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I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.
3. Along the River
Thranduil glanced at Legolas, shifting in his chair, and waited placidly for his youngest son to say whatever it was that was making him play with his porridge rather than eat it. He could see Ithilden watching Legolas too, amusement on his face.
“Is something the matter with Eilian?”
Thranduil blinked and could see Ithilden sobering immediately. They exchanged a glance, and then Thranduil turned to find Legolas watching them anxiously. “As you know, Eilian has been ill, but he will recover,” he said, as reassuringly as possible. In truth, Thranduil had been worried since Eilian had come home with shadow sickness, and the last few days had not brought any relief, but he was not about to admit that to Legolas.
Legolas looked down and pushed his spoon around in his bowl. “Was he drunk last evening?” He kept his eyes averted while he waited for Thranduil to answer.
Thranduil put his own spoon down and thought rapidly about how to answer that question honestly without saying more than he wished to say. “Legolas, I know that you are worried about Eilian. But you must believe me when I tell you that Ithilden and I are aware of Eilian’s actions and are doing what we can to help him. And Maltanaur is with him too.”
Legolas looked up now, studying Thranduil’s face as if not quite sure whether to believe him or not. “You heard about what happened at the archery contest?”
Thranduil nodded. “I heard. Legolas, if you want to help Eilian, the best thing you can do right now is leave him in peace. Go to training and to your lessons and have fun with your friends. Trust Ithilden and me to look after Eilian.”
Legolas paused for a second more and then, to Thranduil’s relief, he nodded. “Very well,” he said. A slow smile crept onto his face. “If you say I should have fun with my friends, I will try to do that. Turgon and Annael are going to listen to the singing by the river tonight. May I go with them?”
Ithilden snorted inelegantly and Thranduil threw him an admonishing glare before turning back to Legolas. He eyed his youngest son sharply, trying to decide if his expression of concern for Eilian had been a way to maneuver Thranduil into this position, but he immediately dismissed the idea. Legolas loved Eilian and was worried about him. Of that, there could be no question. No, Legolas had simply taken advantage of an opening that Thranduil himself had provided.
“Please, Adar,” Legolas begged. “Annael is allowed to go if he asks each time and stays between the far edge of the training fields and the pond and goes home within an hour after it grows dark. I could do that too, and I would be with Annael and Turgon.”
Thranduil sighed. Ah yes. Legolas would be with Turgon. Somehow, Thranduil did not find that that made him feel any better about letting his youngest child out after dark without an adult. Turgon was a source of endless mischief, and the problem was that Thranduil knew only too well that Legolas was at an age when what started as mischief could easily grow into real trouble.
“When Eilian was my age, you let him go out after dark,” Legolas argued.
Thranduil frowned and wondered how Legolas knew that. Really, Eilian should know better. “When Eilian was your age, the Peace was still in effect.”
Legolas looked at Ithilden. “Could you go out at night when you were my age, Ithilden?”
“I cannot remember,” answered Ithilden promptly, and when both Thranduil and Legolas glared at him, he threw up his hands and laughed. “Really, I cannot, but if you will excuse me Adar, I think I will go to work and let you two finish this discussion without me.” Thranduil nodded stiffly, and Ithilden rose and left the room, and as Thranduil watched him go, he found that he could not remember whether Ithilden had been allowed out at night at Legolas’s age either. He rather thought that was a decision that Lorellin had made. He sighed.
Thranduil looked at Legolas’s serious face, thought about his son’s good heart and the responsible way he usually behaved at training and at lessons, and made up his mind. “If I let you do as Annael does, Legolas, you will need to remember that you are not just like Annael. You will be seen as my son even when you do not intend to be. Can you keep that in mind?”
Legolas’s face had lit up as soon as he realized that Thranduil was about to give in, and he answered almost before Thranduil had finished speaking. “I will remember, Adar. You do not have to worry about me. And thank you!”
