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Elflings   by Bodkin

Elflings 11  Eleventh Hour

 

Eleniel perched on the branch, enjoying the way it swayed in the wind.  She should descend, she thought, but she knew that she would not.  Not now.  She sniffed.  Everyone was always telling her she was sensible and reasonable and controlled – but all she wanted to do was scream and throw things.  It was simply unfair.  If only she was more like Nimloth, who would never have accepted this situation in the first place, or Aewlin, who would have arranged matters so that she, too, would have been of the party.  But no.   A scorching tear lipped over the corner of her eyelid and burned its way down her cheek.  She had listened meekly to her parents and made no protest when her twin was sent to spend a year with their cousin in Tirion.  She had sat stitching while her naneth and daernaneth had debated the rights and wrongs of sending a Wood Elf to dwell among the Noldor.  She had helped her brother pack his bags and listened to him as he talked excitedly about what he and Súrion would do together and smiled as Adar and he had ridden off with their escort.

A splash of rain joined the tears on her face, driven by a strengthening wind.  Eleniel linked her fingers through the slender branches and allowed herself a frisson of fear as the horizontal became vertical, but she made no attempt to reach the more solid boughs closer to the trunk.   She was tired of everyone looking at her as being safe.  And reliable.  If she heard the word reliable again, she thought she would scream.

She had been proud at first, when Daernaneth had said she was trusted to care for her baby aunt – but all it meant was that she was left with the baby while other people did things that were more exciting.  She got to sit in the nursery singing nonsense rhymes while her brother was sent off to learn how to deal with the other peoples of the Blessed Realm.  She spent her time trying to stop her aunt from putting worms in her mouth while Galenthil was taken on camping trips into the forest with other ellyn his age.  Eleniel could not hold back a single choked sob.  She had never minded learning the skills demanded of a chatelaine of her daeradar’s House – but she hated being seen as nothing more than an elleth.

‘Are you not getting rather wet up there?’

‘Hithien?’  Eleniel blinked, grateful that the increasing rain would conceal any evidence of tears.

‘You have missed lunch,’ her former nursemaid said.  ‘And you are coming close to missing the evening meal.’

‘I care not.’  Despite her words, Eleniel began automatically to slither down from her vantage point.  Arda did not end because she was unhappy – and there was no need to distress her naneth by being rude.

‘I thought I might find you at the butts,’ Hithien observed.

The elleth shrugged.  ‘There seemed little point in slaying straw targets,’ she said.

‘Perhaps a bout with blades?’

‘Naneth dislikes it when she hears I have been on the training fields,’ Eleniel inspected the lichen stains on her dress.

‘You are determined to be miserable, then.’  Hithien began to walk back towards the house.  She paused and glanced down at the elleth.  ‘Why do you not speak with your daeradar?  In your adar’s absence, he can manage your naneth better than any.  And, whether you believe it or not, he will understand how you feel.’

Eleniel smiled wryly.  ‘When was he an elleth – or a twin?’ she asked.  ‘Or the sensible one.’

With a spurt of laughter, Hithien waited for her to catch up.  ‘He has not always been a king,’ she said amiably.  ‘And I am told he did not find it easy growing up as his adar’s son.  Try it, ’Leniel.  After all, what harm can it do?’

 

***

 

Elerrina opened and closed her mouth without a sound.  She was very fond of her husband’s adar – and had, at any rate, been brought up to show the proper respect due to authority, but this was, she feared going to prove to be one time when she would have to object.  She glanced helplessly at her naneth-in-law, who was nursing her daughter, apparently oblivious to the argument.

‘There seems little point in it,’ Elerrina said reasonably.  ‘Eleniel has plenty to do here – why would you want to bother with taking her when you travel west?  She will only be in your way.’

The grin showed that Thranduil saw through her speech, she thought resentfully.  Even if he did not say so, he knew that Elerrina was not entirely comfortable with the closeness of the bond between Wood Elves and the forest and that, although she had accepted that side of Galenthil with good grace, she still found it unnatural that Eleniel should prefer to spend hours in the treetops when she should be practising her harp or working in the stillroom. 

‘I would be grateful for the company, my daughter,’ he said seriously.  ‘I have put off the journey long enough – but now that Celumíl is settled, I should make the effort.  We will be gone no more than a month, I would say.’  He let the words settle between them.  ‘I would ask you to bear me company as well, but I would be happier if you would stay here with Laerwen.’  He smiled.  ‘It is some while since Legolas was a baby – and your experience with infants is much fresher.  I would appreciate it if you offered Laerwen your support.’

‘Eleniel cannot go unaccompanied.’  Elerrina seized on his request.

Thranduil lifted his eyebrows.  ‘She will not be unaccompanied,’ he said with a hint of hauteur.  ‘I will be with her.’

‘Do not be so provoking,’ Laerwen reproved him.  ‘You know perfectly well what our daughter means.’  She looked at her son’s wife.  ‘Eleniel is young enough to travel in her daeradar’s care without such nonsense as chaperones, my dear,’ she said, ‘and anyway, I daresay Hithien would be happy to make one of the party – she will look after my granddaughter as well as you could wish.’

