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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 5. Into the Tunnel
At the path's end, Lorellin stopped to wait for Legolas, who was still watching two squirrels chase one another from branch to branch. They disappeared in a flurry of maple leaves, and Legolas trotted toward her.
"Did you see them, Nana? Why were they fighting?"
"They were not fighting, sweetling. They were courting."
Legolas frowned. "It looked like fighting."
She suppressed a smile. "Sometimes it does."
He caught sight of Turgon's cottage and immediately forgot all about the squirrels. "Are we there?" He ran to the doorstep and stood bouncing on his toes. "Hurry, Nana!"
She laughed and quickened her step. He stood rigidly still as she knocked and waited for someone to come to answer. She was just preparing to knock again when Mírdaniel opened the door.
"My lady! How good of you to bring Legolas. Come right in. You do not mind sitting in the kitchen, do you? The sitting room is still in a bit of disarray, and I am putting soup on to cook."
Suddenly shy, Legolas took her hand and darted looks into the sitting room and sleeping chambers as Lorellin followed the other woman down the hall and into the kitchen. Not wanting to pry, Lorellin kept her eyes ahead, but she could not help noticing the pieces of the bedstead around which she had to skirt.
In the kitchen, Mírdaniel pushed aside a pile of dishes teetering on the table and waved Lorellin into a chair. "I was just making some tea. Are you looking for Turgon, Legolas? He and Annael are playing in the back garden. Just go right on out that door there. I can see them through the window."
Lorellin could see them too. They were darting among the trees at the end of the garden, picking up handfuls of sticks. Without so much as a look back, Legolas ran through the open back door to join them. Turgon and Annael both looked up when he neared them. Turgon waved the sticks he was clutching and said something, and Legolas began walking slowly among the trees, scanning the ground.
Mírdaniel peered into a teapot and was evidently satisfied by the contents because she fished two cups from the dish stack and filled them with fragrant tea. "I suppose that good-looking son of yours told you what those three were up to yesterday afternoon. No sense, any of them, though it sounded to me as if Eilian was the one who took the risk. Turgon was quite taken with him." She laughed and shook her head. "Boys!"
Lorellin froze, then forced a smile. "Eilian said he ran across them playing near the river, and Legolas was so wet, he brought him home. Was there something else?"
"I gather their boats got away from them, and Eilian retrieved them. Would you mind if I left you for a few moments? I thought I would just go and see if I could find your family's letters. After I met you yesterday, I poked through some boxes and I think I know which one they might be in."
"Oh, please do. I would love to have the letters."
Mírdaniel left the kitchen. Lorellin sipped what was really very good ginger-mint tea and thought about Eilian. It sounded as if he might have done something risky on the river. She could not say she was surprised. Eilian was inclined to do risky things for the sheer thrill of them, though less so since becoming a warrior. Thranduil thought the real risk of fighting Shadow had made their restless second son grateful for the moments of peace he could enjoy at home.
But she had been frightened by what she had seen of the previous night's fire jumping. What had driven Eilian to make that terrifying jump? She had not seen him since the feast and thought he was avoiding her. She ached to help him, but she also needed to tell him not to do stupid things in front of Legolas. They scared the little one, for one thing, and, for another, they might encourage Legolas to do something dangerous himself.
Mírdaniel came back into the room clutching a small pack of letters. "I found them! Why they were in that bundle with the fishing tackle, I will never know." She put the letters in Lorellin's outstretched hand.
Lorellin flipped through them. There was her cousin Malith's graceful hand, her Aunt Glilan's scrawl, her Uncle Geldor's slanting script. Longing swelled in her throat. How she had missed them! She tucked the letters inside her belt. They were a treasure to be savored when she had leisure and privacy.
Lorellin rose. "I would like to stay longer, but I promised Fithral's mother I would be back today. She craves the chance to talk about him."
Mírdaniel's face creased. "Those poor people. You must not worry about Legolas. He is welcome to say for as long as you need to leave him."
