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Home for Now  by daw the minstrel

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

*******

"No."

Celuwen paused and raised a finely arched brow.  "Stop issuing orders, Eilian.  I am neither your horse nor a warrior under your command."  She pulled another gown out of their wardrobe. Her arms whirled like windmills, forcing Eilian to jump out of range. Then she stuffed the more-or-less folded garment into the satchel gaping open on their bed.

He clenched and unclenched his hands at his sides.  "Celuwen, this is madness.  You know what we found at Dol Guldur.  What makes you think you will be safer than Sinnarn was?"

Back rigid, she reached for another gown.

"Are you listening to me?"  He grabbed her arm and turned her to face him.

She yanked her arm from his grasp, and he realized she was quivering with rage.  "I saw Sinnarn's body.  I know what you found at Dol Guldur, and I know what you will face when you rejoin the Southern Patrol next week.  Have I asked you not to go?"

"Of course not."  Eilian leaned over her, his jaw tight.  "I owe service to my adar and the realm.  I have to go.  The least you can do is stay safely in the stronghold so Loriel does not risk losing both parents."

She put one hand on his chest and shoved him away. "Rubbish!  You want to go.  You are twitching with eagerness to swing a sword again.  Do you think I know you so little, Eilian?"

"Are you blaming me for that?"  He was breathing as hard as he ever had in battle.

"No.  I am simply saying I need to go back to our settlement, fetch the rest of our belongings, and let my parents know my plans. I have given in on the need to move here, to deprive Loriel of the life I think would be best for her, but I will not give in on this."  She pressed her mouth in a thin line and lifted her chin.

Trying to prevent himself from saying something he would regret, Eilian turned his back on her, only to catch a glimpse of a small figure peeking around the bedroom doorway.  He froze.  How much had Loriel heard?  "Do you need something, Flower Face?"

She leaned into sight.  Curls had pulled loose from her braids again to riot around her face in an untidy life of their own.  Her wide gray eyes flicking from him to her mother and back again.

"Come here, sweetling."  Celuwen sat on the edge of the bed and held out her arms.  Loriel rushed to climb into her mother's lap and bury her face in Celuwen's breasts.  Celuwen's eyes met his over their daughter's head.

He blew out his breath and wondered if he looked as guilty as Celuwen did.

"Where is Nimloth?" Celuwen asked Loriel.  Whatever she answered was lost in the wool of Celuwen's gown.  Celuwen put her hand on their daughter's chin and lifted it gently.  "Where is your caretaker, sweetling?"

"In the garden.  I wanted to see where you and Ada were."

Celuwen looked at him.  "She will be worried."

"I will tell her where Loriel is."  Eilian left their apartment and strode down the hallway to the antechamber, his mind busy with how to keep his wife from risking her graceful neck by leaving his father's stronghold.  Briefly, he toyed with the idea of forbidding her to go.  In theory, he had the right to do that.  He was the head of his household, an idea that seemed plausible when he looked at his father or older brother, but much less so when he looked at Celuwen. He might have to do it, plausible or not, but perhaps he could still convince her that Loriel's happiness depended on her staying home.

At the entrance to the family quarters, he nearly ran into Nimloth, her round face flushed with haste.  "My lord," she gasped.  "Loriel--"

"She is with her naneth."

Nimloth leaned against the doorframe.  "Thank the Valar.  I believe she is even more slippery than you were at that age."

Eilian laughed.  He cocked his head at Nimloth.  "You have had enough for today, I think.  Why do you not go home?"

Her eyes narrowed slightly.  "What are you up to, Eilian?  Are you sure Lady Celuwen will not mind?"

He extended his hands, palms up.  "Up to?  You wound me.  I have simply decided my daughter needs to spend a little time with her parents."

"Hmph."

Eilian grinned.  No one could load that syllable with more meaning than Nimloth.  "Go.  Have a good afternoon and evening."

Her mouth curved in a reluctant smile.  "Behave yourself."  She pushed herself off the doorframe and went on her way.

Eilian entered his and Celuwen's apartment to find Celuwen in the sitting room talking to one of his father's messengers.  Loriel clung to her mother's side, eyeing the messenger with dislike.  Good.  Eilian was as certain as he could be that his daughter would do everything in her power to keep her mother from leaving the stronghold.

Celuwen's face eased on seeing him.  "Where is Nimloth?"

"I sent her home."

She groaned.  "Then you will have to watch Loriel for a while.  Your adar is asking to meet with some of his councilors."

Silently blessing his father for delaying Celuwen's departure, Eilian smiled at his daughter.  "We can find something to do, I am sure."  Loriel hesitated, then released her hold on Celuwen's skirt.  The relieved looking messenger promptly escorted Celuwen out the door.  He had probably been worried he would not be able to produce Celuwen for Thranduil's use.

"What would you like to do?" Eilian asked Loriel.

"I want my wind-up Oliphant."

"Where is it?"  He took a step toward the hallway leading to the sleeping chambers.  "Is it in your room?"

Loriel stayed where she was.  "I left it home."

"Ah."  He studied her.  "We will have to send a message to your grandparents, asking them to send it here."

She scowled at him.  "I want to go home with Nana. Then I can play with my Oliphant and see grandmother and grandfather too."

Alarm flickered in Eilian's mind.  Surely Celuwen had not suggested to Loriel that she should accompany her to the settlement.  He and she had at least agreed on that much.  As far as he knew, Celuwen had not yet told Loriel she intended to go to the settlement.  She had seen no point in upsetting Loriel too far ahead of time.  "Did Nana tell you she was going home?"

"She has her satchel, and she told you she was going home, and I want to go too. I like it better there."

He sat in his chair by the fireplace and drew her onto his lap.  He tucked a stray curl behind her ear.  "Don't you like it here, Flower Face?"

"Everyone here is sad.  Aunt Alfirin cries sometimes. Nana is too busy with grandfather, and there is no window by my bed."  She leaned against him and rubbed her round cheek on his tunic.  "You should come too.  I do not want you to go with your warrior patrol."

He sighed.  She knew far too much for her comfort.  "I have to go with my patrol.  I need to help make the woods safe so we can live there again.  It is too dangerous for you to go home just yet."  He hesitated, wanting to suggest that she should tell Nana not to go home either, but flinching away from involving her, even if it would help him get what he wanted.

She swung her feet, banging them against the side of the chair.  "It is too dangerous for me to live at home?"

"Yes, and Nana and I would be very, very sad if something bad happened to you."

"Like it did to Sinnarn."

"Yes, like it did to Sinnarn."  He drew her close and inhaled her scent.  How did children manage to smell so sweet?  Legolas had had this clean, flowery smell as a child too.  And Sinnarn, of course.  He sighed.  "I am afraid this is home for now."

Loriel kicked the chair again.  "I want my Oliphant."  Her lower lip trembled.

He cast around for something to distract her.  "How would you like to see some things I used to play with?"

She sat up.  "Did you live here when you were little?"

"I did.  Not in these rooms though. We have to go look in my old room."

She slid off his lap and hopped from foot to foot.  "We should do that!  Come on, Ada."  She seized his hand and tugged.

Grinning, he rose.  "The chest is probably full of spiders and snakes and mice by now."

Her eyes grew huge.  "Hurry!"

He laughed, then led her by the hand down one corridor and up another to the room he had lived in until he married.

"Uncle Legolas's room is there."  She pointed to the room next door.

