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Visitors  by daw the minstrel

A slightly early birthday present for Dot.  Ithilden says "Mae govannen," Dot, and thanks you for the chance to get out and strut his stuff.

Many thanks to Nilmandra and The Karenator for beta reading this for me.

*******

Visitors

Alitha put a hand on the rump of the dawdling goat and shoved it into the pen.  With an indignant "Maa!," it stumbled to join the others.  The sow she'd brought in earlier grunted a warning from where she lay, nursing her piglets, and the goats skittered away in a panicky clatter of hooves.  They'd learned to be cautious around Mama Pig.

Alitha latched the gate, then stood for a moment, watching the piglets root at their mother's belly and digging her knuckles into the small of her back.  Her own mother would be too polite to complain when Taemas finally escorted her into the hut, but she'd be horrified to find the animals penned inside.

Alitha smiled to herself, imagining her mother pretending she didn't mind sharing a hut with pigs and goats and wasn't appalled at the home into which her grandchild was being born.  "Don't be silly!" she'd say.  "I've told you often enough I grew up sharing a cottage with a cow and half-a-dozen sheep."

And also said often enough how glad she was she no longer lived that way.  Years of living in a two-story house in Laketown had made her mother more finicky, Alitha thought.

Ah well.  Alitha and Taemas had been glad enough of the animals' warmth this past winter.  The clay-daubed willow wands making up the walls had scarcely kept the wind and snow out.  In the dark of the year, when a blizzard had blown, the two of them had huddled together under a pile of furs, her head cradled on his shoulder, his hand laid over the place where the baby kicked, dreaming of the future.  The animals had seemed a friendly presence.

Besides, Taemas would start building the new cottage as soon as he returned, the furs sold and her mother there to help with the birthing.

She kneaded her back one last time, trying to ease the fierce ache that had plagued her off and on for the last two days.  Taemas had told her not to overdo while he was gone, but chores were chores.  Bracing herself with a hand on the wall, she leaned awkwardly over to pick up the water bucket, and stepped out into the gathering dusk.

In front of the hut, Taemas had cleared enough trees to hold the dark woods at bay and let the deepening blue of the sky show through.  Somewhere nearby, a robin called its mate.

She lumbered the short distance to the spring.   "I used to be graceful," she told the baby.  "Your papa says the first time he saw me, I danced like thistledown blown on the wind."

The baby kicked, and she caressed her swollen belly.  "Are you the one dancing now, sweetheart?"  She laughed at the thought.  "After you're born, do you think I'll be graceful again?"

She hung onto a willow branch to dip water from the spring, then started toward the hut, her step slow, her head turned in the direction from which Taemas and her mother were likely to come.   She had no right to expect him for another day or two, but she couldn't help wishing he'd emerge from between the trees, leading the mule with her mother on its back.

"Mistress?"

She whirled, sloshing water onto the leggings of the tall man standing close behind her.

He jumped back, dark braids flying, then drew himself up and regarded her impassively. 

Alitha's eyes darted from his green and brown garb to his pointed ears to the elegant bones of his face.  For a heartbeat, she looked up into his star-shot eyes; then she flicked her gaze away and swallowed.  Not a man.  An elf.

"I startled you."  His voice was deep and resonant, like the music of the bass viol Alitha had heard at the Summer Fair, the year she was sixteen.  "I beg your pardon."

"That's all right.  I shouldn't have been mooning about, and I beg your pardon for the dousing."  She gave him a tentative smile, but his expression remained stony.  Her heart thudded.  He probably wasn't angry, she told herself.  This unreadable face was probably the one he always wore.  She'd seen elves in Laketown, had sometimes wondered what it would like to be near the graceful creatures, but their faces always had the same unyielding look to them.

"Your man is near?"  He examined the hut, as if trying to penetrate its flimsy walls.  For all she knew, he could see through them.

She hesitated for the smallest instant before she answered.  If he'd been a strange man, she might have lied, rather than confess herself alone, but this was an elf.  "He's in Laketown.  I expect him back within the next day or two."

He tilted his head, considering her.  "A short time ago, I found signs of outlaws in the woods, a large band of them."

She put a hand to her throat.  "Outlaws?"

"Yes.  You knew nothing of them?"

She shook her head.  What if Taemas had run into outlaws?  The ache in her back flared with vicious intensity.

