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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
3. Take Your Time
Alfirin waited another minute for the surface of the water in the pot to begin to roll and then carefully sprinkled handfuls of the porridge meal over the top, stirring all the while with the wooden spoon in her other hand.
“Do you need more firewood?” Tonduil asked.
She glanced over at the neat but shrunken pile of split wood next to the hearth. “Yes.” He left the kitchen, and she heard the slam of the back door and then the sound of an axe. She added honey to the porridge and, brushing her hands against her apron, turned to see her mother enter. “The tea is made,” Alfirin said, “but the porridge will be a while yet.”
Her mother poured tea into a fragile looking cup and seated herself at the table. “How was dinner at the palace?” She and Alfirin’s father had both already gone to bed when Alfirin had returned home the previous night.
Avoiding her mother’s sharp eyes, Alfirin poured her own cup of tea and sat down. “We had venison and roast vegetables,” she said and suddenly had to smile to herself at the memory of the quarreling servants.
“Something amuses you?” her mother prodded.
Alfirin looked up. “The married couple who served the meal had apparently quarreled over what we were to have to eat, and they squabbled in the dining room and then out in the hall too. We could hear them.”
Her mother laughed. “That must have pleased the king!”
Alfirin laughed too. “He said he would speak to his steward about them.” Abruptly, she sobered. “Running that household must be a staggering task, Naneth. Even the steward apparently cannot manage the staff well, and he has years of experience.”
Her mother regarded her. “What do you think he should do about them?”
“He should put someone in charge of making the menus,” Alfirin said promptly, “and allow no one but himself to change them. You cannot run a kitchen as big as that one must be without a firm hand. And if the couple who served the meal cannot be polite to one another, then they should not be working together.”
Her mother smiled. “It sounds as if you have given some thought to managing the palace’s domestic affairs, almost as if you think you might be called upon to do it.”
Alfirin could feel the heat rising into her face. She hesitated and then admitted, “I think Ithilden is serious, Naneth.”
Her mother nodded. “Of course he is. From what I have seen, Ithilden is as far from being a fool as his adar is. The question is if you are serious.”
Alfirin was unable to contain her doubts. “I do not know if I could manage it all!” she cried.
“Do you mean the royal household? I have every confidence you could run it well. It would take time for you to learn all the details, of course, but in the long term, the king’s family would bless the day Ithilden married you. What I am asking you, iell-nín, is if you think you would be happy married to him.”
Alfirin blinked, astonished that her mother could even ask such a question. “He is…he is wonderful, Naneth. He is so honorable and so dedicated to the good of the realm.” Her mind suddenly flashed to the image of Ithilden crouching on the flet the previous evening, and she knew she was blushing again. “He is handsome, too.”
“He is all of that,” her mother agreed with a small smile, “but he has so many responsibilities that I worry he will not have enough time for you.”
Alfirin took a sip of her tea and said nothing, but she thought about the way Ithilden had been called away on the previous evening. It had not been the first time that such a thing had happened. His duties seemed to take nearly all his waking hours. Would he have room for her in his life too?
Her mother had hesitated, but now she went on. “And even more important, would he listen to you and respect your opinions? Ithilden can be a bit overbearing at times.”
Alfirin opened her mouth to protest but suddenly heard Ithilden asking, “Has he no command over his wife?”
She paused. “I think he would,” she finally said, but to herself, she had to admit that she was not sure.
Her mother covered Alfirin’s hand with her own. “Take your time, Alfirin. You will know if he is the right one for you.”
They sat in silence, sipping their tea, and Alfirin could hear Tonduil still chopping wood behind the cottage. Her mother turned toward the window. “Did Tonduil go out to do that without being asked?” Alfirin nodded, and her mother smiled broadly. “He is growing up quite nicely.”
Alfirin smiled at her mother’s obvious pride and abruptly remembered another scene from the previous evening. “Something is the matter with Legolas,” she said, frowning slightly. Her mother’s face went still, and Alfirin blinked. Her mother knew what the matter was! she thought with surprise, and then felt a flood of dismay. Her mother was the healer who had always cared for the king’s household. Legolas must be under her care even now. “I did not mean to pry,” she said quickly.
