In honor of Nilmandra's birthday. Thank you so much, Beta.
"Ship oars," Captain Laegcened ordered.
Thranduil lifted his oar from the Anduin and twisted to watch the prow of the boat nose into the landing beneath the towering trees of Lorinand. The song of ancient trees and the perfume of their leaves flooded his body, so that for a moment, he felt almost giddy.
Across from him, he glimpsed Beliond, eyes closed, inhaling. He leaned forward on his oar, his dark hair drifting slightly in the breeze off the water.
Maltanaur and the other warrior closest to the prow splashed into the shallow water and drew the boat securely onto the pebbled beach.
Oropher leapt to shore in one graceful swoop, his blond braids streaming behind him. He strode up the beach to greet Amdir's advisor, waiting in the shade of a willow. As Oropher acknowledged the advisor, he ran his hand over a trailing willow branch, like a lover caressing his fair one's hair.
Thranduil lowered his eyes. His father used to stroke his mother's hair like that before she accepted the Valar's invitation and sailed to Eressëa. Oropher had begged her to cross the mountains with him, but she had had enough of peril and pain. Thranduil stored his oar and went to join Maltanaur on shore.
"Did you catch any fish in your orc-spawned-toe-torturing boots?" he asked in Silvan.
Maltanaur grinned, his eyes gleaming with youthful optimism. Thranduil knew they were of an age, but he suspected his own eyes reflected what he had seen in Doriath and after, while Maltanaur and Beliond roamed the great woods.
"Beliond is right about the boots," Maltanaur said. "I feel like I am dragging rocks. I am fortunate I did not fall into the river and sink out of sight."
"They would protect your feet on long marches over hard ground," Thranduil said. "The captain is right about that."
Maltanaur raised an eyebrow. "Why would I march a long way over hard ground? I would travel through the trees."
"Sometimes there are no trees," Thranduil said.
Maltanaur's face settled into the blankness every wood elf seemed able to assume, but Thranduil read his disbelief.
Beliond drifted up to stand next to them. "Do you suppose the old goat will give us any free time?"
For a mad moment, Thranduil thought Beliond was talking about Oropher, but then he realized Beliond's eyes were on Captain Laegcened. The captain's braids marched in precise lines down his rigidly erect back. Thranduil could not imagine how Laegcened made them do that.
"I doubt it," Thranduil said. "Arriel may have to get along without you on this visit."
"We will see about that." Beliond's mouth curved in the grin an elf who liked a challenge.
Thranduil groaned. "Laegcened will have your ears."
Beliond shrugged. "What was he like in Doriath? Did he drill you in the proper way to hold a rattle? Make you polish your toys and line them up just so? Tell you he despaired of your ever becoming even an adequate elfling?"
Thranduil could not help laughing. "He saves his most scathing remarks for you wild wood elves. He is trying to teach you to exercise some sensible caution."
Beliond bared his teeth. "I notice he keeps his mouth shut when we have bows in our hands."
"That is because you all shoot like you have charmed arrows."
"Is that it? I thought he was just exercising a little sensible caution."
"That too," Thranduil said.
"Fall in!" Laegcened shouted.
Thranduil straightened and turned to face the Captain. He was unsurprised when his Silvan companions straggled into line behind him. "You Sindar understand one another," Maltanaur had said when Thranduil protested at always being first in line. "We would not want to interfere." "Liar," Thranduil had accused. Completely unoffended, Maltanaur and Beliond had both laughed.
Laegcened marched them across the beach to follow Oropher and Amdir's advisor up the path to the tree embracing Amdir's flet. Despite his pleasure in the song of these trees, Thranduil kept his expression fierce and his stride firm. They were under orders to look capable of joining with Amdir's warriors to bottle the dwarves up in Moria and keep them away from this side of the Misty Mountains.
