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Elflings   by Bodkin

Elflings 9: Nine Lives

 

Ellanthir giggled as Nimloth tickled his tummy and curled up, kicking his legs and grabbing at her fair braids.  ‘Again,’ he demanded.

‘You are very bossy,’ she remarked, before taking hold of his hand and beginning the rhyme that started the tickling game.

‘I remember someone else who wanted to play that for hours,’ Elrin commented as he ran his fingers through his hair and tried to concentrate on his studies.  ‘Do you have to play it here?  It’s very distracting.’

‘What are you trying to do?’  Aewlin abandoned her sewing and leaned over her cousin’s chair.  ‘Yuck, that looks hard!’

‘It is hard,’ Elrin said mildly.  ‘It is all to do with forces and moments – and how to achieve difficult tasks with the least effort.’

‘I am glad no-one forces me to do it at the moment,’ Aewlin teased.  ‘Here, Nimloth, I have finished your sewing.  It is my turn to play with Ellanthir now.’

‘Aunt Sirithiel will know that Nimloth did not do it,’ Elrin told her.  ‘And you will probably both end up spending the afternoon helping her mend sheets or something equally dull.’

‘I would rather do white work,’ Nimloth said, wrinkling her nose.  ‘It is embroidery that I cannot endure.’  She sighed.  ‘And then Adar will tell us how Aunt Arwen embroidered a banner for King Elessar – as if staying at home and sewing stars is any help when your beloved is facing orcs and evil wizards and Nazgûl and things.’

‘What would you have done that would be any more help?’ Elrin asked curiously.  ‘Although most orcs would have run as soon as they saw you coming, if they knew what I know!’

Aewlin took Ellanthir’s bare foot in her hand and grasped his big toe as he squirmed in anticipation of the game.  ‘It was not really the way we imagine it,’ she remarked vaguely.  ‘We will never really understand.’

Elrin twiddled his pen between his fingers.  Sometimes Aewlin said things that were remarkably acute, he thought.  Although she usually followed up snippets of insight by doing something that reminded you that she was still only an elfling.  Like blowing a raspberry on Ellanthir’s tummy.   ‘If you get him over-excited, he will refuse to take his nap – and then my naneth will be cross with you, too,’ he warned.

His brother, he noted, had tangled his fingers in Aewlin’s hair; determined not to let her escape from his clutches.

‘Again!’ the elfling insisted.

‘Take him somewhere else,’ Elrin pleaded.  ‘I want to get this work finished before lunch – or I will never get to go out later.’

Nimloth opened her mouth.

‘No!’ her cousin told her firmly before she could ask.  ‘You are too young – and my friends will not want little ellyth joining them anyway.’

‘I was not going to say that,’ she retorted.  ‘We have no desire to waste our time with your silly friends.  I was going to remind you that your grandparents are due to arrive this afternoon – and that your naneth will not let you go out tonight.  To play,’ she added provocatively. 

Elrin suppressed a groan.  He liked his naneth’s parents, but he had been looking forward to this evening – and Nimloth was right.  He would be expected to be present – clean, tidy and on his best behaviour and his naneth would not appreciate him asking to absent himself.  ‘All the more reason for me to get my work done,’ he retaliated.

‘We were told to stay here,’ Aewlin said reasonably.  ‘We will get into trouble if we take Ellanthir off on our own.  You go to the library to finish that.  It will not take you long once you stop talking and focus.’

Her cousin snorted with laughter to hear her tutor’s words repeated to him and Aewlin looked down her nose and lifted one eyebrow disdainfully.  ‘Elflings!’ she continued, shaking her head.  ‘Incapable of putting two thoughts together.’

‘Enough of that,’ he grinned, gathering his books and papers ready to leave.  ‘Look after my little brother – I will get a report from him later.’

‘I know what he will say,’ Nimloth observed, as Aewlin ran a gentle finger across the sole of his foot.

‘Again!’ Ellanthir begged. ‘Again, again.’

‘Exactly!’

