Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me. Happy Birthday, Dot!
The Ties that Bind
Ithilden inhaled the scents of damp earth and leaves ready to uncurl and felt his blood flow a little faster at the unmistakable odor of spring. Or rather, what would be spring as soon as some elf in the treetops spotted the first curved sliver of rising sun. All around him, the woods rippled with the awakening song of the trees and the melodic murmur of elves rejoicing in the blossoming of a new year for the forest and all those who shared its life.
Next to him, his mother shifted her unfamiliar weight and rubbed her hands together.
"Do I have your gloves?" He groped at his belt for them, at the same time searching his memory to see if she'd asked him to bring them. She had trouble tending to practical matters these days. All her attention seemed focused inward on the baby.
"I was in such a hurry to be out that I left them on the table." She gave him a quick smile before turning her wistful gaze to the maple under which she and Ithilden stood. She smoothed her hands over the front of her gown, where her cloak didn't quite close over her pregnancy.
She probably wished she were in the maple rather than under it. Not much chance of that. If she so much as reached for a branch, his father would swoop after her and drag her back to the forest floor. Even now, some distance away, eyes half-closed, listening to the woods, Thranduil's hand ghosted down the front of his body, echoing his wife's movement. Ithilden had never seen the two of them so wrapped up in one another.
His father let out a long breath, opened his eyes, and smiled.
"There!" someone called from a nearby oak, narrowly beating out half-a-dozen other voices.
Amid a flurry of cries, his father sang the first notes of the song Ithilden had sung each New Year morning since he'd been the size of three nearby elflings holding hands and jumping up and down. Like the elves scattered in and among the trees around them, he picked up the song now, pleased that even in her current distracted state, his mother still sang the sweet soprano counterpoint to his deep notes. He'd always liked this song, so full of joy over the bonds tying his father's people to the woods and one another.
Everyone else must have liked it too. The gathered elves sang the song through, then enthusiastically started it again. All around Ithilden, they joined hands to dance in long lines winding among the trees.
His mother took a step toward the nearest line, and Ithilden grabbed her arm. "Adar would have my hide."
"I suppose he would." She sighed but allowed him to tuck her hand into the crook of his elbow.
Elves danced into the cloud of bluebells between them and Thranduil, but Ithilden was tall enough to see his father's head bent to listen to an elf Ithilden vaguely recognized. Many elves traveled to be with family during the Spring Festival, so in the last few days, he'd renewed a number of old acquaintances. He fished for this one's name. His father would expect him to remember.
"My lady," a male voice said. "Lord Ithilden."
A thin-faced elf with slanting brows had his hand over his heart as he bowed to Ithilden and his mother.
"How good to see you again, Hildor," Lorellin said. "And who's this?"
Hildor beckoned to two women, a matron and a maiden, both dressed in the light green traditional to spring. "You both know my wife, Madiel, but I don't believe you have ever met my daughter, Sarith." The two women both curtsied.
Sarith looked up at Ithilden with wide eyes. "You rode through our settlement once with some of your warriors, Lord Ithilden. I was a pig-tailed youngling, so you would not have noticed me, but my friends and I certainly noticed you." Her cheeks rounded into a smile. "You were the talk of the village maidens for the next month."
Aware of his mother listening with raised eyebrows, Ithilden's face grew faintly warm. Then his mother frowned and put her hand on her belly.
Before Ithilden could speak, Gwaleniel, the healer, materialized next to them, a sudden appearance Ithilden found all the more startling because Gwaleniel too was pregnant, though she'd assured Thranduil she wasn't due for another month and would certainly be able to assist Lorellin in her labor. Sometimes it seemed as if each time Ithilden came home, the Watchful Peace had produced a new crop of elflings.
"The king sent me to tell you to go home and rest, my lady." Gwaleniel shot a reproachful look at Ithilden.
As if he had the slightest control over what his mother did, Ithilden thought.
"Allow me to escort you, my lady." Hildor offered his arm to Lorellin.
