Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me. This chapter is all OC, but Legolas dominates the next one. Be patient!
Spring, 2951 TA
Eilian strolled beneath the newly leafed trees, thinking with satisfaction of his afternoon's work. The repairs to the waterwheel had gone well. By the next day, the Elves of the settlement would be able to use its force to grind their stored grain into flour again. It had been a long three weeks since the spring flood had knocked the wheel off its pins. Celuwen would be glad to hear that she could put her pestle away.
"I think I will hurry home," one of the neighbors working with Eilian had said with a grin. "My wife will want to reward me for what we have accomplished today."
Eilian laughed to himself. Celuwen might be willing to reward him too, and the honey-sweet thought of it made warmth flare low in his belly, even though he knew any such "reward" would have to wait until the stars had flowered. The song of the awakening forest hummed all around him, and he sang softly back to it as he walked. Without even deciding to do it, he veered off onto the path that would take him the longer way home. He had not been this way in nearly a week, and he wanted to see how spring had crept in among the trees.
Suddenly, the hair on the back of his neck stirred, and a second later, he realized why: A faint, discordant note was vibrating through the song around him. Intuitively, his hand went to the hilt of the knife in his belt. Slowly, he moved forward, scanning the trees, the ground, the sky—using instincts that had been honed by years as a warrior. The murmur of unease around him suggested that something frightening had occurred here, although its effect on the mood of the trees was now fading, as if whatever had produced it had happened some time ago. Do not borrow trouble, he cautioned himself. Sauron has left the woods, and the dragon is dead. We are at peace. Nonetheless, he drew his knife.
His eye was caught by something not quite right in the leaf litter—a bit of fluff, a stretched out tangle of twigs and dry grass. He frowned and crouched to prod the debris, the remains of a jay's nest he now realized, one that a predator had robbed. But what kind of predator knocked the nest from the tree, tore it to bits, and, judging by the bones he could now see, consumed three fledglings? An owl might carry away a baby jay, but it would not work this kind of thorough destruction, and its hunt for prey was a normal part of the life of the forest. The trees would never have reacted like this to an owl's raid on another bird's nest.
He searched for some sort of indication of the kind of creature the predator had been, but he found no recognizable tracks, just some half obscured imprints of a foot that looked almost webbed. But what kind of water creature would be this far into the trees? Still puzzled, he rose, sheathed his knife, and scanned the trees around him, trying to read something from their disturbance, but he could tell nothing other than that whatever had occurred had happened some time ago, probably during the night.
He frowned. No one else in the settlement had mentioned hearing this dissonance. He could hear the woods better than most Elves could, he knew, a fact he silently attributed to his being the son of the Woodland's king. So perhaps he was being too sensitive, too ready to find trouble where there was only a minor tragedy.
Finally, he shrugged and started on his way again. Celuwen would be watching for him. He felt a brief twinge of pity for the mother jay, but life was hard for baby birds and the mother had no doubt lost chicks before. As he rounded the last turn of the path toward his cottage, he deliberately shook off his lingering unease and happily looked, as he always did, for the first glimpse of the place where his heart dwelt.
As he had expected, Celuwen was in the vegetable garden, kneeling between the rows of recently sprouted peas and pulling weeds from around the small plants. As Eilian emerged from the trees into the clearing, a small figure who had been squatting next to her gave a cry, jumped up, and came running toward him with arms outstretched. "Ada! Ada!"
With a joy so pure he would not have believed it could exist until it came squirming into his life, he caught the child in his arms, swung her around, and then drew her fiercely toward him, and rested her on his hip. "Who is this filthy little maid?" he asked, rubbing his thumb gently over a smudge of garden soil on her round cheek. "She is so dirty that I am not sure I know her. Let me see. Are you Tree Dancer?"
The child giggled. "No, Ada."
"Are you Shooting Star?"
"No, Ada. You are being silly!"
"I know! You are Flower Face!"
"Only you call me that, Ada! It is me, Loriel!"