‘I would not dream of taking Eleniel without Hithien to keep an eye on her,’ Thranduil said gravely.  ‘So you agree?’

‘I would prefer her to remain at home,’ Elerrina told him, glancing at him under her eyelashes, but, seeing that he had no intention of relenting, she sighed.  ‘I am sure she will enjoy the chance to see more of these lands,’ she said with resignation.  ‘When were you intending to set off?’

‘In a few days.’ Thranduil smiled warmly.  ‘Thank you, my dear,’ he said.  ‘I appreciate the chance of spending more time with my granddaughter.  She is so busy these days that we seem to have little time to enjoy ourselves.’

‘I will see to her wardrobe.’  Elerrina blinked back tears as she rose.  ‘I suppose you will tell me that she will need little?’

Thranduil laughed gently.  ‘A few weeks among trees, Elerrina.  Simple clothes that can stand up to a bit of rough treatment.  I will see to everything else.’

Elerrina curtseyed slightly before departing, leaving the room silent apart from the sucking of the child and the crackle of the fire.

‘She is not pleased,’ Laerwen said eventually as she raised Celumíl to her shoulder and awkwardly adjusted her gown.

Thranduil sighed.  ‘Not pleased at all,’ he agreed.  ‘I have been distracted recently,’ he admitted, approaching her chair and lifting the infant into his arms, ‘or I would have paid more attention to what was happening.’  He smiled at the pink face crowned in pale wisps of hair.  ‘I can endure Galenthil spending some months with his cousin – Súrion is a pleasant ellon, and a short while with Taryatur will not be enough to ruin my grandson.  It might,’ he added, ‘even be good for him to learn some of the differences between our way of life and theirs.  But,’ he said firmly, ‘I will not have Eleniel made unhappy or pushed into fitting some nonsensical ideal of maidenhood.’

‘Elerrina is her naneth,’ Laerwen said neutrally.

‘And I will not interfere,’ Thranduil remarked.  ‘I will spend some time with my granddaughter – and then her adar will have returned and he will see what is happening.’

‘And if he does not?’ his beautiful queen raised an eyebrow.

‘Well,’ Thranduil grinned engagingly, ‘then I might have to poke my nose where it has no business.  But I am hoping,’ he said dotingly to his daughter, ‘that your naneth might manage to persuade your sister-in-law to give your niece the freedom to grow in her own way.’

‘You do not expect much, do you?’ Laerwen sighed.

‘Miracles, my love.’  Her husband’s free hand caressed her cheek.  ‘Of which you are more than capable.’

***

‘Race you, Daeradar!’ Eleniel challenged before they were more than a few leagues beyond their rambling home.

She had been pale and subdued as she kissed her naneth farewell, Thranduil thought, suspecting that she had been weighed down with Elerrina’s expectations of her good conduct, but her spirits had lifted as they wound their way along the narrow paths between the trees.  Unsurprisingly, he considered.  The trees were humming with life and the forest’s song was vibrant on this brilliant morning.

Hithien laughed, managing her horse with little difficulty.  ‘She will keep you busy, my lord,’ she said.  ‘I hope you are ready for a wearing trip.’

Eleniel’s mare side-stepped, picking up her rider’s excitement.  She and Eleniel were a fairly new partnership, the elleth only recently long enough in the leg to move from her good-natured pony to the young horse.

‘Wait until the path is wider, my granddaughter,’ Thranduil decided.  ‘A few more minutes – and I will show you who is fastest!’  He grinned at her.  ‘As I recall, the starting point is when we cross the stream – and we race to the single oak and back.’

Eleniel urged Gwaeroch on enthusiastically and Thranduil indicated with no more than an inclination of his head that Calion was to keep close to her.  He, however, pulled back a little, so that Hithien glanced his way and did likewise.

‘I want my granddaughter to enjoy herself,’ he said quietly, ‘and indulge in all the activities that please her – archery, blade-training, tree-climbing and whatever else – regardless of what restrictions her naneth might have placed on her.’  His gleaming eyes met hers.  ‘Not outright defiance, mind,’ he added.  ‘I would not encourage that – but she is in the forest now, and that is my domain.’

Hithien smile twisted.  ‘It might well prove impossible to accommodate both sets of instructions,’ she acknowledged. 

‘In which case,’ Thranduil grinned, ‘you would do well to remember which of us is your king.’

‘I will keep that in mind, my lord,’ she said mildly.  ‘As I will bear in mind Eleniel’s needs.’

‘Keep Eleniel first in your thoughts and we will have no debate,’ he nodded.  ‘I had best catch up before my granddaughter gives up on me and races your husband instead.’

Paying no heed at all to the train of guards riding behind them, he urged his horse on and increased the pace.

Hithien sighed.  Kings, she thought.  Even when they were being considerate, they placed demands on their followers without any thought of how they were to be balanced with other equally valid requirements.

She turned, resting one deceptively delicate-looking hand on her horse’s rump.  ‘Here seems as good as anywhere to stop for lunch,’ she commanded.  ‘We really do not want Aran Thranduil to accuse us of getting in the way of this race.’