They were approaching the clearing under Amdir's flet when Oropher came to a dead halt. Risking the captain's wrath, Thranduil allowed his gaze to wander from straight ahead to see what had stopped his father. He drew in a sharp breath. As he had expected, a number of people were gathered in the clearing. As he had not expected, half-a-dozen of them were dwarves, three of them holding long, two-handed battle axes. The skin on Thranduil's back felt as if ants had worked their way under his tunic. When he found his hand had gone to rest on the hilt of his sword, he left it there.
As if his guest had not just frozen with his face twisted in rage, Amdir rose from his seat on a mossy log and came forward with his arms extended. "Welcome, Cousin. Twice welcome to you and all your people. It has been far too long."
Oropher allowed Amdir to take his arm and embrace him, but he never took his eyes off the dwarves. "You keep strange company, Cousin."
Thranduil heard the slight tremor in his father's voice and tightened his grip on his sword.
Amdir held on to Oropher's elbow. "My guests from Moria are here to talk about providing us with much needed weapons."
"Then I will return to the Greenwood until your 'guests' have left," Oropher said.
The dwarves stirred under his venomous gaze. Oropher and Amdir spoke in Sindarin, but
the dwarves clearly suspected they were the subject of whatever Oropher said and that his words were unflattering. A dwarf with an axe, whose relatively short beard proclaimed his youth, muttered in guttural Khuzdul to the one next to him, then snickered. Heat rose into Thranduil's face.
"Nonsense," Amdir said. "You must stay and feast with us."
"I will not eat with them. My stomach turns at the idea of even sitting with them." Oropher thrust his jaw out.
Amdir's mouth twisted in exasperation. He turned to a dwarf in a tasseled hood and spoke in Common. "Master Nilin, I invite you and your people to take your ease among the trees. We will feast soon. An attendant can show you where you will stay the night." He motioned to a gray-clad elf standing nearby.
Nilin regarded Oropher with narrowed eyes. "If Lord Oropher is afraid of our presence, we will leave him to yours." He whirled and stomped away after the attendant, his people at his heels. The young dwarf looked back over his shoulder and sneered.
Oropher lunged after them, but Amdir caught his arm again. A shuffle of feet and a buzz of excited murmurs came from the wood elves behind Thranduil. Captain Laegcened sent them a sharp look, and they stilled, but Thranduil knew it would not take much to set them off into a gleeful brawl with the dwarves.
"Come sit with me, Oropher," Amdir said. "You will find our honey mead is excellent."
The muscles in Oropher's back loosened a little, but his tone was still aggrieved. "Why do you treat with them, Amdir? Let them look to the west for gold. They can trade with the Noldor there." His lip curled. "Let them spend their time watching one another for treachery. They can compete to see who betrays whom first."
Amdir sighed. "Come share some mead." They moved toward the log, where another attendant had arrived with cups and a pitcher of mead.
Captain Laegcened turned to Thranduil and his fellow warriors. "You are dismissed for now, but be ready to answer my call. Stay with at least one other warrior. Keep an eye on the dwarves, but stay out of trouble." He ran a fierce look over the group. "If I hear one of you has started anything, I will have his hide for a new pair of gloves. Do I make myself clear?"
Subdued murmurs of "Yes, Captain" came from his assembled charges.
Thranduil heard the whisper of elven feet on grass as his companions wasted no time in getting out of Laegcened's presence, but his eyes were on his father, whose face was still scarlet with outrage.
Beliond tugged on his arm. "I hear drums down that way." He pointed to a path.
"Maybe I should stay here," Thranduil said. If his independent, impulsive father got himself into some sort of trouble, Thranduil wanted to be there. As he watched, Oropher took the place Amdir indicated and accepted the cup of mead.
Beliond and Maltanaur exchanged glances. "Laegcened is right over there," Maltanaur pointed out, "and he just sent us on our way with orders to stay together. I admit a scuffle with the dwarves would be rousing, but they are gone now, and I think Lord Oropher is more than capable of taking care of himself." He smiled. "It is one of the many things we like about him."
