Disclaimer: Still not one Elf.
So… I'm back. With many, many apologies and a promise that I will finish this story.
For reviewing, much gratitude to ziggy3, Wtiger5, The Pearl Maiden, adriennevalhalla, Song in the woods, Sanzoline, Silivren Tinu, Eavis, OhShirleyUJest, sph9swc, Sigrid Sigbjornsdotter, yenneffer, XienRue, Me23, awaylaughingonafastcamel, Nimble and Quick, invisigoth3, gginsc, May Arisa, TwinSwords1991, GAH, Thecookiemonster and Sophie Hatter le Fay.
Chapter 12: A Royal Welcome
Legolas slipped back into Minas Tirith with his hood up and his horse on a slack rein. The guards gave him no more than a cursory glance.
The young Elf's mind was working furiously. Speaking to Lord Beron had helped him – a little. The more he involved himself in seeking out Idhren's murderer, the more he realized how little he truly understood mortals. But Beron had reminded him of Thranduil – and Elrond – and speaking to the elderly man had only convinced him more firmly that Nórui and Nemir were both innocent of wrongdoing.
A little eavesdropping at the gates was enough to tell him that his father had arrived, along with several Elves.
As soon as Legolas heard that, he dismounted. He had to get to the palace quickly, and a horse would only slow him down. Patting the affronted animal on the nose and whispering to it to make its way to the top tier of the city, where one of the guards was bound to recognize it and take it to its accustomed stall in the royal stables, he ran through the crowded afternoon streets to a spot he knew would be empty and leapt onto a low roof.
In minutes he had made his way from roof to terrace to balcony up to the palace.
He went to his own room first. He had learnt over time that it was best, when presenting himself with a potentially displeased liege-lord, to look as much like a warrior of the Woodland Realm as possible.
It took him only minutes to change from the Ranger garb Aragorn had given him to his normal Elven clothes: the green and brown tunic and leggings and short cloak of Thranduil's archers. He tucked a pair of knives into his belt. Centuries-old habits were hard to break. Being ready to respond to danger was ingrained in the Elves of Eryn Lasgalen; even now, with the threat of the Shadow ended, Legolas could not bring himself to go completely unarmed.
He went to Arwen's sitting-room first. There was no answer to his knock. He hesitated a moment before pushing the door open.
The room was empty.
He was about to leave when he heard rapid footsteps. He turned, hand automatically going to his knives.
"Prince Legolas!" It was one of the guards.
"Do you know where the Queen is?" Legolas asked.
"I had hoped to find her here. The King – your father, my Prince, the Elven-king – gave me a message for her. He and Prince Faramir and the Lady Éowyn are in King Elessar's study. I believe Prince Faramir has a matter of considerable importance to discuss with the Queen."
"I will tell her if I find her," Legolas promised.
After the guard had gone on in search of Arwen, the Elf paused for a moment in thought. He had to speak to her – the attack on Lady Lothiad, while not fatal, suggested a murderer with far more knowledge of medicine and Elvish lore than they had previously suspected.
But he also had to speak to his father. Lothiad had been 'taken ill' while travelling through the southern reaches of Eryn Lasgalen. There had been the mysterious trade agreement he had found in Idhren's room. Everything indicated that, however improbable the idea seemed, Idhren's murder was connected in some way to the Woodland Realm. Legolas doubted the man had ever met his father – he knew most of the merchants who travelled that far north, and Idhren had not been one of them – but perhaps someone who worked for him –
Legolas hurried to Aragorn's study.
When he reached it, he found the Queen of Gondor already there. One of the other guards had probably found her. A glance at her was enough to tell him she had something to say.
But Arwen's news would have to wait. Thranduil was unfolding himself from the chair by the window, getting to his feet with an unreadable expression that Legolas knew from experience could turn into either merriment or displeasure in a matter of seconds.
Legolas bowed formally. "Aran brannon."
"Legolas. At least you have not come here in the mannish disguise that was described to me." Thranduil crossed his arms. "Eldarion was on the verge of sending a search party for you, but Saeldur and Rochendilwen managed to convince him that would be unnecessary. They were confident you would return here safely."
"They are wise, my King."
Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "Meaning that you are an Elven-warrior who has fought in countless battles and I should not question your ability to keep yourself alive if you go riding alone?"
"No matter what you think, Legolas," Thranduil went on, "I do not doubt that you can look after yourself. You have given me ample proof of it over the centuries. I do, however, question the wisdom of gallivanting across the country without an escort. You know not all Men approve of the Elven presence in Gondor and Arnor."
Thranduil sighed. "I know it is difficult, Legolas, especially after having been a warrior all your life – I know, better than anyone. But you must learn that you cannot…" He shook his head. "We can discuss this later. I take it you had a reason for recklessly endangering your life?"
Legolas glanced questioningly at Arwen, who said, "I have told him everything."
"The trade agreements?"
"That as well," Thranduil said. "I remember no such trade agreements either – and Istuion, I am certain, would have brought them to my notice, given the… unique… situation with Gondor."
