"Here you go," Irieth said, and Elara felt the helpful elleth guide her fingers along the edge of the new fabric in her lap so she could feel where the seam needed to go. The slender needle, freshly threaded with fine but strong silk, was pressed against the blind woman's forefinger to be clasped. "And here's this." Elara felt the hardened rawhide fingertip cover the others called a "thimble" being slipped over her middle finger next to the needle.
"Thank you." Elara smiled and ran her hand down the fine silk thread to make certain a small but essential knot would anchor her work. She took her first stitch and let the gentle hum of voices around her settle back into her mind as she carefully pulled the thread through all the way to the end and set to work stitching a straight seam. The seamstresses sitting around her had all been friends for much longer than she'd been alive – she didn't really want to think how long they'd all known each other, for such thoughts only served to make her uncomfortable in her new home. She was complimented and content just to have been included in their midst of late.
"They say a group of the Second-born from Esgaroth will arrive today," Giluín was reporting in a very confidential tone. "I heard Tarion grumbling to Dauglóren about them yesterday. "It seems the Men wish to renegotiate the borders again."
"Baralin says that he thinks the men already encroach – and only now seek permission for actions they've already taken." Auriel's voice was sharp and critical. "He says that men understand that the age of the elves is ending and seek to further their reach into our realms while we still linger close enough to protect them."
"Aran Thranduil has always been too giving when it comes to the men of the Lake," Gelírwen announced firmly. "He rebuilt that town after Smaug was killed, even though he didn't have to – and then, when the Enemy was burning our forest, sent out some of our warriors to defend them. I don't know what he sees in the Aftercomers."
Not for the first time, Elara felt grateful that she always took a spot at the very outside of their circle, in what would otherwise be thought of as a back corner. Most of the time, the discussion topics for the group tended toward general gossip – who was courting whom, who was being sent off to the fences and why – along with general trivial community news. Once in a while, however, the discussion would veer into areas that she found difficult to hear – like this one – and at those times, she wished that simply getting up and walking away was an option for her.
After over a year in the Elvenking's hall, Elara had few illusions. While most of the Elves were very kind and considerate of her, she knew that her continued residence within the hall had caused some controversy among some of Thranduil's people. Not long after Elara had been the King's chosen companion at the MidSummer celebration, Míriel had quietly cautioned her that a small but vocal group suspected her of trying to bewitch their King and to be careful in her dealings with those she didn't know well. Part of the reason that Míriel had asked that she be allowed to join this group of seamstresses and broideresses was to both let Elara know more of the community she lived in now and to let others get to know her as well, thinking familiarity might quash some of those ill feelings. And most of the time, Elara didn't regret coming here – she had made at least one new friend with Irieth.
But never before had she heard such open rancor toward her people – and she shrank back into her seat as far as she could so that her heritage might not be remembered and brought forward as a discussion topic.
"The Men of Esgaroth supply us with fish and grain aplenty, in exchange for the things they ask of us," Anariel, Tarion's wife declared quietly. "My husband spends time each year checking the fences between Eryn Lasgalen and mortal lands, and he finds little to complain about except the constant mortal need to re-examine agreements unnecessarily every few years – but he knows that comes from having to deal with a new set of leaders every few decades or so. If you heard him complaining, it was about that – something which is a matter of lifespan - and not about how the Second-born are trying yet again to out-maneuver the King."
Elara could hear the exasperation in the gentle elleth's voice. Tarion, being the King's seneschal, would know more about the situation than nearly anybody else, giving Anariel's words as his wife a weight the others' didn't have. "Besides," she continued, "other than those who come to treat with Aran Thranduil, our people are generally only legends to them. The Second-born have never sensed an age of the elves in the first place, much less realized that such a time is drawing to a close."
"Is this true, Elara?" Auriel asked sharply, and the hum of voices fell silent as Elara realized that all of them were probably looking to her for an answer.
"Is what true?" she asked carefully, putting down her sewing to concentrate on the question being asked.
"What do your people really think of us?" Giluín demanded. "Do you have a sense of coming into an age of dominance over the elves and the land?"
"No, of course not," Elara answered honestly. "For the most part, my people are far more concerned with just surviving through to the next year to worry about a people that many of us believe are only tales told to children at bedtime. Anariel's right about that."
"But didn't your folk ever wonder where your leaders went when they would come to speak to Aran Thranduil about resetting the borders all the time?" Auriel asked, her voice heavy with skepticism.
"I never lived in Esgaroth, so I never knew the men came here," Elara told her with a calm she didn't feel inside. These questions felt almost like challenges – dares for her to contradict what the ellith were saying. "I was born in Dale – to the north. And the settlement I was in just before coming here was just outside the fences, as you call them here. Our menfolk went to Esgaroth for any community business, as we had agreed to function under Esgaroth's auspices. As for me, I was too busy working the garden and taking care of my husband's house to worry about what might live in the forest except that it might threaten Timon."
