This story is set soon after "Time's Turnings," in which Legolas, his brother Eilian, and their bodyguards all visit Dale. You should not have to have read that story to follow this one, I hope. This story does have a cast of thousands, but I've tried to clarify who's who.
Legolas is about 80, so a very young adult. His brother Eilian is about 120, also a young adult. Their nephew Sinnarn is about 40, the equivalent more or less of a human 16-year-old.
There will be three chapters.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
Chapter 1: Guests Arrive
The Elves in the Great Hall parted to allow the new arrivals through.
"Glilan!" Thranduil rose from his carved chair and descended from the dais to embrace his wife's aunt. "It has been far too long."
Glilan blushed happily in response to the obvious affection his greeting. "Indeed it has. Since the spring after Ithilden's wedding. You must have had begetting days between then and now."
He laughed. "Indeed. They seem to come every other month."
Glilan reached for Ithilden, who had moved from his station on the right side of Thranduil's chair to let her hug him. Then she extended the same greeting to Legolas, who stood to Thranduil's left. "How are you, child?" she asked him, patting his cheek. "I hear you are quite the warrior now."
Legolas gave what to Thranduil's eyes was too plainly a pained smile. With a diplomacy long practiced in dealing with his in-laws, Thranduil moved to distract Glilan. "Who is this?" he asked, looking beyond her to where a maiden stood with downcast eyes.
"This is my neighbor's greatniece, Iseniel," Glilan said, turning to urge the maiden forward. "Her naneth kindly agreed to let her come as company for me on the journey."
Iseniel curtsied deeply, then lifted her eyes to meet Thranduil's. She had a sweet, round face and blue eyes fringed with dark lashes. "My lord."
"Welcome, Iseniel," Thranduil said. He caught sight of Alfirin hovering nearby and beckoned to her. She hurried forward with a smile and hands outstretched in greeting to Glilan.
"Welcome," she said. "I am so happy you could be here to help us make Adar's begetting day one he will long remember. But you must be tired after your journey. Let me have someone show you both to your rooms." She crooked her finger at an attendant. Thranduil was impressed once again by his daughter-in-law's aplomb. She could not have planned to accommodate Iseniel, but no one would have known that from the gracious way she smiled at the maiden.
"I thought Legolas could show Iseniel to her chamber," Glilan said. "They are the same age, and you know how young people like to be together." She beamed at Legolas, whose mouth fell open, giving him a slightly soft-headed look. Iseniel's face turned bright red.
On Thranduil's other side, Ithilden gave a barely suppressed snort. Legolas straightened and said, "I would be honored." He extended his arm. Without looking at him, the maiden laid her hand on it, and he led her from the Hall, following Glilan and the attendant Alfirin had summoned.
Alfirin watched them go, then turned to Thranduil and Ithilden with her lips quivering. "Is Aunt Glilan matchmaking?"
Ithilden grinned. "Oh, yes."
Alfirin laughed. "Then Legolas will have an even more entertaining leave than I hoped for when I talked you into getting him and Eilian both home for this celebration."
A stir at the door announced another arrival, and Alfirin withdrew to the fringes of the group. "Master Helad of Dale," the door attendant said. An elegantly dressed, bearded Man made his way forward to drop to one knee in front of Thranduil.
"Mae govannen, Master Helad," Thranduil said, gesturing for him to rise.
The Man shifted slightly from foot to foot. He tried to look Thranduil directly in the eye but could do so for only a fleeting moment before he had to look away. "My lord, I bring greetings to you and the best wishes of King Bram of Dale. He sends a gift which is among my baggage. I look forward to the honor of presenting it to you."
"We are most grateful for the good wishes of our brother Bram," Thranduil said.
"I hope to renew my acquaintance with Lord Eilian while I am here," Helad said, glancing around the room. "Perhaps you know we met in Dale last year. Will he be present?" To Thranduil, it was obvious Helad had been hoping for a familiar face.
"Indeed Eilian will," Thranduil said forcefully. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ithilden grimace.