The elf's mouth twisted.  "The new Master of Laketown has been outlawing all who break the town's laws, and it would seem the Woodland Realm is paying the price for Laketown's safety."

Between the pain in her back and her worry for Taemas, she scarcely heard him.

He tapped his bow against his thigh.  "You should not be here, Mistress.  Even apart from outlaws, you should not be here."  He looked away from her long enough to scan the nearby trees, a crease between his straight brows.

She pulled herself away from a heart-stopping vision of Taemas lying dead in the woods.  "Not be here?"

"No.  You are within the Woodland Realm.  Men are not allowed to settle here."

She gaped at him.  "That can't be right.  We're too close to the edge of the forest."

"Only because Men cut trees they had no right to touch, moving the edge of the forest west of where it should be.  This part of the woods is under the rule of King Thranduil and the control of his warriors."

"That can't be right.  You're the first elf I've seen since we came here.  And if the Elven King's warriors have allowed outlaws to roam here, then their control is mighty poor."  Alitha sucked in her breath, clapped her free hand to her back, and bent forward.

"What is it?  Are you ill?"  The elf grabbed the bucket, and she braced her hand against his broad chest.  "You are not…?"  For the first time, he sounded less than sure of himself.

The pain eased.  "No.  Not for another month.  My back is just protesting the extra weight."

A robin's three-part song pierced the evening air.

The elf jerked as if he'd touched fire.  He flung the bucket aside and had an arrow in his bowstring before she had time to blink.

"Inside!"  He swept his arrow along the darkening line of trees.  "Go!"

She ran for the door, with him backing rapidly in her wake, still searching the trees.  As she ducked inside, his bowstring twanged twice.  The robin whistled again, louder this time.  And something else whistled too.

The elf pounded into the hut after her, slammed the door, and slid the bar into place.  He lunged toward the window, banged one of the shutters to, and closed the other far enough to leave only a hand span to peer through.

"Douse the fire," he ordered.

"There's no water."

By the dim light of the central hearth, she saw a red splotch spreading down the outside of his right leg.  "You're hurt."  She started toward him.

"Stay back!"

An arrow thudded into the shutter.  She stared at its quivering end, just visible through the space the elf had left, then groped behind her for the three-legged stool, and sank down to put her head between her knees, straining over the bulk of her pregnancy.

Another thud.  The repeated twang of the elf's bowstring.  Men's voices shouting.

She lifted her head.

The elf leaned a little forward, eyes narrowed against the dark now crowding the window.  Hastily, he raised his bow again and shot.  "Let them in!" he flung over his shoulder.

As if she'd always been under this elf's command, she struggled to her feet and heaved at the bar on the door.  The door burst open, knocking her aside with a painful bang to her shoulder.  She staggered, then steadied herself against the table.

Two figures whirled into the room.  The taller of them shoved the door shut again and lowered the bar with a crash.  He ran toward the injured elf at the window, bent to examine his bloody leg, and said something in his own tongue, jerking his hand in a gesture that plainly meant, "Move.  Now."

The elf in the window ignored him and loosed an arrow.

The new arrival's slanting brows drew into a scowl.  With a grace of movement that made Alitha feel like an oliphant, he beckoned to the third elf, who, she now saw, was only a boy.  Had he been human, she would have guessed him to be perhaps thirteen or fourteen.  He had stood watching the other two, breathing hard, still clutching his bow, though he had nowhere to shoot it, given that the older two were both in the room's only window.  At the signal, he darted toward them.

The newcomer barked something at the elf in the window.  It sounded like, "It's ill then," which Alitha could only assume meant, "Move, you stubborn ass!"

The stubborn-ass elf grimaced, shot one last arrow, and pushed himself away from the wall.  The other elf jumped to take his place, bow at the ready.

Stubborn-ass stumbled and grabbed for the boy's shoulder, sending him staggering under the weight.

"Here." Alitha took the bow from the wounded elf's hand and helped steady him as he hopped the few yards across the room.  She had to let the boy lower him onto the pallet in the corner though.  She had enough trouble getting herself down onto it at night. If she'd tried to help the tall elf, she'd have fallen over on top of him.  The boy slipped off the other's pack and unbuckled his quiver.

