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Half-obscured by the rails of the banisters, the child crouched on the stairs, fists gripped around the carved vines on the railings. Two toy soldiers lay discarded at his side, but it had been long since they had felt the warmth of his hands.
Peering out from behind the banisters, a bright pair of grey eyes followed a solemn faced soldier as he left the King's study and crossed the hallway. People had been coming and going all morning, all of them equally solemn- faced, although it had been the tone of their voices rather than their expressions that had disturbed the young prince from play.
The words were inaudible through the thick oak of the study doors, but the worry and strain cut easily through the thickest wood. He had been listening to discussion all morning, only a dull rumble carrying up to his hiding place, the distant thunder of an approaching storm.
"There you are! I've been looking all over for you." A firm hand grabbed the back of the child's tunic and hustled him up the winding stairs, its usual gentleness masked by haste. "Did I not tell you to stay in the playroom? Dinner almost on the table and you not even washed yet!"
The boy cast a backwards glance at his abandoned soldiers, rocking on the steps, then turned to his nanny.
"My hands are not so very dirty, honestly." Small hands were spread as far as they could reach, but the peachy skin was ignored as he was guided into his bedroom and large hands briskly undid the back buttons on his tunic.
"We must not be late." Swift hands moved in steady brushstrokes before rapidly re-braiding the dark hair. "Your father has enough to worry him."
The speed at which the small tunic was being pulled over his head accelerated considerably, until the child was once more visible.
"What does worry Adar exactly?" The boy asked hopefully.
"Nothing to worry you." A warm soapy flannel was passed over his face and hands, causing vigorous face pulling.
But he was worried.
The King came upstairs in long strides, aware that the family dinner would probably be cold from waiting for him. It had been a worrying morning and he was glad of the interruption - at least he would be if he were allowed some peace. His son had inherited his own easy way with words, and was a natural public speaker - sometimes he wondered if the boy just enjoyed the sound of his own voice.
His foot crunched down onto some scrap of rubbish that had been left on the stairs, and biting back a curse, the King bent down to investigate. One soldier still remained, but his comrade now lay in splintered pieces under the large boot. Carefully the King gathered the remains of the toys and placed them behind a flower vase before proceeding. He must make time to mend the figure before his son missed them.
"Good afternoon." He spoke wearily as he entered the dining room and his son sprung up to greet him.
"Good afternoon, Adar." The child spoke pleasantly enough, but there was a hint of reproach in the grey eyes. It could not have been easy for a hungry child to sit and watch his favourite meal grow cold.
"Did you have a good morning, darling?" His wife smiled up at him as she dished out generous helpings onto the traditionally patterned crockery.
He frowned. It had not, by any stretch of the imagination been a good morning.
"I have received news from afar. If I may have a moment with you alone this afternoon?"
The boy lost interest in his parents' conversation as he began tucking into his midday meal. It was only as his plate became bare, and the table fell into silence, that he remembered what had been said.
"Adar?" He waited for his father to look up before continuing. "What would worry you?"
The King placed his knife and fork back on his plate, and looked at the child with what would later be recalled as interest.
"Why Ereinion, that's a big question! Let me think. Dragons of course, wargs and big scary trolls."
The boy's forehead furrowed into a frown, and with a jolt his father realised that he was not the tiny child that he had once been.
"What worries you today Adar?" The child persisted with a patience that warned that he would not be easily distracted.
"Well Ereinion," the King reached out to stroke his son's hair, "I have not yet told your mother, so to tell you would not be fair. But I will tell you this evening when we play chess."
And with that the child had to be satisfied.
Once his afternoon's fencing practice had been completed, Ereinion returned his weapon to the rack and before his nanny could catch him, slipped off to his secret place among the trees that grew near the river that flowed through the settlement.
It was peaceful here, and if he scrambled up the third three from the water's edge there was a broad, gently sloping branch that he could sit on. He climbed up there now, and sat back against the gnarled trunk of the tree, partially hidden by the new spring leaves.
It was never peaceful at home, not any more. Or maybe he was just noticing it more now he was older. People were always coming and going, bringing messages or limping up the stairs. His father always seemed cross and busy, hardly having the time to play or talk with him. And although he was not often allowed out of the safety of the palace, the few times that he had managed to escape unnoticed, the town had also been busy. Unhappily busy with crying mothers and hungry children and wounded soldiers.
The sound of voices caused Ereinion to shrink back into the shadow of the tree. Almost invisible among the branches he watched three elves making their way along the track that wound its way through the trees. All three were dressed in armour, bearing the colours of his father's house, and one was being supported between the other two.
Curiously Ereinion wriggled forwards on the branch until he was lying face down along its length. Resting his cheek on a soft patch of moss and inhaling the earthy smell, he peeped down at the elves that were passing beneath him.
