one in particular.  “Mae govannen,” he grunted.  He glanced at his father for permission to sit, then took his chair across from Ithilden, and started serving himself.  “You would not believe how impossible the masters were today.  They made us repeat a footwork drill until we were so weary we fell over our own feet, and then they made us run the warm-up track again.”

Words erupted from Ithilden’s mouth before he realized he meant to speak.   “Do you think orcs will wait until you are well-rested to attack?” he demanded.  “The masters know what young warriors face better than you do.  I suggest you hold your tongue about them until you can say something sensible.”

Legolas banged the serving spoon onto the platter of potatoes.  “I am at home, Ithilden!  If I cannot complain here, where can I?”

“Nowhere,” Ithilden snapped.  “If you lack the wits to appreciate what the masters are doing, then perhaps you should not be a novice.”

“Ithilden, if this is truly a matter for you as troop commander to discuss with a novice, then I ask you to do it tomorrow at the training fields.”  Thranduil’s voice held a warning note.  He said nothing to Legolas but threw him an admonishing look, and Legolas lowered his eyes to his plate and began to eat.

Ithilden drew a deep breath and sat back in his chair.  What was wrong with him?  He usually had far better control of himself than that.  He knew what his father meant.  Thranduil would not undercut his authority in front of Legolas, but he thought Ithilden was interfering in matters that were his concern as Legolas’s father.  “I beg your pardon, Adar.”

Alfirin laid a hand on his arm, and he felt the balm of her soothing presence.  The tension in his spine eased.

“Cook made apple tart, too,” she said.  “Will you be able to eat some of that, Legolas?”

He looked up at her and abruptly smiled.  “I think I might.”

Ithilden returned to his own meal.  He should not have snapped at Legolas.  He was just on edge because Eilian had been such a fool.  And of course, because of Marten’s funeral.  Once that duty was over, he would be fine.

***

“People of the Woodland Realm,” Thranduil said, “we have come to honor Marten, son of these woods, known by us all and loved by many among us.  What words can we say about him?”

Ithilden stood with his warriors, staring straight ahead, trying not to see Marten’s weeping mother, his grey-faced father.   How many warriors’ funerals had he attended over the years?  How many times had he heard his father speak the ritual words?  How many deaths had come in his time as troop commander?

The answer did not bear thinking about.  He shoved it from his mind and contemplated the stars through the net of newly leafed branches.  Person after person stepped forward to speak words he tried not to hear.  “Neighbor.” “Willing ear.” “Friend.”  At last, they fell silent, and Thranduil handed a torch to Marten’s parents.  The smoke from the pyre stung Ithilden’s eyes and clogged his throat.  His voice was hoarse as he joined in the song of lament that twisted its way through the woods, begging Namo to be kind to the one they had lost.

As the pyre fell in on itself, people began to drift away and Alfirin approached to link her arm through his.  Her face was pale, so that her dark lashes and delicately drawn brows stood out in stark contrast.  “How sad,” she murmured.

Her touch disturbed him, laden as it was with grief and sympathy.  He pulled his arm free.  “It cannot be helped.”

She stood uncertainly with her hand raised as if to touch him.  “Are you coming home?”

He pictured himself in the chair opposite hers near the fire in their cozy sitting room and had to fight to draw breath.  He could not sit with her until he had better mastery of himself.  “No.  I think I will go for a ride.” 

She let her hand drop and pulled her shawl tight.  When she spoke, he heard a small tremor in her voice, but to his relief, she did not argue.  “Go ahead, my love.  You have been cooped up all day.  The exercise will do you good.”

Grateful for her understanding, he said, “I will not be too late.”

“I will be there,” she said lightly and started home.  In the shadows beyond the glowing pyre, Ithilden glimpsed Legolas waiting to walk with her.  Thranduil probably sent him, Ithilden thought, but perhaps Legolas had lingered on his own.  He liked Alfirin and was protective of her, and Ithilden’s family would know that he would want time alone after the funeral.

Ithilden made his way to the stables, thinking about his wife.  She worried about him, he knew.  He was touched by her concern, but he was stronger than she realized.  He could manage whatever distress he felt without imposing it on her.

He started toward his stallion’s stall but was distracted from his goal by lantern light and soft voices coming from the far end of the stables.  He heart lifted.  Erien must have foaled.  He walked quietly toward the foaling box.  The stablemaster and one of his assistants turned toward him as he approached.  A bay mare stood at the far side of the box.  Beneath her, nuzzling for milk, stood a pure white, wobbly-legged foal.

“Good evening, my lord,” the stablemaster said.

“Good evening.”  Ithilden folded his arms on the top of the stall gate and watched as Erien licked at her baby’s back.  He thought of Alfirin telling her family that she wanted the room next to their bedchamber for a nursery and could not help smiling.  The idea of a baby in the room next to theirs suddenly seemed irresistibly attractive.  Be sensible, he admonished himself, but he smiled anyway.  Erien was entitled to enjoy her baby, even if he and Alfirn had to wait for safer times.  “What a beautiful foal.”

