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A Matter of Heart  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

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6. Taking Care

As Alfirin watched in horror, the tree toppled toward Legolas, everything seemingly happening with unbearable slowness and yet too quickly to prevent.

“Look out!” Ithilden cried, lunging forward. At the same time, Legolas’s horse, already nervous, gave a hysterical scream and started to bolt. Legolas whirled to grab for him, but too late, and his horse flew off, spooking Ithilden’s horse into the same panicked flight. 

Alfirin could tell the instant that Legolas spotted the tree, because his face changed and he began to scramble frantically back out of the way. For a second, she thought that everything was going to be all right, and then, unbelievably, Legolas’s foot slipped in the mud and he fell. Even then, the tree almost missed him. Only at the last possible instant did a branch near the end of one of the tree’s great arms catch his still outstretched leg, driving a cry of pain from the youth.

At the sound of his cry, Alfirin shook herself free from her paralyzed state and, slipping a little on the rain slicked grass, she ran to help Ithilden, now crouched at his brother’s side. Legolas was moaning and trying to wriggle backward and draw his leg out from under the tree. “Hold still!” Ithilden commanded, and rather to Alfirin’s surprise, Legolas bit his lip and obeyed. Ithilden looked at her. “Can you get your hands under his arms and pull him free when I lift the branch a little?”

Determinedly, she nodded and bent to grasp Legolas, twisting her fingers into the front of his soaked tunic to steady her slippery grip. Cold drops of rain pelted her back. Grabbing the branch, Ithilden gave a great heave and moved it a fraction of an inch, and she dug her heels in and pulled, dragging Legolas out from under it. She could hear him gasp, but he made no other sound.

Ithilden dropped the branch and ran to them, drawing his knife as he fell to his knees next to Legolas. With swift precision, he slashed the already torn right leg of Legolas’s leggings from the knee down and peeled it away. Alfirin stared at the long bruise forming around the oozing scrape on Legolas’s leg. She reached out to run her hand along it to check for the tell-tale bump of a broken and dislocated bone, but Ithilden’s long, elegant hands were already sliding gently along his brother’s leg. Legolas sucked in his breath sharply, and Alfirin looked at his milk-white face and then placed her hand over his.

“Everything seems to be where it should be, Legolas,” Ithilden said with reassuring calm, “but I do not think you should try to walk on it until a healer looks at it.” Legolas drew in a wobbly breath and kept his lips firmly pressed together. Probably holding back whatever sound he feared might come out if he opened his mouth, Alfirin thought.

Ithilden sank back on his haunches and looked around. “I am going to have to go after the horses, and I would like to get him out of the rain as much as I can while I do it. Do you know of anywhere more promising than under those pine trees?” Although his voice was composed, she could see from the tension around his mouth that he was anxious.

“There is a small cave, closer to the river a short distance further on,” she offered. “I found it the last time I was here hunting flowers. That is where I was going when we met today.”

Gratitude shone from Ithilden’s eyes as he smiled at her, and she felt her heart thump against the wall of her chest. And at that moment, she knew that whatever fears she had for her future were of no weight at all compared to the love she felt for this Elf.

Oblivious to her capitulation, Ithilden slid the bow from Legolas’s back and unbuckled his quiver and helped him out of it. He handed the gear to Alfirin and then bent to gather Legolas carefully into his arms. Legolas closed his eyes and clenched his jaw but made no sound. Instead, he let his head fall against his older brother’s shoulder, hiding his face from them both. Ithilden made a single, soft comforting sound, and then, when Alfirin pointed the way, he set off.

Alfirin snatched up her basket and trotted after him, hurrying to keep up with Ithilden’s long strides.  Her heart warmed at how gentle Ithilden was with his brother today and how clearly Legolas trusted in Ithilden’s strength. Perhaps she had been too harsh in judging him, she thought, or perhaps he had listened to her more attentively than she had realized. It did not matter. What mattered was that he was responding to Legolas’s need for him, and Legolas knew it.

Rain continued to descend in torrents, and thunder still sounded, although it had moved off from where they were. When they neared the cave, she plucked at Ithilden’s sleeve from behind and he stopped and turned to her. “It is over that little ridge,” she said pointing to their left and starting to sidle that way.

