|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 1. Homecoming
Legolas burst through the open Great Doors into the watery light of the spring afternoon. He slid to a halt and hopped from one foot to the other. Grownups could be very slow sometimes.
The river was loud again today. Usually it murmured of the mountains it came from and the forest through which it ran, but now it roared so fiercely, Legolas could not make out anything at all of what it said.
He tiptoed to the edge of the top step and stretched as tall as he could to see over the railing. A long branch tried to claw its way out of the water. The river spun it and sent it shooting under the bridge, like a big, black arrow. For a moment, Legolas felt dizzy. Then he heard the voice of the person he awaited, and the world righted itself again.
"Mae govannen, Tolas." Nana smiled at the door guard. "Did you manage to finish repairing your roof before yesterday's rain?"
"To my wife's great relief, I did, my lady." The corners of Tolas's eyes crinkled when he smiled back at her.
"An elf who knows how to keep his wife happy is wise indeed," Nana said, and the guard laughed.
Ada said Legolas should not talk to the guards because they were watching out for bad things, so Legolas kept quiet around them. Nana never seemed to worry about that, though, and Legolas could tell the guards liked talking to her. He thought maybe Ada's rules did not apply to Nana because, after all, she was Nana.
"Your cloak is coming unbuttoned, sweetling." Nana crouched in front of him, and he lifted his chin so she could fasten the high-up button he could not see. When she was done, she kissed his forehead. "There you are. Shall we go?"
One hand trailing along the stone railing, Legolas climbed down the big steps. When they got to the bridge, he heard the river pounding on its bottom and slipped his hand into Nana's. "Is the river angry?"
"No. The melting snow and spring rain have filled it so full it does not know what to do with itself. After it has carried all the extra water away, it will sing sweetly once more."
They walked off the bridge onto the Green, and he dropped Nana's hand and skipped away. "We should go by the pond again."
"I thought you might like to go to training fields and watch the archers."
Legolas stopped, took a step in the direction Nana pointed, then looked down the path to the pond. "Yesterday we went to the pond, and Ithilden came by there. Ada says Eilian might come today."
Nana smiled. "Eilian will not come that way, sweetling. Would you like to guess which way he will probably come?"
"By the fields?" Legolas darted toward the training fields path. "We should go there!"
He ran very fast, but he still saw the two boys again. Yesterday, they had been peering into a pile of leaves, probably searching out some animal. He had wanted to stop and look too, but then he remembered one of his brothers might come and he had urged Nana onward to meet them. Today, they both sat in a maple near the river. When Legolas ran by, one of them was dropping something into the water, while the other one clung to the tree's trunk. Legolas knew him. His name was Annael. When there were games on the Green, his nana brought him to play, but Legolas did not know which path led to his cottage. And he did not know the other boy at all.
He slowed his racing steps for only a moment. Eilian might be by the training fields even now.
At the other side of the Green, he plunged into the shade of the forest and raced along the path, leaving Nana behind. The trees flew past on either side. "Mae govannen! Mae govannen!" He waved to them as he ran by, and they waved their branches at him, fluttering the pale green lace of their new leaves.
The path turned, and he ran out of the trees into the warm sunshine. In the training field just ahead of him, an archer loosed an arrow. It flew like a hawk to snatch an arcing target out of the sky. He ran to the fence and gripped the railing, watching as more arrows brought down their targets, one, two, three.
A long shadow fell across the grass, and he looked up to find Ithilden frowning down at him, dark brows nearly meeting over his nose. "Legolas, what are you doing here without an adult?" Sometimes Ithilden's voice sounded the way fur felt, but not now. Now it stung like nettles.
Legolas scowled. "Nana is coming."
"Then you should have waited for her. You should not be anywhere near swords or arrows on your own."
"I am here now, dear one, so do not scold." Nana slipped her hand inside Ithilden's arm and stretched to kiss his cheek. "I missed you at both morning and mid-day meal. Have you made a new rule that the Troop Commander is no longer allowed to eat?"
Ithilden laughed. "As soon as Todith and his scouts arrive, I expect to be shut up in meetings with Adar and all my captains. I need to check on novice training and supply requisitions while I have the chance."
She patted his sleeve. "Your adar is lucky to have you managing things so competently, but you must save time for me too. I miss you when you are off seeing to your patrols."
"Sometimes I think you should be the one commanding the troops, Naneth," Ithilden said. "They would do as you like and think themselves privileged to have the opportunity."
"No!" Legolas cried. "I do not want Nana to go away all the time."
Smiling now, Ithilden ran his hand over Legolas's head. "I do not think you need to worry. Adar feels the same way you do, so Nana is not likely to leave you any time soon. I guess she cannot be Troop Commander after all."
The sound of horses made Legolas slip out from under Ithilden's hand and run around him so he could see who was coming. Four warriors rode toward them, leading a riderless horse. "Eilian!" He ran to greet the last rider in the group.
The horses all sidestepped out of his way, and Eilian slid to the ground, caught him by the waist, and swung him around before setting him on his feet again. "You need to watch where you are going, little one! You frightened the horses."
Legolas's face grew warm. He stroked the leg of Eilian's horse. "I am sorry, Rogue."
Nana hugged Eilian, then left her hands on his shoulders. Legolas frowned. She looked the way she did when Legolas fell down and hurt himself.
Eilian made a face. He put his hands over hers and lifted them off him. "I am all right. You worry too much, Naneth."
Ithilden was talking to the warrior who led the group and was the only one besides Eilian to have dismounted. Legolas watched from the corner of his eye. Ithilden had gone all stiff, and he looked at the ground before he looked up again, his mouth in a straight line.
Nana moved toward them. "Mae govannen, Todith."
The warrior put his hand over his heart and bowed. "Mae govannen, my lady."
"You bring sorrow with you, I think."
"Yes, my lady. We bring Fithral home for the last time."
Nana looked at the riderless horse. Legolas looked too, but the only thing on the horse was a leather bag. Eilian shifted from foot to foot, so Legolas thought he might be going to say something, but he turned to watch the archers still shooting on the training field. He looked sad, so Legolas took his hand.
"We will not keep you," Ithilden said. "When you have done with the family, come to my office. I want to know what happened."
"Of course, my lord." Todith spoke to the other warriors. "The rest of you are dismissed. I will see to Fithral."
"I would like to come, Captain," one of the warriors said.
Legolas was surprised to recognize Eilian's friend Gelmir. Gelmir always said mae govannen to Legolas and pulled his braids, but today he acted as if he did not even see Legolas. The fourth warrior was Maltanaur, Eilian's bodyguard, but he did not see Legolas either. He was watching Eilian.
"You do not have to do this, Gelmir," Todith said.
"He was my partner," Gelmir said. "I want to."
"I will go too." Eilian made to remount his horse.
"No, Eilian," Todith said. "They do not need a houseful of warriors when they hear the news. Gelmir and I will do it."
Legolas thought Eilian might argue, but after an instant, he curved his fingers around Legolas's and put his other hand over his heart. "Yes, sir." Eilian must still be doing warrior things then. When he was being a warrior, he almost never argued.
Todith remounted and rode off with Gelmir, the riderless horse trotting along behind. Legolas was glad to see Todith go because without him there, Eilian would probably be just his brother. Unless Ithilden wanted him, of course. Ithilden was a warrior more of the time he was home than Eilian was.
"By your leave, my lord. My lady." Maltanaur saluted Ithilden and nodded to Nana. "I will talk to you this evening, Eilian."
"I am sure you will." Eilian sounded as if that might not be a good thing. Legolas frowned at Maltanaur, who gave a small laugh and rode away.
"It is good to see you, Eilian." Ithilden clasped Eilian's arm. "I regret I have no time to talk now. This evening perhaps." He strode away toward his office, head down.
Nana watched Ithilden for a moment, then wrapped her hands around Eilian's arm and started toward the palace. "Legolas and I have been waiting for you, sweetling. I am happier than I can say to have you home. You are in time for the Spring Equinox Feast tomorrow night, and if you can stay a few days, you will be here for the spring dancing too."
"How long I stay depends on Adar," Eilian said. "He called this meeting of the captains, I suppose? Or was it Ithilden?"
"I believe they decided between them," Nana said.
Legolas skipped along beside them. "I am going to the feast, Eilian. Nana says I can stay up until Menelvagor is all the way above the trees." He looked over his shoulder to where Rogue meandered after them. "Can I ride your horse?"
"Rogue has been looking forward to having you ride him." Eilian swung Legolas up onto the horse's back. "Just yesterday he said, 'Where is that nice elfling who sometimes graces my back? I want to carry him again.'"
Legolas dug his fingers into Rogue's mane. With Eilian on one side of the horse and Nana on the other, he rode toward home. "I know where the oats are in the stable," he told Rogue. "The stablemaster lets me give them to the horses, and I will give you some too." Rogue flicked an ear, so Legolas thought he understood. Rogue never talked to Legolas the way he did to Eilian, but he listened, and Legolas hoped someday he might decide to talk while Legolas was there.
Eilian was quiet, but Nana talked anyway. "What do you think of Amila as a match for Ithilden, Eilian? She seems very nice. I am going to arrange for her family to sit near us at the Equinox Feast. Do you think he will notice, or will I have to shove him into her lap?"
Eilian laughed, so Legolas did too. "Do you matchmake for me when I am not looking?" Eilian said.
Nana patted his arm. "No, sweetling. I do not believe you need my help there."
Eilian laughed again. Legolas looked from his dark head to Nana's, and happiness bubbled up through his chest. He was riding a horse, and tonight, his whole family would eat evening meal together.
Her mind still on Eilian, Lorellin went through the Great Doors into the antechamber to find her husband just emerging from the Hall with Sathien trailing after him.
"I still cannot believe the damage the spring floods have done to that bridge." Sathien twisted the roll of parchment in his hands. "Part of the forest will be all but inaccessible until we make the repair, but I want to make the right decision about how to improve the situation. Floods will come again after all, and really, the forest needs them, so we must allow for them while controlling their destruction, but it can be difficult to do both those things at once."
Lorellin smothered her amusement. Thranduil's shoulders were slightly hunched against the unending assault of Sathien's voice. Over their mid-day meal, Thranduil had moaned about meeting with Sathien, who saw to the Elf Path. Thranduil appreciated the subtle way Sathien kept it usable without disturbing the forest, but Sathien did tend to dither, and even more maddening, he did not seem to notice when Thranduil tried to intimidate him into silence.
When he saw her, he raised a long, elegant hand. "I cannot talk further now, Sathien." He spoke loudly enough to stop Sathien in mid-sentence. Thranduil smiled at Lorellin. "My lady wife is here."
Sathien glanced at her but kept speaking to Thranduil. Lorellin thought he might really be unable to stop, rather like Ithilden when he was debating with himself over how to deploy his troops. "You think stone is best then, my lord?"
"As I have already said, I trust your expertise," Thranduil said. "Do what you think best, but do it quickly please."
Sathien opened his mouth, and Lorellin hurried to take her husband's arm. "We are fortunate you are the one caring for the path, Sathien. I look forward to seeing how you solve the problem."
Sathien blinked as if he had just awakened. He drew himself erect. "Thank you, my lady. With your leave, my lord, I will go and look at the bridge again." Thranduil nodded, and Sathien hastened out the open Doors and down the steps.
Thranduil kissed her temple. "You rescued me," he murmured, his breath tickling the sensitive tip of her ear. "According to the tales, I believe I owe you a kiss."
She laughed and pushed him a hand's breadth away. The guard at the Hall door was smiling at them. "Behave yourself," she said.
He grinned unrepentantly and put his arm around her shoulders. They passed through the doorway into the family's quarters. "Where is Legolas? I thought you and he would be out for your walk."
Worry once again sent her thoughts swirling. "We met Eilian, and he took Legolas to the stables to help groom his horse."
Though Thranduil left his arm around her, he pulled slightly away. "Todith has arrived?"
"Yes, and you need to know he brought a body home, Fithral's."
For an instant, Thranduil closed his eyes. When he opened them, his voice was steady. "Did you set the funeral arrangements in motion?"
"Yes, I sent messages. I need to send just one more asking Nimloth to stay with Legolas."
They stopped in the hallway outside Thranduil's office. "I think Legolas should go to the funeral," Thranduil said. "He behaved well when he was with me yesterday and Galivion stopped me to talk about the news he had just had from Esgaroth."
"No." The word was out of Lorellin's mouth before Thranduil had finished speaking. "He is too young, and he did not even know Fithral."
Thranduil shrugged. "He is old enough to stand respectfully still if he holds your hand, and it does not matter if he knew Fithral. Fithral was one of my people, and he died serving the Realm. We owe him our thanks."
"I know that, Thranduil, but he is barely more than a baby."
Thranduil gave his head a slight shake. "The thing is, my love, he is my baby."
She bit her lip. There was no escaping it then. "Very well. I will try to explain it to him ahead of time, so he knows what to do."
"Thank you. I will join you in the sitting room soon."
"Eilian is upset," Lorellin said.
Thranduil paused in reaching for his office door. "By Fithral's death? I expect he would be. Fithral was a comrade, probably a friend. Of course Eilian grieves."
"I know that." Lorellin frowned. What had she sensed when she touched her second son by the training fields? Was it just grief? Assuming one could ever qualify grief as "just."
Thranduil sighed. "Eilian has been in the Southern Patrol for some years now. He should be accustomed to the loss of comrades."
She sucked in her breath. "I do not want Eilian to become accustomed to death."
At the sharpness in her voice, his brows drew together. "I do not mean hardened to it. You know I do not."
She did know. She had seen that brief closing of the eyes, so like what Legolas did when he wanted to deny the existence of some unpleasant reality, the beets on his plate or the broken vase that had tumbled off a table.
Thranduil laid his hands on her shoulders. "I know this is hard for you. I was at Dagorlad, and it is still hard for me." He kissed her forehead. "I will talk to Eilian. A warrior has to channel his grief and anger into action against the enemy, rather than let it eat his heart."
"You sound as if you are blaming him, but Eilian has never had trouble taking action." Even as she argued, Lorellin wondered if Thranduil might be right. Did Eilian's trouble lie in his affectionate, restless heart? "If you want to help Eilian, you will listen to him, not talk to him."
"Very well." Thranduil lifted his hands. "I will listen, but then I will try to help him do what he must. The Woodland Realm is a dangerous place, and like Legolas, he is the king's son. He cannot allow his emotions to rule him."
"He is a Wood-elf. He cannot stamp his feelings out."
"Nor would I want him to. I simply want him to exercise a little wisdom in dealing with them."
She glared at him, then found herself forced into a rueful smile. "He comes by his temperament honestly, my love. His naneth is sadly given to emotional outbursts."
His tense posture eased. "His naneth is the hearth at which I warm myself when the world grows cold. I will not hear a word against her."
She laughed. "When I first came to know you, I think it was your capacity for poetic nonsense that surprised me most."
He kissed her fingers. "You bring it out in me. And it is not nonsense. It is simple truth." He reached for his office door again. "I will join you in the sitting room as soon as I can."
She left him to work and went on to the sitting room, where a fire burned against the lingering chill of spring. She dropped her cloak over the back of a chair and went to brace a hand on the mantel and watch the flames. Thranduil seldom spoke of Dagorlad. She wondered what had made him think of it today. She knew he and Ithilden had called this meeting of their captains hoping to plan an offensive against the northward creep of Shadow, but surely they did not anticipate losses like those at Dagorlad.
She would wait until after the evening meal before she told Legolas about Fithral's funeral, she decided. He still had trouble thinking too far ahead anyway. She tightened her hand on the mantel. He was so little! But he was also the king's son, and that meant he was bound to duty from the day of his birth. She knew that. She had seen it with her older sons, after all, even Eilian, who was a child of the Peace.
And of course, her own life had changed with her marriage too. How many funerals had she been to as queen? Sometimes she could not understand how people managed to go on. Her own father had ridden away with Oropher when she was too young to remember him, and her mother had never learned to live happily without him. She had waited only to see Lorellin settled in the Stronghold before she sailed West, hoping to find her love waiting for her. Lorellin prayed it had been so.
From a nearby table, she plucked the little chalk drawing of her holding Legolas. It had turned out well, she thought. The artist had captured the wide-eyed curiosity that made Legolas's explorations of the world such a joy to watch. She set the picture next to those of Ithilden and Eilian, drawn when they were the same age, Ithilden holding a ball he had chosen after serious deliberation and Eilian trying to fling himself off her lap. She could not help smiling. They had been themselves from the start, even if they were the king's sons.
She paced about the room. She had been unfair to snap at Thranduil. He worried about Ithilden and Eilian both. The thing was that his belief in duty and discipline far outweighed any worry he might feel. She understood duty. She lived it day by day. But that was her own life, not her children's. When you came down to it, the difference was that Thranduil had been raised to send his sons into danger as his father had sent him, while her every instinct was to protect them from any harm that might threaten a hair on one of their heads.
Light footsteps scurried down the hall, and she just had time to smile before Legolas burst into the room, his face flushed with his haste.
"Nana! Nana! I brushed Rogue and gave him oats, and Eilian says Rogue liked them."
"I am sure he did." She stroked his wispy hair off his forehead.
A grinning Eilian leaned against the doorframe, a pack flung over his shoulder. "Have you considered getting him a pony, Naneth?"
"Yes!" Legolas bounced on his toes. "A pony for me."
Lorellin laughed. "Soon, sweetling." She narrowed her eyes at Eilian. "You are a troublemaker."
He swept his arm forward in an elaborate bow. "At your service." He shifted the pack. "I had better go and get cleaned up before evening meal. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to it."
"Hurry back." She smiled at him. "I missed you."
"Me too," Legolas cried. "I missed you, Eilian."
"Come with me then," Eilian said. "You can help me take the things out of my pack."
Legolas was out in the hall before Eilian finished speaking, and then the two of them were gone. Lorellin listened to their footsteps and voices as long as she could hear them. Sad as she was for Fithral and his family, she could not help rejoicing that all her own sons were safely home.
Thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 2. Funeral
Eilian watched the smoke from the funeral pyre drift through the trees and stiffened. He blinked, and then, with an effort, he opened the fists he found he had made. It was only smoke, not Shadow. Tendrils of Shadow had not yet crept to his family's doorstep, choking the life out of everything in their path. Not yet.
Next to him, Gelmir shifted. Eilian glanced at him, but Gelmir's eyes were on the ground. Eilian grimaced. The normally cheerful Gelmir was taking this hard, so hard that Todith was making him take a month's leave before he rejoined the patrol. Eilian hoped the time at home would do Gelmir good, but he thought he himself would go mad if he had to sit around for a month while orcs and spiders crept northward toward his home.
