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Aewlin stretched out in the silver-grey boat, leaning to dip her fingers in the ripples that disturbed the surface of the lake.
‘Be careful!’ Galenthil protested as the side dipped enough for a small amount of water to spill over the edge. ‘You will tip us over.’
‘I will do nothing of the sort,’ she declared. ‘Boats are supposed to move.’
‘Only not side to side,’ Elrin observed from the second small vessel. ‘And if Galenthil will forgive you for tipping him into the water, Nimloth will not.’
‘It is a hot afternoon,’ his cousin announced as if to disabuse him of any notion that he might be able to speak for her. ‘A swim sounds a delightful idea.’
‘They can all swim well,’ Eleniel sounded resigned. ‘And the pool is not that wide or deep – they are unlikely to come to any harm.’
‘No monsters in the water.’ Galenthil grinned at her. ‘Great green creatures with dozens of legs – surging up from the deep, dripping poison from a thousand rasping suckers and coming to get you.’
‘Andaernaneth can be just as scary, though.’ Elrin raised his eyebrows. ‘And she told us to be sensible.’
‘I have had enough of this. I am beginning to wonder why they bothered to bring us,’ Nimloth said pettishly. ‘All they seem to do is push us out of the way. Send us off somewhere to enjoy ourselves while they all talk.’
‘That is why they brought us,’ Galenthil told her. ‘They want us here to give them something else to think about and to stop them squabbling.’
Aewlin sniffed. ‘It is obviously not working,’ she said. ‘They appear painfully polite in front of us, but even Ellanthir can tell that it is all pretend. Half of what they are saying is little digs – and the rest is big jabs at each other.’
‘I think Daeradar would like to take them aside and give them a good scolding,’ Elrin grinned. ‘And I thought that Andaernaneth and Aran Thranduil did not get on.’
‘They are not terribly fond of each other,’ Aewlin observed. ‘A good way to get one of them to do what you want is to get the other to be forbidding about it.’
‘It can rebound on you, though.’ Her twin peered into the water. ‘If they realise what you are doing – and then they combine against you.’
‘I think Andaeradar will break first,’ Elrin considered. ‘Lord Oropher is being very – edged – in some of the things he is saying to Andaernaneth, and, as her husband, Andaeradar seems about to declare war!’
‘They would confine us to our rooms if we were behaving this badly,’ Galenthil observed. He grinned. ‘Although I do not see anyone being quite bold enough to do the same to them.’
‘Short of Lord Manwë coming down from Taniquetil,’ Eleniel agreed. ‘And, even then, I am not sure that he would make that much impression.’
Nimloth giggled. ‘They would be like elflings,’ she said. ‘Polite on the face of it, but kicking each other under the table.’
‘We are better out of the way,’ Eleniel remarked peaceably. ‘Especially since all the tension seems to be making Ellanthir and Celumíl cry all the time. Elrin’s naneth wanted us to bring Ellanthir with us this afternoon – until she learned we were going to be on the water. I think she felt that we would end up having to fish him out.’
‘Good!’ Nimloth said emphatically. ‘I am not saying that your brother is a nuisance, Elrin, but he certainly puts limits on what we can do!’
Her cousin grinned. ‘I am of the opinion that your naneth is very grateful that you behave so responsibly with Ellanthir around. She was a little concerned that you would simply forget about him when his presence suited you not.’
Aewlin sat up. ‘We would not dream of it!’ she exclaimed. ‘Honestly, do people think we have no sense?’
‘Ha! You are living down a reputation fairly earned,’ Elrin declared. ‘By the time you are several yeni, people might have forgotten how wild you were as elflings.’
‘On the other hand,’ Eleniel said, ‘how old are your adars? People still expect them to be in the middle of whatever mischief is going on.’
‘Unfairly.’ Nimloth raised her small nose haughtily.
‘If fairness – or sense – had anything to do with it, Lady Galadriel and Andaeradar would have dismissed their differences and be friends,’ Galenthil shrugged. ‘But we are witnesses to how far that is from the truth!’
‘There is nothing we can do about it,’ Elrin said. ‘We might as well spend the afternoon enjoying ourselves.’ He dipped his paddle in the water and angled his boat towards the shore. ‘Shall we eat the provisions we have brought? And then Galenthil and I will fish, while you ellyth do . . . ellyth things.’
‘Do not bother,’ Eleniel interceded quickly, before the twins could form sharp enough responses to their cousin’s insulting words. ‘I do not want to fish, if you do, and I can think of plenty of more entertaining ways to spend my time – so there is no point arguing with him.’
‘You can be a terrible spoilsport, ’Leniel,’ Elrin told her affectionately. ‘What is the world coming to, if I cannot spend an afternoon squabbling with my cousins!’