Alfirin beckoned to another attendant as she came forward. "Will you not take some rest before the evening meal, Master Helad?"
"Thank you, Mistress. I would welcome the chance to refresh myself." He bowed to her and to Thranduil and withdrew with the attendant.
"Where is Eilian?" Thranduil asked Ithilden. He had become increasingly annoyed at his middle son as the afternoon wore on and guests arrived without Eilian there to take part in receiving them. "It is irresponsible of him not to be here, particularly when the Men arrive. A large part of the reason for this gathering is to secure our good relationship with the Men of Dale and Esgaroth and give them a chance to come to better terms with one another."
"No, Adar," Alfirin said firmly. "The reason for this gathering is to celebrate your begetting day. I understand that you and Ithilden must conduct the business of the Realm too, but do not forget why we are really here." She stretched to plant a kiss on his cheek.
Thranduil felt an absurd flush of pleasure. Over Alfirin's head, his eyes met Ithilden's, and they shared a smile. Alfirin backed away without ever seeing the sign of their joy in her presence.
"Eilian went riding with Toviel," Alfirin said.
"Toviel?" Ithilden said. "The one who plays the harp?"
"Yes," Alfirin said. "And you need not sound so incredulous, Ithilden. She is very nice."
Thranduil let out an exasperated breath. "He should be here."
"He asked me if I needed him," Alfirin protested. "I told him you two and Legolas would be here, and he did not need to stay. He promised to be present at this evening's feast. If that was wrong, I am sorry, but it was my fault."
Thranduil suppressed his desire to tell her Eilian had taken advantage of her. Eilian knew perfectly well what was expected of him on these occasions. He caught sight of a servant waiting nearby. "Yes?"
"I need to speak to Lady Alfirin," the Elf said.
"What is it?" Alfirin turned.
"Nawien believes she may have misunderstood you," the Elf said. "Are you certain you do not want the tables set up on both sides of the Green as they always are?"
"No." Alfirin sounded dismayed. "I thought I made it clear I wanted to try something different." Already moving toward the doors, she looked around at Thranduil. "By your leave, Adar."
He nodded his permission for her to go. As she hurried away, Thranduil felt a twinge of doubt. Perhaps Eilian had only been realistic in seeking Alfirin's rather than Thranduil's permission to absent himself. This party was her project, and all of them would do well to remember that.
Eilian rode into the busy stableyard with Toviel at his side. The place was teeming with grooms and the horses of Thranduil's guests. The stablemaster stood in the center of the yard, calling out instructions for which horses should go where. Eilian raised a hand in greeting.
"Mae govannen, Galendil," he said. "You look busy." Galendil was the son-in-law of Eilian's bodyguard, Maltanaur, and Eilian knew him well.
"Mae govannen, my lord," Galendil called. "I will get my son to come and care for your horses right away. He is around here somewhere, probably still tangled up in the Men's tack."
Eilian laughed. "No need to trouble Calylad. I will do it."
Galendil nodded his gratitude and hastened away to sort out a situation between a mare and a stallion that promised to create a surprise for the mare's owner in a little under a year.
Eilian swung his leg over his horse's back and leapt down. Then he reached up to grasp Toviel's waist and lift her off the horse. She felt satisfyingly warm and slender under his hands, and her skirt slipped up so he had a pleasant view of shapely calves.
He brought his gaze to her face and found her watching him. She fluttered her eyelashes, then turned to pat the horse's neck. "What a sweet animal he is. You must thank the king for loaning him to me."
Eilian had no intention of telling his father he had borrowed a horse for Toviel from the royal stables. "Shall we take them in?" He gestured toward the open stable doors. They led the animals into the dusky interior, toward the closest stalls, which always housed the horses owned by the king and his family. Eilian sent his own horse into a stall and went to open the gate of the next one for Toviel. He ducked inside with her and the stallion, shutting the gate behind them.
"Can I brush him?" Toviel asked.
Eilian put his arms around her from behind. "I would rather you brushed me."