Thranduil intoned the first few notes of a song of mourning, and along with everyone else, Eilian joined in. His mother's soprano rang clear and sweet, but she scanned the trees as if searching for something, some comfort probably. Eilian hoped she could find it. He wished he could too, but it was hard to look at these trees and not see the misshapen ones he had only recently left. He had failed to protect the woods to the south, so how honest was it to look to the forest for comfort?
Legolas clung to their mother's hand and crowded against her side, eyes wide, face solemn. He had been silent during the ceremony, but his mouth moved now, although Eilian could not hear him. That his little brother knew the song of mourning brought bitterness to the back of Eilian's tongue. Their mother said this was the first time Legolas had gone to a funeral, and yet he still knew the song.
As always, their father's posture was erect and his face serious but composed. It had taken Eilian years to recognize that his father's public face was not exactly an act, but neither did it appear without cost, albeit a cost his father seemed endlessly able to pay.
Sometimes Eilian felt weak with gratitude for the Valar's wisdom in making him a second son. He owed much to his father's realm, but at least he did not owe it the rigidly straight back that was all he could see of Ithilden. His older brother bore a weight of responsibility under which Eilian feared he would have bent and maybe broken.
The fire roared and collapsed in on itself in a rain of sparks. The heartbreakingly small wrapped bundle of Fithral's bones plunged into the flames. Eilian cringed, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Gelmir flinch. He looked away into the smoke-smudged trees. Then it was over. Fithral's parents staggered toward home, supported by neighbors and family, and those in attendance began drifting away.
Eilian looked for Gelmir but found him already gone. He was unsurprised to see Ithilden stride off toward the stables without speaking to anyone. His brother had always needed time to himself when he was troubled. Eilian, on the other hand, looked forward to wine, music, and company in the Glade. The idea of time alone made a shudder run up his spine.
"May I lean on you, sweetling?" His mother appeared, Legolas in tow, and put her hand on his arm. "I am more glad than I can say to have you home with me tonight."
He opened his mouth to make his excuses, then saw how pale she was and tucked her hand into his bent arm. He would go out later, after his mother and father retired for the night. "You may lean on me any time, Naneth, though to me, it still feels the other way around."
They waited for his father, who was speaking to one of his advisers. When he finally joined them, Legolas pulled free from their mother's hand and ran to greet him, arms raised. "Carry me, Ada."
Thranduil's severe face softened as he scooped Legolas up to rest on his hip and kissed the round cheek. "Are you tired, little one? You behaved very well."
"I was good." Legolas nodded. As they started home through the starlit dark, he put his arms around Thranduil's neck and twisted to look back at the funeral pyre. "Nana said this was for Fithral, but where was he? Which warrior was he?"
Eilian cringed. His mother must have felt him do it, because she squeezed his arm.
Thranduil spoke steadily. "Remember what Nana told you? Fithral's body was hurt, so his spirit left it and went to the Halls of Waiting. When he is ready, the Valar will give him a new body."
"Where is his old one?"
"That was it, wrapped up in the cloth on the fire."
Legolas considered this information. "His body was very small. No wonder he had to leave."
They entered the palace and made their way to the family's quarters.
"Time for bed, sweetling," their mother told Legolas. "Bid Eilian good night."
Eilian's parents went off down the hall, his father still carrying Legolas. Eilian entered the sitting room and blinked in the blaze of light from the fire and half-a-dozen lanterns. He went to the small side table, poured himself a cup of wine, and settled onto a high-backed bench near the fire. The last time he was home, Legolas had been demanding that their father tell him a story after their mother kissed him good night. Anything to stay up a little longer, their mother had laughed. So she would be back soon. Eilian probably would not have to stay long. A few moments in Legolas's presence would have lifted her spirits, and Eilian could be on his way to see his friends.
The door opened, but to Eilian's surprise, it was his father who came into the room. Eilian rose, but his father motioned him back into the chair and went to pour himself some wine and then take one of the chairs that sat on opposite sides of the fire.
"No story?" Eilian asked.
His father smiled. "Alas, at present my stories are out of favor, and your naneth's are the truly desirable ones." He sipped his wine, dropped his head against the back of his chair and closed his eyes.
Eilian glanced down at his cup and swirled his wine. "You are tired. You undoubtedly did not expect to have to preside at a funeral tonight. I am sorry we brought you trouble." He looked up to find his father, head still tilted back, watching him from under half-lowered lids.
"I am sorry for your loss of a comrade, Eilian. Ithilden tells me Fithral died while you were scouting together. That must be difficult for you. Would you like to talk about it?"
Stomach twisting, Eilian set his wine down on the table at his elbow. "There is not much else to say beyond that."
His father glanced away. "Eilian, I do not want to pry, and you have been a warrior long enough to judge your own reactions. But I also know your patrol has been in difficult situations of late, and perhaps the strain is wearing on you." His eyes met Eilian's again, and one corner of his mouth quirked. "I do have some experience of combat, you know. It is possible I could help you get some perspective on things."
Eilian rubbed his damp palms on his leggings. His father thought the "strain" was "wearing" on him? Well, it was, and far more than it should have been. Because his father was right. He had seen comrades die before. Why was he taking Fithral's death so hard? He must be disturbed by the conditions he had seen in the woods. He had never been that far south before, not even in the Peace.
"There really is not much to tell, Adar," he said slowly. "You know what we were doing. Todith told us we were to explore to the south, locate the orcs' camps, see if we could tell whether they were on the move and if so where, try to find a way through their lines. I gather you and Ithilden are considering an attack on Dol Guldur?"
His father nodded.
"Good. The woods are suffering."
"I know." Thranduil's face was impassive, but Eilian believed his father did know. Body and spirit, he was so connected to the Woodland Realm he probably felt the twisting of each tree. In the face of his father's stolid endurance, Eilian felt like Legolas whining over a skinned knee.
Thranduil drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Eilian, if Ithilden and I do decide to attack Dol Guldur, any details you can give me might be important."
"I told Todith everything, and Maltanaur probably did too."
Eilian sighed. "We were scouting during the day because Todith told us not to engage them, just learn what we could. We knew one of their camps had to be nearby because of the number we saw hunting at night, but for the life of us, we could not find it."
Maltanaur whistled a signal, then crouched to touch one of the orc tracks scarring the bank of the stream. He glanced up at Eilian. "Since dawn maybe," he murmured.
Eilian nodded. That made sense. The orcs would have gone to ground when day straggled into this part of the forest.
A soundless stir of air announced the arrival of Gelmir and Fithral. Eilian pointed at the tracks, then at the unmarked bank on the stream's other side. They all craned their necks to look up and down the streambed. Maltanaur grimaced, and Eilian sympathized with his unhappiness. If the orcs were taking the trouble to cover their trail, they must know elves were nearby.
Eilian hesitated. Should they split up and search both directions at once for where the orcs had emerged from the water? That would be quicker, probably. He opened his mouth to give the order, then bit back the words. Todith had told them to take care. He should muster his small patience and follow the safer course of action.
He held up four fingers and gestured north, then saw the slight curve of Maltanaur's mouth indicating his approval. Good. Eilian would be able to lead the search without his keeper's glare prodding his spine at every step he took. He studied the underbrush crowding the stream and suppressed a sigh. It was far too dense for them to see much from any place other than the water.
He slid down the bank into water that rose midway up his shins and felt like it had only yesterday been a snowbank in the Emyn-nu-Fuin. His toes curled in his boots, and his leggings clung to his protesting muscles as stiffly as if they were frozen there. He darted a quick look to be sure they were not, and hoped Maltanaur had not seen him do it.
The tearing hurry of the stream meant they did not have to worry overmuch about noise. Still he moved carefully, and even he could not hear the elves behind him. They were unlikely to find orcs moving about in daylight, but he kept his bow in his hand anyway as he swept his gaze from side to side, looking for telltale tracks, and racking his brain to think where the orc camp might be. Where could they have found dark shelter for a large band? He and the other scouts had been all through this part of the forest and found no sign of the caves the creatures preferred to use. Could they be hiding in a stand of pines? If they covered the branches with canvas, the space beneath would be dim enough.
As if he had conjured the dark, he took a step and found himself peering through a swirl of Shadow. He stiffened and halted where he was, his gut knotting in revulsion.
All his life, Eilian had found solace among the trees. They sang to him, calmed him, made him happy and at peace. Now evil was snaking its way through the woods, like a poisonous vine, choking the life out the forest and replacing the rustling shade with the cold absence of light, something Eilian had learned was far different from leaf-dimmed daylight or star pricked night. He had moved through patches of Shadow off and on since his patrol ventured so far south. They never failed to shock him.
Behind him, someone stirred. He glanced over his shoulder to see Gelmir and Fithral darting anxious looks at the tangled undergrowth along the banks. Maltanaur's mouth was pressed in a thin line, but he caught Eilian's gaze and flicked his eyes ahead. They had to keep searching. Eilian swallowed the bile in his throat and started moving again, breathing shallowly, reluctant to suck the fouled air into his body.
From a distance, a blackbird called, but Eilian heard no other birds and missed the rustle of small animals moving through the leaf litter. He realized the muscles in his shoulders were tight, but they stayed tight even when he tried to relax them. He felt like a fool for being so tense. The orcs were in hiding and were unlikely to emerge in daylight. He had nothing to fear, but he could not help himself.
He was probably responding to the fearful note in the song of the trees, he thought. They should have been alive with the rush of spring sap and the uncurling of their leaves to the lengthening days. Instead, their leaves were edged with slimy black and shriveling in on themselves, and their song quivered with pain.
Then, as if they had pushed out from behind a curtain, the shadow fell away and the air grew sweet. A blue jay swooped overhead and lighted on a branch. It eyed the elves disapprovingly and scolded them before rushing away on bird business. Eilian felt light enough to fly after him.
He slogged through the water for another half-dozen paces before he reluctantly slowed to a stop and turned back. "We should check that stretch of the stream again."
Gelmir groaned, then quickly said, "Sorry."
Maltanaur slapped Gelmir on the back. "You saved me the trouble of making that noise myself."
"You think the orcs are back there?" Fithral asked.
"The trees are unhappy there," Eilian said. "I think we need to look again."
"I do not see how we could have missed signs of the orcs leaving the stream," Gelmir said.
"Neither do I," Eilian said, "but we still need to look again."
"Come on, Gelmir," Fithral said. "My feet are freezing. When we get back to camp, you can rub them for me."
Gelmir snorted. "When pigs build nests in oak trees."
Eilian laughed along with the others, but he heard the tension in Gelmir's voice. When the patrol had headed south, Todith had warned them all about the strain the Shadow would put on their spirits. "We had experience with it when Sauron was there," Todith said. "It intensifies whatever doubts and weaknesses you might have and turns them back as weapons against you. Be alert for it in yourself and in one another. You can learn to turn it aside and weaken its power, but it is the rare warrior who can escape it entirely."
Eilian feared Gelmir was tinged with Shadow sickness now. Eilian would not press his friend to learn what weak spot the Shadow had found in him, and he did not think he could bring himself to tell Todith about Gelmir either. He would keep watch and support Gelmir as best he could while Gelmir wrestled with his demons.
For now, though, he had to set his concern for his friend aside. He led the way back toward the darkness that looked like soot smudged across the air, choking the life out of the land. He drew a deep breath and, before he had time to think, he forced himself back into it.
Immediately, his skin crawled, as every nerve in his body writhed in an effort to escape the Shadow's contaminating touch. He was not exactly afraid. Truth be told, Eilian usually enjoyed venturing into dangerous situations. They set his heart pumping and his body tingling and made him aware of how alive he was. What troubled him here was not the peril, but the corruption that made him feel as if something vile had slithered inside his tunic and, even worse, inside his body, inside his self.
He struggled onward, once again sensing the deep dismay of the trees. Looking for anything that might tell him where the orcs had gone, he scanned the edges of the stream. A faint breeze rattled the shriveled leaves overhead.
Eilian halted, head lifted, nostrils flared. "Do you smell that?" he whispered.
The others sniffed, but Eilian was already moving toward the eastern bank, following the stench of orcs. He scrambled up over a boulder, pushed his way through a thicket of brambles, and halted to sample the air in all directions. Maltanaur, Gelmir, and Fithral slid through the brambles and came up next to him.
"I lost the scent," Eilian murmured. "Do you smell them or see any other sign?"
Arrows in their bowstrings, they spread out, scanning in all directions. Eilian strained to hear, see, smell anything that would tell him where the enemy had gone to ground, but the Shadow muffled everything. Except the song of the trees, of course. He heard that and cringed at the way their trouble seemed to extend right down into their roots.
Right down into their roots.
He stiffened, then dropped to his knees and set his ear to the ground. For a moment, he heard nothing. Then a rough voice rumbled at the far edge of his hearing. Heart pounding, he jumped to his feet and whistled a signal. As he expected, Maltanaur was near and came running first.
"Tunnels," Eilian said. "They are in tunnels right below us."
He heard the light steps of Gelmir and Fithral, and then a crash and a cry. For a heartbeat, Eilian froze. Then he ran toward the sound on legs heave as stone.
Dirt foamed through the already dim air. A twisted maple slowly tilted, its branches stretched out to the other trees as if pleading to be held, its roots tearing away and rearing up like a gigantic, spiked shield. Everything seemed to be sliding toward a hole collapsing into the forest floor.
Everything, including Fithral. He clung to the reeling maple, his legs already in the hole. Orcs growled and shouted, and clawed hands clutched at him. In the churning confusion, Eilian saw the three long gashes pouring blood down Fithral's thigh as clearly as if they were laid out before him, ready to be cared for. Those will have to be stitched, he thought, just before Fithral vanished into the hole.
It had taken only an instant. Gelmir had been darting from side to side, trying to get a shot that would not hit Fithral, all the while shouting for help. Now he ran toward the hole, but Eilian was there before him, bow raised.
Half-a-dozen orcs were scrambling away from the light, hands raised to shield their eyes. Two of them dragged a struggling Fithral by the ankles. Eilian loosed an arrow, and one of the draggers let go and stumbled backward.
An arrow whined past Eilian's ear. He dodged, but not before he glimpsed an orc yank a knife from its belt and slash at Fithral's throat. Gelmir and Maltanaur were shooting into the tunnel, but a flurry of orc arrows made them jump away from the entrance. Eilian was sidling toward the entrance when Maltanaur grabbed his arm.
"No," Maltanaur said. "Get the rest of the patrol. These orcs will stay put until night."
"Fithral!" Eilian cried.
"He is already dead."
"He might not be." Eilian struggled to free himself.
"He is." Gelmir's voice was wooden.
Eilian looked at the hole. The hail of arrows had stopped, but he could hear the rumble of orc voices and the thud of their feet. Their archers undoubtedly waited where the tunnel grew dark, ready to shoot anyone stupid enough to enter the confined space. Moreover, he thought the tunnel ran in both directions. Orcs could lurk behind as well as in front of someone coming through the hole. In his mind's eye, he again saw the knife slashing across Fithral's throat.
"Gelmir, go tell Todith what we found. Maltanaur and I will keep watch here." Eilian heard his own voice quaver and realized he was crying.
"So Gelmir went," Eilian said. "By the time the patrol came, dusk had fallen, so Todith stationed us around the opening to cut the orcs down as they came out, but they never did. Eventually we went into the tunnel after them."
Eilian gripped the arms of his chair. The stink of that place's evil would linger in his nostrils until the age ended. Sometimes he felt as if its pollution still lingered inside him, as if he had carried it home to his family, his little brother.
His father had been watching the fire, his brows slightly drawn down. Now he turned his face to Eilian. "I did not realize the patrol engaged them."
"Nor did they," Eilian said. "The tunnels were like a maze, but we searched them all. The orcs had gone out another opening. It turned out there was an exit into the streambed too, concealed by a boulder. I had climbed over it without having the wit to see what it hid."
Thranduil ran a forefinger around the rim of his wine cup. He spoke slowly. "When you went south, did Maltanaur or Todith talk about the possibility of Shadow sickness?"
"Yes. I think Gelmir suffers from it. Todith asked Ithilden to give him an extended leave."
Thranduil nodded. "If Gelmir has Shadow sickness, then he will need time with his family among healthy trees. He will have earned it by putting himself between the Shadow and his home." He scanned Eilian's face. "What of you, Eilian?"
Eilian blinked and straightened. "Am I suffering from Shadow sickness? Of course not."
"Are you sure? Your naneth says you are upset."
"And you conclude I have let the Shadow damage me? How should I react to Fithral's death? Should I be carefree?"
Thranduil set his wine down with a thump. "Watch your tone of voice, Eilian."
Eilian's throat tightened at the effort of holding back the words he had been about to unleash. He swallowed. "I beg your pardon, Adar."
Thranduil leaned forward. "I am not criticizing you. I am trying to help you."
"Thank you." The words sounded stiff even in Eilian's ears. He sighed. "I know I am more on edge than usual, but surely you see why. This was not a good death, Adar."
His father grimaced. "I know. I also know you did all you could."
The tension in Eilian's stomach eased. "Thank you," he said again, but this time, he meant it.
The door opened and Lorellin came in, smiling to herself. Eilian and his father both rose.
"He is asleep?" Thranduil asked.
"Yes." Lorellin took the chair closest to the fire, while Eilian poured her some wine. "He was cuddled up against me, chattering away about what he and Eilian were going to do while was home and he fell asleep in the middle of a sentence. You had better rest while you can, Eilian. He has big plans for you."
Eilian laughed and handed his mother the cup. "I think Ithilden has plans for me too, but perhaps the two of them can negotiate."
He resumed his own seat. He hoped he could spend time with Legolas. Seeing the world through his little brother's eyes reminded Eilian that beauty and joy lurked around every corner of the Woodland Realm.
His mother took up her knitting, and Eilian eased back on the bench, sipping his wine. The fire was warm and the clicking of his mother's knitting needles was soothing. Perhaps he would not go out tonight after all. He felt as sleepy as Legolas, as if he might be able to sleep the night through without stumbling onto a dream path crowded with terror.
Why had he reacted so sharply to his father's careful question? He must be more tired than he had realized. How good it was to be home.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 3. Meetings
"We saw traces of orcs all through this area." Eilian slid his finger across the map, just below the line marking the Dwarf Road. The gazes of the elves crowded around the table followed his gesture. "My guess is we are talking about three to four hundred orcs."
Anolith, the Northern Border Patrol captain, pursed his lips. "But you found only three camps?" He gestured to the marks Todith had made earlier. "If that many orcs were present, surely you would have found more."