"Come now," Beliond said. "Arriel is probably waiting for me. We are in a wondrous wood, and if we follow the drums, we will find mead, food, games, and enough pretty maidens for you each to dance with two at a time." He drew Thranduil along the path.
Maltanaur grinned. "Nindwen would not approve. Thranduil can have the two belonging to me."
"You are not betrothed yet," Beliond said. "A dance would do you good. And a wood elf maiden or two would definitely do Thranduil good."
Maltanaur rolled his eyes at Thranduil. "I believe it must be my friendship with Beliond that makes Nindwen hesitate to accept my suit."
Thranduil laughed and let his worries go. His friends were right. His father could take care of himself, and anyway, Laegcened would cut any challengers into tiny pieces and feed them to the fish.
As the made their way along the path, Maltanaur hummed to the trees. Beliond took up the tune and provided the harmony. Thranduil joined in last, adding his deep voice to the music. There were times when he understood and shared his father's love for these fey, fierce wood elves, although he knew he did not yet feel as at home among them as Oropher did.
The throb of the drums grew louder and now a harp added its voice. The scent of roasting venison drifted on the air, making Thranduil's mouth flood with saliva. Maltanaur's stomach growled. Ahead of them, Thranduil glimpsed movement and heard rhythmic clapping and the melodic murmur of elven voices. They all walked a little faster.
The trees parted, and they stepped into the middle of a small group of elves of Lorinand. They were clapping in time to the music and watching the dancers swirling in intricate patterns in front of them. Heads turned in their direction.
"If it isn't our cousins from Greenwood the Great." An ellon grinned. "Somebody hide the mead."
"Beliond!" cried a feminine voice.
Thranduil caught sight of Arriel, her dark curls in disarray, her face flushed, and the arm of a tall, handsome blond ellon around her waist. Thranduil immediately grabbed for Beliond's arm. Beliond's eye narrowed to slits and his muscles bulged like a deer hide dam trying to hold back a flood.
"And who might you be?" he asked the ellon through clenched teeth. His tone suggested the answer would mean little since the ellon would soon be no more in any case. Laughing, the ellon took a step away from Arriel and raised both hands to show they were empty.
"This is Tinondel." Arriel put her hands on her hips, and glared at Beliond. "Are you being stupid? Stop it. He was dancing with me while I waited for you."
The corners of Tinondel's mouth twitched. "I recognized you immediately. You are everything Arriel described and more."
Beliond let out a low growl. Thranduil tightened his grip on his arm.
Arriel rolled her eyes. "Come." She pushed Thranduil out of the way and slid her arm through Beliond's. "I want to talk to you." She lowered her eyelids and looked up at him through her lashes. "I was hoping you would walk in the woods with me."
Beliond blinked and shifted his attention from Tinondel to Arriel. His tightly set jaw loosened, and Thranduil watched in fascination as a faint blush tinted his cheeks. "In the woods?" he asked hoarsely.
Beliond cleared his throat. "An excellent idea. That will give us a chance to talk."
Someone snickered, but the noise ceased abruptly when Beliond raked the group with a glare. Arriel tugged on his arm, and the two of them walked away to disappear among the trees.
"Laegcened told us to stay with at least one other warrior," Thranduil murmured to Maltanaur.
"Run after Beliond and tell him that."
"I think not."
Maltanaur grinned. "You worry too much. Only a flint-hearted tyrant would keep an elf from 'talking' with his sweetheart. Nindwen and I 'talk' as often as we can."
"That does not comfort me since I could probably strike fire using Laegcened's heart, always assuming he has one of course."
Maltanaur shrugged. "We can cover for Beliond if we have to. I am hungry and thirsty. Let us see if we can find where they are passing out the meat and mead."
Thranduil followed Maltanaur, who sniffed the breeze and led them unerringly to a roasting pit at one end of the clearing. A haunch of venison hung over the fire, tended by two elves, who each clutched a mug of mead in one hand. One of them waved a long carving knife in time to the music.
"Ah, our visitors," he cried. "Are you hungry?"
