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The Seeds of Time  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.

*******

Chapter 6.  The River

Legolas squeezed the sides of the boat so hard his hands hurt.  He wanted to cry, but he could not even breathe.  Annael was making little squeaky noises.  In the dark of the tunnel, his face glimmered white.

"We can sail," Turgon gasped.  "We can do it."

The boat bumped into something, and the river spun it around.  Legolas moaned.  Now he faced forward, but all he could see was dark tunnel.  Where was the river taking them?  Did it just go farther and farther into the ground?

The walls and ceiling drew closer.  The river whacked the boat against a wall, and one of the boat's corners crunched up.  Water splashed all over Legolas's legs.

"Are we sinking?"  Annael's voice shook.

"We can swim."  To Legolas's surprise, Turgon's voice shook too.  "We will be otters instead of sailors."

The tunnel curved.  The boat tilted and banged into the wall.  It spun around again, and when it did, the rock ripped off a big piece of it.  Water flooded in.  Something bumped at the boat's bottom, and the boat gave in to the river and broke into two pieces.

"Swim, otter friends!" Turgon shouted.

Legolas grabbed at a piece of boat, but he missed, and the icy river swallowed him up.  He gasped, and water filled his mouth.  The glowworms had lit the tunnel, but in the water, it was darker than anywhere Legolas had ever been.  For a moment, terror froze him.  He tried to kick and use his arms, but the river pushed him and turned him.  The cold water pinched at the inside of his head.  He wanted to cough, but he knew he must not.

Then little lights wavered overhead.  He blinked.  The river had spit him out.  It did not want him after all.  He drew a breath, and water went up his nose again.  Maybe the river just did not want him yet.

A big piece of boat brushed against him, and he managed to fling his arm over it.  The boat piece wobbled, and Turgon's arm wrapped around the other end.  His dark hair was stuck to his cheeks, with water dripping off the end.  Legolas was so glad to see him, he said, "Ah!"

"Ahoy, Annael," Turgon croaked.  Legolas twisted his head to see Annael with both arms wrapped around a different piece of boat.  Annael was coughing and crying, but Legolas was glad to see him too.

"Hang on, Annael!" Legolas cried.  Annael moved his hands to grip the boat piece more tightly.  Legolas held his boat piece tightly too.  The edge of the wood dug into his side and hand so they hurt, but he hung on anyway.  He coughed too, but his insides still hurt where the water had gone.  His heart knocked against his chest.

The river pushed them through the narrow tunnel.  Something under the water banged into Legolas's knee and made him gasp.   Annael cried out, so Legolas thought something might have hit his legs too.

Then, to his horror, Legolas's fingers slid away from the other side of the boat piece.  He tried to tighten them, but they hurt and the wood was wet and they slipped a little more.  He flung his other arm onto the boat piece too.  The boat jerked and came loose from his hands.  "Oh!"  He dug his fingernails into the splintery wood.

It had stopped moving, he realized.  Turgon's end of it had jammed up against a big rock.  Turgon scrambled up onto the rock and stretched his hand out to Legolas.  "Come on.  We should dock here."

For a moment, Legolas clung to the boat piece. The river was still pushing on it, and it started to swing around to sail some more.  Maybe it would take him home.  Then he looked at the darkness ahead and let go.  The river swept him straight to Turgon, who clasped Legolas's hand, stumbled backward, and pulled him onto the rock.

"Help!  Help!"

Legolas was still on his hands and knees, but he craned his neck to see that Annael's piece of boat was tangled with the one Legolas and Turgon had held.  Annael's was farther away, and both boat pieces were slowly sliding off the rock.  Legolas's stomach hurt.

Annael let go of his boat piece and grabbed for the other one.

"Oh good," Turgon said.  "Come closer to the dock, sailor Annael."  He flung himself on his stomach and grasped the end of the closer boat piece.  Legolas scuttled around and grabbed it too.  The river tugged at it, but Legolas held on hard.  The boat piece Annael had been on broke loose and disappeared in the dark tunnel.  The one Legolas and Turgon held tried to follow.

"Hurry," Legolas said.

