An early birthday present for Nilmandra, who also was kind enough to beta it.
Celuwen's Begetting Day
Celuwen slid her fingers into the folds of the stiff paper, searching for the place where a little push would make it open like a flower, revealing the treasure that lay within. There! She flicked her fingers and the wrapping slid apart. For a moment, she stared in silence at the gift. Then she reached out tentatively and lifted the ivory colored chemise with the delicate blue flowers embroidered around the hem.
"It is beautiful, Naneth," she breathed. She looked at her mother, who had certainly done all the needlework herself and who now was smiling fondly at Celuwen. "Thank you," Celuwen cried, jumping up to hug her. "I have never had anything so lovely."
"You are most welcome," Isiwen said, kissing her cheek. "You are thirty- five now, quite a young lady. I thought it was time you had something other than those old clothes you seem to want to wear all the time."
"They are comfortable," Celuwen protested. She sat back down and looked at the chemise again. It was the most feminine article of clothing she had ever owned. She was suddenly struck by a desire to wear it and put her hair up and be beautiful.
"Finish your morning meal, Celuwen," her father admonished her, and the urge passed. She laid the garment aside, next to the book her father had given her and began eating her porridge.
"Are you spending the morning with Eilian and Gelmir then?" her father asked with something in his tone of voice that suggested he hoped the answer would be no.
"Yes, I am." Celuwen could not help the note of defiance that she heard in her own voice. She and Eilian and Gelmir had played together from the time they were very small, and she could not understand why her father had recently begun to speak disparagingly of them.
Even now, he looked exasperated. "Are there no nice ellyth you could befriend? Must you spend your time with those two wild fools? I really am surprised at the behavior that Thranduil tolerates from Eilian."
"They are my friends, Adar," she declared emphatically.
Her mother reached over and patted her father's hand where it lay on the table. "Toviel, Mithien, and Celolindë are coming this afternoon for tea," she told him with a smile. "There will be lace doilies and finger cakes, and I suspect everyone will be happier if you stay away."
The tension eased, and they all laughed. "I expect I can find something to do," Sólith promised. Celuwen was grateful for his effort. The other three ellyth were those with whom she had lessons on most afternoons, and their tutor had agreed to let the four of them have this party this afternoon instead of studying. Celuwen sometimes found it very relaxing to spend time in purely feminine company. Gemir and Eilian were her best friends, but they could be exhausting.
When the meal ended, her father disappeared outside, and Celuwen began to gather the dishes from the table to be washed, but her mother shooed her on her way. "It is your begetting day. Go on and enjoy yourself."
"Thank you, Naneth!" Celuwen scooped up the chemise and book and carried them into her own room, where she set the book in a row with the others on the shelf, and folded the chemise carefully before tucking it into a chest. She fingered the garment one last time. It was so soft. It would feel wonderful next to her skin.
Then she heard a knock at the cottage door. "Celuwen!" her mother called. "Eilian and Gelmir are here."
Hastily, she closed the chest. The gown she was wearing would do for this morning. After all, it and her underclothing were soft too, albeit with age and much washing. She could dress up for the tea party this afternoon. She ran out into the hallway, and, as she had expected, found the cottage's front door standing open and Eilian and Gelmir lounging on the doorstep. They seldom came in anymore, and when they did, they seemed to be uneasy in the cottage's little rooms. Both of them had shot up recently and they were all awkward elbows and long legs.
"I am going now, Naneth!" she called.
"Have a good time!" called her mother from the kitchen. "Be back in time to help get ready for the tea party."
"You are having a tea party?" Gelmir asked, with a raised eyebrow.
Eilian grinned. "Why did you not invite us? I am hurt, and Gelmir is crushed!"
In unspoken accord, they began to walk toward the section of the riverbank where they played most often. Celuwen laughed. "It would serve you right if I had invited you and not told you it was a tea party. I would like to see you both squirming as you made polite conversation with Toviel."
"You invited Toviel?" Eilian sounded incredulous. "She squeals if she gets her hands dirty."
Celuwen shrugged. "She is not so bad. She plays the harp beautifully."
Gelmir and Eilian both burst out laughing. "Oh, Eilian!" squeaked Gelmir in a high falsetto. "You played that harp so beautifully! It makes my heart go pit-a-pat!"