"As a bear in spring," Maltanaur said.
The elf with the carving knife motioned to the other, who snatched up a piece of flat bread from a platter and held it under the juicy meat. The carver ran the knife over the venison and several thin slices fell onto the bread, which the elf presented to Maltanaur with a bow. They repeated their performance for Thranduil, who imitated Maltanaur and wrapped the bread around the meat. He took a bite and nearly moaned. The venison was superb.
"Mead is over there." The carver waved his knife toward a barrel and a stack of mugs. Thranduil soon found himself sitting cross-legged in the grass, a mug of mead in one hand and a fistful of bread and meat in the other.
Maltanaur sighed. "Could there be a better way to spend an afternoon?"
"Probably not." Thranduil took his last bite of food and washed it down.
"Take off your boots," Maltanaur said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You cannot dance in those orc-spawned-toe-torturing boots. Take them off." Maltanaur jumped to his feet and approached a group of maidens who stood nearby. He bowed. "I know the maidens of Lorinand are kind," he said. "I beg one of you to come with me and help my friend. Someone has most unkindly hobbled him with a pair of the heaviest boots you can imagine. Help me free him so he can dance."
They giggled. A slender, chestnut-haired maiden tossed her head and glanced at her friends. "Surely this warrior of Greenwood deserves our mercy. It is only just that I help him."
Maltanaur led her to Thranduil, with her eyes cast demurely down. "Here he is. You see. He cannot even stand."
Thranduil opened and closed his mouth. The maiden giggled again. She dropped to her knees and reached for a boot lace. Thranduil hastily drew in his feet. "I can do that." He unlaced the boots and drew off them and his stockings. He stood and held out a hand to her. "I would beg that in your kindness you teach me this dance of Lorinand."
She put her hand in his and they ran to join the dancers, the grass cool and soft beneath his feet. He danced with her and then one of her friends and then another. The drum beat out an insistent rhythm, and the dances were faster than the ones Thranduil was used to. His heart thrummed in time to the music, and he found it hard to think of anything but the joy of movement and the sweet warmth of his partner. When he next looked up, the stars were flowering. The venison had been removed from the cooking pit and carried away, probably to serve Amdir and Oropher. The heat of the day had faded and fires blazed here and there among the crowd.
At one fire, Thranduil caught a glimpse of knives whirling in the air. An elf in a brown and green uniform snatched them from the air and bowed to an appreciative audience. A grey-clad elf of Lorinand stepped forward and held out his hands for the knives. The Greenwood elf handed them over and added one more. Thranduil grimaced. Laegcened would be most unhappy if one of them turned up with a gashed hand he earned showing off.
The maiden he was with stretched to her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. "I must go now." She gave him a dimpled smile and darted off into the night. He stood for a moment with his hand on the place where she kissed him. Then he realized he was grinning idiotically, got control of his face, and went to rejoin Maltanaur.
Beliond had returned, but Arriel was nowhere in sight. Some of their other fellow warriors had joined Maltanaur too. They all had their backs to Thranduil, watching something he could not see at first. The group was silent, as if holding their breaths. Then Maltanaur moved.
A dwarf stood in the middle of the circle, using one hand to swirl his battle axe in sinuous patterns. Still one-handed, he flipped it over, caught it, and whirled it in a whining blur.
Thranduil shot a look around the group. The wood elves' eyes shone with enchantment at the dwarf's performance. Not one showed a flicker of concern at the sight of a dwarf wielding the deadly weapon. They are innocents, Thranduil thought. They know no better, and for that, the Valar be praised.
Two dwarves watched from the other side of the circle. The young one who had sneered at Oropher stood there, his eyes on Thranduil, bright with recognition. In a slow movement, he stroked his beard with his left hand, then opened the hand toward Thranduil. Thranduil did not know what the gesture meant, but the dwarf next to the young one stiffened and smothered an exclamation.
"That one wants trouble," Maltanaur murmured.
