Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 1. Homecoming
Legolas burst through the open Great Doors into the watery light of the spring afternoon. He slid to a halt and hopped from one foot to the other. Grownups could be very slow sometimes.
The river was loud again today. Usually it murmured of the mountains it came from and the forest through which it ran, but now it roared so fiercely, Legolas could not make out anything at all of what it said.
He tiptoed to the edge of the top step and stretched as tall as he could to see over the railing. A long branch tried to claw its way out of the water. The river spun it and sent it shooting under the bridge, like a big, black arrow. For a moment, Legolas felt dizzy. Then he heard the voice of the person he awaited, and the world righted itself again.
"Mae govannen, Tolas." Nana smiled at the door guard. "Did you manage to finish repairing your roof before yesterday's rain?"
"To my wife's great relief, I did, my lady." The corners of Tolas's eyes crinkled when he smiled back at her.
"An elf who knows how to keep his wife happy is wise indeed," Nana said, and the guard laughed.
Ada said Legolas should not talk to the guards because they were watching out for bad things, so Legolas kept quiet around them. Nana never seemed to worry about that, though, and Legolas could tell the guards liked talking to her. He thought maybe Ada's rules did not apply to Nana because, after all, she was Nana.
"Your cloak is coming unbuttoned, sweetling." Nana crouched in front of him, and he lifted his chin so she could fasten the high-up button he could not see. When she was done, she kissed his forehead. "There you are. Shall we go?"
One hand trailing along the stone railing, Legolas climbed down the big steps. When they got to the bridge, he heard the river pounding on its bottom and slipped his hand into Nana's. "Is the river angry?"
"No. The melting snow and spring rain have filled it so full it does not know what to do with itself. After it has carried all the extra water away, it will sing sweetly once more."
They walked off the bridge onto the Green, and he dropped Nana's hand and skipped away. "We should go by the pond again."
"I thought you might like to go to training fields and watch the archers."
Legolas stopped, took a step in the direction Nana pointed, then looked down the path to the pond. "Yesterday we went to the pond, and Ithilden came by there. Ada says Eilian might come today."
Nana smiled. "Eilian will not come that way, sweetling. Would you like to guess which way he will probably come?"
"By the fields?" Legolas darted toward the training fields path. "We should go there!"
He ran very fast, but he still saw the two boys again. Yesterday, they had been peering into a pile of leaves, probably searching out some animal. He had wanted to stop and look too, but then he remembered one of his brothers might come and he had urged Nana onward to meet them. Today, they both sat in a maple near the river. When Legolas ran by, one of them was dropping something into the water, while the other one clung to the tree's trunk. Legolas knew him. His name was Annael. When there games on the Green, his nana brought him to play, but Legolas did not know which path led to his cottage. And he did not know the other boy at all.
He slowed his racing steps for only a moment. Eilian might be by the training fields even now.
At the other side of the Green, he plunged into the shade of the forest and raced along the path, leaving Nana behind. The trees flew past on either side. "Mae govannen! Mae govannen!" He waved to them as he ran by, and they waved their branches at him, fluttering the pale green lace of their new leaves.
The path turned, and he ran out of the trees into the warm sunshine. In the training field just ahead of him, an archer loosed an arrow. It flew like a hawk to snatch an arcing target out of the sky. He ran to the fence and gripped the railing, watching as more arrows brought down their targets, one, two, three.
A long shadow fell across the grass, and he looked up to find Ithilden frowning down at him, dark brows nearly meeting over his nose. "Legolas, what are you doing here without an adult?" Sometimes Ithilden's voice sounded the way fur felt, but not now. Now it stung like nettles.
Legolas scowled. "Nana is coming."
"Then you should have waited for her. You should not be anywhere near swords or arrows on your own."
"I am here now, dear one, so do not scold." Nana slipped her hand inside Ithilden's arm and stretched to kiss his cheek. "I missed you at both morning and mid-day meal. Have you made a new rule that the Troop Commander is no longer allowed to eat?"
Ithilden laughed. "As soon as Todith and his scouts arrive, I expect to be shut up in meetings with Adar and all my captains. I need to check on novice training and supply requisitions while I have the chance."
She patted his sleeve. "Your adar is lucky to have you managing things so competently, but you must save time for me too. I miss you when you are off seeing to your patrols."
"Sometimes I think you should be the one commanding the troops, Naneth," Ithilden said. "They would do as you like and think themselves privileged to have the opportunity."
"No!" Legolas cried. "I do not want Nana to go away all the time."
Smiling now, Ithilden ran his hand over Legolas's head. "I do not think you need to worry. Adar feels the same way you do, so Nana is not likely to leave you any time soon. I guess she cannot be Troop Commander after all."