‘This is supposed to be the Blessed Realm,’ Eleniel smiled. ‘A place of peace and harmony.’
Nimloth snorted. ‘Tell that to our elders!’
Oropher, formerly King of the Greenwood, rested his head against the solidity of the large oak in which he was, he admitted to himself, hiding. He was being forced to see that, perhaps, the long process of meditation in Lorien’s gardens, while sitting endlessly talking over the nuances of – nothing in particular – with Estë’s grey-clad, solemn-eyed acolytes, had a purpose. And that there was a possibility that he had, as they had suggested gently before permitting him to have his way, rushed his return. He had been, as always, he sighed, too headstrong.
His drive had its advantages – there were times when decisive action was necessary if anything was to be achieved. But there were times when his impatience had led him to throw himself into situations from which it was then almost impossible to extract himself. Bad enough, he allowed, that he had to endure the results of his impetuous behaviour – but, far too often, he had been compelled to watch others suffer. You would think, he mused, that he would have learnt.
A sudden wave of helpless longing passed over him. He wanted his wife: he needed her. Her amused brush in his mind had restrained him so many times from acting on impulse and he had always known that, to her, he was more than a king, a survivor of Doriath, a lord, a commander – he was her heart, her love: to her he was a free-spirited ellon whose still centre was bound up in her. Where was the point in permitting him to return to the business of life in her absence? He had been foolishly certain that she was waiting for him expectantly among these trees. So certain that he had not paused to listen to the tiny whisper of doubt deep within him. And now . . . He closed his eyes and tried to listen to the clean song of the strong tree behind him and follow its motif in the counterpoint of the forest. And now he was here – and, deep within himself, he realised that he feared she would never come.
And he was being difficult, he conceded privately. It was as if, only in causing others to look at him with a courteously-suppressed desire to take him on the training field and beat the obnoxiousness out of him, could he feel himself. Although, Valar knew, it was not a self of whom he was proud. He grinned tightly. If he was not careful, his cousin Celeborn would be doing his best to send him back to Námo’s care before long. He was only surprised that the friend of his youth had managed to keep his temper this long. It suggested that, if nothing else, long ages of being bound to that hoity-toity daughter of the Noldor had taught him self-control.
He watched one squirrel chase another to leap from the oak into a neighbouring tree. He had yearned for his wife; his son. But even the short time he had spent here so far had confirmed one thing – this was not his home. The world had moved on without him and he could not expect to step back into a place as his son’s adar and his family’s head. Any more than could his own adar, he owned fairly. He would not endure the return of his parents from Doriath’s wreck to take his place. Much as he loved them, he had grown beyond offering the obedience of an elfling to the rule of his elders. And Thranduil’s realm was his own – he could not return after an age to take it from him.
The rhythm of the song changed as another joined him in the oak, but he chose to keep his eyes averted. He did not wish to talk.
Neither, it appeared, did his visitor. Silence extended between them, detaching him from the forest song.
She was out-waiting him. Oropher moved restively. She was out-waiting him understandingly. It was intolerable. It was outrageous. It was – he cast a quick glance in her direction – typical.
His visitor refrained from smiling. Her fingers were caressing the rough bark, but her eyes remained still; focused, it would seem, on the irregular patch of star-studded navy amid the green fringe of leaves. The forest noted her presence and shifted slightly to wind its harmonies around her.
Oropher noted the change and his lips twitched wryly. Was he deluding himself in thinking that either he or his son had ever had control of the land they thought they ruled? Was it, in fact, their wives who had held the forest in their hands – managing life, even as they left it to their husbands to deal out death?
She waited. Time was hers – and she had no need to make him speak before he was ready. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps, this was why he had left the earnest followers of Estë. Perhaps he needed more the – understanding of his equals. Perhaps only the open acceptance and forgiveness of those he had led to disaster would be enough to cleanse him of his errors. Perhaps only then would his beloved consent to return to him and let him start again in this new land. And perhaps not.
She waited. The starlight reflected in her hair and her gown of soft green flowed over the branch where she sat. Oropher tapped his fingers impatiently on his knee. He was not going to give in. If she had something to say, then he would just wait until she was ready to say it.
‘I was perfectly happy sitting here on my own,’ he said waspishly. ‘If you must join me, the least you could do would be to speak.’
‘Are you perfectly happy?’ she asked.
Ithil’s silver light had faded Elbereth’s stars before he spoke again.
‘No,’ he said. It was a relief to admit it. Return was not an end, but a beginning. The excitement of meeting those long lost tended to conceal it, but it was so.