Lorellin went to the back door to see Legolas jumping about at the other end of the garden. "Legolas, I am going now," she called. He waved and turned immediately back to hear something Turgon was saying. She felt the same dismay she had felt at the feast and had to laugh at herself. If Thranduil did not want another baby, he would do well to encourage her to visit her cousin. She went on her way to see Fithral's family.
"Jump!" Turgon cried. "Jump over the fire, Legolas."
Legolas ran toward the piled up leaves and sticks and jumped as far as he could. He kicked the leaves a little, but not much.
Annael clapped, the way Eilian's friends had clapped the previous night, and Legolas smiled.
Turgon prodded the leaves back into place. "My turn!" He narrowed his eyes at their pretend fire, then ran toward it and jumped. He threw one leg ahead of him so he twirled like the warriors had done. He sat down when he landed, but he bounced right up again, grinning broadly.
Legolas and Annael clapped. "That was very good," Legolas said.
"Let me try." Annael got ready to take his turn. They all took more turns, and Legolas and Annael twirled too. After a while, Legolas got tired and sat on the grass, and Annael came to sit next to him.
Turgon did not sit. He kicked at the pile of sticks and frowned. "We need a fire."
Legolas blinked. "You mean more sticks?"
"No. We need a real fire."
Legolas was so surprised he could not talk.
"No, Turgon," Annael said. "Fire is dangerous."
Legolas nodded. "We cannot play with fire. My ada says it could hurt us and the forest too."
"I know that." Turgon sounded cross. "But Eilian had a fire."
"Eilian is big," Legolas said.
"So he had a big fire," Turgon reasoned. "We could have a little fire." He looked around. "Maybe we can make a fire on a rock. Then it would not hurt the trees."
Annael twisted his hands together. "There are no rocks here."
Turgon's eyes opened wide. "I know! We can make a fire by the river. Water puts fires out. That would be safe."
"I am not supposed to go by the river without a grownup," Legolas said. Eilian had said that when he walked Legolas home the day before, but Legolas knew it already because Ada and Nana both said it too.
"Me either." Annael smiled. "So we cannot do it."
Turgon caught his lower lip in his teeth. "We will not go to our boat place. We will go where the bank is high. Then we will not really be at the river." Before Legolas could think what to say, Turgon ran into his cottage.
Annael twisted his hands again. "Eilian's fire scared me."
Legolas chewed the inside of his cheek. Eilian's fire had not scared him, but Eilian had a little. He had seemed far away and full of some need, as if he might not even hear Legolas if he called.
Turgon burst out of his cottage, carrying something in a leather bag. He trotted across the garden. "I got them."
He opened the top of the bag, and Legolas looked in to see a flint and a big knife. Legolas jerked away. "Did your nana give you that?"
"She is not in the kitchen," Turgon said. "We can make a good fire with these. Come." He flipped the top of the bag back in place and marched off through the trees.
Legolas took a few steps after him, then looked over his shoulder at Annael. "I want to see what happens."
Annael scrunched up his face, but then he too followed Turgon.
Turgon led them through the woods. After a while, Legolas heard the river, and they came out of the trees onto a place that rose above the water. Legolas took little steps so he could see the river below. Looking at it made his stomach feel funny. The river rushed along, ignoring Legolas, not singing its forest song, but its roaring one instead. There was too much water, Nana said. The river had to hurry away and send the extra, scary water somewhere. Where to put it, the river wondered. What to do with it.
"Here." Turgon stamped his foot on a muddy place. Mud spattered onto Annael's leggings, and he scowled and moved out of the way. "The trees are far away," Turgon said. "Our fire will not hurt them. Find some twigs and leaves." He dropped the bag, picked up a stick, and looked for more. Legolas went to look too, and after a moment, so did Annael.
The door of Amadith's cottage closed behind them, and Eilian put his arm around her. "Where would you like to walk?"
She slanted him a look. "You left me on my own last night and went off with Gelmir. If I were wise, I would not walk with you at all."
"I do not know what I was thinking. Gelmir is not nearly as pretty as you."
Her mouth curved, producing dimples in both cheeks. "What a silver tongue you have." Then she added, "My lord."
He squeezed her shoulders and guided her toward a sheltered path. "I believe you owe me a forfeit from our game last night." He spoke low into her ear and had the pleasure of feeling her shiver. "In fact, several forfeits."