"So it is!" He nuzzled her neck, making her squeal and push at him with pudgy hands that had obviously been grubbing in the garden. Laughing, he looked up to see Celuwen smiling at them and climbing to her feet. With Loriel still on his hip, he walked toward his wife, as she put her hands in the small of her back and stretched. He leaned to kiss her cheek. "Could you not use a hoe to do that?"
"A hoe would not know the difference between a weed and a pea plant," Celuwen said. "Did you never set foot in the palace vegetable gardens?"
"Not if I could help it. I had more amusing things to do."
Celuwen laughed. "I remember. I would have thought you might spend time weeding the garden in payment for some of them."
Eilian grinned. "If my adar had thought of it, I would have spent enough time in the gardens to feed the entire palace staff for a year."
"I like the garden," Loriel piped up. "I found a worm." Eilian flinched as she began to dig in the pocket of her muddy gown, and he was unsurprised when she produced a writhing worm and held it up for his inspection.
"Lovely," he said. "But I think that worm lives in the garden. In fact, I am sure of it. It would not want to come inside."
Loriel looked doubtfully at the worm. "What will it eat?"
Eilian cast about for an answer. How could his tutor have talked at him for all those years and never told him what worms ate? "Dirt," he declared.
Loriel frowned. "Nana says it is bad for you to eat dirt."
"It is bad for elflings," Eilian agreed hastily, seeing Celuwen make a face at him. "Elflings should leave the dirt for the worms to eat. You would not want to take this fellow's meal so he goes hungry, would you?"
"No." Reluctantly, Loriel handed him the worm, and he stooped to drop it back into the soft soil of the garden where it promptly slithered away.
They began moving toward the front door of the cottage. "Would you like a hot bath?" he asked Celuwen, who was still rubbing her back. "That might help your back, and we need to get this one cleaned up before we go to your parents anyway." He squeezed Loriel, who was playing with one of his braids. He tried not to think about the dirt and worm slime on her hands.
"A bath would be wonderful," Celuwen said fervently. "I left water heating."
"Good. Here, Flower Face. You go with Nana and get cleaned up so you will not disgrace us at your grandparents' table." He set Loriel on her feet, and with a glad cry, she scampered off toward the front door of the cottage. She loved visiting Celuwen's parents, a flaw that always puzzled Eilian, given that he found Loriel to be unusually bright. Celuwen followed their daughter inside, while Eilian went back around the corner to the garden and lifted the large wooden tub down from where it hung on the outside wall of the cottage.
He carried it into the cottage to find Celuwen pulling Loriel's gown off over her head as the child danced from foot to foot on a large towel that Celuwen had spread on the floor in front of the fire. "Hold still," Celuwen commanded exasperatedly.
Eilian laughed as he carried the tub past them toward his and Celuwen's sleeping chamber. "If you can make that happen by command, I hope you will start ordering the weather next."
He set the tub down, returned to the central room, and took a heavy cloth in hand to lift one of the pails of water hanging over the fire. He poured a little of the hot water into the basin on the floor next to Celuwen and reached for the bucket of cold water that stood ready for use nearby. He added two dippers full of cold water to the basin, stuck his finger into it to see how hot it was, and then added another dipper of cold water.
"That should be all right," he told Celuwen, who gave him a smile, dipped a flannel into the water, and caught at the now naked, still dancing Loriel to begin to wash her. Eilian took the second pail of hot water from over the fire and carried both pails into the sleeping chamber to empty them into the tub.
For a second, he paused, contemplating the small tub and the shallow water, and thinking of the way water ran into his father's dwelling from the underground river that flowed beneath it and was pumped into boilers in all the bathing chambers so that a hot bath was something one took for granted, not something one worked for. Then he shrugged and reached for the spare blanket at the foot of the bed and flung it over the tub to keep the water from cooling too quickly. His father would no doubt find ironic satisfaction in the fact that Eilian had surprised himself by enjoying the tasks that came with the simple life in this settlement. He went back into the central room, filled the buckets from the pump at the sink, and hung them over the fire again.
He turned to find Celuwen holding a wiggling bundle of toweling. With a last struggle, Loriel shoved the towel away from her face. "Mae govannen, Nana," she cried.