‘No-one is,’ she said. ‘It would be a very unsatisfactory way to live. Elves need to strive for something that is just beyond their reach – and the joy of attaining it is only ever temporary.’ She turned to look at him. ‘And then a new objective must be sought.’ She paused, tilting her head consideringly. ‘But there is no hurry. You expect too much of yourself, my lord.’
‘Return is like – being an elfling again,’ she mused. ‘You are weighed down with the experiences of your life, but you do not know what to do with them. It can be hard to make sense of what people expect you to be. Be that elfling, Oropher. Give yourself the time to grow into the elf you keep inside.’
‘And you would know,’ he commented.
Laerwen smiled at him. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I would know.’
Galenthil’s fair hair mingled with Oropher’s as they lay motionless on the wide ledge. Beneath them, the birds circled effortlessly above the sun-warmed rock.
‘It is worth the climb,’ Galenthil murmured. He grinned at his andaeradar, his eyes gleaming with excitement. ‘Although we are not supposed to come here without our parents.’
‘I am old enough to count,’ Oropher declared.
‘We thought you might be.’ Galenthil squirmed slightly to get a clearer view. ‘Can you see the nest?’
‘Two chicks,’ Oropher said approvingly, ‘and they are both well grown.’
‘There is plenty of fish in the Great River,’ Galenthil told him. ‘They skim the water,’ he said, using his hand to imitate the movement, ‘and then they snag the fish in their talons.’ He mimed a backward slash. ‘They use the same tree on the cliff face each year – the nest just seems to get bigger and bigger!’
‘Look!’ Oropher rested a hand on his great-grandson’s wrist and they watched as one of the pair began its approach, holding their breath as it dived to pull a twitching silver fish from the water, its wings labouring as it worked its way back to the eager fledglings.
The returned elf pulled his eyes from the sight to study the ellon. Galenthil had only recently returned from his naneth’s parents – early and, as he had been told, much to their annoyance – and he felt that he did not, as yet, know his grandson’s son very well. He had reached the stage where many elflings had begun to take on the stretched appearance of one whose body was growing too rapidly for even elven grace to compensate, but this ellon seemed remarkably assured. And he knew his subject – he had revealed an unexpected depth of understanding that extended far beyond casual observation.
Oropher frowned. ‘Did you say ‘we’?’ he asked.
‘Eleniel,’ Galenthil said. ‘She said you were interested in raptors – and that you would probably like to come here.’ He grinned quickly before turning his attention back to the fledgling now ripping into the fish. ‘She said you would like to get away from them all for a while, too.’
‘She was right.’
‘She usually is,’ Galenthil agreed amiably. ‘She is very observant about such matters. Not at all like me.’ He paused. ‘She said she would tell Adar where we had gone – and that he would be able to get everyone to leave us alone.’
‘Can you last a day without food?’ Oropher teased.
‘She thought of that, too.’ Galenthil shook his head. ‘It is only lembas and watered wine – but there should be enough.’
‘I think we can do better than that.’ Oropher spoke confidently. ‘The eagles can spare us a fish or two – and there are ripe berries. We might even decide not to bother to return for the evening meal.’
‘If we stay away too long, they will send a search party after us,’ Galenthil warned. ‘And you may be old enough to avoid getting into trouble, but I am not.’
Oropher sighed. ‘Do not let them fool you into thinking that added years will stop ellyth making you pay for disregarding them,’ he advised. ‘And you are unlikely to be in much trouble while I am their target.’
The two exchanged grins. It was odd, Oropher thought. He could see himself in Galenthil’s face – but in his character he could see the single-mindedness of the wife whose absence he mourned – and the depth of the bond that tied her to the forest. It suddenly occurred to him that his return freed him to come to know his great-grandchildren – and his new granddaughter – in a way that duty had prevented him knowing his son and that it was too late to know his grandson. And that, after all, could only be a good thing.
‘I must thank you,’ Thranduil said wearily, ‘for allowing us to take refuge here from the – endless waves of elves coming to pay their respects to my adar. He has found it all to be rather too much.’
Celeborn smile wryly. ‘And you have not?’
His cousin shook his head as if to disperse a cloud of worrying flies such as used to hang around men, driving them to a frantic state of irritation. ‘It has been close to intolerable,’ he admitted. ‘I know not what I expected should Oropher emerge from Námo’s Halls – but I had no intimation that it would involve the logistics of providing food and sleeping space for hundreds of – of sight-seers! We could not remain in Taurevron any longer – Adar was becoming almost transparent with the exertion of receiving them all graciously. Laerwen felt that he might give up the effort of remaining with us if we stayed.’
