|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
Thranduil stood at the top of the Great Steps, tapping the riding gloves in his right hand against the palm of his left. At the other end of the bridge, the stablemaster waited with Thranduil's horse. The stallion tossed its head and pawed the grass, as eager as Thranduil was to be on their way. If his guards took much longer to arrive, Thranduil would ride without them and let Ithilden object all he liked. After that morning's meeting with his council, Thranduil needed to feel his muscles straining as he and the horse galloped at the edge of their mutual endurance.
"Grandfather!" Footsteps pattered out from the antechamber.
The tension in Thranduil's shoulders eased, and he turned to smile at the small figure, clutching a wooden sword and bouncing on her toes, so her braids danced on her shoulders. "Mae govannen, Loriel. Where are you off to?"
"We are going to see Grandmother Isiwen and Grandfather Solith. Their house is all done, and they put the furniture in while I was with my tutor, and Nana is going to help them, and I am too."
Behind Loriel, Thranduil saw Celuwen in the antechamber talking to Alfirin. Alfirin was digging her knuckles into the small of her back, massaging it against the weight of her pregnancy. Not much longer now, Thranduil thought. In two weeks, he would have a second granddaughter. As he had done since Ithilden and Alfirin announced the baby was a girl, he felt a secret gratitude he would not have to risk another grandchild falling to a warrior's death.
"You should come too, Grandfather," Loriel went on, oblivious to his grim thoughts. "They have steps like you do, but theirs are wooden and they go up and up into the trees, and the branches go right through the house! You can hear the trees all the time."
"I have seen it on my rides," Thranduil said. Solith would choke on his tongue if Thranduil showed up at the new house in the trees. The idiot would have refused to accept Celuwen's invitation to dine at the palace if his wife had not insisted they go. Isiwen at least cared for their daughter's feelings. Thranduil suspected it was Isiwen who decided Celuwen and Loriel needed them with Eilian away. Of course, the presence of the Nazgűl in the woods would have made any sensible Elf seek safety for his family, but no one had ever accused Solith of being sensible.
"I wish I could hear the trees in my bed." Loriel frowned. "When I was little, I lived in my house, and I could hear the trees through my window. Grandfather said they were singing to me, and we made up a song and played it on our whistles."
"I wish you could hear the trees too." Thranduil suppressed a stab of jealousy at the cozy little scene Loriel had shared with Solith rather than him. "But the cave keeps you safe."
"Grandfather says the trees will keep them safe. They will listen, and the trees will tell them when bad things come."
Thranduil bit back the temptation to say what he thought of that. Fortunately, as it happened, because just then Celuwen and Alfirin emerged into the spring afternoon. Celuwen could be sharp-tongued when someone criticized her father.
Loriel ran to pat Alfirin's stomach. "Mae govannen, baby. I am still waiting for you."
Alfirin smiled down at her and stroked her hair. Thranduil's heart warmed at the way her face glowed with the life flourishing within her. "Are you still here, Adar?" Alfirin said. "I expected you would be well away by now."
"I did, too," Thranduil said.
Ithilden must have heard him as he came out of the antechamber, his pack over his arm. "You were early, Adar." He smiled. "If a person did not know better, he might say you were eager to be shut of the lot of us." He bent to kiss Alfirin's cheek. "You should go inside and rest."
"As soon as you are on your way," Alfirin said. "You will be back quickly?"
"How long can it take to visit the Eastern Border Patrol? I will be back tomorrow." He put his arm around her. "I have no intention of missing my daughter's first Begetting Day."
Loriel stuck out her lower lip. "I am very angry at Ada for missing my Begetting Day."
"Ada could not help it, sweetling," Celuwen said. "He must have been delayed." Despite her reassurance, two small lines appeared between her brows.
Thranduil felt his own brow pucker. Eilian and Maltanaur had been gone far longer than Thranduil anticipated when he sent them east six months ago to learn if they could just where Sauron had gone. The Maia had certainly not left Middle-earth. His claws were hooked too deeply for that. Thranduil deliberately smoothed out his face and said "I am sure your ada was sad not to be here, Loriel, but you can tell him all about it when he comes home."