***

‘I would tell you how much you have grown,’ Neldor said, leaning forward to kiss his grandson’s brow affectionately, ‘but your daernaneth will clearly want to announce that herself – when she has had enough of devouring your brother.’

Elrin grinned.  He liked his grandfather and had long since decided that it was plain where his own naneth had learned her cool wit.  ‘That is all right, Daeradar,’ he declared, ‘I have heard it before.’  He returned the embrace.  ‘Although I think Daernaneth might find that Ellanthir is less than edible.  I can smell him from here.’

‘H’mm.’  Neldor winked at his grandson.  ‘I think I would very much like to make the acquaintance of your horse just about now.  Can they spare us, do you think?’

‘Well, it is my duty to entertain you,’ Elrin said earnestly.  ‘And if that is what you want. . .

‘Stop leading my son astray.’ Miriwen looped her arms round her adar’s waist. ‘He is supposed to stay here and be charming.  You and he can sneak off into the woods tomorrow.’

Neldor stroked her cheek with a gentle hand.  ‘You are becoming far too bossy, my daughter,’ he sighed.  ‘Your husband is clearly letting you get away with far too much.  I shall have to speak to him about managing ellyth.’

‘He has all the skills he needs, thank you very much,’ she retaliated, hugging him and leaning back to look at him carefully.  ‘I am so pleased to see you – I hope you intend to make this a good, long visit.’

‘Actually, my daughter,’ Neldor remarked, ‘we might just do that.  We have been considering crossing the mountains to dwell here in the forest – and, although your sister would prefer us to live closer to her, we were wondering whether these lands would suit us better.’  His eyes twinkled.  ‘Your naneth missed much of Elrin’s early years – I think she is determined to watch Ellanthir grow.’

‘That sounds a very good idea.’  Miriwen’s face brightened.

‘Although I doubt Elladan will be so delighted,’ her adar murmured in her ear.

‘Nonsense!’ she said firmly.

Elrin eased back.  It did not look, he sighed, as if his naneth would willingly allow him to withdraw from this gathering of family.  He wondered if Nimloth would be willing to take his friends a message – although he really should not encourage her to sneak out: that was only going to make his life more difficult when she decided that he had sanctioned her slippery ways.  He jumped as a hand clasped his shoulder.

‘Oh no, you do not,’ his adar said softly.  ‘If I have to stay here and smile, so do you.’

Elrin glanced over his shoulder.  ‘Did you hear?’ he asked.

‘That your grandparents might choose to come and live nearby?  Yes,’ he nodded.  ‘Your naneth would like that.’  Elladan looked at his wife and his social smile deepened and warmed.  ‘And your daeradar is a very skilled forester – he will be very welcome among our trees here.’  He looked down slightly at his lanky son.  ‘What is concerning you?’

Elrin shrugged.  ‘I was just wondering how to get a message to Nadhras,’ he said.  ‘He is expecting me to meet him down by the waterfall later.’

‘Go and tell him yourself,’ Elladan suggested.  ‘But I will not be able to hold your naneth off for more than half an hour, so do not take any liberties.’

‘Really?’  Elrin’s expression brightened.  ‘Thank you, Adar.’

‘But, in return,’ Elladan teased, ‘I shall expect you to smile and look as if you are enjoying it when your daernaneth kisses you and tells you how much you look like all the members of her family she can remember.’

‘I have Daeradar’s nose,’ Elrin stated solemnly, ‘apparently.  And Naneth’s chin.’

Elladan gave a crack of laughter.  ‘Do not tell them,’ he begged.  ‘They might ask to have them returned – and you would look mighty odd without them.’

‘I will be back as quickly as I can, Adar.’  Elrin turned.  ‘Shall I bring anything back?’ he asked, grinning.  ‘To give me a reason for leaving?’

‘Your harp?’ his adar suggested.  ‘You can play for your grandparents.’  He enjoyed his son’s disgusted expression for a moment before shaking his head.  ‘Just be quick – I have sent you on an errand.  I know not what it is – but we will not convince your naneth anyway, so there is little point in pretending.’