The sound of horses made Legolas slip out from under Ithilden's hand and run around him so he could see who was coming. Four warriors rode toward them, leading a riderless horse. "Eilian!" He ran to greet the last rider in the group.
The horses all sidestepped out of his way, and Eilian slid to the ground, caught him by the waist, and swung him around before setting him on his feet again. "You need to watch where you are going, little one! You frightened the horses."
Legolas's face grew warm. He stroked the leg of Eilian's horse. "I am sorry, Rogue."
Nana hugged Eilian, then left her hands on his shoulders. Legolas frowned. She looked the way she did when Legolas fell down and hurt himself.
Eilian made a face. He put his hands over hers and lifted them off him. "I am all right. You worry too much, Naneth."
Ithilden was talking to the warrior who led the group and was the only one besides Eilian to have dismounted. Legolas watched from the corner of his eye. Ithilden had gone all stiff, and he looked at the ground before he looked up again, his mouth in a straight line.
Nana moved toward them. "Mae govannen, Todith."
The warrior put his hand over his heart and bowed. "Mae govannen, my lady."
"You bring sorrow with you, I think."
"Yes, my lady. We bring Fithral home for the last time."
Nana looked at the riderless horse. Legolas looked too, but the only thing on the horse was a leather bag. Eilian shifted from foot to foot, so Legolas thought he might be going to say something, but he turned to watch the archers still shooting on the training field. He looked sad, so Legolas took his hand.
"We will not keep you," Ithilden said. "When you have done with the family, come to my office. I want to know what happened."
"Of course, my lord." Todith spoke to the other warriors. "The rest of you are dismissed. I will see to Fithral."
"I would like to come, Captain," one of the warriors said.
Legolas was surprised to recognize Eilian's friend Gelmir. Gelmir always said mae govannen to Legolas and pulled his braids, but today he acted as if he did not even see Legolas. The fourth warrior was Maltanaur, Eilian's bodyguard, but he did not see Legolas either. He was watching Eilian.
"You do not have to do this, Gelmir," Todith said.
"He was my partner," Gelmir said. "I want to."
"I will go too." Eilian made to remount his horse.
"No, Eilian," Todith said. "They do not need a houseful of warriors when they hear the news. Gelmir and I will do it."
Legolas thought Eilian might argue, but after an instant, he curved his fingers around Legolas's and put his other hand over his heart. "Yes, sir." Eilian must still be doing warrior things then. When he was being a warrior, he almost never argued.
Todith remounted and rode off with Gelmir, the riderless horse trotting along behind. Legolas was glad to see Todith go because without him there, Eilian would probably be just his brother. Unless Ithilden wanted him, of course. Ithilden was a warrior more of the time he was home than Eilian was.
"By your leave, my lord. My lady." Maltanaur saluted Ithilden and nodded to Nana. "I will talk to you this evening, Eilian."
"I am sure you will." Eilian sounded as if that might not be a good thing. Legolas frowned at Maltanaur, who gave a small laugh and rode away.
"It is good to see you, Eilian." Ithilden clasped Eilian's arm. "I regret I have no time to talk now. This evening perhaps." He strode away toward his office, head down.
Nana watched Ithilden for a moment, then wrapped her hands around Eilian's arm and started toward the palace. "Legolas and I have been waiting for you, sweetling. I am happier than I can say to have you home. You are in time for the Spring Equinox Feast tomorrow night, and if you can stay a few days, you will be here for the spring dancing too."
"How long I stay depends on Adar," Eilian said. "He called this meeting of the captains, I suppose? Or was it Ithilden?"
"I believe they decided between them," Nana said.
Legolas skipped along beside them. "I am going to the feast, Eilian. Nana says I can stay up until Menelvagor is all the way above the trees." He looked over his shoulder to where Rogue meandered after them. "Can I ride your horse?"
"Rogue has been looking forward to having you ride him." Eilian swung Legolas up onto the horse's back. "Just yesterday he said, 'Where is that nice elfling who sometimes graces my back? I want to carry him again.'"
Legolas dug his fingers into Rogue's mane. With Eilian on one side of the horse and Nana on the other, he rode toward home. "I know where the oats are in the stable," he told Rogue. "The stablemaster lets me give them to the horses, and I will give you some too." Rogue flicked an ear, so Legolas thought he understood. Rogue never talked to Legolas the way he did to Eilian, but he listened, and Legolas hoped someday he might decide to talk while Legolas was there.