She giggled, and he turned her to face him. Pulling her close, he bent to touch his mouth to hers. She made a sound like that made by an elfling enjoying a treat and parted her lips.
"You there," said a harsh voice. A hand rattled the stall gate. "Stop that and come tend to my horse, or I'll tell the stablemaster how you're spending your time."
Eilian turned to find a Man scowling at him. He bit off the intemperate speech he had been about to utter. If this was one of the representatives from Dale or Esgaroth, then Thranduil wanted him handled with care, and Eilian would be wise to follow his father's wishes, especially since he had just spent the afternoon with Toviel instead of in the Great Hall. He probably should try to tactfully tell the Man who he was.
"Be quick about it," the Man said.
Of course, there were limits to how restrained an Elf could be.
Toviel stiffened in indignation, but Eilian spoke before she could say anything. "I am coming, master." He turned his head to wink at Toviel, then left the stall.
The Man was leading a nervous looking gelding with an elaborately decorated saddle and bridle. One of the packs flung over the horse's back bore the blue insignia of Esgaroth. Eilian took the reins the Man thrust at him and drew near the prancing horse to lay a hand on its neck and whisper in its ear. "Now, now. No need to worry. We have oats aplenty here, and we will get rid of this leather contraption so you can have a good roll in the grass. Would you like that?"
The horse's eyes widened, as it stilled and flicked an ear in Eilian's direction. He chuckled, then turned to look at the Man. To Eilian's satisfaction, the Man met his gaze for no more than a few heartbeats before he looked away.
Another Man dressed in the uniform of an Esgaroth soldier approached. "Shall I take your pack, Master Eman?"
"Do," Eman commanded. He spoke to Eilian without looking at him as the soldier relieved the horse of part of its burden. "Has Helad of Dale arrived yet?"
"I do not know," Eilian said. Eman pursed his lips. No love lost there, Eilian thought. Thranduil's spies had been right. There was tension between Esgaroth and Dale, probably due to Esgaroth's control over shipping through the Long Lake.
Eman pulled a coin from his belt pouch and flicked it into the air toward Eilian, who caught it reflexively. Without another word, the Man left the stable.
"Of all the nerve!" Toviel came out of the stall.
He grinned at her. "I apparently have several horses to care for. I will understand if you want to go home."
She laughed, stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, and followed in Eman's wake.
"What are you going to say when you meet him again?" asked a voice from behind Eilian. He turned to see Maltanaur's grandson, Calylad. He was about the same age as Eilian's nephew, Sinnarn, and the two of them were thick as thieves, a fact Eilian suspected did not entirely delight Calylad's family. Sinnarn was adventuresome and occasionally unpredictable, so much so that Ithilden and Alfirin had kept him out of the novice training program this year and set him to work with Alfirin's forester father.
Eilian shrugged. "I will just avoid him, or perhaps he will not recognize me when I wear my son-of-Thranduil get up."
Calylad laughed. "Grandfather says you are the most optimistic Elf he knows, and I can see why."
"Go ahead and be impertinent," Eilian said with a grin. "I will enjoy telling Maltanaur how I threw you in the watering trough." He tossed Eman's coin to Calylad. "If you take care of this poor tack-burdened fellow, I will manage my own and the one I borrowed."
Calylad tucked the coin out of sight. "With pleasure." He took the reins and led the gelding away while Eilian went back into the stall and began to groom the horse Toviel had ridden.
Legolas sipped his wine and watched the crowd milling around, talking and helping themselves to the food laid out on a long table near the edge of the Green. Ithilden's son, Sinnarn, and Maltanaur's grandson, Calylad, were pestering the minstrel who was trying to entertain the guests with softly strummed music. As Legolas watched, the minstrel laughed and surrendered his harp to Sinnarn, who immediately struck up a loud, lively tune that all but begged Elves to dance, despite the people crowded together on the Green, many of them holding cups of wine and plates of food.