***

Eleniel sighed.  She felt a different person out here, she thought.  The – the scratchiness of growing up had disappeared.  No-one was demanding anything of her beyond common sense and normal consideration.  She leaned back on the grassy bank and admired the soft gleam of the stars.  Daeradar had sighed when their guards had automatically formed a circle around them to afford them what he had muttered was a quite unnecessary level of protection from passing foxes and, when she had giggled, he had admitted to her that he found the restrictions of his guards to be one of the most irritating effects of rank.  It was odd – she had never thought of adults being constrained to conform to other people’s idea of suitability.  And of any adult – her daeradar, she marvelled, who could make almost anyone jump to his bidding with no more than a look.

‘Are you tired?’ Hithien’s voice was quiet enough not to wake her had she already sought the dream path.

‘No.’  Eleniel sat up.  ‘The night is so beautiful.’

‘I miss it when I am confined to a house,’ Hithien admitted.  ‘I insisted that Calion put open flets among the enclosed, so that I can sleep under the stars, but he still does not think it entirely proper.’

‘He is a Noldo, is he not?’ Eleniel remarked with mild disapproval.  ‘Like Naneth.’

Hithien drew a silent breath.  ‘It is not easy to live with another’s customs,’ she said mildly.  ‘Your naneth has adapted well to living among Wood Elves in a wide forest.  If, at times, she hankers for a more ordered life among Tirion’s broad avenues of white stone houses, who shall blame her?’  As Eleniel opened her mouth, the older elleth lifted an admonitory finger.  ‘She wants you and your brother to be a credit to her and your adar.  Is that so difficult to accept?’  Hithien smiled.  One of Eleniel’s main problems was that, despite her youth, she was too good at seeing both sides of an argument.  ‘It is hard on you – you need to learn to live in both worlds, but you are an intelligent elleth, and strong-willed – you can do it.’  Hithien patted her on the shoulder.  ‘Do not try to leave the guarded area – it would not do to agitate the warriors.  They are sensitive ellyn and do not care to be disregarded.  And, in the morning, would you care to train with me?  It does Thranduil’s warriors good to see that I am well able to take them out, should I so choose.’

‘Well,’ Eleniel acknowledged slowly.  ‘I am sure Naneth would agree that it would be the height of bad manners to leave you without a partner.’

Hithien grinned.  ‘Good girl,’ she said, rising to take a final look around the campsite before settling to her rest.

Eleniel relaxed, enjoying the muffled night sounds.  An owl hooted in the distance and a wakeful guard paced the perimeter of the camp.  A light breeze stirred the leaves like a ripple of excitement at the presence of the forest’s king.  A wave of affection for her daeradar filled her as she lay back watching Ithil dim the stars.  He, at least, was just happy for her to be herself, without trying to twist her into fitting his own perception of her role.  With a contented sigh, she allowed herself to drift into sleep.

Thranduil raised an eyebrow.  ‘She is all right?’ he asked.

A nod answered him.  ‘What is the purpose of this trip, my lord?’ Hithien asked bluntly.  ‘You have an elfling at home who needs her adar to thrive – and it seems a trifle excessive to put a distance of a dozen leagues of more between Eleniel and her naneth just because the elleth is suffering from growing pains.’

The king sighed.  ‘Can you not control your wife’s habit of asking awkward questions?’ he said.  Sometimes an action simply seems right – and I have learned that instinct can be a good guide.’

Calion smiled, but remained silent.

‘You might prove useful yet,’ Hithien told Calion as she settled beside him.  ‘Eleniel is beginning to resent her Noldor heritage – and you are in a better position than most to help her understand the world to which Elerrina was born.’

Thranduil sighed.  ‘I begin to think it might have been better for my son to take Eleniel to her grandparents along with Galenthil.’

‘It is not done,’ Calion shrugged.  ‘Ellyth remain with their parents until they wed, unless they seek service with those of higher rank.  Ellyn spend several years in the households of others of equal rank before returning home – or seeking a career.  It has long been so, and Elerrina’s parents are very conventional.’

‘But their conventions are not ours,’ Thranduil pointed out.  Taking a half-burnt stick, he prodded the dying fire, making a shower of sparks flicker and die.  ‘Still, I am glad my granddaughter remains in the forest.  It seems right that she is with me now.’ 

***

The trees were excited, Eleniel realised.  Not because of Daeradar, although his presence usually had the trees round them responding with eager song.  No, she was catching only the echoes of their usual enthusiasm.  They were turned away, their attention drawn westwards.  She rode automatically, her head turned slightly north of due west.

‘You feel it, too,’ Thranduil said with certainty, keeping pace with her.

She flicked a glance up at him.  He wore a simple green tunic and his fair hair hung loose but for a narrow braid over each ear.  But then, she thought, he did not need the trappings of power – he radiated it with his very being. 

‘It is strong, whatever it is,’ she said.  ‘The disturbance stretches for leagues.’

‘Say nothing of it yet,’ her daeradar commanded.  ‘As yet, it is only we two who are aware of it.’  He grinned and leant towards her to speak confidentially.  ‘Guards are trial enough, my dear, without giving them an excuse to assert themselves.  Make sure you are armed – just in case – but I doubt there is anything to concern you.’

‘Hithien says I should train regularly,’ Eleniel mentioned.