Eilian stiffened against the doubt in Anolith's tone. The Northern Border Patrol seldom saw orcs, Eilian reminded himself, so it was unsurprising Anolith had trouble accepting what Eilian was reporting. But Eilian had been there, and Anolith had not, and if Anolith wanted to continue seeing few orcs, he would do well to listen to what Eilian said. He opened his mouth to tell Anolith so, but Todith intervened.
"That will be all, Eilian."
Eilian hesitated, then snapped his mouth shut and moved back to the edge of the small council chamber where he joined the row of scouts from the other patrols. He leaned against the wall next to Maltanaur, shoulders hunched.
Todith turned to Anolith. "I grant you we should have found more camps, but Sauron has twisted the woods to his purpose there, creating more and more places for the orcs to hide. We hear the trees mourning almost everywhere we go, so we cannot even use their song to help us in our hunt."
At the head of the table, Thranduil was ignoring the exchange and studying the map. From where Eilian stood, he could see the marks the various scouts had made. The southern part of the map was thick with patches of shadow, with marred forest that would not hide or support elf warriors, with orc camps, with remembered battles.
Moreover, black trails of spiders streamed north as they too fled from the orcs. Eilian's jaw tightened. He had once been present at a feast his father held to welcome some men from Esgaroth, come to negotiate trade arrangements. One of them had joked about rival traders. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, he had said. Eilian wanted to tell him that he now knew for a fact that was untrue.
Deler, the Home Guard captain, rubbed his jaw. "I had not realized how numerous they had become."
"We will not be rid of them permanently unless we drive Sauron out of Dol Guldur," Ithilden said.
Todith drew in his breath and looked at Ithilden, whose back was to Eilian. "In my opinion," Todith said, "we do not have the forces to drive the ones we have encountered back to Dol Guldur, and I am not sure it would be a good thing if we could because that would only give Sauron more orcs to deploy in his defense. Our only chance lies in slipping through their lines and attacking Sauron while these orcs are busy elsewhere." He gestured toward the map.
"We cannot leave these orcs busy elsewhere." Deler's tone was sharp. "They are already too close to some of our settlements."
For the first time, Thranduil spoke. "If we get behind their lines, our warriors stand a good chance of being caught between whatever forces Sauron has at Dol Guldur and the orcs behind them. We do not know how many orcs are at Dol Guldur itself."
Ithilden braced his hands on the table, arms stiff. "We do not know nearly enough."
Eilian shifted his weight. He could not see his brother's face, only his broad-shouldered back, rigid as a shield, holding Eilian off as if he were the enemy. Was Ithilden saying the Southern Patrol scouts should have done more? Well then, send them back there now rather than keeping them standing around while people talked. If Ithilden doubted Eilian's ability or courage, Eilian asked only for a chance to prove him wrong.
"They are pressing toward the Dwarf Road," Ithilden said.
Thranduil grimaced. "That would seem to be their objective."
"I will not surrender it," Ithilden said.
Thranduil raised his eyes and regarded Ithilden. "If we can see a way to destroy Dol Guldur, we will not have to."
"I will not let them have it in any case," Ithilden said.
Eilian heard the doubt, the near despair in Ithilden's voices, and an alarm drum beat in his head. It was all he could do to keep silent. We have to drive them out, he silently pleaded. We cannot go on with things as they are. He clenched his fists, holding back an urgent desire to knock the map off the table, stride out of the palace, and ride south where he could do something, anything rather than hold still and listen.
Maltanaur cleared his throat. Eilian sighed. I know, he thought. Stop worrying. He loosened the muscles in his shoulders and settled himself to wait. The captains continued talking, trying to devise a way to save the southern part of the Realm.
Legolas pushed to his knees on the high stool so he could see into the basket as Nana tucked the loaves of bread in next to the wheel of cheese.
Cook was on the other side of the kitchen table, wrapping a roast chicken in a heavy cloth. "Do you want some fruit too, my lady? Not much is left from last fall, but I think I have a few apples."
"Yes, please," Nana said.
Cook went down the stairs to the storeroom.
"When the elf went to the Halls of Waiting," Legolas said, "did he take all their food with him? Is that why they need more?"
Nana smiled. "No. It was his spirit that went, and the spirit does not need this kind of food. But his family is still here, and they will have many friends visit them to say how sorry they are that the elf died. They will want to offer food to their visitors, but they might be too sad to cook just now because they will miss him."
Legolas thought about that. He would miss Eilian or Ithilden if their bodies grew too small to hold them. It might take a long time for the Valar to make new bodies, maybe all the way to winter. "We should take jam to put on the bread."
"What a good idea," Nana said. She went into the pantry and came back with a jar of red jam just as Cook returned with a small bag of apples. She took the apples and handed the jam to Legolas. "Can you put that in for me?"
He leaned over and pushed the jam into a space between the cheese and the side of the basket. It would be safe there. Nana put the bag of apples on top.
"I think we have everything." Nana put a cloth over the basket. "Thank you, Cook."
"You are most welcome, my lady."
Legolas hopped down from the stool and followed Nana up the stairs and out of the palace.
The Green was busy today because tonight was the feast, and Legolas would stay up. Elves tended the firepit where a boar was roasting. Legolas had eaten his mid-day meal not very long ago, but his mouth still got all full of spit at the smell. The feast would be very good. More elves hung lanterns in trees and set up tables where people could eat.
One of them saw Nana and called, "My lady." Nana stopped, and he came running. "My lady, one of the tables has a broken leg, so there may not be enough places. We could prop it up or borrow something perhaps."
"Can it be repaired in time?" Nana asked.
While she talked, Legolas skipped ahead, singing to himself. "The trees are waving to me, and the river is roaring, but I am not afraid, and Eilian's body is not too small for his spirit, and Ithilden's is not, and Ada's is not, and Nana's is not, and mine is not."
He took one more skip and stopped. The boys were there again, crouched on some rocks near the edge of the river. They stood up and ran along the bank, watching something in the water. They both whooped, then ran back toward where they had been.
Legolas dashed back to Nana, who had just left the elf with the broken table. "Nana, can we see what those boys are doing?" He pointed to the two along the river.
She glanced at the boys, then swept her gaze along the riverbank. "I think we should."
Legolas ran toward the boys. "Wait for me, Legolas," Nana called. "Go no closer to the water until I get there."
Legolas skidded to a halt and rocked from side to side. The two boys turned their heads at the sound of Nana's voice. Annael waved, and Legolas waved back. When Nana caught up, Legolas walked next to her, glad of her presence. Ada had taught him to swim in the summer, but that was before the river got too full.
Annael and the other boy stood on a flat rock at the river's edge, water lapping at their bare feet. More flat rocks jutted out into the river. White water churned around them. Annael and the other boy both clutched pieces of birch bark. Near Legolas's foot was a toy boat with a mast and a sail. Next to the boat was a small wooden bowl with splashes of red paint around its sides.
"Mae govannen, Annael," Nana said. "And I think you are Turgon. This is Legolas."
Turgon grinned at Legolas. One of his dark braids was coming unraveled, and his cheeks were red. "We are playing boats. You can play too, but you need a boat." He held up the chunk of bark.
Legolas eyed it, then looked at the boat near his foot. Did he need a boat like that? And what was the bowl for? Before he could ask anything, Nana spoke.
"Is there a grownup watching you?"
"My nana is." Turgon pointed behind them, and Legolas saw a lady rising from her seat on a fallen cottonwood tree. He had not seen her before because bushes hid her from the Green. She had dark braids, like Turgon's, only hers were looped and twisted like the pieces of a fish trap. She was holding some knitting, and when she stood up, the ball of yarn fell off her lap and rolled away. Annael ran to get it and bring it back. The lady curtsied to Nana.
Nana smiled. "I beg your pardon. I did not see you."
"And I did not hear you approach, my lady. I had just realized I dropped a stitch, and I was trying to pick it up, and I am afraid I was concentrating too hard."
Legolas eyed the lady closely. Her fancy hair quivered when she moved her head, and Legolas liked it, but he liked Nana's better.
"Picking up a stitch is a tricky task," Nana said. "You are Mírdaniel, I believe, the new minstrel's wife. I have been eager to meet you because I think you came from Tindir's village, and nearly all my family is there."
Mírdaniel laughed. "I knew that. Indeed, somewhere I have letters for you from them, but I have not yet found them among all the bags and boxes we brought."
"Oh!" Nana laughed. "You have letters?" She hesitated, then said, "If you can find them, I really would like to see them."
"Of course," Mírdaniel said.
"I am looking forward to hearing your husband sing at tonight's feast," Nana said.
"Oh yes, it is so good for him to have people to sing for again. That was why we left Tindir's village, you know. So many people thought the woods were too dangerous there, especially if they had children, that they moved, so there was less need for a minstrel."
Nana's mouth bunched up a little. "I am sorry to hear that."
"If Legolas would like to stay and play, you are welcome to leave him," Mírdaniel said. "You must be busy with the feast to plan."
"The planning is done," Nana said. "Now it is all execution."
"Can I stay please, Nana?" Legolas had wondered about Annael and his new friend for days now. He would like to see what they were doing.
Nana looked down at him, and, after an instant, she smiled. "You would like that?"
"Then you may. Fithral's family will have fewer visitors next week, anyway, and will be ready for you to come. I will pay my visit now and look for you on the way home."
Legolas jumped up and down, then turned to Annael and Turgon.
Nana laughed. "Be good. Thank you, Mírdaniel. If you need to go before I have returned, you can just leave him with one of the guards in the palace. They will see to it that he has someone to look after him."
Legolas watched her walk away, but Turgon was already at his side. "You need to find a boat," Turgon said.
Legolas looked once again at the one on the ground. "What about this one?"
"That one is mine," Annael said. He bit his lip, then added, "Maybe later we can share it. My ada made it, and he says the river might break it or wash it away if I sail it now. I just brought it to show Turgon." He pulled his cloak tighter around him. Water dripped off the bottom and made a dark border.
Legolas nudged the bowl with his toe. "What is this?"
"That is my boat." Turgon wore no cloak, so his did not drip. "The red marks are sea monster blood because my boat flies over rocks and lands on the monsters' heads and their blood splashes up on the boat."
Legolas looked at the bowl. The red marks looked like paint to him, but he supposed they could be sea monster blood. His breath quickened.
Annael held up his piece of bark. "We are just using bark for now."
"Watch," Turgon cried. He twirled on the wet surface of the rock and ran the few steps to the water's edge. With a shove, he launched his piece of bark. It wriggled its way through the rocks at the river's edge until, all at once, it found a clear place, and the river jerked it straight. It flew up over a rock and smacked down into the water again. Then it did a quick spin before tearing off down the river, bouncing over the rough water. Turgon ran along the bank watching it, and Legolas and Annael ran with him. A short distance away, the front of the boat jammed up again a big rock. The river flipped its back end up, and it dove out of sight.
The boys waited for a moment to see if it would resurface. Then Turgon said, "Time to launch another one!"
Legolas began searching the underbrush for a good boat.
Lorellin hurried along, automatically choosing the right path for the cottage of Fithral's family. Just how dangerous had the woods grown near her family's village? Mírdaniel said the families with children had left. That was news to Lorellin, because those families had, for the most part, not come to the Stronghold. She supposed they had gone to other villages, where they could still live a simple life, in harmony with the forest and the other life that dwelt there. She wished Mírdaniel would dig out the letters her own family had written her. She missed them all.
She emerged from the tree-lined path to the clearing in which stood the cottage of Fithral's family and sobered as she recalled herself to her errand. Grief dwelt here. Even the trees sheltering the cottage sang more somberly than usual. A willow trailed a branch over the thatched roof, as if caressing it and offering comfort to those within.
The door was opened to her knock by an elf she recognized as a neighbor.
"Come in, my lady," the neighbor said. "Let me take that." She relieved Lorellin of the basket and showed her toward the tiny sitting room. So many people crowded into it that several spilled out into the hall, and the neighbor had to edge around them to take the basket to the kitchen. To Lorellin's surprise, one of the people in the hallway was Eilian. She had thought him still closeted with his father and others in the meeting about Dol Guldur.
Eilian bent to speak to Fithral's younger brother, a half-grown youth, whose name she recalled was Mion. Slumped against the wall next to them was Gelmir.
As Lorellin approached, she heard Mion say, "I could not ask in front of my naneth. Was it bad?" He awaited the answer with his body held so stiffly, it quivered.
"He died quickly," Eilian said. "He would not have had time to feel fear or pain." He noticed her and straightened.
She gave him a level look, which he met briefly before looking away. If the tone of his voice had not told her he was lying, that failure to brave her gaze would have. She understood the pity from which he spoke, but surely he could have leaned on his wood elf heritage and curled his tongue around an ambiguous answer. Thranduil would speak sharply if he knew. People had to be able to trust Eilian's words. He must still be awash in the distress he had brought home with him, she thought, and no wonder if Fithral's death was hard.
Mion gave her a small bow. "Thank you for coming, my lady."
"I am so sorry about Fithral, Mion."
"Thank you, my lady." The boy spoke in a monotone, as if grief took all his attention. She wondered if he even knew what he was saying or what others said to him.
She looked at Eilian again. "Is the meeting over?"
Eilian's mouth tightened. "They sent us scouts on our way. The captains are still talking." His tone told her what he thought about the usefulness of talk.
Lorellin tended to agree with him. But Thranduil ordinarily had little patience for endless talk either, and if he was tolerating this meeting, it must be important. She patted Gelmir's arm as she passed him on her way into the sitting room.
The little room was so full that most of the males were already standing, but everyone rose when they noticed her. She went straight to Fithral's father and mother, took his mother's hands, and drew her back down onto the padded bench. Over the rustle of people reseating themselves, she said, "I am so sorry, Helith." She flinched at how inadequate a balm the words were for this mother's loss. "Fithral was so brave and so selfless. We all have to admire him and his choice to defend his home, but I know how painful this must be for you."
Did she know? If she were honest, not really. She could try to imagine what it would be like to lose Ithilden or Eilian, but surely nothing she imagined touched the reality of the bone deep agony she saw on Helith's face.
Helith's mouth trembled. "He was brave, and when the Shadow returned, he said nothing was more important than fighting it."
Fithral's father put his arm around her shoulders. "He was good with a bow. I saw to that myself. He wanted to make a difference, and I think he did."
"I am sure he did." Lorellin squeezed Helith's hands and leaned forward to listen as they talked about their son. In the background, she was aware of the murmured conversation of the others in the room. Some were neighbors, she knew, but most were some degree of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. Fithral had been part of a sprawling family that reminded her of her own.
She thought again of what Mírdaniel had said about the growing danger near her family's village. She had not been to visit them since Legolas's birth. Perhaps she should go and see for herself whether they were safe. She would be more than willing to have them nearer the Stronghold if they decided to move.
Helith paused and looked up, and Lorellin became aware that Eilian stood next to her, waiting for a chance to speak.
Eilian bowed to Fithrals' parents. "Gelmir and I will take our leave now." He glanced at Lorellin. "Unless you would like me to wait for you, Naneth?"
Lorellin knew she should probably go with him. She had the Equinox Feast to see to. But Helith still clung to her hands, and Lorellin could not bear to abandon her just yet. "No, go on. I will stay a while more."
He nodded and took his departure, followed by Gelmir, his head still lowered. Trouble might be flooding Eilian's heart, but it was drowning Gelmir. Lorellin reminded herself to be sure the healers knew of Gelmir's suffering. According to Thranduil, Eilian believed Gelmir had Shadow sickness, and it had been long since the healers had much experience with it. Doubtless some of them had never seen it. They would all have to learn to deal with it again. She worried that Eilian, too, suffered from it, but Thranduil said he had convincingly denied it.
She turned back to Helith and found her staring after Eilian and Gelmir, naked longing on her face. Lorellin bit her lip. She understood. Helith would never wish harm on Eilian or Gelmir, but she could not help wishing her own son had just walked through that doorway.
Legolas ran back to the starting place. It was his turn, and he had found a good boat for this time. It had fallen off the cottonwood tree Turgon's nana was sitting on. It curved up at the side, and Legolas thought it would sail very far before it sank.
"Did you see my boat, Nana?" Turgon cried. "Did you see it?"
"I saw it." Turgon's nana smiled.
Annael waved to her. "We are being careful by the water," he called.
"What good elflings you are." She rooted in her bag and pulled out a ball of blue yarn.
Turgon jumped up and down and waved his hands. "Go, Legolas! Your boat is an orc boat!"
Legolas stopped. "It is not."
"It is! It is full of orcs, and they will all drown."
Legolas scowled at him. "It is not an orc boat. It is a warrior boat, and they are sailing all the way to Numenor."
Annael frowned. "Numenor is very far away, and maybe something happened to it."
"My boat can go there."
"All right." Turgon started jumping again. "Launch the boat, Warrior Legolas!"
Legolas crept toward the edge of the flat rock. The river grumbled past, raising up pieces of itself and turning them over to slap back down again. Legolas's heart beat fast. He clutched a bush straggling up through a crack in the rock. Then he slowly crouched. The river sent a spurt of water over the rock. The bottom of his cloak dragged in it, and it flooded over his shoes. He curled his toes inside his wet stockings and waited for the water to slide away. Then, still clinging to the bush with one hand, he used the other to push his boat into the wild river.
The boat snaked its way through the rocks, snapped around, and flew off downstream. Legolas jumped to his feet and ran to follow Turgon and Annael, who were already racing along the bank. The boat sailed and sailed. It shot past the far place Turgon's boat went last time and kept going.
"Yay!" Turgon shouted. "The warriors are sailing."
But more rocks were in the way now, and Legolas could not even see his boat. He scrambled around the rocks, and there it was, turned sideways and beating up against the trunk of a tree that had fallen into the river. Legolas ran to stand next to Annael.
"Save the warriors!" Turgon cried. Before Legolas knew what he meant, Turgon leapt onto the fallen tree and ran along it to where Legolas's boat was. He flung himself on his stomach and dangled over the side.
Annael gasped and grabbed Legolas's hand.
Turgon wrapped his legs around the tree, leaned a little further, and snatched Legolas's boat from the water. "Yes!" He jumped to his feet and ran back to where Legolas and Annael stood. "That is a very good boat." He handed it to Legolas.
"It is good," Annael said. "It went the farthest of all."
Slowly, Legolas smiled. The edges of the boat were a little crumpled, but he thought it might sail again. "Come on," he said to his friends, and they trotted back around the rocks and up the river to where Turgon's nana sat with her knitting.
It would be Turgon's turn now, but he did not have his boat ready yet. He poked through the bushes looking for a good one. Then he stopped, whirled, and snatched up the bowl with the sea monster's blood on its sides. "We can use the real boats!"