Her mother looked at her thoughtfully. “Legolas might present another responsibility for anyone running the king’s household, Alfirin. His adar sets the rules, and he and both older brothers plainly love Legolas, but at least until he is old enough to become a novice, you might wind up being the one who keeps track of him during the day. Moreover, I suspect a motherly presence might not come amiss. Would you be willing to do that?”
Alfirin was prevented from answering when the back door banged again, and Tonduil entered the room with an armload of firewood. She rose to check on the porridge, her mind whirling with the questions her mother had asked. Her mother was right, she decided. She needed time. When she saw Ithilden that night, she would be cautious and cool. She needed time to think.
Legolas released the arrow and watched as it sailed swift and true to knock over the last disk that had popped up over the top of the wooden wall.
“Good!” called the archery master. “You three can exchange places with the others now.” Legolas trotted down the training field, along with Annael and Galelas, elation flooding his system. Not only had he shot well, but he had done so without hesitation. His bow had felt easy and natural in his hand. Why had he stayed away from the training fields for so long? He was, at last, returning to being his true self.
Halfway down the field, they met Turgon, Tonduil, and Isendir on their way to take their turns at the exercise. “Good shooting, Legolas,” said Tonduil as he passed.
Legolas nodded an acknowledgment and then stopped to retrieve his arrows before taking his place behind the wall. “Good shooting, Legolas,” Galelas’s voice mimicked softly. Legolas whirled to find the other passing close behind him. Galelas grinned at him and disappeared behind the wall.
Legolas’s good mood vanished as if it had never been. Yanking his last arrow free, he followed Galelas. “Do you have some sort of problem?” he hissed. Annael, who had evidently not heard Galelas’s jibe, spun to look at him in surprise.
Galelas raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. Am I not obligated to praise you just as much as everyone else is?” He took a step closer. “If I stay home for a month, do you think people will praise me too?”
Blood roared in Legolas’s ears, and he lunged toward Galelas only to find Annael in the way. “Stop it,” Annael urged. “Penntalion will want to know what is happening.”
And just as Annael predicted, Penntalion’s voice called to them from beyond the wall behind which they were hidden. “Are you three ready?”
“Almost,” called Annael. He looked over his shoulder at Galelas and spoke softly. “Unless you want to be in trouble, you should shut your mouth and work the target at the end.” Galelas sneered but evidently did not wish to provoke the archery master, who was perfectly capable of making them all do push ups for the rest of class and then reporting them to their parents. Galelas moved to the end of the wall and took hold of the lever that raised and lowered the first target. Annael took the place in the middle, leaving Legolas to control the remaining target. Aware of Annael’s concerned gaze, Legolas concentrated on drawing deep breaths and steadying his trembling hands.
Finally, Annael looked away. “Ready!” he called.
“Go!” Penntalion said, and they began raising and lowering the targets, but Legolas’s mind was not on his task. How could he have let that fool Galelas get under his skin? he wondered desperately. Why was he still so on edge?
Head down, Legolas hurried through the Great Doors, down the steps, across the bridge, and into the woods beyond. The trees rustled softly around him, pouring out their concern. Sometimes, he was amazed by the way the forest continued to respond to him just as it always had. Surely it could tell how changed he was. Gradually he slowed his pace until finally he sank to the ground beneath a large old oak and leaned back against it. You are too hard on yourself, the healer had said when she came to see him that afternoon after his session with his tutor. Try to use the mindfulness we have been practicing together. Let the thoughts and feeling come, but then let them go. You will find yourself there somewhere.
Would he? he wondered unhappily. And if he did not, what was he to do? He had always assumed that he would be a warrior and defend his father’s realm from the darkness spreading through it. It was the only role he had ever imagined for himself. But what if he could not bring himself to do it?