"Here come both your guards and mine, Adar." Ithilden gestured toward where his own horse was being led to join Thranduil's accompanied by half-a-dozen warriors.
Loriel swung her sword, making the adults skip out of her range. "I am Nana's guard." Her mouth pinched.
Thranduil had a sudden vision of Legolas at this age, his trust in the world shattered by his mother's death. For a while, he had bent all his childish strength to making sure the rest of them stayed safe.
Celuwen took her daughter's hand. "Come. We will go see your grandparents."
Alfirin waved and went back inside, and the rest of them descended the steps.
Celuwen followed Loriel into the cleared space before the oak holding her parents' new house. To save the tree pain, they had started building when the oak was still deep in its winter sleep, but now the house was finally done. Wooden steps swept up to the balcony and the arched doorway. The house spread through the branches, lower near the door and then climbing into the upper branches. Spring leaves fluttered around it, as if surprised, though not displeased, to find this huge nest among them. A rope swing hung close to the ground. That was new today, Celuwen noted.
With a large box in his arms, Celuwen's father had his foot on the bottom step, but he turned and smiled when he heard Loriel. "Mae govannen, sweetling. We have been watching for you. Your grandmother has bread and honey ready for you."
Loriel clambered up the steps, one hand on the railing, the other clutching her sword. "I had to read to my tutor first." She paused to point her sword at the swing. "Is that for me?"
"Of course it is," Solith said, "but you should eat first."
Celuwen kissed her father's cheek. "Are there many more boxes at Uncle's house? Shall I go fetch more?"
"This is the last," her father said.
They climbed the steps together and went through the open door. Loriel was already in the kitchen with her grandmother. The sword rested on the table curving around an oak branch that came in through the wall and exited through the ceiling. Another branch formed the bench behind the table, and Loriel had climbed up onto it and was eating her bread and honey. The tree hummed happily at her presence.
"You have already done so much." Celuwen looked around the kitchen, where the last of the sawdust had been swept from the corners and starched curtains flapped in the breeze puffing through the window.
Her mother smiled. "There are still things to put away in the bedrooms, but I was eager to have my kitchen ready to use."
Solith set the box on the table. "When you have finished your bread, sweetling, we can go outside and I will push you on the swing."
Loriel crammed the last of the bread in her mouth and hopped to the floor. "I am ready now," she mumbled, one cheek bulging.
"Remember what I said about talking with your mouth full?" Celuwen asked.
"She is nearly finished," Solith said, "and this is not the palace after all." He followed Loriel, who was scampering out the door. A moment later, Loriel's laughter drifted in through the open window.
Celuwen opened the box Solith had carried in and began removing dishes. As her mother arranged them on the shelves, the two of them chatted about her mother's garden and how Alfirin was faring. The house rocked slightly in the tree's arms and filled with the scent of new leaves. A squirrel chattered to itself just outside the window. Celuwen felt lighter than she had in days. Eilian was fine, she assured herself. He had neither been hurt nor seduced into some adventure. He was doing what his father asked of him, and she was selfish to resent it. He would come home as soon as he could.
She heard her father and Loriel come into the house again and go up the winding steps to the sleeping level. A moment later, Loriel cried, "Nana! Nana! Come and see!"
Celuwen raised an eyebrow at her mother, whose lower lip was caught in her teeth.
"Do go look," Isiwen said a little breathlessly. "I will come too."
They climbed the stairs to find Loriel jumping up and down on the balcony outside the second bedroom. The room had been empty the last time Celuwen was there, but now it held two narrow beds. Celuwen recognized the chest under the open window. It had been in her room in the village where she'd lived with her parents in the years before her marriage.
"Look!" Loriel pointed to a place behind Celuwen. Celuwen looked over her shoulder. On a shelf near the door sat a rag doll, a whistle, and a slate. "They are for me!" Loriel cried. "And Nana, Grandfather says we can sleep here in the tree with a window."
Celuwen snapped her gaze to her father. "You suggested that to her without asking me?"