The wounded elf lay on his side.  The arrow that had found him had sliced through the outer surface of his right thigh, high up and halfway around to his back.  The bloodstain on his leggings was still growing, but to Alitha's relief, its spread was slow.

"I suspect the wound will need stitching," the wounded one said.  "Have you done that before, Mistress?"

Alitha wiped her sweating hands on her skirt.  "I've not done it with a--."  She hesitated.  "—person before, but with animals, yes."  She nodded to the penned livestock.  The goats had all crowded to the gate to watch the excitement.

The elf in the window said, "The outlaws seemed to have withdrawn for now.  I could come and do it."

The wounded elf's voice was reassuringly calm.  "Stay where you are, Eilian.  Mistress--"  He raised an eyebrow at her.

"Alitha."

"Mistress Alitha can do it."

"I could take Eilian's place at the window," the boy said.  "Then he could do it."

The elf in the window snorted.  "Come near this window, and tomorrow we will take you straight back to Aunt Glilan's so she can pinch your cheeks and ask you if you have a little sweetheart.  Get the healing kit from Ithilden's pack."

Not "it's ill then," nor "stubborn ass."  Ithilden.  And the one in the window was Eilian.

Scowling, the boy pawed through Ithilden's pack and drew out a leather pouch.  He extended it to Alitha.

She reached to take it, then stopped with a cry, grabbing her back.

All three elven heads flicked in her direction.

"Pay attention, Eilian!" Ithilden snapped.

Eilian grimaced and turned back to his post.

"Mistress?"  The boy ventured toward her, hand raised to hover at her elbow.

"I'm all right."  She forced the words out.  "Give me a moment."  Slowly, the pain receded.  She smiled at the wide-eyed boy.  "You'll have to help me kneel."

He took her arm and helped her down onto the packed earth floor next to the pallet.  With considerably more grace than she'd shown, he dropped down beside her and opened the leather pouch.

"We have herbs to stop the bleeding and purify the wound."  He showed her the packet, wrapped in waxed cloth.  "And we have a curved needle and thread and bandaging."  He turned the fishhook-like needle, mouth pursed, eyeing it judiciously.  "I have never used one."

"Nor have I," she said, "but I see how it would work.  Clean it in the fire."

He moved to obey.

She bent to examine Ithilden's leg.  "Your leggings aren't badly torn.  If we can get them off you, you can probably wash and mend them."  She reached to lift his tunic, but he grasped her wrist in a surprisingly strong hold.

"Just cut them."

The boy snickered, and Ithilden threw him a hard-eyed look.

"May I borrow your knife?" Alitha asked.

Still grinning, the boy handed it over.

She cut the cloth away carefully.  The wound wasn't deep, but it was long and ragged and would heal better for being stitched.  The boy had his waterskin open and ready for her.  She sluiced out the wound, then frowned over the herbs.

"Stitch the wound first," Ithilden told her.  "Then make a paste and spread it on the wound."

She threaded the needle, hesitated with it hovering over Ithilden's thigh, and took the first stitch.

He immediately began speaking in clipped syllables, using his own language and apparently addressing Eilian.  He sounded put out.

"I'm sorry," she said.  "I know it must hurt."

"He is not talking about you," the boy said.  "He is carrying on because he thinks Eilian should have wrapped me in swaddling and mother-henned me to safety rather than coming in here.  And also, I suppose this is about you, and he did not exactly say this, but he did not like the idea of your taking off--."

Ithilden snapped out three whip-sharp words, and the boy clamped his mouth shut.

From the window, Eilian said, "Really he is grouchy because he imagines himself in charge of Arda, and the present situation makes him frantic."

"I think it is very rude to speak in a language one of your companions does not understand," the boy said.  "Do you not agree, Mistress?"

Brothers, Alitha thought.  They have to be brothers.  She took the last, neat stitch, then made the herb paste, spread it, and wrapped Ithilden's thigh in a strip of clean bandaging.

Just as she finished, a wave of back pain washed over her, forcing her to brace her hands on the floor.  Her stomach tightened in sympathy.

The boy laid a gentle hand on her spine.  "Mistress?"

She sat back on her heels.  "I promised my husband I wouldn't overdo.  He's not going to be pleased with me."

The boy helped her up to sit on the stool.

Ithilden raised himself on his elbow.  "Any sign of the outlaws?"