Annael moved his arms to creep closer and closer to them.  He put out a hand, and Turgon and Legolas both let go of the boat piece and took it.  The boat piece spun away.  Legolas sat down and pulled on Annael's arm.  Annael slid up on the rock, crying out as his leg dragged up onto it.  Then he struggled up to sit between Turgon and Legolas.  The three of them flung their arms around one another and huddled as close together as they could get.  Annael was shaking, and Legolas thought he might be shaking too.

Annael's leggings were torn, and his skin was scraped away all down one shin.  Legolas realized he must have skinned his knee too because blood darkened his own leggings.  His stomach twisted, and for a moment, he felt dizzy.  He was hurt.  He needed Nana.  He could not help it.  He started to cry.

"It will be all right."  Annael patted Legolas on the back.

"I know."  Legolas's voice wobbled.  "Someone will find us.  A grownup will come soon."

He looked at the glowworms and clung to his friends.  The river rushed past them, filling the rocky tunnel with its confused, angry noise.  He wished Nana or Ada would come right now.

***

"Take comfort," sang the trees.  "Draw on our strength and beauty, lady.  We are here for you."

At least, that was what the tree song sounded like to Lorellin.  She tilted her face up to the lace of uncurling spring leaves.  "Helith is the one who needs you.  Her grief is like a wound through which her life is bleeding away."

"We know.  We know."

Lorellin sighed.  Helith would take what comfort she could from the forest and her family, and the days to come would tell whether that was enough.  Lorellin would visit again soon, taking Legolas this time.  She wondered if she should tell Legolas not to talk about Fithral's body growing "too small."  Would Helith find that idea painful, or would Legolas's unquestioning trust in the Valar comfort her?

The thought of Legolas made her uneasy, and she quickened her step.  Mírdaniel had been vague about what the boys did at the river, but judging from what she saw at the feast, Lorellin was beginning to think Turgon might be an unusually lively child.  Lorellin did not object to lively children.  With a half-smile, she had to acknowledge she had raised one herself.  But she hoped Mírdaniel was keeping an eye on the three little ones.

Lorellin hurried up to the cottage door and knocked.  Something crashed inside the cottage, and a moment later, Mírdaniel opened the door.  "My lady, come in.  I was just putting Turgon's bed together.  Sweet child that he is, he does not mind sleeping on the floor.  He says he is camping.  Still, I thought he would sleep better in a bed."  Talking all the while, she led Lorellin toward the kitchen.  Lorellin glimpsed the pieces of the bedstead that had been in the hall heaped on the floor in one of the bedrooms.

"Would you like some tea?" Mírdaniel asked.

"I am afraid I do not have time, though your tea is really excellent.  Are the boys still out back?"  Lorellin skirted a leather bag on the floor just inside the open back door.  From the doorway, she scanned the garden.

"Oh yes.  They have been very good."

"I do not see them."

Mírdaniel came to stand next to her.  "They must have gone further into the woods."

Lorellin's faint uneasiness deepened into anxiety.  You are being silly, she told herself.  These are children playing near the stronghold, not warriors on patrol.  Still, she hurried toward the trees calling, "Legolas!"  The trees at the end of the garden hummed happily, so the children had been there, but she still did not see them, and Legolas did not answer her call.

Mírdaniel called, "Turgon!  Annael!"

Still no answer.

Lorellin darted through the trees.   "Legolas!  Turgon!  Annael!"  She could hear Mírdaniel calling too, but no answering voices came.  No small figures came running through the woods.  Lorellin fought for breath.  Stop it, she told herself sharply. 

She put a hand on an oak and forced herself to stand still and try to sense Legolas through the bond she had shared with him from the day he was conceived.  For a moment, she groped, and then, abruptly she found him and went rigid.  His fear and distress tore through her like a knife.

She spun.  "Mírdaniel!  Mírdaniel, I think they are in trouble."

Turgon's mother was frowning at the ground, her hand opening and closing around a fold of her skirt.  She looked up, and her frightened gaze met Lorellin's.  Panic flooded Lorellin's body, washing all sense away.

"Naneth?  Are you all right?"  Eilian bent over her, his brows drawn down.  Amadith hovered just behind him.

Lorellin clutched at his arm as if it were the anchor that would save her.  "Legolas is missing!  Something is the matter with him.  I can feel it."