"It is indeed."  He pushed open the door to his old room, and they entered.  The furniture was still the same, but the room was darker and cooler than it had been when he had lived there and servants had kept it ready to be occupied.  It was also much tidier.  He used the tinderbox on the mantle to light several lanterns.

"Where are your things, Ada?"  Loriel ran around the room, touching the bed, the chairs, the chest, the table, and the shelves as she passed.

"Here."  He indicated the chest.

She slid to her knees next to it, and he sat down beside her and opened the chest.  A tangle of wood and leather released a dusty odor that suddenly made him feel like a youth.

Loriel leaned forward, blocking his view.  "No mice."  She sat back on her heels, her lower lip out again.

"But lots of other things.  See?"  He pulled out a small leather bag, whose rotted bottom immediately gave way, sending marbles rolling in all directions across the room.

"Oh!"  Loriel jumped to her feet and ran around collecting as many as she could hold.  She offered them to him, and he dropped them into a vase on the table.  He hoped the next guest to use this room would not go skating across the room on a missing marble.

Loriel dove into the chest and brought up a toy warrior clutching a sword, its paint chipped and faded.  She stood it carefully on its feet, then pulled out an even more battered archer and lined it up with the swordsman.  Eilian watched her, remembering battles he, Gelmir, and Celuwen had staged with these wooden elves.  Celuwen had been a fierce opponent even then.  He had learned early it was far better to have her on his side.  Poor Gelmir had never stood a chance.

"What is this?"  Loriel held up an arrowhead with viciously curved barbs, designed to rip more flesh coming out than it had going in.

As a boy, Eilian had loved the nasty looking thing.  Now he took it gently from his daughter.  "It is a funny shaped arrowhead. Look, a top."  He offered her the spindle shaped toy, which she immediately set to spinning.  It whirred an arm's length away and knocked over the wooden warriors.  She laughed, set them up, and sent the top to attack them again.

She turned back to the chest and retrieved a second leather pouch, this one full of knucklebones he had used to lose more wagers than he cared to think about.  She examined them without much interest, for which he was grateful.  Celuwen would probably think it amusing if she played with them, but Thranduil and Alfirin would be less entertained, not to mention what Celuwen's father would say.

She found a drum, and much to his relief, she set that aside too.  Celuwen would kill him if he put a drum into their already noisy daughter's hands.  Now that Eilian thought of it, how had his parents ever tolerated his owning that?  He had once crept up behind Ithilden's chair and banged it.  His brother had leapt a foot and then seized Eilian by the scruff of his neck and snarled that he would throw Eilian in the horse trough if he ever did that again.  Eilian had laughed, and Ithilden had turned red, jammed his hands in his belt, and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Loriel brought out more warriors, a whistle, a warg's tooth, a wooden sword, a carved horse, a carved dog, and a ball made of skin that had mostly rotted away so its wool stuffing spewed out all over the floor, like down from a burst milkweed pod.

"What would you like to take?" he asked.

She pointed.  "The warriors and the top and the sword."  She looked over the pile. "The dog too."  She hugged it to her, evidently confident Eilian would carry the rest.

He heaped his old treasures back into the chest and dropped a handful of the ball's stuffing on top.  A bit more stuffing drifted past, and he shooed it under the bed so they would not leave a mess.  "You like the dog?"

She nodded so vigorously her curls bounced.  "Her name is Good Dog.  She is a watchdog.  She barks when bad things come."

He grimaced and lowered the lid of the chest.  "Shall we see if Nana is back yet?"

"I want to show her what I found."  She ran ahead of him and shoved open the apartment door.  Celuwen must have been there because Eilian heard Loriel talking while he was still five yards down the hallway.  "Ada is bringing warriors and other things too!"

Loriel turned at his entrance, but his eyes went straight to Celuwen.  She was smiling, but her face was tight.  "Loriel, you should show your dog to Grandfather and Uncle Legolas.  They are in the big sitting room."

Loriel darted past Eilian and out the door, shouting "Grandfather!  Grandfather!" as soon as she was in the hall.

Eilian closed the door.  He wanted to take his wife in his arms, but their quarrel was too fresh in his mind for him to be less than cautious.  "What's the matter?"

She wet her lips.  "Ithilden wants to see you.  Three days ago, Orcs overwhelmed the Southern Patrol.  He wants you to go south at once, leave today if you can."

For an instant, he stopped breathing.

Celuwen crossed the distance between them and flung her arms around him.  "Oh, take care, take care."

Air struggled into his lungs again.  Automatically, he embraced her, feeling the warm softness of her pressed the length of his body.  Hesitantly, he said, "You will stay here now?"

She sighed into his tunic.  "Yes."  She looked up.  "I am sorry I snapped at you.  I am angry but not really at you.  I hate being driven from the woods.  I hate being terrified for my parents, terrified for you.  I hate what happened to Sinnarn."

To Eilian's dismay, her mouth quivered, much as Loriel's had done.  Celuwen never cried.

"I am sorry to leave you here," he said.  "I just do not see what else is to be done."  He bit his lip and then made a bigger sacrifice than he had thought himself capable of making.  "Perhaps your parents could move into the stronghold."

She was so astonished that she laughed.  "I will make the offer, but I think you can relax.  I doubt if they will do it."

He released her.  "I had better go see Ithilden."

"I will unpack my things and start packing yours."

The next two hours passed in a blur of activity that left him little time to worry.   By mid-afternoon, he found himself standing next to his horse on the Green in front of the palace.  His bodyguard spoke in low tones to his own wife a short distance away, while Eilian said goodbye to his family.  Last of all he turned to where Celuwen stood with Loriel at her side.  He drew her to him.  "I love you," he murmured in her ear.

"I love you."

He released her and smiled as best he could at their grave-faced daughter, who clutched his old wooden sword in one hand and the carved dog in the other.  Before he could speak, she held out the dog.  "Good Dog is for you, Ada, to keep away the bad things."

He picked her up and rested her on his hip as he took the dog.  "Thank you, Flower Face."  He kissed her round cheek, suddenly desperate for what he was about to lose.  How long would it be before he saw his child again?  How much would she have changed?  "Do not forget me while I am gone."

She waved the wooden sword, and he jerked his head back to keep from getting his nose bloodied.  "I have your sword, silly," she said.  "I would never forget you."

He kissed her again and handed her into Celuwen's waiting arms.

"Nana should get something from your toy chest too," Loriel said.  "She should not forget you either."

Celuwen hugged her.  "I already have Ada's most precious belonging."  Loriel buried her face in Celuwen's neck.

Eilian swung onto his horse's back and scanned the little group.  There was his anxious family, already grieving and hoping not to grieve again.  There was his home.

He raised his hand in farewell, turning last to Celuwen and Loriel.  "I will come back."

They both smiled, and he tucked the look of them deep into his heart and rode away.

 

Thanks to Gwynhyffar for beta reading this chapter for me.


The Mouths of Babes

Beliond strolled along the path toward the small cottage he had built now that Legolas was the Home Guard captain.  While he was aware of the wind rustling through the treetops and a cardinal singing seductively to a female who had other things on her mind, he was thinking about how exhausted Legolas had looked today.  The fool needed to give his lieutenant more responsibility, but like everyone else in the House of Oropher, he believed he was indispensable.  Idiot.

Then Ithilden had refused to, as he called it, "interfere."  If Ithilden told Legolas that Beliond had come to him, Legolas would be put out.  Beliond did not particularly care.  And anyway, "interference" did not enter into the matter.  The king had charged him with seeing to Legolas's welfare, and Beliond intended to do just that.

