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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.
5. An Evening’s Occupation
“Well?” said Thranduil. “What have you learned?”
“Did Ithilden tell you that Maltanaur found out where Hiolith lived and that he showed us where he grows the dangwath?”
Thranduil’s mouth tightened. “He did.”
Eilian hesitated. He was still trying to decide what he thought about Hiolith. His own shadow-driven despair and gratitude for how dangwath had made him feel were still too fresh in his mind to leave him comfortable with condemning Hiolith. “He is growing far more than he would need for just himself,” he finally admitted.
“Then he is probably the one who is selling the herb to the Men of Esgaroth.” Thranduil looked grimly satisfied at having that fact in his possession.
“He did not want payment from me,” Eilian protested.
“He may see Men differently.” Thranduil’s manner was brisk now. “What do you plan to do next? I want this finished soon, Eilian. I want to be able to tell the Master of Esgaroth that no more illicit dangwath will be spread among his people, and more than that, I want you out of this situation so that you can rest and recover fully before you go south again.”
“I am well enough!”
“No, you are not. I consented to this scheme because Ithilden convinced me that you were the only person who would be able to carry it off in a believable way, but I will not let you get so deeply into this that you harm yourself.”
Eilian looked down into his cup of watered wine. He had not admitted it to anyone else, but he found it simultaneously flattering and insulting that his father and brother both thought he would be convincing as someone who could not stop using the herb. He looked up again. “If Hiolith is supplying the herb to Men, then he has to meet with them at some point. Maltanaur and I are going to keep watch on the dangwath and see if anyone comes.” He put his cup down. “With your leave, I will go to meet Maltanaur now.”
Thranduil nodded his approval. “Go. But take care, Eilian.” He gripped Eilian’s shoulder and looked earnestly into his eyes. “These Men could be dangerous, and you are not yet fully yourself.”
Eilian smiled wanly, feeling again the mixture of emotions his father tended to rouse in him, as gratitude for Thranduil’s love warred with exasperation at his failure to see Eilian as competent and trustworthy. “I will be careful, Adar.” Thranduil released him, and he took his leave.
Legolas lay back on his bed with his hands clasped behind his head. The ceiling was no more interesting now that it had been an hour ago, but he had finished the work his tutor had given him and was too restless to read or even finish fletching the new arrows he had made. He had been confined to his chamber for only a few hours and already he was sick of the sight of his four walls.
Moreover, he was worried about what Eilian might be doing and even more worried about what he should be doing to help his brother. If he could follow Eilian, he supposed he could try to stop Eilian from taking the herb or even just talk to him about it, but he could not do that if he never saw Eilian.
A knock sounded at his door and he sat up quickly. “Come in,” he said eagerly, but when the door opened, it was Ithilden who came through it rather than Eilian. Ithilden was dressed in a tunic of deep green silk, so Legolas assumed he was going out, and his own desire to be out of the palace deepened.
“How are you doing?” Ithilden asked. “I missed you at evening meal.”
Legolas made a face and flopped back on the bed. “I am bored.”
“That is not too surprising, I suppose. Would it brighten your spirits to know that Adar sent me to tell you that you are to take meals with us starting tomorrow?”
“I guess it is better than eating by myself in here.”
Ithilden laughed, which Legolas found annoying, but then his brother sat down on the edge of the bed. “I am sorry you are confined, Legolas, but you could not have expected Adar to do anything else. He is worried about your safety.”
“I did not take any of the dangwath, and I told Adar that!”
“But you had some of the herb and there is no way you could have gotten it legitimately. And that means you were around other people who were thinking about taking it without a healer saying they needed it. I am afraid that Adar suspects you got it from Turgon. I think you are fortunate he has not forbidden you to have anything to do with Turgon. It is what I would have done.”
“You did not tell Adar that!” Legolas sat up in alarm. He already knew that Ithilden thought he should not be allowed to spend time with Turgon, because his brother had told him so on more than one occasion, but so far as he knew, his brother had never tried to tell their father so.
“No,” Ithilden said. “And he would have taken my head off it I had.”
Legolas relaxed. That was true enough. Thranduil bristled when anyone, even Ithilden, tried to interfere with the way he treated Legolas. “Turgon did not take any of the dangwath either,” Legolas asserted. Ithilden regarded him steadily, and Legolas found it hard to bear the scrutiny of his serious grey eyes, so he lowered his own gaze. “And anyway, people who do take it might not be all bad,” he added cautiously.
“I agree,” Ithilden said immediately, “but you still need to stay away from them.”