Eilian's face went pale.  "I saw him earlier.  He was by the river with Turgon and Annael."

"You left him by the river?"  Could that high, terrified voice be hers?

"No!  I walked the three of them back to Turgon's cottage.  I left them there.   Amadith and I have just come from the river, and we did not see them."

"They are not at Turgon's.  Eilian, we need to find them!"

He licked his lips.  "There are too many places they could be."  He thrust the wineskin he carried into Amadith's hands.  "We need help.  I will go back to where I left them and see if I can tell which direction they went.  Amadith, go look where we saw them before.  Naneth, you go tell Adar."

"I will fetch Annael's parents."  Mírdaniel's voice trembled.  As if from far away, Lorellin watched her run off toward Annael's cottage, while Amadith hastened through the woods.

"Naneth?"  Eilian grasped her hand and tried to pull it off his arm.  "Naneth, we need help.  Tell Adar."

She swayed.  How could she leave this place where her child had been?   Legolas was in trouble.  He needed her.  How could she go?  She drew a deep breath, released Eilian, and ran.

She pelted along the path, through the trees, across the Green, into the palace.  The guards at the Great Doors leapt toward her, one of them with his hand extended as if to stop her, to ask her what the matter was, but she could not stop.  She burst into the Great Hall.  Heads snappped toward her.  At the other end of the Hall, Thranduil jumped to his feet.

"What is it, Lorellin?  What has happened?"  He took three long strides and met her part way down the room.

"Legolas," she gasped.  She had spent her breath in running.

Thranduil gripped her upper arms.  "What about him?"

She sucked in air and forced out the words.  "He was playing at Turgon's, and now he and Turgon and Annael are gone.  Eilian saw them by the river and he made them go home, but what if they went back?  What if spiders have slipped past the Home Guard?"

Thranduil looked over her head.  "Tell Ithilden," he ordered the guards.  "And then get everyone in the palace outside.  I want a search carried out for a league in all directions.  I want four people searching the river in each direction starting from the bridge."

Guards scattered, and the advisers in the Great Hall hurried off to join them.

Thranduil pulled her close enough that she heard his heart thudding like an alarm drum.  Then he took her arm and hurried her outside again.  "Come.  They cannot have gone far."

She was trembling, but she hastened to keep up with his long steps.  Her baby needed her.  She felt it in her blood and bones, and if she had to, she would swim the river and fight off all the creatures of darkness to reach him.

***

Eilian cursed.  Eyes on the ground, he lunged an arm's length further along the edge of the path.  A dozen people must have come this way, including him and Amadith.  Surely he was not mistaken though.  Surely those small feet had come this way too.

He slid further along the path's side, stiffened, and dropped to a crouch.  On the edge of the tangle of marks was a perfect footprint shorter than his hand.  Just ahead of it was another child's print, a different child. The prints were fresh.  Eilian bent to squint at the leading track.  The little leather shoe that made it was worn on the inside of the left foot. Turgon.  The elflings had followed him and Amadith.

He jumped to his feet and ran toward the river.  They are hiding, he told himself.  They followed us, and they hid when we came back.  "Legolas!  Legolas, come out!  Come out and I will take you to ride Rogue."  His mind filled with the image of his mother's huge eyes, her strangled voice, her clutch on his arm.  "Something is the matter with him," she had said.  "I can feel it."  He quickened his pace.

"Legolas!"  He burst out of the trees onto the stony riverbank.  He rocked to a halt, scanned the ground again, and ran toward the tunnel entrance.

He bent over the ground near the entrance and sucked in his breath.  There they were, marks left by small feet that had gone in and, he knew at a glance, had not come out again.  Why had he not heard them?  The roar of the nearby river filled his head.  In the cave, the echo had drowned out all else.  Legolas had crept in, had been nearby, and Eilian, who prided himself on his scouting, had not known.  Instead, he had left his little brother and two other elflings among rocks near an underground river.

He plunged into the tunnel, squeezing through it as quickly as he could push himself.  Rock scraped at his back and shoulders.  His foot skidded on a pebble, and he slid and struck his head against one wall.  His vision momentarily blurred, but he stayed upright and kept scrambling downward.   The tunnel opened into the cave.