‘It would be as well,’ Thranduil agreed.  ‘There is no need to make a show of it, if you prefer not to – but everyone should be able to protect themselves at need.’

Eleniel let his words soak in.  ‘Whatever is ahead,’ she mentioned.  ‘It does not feel dangerous.’

‘Those are often the worst dangers of all,’ he grinned with tight excitement.  ‘Anyone can stand firm against an obvious threat – but to remain constant in the face of something that appears safe takes a different kind of courage.’

‘Then weapons will probably not be required.’

‘Probably not.’  Thranduil glanced at his granddaughter.  ‘Do not let your naneth’s aversion influence you – she is still relatively unaware of the dangers that might be present in the wild.  I am happy to take the blame for encouraging you in activities on which she frowns.’

Eleniel wrinkled her nose.  ‘It feels dishonest,’ she said, ‘to conspire against her.’

‘You looked uncomfortable this morning,’ Thranduil acknowledged.  He smiled affectionately.  ‘I cannot fault you for not wanting to go behind your naneth’s back.  Not blades, then.  But I wish you to practise with your bow – and with throwing knives.  And I will make a command of it, if necessary.’

A weight seemed to fall from the elleth’s shoulders and she felt able to breathe deeply for the first time since her parents had broken to her that she and her twin were to be separated.  ‘Celumíl is very lucky,’ she said with apparent irrelevance.

Thranduil laughed.  ‘I doubt she will think so in a few years’ time,’ he replied.  ‘I am much sterner as an adar than as a daeradar – you ask your own adar.’  He stretched out to smooth the fair hair back from her face.  ‘In a few years, you will have Celumíl coming to you to complain of my unreasonable brutality in forbidding her to take part in any variety of activities in which she wishes to engage.  I hope you will support me, child, in attempting to bring your aunt up to be as much of a credit to her family as you are.’

Eleniel blushed and mumbled something inaudible.

Neither noticed that they had turned their horses’ heads to veer slightly from the more obvious path between the trees.  Thranduil coaxed Eleniel into laughing with him over a few revelations of her adar’s mischievous childhood, while she confided one or two adventures of which her daeradar decided he was glad he had not known before. 

‘I know not what it is about the young,’ he shook his head, ‘that makes it so hard to keep them in their beds at night – your adar liked to wander, and it seems as if you and your brother are just as bad!’

His granddaughter giggled.  ‘We did not sneak out very often,’ she said.  ‘And once Adar discovered how we were managing it, he put a stop to it.’

Thranduil eyed her cynically.  ‘And you have found no other way?’  He lifted a hand.  ‘Do not tell me,’ he insisted.  ‘I would feel compelled to do something about it!  But I shall be putting you in charge of security once Celumíl is old enough to make her own escape attempts.’ 

‘My lord?’ One of the guards rode back up the long slope.  ‘The river is running quite too high to cross here – there is a ford is some miles downstream.’

‘Is that the closest safe crossing?’  Thranduil raised an eyebrow.  ‘Then why are we not heading towards it?’

The guard looked impassive.  It was not for him to tell the king that he had been determinedly leading the party out of their way among trackless trees.

Reluctantly, Thranduil turned to the south.  ‘I suppose it will only take us a little out of our way,’ he said.  He raised his head and looked intently in the direction of the trees’ disturbance.  ‘And only a fool would take a chance with a river in flood.’  He grinned at his granddaughter.  ‘Let us ride.’

***

‘The king is seeking something,’ Regdolin spoke quietly to Calion.  ‘He says nothing – but I have seen the strain in his eyes, and he pushes us fast and always in the same direction.  Do you know if he has arranged to meet someone – or who it might be?’

Calion shrugged and spread his hands.  ‘He would not tell me,’ he said.  ‘Why do you ask?’

The guard turned slightly so that the movements of his lips could not be observed.  ‘He respects your lady – and he might tell her what he would not reveal to us.’

Shaking his head, Calion grinned.  ‘Hithien would not say anything if she knew,’ he said.  ‘She can keep a confidence.’

Regdolin sighed.  ‘How can we prepare if my lord refuses to tell us what we need to prepare for?  And then he gets irritated because we are jumpy.’ 

Above their heads, Eleniel listened in silence.  It was not surprising that Daeradar was becoming tense, she thought.  The cacophony of treesong was setting her nerves on edge and she knew that she did not hear it as clearly as he did.  If only they were not all talking at once.  Her eyes followed Regdolin and Calion thoughtfully.  There had been a few moments when she had begun to think she was making sense of what she heard, but then the song had whirled again into chaos and she had lost it.  She had asked Thranduil what he made of it, but he had simply shrugged and said that they would discover soon enough what it meant.

Eleniel climbed higher into the treetop, where she could look over the smaller trees and see the forest as a bowl of green that stretched from the distant hills as far as she could see.  It was as if the excitement was stirring the trees, spinning round and coming back, tighter and harder to control.  It amazed her that no-one other than she and her daeradar seemed to be aware of it – although she suspected that the jumpiness of the guards had something to do with it.  Calion – she shrugged – of course, he was Noldor.  His bond to the forest was never very strong.  Although he was right about one thing – Hithien could keep her own counsel and might have ideas of her own.