Legolas chewed the inside of one cheek. “What would you do for those people?” he finally asked. “How can you help them if you stay away from them?”
Ithilden hesitated. “What I would do is different from what you should do, Legolas. If you think someone needs help, you should tell an adult who is in a position to help them.”
Legolas considered that. Should he tell Ithilden or Thranduil about Eilian? He really did not see how he could do that. His father was already angry at Eilian, and Ithilden was Eilian’s commanding officer and would probably discipline him if he knew what was going on. Besides, he rather thought that Ithilden underestimated what he could do for Eilian himself if given a chance. Eilian loved him, and if Legolas could get him to listen, then there would be no need for angry words to fly between Eilian and his father or Ithilden.
“Are you worried about Eilian, Legolas?” Ithilden asked suddenly.
Legolas looked up in surprise. How had Ithilden known that? “A little,” he admitted. “He is ill, and I never get to see him.” He certainly was not going to tell Ithilden about Eilian taking more dangwath.
“Are you worried about something in particular?”
“No. Just what I said.” He was determined to say no more.
“Try not to be too concerned, Legolas. Adar and I are taking care of Eilian, and soon he will be himself again.”
Legolas hoped that was true. He eyed Ithilden. “Are you going out?”
“Yes.” Ithilden rose, accepting that the conversation was at an end.
“Have a nice time,” Legolas said rather forlornly, and Ithilden grinned and ruffled his hair.
“This will not last forever, little brother.”
Legolas sighed as Ithilden departed. He already felt as if he had been confined forever.
At the sound of a knock on his office door, Thranduil looked up from the petition he was reading in preparation for holding court the next day. “Come in,” he called, and Ithilden entered. Thranduil raised his eyebrow. “I thought you were going out.”
Thranduil was trying to leave his oldest son to court the healer’s daughter in peace, but he was finding it difficult. He was still uncertain if Alfirin would be willing to live her life in the palace with the king’s oldest son who was also the troop commander and whose self-confidence occasionally extended to the point of arrogance, but he liked her and thought she might be good for his son. And of course, Ithilden was showing very few signs of arrogance in his approach to the maiden, which was slowing things down more than Thranduil would have preferred. Of course, his son’s reticence also gave Thranduil hope that he might actually love this maiden. Hence his impatience at finding Ithilden still at home.
“I am on my way,” Ithilden responded, “but I wanted to tell you that I just spoke to Legolas, and as you thought, he is worried about Eilian. He has undoubtedly seen more than we wished him to and has drawn the obvious conclusion.”
Thranduil sighed and rubbed his temples. “I thought he probably had. The first thing he said about the dangwath was that he had not gotten it from Eilian, and I had not mentioned Eilian at all.” He frowned. “Legolas and his friends were absent from training this morning when Eilian found the place where Hiolith grows the herb, and then they turned up with some of the dangwath in their possession. They must have followed him. I probably should tell Annael’s and Turgon’s parents, but I do not want to reveal Eilian’s subterfuge to anyone else if I can help it. I trust Annael’s parents at least, but they might react differently to Eilian’s actions if they knew what was happening and that could be dangerous not only for him, but for them.”
“I think Annael is safe enough,” said Ithilden. “His parents will keep him close because he left the training field, if for no other reason. And Turgon does not usually act on one of his schemes without Legolas or Annael in tow.”
“I hope this will all be over soon,” Thranduil said. “I do not like the strain it is placing on Eilian. He is still not well.”
“He will be fine, Adar. This is the kind of thing he is good at and enjoys. He is very convincing.”
Thranduil grimaced. “That Eilian is convincing is, unfortunately, probably true.”
Ithilden smiled sympathetically. “I will be on my way then.”
Thranduil waved permission for him to go, and he left the room. For a moment, Thranduil sat lost in thought about his middle son. Eilian was indeed very convincing, so convincing that although Thranduil was ashamed to admit it, he had had occasional flashes of doubt about whether Eilian’s behavior was entirely an act. Eilian was, after all, still suffering from shadow sickness, a fact that had made Thranduil vigorously resist the idea of using him to hunt for those who were providing the dangwath to the Men of Esgaroth. But Ithilden had complete confidence in Eilian’s ability and discretion, and Eilian himself had wanted to undertake the task, so Thranduil had reluctantly allowed it.
He sighed and tried to turn his attention back to the petition on his desk. Maltanaur was with Eilian and Legolas was under guard. His sons were as safe as he could make them. Much as he hated to acknowledge it, he would simply have to accept that there with things that were beyond his control.