He supposed he would have to talk to Thranduil, but he needed to manage that with a great deal of tact.  Beliond frowned.  Legolas sometimes accused him of being tactless.  That was untrue, of course.  He could be as tactful as the next elf.  It was just that he usually did not see the point, and then sometimes he did not think of tact until it was too late. This time, he had thought of it ahead of time, so he would be able to plan.

A crash of branches yanked his attention to the underbrush on his right.  He grabbed for his knife, then eased his grip when he glimpsed something pink.

"Loriel!" called a voice.  "Loriel, where are you?"

A little maid burst from the bushes and barreled toward him.  He leapt back only barely in time to keep her head from ramming into his belly.  She jerked away and stood panting before him, her gown smeared with grass stains, her dark curls springing loose from her braids and vibrating with energy that seemed to shoot out of her body.  Her dark gray eyes met his.

Beliond had seen her around the stronghold since her parents moved from the village where they had been living, so he recognized her.  But even if he had not, those wide, eager eyes would have told him whose daughter she was.

A keg and half of trouble lay there, he thought.  Served her adar right.

"Loriel!" called the voice again.

"Is that you they are calling?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Then why are you running in the opposite direction?"

"Nimloth is hurt.  I am getting help."  She tilted her head to one side.  "Can you help?"

He strode in the direction from which she had come, then looked back over his shoulder.  "Move it."  She jumped and trotted after him as he plunged along the narrow path, fending off hostile branches with his arms.  He ducked around a hawthorn and emerged in the meadow.

A slim woman was turning around calling "Loriel!" in increasingly frantic tones.  At her feet, an older woman sat in the grass, her eyes scanning the trees along the meadow's edge.  Beliond recognized her as Nimloth, whom he had seen around the stronghold with Loriel in tow.  The other was Nimloth's daughter-in-law.  Beliond fished for a name.  Siriel, that was it.

Loriel darted around him and ran toward the women.  "Here I am!"  She scrunched up her brow.  "Does it hurt, Nimloth?"

"A little.  What have I told you about running off?"

Loriel's eyes widened at her sharp tone.  "I am sorry.  Siriel said we needed help, and I went and found it."   She pointed at Beliond.  "I found Uncle Legolas's Nana."

The corners of Nimloth's mouth twitched.  Siriel asked, "Who?"

Beliond ignored the question.  "What seems to be the trouble?"

"I stepped in a rabbit hole and turned my ankle," Nimloth said.

Beliond glanced to where her lifted skirt showed an already puffy bulge in her stocking.  He crouched.  "Put your arm around my shoulder.  I will have you home in no time."

"I can help her home," Siriel said, "but I cannot manage Loriel at the same time.  Can you take her to the palace?"

Loriel twirled on the ball of one foot.  "I can go by myself.  I know the way."  She skipped two paces off before Beliond lunged and grabbed the back of her gown.  He twisted his fingers in the linen, and she squawked.  He loosened his grip, but only slightly.

Nimloth bit her lip.  "I am not sure Beliond taking her is a good idea, Siriel.  Perhaps you should take Loriel while Beliond helps me."

"I want to wrap that ankle right away," Siriel said, "but I do not want to keep Celuwen waiting."  She turned anxious eyes on Beliond.  "We promised we would have Loriel back in time to meet with her tutor."

Beliond sighed.  "Very well."  If Nimloth thought he could not manage an elf maid whose head came to his belt, she was sadly underestimating a warrior of the Woodland Realm.  "Let me help you to your feet though."  He lifted her onto her good foot, then draped her arm around Siriel.  The two of them started toward Nimloth's cottage.

Hopping carefully, Nimloth looked back, brow wrinkled.  "Be good, Loriel.  Hold Beliond's hand."

"All right," Loriel said amiably.   She extended a grubby paw.  Beliond grimaced, then wrapped his hand around it.  He headed for the path that would take them most directly to the palace, with her dancing along beside him, jerking on his arm.  He increased his pace so she had to trot to keep up.  That took care of the dancing.

"Are you really Uncle Legolas's nana?" she asked.

He snorted.  "No, child.  Males are adas, not nanas."

She grasped his forearm in both hands and lifted her feet of the ground to swing herself.  "That is what I said.  But then Uncle Legolas said anyone who nagged like you was a nana, male or female, and then my nana said he should hope you did not hear him talk that way, and he stopped.  But when Nana was not looking, he winked at me and laughed."

"Did he now?"

"Yes, he did.  Can we go to the stables and see the new puppies?"

"No."  Beliond flicked his wrist, and she landed on her feet.

"My ada would take me to see the puppies."

That was undoubtedly true.  Beliond had seen Eilian feeding the child honey cakes at the last feast.  "Your ada is not here."

Silence.  He glanced down to find her lower lip quivering and growled to himself.  He should have remembered Eilian had left for the south again.  The child probably missed him.  He cast about for something to distract her.  "You are a bit young to have a tutor.  You must be very grown up."

She brightened.  "My tutor is Beliniel.  Nana says Beliniel likes little maids, and besides, she is related to Uncle Ithilden and Aunt Alfirin."

Beliniel's daughter was married to Ithilden and Alfirin's son.  Emmelin had gone West after Sinnarn was killed.  Beliniel was probably glad to be busy with a little one like this.

"I am grown up though.  Grandfather is teaching me to play chest.  Do you know chest?"

"Chess, not chest.  Yes, I know the game."

"Grandfather likes it.  He played with Uncle Legolas yesterday, and Uncle Ithilden hurt himself."

Beliond groped for the connection.  "Your Uncle Ithilden did hurt himself.  That is true."  He had seen Ithilden limping about that morning with what looked like a painful groin pull.  He grimaced and shortened his own steps slightly.  "He evidently engaged in a bout of sword play that got a little too boisterous and slipped on the wet grass."

She stopped and stared at him, open-mouthed, forcing him to halt or drag her.  She hooted with laughter.  "He did not."

"All right, smarty.  You know so much, you tell me what happened."

"Grandfather was playing chest with Uncle Legolas, and he beat him, and Uncle Legolas was angry.  But I know a secret.  Grandfather played a trick on Uncle Legolas.  Shall I tell you what it was?"

Beliond hesitated but only briefly.  Better she tell him than someone who might use the information for something other than good.  "You can trust me."

"When Uncle Legolas left to talk to a warrior, Grandfather moved one of his pieces, and then Uncle Legolas came back and said 'Was that there?'  Then Grandfather said"--she puffed out her chest and dropped her chin so her voice deepened--"'You need to concentrate better.'"

Beliond nearly laughed.  She was dark-haired, round-cheeked, wearing a pink gown, and came up just past Beliond's waist, and she was Thranduil to the life.

"Your grandfather moved one of Legolas's chess pieces?"

"Yes.  Then Uncle Legolas said 'There is no point in continuing if you are going to take that tack,' and he stomped out like this."  She tugged her hand free and tromped along the path, hands clenched, head down.

This time Beliond did laugh.  He had occasionally seen Legolas in that kind of temper, indeed had occasionally caused it.  "Thranduil cheated at chess," he marveled.

"He did not cheat!"  She sounded shocked.  "Cheating is wrong, but my nana said Grandfather was not cheating.  He was making Uncle Ithilden laugh because he is sad.  You know that?"

She squinted up at him, and he nodded but said nothing.  He did not know how much she had been told about how Sinnarn died, and it was not his place to enlighten her.