"Is it true your husband cut down trees and then sold the wood to those in the towns?" Gelírwen asked then.
"No – that was contrary to the laws of the settlement," Elara stated firmly, a little aghast at such an outrageous claim. "We were told that we had been granted permission by the Lord of the Forest to gather the deadwood from the forest only – and cut only those trees at the very edge of the forest necessary to build our homes."
"But didn't they tell you who the Lord of the Forest was?" Auriel asked scathingly.
"No – and we didn't think to ask. It was enough that we had permission to make our lives there and build our homes," Elara's calm façade faltered. Did they truly believe all these lies about her and her people? No wonder they were so distrusting of her! "Excuse me…"
She carefully tacked the needle into the material at the place she'd been working and slipped the thimble from her finger. "Irieth…" she called as she rose to her feet, holding the little bit of dried rawhide out.
"I'll give it to her," Auriel told her with thinly veiled contempt, and Elara felt the thimble snatched roughly from her grasp. "Go on, little mortal. Run to Aran Thranduil and tell him what a horrid lot of ellith you've been with today."
Elara put out a hand and found the wall of the community room as she rose and then followed it to slowly put the cluster of murmuring ellith behind her. In time, she found the door and finally moved out into a wide corridor, pausing to think. She had a vague idea of the direction she needed to go to find the door to her apartment, and a need to get safely behind the closed door again. How long it might take her to get there didn't concern her at the moment – getting away from the hostility of the others did.
"Elara, I'm sorry." Irieth's voice sounded behind her, and then a gentle hand guided hers to an elbow. "They can be horrid sometimes, can't they?"
"It's not your fault," Elara murmured softly. "I know I'm a burden." Burden or not, she breathed a sigh of relief for receiving guidance from a friend. The Elvenking's halls were confusing and very extensive. She didn't want to get lost again.
"You are no burden! Your seams are among the straightest and strongest – and some of our people ask to have you work on their garments – or didn't you know that?"
Elara blinked. "Really?" She – or at least her work – was valued?
"Really! Those ellith in there are just bitter that you seem to have attracted the eye of the King, when none of them have been able to even get a chance to talk to him lately." Irieth snorted. "You would think they weren't aware that our King is married and has no desires of that kind."
"They're jealous of me?" Elara paused in her walking. "Why?"
"For a very long time, Aran Thranduil has escorted many of the young, unattached ellith to MidSummer or MidWinter celebrations – to the point that there is a sort of unofficial contest to see which one he will choose each time. When he chose to escort you instead of one of them at MidSummer, there were several disappointed females, as you can imagine."
"But I didn't ask to…"
"They don't care about that. All they care about is furthering their own positions as desirable mates with some of the warriors who now spend more time in the halls than on the fences – and pointing to time spent in Aran Thranduil's company seems to be something they think helpful in that respect. You have become an obstacle in that pursuit." Irieth sounded as disgusted with the ellith as they had sounded of Elara. "I just hope that what happened in there now doesn't mean that you're going to stop coming to join us?"
Elara's shoulders drooped as she moved forward again. "I'm not welcome, Irieth – I know that. It would be better if I did my work in my rooms from now on, as I did before."
Irieth grew quiet for a moment as she guided Elara around a sharp corner and down another corridor. "I can't lie and tell you that there aren't some who find your stay here uncomfortable. And I cannot tell you that the amount of time Aran Thranduil spends with you hasn't caused comment and hard feelings among the small-minded. You heard three of the most outspoken among them just now. But those who are unhappy are a small minority. The rest of us see Aran Thranduil smiling a little more often than he has for a long time – and laughing as he talks to you at feasts. We know that you do us good by making our King remember what it is to enjoy life, and so we don't begrudge you your life here."
Elara could feel the heat rushing to her scarred cheeks. "Thank you." Irieth's words had taken much of the sting from the exchange she'd just walked away from.
"If you won't be coming back, then would you mind very much if I brought my work to your room to join you? I don't like to work alone, and I don't really want to spend much time with those crebain right now either."
"Aren't they your friends?"
"They are ellith I've spent a very many years with," Irieth answered carefully. "But I don't know that I'd want to call some of them friends. My father is one of the cooks in the royal kitchen – not a warrior or someone of higher rank. Auriel or another of her group make sure that I don't forget that very often." There was a quiet moment. "I'd really rather spend time with someone more pleasant to talk to, if you don't mind."
Elara smiled. "Then I'd like very much to have you come work with me."
"Oh, good!" Irieth leaned into where she held Elara's hand. "And here you are." She pushed open the door and let Elara step past her into her comfortable and familiar rooms. "Is there anything I can do for you, now that we're both a little at loose ends?"
"No," Elara shook her head. "I think I'm going to rest for a while."
"I'll tell Míriel that you're back here already, so she doesn't go looking for you later in the common areas, and I will see you in the morning."