“Wait,” he said. “Let me check to be sure nothing else has sheltered there first.” He moved into the doubtful shelter of a maple and set Legolas down carefully to lean his back against it. “We will have you out of the rain soon, Legolas,” he said soothingly and straightened and looked at Alfirin. “I will be right back.” And he climbed nimbly up the ridge and disappeared over it.

Alfirin crouched next to Legolas, trying to get between him and the blowing rain. He still had his eyes closed and was breathing hard. Her gaze came to rest on the trunk of the tree just above his head. The bark was scraped off, and streaks of mud had been spread along it. Wild boar, she thought, recognizing the signs, and almost simultaneously, she heard a snort.

Legolas’s eyes flew open, and Alfirin turned to see a boar, standing not twenty feet away, trembling slightly and watching her and Legolas. His tusks looked sharp and menacing. It should be asleep, she thought incredulously. They sleep during the day. But then another clap of thunder sounded and the animal quivered. The storm had evidently awakened it and made it suspicious of them, the invaders in its territory.

Very slowly, she crouched and, from her basket, she slid the knife she had been using to cut flowers. Then, her heart pounding wildly, she took up a stance between the animal and the injured Legolas and waited to see what would happen. Boars were normally not dangerous unless they felt threatened, but this one was clearly rattled. Go away, she urged it silently. We will not hurt you. Go away. If the boar charged, she would have to throw her knife, and she was not sure she could do it hard or accurately enough.

For a long moment, she and the boar looked at one another, and then the animal backed away and faded into the bushes. She let out a breath she had not known she was holding, trying to steady her trembling legs as she did so. Immediately, out of the rain, Ithilden appeared by her side, his bow in his hand. He touched the hand in which she held the knife. “That was very brave.” His eyes shone as he looked down at her.

And then he was gazing past her at Legolas with a look she could not read, and she turned to see Legolas sliding his knife back into its sheath. He must have been ready to throw his knife too, she thought. And a good thing. He is undoubtedly much better than I am with one. But something in Legolas’s face gave her pause. He was looking down and his mouth was tight. His breath was coming hard, and, to her surprise, his hands were shaking. As she watched, he curled them into fists.

“Legolas,” Ithilden said softly, and the youth lifted his gaze to look at him. “That was very brave of you too.” Legolas looked at him without reacting for a moment and then gave a tiny smile. Ithilden smiled back, shouldered his bow, and moved to pick him up. “The cave is empty,” he told Alfirin. “Come.” He led the way over the ridge to the small cave she had found the previous summer.

He set Legolas down with care, once again propping him into a sitting position. He pushed a strand of wet hair off Legolas’s forehead. “I am going to get the horses now. You stay still.” Legolas nodded wordlessly, and Ithilden hesitated and then said, “That really was well done, little one.”

Legolas gave a small snort. “Not little any more,” he said, and Alfirin smiled. It was exactly what Tonduil would have said.

“No,” Ithilden agreed solemnly. “Not little any more.” Legolas regarded him steadily, and then, simultaneously, the two of them smiled, and Ithilden patted Legolas’s shoulder.

Ithilden rose and turned to Alfirin. “I will be back as soon as I can. Take care.”  She nodded, and he walked out into the rain and started back over the ridge. She watched him go until his comfortingly strong figure disappeared from sight.

Then, determined to be of comfort if not of use, she dropped her basket, propped Legolas’s bow and quiver against one wall of the cave, and knelt down to look at his leg again, although she drew back from touching it when he tensed. She bit her lip. The leg would have to be immobilized in some sort of splint for the ride home, but she would wait for Ithilden’s return to do it. Two pairs of hands would make it easier to hold the splint in place and secure it. Besides, the process was going to hurt, and she thought Legolas would do better with Ithilden present when that happened.

She reached into her basket for the water skin. “Would you like a drink?” He shook his head, and she took a drink of the tepid water. “Somehow it feels wrong to be thirsty when we are so wet,” she said, smiling. She put the skin back in the basket and sat down next to him. “Are you looking forward to the summer solstice feast? I know I am.”