Annael's eyes widened. "My ada says not yet."
"We can." Turgon ran back and forth, talking. "We got Legolas's boat back, and we can get ours too. We can sail them all at once and see which one goes fastest. You can use the warrior boat again," he told Legolas. "The boats can be hunting, and they have to get there fast before the monsters get away, and the one that gets there first will be the captain's boat. We should put warriors in them." He scooped up a pebble and dropped it into the bowl.
Legolas was not sure he understood exactly what Turgon meant, but it sounded wonderful. He found a pebble, balanced it on his boat, and held the boat in both hands so the warrior would not fall out. He walked carefully to the flat rock where Turgon waited.
Annael clutched his boat to his chest and screwed up his face.
"Come on, Annael," Turgon said. "The monsters are swimming around, and we need to get them. You can hear them."
Legolas listened. Maybe Turgon was right. Maybe monsters were roaring in the river.
Annael came slowly toward them. For a moment, he stood looking down at the churning river. Then he squatted and held out his boat. "You are right. The monsters might hurt someone. We should attack them."
"Wait." Turgon ran back onto the bank, found a pebble, and brought it back to put in Annael's boat. "Get ready!"
Legolas crouched next to his friends, ready to launch his boat.
"Go!" Turgon cried.
Legolas shoved his boat into the water and ran to see what would happen. The three boats bucked their way down the wild river. The warrior fell out of Legolas's boat right away, but the boat kept going. Turgon's boat spun so, that Legolas thought the warrior riding in it must be getting dizzy. Annael's boat skipped from side to side but at least stayed upright.
The boats came to first outcrop of rocks. Legolas's boat had skimmed past them on its last trip, but this time, it caught, shuddered up against their unyielding surface, and sank, so probably it was a good thing the warrior had already jumped out.
At the sound of his friends' cries, Legolas ran around the rocks to where they were. Turgon and Annael stood by the water's edge, darting one way and then the other. Both their boats seemed caught among small rocks poking out of the water. A wave slapped Turgon's boat and knocked it free. It spun away to lodge against the same fallen tree that had snared Legolas's boat last time.
Legolas ran to the fallen tree. "I can get it!" He put one foot on the tree's trunk, but it slid right off because the tree was all wet and slippery. He grabbed a branch, pulled himself up, and started edging his feet carefully along.
An arm grabbed him around the waist. "Whoa!" cried Eilian's voice. "What are you doing, little one?" Eilian swung him around and set him on the riverbank. Eilian's friend Gelmir was there, hanging onto Turgon with one hand and Annael with the other.
"Turgon's boat!" Legolas pointed to the boat with the monster blood.
Eilian looked, then made a face. "All right. I will get it." He leapt onto the log, ran along it, and swooped to fish out the floundering boat.
"Oh no!" Annael cried. His boat had come loose from the rocks, but rather than coming to rest against the log where Eilian still stood, it had bumped its way further out into the river, where it was floundering, as if trying to decide whether to sail on. "My boat!" Annael looked as if he might cry.
"Eilian! Annael's boat is there!" Legolas pointed.
Eilian glanced at the boat and then at Legolas.
"Please, Eilian!" Legolas cried.
Eilian tossed Turgon's boat onto the shore and edged his way further out along the fallen tree. Then he did an odd thing. He crouched to lower one foot into the river and move it around as if feeling for something. His foot stopped moving and, to Legolas's surprise, he shifted to stand on it. Still holding onto the tree, he lowered his other foot into the water too. Step by step, he moved to the end of the tree, looking as if he were walking on water.
"Who is that?" Turgon asked.
"My brother," Legolas said.
Eilian reached the end of the fallen tree and stopped. He clutched a branch at the very top of the tree, took one more step, and stretched to grab Annael's boat.
"Yay!" Annael cried. Turgon jumped up and down, and Legolas did too.
Eilian edged his way backward and jumped onto the tree trunk to run to shore. He grinned at Legolas and handed the boat to Annael. "You are Siondel's son, yes?"
Annael's eyes were huge. He nodded and hugged his boat. "How did you do that?"
Eilian laughed. "There are rocks under the water there. I just stepped from one rock to another."
"But how did you know the rocks were there?" Legolas took Eilian's hand.
Gelmir smiled. "Yes, Eilian. How did you know the rocks were there?"
Eilian grinned at him. "I think that is a story for when these three are a bit older."
"You mean your naneth would be unhappy if you told that story."
"I mean my naneth does not know that story, and I would like to keep it that way."
"Ada says Nana knows everything," Legolas said.
Eilian ruffled Legolas's hair and laughed. "Ada is almost always right, so you should never try to fool Nana."
Legolas nodded. Eilian was right.
"Are you three out here on your own?" Eilian asked.
"Turgon's nana is watching us."
"Where is she?"
"Over there." Legolas pointed in the right direction. You could not really see Turgon's nana from here, but she was still there.
Gelmir and Eilian both looked where Legolas pointed, then at one another.
"Perhaps Gelmir and I will just walk you back to her," Eilian said. "And really, Legolas, I think maybe you should come home. You are soaking wet, and the air is chilly. Nana will have my hide if I let you stay out here like this."
"All right." Legolas liked the idea of going home with Eilian. Turgon and Annael ran ahead, and Legolas ran to join them. He glanced back to make sure Eilian was coming and saw him walking with his hand on Gelmir's shoulder. Legolas turned forward again and put one hand on Turgon's shoulder and the other on Annael's.
Annael said, "My ada says your brother is a very good scout. He says he can track anything."
Legolas nodded. He thought that about Eilian too.
"He walked right out into the river," Turgon said. "I want to do that."
Legolas looked at the river. It shoved past them, grumbling to itself in its angry voice. He shivered. "Not today. The river is all full. The extra water might hurt you."
Turgon too looked at the river. He pursed his lips. "Not today," he conceded. "Some other day."
They ran on to where Turgon's nana sat.
AN: I'll be out of town on business for the rest of the week so I may be slow updating.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 4. Games
"There is enough?" Lorellin asked the elf slicing the roasted boar.
"Oh yes, my lady." He dropped a juicy slice into the plate one of Thranduil's advisors held out to him, then gave it an approving little prod with the end of his knife. The advisor nodded to Lorellin and moved away. "There will be more than enough."
"Good. Send any extra home with people."
"Of course." The elf grinned at a group of young warriors descending on him with noisy cheer, plates in hand. "Back for more?"
Lorellin smiled at them. This lot were all among Eilian's many friends. She had watched them at feasts since they were Legolas's size. "Are you having a good time?"
"Yes, my lady," they chorused.
"Good. Refrain from too much foolishness if you can."
"Foolishness?" one of them said. "Us?" They all laughed.
She laughed too, then returned to the head table and resumed her seat between Thranduil and Legolas. Thranduil was turned toward Ithilden, and the two of them had their heads bent in conference with one of Ithilden's captains. Doubtless, they were continuing the talk from the meeting about which Eilian had been so scornful. Thranduil had not yet told her what had happened. There had been no time, and besides, she thought he was still turning options over in his head. Even after all these years, she was sometimes astonished by her husband's ability to hold his impatience in check while he considered the left, right, up, down, and sideways of some course of action.
Ithilden was even worse. His meal looked nearly untouched, and despite his love of music, she doubted he was listening to the rich baritone of the new minstrel.
She glanced beyond her husband and son to where Amila and her parents sat chatting and teasing Amila's newly married sister and her husband. Lorellin suppressed a smile. If Ithilden provoked her enough, she might really have to push him into Amila's lap. That would certainly ruffle some feathers. Ithilden would corner her at home and protest, and she would have to apologize. Unless Amila turned out to be the right maiden for him, of course, the one who would see how sweet and kind and thoughtful he was underneath the stiff exterior.
She considered prodding Thranduil and making him sit back, have some wine, and enjoy the music, but she refrained. He and Ithilden might have to issue orders for a perilous action. She would leave them to their debate and then try to ease whatever pain the result of it caused.
On her other side, Legolas swung his feet and chattered to Eilian. "My friend Turgon is here. Did you see him, Eilian? And when Annael's nana came to get him, she said I should come to play."
Eilian was cutting up the last bit of Legolas's meat. "I know her. She is very nice. There. Eat that." Legolas forked a bit of boar into his mouth. Eilian grinned at her over Legolas's head, plainly amused by Legolas's enthusiasm for his new friends.
Lorellin rejoiced in Eilian's smile. What had happened on Eilian's patrol was another thing no one had yet told her, and she suspected they did not intend to do so. But no matter what the trouble, Legolas was good for Eilian. And she was glad for Legolas too. She would have to take him to play at the other boys' cottages, perhaps tomorrow. He was old enough to venture out a little.
Thranduil's arm came around her shoulders and pulled her against his warm side. He kissed the top of her head. "The feast goes well. What would I do without you?"
Trouble lay thick in his heart. She could feel it through their bond and hear it in the edge in his voice. As she rubbed her cheek against his chest, she glimpsed Ithilden vanishing into the dark and lacked the spirit even to bemoan his failure to notice Amila.
"Can you get along without me now that Nana is back?" Eilian asked Legolas. "I see a friend I want to talk to." When Legolas nodded, Eilian leaned toward his parents. "By your leave, Adar?"
Thranduil waved his permission, and Eilian pushed back his chair and strolled away. A moment or two later, Lorellin glimpsed him speaking into the ear of a very pretty maiden. She giggled and put her hand through his arm. The two of them drifted away toward where Lorellin strongly suspected Eilian's friends were celebrating the Equinox with somewhat less decorum that she saw on the Green.
Thranduil's steward spoke to the minstrel, who stopped playing and went off to sit by his wife and eat the well-deserved meal she had waiting for him. The smiling steward turned in a slow circle. "I am looking for some elflings who would like to play Fox and Rabbit. Would you like to play? If you would, come join me."
The bigger children grinned as the smallest elflings scrambled around and under tables to gather in a buzzing crowd near the steward.
Legolas wriggled in his chair. "Nana, can I play?" He pointed. "Turgon and Annael are there."
"Of course you can play. Go ahead."
He hopped out of his chair and raced to join the others, squirming into the space between Turgon and Annael.
She watched, surprised by the dismay flooding her chest. "None of them needs me," she moaned to Thranduil. "Maybe we should have another baby."
He laughed. "I need you, my love, so perhaps you will postpone thinking of another baby." He bent to murmur in her ear. "We can go through the motions, of course. I would not want to forget how."
She laughed. "Perhaps I will just go visit my family. My cousin's baby should be a sweet age by now."
For a moment, he was silent. His hold on her tightened. "Perhaps you should postpone thinking about that too."
She shot him a look. He had never objected to her visiting her family. Why was he doing it now? She scanned his face, trying to read the blank mask he had firmly in place. Then she relaxed against him, and his body told her what his face had not. He was worried. In her heart, answering worry flared.
"Everybody hold hands and make a circle," the steward said.
Legolas clasped hands with Annael and Turgon. Turgon wriggled and danced in place.
"You are pulling on my hand." The girl holding Turgon's other hand frowned at him.
Turgon scowled at her. "You are not in charge, Miriwen."
The steward clapped his hands. "In this game, we must all practice being very quiet."
Turgon looked at Legolas and pressed his lips together so hard, they folded to the inside of his mouth. Legolas laughed.
"Quiet." The steward looked at Legolas and Turgon, and Legolas tried to hold still and be quiet like a mouse.
"Annael." The steward beckoned to Annael, who was already being quiet, so that seemed fair to Legolas. "Tonduil." The steward summoned another boy out of the circle. "Annael, you are going to be the fox in our game, and, Tonduil, you are going to be the rabbit." The steward looked around. "Everyone drop hands and take one step backwards to make a bigger circle."
Legolas let go of Turgon and backed up.
"You are all trees," the steward told them. "Your task is to keep the rabbit and the fox inside the circle. Your feet are your roots, so you cannot move them, but you can move your branches and brush them against the fox or the rabbit to keep them from straying. Let me see you move your branches."
Legolas waved his arms overhead and then to the sides. He bent his body a little too. He thought it was a breezy day, and his tree might sway, but a squirrel and some robins had built nests in him, so he had to be careful not to let them fall out.
"Good," the steward said. "You must also make only tree noises."
Legolas nodded. That made sense. He hummed a tree song under his breath and then murmured like fluttering leaves.
The steward pulled two brightly colored scarves from his belt. He tied one around Annael's head to cover up his eyes. Then he tied the other one around Tonduil's head. "Our hunt is happening at night, so our fox"—he touched Annael's shoulder—"will have to listen for our rabbit"—he touched Tonduil's shoulder. "And our rabbit will have to listen for our fox and avoid him. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Tonduil and Annael spoke at the same time. Legolas could tell they were excited.
The steward placed one hand on Tonduil's shoulder and one hand on Annael's. He spun them both around and around, then stepped back. "Go."
Legolas wiggled his fingers and hummed. Tonduil and Annael both staggered. Then Tonduil stretched his hands out in front of him and shuffled away in little baby steps, coming toward Legolas. Annael took a few steps in the other direction, halted, and cocked his head. He turned slowly and stopped, looking straight at Tonduil. But his eyes were covered up. How had he done that?
Annael turned his head one way, then the other, and Legolas gasped. Annael was listening. Legolas listened too, and sure enough, he heard the soft whisper of Tonduil's feet over the grass. He heard the other trees making noise too, but only Tonduil was walking.
He should stand still, Legolas thought. Tonduil should crouch down and not move. That was what a real rabbit would do. When Legolas had his turn being the rabbit, he would do that.
Annael walked toward Tonduil, sweeping his hands in front of him. Miriwen gasped, and Tonduil jerked his head toward her. He ran two steps, and Legolas got ready. He bent his branches and brushed their tippy tops against Tonduil's arm.
"Go back," he sang. "Go back, little rabbit."
But before Tonduil could move, Annael found him.
"Yay!" Turgon cried. "The fox wins." He turned to Miriwen and clacked his bared teeth together. "The fox is going to gobble him up." She wrinkled her nose at him.
The steward came forward and took off the blindfolds. Tonduil looked disappointed. "Being the rabbit is difficult," the steward said. He beckoned to Turgon. "Turgon, I think you should be our next rabbit, and Miriwen can be the fox."
"I want to be the fox," Turgon said.
"Everyone will have a turn being both creatures," the steward said. "Both paths are worth treading. Come."
Miriwen skipped into the circle and let the steward blindfold her. Turgon dragged his toes on the grass when he walked, so Legolas knew he still did not want to be the rabbit. The steward blindfolded Turgon and spun him and Miriwen. "Go."
Turgon raised his hands over his head and ran straight ahead, shrieking so loudly that Legolas put his branches over his ears. The trees in front of Turgon jumped out of his way.
"Turgon!" the steward called. "Stop!"
Turgon skidded to a halt.
The steward hastened to him and took off his blindfold. "Turgon, you have to stay inside the circle."
Turgon scowled. "The fox is inside the circle. The rabbit should leave."
Legolas blinked. Why had he not thought of that? Turgon was very clever.
The steward put his hands on his hips. "We all live in the same woods, Turgon. You cannot just leave."
"Unless your body gets too small," Legolas said.
"I beg your pardon, Legolas?" The steward turned toward Legolas. A line appeared between his brows.
"Like Fithral," Legolas said. "His body got too small for his spirit, so he left."
The steward held still for a moment. He sighed. "Yes, he did." He came back into the circle, Turgon trailing after him. "Come, Legolas. You can be the fox next."
Legolas jumped up and down. He trotted into the circle and turned his back so the steward could cover up his eyes.
Eilian took another pull at the wine skin and offered it to Amadith. She shook her head, so he passed it to Gelmir. Gelmir hesitated, then gave it to Tithrandir without drinking.
Eilian could have kicked himself. The healers had summoned Gelmir that afternoon, and Eilian had insisted he go, shooing him along to the infirmary the way his mother shooed Legolas to his lessons. The healers had given Gelmir an herb that was supposed to help, but they had told him not to drink wine until he felt better. That struck Eilian as a bizarre order. Surely wine was one of Arda's gifts meant to make an elf feel better. Besides, once Gelmir felt better, he would go south again, and no one would drink wine while on duty, even if there were wine to be had. A warrior needed all his wits about him.
Eilian clapped his hands. "Come on, Calólas. Tithrandir is waiting for me to take custody of the coin he showed me."
Calólas threw more wood on the fire, then turned to grin at him. "You could help, you know."
Eilian put his arm around Amadith. "I would rather observe and offer advice." The small crowd of young warriors and maidens laughed, but two of the warriors went to help build up the fire.
Amadith tilted her head and slanted a look at Eilian from her big, doe's eyes. "I have heard you are quite good at fire jumping, my lord. Does the wine help or hurt?"
"Sometimes one, sometimes the other," Eilian said. "And I think I will make up a new game. Every time you call me 'my lord,' I get to claim a kiss."
He bent toward her, but she laughed and put a hand on his chest. "Not here, my lord."
He groaned and swept his arm overhead, offering her the star dusted sky. "When Elbereth gave us stars, surely she meant for us to kiss beneath them. They are too beautiful to waste."
"Not here, my lord."
He raised an eyebrow. "I am keeping count, you know."
She laughed again, and he rubbed his hand up and down her arm. Not here did not mean not ever.
The elves around the fire stepped back. The fire sent tongues of flame into the blue-black night.
"I think that is about right." Calólas grinned. "To start with, anyway. Who will go first?"
"I will." Tithrandir moved to the end of the small clearing. Without pausing, he ran toward the fire and leapt over it, one leg stretched ahead, the other trailing behind. Scattered applause rose from the watchers. The jump was an easy one, but Tithrandir was graceful.
"Shall we double the wager, Eilian?" Tithrandir called.
Eilian shrugged. "Why not?"
The others laughed. "I have wagered a silk scarf on you, my lord," Amadith said. "You will not let me down, will you?"
"Never," Eilian vowed. "And that makes four."
She gave a smile whose meaning Eilian could only hope he read accurately. He moved to take his turn, aware of his pulse quickening. He had been waiting for this game all evening. He dug his toes into the dirt, sprinted toward the fire, and pushed off with all the strength in his legs. For a moment, he soared, arms wide, head thrown back. Then he came to ground, ran a few steps, and spun on the ball of his foot to trot back to Amadith's side. Applause rang in his ears.
"Go ahead," Tithrandir said. "Leap like a deer when a rabbit hop will do. Did the novice masters never tell you to husband your energy?"
Eilian laughed. He felt better than he had all day. Sitting still drove him wild; moving always eased whatever stress he might feel. The tension that had flooded his body was already seeping out of him, draining into the fire as he flew above it.