Elara thanked her friend and closed the door. She carefully counted her steps forward and then to the right and easily found the chair that was situated close to the small hearth. Even though the fire was banked, the room was comfortable; she sank into the chair and relaxed back. Her eyes drifted closed, and she dozed.
A soft knocking at her door roused her some time later – and Elara only realized that a number of hours had gone by from the stiffness in her neck and shoulders from falling asleep in her chair. "Who is it?" she called out, straightening and running a hand over her hair to smooth it.
She heard the door open. "I am sent by Aran Thranduil, Lady Elara," came an unfamiliar voice. "He bade me fetch you to him – he tells me he has a surprise for you."
Elara smiled. Thranduil had been busy for weeks with directing the harvest and securing enough to feed his people for the entire winter, and the occasion for feasting hadn't come about as much lately as it had in the past. Figuring he didn't need to worry about her along with everything else he had to do, she had carefully kept her mind on the details of her sedate life – her sewing, her visits with Míriel and her husband, Randirion – and deliberately not attempted to make use of the strange silent form of speaking they now shared. And while, from time to time, she'd felt the softest brush of concern whisper across the back of her thoughts that was his checking up on her, she knew that the King had kept his thoughts to himself as well. So it would be very like him, knowing his love of teasing and surprises, for him to do such a thing to break the monotony.
"Give me your arm, then," she directed, pushing herself to her feet and reaching out to the person owning the voice. A hand caught hers and tucked it into another high arm. "Where are we going?"
"That is the surprise, Lady – I dare not say," was all the answer she could get. Her escort fell silent and led her at a fast pace.
When she felt chilled air on her face, she turned in concern. She hadn't been told to bring a cloak. "He's outside?"
"It's just a little ways further, Lady," her escort urged her, tugging now at her hand to get her to move faster.
Her escort pulled her along rapidly, not seeming to care when Elara's foot would catch on the uneven ground and nearly cause her to fall. "We're almost there," the unfamiliar voice urged, and Elara felt a chill of fear begin to well up. "He's just ahead."
"Sire?" she called out – and suddenly her hand lost contact with the guiding arm it had been resting on. "Wait! Where…?"
Silence reigned around her – a silence profound and unbroken by even a breeze. Not even the sound of a footfall could be heard.
Elara put out her hands in front of her, but found nothing – wove them back and forth, but nothing met her touch. She swallowed back a sob of real fear, never having been utterly abandoned in a large, open space without guidance before. The King wouldn't have done this to her – would he?
Elara? She could feel his confusion and concern at her breaking into his mind in this way, and it only served to worsen her concern. A moment passed, and then his deep voice sounded in her mind again, this time terse. You are frightened. What is wrong?
He said you sent for me, she choked on a sob and took a halting step forward, hands held out to the empty air. I don't know where I am. He left me alone out here. I'm cold…
Confusion exploded into a brief and incandescent flare of anger, which immediately diminished into worry. I sent no one for you – nor would I have called you outside now, as a storm even now threatens. I've been in meetings all day. Who told you this?
I don't know – I didn't recognize the voice. She took another step, tripped and fell – and landed hard with her forehead crashing into a tree trunk. A silent brush against the back of her mind whispered an apology that only barely registered through the pain that overwhelmed her mind.
Thranduil's voice in her mind became urgent. Stop moving! I'm coming for you!
Elara leaned against the tree and strained to hear the slightest sound, in her desperation actually finding solace in the gentle pulsing that lay just barely within the reach of her senses. She sighed in relief when she finally heard footsteps moving steadily in her direction. But then she heard a gravelly voice she'd never heard before – a human voice, not Elven – and her blood chilled. "Hoy, Borod – hold up! Who's this?"
Rough hands dragged her to her feet. "By the Powers, Davin, it's a woman."
"Elf or mortal?"
Elara's head was twisted and her ears fingered. "She's one of us." Her chin was lifted. A third voice exclaimed, "Will you look at that? She's been hurt - bad."
"Leave me be!" Elara cried out, trying to pull her arms loose from the tight hold on them.
"Don't be foolish, woman. This is no place for you to be – don't you know, them Elves what live near here will eat you…" A fourth voice moved steadily forward.
"Stop that, Borod." A moment of silence stretched, and then, "You can't see, can you?"
"Damned Elves – they must have done this to her!"
"Where's your home, girl? You can't be from around here…"
"I live in the Elvenking's halls," Elara managed finally. "Please, take me back…"
"Back there? What would Elves be wanting with a blind one like you, all scarred and ugly?" Rough hands circled her waist, and the fourth voice lowered provocatively. "Now, I could be convinced to give you a warm place by my fire – even to forget your scars. All you'd have to do is give a little…" Suddenly there was a face in front of hers, very close, the breath stale and sour.
Elara squirmed desperately.
"Daro!" came a sudden shout from several Elven throats a short distance away. The man who held her flinched hard.
"RELEASE HER!" thundered a deep voice that made Elara cry out in relief.