Thranduil could only agree. He deliberately looked away from the taunter to watch the dwarf playing with the axe. The dwarf's face was alive with concentration and joy. Thranduil could not help admiring his skill and strength. He knew how heavy those axes were.
With a tremendous heave, the dwarf sent the axe spinning high into the air. It whipped through some low branches, showering leaves over the watchers, then spun back to earth, to land in the dwarf's open hands. He paused for an instant, then bowed. The assembled elves let out their collective breath in a cheer.
Just behind Thranduil, a deep voice spoke in Common, softly enough that only Thranduil, Beliond, and Maltanaur were likely to hear. "Oropher's people will be afraid to blink after seeing that."
They all whirled. The young dwarf and his companion had moved around behind them. Maltanaur put his hand on his sword. Beliond took a step forward, a growl rumbling deep in his throat.
Thranduil's heart raced. His friends had no idea what a real fight with the dwarves would be like. "Wait," he said in Silvan. "The little digger spoke in Common because he is trying to provoke a fight. Do not give him the satisfaction."
Beliond's mouth fell open. "We cannot just let it go."
"Let me take care of it," Thranduil said.
Beliond and Maltanaur exchanged looks. Beliond blew out his breath. "You are sometimes a bit restrained, Thranduil."
"Trust me." Thranduil locked gazes with the dwarf. He put his right hand to the hilt of his sword. The dwarf's eyes widened, and he leaned forward onto the balls of his feet. "Maltanaur," Thranduil said, "will you do me the honor of letting your sword dance with mine?"
Maltanaur raised an eyebrow. "If you like." He drew his sword. The dwarves jumped, their axes held in front of them. Maltanaur turned his back on them and walked to the center of the circle of elves. Thranduil threw the young dwarf a grin and followed.
He and Maltanaur stood facing one another with their swords held point up. The crowd buzzed. "A dance," crowed a Lorinand elf. The elves backed away to give them room. The dwarves lowered their axes and moved cautiously to stand in the circle of onlookers.
"Count, Beliond," Thranduil said.
"One, two, three, go!" Beliond said.
Thranduil flicked his sword around in a circle, right to left, while Maltanaur moved in the opposite direction. The tips of their sword passed within a finger width of one another's bodies, and they let their momentum whirl them around and back to face another again. Their blades swung down in side-by-side vertical slashes. Thranduil felt a puff of air against his tunic from Maltanaur's point. His heart pounded. His blood warmed. Every bit of him felt alive as he moved his sword in perilous harmony with Maltanaur's. He had learned this dance from his Silvan friends and, despite the fact Laegcened had forbidden them to practice it, he had danced it often enough that he knew just how dangerous it was. He dug his bare toes into the earth. Slipping now would be a very bad idea.
The crowd swayed in time with their movements, drawing breath when they did, letting it out in puffs of delight. Half-step by half-step, Thranduil edged to his left. This was tricky. If Maltanaur was too absorbed in the dance to move with him, Thranduil was likely to find himself minus an ear. But Maltanaur's eyes widened minutely, and he matched Thranduil's progress.
Thranduil took a deep breath. He was right where he needed to be when he needed to be there. He and Maltanaur circled their swords yet again and whirled like tops. As Thranduil turned, he stumbled and lurched toward the dwarves. The momentum in his sword arm carried it around so the tip slashed under the young dwarf's chin.
For an instant, everything stood still. Then the dwarf's beard drifted to the grass, like down blown from a thistle.
"I beg your pardon, Master Dwarf," Thranduil said. "What a terrible accident. I hope I did not frighten you."
The dwarf let out a roar and charged toward him. His companion grabbed at his arm, and Maltanaur and Beliond jumped between him and Thranduil, their swords raised. The other wood elves hastily shuffled the maidens out of the way, then crowded forward. Their faces were stony, but Thranduil had no trouble seeing the glee in their eyes.
"Get out of my way!" the dwarf shouted. "I'll take his head off!" Whatever else he had to say was lost in a string of Khuzdul as he struggled to free himself from his companion's grip.