In the distance a break in the canopy showed her where a river divided two areas of forest, and a darker green on the slopes indicated a shift from deciduous trees to conifers.  She smiled.  The trees here were healthy, with strong voices and they welcomed the few elves who dwelt among them.

Did her daeradar know what he was expecting to find here?  Or was he as much in the dark as she was?  She glanced down towards the forest floor.  One thing she did know was that he would not say until he was ready and that asking him would do no good at all. 

‘Eleniel?’ Hithien called.  ‘We have set up the targets.’

The elleth rested her head against the branch behind her and closed her eyes briefly before replying.  ‘Coming!’   She had not realised how rusty her skills had become until her sore muscles had begun to complain.  Dancing and harp-playing clearly did not require the same parts of her body as archery and knife-throwing – although the balance and grace demanded in dance seemed to have some use in helping her with the rhythm that Hithien insisted was part of always being ready for an opponent’s next move.  Nevertheless, she thought, she still did not see why her trainer insisted on teaching her to juggle ever increasing numbers of sticks – even if it was rather fun to be part of a circle of dancing elves tossing lighted brands back and forth among themselves.  She had a strong feeling that her naneth would disapprove of that almost as much as she had when her adar had taught her the basics of wielding a blade, but since Elerrina had never expressed an opinion on the suitability of fire-juggling as an occupation for ellyth, she had decided she could carry on.

Hithien grinned as the elleth descended rapidly from the heights.  ‘You will be happy to return to more elegant activities, I expect,’ she said, ‘when finally your daeradar has found whatever he is seeking.’

‘And what might that be?’ Eleniel asked, opening her eyes wide in apparent innocence.

‘If you need to ask,’ Hithien shook her head, ‘you are not ready to know.’

***

When finally they reached the wide river, flowing like a silver ribbon between the trees and turned north, Eleniel could see that even Calion was ringing with the power of the treesong.  No-one spoke much – it was difficult enough to think, let alone share those thoughts with others.   Between the trees’ greeting to Thranduil and their excitement about what lay ahead, the sound, inaudible as it was to most of the forest’s creatures, was deafening.

Thranduil led the way without hesitation, Eleniel riding beside him.  Leaves fluttered around them, as if the trees were doing their best to offer the visitors a welcome they would not forget. 

With a wave of her hand, Hithien indicated that the others should draw back, acting as a ceremonial guard rather than one of any practical use.  Regdolin would have protested – but a single glance at his king had made it clear that he would accept no greater protection. 

The path became an avenue, bordered by ancient trees that led towards a broad lawn of rabbit-nibbled grass.  It looked, Eleniel thought, as if it had been there for ever, while at the same time seeming as fresh as if it had sprung up with that morning’s dawn.  Her breath shortening in anticipation, she kept Gwaeroch steady, allowing her daeradar to move slightly ahead.

At the sight of the figure that stood in the middle of the glade, looking as if the ray of Anor lighting his pale hair had just deposited him there, Thranduil threw himself from his horse and ran forward with a boyish enthusiasm that made his granddaughter gasp.  The sun illuminated them like figures in a painting as the king froze, green and gold and alabaster, before a tall elf robed in a grey as soft as a dove’s wing.  As slowly as ice-melt in spring, the stranger moved, pushing back his hood from hair as wheaten-gold as Thranduil’s, revealing storm-grey eyes in a face as pale as winter.

Behind her, Eleniel could hear the jangle of harness and the restless clop of a horse’s hoof; the tearing of teeth on sweet grass and the edgy uncertainty of her daeradar’s guards in the sudden silence, but, in front of her, time stood still.  She could not wrench her eyes away from a meeting that contained neither words nor movement, yet radiated an emotion powerful enough to choke her.

‘Is that. . ?’ she murmured through a throat so stiff with tears that she was surprised that any sound came out.

‘Oropher?’ Hithien asked.  ‘I believe so.’

A recalcitrant tear escaped her control and trickled down her cheek.  ‘Adar should be here,’ Eleniel said.

Hithien shook her head.  ‘I think perhaps none should,’ she said.  ‘There will be time in plenty for other meetings.’  She looked around and, catching Regdolin’s eye, nodded towards the grass beyond the clearing.  ‘You remain here, ’Leniel,’ she insisted.  ‘When they are ready, they will want you.  And, when you are in need of food and rest, we will be over there.’

In the end, as she sat on the grass, she wondered which would be the first to break the paralysis that seemed to seize them.  She gathered daisies and began making chains of the flowers as she waited, binding them into crowns of white and gold.  The angle of the light changed, but Thranduil and his adar remained at its heart, cut off from the world about them, absorbed in their own.  It was a sigh that finally broke the silence, but she could not tell from which elf it came, deciding eventually that it had probably come simultaneously from both.

‘I am sorry,’ Oropher said tentatively, as if he had not used his voice in some while.  ‘It was not my intention to leave you to deal with the aftermath of battle.’

‘I never blamed you.’ Thranduil moved hesitantly, as if unconvinced of the genuine presence of the elf before him and Oropher mirrored his movement, raising his hand to touch a pale finger to his son’s cheek as gently as a butterfly’s kiss.