Rough hands thrust Elara behind someone, preventing her from moving toward the one she knew had come for her. "This is a just a poor, lost, mortal woman, yer Worship – we found her wandering around here. We'll take her off your hands – back to Esgaroth with us…"
"You will release the Lady, or my archers will drop you where you stand," Thranduil's deep voice sounded angrier than Elara had ever heard him.
"Lady?" The third man's voice was thick with disbelief. "You call this a Lady?"
"You can't keep her prisoner…" the first voice began to argue. "You may be King here, but you have no right…"
"I'm no prisoner!" Elara once more began struggling against the hands that restrained her. "The Elves rescued me – took me in. Let me go!"
Thranduil's voice sounded again, this time so low and lethal that it brought the hairs up on the back of Elara's head. "If you do not release her this moment, I swear by the Valar that I will tell my archers to shoot." He paused. "Look around you, gentlemen, and ask yourselves if this woman is worth your lives."
There was a long moment of silence and no movement, and then the man in front of Elara shifted aside. "Fine." She felt herself shoved forward.
"Elara?" Huge, familiar hands found hers and pulled her away from the strangers. "You're bleeding. Did they hurt you after all?" Thranduil's voice grew dangerous again.
"I fell into a tree," she gasped and then knew safety as she was hauled carefully into a tight and protective embrace. Her fingers buried themselves in the rich fabric of his robe and clung desperately.
"You have what you sought from me. Go home," Thranduil dismissed the men with restrained anger, "and worry not about the Lady here. She is under my personal protection and stays in my halls because that is her wish – not because I force her to." His arms continued to hold her very tightly, and she eventually heard the sound of the men's footsteps and muttering fading away into the distance behind her. Around her, she heard the small sounds of bowstrings being relaxed from longbows held ready to shoot, and even Thranduil gave a small sigh of relief.
"I'm cold, and I want to go home," Elara shivered into Thranduil's chest.
"Tarion," Thranduil called out, and then Elara felt a heavy and warm cloak wrap about her shoulders. She barely had a chance to take in a breath before Thranduil had bent and, with one hand at her back and the other sweeping behind her knees, lifted her up into his arms. "I will see you safely to the healers, and then I will find the one who led you out here and abandoned you to the Men," he growled with barely restrained fury, whirling with speed and strength and stalking off at a very fast pace in what Elara prayed was the direction of the hall.
"They already resent me," she complained quietly so that her voice would be for the King alone. "Please don't make it any worse than it already is."
"What? Who resents you?" Thranduil demanded of her. "Why have you not told me of this sooner?"
Elara shook her head. "I already receive too much of your attention," she told him and then leaned her aching head against his shoulder. The chilled air soon became warm air against her face, and the low rustling of many voices down long, stone corridors along with the gentle harmonies of an early evening hymn to Elbereth told her that she had been brought back inside the hall.
"You receive as much of my attention as do any of my people who deserve it," Thranduil countered brusquely. "Yes, I have enjoyed your company at feasts and at MidSummer – when it is right and proper for me to choose my own companion. I do not run my choices in such matters through a committee for permission."
"But you need to choose from among your own people," Elara said gently, "and I don't qualify."
"I will not be told whom I may or may not spend time with in my own hall!" the King growled, his voice dangerous again.
"Sire, I'm no Elf!" Elara tried again to reason with him.
"Ffft!" Thranduil spat. "That matters not. I choose my friends as I see fit, and I spend the amount of time with them that I feel appropriate. And, from the sound of what you're telling me, some of those who live here have forgotten these things. They will rue their forgetfulness. Nobody – nobody – will tell me what I can or cannot do in my own hall; and absolutely nobody dares harm one whom I call friend and give sanctuary here." His voice had risen in volume so that all could hear. "I am the King here, and my word will be obeyed!"
Elara cringed, as his near-bellow made an already-painful headache only that much worse, but she also knew better than to say anything. She'd heard more than once that when Thranduil's temper was fully aroused, it was better to get out of the way and stay silent until the storm had passed; but until now, she'd never had reason to wonder if the tales were exaggerations. They weren't.
Thranduil turned the corner quickly and moved through a doorway, gracefully swinging Elara's legs about so as not to bump them on the doorjamb on the way into the room beyond. Elara could smell the familiar herbal scents that told her she was back in the Healing Rooms. "Míriel – someone lured Elara outside and left her out there," he called, his voice urgent. "She's bleeding. She said she fell into a tree…" Less than a moment later, Elara felt herself lowered carefully into a comfortable chair.
"Valar!" Elara felt the healer kneel in front of her and put a very tentative touch to the place on her forehead that ached the worst. "Elara?"
"As Aran Thranduil said, I tripped – and I fell into a tree." I heard it whisper an apology, Thranduil, she remembered with surprise. It knew me.
I do not doubt that. I introduced you to one of the Guardians of our wood – all others in the forest would accept the decisions made that day. Trust me, those men who found you would have had a very difficult time trying to take you out of my forest. Elara felt Thranduil move to her side and then kneel next to her. "How bad is it?" he asked, one of his large hands falling to rest on her arm.