His mouth tightened. "You are living in a cave! We can offer a bed in the trees. Of course I suggested it."
Isiwen edged to Solith's side. "Only while Eilian is away, Celuwen. You could go back to the Stronghold when he is here."
"Yes, Nana!" Loriel danced across the room, twirling on the balls of her feet. "Please!"
Celuwen's heart suddenly ached for the comfort of the nighttime trees. Her bed had been cold and lonely for far too long. Why should she deny herself the forest's soothing presence just because Eilian chose to please his father rather than her? "I would have to speak to the king," she said slowly.
"Why?" Her father's face flushed.
"I am part of the House of Oropher now, Adar."
"And since your husband is not here, as usual, you must deal with Thranduil rather than the Elf who said he loved you. You are living exactly the life we feared for you, little one."
Celuwen found herself blinking back tears. She was living the life she had feared too.
Loriel looked from Celuwen to Solith, her face puckering.
"We will not quarrel," Isiwen declared. "Celuwen said she would speak to the king, and she will."
Celuwen scanned the three anxious faces before her, but it was her own need that made her say, "Yes, I will."
"We should sleep her tonight." Loriel brightened. "Ask Grandfather now, Nana."
"Come in." When Thranduil's office door opened, the step that entered was Celuwen's. He finished reading the many-limbed sentence he was midway through before he looked up, his finger marking his place. He had spent the hour since his ride trying to sort out the petition's complicated claims. He did not want to have to return to the start of this page, or any page for that matter.
Celuwen seldom fidgeted, but she was twisting her opal wedding ring. Thranduil forgot the petition and nodded toward the chair before his desk. "What is it, daughter?"
She seated herself, still twisting her ring. Then she caught his gaze on her hands and jerked them apart to rest on the chair's arms. She drew a deep breath. "I need to ask your permission for something."
He raised an eyebrow. He could not remember the last time Celuwen had asked his permission for anything, or Eilian's either for that matter. In the eyes of law and custom, Celuwen was accountable to Eilian, who in turn owed obedience to Thranduil both as king and as head of the House of Oropher.
Not that Eilian had ever allowed such customs to stop him from doing whatever he liked, of course. To be fair, Eilian seemed to assume Celuwen too should govern her own actions. The few times he had tried to interfere had all related to her safety, and all met with spectacular lack of success.
Thranduil silently sympathized with his son. If he had been more willing to impose his will on Lorellin, she might be alive. What they would be to one another, of course, was a different question.
"What is it?" he asked.
"My parents have invited me and Loriel to live in the new house with them. I want to accept."
Thranduil stiffened, then deliberately made his face as neutral as possible and leaned back in his chair. "It is unusual for a wife to leave her husband's home when no work calls her elsewhere."
"I know, but Eilian is away so much, we scarcely live together anyway, and Loriel would like living among the trees. I would too."
The bitter edge to her tone made Thranduil scan her face. "You and Eilian did not quarrel?"
Not yet, Thranduil thought. But there is unhappiness here somewhere. Moreover, Eilian will spit fire about this when he gets home. He would have been dismayed enough to find his in-laws living near the stronghold. On the other hand, just today Thranduil had seen the toll Eilian's absence worked on Loriel, and Celuwen too had grown quieter and more sober than usual.
"Loriel and I would move back into our apartment in the palace when Eilian is here, of course." Celuwen seemed to hesitate. "Eilian sacrifices himself and us in doing what you ask of him, Adar. I only hope you appreciate it."
Thranduil stiffened. He could hardly tell her he had intended to send Beliond and Legolas on this mission and Eilian had begged to go instead, mostly, Thranduil suspected, because he could not bear to think of Legolas so close to danger. Not so soon after carrying Sinnarn's body home. Thranduil had objected, citing Loriel's need for her father, but while he had hesitated, Eilian had in the end persisted with his usual stubborn unwillingness to give up something he wanted. The decision had been Thranduil's anyway. Eilian had spoken truly in saying he was good at scouting, and Legolas was untried. The choice to send Eilian had been the only logical one.