“Aye,” the stablemaster said.

His tone made Ithilden glance at him in surprise. The stablemaster’s face was sober.  The assistant looked near to tears.

“Is something the matter?” Ithilden asked.

“The foal has not moved its bowels, my lord.”

And suddenly Ithilden remembered another white foal, born over a century earlier.  A little colt.  It had never moved its bowels either.  Its intestines had been formed in such a way that it could not do so.  With a groan, he looked again at Erien and her baby.  The foal dropped to the floor and rolled on its back in obvious discomfort.  Erien lowered her head and nudged the little creature.

“You cannot help it?” Ithilden asked.

“No,” the stablemaster said.  “The best I can do is see that it does not suffer.”  He opened the stall gate.  “Will you see to Erien?” he asked the assistant.

“Let me,” Ithilden said on impulse.  He could scarcely bear the thought of what was about to happen.  It could not be helped.  It was simply the way of things, and putting the foal down gently was the merciful thing to do.  He should have been able to take it in his stride, but he found he could not.  He felt like the stablemaster’s assistant looked: near to tears.

He entered the stall and put a hand on Erien’s neck.  Her eyes were wide, and for a moment, he feared she would not let the stablemaster slip past her to tend to the foal.  “Come this way, sweetheart,” he coaxed.  “Walk with me a little.  The grass in the pasture is sweet.”  She did not move.  “Come,” he repeated more insistently, digging his fingers into her mane and giving a little tug.  She allowed herself to be guided out into the aisle.  The assistant slid past her into the box and closed the gate.

Erien looked back and whickered, calling her baby.

“Come,” Ithilden murmured in her ear.  “We will comfort one another.”  He led her from the stable and into the starry night.

***

Ithilden dragged his weary feet down the hall toward his apartment.  He did not believe he had ever been so exhausted.

Alfirin leapt to her feet from the chair near the fire.  She wore a long white nightdress and had draped her shawl over her shoulders.  “What kept you?” she cried.  “Are you all right?”  Arms outstretched, she ran toward him, her bare feet whispering over the carpet.

And suddenly, he did not care if he seemed less than strong or even if he distressed her in opening his heart to her.  He snatched her to him and buried his face in her hair.  “Erien’s foal had to be put down.”

“Oh no.”

To his horror, tears spilled from his eyes and ran down his nose.  “I have been distracting her as best I could, but she kept calling to the little thing.  It nearly finished me.”

“Oh, my love,” Alfirin crooned.  “I am so sorry.  And on top of Marten’s parents.  No wonder you felt it.”  Her love flowed across their bond and wrapped itself around his bruised heart, easing his hurt in the same way he dimly recalled his mother’s kiss easing the pain of a scraped knee or a bumped head.  “I am so sorry,” she repeated.

And she was.  He could sense the way his grief burdened her now too.  He had been selfish, he thought.

She pulled away and looked up into his face.  “Not selfish,” she said firmly.

He blinked, a little frightened by how well she had read him.

“Not letting me share your grief would be selfish,” Alfirin continued. “But this is just being bonded.  You give me a gift when you trust me like this.”

He kissed her forehead.  “What have I done to deserve you?”  In the midst of death and pain, the bond he shared with his wife was true and sweet.  She put her hand on his chest.  Like lightning on a summer night, desire flashed through him.

She looked at him with eyes grown dark.  “Ithilden, I want a baby.  I do not want to wait for times to grow better. Times may never grow better.  I want a child for us to love and raise together while we can.”

A child.  A new life begotten through his body and hers.  Did they dare to give such a hostage to the future in this marred world?  Without a word, he swept her into his arms and carried her toward their bedchamber.

He had always been gentle in his lovemaking with this gentle Elf woman who loved him, but tonight the love they made was fierce, and hot, and ripe with grief and hope and trust.  When they had finished, she lay in the circle of his arms, tendrils of her hair plastered to the sweat on her temples.

“Our families will be thrilled,” she murmured.

He tightened his hold on her.  “Would you mind if we did not tell them just yet?  For now, let this be just for us.”

She raised her head to look at him.  “I would not mind.  We should not wait long though.  We can tell your adar on his begetting day.  It can be our gift to him.”  She gave a throaty laugh that sent warmth coursing through him.  “A gift he can enjoy for years to come.”

A gift, he thought.  She was right. That was what this baby was.  And that was what she was too.  He could bear sorrow alone if he had to.  He had done it for years.  But he saw now how it had worn on him, how it had driven him to fear for Eilian and Legolas, for instance, so that he jumped down their throats when he thought they might be in danger.  The innocent suffered and died, and he could not always stop it, whether the victim be a young warrior or an innocent foal.  But he did not have to close himself up with his sorrow.  He could act with hope for the future and share whatever happened with someone he loved.

He kissed his wife again, then lay with the feel of her body against him and her heart and mind brushing his.

*******

Thanks to JastaElf for information about Overo Lethal White Syndrome in horses.  The genetic defect is incurable even today.





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