They clasped each other suddenly, ferociously, holding tight enough to inhibit breath, fighting the tears with which any sensible elleth would have greeted one so long missing and so desperately missed. 

Eleniel smiled.  She had never before been so close to the return of one who had been lost, but it was not hard to see that the experience could prove almost as shattering as losing someone in the first place.  And, she noted, it was clearly one that involved too much emotion and not enough food.  If these two did not manage to find their feet soon, she had better fetch them something to eat and drink before they lost all contact with reality.

They were speaking now – half-sentences and names, single words and references to events ages before her birth – as they reached out to each other, not pausing for answers, but somehow not caring.  All that mattered was that they were there together after so many centuries.

Their clasp changed as the sun sank below the fringe of trees.  Arms round each other’s shoulders, free hand on each other’s chest as if to feel the steady rhythm of the heartbeat, they turned towards her.

‘My granddaughter,’ Thranduil announced proudly.

She had had time to think how to respond to the introduction.  She rose gracefully and approached, curtseying prettily to her andaeradar, and proffering two flowery crowns that she reached up and placed on the two fair heads.  ‘Welcome,’ she said.

***

Riding back was something like passing through the constant patter of raindrops, without the bother of getting wet.  The trees responded to their passage with a busy rustle of leaves as if applauding.  Eleniel was unsure how her andaeradar had come to be waiting for them in a sun-bright glade a fortnight’s ride from home, but he had had little with him beyond the clothing in which he stood up, a quiver of arrows fletched with white feathers, his bow and a short knife with a handle of carved bone.

Without discussion , Calion had offered his bay to the tall elf and risked Hithien’s displeasure to ride with her.  Oropher had blinked and accepted, running a narrow hand over the gleaming neck a few times as if reminding himself of the nature of a horse.  Roscún whickered, stamping his foot as if the elf-lord’s touch tickled, but then he had dropped his head and accepted his new rider.

Exchanging concerned glances, Thranduil and Eleniel had flanked him, anxious to ensure Oropher’s safety, but it appeared that his unconscious mind was able to provide automatic access to long-forgotten skills, for, once mounted, the returned elf settled easily to the process of riding.  Until, that was, they stopped to rest and he slipped from Roscún’s back only to continue his slide until his knees hit the ground.

Thranduil’s exclamation made his granddaughter grin.

‘Do not let your naneth know I said that!’ he declared immediately, even as he dismounted to help his adar to his feet.  ‘She would have my ears.’

‘Of course not, Daeradar,’ Eleniel said primly.  ‘You surely do not think I understood your words, do you?’

Oropher laughed.  ‘How old are you, my great-granddaughter?’ he asked, leaning on his son’s arm in an attempt to support legs that felt too weak to hold him.  ‘Thirty five?  Forty?  I would imagine you know the meaning of a range of words you are too wise to use.’

‘If Naneth would have Daeradar’s ears,’ Eleniel said ruefully, ‘she would have my hide.’  She looked at him critically.  ‘We have ridden too far,’ she told him with concern.  ‘Your knees feel shaky now, but you will stiffen up soon.’  She glanced over to Hithien, then back to her daeradar.  ‘Do you think we should make camp?  I know it is early, but it might be wiser.’

Thranduil nodded.  ‘We are in no hurry,’ he agreed.  ‘I think, Adar, you would do better to accustom yourself to being among us before we expose you to the crowds that will wish to welcome you to our home.  And what is amusing you, my lady?’  He raised an eyebrow at his granddaughter’s subdued giggle.

‘It sounds so funny to hear you saying ‘Adar’.  You are too grown-up,’ she explained.

He looked down his elegant nose.  ‘If Lady Galadriel is young enough to have an adar, I think that I, too, am entitled to one.’

‘Behave yourself, my son,’ Oropher instructed him paternally, performing for his admiring audience.  He winked at Eleniel.  ‘I will not have you teasing my great granddaughter.  Even over one of those wretched Exiles – and the Noldor witch who led my cousin to desert his people at that.’

Eleniel stilled.

‘Enough of that, Adar,’ Thranduil said mildly.  ‘More than an age has passed since your fëa fled to Námo’s Halls – and over all those centuries Celeborn’s lady played her part in bringing about Sauron’s defeat.  And for three ages she stood loyally by my cousin’s side – I will not hold her origins against her.’

Oropher’s jaw tightened.

‘Old grudges must be abandoned.’  Taurevron’s king spoke with calm certainty.  ‘We were the Exiles here – until the Valar granted us lands to call our own and the people of the Blessed Realm helped us set up new kingdoms.’  He smiled wryly.  ‘And close your mouth, Eleniel,’ he added.  ‘There is no reason to let Lady Galadriel know that I have put our antipathy aside.  We enjoy our squabbles – most of the time.’

He watched as Oropher accepted a mug of spiced tea brought over by Calion and took his first sip.  ‘The world has changed,’ he offered.  ‘And with it the loyalties of those who dwell within it.’  He took a second mug and smiled his thanks.  ‘I have more in common now with those who resisted throughout the Third Age than with those who perished in the First – and more in common with the Noldor Exiles who remained among us than with those who never left Aman.’  He watched the steam rise from the drink.  ‘We must let go of meaningless resentments from the distant past and build here, in the now and for the ages to come.’

