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Smaller Than a Bread Box
"Calith!" cried a voice in the outer office. "Congratulations, Ada!" A chair scraped over the floor.
At the sound of his aide's name, Ithilden lifted his head from the report he had been reading and smiled. Then he too rose and went to stand in his office doorway. Anolad was pounding Calith on the back. "Another son! A lusty lad, I trust. And how is his naneth?"
"Nithien and the boy are both doing well." Calith held something small out to Anolad. A twig doll, Ithilden realized, the traditional token Wood-elf fathers gave to friends and neighbors when a new baby was born, a sign of rejoicing in fertility and new life.
Anolad laughed, put up his hands, and backed away. "Haviel is teetering on the edge of consenting to bond with me. I do not want to frighten her off by looking as if an instant elfling is part of the bargain."
To Ithilden, Anolad scarcely looked old enough to bond, but he supposed the boy must be, despite his round cheeks and the half-starved way he fell upon his food. He had already pledged himself as a warrior after all, and Legolas had thought him capable of managing Calith's work while the aide stayed with his wife and newborn son. Or so Legolas had said anyway. It had crossed Ithilden's mind that Legolas too might be reacting to Anolad's youth and be trying to store him in a place even safer than the usual Home Guard patrol.
Calith thrust the doll toward a retreating Anolad. "It also means fruitfulness, a rich life." Calith grinned. "You could tell her that."
"Give it to a long-time husband." Anolad spotted Ithilden and gestured toward him. "The Troop Commander's wife will doubtless feel she can manage him by now."
Calith looked over his shoulder, and from the mask that settled over the aide's face, Ithilden knew what he must be thinking: the Troop Commander's wife was too busy thinking about her own "baby" to have time for anything else—Sinnarn, his spirit fled to the Halls of Waiting, the body Alfirin had labored to bring forth burned and scattered on the winds.
Ithilden put out his hand for the doll. "Congratulations, Calith. May you all grow and prosper together."
Calith laid the doll gently in Ithilden's palm. "Thank you, my lord." He glanced at his desk, covered in a chaos of paper. "Shall I just take a look at all this before I go?"
Anolad's face lit up.
"No," Ithilden said. "Go home and spend the time while you still have it."
Calith's mouth twisted. Anolad gave a muffled groan, and Calith sighed and turned to smile at the boy. "I will back the day after tomorrow."
"Good," Anolad said fervently.
Ithilden silently echoed the sentiment. Calith took his leave, and Ithilden went back into his office, grateful for the chance to fill his mind with the demands of useful work. When Anolad knocked on the door to say he was leaving for the day, Ithilden was surprised by late it had grown. He sent Anolad on his way, neatened his own desk, and started home, taking the twig doll. He would give it to his brother's daughter, Loriel.
As he always did, he took the path through the palace garden. He moved slowly, though, and about a third of the way along the path, he dropped onto a bench. Talking with Calith about his son had been harder than Ithilden expected. He needed a few moments to gather himself before he went the rest of the way home and faced Alfirin. If he took the time to cover the surface of his own well of grief with a thin layer of icy self control, he would be better able to support and comfort his wife.
Assuming she let him, of course. Just after Sinnarn's death, she had opened herself to him and sought his help. But for the last few weeks, when he reached through their bond, he found her with her feelings guarded. What was she thinking? Had she decided after all these weeks to blame him for sending Sinnarn on that last mission to Dol Guldur?
His eyes drifted through the branches of the flowering apple tree behind the bench opposite his. Sinnarn had once climbed that tree to get to the wall beyond, then run along the wall's top, crying, "Ada, look! Did you see me?" Clear as the song of a flickwing in the woods beyond the wall, Ithilden heard Alfirin's cry, muffled so as not to startle Sinnarn: "Ithilden." She had meant for him to snatch their son from danger, had utter faith that he could do it.
More fool she.
His fingers closed around the doll, and the twig forming its arms twisted and popped loose. He stared at the broken thing, then set it on the bench next to him and clasped his hands.
A hinge creaked and running footsteps crunched lightly over the gravel path. His head jerked toward the sound, and for a foolish moment, he thought his wishes had made time rewind, thought some merciful power had decided he shouldn't have to bear this pain after all.
But of course the elfling who ran into sight was not his son. It was Loriel, her braids bouncing on her shoulders, little curls springing loose. When she caught sight of him, she veered to run straight to him. In her hand, she clutched a twig doll. She stopped an arm's length away and hopped from foot to foot.
"Uncle Ithilden, you will never guess where we have been! We went to see Nithien and her baby." She stopped abruptly and frowned at the bench beside him, looking from the doll in her hand to the one next to him. "It's broken."
He picked it up. "I know."