"And Grandfather did make Uncle Ithilden laugh.  Well, really he laughed at Uncle Legolas, but it was because of Grandfather's trick.  Uncle Ithilden was pouring wine, and when Uncle Legolas left, Uncle Ithilden laughed so hard he spilled the wine, and he jumped back so it would not get on his clothes."  Her hands busy miming pouring, she skipped backward and fell to the ground, arms whirling, legs skittering.

Beliond jumped to help her, but when she beamed at him, he realized she had flung herself down on purpose.  He straightened.  "Ithilden fell?"

She nodded and scrambled to her feet.  "He fell down, and that was how he hurt himself."

Beliond gaped at her, his mind racing.  When he thought about it, Ithilden had not said he hurt himself on the training field, though he had certainly let everyone assume it.  Slowly, he smiled.  Well, well.  Thranduil cheated at chess, and Ithilden slipped on spilled wine and pulled a groin muscle.  How interesting.

They emerged onto the Green, and Loriel scampered across it with Beliond hurrying after her.  She cried a greeting to the guards at the Doors and skipped into the antechamber, where Celuwen stood talking to Beliniel.

"Mae govannen, Nana!  Uncle Legolas's Nana brought me home."

Celuwen smoothed away the curls dancing on the child's forehead.  "Where is Nimloth?"

"She turned her ankle," Beliond said.

"Badly?"

"I am not sure."

"Oh dear."

Beliond knew Celuwen probably felt real concern for Nimloth, but he was willing to wager she was also concerned about how to dispose of her lively daughter when she was busy with the king and his other councilors.  Beliond would not want the job.

"If you need help, Celuwen, let me know," Beliniel said.  "Shall we go draw, Loriel?  And I have a story to read you too."

"Yes, please!"  Loriel raced toward the door leading into the family's quarters.  She fumbled with the latch, then waited while Beliniel caught up with her and opened it.  Beliniel bent and whispered something in the child's ear.  Loriel spun and cried, "Thank you, Uncle Legolas's Nana."  Then she was gone, with a smiling Beliniel trailing after her.

"Indeed, thank you, Beliond," Celuwen said.

"You are most welcome."  He cleared his throat.  "I have a piece of advice, my lady."

"About Loriel?"  Celuwen's voice abruptly cooled.  She probably thought he was interfering.

"Yes, my lady.  From things Legolas has said, I gather he was raised from babyhood to hold his tongue about things he heard or saw in the palace.  I imagine your husband learned the same lesson."

A tiny line appeared between Celuwen's brows.  "Yes, he did."

Beliond gestured toward the doorway through which Loriel had disappeared.  "Until recently, this little one has lived in a village."

Celuwen's eyes widened.  "And?"

"And you have work to do, my lady.  After all, we would not want an innocent child to pass along information someone might try to use for his own gain, would we?"

For a moment, Celuwen looked at the floor.  "Thank you.  I will see to it."  She hesitated.  "Did she…?"

"Oh yes."  Beliond allowed himself to smile.  "And now, I think I would like to speak to the king.  We have matters to discuss."

 

Smaller Than a Bread Box

"Calith!" cried a voice in the outer office.  "Congratulations, Ada!"  A chair scraped over the floor.

At the sound of his aide's name, Ithilden lifted his head from the report he had been reading and smiled.  Then he too rose and went to stand in his office doorway.  Anolad was pounding Calith on the back.  "Another son!  A lusty lad, I trust.  And how is his naneth?"

"Nithien and the boy are both doing well."  Calith held something small out to Anolad.  A twig doll, Ithilden realized, the traditional token Wood-elf fathers gave to friends and neighbors when a new baby was born, a sign of rejoicing in fertility and new life.

Anolad laughed, put up his hands, and backed away.  "Haviel is teetering on the edge of consenting to bond with me.  I do not want to frighten her off by looking as if an instant elfling is part of the bargain."

To Ithilden, Anolad scarcely looked old enough to bond, but he supposed the boy must be, despite his round cheeks and the half-starved way he fell upon his food.  He had already pledged himself as a warrior after all, and Legolas had thought him capable of managing Calith's work while the aide stayed with his wife and newborn son.  Or so Legolas had said anyway.  It had crossed Ithilden's mind that Legolas too might be reacting to Anolad's youth and be trying to store him in a place even safer than the usual Home Guard patrol.

Calith thrust the doll toward a retreating Anolad.  "It also means fruitfulness, a rich life."  Calith grinned.  "You could tell her that."

"Give it to a long-time husband."  Anolad spotted Ithilden and gestured toward him.  "The Troop Commander's wife will doubtless feel she can manage him by now."

Calith looked over his shoulder, and from the mask that settled over the aide's face, Ithilden knew what he must be thinking:  the Troop Commander's wife was too busy thinking about her own "baby" to have time for anything else—Sinnarn, his spirit fled to the Halls of Waiting, the body Alfirin had labored to bring forth burned and scattered on the winds.

Ithilden put out his hand for the doll.  "Congratulations, Calith.  May you all grow and prosper together."

Calith laid the doll gently in Ithilden's palm.  "Thank you, my lord."  He glanced at his desk, covered in a chaos of paper.  "Shall I just take a look at all this before I go?"

Anolad's face lit up.

"No," Ithilden said.  "Go home and spend the time while you still have it."

Calith's mouth twisted.  Anolad gave a muffled groan, and Calith sighed and turned to smile at the boy.  "I will back the day after tomorrow."

"Good," Anolad said fervently.

Ithilden silently echoed the sentiment.  Calith took his leave, and Ithilden went back into his office, grateful for the chance to fill his mind with the demands of useful work.  When Anolad knocked on the door to say he was leaving for the day, Ithilden was surprised by late it had grown.  He sent Anolad on his way, neatened his own desk, and started home, taking the twig doll.  He would give it to his brother's daughter, Loriel.

As he always did, he took the path through the palace garden.  He moved slowly, though, and about a third of the way along the path, he dropped onto a bench.  Talking with Calith about his son had been harder than Ithilden expected.  He needed a few moments to gather himself before he went the rest of the way home and faced Alfirin.  If he took the time to cover the surface of his own well of grief with a thin layer of icy self control, he would be better able to support and comfort his wife.

Assuming she let him, of course.  Just after Sinnarn's death, she had opened herself to him and sought his help.  But for the last few weeks, when he reached through their bond, he found her with her feelings guarded.  What was she thinking?  Had she decided after all these weeks to blame him for sending Sinnarn on that last mission to Dol Guldur?

His eyes drifted through the branches of the flowering apple tree behind the bench opposite his.  Sinnarn had once climbed that tree to get to the wall beyond, then run along the wall's top, crying, "Ada, look!  Did you see me?"  Clear as the song of a flickwing in the woods beyond the wall, Ithilden heard Alfirin's cry, muffled so as not to startle Sinnarn: "Ithilden."  She had meant for him to snatch their son from danger, had utter faith that he could do it.

More fool she.

His fingers closed around the doll, and the twig forming its arms twisted and popped loose.  He stared at the broken thing, then set it on the bench next to him and clasped his hands.

A hinge creaked and running footsteps crunched lightly over the gravel path.  His head jerked toward the sound, and for a foolish moment, he thought his wishes had made time rewind, thought some merciful power had decided he shouldn't have to bear this pain after all.

But of course the elfling who ran into sight was not his son.  It was Loriel, her braids bouncing on her shoulders, little curls springing loose.  When she caught sight of him, she veered to run straight to him.  In her hand, she clutched a twig doll.  She stopped an arm's length away and hopped from foot to foot.