Oropher frowned.  ‘It is not easy to change a lifetime’s way of thinking.’

‘This is a new life,’ Thranduil shrugged.  ‘For all of us – and we must make the effort.’

His adar’s gleaming eyes fixed themselves on his son’s face.  ‘You have grown into your responsibilities, my son,’ he said.  ‘You have become a king.’

Eleniel looked from one to the other, chewing on her lip.  This was not as easy in reality as in imagination, she thought.  It would seem that returning to life among your kin could create as many problems as it solved.

‘I have,’ Thranduil acknowledged.  ‘And I hope I am one of whom you can be proud.’

‘That,’ Oropher said, ‘goes without saying.’  He smiled tentatively.  ‘I have not come to replace you, my son.  Nor yet to cause you trouble – I will do my best to fit into your lives.’  He looked down, brushing one hand across the short grass.  ‘While I am with you,’ he added.

‘Your home is with us,’ his son declared flatly.

Oropher shook his head.  ‘I doubt it will be for long.’  He sounded slightly puzzled.  ‘I think I have a different path ahead of me.’

‘I have endured your absence long enough!  I have a right to have my family restored.’  Thranduil sounded pained.

‘I am here,’ Oropher pointed out.  ‘As Celeborn’s adar-in-law is here – but I doubt his wife lives in Finarfin’s pocket.’

Eleniel looked up as Regdolin and Hithien arrived with plates of food, the anxious look on her face catching the attention of both daeradar and andaeradar.

Thranduil shrugged.  ‘That is for the future,’ he said, resting a gentle hand on his granddaughter’s shoulder.  ‘Now is now – and you are home.’ 

***

Elves Eleniel had never seen before emerged from the trees to see Oropher.  Some were content to observe him from a distance.  Others seemed to feel the need to come close enough to touch him, to ask his blessing, to remind him of other times in forests now beneath the restless sea, to speak of battles on sun-scorched plains.  Once there, they followed horses whose pace had now reduced to a sedate walk.  Thranduil’s guards spread out to try to hold the crowds at arms’ length, but there were not enough of them to keep the constant arrivals at bay.

They were saved, Eleniel thought, by the fact that the new arrivals were actually very polite.  They held back once Oropher had smiled at them, or spoken, or rested his hand on a shoulder, content to watch.

‘This will not do.’  Thranduil smiled easily at their ever-increasing entourage, but his voice was concerned.   He crooked a finger at Regdolin.  ‘We cannot arrive home accompanied by several hundred elves – not without giving notice.’  He lifted an eyebrow at the guard.  ‘Someone will have to ride ahead,’ he commanded, ‘and give warning that there will be many to feed over who knows how long – we will want to arrive to a festival.’  He sighed.  ‘News of Oropher’s return had best be spread to those who have not yet heard of it – and riders sent out to Elrond and Celeborn.  I will see to informing those east of the mountains once I have returned.’

‘My lord.’ Regdolin bowed briefly and looked over his available warriors.  ‘I will not spare more than one – there are too many arriving each day and too few already to ensure your safety.’

His king looked impatient.  ‘I am in no danger,’ he snapped, ‘here, among my own people.’

Regdolin hesitated.  ‘Would you like to send Lady Eleniel ahead?’ he said carefully.  He opened his mouth to offer the reasons behind his suggestion, but closed it again.

Averting his head to watch his granddaughter laughing with his adar, Thranduil shook his head.  ‘She is better here.’  He met the warrior’s eyes.  ‘Tell Lady Elerrina that her daughter is safe and happy – and at no risk.’

‘We are some eight days’ easy ride from home, my lord.’ Regdolin accepted the king’s decision without argument.  ‘One elf riding hard should be back in four.  When do you plan to arrive?’

‘We had best not make the pace too slow,’ Oropher’s son sighed.  ‘More and more arrive each day.  Yet, at the same time, my lady will need time to prepare.’  He tapped his fingers irritably on his knee.  ‘We will arrive at sunset on the tenth day.’

‘As you command, my lord.’

‘And I will want those of my guard to be alert,’ Thranduil glanced at him.  ‘It may be that not all will be exultant to see my adar’s return – and I would not wish to have the celebration interrupted.’

Regdolin bowed his head slightly and withdrew, sending one of the younger elves off at a deceptively easy pace.  Thranduil smiled.  Regdolin, he thought, was no fool – and he was old enough to remember their subdued return to Lasgalen as the Second Age poured itself out in the blood of elves.

‘Daeradar!’ Eleniel arrived beside him, flushed with excitement and gleaming with happiness.  ‘Hithien says to let you know that another group of elves has arrived from the south – and that they have brought deer.  She suggests that we stop soon, so that they can set up the roasting pits and prepare food for everyone.’

Thranduil sighed.  ‘This is becoming a logistical nightmare,’ he sighed.  ‘It never occurred to me that the joy of reunion with my adar could risk being turned to ashes by the effect it seems to be having on a group of elves I had always considered to be reserved.’  He raised a rueful eyebrow.  ‘At least, when you are leading an army, you have had time to plan such matters as whence comes the food – and where you will halt.’

