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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.
10. Home for Now
Eilian urged his horse on, quickening the pace as the group drew close to home. Evening was drawing in, and through the trees, he could actually hear Elves calling to one another as they made their way toward their cottages. Then they were out of the woods and riding into the warrior training area. Eilian led them straight to the infirmary before calling his horse to a halt.
He turned to issue an order to Gelmir, who rode just to his left, with Khi suspended in a litter between his horse and Riolith’s. But he found that Gelmir and Riolith were both already on the ground reaching to untie the litter’s poles from the straps holding it. He slid from his own horse and hurried over to help Maltanaur down from his. His keeper had been flagging as the day wore on, and Eilian wanted him in bed and under a healer’s care.
“Shall we escort Lady Celuwen to the palace, Captain?” one of Celuwen’s guards asked. They had arrived at the settlement looking harassed and had been extremely attentive ever since.
Eilian had hissed a single warning at them: “Never again let me hear that you have left someone you are guarding alone, no matter what they told you to do.”
He must have looked menacing because they both had both paled, saluted, and smartly responded, “Yes, Captain.”
Now he looked at them, intending to tell them to take Celuwen home, but he found that she, too, was off her horse and taking Maltanaur’s other arm. “I will help you with Maltanaur.” She smiled at the guards. “You may go.” As one, they turned to look at Eilian, who nodded resignedly.
“Send someone who is on night duty to guard Khi in the infirmary,” he ordered. “Tell Elviondel that we are back and that Khi is with us. And someone should notify Maltanaur’s wife.”
“Shall we see to the horses too, Captain?” one of the guards asked. Eilian nodded, and they gathered all the horses and led them off toward the stables. He drew Maltanaur’s arm over his shoulders, and he and Celuwen began helping him into the infirmary.
“The guards are very solicitous,” Celuwen said from Maltanaur’s other side. Maltanaur’s eyes slid toward her.
“Indeed,” said Eilian dryly, and Maltanaur looked back at him. “But I was surprised when I arrived at the settlement and did not find them there with you. I thought you promised me you would stay with them.” He had refrained from speaking to Celuwen about this until now, but he was annoyed by her seemingly complete lack of awareness that she had done anything wrong.
“I did stay with them.” Celuwen sounded surprised, and Maltanaur looked back at her. “I never strayed more than a few yards from them during the entire trip. But once I was there, I felt selfish keeping them with me. I know how much Ithilden needs every warrior.”
Eilian opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Maltanaur cut in. “Finish this discussion at home, please. I am wounded already and would prefer not to be in the middle of another battle.” They exchanged guilty looks across his chest.
By this time, they had entered the main corridor of the infirmary, and a healer was running toward them, calling for help. Eilian could see Khi already lying on the bed in the nearest room, and the healer took Maltanaur’s arm from Celuwen and hustled him into the next one. “He was stabbed in the back,” Eilian explained. “He is better, I think, but he lost a lot of blood.”
He heard a commotion in the hallway, and Maltanaur’s wife appeared in the doorway. Eilian knew that there had not been enough time for a messenger to reach her, so he assumed she had sensed her husband’s presence. She was out of breath and plainly worried. He could see Celuwen hovering behind her. “I knew you were in trouble,” she scolded gently, resting her hand on Maltanaur’s shoulder as he lay on his stomach on the bed while the healers looked at the wound in his back.
Maltanaur reached up and grasped her wrist. “I am already on the mend, Nindwen. Do not fuss.”
The healer’s apprentice slid between Eilian and the bed, bearing a salve and clean bandaging. Eilian suddenly realized how crowded the room was. He and Celuwen should get out of the way. “I will be back tomorrow,” he told Maltanaur.
“Look for me at home. I am not staying here,” his keeper declared. His wife looked exasperated, but he ignored her. “And, Eilian?” With some difficulty, he raised his head and turned it toward Eilian.
“Be respectful, but do not forget that you were right.”
Eilian blinked uncertainly. Was Maltanaur giving him advice about his imminent meeting with Thranduil and Ithilden? Maltanaur had said several times that Eilian was foolish to have gone off on his own as he did. Could he actually be supporting Eilian now rather than Thranduil and Ithilden? The healer’s apprentice glanced curiously from Maltanaur to Eilian, and Eilian knew that his keeper would say nothing further about this now, so he simply bid them all good evening and went out into the hall, where Celuwen waited for him.