‘So you brought him to my lady?’ Celeborn raised a cynical eyebrow. ‘Some would think that might make matters worse.’ He made a point of storing Thranduil’s rather sheepish look where he could take it out and enjoy it later.
‘Come, my friend,’ Thranduil said, ‘I have never denied your lady’s power. Or,’ he added more reluctantly, ‘her compassion.’
Celeborn said nothing.
‘And Adar is grateful, I am sure.’
‘That,’ his cousin commented, ‘I doubt.’ He picked up a small stone and dropped it into the pool before them, watching the ripples spread out. ‘He is being – rather confrontational.’
A hint of colour stained Thranduil’s cheeks. It was a trifle embarrassing to listen to his adar’s frequently expressed doubts about the background, character and motives of Celeborn’s wife. The more embarrassing, really, because he had himself indulged in similar debate over many centuries.
‘But,’ Celeborn continued, ‘my lady seems to feel that is a good thing.’ He glanced at his cousin. ‘She feels he needs a target – and she is prepared to offer that.’
‘I cannot begin to express my gratitude.’ Thranduil spoke with deep sincerity.
Celeborn waved a hand. ‘It does not need expressing,’ he said politely.
The message was obvious. ‘But it is there,’ Oropher’s son told him. ‘And my debt to her will remain.’
‘We wish our home to be a refuge,’ Celeborn said. ‘For all who need a place where they can feel safe – and Galadriel is sure she can veil Oropher’s presence as long as he needs privacy. I think,’ he smiled, ‘that there are many who are aware that he is here, but they are unlikely to approach while my lady holds them at bay. It cannot last too long – there are elves who will be convinced that she is keeping your adar against his will, elves whose distrust of her will never be overcome.’
‘Laerwen is of the opinion that we should return to our normal life shortly,’ Thranduil told him. ‘Leaving Adar to learn to feel at home here, as far west as any dwell, before he comes back to us.’
Celeborn inclined his head thoughtfully and dropped several pebbles simultaneously, seeing the ripples push against each other. ‘It seems a wise move.’ He hesitated. ‘You will leave Legolas here?’
‘With Elerrina and their twins – if they agree. Adar needs family, but at the same time he needs the pressure to be removed.’
‘And it will calm any suggestion that we are taking advantage of Oropher’s recent return,’ Celeborn commented.
A flash of temper sparked in Thranduil’s eyes. ‘This is not the moment for politics!’ he snapped.
‘Do not be naïve, my friend.’ Celeborn turned to face his cousin head on. ‘There are those around us who will see politics in everything we do. We would be foolish not to protect ourselves from accusations of the abuse of power.’
Thranduil lapsed into brooding silence. ‘It is not as I thought it would be,’ he admitted finally. ‘It should be such a golden time – and it has turned sour.’
‘You expect too much too soon,’ Celeborn said softly. ‘This is a jewel on the thread of your life – but it is only a single pearl of the strand – it is what you both make of your reunion that will make a difference.’
‘I am still angry with him,’ Thranduil’s words were barely audible, even to elven hearing. ‘I had not realised how much I resented having been left to return to the Greenwood without him to rebuild the ruin left by Dagorlad.’
Celeborn’s hand rested on his younger cousin’s shoulder. ‘But you know now – and you can release it if you wish.’ He sighed. ‘We are old enough to know that we cannot change the past and must learn to live with our mistakes, or we will corrupt the future with long shadows.’
Nimloth had kilted up her skirts so that her long bare legs were unhindered by the flowing fabric. ‘I am so tired of dressing like a lady,’ she said with disgust. ‘Everything about ellyth’s clothing seems designed to get in the way!’
‘It is certainly much more difficult to climb properly,’ Eleniel agreed. Her green-stained feet stepped with assurance from one mossy bough to the next. ‘But Naneth seems to think I am too old to want to scramble around in trees, anyway.’
‘And it is because we are at Andaernaneth’s,’ Aewlin pointed out. ‘Your naneth seems to be able to bear seeing you wear a tunic and leggings in the woods when we are visiting you.’ She tightened the knot that looped her skirt round her belt. ‘But just because Andaernaneth always looks perfect, your naneth seems to think we should, too.’
‘Lady Galadriel looks perfect because she is Lady Galadriel,’ Eleniel remarked. ‘When I am as old as she is, I might be able to do it as well.’
‘Good point,’ Nimloth agreed. ‘Perhaps I will say that to Naneth next time she tuts at me about the tears in my dresses.’
‘She told you would be mending your own clothes from now on,’ Aewlin reminded her twin.
‘And that is another thing!’ Nimloth protested. ‘Elrin comes in with mud all over his clothes and rips in his tunics – and nobody makes him mend them or waste time laundering them! It is just not fair.’
