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Glorious Summer  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

6. A Settler’s Alarm

Riolith pointed to the tracks he had found, and Legolas crouched to inspect them more closely. “Men,” he murmured, and next to him, Beliond grunted his agreement. The tracks were too deep and too obvious to have been made by Elves, even though they were in a part of the woods where Elves from the settlements occasionally hunted.

Legolas put his face close to the ground, sighting across the leaf cover to see the faint depressions that signaled the existence of tracks beneath them. He poked a leaf gently aside so he could see better and then looked up at Riolith. “Four, I think?” Riolith nodded his confirmation. The little group had been looking for signs of the Men for two days now, and Riolith and Fendîr had been the first to spot them, here in the extreme northwest corner of the Southern Patrol’s territory.

Legolas looked back at the tracks, which were in single file, and thought that whoever this was had probably been trying to leave no sign of their passage. They must not be accustomed to being around Wood-elves, he thought wryly. No Man from Esgaroth, for instance, would ever have believed that Thranduil’s warriors would be unable to spot these tracks at a glance. The same would be true of Woodmen. And that meant that strangers were in the woods. Legolas frowned at that thought and glanced uneasily at Beliond, who looked grim.

Legolas rose. “The tracks look fairly recent to me. Perhaps a day old? No more than that and probably less.”

“I agree,” said Isendir, who, with Gelmir, was a short distance away, looking at the broken off tip of a hawthorn branch.

Legolas considered, while the others waited for his orders. The light was fading, and tracking the Men in darkness would be harder than hunting for Orcs, although of course, it could also be difficult enough to find one or two Orcs on their own, as opposed to a troop of them. Moreover, the Men would probably camp for the night and thus get no further ahead of Legolas’s patrol than they already were. Now that the Elves had found the Men’s tracks, they would be able to hunt them down swiftly as soon as day broke. And hunt them down they would. At the moment, the Men were moving directly east, but if they veered even slightly to the north, they would enter the territory of the Home Guard, and there were settlements there.

Legolas did not know if the Men were hostile. They could simply have roamed far from home in search of game, and many Men tried to hide from Elves simply because they were afraid of them. But he did not intend to let these Men roam free without finding out who they were and what they were doing there.

“We will camp here tonight and pursue them in the morning.” His companions dropped their packs, although not their weapons, and Gelmir began clearing a place for a fire. Isendir went to gather wood, while Riolith and Fendîr took the rabbits they had killed earlier in the day and went off to butcher them near the stream they could hear burbling. Beliond gathered everyone’s water skins and followed Riolith and Fendîr to refill them. Legolas glanced around, feeling a small, secret satisfaction that they all accepted his decision so readily and set calmly about doing the same chores he had assigned them the night before. He went to gather green sticks to use to spit the rabbits. Riolith and Fendîr returned, took them from him, and began cooking their meal.

Legolas sat leaning against a tree that was humming with sleepy nighttime life and watched the stars emerge. In this part of the Southern Patrol’s territory, the forest was much healthier than it was further south. The smell of the roasting rabbits drifted toward him, and suddenly he remembered Beliond telling him to enjoy the small moments. He smiled to himself. This was surely one of those moments. Even in the midst of the hunt for the strange Men, beauty lay above him and good food would soon be ready.

Someone sat down next to him, and he lowered his gaze to see Gelmir. “Have you heard from Eilian lately?” Gelmir asked, leaning back on his elbows.

“I had a letter last week.”

“How are he and Celuwen?” Gelmir sounded a little wistful, and Legolas recalled that he, Eilian, and Celuwen were all close friends, having played together as children.

“Eilian was still working for Ithilden, but he had hopes of being on active duty soon, so he was in good spirits. He is amusing himself by tormenting Tinár.”

“Ah, Tinár,” Gelmir said with a grin. He had served with Tinár and had probably done his own share of tormenting.

“Celuwen is advising my adar about matters to do with the settlements,” Legolas went on. “Eilian seems proud of her but a little mystified that she would willingly go to meetings of my adar’s council.”

Gelmir laughed. “Celuwen would be good at that. She is smart. I will wager she soon convinces them to do what she thinks is best. Most of the time, she can even do that with Eilian.”

