Thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
Thranduil let the door to his sitting room close behind him, more grateful than he could say that this eternally long day had finally ended and he could at last withdraw to his own rooms. Without bothering to light a lamp, he made his way across the room and sank wearily into his chair in front of the fireplace.
I should go to bed, he thought, but he was so tired that even getting up from his chair and preparing for bed seemed like too much effort. He reached for the decanter on the table next to him. A cup of wine would not come at all amiss. He poured the wine, and then, just as he was reaching for the cup, he suddenly caught sight of the three small pictures standing in a row on the table, and his hand froze.
The pictures always stood there, and he was so accustomed to them that he seldom noticed them any more. But now their images called to him. In each, Lorellin sat with an elfling on her lap. Thranduil saw Ithilden's serious dark eyes, Eilian's infectious grin, Legolas's shining fall of blond hair, so like Thranduil's own.
Unable to look away, he picked up the one nearest to him, the one of Ithilden, remembering the day that Lorellin had told him that she had a friend who was going to draw her and their son, using colored chalks. Thranduil had frowned, for he had known that this artist friend was half in love with Lorellin, but she had laughed and told him not to be silly. And then she had asked the friend to draw the other two pictures too, when each son was the same age that Ithilden had been in the first one.
Thranduil set the picture down, and as he ran his eyes over the little row of childish faces, his heart contracted at their vulnerability, their hopefulness and their trust in a world that seemed to him to have gone awry. And suddenly his mind was flooded with memories of his sons' childhoods, coming in flashes and glimpses that seemed connected only by the joy he had taken in them.
We arrived at the Southern Patrol's camp about midday to find them recovering from a battle on the previous night. They had encountered a band of about forty Orcs heading west through the forest, perhaps to join those that the Woodmen have seen searching for some unknown person or object along the Anduin. The captain tells me that about half-a-dozen of the enemy escaped, but the patrol killed the rest. Unfortunately, four of our warriors were wounded, one seriously, and Nindel Tandelion was killed.
I am taking this opportunity to send you my latest information with those who are bearing home the wounded and the body of Nindel. Please tell Tandel and Amáwen that I grieve for them.
I remain your loving son and devoted servant,
Thranduil put down the dispatch from his oldest son, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. He tried to picture Nindel and decided he must be the slim, laughing youth who had been almost through with his novice training when Eilian started his. So when Nindel entered the warrior training, he would not have expected to be in fights like those in the south, for the Peace had still been in effect then. Thranduil rubbed his temples. He would have to visit the grieving parents, but he would wait until the next day to do it. They needed time to emerge, blinking, from the stunned pain through which they were no doubt now struggling just to breathe.
He opened his eyes and looked again at Ithilden's message. To his father's eyes, the stiffness of the language told him as clearly as a confession that Ithilden, too, was struggling with grief and probably guilt. His oldest son tended to take as his own every failure to keep the enemy from doing harm to the Elves of the Woodland Realm. He would visit Nindel's parents tomorrow, but he would also write to Ithilden, sending him, not a message from a king to his troop commander, but a letter from a father to his overly conscientious and careworn son.
With a sigh, he set the dispatch aside and rose to his feet. He was finished with his tasks for today. As he tried to do each day, he would join his wife and their youngest son in the garden before the autumn day slipped away entirely.
Outside his office, a servant waited, holding Thranduil's dark green suede cloak. The servant settled it around the king's shoulders. "The queen and Legolas went out some time ago, my lord," he said with a smile. "The little one was restless indoors."
Thranduil gave a smile of his own. He could well believe that Legolas had become restless indoors on the beautiful autumn day that he had glimpsed as he passed the open Great Doors on his way to hear petitions in the Great Hall. Now he paused at the top of the steps leading down from the doors and looked across the green at the brilliantly colored trees, flaming red, orange, and yellow. He inhaled the scent of wood smoke and fallen leaves. His realm still flourished here around his stronghold, even if the situation Ithilden had found in the south was very different.
As soon as he had gone through the gate into the garden, he could hear a familiar, high-pitched voice coming from further along the path. "Look at me, Nana! Look at me!" He rounded a bend to see his youngest son and his wife, holding their cloaks out wide and spinning and swooping on the wide grassy patch next to the path. As Thranduil watched, Legolas spun a little too enthusiastically and nearly toppled over with dizziness, but Lorellin caught him, and he leaned against her, laughing.
Suddenly he caught sight of Thranduil, and his face lit up. "Look, Ada! We are leaves twirling in the wind!" He hopped and turned, happily flapping his green cloak. Beside him, Lorellin stretched out her deep red cloak and spun, letting it swirl gracefully around her.