‘It is going better than I thought it might,’ Eleniel confided in him.  ‘Andaeradar is bearing up quite well – he is looking a little dazed from time to time, but I think that might be as well.  Having this many people come simply to stare at you must be more than a little intimidating.’

‘Stay by his side,’ her daeradar requested.  ‘Talk to him of things that demand little of him in response – family, our home, your friends.  He needs time to settle – and,’ Thranduil looked around him with a rather jaded expression, ‘he is not getting it.  I am counting on you,’ he added, ‘to see that Adar has as easy a time as we can manage.’

Eleniel smiled and tucked her hand into her daeradar’s.  ‘He looks a little like Adar.’

Thranduil smiled.  ‘He does,’ he agreed.  ‘I always thought so – but your adar is more like his naneth in character.’

‘She says he is like you,’ Eleniel observed.

‘Only on a bad day.’  Thranduil grinned impishly.  ‘I suppose I had better go and welcome the newcomers while you prepare your andaeradar for another bout of smiling and greeting.’

***

Oropher settled on a branch that was a trifle sturdier than the one that supported his son’s granddaughter.  He looked, she thought, tired and slightly transparent, as if the effort of maintaining himself one and whole was almost too much for him.

‘It will be easier,’ she said consolingly, ‘once we have reached home.’

‘Oh,’ he answered, ‘how might that be?’

‘We can shut the door.’  Eleniel looked at him in surprise.  ‘And, if necessary, Daernaneth can smile at all those who have come to see you and send them home.’

Oropher laughed.  ‘Your daernaneth can send them away, but your daeradar cannot?’

Eleniel shrugged.  ‘I think it is to do with politics,’ she said.  ‘Daeradar rules – but Daernaneth just is.’

‘A powerful summary of authority,’ Oropher commented.  ‘You are an intelligent elleth for one so young.’  He closed his eyes and leaned back against the trunk, listening to the night’s delicate song.  ‘I still prefer the dark hours,’ he murmured, enjoying the harmony of sound.  ‘Although there are too many people here to listen properly.’  His thin hand caressed the rough strength of the bark.  ‘They said I was rushing it,’ he admitted, more to himself than to Eleniel.  ‘That I should take more time to gain control of the stray wisps of memory and emotion – that I would find it too much.  But I refused to delay.’  He opened his eyes and fixed them on the elleth. ‘Cultivate patience, child,’ he instructed her.  ‘You would think I would have learned by now – but I still rush in where cooler heads would wait.’

‘Too many people say I am sensible,’ Eleniel told him with clear distaste. 

‘It is not a quality much admired by the young.’  Oropher watched her swing on her nest of branches.  ‘But far too many people show far too little of it.’  He smiled.  ‘And you have a foot in two worlds – much as your daeradar did.  Part Noldor and part Wood Elf – where he was Sindar-born and grew to maturity in the Greenwood.’

Startled, Eleniel watched as Oropher drew up one long leg and wrapped an arm round his knee.  ‘Did his naneth try to make him keep to the old ways?’ she asked.  ‘As if he dwelt still in Doriath while Elu was king?’

‘It was her home,’ Oropher said simply.  ‘And she did not want to let it pass from the world.’ 

A cool breeze stirred in the treetops and the scent of wood-smoke drifted on the air.  ‘But Tirion is still there,’ Eleniel pointed out.  ‘It will always be there.’

‘And always in your naneth’s heart.’  He rested his chin on his knee.  ‘That does not mean that you should not be yourself – you are lucky, you are able to choose between the customs of two different peoples.’  He smiled.  ‘And I daresay your parents are wise enough to let you learn to be the elf you are inside.’

His great granddaughter watched him as the blanket of night seemed to wrap itself around him and his expression relaxed to one of distant content.

‘Will Daeradar’s naneth come back?’ Eleniel asked.

‘I know not,’ Oropher hesitated before replying.  ‘I hope so.  I need her – as your daeradar needs your daernaneth.  She is part of me that is missing still.’ He looked at her without moving his head.  ‘But you cannot make people be what they are not – if she does not wish to return to these lands, then I must accept her choice.’

‘She will come,’ Eleniel decided.  ‘She is just waiting to avoid the fanfare.’

‘Which would only prove again that she is far wiser than I am,’ Oropher said dryly.

‘It will be all right.’  Tired of discussion, Eleniel scrambled to where the lonely elf rested and squeezed onto the branch in front of him, turning so that she could wrap her arms round his waist.  She rested her fair head on his shoulder, so that her hair tickled his chin. 

Disconcerted, it was a moment or two before the simple warmth of her nearness ignited a matching flame within him.  He clasped her to him automatically, her youthful certainty binding him to the reality of the forest night as his grasp on his own presence solidified.  

‘I knew I needed to bring her,’ Thranduil said smugly as he sought his own branch.  ‘For she has offered you what I cannot.’

Oropher continued to stroke the hair of the elleth sleeping peacefully in his protective hold.  ‘And what might that be?’

‘Love uncomplicated by memory,’ his son told him.  ‘An offer for the centuries to come.’

 





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