Half-a-dozen others made their first jumps, though Gelmir refused a turn. Eilian thought that might be a good thing. Gelmir seemed to lack energy to do more than drag himself from place to place, or rather, let Eilian drag him.
Calólas built the fire a little higher, then flicked his gaze along the row of warriors. "Is that the best you can do? You call yourselves wood elves? I tell you I am ashamed." He grinned and stepped aside.
Along with the others, Eilian jeered a response. Tithrandir jumped, twisting in mid-air this time, so he landed with his face to the fire.
Eilian went to the starting place and paused, gathering his concentration and his strength. The fire flared, and for a moment, he saw Fithral's bones, falling into his funeral pyre. Guilt wrapped a familiar fist around his heart, and remembered terror knotted his gut. Then he ran and flung himself into the air, letting all his pent up emotions propel him. He wrenched his body into motion, turned, and turned again, to land with the fire at his back. He drew in a deep breath of night air, tinged with the scent of rich earth and growing things.
For an instant, he heard only the thud of his own heart. Then cheers and applause swept over him. Grinning, he strolled back to Amadith's side.
She laughed. "You look pleased with yourself."
"With good reason," he assured her.
Two of the other warriors fell back among the watchers. "I yield," one of them said, raising his hands when Calólas lifted an eyebrow at him. "I would just as soon not burn my backside. Deler might wonder why I did not want to ride out on patrol tomorrow." His fellow warriors laughed and passed him the skin of wine.
The game went on, and Eilian jumped and spun. The pull of the ground could not hold him; he was full of too much power and pain. How could he be hurt in this game? He might as well throw caution to the winds. He hurt enough already, and the game made him feel better. At length, only he and Tithrandir remained in play.
Calólas stoked the fire one more time. Eilian eyed it. It was higher than he had ever seen used in fire jumping. He swept away the wisp of doubt whispering in the back of his mind.
At the starting point, Tithrandir frowned in concentration. Then he ran, legs pumping in a blur, and leapt over the threatening flames face down, back curved, arms and legs extended as if he were diving into the river. At the last moment, he snapped his legs down and under him. He stumbled when he landed and wound up sitting in the dirt, but everyone cheered anyway, including Eilian. Tithrandir bounced to his feet and trotted to the sidelines to take a drink of wine. "Your turn," he told Eilian through a grin.
Eilian stood, his body quiet, his mind in a whirl. He had no intention of losing to Tithrandir or anyone else. He gave one last look at the flames. Then he ran toward them and pushed off. He pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms around them, and ducked his head. The fire spun into sight, then a blur of faces, then the sky. Heat licked along his back. He flung his arms high and thrust out his legs to land, standing, on the other side of the fire.
As the others cheered and stamped their feet, Gelmir rushed toward him and slapped him on the back.
Exhilaration flooded Eilian's body, and he laughed. "Not so hard."
"Your tunic is singed." Gelmir's voice shook a little. "Is your back burned?"
Eilian jerked his head around to look over his shoulder, trying to see his tunic. "No. At least, it did not feel burned while you were pounding on me." He caught sight of the end of one of his braids, gray and bristled where the fire had licked over it.
Tithrandir came up and clasped one arm while Amadith took the other. "I yield," Tithrandir said. "I know a lucky fool and a winner when I see one."
Eilian smiled a little weakly. Tithrandir was right. He had been lucky. That was all right, he decided. He deserved a little luck.
"Eilian." Gelmir's voice brimmed with dismay. When Eilian glanced at him, he gestured toward a stand of hawthorns.
Three small faces gazed at him, and behind them, her hand on Legolas's shoulder, was his mother. He suppressed a groan and went to join them.
Turgon's eyes were huge in his flushed, excited face, but Annael was looking at Legolas, whose face was pale. Legolas's hands were pressed against his chest, as if trying to shove something back. He was frightened, Eilian realized with vexation.
Eilian crouched in front of his little brother. "I am fine, little one. No need to worry." He prodded Legolas's stomach with a gentle finger.
"The three of them should not be here anyway." Naneth's voice was cool. "They are supposed to be playing with the other elflings on the Green, not slipping away to watch foolish elves who really are old enough to know better."
Eilian glanced up at her.
"That is enough now, Eilian," she said in a low voice. He heard the tiny quiver and flinched. "I understand, sweetling," she went on, "but that is enough. Come along, you three." She took Legolas's hand and led him and his friends away.
Eilian pushed up from his crouch as Gelmir came to stand next to him.
"Is she angry?" Gelmir asked.
"Not really." Eilian wriggled his shoulders. He might have burned his back a little after all. "Still, I think that might be enough fooling about for one night." He looked at Gelmir's strained face. "What would you say to a walk to the meadow?"
Gelmir's face eased a little. "I would not say no."
"Then, let me just collect my wager from Tithrandir, and we will go."
"What about Amadith?"
Eilian shrugged. "She will keep."
Gelmir laughed softly. "I wish I had your confidence, Eilian."
"Sometimes I wish I had it too," Eilian said and went to find Tithrandir.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 5. Into the Tunnel
At the path's end, Lorellin stopped to wait for Legolas, who was still watching two squirrels chase one another from branch to branch. They disappeared in a flurry of maple leaves, and Legolas trotted toward her.
"Did you see them, Nana? Why were they fighting?"
"They were not fighting, sweetling. They were courting."
Legolas frowned. "It looked like fighting."
She suppressed a smile. "Sometimes it does."
He caught sight of Turgon's cottage and immediately forgot all about the squirrels. "Are we there?" He ran to the doorstep and stood bouncing on his toes. "Hurry, Nana!"
She laughed and quickened her step. He stood rigidly still as she knocked and waited for someone to come to answer. She was just preparing to knock again when Mírdaniel opened the door.
"My lady! How good of you to bring Legolas. Come right in. You do not mind sitting in the kitchen, do you? The sitting room is still in a bit of disarray, and I am putting soup on to cook."
Suddenly shy, Legolas took her hand and darted looks into the sitting room and sleeping chambers as Lorellin followed the other woman down the hall and into the kitchen. Not wanting to pry, Lorellin kept her eyes ahead, but she could not help noticing the pieces of the bedstead around which she had to skirt.
In the kitchen, Mírdaniel pushed aside a pile of dishes teetering on the table and waved Lorellin into a chair. "I was just making some tea. Are you looking for Turgon, Legolas? He and Annael are playing in the back garden. Just go right on out that door there. I can see them through the window."
Lorellin could see them too. They were darting among the trees at the end of the garden, picking up handfuls of sticks. Without so much as a look back, Legolas ran through the open back door to join them. Turgon and Annael both looked up when he neared them. Turgon waved the sticks he was clutching and said something, and Legolas began walking slowly among the trees, scanning the ground.
Mírdaniel peered into a teapot and was evidently satisfied by the contents because she fished two cups from the dish stack and filled them with fragrant tea. "I suppose that good-looking son of yours told you what those three were up to yesterday afternoon. No sense, any of them, though it sounded to me as if Eilian was the one who took the risk. Turgon was quite taken with him." She laughed and shook her head. "Boys!"
Lorellin froze, then forced a smile. "Eilian said he ran across them playing near the river, and Legolas was so wet, he brought him home. Was there something else?"
"I gather their boats got away from them, and Eilian retrieved them. Would you mind if I left you for a few moments? I thought I would just go and see if I could find your family's letters. After I met you yesterday, I poked through some boxes and I think I know which one they might be in."
"Oh, please do. I would love to have the letters."
Mírdaniel left the kitchen. Lorellin sipped what was really very good ginger-mint tea and thought about Eilian. It sounded as if he might have done something risky on the river. She could not say she was surprised. Eilian was inclined to do risky things for the sheer thrill of them, though less so since becoming a warrior. Thranduil thought the real risk of fighting Shadow had made their restless second son grateful for the moments of peace he could enjoy at home.
But she had been frightened by what she had seen of the previous night's fire jumping. What had driven Eilian to make that terrifying jump? She had not seen him since the feast and thought he was avoiding her. She ached to help him, but she also needed to tell him not to do stupid things in front of Legolas. They scared the little one, for one thing, and, for another, they might encourage Legolas to do something dangerous himself.
Mírdaniel came back into the room clutching a small pack of letters. "I found them! Why they were in that bundle with the fishing tackle, I will never know." She put the letters in Lorellin's outstretched hand.
Lorellin flipped through them. There was her cousin Malith's graceful hand, her Aunt Glilan's scrawl, her Uncle Geldor's slanting script. Longing swelled in her throat. How she had missed them! She tucked the letters inside her belt. They were a treasure to be savored when she had leisure and privacy.
Lorellin rose. "I would like to stay longer, but I promised Fithral's mother I would be back today. She craves the chance to talk about him."
Mírdaniel's face creased. "Those poor people. You must not worry about Legolas. He is welcome to say for as long as you need to leave him."
Lorellin went to the back door to see Legolas jumping about at the other end of the garden. "Legolas, I am going now," she called. He waved and turned immediately back to hear something Turgon was saying. She felt the same dismay she had felt at the feast and had to laugh at herself. If Thranduil did not want another baby, he would do well to encourage her to visit her cousin. She went on her way to see Fithral's family.
"Jump!" Turgon cried. "Jump over the fire, Legolas."
Legolas ran toward the piled up leaves and sticks and jumped as far as he could. He kicked the leaves a little, but not much.
Annael clapped, the way Eilian's friends had clapped the previous night, and Legolas smiled.
Turgon prodded the leaves back into place. "My turn!" He narrowed his eyes at their pretend fire, then ran toward it and jumped. He threw one leg ahead of him so he twirled like the warriors had done. He sat down when he landed, but he bounced right up again, grinning broadly.
Legolas and Annael clapped. "That was very good," Legolas said.
"Let me try." Annael got ready to take his turn. They all took more turns, and Legolas and Annael twirled too. After a while, Legolas got tired and sat on the grass, and Annael came to sit next to him.
Turgon did not sit. He kicked at the pile of sticks and frowned. "We need a fire."
Legolas blinked. "You mean more sticks?"
"No. We need a real fire."
Legolas was so surprised he could not talk.
"No, Turgon," Annael said. "Fire is dangerous."
Legolas nodded. "We cannot play with fire. My ada says it could hurt us and the forest too."
"I know that." Turgon sounded cross. "But Eilian had a fire."
"Eilian is big," Legolas said.
"So he had a big fire," Turgon reasoned. "We could have a little fire." He looked around. "Maybe we can make a fire on a rock. Then it would not hurt the trees."
Annael twisted his hands together. "There are no rocks here."
Turgon's eyes opened wide. "I know! We can make a fire by the river. Water puts fires out. That would be safe."
"I am not supposed to go by the river without a grownup," Legolas said. Eilian had said that when he walked Legolas home the day before, but Legolas knew it already because Ada and Nana both said it too.
"Me either." Annael smiled. "So we cannot do it."
Turgon caught his lower lip in his teeth. "We will not go to our boat place. We will go where the bank is high. Then we will not really be at the river." Before Legolas could think what to say, Turgon ran into his cottage.
Annael twisted his hands again. "Eilian's fire scared me."
Legolas chewed the inside of his cheek. Eilian's fire had not scared him, but Eilian had a little. He had seemed far away and full of some need, as if he might not even hear Legolas if he called.
Turgon burst out of his cottage, carrying something in a leather bag. He trotted across the garden. "I got them."
He opened the top of the bag, and Legolas looked in to see a flint and a big knife. Legolas jerked away. "Did your nana give you that?"
"She is not in the kitchen," Turgon said. "We can make a good fire with these. Come." He flipped the top of the bag back in place and marched off through the trees.
Legolas took a few steps after him, then looked over his shoulder at Annael. "I want to see what happens."
Annael scrunched up his face, but then he too followed Turgon.
Turgon led them through the woods. After a while, Legolas heard the river, and they came out of the trees onto a place that rose above the water. Legolas took little steps so he could see the river below. Looking at it made his stomach feel funny. The river rushed along, ignoring Legolas, not singing its forest song, but its roaring one instead. There was too much water, Nana said. The river had to hurry away and send the extra, scary water somewhere. Where to put it, the river wondered. What to do with it.
"Here." Turgon stamped his foot on a muddy place. Mud spattered onto Annael's leggings, and he scowled and moved out of the way. "The trees are far away," Turgon said. "Our fire will not hurt them. Find some twigs and leaves." He dropped the bag, picked up a stick, and looked for more. Legolas went to look too, and after a moment, so did Annael.
The door of Amadith's cottage closed behind them, and Eilian put his arm around her. "Where would you like to walk?"
She slanted him a look. "You left me on my own last night and went off with Gelmir. If I were wise, I would not walk with you at all."
"I do not know what I was thinking. Gelmir is not nearly as pretty as you."
Her mouth curved, producing dimples in both cheeks. "What a silver tongue you have." Then she added, "My lord."
He squeezed her shoulders and guided her toward a sheltered path. "I believe you owe me a forfeit from our game last night." He spoke low into her ear and had the pleasure of feeling her shiver. "In fact, several forfeits."
"They were to be paid under the stars, if I recall." She was gratifyingly breathless. "So I think I might have to postpone payment until tonight."
"Hmmm." He had no intention of postponing anything if he could help it. A brilliant idea burst into his head. He gave her his most charming smile. "Suppose I found you stars in the daytime."
She raised an eyebrow. "Then I would be very impressed." She grinned. "My lord."
He laughed and hustled her off their current path onto one leading to the river. The sound of it swelled until they rounded a bend, and there it was, tumbling along, roaring of its struggle with the flood of water and debris that drove it out of its normal harmony with the forest. Eilian usually liked the river in spring. It spoke to him of energy and excitement. This spring, though, it disturbed him, leaving him simultaneously restless and longing for its placid summer face.
"This way." He shepherded Amadith along the gently rising bank, watching the trees rather than the river.
"Is that your little brother?" Amadith asked.
He snapped his gaze ahead, and sure enough, there was Legolas, standing next to Annael. Both of them had their attention fixed on Turgon, who was crouched down doing something Eilian could not see. Then sparks flew from Turgon's hands, and a flame sprang into life.
Eilian's heart lodged in his throat. He let go of Amadith and sprinted toward the three elflings. "What are you doing, you little fools?" Three small faces turned to him, their mouths rounded in identical, astonished O's. He kicked at the fire, broke it to bits, and sent it over the riverbank. A spark flickered in the grass, and he stamped it out. When a scan showed no more fire, he whirled to face the elflings, drawing breath for what seemed like the first time since he saw the flame.
Legolas's face crumpled. "I am sorry! I am sorry, Eilian!"
"You should be sorry. What is wrong with you, Legolas? You know better. You could have been hurt. You could have burned the forest down."
"The river is here." Turgon pointed as if Eilian might have missed seeing the Forest River. "It would put the fire out."
"The river is nearly as dangerous as the fire just now. Give me those." He snatched a flint and wicked-looking knife from Turgon's hands, then crammed them in a leather bag from which they had undoubtedly come.
A tear rolled down Legolas's cheek, and a worried-looking Annael took his hand.
Eilian swayed toward Legolas, strongly tempted to hug him, but he held the impulse in check. This was the second time in two days he had dragged his little brother back from danger. Maybe he should scare Legolas. Maybe that would keep him permanently out of harm's way. Into his mind flowed a vision of a green and brown clad form sliding into a hole. He shut it out.
Amadith came up beside him, looking faintly amused. "Where are you three supposed to be?"
Legolas sniffled and looked at her through narrowed eyes.
"We are playing at Turgon's cottage," Annael said.
Eilian glanced at Amadith. "I will just see to it that they get there."
She smiled. "No hurry, my lord."
He grinned. "If you like, you can keep going that way until you find two big rocks with an opening between them."
She raised her eyebrows. "I know that place. The opening leads to a rather nasty little tunnel that goes nowhere."
"Not so," he told her. "I promise you stars."
She looked doubtful but put a foot in the right direction. "All right. I will wait for you there."
He herded the elflings toward Turgon's cottage. "Come on, you three."
"There is a tunnel?" Turgon asked. "Are you hunting orcs?"
Pain welled in Eilian's chest. He struggled to keep his voice steady. "No. There are no orcs this close to the stronghold."
Legolas was walking ahead of him, holding hands with Annael. He looked at Eilian over his shoulder, then turned ahead again. Eilian felt a confusing desire to tell him not to be upset.
Through the trees, Eilian spotted the whitewashed walls of Turgon's cottage and stopped. He did not want to get the elflings in trouble by showing up at the cottage door with them in tow. "If you promise not to try to make another fire, I will not tell any of your naneths what you have been up to."
"I promise," Annael said.
Legolas muttered the same pledge.
Eilian looked hard at Turgon, who sighed like an elf who has been heavily put upon, and said, "I promise."
"Good." Eilian handed the bag with the flint and knife to Annael. "Put that in Turgon's cottage as soon as you get there. Do not open the bag."
Annael's eyes widened, but he nodded and walked toward the cottage, holding the bag out in front of him. Turgon and Legolas followed, without so much as a look back.
Eilian drew a deep breath. They were safe at least. He struck out toward the river, taking a slightly different approach, and found Amadith waiting for him near the rocks.
"Did you get them taken care of?" she asked.
"Yes." He ignored the troubling roar of the nearby river and forced a smile. "Now it is time to get you taken care of." He turned sideways, ducked his head, and slid into the opening between the rocks. He put out his hand to her. "Come."
She wrinkled her nose. "Are you sure? Some friends and I crept in there when we were elflings and crept right back out again."
"That was your mistake." He grinned. "My friends and I crept as far as we could go."
"Why does that not surprise me?" She grasped his hand and let him lead her through the passageway.
Eilian's shoulders rubbed the walls, and he had to walk with his back hunched and his head down. He had not been in here in years and had forgotten how cramped the space was. He realized he was holding his breath and, at the same moment, knew why: He feared if he inhaled, his nose would clog with the stink of orcs and death. He eased air out and in again, meeting, as he had rationally known he would, the smell of moss and mud. Smells of home in spring, of innocent adventure, of his childhood. The muscles in his back relaxed.
The tunnel slanted down, and as they walked, the light from the entrance grew dimmer. Amadith tugged on his hand. Before she could speak, he said, "Not much farther." Even as he said it, the walls fell away on either side, and the tunnel turned into a cave with the sound of rushing water echoing off the rocky surfaces.
Amadith gasped. "What are those?" She was looking at the pinpricks of light spangled over the ceiling, her mouth slightly open, her eyes agleam.
"Stars?" Eilian suggested.
"They are not." She ventured ahead of him, still holding his hand.
