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Elflings 5: Fifth Column
Thranduil groaned softly and dropped his fair head to rest his forehead against his wife’s. ‘I do not want to know what they are up to,’ he said so quietly that his voice was barely audible even to her.
He could feel her laughter. ‘I never realised quite how entertaining elflings could be,’ she murmured. ‘I remember every breath Legolas drew as an infant – but I did not have the pleasure of seeing him go through this stage of his growing. It is a joy to me to watch his children.’
‘It is preferable,’ Thranduil admitted, ‘to bearing the responsibility myself. I would rather support the demands of a kingdom at war, in a way, than try to direct the young. At least warriors do as they are bid.’
Laerwen leaned cautiously over the branch on which she and her husband were reclining and looked down at the elflings. Her pale hair draped over the wood and she faded into the shadows, barely noticeable even to one who was watching her.
He drew a breath of wonder as he looked at her. Even after these last years, he found he still could not take for granted the fact that she was here, by his side, as real and warm as she had been before she had been wrenched from his life and stolen from her son’s childhood. They said, he thought, that he, the Woodland King, had been so closely bound to his forest that its song played in his veins, but Laerwen – well, she was the forest.
She looked up and smiled delightedly. ‘They have a creature of some kind,’ she told him. ‘I cannot see clearly, but I think it might be a bird.’
‘I hope they have not taken it from its nest,’ he said absently. ‘It is not for them to intervene in the lives of the forest’s creatures.’
‘They will not have done that,’ Laerwen told him confidently. ‘They have their daeradar’s care for the welfare of the wood.’
She stretched out and touched him gently, losing herself in his eyes as they both forgot about the activities of their grandchildren.
‘We cannot take him home,’ Eleniel insisted. ‘You know that we cannot. Naneth would say no at once, and Adar would ask all kinds of questions about how he ended up in our hands – and then insist on letting one of the foresters look after him. Probably Aelindor,’ she added thoughtfully. ‘He has more experience than most in caring for parentless birds.’
‘But I want to care for him,’ Galenthil stated firmly. ‘I want to see if we can make him fly for us.’ He looked at his sister, his eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘I have read how hawks can be trained to hunt and return to their carer’s fist. I would like to have him look to me.’
Eleniel looked doubtfully at the scrawny fledgling. ‘I do not believe it is as easy as that,’ she told her brother. ‘Birds do not survive well when not cared for by their parents and this one seems too small for us to look after him successfully.’
‘He will do better with us than he would if we had left him,’ Galenthil said optimistically. ‘He was out of his nest and on the ground. We watched for hours to see if his parents came back – but they did not. It is our responsibility,’ he stressed, ‘as guardians of the forest, to look after this creature.’
‘In that case,’ Eleniel announced, ‘we should take him back and ask Hithien or someone how to care for him.’
‘They will take him away from us,’ Galenthil sighed, using one finger to stroke the fledgling’s pin feathers delicately. ‘You know they will, Eleniel. They will say that we are too young to care for him properly.’
‘Could that be because we are?’ she said in exasperation.
Galenthil continued to stroke the bird as his sister watched him, knowing that silence was more likely to win her support than any argument. His fair hair was tangled with twigs and leaf litter and his clothing dishevelled and stained from inching patiently over the forest floor in his determination to catch the skittish fledgling. It had kept just out of reach, moving off just as the elfling had come close enough to attempt to take it in his hands, until she would have screamed in frustration, but her twin had persevered until finally the bird had rested in his hands. He had soothed it gently until it settled as comfortably as if it had been in its nest and it continued to sit easily against his grubby green tunic as if it had no doubt but that it was in the right place.
‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked with resignation.
‘A kitchen raid?’ he said hopefully. ‘Do you think you could get some scraps of raw meat for him?’
‘Are you sure that it will be the right food for him?’
‘I think they eat mice – and rabbits,’ Galenthil told her. ‘I cannot see that there is much difference.’
Eleniel shrugged. ‘I will see what I can do,’ she said. ‘I will have to be careful – I do not normally visit the kitchen to take raw meat. If anyone sees me with it, they will know that we are doing something we should not.’
‘Then do not be seen,’ Galenthil grinned. ‘You can do it.’