"Of course I appreciate what Eilian does." Thranduil heard the sharpness in his voice and ran his hand over his face. "I will not stop you, Celuwen. I expect Eilian will have something to say about this though."
She lifted her chin. "I expect he will, but since he is not here now, I have to think about my wishes and Loriel's too." She rose. "With your leave, I will tell Alfirin we will not be here for evening meal and pack enough things for overnight. I will be back tomorrow for whatever else we decide to take."
Thranduil stared unseeing at the door that closed behind her.
Celuwen picked at the spring greens on her plate. She should be glad her father-in-law had allowed her to come her to her parents' house. So why had her unease been rising since she left his office? She felt restless as a willow in a wind storm, every nerve scraped raw. She wanted to jump to her feet and run through the forest, not sit quietly eating at her parents' table. Even the song of the oak at her back could not soothe her.
"Eat your fish," Solith told Loriel. "I caught it myself this morning, so you know how fresh it is."
Loriel forked a bit of fish into her mouth. "You caught it? All by yourself?"
"Of course. Has no one in that palace taught you to fish yet? I taught your nana when she was smaller than you are. Tomorrow I will take you with me and teach you too."
"I will take my sword," Loriel said. "Then we will be safe."
Solith chuckled. "We are not looking for a fight, Loriel. A Wood-elf in the forest does not usually need a sword."
Celuwen tightened her grip on her fork.
"Will you not eat a little more, Celuwen?" Isiwen asked. "You are so thin."
Solith snorted. "Unhappiness does that to her." He turned to Celuwen. "That was one reason we thought you would be better off with us."
"Nana misses Ada," Loriel observed. "I miss him too."
"He should have stayed home," Solith said, "not gone off adventuring."
Celuwen slammed her fork down. Everyone jumped. Loriel's eyes grew huge. "You would not have been satisfied then, either. I will not have you talking that way about Eilian in front of Loriel."
"Why not?" her father said. "Anyone can see you are unhappy, even the elfling."
Isiwen rose. "Come, Loriel. We will get your nightgown on."
"But we just finished eating." Loriel looked from one adult to another, chin quivering. "I always stay up more after that."
Someone knocked on the door. Glad for the interruption, Celuwen swung toward it, but the sight of Loriel's face stopped her. She drew the child close and stroked her head.
Isiwen hurried out of the room to answer the door. A familiar voice came down the hallway.
"I have come for my wife and daughter."
Celuwen's heart stopped and started again, wild with joy. All the prickliness slid from her skin like water. She cried out once and ran toward the door. In the shadows under the branches sheltering the house, Eilian's tall figure loomed, his face in darkness. She flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder.
He put his arms around her waist. "Love, love," he murmured into her hair.
Loriel's footsteps tore down the hall. "Ada!" She hugged him around the hips, and he took one hand from Celuwen's back to rest it on Loriel's head.
"Mae govannen, Flower Face. I have missed you." Eilian's voice was husky.
Loriel's sobs made Celuwen realize that she too was crying. She swiped at her eyes and pulled back to gaze into Eilian's face, tilted to look at Loriel. He was smiling, but she saw the tightness at the edges of his mouth and felt the tension in the arm at her back. He turned to her, and his grey eyes were dark with anger. Behind her, she heard her father's heavier footsteps.
"About time you got here," Solith muttered.
Celuwen said, "Get your cloak, Loriel. We are going home."
"Oh." Loriel sounded disappointed. "We were going to sleep in the tree, Ada. You should sleep here too."
"When fish fly," Celuwen said softly.
"What?" Loriel asked.
The strain in Eilian's face loosened a little. He spread the fingers of his hand on the small of Celuwen's back and drew her closer. The heat of him was welcome as a fire on a winter day. How had she lived so long in the cold?
"You go home with your ada tonight," Isiwen said. "Maybe you can sleep with Grandfather and me tomorrow." She took Celuwen's cloak off the peg on the wall and handed it to Eilian, who wrapped it around Celuwen's shoulders as Isiwen draped Loriel's around hers.