They threaded their way among the boulders, eyes on the ceiling. He put a hand on her arm to caution her, and she lowered her gaze to the river. Like its above ground counterpart, it was full, but it moved with less turbulence, so the starry light reflected on its surface.
"What are they?" Amadith asked again.
He grimaced. "They will not be nearly as romantic once you know."
"You are teasing me."
"They really are. I have no idea why they glow like that, but they do." He drew her close. "So you see? Stars."
"So they are." She pulled her gaze from the glowworms. "My lord."
He brought his mouth to hers. She was warm and willing, but somehow she still felt far away. He moved his mouth, nuzzling hers in an entreaty for it to open to him. She parted her lips, and he slid his tongue over them. Now he should be lost in the feel and taste of her, but the river was so loud, its roar seemed to flood all through him, drowning out all else. With a frustrated moan, he pulled away.
Amadith's brow puckered. "Is something wrong?"
"No." He tried to smile. "I just thought of something." He released her and turned to scan the rocky shelf holding back the river. "Along here somewhere, Gelmir, Celuwen, and I built a boat. I wonder if it is still here." He walked a few steps along the bank.
She trailed after him. "A boat? You must have had to haul all the wood in."
"What a lot of work."
"My adar always said I worked harder at risking my neck than anyone he ever met." Eilian spotted a dark shape half hidden among the rocks on a lower ledge. "There!" He leapt down and put out his hand to help her follow. He gestured. "Somehow I remember it as grander." The "boat" looked more like a raft with low sides than anything else. Moreover, time had softened the wood and loosened the seams Eilian remembered joining so carefully.
"Surely you never tried to ride in that thing. You would have had no idea where you would wind up, always assuming you did not sink immediately."
Eilian looked upstream and down. The river emerged from one tunnel in the rock and vanished into another.
"As it happens," he said, "we did figure out where the river goes. Celuwen absolutely refused to set foot in the boat until we did. We painted bits of wood, dropped them in here, and then ran around looking for them. It took us a while, but we eventually learned that this is the branch of the river that runs beneath the palace storerooms and comes out at the watergate. Once we knew that, we had to give up the idea of sailing because of course that gate is almost always closed, so we would have been caught against it."
She slanted him a look. "How hard did Celuwen have to argue to stop you from doing it anyway?"
Eilian laughed. "She threatened to burn my new bow unless I promised not to. I had an idea it might be fun to try when one of the rafts from Esgaroth was here and the gate was up so the empty barrels could go through."
He bent to run a hand over a board, noting that the rope they had used still tethered the boat to an outcrop of rock. "I wonder if it still floats." He gave a careful push, and the boat slid off the rock and splashed into the river. The current immediately tugged it a rope length away. He watched for a moment, and rather to his surprise, only a little water seeped into the bottom of the boat.
Amadith shook her head. "It is a wonder you ever survived your childhood, Eilian, or perhaps that your parents survived it. I cannot imagine how devastated your naneth would be if you vanished into a tunnel like that."
Eilian looked to where the river slid into the opening, and abruptly, he saw Fithral vanish. The sound of the river seemed to swell, and his gut twisted. He tightened his jaw. Why was he hanging on to that image? Why was he unable to let it go?
He yanked on the rope and pulled the boat back onto the edge of the rocky shelf. "How would it be if we got some of my adar's best wine and sat among the trees to drink it?"
"I would like that."
He took her hand and hurried away from the river, back toward the daylit world.
Legolas crouched between Annael and Turgon and held very still while Eilian and the maiden went past. If Eilian found them, he might get angry and be mean again, and Legolas's feelings were still hurt from before. Legolas could not remember Eilian ever saying such unkind things to him. He was considering telling Nana.
"They are gone." Turgon climbed down the rocks they had scaled to perch on the high ledge and see what Eilian was doing.
Legolas had been a little worried Eilian and the maiden would be kissing, but when he peeked out of his hiding place, Eilian was looking at a boat. The river was loud, so Legolas could not hear what Eilian said, but it looked like he just talked about the boat or maybe the beautiful starry spots on the ceiling.
"Come down," Turgon said.
Legolas put one hand on the big rocks so he would not fall and climbed down, and then Annael came too. Legolas thought they would go outside again, but Turgon walked toward the river instead.
"We should look at the boat," Turgon said.
Legolas did not mind spending more time with these underground stars, so he followed his friends to where Eilian had left the boat. The river lapped against its back end.
"We should put it in the water like Eilian did," Turgon said. "A boat should be in the water."
"We might not be able to get it back," Annael said.
"It is tied up," Turgon said.
Annael cocked his head. "Maybe we could push it just part way in."
Turgon sighed, and Legolas could tell he thought Annael was too careful. Legolas did not think that. He thought Annael had a good idea.
"All right," Turgon said. "Come on, sailor friends! We should halfway launch our boat."
Legolas pushed, but the boat did not move. It was heavier than he thought it would be from seeing Eilian push it. Legolas pushed hard, and all at once, the boat skipped to teeter half on and half off the ledge.
Turgon inspected it. "Good work, sailor friends. Now we should get in." He scrambled over the boat's low side and sat down.
Legolas drew a quick breath. Sitting in the boat like that, Turgon looked like a real sailor. Legolas climbed in too. The boat tilted a little, and the water in it sloshed over Legolas's bottom, but he did not mind. Sailors got wet sometimes. "Come on, Annael," he coaxed. "You should get in and be a sailor too."
Annael held onto the boat's side and put one foot in. "There is not enough room."
Legolas scooted backwards, and water sloshed over him again. "You can sit there."
Annael put his other foot in and sat down. The boat rocked gently, and all of them grabbed the sides.
Turgon laughed. "We are sailing over the waves." He swayed from side to side, making the boat rock. Annael and Legolas both squealed and laughed, and Turgon leaned further.
The rocks behind Turgon tilted, and for a heartbeat, Legolas did not understand what was happening. Then he felt the boat sliding. Water splashed all around, and he realized the boat was all the way in the river. The current jerked it away from the edge, and the rope tying it to shore stretched tight.
"Oh! Oh!" Annael cried. Even Turgon's eyes grew wide. Legolas felt as if he could not breathe. The rocky ledge looked so far away.
The river roared and yanked on the boat again. It wanted them, and the rope decided to give the river what it wanted. It snapped in two. Legolas had time to glimpse the rocky ledge hurrying backwards, and then he found himself in a tunnel with glowworms streaking past overhead.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
Chapter 6. The River
Legolas squeezed the sides of the boat so hard his hands hurt. He wanted to cry, but he could not even breathe. Annael was making little squeaky noises. In the dark of the tunnel, his face glimmered white.
"We can sail," Turgon gasped. "We can do it."
The boat bumped into something, and the river spun it around. Legolas moaned. Now he faced forward, but all he could see was dark tunnel. Where was the river taking them? Did it just go farther and farther into the ground?
The walls and ceiling drew closer. The river whacked the boat against a wall, and one of the boat's corners crunched up. Water splashed all over Legolas's legs.
"Are we sinking?" Annael's voice shook.
"We can swim." To Legolas's surprise, Turgon's voice shook too. "We will be otters instead of sailors."
The tunnel curved. The boat tilted and banged into the wall. It spun around again, and when it did, the rock ripped off a big piece of it. Water flooded in. Something bumped at the boat's bottom, and the boat gave in to the river and broke into two pieces.
"Swim, otter friends!" Turgon shouted.
Legolas grabbed at a piece of boat, but he missed, and the icy river swallowed him up. He gasped, and water filled his mouth. The glowworms had lit the tunnel, but in the water, it was darker than anywhere Legolas had ever been. For a moment, terror froze him. He tried to kick and use his arms, but the river pushed him and turned him. The cold water pinched at the inside of his head. He wanted to cough, but he knew he must not.
Then little lights wavered overhead. He blinked. The river had spit him out. It did not want him after all. He drew a breath, and water went up his nose again. Maybe the river just did not want him yet.
A big piece of boat brushed against him, and he managed to fling his arm over it. The boat piece wobbled, and Turgon's arm wrapped around the other end. His dark hair was stuck to his cheeks, with water dripping off the end. Legolas was so glad to see him, he said, "Ah!"
"Ahoy, Annael," Turgon croaked. Legolas twisted his head to see Annael with both arms wrapped around a different piece of boat. Annael was coughing and crying, but Legolas was glad to see him too.
"Hang on, Annael!" Legolas cried. Annael moved his hands to grip the boat piece more tightly. Legolas held his boat piece tightly too. The edge of the wood dug into his side and hand so they hurt, but he hung on anyway. He coughed too, but his insides still hurt where the water had gone. His heart knocked against his chest.
The river pushed them through the narrow tunnel. Something under the water banged into Legolas's knee and made him gasp. Annael cried out, so Legolas thought something might have hit his legs too.
Then, to his horror, Legolas's fingers slid away from the other side of the boat piece. He tried to tighten them, but they hurt and the wood was wet and they slipped a little more. He flung his other arm onto the boat piece too. The boat jerked and came loose from his hands. "Oh!" He dug his fingernails into the splintery wood.
It had stopped moving, he realized. Turgon's end of it had jammed up against a big rock. Turgon scrambled up onto the rock and stretched his hand out to Legolas. "Come on. We should dock here."
For a moment, Legolas clung to the boat piece. The river was still pushing on it, and it started to swing around to sail some more. Maybe it would take him home. Then he looked at the darkness ahead and let go. The river swept him straight to Turgon, who clasped Legolas's hand, stumbled backward, and pulled him onto the rock.
Legolas was still on his hands and knees, but he craned his neck to see that Annael's piece of boat was tangled with the one Legolas and Turgon had held. Annael's was farther away, and both boat pieces were slowly sliding off the rock. Legolas's stomach hurt.
Annael let go of his boat piece and grabbed for the other one.
"Oh good," Turgon said. "Come closer to the dock, sailor Annael." He flung himself on his stomach and grasped the end of the closer boat piece. Legolas scuttled around and grabbed it too. The river tugged at it, but Legolas held on hard. The boat piece Annael had been on broke loose and disappeared in the dark tunnel. The one Legolas and Turgon held tried to follow.
"Hurry," Legolas said.
Annael moved his arms to creep closer and closer to them. He put out a hand, and Turgon and Legolas both let go of the boat piece and took it. The boat piece spun away. Legolas sat down and pulled on Annael's arm. Annael slid up on the rock, crying out as his leg dragged up onto it. Then he struggled up to sit between Turgon and Legolas. The three of them flung their arms around one another and huddled as close together as they could get. Annael was shaking, and Legolas thought he might be shaking too.
Annael's leggings were torn, and his skin was scraped away all down one shin. Legolas realized he must have skinned his knee too because blood darkened his own leggings. His stomach twisted, and for a moment, he felt dizzy. He was hurt. He needed Nana. He could not help it. He started to cry.
"It will be all right." Annael patted Legolas on the back.
"I know." Legolas's voice wobbled. "Someone will find us. A grownup will come soon."
He looked at the glowworms and clung to his friends. The river rushed past them, filling the rocky tunnel with its confused, angry noise. He wished Nana or Ada would come right now.
"Take comfort," sang the trees. "Draw on our strength and beauty, lady. We are here for you."
At least, that was what the tree song sounded like to Lorellin. She tilted her face up to the lace of uncurling spring leaves. "Helith is the one who needs you. Her grief is like a wound through which her life is bleeding away."
"We know. We know."
Lorellin sighed. Helith would take what comfort she could from the forest and her family, and the days to come would tell whether that was enough. Lorellin would visit again soon, taking Legolas this time. She wondered if she should tell Legolas not to talk about Fithral's body growing "too small." Would Helith find that idea painful, or would Legolas's unquestioning trust in the Valar comfort her?
The thought of Legolas made her uneasy, and she quickened her step. Mírdaniel had been vague about what the boys did at the river, but judging from what she saw at the feast, Lorellin was beginning to think Turgon might be an unusually lively child. Lorellin did not object to lively children. With a half-smile, she had to acknowledge she had raised one herself. But she hoped Mírdaniel was keeping an eye on the three little ones.
Lorellin hurried up to the cottage door and knocked. Something crashed inside the cottage, and a moment later, Mírdaniel opened the door. "My lady, come in. I was just putting Turgon's bed together. Sweet child that he is, he does not mind sleeping on the floor. He says he is camping. Still, I thought he would sleep better in a bed." Talking all the while, she led Lorellin toward the kitchen. Lorellin glimpsed the pieces of the bedstead that had been in the hall heaped on the floor in one of the bedrooms.
"Would you like some tea?" Mírdaniel asked.
"I am afraid I do not have time, though your tea is really excellent. Are the boys still out back?" Lorellin skirted a leather bag on the floor just inside the open back door. From the doorway, she scanned the garden.
"Oh yes. They have been very good."
"I do not see them."
Mírdaniel came to stand next to her. "They must have gone further into the woods."
Lorellin's faint uneasiness deepened into anxiety. You are being silly, she told herself. These are children playing near the stronghold, not warriors on patrol. Still, she hurried toward the trees calling, "Legolas!" The trees at the end of the garden hummed happily, so the children had been there, but she still did not see them, and Legolas did not answer her call.
Mírdaniel called, "Turgon! Annael!"
Still no answer.
Lorellin darted through the trees. "Legolas! Turgon! Annael!" She could hear Mírdaniel calling too, but no answering voices came. No small figures came running through the woods. Lorellin fought for breath. Stop it, she told herself sharply.
She put a hand on an oak and forced herself to stand still and try to sense Legolas through the bond she had shared with him from the day he was conceived. For a moment, she groped, and then, abruptly she found him and went rigid. His fear and distress tore through her like a knife.
She spun. "Mírdaniel! Mírdaniel, I think they are in trouble."
Turgon's mother was frowning at the ground, her hand opening and closing around a fold of her skirt. She looked up, and her frightened gaze met Lorellin's. Panic flooded Lorellin's body, washing all sense away.
"Naneth? Are you all right?" Eilian bent over her, his brows drawn down. Amadith hovered just behind him.
Lorellin clutched at his arm as if it were the anchor that would save her. "Legolas is missing! Something is the matter with him. I can feel it."
Eilian's face went pale. "I saw him earlier. He was by the river with Turgon and Annael."
"You left him by the river?" Could that high, terrified voice be hers?
"No! I walked the three of them back to Turgon's cottage. I left them there. Amadith and I have just come from the river, and we did not see them."
"They are not at Turgon's. Eilian, we need to find them!"
He licked his lips. "There are too many places they could be." He thrust the wineskin he carried into Amadith's hands. "We need help. I will go back to where I left them and see if I can tell which direction they went. Amadith, go look where we saw them before. Naneth, you go tell Adar."
"I will fetch Annael's parents." Mírdaniel's voice trembled. As if from far away, Lorellin watched her run off toward Annael's cottage, while Amadith hastened through the woods.
"Naneth?" Eilian grasped her hand and tried to pull it off his arm. "Naneth, we need help. Tell Adar."
She swayed. How could she leave this place where her child had been? Legolas was in trouble. He needed her. How could she go? She drew a deep breath, released Eilian, and ran.
She pelted along the path, through the trees, across the Green, into the palace. The guards at the Great Doors leapt toward her, one of them with his hand extended as if to stop her, to ask her what the matter was, but she could not stop. She burst into the Great Hall. Heads snappped toward her. At the other end of the Hall, Thranduil jumped to his feet.
"What is it, Lorellin? What has happened?" He took three long strides and met her part way down the room.
"Legolas," she gasped. She had spent her breath in running.
Thranduil gripped her upper arms. "What about him?"
She sucked in air and forced out the words. "He was playing at Turgon's, and now he and Turgon and Annael are gone. Eilian saw them by the river and he made them go home, but what if they went back? What if spiders have slipped past the Home Guard?"
Thranduil looked over her head. "Tell Ithilden," he ordered the guards. "And then get everyone in the palace outside. I want a search carried out for a league in all directions. I want four people searching the river in each direction starting from the bridge."
Guards scattered, and the advisers in the Great Hall hurried off to join them.
Thranduil pulled her close enough that she heard his heart thudding like an alarm drum. Then he took her arm and hurried her outside again. "Come. They cannot have gone far."
She was trembling, but she hastened to keep up with his long steps. Her baby needed her. She felt it in her blood and bones, and if she had to, she would swim the river and fight off all the creatures of darkness to reach him.
Eilian cursed. Eyes on the ground, he lunged an arm's length further along the edge of the path. A dozen people must have come this way, including him and Amadith. Surely he was not mistaken though. Surely those small feet had come this way too.
He slid further along the path's side, stiffened, and dropped to a crouch. On the edge of the tangle of marks was a perfect footprint shorter than his hand. Just ahead of it was another child's print, a different child. The prints were fresh. Eilian bent to squint at the leading track. The little leather shoe that made it was worn on the inside of the left foot. Turgon. The elflings had followed him and Amadith.
He jumped to his feet and ran toward the river. They are hiding, he told himself. They followed us, and they hid when we came back. "Legolas! Legolas, come out! Come out and I will take you to ride Rogue." His mind filled with the image of his mother's huge eyes, her strangled voice, her clutch on his arm. "Something is the matter with him," she had said. "I can feel it." He quickened his pace.
"Legolas!" He burst out of the trees onto the stony riverbank. He rocked to a halt, scanned the ground again, and ran toward the tunnel entrance.
He bent over the ground near the entrance and sucked in his breath. There they were, marks left by small feet that had gone in and, he knew at a glance, had not come out again. Why had he not heard them? The roar of the nearby river filled his head. In the cave, the echo had drowned out all else. Legolas had crept in, had been nearby, and Eilian, who prided himself on his scouting, had not known. Instead, he had left his little brother and two other elflings among rocks near an underground river.
He plunged into the tunnel, squeezing through it as quickly as he could push himself. Rock scraped at his back and shoulders. His foot skidded on a pebble, and he slid and struck his head against one wall. His vision momentarily blurred, but he stayed upright and kept scrambling downward. The tunnel opened into the cave.
"Legolas! Legolas, answer me!" The echo of his voice was the only response. He scanned the rocks and saw no one, but he knew from playing here with Gelmir and Celuwen that it was easy to hide on the high ledges or the many crevices in the walls. The noise of the river washed over him.
You played here without coming to harm, he told himself. Then the other, terrified, part of himself said, You were twice Legolas's size and had Celuwen to save you from your own stupidity.
He ran toward the river, meaning to start there and search backward toward the entrance. If the elflings were hiding from him in some sort of maddening game, he did not want to drive them toward the water. He swept his gaze over the river's edge, saw nothing, and turned to begin his hunt.
He snapped back around again.