"There is more." Legolas dropped into a chair, fingering his knives nervously. "I went to meet Lord Beron… Lady Nórui's father," he added for Thranduil's benefit. "I thought it odd that he should be content to stay on his country estates at a time like this."
"That it is," Thranduil said, and Arwen nodded her agreement.
"He had a reason. His wife, Lady Lothiad, is gravely ill… Nórui and Nemir know nothing of it. I gave him my word they would not hear of it from me, though I also urged him to tell them himself. They would want to know."
"And your manner leads me to believe Lady Lothiad does not suffer from any normal illness."
"No," Legolas said to Arwen. "Lord Beron told me that she was taken ill while on a trip north with her kin. They planned to travel through Lórien and the southern part of Eryn Lasgalen before riding through the High Pass."
"A long journey, then."
"They returned sooner than expected – they were forced to, since Lady Lothiad was ill. I saw her." He glanced from Thranduil to Arwen. "I believe someone has been poisoning her… with one of our healing draughts. The one Calathiel concocts from spider venom. I gave Lord Beron the serum."
Thranduil's brows drew together. "How? Only Elven healers would possess the draught."
"Whoever was poisoning her might have obtained it in Eryn Lasgalen – or even in Lothlórien; there are still some Elves there."
"You think Elves are involved?" Arwen asked in disbelief.
"I doubt it. What would any Elf stand to gain from poisoning Lady Lothiad? It is not as though Lord Beron has something Elves are likely to want. No, I imagine one of the travelling party simply asked an Elf for it. Many are unaware that it is unsafe for mortals, and anyone would willingly give medicine to a traveller in need."
"But it makes no sense," Arwen protested. "The draught makes mortals ill, but it will not kill them unless they are already weak and sickly –"
"Which, from what I heard, Lady Lothiad was not."
"Precisely. Why go to the trouble of obtaining an Elven draught that is unlikely to kill her when there are plenty of well-known poisons that will?"
"An Elven draught would be undetected," Thranduil said grimly. "A mortal poison would be recognized, but Gondor's healers are unlikely to be able to identify the symptoms of the spider venom draught. I doubt even Estel would know them; Elrond did not use it, and our kin in Lórien began using it only after the War."
"And perhaps whoever did this did not want to kill Lady Lothiad," Legolas added.
"Only keep her ill enough to ensure that Lord Beron did not come to Minas Tirith," Arwen finished. "And I suspect the murderer did not want her blood on their hands. If anything happened to his beloved wife, Lord Beron would not rest until the perpetrator was brought to justice."
"Yet he cowers on his estate while his daughter confronts the grief of her loss and his son is in danger of dying for a crime he might not have committed," Thranduil muttered. "He is unworthy of the name of father."
"I suspect Lady Lothiad would tell him the same," Arwen said wryly. "And now there is something I have to tell you, Elfling. Someone tried to kill Nórui." Legolas looked startled, but before he could say anything, Arwen went on, "And in a manner unlike Idhren's murder, and the maid's… She was shot at."
Arwen nodded. "Perhaps the same person who flung the dagger at you –"
"Who what?" Thranduil demanded.
"Nothing, my King," Legolas said quickly, glaring at the Queen of Gondor. "A man – we do not know who it was –"
"Tried to kill you?"
"We do not know that he was trying to kill me."
"We will have him brought to justice, my King," Arwen soothed. "Whoever he is. I give you my word on that. Nobody can attempt to murder the Prince of the Woodland Realm in the city of Elrond's daughter and go unpunished." Thranduil looked unconvinced, but she went on without giving him a chance to protest. "Legolas, Nórui is pregnant."
Legolas stared at her. "Idhren's child?"
"That is what she said, and Estel believes her."
Legolas was about to say something when someone knocked at the door.
"Come!" Arwen called.
The door opened and Eldarion slipped in, followed by Saeldur and Rochendilwen. Legolas exchanged glances with the two Elves. The quick looks were enough, between warriors who had fought side-by-side all their lives, to convey both question and reassurance that all was well.
"Eldarion has told us of your exploits," Saeldur said, drawing a chair up beside Legolas'. "Midnight chases across the rooftops of Minas Tirith? You appear to have been enjoying yourself."
"Midnight chases?" Thranduil asked, eyebrows going up. "I knew nothing of this. It appears we will have a great deal to discuss later, Legolas."
Legolas contrived to nod innocently at his father and glare at his friend at the same time.
"In any event," Arwen said, "there is something you can do for us now, Eldarion. You have studied with the city's clerks."
"Good. Then you can answer this question. Idhren's first will leaves everything to his siblings and his second one is missing… And that means that, unless either the second will is produced or one of the witnesses comes forward to tell us what was in it, the first one will stand."
"What if Idhren left a child?"
"Born after the first will was written?"
"After the second one."
"If parentage were proved, the birth of a child would invalidate any previously existing will."
"How does one prove parentage?"
Eldarion blushed. "If it is a… forgive me, my King. If it is a legitimate child – in this case, Nórui's child – the child would be assumed to be Idhren's, and the burden would be on the beneficiaries of the will, Doron and Bainmeril, to prove otherwise. If Nórui has a child within nine months of Idhren's death, it will be considered his. If… well. If it is another child, the child's mother will have to produce proof. That would be next to impossible, of course."