I have to try, he thought desperately, and drawing a deep, wobbly breath, he pulled his knife from the embossed sheath that was buckled to his belt at his left hip. Sometimes he felt like a fraud for still wearing it, given how reluctant he was to think about using it, but if he left it off, its absence would be noticed. He sat for a moment regarding it as it lay in his open hand. It was a beautiful thing, really. The handle was engraved with a design of twining leaves that had been inlaid in a muted gold. Ithilden had given it to him as a begetting day gift when he had first become old enough to be trusted to carry a sharp weapon on his own. He ran his fingers over the runes engraved on the blade. “Legolas owns me,” they read. “I hunt and protect.” Legolas bit his lip. Would he ever be able to use this knife in a battle?
With his knife resting lightly in his hand, he closed his eyes and began the deliberate breathing that the healer had taught him. The oak murmured soothingly, and he became aware of the rasp of its bark against the back of his tunic. The muscles in his shoulders relaxed as he allowed his mind to drift. He had not been sleeping well, and he was tired, he realized.
Suddenly, behind his eyelids, he saw the surprised face of the Elf maid. With sickening clarity, he once again felt the light resistance of flesh and muscle as he drove his dagger up under her ribs, felt the warm blood flow over his hand.
With a soft cry, he opened his eyes and sat rigidly erect. The knife slipped from his open hand to ground. He bit his lip and blinked away a shameful rush of tears.
“Legolas?” said a soft voice.
He jerked his head around to see Alfirin standing uncertainly a few feet away, a basket of flowers over her arm. They stared at one another for a second, and then he bent as much to hide his face from her as to pick up the knife. “Mae govannen,” he muttered and waited for her to move on.
Instead, her light footsteps drew near, and he clenched his hand around the knife hilt. Could she not see he wanted privacy? he wondered resentfully.
With a rustle of her skirt, she sat down next to him. “I have been gathering the last of the spring flame flowers,” she said, setting her basket down between them. “They make a rich red dye that I like to use on some of the wool for my weavings.” She wrapped her arms around her drawn up knees and turned her face up to the afternoon sun. There was a moment’s silence, and then she smiled slightly. “In truth, I probably already have as much as I need of these flowers, but on such a beautiful day, I wanted an excuse to be in the woods.”
He smiled politely in response and leaned back against the oak again, with his knife in his lap. If he kept silent long enough, she would probably leave, he thought, and then was ashamed of his planned rudeness. She had asked for no explanation for what must have been his obvious distress, and indeed, exhibited no curiosity about it at all. Her presence next to him was not really a burden. He pulled himself together and made an effort. “I saw the weaving of the waterfall in my adar’s council chamber. It is very beautiful.”
He started to sheath his knife, but she stopped him. “Is that yours? May I see it? The carving on the hilt is exceedingly graceful.”
Without comment, he handed the knife to her, and she turned it over to examine the hilt. “It looks like Dwarf work,” she observed as she gave it back to him.
Legolas blinked. If the knife had been made by Dwarves, Ithilden had never said so, but of course, he probably would not have done so in front of their father, who tried to have as little as possible to do with their Dwarvish neighbors at Erebor. “Ithilden gave it to me for my twentieth begetting day,” he told Alfirin, putting the knife away.
Her face glowed. “Ithilden is very thoughtful.”
Legolas ducked his head to hide his smile and picked up a twig to dig absentmindedly at the dirt next to his right foot. Even in his own state of inexperience, there was no doubt in Legolas’s mind that this maiden loved his brother. Of course, how could she not? Next to their father, Ithilden was the most admirable Elf Legolas knew. He tried to decide how he felt about Ithilden bonding with her. It might be nice to have Alfirin around, he thought tentatively. She was gentle and nonjudgmental. He could not imagine her ever hurting anyone and indeed suspected that she was one of the rare people dwelling around Thranduil’s stronghold who did not even know how to use a weapon.
Of course, that meant she would probably be shocked if she knew what Legolas had done. He hoped Ithilden never told her. “It grows late,” he said. “May I walk you home?” He did not think she should be in the woods alone.
“I would be happy for the company,” she said and rose and slid her hand through his offered arm.