The boat's rope trailed in the water, but the boat itself was gone. His heart kicking against his ribs, he leapt down to the ledge and hauled in the rope. He saw at once that it had snapped rather than been cut. If the boat was in the water, the pull of the current could have broken the rope, but he was sure he left the boat on this ledge. Could the elflings have pushed the boat into the water? And if they did, would they have been fools enough to get in?
Oh yes, no doubt about it. These were the same three who had been scrambling on wet logs to retrieve a painted wooden bowl only the day before. Of course, they would get in.
He turned to scan the cave again. "Legolas!" He had almost no hope of being answered, but if the elflings were still in the cave, he did not want to leave them where they could fall and splatter their brains out.
His hand curled around the rope. Should he run and fetch help? He heard again his mother's urgent voice. Something was the matter with Legolas. He was alive, because their mother had not collapsed against Eilian in despair, but she had cried out for help, had wanted it at once. Something was desperately the matter.
Eilian looked again at the dark hole into which the river poured and every restless doubt in his heart resolved into one certainty. He could not wait. Legolas needed help, and Eilian would give it if he died in the attempt. His sweet baby brother was not going to die a terrified death in a dark tunnel.
He unbuckled his belt and shed his tunic and boots. He sat on the ledge, and for an instant, the rushing water filled his vision. He loved the Forest River. It gave life to the woods. It was part of him. But too full like this, it could kill him. He slipped off into the water.
The current swept him into the tunnel with startling speed. He struggled to stay stretched out on top of it, keeping himself facing the right direction so he did not smash himself on a rock or miss some sign of the elflings. Glowworms glimmered overhead, like stars set out to guide him. Calm settled over him for the first time in what seemed like an age. The rush of the water boomed off the tunnel walls. It was cold enough to numb his hands and feet almost at once, but he did not care. The river was powerful. All he had to do was use it to take him where he wanted to go without letting it destroy him. He had to move through it to do what he needed, but not let it wash him away.
He strained to hear anything other than the river. If the boat had survived the trip, it was probably caught against the water gate, where the elflings would have a hard time making themselves heard before the bumping destroyed the boat. Eilian kicked harder, propelling himself faster, determination hard and steady in his chest.
He was so certain the elflings would be at the water gate, that when the river swung him around a bend, he almost missed seeing them. Then Legolas jumped to his feet and his childish voice pierced through the river's roar. "Eilian!" Two more small white faces turned toward him, like candles glimmering faintly through the night in the tunnel.
He kicked and pulled and drove himself toward the much too small shelf on which the little ones stood. For a harrowing moment, he thought the river would take him past, but he grabbed a rock and managed to hang on even when the river swept his feet past him, making the rock he held tear at the skin on his hands.
Legolas and his friends crowded toward the edge and looked down at him, still in the water. Even in the dim light of the glowworms, Eilian could see that their lips were blue with cold. Legolas squatted and reached out a small hand, as if to help him.
"Stay back!" Eilian cried. Legolas's mouth twisted in worry, but he backed away from the water. Eilian pulled himself closer to the rock, and as he entered its shelter, the river loosened its grip on him. He heaved himself up onto the shelf where the elflings waited.
"Eilian!" Three small bodies flung themselves at him, and for a moment, he teetered, afraid they would knock him back into the river. He righted himself and wrapped his arms as far around the three of them as he could. Legolas clung to his waist, his face buried in Eilian's bare stomach. Eilian could feel him shaking.
"Back up just a little, sweetlings," Eilian said.
They shuffled backwards without loosening their hold on him.
Eilian sank to the ground, drawing Legolas into his lap. Turgon huddled down on one side of him and Annael on the other. He drew a deep breath. They were here. They were, for the moment, safe, and by all that was holy, he intended to keep them that way. He stroked wet rattails of hair out of Legolas's face.
"We broke your boat." Annael's brow was wrinkled. "We are sorry."
Eilian could not help smiling at his solemn face. "I am not surprised the boat broke. It was old and not very sturdy to start with, and the river is wild just now." He pulled Legolas's head against his chest. "You should not have got in it. You could have drowned, and all of you are precious to your adas and nanas. They would have been very, very sad if anything bad happened to you." Into his mind swam the face of Fithral's mother as she looked at the funeral. He tightened his hold on Legolas and kissed the top of his head. Not this time. The unbearable had not happened this time. At least not yet.
"We did not mean to sail it." Legolas voice was muffled. He sounded as if he might be crying.
Eilian sighed. "These things happen." Similar things had happened all too often to him when he was an elfling. He really did sympathize. He rocked Legolas slightly and looked up and down the river. Now what?
He could wait here with the elflings, keeping them safe until help came. His mother would tell Ithilden or Elian's father that Eilian had gone to the place he last saw the elflings, and searchers would eventually find the same signs Eilian had that Legolas and his friends had gone into the cave. Eilian's hand slowed in its movement over Legolas's head. They would go into the cave, true. But no one knew about the boat except him, Celuwen, and Gelmir. And Amadith of course. Ithilden or their father would probably ask her where she had seen Legolas, but would she think to mention the boat? When the searchers went into the cave, would they see the broken rope and know what it meant? Eilian had almost missed seeing it. If no one thought about the boat, they would not realize where the elflings and Eilian were.
He bit his lip. His tunic, boots, and belt were on the riverbank in the cave. What would the searchers make of that? What would his mother make of it? Could he be sure his father or Ithilden would or some of the other scouts would read the signs and see what had happened?
"Are we going to swim now?" Turgon asked.
"No," Eilian said slowly. "You have to stay here until someone comes with a boat to take you home."
Turgon looked at the river, and Eilian saw him shudder. "All right."
Eilian shifted Legolas so he could see his face. "All three of you have to make me a promise. Are you big enough to keep a promise if you make it?"
"What promise?" Turgon asked.
Legolas scanned Eilian's face and caught his lower lip in his teeth.
"I have to go and tell people where you are and bring back the boat. You have to promise to stay still and take care of one another even if it takes a while for the boat to come. Can you promise that?"
Legolas dug small fingernails into Eilian's arm. "You are going? No!" His face crumpled. "No, Eilian! I do not want you to leave me!"
Eilian pulled the small body close, and Legolas trembled against him. For a moment, he considered taking Legolas with him into the river, but he rejected the idea almost at once. Even Eilian was going to have trouble coping with the raging water, and he was not yet sure how he would reach safety again. He needed to keep Legolas here with his friends, out of harm's way.
"Sweetling, I have to get the boat. See the water?" Eilian put his hand on the back of Legolas's head and turned it gently to look at the river. Legolas sniffed and nodded. "You are too little to swim in it, so I need to get a boat for you. Do you understand?"
Legolas drew a long, shaky breath and nodded. He swiped the back of his hand under his nose.
"Good." Eilian stood up and herded the little boys so they sat in a huddle against the rock wall. "I know you can look out for one another because you are friends, right?"
"Right," Turgon said. He stretched his arms around the other two. "We will be sleeping puppy friends and stay all in a heap."
Eilian took one last look at them, letting his eyes linger on Legolas. The little one's mouth trembled, but he made no protest. "I will come back as soon as I can."
Legolas nodded, and Eilian slid off the shelf into the river.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 7. Heroes
The river swept Eilian away from the elflings, whose piping voices pierced the water's low growl: "Hurry, Eilian! "Swim hard, friend Eilian!" "I hurt myself! Bring Nana!" Then they were gone.
They will be fine, he told himself, and gave a hard kick.
He struggled to stay as close to the wall as he could. The current was weaker there, and he felt more in command of himself. He would need all the control he could muster if he was to do what he planned.
He kept his gaze on the glowworms. His knee banged against a rock, and he recoiled and glanced down. Submerged rocks were more common along the wall too, but he could not spare the attention to watch for them. Anyway, he hoped they would prove useful. At least the frigid water numbed whatever hurt he had suffered from the rock.
As he swam and watched the ceiling, he tried to let his mind reach out and sense where he was. Did the river still run under the forest, or was he swimming under the Stronghold? He felt only faint threads of the life of the woods. He could not even picture how the sunlight slanted through the trees now, or whether the day was still fair. Did that mean layers of rock rose overhead?
He scanned the glowworms. Had he missed it? If he had, he would soon find himself plastered against the water gate, trying to shout loudly enough to make himself heard over the flooding river. He would never be able to swim against the current.
He stiffened. There it was--a large square of darkness amid the glimmer of the worms. He tried to stop his movement by jamming his hands against a ripple of rock protruding from the wall, but the rock was slick and his palms slid off. He grabbed at a fissure in the stone. For a desperate instant, he could not tell if his numb fingers were holding, but his feet swept past him so he knew he had stopped. He heaved himself toward the wall, drawing the stone into a hug. His feet found purchase on another rock beneath the water.
He studied the ceiling. This was the hard part. He was reasonably sure the dark square marked the trap doors into the palace storerooms. He, Gelmir, and Celuwen had discovered that the worms did not like being disturbed and would stop glowing if they were moved. The trap doors were opened two days previously when a raft left for Esgaroth. All he needed to do was get himself up there and bang on the doors until someone heard him.
Now he had time to examine the outcrops and crevices along the wall. Keeping his arms wrapped around the stone, he stretched one numb foot out and groped for a toehold that would take him a little to his left. He found a narrow ledge and started to shift his weight. His foot shot off the ledge, and the river swept his legs out from under him. For an instant, he dangled from his armhold, then hauled with all his strength and managed to return to his starting place. He clung there, breathing hard.
He tried again, seeking a better place to stand, but he had to return to the same one. The problem was that his feet were so cold he could not use his toes to grip as well as he usually did when moving in the trees. He imagined digging in with them and hoped they were doing what he pictured. Cautiously, he loosened his arms. When his foot held, he pushed off with the other one and grabbed for a higher rock over his new standing place.
Again his foot slipped and his legs floundered, but he grappled both arms around the rock and drew himself up to kneel on a slanting, slippery surface. Before he had time to slide off, he scrambled to his feet, clawing along the wall to find handholds. He ran two quick steps and stood precariously perched as high as the rocks would take him, with his hands overhead, dug into a crack.
For the first time since he started climbing, he eyed the dark square, a yard or so away in the ceiling. Thank the Valar, now he could pick out the wooden slats. It really was the trapdoor. Breath seeped out of his mouth, and his shoulders eased a little. He frowned at the wooden frame, the slats, the bits of metal he could see. What would make the best hold?
The door rested on a sturdy frame, but the fit was tight, and the handles, of course, were on the other side. He could not imagine where he might find a grip secure enough to leave him banging on the door rather than tumbling back into the river. What then?
He wiggled his thawing fingers further into the crevice and glanced down at the rocks and water below his feet. If he hurt himself badly enough, he would be no use to Legolas and his friends, but if he could not raise the alarm, then what had his struggle been for? He decided the chance was worth taking.
He tightened his hands, bent his knees, and pushed as if he were jumping a fire. His feet swung through the air and banged against the trapdoor. They swung back, pushed, and banged again. Then he fumbled for footing so he could reposition his hands. Swing, bang! Swing, bang!
He paused and flexed the fingers of one hand and then the other. Cook was probably in the kitchen, a flight of stairs up from the storeroom. Eilian had to make as much noise as he could. He pushed, coiled his knees in the air, and jammed his feet hard against the wood.
Suddenly he was dangling above the rocks, holding on by one hand. His heart thundered into a gallop. Grunting with effort, he swung his other arm up and groped for a hold. Then his feet found their perch on the rock, and his hand once again found a grip in the crevice. He stood panting for a moment, hands stretched above his head, bare feet crowding one another on the rough surface. He drew a deep breath and pushed off again.
His feet met empty air. Cook peered down through the open trapdoor, mouth agape, huge butcher knife in his right hand.
"Lord Eilian! What in Arda?" Cook dropped the knife.
"Help me up!"
Cook reached a hand through the opening and hesitated. "How?"
Eilian nearly laughed. "Catch my feet. Brace yourself though."
"Wait. I will get help."
Eilian felt his fingers slipping. "I cannot wait. Here I come." He launched himself off the rock and hurled his feet into Cook's fluttering hands.
Cook's fingers tightened painfully around Eilian's ankles, and he suddenly thought of all the times he had seen Cook wielding a knife or a mallet. Then he was being dragged upside down over rough wood into an apple-scented room full of barrels. Cook sat on the floor, breathing hard.
Eilian scrambled to his feet. "Where is my adar? I have to tell him where Legolas is."
Lorellin wrapped her arms around herself and watched Eilian and Gelmir maneuver the flat-bottomed boat the last few yards down the tunnel. When it had become clear what was going to happen, she had run to the palace and changed to a tunic and leggings, but she had not bothered with a cloak. Thranduil put his arm around her. His eyes too were on the boat, and she felt the tension in his body.
"Wait! It is caught." Eilian twisted the light boat slightly. Cook stepped forward holding the pot of lard he had been sent to fetch. Thranduil's shoulders were smeared with it. But Eilian and Gelmir managed to ease the boat through the space without further greasing. Eilian shuffled backward again, and the boat emerged into the cave. He and Gelmir hastened toward the river, climbed down onto the ledge, and set the boat next to the water's edge.
Lorellin eyed it narrowly. Would it be strong enough to save her son? Both ends were closed, leaving an opening in which a single person was intended to kneel with room enough also for a good-sized pack. The side rose only halfway up Eilian's shin, the shallow draft meant to let the boat skim over rocks that would bring a bigger craft to grief.
"Will it hold all three of them?" Annael's mother spoke for the first time since she had come hurrying into the cave to hear if Eilian had indeed found the boys.
Her husband put an arm around her. "They are small enough to squeeze in."
They would have to be, Lorellin thought. This was the biggest boat that could be forced through the narrow entrance.
Eilian lunged to where the boat hook lay. His tunic now covered the bruises and scratches on his back and arms, and she had seen the way his feet bled before he jammed them back into his boots. Oddly, though, he seemed calmer to her than he had since he came home. He slid the hook into the space in one of the boat's covered ends and tied it to the metal ring on the boat's frame. His hands resting on the boat's side, he looked up at Thranduil. "If you think Ithilden has things in hand by the water gate, I am ready to go."
Lorellin stepped forward out of Thranduil's grasp. "No, Eilian. I will go."
Eilian's head snapped toward her. He opened his mouth, then glanced at his father. "Adar?"
"Lorellin--." Thranduil's voice quivered with alarm.
"I will go," she repeated. "I sailed boats up and down rivers, streams, and lakes all over the woods long before Eilian was born. Moreover, I am smaller and lighter, so the boys will be able to fit into the boat better." She moved next to the boat. "Help me launch it, and then hold it while I get in," she told Eilian.
"Lorellin, no." Thranduil stood next to her, his face white. "It is too dangerous."
She whirled on him. "No more dangerous for me than for Eilian! Legolas needs me. I can feel it. And I will waste no more time arguing. Help me, Eilian, or I will do it myself."
Eilian held on to the boat and looked to his father for some sort of guidance.
Thranduil wiped his hand over his face. His gaze met hers, probably assessing her determination. She knew he had gauged it accurately when his face sagged. "Tell her what she will find, Eilian."
Eilian gave what sounded like a suppressed groan. Then he straightened and drew in his breath. "They are on the right soon after the river bends to the left. You can shelter from the current behind the rock they are on. There are plenty of craggy places on the rock where you probably lodge the boat hook, but you will have to be quick."
She nodded and bent to lift one end of the boat and slide it into the river. Eilian hesitated only a heartbeat before taking the other end. Thranduil came forward to help him hold the boat steady while she climbed in and took up the double-ended paddle. Thranduil gripped the boat's side for a moment after Eilian stepped away.
"Take care, my love."
She nodded, and he pushed the little craft out into the current. As the river hurried her into the tunnel, she glimpsed him sprinting back toward the exit, with Eilian close behind. She would see them when she brought the little ones out at the water gate.
As she had expected, she needed the paddle only to steer. She concentrated on controlling the boat, getting the feel of it, and learning how much strength and cunning she needed to bend it and the river to her will. The boat skimmed along, responsive even to her shifts of weight. She would have to keep the elflings still once she had them tucked in behind her.
She had spoken truly when she said she had been up and down the forest's waterways in all weather and states of flood. Her girlhood home had been on a river, and she had frightened her parents more than once by the audacious glee with which she braved white water. Rapids had called to her in whispers more seductive than the voices of the young males who came along before Thranduil. The current she rode now was easy to manage compared to some of those she had flown over then.
She watched the surface of the water, reading it to know what lay beneath and then guiding her boat to avoid what trouble she could. The boat's draft was shallow, but she would take no chances that might keep her from taking Legolas to safety.
She realized she was leaning forward, willing the river to bend left and carry her to where her little boy waited for her. Their bond stretched between them like a wire along which news of his being flowed. Since she had realized he was in trouble, that wire had vibrated, making everything else around her exist only at a great distance. His fear and longing for her lodged like pain in her heart. I am coming, sweetling, she thought. I will always come. It seemed to her his anxiety lessened a little.
The glowworms vanished from the ceiling ahead, and her attention narrowed to a single point. The river was turning. Just beyond that turn, she needed to slide the boat right and tuck it in behind the rock where the elflings perched. She nudged the boat hook with her knee to be sure she knew where it was.
The rock wall on the left drew back, unveiling the glittering worms again. She angled the paddle, the little boat swung around the curve, and there, on the right, was her baby, looking straight at her, as if he were expecting her.
He jumped to his feet. "Nana!" The other elflings scrambled up too.
"Stay back!" she cried.
They scuffled back against the rock wall, watching her with huge, eager eyes.
The boat shot toward them like an arrow. She held the paddle steady, then gave a quick flick of her wrists to slip toward the rock. She snatched up the boat hook and rose to her knees. If she missed now, she would never be able to work her way back upstream to them. She would sail out through the water gate and run back to the cave to try again. Would the elflings have the patience and courage to wait? Would they realize the boat would come again? She doubted it.
The hook was tied to the back of the boat, so if she wanted it to hold, she had to let the boat slip most of the way past before she tried to jam it into a crevice in the rock. The current seemed to slow to a summer eddy. The rock drifted past her, showing her every bump and crack, daring her to swing the hook now and see what happened.
It was directly in front of her.
It was to her right.
Over the rock's top, she glimpsed Legolas's brows lowering, his mouth opening to cry out. She focused on a crevice with a lovely curve of stone on the side, clutched the hook, and swung.
The hook lodged in the crevice with a jar that ran all the way to her shoulders. She waited until the rock jerked it from her hands before she seized the paddle and dug it into the water. The current had leapt once again into its frantic race to the water gate and it fought her like a wild thing. Was she strong enough? Should she have let Eilan do this after all?