Celuwen laughed. "Mae govannen, Loriel." She glanced at Eilian. "Can you get ready in the time it will take me to dress her?"
"Of course. I spent most of the afternoon floundering in the mill stream, so all I have to do is change my clothes and wash the places where your daughter touched me."
Celuwen laughed again, and Eilian pulled off his tunic to splash cold water over his face and then swipe at the braid that Loriel had been holding. He went into the bedroom, and by the time he emerged, lacing up the clean tunic Celuwen had left out for him, Loriel was dressed again and hopping around the room playing "bunny rabbit," with her dark curls still tumbled around her face.
"Let me just add these other two buckets of water to the tub," Eilian said. "It is not as hot as other was, but it should not be too bad." He added the two buckets of warm water to the tub in the sleeping chamber and turned to go back to the parlor to watch his daughter while his wife bathed. To his own surprise, he felt only the slightest twinge of regret that he would be spending this time with the smaller female in his life. He would have time with Celuwen later.
"Let me comb your hair, Flower Face." He caught his daughter around the waist and drew her onto his lap as Celuwen handed him a comb and brush and disappeared into the sleeping chamber. Loriel sang softly to herself as he brushed the tangled mass, careful not to pull when he encountered a knot. Then he began to work strands of the hair into braids that would keep it neat during the evening meal, amused to realize that the song Loriel was singing was about her hopes for the happiness of the worm she had found.
"Where are your shoes?" he asked when he had finished.
Loriel tilted her head back to look up at him, and with a wonder that never seemed to fade, he looked at her and saw again his mother's wide grey eyes, fringed with heavy dark lashes. "In the garden?" she suggested.
Reluctant to leave her on her own, he carried her out into the garden, where indeed her shoes lay, caked in dried mud. Still holding on to her, he picked up the shoes and sat down on the garden bench. He knew from experience that if he set his daughter down on the bench beside him, she was likely to escape and he would have to clean her up all over again, so he kept her on his lap and reached around her to scrape the mud off the shoes with his knife. Then he slid them onto her feet and tied them. "There you are. Let us see if Nana is ready yet."
When he entered the cottage, Celuwen was just coming out of the sleeping chamber, fastening a clasp in her own hair, which she had swept up onto the top of her head. He set Loriel down. "As always, you look beautiful," he told Celuwen. At times, he was still utterly unable to believe his good fortune.
"Make my hair pretty like Nana's!" Loriel demanded, tugging at the end of one of her braids and already beginning to unravel it.
"There is not enough time," Celuwen protested, her tone suggesting that she knew just how unlikely she was to be heeded.
Eilian smiled a little sheepishly. "I can do it quickly." He reached for the brush again as Loriel ran to stand in front of him with her back to him. And indeed, he worked rapidly with a skill whose origin he had decided it was better not to explain to his wife. "There." He kissed the top of Loriel's head and set the brush aside. "I will just empty the tub before we go." He took the tub out to garden, emptied the water around the plants, and hung the tub on the wall.
At the front of the cottage, he found his wife and daughter waiting hand-in-hand. Loriel put her other hand up for him to take, and they set off through the lingering summer light, occasionally swinging her between them as they went. The door of his in-laws' cottage stood open, and they went into the firelit warmth to find Celuwen's mother just turning away from a fragrant pot of stew that hung over the fire.
"Grandmother!" cried Loriel running toward her with her arms raised.
Isiwen crouched to hug her. "My, you look pretty tonight, sweetling."
"Ada fixed my hair," Loriel chirped happily.
"Surely she should be older before she wears her hair up," said a gruff voice behind them.
Eilian tried to keep from grimacing as he turned to face his father-in-law, and Celuwen spoke hastily. "There is no harm in it, Adar, and it makes her happy."
Sólith snorted. "She will be old enough to have suitors swarming around her soon enough. Let her stay a child while she can."
Loriel flung herself at her grandfather, whose face softened as he picked her up. "You are silly, Grandfather. I will not have suitors. I am going to marry Ada."