"Nórui is pregnant," Arwen said slowly. "And your father thinks there can be no doubt that it is Idhren's."
"If that is true," Eldarion said gravely, "then Idhren's will is invalid – the first will, and the second if ever it is found. Nórui's child will inherit everything."
"That explains the attempt on Nórui's life," Legolas said.
"The question is," Arwen added, "whether whoever killed Idhren knows the second will is missing… or not."
Aragorn hurried into Nórui's room, half-terrified that he would find her dead with an arrow through her heart.
Just as Aragorn was about to enter the room, the door burst open. Bainmeril came out. She appeared distressed, but she shook her head at Aragorn's questioning glance, pushed him aside, and hurried away.
Aragorn knocked and went in.
"Elessar King," she responded politely.
When she made to rise, he waved her down. "We need no formality, and you need rest." He drew a chair up beside the bed and sat. "Your sister-in-law seemed unhappy."
Nórui grimaced. "I suppose you have come to scold me about it."
"I do not even know what happened."
"I find it difficult to believe that, my King. You already appear to know far more about what happens in this house than any of us." She looked up. "I understand you have met the young man in question. Amrúthor."
"I have. He…" Aragorn hesitated. He might be King of Gondor and Arnor, but this was a private family matter. It was not his place to interfere, even if he did – perhaps because of his own experience of wondering how many Elves hated him for claiming their loveliest and best beloved maiden – sympathize with them. At last he settled for saying, "He seems a good man, Lady Nórui."
"Idhren did not think so." Nórui frowned. "Idhren… Do not tell Bainmeril this. She does not know. Idhren intended to have Amrúthor sent away."
"And what do you intend?"
Nórui shrugged. "I have never met Amrúthor myself, but from what my husband told me… However, I have no authority over Bainmeril. I know that as well as anybody else does. And Doron is not particularly fond of Amrúthor, but he does not, I think, dislike him. I do not know how my mother-in-law feels."
Aragorn nodded. He said nothing, although he made a mental note of the fact that Idhren had been planning to send Amrúthor away. Nórui thought Bainmeril was unaware, but…
He sighed. There was much to do and much to think about. And, in the meantime, he had to keep Nórui safe.
"You cannot stay here," he told her. "One thing is clear: there is a murderer in this house. You cannot stay here and endanger yourself recklessly. Perhaps you should go to the Palace. It will be safer there."
Nórui's eyes flashed in a way that reminded Aragorn of Gilraen. "I am not a frightened child, my King. My father served in your army. I will not run and hide – certainly not from a coward who would slay a man while he was abed and shoot at a woman from the shadows."
"It is not only yourself you must think about, Lady Nórui." Aragorn got to his feet. "Will you send for your personal maid? Do you trust her?"
"Completely," Nórui said. "She is in my confidence – she has been since I was a girl."
"I must speak to her, then. I have instructions for her… And, Lady Nórui, please give serious thought to leaving this house. It is unsafe, and you are in a delicate condition. My wife will ensure that you are cared for and protected."
Nórui rang for her maid.
While they were waiting, Aragorn said, "Answer me now, Lady Nórui. Who else knows of your pregnancy?"
Nórui shook her head. "Nobody knew. I could not… I…" She sighed. "I was not sure before Idhren died. I suspected, but I was not certain, so I told him nothing. I had no desire to disappoint him if I were wrong. And by the time I was certain… Well. It hardly seemed the time to worry about it, with Idhren dead and Nemir in prison. My personal maid knows, of course."
"Only your maid?" When Nórui hesitated, Aragorn pressed, "You must be honest with me, Lady Nórui, if I am to help you."
"There is someone – but you must not suspect her! I give you my word she is innocent."
"If she is innocent, she has nothing to fear from me," Aragorn said gently. "Lady Nórui, please."
She sighed. "Her name is Aldis. She was my wet nurse. A few years ago, she married a man in Minas Tirith, a blacksmith. She lives here now, though not in this house."
"And you went to her for advice?"
Nórui shrugged. "What else was I to do? I contemplated speaking to my mother, but… I suspect all is not well with her. She has not written to me for some time. My father says she is very busy, but too busy to write to me at a time like this?" She shook her head. "I would go, to see for myself, but I cannot leave Minas Tirith until Nemir has been cleared."
"I sent for her as soon as I suspected. She has been helpful."
"You did not consider asking your mother-in-law for help?"
"Had Aldis not been here, I might have done. But… To tell the truth, my King, I wanted to put it off as long as I could. It brought back difficult memories, and… And until I know what happened to Idhren, I do not wish to discuss this with anyone. It would be too painful."
"Is that the only reason you have kept it secret?"
Nórui raised her head defiantly. "The only reason, my King."
"As you say," Aragorn said quietly.
The King of Gondor left the room and made his way slowly upstairs.
He was about to open the door to his room when he felt the unmistakeable prickle on his skin that meant someone was watching him. With speed that belied his age, he spun, put his back to the wall, and looked around.
The corridor was empty.
But his skin still prickled.
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