***

‘Well, I am sorry.’  Elrin gazed defensively at his friend.  ‘It is not my fault – there is no chance at all that I will be able to get away from my family tonight.’

Nadhras sighed long-sufferingly.  ‘Sometimes being friends with you is more trouble than it is worth,’ he accused.  ‘You have no idea how difficult it was to persuade Nelladel to get Olostariel to agree to meet us.  If we fail to turn up, they will never forgive us.’

‘But I can hardly tell my Naneth that I have to go out tonight to meet some ellyth,’ Elrin said with irritation.

‘Can you not pretend you are tired and then sneak out?’

‘I have seen your daernaneth when she visits!’ Elrin remarked with apparent irrelevance.

‘True,’ Nadhras conceded.  ‘She will be all over you – at least for a few days.’

‘Ellanthir is distracting her at the moment.’  Elrin grinned.  ‘But he goes to bed fairly early these days and then she will be able to turn her attention to me.  I will never get away – or not without telling some pretty big lies, and then my adar would have my head.’

‘Olostariel is not going to be pleased.  And Nelladel will take it out on me.’

Elrin rolled his eyes.

‘It would serve you right if I took Meglivorn with me,’ Nadhras said, glancing at his friend to see how he took the suggestion.

‘If you want.’ Elrin resigned himself to the situation. 

‘Or I could try painting you as a devoted grandson, who is so sensitive to his naneth’s feelings that he will sacrifice his own pleasure to make them happy.’

Elrin made a sound as if he was about to vomit.

‘But, if I ever want Nelladel to speak to me again, I had better go and see her now,’ Nadhras concluded reluctantly.  ‘Perhaps I will just let her decide what to do.  At least then she cannot blame me if it all goes wrong.’ 

‘I must get back.’  Elrin gave the steep-roofed house a harried glance.  ‘Adar said he would try to cover for me as long as he could, but he did not hold out much hope that Naneth would miss my absence.’

‘Wait.’  Nadhras grabbed his friend’s arm.  ‘Perhaps if I can offer Nelladel an alternative . . .’

‘I cannot tell,’ Elrin said impatiently.  ‘It is typical – for months I have had no trouble evading the parent patrol – but as soon as I actually want to get away, it becomes impossible.  If Olostariel wants to be difficult about it, there is nothing I can do.  Perhaps you should take Meglivorn – I know he is practically drooling when he looks at her.’

‘But the question is – does she look at him the same way?’ Nadhras said wisely.  ‘She has never agreed to come with Nelladel before.’  He sighed.  ‘Go then,’ he advised.  ‘Leave it to me.’

‘I will.’  Elrin turned while still close enough to speak without shouting and drawing attention to their discussion.  ‘But only because I have no choice!’  He grinned and ducked in through the side door, leaving his friend to shake his head in disgust.

***

Nimloth sat disconsolately, every fibre of her being silently expressing her objection to sitting obediently with her hoop of embroidery on her lap, setting tidy stitches into the much-abused and rather grubby fabric.

‘It will not be worth framing when finally she completes it,’ Sirithiel remarked.

‘Oh, it will.’  Celebrían grinned wickedly.  ‘Every time I look at it, I will remember the fight she has put up against finishing it.  And it will remind me of her – her sheer obstinacy with every single flower on it.’  She laughed.  ‘I will derive more pleasure from looking at Nimloth’s work than any other, I think.’

‘I do not know why she continues to think that she will escape this task,’ her naneth shook her head.  ‘Aewlin conceded much more easily.’

‘Aewlin knows how to choose her battles.’  Celebrían shook her head.  ‘Nimloth will continue to fight every one to the last drop of blood.  It is a good thing in a way – it is the stubbornness required in a healer.  You might not think it to look at him,’ she confided, ‘for he seems so serenely reasonable, but Elrond, too, will struggle on until the last – and that proved to be the part of his character that made him hold on beyond hope.’