"No," Eilian said.  "Perhaps they decided to look for easier pickings."

"They will not leave."  Ithilden's face was grim.  "At least not for good.  They will simply wait until we go and close in again."

"We cannot leave her."  The boy's tone was shocked.

"Of course not," Ithilden said.

Alitha let out a long whoosh of air.

"Besides, I will not leave outlaws loose in the Greenwood."  Ithilden bit off each word.  "I want them gone."

Alitha suspected that by "gone," Ithilden meant something less like moved elsewhere, and more like wiped off the face of Arda, leaving it a cleaner, tidier place.

The boy bounced on his toes.  "We can see better than they can in the dark.  We could slip out and sneak up on them."

"We will do nothing of the kind," Ithilden said.  "There are too many of them for us to be sure of victory, so we would be stupid to take the risk if we have other options.  Moreover, you are staying in shelter no matter what we do."

Eilian spoke slowly.  "It is true we could probably move past them in the dark.  I could do that and fetch help."

Ithilden opened his mouth, then snapped it shut.  He looked at the floor, his brows drawn.  "I suppose that is our best alternative."

His eyes slid toward the boy, and Alitha could almost hear his thoughts.  If Eilian left, there would be only him, the boy, and her.  Not a promising lot given that one was wounded, one was green as spring grass, and the other was a very pregnant woman with a nagging backache.

"Take Legolas with you," Ithilden said.

The boy—Legolas?—whirled to face him.  "I will not leave you here, helpless like this.  You cannot make me."

Ithilden rolled his eyes.  "Helpless?  I have a minor wound to my leg.  If I chose, even now I could knock you down, tie you up, and hand you over to Eilian."

"I will not go."  Legolas's hands clenched at this sides.

"You will if I tell you to."

"I will be faster without him," Eilian said.  "And I will almost certainly be back with help before daylight, so he is safer here anyway."

Alitha liked the idea of elven warriors arriving before daylight.  For an incredulous moment, she thought Ithilden was going to argue, but he picked what seemed to her to be the wiser course.  "You will go directly to the Eastern Border Patrol headquarters," he said to Eilian.  "No games."

Eilian blew out his breath in an exasperated puff.  "How big a fool do you think I am?  Of course, I will go straight to Todith."

Ithilden heaved himself up to sit carefully on his uninjured left hip.  "Before you go, help me to the window.

"You do not have to get up."  Legolas sounded indignant.  "I can stand guard."

Eilian slid his arm under Ithilden's and lifted him onto this good leg.  "Move that bench to the window, Legolas," Ithilden said.

Muttering to himself, Legolas slid the bench into place and Eilian eased Ithilden onto it, so he sat on one hip, his injured leg extended in front of him.

Eilian cocked his head, and Alitha could have sworn his eyes gleamed.  "Shall I tell Todith to bring a horse that will tolerate having an elf draped over its back face down?"

Ithilden ignored him.  "My bow and quiver."

Legolas handed them to him, and he shrugged the quiver into place and buckled it.  Once armed, he seemed to settle into his role.  His face took on the stony mask he'd worn when she first saw him.  "Take care, Eilian."

Eilian moved toward the door, ruffling Legolas's hair as he passed.  "Behave yourself, brat.  Mistress."  With a final nod to her, he slid out the door and was gone.

Legolas went to stand behind Ithilden, his bow in hand.

Ithilden kept his gaze on the slit of space between the shutters.  "Get away from the window."

The boy backed out of his brother's reach, his eyes too keeping watch on the night.

"I said get away."

"I did get away."  Legolas took another step backward.

Ithilden must have been satisfied because he said no more.  A splotch of blood darkened the center of his bandage, and Alitha thought he had to be in pain.

As if in answer to that thought, the ache burned its way into her back again.  She sucked in her breath.  Ithilden's gaze never wavered, though Legolas glanced at her.  She hobbled to the animal's pen and gripped the railing.  The goats and piglets had settled to sleep, but the sow gave her a suspicious look.  She paced the few steps to the hut's other wall, then back to the pen.

"The outlaws are unlikely to attack before dawn."  Ithilden spoke without turning around.  "They know our eyes really are better in the dark."

"I know."

"You should rest," Ithilden said.

"Moving makes my back feel better."