Míriel stood and fetched a basin of water and soft cloths, and then gently bathed away the blood. "Possibly a concussion. She'll have a headache…"
"Please don't speak of me as if I'm not here," Elara complained quickly.
"Sorry," Míriel paused in her ministering and then continued. "You'll have a headache for at least a day or so – and I'll want to see this tomorrow, after you've had a good night's sleep. But with luck, this should heal quickly. She'll recover, Sire," she dared answer the King directly again. "Let me bandage that, give her something for the pain, and then she can return to her rooms. She should rest for today and stay quiet tomorrow as well – but she should not be allowed to sleep for several hours yet. I'll order a light meal sent to her from the kitchens for tonight."
"She'll have new rooms from now on – in the royal wing – you can have the meal sent there," Thranduil stated quietly and dangerously. "I will have her better protected, now that I know that there are those here who would do her harm."
"Oh, Elara!" Míriel's hands paused in wrapping the bandage around her head. "I thought I'd warned you…"
"You knew of this threat too – and said nothing to me?" Thranduil exploded.
"Stop it. This situation is not something that you can just shout and bluster your way through," Míriel told the King bluntly, her own frustrations showing through. Elara wondered just what Míriel was to the King to feel herself empowered to speak to him in such a way – she imagined very few others would be so bold, or reckless, to square off with their King when his temper was up. "You know as well as I that there will always be those who resent the Second-born; and to them, your actions with Elara have been bitter medicine indeed this past year, just as the time your son spends with his mortal friends has been. But I never thought that any would go as far as to try to hurt Elara. Had I thought that, don't you think I would have said something?" Elara heard Thranduil snort in response. "She's my friend too, Thranduil – I care for her welfare as much as you do."
"The elf told me that the King had sent for me," Elara explained, wincing as Míriel worked to tie the bandage in place. "I would never have gone with him except that he said that he'd come on the King's behalf."
"None will have another chance," Thranduil announced firmly. "Is she finished?"
"I need to give her some willow bark for the pain, and then she'll be done." Míriel knelt in front of Elara again her hands patting Elara's knees. "I want you to rest – very little walking for the rest of the day and tomorrow. I will be by, as always, to help you prepare for bed. But if, before I see you next, you grow dizzy while sitting or resting, or if you cannot keep your food down, you will send for me at once – for it means that this is more serious than it looks. "
"I will." Elara waited until Míriel had moved away before speaking to the King again softly. "Sire! You can't put me in the royal wing. It will only make matters worse."
Thranduil's voice was adamant. "I will not allow another attempt on your life, and that's final. My elves will just have to make peace with the notion that, for the brief span of your lifetime, you will be considered as one of my own blood, whether they like it or not."
"But the talk…"
"Let them talk! Let them wonder! You and I both know that there will be nothing to any rumors but lies and empty air – and the exposure of small minds and hard hearts. As I hear of the ones who make such statements, I will take care of the problem myself. But I will take no further chances with your safety – especially when I cannot always be there to protect you myself. And on that, I will not be moved."
"No more arguments. Rest now. I need to leave you for a moment to arrange for your new apartment. You will stay here until I return." She felt him stand. "Baradion, you will stay with the Lady Elara until I return for her. Assist the Lady Míriel as she requires."
"Aran Thranduil." The new voice was a soft baritone, and Elara felt someone new move close to her as Thranduil moved swiftly away. "I am Baradion, Lady, and Marchwarden of Eryn Lasgalen. You will be safe with me."
"Thank you, Baradion," Elara said softly as she slumped backwards, grateful that the chair into which she'd been dumped had such a comfortable backrest. At the moment, her head felt as if it were splitting open.
"Here. This will help with the headache." Míriel pressed a mug into her hand, and Elara took a small sip of the bitter brew. "I put honey in it to make it less awful," she offered when Elara grimaced, "just the way you used to like it."
"I will never like the taste of this," Elara announced and then screwed up her face to take another, more bracing swallow. "I had far too much of it." She brought the mug down to the arm of her chair. "Míriel, I don't want this! Not only am I not an elf, but I'm no royal. Look at me!" She ran her hand over the scars that she knew by touch surrounded her eyes and covered both cheeks. "Do I look like I belong in the royal wing to you?"
"Hush." Míriel put a gentle hand on Elara's shoulder. "You might as well get used to the idea, because that is what's going to happen. Aran Thranduil allows very few to get close to him; and those he does, he holds very close. You are the first new person to be allowed close to him in almost a millennium. And after this latest incident, I would be surprised if he didn't move to protect you."