A ripple of warm laughter shivered the leaves around them. The three ellyth paused.
‘Come on up,’ Lady Galadriel invited them.
‘We did not realise that this was your tree,’ Aewlin said apologetically.
‘It is its own tree,’ her andaernaneth said, her low voice carrying without any apparent effort. ‘I like to rest here from time to time – but I visit other parts of the wood, too.’
She leant on one elbow to look down at them and smiled. They were so different. Legolas’s daughter appeared neat and reserved, but she was, despite her naneth, clearly a Wood Elf, as at home – and as welcome – in the trees as her adar was. Aewlin, on the other hand, liked to be in control of her environment. The forest welcomed her, but she sought to understand the world round her and bend it to suit herself. Nimloth – her andaernaneth’s smile grew – charged headlong into whatever challenge faced her. She would fall many times, but she would get up and push on regardless to achieve her aim.
‘You remind me – to an extent – of an elleth with four older brothers,’ she said, ‘who also thought it to be intensely unfair that they should be able to escape the household tasks that were set out to ensnare her.’
‘Did Lady Eärwen make you sew?’ Nimloth asked.
‘I fear so.’ Galadriel’s eyes sparkled. ‘And, more than once, I was condemned to scrubbing the mud from my gowns – while my brothers escaped with barely a reprimand.’ She smiled. ‘I determined that I would grow up to be a great queen, when I would do whatever I wanted – and that would never, ever include the tasks that ellyn escaped.’
Nimloth jumped easily up to the branch where Galadriel rested and settled into a nest of branches that intertwined beneath her. ‘And did you?’
‘I grew up,’ Galadriel teased, ‘and found, in the end, that I would rather be your andaeradar’s wife than a great queen – and discovered that I still had to use the skills my naneth had forced me to learn.’
‘That seems unfair,’ Aewlin complained, settling on a bough just above her.
‘But someone has to look after household matters,’ Eleniel remarked. ‘And I would rather do it well than do it grudgingly. After all, it is all about looking after people you love.’
‘It took me a long time to learn that,’ Galadriel said. ‘I spent far too many centuries looking down on the simple pleasures of life – and I believe I did not truly accept it until after Celebrían was born. You are a wise elleth, Eleniel.’ She contemplated the young face and smiled her secret smile. ‘But do not let such duties feel like confinement to a limited role – there is more to you than an elleth born to care for those around her. Learn what you will – whether that be in the forests of Taurevron or the libraries of Tirion, at Estë’s feet or on the white beaches of Alqualondë. You are surrounded by those who love you and want what it best for you – but your decisions are your own and your future is yours to mould.’
Aewlin turned her silver eyes on her friend and opened them wide, as if allowing herself to use the other sight that sometimes came upon her. Her head tilted consideringly, but her gaze remained fixed until she suddenly broke contact and leaned down to look at her andaernaneth. ‘What about us?’ she asked.
Galadriel laughed. ‘You will both ride rough-shod over anyone who gets in your way,’ she said affectionately, ‘until you learn that others are also entitled to their opinions – when you will truly begin to learn. I need no mirror to know that.’
‘We are getting better,’ Nimloth announced. ‘At least that is what Adar says.’
‘You are – and you will grow up soon enough,’ Galadriel smiled. ‘Better to learn slowly and learn well. Your adar and naneth will have many centuries to be proud of the ellyth you will become.’
‘What are you doing here?’
Oropher crouched down to put himself more on a level with the elfling who was slapping his hands in the puddle and laughing as the drops of water splashed up to gleam in the fresh sunlight.
‘Look!’ the little one demanded and sent up a spray energetically enough to wet Oropher’s tunic.
‘Who let you out to wander on your own, I wonder,’ he said conversationally. ‘There will undoubtedly be trouble.’ He dipped one finger in the water and flicked a drop for the child to watch. ‘Whoever named you for a waterfall showed some foresight, little one. Water seems to have a definite attraction for you.’
Running footsteps stopped behind him. ‘Oh, you found him!’ Galenthil’s voice was clearly relieved.
‘Were you in charge of this mud monster?’
‘No, I am glad to say. He was left with Adar,’ Elrin told him seriously. ‘But he was distracted – and you would not believe how quickly Ellanthir can move if he wants to.’ He bent to pick up his brother.
‘I will take him,’ Oropher offered, ‘if he makes no objection – he has already made me wet enough.’
The doubtfully assessing glance the ellon threw him was more than a little amusing. Clearly Elrin was not convinced of his capabilities when it came to caring for the young. Well – it was hardly surprising. How long had it been since he had held an ellon this age in his arms? How old was his son now? And yet, he had not forgotten, had he?