"Legolas!  Legolas, answer me!"  The echo of his voice was the only response.  He scanned the rocks and saw no one, but he knew from playing here with Gelmir and Celuwen that it was easy to hide on the high ledges or the many crevices in the walls.  The noise of the river washed over him.

You played here without coming to harm, he told himself.  Then the other, terrified, part of himself said, You were twice Legolas's size and had Celuwen to save you from your own stupidity.

He ran toward the river, meaning to start there and search backward toward the entrance.  If the elflings were hiding from him in some sort of maddening game, he did not want to drive them toward the water.  He swept his gaze over the river's edge, saw nothing, and turned to begin his hunt.

He snapped back around again.

The boat's rope trailed in the water, but the boat itself was gone.  His heart kicking against his ribs, he leapt down to the ledge and hauled in the rope.  He saw at once that it had snapped rather than been cut.  If the boat was in the water, the pull of the current could have broken the rope, but he was sure he left the boat on this ledge. Could the elflings have pushed the boat into the water?  And if they did, would they have been fools enough to get in?

Oh yes, no doubt about it.  These were the same three who had been scrambling on wet logs to retrieve a painted wooden bowl only the day before.  Of course, they would get in.

He turned to scan the cave again.  "Legolas!"  He had almost no hope of being answered, but if the elflings were still in the cave, he did not want to leave them where they could fall and splatter their brains out.

His hand curled around the rope.  Should he run and fetch help?  He heard again his mother's urgent voice.  Something was the matter with Legolas.  He was alive, because their mother had not collapsed against Eilian in despair, but she had cried out for help, had wanted it at once.  Something was desperately the matter.

Eilian looked again at the dark hole into which the river poured and every restless doubt in his heart resolved into one certainty.  He could not wait.  Legolas needed help, and Eilian would give it if he died in the attempt.  His sweet baby brother was not going to die a terrified death in a dark tunnel.

He unbuckled his belt and shed his tunic and boots.  He sat on the ledge, and for an instant, the rushing water filled his vision.  He loved the Forest River.  It gave life to the woods.  It was part of him.  But too full like this, it could kill him.  He slipped off into the water.

The current swept him into the tunnel with startling speed.  He struggled to stay stretched out on top of it, keeping himself facing the right direction so he did not smash himself on a rock or miss some sign of the elflings.  Glowworms glimmered overhead, like stars set out to guide him.  Calm settled over him for the first time in what seemed like an age.  The rush of the water boomed off the tunnel walls.  It was cold enough to numb his hands and feet almost at once, but he did not care.  The river was powerful.  All he had to do was use it to take him where he wanted to go without letting it destroy him.  He had to move through it to do what he needed, but not let it wash him away.

He strained to hear anything other than the river.  If the boat had survived the trip, it was probably caught against the water gate, where the elflings would have a hard time making themselves heard before the bumping destroyed the boat.  Eilian kicked harder, propelling himself faster, determination hard and steady in his chest.

He was so certain the elflings would be at the water gate, that when the river swung him around a bend, he almost missed seeing them.  Then Legolas jumped to his feet and his childish voice pierced through the river's roar.  "Eilian!"  Two more small white faces turned toward him, like candles glimmering faintly through the night in the tunnel.

He kicked and pulled and drove himself toward the much too small shelf on which the little ones stood.  For a harrowing moment, he thought the river would take him past, but he grabbed a rock and managed to hang on even when the river swept his feet past him, making the rock he held tear at the skin on his hands.

Legolas and his friends crowded toward the edge and looked down at him, still in the water.  Even in the dim light of the glowworms, Eilian could see that their lips were blue with cold.  Legolas squatted and reached out a small hand, as if to help him.

"Stay back!" Eilian cried.  Legolas's mouth twisted in worry, but he backed away from the water.  Eilian pulled himself closer to the rock, and as he entered its shelter, the river loosened its grip on him.  He heaved himself up onto the shelf where the elflings waited.

"Eilian!"  Three small bodies flung themselves at him, and for a moment, he teetered, afraid they would knock him back into the river.  He righted himself and wrapped his arms as far around the three of them as he could.  Legolas clung to his waist, his face buried in Eilian's bare stomach.  Eilian could feel him shaking.