‘But she will still learn to sew,’ Sirithiel said mildly.

Her naneth-in-law laughed.  ‘You are as obstinate as she is – although in a much more subtle way.’ 

Aewlin looked up from the table where she was carefully copying the contents of an old book of household hints.  It was true, she thought.  Many people thought that her naneth was the quiet and easy-going member of her daeradar’s extended household, one who accommodated herself easily to the demands of her parents-in-law, husband and brother and sister-in-law – but, if they only thought about it, they would realise that most of the decisions made in the house suited Sirithiel very well.  She was gentle, true, and reserved and did not push herself forward, but she knew how to manage.  And there was no-one, her daughter decided proudly, who would not step in to fight her naneth’s battles for her.  Nimloth could learn a lot – if she would only pay attention.  She sighed.  She would rather be finishing Nimloth’s sewing than this tedious task – but she supposed that was the point of it.  And if, at the same time, she learned about the making of a fine beeswax polish scented with lavender oil, her naneth would consider that to be a bonus.  She dipped her pen in the ink and continued to write.  If they applied themselves, perhaps both she and Nimloth would be free to amuse themselves as they wished for a while after dinner.

***

Lithiel watched as the little elfling stirred in his sleep.   He threw a hand up above his abundance of dark hair and his mouth moved as if he were dreaming about his next meal before he relaxed again.  ‘He is adorable,’ she told her daughter.  ‘And at such an interesting stage – he is learning so rapidly now.’  She tore her eyes away from her grandson and glanced at her daughter.  ‘I hope you are making the most of every day,’ she remarked, ‘for they pass swiftly.’

‘They do,’ Miriwen agreed ruefully.  ‘Look at Elrin – he is taller than I am already.  And he thinks he is almost grown now!’

‘He cannot be worse than you were at that age,’ her naneth commented dryly.  ‘For a few years we had to watch you more carefully than we had since you were Ellanthir’s age.  You were constantly trying to extend your boundaries and do things that were far too old for you.’

Miriwen blushed.  ‘Do not tell Elladan, whatever you do, Naneth!  I have done my best to keep my childish follies from him – and he seems to think that ellyth are immune to the idiocies of adolescence.’

‘I doubt that!’  Lithiel’s eyes sparkled with amusement.  ‘With whom did he commit his own foolishness if not with ellyth of the same age?  And why would he think that you did not do likewise?’

‘Most of the follies of which I have heard,’ Miriwen said thoughtfully, ‘consisted of throwing himself on, off or into things that seemed inevitably to result in injury, evading tasks he had been told to complete, or sneaking into places where he was not supposed to be.’

‘Then he is keeping all his other activities to himself.’  Lithiel smiled.  ‘I would have liked to have a son, although I was very happy with my two daughters – but I observed enough ellyn when you were at your most awkward to know that their minds are filled with many of the same concerns that obsess ellyth.’

‘Perhaps you should share your observations with Celebrían,’ Miriwen suggested.  ‘I am sure you will enjoy talking over all those incidents we had hoped were long buried.  Just, please,’ she implored, ‘do not let Elrin and Elrohir’s daughters hear of them – they are enough trouble without being given additional guidance.’

Lithiel pursed her lips.  ‘I can make no promises, my daughter,’ she mused.

‘Did I say I was looking forward to you coming to dwell nearby?’ Miriwen said ruefully.  ‘I take it all back.  Gildiniel will miss you terribly – you would do much better to remain close to her.’

Her naneth laughed and embraced her.  ‘Part of the joy of having children, my daughter,’ she asserted, ‘is combining with your grandchildren to make their lives difficult.  I remember only too well how you would entice my adar into permitting you to do all sorts of things you knew that we would not.’

‘Daernaneth, too,’ Miriwen smiled, ‘was very relaxed in her dealings with us.  She said she could always send us home when she had had enough, so why should she worry about developing our characters, when she could simply fill us with love.’