Now it was Legolas’s turn to laugh. “If she can manage that, my adar will be forever grateful.”

“I miss Eilian,” Gelmir said, “both as a friend and as a captain. I like Sórion well enough, but I find him overly cautious. Do you think you could do anything about that, Legolas?”

Legolas blinked, suddenly uncomfortably reminded that Gelmir was no longer just his brother’s friend, one who had always teased Legolas almost as if he were his own younger brother. Gelmir was now a warrior in a patrol that Legolas was leading, and Legolas strongly suspected that at the moment, Gelmir was trying to take advantage of their long-term acquaintance. “Sórion is careful, but that could be a good thing.”

Gelmir turned to look at him and then slowly smiled. “I believe you are becoming an officer, Legolas. My sympathies.”

Legolas smiled back. “I cannot help it. It appears to be a family curse.”

Gelmir laughed and sprang to his feet. “Surely our meal is ready by now.”

“It is,” said Riolith, and Legolas looked up to find him nearby.

“Good,” said Gelmir easily and wandered off toward the fire, ignoring the faint scowl Riolith sent his way. Legolas was sure he must have heard Gelmir’s mild criticism of Sórion, and he evidently resented it.

Riolith turned to look at Legolas and the scowl gradually faded. “The rabbit is cooked, Lieutenant,” he said and then turned to go back to the fire.

Legolas stared at his back. That had been the first time Riolith had addressed him as “Lieutenant.”

***

Eilian brought his horse to a halt, slid to the ground, and waited until Maltanaur stood beside him. “We are within shouting range of Celuwen’s cottage,” he murmured. “It is the nearest to us, but I want to do some scouting before I go there, just to make sure nothing has happened. You circle the settlement that way, and I will go this. Look for any sign that things are not as they should be.”

“No,” Maltanaur said calmly. “You and I will scout together in whichever direction you choose.”

Eilian glared at his bodyguard but knew better than to argue. And in one way, Maltanaur’s caution was comforting. At least his keeper took Eilian’s fears seriously. “Very well.” He motioned to their left, and bows at the ready, they began a cautious circuit of the settlement.

As they crept through the trees, searching for indications that something was amiss, Eilian suddenly became aware of an almost irresistible urge to turn aside from his task and thread his way among the scattered cottages to the one in which his new in-laws lived. Celuwen, he realized with a flush of joy so powerful that it stopped him in his tracks. She is longing for me.

Maltanaur touched his arm lightly, and Eilian looked to see him smiling faintly, although he said nothing but simply gestured Eilian into motion again. Maltanaur had recognized his reaction, Eilian realized, slightly embarrassed. His keeper had been married for a long time and undoubtedly understood some of the state’s mysteries better than Eilian did. Obeying Maltanaur’s urging and his own training and experience, he resolutely turned his attention back to the serious business of making sure that nothing dangerous was happening here. Half an hour later, he and Maltanaur returned to their peacefully browsing horses having found nothing out of the ordinary, and Eilian relaxed slightly, although he still could not shake the feeling that things were not as they should be.

“I will camp here with the horses, Eilian,” said Maltanaur. Then he smiled blandly and added, “That is, unless you think you will need me to watch your back in Sólith’s presence, or perhaps even with your wife, who thinks she is an adult who can travel to see her parents on her own.” Eilian looked at him sharply and then felt an unexpected misgiving. As he had just remembered, Maltanaur had been married a long time.

“I think I can manage to defend myself,” he said and then pulled his pack from his horse’s back and set off to find his wife with Maltanaur’s soft laughter drifting after him.

Even if he had not been to this settlement and this cottage before, Eilian would have been able to walk straight to it. Celuwen was there, and his body knew it in a way that he did not yet fully understand. He had to force himself to stop on the doorstep and knock, but almost before he lowered his hand, the door flew open and Celuwen stood before him.

For a split second, they stared at one another, and then, with a cry, she flung herself into his open arms. “Eilian!”

He buried his face in her hair, savoring the warm softness of her body and inhaling her scent, a mixture of spring grass and the spicy soap she used that he would have recognized anywhere. Then he looked up and saw the unwelcoming face of his father-in-law.