"Good night." Isiwen shooed them out the door.
Celuwen looked back to see her mother with an arm extended to keep her father in the hall. Then the door closed. Eilian put one arm around her waist and the other around Loriel's shoulders as they made their way down the steps and along the forest path.
"Aunt Alfirin is having her baby soon," Loriel said, "and you forgot my Begetting Day."
"Never," Eilian declared. "I tried to be here, but I had to finish the task the king set me. Tomorrow you and I and Nana will pretend it is your Begetting Day, and we will celebrate it."
Loriel stopped. "I left my sword at Grandfather's house!" She heaved a huge sigh and started walking again. "You can be guard now, Ada."
"I intend to," Eilian said. "For as long as I can, anyway."
Celuwen clung to her husband's side and silently explored her marriage bond. He was tired, worn, frayed at the edges in a way she had not seen before. He was also guarding his feelings from her. Of course, she was guarding hers too. Did she want him to see how she had grown to resent his long absence? He would think her petty. And yet how could she hide it without shutting him out from her heart?
They mounted the steps to the palace, crossed the antechamber, and entered the family's quarters in time to meet Thranduil emerging from his office. Celuwen assumed Eilian had already reported on whatever information his mission yielded. Thranduil looked from her to Eilian, then shifted his gaze to Loriel.
"Come with me, sweetling, and I will help you get ready for bed. Then your ada and nana will come and tuck you in." He nodded to the door he had just come through. "Use my office." He led Loriel off, looking back over her shoulder.
"Come soon, Ada," she called.
Eilian gestured Celuwen through the office door ahead of him, then closed it and leaned on it, regarding her with level eyes. Celuwen's heart pounded.
"Your adar is worried that we are about to argue and does not want us to do it in front of Loriel," she said. "Are we?"
For a moment, he was silent. "I thought we were when I left the palace tonight, but now I am not sure. Why did you do that, Celuwen?" There was pain in his voice and she took a step toward him.
"Loriel longed for the woods. So did I. And you were gone so long, Eilian."
He lifted one hand in a helpless gesture. "I know, but Adar needed me."
"We needed you." She took another step. "Eilian, must we always come second?" She drew a breath and spoke of what she had come to believe lay at the sore center of his choice. "Surely, your adar would understand if you stayed with us until Loriel is grown. You have served him and his realm faithfully for years. He knows that."
Eilian licked his lips. "Does he?"
"If he fails to see that, then we will tell him. I will tell him. Ithilden is here with his family. He arranges for other warriors to be with theirs. Why should you not be with yours? They owe you time to be with us, Eilian. You have earned it."
"Things are bad in the east," Eilian said slowly. "Mt. Doom has exploded again. Men have withdrawn from Ithilien."
She envisioned him there, so near to evil, so far from home, and sprang to wrap her arms around him. "I am so sorry."
He clasped her to him like a drowning man might clasp a rescue line. His warm mouth slid down to the side of her neck.
She fought to speak rather than lose herself in the shiver running down her body. "But, Eilian, if things are growing worse, then surely that is all the more reason for you to be with Loriel while you can. If the battle is coming, it will come soon enough."
"You have no idea how much I have missed you." He covered her mouth with his, silencing her argument. He pressed his body to hers, one hand on the back on her head, the other sliding to her hip. He kissed her throat while he walked her backward until her thighs struck the hard edge of Thranduil's desk.
He pulled away to sweep his arm across his father's desk. The papers, pens, and letter opener fluttered to the floor, but he managed to grab the ink pot and set it carefully on the chair. His eyes met hers, smoky with desire.
"Not here," she protested faintly.
He grinned his old grin. "Adar said to use his office."
A rap sounded on the door of Eilian and Celuwen's apartment. Thranduil called and a moment later, Legolas stood smiling in Loriel's bedroom doorway.
"Uncle Legolas!" Loriel slid from Thranduil's lap. "Ada is home."
"I know," Legolas said. "I saw him earlier."
"He is going to tuck me in." Loriel clambered up onto her bed and set about rearranging the line of four toy warriors and a doll propped against her pillow.