Thranduil laughed. "So you are!" He lunged forward, grabbed his son around the waist, tossed him squealing into the air, and caught him again. "You look just like a little leaf sailing through the air." He pulled the child close and nuzzled his neck, inhaling the sweet scent of him. "You are my little green leaf."
"No!" Legolas shrieked, pulling back and giggling.
Thranduil let him lean back in his arms, and the two of them regarded one another. He was aware of Lorellin watching them, with fond amusement on her face. "Do that again," Legolas demanded, and Thranduil laughed and nuzzled him again, as Legolas once again squawked in mock protest. Somewhere nearby were parents who had lost a son, but Thranduil's son was safe in his arms, where he would stay as long as the king could keep him there.
Thranduil entered the nursery to find his son in his night clothes, squatting on the floor, piling blocks on top of one another. He hopped up when he saw Thranduil.
"Ada, look!" He pointed to the block tower.
"Very nice," Thranduil said admiringly. He turned to the Elf-woman who stood smiling nearby. "Thank you, Nimloth. You may go. I will put him to bed."
"Will his naneth be back tomorrow then?" Nimloth asked, gathering her knitting in preparation for departing.
"Yes." He scooped the child into his arms. "And we are glad, are we not, sweetling?"
His son nodded vigorously. "I miss Nana."
"I do too," Thranduil agreed. "Bid Nimloth good night now."
"Good night, Nimloth."
"Good night, elfling." She kissed his cheek and then, bidding Thranduil good night, went on her way home.
Thranduil carried his son toward his bed.
"Wait, Ada! I need my bankie."
Thranduil paused. "I thought you were too big to need your blanket at night," he ventured. With great pride, his son had announced about a month previously that he no longer needed the soft knitted blanket that he had cuddled to himself at night since he was an infant.
"When Nana is here, I am too big, but when she is gone, I need it," the child explained earnestly.
Thranduil suppressed a smile. "Very well. Where is it?"
The child's eyes grew wide. "Do you not know? Nana always knows." His tone had become anxious.
"Is it in here?" Thranduil asked, glancing around the nursery.
"I do not know." The child's lower lip was starting to tremble.
"We will find it," Thranduil said soothingly. With his son on his hip, he circled the nursery, opening drawers and cupboards and searching without success.
"Is my bankie lost?" the child asked, horror in his voice.
"No, of course not," Thranduil assured him, although he was beginning to fear the blanket might indeed be among the missing. "Where did you have it last?"
His son considered. "I had it when I took my nap." His face suddenly brightened. "And then I had it when I went to draw letters with Galeril."
"Ah! Perhaps you left it in the library when your lesson was over then. Let us go look." Still carrying his son, Thranduil went out into the hall, where a servant skirted around them, smiling at the sight of the king with the night-shirted little one clinging to him. They went into the darkened library, and Thranduil held the door open so the light from the hall would supplement the low light of the banked fire.
"There it is!" cried his son, leaning out to reach toward a shadowy splotch on one of the chairs. Thranduil held onto his waist while he grabbed the blanket. With a contented sigh, the child snuggled back against him with the blanket clutched to his cheek.
"Bed now," Thranduil said firmly. They made their way back to the nursery, where he tucked the small figure into the bed. "Good night, little one," he said, kissing the dark hair.
"Good night. I love you, Ada."
"I love you too, Ithilden."
"There is your ada," said the guard, sounding relieved. "We will ask him."
Just emerging from the door into his office, Thranduil turned toward the exit from the royal family's quarters to see one of the guards from the Great Doors leading Thranduil's son by the hand. In his free hand, the child carried a small bucket of what looked very much like mud. The sleeves and front of his tunic were also smeared with mud. What in Arda had he been doing? Thranduil wondered.
"Ada!" the child cried, his face brightening. He tugged his hand free from the guard's and ran toward Thranduil, lifting his arms to be picked up. A glob of mud slopped from the bucket onto the floor.
Thranduil gave a short, dismayed laugh and took the bucket from his son before he picked him up, and set him on his hip. "What have we here?"
"I need mud," the child announced. Thranduil raised an eyebrow at the guard.
"He appeared at the Doors with the bucket, my lord," the guard explained, rubbing the muddy hand the child had just released on his tunic and sounding more amused than anything else. "I went down to the riverbank with him because I did not think it was safe for him to go alone, and it can be hard to stop him. But I told him we would have to check with you or his naneth about bringing the mud inside."
"Thank you. You may return to your post." Thranduil smiled ruefully at the guard, who saluted and turned to go back to the Great Doors, looking a little reluctant at the loss of his chance to learn the end of this adventure. Thranduil turned his attention to his son. "You know you are not supposed to go to the river alone," he said sternly.