‘My naneth is a wise elf,’ Lithiel nodded.  ‘I intend to follow her example.’

‘Oh good.’  Miriwen sighed.  ‘All I need is two more to conspire against me.  As if Elrin and his adar are not enough.’  She laughed.  ‘And they think I did not notice Elrin sneaking off – just let them wait until I get them alone.’  She sobered.  ‘You are right, though, Naneth.  Our son is at a difficult age – physically almost mature, but without the sense and experience to control himself.  I am glad you are here to distract him for a while.  I have been worrying about other diversions that are being offered.’

‘They will come to nothing,’ Lithiel comforted.  ‘It is in the nature of the young to test their limits – but Elrin is too responsible to carry his curiosity too far.’

***

‘What are you planning to do with yourself, now you are approaching adulthood?’

‘I do not know.’  Elrin’s sigh was like a pricked bladder, leaving him flat.

‘It is not easy for you,’ his daeradar said tranquilly.  ‘You have a family full of heroes surrounding you – it must be hard to realise that you can be what you want to be.’

Elrin did not respond, his shoulders drooped as if he was carrying a weight too great to bear.

‘It is one of the reasons I did not really want your naneth to marry your adar – not at first,’ Neldor added thoughtfully.  ‘It is not easy to attach yourself to legends and still continue to be yourself.  But she said that it was not the son of Elrond that she saw, not yet the grandson of the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien.’  He glanced at his own grandson.  ‘How much do you know about your adar?’ he asked carefully.

Elrin shrugged.  ‘There is always someone who is ready to tell you what your parents would prefer you not to know.  If you mean their time of madness, when he and Elrohir were absorbed in slaughtering orcs.’

Stretching out his hand to greet the smooth-barked beeches as they strolled past, Neldor said matter-of-factly, ‘They were not mad – not in any sense of the word.  They were hurt and hitting back, as people do when they are in pain.’  He paused again, but Elrin did not reply.  ‘That is the Elladan that your naneth first loved – and wanted to help heal.  And that, recovered from his pain, is the Elladan who came to love her – not a hero, not a lord, not a warrior.  Himself.  The elf within.’  He stopped and, reaching out, turned his grandson to face him.  ‘For all those of your kin who are the subject of song, there are more who are ordinary elves who have led peaceful lives of contentment in the forest.  You need be none other than you are – and you have time to discover what that might be.’  He patted Elrin on the shoulder and raised his face to the canopy.  ‘I like these woods,’ he said.  ‘They welcome the interest of those living among them.’

‘Might you come and live here, then?’ Elrin asked. 

‘M’mm,’ his grandfather said vaguely.  ‘You have good foresters, but they are better with the more cultivated trees.  I would be happy in the deep forest, where Elrond’s power goes not, and there is much I could do.’

‘Would you like to go and see it?’ Elrin’s eyes brightened.  ‘We could take a trip – you and Adar and me.  Spend some time in the woods.’

Neldor laughed.  ‘You are sure you would not object to a break in your studies?’ he teased.

A distant laugh like a ring of small bells made Elrin turn.  He had not realised how close they had come to the clearing where the young elves liked to meet.  Nadhras’s clear voice echoed through the trees and the bell-like giggles sounded again.

‘Friends of yours?’ his daeradar asked, continuing to stroll towards the sound.

He would have to find out some time, Elrin thought dismally.  If Nelladel was there with Nadhras, then she had definitely brought an escort – and he had no reason to suppose that not to be Olostariel.  He sighed.  ‘That sounds like Nadhras,’ he acknowledged.  ‘He is a good friend of mine.’

‘And it would appear,’ Neldor lifted an eyebrow, ‘that he has found a companion.’  Without making his movement obvious, Elrin’s daeradar veered slightly towards the voices.  ‘I think I have met Nadhras before,’ he said.  ‘I would say I remember a small ellon with a sharp nose – but, if you are anything to go by, he is probably double the height he was then.’