They stood looking at one another for a second. From behind him, Eilian could hear Maltanaur’s wife murmuring to him. Celuwen bit her lip, and then they simultaneously reached for one another’s hands. Fingers entwined, they walked home together in silence as the summer stars opened over their heads.
The guards at the Great Doors stiffened when they recognized Eilian. They were Home Guard warriors and under his command now. He nodded to them but did not speak. When he and Celuwen entered the hallway in which the royal family lived, he spotted a servant coming from the dining room with a rumpled table cloth thrown over one arm.
“My lord,” the servant said in obvious surprise, “we were not expecting you.” He looked faintly apprehensive. Alfirin had the household servants too well trained to admit to knowing when family quarrels were in process, but they inevitably did know.
“I take it the meal is over?”
“Yes, my lord. The family is in the sitting room, I believe.”
Eilian handed him the two packs he carried and then, in wordless agreement, he and Celuwen went on to the sitting room. There was no point in delaying the meetings with his father and brother. He might as well get them over with. He paused with his hand on the sitting room latch, and Celuwen touched his arm. “I do not know what your adar or Ithilden will say, Eilian, but I am deeply grateful that you risked their wrath to protect me.”
And suddenly his world narrowed to her face, which he had always thought beautiful enough in its way but had valued most for its expressiveness. And now she looked at him with love.
And he recognized the simple truth that she was what mattered most to him now. His father’s and brother’s anger would not be pleasant, but he would survive it, and he would go home to her afterwards with what was at his core still intact. Some time in the last few months, the emotional center of his universe had shifted, and now it lay in Celuwen. He kissed her brow, and together, they entered the sitting room.
Thranduil sat in his large chair near the empty hearth, with Ithilden and Alfirin on a high-backed bench across from him. All three of them turned in surprise when the door opened. Thranduil’s and Ithilden’s faces immediately became guarded. Ithilden’s jaw set, and Thranduil placed his cup of wine carefully down on the table by his elbow. But Alfirin leapt to her feet with a cry of welcome.
“I am so glad you are back! We have been worried about you. Have you eaten?”
Eilian’s eyes were on Thranduil and Ithilden, but Celuwen answered Alfirin’s question. “We did not stop to eat because Eilian wanted to get home before dark.”
“I will send for something for you,” Alfirin declared and started toward the door.
Ithilden rose to his feet. “I want to talk to Eilian, Alfirin.”
She turned to him in exasperation. “Can it not wait?”
“No, it cannot.” He turned to Thranduil, who was frowning slightly at him. “May I borrow your office, my lord? I want to speak to my officer.”
Eilian stiffened his spine, much as the guards at the Great Doors had stiffened theirs when he appeared. Ithilden was making it quite clear that, at the moment, he was Eilian’s commander, not his brother. And as a commander, he was plainly furious at an officer who had gone off on a rogue mission far outside the scope of his assigned duties.
Thranduil let out a long breath. “Very well.” He turned a cool gaze on Eilian, and for a moment, they regarded one another. Eilian withstood the scrutiny with as much stoicism as he could muster. His father had apparently decided to let Ithilden take the first jab at him. That made sense. Thanduil’s concern would be as his father, and he would be willing to wait for Ithilden to decide what to do about the violation of military discipline.
“I will send for something cold then,” Alfirin said resignedly.
“Wait,” Celuwen put in, and they all turned to her, surprised by this disruption of what all of them, including Alfirin, might have predicted would happen on Eilian’s return. Eilian still held her hand and felt the small tremor that ran through it. He squeezed it slightly. “I want to tell you my news,” Celuwen went on. “The settlers agreed to accept the plan I offered.”
Thranduil’s face dissolved into a delighted smile. “Félas agreed?”
Celuwen shook her head. “Félas is dead. The easterlings who came to the settlement killed him. My adar is the group’s leader now, and he agreed.”
Thranduil, Ithilden, and Alfirin all stared at her, and even Thranduil’s eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
She told the tale of how the Men had come bursting into her parents’ cottage when only she and her mother were present and of all that had happened afterwards.
“They are all dead?” Thranduil demanded sharply. “There were no others?”