‘They are up to something,’ Elerrina told Legolas. ‘They are being too quiet and compliant – and, outside meal times, they are invisible.’
‘What do you suspect them of doing?’ her husband enquired, enjoying the way the sunlight gleamed in her hair, bringing out the rich colour of a beech leaf at the brink of winter.
‘If I knew, I would be able to stop them,’ she pointed out, smiling at him in the way that he found difficult to resist. ‘They are far too slippery to be where I would expect to find them – they take after their adar. And I have not yet decided whether this matter is important enough to merit bringing in Thranduil’s spies.’
‘I think I have been insulted,’ he said meditatively. ‘I am not slippery at all! I am an elf of honour and principle, I will have you know.’
‘M’mm.’ Her eyes sparkled. ‘An elf of honour and principle who is never where you expect him to be. Or, come to that, there when you expect him to be.’
Legolas wound his arms round his wife’s waist and drew her back against him. ‘Now we come to it,’ he said amiably, leaning over her shoulder to nip the tip of her ear. ‘I have outstayed my leave to play in the woods with my friends and my lady is feeling abandoned.’
She smacked his arm lightly. ‘Nothing of the kind!’ she told him indignantly. ‘I am only too happy to see you in such good spirits – and, believe it or not, I can survive your absence for a few days without suffering serious distress. You watch the elflings, my lord. If, by this time tomorrow, you are not as anxious as I am to know what they are doing, then I will let them get on with it. But do not blame me when it all gets out of hand.’
‘I was never able to get anything past my adar,’ Legolas admitted. ‘If he has not expressed any concern about their activities, I would doubt whether Eleniel and Galenthil are doing anything too terrible.’
‘Thranduil has other things on his mind these days,’ Elerrina laughed softly. ‘He can be diverted by a glance and turned from his purpose with a word. He knows he can rely on you to keep an eye on his duties while he is – distracted. I do not believe he is concentrating on his grandchildren’s behaviour with the same single-mindedness he applied to your upbringing.’
‘Why should he?’ Legolas agreed ruefully. ‘After all, the responsibility is ours. I will set myself the task of discovering their latest antics, my love, and insist that they stop whatever they are doing.’
She giggled. ‘One day,’ she told him, ‘you will say that – only to discover that they are behaving exactly as they ought.’
‘One day, perhaps.’ He turned her to meet her eyes. ‘But not for a good few years yet, I fear.’
‘He is growing,’ Eleniel admitted, watching critically as Galenthil simulated the action of a parent bird in providing a gobbet of raw rabbit for the greedy fledgling. ‘It is a good thing that there are kittens in the stable – I think the cook is convinced that the scraps he is giving me are intended for them. I am even going there first and feeding some pieces to the cat just to divert suspicion.’
‘The feathers are coming in well,’ Galenthil concentrated intently on the bird. ‘He is starting to – bate, I think it is called. He is exercising his wings and can almost get off the ground.’
‘Adar has returned home,’ Eleniel observed. ‘I heard Naneth giggling. He will be coming to look for us soon. I do not believe we will be able to keep Gwilrandir secret much longer – we are about to be discovered, my brother.’
‘Just a few more days,’ he said absently. ‘He needs a little more growing time – but then I think we will probably need help. Do you think Aelindor could teach me how to train him?’
‘I do not know.’ Eleniel smoothed her skirt and clasped her hands around her knees. ‘He is a Wood Elf – he might not approve of taking the creatures of the forest and turning them into pets.’
Galenthil spared her a glance. ‘Goshawks are not pets, ’leniel,’ he said scornfully. ‘We train horses to work with us – and dogs. Why should it be different to have a partnership with a hawk? They fly free and only return if they want to – it seems acceptable to me.’
‘Adar might feel that hiding him in the first place means that we are not mature enough to be able to work with him,’ she pointed out. ‘He would say we have been deceitful.’
‘And taken advantage of Naneth’s trust – yes, I know,’ Galenthil returned his attention to feeding the demanding bird. ‘I would not mind being punished for that if it meant that I could keep Gwilrandir.’
‘Where did you get the glove?’ Eleniel asked. ‘It looks like one of Daeradar’s.’
‘It is,’ her brother told her absently. ‘But it is an old one that he left in the stables. Gwilrandir has a sharp beak and his talons were ripping the sleeves of my tunic. Besides, the people in the book used a glove to protect themselves.’