Ithilden opened his mouth to say he would take his mother home, but she flashed him a grin, put her hand on Hildor's arm, and set off toward the palace. Hildor's wife walked on his other side, chatting away about a friend she and Ithilden's mother apparently had in common. Ithilden found Sarith with her hand half raised and automatically offered her his arm. They followed in their parents' wake, just as his mother had undoubtedly intended.
Sarith cocked her head at him. "Do you remember that trip, my lord?"
"That would be Félas's village." He glanced at her, trying to gauge her age and guess when the trip would have been. She looked barely out of childhood to him, with a light, melodic voice. "We hunted an infestation of spiders there not too long ago. Perhaps that was it."
"I think it was." She shuddered. "My parents had kept me in the house for a week before that, so I knew about the spiders only when my friends talked about them afterwards. I cannot imagine why their parents told them that. Even now, I prefer not to know about dangers like that. How fortunate we were to have you come and deal with them!"
He shrugged but was pleased nonetheless. He seldom heard from villagers once he and his warriors had taken care of whatever danger threatened their settlement.
Ithilden's mother glanced over her shoulder, her face unreadable. Then she turned to take Hildor's hand as he helped her across some stones bridging a stream that flowed across the path. She must be worried about her changing balance to do that, Ithilden thought. Ordinarily she skipped across those stones as fearlessly as a squirrel on a bobbing branch.
Sarith clutched his hand tightly, and he helped her across too. A short distance on, they emerged onto the Green in front of the palace.
Lorellin released Hildor's arm. "Ithilden can see me home from here. Thank you for your help, Hildor. It's been good to talk to you too, Madiel."
Hildor and his wife each reached out a hand to Sarith. "Come, child," Madiel said. "You rose early, and it's chilly. Time to get back to your uncle's cottage to breakfast and a warm fire."
Sarith slid her hand off Ithilden's arm and went to her parents. She took a last look back at him. "I look forward to tonight's dancing, my lord."
"As do I," he said.
She and her parents quickly vanished on a path leading toward some cottages.
Lorellin watched them go. "There was an older sister. Do you remember? She fell in the river and drowned. It was a terrible tragedy."
"I remember that," Ithilden said.
"Hildor and Madiel thought her too young to learn to swim." Lorellin glanced at Ithilden. "What do you think of Sarith?"
"She seems nice enough." He braced himself for his mother's usual matchmaking, but she held her tongue and allowed him to lead her across the Green and up the steps to the Great Doors. "What do you think of her?" he finally asked. She might as well get it out of her system.
His mother smiled at him a little vaguely. "The lace on her gown is made on exactly the same pattern I am using to edge one of the baby's gowns."
He might have known she was thinking of the baby. "I will leave you here, if I may. I need to see to some things in my office."
She stretched to kiss his cheek. "Go. Just come back in time for the feast and the dancing." She entered the palace, and he strode away to the warrior training grounds.
When he entered the outer office, he found Deler and Nithron both waiting for him. They rose, as did his new young aide, Calith.
Ithilden paused at the aide's desk. "I need the roster of messengers for my trip."
"I have not finished it yet, my lord," Calith said. "I am still waiting to hear who the Western Border Patrol has available."
"I need it today," Ithilden said. "I want those people in place when I leave next week."
Calith's face set in an expressionless mask. "Yes, my lord."
Ithilden beckoned for Deler and Nithron to follow him into his office. He seated himself behind his desk and waved them into the chairs in front of it.
"You plan to take this trip next week?" Nithron asked.
Ithilden stiffened. Thranduil had appointed Nithron as Ithilden's bodyguard when he first became a warrior. Ithilden had learned much from the older elf, but he had chafed enough under Nithron's constant scrutiny that he had appointed him his second-in-command and done it publicly so his father would undercut Ithilden's authority if he altered the order. Thranduil had not liked the change, but so far, he had let it alone, and now, when Ithilden was absent, seeing to matters in the field, Nithron and the Home Guard captain, Deler, managed day-to-day matters between them.
"You object to my being gone next week?" Ithilden asked.
Nithron raised an eyebrow, apparently recognizing Ithilden's irritation. "Not object exactly. I am simply surprised. I thought your parents would need you for a while yet."