Eilian was quiet, but Nana talked anyway. "What do you think of Amila as a match for Ithilden, Eilian? She seems very nice. I am going to arrange for her family to sit near us at the Equinox Feast. Do you think he will notice, or will I have to shove him into her lap?"
Eilian laughed, so Legolas did too. "Do you matchmake for me when I am not looking?" Eilian said.
Nana patted his arm. "No, sweetling. I do not believe you need my help there."
Eilian laughed again. Legolas looked from his dark head to Nana's, and happiness bubbled up through his chest. He was riding a horse, and tonight, his whole family would eat evening meal together.
Her mind still on Eilian, Lorellin went through the Great Doors into the antechamber to find her husband just emerging from the Hall with Sathien trailing after him.
"I still cannot believe the damage the spring floods have done to that bridge." Sathien twisted the roll of parchment in his hands. "Part of the forest will be all but inaccessible until we make the repair, but I want to make the right decision about how to improve the situation. Floods will come again after all, and really, the forest needs them, so we must allow for them while controlling their destruction, but it can be difficult to do both those things at once."
Lorellin smothered her amusement. Thranduil's shoulders were slightly hunched against the unending assault of Sathien's voice. Over their mid-day meal, Thranduil had moaned about meeting with Sathien, who saw to the Elf Path. Thranduil appreciated the subtle way Sathien kept it usable without disturbing the forest, but Sathien did tend to dither, and even more maddening, he did not seem to notice when Thranduil tried to intimidate him into silence.
When he saw her, he raised a long, elegant hand. "I cannot talk further now, Sathien." He spoke loudly enough to stop Sathien in mid-sentence. Thranduil smiled at Lorellin. "My lady wife is here."
Sathien glanced at her but kept speaking to Thranduil. Lorellin thought he might really be unable to stop, rather like Ithilden when he was debating with himself over how to deploy his troops. "You think stone is best then, my lord?"
"As I have already said, I trust your expertise," Thranduil said. "Do what you think best, but do it quickly please."
Sathien opened his mouth, and Lorellin hurried to take her husband's arm. "We are fortunate you are the one caring for the path, Sathien. I look forward to seeing how you solve the problem."
Sathien blinked as if he had just awakened. He drew himself erect. "Thank you, my lady. With your leave, my lord, I will go and look at the bridge again." Thranduil nodded, and Sathien hastened out the open Doors and down the steps.
Thranduil kissed her temple. "You rescued me," he murmured, his breath tickling the sensitive tip of her ear. "According to the tales, I believe I owe you a kiss."
She laughed and pushed him a hand's breadth away. The guard at the Hall door was smiling at them. "Behave yourself," she said.
He grinned unrepentantly and put his arm around her shoulders. They passed through the doorway into the family's quarters. "Where is Legolas? I thought you and he would be out for your walk."
Worry once again sent her thoughts swirling. "We met Eilian, and he took Legolas to the stables to help groom his horse."
Though Thranduil left his arm around her, he pulled slightly away. "Todith has arrived?"
"Yes, and you need to know he brought a body home, Fithral's."
For an instant, Thranduil closed his eyes. When he opened them, his voice was steady. "Did you set the funeral arrangements in motion?"
"Yes, I sent messages. I need to send just one more asking Nimloth to stay with Legolas."
They stopped in the hallway outside Thranduil's office. "I think Legolas should go to the funeral," Thranduil said. "He behaved well when he was with me yesterday and Galivion stopped me to talk about the news he had just had from Esgaroth."
"No." The word was out of Lorellin's mouth before Thranduil had finished speaking. "He is too young, and he did not even know Fithral."
Thranduil shrugged. "He is old enough to stand respectfully still if he holds your hand, and it does not matter if he knew Fithral. Fithral was one of my people, and he died serving the Realm. We owe him our thanks."
"I know that, Thranduil, but he is barely more than a baby."
Thranduil gave his head a slight shake. "The thing is, my love, he is my baby."
She bit her lip. There was no escaping it then. "Very well. I will try to explain it to him ahead of time, so he knows what to do."
"Thank you. I will join you in the sitting room soon."
"Eilian is upset," Lorellin said.
Thranduil paused in reaching for his office door. "By Fithral's death? I expect he would be. Fithral was a comrade, probably a friend. Of course Eilian grieves."
"I know that." Lorellin frowned. What had she sensed when she touched her second son by the training fields? Was it just grief? Assuming one could ever qualify grief as "just."
Thranduil sighed. "Eilian has been in the Southern Patrol for some years now. He should be accustomed to the loss of comrades."
She sucked in her breath. "I do not want Eilian to become accustomed to death."
At the sharpness in her voice, his brows drew together. "I do not mean hardened to it. You know I do not."