‘If they had not done so, would you have let him tear your hand to shreds?’
‘I am not stupid, ’leniel.’
His sister grinned. ‘Just obsessed,’ she said airily.
‘Not that either.’ He looked at her swiftly. ‘Can you not feel the excitement that would be part of hunting with a wild bird on your hand – one that will come when you call him and bring you his catch? A creature that has the freedom of the skies, yet chooses to be with you?’
Eleniel stared at him. Galenthil responded easily to the treesong around him and he seemed to have a strong link to the living creatures that called the forest home, but she had never seen it as intensely as in his bond with this bird. And the hawk did respond to him, she admitted. She had fed him once or twice, when Galenthil could not manage to escape his tutor, but, although the bird had accepted her offerings, he had clearly been looking for her brother and had not settled properly until Galenthil had arrived to deal with him.
They were beginning to grow up, she thought mournfully, grow up and apart. Galenthil’s lessons were more to do with learning to lead and manage the elves of the forest, together with training in arms to be a Wood Elf warrior – not exactly necessary here in the Blessed Realm, but too much of a tradition to avoid – whereas she was spending increasing amounts of time outside their lessons learning the skills needed to run a large household. She had always been quite glad that the differences between her and Galenthil had made it easier for her to be an individual than it was for Aewlin and Nimloth – but she found she minded the divergence of their paths more than she would have expected.
‘He has settled.’ Galenthil nudged her. ‘We had better get back and greet Adar or he will want to know what delayed us.’ He gave her his open cheerful grin. ‘And I believe we do not want him asking questions just yet, do we?’
‘Best not,’ she agreed, comforted despite herself. Galenthil was delightfully uncomplicated, she thought. He was not all that enthusiastic about some of his studies, but he was generally easy-going and got on well with most people – just as long as he had the forest to explore and its creatures to come to know. You knew where you were with him, she decided, because it would never occur to him to pretend to be something he was not.
They slipped from their hiding place and slid silently through the sheltering undergrowth before emerging into public view and sauntering easily towards their home.
Hithien watched them leave with amusement. There was no doubt about it – the twins had inherited their adar’s ability to move surreptitiously through the forest, together with his rapport with his surroundings. And, she admitted, his ability to tumble headfirst into adventure. She had wondered whether she wanted to stay with them once their parents had moved to the forest, thinking that acting as the guardian of a pair of elflings would be dull, but she had found her role to be anything but tedious.
They would not be keeping their secret much longer, she thought, easing her way into the narrow cleft to check on the progress of the fledgling. Not unless Galenthil thought to comb the feathers from his hair and change his clothes before arriving back in his room. She grinned. She liked the ellon’s openness, even in secret-keeping. He would not have stood a chance with a more suspicious naneth – but Elerrina remained quite naïve about some aspects of living away from the civilised estates of the Noldor. That and she had a well-developed cynicism about the ability of the young to remain clean for any length of time.
Hithien left as unobtrusively as she had arrived.
‘So what are they doing?’ a quiet voice said in her ear.
She froze just long enough for Legolas to be aware that he had surprised her. ‘My lord?’ she enquired coolly.
He grinned. ‘You know what I mean,’ he said, courteously overlooking her reaction.
‘Take a look,’ she suggested. ‘But do not disturb it. It is currently sleeping the sleep of the well-fed.’
He returned looking thoughtful and raised an eyebrow at Hithien.
She refused to be intimidated. ‘Your son is caring for the bird well, Lord Legolas,’ she said. ‘Remarkably well, considering that he has had little or no teaching. And it is thriving. I would say it will be ready to try its feathers in no more than a week.’
‘Where did he get it, though?’ Legolas asked seriously. ‘I will not have either of them robbing nests for their own pleasure.’
‘Do you think Galenthil would do that?’
‘No,’ Legolas replied. ‘No, I do not believe he would. But my question remains.’
‘Then ask him, my lord.’
Thranduil laughed. ‘I had quite forgotten that we saw them,’ he said without apology. ‘They have managed to care for it? I am impressed – it is not easy to rear birds.’ He raised his eyebrows at his son. ‘Are you going to permit them to train it? Your daeradar kept hawks,’ he said reminiscently. ‘Long ago, before we travelled east to the Great Wood. I longed for the day when I was considered old enough to train a hawk of my own, but . . .’ He shrugged and lapsed into silence.