Oropher clasped his hands round the child’s middle and lifted.
And then almost dropped the elfling when the moment of frozen amazement degenerated into wild kicking accompanied by a scream so loud as to be actively painful. Oropher tightened his grip. Dropping the child would clearly not help him win the trust of Elrond’s grandson.
‘Here!’ Galenthil lifted something from the water and placed it in the elfling’s hand. Ellanthir clutched the wooden horse and raised it swiftly to his face, inserting the head in his mouth and beginning a distressingly loud sucking.
Involuntarily, Elrin laughed at Oropher’s face of horrified disgust. ‘Are you sure you would not prefer me to take him?’ he asked. ‘He is rather messy. And he does not know you very well,’ he added tactfully. ‘Babies can be rather difficult with strangers.’
Oropher did not resist when the tall ellon detached Ellanthir from his grasp and held him to his shoulder, neatly removing the toy from his mouth as he did so. ‘You are not to eat poor Draug,’ he said firmly.
‘Wolf?’ Oropher asked in bewilderment. ‘I thought it was a horse.’
Galenthil chortled. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘But Ellanthir called everything ‘wolf’ when he was given the toy. And now it is a joke. Adar says it will make Ellanthir cringe when he is old enough to understand.’
‘Like the tale of Galenthil and the rabbit droppings,’ Elrin mentioned airily.
Oropher grinned as his great grandson flushed.
‘That is not funny,’ the ellon said with dignity.
‘I remember an incident with your daeradar,’ Oropher reminisced. ‘When he crawled under Queen Melian’s table and was found sucking on her rope of pearls. He screamed like Ellanthir here when his naneth tried to take away his sweets – and Melian let him keep them until we were able to find him something else to put in his mouth instead.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘Elu always referred to my son as ‘little oyster’ after that.’
The two ellyn gazed at him wide-eyed. Not only had figures from history suddenly come to life, but Galenthil’s rather intimidating daeradar had once been no older or wiser than Ellanthir.
‘Only do not let him know that I told you this,’ Oropher’s lips twitched. ‘I doubt he would wish to be reminded of that particular part of his past.’
Galenthil grinned wickedly. ‘We would not dream of it, Andaeradar.’
Eleniel tucked her hand into Oropher’s and pulled him on, eager to reach a spot where the water tumbled down from the ridge on its way to the wide river. ‘Galenthil prefers the creatures,’ she confided, ‘but I love the song of the waters.’
For a brief moment, her andaeradar offered thanks that this elfling was born to the lands west of the sea. He could not have borne to lose her to the song of the ocean; burning in the pulse that beat through her blood.
She paused for a moment, so that her gown settled round her, and looked up at him, her eyes dreamy. ‘It speaks of journeys untaken,’ she said, ‘and places unseen.’
Oropher held her hand tightly. ‘Is the forest not enough for you?’ he asked.
She smiled. ‘And the wind in the trees whispers of lands beyond the horizon,’ she told him.
‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘You have too much to learn before you fly, my little bird.’
‘I do not wish to fly, Andaeradar.’
‘Not yet,’ he agreed. ‘Like Galenthil’s eaglets, you have yet to fledge.’ He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. If only it was always as easy as it was with his grandson’s children.
He was not good, he knew at the kind of serenity that was so much a part of his son’s wife, the tranquillity that drew everyone to her – and he was far too inclined to take anything as a challenge: to his race, to his masculinity, to his skill, to his kingship – to the weather, if he felt like it. He would be better, he thought, away from all these elves of influence and determination – they roused his hackles, like a dog seeking to protect his bone. Perhaps – if he could only persuade his son to agree – what he needed was to pack a few things and go off into the forest for a while. Although, he smiled, he would make a mighty poor hermit.
Eleniel led him confidently along a narrow path before turning between two overlapping rocks to pick her way carefully from stone to stone down a steep and winding trail that she clearly knew well. She turned and beamed at him before jumping down, waving for him to follow.
It left him speechless. In the cool green beneath the soaring trees that overhung the hidden glade, water trickled from wide slabs of slate-blue rock, showering little ferns with trembling drops. Vines hung like ropes above the pool and the gaps between the moss-covered rocks invited inspection. It was so different from the world above, a hidden jewel that seemed leagues away from the everyday world of the forest.
Oropher sat on the damp slab and absorbed the sight until a soft sigh disturbed him.
‘I suppose you think you are being clever,’ Lady Galadriel said disapprovingly.
Without thinking, Oropher bristled.
The Lady stepped out from behind a spray of falling water, her own great-granddaughters held firmly in each hand. ‘Whatever makes you think yourselves wise enough to intervene?’ she asked them.