“We brought Khi back with us,” Eilian told him. “He is in the infirmary, and you should be able to question him. There were no others in the settlement, but I do not know if there might be some in other parts of the woods.”
Thranduil and Ithilden exchanged looks. “I will ask all the captains to be on the alert,” Ithilden said, and Thranduil nodded, although his posture was still tense. He did not like this invasion of his woods.
Ithilden turned back to Eilian. “I still want to speak to you,” he said, his mouth tightening. Eilian dropped Celuwen’s hand and stepped aside so that Ithilden could precede him from the room. Then he followed him into Thranduil’s office and shut the door.
Ithilden began pacing in front of the fireplace, leaving Eilian standing too. On the other hand, he did not order Eilian to attention, which Eilian could only hope was an encouraging sign. “Eilian, I am at a loss as to where to even begin telling you what I think of your behavior in this matter. I rely on my captains. I have to. And I thought I could trust you among them. So what am I to think when you go off on your own like this? The newest novice is told over and over that being a warrior is not an individual enterprise. How could you possibly have thought that you had the right to walk away from your assigned duties?” He turned to face Eilian with his jaw thrust forward. “If you have anything sensible to say, you have permission to speak.”
Eilian drew a deep breath. “I could have assigned someone to check on that settlement. It is within the Home Guard’s territory. I simply assigned myself.”
Ithilden gave a sharp, sarcastic laugh. “You are trying my patience! You know as well as I do that captaining a patrol does not give you the right to do anything you like with it or to use it to satisfy your personal concerns.”
“This was not personal,” Eilian insisted and then amended his argument quickly when Ithilden’s eyes narrowed disbelievingly. “Or rather, it was, but it was also related to the safety of the Home Guard territory. I knew there was trouble, and you and Adar would not listen to me. What would you have had me do? If I had not been there, Celuwen would have been dead when Legolas and his warriors entered the cottage. If it had been Alfirin in the woods, what would you have done?”
Ithilden drew back slightly. For a moment, they stood in silence. “I do not know,” Ithilden finally confessed. He drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “But Eilian, you know as well as I do that I need to be able to predict where my forces are, particularly the Home Guard, which is closest and which I will have to make use of if there is some emergency. I cannot accept a situation in which you decide for yourself whether you will be where I expect you to be. For one thing, it looks as if I have accorded you special privileges because of who you are.”
For the first time, it occurred to Eilian that Ithilden was considering stripping him of his captain’s rank. The thought appalled him. “You know that this was an exception,” he cried, trying desperately to read his brother’s inscrutable face. “I am a good captain. As for what others may think, unless you told them, no one knows I did not have your approval to go to the settlement.”
Ithilden snorted. “Your lieutenant could probably tell from the look on my face when I heard. And it has been quite clear to anyone with eyes that both Adar and I have been angry.”
“That could have been about anything!”
Ithilden raised an eyebrow, and suddenly the mood lightened a little and they exchanged half smiles meant to acknowledge the fact that Eilian managed to provoke both Thranduil and Ithilden with some regularity.
Then Eilian sobered again and bit his lip. “I am sorry, Ithilden. But I cannot pretend I would do otherwise if I had to do it over.”
Ithilden turned away for a moment, looking at the floor and rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. Then he seemed to resolve something and turned back to face Eilian. “I am going to leave you as Home Guard captain,” he said. Eilian’s knees went weak with relief. “I assume that your absence means there is a great deal of paperwork to catch up with,” Ithilden went on, “and I want to see you hard at work among your warriors and in the office. I do not want a single report to arrive late or a single task to be left undone.”
Eilian recognized the message he was being sent: He was not to set a toe out of line for the foreseeable future. If he did, the wrath of Mordor would come flaming down around his ears. “Of course,” he said. “You can count on me.”
“I had better be able to,” Ithilden said. Eilian shifted his weight slightly, assuming they would now rejoin the others in the sitting room, but Ithilden stayed where he was. “There is one other thing,” he said. “Celuwen dismissed her guards. Can you tell her not to do that again?”
Eilian suppressed a groan. “I think that should be your job,” he protested weakly.
Ithilden pursed his lips. “No. You should do this.”
Eilian looked at him dismally. A bargain was being proposed here, and he had no choice but to agree to it. “Very well,” he agreed. “I will speak to her.” That he would do as Ithilden asked and “tell her” not to dismiss her guards again was out of the question. But when the moment was right, he could at least bring the topic up. He considered what such a moment would be and then slowly smiled to himself. Perhaps he could find a good time if he worked at it hard enough.