Ithilden drew a deep breath and knocked on the door of Alfirin’s cottage. Things would surely go better tonight than they had last night. He smiled wryly. They could hardly go worse after all, he thought. The door opened and Alfirin stood before him, looking gratifyingly pleased to see him.
“Good evening,” he greeted her. “It is such a fine night that I wondered if you might like to go for a walk.” He had decided that it would be much easier to talk to Alfirin without her family hovering over them.
She smiled a little shyly. “I would like that, my lord. Just let me get a shawl.” She ran down the hall and ducked through a doorway. He stood on the step and listened, but he could near no one else in the house. Either they were all out or they were all sitting in breathless silence in the sitting room, listening to him and Alfirin. He decided he did not want to know which of those things was the case. Alfirin came back with a shawl woven in different shades of blue flung over her shoulders.
“The shawl is beautiful,” he said. “Did you make it?”
She nodded and took the arm he offered, and the two of them started along the path toward the river. Her hand rested trustingly on his arm, and his heart quickened. The silence stretched out a little too long, and he cast about for something to say. “How does Tonduil like the weapons training?”
She frowned slightly. “He likes archery, and of course, he needs to know how to hunt. But I do not think he likes the sword training. He dislikes having to spar, and he came home with a big bruise on one arm today.”
Ithilden was surprised by her obvious disapproval. “Everyone gets bruised during sparring. It cannot be helped and indeed is part of how one learns to do better.”
“He is too young for this,” she declared. “I hate to see him having to learn to fight when he should be playing in the trees.” Suddenly she flushed and bit her lip. “I hope you are not offended,” she apologized.
“Of course not,” he said, although he had to admit he did feel a little defensive about the training that was, after all, part of his responsibility to supervise. Ithilden hated seeing Legolas being groomed as a warrior too, but the reports he saw every day told him that it was only too necessary. He sighed.
They had reached the river now, and music sounded from all around them. She turned her suddenly glowing face to look up at him. “This is so beautiful. I am glad we came.”
He relaxed a little and smiled at her, and they strolled in silence that now seemed companionable. She pulled her shawl more closely around her. “Are you cold?” he asked in concern. The evening had grown chilly.
“A little,” she admitted.
“Come,” he said and led her toward where several Elves were grouped around a fire.
“Mae govannen,” the Elves greeted them, and Alfirin stretched out her hands to the flames.
“I am told you play the harp too, my lord,” she said, and he felt a warm flush of pleasure that she had been talking about him with someone. She turned a little toward him. “Will you let me hear you play some time?”
“Look out!” cried one of the other Elves, jumping to his feet, and Ithilden looked to find that Alfirin had dragged the edge of her shawl through the fire so that flames were now creeping up it. With a cry that obviously startled her, he snatched the shawl from her shoulders, flung it to the ground, and stamped out the flames with the help of the Elf who had first spotted them. Then he turned back toward her, only to find her staring at him with wide eyes, while holding the top of her dress in place with both hands. Suddenly, he recalled the loud tearing noise he had heard when he grabbed her shawl.
“I am so sorry,” he gasped.
“Do not apologize,” she said, her voice tight. “Indeed I should thank you. You just saved me from possibly being burned.” He started toward her, but she backed up hastily, and one of the maidens who had been sitting around the fire jumped up to put her own shawl around Alfirin’s shoulders.
“I will walk you home,” he said, wondering desperately if this was really happening or if he was perhaps caught in a nightmare.
“No!” She sounded close to tears. “I would rather go by myself.”
“We will walk with you, Alfirin,” said a second maiden, and she and the one who had given Alfirin her shawl took up positions on either side of Alfirin and then started up the path leading away from the river. Ithilden stood staring after her.
“That was bad luck, my lord,” commented one of the other Elves and then flinched away when Ithilden threw him a fierce glare before he began striding rapidly toward the office of the Home Guard, where he intended to find someone on night duty and make him spar until he dropped. At least that was something he was reasonably sure he could do without committing some egregious social offense.
Eilian shifted slightly in his vantage point in the tree and then forced himself to be still again. He grimaced. Ordinarily he could wait quietly for an enemy to appear, and it worried him a little that he was restless now, despite the fact that the healers had told him he was not yet completely over his shadow sickness. Surely his recovery was taking too long, he fretted. He looked at the dangwath, gleaming silver in the moonlight, and for just a second, he wondered how damaging it would be it he took the herb again. Too damaging, he decided immediately. And if the herb did not harm him, Maltanaur, Ithilden, and Thranduil would take turns making up for its failure. He smiled slightly to himself. He had to admit that there were times when he could still see the value of his father’s firm hand.