"Uncle Ithilden, you will never guess where we have been!  We went to see Nithien and her baby."  She stopped abruptly and frowned at the bench beside him, looking from the doll in her hand to the one next to him.  "It's broken."

He picked it up.  "I know."

The gravel crunched again, and Alfirin and Celuwen appeared around the bend in the path, both hurrying a little more than usual.  Both of them looked relieved when they saw Loriel.

Ithilden rose, and Alfirin came toward him and raised her cheek for him to kiss.

"Can we stay in the garden for a while?" Loriel asked over her shoulder.  "I want to tell Uncle Ithilden about the baby."

Celuwen grinned at Ithilden.  "We can stay a little while."  She took the bench across from him.  Alfirin smoothed Loriel's hair, then drew Ithilden down to sit next to her.  She too was smiling, and when he put his arm around her, he found her for once unguarded.  Her attention was wholly on Loriel, but her amusement rippled through their bond, layered over sadness, true, but there nonetheless.  He let himself rejoice.

Loriel's face was serious.  "The baby grew inside the nana," she told Ithilden.

He nodded gravely.  Loriel had never seen a newborn before, he knew.  She had been the only child in the village where she was born.

Alfirin's hand hovered near Loriel's side, and Ithilden felt the way she yearned to draw the elfling close.  "Tell him how small the baby was, sweetling."

"It has arms and hands and toes, but it's little.  Little like a, like a—"  Loriel frowned, groping for a comparison.  "Like a loaf of bread," she finished, "only wiggly."

"Not 'it,' Loriel," Celuwen said.  "He."

"Oh yes.  I saw that."

Alfirin's shoulders shuddered against Ithilden as she smothered a laugh.

Loriel danced across the path and draped one arm across Celuwen's knees.  She hopped the twig doll along the bench.

Alfirin leaned slightly forward, and flowing from her, Ithilden felt a tug of longing and a quickly hidden flash of something very much like jealousy.  He caught his breath.

Loriel looked up at Celuwen.  "We need a baby, Nana."  She laid a small hand on Celuwen's flat stomach.  "How long would it take you to grow one?"

Alfirin pressed against Ithilden, darted a gleeful look up at him, then dropped her eyes so Loriel wouldn't see.  She took the twig doll from his lap and fiddled with the scrap of bark that had tied the arms in place.  With an efficient twist, she mended the thing.

"A baby takes a year to grow," Celuwen said, "but we would need Ada home for that.  An ada and a nana make the baby together."

"Write to Ada and tell him we need him to come home and make a baby," Loriel said.

Ithilden choked back a laugh of his own.  "I am sure your ada would be happy to do that," he said, aware of the quiver in his voice.  Alfirin elbowed him but couldn't suppress her own grin.

Celuwen rolled her eyes.  "He might be happy to—um, go through the motions, but I am willing to wager he thinks Loriel is enough for now."

Loriel leaned back against her mother and frowned.  "We really need a baby."  Her gaze focused on Alfirin and Ithiden, and her eyes widened.  "I know!  Aunt Alfirin should grow the baby.  Uncle Ithilden can help her."

Celuwen's face froze.  She cast a swift look at Alfirin, then slid her gaze across Ithilden and jumped to her feet.  "Loriel, that is not something anyone can decide for someone else.  Come.  We need to go in now."

"No!"

"Yes."  Celuwen gave Alfirin an apologetic look and held out her hand to Loriel.

Loriel scowled, then sidled across the path to Alfirin.  Her hand hovered over the doll Alfirin still held.  "Can I have it?"

Ithilden had sat frozen, but now he laid his hand atop the doll in Alfirin's palm.  Emotion swirled in his breast, his own emotion and Alfirin's, a tangle of pain and longing and regret.  And something more.  He slid his memory over the feeling one more time and was certain.  When Loriel had said he and Alfirin should have a baby, Alfirin's heart had leapt like a meadowlark soaring toward the sun, like an otter at play, joyous with the wonder of life.

She looked at him now, eyebrows raised.

"I think we will keep this," he told Loriel.

Alfirin's lips parted.  She drew in a long, soft breath.

Loriel sighed and took Celuwen's hand.  Celuwen hurried her daughter toward the palace.  The last Ithilden heard of them was Loriel asking, "Nana, how does the baby get out?"

Somewhere nearby, the flickwing sang its piercing song.  The scent of the apple blossoms filled the air.  A breeze sent a petal into Alfirin's dark hair.  Ithilden gazed into her face.

"I am right, am I not?" he asked.  "You wish it?  And this is what you have been keeping from me.  This is why you have closed yourself off."

She sighed.  "You do not have to argue.  I know it would be foolish."  The bond between them quivered with the strength of her longing.  "I did not want to burden you with a wish that could not be answered."

"You think I will argue we should wait for safer times."  He brushed the pale petal from her head and spoke slowly.  "Eilian and Loriel were both born during times of relative peace, and what good has it done them?"

Alfirin's eyes widened.

He slid his hand to cup her jaw and bent his head and kissed her.  Her mouth was warm and honey sweet.  Her pulse fluttered under his thumb, quickening at his touch and perhaps at what she felt of his intent through the bond she had left open.

"We should go in," she breathed.

"Yes," he said, "we should."

4.  Choices

Spring 2955TA

Thranduil stood at the top of the Great Steps, tapping the riding gloves in his right hand against the palm of his left.  At the other end of the bridge, the stablemaster waited with Thranduil's horse.  The stallion tossed its head and pawed the grass, as eager as Thranduil was to be on their way.  If his guards took much longer to arrive, Thranduil would ride without them and let Ithilden object all he liked.  After that morning's meeting with his council, Thranduil needed to feel his muscles straining as he and the horse galloped at the edge of their mutual endurance.

"Grandfather!"  Footsteps pattered out from the antechamber.

The tension in Thranduil's shoulders eased, and he turned to smile at the small figure, clutching a wooden sword and bouncing on her toes, so her braids danced on her shoulders.  "Mae govannen, Loriel.  Where are you off to?"

"We are going to see Grandmother Isiwen and Grandfather Solith.  Their house is all done, and they put the furniture in while I was with my tutor, and Nana is going to help them, and I am too."

Behind Loriel, Thranduil saw Celuwen in the antechamber talking to Alfirin.  Alfirin was digging her knuckles into the small of her back, massaging it against the weight of her pregnancy.  Not much longer now, Thranduil thought.  In two weeks, he would have a second granddaughter.  As he had done since Ithilden and Alfirin announced the baby was a girl, he felt a secret gratitude he would not have to risk another grandchild falling to a warrior's death.

"You should come too, Grandfather," Loriel went on, oblivious to his grim thoughts.  "They have steps like you do, but theirs are wooden and they go up and up into the trees, and the branches go right through the house!  You can hear the trees all the time."

"I have seen it on my rides," Thranduil said.  Solith would choke on his tongue if Thranduil showed up at the new house in the trees.  The idiot would have refused to accept Celuwen's invitation to dine at the palace if his wife had not insisted they go.  Isiwen at least cared for their daughter's feelings.  Thranduil suspected it was Isiwen who decided Celuwen and Loriel needed them with Eilian away.  Of course, the presence of the Nazgűl in the woods would have made any sensible Elf seek safety for his family, but no one had ever accused Solith of being sensible.

"I wish I could hear the trees in my bed."  Loriel frowned.  "When I was little, I lived in my house, and I could hear the trees through my window.  Grandfather said they were singing to me, and we made up a song and played it on our whistles."