He made no answer, and she had not expected him to. Visiting her mother at the infirmary, she had seen enough injured people to know that they were usually quiet at first. She leaned her head back against the wall of the cave and pictured dancing with Ithilden at this year’s feast. He would have his arms around her and perhaps would draw her close. She shivered a little.

Suddenly, Legolas’s voice penetrated her reverie. “You can use a knife?”

She blinked. “Yes. I am not particularly good with it, but I can defend myself if I have to. As long as the enemy is not too determined,” she added with a small smile. “I have to admit I would have felt much better if I had known you were there with your knife ready too. I was terrified.”

Legolas did not look at her. He was plucking at the hem of his tunic, pulling the wet fabric away from him. For a long moment, they sat in silence, and she had just decided he was not going to speak again when he asked, “Did you know there was a spy in the palace last month?”

“Yes.” Alfirin was surprised at his choice of a topic. She did not know what she had expected him to talk about, but it was not this.

“Did Ithilden tell you that I killed her?”

For a moment, Alfirin stopped breathing. This youth who was a year younger than her brother had killed another Elf, and what was more, one who was female. She glanced at Legolas, who was still looking at the hem of his tunic, where his fingers were twisting in the fabric. Then she let go of the breath she had been holding. “He did not tell me,” she said as calmly as she could. “I remember being relieved when I heard that the spy was dead and thinking how fortunate we were that the king’s warriors were so well trained, but I did not know that you were the one to whom we all owed our continued safety.”

He did not answer, and her heart constricted as she looked at him, so obviously in anguish. She thought about Tonduil and how he would probably feel if he had had to kill an Elf-maiden. “For the sake of the rest of us, I am glad you were there, Legolas, but for your own sake, I am sorry. Killing her must have been hard.”

He bit his lip. “It was.”

She was at a loss to know what more to say. He dropped his head back against the wall of the cave, and she could see tears leaking out from under his closed eyelids. Impulsively, she put her hand over his, stilling it. “I do not know exactly what happened, Legolas, but I have seen enough of you to know that whatever you did was done from necessity. Sometimes we have to do things that we would never freely choose. I am sorry such a thing happened to you, but I say again that I am grateful for your being willing to do something hard so that I and those I love could be safe.” He said nothing, but he left his hand where it was, accepting what little comfort she had to offer.

They sat together in silence as the rain gradually lessened. Eventually, she heard the sound of horses approaching and then Ithilden stood in the cave mouth, his worried eyes on Legolas. She looked at him, large and solid and warm, and felt an enormous elation. He loved her. He had said he did, and she would stake her life on his truthfulness and faithfulness and honor. “All we need to do now is get some sort of splint on your leg, Legolas, and we will be on our way home,” he said cheerfully.

He glanced at her and smiled, and she thought she had never seen anyone more beautiful. He was the king’s son and the leader of the king’s warriors, and she respected and admired him for the skilled, graceful way he met those responsibilities, but the person she loved was Ithilden himself, the Elf he was in the center of his being, the one who could be strong when those who depended on him needed strength and yet be tender when a suffering youth needed someone to comfort him. The Valar have smiled on me, she thought. I will remember this moment forever.

***

Legolas clutched his knife in a shaking hand, determined to throw it if he had to. Get hold of yourself, he scolded. It is an animal, not another person. The trouble was that Alfirin was closer to the boar than he was. He tried to jump ahead, but strain as he would, he could not move.

“Legolas,” called Thranduil’s voice. His father wanted him to throw the knife. Legolas knew that and he thought that he could, but how could he protect Alfirin if he could not get in front of her?

Someone touched him on the shoulder, making him jump. “Wake up, Legolas. You are dreaming.” And suddenly, his eyes snapped into focus, and he was looking at his father, who was bending over him. For a confused second, he could not quite shake off his dream, but then he realized he was home in his own bed and his tense muscles let go. “Does your leg hurt?” Thranduil asked.