"What is Arda is going on here?" demanded an authoritative voice.
Without thought, Thranduil stiffened to attention. From the corner of his eye, he saw Maltanaur and Beliond doing the same thing as Laegcened shoved his way through the crowd. He glared at the dwarves. "What are you complaining about?"
"This tree-hugging, flighty-brained fool of a wood elf cut my beard off!"
"He means me, sir," Thranduil said.
"I know who he means," Laegcened said.
Thranduil grimaced. "I slipped, sir. I am sorry. It will not happen again."
Laegcened's eyes drilled holes straight through Thranduil's forehead and into his brain. "I see," the captain said. He glanced at the angry dwarf. "He slipped. He is sorry. It will not happen again."
The young dwarf sputtered, but the dwarf who had been showing off with his axe had joined them now too, and the two older dwarves each took an arm and dragged the younger one away, his shorn jaw still quivering in protest.
Laegcened sent a steely-eyed glare at the mob of wood elves. He jerked his head toward Thranduil, Beliond, and Maltanaur. "Except for these three, you all can go." They backed cautiously away, then turned and fled. Laegcened faced Thranduil, Beliond, and Maltanaur. Impossible as it seemed, Thranduil's back straightened even further.
"What in Arda did the three of you think you were doing?" Laegcened hissed. "I tell you to stay out of trouble, and I arrive on the scene in time to see you dancing with swords and deliberately baiting a dwarf. And do not give me that ridiculous tale that cutting his beard was an accident. None of you has been capable of that kind of accident since you were of age. I trained you. I ought to know."
"Beliond was not dancing, sir," Maltanaur offered.
"Beliond was here," Laegcened said. "Whatever you two were doing, he was part of." He inhaled noisily as if the air were fighting against him, frightened of being sucked up his nose. "You three are on report. You will spend the next month mucking out the stables and doing any other unpleasant task that occurs to me."
"Yes, sir," they chorused.
"Leave us." Laegcened flicked his finger at Beliond and Maltanaur. They looked sympathetically at Thranduil and withdrew to shelter behind a lilac bush.
Laegcened regarded Thranduil silently for long enough that Thranduil had to resist the urge to shift from foot to foot. "Thranduil, there is what one can only hope is a slim possibility that you will one day have to govern your father's people. This kind of foolishness does not bode well should that need arise."
Thranduil thought about that for a moment. It was probably unwise to argue, but Laegcened seemed to him to be missing a crucial point. "My adar says you cannot govern wood elves, only serve them and lead them."
"Paah," Laegcened spat. "Then you can 'lead' your friends straight to the manure pile." He turned on his heel and marched away. Thranduil's knees sagged. Beliond and Maltanaur came up to stand on either side of him.
Beliond waited until Laegcened was well out of earshot, then took his time expressing his opinion of the captain's parentage, physique, and personal habits. Thranduil listened with interest. He was always trying to expand his Silvan vocabulary.
Nonetheless, when Beliond was done, Thranduil said, "That stunt probably was stupid. The consequences could have been serious."
Maltanaur smiled slowly. "Stupid, yes, but you must admit it was fun."
Thranduil could not help laughing. "That dwarf called me a wood elf, so stupid and fun probably describe my actions."
Beliond shrugged. "You are a wood elf. If Arriel and I have a son," he went on, "you must both promise not to tell him anything about our youthful actions."
Thranduil blinked at him. "You and Arriel are talking about elflings?"
Beliond smiled smugly. Maltanaur clapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "I will not tell your children if you will not tell mine."
"Agreed," Thranduil said.
"I think I need another mug of mead," Maltanaur said. "Baiting dwarves is thirsty work."
Thranduil noted without comment that Maltanaur used the Sindarin words for 'mead' and 'thirsty.' They all used words from one another's language all the time now. That was not too surprising, Thranduil supposed. The languages were akin, just like they were.
He strolled through the starry night to get a drink to share with these exciting, dangerous, slightly mad people who were his people now.