The boat swung around and tucked itself just where she wanted to be, in the shelter of the rock, and the current loosed her from its grip. Breathing hard, she hauled on the rope connecting the boat to the hook, drawing the boat as close to the rock as she could. Then she coiled the rope around the cleat and fought with the river for enough purchase to tie it.
Arms trembling, she let go and looked up to see three small faces peering down at her. She drew a long breath. "Shall we see about getting you out of here, sweetlings?"
Immediately, all three of them stretched their arms out to her and bent their knees, as if they intended to take flying leaps into the boat. "Nana!" Legolas cried. Annael's face screwed up, and he let out a loud sob. Turgon's dark brows met over his nose.
"Wait!" She raised her palms to stop them. "Listen to me. Can you listen?"
They all pressed their mouths shut, though Annael continued to hiccup. Legolas took his hand.
Lorellin swallowed. If any of them had jumped, he would have wound up in the river and she had no idea how she would have saved him. "You see how little my boat is? I need to get you in it one at a time and arrange you so we all fit. All of you back up and sit so I do not have to worry about you falling into the river."
Eyes never leaving her, they scuffled backward and plunked down on the rock.
She hesitated. Then she did something Thranduil would probably have deeply disapproved of. "Legolas, scoot toward me so your feet are over the edge." She should have made him play the king's son and wait, but he was her baby and she was taking him first.
Legolas's face lit up. He slid toward her, arms out, fingers opening and closing. Her hands closed around his sides to pull him against her. He flung his arms around her neck, and she nearly wept. He was alive. He was safe. And he was hers.
When she lifted him, the boat swayed, and she felt him stiffen. "I have you, sweetling." She tightened her hold. "A tree in a windstorm would not drop you, and I will not either." Now she was confident. She had cradled in the treetops when the west wind blew. The rocking of the boat held no terror.
She bent to lower him into the boat. For a moment, she feared she would have to pry his hands off her neck. Then he loosened his hold and let her tuck him into the cramped space.
Tears ran silently down his face. "I skinned my knee."
In the confines of the boat, she could not bend to kiss it, so she touched her fingers to her lips and then to the raw spot. "Better?"
He sniffed and nodded.
"Sit still now while I get Turgon and Annael." She rose to her knees again to face the other two elflings.
"Annael should go next." Turgon's face was solemn. "Sometimes he is afraid."
She smiled at him. "What a good friend you are, Turgon. Come, Annael." She wiggled her fingers, and he slid trustingly into her hands. She settled him and then Turgon on either side of Legolas. They huddled together, but even so the space was so small she was going to have to stay up on her knees.
She picked up the paddle. "Are you all ready to sail down the river again?"
Legolas's mouth twisted, and Annael bit his lip, but Turgon nodded. "We are sailors."
She laughed. "We are not far from the water gate, so we will be out soon. When we get to the gate, we all have to duck down and make ourselves very small."
"All right," Legolas said.
Lorellin reached over the elflings and yanked on the rope tying them to the hook. It slithered free, and she hastily faced forward to start on the last part of her journey.
For a heartbeat, the boat hesitated. Then it darted into the current. She pictured Eilian swimming in these waters and shuddered. They are safe, she thought. They are all safe.
The boat slewed to one side. Small hands clutched at the back of her tunic as she used the paddle to steady them on their course.
They will be safe soon, she amended.
The open trap door to the storeroom flashed past overhead, and she glimpsed faces. Then the current seemed to quicken, as if the river knew it would soon be free of this narrow, rocky prison and would run among trees, where it belonged.
Ahead, a sliver of daylight curved over the surface of the water. Her heart thumped. With the river so high, the fit would be tight.
"Get ready to duck when I tell you," she said.
The boat flew toward the gap between water and rock. Gripping the paddle so tightly her hands hurt, she maneuvered them into the center where the space would be widest.
She bent forward, chest flat on the front of the boat, neck twisted as she tried to see if the elflings had made themselves small enough. Did they have their heads down? She could not tell.
The river roared in her ears. Something hard slid lightly along her spine.
Light bloomed all around her. Voices shouted. "There they are!"
Over them all, she heard Thranduil and Ithilden. "Get hold of the boat! Careful! Move it!"
She lifted her head and turned to see Legolas, Turgon, and Annael still huddled over, clutching one another, but safe. Safe!
Hooks yanked at both ends of the boat, and it jerked sideways. They were being hauled to the river bank. Then hands reached for them. Annael's father plucked him from the boat like an onion being pulled from its bed. His weeping mother wrapped her arms around them both. Turgon leapt onto shore and into Mirdaniel's embrace. For once, he was silent.
She reached for Legolas and found him being lifted to nestle against Thranduil's chest. He locked his legs around his father's waist. Ithilden appeared with a cloak and wrapped it over the still wet elfling.
Then strong arms caught her up and helped her to shore. Eilian kept his hold on her and regarded her anxiously. "Are you all right, Naneth?"
She put her trembling hands on his shoulders. "How could you swim in there without telling anyone, Eilian? I want you to stop doing these stupid things right now!"
He blinked, then laughed. "Naneth, you just sailed a very small boat along a flooded underground river. I am not sure you are in a position to talk."
She tightened her hands. The frustrating thing was he was right.
Thranduil had obviously heard the exchange. "Come, love," he said to her. "I think we need to get our two elflings home and into a hot bath. You too, for that matter." He jerked his head at Eilian and led them all toward the palace.
"Lift your arms," Ada said.
Legolas did, and Ada slid his nightshirt over his head. "Ada, I think it is still daytime."
"I know, but Nana needs a nap after paddling that boat. You would not want her to be lonely while she takes it, would you?"
Legolas shook his head. He really did not mind keeping Nana company. He was all warm from his bath now, and he was a little bit sleepy.
"Come." Ada took Legolas's hand and led him out into the hallway and then through the doorway to Ada and Nana's little sitting room. The door to the sleeping chamber was open, so Legolas could see that Nana was already in the bed. Her dark hair spread over the pillow, looking the way treetops did at night against the starry sky.
She lifted her head and stretched out her arms to him. "Come, little bird. I need you in the nest for a while."
Legolas did not know what that meant, but he thought he liked it. Nana lifted the covers, and Ada slid Legolas in to cuddle up against her.
She looked beyond him and laughed softly. Legolas heard rustling, and then the bed sagged and when he looked over his shoulder, Ada was behind him. "Are you tired too, Ada?"
"You and Nana have worn me out." Ada put his arm over Legolas so it rested on Nana too. Warmth flowed off of Ada and wrapped around Legolas's body and maybe around Nana too.
"Is your back sore?" Ada asked Nana.
"A little," she said, "but it is only a bruise."
Legolas wiggled so he would sink into the sheets. Then he put his head against Nana. She smelled like soap and the tea Ada had given Legolas to drink too. It was nice here between Ada and Nana. For a moment, Legolas thought he heard the roar of the river, and the cold dark of the tunnel tried to spread through his mind. He hunched his shoulders.
Nana stroked his hair. "Why did you go into that tunnel, Legolas?"
"We did not do it on purpose. We were playing in the boat and the boat fell in the water and the rope broke."
She kissed the top of his head. "You must be more careful, sweetling. I could not do without you."
He sighed. "I love you, Nana."
Ada said, "I love you too, Nana, and I think you must take care as well."
"Yes." Legolas put his arm around Nana's waist. "Take care, Nana."
Nana laughed. "Go to sleep, you two."
Legolas let his eyes slip out of focus. He would sleep for a while. He was safe here.
One more chapter, a short one I think, to tie up loose threads.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 8. Family
As the sitting room door closed behind Ithilden, Eilian slumped in his chair. In his opinion, he had controlled his face well when Ithilden told him what the captains decided, but Ithilden had seen his anger and been irritated. Eilian supposed he could not blame his brother. Ithilden had been upset enough about being too big to go into the cave and get the elflings the day before, and he had wanted to go after Dol Guldur as much as Eilian did. Apparently, heads even more sober than Ithilden's had prevailed.
Legolas had paid no attention to Eilian's and Ithilden's terse conversation. He sprawled on his stomach, tongue protruding from one corner of his mouth, fingers wrapped tightly around the chalk as he drew on his slate.
Their father had made both Legolas and their mother stay in his parents' apartment until this morning, under the excuse that they needed rest. Eilian suspected the real reason was that his father could not let them out of his sight after they had frightened him so badly. Of course, Eilian had spent the evening in his parents' sitting room too, with no desire to leave and find his friends. So the evening had been pleasant, but when Legolas and their mother burst out into the hall this morning, Eilian had been unable to tell which one had chafed more at the confinement.
He stretched out one stockinged foot and prodded Legolas in the ribs. "What are you drawing?"
Legolas popped to his feet and brought the slate for Eilian to see.
The letters were wobbly but clear: "Legolas."
Eilian felt a stab of dismay. His little brother was growing up so fast. "Very good. Soon you will be writing me letters I can read on patrol."
Legolas ran a finger along the carving in the chair's arm. "Are you going to your patrol soon?"
He had evidently heard more of what Ithilden said than Eilian realized. Eilian put an arm around him. "Tomorrow."
Legolas's lower lip trembled. Eilian opened his mouth but was prevented from speaking by a tap on the door. A servant entered, a motherly woman named Sathiel. She had once found a small Eilian riffling through one of the chests in his father's office, looking for sealing wax to use to heal a wounded toy warrior who had lost an arm. She had dragged him from the room by the scruff of his neck, scolding all the way, but she had also mended the soldier and not told his parents.
"I beg your pardon, my lord." Sathiel smiled broadly. "A visitor is in the antechamber asking for Legolas."
Legolas's eyes widened. "Me?"
Eilian nearly laughed. "Shall we go see who it is?"
Legolas bounced on his toes. "Yes!"
Eilian shoved his sore feet into his boots. "Come on." He reached for Legolas's hand, but the elfling was already out the door. Eilian followed, exchanging grins with Sathiel. In the antechamber, he found the door guards smiling at the two small figures in the middle of the room.
"Come now," Turgon said. "We are playing on the Green."
Legolas spun to face Eilian. "Can I go, Eilian? My friends are playing." His eyes were wide, his face flushed. Eilian could not resist, but the events of the day before were fresh in his mind.
"Yes, but I think I should go too, and we need cloaks." He turned to find Sathiel coming from the family quarters, Legolas's cloak in her hands and Eilian's over her arm. She had evidently heard what he said, for she nodded approvingly, handed him his cloak, and went to fasten Legolas's.
The instant she finished, Legolas cried, "Thank you!" and he and Turgon were out the Great Doors. Eilian hastened after them. The river had fallen since the previous day, he thought. Its voice had softened. He followed Legolas and Turgon down the steps and had started across the bridge when he spotted Gelmir coming the other way. Legolas and Turgon dashed past Gelmir and ran to where Annael waited on the Green. Eilian was relieved to see Annael's mother on a bench on the Green's far side. She smiled when he waved to her.
He stopped next to Gelmir. "Are you coming to see me?"
"I am." Gelmir looked tired, with lines around his eyes and mouth. Eilian was willing to wager he had not been sleeping well. "I hear you and the others are going back to the patrol."
"You are not coming?"
One side of Gelmir's mouth turned up. "The healers say not for a while yet." He hesitated. "I thought you might be spending a little longer at home too."
Eilian blinked. "Me? No."
They walked to a bench from which Eilian could keep an eye on Legolas. He and Annael were running after Turgon, imitating him as he wove from side to side. Turgon scrambled onto a bench and jumped off. Legolas climbed after him, with Annael right behind. Eilian glanced at Annael's mother. Seeing her continue to look serene, he relaxed.
"Did you hear my adar sent someone to block the entrance to that cave?" Eilian asked. "He thinks it is a weakness in the Stronghold's defenses."
"It probably is. Still I am sorry. It held good memories." Gelmir flicked a look at the elflings, who had squatted to examine something under the raised root of an oak. "For us anyway." He sighed and rose. "I supposed I should report to the infirmary before a healer hunts me down.
Eilian tapped him on the arm with his fist. "Take care, Gelmir."
Gelmir patted his shoulder. "You too. I will have to tell Maltanaur to keep an eye on you until I get back."
"He will anyway."
"Thank the Valar." Gelmir walked off toward the infirmary but stopped to greet Eilian's mother, who had just emerged from the path leading to Fithral's cottage. Lorellin stretched to kiss Gelmir's cheek, and he smiled and went on his way.
"Nana!" Face flushed, Legolas barreled into her and flung his arms around her legs. Brushing the hair out of his face, she said something Eilian could not hear, and he ran back to his friends. Eilian rose as his mother approached. She sat and patted the bench beside her.
Eilian accepted the invitation. "How are they?"
"Better, I think. They are back to daily tasks again. Perhaps that helps." A line appeared between her brows. "I cannot be sure, though. A loss like that would be hard to recover from."
Eilian watched the elflings run around gathering pinecones. His mother was probably going to tell him to be careful. He silently rehearsed a reassuring answer.
She said, "Have I ever told you how angry I was when my naneth decided we were moving near the Stronghold?"
He blinked. "No."
"I wanted to stay in the village where I had always lived, among trees I had always known, but my naneth's mind was made up. I am afraid I said some intemperate things." She tilted her head to look at him. "And then I took a boat out into a river even fuller than the Forest River is now."
Eilian rolled his eyes. "The Valar help us. Your naneth must have been frantic when she realized."
"She was, and that despite my not telling her what a hard time I had getting safely back to shore. I never should have done it, but at the time, fighting the rapids seemed easier than fighting my mother and much easier than fighting my own feelings. Danger is attractive sometimes because it is so distracting. Of course, it is still dangerous." She laid her hand on the crook of his arm. "Do you blame yourself for Fithral's death, Eilian?"
Eilian sat utterly still. Did he blame himself? Through his mind ran a rapid string of scenes: himself realizing where the orcs were, signaling, speaking to Maltanaur, hearing Gelmir and Fithral approaching, watching the forest floor collapse and take Fithral with it.
He sighed. "When I think about it, I know I did everything I could, so I know I am not to blame."
She seemed to consider that. "Perhaps knowing is not the same thing as feeling."
He gave her a half smile. "I am all right, Naneth."
"Very well. I believe you." She patted his arm. "Remember those at home who love you, and stay out of rapids or whatever the equivalent is in that place. In the long run, you have to face your own feelings anyway."
Eilian kissed her temple. "I will be careful." He rose. "If you are watching Legolas now, I think I will see if Amadith is free. We played a game, and I should collect my winnings before I leave."
She waved her hand. "Go."
Lorellin watched Legolas, Annael, and Turgon shift pinecones from one pile to another. As far as she could tell, they were trying to create three equal piles. She found she looked forward to seeing what would happen next.
"There you are." Thranduil settled next to her, his eyes on the elflings. "I am free for the rest of the afternoon, and I hoped you and Legolas would go for a ride with me. Eilian too, if he is around."
"He has gone to see Amadith."
Thranduil spoke slowly. "He seems to like her. You were talking about another baby. Would you be content with a grandchild?"
She raised an eyebrow, and he hurried on.
"Eilian is young, I know, but if Ithilden transferred him to the Home Guard, he could marry. He is the same age as Annael's adar, after all."
Lorellin's heart beat a little faster. It would be wonderful to have Eilian home instead of in the south. She bit her lip. "You know as well as I do that Eilian would object to being moved. He needs to fight for what he loves, and doing so steadies him. Besides Amadith is not the right one for him."
"Ithilden might say that has never stopped you with him."
She laughed and leaned against him. "Eilian told me he would be careful. Try not to worry about him."
He sat stiffly for a heartbeat or two, then relaxed. "I suppose I have no choice."
"Now!" Turgon cried, and all three elflings screamed.
Lorellin flicked her head toward the sound and found Legolas, Annael, and Turgon flinging pinecones at one another. She leapt to her feet, ready to stop them, but Annael's mother was closer.
"Stop it," Elowen said. "You could hurt one another."
Annael and Legolas whirled to face her and hastily dropped their pinecones. Turgon hesitated, then let his too fall to the ground. The three boys wandered away, edging close to one another.
Annael's mother exchanged a half-amused look with Lorellin and returned to her bench. Lorellin did not know the other woman well, but she liked what she saw. She could trust Annael's mother to take good care of Legolas.
"Are you sure he should be playing with Turgon?" Thranduil asked.
"Gelmir's mother often asked herself the same sort of question. Turgon is a sweet child really. Do not worry, love. I will keep an eye on them, although I think they should play at Annael's or at the palace rather than at Turgon's." Lorellin decided she needed to make her point now. "But first, I would like to take him with me and visit my family. Watching Fithral's family mourn for him has reminded me of how long it has been since I saw them."
Thranduil hesitated. "I do not like to let you go from the Stronghold."
"Ithilden will send guards and make some of them stay with me. The village maidens will be all in a flutter."
He nuzzled the top of her head and said nothing.
She pulled away and forced him to meet her gaze. "Thranduil, I have seen that map you and Ithilden spend all your time poring over. My family's village is within the safe area."
"Safe is relative and changing."
"I want to go."
He sighed. "The spring dancing is in a few days. After that?"
She smiled. "Very well. After that."
"What shall we do?" Legolas asked.
Turgon considered. "We could go to our boat place and make boats."
"My nana says no," Annael said.
Turgon looked to where Legolas's ada and nana sat with Ada's arm around Nana. "Your nana is a good sailor," Turgon said. "Maybe she will take us."
"No." Legolas did not want to sail boats for a while. He had been scared in the cave. Nana said he would stop being scared after a while, but that was not yet.
"Legolas!" Ada called. He and Nana had stood up and looked like they were going somewhere. Legolas started to run toward them.
"Wait!" Turgon said. "We friends should play tomorrow."
Legolas smiled at him and Annael too. "I will ask my nana."
"Good," Annael said.
Legolas ran to where Ada and Nana waited.
Ada smiled. "Would you like to go for a ride?"
"Yes!" He started to run toward the stables, but Ada caught him, threw him in the air, and settled him on his hip. Legolas laughed and put his arms around Ada's neck.
"I have to change my clothes," Nana said, "so you will have to wait."
Ada hugged him. "It is impolite to tell Nana to hurry, sweetling. You and I will just have to be gentlemen and wait. Besides," he whispered in Legolas's ear, "Nana is worth waiting for, do you not agree?"
Nana was smiling. She put her hand on Ada's arm, and they walked toward home, the place Legolas thought must be best of all, with everyone home again, at least this day and night.
AN: The title of this story comes from "Macbeth" (I.iii):
Many thanks to everyone who's been reading and especially those who reviewed. Your generous attention and kind words mean a great deal to me.
|Home Search Chapter List|