"I wish you could hear the trees too."  Thranduil suppressed a stab of jealousy at the cozy little scene Loriel had shared with Solith rather than him.  "But the cave keeps you safe."

"Grandfather says the trees will keep them safe.  They will listen, and the trees will tell them when bad things come."

Thranduil bit back the temptation to say what he thought of that.  Fortunately, as it happened, because just then Celuwen and Alfirin emerged into the spring afternoon.  Celuwen could be sharp-tongued when someone criticized her father.

Loriel ran to pat Alfirin's stomach.  "Mae govannen, baby.  I am still waiting for you."

Alfirin smiled down at her and stroked her hair.  Thranduil's heart warmed at the way her face glowed with the life flourishing within her.  "Are you still here, Adar?" Alfirin said.  "I expected you would be well away by now."

"I did, too," Thranduil said.

Ithilden must have heard him as he came out of the antechamber, his pack over his arm.  "You were early, Adar."  He smiled.  "If a person did not know better, he might say you were eager to be shut of the lot of us."  He bent to kiss Alfirin's cheek.  "You should go inside and rest."

"As soon as you are on your way," Alfirin said.  "You will be back quickly?"

"How long can it take to visit the Eastern Border Patrol?  I will be back tomorrow."  He put his arm around her.  "I have no intention of missing my daughter's first Begetting Day."

Loriel stuck out her lower lip.  "I am very angry at Ada for missing my Begetting Day."

"Ada could not help it, sweetling," Celuwen said.  "He must have been delayed."  Despite her reassurance, two small lines appeared between her brows.

Thranduil felt his own brow pucker.  Eilian and Maltanaur had been gone far longer than Thranduil anticipated when he sent them east six months ago to learn if they could just where Sauron had gone. The Maia had certainly not left Middle-earth.  His claws were hooked too deeply for that.  Thranduil deliberately smoothed out his face and said "I am sure your ada was sad not to be here, Loriel, but you can tell him all about it when he comes home."

"Here come both your guards and mine, Adar."  Ithilden gestured toward where his own horse was being led to join Thranduil's accompanied by half-a-dozen warriors.

Loriel swung her sword, making the adults skip out of her range.  "I am Nana's guard."  Her mouth pinched.

Thranduil had a sudden vision of Legolas at this age, his trust in the world shattered by his mother's death.  For a while, he had bent all his childish strength to making sure the rest of them stayed safe.

Celuwen took her daughter's hand.  "Come.  We will go see your grandparents."

Alfirin waved and went back inside, and the rest of them descended the steps.

***

Celuwen followed Loriel into the cleared space before the oak holding her parents' new house.  To save the tree pain, they had started building when the oak was still deep in its winter sleep, but now the house was finally done.  Wooden steps swept up to the balcony and the arched doorway.  The house spread through the branches, lower near the door and then climbing into the upper branches.  Spring leaves fluttered around it, as if surprised, though not displeased, to find this huge nest among them.  A rope swing hung close to the ground.  That was new today, Celuwen noted.

With a large box in his arms, Celuwen's father had his foot on the bottom step, but he turned and smiled when he heard Loriel.  "Mae govannen, sweetling.  We have been watching for you. Your grandmother has bread and honey ready for you."

Loriel clambered up the steps, one hand on the railing, the other clutching her sword.  "I had to read to my tutor first."  She paused to point her sword at the swing.  "Is that for me?"

"Of course it is," Solith said, "but you should eat first."

Celuwen kissed her father's cheek.  "Are there many more boxes at Uncle's house?  Shall I go fetch more?"

"This is the last," her father said.

They climbed the steps together and went through the open door.  Loriel was already in the kitchen with her grandmother.  The sword rested on the table curving around an oak branch that came in through the wall and exited through the ceiling.  Another branch formed the bench behind the table, and Loriel had climbed up onto it and was eating her bread and honey.  The tree hummed happily at her presence.

"You have already done so much."  Celuwen looked around the kitchen, where the last of the sawdust had been swept from the corners and starched curtains flapped in the breeze puffing through the window.

Her mother smiled.  "There are still things to put away in the bedrooms, but I was eager to have my kitchen ready to use."

Solith set the box on the table.  "When you have finished your bread, sweetling, we can go outside and I will push you on the swing."

Loriel crammed the last of the bread in her mouth and hopped to the floor.  "I am ready now," she mumbled, one cheek bulging.

"Remember what I said about talking with your mouth full?" Celuwen asked.

"She is nearly finished," Solith said, "and this is not the palace after all."  He followed Loriel, who was scampering out the door.  A moment later, Loriel's laughter drifted in through the open window.

Celuwen opened the box Solith had carried in and began removing dishes.  As her mother arranged them on the shelves, the two of them chatted about her mother's garden and how Alfirin was faring.  The house rocked slightly in the tree's arms and filled with the scent of new leaves.  A squirrel chattered to itself just outside the window.  Celuwen felt lighter than she had in days.  Eilian was fine, she assured herself.  He had neither been hurt nor seduced into some adventure.  He was doing what his father asked of him, and she was selfish to resent it.  He would come home as soon as he could.

She heard her father and Loriel come into the house again and go up the winding steps to the sleeping level.  A moment later, Loriel cried, "Nana! Nana!  Come and see!"

Celuwen raised an eyebrow at her mother, whose lower lip was caught in her teeth.

"Do go look," Isiwen said a little breathlessly.  "I will come too."

They climbed the stairs to find Loriel jumping up and down on the balcony outside the second bedroom.  The room had been empty the last time Celuwen was there, but now it held two narrow beds.  Celuwen recognized the chest under the open window.  It had been in her room in the village where she'd lived with her parents in the years before her marriage.

"Look!"  Loriel pointed to a place behind Celuwen.  Celuwen looked over her shoulder.  On a shelf near the door sat a rag doll, a whistle, and a slate.  "They are for me!" Loriel cried.  "And Nana, Grandfather says we can sleep here in the tree with a window."

Celuwen snapped her gaze to her father.  "You suggested that to her without asking me?"

His mouth tightened.  "You are living in a cave!  We can offer a bed in the trees.  Of course I suggested it."

Isiwen edged to Solith's side.  "Only while Eilian is away, Celuwen.  You could go back to the Stronghold when he is here."

"Yes, Nana!"  Loriel danced across the room, twirling on the balls of her feet.  "Please!"

Celuwen's heart suddenly ached for the comfort of the nighttime trees.  Her bed had been cold and lonely for far too long.  Why should she deny herself the forest's soothing presence just because Eilian chose to please his father rather than her?  "I would have to speak to the king," she said slowly.

"Why?"  Her father's face flushed.

"I am part of the House of Oropher now, Adar."

"And since your husband is not here, as usual, you must deal with Thranduil rather than the Elf who said he loved you.  You are living exactly the life we feared for you, little one."

Celuwen found herself blinking back tears.  She was living the life she had feared too.

Loriel looked from Celuwen to Solith, her face puckering.

"We will not quarrel," Isiwen declared.  "Celuwen said she would speak to the king, and she will."

Celuwen scanned the three anxious faces before her, but it was her own need that made her say, "Yes, I will."

"We should sleep her tonight."  Loriel brightened.  "Ask Grandfather now, Nana."

***

"Come in."  When Thranduil's office door opened, the step that entered was Celuwen's.  He finished reading the many-limbed sentence he was midway through before he looked up, his finger marking his place.  He had spent the hour since his ride trying to sort out the petition's complicated claims.  He did not want to have to return to the start of this page, or any page for that matter.