Elrin grinned.  ‘He is tall,’ he admitted, ‘but his nose is still sharp enough to cut paper.  He is thinking about learning to build boats with his uncle,’ he added.

‘You have time,’ Neldor consoled him easily.  ‘As your adar’s son, you have many things to learn before you need to worry about making choices.  And, as your adar’s son, some of those paths will lead you in certain directions.  But you have good parents, and a family that wants the best for you – just relax and take it slowly.’

*** 

Elrin looked into Olostariel’s eyes.  They looked like forest pools in the moonlight, he decided.  He thought about telling her, but the words would not force themselves out.  He cleared his throat.  ‘So, how did you persuade your parents to let you come out this evening?’ he asked.

The tip of her pink tongue moistened her lips, and Elrin felt himself blushing.  Olostariel looked away.  ‘Naneth knows that I am old enough to need some time to myself,’ she said.  ‘My parents have no objection to me being out with my friends.’

Elrin’s flush faded.  She was still angry about his not meeting her the other night.  Nadhras had told him that she had barely spoken to Meglivorn, even though he had brought her some candied plums in a box tied up with blue ribbon.  She had accepted the gift though.  He looked at her with a slightly jaded eye.  She was very pretty, he decided.  But maybe pretty was not everything.  

‘Shall we walk along to the waterfall?’ Nadhras said hastily.  ‘It should be beautiful under the stars.’

Nelladel clutched his arm and leaned towards him.  ‘Ooh, yes,’ she breathed, and Nadhras froze for a moment, before shaking off his bemusement.

‘Shall we?’ Elrin asked unenthusiastically. 

Olostariel took his arm.  ‘I cannot be out long,’ she said.  ‘Adar will come looking for me if I am late.’

‘Really?’ Elrin remarked.  ‘My parents know I am out with my friends.  They trust me to return safely.’

Snatching her hand away, Olostariel pulled back to the far side of the path.  ‘My parents trust me,’ she snapped.  ‘Perhaps is it others they do not trust.’

Elrin felt as if his arrow had hit the centre of the target.  ‘I cannot imagine why,’ he commented.  ‘Nadhras and Nelladel are getting ahead,’ he pointed out.  ‘We had better catch up.’

He had never realised, he thought, that simply walking with someone could feel so uncomfortable.  Everybody they passed seemed to be watching them, as if the fact that he was escorting an elleth was somehow worthy of note.  He had never before felt that he was the focus of everyone’s attention and it was not a feeling he appreciated.  Although Olostariel seemed to like it, he noted.  She was preening herself, like a bird surrounded by those vying for her attention, and pretending that she had not noticed.

Chin demurely lowered, Olostariel shook out her gleaming hair and grabbed his arm.  ‘Come on,’ she instructed him.  ‘I want to talk to Nelladel.’

Before they reached the spot by the waterfall where the young elves liked to meet, Nadhras and Nelladel slipped expertly into a stand of shady trees.  Olostariel pulled Elrin after them.  The trailing branches of the whispering willows offered plenty of partly hidden nooks, Elrin realised uneasily, where those who wished to be alone could linger in the illusion of privacy. 

He, however, was not at all sure that he wished to linger anywhere with Olostariel.  The picture of the beautiful elleth on his arm had seemed much more appealing in imagination than it did now he was here – and Olostariel seemed to have a much better idea of what she expected of him than he did of her.

Nadhras, he saw enviously, clearly did not suffer from the same uncertainty.  He had wrapped his arms round a willing Nelladel and appeared to be whispering in her ear.  Whatever he was saying was clearly entertaining her, as her breathless giggle punctuated the rustle of the trees.

A heavy sigh drew his attention back to Olostariel.  He looked at her, feeling awkward and ungainly.  Did she expect him to do something similar?  Or would she be annoyed if he attempted the same kind of familiarity?  They did not, after all, know each other that well.