“No,” Legolas said automatically. In truth, his leg did ache a little, but he did not want any more of the sleep inducing herb that the healer had left for him. He moved his leg restlessly. The bone was only cracked, the healer had said, and then she had wrapped it and told him it would heal rapidly if he stayed off his feet for a day or two. He had been astonished that something that sounded like a minor injury had hurt so much, but found that already he was beginning to forget the initial pain and feel more irritated than anything else at the leg’s persistent ache.

Thranduil resumed his seat in a chair that had been pulled up to Legolas’s bedside. He had been reading petitions, Legolas saw. They were piled on the table next to him. But now Thranduil had laid them all aside and was eyeing Legolas. “Are you hungry? It is almost time for evening meal.”

Legolas thought about that. “I am hungry,” he admitted, “but I can wait.” He would have to eat in his room, and he did not want servants fussing about just yet.

“I am not surprised you are hungry,” Thranduil said. “You missed mid-day meal and have had quite a time.”

Legolas immediately recalled the reason he had missed the mid-day meal and shot his father a guilty look. “I am sorry about the fight, Adar.”

Thranduil glanced away and back again. “The masters say you threw the first punch, Legolas. That is not like you at all. What happened to set you off?”

Legolas hesitated. He was not sure he could explain how Galelas had managed to get so deeply under his skin. “Another student doubted that I was serious about being a warrior because I have missed so many classes. He said he hoped he would never have to rely on me.” He looked at his father, whose face had gone still, and waited to see what he would say.

Thranduil seemed to brace himself. “Whether you want to be a warrior is up to you, Legolas, but--.”

“Of course I want to be a warrior!” Legolas cried. “I have always wanted that. I just do not know if I will be able to do it, Adar.” And as he heard himself say it, Legolas knew he had finally spoken of the thing that frightened him most.

Thranduil moved immediately from the chair to the edge of the bed and put his arm around Legolas’s shoulders. “Give it time, child. If I were to take my best guess, I would say you will recover and be a warrior of formidable skill, but whether you are or not, I know you will make me proud of you.” Legolas found he could not help smiling, and then Thranduil added, “But you may not fight with other students.”

More soberly, Legolas nodded. “It will not happen again.”

Thranduil nodded placidly but spoke firmly. “It had better not.”

Legolas sighed and decided to change the subject. He recalled his dream. “Did Ithilden tell you we saw a boar?”

“Yes.” Thranduil drew in a deep breath. “He said you drew your knife.”

Legolas lay quietly for a moment. He had drawn his knife. Did that mean he was better now? “It was only a boar,” he said tentatively, “not another person.”

“Still, when need arose, you were willing to use a knife to protect yourself and Alfirin.”

Legolas pictured the scene in the woods and smiled slightly. “I am not sure who was protecting whom. She had a knife too.” He could not keep the surprise from his voice.

His father laughed. “It has been my experience that Wood-elf maidens are almost always considerably tougher than they look.”

Legolas turned his head to smile at his father. “Was Naneth good with a knife?”

“She could knock down an acorn at twenty paces,” Thranduil declared with a grin. “I kept that in mind when we had a quarrel.”

Legolas laughed and then asked curiously, “Is Ithilden going to bond with Alfirin?”

Thranduil looked contented. “I believe he is.”

“Good,” said Legolas. “I like her.”

***

Thranduil tightened the strap at the side of the light leather armor, watching Legolas from the corner of his eye as he did so. His youngest son’s face was impassive as he walked back and forth across the grass of the garden, ostensibly warming up the muscles on his newly healed leg. Thranduil glanced at Ithilden, who was leaning against the garden wall, waiting to watch them spar and saw that his shoulders were tense and his eyes too were on Legolas. As if feeling Thranduil’s eyes on him, Ithilden turned to him and they exchanged glances.

Ithilden straightened up and picked up a leather helmet from a nearby bench. “Here, Legolas,” he called and tossed the helmet to Legolas when he turned. “I know how the maidens like your hair, so you will want to prevent Adar from slicing it off.” Legolas made a face at him and then put on the helmet, while Ithilden handed the second helmet to Thranduil. Then he picked up the blunted training knives, handed one to Thranduil and took the other to Legolas. He slapped him on the side of his helmeted head and retreated quickly when Legolas swatted at his hand.