"You mean because of the baby?" Ithilden shrugged. "He is due tomorrow. They will name him the next day, and then life will return to normal."
Nithron and Deler looked at one another. Simultaneously, they guffawed.
"Not likely." Nithron's eyes gleamed.
Ithilden drummed his fingers on his desk. "He is a baby. From what I am told, he will sleep most of the time."
"Ha!" Deler said.
"I am glad to have amused you," Ithilden said as crisply as he could. "I have been home for a month now, and I need to see how my troops are doing. If you two can attend to the needs of the Realm, I would like to work out plans for your actions while I am gone."
Deler smothered the soft snorts he was still giving. "Beg pardon, my lord. Of course."
The three of them settled down to discuss the dangers Ithilden would be looking for on his circuit of his patrols and the tasks that needed doing at home while he was away. They were covering familiar ground and did so with practiced efficiency.
When they had finished, Ithilden stood to walk the two older elves to the door, but he found Calith standing stiffly in the doorway, holding a sheet of paper.
"I have the messenger roster, my lord. I assume the Western Border Patrol will send whomever you say and will find a substitute if the warrior I listed is unavailable."
Ithilden put out his hand. "Good assumption."
Calith put the list in Ithilden's hand and vanished.
Nithron eyed Ithilden thoughtfully. "Do you miss Anelas?" he asked in a low voice. "He ran this office for a long time, though I seem to recall Thranduil thought him hopeless at first."
Ithilden shrugged. "I gather he and his family are happy in their village. I will stop to see him when I am near there next week."
"Be careful," Nithron said. "That village has a new head, and I remember the elf of old as jealous of his dignity. See him before you see Anelas."
"Of course." Ithilden heard the irritation return to his voice. He deliberately relaxed. "You taught me village politics long ago, Nithron, and I truly appreciate it even if I do occasionally sound like an ungrateful ass. I look forward to the day I can repay your patient care."
Nithron clapped him on the back. "I have told you before, you owe me nothing. I was repaying the debt I owed those who watched over me as a snot-nosed youngling."
Ithilden raised an eyebrow.
"Not that you were ever snot-nosed." Nithron grinned. "Your naneth provided you with handkerchiefs aplenty, as I recall. What you need to do is pass the debt along to your aide or maybe that baby brother, who is sure to cause no trouble at all."
He and Deler left, having the good grace to wait until they were out of the building before they laughed.
Calith had stood when they all came into the outer office. Now he waited impassively for Ithilden's permission to resume his chair. Ithilden felt a twinge of shame over his impatience with the aide.
"Good work on the messenger roster," he said.
Calith's shoulders eased. "Thank you, my lord."
Ithilden went back into his office and resumed planning for his trip. He worked steadily, pausing only to eat the mid-day meal the palace cook sent for him. When Calith knocked on his door to say he was leaving, Ithilden was surprised to find dusk crowding the window.
"I had better be on my way too," he said. "My naneth issued orders for me to home in time to go to the feast."
"I will see you there then." Calith saluted and left. Ithilden tidied his desk and made his way home.
The guard at the door to the family quarters told him his parents were already in the sitting room, so he hastily washed and dressed for the evening's celebration. He draped a cloak over his shoulders against the chill that would deepen in the dark, but for now, he caught it back with wrought silver cloak pin his mother had given him for his begetting day.
He found his parents on the bench before the sitting room fire, with his father's arm around his mother and her head on his shoulder. Neither of them moved when he entered. He hesitated. As so often lately, he felt as if he were intruding on their privacy. Still, on his way home, he'd seen elves gathering on the Green and smelled venison roasting. His father needed to be there soon so the feast could start.
"I am sorry to be late," he said.
His mother blinked and lifted her head. His father stroked her shoulder, then stood, helping her slowly to her feet too. Ithilden picked up his mother's cloak from the chair back over which it was draped. His father took it from him, wrapped it around her, and swung his own over his shoulders.