Celuwen seldom fidgeted, but she was twisting her opal wedding ring.  Thranduil forgot the petition and nodded toward the chair before his desk.  "What is it, daughter?"

She seated herself, still twisting her ring.  Then she caught his gaze on her hands and jerked them apart to rest on the chair's arms.  She drew a deep breath.  "I need to ask your permission for something."

He raised an eyebrow.  He could not remember the last time Celuwen had asked his permission for anything, or Eilian's either for that matter.  In the eyes of law and custom, Celuwen was accountable to Eilian, who in turn owed obedience to Thranduil both as king and as head of the House of Oropher.

Not that Eilian had ever allowed such customs to stop him from doing whatever he liked, of course.  To be fair, Eilian seemed to assume Celuwen too should govern her own actions.  The few times he had tried to interfere had all related to her safety, and all met with spectacular lack of success.

Thranduil silently sympathized with his son.  If he had been more willing to impose his will on Lorellin, she might be alive.  What they would be to one another, of course, was a different question.

"What is it?" he asked.

"My parents have invited me and Loriel to live in the new house with them.  I want to accept."

Thranduil stiffened, then deliberately made his face as neutral as possible and leaned back in his chair.  "It is unusual for a wife to leave her husband's home when no work calls her elsewhere."

"I know, but Eilian is away so much, we scarcely live together anyway, and Loriel would like living among the trees.  I would too."

The bitter edge to her tone made Thranduil scan her face.  "You and Eilian did not quarrel?"

"Not really."

Not yet, Thranduil thought.  But there is unhappiness here somewhere.  Moreover, Eilian will spit fire about this when he gets home.  He would have been dismayed enough to find his in-laws living near the stronghold.  On the other hand, just today Thranduil had seen the toll Eilian's absence worked on Loriel, and Celuwen too had grown quieter and more sober than usual.

"Loriel and I would move back into our apartment in the palace when Eilian is here, of course."  Celuwen seemed to hesitate.  "Eilian sacrifices himself and us in doing what you ask of him, Adar.  I only hope you appreciate it."

Thranduil stiffened.  He could hardly tell her he had intended to send Beliond and Legolas on this mission and Eilian had begged to go instead, mostly, Thranduil suspected, because he could not bear to think of Legolas so close to danger.  Not so soon after carrying Sinnarn's body home.  Thranduil had objected, citing Loriel's need for her father, but while he had hesitated, Eilian had in the end persisted with his usual stubborn unwillingness to give up something he wanted.  The decision had been Thranduil's anyway.  Eilian had spoken truly in saying he was good at scouting, and Legolas was untried.  The choice to send Eilian had been the only logical one.

"Of course I appreciate what Eilian does."  Thranduil heard the sharpness in his voice and ran his hand over his face.  "I will not stop you, Celuwen.  I expect Eilian will have something to say about this though."

She lifted her chin.  "I expect he will, but since he is not here now, I have to think about my wishes and Loriel's too."  She rose.  "With your leave, I will tell Alfirin we will not be here for evening meal and pack enough things for overnight.  I will be back tomorrow for whatever else we decide to take."

Thranduil stared unseeing at the door that closed behind her.

***

Celuwen picked at the spring greens on her plate.  She should be glad her father-in-law had allowed her to come her to her parents' house.  So why had her unease been rising since she left his office?  She felt restless as a willow in a wind storm, every nerve scraped raw.  She wanted to jump to her feet and run through the forest, not sit quietly eating at her parents' table.  Even the song of the oak at her back could not soothe her.

"Eat your fish," Solith told Loriel. "I caught it myself this morning, so you know how fresh it is."

Loriel forked a bit of fish into her mouth.  "You caught it?  All by yourself?"

"Of course.  Has no one in that palace taught you to fish yet?  I taught your nana when she was smaller than you are.   Tomorrow I will take you with me and teach you too."

"I will take my sword," Loriel said.  "Then we will be safe."

Solith chuckled.  "We are not looking for a fight, Loriel.  A Wood-elf in the forest does not usually need a sword."

Celuwen tightened her grip on her fork.

"Will you not eat a little more, Celuwen?" Isiwen asked.  "You are so thin."

Solith snorted.  "Unhappiness does that to her."  He turned to Celuwen.  "That was one reason we thought you would be better off with us."

"Nana misses Ada," Loriel observed.  "I miss him too."

"He should have stayed home," Solith said, "not gone off adventuring."

Celuwen slammed her fork down.  Everyone jumped.  Loriel's eyes grew huge.  "You would not have been satisfied then, either.  I will not have you talking that way about Eilian in front of Loriel."

"Why not?" her father said.  "Anyone can see you are unhappy, even the elfling."

Isiwen rose.  "Come, Loriel.  We will get your nightgown on."

"But we just finished eating."  Loriel looked from one adult to another, chin quivering.  "I always stay up more after that."

Someone knocked on the door.  Glad for the interruption, Celuwen swung toward it, but the sight of Loriel's face stopped her.  She drew the child close and stroked her head.

Isiwen hurried out of the room to answer the door.  A familiar voice came down the hallway.

"I have come for my wife and daughter."

Celuwen's heart stopped and started again, wild with joy.  All the prickliness slid from her skin like water.  She cried out once and ran toward the door.  In the shadows under the branches sheltering the house, Eilian's tall figure loomed, his face in darkness.  She flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder.

He put his arms around her waist.  "Love, love," he murmured into her hair.

Loriel's footsteps tore down the hall.  "Ada!"  She hugged him around the hips, and he took one hand from Celuwen's back to rest it on Loriel's head.

"Mae govannen, Flower Face.  I have missed you."  Eilian's voice was husky.

Loriel's sobs made Celuwen realize that she too was crying.  She swiped at her eyes and pulled back to gaze into Eilian's face, tilted to look at Loriel.  He was smiling, but she saw the tightness at the edges of his mouth and felt the tension in the arm at her back.  He turned to her, and his grey eyes were dark with anger.  Behind her, she heard her father's heavier footsteps.

"About time you got here," Solith muttered.

Celuwen said, "Get your cloak, Loriel.  We are going home."

"Oh."  Loriel sounded disappointed.  "We were going to sleep in the tree, Ada.  You should sleep here too."

"When fish fly," Celuwen said softly.

"What?" Loriel asked.

The strain in Eilian's face loosened a little.  He spread the fingers of his hand on the small of Celuwen's back and drew her closer.  The heat of him was welcome as a fire on a winter day.  How had she lived so long in the cold?

"You go home with your ada tonight," Isiwen said.  "Maybe you can sleep with Grandfather and me tomorrow."  She took Celuwen's cloak off the peg on the wall and handed it to Eilian, who wrapped it around Celuwen's shoulders as Isiwen draped Loriel's around hers.

"Good night."  Isiwen shooed them out the door.

Celuwen looked back to see her mother with an arm extended to keep her father in the hall.  Then the door closed.  Eilian put one arm around her waist and the other around Loriel's shoulders as they made their way down the steps and along the forest path.

"Aunt Alfirin is having her baby soon," Loriel said, "and you forgot my Begetting Day."

"Never," Eilian declared.  "I tried to be here, but I had to finish the task the king set me.  Tomorrow you and I and Nana will pretend it is your Begetting Day, and we will celebrate it."

Loriel stopped.  "I left my sword at Grandfather's house!"  She heaved a huge sigh and started walking again.  "You can be guard now, Ada."

"I intend to," Eilian said.  "For as long as I can, anyway."