Ithilden took Alfirin’s hand and, rather than putting it on his arm, boldly continued to hold it. “It is a fine night,” he said, looking up at the stars, scattered thickly overhead.
She had been moving her hand toward his arm, plainly expecting to take it, and he thought she drew in her breath when he kept her palm against his and wrapped his fingers around it. “A very fine night,” she finally agreed and tightened her own fingers around his. With his heart beating a little more rapidly than usual, Ithilden led her off along the path that would take them to the river, where Thranduil’s people gathered on nights such as this one to sing and visit with their neighbors and enjoy the beauty of the world under starlight, looking the way it had looked when Elves first awoke in Arda.
He glanced at her. Her hair was back in its customary thick braid tonight, but her delicate features were beautiful in the pale starlight, and the neck of her gown was slightly lower than usual, giving him a tantalizing glimpse of the beginning of the swell of her high breasts. He could hardly believe that she was with him.
When they reached the river, it seemed to Ithilden that the music was unusually lovely. He supposed that the coming of spring and promise of summer had inspired people. He and Alfirin began to make their way along the path next to the river, in whose dark waters, the stars were reflected.
Two of his warriors came strolling toward them. “Good evening, my lord. And you, mistress,” said one, eyeing Alfirin curiously. Ithilden could sense her tensing a little under the scrutiny.
“Good evening,” he answered, as Alfirin nodded. The warriors passed, but Ithilden was suddenly aware of a small ripple of silence that accompanied his and Alfirin’s passage along the river. Apparently others sitting along the riverbank were also watching them. Glancing at Alfirin’s face, he found it slightly flushed and cursed to himself. He knew she was uncomfortable with the public curiosity to which she was subjected when she was out with him. He should have known better than to bring her here.
“Shall we sit for a while?” he asked, indicated a bench in the shadows of a clump of lilacs.
“Yes, please.” She sounded grateful, and he guided her to the bench and sat down next to her. They would be out of the way here and might have a little privacy. He hesitated slightly and then put his arm around her shoulders. To his dismay, she froze under his touch, and he was suddenly worried that he had made a mistake.
After long denial that he now realized stemmed from fear of her indifference, he had finally admitted to himself that he loved this maiden, but he was still unsure of whether she reciprocated his feelings. He had been disconcerted when she pulled away from him at the last moment on the previous night. He did not want to frighten her off now, either by exposing her to the curious stares of his father’s people or by being too bold. Then he felt her relax and lean against him. Her body was warm where it pressed against his side. His breath quickened and he swallowed hard.
From nearby, a song drifted toward them, telling a tale of Eärendil sailing across the night sky, catching glimpses of the lives of his people but having always to stay remote. “I know that Eärendil is a hero,” Alfirin sighed, “but it has always seemed so sad to me that he and Elwing had to leave their children behind to fend for themselves.”
Ithilden thought about that for a moment. In his experience, warriors sometimes had to do exactly what Alfirin found so sad. “It is fortunate for the rest of us that Eärendil and Elwing did what they did,” he finally said.
“I know. I just find it hard to think about their sons. They would have been better off as the children of Elves who simply lived in the forest and loved them and raised them to do the same thing.”
Ithilden contemplated what Alfirin had just said. Was she, perhaps, worried about what it would mean to bond with the son of a king who might have obligations beyond those he had to his family?
Suddenly, he blinked and sat up a little straighter. There, along the riverbank, not thirty feet away, walked Legolas, Annael, and Turgon in the company of three little maidens. Or perhaps, not so little, he thought, eyeing them. They were Legolas’s age, but as Legolas and his friends had stretched out and grown tall, the maidens’ bodies had rounded. Legolas had his head bent toward one of them, listening to something she was saying. Did Legolas have permission to be out tonight? Ithilden vaguely remembered a conversation between his little brother and their father at evening meal, but he had not paid much attention, for he had been thinking about his own plans.