‘No-one can be angry here,’ Eleniel said pleadingly. ‘It is too peaceful.’
‘It is our special place,’ Aewlin announced. ‘We do not bring just anyone here.’
‘It is special,’ Oropher agreed mildly. ‘And, if you will excuse me, my lady, I find that I have no desire to engage in dispute with you today.’
Galadriel’s eyes narrowed. Oropher’s words placed the onus on her – either to appear argumentative or to concede. Either way, he would win. A tiny lift of her shoulder was the only indication she gave that she had no intention of indulging in debate. She swept past him to settle on an ancient lichen-covered fallen tree trunk, the end of which dipped in the rippling stream.
A cautious silence among the elves was filled by the constant laughter of bubbling water and a shaft of light sliced down through the canopy to sparkle on the water.
He would bet, Oropher thought wryly, that she would get up from that log without a trace of green to mar her gown. There was something about his cousin’s wife that brought out the elfling in him. He wanted to pull her perfect hair, and smear mud on her flawless garb. Doubtless, had he known her at a time when they were both young and heedless, he would have been in endless trouble for putting frogs in her bed and slipping grasshoppers under her petticoats – just to hear her squeal.
The ellyth were busy at something. Clearly they had planned this with some care. He felt the edge of his irritation softening – he should feel ashamed, really, that their antipathy was so obvious that elflings would want to intervene to improve the atmosphere.
Nimloth turned towards him, a tall glass in her hands, and carried it carefully across the lush grass to present it to him, just as her sister delivered a similar vessel to her andaernaneth.
A ghost of a smile hovered over Galadriel’s lips. ‘I hope you have not helped yourselves to this without permission,’ she said, taking a sip.
‘We are not completely stupid.’ Aewlin tossed her head. ‘Adar would kill us.’
‘A slight exaggeration, I think.’
‘But only slight,’ Aewlin said. ‘We would not be trusted out of sight again until we reached our majority!’
Oropher took a tentative mouthful. It might look like water, but he was under the impression that a careless gulp might produce a surprise result. The rich fluid burnt as it made its way down his throat – liquid sunshine, flavoured with honey and herbs. He raised an eyebrow. ‘It is rarely poured in such quantity,’ he said appreciatively.
‘For a reason.’ Galadriel kept her tone light. Eleniel offered her a confection of nuts and dried fruits cooked into a crisp biscuit. The Lady selected a small piece and snapped off a corner to taste it. ‘Delicious,’ she commented. ‘Did you bake it yourself?’
‘Eleniel’s naneth taught us how to make it,’ Nimloth remarked. ‘And Adar said we could have a flask of that stuff, provided we promised we would not take as much as a sip.’ She sounded faintly regretful.
‘We have other things, too.’ Aewlin looked from one adult to the other. ‘We are sorry if you are angry,’ she said, ‘but it seemed a good idea to bring you here away from all the – busyness and people looking.’
‘I am not angry, child,’ Oropher smiled. ‘It is generous of you to invite me here – and provide such a delightful picnic.’ His grin seemed a little more strained as he aimed it at Galadriel. ‘Although I am not sure I will be walking out of here if I drink all this.’ He raised his goblet at the Lady. ‘I have grown unaccustomed to such quantities of mead.’
She laughed. ‘I remember your pouring a rather large amount into my lord shortly before we wed,’ she said.
‘He did not fight me off,’ Oropher retaliated. ‘And I owed him the bad head – he did a similar thing to me before my bonding. My wife was most annoyed.’
Galadriel lifted up her feet to place them on a convenient snag and put her plate on the lap formed. Her feet were bare, Oropher noted with surprise; bare and grass-stained. It seemed incongruous in one who gleamed with polished perfection – almost as if there was something beneath the surface that did not quite tally with the superficial image she presented.
‘It is a wife’s duty to ensure that such errors are not forgotten,’ she said, straight-faced.
‘I miss her.’ Oropher covered his surprise at hearing his own words by taking a gulp of the heady drink. ‘I never expected to return to find myself in a world without her.’
‘It is hard,’ she said, ‘to wait and yearn – and not to know. A lesson, I think, set for learning.’ She watched the ellyth choose something else from their collection of food. Eleniel arranged it with care before passing the plates to her friends to deliver. ‘One that some find harder than others.’
‘Celeborn took his time about sailing.’ Oropher took another sip.
‘I feared he might never come,’ Galadriel admitted. ‘He had no wish to seek these shores.’
‘I dread the same,’ he said honestly. ‘My lady was bound by love to the land of her birth – why should she leave it, even in death?’
‘For love,’ she answered promptly. ‘Because, in the end, your need of her is greater.’