Legolas watched her for a moment, then waited for Thranduil's nod before he dropped to the stool near the rocker where Thranduil sat. "Where is her sword?" he asked in a low voice. He knew as well as Thranduil did that Loriel had slept with Eilian's old wooden sword for the last few weeks.
"She has not said."
Legolas seems to be considering what to say next. "Celuwen will be happier with Eilian home too."
Thranduil waited to hear what really weighed heavily enough on Legolas's mind that he had sought Thranduil out here.
"Adar, Ithilden is away or I would talk to him first, but I want both you and him to consider sending me to the Southern Patrol and keeping Eilian home, at least while Loriel is so small."
Thranduil's breath caught. Legolas had serve in the Southern Patrol before, but the world was crumbling around them, and irrational though he knew it was, something in him cried out at the idea of sending his baby there now. "Eilian would object," he managed to say.
"He might; he might not. To me, he seems less eager to be off since Loriel was born."
In his mind's eye, Thranduil saw Eilian, dark brows drawn together, arguing for being sent east. Thranduil knew Eilian had argued largely out of a desire to protect Legolas, something Legolas did not know, thank the Valar. But he had assumed Eilian was as eager for adventure as he had always been. Over the years, Thranduil had grown used to thinking of his second son as irresponsible, but Celuwen had said Eilian sacrificed himself and her and Loriel to Thranduil's demands and those of the realm. Thranduil had certainly not intended to demand that Eilian go on this mission, but what had Eilian believed? Had he also been trying to please Thranduil?
On the bed, Loriel spoke severely to one of the warriors. "Settle down and sleep now. I do not want to have to come in here again." She hopped the warrior across the pillow and shoved him under the covers. "I will be good, Nana," she said in her warrior voice.
"Ithilden would decide," Thranduil said slowly.
"I know, but think about it, Adar. Do not reject the idea out of hand." Legolas shrugged. "I have no family. I can be away if necessary."
"You do have family," Thranduil said more sharply than he meant to. "Never think your absence would not be felt."
Legolas smiled. "I will be good, Adar."
Thranduil heard the door to the apartment open, and Eilian and Celuwen sauntered into the room, his arm around her waist. Both looked flushed and contented. Thranduil raised an eyebrow.
Loriel ran to them, arms extended. Eilian scooped her up, set her on one hip, and kissed her round cheek. "Adar, Loriel is going to celebrate her Begetting Day again tomorrow. Do you think Cook can come up with something special to eat?"
Thranduil laughed and rose at the same time Legolas did. "I am sure he can."
"Adar," Eilian said, "before you go, I wanted to say you were right."
"What about?" Thranduil asked.
"I should not have gone on this mission." Eilian gave a mirthless laugh and nodded at Legolas. "The Valar help me, I should have let him send you after all, brat."
"What?" Legolas said.
"Or maybe just Beliond," Eilian went on. "I would not have wanted you there really."
Legolas swung around to frown at Thranduil. "I was supposed to go on this mission?" Color rose in his cheeks, a rare sign of temper. "And you all decided to 'protect' me?"
Thranduil suppressed a groan. "Not now, Legolas." He turned to Eilian. "Once Ithilden is back tomorrow, I need to speak to you about something, Eilian."
"Of course." Eilian slid his eyes sideways to the suddenly frowning Celuwen. "I need to speak to you about something too."
"And maybe I do," Celuwen said. "Indeed I am considering speaking to you and my adar together." Eilian rolled his eyes but grinned.
Thranduil froze briefly and then walked toward the door. "That would be interesting. I look forward to it. I need to do a little work in my office now though."
For some reason, Celuwen squeaked. Thranduil glanced at her, but she had bent to pull the covers back on Loriel's bed.
"I will join you, Adar," Legolas said. "I want to talk to you."
Thranduil sighed. Perhaps he should have gone to Mt. Doom himself. Perhaps he should go now. He led Legolas out of the apartment, followed by the sound of Eilian laughing and then beginning to croon a lullaby to his daughter.
|<< Back|| |
|Home Search Chapter List|