The gravel crunched again, and Alfirin and Celuwen appeared around the bend in the path, both hurrying a little more than usual. Both of them looked relieved when they saw Loriel.
Ithilden rose, and Alfirin came toward him and raised her cheek for him to kiss.
"Can we stay in the garden for a while?" Loriel asked over her shoulder. "I want to tell Uncle Ithilden about the baby."
Celuwen grinned at Ithilden. "We can stay a little while." She took the bench across from him. Alfirin smoothed Loriel's hair, then drew Ithilden down to sit next to her. She too was smiling, and when he put his arm around her, he found her for once unguarded. Her attention was wholly on Loriel, but her amusement rippled through their bond, layered over sadness, true, but there nonetheless. He let himself rejoice.
Loriel's face was serious. "The baby grew inside the nana," she told Ithilden.
He nodded gravely. Loriel had never seen a newborn before, he knew. She had been the only child in the village where she was born.
Alfirin's hand hovered near Loriel's side, and Ithilden felt the way she yearned to draw the elfling close. "Tell him how small the baby was, sweetling."
"It has arms and hands and toes, but it's little. Little like a, like a—" Loriel frowned, groping for a comparison. "Like a loaf of bread," she finished, "only wiggly."
"Not 'it,' Loriel," Celuwen said. "He."
"Oh yes. I saw that."
Alfirin's shoulders shuddered against Ithilden as she smothered a laugh.
Loriel danced across the path and draped one arm across Celuwen's knees. She hopped the twig doll along the bench.
Alfirin leaned slightly forward, and flowing from her, Ithilden felt a tug of longing and a quickly hidden flash of something very much like jealousy. He caught his breath.
Loriel looked up at Celuwen. "We need a baby, Nana." She laid a small hand on Celuwen's flat stomach. "How long would it take you to grow one?"
Alfirin pressed against Ithilden, darted a gleeful look up at him, then dropped her eyes so Loriel wouldn't see. She took the twig doll from his lap and fiddled with the scrap of bark that had tied the arms in place. With an efficient twist, she mended the thing.
"A baby takes a year to grow," Celuwen said, "but we would need Ada home for that. An ada and a nana make the baby together."
"Write to Ada and tell him we need him to come home and make a baby," Loriel said.
Ithilden choked back a laugh of his own. "I am sure your ada would be happy to do that," he said, aware of the quiver in his voice. Alfirin elbowed him but couldn't suppress her own grin.
Celuwen rolled her eyes. "He might be happy to—um, go through the motions, but I am willing to wager he thinks Loriel is enough for now."
Loriel leaned back against her mother and frowned. "We really need a baby." Her gaze focused on Alfirin and Ithiden, and her eyes widened. "I know! Aunt Alfirin should grow the baby. Uncle Ithilden can help her."
Celuwen's face froze. She cast a swift look at Alfirin, then slid her gaze across Ithilden and jumped to her feet. "Loriel, that is not something anyone can decide for someone else. Come. We need to go in now."
"Yes." Celuwen gave Alfirin an apologetic look and held out her hand to Loriel.
Loriel scowled, then sidled across the path to Alfirin. Her hand hovered over the doll Alfirin still held. "Can I have it?"
Ithilden had sat frozen, but now he laid his hand atop the doll in Alfirin's palm. Emotion swirled in his breast, his own emotion and Alfirin's, a tangle of pain and longing and regret. And something more. He slid his memory over the feeling one more time and was certain. When Loriel had said he and Alfirin should have a baby, Alfirin's heart had leapt like a meadowlark soaring toward the sun, like an otter at play, joyous with the wonder of life.
She looked at him now, eyebrows raised.
"I think we will keep this," he told Loriel.
Alfirin's lips parted. She drew in a long, soft breath.
Loriel sighed and took Celuwen's hand. Celuwen hurried her daughter toward the palace. The last Ithilden heard of them was Loriel asking, "Nana, how does the baby get out?"
Somewhere nearby, the flickwing sang its piercing song. The scent of the apple blossoms filled the air. A breeze sent a petal into Alfirin's dark hair. Ithilden gazed into her face.
"I am right, am I not?" he asked. "You wish it? And this is what you have been keeping from me. This is why you have closed yourself off."
She sighed. "You do not have to argue. I know it would be foolish." The bond between them quivered with the strength of her longing. "I did not want to burden you with a wish that could not be answered."
"You think I will argue we should wait for safer times." He brushed the pale petal from her head and spoke slowly. "Eilian and Loriel were both born during times of relative peace, and what good has it done them?"
Alfirin's eyes widened.
He slid his hand to cup her jaw and bent his head and kissed her. Her mouth was warm and honey sweet. Her pulse fluttered under his thumb, quickening at his touch and perhaps at what she felt of his intent through the bond she had left open.
"We should go in," she breathed.
"Yes," he said, "we should."
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