"Yes," the child answered impatiently. "The guard came. But Ada, Nana and I saw otters on the river today! One was balancing a pinecone on his nose, and then he pulled it under the water and it came up first, and then he shot up and jumped on it!"
Even though he was still worried by this little one's forbidden trip to the river, Thranduil found himself smiling at the child's glee. "Otters are amusing to watch," he agreed.
"And they slid on the mud down the riverbank into the water, and I wanted to slide on the stairs by the library, but they are not slippery enough, so I need mud too."
Thranduil could not help himself: he let his need to scold slide away and laughed outright. "You cannot have mud indoors, sweetling. Nana and the servants would join together to skin us both alive if I allowed you to do that."
The child thrust out his lower lip. "Then how can I slide like the otters?"
As Thranduil pondered that question, a long-ago memory stirred into life. "Do you know where your sled is?"
The elfling nodded. "It is in the big cupboard under the stairs. I saw it when my friends were here and we played hide-and-go-seek."
"We will need candle wax," Thranduil told him, "but I think you will find that if we wax the bottom of your sled, it will go down the stone steps quite nicely." Also noisily, if Thranduil recalled correctly, but children had to make noise sometimes, and this one especially.
His son's eyes widened. "What a good idea, Ada!" He tightened his grip around his father's neck, pulling Thranduil's head toward him with muddy hands and planting a kiss on his cheek. Thranduil grinned in response.
"We will have to see if Nana thinks it is a good idea," he warned the child, who did not seem at all worried.
"Ask her," his son commanded.
"Where is she?" Thranduil had been wondering about his wife's whereabouts since he first saw his son alone with the guard.
"She is in the sitting room talking to Cook. She said not to interrupt, so I did not," the child added virtuously.
Still holding his son in one arm and the bucket of mud in the other hand, Thranduil started down the hallway toward sitting room. Just as they reached it, a worried looking Lorellin emerged with the cook right behind her. At the sight of her, Thranduil's consciousness of his son's disobedience flared again. The child knew better than to slip away like this and worry his mother.
"There you are!" she cried, reaching for their son.
Thranduil drew hastily back. "He is a little muddy. Perhaps you would get a wet cloth?" Her mouth curved in a questioning smile as she eyed the smears on Thranduil's neck and tunic, as well as those on their son, and then turned to fetch the cloth. "And some candles!" Thranduil called after her. She looked back over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow, but she said nothing.
"By your leave, my lord," said a grinning Cook.
Thranduil nodded permission for him to leave but then called, "Wait!" He handed the bucket of mud to Cook. "Dispose of this, please."
Holding the bucket away from him, Cook made his way down the corridor to return to the kitchen, where he would no doubt regale the rest of the kitchen crew with a new tale about the antics of the youngest member of the royal household.
Lorellin returned, handed him three candles, and began wiping the worst of the mud off both Thranduil and their son. "What are you two up to now?" she asked.
"I am going to show him something my ada showed me a long time ago," Thranduil said. "That is, I am if he promises me he will not go near the river on his own."
Lorellin's brow creased in worry again, but their son did not hesitate. "I promise," he said eagerly.
"See that you remember that," Thranduil admonished him, setting his own worry aside for now. He looked back at Lorellin. "Ignore any loud noises you might hear in the next hour."
She laughed. "You two behave yourselves."
"We will, Nana," his son pledged, and Thranduil carried him off to find the sled.
"Nana says you worry," the child confided, "and I should not scare you. So you do not have to ride the sled if you do not want to."
Thranduil could not help himself. He burst into laughter that shook off any lingering tension from his day's work. "I love you, Eilian," he said, dropping a kiss on the child's hair.
"I love you too, Ada. Can I ride the sled down the big steps?"
Thranduil started and focused his eyes to see Ithilden bending over him, looking concerned. "Was I asleep?" he asked in surprise.
"I think so. You should go to bed."
Thranduil grimaced. The fire had faded enough that the room was now in deep shadows, but he caught a glimpse of movement behind Ithilden and realized that the lean form hovering in the doorway was Eilian. Even at this distance, Thranduil smelled wine. His own cup sat untouched on the table. Eilian must have been drinking heavily. Thranduil opened his mouth and then decided that he was too tired to say anything tonight.
"I will go to bed now," he told Ithilden, and with what seemed like all the effort he could muster, he stood up. He could feel himself swaying slightly as he watched Ithilden bank the fire and then set the screen carefully in front of it. Drawn by worry, he glanced toward the door again, but Eilian had disappeared.
"You should get some sleep too," he told Ithilden.
"I will," Ithilden nodded, and Thranduil made his way to his bedchamber and began to undress.