"Lady," the even baritone of Baradion spoke right after Míriel so that Elara had no chance to respond. "I have known Aran Thranduil for nearly five thousand years. It is as Míriel says – he makes few friends, guards them jealously and suffers desperately when they are hurt – or lost to him. He knows that your lifetime will be short – and that he will lose you very soon, by our measure – and yet despite that, he seeks out your company. From what I have seen and heard of you, you are more deserving of his friendship than many with the blood of the Firstborn. You ask little, presume little, and do as much as you can to carry your share of the load without complaint. My advice to you, speaking as a longtime friend of the King, would be to allow him to draw you close. You give him something and someone new to think of and worry about at a time when he would otherwise be grieving the day his son leaves him to cross the Sea. I still fear for him when I think of that."
Elara closed her eyes and remembered the anguished cry Thranduil had given her that past spring: "I have already lost him, Elara!" Although that had been a moment when they had been drawn together and forged a true friendship through shared grief at the loss of loved ones, in that instant he had exposed a profound grief he was still dreading to experience – one that loomed ever closer on his horizon but which he could not avoid. And yet, in the weeks and months since then, he had nevertheless pushed aside his grief to offer her friendship, companionship, laughter and hope for a meaningful life in the midst of what could have become nothing more than dismal existence. "I owe him so much," she whispered.
"Then let him care for you," Baradion urged gently. "It will do you both good, and Eryn Lasgalen will benefit as well. Those of us who know him know very well that nothing inappropriate would be happening, and we will not think less of you for your sacrifice of pride. And as for the others…" Elara heard a soft but distinctly rude noise, followed by a surprised chuckle of agreement from Míriel. "Aran Thranduil will deal with them, you need have no worries about that – and if he doesn't, I will."
Elara cradled her mug of willowbark tea, enjoying the warmth through the pottery even though the taste of the concoction was enough to make her hold her breath each time she took a sip. Still, the brew was very effective, and she could soon feel the sharpest edge of her headache easing. She pondered Baradion's comment about her allowing this move through a sacrifice of pride. By the time Thranduil returned, she had relaxed back into the chair; and when he gathered her into his arms again, he did so with obvious care.
"Do you realize how absurd this is?" she asked him quietly as he once more carried her through the corridors of his hall himself. She wouldn't think about what the elves of Eryn Lasgalen thought of what their King was doing – or with whom.
"What do you mean, absurd?" he responded evenly, his fiery temper obviously more firmly under control again.
"Here I am, Elara, daughter of Vardon, wood-gatherer of Dale, being carried about the hall in the arms of the Elvenking himself. Do you know how ridiculous that would sound to me two years ago?"
"I find nothing absurd about this at all," Thranduil replied quietly. "I happen to know that the Elvenking values the worth of a person's heart over the circumstances of their birth – and that he's learned that kindred matters little. What's more, he knows the value of a gift from the Valar themselves – and he will not be careless with it. He's no fool, that one." She felt his steps slow. "This door, Baradion – if you will."
"Of course, Sire."
Elara heard the sound of a door opening, and then she was sashayed into a recently warmed room and deposited in yet another comfortable chair. There was a scent of unopened room and stale air still hanging about, but the crackling fire and the scent of sweet herbs was driving it further into the past by the moment.
"Where shall I take these, Sire?" a young and female voice asked.
There was a pause. "Baradion, will you show Amaliel to the royal storage room and help her find a suitable chest for those? You will need several chests before you're done, I would imagine." Thranduil's voice had an odd hitch to it. Baradion murmured his agreement, and Elara heard the two elves leave the room.
"What is it?" Elara asked in concern. "What is this place?"
"There was a time when these were my wife's private rooms, and she stored her extra belongings in these chambers," the King responded eventually. "I never had reason to have them removed – until now."
Elara's mouth dropped open at the idea of just whose chambers she would now be calling hers. "Sire! You don't mean to say that this is where…"
"No – you misunderstand." Thranduil's hand patted her shoulder. "Lalaith and I shared one apartment as husband and wife, as we shared everything else during our life together – and I still live in those rooms. But we each needed to have our own private space, where we could do what we needed to in our positions without breathing down each others' necks. I have my office, and this was her sanctuary, while she lived."
Elara heard him moving about the room, heard small things being moved or put back down again. "As we had arranged for our child to have his own chambers immediately next to ours, there was never a need for me to have this area cleaned out for him." Again he paused. "Until now, I stored all her belongings in here – it will take time to clear them entirely for you and move them into more permanent storage. I'm afraid I'll have to ask your indulgence for a while."
There was a knock at the door, and Baradion had returned with Amaliel and another young elleth. Thranduil left Elara's side to supervise the removal of the rest of Queen Lalaith's belongings, leaving Elara to slump back against the chair and stew. This would definitely make matters much worse with those who already resented her. Now, not only did she have more than her share of the King's attention, but had moved into chambers that had once belonged to the Queen. This virtually confirmed their suspicions and fears.
Not even Irieth's arrival a while later, bearing her meager possessions from her previous abode, could completely cheer her. The elleth did her best, however – telling her that her new home was far more spacious than the previous one and also had an opening into a much larger garden. She even whispered that several doors stood between hers and the King's private chambers – more than enough to quash any real gossip-mongers from speculating that she and the King would carry on in an inappropriate manner out of the sight of prying eyes.