It was obvious to Eilian that Sólith was struggling. "Your ada is already married to your nana," Sólith finally managed to spit out. Eilian choked back a laugh. If Sólith had had his way, Eilian would never have gotten within a league of Celuwen, but in that case, Sólith would not have had Loriel in his arms. Of course, Eilian was certain that Sólith preferred to believe that Loriel had been dropped down their chimney by an eagle.
Loriel was apparently considering her grandfather's news. "Then I will just always live with Ada and Nana," she said at last. To Eilian's surprise, he caught himself wishing that Loriel would always be with him and Celuwen, just as she was now. He felt a sudden, disconcerting flash of understanding for his father-in-law.
"The stew is ready," Isiwen said, rescuing Eilian from having to spend time sympathizing with Sólith. They gathered around the table, with Celuwen and Eilian across from one another, Isiwen at the end near the fire, and Sólith at the other. Before he sat down, Sólith lowered Loriel onto the chair between him and Eilian. Sólith had built a small seat that fit onto the chair and boosted Loriel up to reach the table. He had built a second seat for her to use at home too.
"How is your garden doing, Celuwen?" Isiwen asked as she put stew and bread on the plates and passed them around. Eilian cut up Loriel's food for her and then ignored it as she pushed food onto her spoon with her fingers. At least she used the spoon, he thought.
The meal passed pleasantly enough, with Eilian and Sólith ignoring one another, and then they all went to sit outside for a few moments while the evening settled around them. Sólith picked up a stick, loosened the bark, and began to carve a whistle for Loriel. "Is the waterwheel any closer to being mended?" His tone plainly suggested that he did not hold out much hope for a positive answer. He was tenacious in his belief that Eilian would be too restless and pampered to do the work of day-to-day living in the settlement.
"It will be working again by tomorrow," Eilian answered, not bothering to keep the triumph from his voice.
Sólith's mouth tightened as he handed the whistle to Loriel, but he said nothing more. Loriel ran about blowing the whistle for a while, but soon she crawled into Eilian's lap and leaned against his chest with a huge yawn. "We need to be getting home," he said, rising and settling his daughter with her head drooping on his shoulder.
Celuwen rose too. "Thank you for the meal, Naneth." She kissed her mother's cheek and then her father's. "We will see you tomorrow."
"Good night," Isiwen said, coming to kiss the top of Loriel's head, where the hair was coming loose from the knot Eilian had made.
Loriel was relaxed and heavy in his arms, asleep before they were halfway home. He lowered her into her bed and Celuwen undressed her while Eilian went into the main room and saw to it that the fire would be ready in the morning. At last, he crawled into his own bed, where Celuwen already lay. With a sigh of pleasure, he took her in his arms.
"I think you and my adar are getting along better," she said.
He smiled and buried his face in the silk of her hair. "True. He has not threatened to gut me for some time now."
She laughed, a throaty sound that made his stomach flutter. He kissed her on the side of the neck, and as her laugh turned to a sigh, he covered her mouth with his.
With his heart pounding, Eilian came suddenly into wakefulness, groping frantically for what had disturbed him. Next to him, Celuwen was already getting out of bed. "Go back to sleep," she said. "I will check on her." As Celuwen left the room, he heard Loriel whimper and dropped his head back onto his pillow, drawing a deep breath. Sometimes it seemed to him that he would never sleep peacefully again; even in a time a peace, too many dangers lurked in Middle-earth, ready to waylay his unsuspecting child.
After a few moments, Celuwen padded back into the room and slid into the bed. "She might have been cold. I put an extra blanket over her and closed the window."
"Good." He pulled Celuwen close to him and let her warmth comfort him enough to relax into sleep again.
He was running along a path, seeking for something or someone. His breath came in great, terrified gasps. Suddenly he realized that a creature he did not recognize was pursuing him. He nearly sobbed as he tried to run faster, and then, to his horror, he knew that the creature was not after him, but someone else. He tried to call out a warning and awakened with the strangled sound of it in his throat.