“I know that Eilian enjoyed seeing Legolas, even in such unfortunate circumstance,” Celuwen said. The door opened, and a servant brought in a tray of bread, cheese, and fruit and, at Alfirin’s signal, set it on the table nearest Celuwen. Thranduil thought that Alfirin looked horrified by the story that Celuwen had just told them, but she rallied at the idea of feeding someone. She poured a glass of wine and pressed it into Celuwen’s hand.
“Legolas was well?” Thranduil asked, trying to conceal just how gratified he was by even this second-hand glimpse of his youngest son.
“He was,” Celuwen agreed. “In truth, Eilian was not the only one who was glad to see him. We were all fortunate that he arrived when he did.” She smiled. “I have seen so little of him, and Eilian always talks about him as his little brother, but he looked like a capable Wood-elf officer to me. You must be very proud of him.”
“I am.” Thranduil could not help smiling in return. Legolas was doing well. Of course there had been no reason to think he would not, but hearing it was so was gratifying anyway.
“And you must be proud of Eilian too, of course,” Celuwen went on. “I do not know what I would have done if he had not been there. I do not think I would still be alive because Zalan would still have had his knife at my throat when Legolas’s warriors burst in.”
Alfirin rose from her place on the bench to put some bread and cheese on a plate and hand it to Celuwen, who accepted it and began to eat. Alfirin’s face was pale but determined, and Thranduil recognized the look: She was about to try to turn the talk away from a topic that she thought was too unpleasant for this family time.
Celuwen forestalled her, however, by plunging doggedly on. “I am lucky Eilian sensed danger when he did and acted upon his instincts. But then one of the things that has always appealed to me about him is his tie to the forest. He is a Wood-elf. I think even my adar knows that.”
Thranduil regarded her steadily, and she smiled sweetly at him. “Are you trying to tell me something, daughter?” he asked dryly.
“I am saying thank you, Adar,” she said and there was no mistaking the sincerity in her voice. “You and Eilian’s naneth raised an Elf who is courageous, and perceptive, and dear to my heart.”
Thranduil made a non-committal noise, well aware that while she meant what she said, she was also asking him to think about his second son’s good qualities as well as whatever it was Eilian had done to anger him. He reflected on the events in the settlement that Celuwen had just told him about, feeling again the cold hand grip his heart when he thought about the danger that both of his sons had been in. Eilian had actually been in the cottage with the Men, had had a sword hovering just inches from his chest when Legolas burst into the room.
Thranduil rubbed his temples wearily. He had been angry when Ithilden told him of what Eilian had done. Indeed, if he were honest with himself, he had to admit that he had been angry even before that. He still had not forgiven Eilian for bonding in a manner that seemed so scornful of his family, and in particular, of Thranduil. Eilian’s disregard of the proper ceremonies had infuriated him and, he suddenly realized, had hurt him. Why was it that his relationship with this second son was so troubled when Eilian was so like his mother, whom Thranduil had treasured?
He closed his eyes for a moment. What was the real issue here? Eilian had flouted his duty as an officer, of course, but Ithilden was dealing with that, as was his right. So what did Thranduil want? Did he want Eilian to deny his feelings for the woods? What would he have done if he had been able to sense the danger that killed Lorellin? He knew that answer to that easily enough: If he had thought he might be able to save her, no power in Arda could have stopped him from trying.
He sighed. He would put this away to think of on another day. He turned to Celuwen. “Your adar agreed to your plan, you say?”
“Yes, he did. I am afraid I was forceful with him. I had not quite realized before how annoyingly stubborn he could be. He should hear the things I hear as one of your advisors.”
Thranduil smiled to himself at her energetic reply. He had thought that his daughter-in-law might think differently once she had gotten a wider view of the realm than the one she had undoubtedly heard in the settlement.
The door opened, and Eilian and Ithilden walked into the room. Looking serene, Ithilden returned to his place at Alfirin’s side. Eilian smiled reassuringly at Celuwen, but then shot a sharp glance at his father. To Thranduil’s eyes, he looked apprehensive. Thranduil drew a deep breath. “You should eat something, Eilian.”