Celuwen clung to her husband's side and silently explored her marriage bond.  He was tired, worn, frayed at the edges in a way she had not seen before.  He was also guarding his feelings from her.  Of course, she was guarding hers too.  Did she want him to see how she had grown to resent his long absence?  He would think her petty.  And yet how could she hide it without shutting him out from her heart?

They mounted the steps to the palace, crossed the antechamber, and entered the family's quarters in time to meet Thranduil emerging from his office.  Celuwen assumed Eilian had already reported on whatever information his mission yielded.  Thranduil looked from her to Eilian, then shifted his gaze to Loriel.

"Come with me, sweetling, and I will help you get ready for bed.  Then your ada and nana will come and tuck you in."  He nodded to the door he had just come through.  "Use my office."  He led Loriel off, looking back over her shoulder.

"Come soon, Ada," she called.

Eilian gestured Celuwen through the office door ahead of him, then closed it and leaned on it, regarding her with level eyes.  Celuwen's heart pounded.

"Your adar is worried that we are about to argue and does not want us to do it in front of Loriel," she said.  "Are we?"

For a moment, he was silent.  "I thought we were when I left the palace tonight, but now I am not sure.  Why did you do that, Celuwen?"  There was pain in his voice and she took a step toward him.

"Loriel longed for the woods.  So did I.  And you were gone so long, Eilian."

He lifted one hand in a helpless gesture.  "I know, but Adar needed me."

"We needed you."  She took another step.  "Eilian, must we always come second?"  She drew a breath and spoke of what she had come to believe lay at the sore center of his choice.  "Surely, your adar would understand if you stayed with us until Loriel is grown.  You have served him and his realm faithfully for years.  He knows that."

Eilian licked his lips.  "Does he?"

"If he fails to see that, then we will tell him.  I will tell him.  Ithilden is here with his family.  He arranges for other warriors to be with theirs.  Why should you not be with yours?  They owe you time to be with us, Eilian.  You have earned it."

"Things are bad in the east," Eilian said slowly.  "Mt. Doom has exploded again.  Men have withdrawn from Ithilien."

She envisioned him there, so near to evil, so far from home, and sprang to wrap her arms around him.  "I am so sorry."

He clasped her to him like a drowning man might clasp a rescue line.  His warm mouth slid down to the side of her neck.

She fought to speak rather than lose herself in the shiver running down her body.  "But, Eilian, if things are growing worse, then surely that is all the more reason for you to be with Loriel while you can.  If the battle is coming, it will come soon enough."

"You have no idea how much I have missed you."  He covered her mouth with his, silencing her argument.  He pressed his body to hers, one hand on the back on her head, the other sliding to her hip.  He kissed her throat while he walked her backward until her thighs struck the hard edge of Thranduil's desk.

He pulled away to sweep his arm across his father's desk.  The papers, pens, and letter opener fluttered to the floor, but he managed to grab the ink pot and set it carefully on the chair.  His eyes met hers, smoky with desire.

"Not here," she protested faintly.

He grinned his old grin.  "Adar said to use his office."

***

A rap sounded on the door of Eilian and Celuwen's apartment.  Thranduil called and a moment later, Legolas stood smiling in Loriel's bedroom doorway.

"Uncle Legolas!"  Loriel slid from Thranduil's lap.  "Ada is home."

"I know," Legolas said.  "I saw him earlier."

"He is going to tuck me in."  Loriel clambered up onto her bed and set about rearranging the line of four toy warriors and a doll propped against her pillow.

Legolas watched her for a moment, then waited for Thranduil's nod before he dropped to the stool near the rocker where Thranduil sat.  "Where is her sword?" he asked in a low voice.  He knew as well as Thranduil did that Loriel had slept with Eilian's old wooden sword for the last few weeks.

"She has not said."

Legolas seems to be considering what to say next.  "Celuwen will be happier with Eilian home too."

Thranduil waited to hear what really weighed heavily enough on Legolas's mind that he had sought Thranduil out here.

"Adar, Ithilden is away or I would talk to him first, but I want both you and him to consider sending me to the Southern Patrol and keeping Eilian home, at least while Loriel is so small."

Thranduil's breath caught.  Legolas had serve in the Southern Patrol before, but the world was crumbling around them, and irrational though he knew it was, something in him cried out at the idea of sending his baby there now.  "Eilian would object," he managed to say.

"He might; he might not.  To me, he seems less eager to be off since Loriel was born."

In his mind's eye, Thranduil saw Eilian, dark brows drawn together, arguing for being sent east. Thranduil knew Eilian had argued largely out of a desire to protect Legolas, something Legolas did not know, thank the Valar.  But he had assumed Eilian was as eager for adventure as he had always been.  Over the years, Thranduil had grown used to thinking of his second son as irresponsible, but Celuwen had said Eilian sacrificed himself and her and Loriel to Thranduil's demands and those of the realm.  Thranduil had certainly not intended to demand that Eilian go on this mission, but what had Eilian believed?  Had he also been trying to please Thranduil?

On the bed, Loriel spoke severely to one of the warriors.  "Settle down and sleep now.  I do not want to have to come in here again."  She hopped the warrior across the pillow and shoved him under the covers.  "I will be good, Nana," she said in her warrior voice.

"Ithilden would decide," Thranduil said slowly.

"I know, but think about it, Adar.  Do not reject the idea out of hand."  Legolas shrugged.  "I have no family.  I can be away if necessary."

"You do have family," Thranduil said more sharply than he meant to.  "Never think your absence would not be felt."

Legolas smiled.  "I will be good, Adar."

Thranduil heard the door to the apartment open, and Eilian and Celuwen sauntered into the room, his arm around her waist.  Both looked flushed and contented.  Thranduil raised an eyebrow.

Loriel ran to them, arms extended.  Eilian scooped her up, set her on one hip, and kissed her round cheek.  "Adar, Loriel is going to celebrate her Begetting Day again tomorrow.  Do you think Cook can come up with something special to eat?"

Thranduil laughed and rose at the same time Legolas did.  "I am sure he can."

"Adar," Eilian said, "before you go, I wanted to say you were right."

"What about?" Thranduil asked.

"I should not have gone on this mission."  Eilian gave a mirthless laugh and nodded at Legolas.  "The Valar help me, I should have let him send you after all, brat."

"What?" Legolas said.

"Or maybe just Beliond," Eilian went on.  "I would not have wanted you there really."

Legolas swung around to frown at Thranduil.  "I was supposed to go on this mission?"  Color rose in his cheeks, a rare sign of temper.  "And you all decided to 'protect' me?"

Thranduil suppressed a groan.  "Not now, Legolas."  He turned to Eilian.  "Once Ithilden is back tomorrow, I need to speak to you about something, Eilian."

"Of course."  Eilian slid his eyes sideways to the suddenly frowning Celuwen.  "I need to speak to you about something too."

"And maybe I do," Celuwen said.  "Indeed I am considering speaking to you and my adar together."  Eilian rolled his eyes but grinned.

Thranduil froze briefly and then walked toward the door.  "That would be interesting.  I look forward to it.  I need to do a little work in my office now though."

For some reason, Celuwen squeaked.  Thranduil glanced at her, but she had bent to pull the covers back on Loriel's bed.

"I will join you, Adar," Legolas said.  "I want to talk to you."

Thranduil sighed.  Perhaps he should have gone to Mt. Doom himself.  Perhaps he should go now.  He led Legolas out of the apartment, followed by the sound of Eilian laughing and then beginning to croon a lullaby to his daughter.





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