"Thank you, my dear!" cried Eilian in a mincing soprano. "But I was just cru-u-ushed because the strings made the skin on my fingers so rough!"
Despite herself, Celuwen laughed. Eilian had caught Toviel's vocal mannerisms with cruel accuracy.
They emerged from the trees into the small clearing on the bank of a wide bend of the Forest River and immediately sat down to strip off their shoes and socks. Eilian was the first to wade into the shallows at the edge of the river, careless of the fact that his leggings were getting wet. He turned and kicked a spray of water at them, laughing as they ducked aside.
Gelmir rolled his leggings up, and Celuwen tucked one edge of her skirt into her belt before either of them followed him into the cool water. The mud squished up between Celuwen's toes, and she wiggled them in pleasure at the feel of it. Eilian had, by now, reached the stand of tall grasses that Celuwen knew had been his destination from the start. He parted the grasses and peered into them. "The turtle's eggs have not hatched yet," he called to Celuwen and Gelmir and then let the grass go and turned to start back toward them. They all knew better than to touch the nest, but they had been watching it with interest since they had found it a week ago.
Eilian halted beside Celuwen, and they both stood still, watching a school of minnows swim around their legs. Eilian crouched with his hands extended and his angular face bent intently to the water. Then, quicker than Celuwen's eye could see, he darted his hands into the water to catch a minnow. He gave a laugh of triumph, held the little fish up in his cupped hands for her to see, and then released it again.
"How do you do that?" Gelmir asked, a little irritably. "I have tried and tried, but I cannot come near them."
Eilian grinned at him. "You have to think like a fish," he proclaimed, tapping his temple with a dripping finger.
Gelmir made a face. "That should be easy for you, given your brains." Eilian swung his leg back and kicked water at him again. Celuwen laughed and put up her hands in a vain attempt to avoid getting soaked along with Gelmir. Eilian kicked again, and she and Gelmir fled to the bank.
"Cowards!" Eilian called and followed them out.
Celuwen's legs were muddy nearly to the knee, and when she unhitched her skirt, she found that it, too, was wet and muddy. She eyed it for a minute in dismay, picturing her mother's reaction when she saw it. Then she shrugged. It was too late to do anything about the gown now. She might as well enjoy herself.
"What a beautiful day," she declared. "I still cannot believe my good fortune that you two should have the morning of my begetting day free from weapons training."
Eilian and Gelmir looked at one another over her head. "That is fortunate," Eilian agreed lightly.
He broke his eye contact with Gelmir and trotted barefoot toward a bag he had stowed on a tree branch when they first entered the clearing and began rooting in it. "Let us play the knife game again today," he said. He turned around with a wicked grin on his face and four sheathed knives in his hands. "I brought extra knives."
Celuwen caught her breath. "Where did you get them?" she demanded. Standing next to her, Gelmir groaned. They both knew exactly where Eilian was likely to have gotten the knives: His father and brother both had plenty of weapons lying around the palace – weapons to which Eilian was not supposed to be helping himself.
"I will return them when I go home to mid-day meal," Eilian assured Celuwen and Gelmir. "Ithilden is away, and my adar is busy. No one will even know I borrowed them."
Celuwen had her doubts about that, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell Eilian to take the knives back now. But then she stopped herself. Eilian would not take the knives back no matter what she said, and if she grew insistent, he would become angry and their morning would be spoiled. She bit her lip. She had begun to think that she could not protect Eilian from himself. All she could do was still be his friend when the inevitable trouble came. She sighed.
"How are we going to use so many knives?" she asked. Until now, they had been competing to see who could draw a knife and throw it into a target the fastest.
"We can each throw three," Eilian said promptly. "We get two points for putting the whole blade in the target and one point for touching it with the blade. If there is a tie in points, the quickest person wins." He had obviously been thinking about how the game would work. Eilian liked elaborate games. Actually, Celuwen did too. It was one of the reasons she liked playing with Eilian.
"Very well," Celuwen said. "Let us draw to see who goes first." She picked up three twigs and broke them so that two were the same length and one was shorter. She bundled them in her hand and then held them out to Gelmir and Eilian in turn. It was obvious at once that she still held the short stick.