"They were to be paid under the stars, if I recall." She was gratifyingly breathless. "So I think I might have to postpone payment until tonight."
"Hmmm." He had no intention of postponing anything if he could help it. A brilliant idea burst into his head. He gave her his most charming smile. "Suppose I found you stars in the daytime."
She raised an eyebrow. "Then I would be very impressed." She grinned. "My lord."
He laughed and hustled her off their current path onto one leading to the river. The sound of it swelled until they rounded a bend, and there it was, tumbling along, roaring of its struggle with the flood of water and debris that drove it out of its normal harmony with the forest. Eilian usually liked the river in spring. It spoke to him of energy and excitement. This spring, though, it disturbed him, leaving him simultaneously restless and longing for its placid summer face.
"This way." He shepherded Amadith along the gently rising bank, watching the trees rather than the river.
"Is that your little brother?" Amadith asked.
He snapped his gaze ahead, and sure enough, there was Legolas, standing next to Annael. Both of them had their attention fixed on Turgon, who was crouched down doing something Eilian could not see. Then sparks flew from Turgon's hands, and a flame sprang into life.
Eilian's heart lodged in his throat. He let go of Amadith and sprinted toward the three elflings. "What are you doing, you little fools?" Three small faces turned to him, their mouths rounded in identical, astonished O's. He kicked at the fire, broke it to bits, and sent it over the riverbank. A spark flickered in the grass, and he stamped it out. When a scan showed no more fire, he whirled to face the elflings, drawing breath for what seemed like the first time since he saw the flame.
Legolas's face crumpled. "I am sorry! I am sorry, Eilian!"
"You should be sorry. What is wrong with you, Legolas? You know better. You could have been hurt. You could have burned the forest down."
"The river is here." Turgon pointed as if Eilian might have missed seeing the Forest River. "It would put the fire out."
"The river is nearly as dangerous as the fire just now. Give me those." He snatched a flint and wicked-looking knife from Turgon's hands, then crammed them in a leather bag from which they had undoubtedly come.
A tear rolled down Legolas's cheek, and a worried-looking Annael took his hand.
Eilian swayed toward Legolas, strongly tempted to hug him, but he held the impulse in check. This was the second time in two days he had dragged his little brother back from danger. Maybe he should scare Legolas. Maybe that would keep him permanently out of harm's way. Into his mind flowed a vision of a green and brown clad form sliding into a hole. He shut it out.
Amadith came up beside him, looking faintly amused. "Where are you three supposed to be?"
Legolas sniffled and looked at her through narrowed eyes.
"We are playing at Turgon's cottage," Annael said.
Eilian glanced at Amadith. "I will just see to it that they get there."
She smiled. "No hurry, my lord."
He grinned. "If you like, you can keep going that way until you find two big rocks with an opening between them."
She raised her eyebrows. "I know that place. The opening leads to a rather nasty little tunnel that goes nowhere."
"Not so," he told her. "I promise you stars."
She looked doubtful but put a foot in the right direction. "All right. I will wait for you there."
He herded the elflings toward Turgon's cottage. "Come on, you three."
"There is a tunnel?" Turgon asked. "Are you hunting orcs?"
Pain welled in Eilian's chest. He struggled to keep his voice steady. "No. There are no orcs this close to the stronghold."
Legolas was walking ahead of him, holding hands with Annael. He looked at Eilian over his shoulder, then turned ahead again. Eilian felt a confusing desire to tell him not to be upset.
Through the trees, Eilian spotted the whitewashed walls of Turgon's cottage and stopped. He did not want to get the elflings in trouble by showing up at the cottage door with them in tow. "If you promise not to try to make another fire, I will not tell any of your naneths what you have been up to."
"I promise," Annael said.
Legolas muttered the same pledge.
Eilian looked hard at Turgon, who sighed like an elf who has been heavily put upon, and said, "I promise."
"Good." Eilian handed the bag with the flint and knife to Annael. "Put that in Turgon's cottage as soon as you get there. Do not open the bag."