He considered speaking to his little brother but decided not to. He thought Thranduil had finally given Legolas leave to go out, but if his little brother was out without permission, Ithilden was not sure that was a bad thing. At least it was normal. Ithilden tried not to show it, but he was worried about Legolas. He had seen young warriors strongly affected by their first kill before and knew that they usually got over their distress, but Legolas was taking more time to recover than most warriors did. Of course, he was younger than even new warriors were, and the person he had killed was another Elf and one as pretty and innocent looking as the maiden who now walked next to Legolas.
Turgon was in the lead of the little party, and as Ithilden watched, he suddenly halted and turned to speak to the others. Ithilden could not quite make out what he was saying, but he did see him gesture off into the woods and hear the words “the Glade.” With a suppressed groan, Ithilden removed his arm from around Alfirin and began to get up, but she caught at his tunic.
“Wait. See how they deal with it themselves.”
But Ithilden could not stop himself. Young Elves with nothing better to do gathered at the Glade to drink and wager. Much to Thranduil’s displeasure, Eilian had spent a fair amount of time there around the year he came of age, and Legolas already had slipped away from the palace to spend an evening or two there. Thranduil would be very displeased if he did it again. He rose and started toward where Legolas and his friends had halted.
Then, still in the shadows, he stopped, for already it was evident that the young people were unlikely to be setting off into the woods on their way to the Glade. The maidens were all frowning, and Annael was shaking his head. “No, Turgon,” Legolas said finally, and the six of them set off again, with Turgon looking disgruntled.
Ithilden returned to the bench and sat down with a sigh. “I wish Turgon had stayed at his family home permanently. He is a bad influence on Legolas, and if I were Adar, I would forbid Legolas’s spending time with him.”
Alfirin frowned at him. “Legolas decided for himself not to go, Ithilden, and he is old enough to do that. Why do you not trust him?”
He looked at her sharply. Had she heard something about Legolas’s trouble? He scrutinized her face but found her looking more puzzled than anything else. She did not know, he decided. And there was no reason she ever should. Thranduil’s people knew that a spy had been found and killed, but most of them did not know the details. “I trust Legolas,” he said stiffly. “It is Turgon I do not trust.”
She looked away and then back again. “Legolas is lucky to have you to worry about him,” she said with a small sigh.
He could not make out what was troubling her. With a flutter in the pit of his stomach, he tentatively put his arm around her again, but it quickly became evident that the mood of the evening had been broken, and she did not lean against him again, although she also did not ask him to remove his arm. For a while longer, they sat quietly, listening to the music and watching the stars and the river. He could see her only in profile, but to him, she looked as if she was deeply absorbed in some inner debate. Finally, she stirred. “I should go home,” she said. “I have to be up early tomorrow.”
Ithilden had to be up early the next morning too, but he did not care. He would have sat with her all night, and he wished he knew why she had decided that she needed to go home now. They rose and began to walk back the way they had come, this time with her arm decorously through his. “Good night, my lord,” called one of the musicians on his left. He grimaced quickly, even as he lifted his hand in acknowledgment. Perhaps Alfirin was so bothered by the public nature of his life that she had decided to back away from him. If so, he did not know what he would do. He was who he was.
They followed the path to her family’s cottage, stopping outside the front door, where a maple tree cast its shadows. She turned to face him and gave a small curtsy. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said, sending his heart plummeting. “I will bed you good night.” Abruptly, her eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth.
He blinked. What had she said?
She stared at him over her hand, and suddenly, she giggled and then laughed outright. “I was going to be wise,” she moaned. “I was going to take my time and be sure because I do not know if I can manage your adar’s household, and you are so busy you might not have time for me, and you can be very dismissive of the opinions of others, Ithilden, but I am such a fool, that I cannot do it.”
He stared at her, trying to sort through what he had just heard, and then she stepped toward him with her face raised, and he forgot what she had said, and put his hands on her shoulders, and kissed her.
Her lips were soft, and he drew the bottom one gently between his and then pulled away to look into the depths of her dark eyes. “I love you, Alfirin.”
The stars must have been reflected in her eyes because light danced in them. “I love you, Ithilden.”
He bent and kissed her again, and as he did so, he reached behind her to untie the ribbon securing her braid and then began working his fingers through it, unraveling the glorious cloud of her hair.
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