Gelmir and Eilian gave shouts of triumph. Eilian passed two of the knives to Gelmir and attached the other two to his own belt next to his own. They ran to stand side by side with their backs to a large oak tree on which they had daubed two spots of pitch several days ago when they first made up the game.
Celuwen moved to one side, safely out of the way. "Start walking," she directed, and side by side, they began to walk slowly away from the targets, keeping abreast of one another. She waited until they had paced for fifteen feet or so, and then, without warning, she shouted, "Go!"
The two of them whirled and, moving almost too quickly to be seen, they began drawing knives and throwing them at the targets. She watched the targets closely, for if they won the same number of points, she was going to have to say which of them had done it first. Within a few seconds, their hands were empty. They immediately broke into an excited trot toward the targets.
"I decide," Celuwen declared firmly, putting out her arm to hold them back. She inspected the two targets. Gelmir's had two knives touching the spot of pitch and a third knife an inch or so from the spot's edge. Eilian's had a knife in the middle of the spot, one touching it, and a third a good four inches away from the target. "Eilian wins," Celuwen announced.
Gelmir grimaced. "Best two out of three?" he asked hopefully.
"I get my turn first," Celuwen said and put out her hand for the extra knives. She had one of her own, of course, and she had turned out to be quick and accurate in using it, rather to Gelmir's and Eilian's dismay sometimes, although she had also heard them speaking of her skill with pride when they were talking to others. She eyed the knives Gelmir gave her. Both of the fine leather sheaths were inlaid with gracefully curving golden oak leaves, and the knives' handles each bore an emerald. She drew one of the knives and tested its exquisite balance. She looked up to find Eilian watching her with mischief dancing in his dark grey eyes.
"If you are afraid to use them, I can take them back now," he offered with a grin. Their eyes locked, and for a moment she was tempted to take him up on his offer. She hated seeing Eilian in trouble, and every time he was, her father became more hostile to him. If he took the knives back right away, they were far less likely to be missed. He raised a condescending eyebrow, and suddenly she thought of the scornful way he had talked about Toviel.
She slid the knife back into its sheath with a little snap. "I think we both know who is afraid here," she declared and attached the sheaths to her belt. She walked to the tree and stood with her back to it, motioning Eilian to join her.
"Ooh," laughed Gelmir. "You have done it now, Eilian. You made her angry."
With his grin a little less smug, Eilian walked slowly over to stand next to her, and she was suddenly aware again of how much he had grown, for they no longer stood shoulder to shoulder. She could feel the tension radiating from him as he waited to begin the contest, and her own heart had speeded up too.
"Start walking," said Gelmir. Right hands hovering near the hilts of knives, they began walking away from the target. Celuwen was conscious of the fact that Eilian was shortening his stride to keep pace with her and determinedly lengthened her steps. She would be hanged before she accepted any concessions from him.
Gelmir was certainly taking his time, she thought impatiently. From the corner of her eye, she could see Eilian's right hand touching and then jumping away from the knife on his left hip.
"Go!" shouted Gelmir, and as one they spun toward the target, knives already in hands and arms in motion. Trusting to instinct rather than her eye, Celuwen barely took time to aim before she threw and snatched up each of the other two knives to throw again. Next to her, Eilian's arm was a blur of motion. She had finished before she had time to breathe, and then she drew in a great gulp of air. Eilian glanced at her, his face unreadable. The two of them took a single step toward the targets and then, suddenly, they both broke into a run to where Gelmir was already studying the results of the contest.
Celuwen looked and, for a moment, could not decipher what she saw. Both she and Eilian had put one knife in the middle of the target and the two others close enough to touch it. She turned sharply toward Gelmir, just as Eilian did the same thing. "Well?" she demanded.
Gelmir grimaced. "Celuwen was faster," he finally said.
"Not possible!" Eilian declared and then clamped his mouth shut as if he would have the words back again.
"She was," Gelmir insisted.
Celuwen looked at Eilian's flushed face, but he was looking away. And then, startling her, she felt a stab of regret for her victory. What is wrong with me? she asked herself angrily. I was better, and if Eilian cannot accept that, then that is too bad for him.
Eilian turned toward her again. "Congratulations, Celuwen. You are even faster than I realized." She looked into his face and felt herself relax. The generous, open Eilian who was her friend was looking back at her. Suddenly, they smiled at one another. "We are well matched," Eilian said, turning to pull his knives out of the tree.