Annael's eyes widened, but he nodded and walked toward the cottage, holding the bag out in front of him. Turgon and Legolas followed, without so much as a look back.
Eilian drew a deep breath. They were safe at least. He struck out toward the river, taking a slightly different approach, and found Amadith waiting for him near the rocks.
"Did you get them taken care of?" she asked.
"Yes." He ignored the troubling roar of the nearby river and forced a smile. "Now it is time to get you taken care of." He turned sideways, ducked his head, and slid into the opening between the rocks. He put out his hand to her. "Come."
She wrinkled her nose. "Are you sure? Some friends and I crept in there when we were elflings and crept right back out again."
"That was your mistake." He grinned. "My friends and I crept as far as we could go."
"Why does that not surprise me?" She grasped his hand and let him lead her through the passageway.
Eilian's shoulders rubbed the walls, and he had to walk with his back hunched and his head down. He had not been in here in years and had forgotten how cramped the space was. He realized he was holding his breath and, at the same moment, knew why: He feared if he inhaled, his nose would clog with the stink of orcs and death. He eased air out and in again, meeting, as he had rationally known he would, the smell of moss and mud. Smells of home in spring, of innocent adventure, of his childhood. The muscles in his back relaxed.
The tunnel slanted down, and as they walked, the light from the entrance grew dimmer. Amadith tugged on his hand. Before she could speak, he said, "Not much farther." Even as he said it, the walls fell away on either side, and the tunnel turned into a cave with the sound of rushing water echoing off the rocky surfaces.
Amadith gasped. "What are those?" She was looking at the pinpricks of light spangled over the ceiling, her mouth slightly open, her eyes agleam.
"Stars?" Eilian suggested.
"They are not." She ventured ahead of him, still holding his hand.
They threaded their way among the boulders, eyes on the ceiling. He put a hand on her arm to caution her, and she lowered her gaze to the river. Like its above ground counterpart, it was full, but it moved with less turbulence, so the starry light reflected on its surface.
"What are they?" Amadith asked again.
He grimaced. "They will not be nearly as romantic once you know."
"You are teasing me."
"They really are. I have no idea why they glow like that, but they do." He drew her close. "So you see? Stars."
"So they are." She pulled her gaze from the glowworms. "My lord."
He brought his mouth to hers. She was warm and willing, but somehow she still felt far away. He moved his mouth, nuzzling hers in an entreaty for it to open to him. She parted her lips, and he slid his tongue over them. Now he should be lost in the feel and taste of her, but the river was so loud, its roar seemed to flood all through him, drowning out all else. With a frustrated moan, he pulled away.
Amadith's brow puckered. "Is something wrong?"
"No." He tried to smile. "I just thought of something." He released her and turned to scan the rocky shelf holding back the river. "Along here somewhere, Gelmir, Celuwen, and I built a boat. I wonder if it is still here." He walked a few steps along the bank.
She trailed after him. "A boat? You must have had to haul all the wood in."
"What a lot of work."
"My adar always said I worked harder at risking my neck than anyone he ever met." Eilian spotted a dark shape half hidden among the rocks on a lower ledge. "There!" He leapt down and put out his hand to help her follow. He gestured. "Somehow I remember it as grander." The "boat" looked more like a raft with low sides than anything else. Moreover, time had softened the wood and loosened the seams Eilian remembered joining so carefully.
"Surely you never tried to ride in that thing. You would have had no idea where you would wind up, always assuming you did not sink immediately."
Eilian looked upstream and down. The river emerged from one tunnel in the rock and vanished into another.
"As it happens," he said, "we did figure out where the river goes. Celuwen absolutely refused to set foot in the boat until we did. We painted bits of wood, dropped them in here, and then ran around looking for them. It took us a while, but we eventually learned that this is the branch of the river that runs beneath the palace storerooms and comes out at the watergate. Once we knew that, we had to give up the idea of sailing because of course that gate is almost always closed, so we would have been caught against it."
She slanted him a look. "How hard did Celuwen have to argue to stop you from doing it anyway?"
Eilian laughed. "She threatened to burn my new bow unless I promised not to. I had an idea it might be fun to try when one of the rafts from Esgaroth was here and the gate was up so the empty barrels could go through."