“Come in!” Celuwen cried, tugging on his hand and drawing him into the cottage. “Look!” she told her parents. “Eilian is here.”

Isiwen had already started forward from where she had been standing near the fireplace, stirring a pot of what smelled like a venison stew. “How good to see you!”  She turned her face up to him, and he kissed her forehead.

Then he raised his head and looked at Celuwen’s father. “Mae govannen, Sólith,” he said, keeping his face as blank as possible. The two of them stood face to face, neither one blinking, and Eilian took a malicious satisfaction in the way Celuwen clung to his arm, clearly overjoyed, and just as clearly rendering Sólith unable to say what he really felt.

“What are you doing here, Eilian?” Sólith asked.  All three of them looked expectantly at him.

He hesitated. “That is a long story,” he said slowly.

“You have come just in time for evening meal,” Isiwen smiled. “I will set another place, and you can tell us while we eat.”

“I will do it, Naneth,” Celuwen said and slipped from his encircling arm to lay a place for him at the table and then help her mother serve the stew and some fresh bread. Isiwen’s eyes followed her daughter’s slim, energetic figure and then went back to Eilian with gratitude plain in them. And Celuwen too looked back at him, smiling happily. “Sit,” she said, patting a chair and taking the one beside it.

He sat beside her, feeling all the tension and worry of the last few days draining away at the brief touch of her hand on his thigh beneath the table. Isiwen sat across from him, and Sólith took the chair at the head of the table.

“So why are you here?” Sólith asked, scooping up a spoonful of the stew. It dawned on Eilian that Sólith had noticed his hesitation in answering that question and was curious about it. He grimaced inwardly. Sólith was many things, but stupid was not among them.

“I am back on active duty and captaining the Home Guard now,” he said.

“That is wonderful!” Celuwen broke in, her face lighting up. “The healers say you are better? And you are no longer tied to a desk. You must be rejoicing!”

“I am.” He smiled at her.

“But why are you here?” Sólith persisted. There was a second’s silence, and suddenly Celuwen frowned slightly, as the oddity of his presence dawned on her when her joy at his arrival had previously made her blind to it.

He drew a deep breath. “This settlement is within the Home Guard’s territory. I was worried about its safety, so I came to check on it.”

Celuwen paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth and then carefully set it down and turned to him. “Do you mean that you came to check on me?” she asked.

“On your safety, yes,” he admitted. He could see no point to lying to her and hated to do it anyway. “I have been very uneasy in the last few days. Something is wrong in the forest, and I was afraid that you and everyone else here were in danger.”

She looked at him for a moment, with her face troubled, while Sólith’s eyes narrowed.

“What sort of danger?” he demanded.

“I am not sure,” Eilian answered, his gaze still on Celuwen, who was looking down at her bowl of stew. “The Southern Patrol has seen signs of Men in the forest.”

Sólith snorted. “It was probably Woodmen. When game is scarce, they sometimes hunt this deep in the forest. They are no danger to us.”

Eilian looked at him now. “Woodmen to the west of us have reported that Men in strange clothes tried to steal food from them. I am wondering if they were part of the army that invaded Rohan last fall and were somehow driven north by the flooding and the arrival of the Men of Gondor.”

Sólith frowned. “I do not know anything about this invasion, but surely it is far more likely that your warriors saw traces of the Woodmen.”

“What does Ithilden say?” Celuwen asked abruptly.

Eilian paused for a second and then smiled wryly. Trust his sometimes unfortunately acute wife to notice the inescapable problem in his explanation for his presence. “He says more or less what your adar does, that there is no proof the Men are dangerous. He has asked the Southern Patrol to try to track them down.”

She gave him a long, level look and then went back to eating her meal in silence.

Isiwen had looked preoccupied for some time and now she spoke with her brows drawn down in worry. “Will you be camping with your patrol, Eilian? Or would you like to stay with us? I am afraid that Celuwen’s bed will be very narrow for the two of you.”

Sólith shot Eilian a look of pure venom, and Eilian grinned gleefully back at him, sure that his father-in-law was picturing him and Celuwen lying more or less on top of one another in Celuwen’s virginal bed. He turned happily to Isiwen. “Maltanaur is the only one with me, and he is camping just north of here. I had planned to stay with you if I may.”