“Are you two ready?” Ithilden asked.

Thranduil stepped into the center of the grassy area, and after a second of hesitation, Legolas stepped forward and faced him. Thranduil could see him swallow hard. They both held their knives at the ready and then Ithilden called, “Go!”

Immediately, Thranduil began circling to his right with Legolas echoing his movements. Legolas moved a little stiffly, and Thranduil thought that was due as much to how tense he was as to his newly healed leg. Thranduil could see openings in the defensive pattern Legolas was making with his knife, but he kept circling steadily, trying to give Legolas time to work off his anxiety.

“That is the way to do it, Legolas,” encouraged Ithilden. “He is old and will eventually need to sit down if you keep him on his feet long enough.”

Thranduil raised an eyebrow but was secretly pleased to see Legolas smile and relax slightly. They continued circling. Thranduil feinted to his right and, Legolas skipped out of the way.

“Legolas,” said Ithilden, “did I ever tell you about the time Eilian rigged a bucket of water over the door of the masters’ hut and then threw his knife to cut the line and dump it on the unarmed combat master?”

Thranduil glanced sharply at the grinning Ithilden. He had never heard that particular story. He caught a glimpse of movement, and only just kept himself from reacting, and then, Legolas was under his guard and holding his knife an inch or so away from Thranduil’s diaphragm. He did not touch the point to the armor, but he was smiling in triumph, albeit rather shakily.

Ithilden crowed triumphantly. “He has you, Adar!”

Thranduil smiled down at the panting Legolas. “So he does,” he said and quickly embraced and then released his son. He turned to Ithilden and frowned reprovingly. “Were you not afraid of distracting Legolas by telling him that story?”

Legolas shrugged. “I already knew about that,” he said.

Thranduil could feel his mouth opening slightly and tightened it. “I would like to know about it too.”

Ithilden laughed. “I would love to tell it to you, Adar, but I am already late in meeting Alfirin.” He came toward them to thump Legolas on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Legolas. Hard luck, Adar.” And still grinning, he strode off to meet Alfirin.

Thranduil looked at Legolas. “That was well done, iôn-nín,” he said gently.

Legolas flushed slightly. “Thank you, Adar.” He looked at Thranduil. “Thank you for everything.” And despite the fact that Legolas made a face, Thranduil drew him close and kissed his forehead.

***

Ithilden took Alfirin’s hand in his and felt a pleasant little thrill when she looked shyly up at him and squeezed his palm. They had no particular destination in mind today. He had left his office early to take the blunted knives and armor to Thranduil and Legolas, and now he had an hour to be alone with her before both of them would dine with her parents. Without having to discuss it, they had chosen to wander the nearby part of the woods, reveling in the way summer had crept into the forest.

They came to the edge of the Forest River, and he led her along a narrow path through some bushes until they were in a small glade by the river, sheltered by the underbrush around them. He wanted the privacy. He had something to ask her.

They stood for a moment, looking at the way the still high summer sun sparkled on the water. Then he turned to her. “Alfirin, I know that I am asking something difficult, that life in the palace would not always be easy, and life with me would not always be easy either, but I cannot bear the thought of living my life without you. You make me a better person. You make me whole. So despite the fact that it is entirely selfish of me, I ask you anyway: Will you bond with me?”

He thought he knew the answer she would give. He had spent a great deal of time with her in the last few weeks and had read what he could in her actions and words. She loved him. She had said it. And he thought she was ready to bind her life to his. But as he looked at her now, he felt a moment of doubt. How could she agree to it? She could have anyone she wanted. Was he being arrogant to think she had chosen him?

She tilted her face up to his. “I love you, Ithilden, and I know now that I have done so for years. I feel deeply fortunate that you love me back. Of course I will bond with you. Indeed, I think in most ways, I already have.”

For a moment, he froze, astonished by the way his life had become deeper and richer and far happier than he could ever have believed possible. Then he bent his head to hers and kissed her.

The end

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Thank you to everyone who has read this story and especially to those who reviewed. If Ithilden's life is richer because of Alfirin, my pleasure in writing these stories is richer because you tell me that you enjoy them too.

 





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