Thranduil smiled, still uncertain about the freedom he had just granted his youngest son. “You are welcome, child.” Legolas began shoveling porridge into his mouth, happy at the prospect of what awaited him at the end of his day. Thranduil watched him briefly, hoping his decision was not going to lead to trouble, and then glanced at Eilian’s empty chair and sobered. Eilian’s actions were an entirely different matter, he thought unhappily. There was no doubt at all that there was trouble there of a very dangerous kind. He had already asked Eilian to stay away from Legolas. He would have to see to it that Legolas also stayed away from Eilian.
Alfirin opened the cottage door in response to the knock and found the king’s oldest son standing on the doorstep. Her breath caught. His back was to the setting sun, so his face was in shadows, but he looked very large, silhouetted against the dusky sky. “Good evening, mistress,” he said.
“Good evening, my lord.” They stood staring at one another for a moment before she remembered her manners. “Will you come in?” she asked hastily, hoping she was not blushing but fearing that the warmth in her face meant that she was.
He stepped into the hallway, and she closed the door behind him. She led him to the sitting room, where her parents and brother were sipping chamomile tea. “Lord Ithilden is here,” she said, and they all turned startled faces her way.
Standing in the sitting room doorway, Ithilden bowed slightly. “Good evening,” he repeated.
Alfirin’s mother jumped to her feet. “Come in, my lord. Please sit. Would you like some tea? Tonduil, run to the kitchen and get another cup.”
Ithilden stepped to one side, as Tonduil edged past him, his eyes huge. Alfirin had to smother a smile. She had heard her little brother speak about the troop commander often enough that she suspected he both admired Ithilden and was overawed by him. Her mother indicated the chair Tonduil had just vacated, and Ithilden sat down.
“I hope I am not imposing.”
“Of course not,” Alfirin’s father said. Silence immediately descended on them all, broken only when Tonduil came back into the room with a cup and saucer, which he handed to his mother. She filled the cup and handed it to Ithilden, as Tonduil settled on a stool next to the fireplace. They all stared at Ithilden as if waiting for him to speak.
He took a tiny sip of the tea and swallowed hard. “The tea is very good.”
“It is a lovely evening …”
“The music at the feast last night …”
“I gathered the chamomile …”
Alfirin and her parents all spoke at the same time and all halted. Alfirin could feel the faint heat in her face deepening. What must he think of them?
At that moment, behind Ithilden, Tonduil’s cat appeared on the sill of the sitting room window, which stood open to the long summer evening. Alfirin saw it eye the pitcher of milk on the table and leaned forward quickly to defend it, just as the cat leapt from the sill to the back of Ithilden’s chair, startling him enough that he fumbled with his cup and spilled hot tea into his lap. He jumped up with a stifled exclamation, and Alfirin gave a cry of horror, snatched up a napkin from the table, and began dabbing at the wet spots on his tunic and leggings. He seized her wrist.
“Do not trouble yourself,” he said, sounding as if he was struggling for air. “I am fine.” She stared at the area to which she had been ministering and felt as if her face had gone up in flames.
Alfirin’s healer mother was plainly concerned. “Are you burnt, my lord? Let me take a look.” Alfirin barely stopped herself from moaning in humiliation. She wished she could jump through the window after the vanishing cat.
“No!” Ithilden said forcefully. “I assure you I am fine. The tea was not hot enough to burn me.” He drew a deep breath and set his empty cup on the table. “I fear I must take my leave now. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Let me see you out, my lord,” said Alfirin’s father, who actually had the nerve to look amused as well as slightly horrified at what had just happened in his sitting room. He and Ithilden went out into the hall, and Alfirin heard the front door open and close. He came back into the room and the three of them stood staring at one another. Abruptly, they all burst out laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” demanded Tonduil in horror. “We spilled tea on the troop commander!”
Alfirin sobered and put her hand to her mouth. “I know. He will never come back.” Suddenly, the situation was not funny at all.
Her parents both smiled at her. “I think he will,” her mother said affectionately and patted Alfirin’s shoulder.
Eilian strolled along the riverbank, listening to the songs being raised by groups of Elves who had gathered to share music and wine in the summer twilight. Occasionally someone called a greeting to him, but he noticed that no one invited him to join them. He could hardly blame them, he thought wryly. He was not good company these days by anyone’s standards and had not been for at least two weeks before Maltanaur had approached him in camp that day and declared that he would drag Eilian home forcibly if he did not consent to go on his own.