“We will sleep on one of the flets,” Celuwen declared, sounding exasperated. Isiwen reached across the small table and patted her hand.

“You brought only one warrior with you?” asked Sólith, distracted from the question of sleeping arrangements, at least for the present. “If we had been under attack by Mannish troops, what did you expect to do with only one companion?”

Eilian raised an eyebrow at him. “The Southern Patrol saw signs of only a handful of Men. Maltanaur and I would have been enough.”

Sólith gave a skeptical snort, and Celuwen got up abruptly to start clearing the table. Isiwen sighed and joined her, while Eilian watched her a little guiltily. Sólith sat for a moment staring at the tabletop and then got up to tend to the cooking fire, banking it so that it would be ready to be stirred into life to cook their porridge the next morning.

As soon as the dishes had been washed, Celuwen went into what Eilian knew was her room and came back with a small pile of clothes, a pillow and a blanket. When he rose to pick up his weapons and his pack and take her burdens from her, she opened a chest in one corner of the room, took out a second pillow and blanket, and handed them to him too. “We will see you in the morning,” she told her parents and led Eilian out into the night with Sólith’s eyes boring into his back, making his warrior’s nerves twitch.

“Where are we going?” he ventured, once they were outside.

“You must have seen the flets scattered in the trees. We use them to store things and sometimes to sleep on when the weather is fine. We just need to find an empty one.”

She led him through the trees, passing the first flet they came to when a low voice called a greeting to them as they approached it. She stopped beneath the second one, waited for a moment, and then apparently concluded that it was unoccupied. “Let me take some of the bedding,” she offered, and he handed her a blanket and her clothes and then followed her up the tree trunk, admiring his view of her legs as he did so.

He emerged on a small flet, deeply screened by oak leaves. Through the branches overhead, moonlight fell in thin streams that made a pattern of light and dark across its surface, where Celuwen already crouched, spreading the blanket she had been carrying. He paused, struck by how beautiful she looked with streaks of silvery light in her dark hair. We should live in a place like this, he thought, not in a cave.

And immediately he remembered just why his father lived in a cave, and with that memory, all his nervous alarm came flooding to the fore again. “Celuwen, I am not sure it is safe for you to sleep in the open like this. I really do think that something is amiss, even though I am not yet sure what it is. Maybe you should go back to your parents’ house. I can sleep here.” For Celuwen’s sake, it would be better not to intensify the tension between him and Sólith by having him spend the night in her room, he thought, trying to suppress his regret at having her leave him, and he would be able to keep watch from the flet.

“And pass up a chance to sleep on a flet with you? I do not think so.” She grinned at him, and his heart turned over with wonder that she had chosen him. She rose to her feet and walked behind him to the trunk of the oak. He turned to watch her reach up into the tree and catch at a handful of long cords that were wrapped around a branch. As she slid them from their anchoring point, they unwound with a light tinkling noise and fell in long, gossamer threads that glimmered in the moonlight and reached almost to the ground. She spread them carefully, making sure they were untangled and then turned triumphantly to him. “And that, my resourceful Wood-elf warrior, is a settlers’ alarm system.”

Eilian laughed and then bent curiously over the side of the flet. “What is making the noise?”

“Crystals.” She looked down at the glittering threads.

“This is clever,” he admitted, feeling a flush of pride at her competence.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you think we in the settlements are so foolish that we know nothing of how to protect ourselves in our own woods unless you come to show us?” Her tone was humorous, but he had known her long enough to recognize the underlying danger. She had not liked his quarreling with her father.

He reached out and gathered her to him. “I would never be so rash as to think you foolish in anything, except possibly in marrying me.” He dropped to his knees, pulling her with him, and then toppled to his side on the blankets, still holding on to her. “I have missed you,” he murmured, kissing the side of her neck.

She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away. “Eilian, does Ithilden know you are here? Does your adar know?”

He sighed and rolled onto his back. He had known at evening meal that she was worried about this. “No. Or perhaps they do by now. I did not tell them before I left.”

“They will be angry with you!” She sounded vexed.

“They would not listen to me when I said I was worried. Besides, as Home Guard captain, I could have assigned a patrol to come here. I just assigned myself instead.”