Ithilden and even Legolas seemed to gather themselves into patient watchfulness, while Alitha strode back and forth behind them, feeling like a fidgety child.  Through the shutters drifted the croaking of tree frogs and the hoot of an owl.  Wind rustled the branches of the oak sheltering the hut, and Alitha could hear the burbling of the spring, the familiar sounds that had sung to her and Taemas since the autumn, that she had pictured lulling their child to sleep.  She bit her lip.

She finally stopped just across from Ithilden.  "Sir Elf, the matter we talked about outside, our distance from the edge of the forest, surely you're wrong.  The Elven King's law says Men may dwell within half-a-league of the forest's edge, and we followed that law."

"Men make mockery of that law when they destroy the edge of the woods."

"But that wasn't our fault, and besides, Mirkwood is huge and elves are few.  Why shouldn't Men dwell under the trees as well as you?"

She rested her hand on her belly, where the muscles had tightened as she argued.  Instead of easing, the tension in them knotted into a cramp that made her grab at the table for support.  Despite herself, she groaned.

Even Ithilden flicked his head toward her, though only for an instant.

A trickle of warm fluid ran down the inside of her thigh.  No, she thought.  It's not possible.  It's next month, not this one. She looked from one beautiful, alien presence to the other.  Her laugh sounded hysterical even to her own ears.  None of the fantasies she had ever had about elves had included their presence at the messy, painful human experience of giving birth.

"It seems I was mistaken," she said.  "The baby is coming."

Legolas's eyes rounded.  "It cannot!"

She saw the lift of Ithilden's shoulders as he flinched from the news.  For a long moment, none of them spoke.  Eyes still on the window, Ithilden asked, "How soon?"

"I don't know," she said.  "This is my first."  She could have sworn she heard him sigh.

"Legolas," he said, "you are going to have to keep watch while I help Mistress Alitha."

After a frozen instant, Legolas darted forward.

Ithilden put up a hand to ward him off.  "It is unlikely they will attack.  They probably believe Eilian is still here.  Indeed, they are most likely to wait until they see us all leave.  But you have to watch anyway, and I mean all the time."

Legolas nodded.  "I can do it."

"First put the stool near the end of the table," Ithilden said, "and bring the washbasin from the stand.  Also, get the clean tunic from my pack and spread it on the end of the table."

Pain seized her in its jaws again, leaving her only vaguely aware of Legolas scurrying around, obeying.  When it loosed her from its grip again, she found Ithilden waiting.

"If you are willing, Mistress, I think we should see how far things have gone." 

She took a deep breath.  "A good idea."

He gestured toward the table.  "I am sorry.  I know the midwives crouch at the mother's feet, but with this leg, I do not think I can do it."  He sank onto the stool, and she heaved herself up on the table.

"Have you done this before?" she asked.

As he emptied his waterskin into the basin and began to scrub his hands, he gave her the ghost of a smile.  "Not with a person, but with animals, yes."  His touch was gentle, and he took only a moment.  "You have a little time yet, I think.  Would you like to walk?"

"Yes."

"Legolas, change places with me for a while and support her as she walks."

The boy frowned over his shoulder.  Then his gaze settled on Alitha.  She must be a frightening sight, she thought dryly, because his face paled.

"All right," he said in a small voice.

Ithilden took his place on the bench, and Legolas came to stand by her.  She put her hand on his shoulder, and the two of them paced the hut.

Legolas gave her an anxious look.  "Is the baby a boy or a girl?"

She smiled at his effort to make conversation.  "We'll soon find out."

"You do not know?"

"No.  Do elves know that ahead of time?"

"When my friend Turgon's mother had his little brother, she knew and so did his father.  His little brother is very annoying.  I am sure your baby will be much nicer."

Pain tightened Alitha's belly.  She leaned on his shoulder, and he planted his feet wide to brace himself against her weight.  The pain receded, and they resumed walking.

The night wore on.  Twice, she climbed on the table and let Ithilden check her progress while Legolas kept watch at the window.  Both times, Ithilden told her everything was fine as far as he knew.  The baby was simply taking its time. 

"Legolas did the same thing."  He smiled at her, surprising her by how kind his stern face could be.  "Eilian, on the other hand, rushed into the world so eagerly he was born in the woods.  Our father nearly fainted, or so our mother always said."