Calylad leapt in a wide whirl, applauded by a youngster who could not have been more than thirty. With his high forehead and ink-dark hair, the boy looked familiar, but it took Legolas a moment to recognize Nalden, the son of Ithilden's aide, Calith.
Legolas nearly laughed. Calith was one of the most sensible Elves he knew. What had he ever done to merit having his son look at Sinnarn and Calylad with that admiring gaze?
Before anyone else could join Calylad in his dance, Alfirin hurried up to them, snatched the harp from Sinnarn, and said something Legolas could not hear. Sinnarn grinned at her, but he raised his hands in surrender. She thrust the harp toward the minstrel, put one hand on the shoulder of each tall youth, and sent them both off toward the food with Nalden trailing behind them.
Eilian came to stand next to Legolas, holding a cup of wine in one hand and a honey-coated pastry in the other. He popped the pastry into his mouth and wiped his fingers on his formal robe. "How did things go in the Great Hall this afternoon?"
Legolas snorted. "How do you think they went? The Men were as nervous among us as a rabbit in a fox den, and Aunt Glilan brought a maiden with her that she all but threw into my arms."
Eilian laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "Shall I congratulate you on your betrothal?"
"Not likely. Iseniel is nice enough, but I prefer to find my own mate."
"Aunt Glilan is a romantic," Eilian said. "She has never done this to you before only because you were too young. Until Ithilden married Alfirin, she used to bring him maidens and a silver ring every few years."
"Did she never bring them for you?" Legolas asked.
Eilian grinned at him. "Only once."
Legolas could not resist laughing. He was about to let need overwhelm good sense and ask Eilian how to discourage Aunt Glilan when he was distracted by the sight of Helad of Dale. Followed by one of his attendants, the Man was picking his way carefully among the assembled Elves. He waited to take each step until the crowd left him space. Then he darted ahead, holding his arms in tightly so he would not brush up against anyone. He was moving toward Thranduil, who sat nearby. Legolas and Eilian had both met Helad in Dale the previous year. He was one of King Bram's advisors, and one of his aides had turned out to be an Easterling conspiring to drive a wedge between Men and Elves.
Eilian shoved an elbow into Legolas's ribs. "Look at Beliond," he muttered gleefully.
Legolas nearly choked on the sip of wine he had just taken. His bodyguard was slipping through the crowd behind Helad, watching the Man with narrowed eyes. "Bram said Helad was innocent. Do you think Beliond still distrusts him?"
"Beliond distrusts all Men on general principle." Eilian caught Beliond's eye and beckoned to him. Beliond slid up next to them, then ignored them to watch Helad greeting Thranduil.
The Man waved his attendant forward, and Legolas saw that he carried a sack made of what looked like waterproofed silk. Brightly colored panels of the fabric had been sewn together in stripes that ran around the bag in diagonal lines. Legolas grimaced. The Men of Dale had terrible taste. The bag's contents must have been heavy, or perhaps the bag was fragile, because the attendant kept one hand under it to support it.
"Your majesty," Helad said, "I told you King Bram sent a gift for the occasion. I present it to you now." He took the sack from the attendant and offered it to Thranduil, who set it on his lap, looked into it, and smiled.
"You must thank our brother Bram," Thranduil said. He scanned the nearby crowd. "Sinnarn!"
Sinnarn turned away from the food and trotted toward Thranduil. "Yes, Grandfather?"
Thranduil handed him the sack, which Sinnarn took in one hand and swung from the laces at its top. Helad opened his mouth as if to protest but then shut both it and his eyes. "Put this away, please," Thranduil said. He glanced at Helad and took pity on him. "Treat it with care, child. It is a gift from our valued friends in Dale."
Sinnarn was used to court talk. "Of course, my lord." He hugged the sack in one arm and started toward the palace.
Helad watched him go, then turned back to Thranduil. "I will tell Bram of your good wishes. They will be most welcome to him because he believes stronger ties between our peoples will benefit us both."
"I too hope for strong ties between us," Thranduil said. "The enemy will be easier to defeat with friends at our side."