Legolas had seen his adar react that way before, when something had brought back a memory of his life before Oropher had taken his family from the ruins of the First Age to seek a new life, and knew better than to let him brood. ‘Why did he not start again once you were settled?’ he asked curiously.
His adar shrugged again. ‘I do not know. There was so much to do – maybe it seemed an unnecessary use of his time. Or perhaps he looked on it as a relic of another age.’ He looked at his wife, unable to suppress a smile at the pleasure of her presence. ‘It could be that he did not feel the Silvan elves would approve of taking hawks from the wild to serve the desires of a Sindar elite.’
‘It cannot be that,’ Laerwen said with amusement. ‘Wood Elves are happy to work in partnership with birds and beasts. There are some who have persuaded ducks to help them fish – and others who have become friends with beavers.’
‘Would you find it acceptable for Galenthil to work with the bird?’ Legolas asked.
‘If it wishes to stay with him, there is no reason why it should not,’ Laerwen shrugged. ‘It will be for him to convince the hawk that it wishes to return to him.’
Elerrina looked from her husband to his naneth. It still seemed remarkable to her that both should take the choices of the forest creatures so seriously. Whilst caring for beasts in their charge, her family and friends would pay no more heed to their wishes than they would ask the trees where they wished to grow. Life here, in the forest, was much more organic – and it would seem that her elflings were completely at home in this world. She relaxed suddenly and laughed. She could not deny that she enjoyed this life and, if offered the chance to go back, she would not take it. ‘Do we know anyone who has the skills needed to help our son raise a healthy bird?’ she asked. ‘I would not have the creature suffer through his ignorance.’
She felt her husband’s wave of approval warm her.
‘I can think of one or two,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘And there may be some who have returned from Mandos who have a familiarity with hawking. I will make enquiries.’ He smiled. ‘Although first we have to speak to a pair of elflings about acting behind our backs – and assuming knowledge they do not have.’
She grimaced. ‘I suppose so,’ she said. ‘Although they do not, to me, appear to have done anything very bad.’
‘Not very bad as it has turned out,’ Thranduil agreed, ‘but they would doubtless be disappointed to escape without any rebuke. I would not want to let them down. Perhaps some extra study is called for. . .’
‘On the health and habits of raptors,’ Legolas nodded. ‘That was what I had in mind.’
His adar inspected him with approval. ‘I seem to have succeeding in influencing your way of thinking quite effectively,’ he said.
‘Like adar, like son,’ Laerwen smiled.
‘Which is not a bad thing at all,’ Elerrina laughed, taking her husband’s hand.
‘Are you coming?’ Galenthil asked his sister.
‘Wait a moment,’ she demanded, reading the text on her lap with close interest. ‘Did you know that in Doriath, elves would ride out with hawks on their wrists – and that they would take hares and rabbits for the table. She looked up. ‘There is even a drawing of a hunt that includes a picture of Daeradar’s adar.’
‘Is there?’ Galenthil came and peered over her shoulder. ‘Which one is he?’
They studied the scroll in silence. ‘He looks quite like Adar,’ Galenthil said thoughtfully.
‘But I do not believe they are very similar in character,’ Eleniel added. ‘Adar is really very patient – I do not think I have ever seen him really angry – but Anadar was supposed to be quite impulsive and hot-tempered.’ She looked up at her brother. ‘I would like to know more about him,’ she said.
‘Come on,’ Galenthil insisted, losing interest in the written word. ‘We are going to fly Gwilrandir today – and Daeradar is coming to watch.’ He smiled excitedly. ‘I think he is hoping that Gwilrandir will be willing to fly to his glove,’ he said. ‘If he is, then Daeradar might want to see if he can have a hawk of his own.’
Eleniel looked down at the illustration on the scroll briefly and touched the face of the anadar who had gone to Mandos’s Halls thousands of years before her own adar’s birth. Perhaps, one day, he would return, she hoped, as her daernaneth had, and come to join them in the forest, where he could fly hawks with his great-grandson.
‘Do not be in such a hurry, Galenthil,’ she said firmly, ‘I am coming.’
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