As he no doubt intended, she was reassured, and she and Legolas once again took to pacing.  Finally, the pains came so close together, she spent more time clinging to him than walking.  She stopped him near the table and spoke to Ithilden.  "I think it's time."

Once again, he and Legolas traded places.  "It grows light," Legolas said in surprise from the window.  "Do you think Eilian will be back soon?"

"I am sure he will," Ithilden said.

"You do not think something happened to him?"

For the first time, Alitha heard a tremor in the boy's voice.

"To Eilian?  Of course not.  You know how clever he is in the woods."  Ithilden spoke calmly enough, but Alitha had felt the slight pause before he answered.

Then pain washed over her again, and she had no attention for anything else.

Ithilden's voice pierced her absorption.  "You are nearly there, Mistress."  His eyes shone.  "I can see the baby's head."

Strength flowed back into her body.  The baby was coming!

At that moment, Legolas said, "Someone approaches.  Ithilden, men are creeping toward us from among the trees!"  He pulled an arrow and put it to his bowstring.

Through a haze of pain and effort, Alitha took in a swirl of noise—men's voices, the whine of an arrow, a yelp of pain.  She heard Ithilden's deep voice alternating with Legolas's boyish one, like singers at a fair.

"Close the shutters."

That was Ithilden.

"I will not be able to shoot!"

That was Legolas.

"Close them!  Do it now!  Elves are out there too."

"But I can help!"

"Do what I say!"

The shutters banged, and she turned her head, panting, to see Legolas with his nose pressed to the crack between them.

"Come, sweetling," Ithilden crooned.  "We are all waiting for you, and I really, really need to be elsewhere."

Something thudded into the shutter, making Legolas jump.

"Get away from that window before I throw you in the pen with the pigs!" Ithilden cried.

Legolas backed away.  "I would just climb out."

"Get the rabbit skins Mistress Alitha showed us, and also a bowstring.  Cut the string in half."  Ithilden turned to her, but did not stop issuing orders.  "One more push, Mistress."

She pushed.

He grabbed, swiped quickly with the sleeve of the tunic beneath her hips, and then lifted a squirming, red bundle of tiny arms and legs.  "Your son, Mistress."

With supreme indifference to race, beauty, or services provided, her son sent a fountain of urine to streak Ithilden's tunic.  Then the baby opened his mouth in a lusty squawl.

Legolas's eyes widened in horror.  Hastily, he looked away and gave Alitha the wrapper of rabbit skins she had sewn by lamplight in the dark winter when this had all seemed so far away, like a story that would never come true.  Ithilden laid the baby gently at her side, tied bowstring around both ends of the cord binding her and her son, and used the knife he had readied to cut the cord.  She pulled the soft furs around her son and drew him toward her and he quieted at once.  Tears ran down her face.  He was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

"Help me to the window," Ithilden told Legolas.

If he wanted to leave the baby, that was his affair, but really, what a fool.

Someone banged on the door.  "Ithilden?  Legolas?"

"Eilian!"  Legolas ran to unbar the door.

"Get out of the doorway!" Ithilden cried.

Eilian rushed in, followed by three more elves dressed in the uniform of the Elven King's warriors.  Legolas flung his arms around Eilian.  "I thought the outlaws caught you."

"Not me.  And Todith and his warriors ground them into the dirt quite nicely."  Eilian's eyes went to Alitha and, of course, the baby.  He raised an eyebrow.  "What do you have there, Mistress?"

"Mistress Alitha had her baby.  Ithilden helped her."

Eilian's face split in a wide grin.

He was beautiful, Alitha thought vaguely, but not nearly as beautiful as her son.

Eilian picked up a blanket from the pallet and brought it to lay over her.  "What a beautiful child."

At least he was perceptive.

"Is it a boy?" Eilian asked.  "You should name him Ithilden."

One of the newly arrived elves scanned the room, then snapped his fingers and sent the other two outside.  He began speaking to Ithilden in his own language.

"Speak Common, Todith," Ithilden snapped.  "It is rude to speak a language one of those present does not understand."

Alitha blinked.  Perhaps she was meant to hear this.  She would have to ignore the baby for a moment or two and listen.  That should be all right.  She could touch the baby the whole time, so if something happened to him while she looked away, she'd know.

"We counted fourteen of them," Todith was saying.  "Five are dead, and we have seized the rest.  I believe two more are likely to die from their wounds.  What do you want to do with them?"

