With a final glance over his shoulder to make sure that no one was watching, Legolas ducked into the clearing.
At the far side of the depression, nestling amongst the great tree roots, sat a crooked little hut fashioned from woven branches daubed with mud. Pale young leaves sprouted from its twisted door jambs and a thin curl of smoke rose from the gap in its crazily pitched roof.
Legolas approached the dark hole of its door, calling softly, "Mistress?"
"Who's there?" came the immediate reply, in a voice that was unexpectedly sharp.
"I am Legolas, of Eryn Carantaur."
"Hmm." An old woman shuffled through the doorway. "Come closer. Yes, closer,"—she stared up at him with milky, sightless eyes—"yes," she said, nodding. "What do you want?"
"I am told," he said, "that you tell fortunes."
There were three slices of tree trunk grouped around the door, and she gestured towards one of them, indicating that Legolas should take a seat. "It's the past that troubles you," she said, waving him away when he tried to help her sit down. "You want to change it."
"I,"—he frowned—"yes. Yes, you are quite right. I do."
The old woman nodded. "Ayleth," she called—and, for the first time, Legolas became aware of a second person, standing just inside the hut—a young woman, with hair the colour of carantaur leaves—"fetch the glass."
For a moment the younger woman disappeared from view; then she emerged, reverently carrying a ball of crystal (veined and flecked with moon- and starlight), which she placed carefully in the old woman's hands, folding the gnarled fingers round its smooth curves. Then she straightened up, and Legolas caught sight of her pale green eyes—Fox's eyes, he thought.
The old woman set the ball in front of him. "Look into it," she said.
Legolas leaned forward and, peering at its polished surface, saw nothing but his own face, comically distorted.
"Look deeper," said the woman.
Legolas leaned closer but, at that very moment, a movement of the younger woman drew his eye, and he saw her cupped hands open, and fragments of leaf and petal fall, and flames leap up, and he caught the scent of something sweet—
"Do not look at Ayleth," said the old woman, "look into the glass."
So Legolas leaned closer still and, feeling strangely light-headed, he gazed past his own reflection, and into the sparkling depths of the crystal ball.
Laughing, Legolas ran up the broad stone steps. The men standing beside the double doors were tall and stern but he gave them his best smile and they let him pass. Inside, the Hall was dark, and smelled of smoke, and roasted meat, and of other, nastier things.
Legolas bounced across the patterned floor, jumping from red square to red square, until he reached the platform, with its carved wooden throne, then turned—
Someone was crying.
Hidden in the shadows, somewhere behind the row of carved wooden pillars, someone was sobbing her heart out.
Forgetting all about his hopping game, Legolas went to investigate.
It was a human elleth, no older than himself. She was sitting on one of the wooden benches that lined the Great Hall, her head bowed, clutching something to her chest.
"Hello," said Legolas, cautiously.
The girl looked up, staring at him with big, tearful eyes, and she was so pretty, Legolas could not help smiling. "What is wrong?"
Legolas hopped up on to the bench and sat beside her, legs dangling. "Why are you crying?"
"Melwenwyn," she mumbled.
Legolas frowned. "What is Melwenwyn?"
She held out the thing she had been hugging.
Legolas looked at it, critically. "A dolly." (His friend Aredhel had a dolly, but he had never seen the point of one himself).
"Melwenwyn is a puppet," said the girl, sniffing again.
"Oh," he said. Then, "What is a puppet?"
The girl slipped her hand under the doll's striped skirt and held her up, wiggling her fingers. The little creature waved. Legolas laughed. "She looks quite like you," he said, reaching out and stroking the long woollen hair, "but,"—he touched a fragment of blue button on the dolly's face—"her eye is broken—"
"I knowwwww," wailed the girl.
"Oh, do not cry," said Legolas, anxiously. He looked about him, hoping to find help. There was none. "We will ask Gwanur Nerdanel. Yes—she will know what to do. She always knows what to do."
"Who—who is—Gwanur Nerdanel?"
"She looks after me when Ada is too busy." Legolas jumped down from the bench. "She will be here—somewhere." He held out his hand. "Come with me."
The girl gave him the puppet. "Hold Melwenwyn," she said, with another sniff.
Legolas watched her roll onto her tummy and, grasping the seat, reach for the floor with her feet. "If Gwanur Nerdanel cannot fix her," he said, kindly, "you can have my Beregond Bunny. He has two eyes."
To his surprise, the girl wailed again.
They found the elleth sitting on the stone terrace, mending a tear in Legolas' second-best tunic. She looked closely at the dolly's face. "Of course I can, Little Prince," she said, opening her work basket and searching through her collection of buttons. "Blue. Let me see… Well, I have this one. Or this."
Legolas glanced at the girl. She shook her head. "Those do not match," he said.
"I do not have an exact match, Little Prince, nor two blue buttons the same," said Nerdanel, "but… I do have two brown buttons."
The girl shook her head.
"What about…" Legolas pointed to the line of small, silver-grey buttons decorating the wide cuff of his second-best tunic. "You could use two of those."
"That would spoil your tunic, Little Prince!"
"No, not if you take one off each sleeve—then it will not show." He turned to the girl. "Would you like those?"
Legolas smiled up at Gwanur Nerdanel.
The elleth shook her head indulgently. "You and the Little Princess had better go and play somewhere else for a while," she said, taking up her scissors.
"When you are older," said Legolas, hopping along the terrace, "I will come back and teach you how to use a bow."
The girl followed him. "Why?"
Legolas stopped, and turned, and the girl—close behind him and intent on stepping on the right stones—head-butted his chest. "Oooof!" He threw his arms around her, to steady them both. "Because then," he said, "you will always be safe."
"I have a sword," she said, "and a staff. So I will teach you as well."
"There," said Gwanur Nerdanel, handing over the puppet. "All done."
The girl looked at the dolly's face. The two silver-grey buttons were just the right size, and the elleth had embroidered a fringe of dark lashes above each one. "Thank you," she mumbled, shyly. She turned to Legolas, her own face transformed by a beautiful smile.
Legolas smiled back.
Suddenly, she leaned towards him, and kissed his cheek.
Then she skipped away, up the stone steps and through the double doors, waving the puppet at the silent door-keepers as she went.
Legolas rubbed his face. "When you are older," he called after her, "I will come back, and I will kiss you."
"Ah!" Legolas' head jerked back.
"Did you see what you wanted?" asked the old woman.
The elf said nothing for a long while, but sat, rubbing his temples and breathing raggedly. Then, slowly, he straightened up, and smiled broadly, and, clasping both hands to his chest, he replied, "Yes, Mistress. It was exactly what I wanted."