Next to arrive were Anariel and Tarion, Thranduil's seneschal and his wife, both of whom heartily approved of the move. While Tarion joined Baradion and the others in collecting and removing all traces of Lalaith from the apartment, Anariel and Irieth each pulled a chair close to Elara and did their best to reassure her that none who mattered in Eryn Lasgalen would find this development outrageous. In fact, Anariel was livid at hearing what had happened to her, and she promised that she, too, would now bring her daily embroidery to Elara's chamber along with Irieth. She even suggested that there might be others more than willing to distance themselves from the social-climbing crebain – as Irieth insisted on calling them – to join them.
Eventually, however, Thranduil returned to shoo away Elara's visitors, claiming to be working under Míriel's orders to see to it that Elara got enough rest, asking only that Irieth stop by the kitchens to ask her father for the supper tray that Míriel said she would order for her. A quiet word to Baradion put in an order for a tray for himself to be brought here as well.
"You're not going to the Great Hall tonight, Sire?" Elara worried at him as he assisted her over to a small table where two chairs had been arranged after Irieth and Baradion had finally departed. The smell of the food had both tempted and revolted her – and she wasn't certain she was going to enjoy the meal. All she really wanted to do was to undress and lie down in bed and hope that sleep would remove the headache that was slowly returning.
"No. Tonight I wish to spend time with an injured friend." Elara felt her hands gently guided to utensils, dishes and two mugs. He brought her fingers to touch the rim of a mug set back from the rest. "Míriel sent over more willowbark tea – she said you probably would need it before retiring. That's that one." Her fingers were led to the closer mug. "This one is broth – and will do you good."
"I'm really not hungry." As much as she detested the stuff, all she wanted was the willowbark and then her pillow.
"At least drink some of the broth," Thranduil urged, placing the mug in her hands and folding her fingers around the warm crockery. "You've had a shock – your body needs food to repair itself."
Elara took a tentative sip of the broth, glad to hear next to her the sounds of utensils on a plate that told her that the King was diving into his own meal with gusto. Surprisingly, the first sip of broth seemed to settle her stomach to the point that she reached out to her plate and found a thin slice of bread to nibble on.
"I wish you could have seen the faces of the men of Esgaroth when my archers surrounded them," Thranduil chuckled finally, pushing back what Elara expected was an empty plate. "They had been so full of themselves all day – convinced of their own self-importance and my need for their goods and services – and yet, the sight of a half-dozen Greenwood archers with arrows ready to fly at my word had the best of them faded to the color of new snow. If their eyes had gotten any wider, I'm afraid their eyeballs would have fallen to the ground." He chuckled harder. "As it was, I'm certain that some parts of them shriveled up so tightly that…"
"Would you really have ordered them shot?" Elara asked in a small voice.
"Yes, in a heartbeat." Thranduil answered without hesitation, his voice firm. "You belong here now, and they had no business handling you in the way I saw when I first arrived. Had that one taken any more liberties with you than he had…" The deep voice shook. "I'm just glad they were quickly convinced to leave you in my keeping without the need to resort to violence."
Elara sipped thoughtfully at her broth, finding it hard to believe that important men from Esgaroth had come so close to losing their lives over her. Baradion had said that the King guarded those he cared about jealously – and in that tense moment before she'd been released, Thranduil had certainly sounded as if he were ready to call down doom on those men at the slightest provocation.
"Elara?" The deep voice broke into her reverie.
"Hmmm?" She raised her head from her mug.
Thranduil's hand landed gently on her arm. "Tell me about those who resent you. Who are they? I need to know this."
Elara pressed her lips tightly together as she considered her reply. "I can't," she said finally.
"Why not?" He rose and piled the dishes noisily on the tray, his voice betraying him. "Why do you protect them when they tried to kill you – or at least get you carried off?"
"Because," she sighed, "that's what they expect me to do – go running to you and claiming offense." Her mind filled with Auriel's final taunt, and her determination strengthened. She drained the last of the broth and carefully held out the mug in the direction his voice had come from last. "They expect me to take advantage of you – and I refuse to behave as they expect."
"Even in your own self-defense?" he demanded, his voice filled with exasperation, taking the mug from her with gentleness nonetheless.
"But I have you protecting me now, do I not?" she replied gently.
Thranduil sighed heavily and came to kneel down by her chair, taking her hand in his and holding it tightly. "Understand me, Lady. I cannot always be here to protect you. I have a kingdom to run, remember?"
"But is that not why you had me moved into the royal wing – despite the fact that I'm neither elven nor royalty?"
Elara felt Thranduil bend down until his forehead was resting against his hand on her arm for a moment. "You're twisting my words," he accused, raising his head again.
"No, I'm not – and you know it," she told him and used her free hand to reach out and carefully touch his face. "You're angry, and you want to do something to work off that anger – and I'm telling you that is the wrong response, at least, right now."