Oropher leaned back against the rock wall. ‘You are well-matched,’ he admitted, ‘you and my cousin. I refused to see it – and read all sorts of things into your relationship – but I was wrong.’
She softened, he noted incredulously. Softened visibly. Was that really all that it took to end several ages of aggravation?
‘Your doubts were understandable,’ she conceded.
Eleniel exchanged a wary glance with Aewlin. It would be better, she suspected, if they stopped here, before either Galadriel or Oropher said something that they would later regret. The trouble was, she could not think of a way to intervene that would not break the mood of reconciliation.
Nimloth, on the other hand, did not bother with subtlety. ‘If you have decided not to argue,’ she said, ‘will you tell us stories about the old days? In Doriath, when Elu was king?’
A snort of laughter escaped from Oropher. ‘There are moments, my dear,’ he said, ‘when you seem more my descendant than the Lady’s.’ He raised his glass towards Galadriel. ‘I feel sure we can indulge your curiosity.’
She grinned. She definitely grinned, he marvelled. ‘I find the – straightforwardness –Nimloth has inherited from Celeborn’s line to be most refreshing. It reminds me of the first time I met him.’ She tilted her head to look down her nose at Oropher. ‘I believe you were with him at the time.’
Oropher returned the grin. ‘Oh yes. I am certain our great grandchildren would like to hear that story.’
The ellyth settled on the soft grass and looked at them expectantly. ‘Tell us all about it,’ Eleniel invited them. ‘It sounds fascinating.’
‘Of course,’ Galenthil said, ‘now they have decided to behave as if they are friends, it is even worse.’
Elrin lay back and watched the clouds drifting across the patch of sky. ‘How have you worked that out?’ he asked.
Eleniel took over, as sometimes happened with the twins. ‘Everybody is waiting for the eruption. Like a fire mountain. It seems harmless for yeni, but in the end. . .’ She mimed an explosion. ‘The mountains that bleed a little fire all the time are less dangerous, because they do not build up so much pressure.’ She looked at Elrin. ‘Or so I have read,’ she added.
With an airy wave of her hand, Aewlin dismissed the theory. ‘They have been looking for a way of stopping,’ she declared. ‘Andaernaneth was not prepared to concede – and Lord Oropher likes to win, too. But they will be all right now.’
‘For a while,’ Nimloth finished.
Galenthil pushed his fair hair back from his face. ‘It all seems rather silly to me.’ He brooded for a moment. ‘It is like Andatar – he is really good fun when Adar is not there. He knows a lot and he is really kind – but put him and Adar together and . . .’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Andamil tries to keep the peace between them, but I have seen her in tears because of they way they behave. And Naneth hates the way they speak to each other.’
‘Perhaps we should do something about it,’ Aewlin said thoughtfully.
‘Do not get over-confident, cousin,’ Elrin told her dryly. ‘One small success does not make you the Valar’s gift to diplomacy. You are not up to this challenge.’
‘Yet!’ she said defiantly, and then broke into giggles.
Eleniel smiled. ‘You cannot deny that it is funny,’ she remarked, ‘that, with all these elves of power and authority around us – it was Aewlin and Nimloth who came up with the idea that made Lady Galadriel and Andaeradar speak to each other as if they were almost friends. Lord Elrond, Lady Celebrían, Daeradar, Daernaneth, Lord Celeborn, Adar, Naneth, your adars and naneths – all of them treading on eggshells and treating them both like bears with toothache – and Aewlin and Nimloth sit them down together over enormous glasses of that special mead and have them laughing over things they did in the First Age.’
‘Aewlin, Nimloth and you, my dear Eleniel,’ Elrin pronounced paternally. ‘I am proud of you all.’
‘I think,’ said Aewlin, ‘I think that you need dunking in the lake, my dear cousin, before you become any more patronising!’
‘But first,’ Elrin grinned, leaning over and giving her a push, ‘you have to catch me.’
The elflings erupted like Eleniel’s fire mountain and took to the trees as the younger ones chased Elrin through the canopy, calling breathlessly to each other as they cornered him where the trees ran out at the edge of the water.
‘I yield,’ he declared. ‘Cry friends.’
Galenthil sprawled on the branch and enjoyed the sensation of it swaying under him. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘would that not be a simple way of ridding people of all their frustrations and getting them to agree!’
Eleniel started to giggle as the picture played in her mind. ‘Can you just imagine . . ?’ she gasped. ‘Lady Galadriel and Andaeradar?’
Nimloth broke first, rapidly followed by her twin and Galenthil. Elrin briefly managed to keep a straight face until he, too, began to chortle helplessly, and before many moments had passed, the sound of joyous laughter echoed among the trees.
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