"Now Eilian and me again," Gelmir said and pulled the two emerald studded knives from the tree. Eilian made no response, and Celuwen turned to find him with his head tilted, listening.
"My adar is coming," he said, and grabbing the bag from the ground, he leapt instantly into the trees. Before Celuwen had time to blink, Gelmir had followed him, and swept up in the general panic, she followed the two of them to the treetops.
"What is the matter?" she asked Eilian, who frantically hushed her. She looked down to see the king riding past, talking to one of his guards as he did so. She glanced at Eilian and Gelmir. Both of them were holding their breaths as Thranduil passed. She could not understand why they were hiding when they could simply have concealed the knives.
Suddenly she recalled the silent look the two of them had exchanged when she had said how fortunate she felt to spend this morning with them. "You are supposed to be at training!" she exclaimed. "Today is not really a free day!"
"Hush," murmured Eilian, although his father was probably well out of earshot by now. Relaxing a little, he sat down on the tree branch and leaned against the trunk.
"You are both going to be in trouble," Celuwen said in vexation. "You will probably not be allowed out for days."
Gelmir shrugged and sat down next to Eilian. "My naneth will just blame Eilian for leading me astray anyway," he smiled blandly.
Eilian grinned at her. "My parents are not going to find out," he assured her. She rolled her eyes. Eilian was always sure he would not be found out. His assurance was almost equally always mistaken.
A feminine voice suddenly called from beneath the tree. "Gelmir!" They all jumped and then looked down to see Gelmir's mother frowning up at them. "Come down here," she ordered. He shot a quick nervous glance at the other two and then meekly obeyed. His mother looked up at Eilian. "The weapons masters sent a message to me that Gelmir was missing. I imagine a similar message went to the palace, Eilian."
Eilian grimaced. "Probably," he acknowledged.
Gelmir's mother beckoned to her errant son and began to lead him away. "Why do you always let yourself be talking into these things?" she scolded, as they disappeared into the trees. Celuwen looked to see Eilian smiling wryly.
"You should go too," she said and climbed to the ground.
"Wait," Eilian said, jumping to the ground beside her. He rooted around in the bag he had brought and, to her surprise, he pulled out a small package with stiff green paper folded around it. He held it shyly out to her. "I know that only family usually gives begetting day gifts, but I saw this and wanted to give it to you anyway."
For some reason, her breath caught. Hesitantly, she took the gift and then unwrapped it. She stared at the contents. In her hand lay a flat, light- grey stone shaped like a rounded triangle. Its surface had been burnished, and flecks of black glittering in it. There was a hole near one end of its corners, and a leather thong had been threaded through the hole.
"I found the stone," Eilian said quickly. "It already had the hole in it, and I knew you liked such things, so I polished it and tied it to the thong. I thought maybe you could wear it like a necklace." He looked at her anxiously.
She ran her finger tentatively over the smooth surface of the stone and then looked up at him. "It is beautiful, Eilian. Thank you." She pulled the thong over her head, so that the stone dangled against her chest. He smiled slowly and then picked up the bag again.
"I suppose I really should go home," he said. "Perhaps I can talk my naneth into not telling my adar about this morning."
Celuwen smiled. "You are always such an optimist." He laughed, turned, and, before she could say goodbye, he had disappeared.
Celuwen, too, started for home. When she walked through the door of her cottage, her mother took one look at her and gave a cry of dismay. "How did you get so muddy?" she asked. "Go and bathe, and then get dressed for the party."
"Yes, Naneth," she answered and hurried to obey. When she had finished bathing, she put on the new chemise and stood for a moment smoothing it over hips that had grown rounder since her last begetting day. Then, she put on the gown that her mother had laid out. She pulled the stone that Eilian had given her out from under the lace-edged collar. She had worn the necklace in the bath, and the leather thong had become wet and was now leaving damp splotches on her gown. She took it off and stood looking at it, nestled in her hand. Should she wear it this afternoon? It did not really go with her delicate looking dress.
Reluctantly, she opened a drawer in the small chest under her window, pushed aside a tangle of childish hair ornaments that she no longer wore, and laid the necklace carefully in a corner. She would wear it another day. There was time.
"Celuwen!" her mother called. "The ellyth are here."
"Coming, Naneth!" she answered and went out the door.