“I will not stand by and watch you destroy yourself,” Maltanaur had said, grasping his arm roughly as he had tried to pull away. “You need to be away from the shadow for a while, Eilian, and you need to see the healers.”
For just a moment, Eilian recalled the black despair that had engulfed him and shuddered. He had seen many warriors with shadow sickness and had felt its faint tinge in himself, as did anyone who ventured near it. But he had never before had it wrap its tendrils so insidiously around his heart, sucking all joy from his life. He had always sympathized with those who suffered from the sickness, but he had taken pride in believing that he could serve in the south for year after year and not succumb. He had been lucky, the healers said: His naturally optimistic temperament had protected him and was helping him to recover quickly now. At least they claimed his recovery was quick, although it did not feel so to him, but then he was no longer telling the healers everything. He was proud of having brushed the sickness off rather well, but that he had had it at all had shaken his faith in his own strength.
I will not have it again, he vowed to himself. I know the signs now. I will do anything I can to fight the last bits of it off now, and I will not have it again.
He halted his steps for a moment to listen to a song that blended particularly well with the music the river made as it rushed by on his left. The sound of the river spoke of home to him, and his heart eased a little. “The Valar bless you, my lord,” called a voice from among the trees, and he smiled slightly and raised his hand in thanks, but he did not want to stop here. Tonight, he needed to be alone.
As he resumed walking, he scanned those seated on blankets or reclining in the grass, people whom, for the most part, he had known all his life. Did they all have dark moments? he wondered. If he had been so mistaken about himself, could he be mistaken about some of these seemingly cheerful people too?
If he were honest, he thought, he would have to admit that what really galled him was that no one else had been as surprised by his illness as he was. He pictured the looks he had seen on people’s faces at the solstice feast, ending with the angry face of his father, and he grimaced. He supposed that no one would have been very surprised by that either.
Legolas ran across the bridge to where Turgon and Annael waited for him. They were grinning and Annael cried, “I still cannot believe your adar allowed you to come with us.”
“I cannot believe it either,” Legolas grinned back.
“Come,” said Turgon. “People are singing and harping along the river.”
“My naneth gave me cider and seedcakes for all of us,” Annael added.
Legolas happily followed his two friends toward the path that meandered along the edge of the Forest River. As they had said, Elves were scattered in small groups along the river and music flowed all around them. They stopped occasionally to listen to a song they liked and then wandered on to the next group.
Turgon eventually led them to a small clump of beech trees that were a little off the path, and the three of them scrambled into one of the trees and settled on branches within reach of one another. Legolas accepted a seedcake and a drink of the cider Annael offered and then leaned back against the tree’s trunk to look at the stars that were just beginning to open. For a moment, he was struck speechless by their beauty and that of the music of the Elves and trees.
“Penntalion was grouchy today,” Turgon observed, swinging his foot lazily.
“He was grouchy with you,” Annael corrected.
Turgon scowled. “He does not like me. I hit the target at least as often as Tonduil did, but Penntalion did not scold him at all.”
Legolas lowered his eyes to regard his friend. “Tonduil is not as good as you are, Turgon, but he tries. Your form is sloppy, and you know it.”
Turgon rolled his eyes. “If I hit the target, I do not see why the rest of it matters.”
Legolas was about to explain yet again why a consistent form mattered when he caught sight of Eilian, pacing toward the shadows of an oak tree. His brother flung himself to the ground under the tree, drew his knees up, and began tapping his fingers against them. He looked restlessly left and right and then leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes for a second, only to open them and once again scan the area.
“Is something the matter with Eilian?” Turgon whispered in Legolas’s ear.
Legolas turned to find Turgon eyeing Eilian curiously. Beyond him, Annael was looking sympathetically at Legolas. When he saw Legolas looking at him, he bit his lip and hurriedly withdrew his gaze. Legolas felt his stomach tighten. Annael’s warrior father talked to him about things that Thranduil refused to discuss with Legolas, and now Legolas wondered what Annael knew that he did not.