Losing patience, Olostariel moved closer to the young elf and slipped her arms around him, offering him the opportunity to improve their acquaintance.  A fragrance of lilac clung to her, sweet and tantalising.  Tentatively, Elrin extended his hand to touch her hair.  It felt like a living satin under his trembling fingers.  The elleth lifted her face to his and, without thinking, he leaned towards her.

‘Olostariel!’ an impatient voice called.  ‘Olostariel, I am not waiting for you.  If you are late home again, you can deal with Adar yourself.’

‘It is my brother.’ Olostariel drew back.  ‘I have to go.’  She looked at Elrin through her eyelashes.  ‘Will you be able to come out again tomorrow?’

‘I am not sure.’ Elrin was conscious of a wave of disappointment so strong that it left his knees weak.  ‘I may be going away for a few weeks.’

Olostariel tossed her head.  ‘Well, in that case,’ she shrugged, leaving him to imagine what her thoughts might be.  ‘Come on, Nelladel,’ she ordered.  ‘My brother will not wait – he would love to get me in trouble.’  She held Elrin’s eyes briefly.  ‘Maybe I will see you again,’ she told him airily, ‘and maybe I will find better things to do with my time.’

‘I cannot say I like her much,’ Nadhras murmured in his friend’s ear as the two ellyth disappeared beyond the trees.  ‘She is completely incomprehensible.  And that is on a good day.’

‘True,’ Elrin agreed.  ‘She is very pretty though.’

‘I am glad they have gone,’ Nadhras decided.  ‘Let us go and see what is happening at the waterfall.  There is no need to waste the whole evening.’

***

Nimloth gazed wide-eyed at her cousin. 

‘What is the matter?’ he snapped.  ‘Have I grown two heads?  Has my hair turned green?  Why are you looking at me like that?’

The elleth continued to stare at him speculatively, but she did not speak.

‘Did she let you kiss her?’ Aewlin’s voice came from behind him.  ‘Nimloth is trying to be tactful, so I will ask for her.’ 

Elrin’s cheeks flamed.  ‘I do not know what you are talking about,’ he asserted.

‘Really?’ The scepticism in Aewlin’s tone showed him how little she believed him.  ‘Olostariel.  Elrin.  Waterfall.  What else would she be taking you there to do?’

‘You are too young to know anything about such matters,’ Elrin insisted.

Nimloth sniffed disdainfully.  ‘Too young to want to waste our time,’ she told him, ‘but quite old enough to know what goes on.  Olostariel has been saying for weeks that you were trying to get her to walk with you, but that she was in no rush to let it happen – you would be all the more eager for being kept on tenterhooks.’

Her cousin frowned.  He did not like the sound of that.  It appeared scheming.  Surely Olostariel was not like that?  Yet – he had not felt entirely easy about the way the evening had developed.  She had seemed more interested in the attention she was receiving than she had been in him.  ‘I do not believe you,’ he said defiantly.  ‘Why would she choose to meet me if not that she likes me?’

Two pairs of pitying eyes fixed on him.   ‘She probably does like you,’ Aewlin conceded.  ‘You can be most annoying, I think, but she is not your cousin and you do not feel the need to tell her what to do all the time.  And anyway, even when you are at your bossiest, I like you.’

‘But,’ Nimloth chimed in, ‘Olostariel is usually much more interested in those who are rather older than you.  Have you not seen her just happening to pass the training fields as the younger warriors finish?’

‘And she is good at just happening to drop something just when there is a rather handsome ellon to pick it up for her.’

Elrin looked at the pair of them cynically.  ‘You do not much like Olostariel, do you?’ he said.

‘She is so obvious,’ Aewlin declared, wrinkling her nose.  ‘I like Nelladel.  She is a truly silly elleth, but she is good-hearted.  Olostariel is manipulative.  You deserve better, cousin.’

‘Thank you for your advice,’ Elrin said dryly.  ‘I shall bear in mind what you say.  After all, your wisdom is legendary.’

Nimloth gave him a quick hug.  ‘We know far more about ellyth than you do, cousin,’ she insisted.  ‘You are not the first ellon Olostariel has taken to the willow grove, but you are by far the biggest prize.  If you know that and you still want to play, then that is fine, but . . .’