He could see now that there was something poking out from the wounded elf's tunic - an arrow. Tiny droplets of blood marked their path through the woods. Rather excited, Ereinion stared openly at the arrow. He had been told before now that in war, people shot arrows at each other rather than targets, but he hadn't known that it would look like that.
Their voices drifted up through the branches, and by listening hard Ereinion could just make out the words. It seemed that they had seen orcs. . . real orcs. Even more interested now, he leant further forwards, almost falling out of the tree in his efforts to catch every word. And then it seemed as if there were more orcs than they had expected, and that these orcs were expected to attack their home. And the soldier on the left didn't think that they would be able to withstand such an attack.
Shivering suddenly, Ereinion sat up and hugged his knees to his chest. Maybe he should go and get his sword, or at least keep it under his bed. He did not know how big orcs were, but surely even the smallest sword was better than none. This time he could help his father.
With this encouraging thought he slid down the tree and leapt to the ground, and started running towards his home.
Ereinion adjusted the leather straps and settled the belt across his hips, fastening the silver buckles with practised fingers. He admired himself in the mirror for a few minutes, twisting his body to view the effect from every angle. He did not look much like a soldier, not yet. Maybe if he was just a little older and bigger.
The soft noise of footsteps along the corridor outside caused him to hurriedly slip off his sword and sheath. Wrapping them carefully in an old blue cloak, he shoved his bundle under his pillows just as his nanny came in.
To hurry him up. As usual. To scold him for the mud and bits of bark on his clothes. As usual. To reprimand him for sneaking off instead of going on his afternoon walk. As usual. He could not see why they did not give him more freedom. He was quite old enough to do without a nanny. Particularly one that nagged.
With a long-suffering sigh Ereinion sat down and began unlacing the muddy boots that he should have removed at the door.
When he joined his parents that evening, after a solitary supper, his father was looking particularly grim and his mother's eyes appeared suspiciously bright.
"Have you been crying, Naneth?" The grey eyes widened with concern and he walked over carefully to pat his mother's hand.
Her lips began quivering slightly so she pinched them together, and reached to stroke her son's hair.
"I am not crying, my son. But I am sad."
Ereinion leant his head back into his mother's hand.
"Why are you sad?" He asked solemnly, and when his mother shook her head and did not reply, turned to his father. "Why is Naneth sad, Adar?"
Noticing the note of panic in his son's voice the King set down his book and beckoned him over. Ereinion scrambled eagerly into his father's lap and snuggled against his father, finding comfort from their closeness and the warmth.
"What is the matter, Adar?" Large eyes looked up into his father's unhappy face. He was becoming steadily more frightened the longer the silence lasted. "Is it the orcs? Are they coming? I can get my sword!"
The child wriggled and made to leap from his father's embrace, but a large arm held him back.
"No Ereinion, there is no danger here yet." He almost smiled. He had noticed that his son's small sword had disappeared earlier. He wondered where it was hidden - in his wardrobe, under his soft toy fawn - he had always favoured the pillows himself. "But we must make sure that if there is danger later, you will be nice and safe."
"I am safe, Adar." Ereinion pointed out, wondering where the conversation was going.
"There are places that you could be safer." His father said gravely. Ereinion did not look convinced so he added, "Places where you could play outside as often as you wished."
The child smiled at that, so his mother took over.
"We have a friend -a very very nice elf - called Cirdan." She watched as her son's brow furrowed as he tried to understand what was being said.
"He is the one who builds ships." Ereinion said slowly.
"Yes. And nothing would please him more than if you went to stay with him awhile." She smiled desperately, as if her son's agreement was necessary to avoid the imminent tears.
"I do not like ships." Ereinion said coldly.
"Well, I am sure that Cirdan will help you change your mind." His father said in a strained jovial voice, placing an arm around his wife's shaking shoulders. "He lives near the sea and you shall be able to go swimming."
"I do not like swimming." Ereinion said boldly and untruthfully, then as his parents' words came home to him his voice began to wobble. "I do not want to go. I want to stay here."
"But you must go. To be safe."
Ereinion sniffed and then began crying in earnest.
But he knew it was a futile argument, so he crawled between his parents, and they both hugged him. He cried for a while, and he thought that his mother and even his father wept as well.
Eventually though, he knew he would have to stop, just as he knew that no matter what he said and did, he would be going to visit Cirdan. And he was the High Prince of the Noldor, and as such he was sure he was expected to be brave and not cry. So he slid down onto the ground, and rubbed his damp cheeks with his sleeve.
"Adar, do you wish to play chess?"
His father smiled gratefully and began setting out the pieces.
"I think that I should choose the colour. Especially if I am to go away soon." Ereinion said earnestly, peeping up through dark lashes to see if this ploy was working.
His father chuckled so that the corners of his eyes crinkled, and he leant to ruffle the boy's hair.
"You know, I think so too."
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