He looked back at Eilian and was surprised to find that someone had joined him in the dusky space under the oak. An older Elf whom Legolas did not recognize had sat down next to Eilian and was leaning close to speak to him. He handed something to Eilian and then rose and faded away into the forest. Eilian sat for a moment, staring at what lay in his hand. Then he rose to his feet and started down a path that would lead him deeper into the woods.
Without even thinking, Legolas began traveling through the branches keeping Eilian in sight but trying to stay out of view himself. Fear quickened his breath. The stranger’s approach and his gift had both seemed very odd to Legolas. Eilian was involved in something very disturbing, and Legolas intended to find out what it was.
He jumped when a shadowy figure dropped from the trees onto the path where Eilian walked, but then relaxed and halted in the branches when he realized that it was Maltanaur. Annael and Turgon lit lightly on the branch next to Legolas, and they all watched in silence as Eilian and Maltanaur spoke to one another in voices too soft for them to hear. They began walking together further into the woods, and Legolas was getting ready to follow when Annael caught at his sleeve.
“I have to go home,” he whispered. “It is getting late.”
“We can stay a little longer,” Turgon urged. He sounded excited, and Legolas knew he had enjoyed following Eilian, even though Legolas was certain that Turgon was not particularly concerned about his brother.
Legolas turned and saw Annael’s anxious face and then turned back to look in the direction in which Eilian and Maltanaur had disappeared. If it was time for Annael to go home, then it was time for him to go home too, and he did not want to be late on this first night he had been allowed out. “Annael is right,” he conceded reluctantly, and although Turgon continued to grumble, the three of them started for home.
Maltanaur dropped from the trees and approached. “Did you get what you needed?”
“Yes,” Eilian said. He opened the flap of the small paper packet of dangwath that the strange Elf had given him, and Maltanaur looked at it with loathing in his face. “Did you see him?”
Maltanaur nodded soberly.
“Do you know him? I have seen him occasionally, I think, but I do not even know his name. I was waiting for someone to see I was alone and approach me, but I was surprised when he did.”
“His name is Hiolith,” Maltanaur said. He gave a ghost of a smile. “We should go elsewhere to speak though. Your little brother and his friends followed you and are watching us now.”
Eilian felt an instant stab of alarm. He knew Thranduil had allowed Legolas out this evening, but he also knew that he himself was looking for trouble and he certainly did not want his brother anywhere near it. “What are they up to?”
Maltanaur shrugged. “Nothing, I think. They were nearby when you and Hiolith met and were probably curious.”
“Come,” said Eilian and set off immediately, listening for any signs that the youngsters were following them.
“Let me check,” said Maltanaur, and he disappeared into the trees. He returned shortly and shook his head. “They went toward home.”
“Good.” Eilian relaxed a little. “My adar told me to stay away from Legolas until I am not involved in this any more, and, for once, I could not have agreed with him more.” He and Maltanaur found a fallen log and sat down. “Tell me about Hiolith.”
Maltanaur sighed. “I have not thought about him in years. He was a warrior. He served in the south just after the end of the Watchful Peace, and the shadow always weighed heavily on him, but every time Ithilden reassigned him, he would ask to come back again as soon as he was healed. He felt it was where he was most needed, I think. Then something happened to his family, although I am not sure I know all the details. I think they were traveling to visit his wife’s naneth when Orcs attacked the party. His wife and two young children were all killed.”
Eilian flinched. His own mother had died under circumstances that were similar enough to make his heart constrict. “What happened to him after that?”
Maltanaur shook his head. “I do not know. He was devastated, of course, and he was suffering a bout of shadow sickness at the time, as I recall. I have not seen him in years, and truthfully I thought he must have sailed west.”
Eilian turned the packet of dangwath over and over in his hand, remembering the rush of relief he had experienced the first time the healers gave it to him. He had been lost in darkness and had feared he would never see light again, and then the sun had broken through. He sighed. “I will need to see him again.”
“Are you sure you have to do that?” Maltanaur asked, his brows drawn together.
“Yes,” Eilian said simply.
Maltanaur pressed his lips into a thin line. “I have already told you that I do not think you should be doing this, but if you must, then I will go with you.”
Eilian nodded and then looked up into the branches overhead, trying to let the trees’ song bring him comfort.
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