"Back up just a little, sweetlings," Eilian said.

They shuffled backwards without loosening their hold on him.

Eilian sank to the ground, drawing Legolas into his lap.  Turgon huddled down on one side of him and Annael on the other.  He drew a deep breath.  They were here.  They were, for the moment, safe, and by all that was holy, he intended to keep them that way.  He stroked wet rattails of hair out of Legolas's face.

"We broke your boat."  Annael's brow was wrinkled.  "We are sorry."

Eilian could not help smiling at his solemn face.  "I am not surprised the boat broke.  It was old and not very sturdy to start with, and the river is wild just now."  He pulled Legolas's head against his chest.  "You should not have got in it.  You could have drowned, and all of you are precious to your adas and nanas.  They would have been very, very sad if anything bad happened to you."  Into his mind swam the face of Fithral's mother as she looked at the funeral.  He tightened his hold on Legolas and kissed the top of his head.  Not this time.  The unbearable had not happened this time.  At least not yet.

"We did not mean to sail it."  Legolas voice was muffled.  He sounded as if he might be crying.

Eilian sighed.  "These things happen."   Similar things had happened all too often to him when he was an elfling.  He really did sympathize.  He rocked Legolas slightly and looked up and down the river.  Now what?

He could wait here with the elflings, keeping them safe until help came.  His mother would tell Ithilden or Elian's father that Eilian had gone to the place he last saw the elflings, and searchers would eventually find the same signs Eilian had that Legolas and his friends had gone into the cave.  Eilian's hand slowed in its movement over Legolas's head.  They would go into the cave, true.  But no one knew about the boat except him, Celuwen, and Gelmir.  And Amadith of course.  Ithilden or their father would probably ask her where she had seen Legolas, but would she think to mention the boat?  When the searchers went into the cave, would they see the broken rope and know what it meant?  Eilian had almost missed seeing it.  If no one thought about the boat, they would not realize where the elflings and Eilian were.

He bit his lip.  His tunic, boots, and belt were on the riverbank in the cave.  What would the searchers make of that?  What would his mother make of it?  Could he be sure his father or Ithilden would or some of the other scouts would read the signs and see what had happened?

"Are we going to swim now?" Turgon asked.

"No," Eilian said slowly.  "You have to stay here until someone comes with a boat to take you home."

Turgon looked at the river, and Eilian saw him shudder.  "All right."

Eilian shifted Legolas so he could see his face.  "All three of you have to make me a promise.  Are you big enough to keep a promise if you make it?"

Annael nodded.

"What promise?" Turgon asked.

Legolas scanned Eilian's face and caught his lower lip in his teeth.

"I have to go and tell people where you are and bring back the boat.  You have to promise to stay still and take care of one another even if it takes a while for the boat to come.  Can you promise that?"

Legolas dug small fingernails into Eilian's arm.  "You are going?  No!"  His face crumpled.  "No, Eilian!  I do not want you to leave me!"

Eilian pulled the small body close, and Legolas trembled against him.  For a moment, he considered taking Legolas with him into the river, but he rejected the idea almost at once.  Even Eilian was going to have trouble coping with the raging water, and he was not yet sure how he would reach safety again.  He needed to keep Legolas here with his friends, out of harm's way.

"Sweetling, I have to get the boat.  See the water?"  Eilian put his hand on the back of Legolas's head and turned it gently to look at the river.  Legolas sniffed and nodded.  "You are too little to swim in it, so I need to get a boat for you.  Do you understand?"

Legolas drew a long, shaky breath and nodded.  He swiped the back of his hand under his nose.

"Good."  Eilian stood up and herded the little boys so they sat in a huddle against the rock wall.  "I know you can look out for one another because you are friends, right?"

"Right," Turgon said.  He stretched his arms around the other two.  "We will be sleeping puppy friends and stay all in a heap."

Eilian took one last look at them, letting his eyes linger on Legolas.  The little one's mouth trembled, but he made no protest.  "I will come back as soon as I can."

Legolas nodded, and Eilian slid off the shelf into the river.

 





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