"I can't just let this go – it will encourage others equally resentful to try something else more cunning, and I told you I'm not willing to risk your life again."
"I'm not saying let it go. All I'm saying is that I can't help you." His face was so smooth and warm beneath her fingertips – except where his brows gathered together. She ran her fingers across the wrinkles gently as if to smooth them herself. "I honestly didn't recognize the voice of the one who pretended to bring me to you – and so I honestly cannot say which one of those I've heard speak less than happily about my situation here had influence over him." Thranduil pushed himself away and stood abruptly, and she knew she had probably disappointed him. "But that is not to say that others might not be more knowledgeable than I, and more willing to tell you what you want to know."
From the swish of the robes, she knew he'd turned quickly. "What?"
Elara pushed away from the table and slowly rose to her feet. "I'm sorry, Thranduil, but I'm tired and ready to be done with the day. Is there any way for you to let Míriel know that I'm just going to lie down without waiting for her?"
She heard the King open the apartment door and speak in a low voice to someone outside, and then close the door again. "Is there anything I can do for you – other than hand you the willowbark tea once you're down?"
"Yes." She reached out a hand into the empty air and, after a long moment, felt a huge hand take it and interweave fingers together. "You can stop fussing and plotting revenge. I'm safe; I'm fed; I have a headache, but I'll survive; and another scar on a face with so many already will not be much of an issue. You managed not to kill the men from Esgaroth, and I believe got the agreement from them that you wanted as well, yes?"
"Yes…" he drew out in exasperation.
She smiled at where she knew he stood. "Then all is good with the world – and I can go to bed with a clear conscience. In which case, you can put in an appearance at the Great Hall before everything is finished for the evening after all, and maybe quash a few more new ugly rumors before they get started."
All of a sudden, she was gathered close and held while Thranduil laughed quietly. "You are impossible, Elara, daughter of Vardon, wood-gatherer of Dale, talking the evil and ferocious and cruel Elvenking of deepest, darkest, scariest Mirkwood out of his rage so easily! What magic do you wield that you take on such a formidable opponent without fear?"
"I have no need to fear him – for, you see, contrary to popular belief, the Elvenking is a very kind person who will not do anyone any harm without good reason," she smiled into his chest. Thranduil smelled of fresh forests and sweet, new-cut grass, and his arms were strong and gentle around her. She had rarely felt so safe and protected in her life as she did at that moment, and she would treasure the memory that he would have killed to protect her deep in her heart to the end of her days. "And there are times – like right now – that I fear that I might learn to like him too well," she added in a whispered confession.
"He would fear the same." Thranduil whispered into the top of her head, "except for two small things. First, he knows that you would no more dishonor the memory of your husband than he would the memory of his wife. And most importantly," he chuckled very softly, "he knows he is far too old for you."
"You're right," she agreed with a soft sigh. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Thranduil really was unbelievably ancient – he always seemed so irrepressibly filled with life and vigor that she couldn't help but be fascinated by his sheer power of will and challenged to keep up with him mentally. And it was also true that, as much as she was beginning to find herself quite fond of the Elvenking, nobody would ever touch her soul the way Timon had.
She pushed away from him as a knock at the door announced Míriel's arrival. "Thank you for all you've done for me today, Sire," she finished formally, now that there were other ears in the room. "Thank you for my life – again."
She felt him lean toward her again, and an impossibly light kiss brushed her forehead. "Goodnight, Elara," Thranduil said, his voice low and warm; and then, with a soft word to Míriel, the King was gone.
"Have you and Thranduil come to an agreement then?" Míriel asked as she unlaced Elara's gown and carefully pulled it over her head without dislodging the bandage.
"Not so much an agreement as an understanding," Elara replied with a smile.
Míriel chuckled. "My sister learned the benefit of looking for understandings more than agreements early on," she adjusted the sleeping gown and then led Elara to the bed to comb out her hair and braid it. "She often told me that Thranduil is far more manageable with understandings than with outright agreements sometimes – although she admitted that it made their arguments very trying."
"Yes. Lalaith – Thranduil's wife – was my older sister. After I married Randirion and came to live with the Sindar, we spoke many times about the best way to manage our head-strong husbands." Elara's jaw dropped, and Míriel chuckled softly. "You see, my dear, those of us who know him well, including family, are not threatened by your moving into these rooms – and many who wonder will look to us for signs of disapproval before causing trouble. They will listen to me, to Randirion, to Tarion and Anariel, far more closely than they'll listen to the likes of Giluín or Auriel. Besides, Randirion and I have our apartment only a few doors down from here – this move means that we'll be able to visit back and forth much more often now. When you're feeling better, I'll have to show you how to find us on your own. Thranduil's right – you will be much safer here, with us."
Then Míriel gently handed a completely bemused Elara the cooled mug of willowbark tea – and when that was gone, sat on the edge of the bed to sing her to sleep.