Eilian’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he obediently took some bread and cheese and sat down next to Celuwen.
Thranduil eyed him and then smiled slightly. “It appears you were right to be worried about the Men in the woods. It is fortunate that you were at the settlement.” To Thranduil’s secret amusement, Eilian’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. Ithilden, too, blinked in surprise, but Celuwen smiled at him. It was good to be able to startle one’s children sometimes, Thranduil reflected.
Legolas led his little band out from among the sad, withering trees and into the clearing where the Southern Patrol was camped. Warriors were just beginning to rouse themselves from their morning’s sleep, and several turned as the four warriors rode into sight. Sórion rose from where he was seeing to the wound on a warrior’s thigh, and Legolas slipped from his horse’s back and approached him, leaving Beliond to tend to their mounts.
“Where are Riolith and Gelmir?” Sórion demanded, his face lined with worry.
“They are unharmed,” Legolas said hastily. “We found the Men. They turned out to be Easterling soldiers from the war to the south of us.” He launched into the tale of what had happened in the settlement. By the time he had finished, stew was being ladled from the pot over the cooking fire, and he and Sórion both got bowls of it and went to sit near a blackened oak tree that still showed signs of life near its top.
“Eilian is captain of the Home Guard now?” Sórion asked, and Legolas nodded, wondering what Sórion thought about the captain he had replaced. Eilian had been popular with his warriors, and Sórion knew it.
Sórion smiled slightly. “I expect he does not like that much, although I suppose that now that he is married he might prefer to be home more too.”
Legolas held his tongue. He really did not know what Eilian would prefer.
“My guess is that Eilian will be back here eventually,” Sórion went on. “He loves this patrol.”
Legolas ate a spoonful of the stew. Sórion seemed unconcerned about Eilian’s eventual return. “Would you mind if Eilian came back?”
Sórion shook his head. “No, I will be ready to go elsewhere when he does. My desire is simply to protect the realm and send all of my warriors home again safely.” Sórion’s wish did not seem like too much to ask, but both he and Legolas knew that it probably was.
Still, Legolas understood it. He had been deeply grateful to be able to tell Sórion that everyone under his temporary command was unhurt. When they had been getting ready to invade Celuwen’s cottage, he had been too concerned for Eilian and too caught up in laying their plans to worry about his warriors over much, but afterwards, he had looked at the wounded Maltanaur and been secretly relieved that no one under his command had suffered while carrying out his orders. He was bracing himself to deal with that the first time it happened. His excursion to find the Men had left him far better able to understand Sórion’s caution.
As he and the captain ate, Legolas automatically scanned the patrol’s warriors, looking for signs of any problems, but all seemed routine. The patrol members were eating and then gathering their belongings into their packs so that they could move quickly when they had to. Isendir and Fendîr were being greeted and welcomed back by the others. Legolas could hear laughter as someone asked Isendir if he was worried about being back around the Black Tree Beetle. Legolas glanced over to see Sórion smiling slightly.
“Isendir seems to be settling in,” Sórion observed.
Legolas nodded. “I think so. He is irreverent, but he does as he is told.”
Sórion considered that information. “Will he hurt morale, do you think?”
“Probably not, more likely the opposite.”
Sórion nodded, trusting Legolas’s judgment. Then he handed his empty dish to Legolas. “Tell Análas and Tinul that it is their turn to do cleanup.” He rose and went to speak to the Elves who would scout that night, leaving Legolas to take their dirty dishes and assign the undesirable task of washing them.
Legolas started across the campsite. Suddenly he realized that talk stopped as he passed the various groups of warriors. They are reacting to me as an officer, he thought in surprise. He had not noticed them doing it before, but now that he thought about it, his companions’ behavior toward him had been changing gradually over the last month or so. A small glow of pleasure bloomed in his breast. These Elves respected him and trusted him to lead them.
He found Análas and Tinul and handed them the dishes. “Your turn,” he said briefly.
They wrinkled their noses in identical signs of reluctance. “Yes, lieutenant,” Tinul said, and they rose and started off to do the task.
Legolas walked back across the camp alone to check on his own gear. Tonight, they would hunt Orcs. His pulse quickened a little. He was not in his father’s stronghold, but this place, this patrol, was home for now, and he was glad to be back doing what he had been born to do.
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