She did know. She had seen that brief closing of the eyes, so like what Legolas did when he wanted to deny the existence of some unpleasant reality, the beets on his plate or the broken vase that had tumbled off a table.
Thranduil laid his hands on her shoulders. "I know this is hard for you. I was at Dagorlad, and it is still hard for me." He kissed her forehead. "I will talk to Eilian. A warrior has to channel his grief and anger into action against the enemy, rather than let it eat his heart."
"You sound as if you are blaming him, but Eilian has never had trouble taking action." Even as she argued, Lorellin wondered if Thranduil might be right. Did Eilian's trouble lie in his affectionate, restless heart? "If you want to help Eilian, you will listen to him, not talk to him."
"Very well." Thranduil lifted his hands. "I will listen, but then I will try to help him do what he must. The Woodland Realm is a dangerous place, and like Legolas, he is the king's son. He cannot allow his emotions to rule him."
"He is a Wood-elf. He cannot stamp his feelings out."
"Nor would I want him to. I simply want him to exercise a little wisdom in dealing with them."
She glared at him, then found herself forced into a rueful smile. "He comes by his temperament honestly, my love. His naneth is sadly given to emotional outbursts."
His tense posture eased. "His naneth is the hearth at which I warm myself when the world grows cold. I will not hear a word against her."
She laughed. "When I first came to know you, I think it was your capacity for poetic nonsense that surprised me most."
He kissed her fingers. "You bring it out in me. And it is not nonsense. It is simple truth." He reached for his office door again. "I will join you in the sitting room as soon as I can."
She left him to work and went on to the sitting room, where a fire burned against the lingering chill of spring. She dropped her cloak over the back of a chair and went to brace a hand on the mantel and watch the flames. Thranduil seldom spoke of Dagorlad. She wondered what had made him think of it today. She knew he and Ithilden had called this meeting of their captains hoping to plan an offensive against the northward creep of Shadow, but surely they did not anticipate losses like those at Dagorlad.
She would wait until after the evening meal before she told Legolas about Fithral's funeral, she decided. He still had trouble thinking too far ahead anyway. She tightened her hand on the mantel. He was so little! But he was also the king's son, and that meant he was bound to duty from the day of his birth. She knew that. She had seen it with her older sons, after all, even Eilian, who was a child of the Peace.
And of course, her own life had changed with her marriage too. How many funerals had she been to as queen? Sometimes she could not understand how people managed to go on. Her own father had ridden away with Oropher when she was too young to remember him, and her mother had never learned to live happily without him. She had waited only to see Lorellin settled in the Stronghold before she sailed West, hoping to find her love waiting for her. Lorellin prayed it had been so.
From a nearby table, she plucked the little chalk drawing of her holding Legolas. It had turned out well, she thought. The artist had captured the wide-eyed curiosity that made Legolas's explorations of the world such a joy to watch. She set the picture next to those of Ithilden and Eilian, drawn when they were the same age, Ithilden holding a ball he had chosen after serious deliberation and Eilian trying to fling himself off her lap. She could not help smiling. They had been themselves from the start, even if they were the king's sons.
She paced about the room. She had been unfair to snap at Thranduil. He worried about Ithilden and Eilian both. The thing was that his belief in duty and discipline far outweighed any worry he might feel. She understood duty. She lived it day by day. But that was her own life, not her children's. When you came down to it, the difference was that Thranduil had been raised to send his sons into danger as his father had sent him, while her every instinct was to protect them from any harm that might threaten a hair on one of their heads.
Light footsteps scurried down the hall, and she just had time to smile before Legolas burst into the room, his face flushed with his haste.
"Nana! Nana! I brushed Rogue and gave him oats, and Eilian says Rogue liked them."
"I am sure he did." She stroked his wispy hair off his forehead.
A grinning Eilian leaned against the doorframe, a pack flung over his shoulder. "Have you considered getting him a pony, Naneth?"
"Yes!" Legolas bounced on his toes. "A pony for me."
Lorellin laughed. "Soon, sweetling." She narrowed her eyes at Eilian. "You are a troublemaker."
He swept his arm forward in an elaborate bow. "At your service." He shifted the pack. "I had better go and get cleaned up before evening meal. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to it."
"Hurry back." She smiled at him. "I missed you."
"Me too," Legolas cried. "I missed you, Eilian."
"Come with me then," Eilian said. "You can help me take the things out of my pack."
Legolas was out in the hall before Eilian finished speaking, and then the two of them were gone. Lorellin listened to their footsteps and voices as long as she could hear them. Sad as she was for Fithral and his family, she could not help rejoicing that all her own sons were safely home.