For a second, he lay gasping, so relieved to find he had been dreaming that he could not move. Then he drew a shaky breath and turned he head to look at the pale square of the window. He could hear the first birds and knew he would have to get up soon and get the fire going so that Celuwen could cook the morning meal. He tried to relax so he could seize his usual few more moments of rest, but his dream had left him too tense. Careful not to disturb Celuwen, he rose, drew on leggings and a tunic, and went out into the main room, closing their door silently behind him.
The room was unexpectedly cool, and abruptly he saw why: The front door of the cottage was ajar. The remaining wisps of his dream terror suddenly solidified again, and he lunged across the main room to the open door of Loriel's sleeping chamber. To his horror, the only things in her bed were the rumpled blankets. With his heart racing, he whirled, grabbed his sword from where it hung on the wall near the cottage door, and tore out into the grey dawn.
There, he forced himself to stop and look for signs of who had entered and left the cottage. He frowned. The only marks he could see had been left by small, bare feet. Could Loriel have come out here alone? he wondered incredulously. Even as he asked himself the question, he rounded the corner of the cottage and saw a small, white-clad figure standing at the edge of the clearing, looking into the trees.
Relief weakened his knees and nearly made him collapse where he was. Then anger stiffened his legs again. "Loriel!" He heard the sharpness in his voice, and she must have heard it too, because she turned to look at him with her eyes wide and her mouth open in a small circle of surprise. "What are you doing out here by yourself?"
She blinked and looked back over her shoulder at the trees. "The trees are different, Ada. I wanted to see why."
He had been striding toward her, but now he stopped and listened to the rustle of the forest. She was right, he realized, with a shock. The trees were different: They were afraid. Hastily, he crossed the remaining distance between them and caught her in his arms, awkwardly angling his sword away from her. The hem of her night dress was wet with dew, and her bare feet were cold. "You must never leave the cottage without telling me or Nana," he said as firmly as he could. "You know that animals hunt near here sometime. Something could mistake you for its next meal." He wondered if the troubled note of the trees' song had been what disturbed his dream.
She looked at him with serious eyes. "I am sorry, Ada." He knew she did not understand. How could she? She had been born in a time of peace and had no idea of the kind of peril that had once prowled these woods.
He turned to carry her back into the cottage, where he found an alarmed looking Celuwen just starting out the door. He set Loriel on her feet just inside the doorway. "She went out by herself," he told Celuwen, whose mouth dropped open and then closed in a thin line as she turned to glare at their daughter. Loriel's eyes widened, and she backed up a step. Eilian did not blame her. He backed away when Celuwen looked at him that way too.
"I am just going to take a quick look around outside," he said and ducked back out the door, closing the door to shut out the sound of Celuwen scolding Loriel behind him. He had not had the heart to scold her very hard himself, but he had no objection to Celuwen doing it. What Loriel had done was dangerous. Fewer Orcs were in the woods since the Battle of Five Armies, but some still lingered, and the spiders still scuttled there.
He looked thoughtfully at the trees. Something about their disturbed song seemed familiar. He began circling the cottage, studying the ground for signs that a predator had approached during the night. Suddenly he halted, feeling his stomach tighten so that for a moment he could not breathe. The grass beneath the shuttered window of Loriel's sleeping chamber was trampled. He crouched to examine the ground, trying to determine what might have been there. Perhaps it was only a deer come to feast on Celuwen's garden, he told himself.
And then he saw it – the print of a slightly webbed foot. And he knew immediately why the trees sounded familiar. They were singing the same disturbed song he had heard near where the jay's nest had been torn to bits. He stared at the print. He still had no idea what kind of creature had made it. He saw that the hand he was using to push the grass aside was trembling slightly and clenched it into a fist. Then he rose and scanned the area around him. He would make sure that whatever it was was not lurking nearby, he thought determinedly and started back inside to get his bow and quiver.
AN: site has asked authors not to respond to reviews at the end of chapters. This story, like all my stories, is posted at Stories of Arda. You are welcome to review there, and I can easily respond. If you leave me your email address in a review here, I can respond that way too. I confess I sometimes have trouble reading the email addresses that posts on user profile pages. I am so sorry about this. I love getting reviews and it feels rude not to respond, but is removing the stories of authors who don't follow this rule.