"No matter," Thranduil said. "Come." With Lorellin leaning on his arm, he led the way to the Green. Ithilden followed in their wake, wondering only half in amusement if they would have spent the entire evening in the sitting room if he had not interrupted their silent communion.
A cheer rose from the Green at their approach, and once they were seated, the servers wasted no time getting the food to the tables. As usual, it was excellent, particularly the mix of mushrooms and spring greens traditional for this feast. His parents ate in uncharacteristic silence.
"I talked to Deler and Nithron about the arrangements for next week," Ithilden told his father. "I know you will be busy tomorrow." He recalled Nithron's and Deler's laughter. "And probably afterwards too," he added, "so I can tell you about them now if you like."
"That will not be necessary," his father said. "I am sure they are fine."
Startled into silence, Ithilden ate his meal and watched other elves chatting and joking with family. His gaze lingered on a year-old elfling at the next table, grasping wide-eyed at a honey-cake the server held out to him. The elfling rammed the cake toward his mouth, smearing most of it over his round cheeks. His family laughed.
Ithilden found himself wondering what his baby brother would be like. He let his gaze drift and caught Sarith with her eyes on him. She smiled, ducked her head, and gave him a self-conscious little wave. He would dance with her later, he decided. His mother would be thunderstruck if she came out of her baby-induced reverie to find him courting a maiden with no prodding from her.
The server approached Sarith's table with another tray of honey-cakes, and her eyes widened like the elfling's had. Ithilden smiled. He found the cakes too sweet himself, but he did remember loving them as a child.
The meal finished. People moved the tables aside, and his father's minstrel stepped into the center of the Green and began to play. People swirled out onto the grassy space. Ithilden turned to his father, but his mother spoke first, her eyes on the night-dark trees edging the Green.
"I love the song of the trees at night," she said. "We should take a little walk among them."
Thranduil pulled her against his side. "You should not tire yourself."
"Adar." Ithilden waited. "Adar?"
Thranduil turned his head. "Yes?"
"By your leave?"
"Go," Thranduil said.
Ithilden strolled around the edge of the Green toward the table where Sarith's family sat. Everyone looked up at his approach. He nodded to them and extended his hand to Sarith. "Would you like to dance?"
Her pink and white face rounded into a smile. She rose.
"Wear your shawl," her mother said, holding out a fragile looking cloud of soft wool. "The night grows cool."
Sarith draped the shawl in a graceful swoop across her back and put her small hand in Ithilden's. Aware of people's eyes on them, he held her a careful distance away as they began to dance.
"You will never guess what my adar decided today." Sarith grinned up at him.
His spirits rose in response to her enthusiasm. "What?"
"We are going to live near the Stronghold for the next year! My adar says we have been parted from our family here for too long and that family matters more than anything, so we are staying." She moved closer to him and lowered her voice as if sharing a confidence. "I asked him if we could do it, and he seldom refuses me anything."
She was close enough that he felt the warmth of her body. "I am glad you have a chance to spend time with your family here," he said, easing slightly apart. She obviously had no idea of the scrutiny under which the royal family lived.
"We will live in the empty cottage next to my uncle's," Sarith said. "Next week, my parents will hold a welcome reception. I hope you can come."
"Alas, I will be away. I need to see to my troops."
Two small lines appeared between her brows. "But there's peace now."
"Not without effort. Spiders still linger in the woods, though we see far fewer orcs these days."
Under his hand, a shiver ran up her spine. "I hate talk of spiders. And why do you have to go? You are the king's son. I know you came to my village, but I thought that must have been an exception. I thought you usually would have people who followed your orders and saw to your safety."
Ithilden smiled slightly. "As the king's son, I am the one who looks to the safety of others. That is what being the king's son means."
She thrust out her lower lip. "That's silly. You should not have to do that."
Both his father and his mother would have raised eyebrows at that one. Ithilden glanced at the head table. His parents were gone. They had vanished from the previous spring's feast too, he recalled, and not reappeared until the next morning, driven inside by a spring rain. The nature of their activities that time had since become obvious, of course. Tonight, his father had undoubtedly taken his mother home.