"Take them to Laketown.  Tell the master they belong to him and if we find them in the Woodland Realm again, we will turn them loose in his house in the middle of the night.  And while I am on the topic of Men in the Woodland Realm, how does it happen that Mistress Alitha and her husband built this hut without you knowing it?"

Eilian leaned his hips against the table and spoke confidentially to her.  "You see, I told you Ithilden needed to feel in charge.  The world defied him for a few hours, and now he has to set it right.  He will feel better once he has bitten the heads off anyone he thinks responsible for things going awry."  He crooked his finger at Legolas.  "Better stay out of Ithilden's line of fire."

"I did nothing wrong."  Legolas leaned his forearms on the table and cuddled the baby's foot, which had escaped the rabbit furs.  "If he needs a bath before we go, may I give it to him?"

Alitha smiled a little weakly.  She understood Legolas's desire, but could she trust this boy not to let her son drown?  Well, why not.  He'd certainly been of service to her this night.  She glanced back at Ithilden, who leaned over Todith, listing a little on his wounded leg.  Todith's back was rigid.  "The other warriors listen quite attentively to your brother."

"Oh, yes."  Legolas drew his finger lightly along the bottom of the baby's foot and laughed when the baby's toe flexed outward and he screwed up his tiny face and drew the foot back.  "Ithilden is the troop commander, so they have to."

"They would anyway." Eilian shrugged. "Ithilden is a force of nature."

In her dazed exhaustion, Alitha knew she wasn't thinking clearly, but the news that Ithilden was the Elven King's troop commander rattled around in the back of her brain and spurted to the front again, transformed into a memory:  The Elven King's troop commander was his oldest son.  She pulled the blanket up over her shoulder.  Legolas frowned as the baby disappeared into shelter.

Todith said, "We will see to it that the Man and his wife move as soon as they are able."

"You will do nothing of the sort."  Ithilden straightened as best he could.  "They are within the correct distance from the edge of the forest.  You will guard Mistress Alitha and her son until her husband returns.  Is there anyone in your patrol who has helped his wife deliver a child?  If so, he will stay in this hut."

Eilian gave a low laugh.  "Now he is just being contrary for the sheer satisfaction of shaping events."

Alitha didn't care.  The Elven King's son had just declared she and Taemas and this tiny perfect creature at her side could stay in their home.

Todith put his hand over his heart in salute and strode from the hut.

Ithilden said, "If you think I have not heard every word you said, Eilian, you can think again.  Have you an extra tunic I can borrow?"

"Not that would fit you. What have you done to yours?"

"Do not even ask," Legolas said.

Eilian shrugged. "We brought a horse for you, Ithilden.  Do you want to see if you can ride it?"

"I want to give the baby a bath."  Legolas's mouth twisted with disappointment.

"I am sorry," Ithilden said.  "We have to go home.  Adar is expecting us and will be fretting by now.  Besides, I need to report on the matter of the outlaws."

"You need to see a healer."  Eilian smiled benevolently.  "If you think you can push Adar around like Todith and avoid the healer, then you are the one who needs to think again.  Moreover, I hope you will let me be present when you explain how you have allowed Mistress Alitha and her husband to stay here.  Not that I think that was a bad course of action," he added, holding up his hands, palms out.  "I just want to hear you tell Adar about it."

Ithilden ignored him.  "Mistress, we wish you joy of your son.  Some of my warriors will be here to help you until your husband returns."

"Thank you, my lord."  She hesitated.  "Thank you for everything.  I bless the moment you startled me in the yard."

He hobbled toward her, Eilian moving to support him.  He lifted the corner of the blanket to regard the baby, who had fallen asleep, exhausted by his first forays at life.  One corner of Ithilden's mouth curved.  "He really is beautiful."  He bent to kiss the baby's head.  "Take care of him, Mistress.  The world is a hard place sometimes."

And then, before she could even think what to say, they were gone.  A different warrior came quietly into the room, built up the fire, and went to straighten the pallet.  She drifted to sleep, hardly aware of the strong arms carrying her and the baby to put them to bed.  Surely she had dreamed all this.  Taemas would be amused.  Someday she would tell her son of the day he was born.  And really, Ithilden was a lovely name for a boy.

 





        

        

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