He bent to run a hand over a board, noting that the rope they had used still tethered the boat to an outcrop of rock. "I wonder if it still floats." He gave a careful push, and the boat slid off the rock and splashed into the river. The current immediately tugged it a rope length away. He watched for a moment, and rather to his surprise, only a little water seeped into the bottom of the boat.
Amadith shook her head. "It is a wonder you ever survived your childhood, Eilian, or perhaps that your parents survived it. I cannot imagine how devastated your naneth would be if you vanished into a tunnel like that."
Eilian looked to where the river slid into the opening, and abruptly, he saw Fithral vanish. The sound of the river seemed to swell, and his gut twisted. He tightened his jaw. Why was he hanging on to that image? Why was he unable to let it go?
He yanked on the rope and pulled the boat back onto the edge of the rocky shelf. "How would it be if we got some of my adar's best wine and sat among the trees to drink it?"
"I would like that."
He took her hand and hurried away from the river, back toward the daylit world.
Legolas crouched between Annael and Turgon and held very still while Eilian and the maiden went past. If Eilian found them, he might get angry and be mean again, and Legolas's feelings were still hurt from before. Legolas could not remember Eilian ever saying such unkind things to him. He was considering telling Nana.
"They are gone." Turgon climbed down the rocks they had scaled to perch on the high ledge and see what Eilian was doing.
Legolas had been a little worried Eilian and the maiden would be kissing, but when he peeked out of his hiding place, Eilian was looking at a boat. The river was loud, so Legolas could not hear what Eilian said, but it looked like he just talked about the boat or maybe the beautiful starry spots on the ceiling.
"Come down," Turgon said.
Legolas put one hand on the big rocks so he would not fall and climbed down, and then Annael came too. Legolas thought they would go outside again, but Turgon walked toward the river instead.
"We should look at the boat," Turgon said.
Legolas did not mind spending more time with these underground stars, so he followed his friends to where Eilian had left the boat. The river lapped against its back end.
"We should put it in the water like Eilian did," Turgon said. "A boat should be in the water."
"We might not be able to get it back," Annael said.
"It is tied up," Turgon said.
Annael cocked his head. "Maybe we could push it just part way in."
Turgon sighed, and Legolas could tell he thought Annael was too careful. Legolas did not think that. He thought Annael had a good idea.
"All right," Turgon said. "Come on, sailor friends! We should halfway launch our boat."
Legolas pushed, but the boat did not move. It was heavier than he thought it would be from seeing Eilian push it. Legolas pushed hard, and all at once, the boat skipped to teeter half on and half off the ledge.
Turgon inspected it. "Good work, sailor friends. Now we should get in." He scrambled over the boat's low side and sat down.
Legolas drew a quick breath. Sitting in the boat like that, Turgon looked like a real sailor. Legolas climbed in too. The boat tilted a little, and the water in it sloshed over Legolas's bottom, but he did not mind. Sailors got wet sometimes. "Come on, Annael," he coaxed. "You should get in and be a sailor too."
Annael held onto the boat's side and put one foot in. "There is not enough room."
Legolas scooted backwards, and water sloshed over him again. "You can sit there."
Annael put his other foot in and sat down. The boat rocked gently, and all of them grabbed the sides.
Turgon laughed. "We are sailing over the waves." He swayed from side to side, making the boat rock. Annael and Legolas both squealed and laughed, and Turgon leaned further.
The rocks behind Turgon tilted, and for a heartbeat, Legolas did not understand what was happening. Then he felt the boat sliding. Water splashed all around, and he realized the boat was all the way in the river. The current jerked it away from the edge, and the rope tying it to shore stretched tight.
"Oh! Oh!" Annael cried. Even Turgon's eyes grew wide. Legolas felt as if he could not breathe. The rocky ledge looked so far away.
The river roared and yanked on the boat again. It wanted them, and the rope decided to give the river what it wanted. It snapped in two. Legolas had time to glimpse the rocky ledge hurrying backwards, and then he found himself in a tunnel with glowworms streaking past overhead.
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