A movement caught his eye, and he saw Hiolith emerge from the path and enter the patch of dangwath. He glanced across the clearing to assure himself that Maltanaur had seen him too. He and Maltanaur had agreed that they would not alert one another using the bird signals that were common among warriors because Hiolith had been a warrior and might recognize them. But Maltanaur had plainly seen Hiolith and was watching him as he moved through the dangwath, cutting leaves and storing them in a sack he wore on a strap around his neck. Hiolith took the leaves of some plants and not others, so Eilian assumed that they were maturing at different rates.
Hiolith took about an hour to work his way completely through the herbs, and when he finished, the sack was bulging. At that point, he sheathed his knife and struck off through the woods in the opposite direction from that in which his cottage lay. Aware of Maltanaur echoing his moves on the other side of the clearing Eilian slipped through the branches, skirting the clearing and then following Hiolith.
Hiolith walked steadily along, and eventually, Eilian realized that he was heading for a small ravine located not too far from the river. When he saw Hiolith enter the ravine, he veered off to his right so that he could take up a position on the top of one side and keep the other Elf under easy observation. He edged out onto an overhanging branch, and Maltanaur crept silently up beside him.
“You took your sweet time getting here,” someone said, and looking toward the voice’s source, Eilian saw three Men emerging from behind a rock and approaching Hiolith, who wordlessly took the bag from around his neck and handed it to the burly Man who had just spoken. A tall, thin Man and a smaller one hung back a little, suggesting that the bigger Man was the one in charge.
“This isn’t enough,” the Man said, hefting the sack. Eilian could not see his face, but he could see him draw threateningly near to Hiolith, who, to his credit, stood his ground.
“I brought all that was ready to be picked,” Hiolith said, his voice calm. “It takes time to enlarge the garden so as to grow the amount you are demanding.”
“You had better not be lying to me,” the Man growled.
“If you do not believe me, go and look for yourself,” Hiolith shrugged.
The Man gave a short laugh. “Oh yes, you’d like it if one of those patrols caught us again. Even if they still bought the idea that we were poaching, they wouldn’t be very welcoming. But let me tell you what would happen, Hiolith. They would drag us before your king, and we would tell him about that big patch of dangwath you are growing, and even if he was more merciful with you than he is likely to be with us, you would lose your precious plants. And if you don’t cooperate, our superior might tell him anyway. An anonymous letter would be easy enough to send.”
Even from where Eilian watched, he could see Hiolith stiffen at the threat. “I told you I would give you the herb, but I cannot make it grow faster than it does.”
“Let him go, Sirard,” said the tall, thin
The big Man glanced back over his shoulder. “You’ve been eager enough to get the stuff, Bierd. I would think you’d want to be sure there was enough.” Bierd said nothing and Sirard turned back to Hiolith. “Go, then. But don’t forget that we’ll be here again at the same time two nights from now. See if you can’t coax those plants along a little.” Hiolith turned on his heel and left the ravine, walking with his normal long stride, as if he had forgotten the Men the minute they were out of his sight. For a moment, Eilian admired his ability to be insultingly indifferent.
Sirard faced the other two Men. “You were no help at all, Bierd. Do you think the boss will be satisfied with this amount? I don’t.”
“I don’t care,” the tall Man said. “All I want is enough for my brother anyway. You and Rhon can keep the rest.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said the small Man, who Eilian assumed was Rhon. “We can make a lot of money from this herb. There’s more than one old soldier who’d sell his grandchildren to get it. We had the evil one’s own luck the day we stumbled on that Elf’s little patch of it.”
“And if you think the boss is letting you come this far and then quit, you can think again,” Sirard snapped. “Come on. He will be waiting.” And the three of them started out the ravine.
Eilian could barely hear the last few words for the blood roaring in his ears. For the sake of a few gold coins, these Men, these piles of Orc dung, were taking advantage of soldiers who had been harmed by the Shadow, Men who had suffered because they protected these three and those they loved. Eilian could not think of a fate that was bad enough for them.
With his mind fully on vengeance, he moved to go after the three Men but was brought up short when Maltanaur caught his arm. “Let me go,” Eilian hissed. “I want to follow them.”
“You want to beat them bloody,” Maltanaur corrected, and when Eilian turned sharply, he gave him a grin. “And if you behave yourself, I may let you do it, but not tonight. We need to try to learn the name of their superior.” Eilian gave an exasperated sigh and looked longingly after the Men. “They will be back and so will we,” Maltanaur comforted him. “Now come. We have done what we can tonight. You should get some sleep.”
Reluctantly, Eilian nodded, and the two of them started back toward Thranduil’s stronghold.
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