Sarith pressed closer to him again. "I have yet to see all the trees around here, my lord. Would you show me some now?" She looked up at him from under long eyelashes.
He hesitated, then decided that removing themselves from the assessing eyes all around them was probably a wise idea. "Of course."
He guided her off the Green, and they sauntered along the path, the music fading behind them. Sarith was silent, her pensive face turned up to the treetops. She must be listening to the trees, he thought with a spurt of warmth, learning the fine differences between the song of the forest near her home and the one sung here. He did the same thing when he traveled through the woods. The trees' songs shifted constantly, forming the overall pattern of the Woodland Realm, the home he served and loved with every breath he took.
"Are you sure you have to go?" Sarith stopped, forcing him to stop too. She slid in front of him and leaned close. "Surely you can stay home if you like."
He blinked. The Valar help him. Was she trying to seduce him? He nearly laughed. He was centuries older than this kitten of a maiden. He had long ago decided what kissing meant to him, and it had nothing to do with allowing a sweet-faced thing he barely knew coax him into doing what she wanted.
A faint cry came from somewhere ahead. He stiffened. Surely that had not been his mother's voice? His father had taken her home, hadn't he?
The cry came again. He pushed past Sarith and broke into a run, grabbing for his belt knife and cursing his lack of a sword or a bow. "Go back to the Green and get help," he called over his shoulder.
"What is it?" Sarith's voice was breathless with panic. "Is it spiders? Don't leave me!" He heard her scrambling along the path behind him.
Ithilden knew now where his mother's cries had come from. He burst out of the trees on the edge of the meadow, then skidded to a halt, struggling to take in what he saw.
He mother lay on the ground, covered with a suede cloak Ithilden recognized as his father's. His father stood over her, holding a wriggling, blood-slicked baby. The baby opened his mouth and bleated, his whole body quivering with outrage.
Lorellin raised her arms. "Give him to me."
"He needs to be wrapped." Thranduil's voice shook.
Ithilden rushed forward, removing his cloak. The rough woven fabric grated against his fingertips, and he hesitated. The baby's cries grew frantic. Ithilden spun to see Sarith, face milk pale, gaping at Thranduil and Lorellin. "Give me your shawl," Ithilden said.
Her head jerked up, and she stared at him. "He's all messy."
He snapped his fingers. "Now!"
Hesitantly, she slid the shawl off her shoulders. Ithilden snatched it away from her and struggled to swaddle the squirming, mewing baby. How could someone so small be so hard to manage? Thranduil took the baby back and crouched to lay him gently on Lorellin's breast. The baby quieted.
Thranduil sat and put his arm around Lorellin's shoulders, lifting them into his lap. He stroked her hair. "That was quick."
She laughed a little weakly. "Eilian was in a hurry to be in the woods."
"Go back to the Green, Sarith," Ithilden said. "Get the healer."
He whirled and glared at her as fiercely as he had ever glared at an erring warrior under his command. "Go!"
She ran off into the dark.
Ithilden gazed down at his parents. "I thought this was not supposed to happen until tomorrow." Now that he was not issuing orders, his own voice sounded dazed to him.
"We were not concentrating on the precise time," his father snapped.
"Greet your baby brother, Ithilden," his mother said. "In years to come, you can tell him about this night and what trouble he caused." The baby squawked, and she cooed at him. "Your big brother will be there for you always, Eilian," she whispered, "just as he was tonight. He will sound fierce, but never believe that is all he feels." She kissed the baby's head. "After your ada, Ithilden is the person I trust most in the world to love you and look after you."
Ithilden could not help a wry smile. "That is because I have been lucky enough to be well looked after myself when I needed it." He dropped to his haunches next to his parents.
His mother smiled at him. "You still need it sometimes, you know."
"I suppose, but I will be glad enough to pass along the gifts I have been given." He extended his forefinger to lightly stroke the baby's cheek. "Mae govannen, Eilian. Welcome to this family and these woods."
Under the stars, among the trees, the four of them settled down to wait for the healer and the other help sure to arrive once people knew of their need.