Helad edged closer to him, and Legolas leaned forward to hear better.
"We agree. And of course, the stronger Dale and the Woodland Realm are, the better the battle will go. Unfortunately, Dale's resources are limited by the difficulty we face in sending our goods to lands south of us."
Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "Have the waters of the Long Lake become difficult to navigate?"
"Perhaps I misspoke," Helad said. "The matter is not so much one of difficulty as expense. Esgaroth has raised its docking fees again."
"For our rafts too," Thranduil said.
Helad's face set in dismayed lines. Next to Legolas, Eilian gave a low laugh. "Helad is good," he said. Beliond shot him an irritated look.
"If the Men of Esgaroth are charging you these exorbitant fees too, then we must work together to force them to be more reasonable," Helad said.
Thranduil smiled. "All the realms will need to be strong and united. You and I and Eman of Esgaroth must talk about this matter, but tonight you must enjoy our hospitality and think of happier things. Have you tried the excellent venison?"
Helad hesitated. "Not yet, your majesty."
Thranduil gestured toward the food-laden table. "Then you must do so at once before it is all gone." Helad accepted his dismissal and withdrew.
"How much will you wager that Adar has Helad and Eman both thinking of him as their ally before he is done?" Eilian asked Legolas.
Beliond gave him no time to answer. "They are Men and therefore unsuitable allies. Thranduil is entirely too trusting sometimes."
Legolas and Eilian both gaped at him. Then Eilian smiled. "You know, Beliond, I think you are right. You should keep an eye on Helad and possibly Eman too."
Legolas rolled his eyes.
Beliond scowled at him. "I cannot believe I am saying this, but for once you should listen to your harebrained brother. Both Men bear watching." He slithered away in Helad's wake.
"Harebrained?" Eilian echoed. "I am crushed."
"Why did you encourage him?" Legolas asked.
Eilian shrugged. "I am bored. Come. We should help ourselves to the venison too."
They moved toward the table with the food and found Sinnarn, Calylad, and Nalden all heaping food onto plates. "I thought you were putting Helad's gift away," Legolas said, reaching for a plate.
"I left it in the family sitting room," Sinnarn said.
Calylad was looking over Legolas's shoulder into the crowd. "Eman of Esgaroth is coming this way," he said to no one in particular. Legolas turned to speak to Eilian but found he had vanished.
A few heartbeats later, Eman of Esgaroth edged up next to Legolas holding a plate of food. "Good evening, my lord." He looked beyond Legolas at Sinnarn. "That sack looked heavy," he said with an encouraging smile. "Dale's gift must have been a fine one."
Sinnarn's eyes gleamed. "Very fine indeed."
Eman waited for him to say more. "And it was….?"
"It was very fine," Sinnarn said. He moved one last piece of venison onto his plate. "Ready?" he asked Calylad and Nalden. They nodded, and the three of them moved away.
Eman sighed and ate a forkful of beans roasted with garlic. "The food is delicious," he told Legolas. Then, seemingly deliberately, he let out a loud burp. Every Elf in the vicinity glanced toward them, then looked hastily away. Legolas struggled to keep his composure.
"I am glad you are enjoying it," Legolas said. Eman wandered disconsolately away. A rustle of skirts sounded behind Legolas, and he turned to see Aunt Glilan with Iseniel in tow.
"There you are, Legolas," Glilan trilled. "Would you look after Iseniel while I get some more wine?" She was gone before he could answer.
Legolas could not think of a single sensible thing to say. The maiden stood with her eyes cast down. She edged closer to him and cleared her throat. "I have been hoping for a chance to speak to you."
He nearly groaned aloud. He did not want to court this girl, but he also did not want to hurt her feelings. He needed to discourage her interest in him and do it quickly. Only one possible course of action occurred to him. He drew a deep breath, roused every bit of internal strength, and belched.
Iseniel's head jerked up sharply, and she stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment. He felt the heat creeping up his face. With a small cry, she turned and fled.