She groaned, put her hand on his face, and turned it so that he was looking at her. “Even you cannot possibly think that that excuse will end the matter. In truth, I do not mind so much that Ithilden will be angry. You and he can deal with one another as captain and commander. I have seen you do it, and it does not seem to make lasting trouble between you. But I hate to see you at odds with your adar! It pains you when he is angry with you, and do not try to tell me that it does not.”

To his utter amazement, a lump rose in his throat. He swallowed and with attempted lightness said, “I am used to it.”

“No, you are not,” she said firmly. “And you never will be. It is as much his fault as yours, I think, but you could make things easier if you would not do things like this, Eilian.”

He stared at her, with his breath quickening a little. “How could I not come?” he asked, his voice cracking a little. “I thought you were in danger.”

Her face softened and then he was kissing her. The night closed around them, and the songs of settlers spending the summer night out of doors rose around them like incense, but their own songs were too strong for them to hear them.

***

Eilian patted his horse’s neck and offered him a carrot, which the animal lipped up enthusiastically. He looked over at Maltanaur, who had broken off a chunk of the bread that Isiwen had sent for him and was eating with equal relish. “Have you seen anything unusual at all?” Eilian asked.

Maltanaur shook his head and swallowed. “Have you?”

“No,” Eilian admitted. “But I am still not happy. I cannot rid my mind of the idea that something is wrong.”

Maltanaur looked away and then back again. “Eilian, the sooner we go home, the better off you are going to be. Not that anything is going to save your hide this time,” he added, ripping off another chunk of bread.

The sound of someone approaching from the settlement made them both turn, and Eilian saw Sólith round the clump of lilac bushes that sheltered Maltanaur’s camp. Sólith nodded to Maltanaur, who regarded him from beneath half-lowered lids. Eilian had to suppress a grin. His keeper might be willing to surrender him for punishment to Ithilden and Thranduil, but he would defend him from anyone else with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs.

Sólith turned to Eilian. “I am going to check my snares to see if we will have rabbit to eat this evening. Celuwen suggested that I take you with me.” His tone made it clear just what he thought of the suggestion, but he was apparently not going to cross his daughter.

Maltanaur looked at Eilian with a half smile on his face. “Have a good time,” he said.

Eilian glared at him and then turned to Sólith. “I would be happy to go with you.” He refused to be outdone by his father-in-law in doing what would please Celuwen.

Sólith jerked his head to indicate the direction they should take, and Eilian followed him as he set off in a large half circle toward the southeast side of the settlement. They moved in silence, with Sólith stopping and checking his snares every time they came to underbrush that was likely to attract rabbits. Each time he found a snared animal, he dispatched it quickly and cleanly with his knife, murmuring under his breath what Eilian knew was probably a prayer asking the creature’s forgiveness. His snares had evidently been set with wily care, for by the time they reached the last of them, they had enough meat for their meal, and the two of them proceeded to a stream to skin and dress the rabbits.

Eilian finished his first rabbit and set it aside. “Celuwen showed me the alarm system for the flets last night,” he said, breaking the silence between them. “I have been thinking about that and about how successful you were with your snares. I wonder if the settlement can use such things as part of its defense system.”

Sólith shrugged. “We have done that sometimes, but I seem to recall being told that if we moved inside the Home Guard territory we would be safe.” He threw Eilian an angry look and picked up another rabbit.

Eilian sliced forcefully into the rabbit he was holding, barely able to bite back a retort. There was no point in antagonizing Sólith further, and besides, he was right. The Elves who lives in this settlement had been told that. “Things change,” he finally settled for saying. Sólith picked up the last rabbit and made no answer.

Eilian frowned at the knife in his hand and began to work more quickly. He felt a pressing need to return to Celuwen. As if in response, Sólith too began working more swiftly. They finished their task in silence, washed their hands, and gathered the meat to take it back to Isiwen to cook for the evening meal.

Sólith broke into a trot as the approached the cottage, flung the door open, and hurried inside. Eilian stopped for a second on the doorstep and glanced around, his uneasiness intensifying. Then he turned, stepped into the cottage, and froze when someone shoved the point of a sword into his ribs.

 





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