‘Do not expect more,’ Aewlin shrugged.  ‘Did she kiss you?’

‘It is none of your business,’ Elrin stated. 

‘I hope you remember that,’ Nimloth reflected, ‘when it is our turn to play games.  We will not want to have you chasing behind us and scaring off the ellyn.’

Elrin looked at them with horror.  ‘No,’ he said firmly.  ‘You are far too young to do anything of the sort.  If I even suspect that you are dragging ellyn off to the willow grove, I will tell uncle – and he will send you off to Andaernaneth.  She will keep you in hand.’ 

‘Sauce for the goose,’ Aewlin remarked.  ‘It seems very unfair that you should feel able to sneak off, but you will not let us do the same.’

‘Stop worrying.’  Nimloth took pity on her cousin.  ‘We are just preparing you for when we are your age.  The only ellon I want to kiss is your brother – he is small enough to be really sweet.  The rest are just boring.  I can think of far better things to do.’

‘I wish we could come camping with you and your daeradar,’ Aewlin announced, deciding that enough had been said.  ‘But, when we asked her, Naneth just looked . . .’

‘Like this,’ Nimloth nodded, contorting her features into a look of patient disdain.

‘So clearly we will have to stay here and do lessons while you get to have fun,’ Aewlin finished.  ‘It is so unfair.’

Elrin relaxed and laughed.  ‘Never mind,’ he consoled them.  ‘Just think – at least you will be Naneth’s first choices to help her with Ellanthir while we are away.’

‘But who will ride with us?’ Nimloth asked.  ‘We will have to put up with Domenion’s companionship . . .’

‘I would say that he will have to put up with you,’ Elrin interrupted.

‘. . . and be sensible,’ his cousin concluded, ignoring him.

It was amazing, Elrin thought, how Aewlin and Nimloth could revert from remarkable good sense to childishness in no more than a breath.  At one moment he had felt as if his younger cousins had a much wider knowledge of the world than he did – only to be reminded that they were a mass of contradictions.  However – that did not necessarily mean they were wrong about Olostariel.  One thing they did have in common was that they were all ellyth – and, if anyone was qualified to understand deviousness in another, it ought to be the twins. 

He would be careful, he decided.  He was not altogether sure he was ready for the feelings that the elleth seemed to stir in him – and, if she was really interested in him as a person, then she should have no objection to getting to know him better before they tried anything else.  Although – he smiled wryly – it would not be easy to let things take their time.  He seemed to lose the power of rational thought at the touch of Olostariel’s hand and the scent of her hair made his stomach churn.  He found himself quite relieved that his grandparents’ visit was taking him away from the dilemma for a while.  Maybe, if he was lucky, Olostariel would solve it for him by showing interest in someone else.  It would hurt – briefly, he suspected – but on the whole he would be thankful to be rid of the problem without having to make any decisions himself.

‘Why,’ he asked plaintively, ‘would you be sensible for Domenion and not for me?  What have I done to be inflicted with two wild cousins?’

‘Oh well,’ Aewlin shrugged, ‘it is unfair to make things difficult for Domenion.  He is only there because Adar asked him to be.’

Elrin sat back and gazed incredulously at the pair.  ‘I hope that Ellanthir gives you as much trouble as you give me,’ he pronounced.  ‘And if he needs any help coming up with ways to aggravate you, I will be only too happy to give him instruction.’

‘Oh no, you will not!’  Nimloth grabbed at his dark hair and gave his braids a tug.  ‘You will help us manage him – you must be an expert in that by now.  And, in exchange, we will look after you – whether you want us to or not.’

Elrin clasped her hand and held it steady.  There were times, he thought, when he felt astonishingly proud of these two headstrong ellyth – usually, unfortunately, in conjunction with a wave of stomach-clenching anxiety.  ‘Thank you,’ he said.  ‘I think.’





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